A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature

By Laura Cooner Lambdin; Robert Thomas Lambdin | Go to book overview

3

Alliterative Poetry in Old and Middle English

Scott Lightsey

Simply defined by the stressed repetition of sounds, alliteration is the “ ‘rum, ram, ruf,– by lettre” of Chaucer–s Parson–s complaint. This simplicity belies alliteration–s metrical complexities and its central position in the history of English versification. Long before the enormously varied and complex alliterative output of Chaucer–s time, alliteration was the dominant poetic form in Old English poetry. Before that it was the first poetic form of the Germanic tribes of central Europe. Consequently, alliteration is deeply tied to the Germanic origins of English language and poetics and spans centuries, even contributing to the popularity and persistence of modern English terms like “cyberspace” and “World Wide Web.” But as a poetic form, its impact is deeply significant for the history and cultural continuity of medieval English literature.

Alliteration antedates Germanic literacy, originating in the continental proto-Germanic languages of prehistoric Europe. Early Germanic tribes used oral recitals of alliterative poetry to transmit their cultural heritage, the legends and lives that gave them an identity as a people. In this manner alliterative poetry could be said to be deeply intertwined with the social life of the Germanic people, including those who spread alliterative poetry westward as they migrated to Britain after the Roman withdrawal.

The earliest surviving example comes from the Galleus Horn, an early-fifth-century artifact carved with an alliterative runic inscription:

Ek hlewagastiR HoltijaR      horna tawido

[I, Hlewagast, Holtís son, made the horn] (Russom, Beowulf 1)

This early continental alliterative line shares characteristics with the Old English alliterative poetry employed over four hundred years later in the epic poem Beowulf:

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A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction ix
  • 1 - Old English and Anglo-Norman Literature 1
  • Selected Bibliography 23
  • 2 - Religious and Allegorical Verse 26
  • 3 - Alliterative Poetry in Old and Middle English 37
  • Selected Bibliography 48
  • 4 - Balladry 50
  • Selected Bibliography 66
  • 5 - The Beast Fable 69
  • Selected Bibliography 84
  • 6 - Breton Lay 86
  • 7 - Chronicle 98
  • 8 - Debate Poetry 118
  • Selected Bibliography 152
  • 9 - Medieval English Drama 154
  • 10 - Dream Vision 178
  • Selected Bibliography 196
  • 11 - Epic and Heroic Poetry 210
  • 12 - The Epic Genre and Medieval Epics 230
  • Selected Bibliography 253
  • 13 - The Fabliau 255
  • 14 - Hagiographic, Homiletic, and Didactic Literature 277
  • Selected Bibliography 294
  • 15 - Lyric Poetry 299
  • 16 - The Middle English Parody/ Burlesque 315
  • Selected Bibliography 333
  • 17 - Riddles 336
  • 18 - Romance 352
  • Selected Bibliography 373
  • 19 - Visions of the Afterlife 376
  • Selected Bibliography 394
  • Selected Bibliography 399
  • Index 425
  • About the Editors and Contributors 431
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