Old English Metrics

By Mary K. Savelli

A Brief History of Old English Poetry

Old English poetry uses a form common to all Old Germanic languages. In the first century AD, Tacitus comments on the poetic arts of the German people, used to tell stories of their gods and heroes. The unlettered singer could call upon a vast reservoir of ready-made formulas. The poet could compose as he recited the tale to the rhythm of a lyre (Magoun: 189-91). In the early eighth century, Bede reports that Christian poets used this oral tradition to compose poems in the vernacular. By the time of Alfred the Great 1, scribes regularly recorded poems. These written poems use the techniques and rhetorical devices of the oral tradition and it is not known whether some of these were composed orally before being placed on paper. The poet Cynewulf spelled his name in acrostics in some of his surviving poems. This suggests these were meant to be read, since these letters had to be seen (Scragg-a: 57). This style of poetry survived until shortly after the Norman conquest. It was later to influence the 'alliterative revival', though the Middle English meter differed from the Old English forms.


An Explanation of the Meter

Old English poetry is alliterative, with each verse or half-line containing four positions. Single syllables or the resolved equivalent fill these positions. There can be an optional expansion of unstressed syllables in either of the first two positions (Cable 16).

Alliteration is the binding agent of Old English poetry (Mitchell and Robinson: 162). The beginning sound of the first stressed syllable of the on-verse, or 'a' half-line, must be the same as the beginning sound of the first stressed syllable of the off-verse, or 'b' half-line. The second stress of the on-verse may also alliterate with the others. This usually means they start with the same letter. Impure sounds, such as 'sp' or 'sc', are further refined. 'Sp' alliterates with 'sp' only, while 'sc' alliterates with 'sc'. A vowel alliterates with any other vowel. 2 'Hard c' and 'soft c' can alliterate with each other, because the distinction of these sounds developed after the creation of the Germanic metric form. Likewise, 'hard g' and 'soft g' alliterate (Bliss-a: 5).

Stress can fall only on a single long syllable or resolved syllables. Resolution occurs when two syllables, the first of which is short, are counted together as one beat.3 When scanning the meter, the resolved syllables are treated as if they are a single long syllable The resolved stress is 'suspended' when it follows a long-stem stressed syllable in the antepenultimate position.4 (Bliss-b: 8).

Eduard Sievers, a German scholar, classified the five basic stress patterns of Germanic alliterative poetry in his book, Altgermanische Metrik (Halle, 1893). When marking the meter, an acute accent (/) shows the primary stress. Words that bear primary stress are usually nouns, adjectives, infinitives and participles. A grave accent (\) shows secondary, or half, stress. Words that usually bear secondary stress are adverbs and finite verbs. These, however, can be 'promoted' to primary stress if they are next to a non-stressed word and they can be 'demoted' to non-stress if next to a stressed word (Bliss-c: 7). An 'x' marks weak or non-stress syllables. Optional expansion by non-stress syllables is shown in parenthesis. Types beginning with a stress can be expanded by anacrusis, a prefix of one to three unstressed syllables (Diamond 60). Later scholars further defined the types by how many weak stresses were included, their placement, and phrasing, the division of breath-groups (Bliss-d: 5).

Type A: / x (x x x x) / x

Examples: eorla dryhten (1b) 5

sweordes ecgum (68a)

Type B: x (x x x x) / x /

Examples: on Dinges mere (54b) 'Me-re' bears resolved stress.

and his broþor eac (2b)

Type C: x (x x x x x) / / x

Examples: on last lægdon (22a)

on lides bosme (27a) 'Li-des' bears resolved stress.

Type D: / (x x x) / \ x or / (x x x) / x \

Examples: har hilderinc (39a)

beorn blandenfeax (45a)

Type E: / \ x /

Examples: andlangne dæg (21 a)

Norðmanna bregu (33a) 'Bre-gu' bears resolved stress.

A hypermetric verse is a normal verse that has been expanded by adding a half-verse. This usually occurs in groups of five or six lines. This was once thought to be a device for adding solemnity to a section of the poem, but now scholars debate the reason for its use.

Example: Bæron me þær beornas on eaxlum, oþ þæt hie me on beorg asettan;

gefæstnodon me þær feondas genoge. Geseah ic þa Frean manncynnes

eftstan ellne micele þæt he me wolde on gestigan.

(The Dream of the Rood, ll. 32-34)

Anglo-Saxon poets sometimes give words new meanings that are used in only alliterative poetry. An example of this is the word guma, which normally means 'man'. A poet looking for a word to alliterate on g, which carries the meaning 'hero', might use guma when referring to a champion. The new meanings are related to the usual meaning and can be understood by the context. The poets also employed various poetic devices. These include kennings, which are compound words that create a sort of metaphor (Scragg-b: 65). Examples include hwælweg (whale-way), which means 'sea' and beaggiefa (ring-giver), which means 'king'. Another device is enjambment, where a new sentence or phrase opens in the middle of the line. This often uses variation, where the meaning of one verse is repeated in the next, using different words (Bliss-e: 27). For example, when the poet of The Battle of Brunanburg says 'cumbolgehnastes, garmittinge, gumena gemotes, wæpengewrixles' (ll. 49b-51a), literally, he is saying 'clash of banners, meeting of spears, meeting of men, exchange of weapons'. All four variations mean 'battle'. This gives emphasis to a passage, as well as providing imagery.


1 Alfred lived in the late ninth century. (Back)

2 In Old English, 'h' alliterates with 'h'. In Middle English, it alliterates with any vowel. (Back)

3 A short-stem is a syllable which contains a short vowel, and no final consonant. (Back)

4 The antepenultimate position is the third syllable when counting from the end of the verse. (Back)

5 All line numbers refer to The Battle of Brunanburg. (Back)


Bliss, Alan. An Introduction to Old English Metre. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962; reprint ed. Old English Newsletter Subsidia, no. 20. SUNY-Binghampton: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies for the Old English Division of the Modern Language Association of America, 1993. (Back a) (Back b) (Back c) (Back d) (Back e)

Cable, Thomas. The English Alliterative Tradition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. (Back)

Diamond, Robert E. Old English: Grammar and Reader. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970.

Dobbie, Elliott Van Kirk, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. 6. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.

Magoun, Francis P., Jr. "The Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry." In An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, pp. 189-221. Edited by Lewis E. Nicholson. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963. (Back)

Mitchell, Bruce and Robinson, Fred C. A Guide to Old English. 5th ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992. (Back)

Scragg, Donald G. "The Nature of Old English Verse." In The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, pp. 55-70. Edited by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. (Back a) (Back b)

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