(22 March 1998)
In a previous column, I discussed the Anglo-Saxon verse form in which each line has four or five stressed syllables, at least two of which start with the same consonant sound. The Anglo-Saxons used this form for verse as short as riddles or as long as Beowulf; presumably it aided in memorization, and Anglo-Saxon verse was passed by oral tradition long before it was written down.
By the time of Chaucer's Middle English, a few hundred years after Beowulf was written down, alliterative verse had given way to the imported innovations of rhyme and regular meter. (The anonymous author of Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (roughly contemporary with Chaucer) used frequent alliteration, but it wasn't part of the formal structure of the poems.) From then on, alliteration was largely relegated to occasional use in the work of writers who cared about the sounds of their words.
But in recent times, some poets have combined the Anglo-Saxon alliterative form with rhyme and meter. This combination is grating when done poorly, as it often is, but when done well it's probably my favorite verse form. Here's a quite well-done example, although not every line alliterates. (It's got an original tune, too! To give a general idea to some of you, the tune to the chorus is somewhat similar to a dance tune called "Planxty Irwin," though the tune to the verse is very different. The easiest way to hear the tune is to obtain the tape containing a recording of the song...)
melody and lyrics by Cat Faber
Fair were the towers whose stones lie scattered
From Aare to Lyonya they're spoken of yet
White sheep graze where the walls were shattered
The towers are gone but we do not forget.
Loud and laughing the horns were heard
That heartened the heroes who held there;
Soft and sighing, the sable bird
Weeps for the warriors felled there.
Weaponed well the attacker waits
To reap what the reaving renders
They brought the guards and they broke the gates
And doomed the defiant defenders.
With shining shield Prince Shane was there
He barred the breach without bending
Crowned with blood in his flaxen hair
Crimson and gold to his ending.
Tam and Tara and burly Brand
And Var with his voice like the thunder
The sword was struck from Tangwystl's hand
The last of the leaders went under.
When fall is fine in the yielding year
We walk with our sons and our daughters
We tell them how there were towers here
That warded the width of these waters.
Green the grasses that grace the howe
And pale with the heat of the haying
Bought by blood, there is peace here now
And somewhere a shepherd is playing...
The people and places mentioned are apparently from The Deed of Paksenarrion, a trilogy of novels by Elizabeth Moon. (The trilogy mentions the song, but provides no lyrics.)