I took an absolutely amazing Anglo-Saxon poetry class at Pennsic, taught by Mistress Fiana of Clare. “Why Poets Should Use the English Style” explained *in persona* how Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse works and why it’s well suited to writing in modern English. She managed to talk about the differences between Old English and Modern English in persona by referring to Old English just as Englisc and Modern English as “our common tongue” and explaining that it’s got a mix of English, French, Latin and other languages.
One of the cool things about the class was that the handout had exercises for creating half-lines and building them into verses. It explained the alliteration first, then had you come up with some alliterative phrases. Then, it got into the stress patterns, which are divided up into 5 types, called Sievers types after the guy who identified them. In that exercise, you create a half line or two for each Sievers type. Then, you start putting your half-lines together, making sure they follow the rules of alliteration as a full line.
In the Anglo-Saxon poetry I’ve written so far, I’ve taken the meter pretty loosely. I’ve stuck strictly to “two stressed syllables in each half-line” because the alliteration is based on those stresses, and if it doesn’t alliterate in the right spot, it’s just not Anglo-Saxon verse. But I sort of let the unstressed syllables fall where they would, and didn’t actually check whether they fell into the Sievers types.
One of the things I decided to do after Pennsic to up my Anglo-Saxon poetry game was to take a previous poem, analyze it by Sievers type, and see how I did.
In one of his translated songs on the album Trouvere, Master Efenwealt Wystle has the great line “May God help me with scansion.” I’m pretty sure that needs to be my prayer too. One of the things I love about Anglo-Saxon verse is that the meter is irregular. Writing in, say, iambic pentameter without sounding ricky-ticky doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me.
But the tricky thing about a loose stress pattern is that it’s not actually “anything goes” and being a little bit irregular makes it tougher to tell if you’ve got it right. If you read a ten-syllable line, it’s usually really easy to tell if it’s iambic pentameter or not. And if it’s not, you can tell exactly where it goes off the rails.
With Anglo-Saxon verse, each half-line needs to fit into one of five patterns, and it should really *not* share a pattern with the other half-line in its line. You *can* do it, but it’s considered not great poetically. It’s kind of a cop-out, probably about like rhyming a word with itself.
Because there’s a very broad set of patterns it’s much harder to “hear” than regular meter. So, I went through my poem Ealdgyth’s lament, line by line, and identified the Sievers types. The following poem, which gives an example of each Sievers type and tells a little story, was really helpful. (I got it from Old English Metre: A Brief Guide by Daniel Paul O’Donnell.)
Anna Angry (A)
And Bryhtnoth bold (B)
In keen conflict (C)
Drive Don backwards (D)
Each one with edge (E)
One variation that’s important is that types A, D, and E can have anacrusis – an unstressed syllable preceding them. So, you could have “When Anna angry” or “To drive Don backwards” and those would still be valid.
So, here’s Ealdgyth’s Lament with the Sievers types (and X’s where I just got the meter wrong). The next post will talk about what I learned from this exercise.
Widowed and weeping – (A) / woeful my lot – (E)
Ever an exile – (A) / endless my sorrow – (A)Widowed and weeping – (A) / woeful my lot – (E)
In trials tearful – (C) / twice widowed – (X – missing an unstressed syllable)
Of kingdoms broken (A w/ anacrusis) / a queen again – (B)
Harold my husband (A) / at Hastings slain (B)
His crown claimed (X – missing an unstressed syllable) / his kingdom falling (A with anacrusis)
Bravely my brothers (A) / brought me to shelter (A)
Fearful was our flight (E) / fleeing from London (A)
To a stout city (C) / safe behind walls (E)
Armies advance (E) / onward in conquest (A)
Sorrow surrounds us (A) / safety is fleeting (A)
Can walls withstand (B) / William’s forces? (A)
I wake weeping (C) / waiting in dread (X – missing an unstressed syllable)
Loud lamenting (A) / but not for my lord (E with anacrusis)
A husband I hardly knew (A with anacrusis) / How shall I mourn him?(A)
Once I was wed (E) / to the Welsh king (X – missing an unstressed syllable)
Eager he allied (A)/ with Aelfgar my father (A with anacrusis)
Brief was my bliss (E) / broken in war (E)
English armies (A) / ambushed his forces (A)
Hacked off his head (E) / to Harold sent it (A with anacrusis)
His kingdom sundered (A with anacrusis) / among kinsmen divided (A with anacrusis)
I was not eager (A) / again to wed (B)
Pawn and peace-weaver (A) / passed between men (E)
I weep for my fate (E with anacrusis) / fearful, uncertain (A)
For the child I carry (A with anacrusis) / his kingdom taken (A)
Where will we wander (A) / weary exiles? (A)
Seeking safety (A) / searching for a home (E)