Top of chapter Contents Bibliography 13.1. Alliteration 13.2. Rhythm
13.2.1. Lifts, half-lifts and drops 13.2.2. Rhythmic types 13.3.3. Hypermetric verses

13. Meter

The Anglo-Saxons wrote what we call alliterative poetry after its most salient feature, the system of alliteration that binds its verses together and is largely responsible for its distinctive sound. Similar metrical systems are found in Old Icelandic, Old Saxon and Old High German: all of these cultures inherited a common Germanic meter, which they adapted as their languages and cultures changed. English poets continued to write alliterative poetry as late as the fifteenth century, and the meter has often been revived—most notably by the twentieth-century poet Ezra Pound.

There is more to Old English meter than alliteration. The poetry also employed a strict rhythmic scheme, which you will find to be markedly different from the rhythms employed by later poets such as Chaucer and Shakespeare. These later rhythms are based on the regularly timed recurrence of stressed syllables in the line. In Old English meter, the line consists of two verses (also called half-lines) divided by a syntactical boundary called a caesura. Each verse must conform to one of five rhythmic patterns (or types, as they are generally called), which we designate with the letters A-E. Verses of all types have in common that they always (well, almost always) contain two stressed syllables, called lifts, and two or more groups of unstressed syllables, called drops. The arrangement of lifts and drops depends on the type. The lifts do not necessarily come at regular intervals.

Why some rhythmic patterns were permissible in Old English poetry while others were forbidden is a subject of vigorous debate among scholars. The answer, if we had it, might tell us why the permissible rhythms sounded “good,” or sounded “like poetry.” At present the most plausible theory is that the rhythms of poetry were based on those of ordinary speech, but with added rules that enabled listeners to recognize the boundaries between verses and lines. In much the same way, we can recognize the organization of Shakespearean blank verse when we hear actors recite it, even though there are no rhymes to tell us where the lines end.

Modern editions of Old English poetry print it as you have seen it in this book, in long lines with the caesura marked by a space. You should be aware, though, that in Old English manuscripts the poetry is not broken into lines, but rather written continuously, like prose. Like other editorial conventions (such as the use of modern capitalization and punctuation), the arrangement of poetic lines in printed editions is a compromise: it makes Old English texts more accessible to modern readers, but it conceals some interesting characteristics of Old English manuscript culture. You should track down a facsimile of the manuscript of a poem you are reading (follow the references in Appendix C) and compare it with the printed edition.

13.1. Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of a syllable. In addition, any syllable that begins with a vowel alliterates with any other syllable that begins with a vowel. In Old English poetry, only the alliteration of lifts is significant. The combinations sc, sp and st may alliterate only with themselves. In most poems, however, ġ can alliterate with g and ċ with c. The italic letters in this list alliterate:

clyppe cysse
ġeþōht þenċan
ēadiġ ġeendod
foremihtiġ fēond
ġecunnod ċēole
gōd ġeogoð

These words, on the other hand, contain sounds that you might expect to alliterate, but do not:

ġehāten ġēar
foremihtig mǣre
forweorðan fēond
stān sāriġ
scōp sǣ

In each poetic line, one or two lifts in the on-verse must alliterate with the first lift in the off-verse. The second lift in the off-verse normally does not alliterate with any of the three other stressed syllables in the line. These lines illustrate the three patterns:[1]

The Wanderer, ll. 12-13, 16. Since the quotations in this chapter are intended only to illustrate metrical principles, translations are omitted.
xa|ay: þ×æt (/)biþ ×in e/orl×e    /indr\yht×en þē/aw
ax|ay: þ×æt h×ē h×is f/erðl\oc×an    f/æst×e b/ind×e
aa|ax: n×e s×e hrē/o h/×e    h/elp×e ġ×efr/emm×an

The pattern xa|ay occurs mostly when the first lift in a verse is weak (as when it is a syllable of a finite verb). When the first lift is strong (as when it is a syllable of a noun, adjective or verbal), it normally must alliterate, so the pattern will be ax|ay or aa|ax. A competent poet would not write a line like this one:

n×e s×e w/ō h/×e    h/elp×e ġ×efr/emm×an

Occasionally you will meet with transverse alliteration (the pattern ab|ab) and crossed alliteration (ab|ba). These probably were regarded as especially ornate:

Þǣr æt hȳðe stōd   hringedstefna
brūnfāgne helm,   hringde byrnan
(Beowulf, ll. 32, 2615)

Other unusual kinds of alliteration (such as syllables in the drop alliterating with a lift) are probably incidental and without metrical significance.

