Dirk Huth

title.none: Russom, Beowulf and Old Germanic Metre (Huth)

identifier.other: baj9928.0003.003 00.03.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dirk Huth, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitat Bonn,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Russom, Geoffry. Beowulf and Old Germanic Metre. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, No. 23. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xii, 235. $74.95. ISBN: 0-521-59340-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.03.03

Russom, Geoffry. Beowulf and Old Germanic Metre. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, No. 23. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xii, 235. $74.95. ISBN: 0-521-59340-9.

Reviewed by:

Dirk Huth
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitat Bonn

Discussion of Old Germanic alliterative verse has until today focused on the descriptive system introduced by E. Sievers in 1893.[[1]] What at first glance seemed its great advantage, the high level of systematization (five types of verse, named A to E according to their frequency), turned out to be an obstacle for the scansion of certain less common verse patterns. In these cases Sievers was forced to introduce a number of subtypes and ad hoc rules in order to adapt the material to the theoretical framework of his categories. A later improvement of Sievers' system by Bliss [[2]] had the undesired side-effect that it led to a further proliferation of subtypes--a development which stood in sharp contrast to the original intent: to subsume the variety of verse patterns under a coherent system with a manageably small number of rules. Thus, the increase in complexity made it ever more difficult to explain how poets of a preliterate age were able to acquire the rules of oral traditional composition and how their audiences, while scanning the verses at the speed of performance, could identify the metrical patterns and appreciate the poet's poetic ability. Furthermore, while still being a handy tool for the description of most verse patterns encountered in Germanic alliterative poetry, the five-type system failed on the explanatory level. Exactly why certain verse patterns were preferred and others avoided was a question which could not be answered within the frame of reference of the old system.

It is in addressing these crucial questions where Geoffrey Russom's work sets out. In a previous study--Old English Meter and Linguistic Theory [[3]]--Russom discarded Sievers' two-lift theory and replaced it by a new descriptive and explanatory system which he calls the "word-foot theory". As the name suggests, Russom follows a trend which has evolved over the last two decades, and which combines metrical analysis with general linguistic principles. His basic assumption is that the metrical patterns of feet, verses, and lines in poetic language correspond to the word and stress patterns as well as compounding rules found in natural language. Or, in general terms, that it is possible to establish a general equation between "words" (in natural language) and "feet" (in poetic diction).

The work under review, Beowulf and Old Germanic metre, can be considered a direct sequel to this previous study. The theoretical framework obtained from a detailed analysis of the metrics of Beowulf is tested here against the larger corpus of cognate Germanic traditions, viz. of Old-Norse, Old High-German and Old-Saxon alliterative poetry, in order to verify the general applicability of the word-foot theory. The basis of the theory consists of the following fundamental principles:

1. "Foot patterns" correspond to native word patterns. The foot patterns most easily perceived correspond to the most common word patterns.

2. The "verse" consists of two readily identifiable feet. Foot patterns corresponding to unusual word patterns add to the complexity of verses in which they appear.

3. Assignment of "alliteration" corresponds to assignment of stress in Germanic compounds and serves to bind smaller metrical constituents into larger constituents. The integrity of the larger constituent is marked by alliteration on its first subconstituent.

4. The "line" consists of two adjacent verses bound by alliteration. The first of these is the a-verse; the second is the b-verse. (p. 2)

Russom seeks to deduce all additional rules, constraints, and principles introduced at variant points in this argumentation ultimately from these fundamental principles. (The impatient reader will find a very convenient summary of these in the appendix, pp. 216-219.)

The major part of the book (chapters 2-9) is dedicated to a comparative analysis of the "Eddic poems on native Scandinavian subjects in fornyrdislag" (p. 8)--the closest parallel to Old English metre. On the basis of a close scrutiny of the Old-Norse corpus, Russom develops a description of the whole metrical system of fornyrdislag. The results are summarily displayed in a list of Old-Norse foot patterns (table 2.1 on p. 19) and a corresponding list of Old-Norse verse patterns (table 2.2 on p. 27). From these tables and from Russom's numerical evaluation of the material it can be seen that Old-Norse poets did employ certain verse patterns which are not found in Beowulf and did, on the other hand, minimize or avoid other verse patterns which are found in Beowulf. It is here that the basic assumption of a deep-rooted intertwining of linguistic and metrical structures enters the picture. Following an idea proposed by Lehmann [[4]], who sees metrical differences as different realizations of unchanging archetypes, Russom's consideration of the general linguistic features of Old Norse leads him to the plausible hypothesis that the differences between the two traditions can indeed be interpreted as "shrewd artistic responses to divergent linguistic histories." (p. 29)

