Compiled by MacKenzie Moore and Gavin Foster
This guide has a dual function: to list useful online guides to alliterative metre for anyone who wants a basic understanding of alliterative verse in Old English and in Tolkien’s poetry as well as for those who are interested in composing modern English alliterative verse according to Old English principles.
This guide focuses on Old English alliterative metre. Middle English and Old Norse poetry also use alliterative metre, with some modifications. Tolkien’s preference was to write according to Old English principles as defined by the nineteenth-century scholar Eduard Sievers, and this page is designed to provide a guide to that system of metrical scansion.
If you are a student in an Old English course, you will probably find some information in your textbook on alliterative metre. Popular texts such as Mitchell and Robinson’s A Guide to Old English or Pope and Fulk’s Eight Old English Poems have informative sections on metre, as do many others.
If you are looking for a more detailed introduction in print or as an e-book, you can read Jun Terasawa’s Old English Metre: An Introduction, U. of Toronto Press, 2011.
Our guide covers only introductory information on metre. Metrical study is an advanced field of scholarship, with book-length studies by specialists such as R. Fulk, A.J. Bliss, Thomas Cable, Geoffrey Russom, Erik Weiskott, and others. Some of the guides listed below include suggestions for further reading in metrical scholarship.
This listing is a work in progress. If you have found useful online resources for understanding Old English metre, please let us know in the comments.
Alaric Hall and Sheryl McDonald. A Beginner’s Guide (Hopefully) to Old English Metre
This is an 11-page PDF on Alaric Hall’s website under the section, Resources > How alliterative poetry works>Old English. Version 1.5, 2016.
This is a detailed and accessible guide, useful both for Old English students and general readers interested in the subject. Examples are written in modern English just as often as in Old English. A poet wishing to write in the style of Old English alliterative metre could use this guide as a starting point. It is also a great resource for students who want extra explanation or practice with Old English metre.
The guide’s introduction defines what meter is and explains that the examples are based on Thomas Cable’s principles (The English Alliterative Tradition, 1991). Hall and MacDonald also state that the reader should be aware that Old English metre was created naturally from the language rather than arising from an arbitrary set of rules.
The guide uses clear language and could be helpful for people with little knowledge of Old English who would like to learn about alliterative metre. One of the best parts of this guide is its inclusion of exercises on each of the new concepts introduced. It lets readers test their abilities in both modern and Old English with questions on stress, scansion, half-lines, resolution, expansion, and alliteration, with an answer key at the end of the file. A glossary is also provided to define key words. A bibliography lists some of the more advanced scholarly works on metre.
Throughout the guide, examples are drawn from Old English poems such as “The Ruin,” “The Dream of the Rood,” “The Wife’s Lament,” “The Seafarer,” as well as the modern English poem “King Sheave” by Tolkien.
On his Resources page, Dr. Hall also provides a brief introduction to the 14th-century alliterative revival, focusing on Piers Plowman in his examples.
Paul Deane. Linking Letters: A Poet’s Guide to Alliterative Verse.
This is an extensive website consisting of 17 parts designed for modern English poets who are interested in writing in alliterative metre. Drawing on his experience as a linguist and a creative writer, Dr. Deane makes clear that he is not attempting to teach Old English metre but rather to show how to write in that style. He includes primarily modern English examples, including a passage from C.S. Lewis’s “The Nameless Isle” and a scan of some lines from Tolkien’s “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” A note at the end of Part 17 reads “to be continued” but nothing is added after the last page on Middle English alliterative verse.
It is unusual to find guides to alliterative metre with a primary focus on modern English. Dr. Deane’s sections on topics such as syllable weight and resolution can be especially useful to modern language writers. His section on the Sievers Types includes variants of each type, with examples in modern and Old English.
It is important to dig into the site to get more detailed information on alliteration, as the guide starts with the assertion that “[a]lliterative verse is poetry which uses repetition of consonant sounds – alliteration – as its primary organizing principle” without acknowledging that Old English verse also allows the repetition of vowel sounds (a fact included in later pages). Some personal creative opinions occasionally appear; for example, anacrusis “should be avoided like the plague” as should kennings in order to avoid the early medieval style of “filling the verse as full of kennings as a fruitcake.”
The site design is somewhat dated, and navigation back to the home page can be difficult.
Daniel Paul O’Donnell. Old English Metre: A Brief Guide.
This guide by Dr. Daniel O’Donnell packs an impressive amount of information into a small space and is targeted mainly at students of Old English. The page includes an annotated image and transcription of “Caedmon’s Hymn” in manuscript. Other tutorials on his site cover topics such as Old English grammar and pronunciation.
With examples drawn from Old English poetry, the page might be too dense for the casual reader, although O’Donnell does use modern English examples to explain clause-stress, and he provides a modern English mnemonic device for remembering the basic Sievers Five Types.
The different sections cover Stress and Line Division; Alliteration (Consonantal Alliteration and Vocalic Alliteration); Accentual Patterns (including the Sievers types, syllable length, resolution, word-stress, clause-stress; stress and word classes; and a scansion of “Caedmon’s Hymn”). The page concludes with suggestions for further reading and a Works Cited list.
Murray McGillivray. A Gentle Introduction to Old English
This is an online companion site for Dr. McGillivray’s book, A Gentle Introduction to Old English, Broadview Press, 2010. The interactive exercise on verse types tests your ability to recognize Sievers types in various half lines. An answer key is provided. The exercise is designed for students of Old English, as all the examples are taken from Beowulf and some reading ability in Old English would be required.
Peter Baker. Old English Aerobics Workout Room
A note on the homepage states, “The login system has been temporarily suspended, and all features of the site are open to all visitors.” Designed for students of Old English, these interactive exercises test your recognition of alliterating words and Sievers types in Old English half lines. Answers are immediately available.