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Anglo-Saxon alliteration

See what I did there in the title? (Technically, it's the Ns and Ls that count as alliteration - vowel agreement is assonance, which is similar but not important for today's discussion.)


Again, today's icon does the trick, with N is for "Neville who died of ennui." All those lovely Ns, in three out of four of the stressed words. The simple version of alliteration is starting a string of words with the same consonant, like Shelley does in his "Ode to the West Wind", with "O wild west wind" (with a W sound hiding in the "O" as well). Or as the band Stroke 9 did in its lyrics to "Little Black Backpack", which includes the line "don't forget to get your bloody black backpack back." (Note the additional alliterative Gs in "forget" and "get", and the end rhymes. Clever, and tongue-twisty.)

In Anglo-Saxon verse, such as Beowulf, you will see alliteration as one of the organizing and guiding principles. Some contemporary writers will try to make all four of their stressed syllables use the same consonant sound, as Robin Skelton did in many of the lines in the first poem of his marvelous survey of forms, The Shapes of Our Singing: A Comprehensive Guide to Verse Forms and Metres From Around the World.

The Love Song
by Robin Skelton

Venturing on vision, avoiding men's voices,
planning a poetry to make all plain,
loosening love from the laws of logic
granting it greater goodness in song,
I find I am framing my thoughts in a fashion
long-lost and alien to today's language,
yet somehow the sense of it, tense in each sentence,
registers rhythm, riding rough-shod
over the versecraft of today's talkers
drumbeats of dancers, words in the wind--
or am I mistaken, mimicking manners
of old forefathers whose fevers and furies
are lost or in limbo?
              I bring long ago
back as I brood on the beauty I try for
and find that the faces of love are not different,
the songs much the same for all the odd accents;
love remains love and the lovers are dancing.

Lots of lines with the same sound there four times, although not all. Most lines have the same sound three times, some as few as twice, and Skelton moves around which of the stressed syllables contain alliteration.

In much Anglo-Saxon verse (actually written in Anglo-Saxon, that is), you will seldom find any lines using the same stressed sound four times. Usually, it's just three, and most often, it's the first three stressed syllables that use the same consonant sound. That same rubric was used in a "later" resurrection of Anglo-Saxon verse during the Middle Ages.

As Stephen Fry explains the Anglo-Saxon use of alliteration in The Ode Less Travelled, "Now for the alliterative principle, christened by Michael Alexander, Anglo-Saxon scholar and translator of Beowulf, the BANG, BANG, BANG -- CRASH! rule." Using yesterday's example where the stressed syllables are one, two, three, and four, it would mean that one, two, and three are alliterated, and four is not. Alternately, you are creating hemistichs that alternate between BANG BANG and BANG CRASH as your stressed syllables.

Here is Fry's example text, with gaps for the hemistichs, bold for all of the stressed syllables, and underlining of each CRASH to show it doesn't alliterate:

It embarks with a bang           sucking breath from the lungs
And rolls on directly             as rapid as lightning.
The speed and the splendour       come spilling like wine
Compellingly perfect and         appealingly clear
The most venerable invention       conveniently simple.

Anglo-Saxon writing made a resurgence in the Middle Ages, when medieval poets created the "alliterative revival". Works such as "Piers Plowman" by William Langland and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (author unknown) used the BANG, BANG, BANG, CRASH! method of alliterative construction. Anglo-Saxon verse was again resurrected by Ezra Pound (who did not always bother to adhere to the BANG BANG BANG CRASH method of alliteration, even in translating works from Anglo-Saxon), and also employed by W.H. Auden in The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue, his last book-length poem for which he won a Pulitzer in 1948:

You'll never notice what's not for sale
to charming children. Don't choose to ask me.
You're too late to believe. Your lie is showing.
Your creed is creased. But have Christian luck.

Tomorrow, we move to another component of Anglo-Saxon verse, the kenning. Hopefully it will involve significantly less HTML coding, because this post was a beeyotch on that front.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
TS Davis
Apr. 19th, 2016 02:42 pm (UTC)
...wait, do I have English degrees?
To the point of what Cousin Mary Lee said the other day, this is... like, foreign! I mean, it's brilliant to know that there are names for the blindly grasped meters we sometimes hear, but this goes beyond - and counter to - what we intuit, perhaps? Maybe that's my problem? I feel like a noob, which is a great feeling, in a way; poetry always has something to teach us.

...as do massive doses of HTML coding. Well done on that.
Apr. 19th, 2016 04:48 pm (UTC)
Re: ...wait, do I have English degrees?
I am slightly fretting that perhaps I'm not explaining this overly well. It was something I quickly got a handle on when I studied it a few years back, so perhaps I'm not doing well passing it along. It is a remarkable way to write. And it makes sense - the stressed syllables and alliteration are what holds it together, just as in some free verse it's alliteration or number of lines per stanza or whatever that helps it to work.

And yeah - the HTML coding has been like whoa here. And then to top it off, autocorrect tries to change text on me when I add coding mid-word. But I prevailed! *does a victory dance*
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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