It shall suffice here to illustrate the chain of argumentation with one example. One of the most characteristic traits of Old-Norse is its extremely forceful primary stress. This led to the reduction and, in certain linguistic environments, to the complete loss of unstressed syllables. In Old-English, where this was not the case, there had to be detailed rules for the employment of such unstressed syllables: in accordance with the fundamental principle (#2), the audience still had be able to identify the two-word pattern underlying a given verse. Due to a different linguistic development, however, those rules would be rendered meaningless in Old-Norse and one would assume that they were abandoned. This hyothesis is confirmed by the observations given in chapter 4 ("Light feet and extrametrical words"), which lead Russom to the conclusion: "Loss of unstressed prefixes from the Eddic poet's language triggers a complete elimination of anacrusis from the metrical system." (p. 59) Another observation, made in chapter 6 ("Alliteration"), is explained as the effect of the same linguistic feature: the forceful subordination pattern of natural language in Old-Norse--caused by the effects of primary stress--was met by a parallel subordination pattern in metrical structures, where the rightward arsis was deeply subordinated to a preceding arsis. In Eddic fornyrdislag this led to a significantly lower frequency of double alliteration in a-verses than in Beowulf. There the moderately forceful primary stress of Old English entailed a less deep metrical subordination, and an alliterating syllable was more likely to occupy a rightward arsis. Furthermore, the deeper linguistic and metrical subordination in Old-Norse likewise had an effect on the phenomenon of resolution, as observed in chapter 8 ("Resolution"): "Resolution on a subordinate arsis, though not uncommon in Beowulf, hardly ever occurs in fornyrdislag, and resolvable sequences stand unresolved significantly more often in the Norse metre." (p. 117)

In contrast to Old-Norse, continental West Germanic, as exemplified in Old High German (Hildebrandslied) and Old Saxon ( Heliand), shows a considerably weakened primary stress. The result was that in the respective native vocabularies only a few weak syllables were eliminated by syncopation and related linguistic developments. Also, the less forceful primary stress entailed a far weaker metrical stress and hence a weaker metrical subordination, which again enhanced the number of weak syllables in the verse and resulted in a distincly higher frequency of extrametrical words both in Old High German and Old Saxon. The typical West Germanic "Hakenstil", for example, can in this way be interpreted as a direct result of weak subordination to the rightward arsis. In addition, the restoration of syncopated syllables in certain environments led to a greater number of large compounds in West Germanic compared to Old English and Old Norse. From within the context of the word-foot theory Russom proposes the following interesting thought: because large compounds thus had become more common in ordinary language, their metrical equivalent, the corresponding foot patterns, became less complex in the ears of audience and poet. This could explain the freer experimentation with reversed heavy patterns to be observed in Old Saxon and Old High German (see esp. pp. 186-188). These and other observations of the respective traditions' peculiar problems are discussed in full detail in chapters 10 ("Old Saxon Alliterative Verse") and 11 (" Hildebrandslied").

Russom's "Conclusions" (pp. 194-215) can be divided into two parts. In the first part, the reader will find a synthesis of the word-foot theory as discussed in fine detail in the previous chapters. The collected evidence confronts point by point the shortcomings of the five-type system and it is underscored that even on a purely descriptive level, word-foot theory provides more suitable solutions for the problematic verses which cannot be dealt with adequately in the five-type system.

Even more important, however, is the second part of the conclusions. Russom attempts here to sketch out the historical development of Old Germanic verse craft. It is exactly this historical dimension which is totally lacking in the older theory. Sievers saw his system as a monolithic block, valid for all the various traditions throughout the whole period of Germanic alliterative verse. Deviating phenomena (e.g. Old-Norse verses of type A3 in b-verses) were done away with as exceptions to the rule. This is a completely unacceptable approach. To put it in Russom's words: "When changes in stress and syllable count are in question, it seems particularly inappropriate to assume that fixed patterns of stresses and syllables served as metrical targets throughout the history of the form." (p. 204) Word-foot theory, on the other hand, is able not only to deal with the variants in their own right within the given theoretical framework, but also to explain them on the basis of historical linguistic developments in the languages in question. Thus Russom's ensuing overview of the history of Germanic metre revolves around the central issue of the historical development of stress in the various languages. Old Norse, with its forceful primary stress, and Continental West Germanic, with a rather weak developed primary stress, form the two extremes. Old English with its moderate primary stress takes the middle position. The effects of the differing stress patterns, introduced and discussed in detail in the previous chapters, are reviewed here, but in a summary fashion. The focus lies on five points: 1) effects of stress on the average word size in the respective language system; 2) effects of stress on the number and constraints of unstressed prefixes; 3) effects of stress on subordination and metrical compounding; 4) effects of stress on large compounds and their corresponding feet; and lastly 5) the effects produced by changes in stress in the history of the given language on changes in the respective metrical structures.

As to formal matters, the book leaves nothing to be desired. It is well structured and the notational system used for metrical analysis is simple and very effective. (Another advantage is that it is computer-readable. Scholars interested in the statistical details can profit from the author's generous offer and obtain copies of his electronic scansions.) All verse quotations are translated in the footnotes, which will facilitate the use of the book in university courses. Finally, the index (pp. 225-230) and "list of verses specially discussed" (pp. 231-235) allow a quick orientation on special topics. I am convinced that this inspiring new theory will spur further discussions, from which research on Old Germanic metre can only benefit.


1. Sievers, Eduard. Altgermanische Metrik. Halle 1893.

2. Bliss, A. J. The Metre of Beowulf. Oxford, 1958. [rev. ed. Oxford 1967.]

3. Russom, Geoffrey. Old English Meter and Linguistic Theory. Cambridge 1987.

4. Lehmann, Winfred P. The Development of Germanic Verse Form. Austin, TX, 1956.