Sievers Analysis of Ealdgyth’s Lament

In my last post, I went through my poem “Ealdgyth’s Lament” and identified the Sievers types for the meter.  I learned a couple things that I think will be useful for future poems.

First off, I’m using type A an awful lot. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it does result in two-half lines with the same type. One thing that seems to be tripping me up with varying the half-lines is that two half-lines can be different in terms of strict meter but the same Sievers type.  For example, the line:

English armies (A) / ambushed his forces (A)

“English armies” is trochaic dimeter, the most obvious version of type A. “Ambushed his forces” is messier if you try to assign modern scansion to it. It’s a dactyl followed by a trochee. But, because you can have multiple unstressed syllables together, it still falls under type A.

This is another spot where the rhythm of Old English poetry is hard to hear. It’d be really obvious if I wrote a whole poem in trochaic or iambic octameter that it was far too regular for Old English poetry. But it’s harder to hear that variations between Sievers types are still basically the same.  (At least, assuming Sievers was right about how the Anglo-Saxons categorized their poetry. There’s no Anglo-Saxon equivalent to the Prose Edda, which provides detailed directions on how to write Norse/Icelandic poetry, so scholars have to work backwards from the poems to figure out what the rules were. And there’s debate on whether he got it right or overcomplicated things, that I really need to look into.)

To revise that, I might change the second half-line to “ambushed his men,” which would make it an E rather than an A.

I also had several half-lines that don’t fit into Sievers types at all, because they only have one group of unstressed syllables. “Twice widowed,” “His crown claimed,” “waiting in dread,” and “to the Welsh king” are all examples of this.

Fortunately, these aren’t hard to fix. “Twice a widow” is an A, as is “Claimed was his crown.” “Claimed was his crown” also keeps the stress on both C syllables. “To the Welsh king” also isn’t too tricky, because the Anglo-Saxons had a kenning for king to fit pretty much any alliteration or meter you need. Friend-lord, ring-giver, folk-king, and a bunch more. So, “To Wales’ ring-lord” would be type C. “Waiting in dread” could become “Waiting tearfully” or “Waiting in anguish” (both type A).

My overall takeaway from this exercise is that if I want a poem that sticks closely to the stress patterns found in Old English poetry, my ear is not up for the task. I need to actually write the first draft, analyze it line by line, and make little changes from there, at least for a long poem that tells a story. I may try writing a riddle poem starting with the meter—make a bunch of half-lines in various Sievers types that fit the thing I’m describing, and see if I can piece them together into something I like.  And, of course, I need to get my hands on more scholarly articles about Old English verse. I’m curious how Sievers came up with the types, as well as what the alternate theories are.

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