Alliterative Verse in English Literature
While many of us may be familiar with the term alliteration, or the repetition of similar sounds within a line or sentence, alliterative verse is actually a distinct poetic form found in Old English literature. Alliterative verse is most commonly associated with old English, Norse, and other early Germanic languages, although a handful of poets in the Middle Ages did try to reinvent the form in what we know call the alliterative revival.
Although alliterative verse is generally considered an archaic standard, it crops up now and again in more recent works-- two notable examples being Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King and portions of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Often when authors revive this ancient tradition, the intent is to place their work within the scope of a broader, more epic tradition, such as the famous alliterative Beowulf saga.
What Is Alliterative Verse?
Alliteration is the repetition of the syllables in the beginning of the word to create effect. For example:
I saw a big brown bear
In this sentence, the "B" sound in big, brown, and bear create the alliteration. Generally this is done with consonant sounds, but we sometimes see it with vowels as well, especially in the Old English forms. Pretty simple, huh.
Alliterative verse, on the other hand, has a few more conventions that go with it. For starters, each line in the poem will contain a standard amount of alliterative words, usually two, but sometimes three. The consonant sound does not have to be the same from line to line, but the alliteration will be present in each line of the work. For example:
I saw a big brown bear
He caught a crow, then crept away.
Okay, I'm no Shakespeare. Or famous Old English epic poet (who are mostly anonymous now). But this is the basic gist. It sounds simple, but considering that epic poetry is close to the equivalent in length of a young adult novel, the amount of efforts the poets put into creating the alliterations was substantial.
For a better understanding of alliteration, including some amazing poems and modern day usage, I'd recommend visiting sligobay's hub on alliteration.
Sligobay on Alliteration
Precursor to poetry, alliteration evolved in old English, Norse and Germanic writing and was revived in the middle ages in similar sounds coupled by a pause or caesura. Peppered through poetry, common consonants and stresses survive the test of time.
Conventions and Impact of Alliterative Verse
While alliterative verse is most easily recognized by its repeating sounds, there are a few other attributes that go into it as well. The first is the caesura, or pause. Lines in alliterative verse frequently have two clauses, separated by a heavy pause. For example, from Tolkien's (alliterative) translation of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight:
In heavy darkness drowsing he dream-words muttered
In this line, the caesura takes part between "drowsing" and "he" to create two distinct clauses.
On either side of the pause, two strongly stressed syllables will be present. This makes a total of four strong stresses for each line, but the number of stressed words that are alliterated depends on the poet or literary movement. For example, some alliterative verse might include lines with only two alliterations, one on each side of the pause, while others might include three, so that the right side of the pause will contain only a single alliteration. In the previous example, the first three stresses are alliterated, while the last stress is not, making the left side heavier on the alliteration.
In some forms of alliterative verse, the use of the alliteration and stresses lead to a compression of language within the unstressed portions. In such cases, the endings of words would be compromised, cut off, or trail away. This had a formidable effect on language, and lead to the modern convention in which Germanic languages (which includes English) places the emphasis of the word on its root rather than on its ending.
Ultimately, with the exception of the alliterative revival in the late fourteenth century (where Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes from) alliteration gave way to the more modern practice of end-rhymes. Today, although use alliterative verse seems to have become a relic of the past, the influence of these early poets are still heard in our predilection for alliterative phrases and continued use of caesura in poetry.