Alliteration in Beowulf
The diction of the Old English poem Beowulf is distinguished primarily by its heavy use of allliteration, or the repetition of the initial sounds of words.
In the original manuscript version of the poem, alliteration is employed in almost every line (or two half-lines); in modern translations of the poem this is not so. Beowulf uses alliteration [my italics] and accent to achieve the poetic effect which Modern English poetry achieves through the use of poetic feet, each having the same number of syllables and the same pattern of accent (Wilkie 1271). In lines 4 and 5 of the poem we find:
Oft Scyld Scefing sceapena preatum
monegum maegpum meodo-setla ofteah
The repetition of the “s” sound in line 4 and of the “m” sound in line 5 illustrate alliteration, and this occurs throughout the poem, providing to the listener an aesthetic sense of rightness or pleasure. In 1958 two language scholars, Lehmann nd Tabusa, produced an alphabetized list of every alliterated word in Beowulf. One translator, Kevin Crossley-Holland, in his rendition of the poem in Literature of the Western World, actually includes considerable alliteration, but less than the original version of the poem (Wilkie 1271). The Old English poet would “tie” the two half-lines together by their stressed alliteration (Chickering 4).
The first half-line is called the on-verse, which is followed by the off-verse. Each line of poetry ideally contains four principal stresses, two on each side of a strong medial caesura, or pause, and a variable number of less-heavily stressed or unstressed ones. “At least one of the two stressed words in the first half-line, and usually both of them, begin with the same sound as the first stressed word of the second half-line” (Donaldson 67). Such stressed alliterative binding together created hundreds of pairs that are used over and over, such as halig/heofon holy/heaven, dryhten/dugud lord/troop, fyren/feond sin/enemy. The pairs need not be complementary, but rather can be contrastive, like eadig/earm happy/wretched and wearm/winter warm/winter. These dictional contrasts provide the listener additional pleasure by surprising his expectations. The alliteration also includes stressed vowels (Tharaud 34).
Prof. Magoun, in examining the poem, considers it probable that a high percentage of the language in Beowulf is formulas or phrases repeated from a common bank of phraseology from which all poets drew their language (88-89). From this common bank the poets drew out what they need based on the requirements of alliteration. In his essay “The Making of an Anglo-Saxon Poem,” Robert P. Creed agrees that alliteration was the poet’s basis for making his choice of words:
I shall therefore take only a very small portion of Beowulf, eight verses (four lines), and attempt, by means of references to...