1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Alliteration

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ALLITERATION (from Lat. ad, to, and littera, letter), the commencing of two or more words, in close juxtaposition, with the same sound. As Milton defined rhyme to be “the jingling sound of like endings,” so alliteration is the jingle of like beginnings. All language has a tendency to jingle in both ways, even in prose. Thus in prose we speak of “near and dear,” “high and dry,” “health and wealth.” But the initial form of jingle is much more common—“safe and sound,” “thick and thin,” “weal or woe,” “fair or foul,” “spick and span,” “fish, flesh, or fowl,” “kith and kin.” The poets of nearly all times and tongues have not been slow to seize upon the emphasis which could thus be produced.

Although mainly Germanic in its character, alliteration was known to the Latins, especially in early times, and Cicero blames Ennius for writing “O Tite tute, Tati, tibi tanta, tyranne, tulisti.” Lucretius did not disdain to employ it as an ornament.

We read in Shakespeare:—

Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are corals made.”  

In Pope:—

Here files of pins extend their shining rows,
Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux.”

In Gray:—

Weave the warp and weave the woof, 
The winding-sheet of Edward's race.”

In Coleridge:—

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
 The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
 Into that silent sea.”

Churchill describes himself, in his Prophecy of Famine, as one

Who often, but without success, had prayed
For apt alliteration’s artful aid,”—

an example which is itself a proof of his failure; for alliteration is never effective unless it runs upon consonants. As thus far considered, alliteration is a device wholly dependent on the poet's fancy. He may use it or not, or use it much or little, at his pleasure. But there is an extensive range of Teutonic poetry whose metrical laws are entirely based on alliteration. This, for example, is the principle on which Icelandic verse is founded; and we have a yet nearer interest in it, because it furnishes the key to Anglo-Saxon and a large portion of early English verse. For a specimen take the following lines, the spelling modernized, from the beginning of Piers the Plowmam:

But in a May morning | on Malvern hills,
Me befel a ferly | of fairy methought;
I was weary of wandering | and went me to rest
Under a broad bank | by a burn-side;
And as I lay and leaned | and looked on the waters,
I slumbered in a sleeping | it sounded so merry.”

The rule of this verse is indifferent as to the number of syllables it may contain, but imperative as to the number of accented ones. The line is divided in the middle by a pause, and each half ought to contain two accented syllables. Of the four accented syllables, the first three should begin with the same letter; the fourth is free and may start with any letter. Those who wish for a more minute analysis of the laws of alliterative verse, as practised by the Anglo-Saxon and early English poets, may consult an exhaustive essay on the subject by Professor W. W. Skeat, prefixed to vol. iii. of Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript; only the reader must be on his guard against an error which pervades it, and which this able writer seems to have derived from Rask. The question arises—What is the nature of the cadence in alliterative verse? Now all metrical movement is of two kinds, according as the beat or emphasis begins the movement or ends it. If the beat is initial, we say in classical language that the movement is trochaic or dactylic, according to the number of its syllables; and if the beat is final, we in like manner say that the movement is iambic or anapaestic. Skeat and many others object with some reason to use the classical terms, and therefore brushing them aside, let us put the question in the simplest form—Has the movement of alliterative

verse got the initial or the final beat? In the middle of the 18th century Bishop Percy decided this question with sufficient accuracy, though he mixed up his statement with a blunder which it is not easy to account for. He points out how the poets began to introduce rhyme into alliterative verse, until at length rhyme came to predominate over alliteration, and “thus was this kind of metre at length swallowed up and lost in the common burlesque Alexandrina or anapaestic verse, as

“A cobbler there was, and he lived in a stall.”

Percy made a serious mistake when he gave the name of Alexandrina to anapaestic verse; but he is quite right in his general statement that alliterative verse became lost in a measure the movement of which had the final beat. Conybeare has stated the fact still more accurately. “In the Saxon poetry a trochaic character is predominant. In Piers the Plowman there is a prevailing tendency to an anapaestic cadence.” It is the result of a change in the language—the loss of inflexion. Take the word man. The genitive in Saxon would be mannes, a trochee; in English, of man, an iambus. The tendency of the language was thus to pass from a metrical movement, in which the beat was initial, to one in which it was final. It may therefore be quite right to speak of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry as trochaic or dactylic, and quite wrong to apply the same terms to the cadence of our later alliterative verse. And this is precisely the error into which Skeat has fallen. He says—“Lines do not always begin with a loud syllable, but often one or two and sometimes (in early English especially) even three soft syllables precede it. These syllables are necessary to the sense, but not to the scansion of the line.” That is just the point at issue. By leaving out of account the light syllable or syllables at the beginning of a line, and taking his start from the first syllable that has the alliterative beat, Skeat may certainly prove that all the later alliterative poetry has a movement of initial beat. But English ears will not submit to this rule. It is those light syllables of no account which have altered the rhythm of English descant from one of initial to one of final beat.