13.2. Rhythm

13.2.1. Lifts, half-lifts and drops

We mentioned at the head of this chapter that a verse generally has two lifts, or stressed syllables. A lift will normally be a long syllable. The italicized syllables in these words are long:

hlēoðrode healle
frēolic weġ

But the italicized syllables in these words are short and so will not normally be lifts, even though they are the stressed syllables of their words:

wera duru
dagas ābrocen

Two short syllables can, however, add up to what is called a resolved lift, which we mark with a tie between a stroke and a backward stroke. For example, in this line,

m/͜×oneg×um m/ǣġþ×um    m/͜×eodos\etl×a ×oftē/ah
(Beowulf, l. 5)

the first two syllables of monegum and meodosetla make resolved lifts. In addition, a lift may consist of a single short syllable when it immediately follows another lift.

There is a strong tendency in Old English poetry to group weakly stressed words that are not proclitic[2] at the beginning of a clause or immediately after the first lift in a clause. These weakly stressed words include conjunctions, finite verbs, adverbs and pronouns; you will often find them clustered right at the beginning of a verse, before the first lift, as here,

A proclitic word is normally found immediately before another word. Adjectives and adjectival pronouns (“green cheese,” “this cow”) are normally proclitic, and so are prepositions (“in the scabbard”).
s×yðþ×an h×ē h×ir×e    f/olm×um ×æthr/ān
(Beowulf, l. 722b)

where a conjunction and two pronouns (five syllables in all) constitute the drop that comes before the first lift. When a word that normally is weakly stressed occurs somewhere other than its accustomed position, it acquires stress. Thus a finite verb, adverb or pronoun will be stressed if it does not come before or immediately after the first lift, and a proclitic, such as a preposition, will be stressed if it follows the word it normally precedes:

/͜×Hete w×æs ×onhr/ēr×ed
ð×ā h×ē ġ×eb/olg×en w/æs
f×or ð×on ×iċ m×ē o/n h/af×u
gr/undw\ong þ/on×e
(Beowulf, ll. 2556a, 723b, 2523b, 2588a)

In the first of these examples, the finite verb wæs, coming right after the first lift (hete), remains unstressed, but in the second example wæs at the end of the clause is stressed. In the third example, a preposition (on) comes after its object (), and in the fourth example, a pronoun used as an adjectival “article” follows the noun it modifies. Both the preposition and the pronoun are lifts. The preposition even participates in the alliterative pattern of the line.

The second element of a compound noun normally has a half-stressed syllable (this is still true: say “the flashlight” aloud to yourself and listen to the relative stress levels of the, flash and light). In Old English meter, a half-stress may sometimes be treated as part of the drop and sometimes as the lift:

m×͜/edudrē\am m/ār×an
(Beowulf, ll, 2016a, 1713b)

In the first example, the half-stress -drēam comes where you expect a drop, while in the second the half-stress -nēa- comes where you expect a lift.

13.2.2. Rhythmic types

Every correctly constructed verse belongs to one of the five rhythmic types. The rhythmic patterns of these types are not fixed, but rather flexible. Each type has a basic form and a range of variations on that form. The rhythmic patterns of modern verse also have variations. In this line, for example,

The whiskey on your breath

which we perceive as having three iambs (× / | × / | × /), we in fact pronounce the second iamb as two unstressed syllables (× / | × × | × /). The phonetic realization of a poetic line can differ quite a bit from its basic form; in fact, any poem in which the two do not differ is certain to strike us as monotonous. The differences between basic form and phonetic realization are themselves governed by rules that ensure that the verse retains its integrity so that we can still recognize it as poetry.

A. Basic form: lift, drop, lift, drop.

This is the most common type of verse. Examples:

ē/ow×er lē/od×e
s/org×e ġ×efre×͜/med×e
(Beowulf, ll. 596b, 2004b)

Notice that the drop may consist of more than one unstressed syllable. Either or both of the drops may also be replaced by a half-lift. The second lift may also be replaced by a half-lift, but half-lifts cannot replace both drops and lifts in the same verse.

