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 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.