Roses are Red, Violets are Beowulf

By Danièle Cybulskie

For most of us, thinking of poetry means thinking of rhyme, but for English poetry, this wasn’t always the case. Some of the most famous and most beautiful poetry of the Middle Ages, especially that written in Old English (Anglo-Saxon) is more concerned with the beginning sound of words: alliteration. Let’s take five minutes to look at medieval alliterative poetry, using some of the most famous poems of the period.

The most famous Anglo-Saxon poem is probably Beowulf, and it follows the tradition of writing poems to tell stories, rather than simply extoll the virtues of, say, a flower. It is an epic poem, although (sadly for us) it is missing some pieces. The rhythm – or meter – of Beowulf is two big stresses, a pause (called a cæsura), and then two big stresses. There can be any number of smaller stresses in between; the main idea is to hit those big stresses to get the rhythm right. What do I mean by stresses? Let’s use and example from the great Dr. Seuss. Read the lines:


One fish, two fish,
Red fish, blue fish.
(Hmmm – can you guess which book I quoted this from?)

Reading this, you automatically put the emphasis (stress) on the words “one”, “two”, “red”, and “blue”. (Try reading this by emphasizing the word “fish” – it sounds very stilted.) Those words you automatically put an emphasis on are stressed, while the word “fish” is unstressed. In a poem like Beowulf, the four stressed syllables per line are the important part of the meter. The unstressed syllables vary in number. Let’s have a look:


wæs se grimma gæst       Grendel haten
mære mearcstapa             se þe moras heold

(the grim spirit                    was called Grendel
mighty murk-stepper     he held the moors
This is lines 102-103 from Mitchell and Robinson’s edition; translation mine)

The stress is on “GRIMma”, “GÆst”, “GRENdel”, “HATen”, and “MÆre”, “MEARCstapa”, “MORas”, and “HEOld”. As you can see, there isn’t a set number of unstressed syllables, but you definitely get four stressed syllables in each complete line. Notice, too, the alliteration: “g” sounds starting words in the first line, “m” sounds in the second.

If you hear Beowulf read aloud, you can hear how the rhythmic stress pattern and alliteration can be used to add tension and suspense. (The sections of Beowulf that deal with Grendel are deliciously creepy!) I think, however, that there are a couple of other reasons for using alliteration. For one thing, coming up with that much alliteration shows off a poet’s vocabulary and talent. Beyond that, though, it helps with memory. When you have an epic poem like this one, it’s important to have cues that help you remember the next bit if you’re storytelling. While the examples I’m using here were written down, they are descended from a largely oral culture, so it makes sense that they have some of the hallmarks of mnemonic devices. (It’s possible that Beowulf could have been recorded from an originally oral version.)

If we look at another of the most famous poems of the Middle Ages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we can see that alliteration is still around as an important poetic form, though the language has evolved into Middle English:


Then þay schewed hym þe schelde, þat was of schyr goulez
Wyth þe pentangel depaynt of pure golde hwez.

(Then they showed him the shield that was of bright red
With the pentangle painted of pure gold hue.
Lines 619-620 from the Tolkien/Gordon/Davis’ edition; translation mine)

There are still four stresses per line, here all using the alliterative letters (“sch” in the first line, “p” in the second). Sir Gawain isn’t entirely similar to Beowulf in its structure, though: at the end of each stanza are four rhyming lines, called a “bob and wheel”. They follow the traditional “roses are red” pattern in which the first and third lines rhyme, and the second and fourth lines rhyme. Sir Gawain, then, being both in Middle English, and in its blending of alliteration and rhyme straddles both the worlds of early English poetry and later English poetry. (This isn’t to say that nothing ever rhymed before; just that alliteration is a stronger feature of Anglo-Saxon poetry.)


If you want to see more examples of both rhymed medieval poetry, and alliterative medieval poetry, check out TEAMS’ King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthur. Not only are there amazing notes, but the story is probably also pretty familiar. As the poetic juices begin to flow in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, maybe we should get medieval and try our hands at alliteration.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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Top Image: Beowulf poetry – photo by Pete D / Flickr