An extra syllable may precede the first lift in an A-type verse; this phenomenon, called anacrusis, occurs only in on-verses. This line exhibits anacrusis:

×in m/ǣġþ×a ġ×ehw/ǣr×e
(Beowulf, l. 25a)

You will frequently encounter A-type verses in which the first lift is so weak that you may have difficulty locating it at all. These “light” A-type verses typically occur at the beginnings of clauses. They are always on-verses. Examples:

(/)hī h×in×e þ×ā ×ætb/ǣr×on
(/)Ðā c×ōm ×of m/ōr×e
(Beowulf, ll. 28, 118a)

B. Basic form: drop, lift, drop, lift.

B-type verses are especially common as off-verses, though they also occur as on-verses:

N×e sc×el /ān×es hw/æt
þ×æt s×e s/īð n×e ð/āh
(Beowulf, ll. 3010b, 3058b)

The first drop may have as many as five syllables, but the second can have no more than two.

C. Basic form: drop, lift, lift, drop.

Verses of this type, in which the clashing stresses are rather startling to the modern ear, are more often than not off-verses. Examples:

×Oft Sc/yld Sc/ēf×ing
þē×ah h×e h×im lē/of w/ǣr×e
(Beowulf, ll. 4a, 203b)

Though the first drop may have as many as five syllables, the second drop may have only one. The second lift is often a short syllable, since it immediately follows the first:

þ×æt h×īe /ǣr dr/ug×on
(Beowulf, l. 15a)

D. Basic forms: lift, lift, half-lift, drop; lift, lift, drop, half-lift.

D-type verses often consist of a word of one long or two short syllables followed by a word of three syllables; alternatively, a D-type verse may be a compound whose second element has three syllables. The drop at or near the end of the verse never has more than one syllable. Examples:

s/͜×unu /Ecgl\āf×es
h/ār h/ild×er\inc
(Beowulf, ll. 590b, 1788a, 1307a)

Some D-type verses are “extended,” with a one- or two-syllable drop after the first lift:

/old×on w/ælst\ōw×e
hw/īl×um h/ild×edē\or
(Beowulf, ll. 2051a, 2107a)

E. Basic form: lift, half-lift, drop, lift.

The E-type verse is the inverse of the D-type, frequently consisting of a three-syllable word followed by a word of one long syllable or two short ones:

/edw\end×en cw/ōm
st/efn \in b×ec/ōm
(Beowulf, ll. 1774b, 2552b)

The drop may consist of two short syllables (never more):

fe/orhsw\enġ n×e ×oftē/ah
(Beowulf, l. 2489b)

13.3.3. Hypermetric verses

Occasionally you will encounter clusters of lines in which the verses appear to be exceptionally long. These extended verses, which we call hypermetric, occur rarely in Beowulf, but frequently in The Dream of the Rood and Judith. Here is a sample:

Þurhdrifan hī mē mid deorcum næġlum.   On mē syndon þā dolg ġesīene,
opene inwidhlemmas.   Ne dorste iċ hira nǣnigum sceððan.
Bysmeredon hīe unc būtū ætgædere.   Eall iċ wæs mid blōde bestēmed,
begoten of þæs guman sīdan,   siððan hē hæfde his gāst onsended.
[They drove dark nails through me. The wounds, open wicked wounds,
are visible on me. I did not dare to harm any of them.
They reviled both of us together. I was entirely drenched with blood,
poured from the man’s side after he had sent forth his spirit.]
(The Dream of the Rood, ll. 46-49)

Exactly what is going on in this kind of verse is a matter of some disagreement. The traditional view is that hypermetric on-verses are normal verses with a prefix that usually takes the form /× × or / × (but is sometimes longer), while hypermetric off-verses have an extra-long drop before the first lift, thus:

o/͜×pen×e /inw\idhl/emm×as
E×all ×iċ w×æs m×id bl/ōd×e b×est/ēm×ed

We may interpret the first of these verses as an A-type with /͜× × prefixed and the second as another A-type with × × × × prefixed.

Some scholars have argued that this traditional view provides an inadequate explanation of the hypermetric verses. It is beyond the scope of a grammar book to discuss in detail the competing theories regarding these verses. You may take the traditional view as a starting point, read further, and decide for yourself what stylistic effect these verses may have had.