A Crash Course in Alliterative Verse for GMs and Players

Copyright Phillip A. Ellis © 2014

Edited by Terence Wynne for The Guild Companion

"The earth's wine / is wise with light, / and sets off gems / with joyous beauty"

This article is about alliterative verse, a form of poetry common in the older Germanic cultures, such as Anglo-Saxon England, early Medieval Germany, and Viking Scandinavia. It does not rhyme like much of our more common verse. But it could be used for Rohirrim in MERP, or for Dwarven poetry, among other races and cultures.

The first thing about alliterative verse is that it relies on what are called stressed syllables. A stressed syllable is a word or section of a word that is pronounced more loudly and more emphatically than the rest. The word "verse" is stressed, as is the second syllable of "alliterative."

What happens in alliterative verse is that the sound starting a word's stressed syllable is repeated. If it is a vowel sound, it may alliterate (that is, be repeated) with any other vowel sound. Further, a line of alliterative verse is divided into two, each half containing two stressed syllables and a variety of unstressed and lesser stressed syllables.

It gets trickier. Either or both of the stressed syllables of the first half must alliterate. The first stressed syllable of the second half must alliterate, but the second must not.

That's the basics. It gets more complicated, of course. Metaphors are common; when conventional, decreed by tradition, they are called "kennings." There are also different types of half-lines, but you need not know these.

What follows is an example of alliterative verse that I wrote as a player for a session of Rolemaster, for a Dwarf character.

The earth's wine        is wise with light,
and sets off gems       with joyous beauty
glowing till glisters   the glorious jewel
set in the grasp        of setting of ring
or other delight        of agile crafters.

There are many uses for an alliterative poem. Common among them are gnomic verses, poems of wisdom, as well as riddles (see the riddle contest in The Hobbit for inspiration), as well as epics and other narrative verse.

Further reading

  • Anonymous. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Translated by Seamus Heaney. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
  • Bostock, J. K. "Appendix on Old Saxon and Old High German Metre." A Handbook on Old High German Literature. Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Cable, Thomas. The English Alliterative Tradition. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
  • Cable, Thomas. The Meter and Melody of Beowulf. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1974.
  • Fulk, Robert D. A History of Old English Meter. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
  • Godden, Malcolm R. "Literary Language." In Richard M. Hogg. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 490-535.
  • Hoover, David L. A New Theory of Old English Meter. New York : P. Lang, 1985.
  • Pope, John Collins. The Rhythm of Beowulf: An Interpretation of the Normal and Hypermetric Verse-Forms in Old English Poetry. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, 1966.
  • Russom, Geoffrey. Beowulf and Old Germanic Metre. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Russom, Geoffrey. Old English Meter and Linguistic Theory. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Sievers, Eduard. Altgermanische Metrik. Niemeyer, 1893.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fall of Arthur. 2013.