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Goretti Publications

A Note on Alliterative Verse

Readers of English poetry may be aware that, traditionally, English-language poetry was not structured around meter and rhyme. This does not mean that they followed the modern soi-disant structure of "free verse," however; they were structured, quite rigidly, on alliteration and stress.

In order to help explain the structure of the alliterative verse we have published, then, we offer this brief explanation of how such poetry works.

Stress

Oddly, since the verse is called "alliterative," the primary concern for phonetic structure in such poetry is stress. Most people, even those who read little poetry, are familiar with stress from the example of the Bard's iambic pentameter, in which each foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable:

 ̆ ´ |  ̆ ´ |  ̆ ´ |  ̆ ´ |  ̆ ´

Here, and throughout this explanation, we will use "  ̆" as the sign for an unstressed syllable and "´" as the sign for a stressed one. Above, we see a line of iambic pentameter. Each foot is two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed. While occasionally one or another foot of the poem may have a different stress pattern (e.g., the second foot might wind up having two unstressed syllables), there must always be ten syllables per line. If there aren't, it's not iambic pentameter.

In alliterative verse, on the other hand, every line is made up of only two "feet," each of which contains two stressed syllables. However, each foot may contain (theoretically) any number of unstressed syllables. So, for example,

 ̆  ̆ ´  ̆  ̆  ̆  ̆ ´ | ´  ̆  ̆ ´

may well be a perfectly well-formed line (depending on the alliteration, about which more in a minute). It is only the stressed syllables that really matter.

There is also a hierarchy of stressed syllables to take into account; it is not merely which syllables have a phonetic stress. Typically, the hierarchy looks something like this:

So if there are two nouns in a foot, the stressed syllables in those two nouns are the stressed syllables of the foot. If there is one noun and one verb, those two are the stressed words. If there is an adjective and a noun, but no verb, those two are stressed.

Naturally, in language nothing is ever this simple. So, for example, if two words of the same level are strung together, whichever is farther away from the other stressed syllable of the foot is stressed. E.g.:

rich mighty men

In this line, "rich" and "men" are the stressed syllables. We can tell because "men" is a noun, so it is stressed; and though both "rich" and "mighty" are adjectives, "rich" is farther from the noun, so it is the other stressed syllable.

Alliteration

At first glance, this seems a very simple topic; words alliterate which start with the same letter. However, the rules are a bit more complex than that.

First, alliteration is only required in stressed syllables (hence the importance of examining stress first). Second, all that is really required is that at least one stressed syllable in the first foot alliterate with at least one in the second foot. But what counts as alliteration? Let's take a look:

Then comes the matter of which syllables must alliterate with each other. For these illustrations, we will use "a" and "b" for syllables which alliterate, and "x" for syllables which do not. We will list only stressed syllables here, since unstressed syllables can come in any number.

The following patterns are well-formed lines of alliterative poetry:

a x | a x
x a | x a
a a | a x
a a | x a
a a | a a
a b | a b
a b | b a

This may seem complicated and chaotic, but remember the fundamental rule: one stressed syllable in one foot must alliterate with one stressed syllable in the other foot. Other than that, more alliteration is great; but with that, the line is still well-formed.

Conclusion

English has a long and splendid tradition of alliterative poetry, which we at Goretti Publications hope to be a part of extending for future generations. So please, enjoy what we can offer; and read and write poetry whenever you can.