Read the following extract and pay attention to the alliterative metre.


This passage is taken from the second part of the poem. The second part begins with Beowulf as king. It tells the history of the dragon's hoard for which Beowulf, now an old king who has ruled the Geats for fifty years, sacrifices his life. Tragedy strikes in the shape of a dragon that ravages the kingdom. The dragon's anger is awakened by the theft of the treasure he had guarded for three hundred years. The treasure is the accumulated inheritance of a noble race of warriors, now extinct except for the last "shepherd of rings" ("hringa hyrde") who, himself at the point of death, carries it (the precious cups, the armour and the ancient swords) into a barrow, near the sea, below a cliff, and utters this speech on the transitoriness of all earthly things.

"Hold them now, Earth"

"Hold them now, Earth, now hand of man cannot,
A great tribe's treasures. Truly, from you
Brave men first got them; battle-death has taken,
Murderous fighting, the men, one and all,
Peers of my people: they have passed from this life,
Rest from hall-joys. None remains with me
To bear the sword, burnish (1) the rich goblet,(2)
Costly drinking cup; the company has gone elsewhere.
Now the hard helmet, hammered (3) with gold,
Must be stripped (4) of its plating;(5) the polishers sleep
Who once made bright those grim battle-masks;
Also the armor, which endured in battle,
Mid breaking of shields, the bite of swords,
Rots (6) with the warrior. The ringed-corslet(7)
May not wander far on the war-chief's path, 15
At the soldier's side. The harp is silent,
No glad music sounds, nor any good hawk (8)
Sweeps (9) through the hall, nor swift hoofbeats (10)
Drum (11) in the courtyard. Death-qualm (12) has sent
Full many a folk forth on their way."

(Beowulf, (lines 2247-2266).


1. burnish: polish, make bright by rubbing.
2. goblet: large drinking-cup.
3. hammered: fretted, embellished, decorated.
4. stripped: deprived.
5. plating: plate, shell, inlay.
6. Rots: decays.
7. corslet: woman's foundation garment combining corset and brassière.
8. hawk: falcon.
9. sweeps: swings, passes swiftly in flight.
10. hoofbeats: sounds of hoofs (feet of the horses).
11. drum: beat, stamp, tramp.
12. death-qualm: terrible death, terrible slaughter.

COMMENTARY: The Alliterative Measure

The Old English metre is often called "the alliterative measure". The alliteration, though a compulsory and distinctive feature, is less fundamental than the stress pattern which it serves to reinforce. The rule is that the first letter of the first stressed syllable in the second half-line must also begin one of the two stressed syllables in the first half-line. The other stressed syllable in the first half-line may alliterate; the last stressed syllable in the line must not. Thus , of the four stresses in the line, the first and/or the second must alliterate with the third, and the fourth must be different. Only the four fully-stressed syllables of the line enter into this calculation, and it is necessary to distinguish a fully-stressed from a half-stressed syllable. All vowels alliterate. The essence of the metre is the theoretical norm: "two is two as two is two", where the "twos" represent two syllables, one stressed, the other not. All the actual lines that occur are variations on this very symmetrical norm. The alliteration binds the half-lines together over the break and emphasizes this symmetry. The stressed syllables are also the most important syllables from the point of view of the sense.

(M. Alexander, "Introduction" to Beowulf, Penguin Books, 1973).


1. Read the extract "Hold them now, Earth" and find out the alliterated sounds in each line.

Alliterated Sounds