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Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, uses a characteristically Germanic style of poetry in which the number of strong beats per line is what counts. Instead of counting syllables, strong beats alone were counted. There were always exactly four such strong beats per line, and there was always a pause (called a caesura) between the two pairs.

These strong beats may have made it easier for the pre-literate bard to recite long verse, and for one to pass along these unwritten minstrel poems to later generations. Other Germanic verse from the oral tradition also followed this scheme, such as the Norse Eddas.

However, today this form of poetry is virtually never seen in English any longer. Instead, as our language grew explosively in vocabulary through the admixture of Romance terms, many with stress patterns that were alien to Old English, we also began to adopt a more Romantic style of composing our poetry, whether written or oral.

Now it is only with training that the old forms are even recognized for the poetry that they are, even though any schoolboy can recognize a Petrarchan sonnet as a poetic form. And it need no longer be written in Italian for them to do so, either. It just “seems” like poetry to us now; the other, not so much.

And my question is:

  • Did we lose our old poetical form of Beowulf, the alliterative poetry of the scops (Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the skalds), as a direct result of English gaining phonemic stress? Does phonemic stress somehow fit our current style of poetic meter in a way that breaks the old style? Does phonemic stress interfere with the old alliterative form in some fundamental, mechanical fashion?

I am looking for a discrete answer, not a long opinion piece. I figure that if the answer to my question is that yes, it does, then this will be easily demonstrated — and conversely, that if it cannot be easily demonstrated, then it may well not be true.


PS: Although I am thinking here more about basic meter here than I am about rhyme schemes, I have also wondered whether switching from the so-called “head-rhyme” of alliterative verse with occasional assonant rhyme intermixed that we find in Beowulf to the so-called “tail-rhyme” of what is called full-rhyme in modern metered verse in English from Chaucer onwards might be related to the loss of the Beowulf style. Or not.

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Literacy, pens, paper, the printing press. A written culture has different restrictions than an oral culture dependant on ease of repetition from memory. –  Hugo Jan 4 '13 at 13:30
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@Hugo You seem to have accidentally struck the Add Comment button instead of the Post Answer button. :) –  tchrist Jan 4 '13 at 13:37
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Great question. My first response was going to be "we still do", but then I looked more closely at Beowulf, and realized we didn't. Here is Tolkien's poem "Lament for Boromir". It seems to me that Aragorn's verses use the Anglo-Saxon technique of counting strong beats (although with the lines broken into 4 and 3 beats), while Legolas's is modern English ballad meter (again with the lines broken into 4 and 3). –  Peter Shor Jan 4 '13 at 18:33
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@PeterShor That is a really interesting observation about the “Lament for Boromir”, that you have two different kinds of verse going on from the two speakers. I’m pretty sure I’ve never read that before. One place you can find Beowulf-style verse, hidden in prose, is when Gandalf lifts Théoden out of his doldrums. “Now Théoden son of Thengel, / will you hearken to me? // Do you ask for help? / Not all is dark.” It does on from there for several lines that scan in a Beowulf way: the old enchanter is using Väinämöinen-style song-magic, for each word he ‘speaks’ is part of a broader tapestry. –  tchrist Jan 4 '13 at 21:44
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My first response to the title of the question was "it's long enough now". –  Beta Jan 5 '13 at 12:04
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Literacy, pens, paper, the printing press.

A written culture has different restrictions than an oral culture dependant on ease of repetition from memory.

According to the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center:

Beowulf is the oldest narrative poem in the English language, embodying historical traditions that go back to actual events and personages in fifth- and sixth-century Scandinavia. During the long preliterate centuries when these traditions were transmitted in the form of oral poetry, they were combined with with a number of legendary and folktale elements (among these are Grendel and his mother, the dragon, and probably the hero Beowulf himself). The written text of the poem, as we have it today, took shape in England during the middle or late Anglo-Saxon period and survives in a single manuscript from around the year 1000.

An oral tradition requires stories to be easily memorised and stand repetition many, many times, and passed on to the next storyteller. A strong metre and fixed structure with helps, along with alliteration (also found in Beowulf) and isn't unique to English. For example, the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, is based on sung oral tradition and has a fixed pattern of stresses, with much alliteration and parallelism (repeating the previous line with different words but meaning the same thing). In fact, the hero, "steady old Väinämöinen" (an almost always alliterative "vaka vanha Väinämöinen"), is himself a storytelling wizard who plays a zither and uses his song-words for magic.

Once people can read and write, they no longer have a need for the storyteller to recite a story from memory, they can read it themselves, or have someone read it to them from a text. Over time, this gives rise to more creative ways of expression.

For more, here's a paper (PDF) on Oral Tradition & Its Decline by Indira Bagchi.

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This. The academic discovery in the early/mid-20th century of the (still-living!) South Slavic tradition of oral epic poetry, with its rigid epic decasyllables and extensive use of formulas caused a mini-revolution in the study of Homeric poetry, and more generally of Indo-European epic poetry---see, for instance, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oral_Formulaic_Hypothesis –  Branimir Ćaćić Jan 4 '13 at 16:02
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Thanks for PDF, even though it is occasionally startling for way author omits articles. :) –  tchrist Jan 5 '13 at 0:52
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Who says we don't? Have you listened to rap or hip-hop lately? Anglo-Saxon poetry like Beowulf was heavily beat-based and while it didn't involve rhyme it used alliteration instead. The lines were recited to four stressed beats to a line with a coesura halfway between each one. I have long considered Anglo-Saxon poetry to be the rap music of its day.

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...or many things written with the sound as heard by the reader firmly in mind. You often find this in kinds of "flow of consciousness" passages in Ulysses (Molly Bloom's soliloquies) and many fantasy writers of today are especially fond of this kind of thing: there is a battle passage late in the Jane Routley book "Mage Heart" where she uses the dizziness begotten of sounds, alliteration as well as not-quite-ending sentences that defy punctuation to paint the confusion, dread and urgency of battle. "Angela's Ashes" (Frank McCourt) also has many passages like this. –  WetSavannaAnimal aka Rod Vance Oct 13 '13 at 23:37
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I think the Norman Conquest might have had something to do with it. After 1066 Norman French was the prestige language in England for two or three centuries and was a huge influence on the subsequent development of English. It would have been surprising if it had not brought French literary practice with it. As far as I know, there is no tradition of alliteration in French verse.

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Originally the oral poems, such as Beowulf, The Wanderer, The Prose and poetic Eddas, and other sagas, didn’t necessarily have a specific pattern. It was the message that counted. Over time, the good skald would develop methods to help them learn the stories and repeat them accurately every time. This became the beat method that you mention. Often skalds would tell a poem or story to the beat of a drum from the side lines. It created a sense of trance so that all listeners would become heavily involved in what was being recited. After the Christianization of Britain, Iceland, and other northern countries, monks began writing the oral stories down. This can be seen in the nontraditional lines of the poems, usually some sort of propaganda by the monk, such as the connection of Grendel to Cain of Nod. Over the centuries, new styles of poetry evolved. Using rhymes gave reason to not need a beat in order to learn and recite a poem. (Not to mention the loss of rhythm in language barriers). Although new styles arise all the time, it never destroys the previous styles. The old poetic method of reciting to a beat has simply evolved into lyrical music; songs that still follow a beat and deliver a specific tale or story. Lyrical music is the modern equivalent to the beat driven oral poems of old.

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