Sentences stuffed with words starting with the same syllable soon sound silly.
Alliteration is a cheap trick; it makes you sound like you’ve escaped from Sesame Street, or from the pages of a child’s first alphabet book. There is something patronising and contrived about copious corresponding consonants. Yes, we know some words happen to start with the same letter, and yes, you can put them together, but it’s probably best if you don’t.
Does this mean we should cast aside all alliteration as childish?
No, alliterative verse has an entirely different word-weave; it uses the sounds of language to dramatic and subtle effect, conveying violence, vulgarity, delicateness, and pain. It’s a form of verse that uses alliteration as the main way of structuring and unifying the text, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme. Alliterative verse can be flexible, textured, rhythmic, and epic.
Alliterative verse was commonly used in early Germanic languages, and it characterises the poetic traditions of Anglo Saxon and Norse writing. Texts like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are written in alliterative verse.
In alliterative verse each line is divided into two phrases (hemistiches) and they are connected by the same consonant sound being repeated (pivot) from the first phrase into the second phrase. There are also a lot of other complicated rules about stresses and lifts and dips, but these are expertly explained in great detail on the Linking Letters site.
In Old English alliterative verse there tends to be only one pivot in each phrase, but in later Middle English alliterative verse there are usually two in the first phrase and one in the second, as shown by this example from the opening of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut / wat3 sesed at Troye,
Þe bor3 brittened and brent / to bronde3 and aske3,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes / of tresoun þer wro3t
Watz tried for his tricherie, / þe trewest on erþe
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was one of the first texts I studied at university and it has become one of my favourite books because of the rich tapestry of the language, the way the sounds of the words are used to such varied effect, and the elegant story telling in which the narrator deftly controls the passage of time. (There are also great scenes where the Lord is out on the Christmas Hunt, and Gawain is left in the castle to be “hunted” by the Lord’s wife, well…Gawain has this effect on ladies!)
There are three excerpts from the text that stay in my mind:
Þat þe scharp of þe schalk schyndered þe bones,
And schrank þur3 þe schyire grece, and schade hit in twynne,
[the sharp weapon cleaved his bones, and sank through the fair flesh, severing it in two: ll.424-25]
This depicts Gawain chopping off the head of the Green Knight as part of the Knight’s Christmas bargain. You can hear the splintering of bone and scraping of metal through flesh so graphically in the harsh “sch” sounds.
With mony brydde3 vnblyþe vpon bare twyges,
Þat pitosly þer piped for pyne of þe colde.
[Many mournful birds upon their bare branches, piping pathetically there, in pain from the cold: ll.746-77]
This describes the hardships that Gawain faced in his journey to find the Green Knight; a journey which takes him past the isle of Anglesey and Holy Head where I was born. The thin reedy ‘pi’ sounds convey the bitter cold and high pitched twittering of the shivering birds.
Chalkwhyt chymnees þer ches he inno3e
Vpon bastel roue3, þat blenked ful quyte;
So mony pynakle payntet wat3 poudred ayquere,
Among þe castel carnele3 clambred so þik,
Þat pared out of papure purely hit semed.
[He perceived there many chimneys as pale as chalk
Gleaming whitely upon the tower roofs
So many painted pinnacles were scattered everywhere
Clustering so thickly amongst the embrasures of the castle
That it looked just as if were cut out of paper: ll.798-802]
This is Gawain’s first sight of the Lord’s castle. It describes the intricate detail of the building which is an imposing fortress, but also pure white with many modern and delicate architectural features. It conveys its mirage-like quality for Gawain, who, after his long journey, isn’t sure if the castle is real, or merely a flimsy vision.
The other form of word-wrangling involved in alliterative verse is the use of kennings. Kennings are cunning little metaphoric phrases that describe something by linking two of its attributes together. They are very common in alliterative verse, especially in Anglo Saxon, Celtic, and Norse literature, where common kennings became traditional fixed formulas. They are like mini riddles and often contain allusions to myths.
In Beowulf the sea is described as the whale-road, which captures the vastness of the sea, as well as the desire to travel and navigate across this expansive road. Other kennings include:
breaker of trees = the wind
raven-harvest = corpse
slaughter dew = blood
My personal favourite has to be ONION OF WAR to mean a sword! Hmmm – how are swords like onions….they both sting if you cut yourself with them? If anyone could explain the reasoning behind this, or a source for it, I would be a gift-giver of gratefulness.
Anyway, my next speech for the Oxford Speakers Club focuses on choosing the right words, which is exactly what alliterative verse is about; tapping into the texture and sounds of language. Alliterative verse originated as an oral verse form, so the linking of letters and use of common kennings is supposed to be memorable and flexible for the performer to retell. Using the rhythmic repetition of consonants is also said to mirror the natural stresses and patterns of speech more freely than other verse forms structured by rhyme and meter. I’ve decided to put this to the test and give my next speech in the form of an alliterative verse about running the Town and Gown 10k; it was a suitably epic endeavour to deserve description in an heroic verse form – I’ll let you know how I get on!