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Anglo Saxon Verse /Alliterative Verse/Strong stress Verse

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Explore the Craft of Writing Poetry

English Poetry

Anglo Saxon Verse or Prosody, sometimes called Alliterative Verse or Strong stress Verse, appears to be the oldest metrical system in English poetry. Old English or Anglo-Saxon, was the predominant English language before the year 1100. The powerful accents of the Anglo-Saxon language are a natural foundation for a heavily accented verse form.

The structure of the Anglo Saxon line is organized by stress and alliteration, also referred to as accentual Verse, strong stress meter or alliterative stress meter. The classic epic poem Beowulf illustrates the power of the verse. Although thought to be composed in the 7th or 8th century AD, the earliest manuscript is from 1000 AD, author unknown.

Famed was this Beowulf: far flew the boast of him,
son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands.
So becomes it a youth to quit him well
with his father's friends, by fee and gift,
that to aid him, aged, in after days,
come warriors willing, should war draw nigh,
liegemen loyal: by lauded deeds
shall an earl have honor in every clan.

A more modern example of the use of Anglo Saxon Prosody is
Junk by Richard Wilbur
Huru Welandes
worc ne geswiceσ?
                        monna ænigum
                        σara σe Mimming can
                        heardne gehealdan.

An axe angles
-------------- from my neighbor's ashcan;
It is hell's handiwork,
-------------- the wood not hickory,
The flow of the grain
-------------- not faithfully followed.
The shivered shaft
--------------rises from a shellheap
of plastic playthings,
--------------paper plates,
And the sheer shards
--------------of shattered tumblers
That were not annealed
--------------for the time needful.
At the same curbside,
--------------a cast-off cabinet
Of wavily warped
--------------unseasoned wood
Waits to be trundled
--------------in the trash-man's truck.
Haul them off! Hide them!
--------------The heart winces
For junk and gimcrack,
--------------for jerrybuilt things
And the men who make them
--------------for a little money,
Bartering pride
--------------like the bought boxer
Who pulls his punches,
--------------or the paid-off jockey
Who in the home stretch|
--------------holds in his horse.
Yet the things themselves
--------------in thoughtless honor
Have kept composure,
--------------like captives who would not
Talk under torture.
--------------Tossed from a tailgate
Where the dump displays
--------------its random dolmens,
Its black barrows
--------------and blazing valleys,
They shall waste in the weather
--------------toward what they were.
The sun shall glory
--------------in the glitter of glass-chips,
Foreseeing the salvage
--------------of the prisoned sand,
And the blistering paint
--------------peel off in patches,
That the good grain
-------------- be discovered again.
Then burnt, bulldozed,
------=====---they shall all be buried
To the depth of diamonds,
--------------in the making dark
Where halt Hephaestus
--------------keeps his hammer
And Wayland's work
--------------is worn away.

The defining features of the Anglo Saxon Prosody are:

  1. suited to narrative or lyrical verse.
  2. accentual verse. The standard Anglo-Saxon line is measured by four strong stressed syllables in the line, most often in two hemistiches (half lines) of two stresses each.
  3. strophic rather than stanzaic, the unit of verse is the line itself. The lines normally follow one after another without break. There can be any number of lines with breaks more like prose, at the end of a paragraph.
  4. alliterated. Two or three of the four stressed syllables often alliterate. Usually the last stressed syllable of the line is not alliterated. Alliteration and assonance emphasize stress.
  5. varied, "rests" or the occasional omission of one stressed syllable (especially in the second hemistich) keeps the poetic structure varied and expressive, providing a contrast.

    Bondage Broken by Judi Van Gorder

    Born under the yoke,
    ---------------his burden weighted,
    the sting of the strap,
    ---------------the scrape of chains,
    the bitter bite of
    ---------------being sold on the block,
    damned without dying
    ---------------he drudged from sunrise
    to lay down at dusk,
    ---------------drained of spirit.
    Even his song was sorrowful,
    ---------------his soul exposed.
    A birch, when bent too far,
    In the black before dawn,
    ---------------he bolted into the dark,
    he fled from fear,
    ---------------freedom yet a word.

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