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drum kit

Roll up, roll up. Good morning/afternoon/evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Form for All. I’m Tony Maude and have I got a treat for you today; a poetic form for writers of free verse and a free verse style for students of form. What is this wondrous style that could keep everyone happy? Allow me to introduce the star of today’s show; accentual-alliteration.

“What is that?” you ask. Allow me to explain.

If you’ve been following Beth Winter’s series of Pretzels and Bullfights posts on the history of English verse then you’ll be aware that English verse, like the English language, sprang from two principal sources, Greco-Roman and Anglo-Saxon. (What do you mean, you haven’t been following that series? You can find the first part here, and the second here.)

From the Greco-Roman root we have taken ordered syllabic measures – the iambs, dactyls, anapaests, trochees, spondees etc which fill some poets’ hearts with dread. From the Anglo-Saxon or Old English root we have taken the concept of accent. It is the combination of syllables and accent which forms the basis of native English-language accentual-syllabic verse – English poetry as most of us know it.

For historical reasons, mostly to do with the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England, the classical stream has dominated the world of English prosody for most of the last 1,000 years. The most obvious result of this dominance is that many of the familiar poetry forms – rondeaus, ballades, sestinas, triolets, kyrielles etc – trace their origins to 13th Century France. But although the Anglo-Saxon tributary of English prosody has been often neglected, even hidden, it has never disappeared completely. Indeed, over the past century or so, it has seen something of a resurgence.

Now, if you break out in a cold sweat at the idea of needing to keep an eye on your metrical feet and count the syllables in your lines, then the Anglo-Saxon stream of English poetry might very well be the thing for you, because it simply does not take any notice of such things. Old English poetry – and the Middle English poetry that resulted from a post-Norman invasion revival of the Old English style – does not count syllables. Neither does it rhyme.

So are we talking about free verse by another name? No we’re not, because although there is no place for syllable-counting, rhyme or metrical feet, there is still a discernible disciplined form which underlies the Old English verse style. The form is based entirely on accent or stress, with no consideration given to anything else.

Each line of Old English verse, no matter what its length, contains four accented or stressed syllables. The number of unstressed syllables is unimportant; all that matters is these four stressed syllables. Now each poetic line is divided into two parts and each part must contain two of the stressed syllables. (The word for half a line is hemistich – it rhymes with stick). So, if we call our stressed syllables (accents) one, two, three and four, one and two come in the first hemistich, while three and four come in the second. Let’s see what that looks like:

Here come one and two together, and there are three and four.
One is always found with two, while three is joined to four.

Almost certainly there will be elements of rhythm and secondary stresses, but these are accidental, not deliberate. You could say that a single line of Anglo-Saxon poetry is a syzygy of dipodic hemistichs – but you’d be wrong, because feet don’t matter!

That’s the accentual part (which was the basis of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Sprung Rhythm) dealt with; now on to the alliterative principle which is the other component of Anglo-Saxon verse.

We all know what alliteration is, don’t we? The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics puts it like this: The repetition of the sound of an initial consonant or consonant cluster in stressed syllables close enough to each other for the ear to be affected. Now, in a line of Anglo-Saxon verse the first three stressed syllables are alliterative, and the fourth one isn’t (usually). This is the Bang, Bang, Bang – Crash! of the title. (It was Michael J. Alexander, Anglo-Saxon scholar and translator of Beowulf who first christened the alliterative principle the Bang, Bang, Bang – Crash! rule).

Here’s the opening to William Langland’s Piers Plowman with the stressed/accented syllables accented so that you can see what is going on:

In a somer sesoun, whan softe was the sonne
I shope me into shroudes, as I a shep were,
In habite as an heremite, unholy of werkes
Went forth in the world wondres to here
And saw many selles and sellcouthe thynges.

And here is a rough translation of that;

One summer, when the sun was gentle,
I dressed myself in rough clothes like a shepherd,
In the habit of a lazy hermit,
Went forth into the world, wonders to hear,
And saw many marvels and strange things.

Here are a few important things to note:

i) The stressed syllable does not have to be the first syllable in the word. (Notice the stress on soun in the first line.)
ii) The fourth stressed syllable comes at or very near the end of the line (Words like lightning, where the stress falls on the first syllable are OK as line endings.)
iii) Langland cheats in his first line which goes Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang! It is possible that he did this to catch his readers’/listeners’ attention.

Now you might be thinking that this is all very interesting, but surely it is ancient history. No relatively modern poets have written like this, have they? Well yes, they have. Here are a couple of extracts from W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety:

Deep in my dark the dream shines
Yes, of you, you dear always;
My cause to cry, cold but my
Story still, still my music.

Mild rose the moon, moving through our
Naked nights, tonight it rains;
Black umbrellas blossom out;
Gone the gold, my golden ball.

Notice Auden’s use of enjambment – rare in Old English and medieval poetry – which helps to create a sense of flow, his use of repetition and the modern feel and language of his lines.

So there you have it – accentual alliteration. It’s form Brian, but not as you know it … smiles.

So what do you do now?
• Write your poem and post it to your blog
• Add a link to your poem via the ‘Mr Linky’ below.
• This opens a new screen where you’ll enter your information, and where you also choose links to read. Once you have pasted your poem’s blog URL and entered your name, click Submit. Don’t worry if you don’t see your name right away.
• Read and comment on other people’s work to let them know it’s being read.
• Share your work and that of your fellow poets via your favourite social media platforms.
• Above all – have fun!

Drum kit photo by Ross Beckley. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence via Flickr