Metre (poetry) - Half-lines

In place of using feet, alliterative verse of old Germanic languages such as Old English and Old Norse divided each line into two half-lines. Each half-line had to follow one of five or so patterns, each of which defined a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables, typically with two stressed syllables per line. Unlike typical Western poetry, however, the number of unstressed syllables could vary somewhat. For example, the common pattern "DUM-da-DUM-da" could allow between one and five unstressed syllables between the two stresses.

The following is a famous example, taken from The Battle of Maldon:

Hige sceal þe heardra, || heorte þe cēnre,
mōd sceal þe re, || swā ūre mægen lȳtlað

("Will must be the harder, courage the bolder,
spirit must be the more, as our might lessens.")

In the quoted section, the stressed syllables have been underlined. (Normally, the stressed syllable must be long if followed by another syllable in a word. However, by a rule known as syllable resolution, two short syllables in a single word are considered equal to a single long syllable. Hence, sometimes two syllables have been underlined, as in hige and mægen.) The first three half-lines have the type A pattern "DUM-da-(da-)DUM-da", while the last one has the type C pattern "da-(da-da-)DUM-DUM-da", with parentheses indicating optional unstressed syllables that have been inserted. Note also the pervasive pattern of alliteration, where the first and/or second stress alliterate with the third, but not with the fourth.

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