British and Irish Literature Alliterative Verse
Eric Weiskott
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0150


Alliterative verse refers to a corpus of approximately three hundred unrhymed English poems, spanning the period c. 650–1550 CE. Before the 12th century, there was only one way to write poetry in English. This verse form, known to modern scholars as alliterative Meter, stood in contrast to English prose, on the one hand, and syllabic Latin meters, on the other. From the late 12th century onward, French- and Latin-inspired syllabic English meters were introduced, throwing alliterative meter into relief in a new way. From the 14th century onward, poets also wrote poems combining alliterative metrical structures with stanzaic rhyme patterning, and these poems are traditionally grouped together with the unrhymed corpus. Sometime in the middle of the 16th Century, alliterative verse ceased to function as a metrical option in English literary culture. Whether found in large poetic anthologies or scattered among other kinds of writing, most alliterative poems exist in only one or two Manuscripts. The alliterative corpus comprehends an array of Genres, from brief monologues and riddles to lengthy narratives. Four long poems—Beowulf, Lawman’s Brut, Piers Plowman (see also the Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature entry titled “Piers Plowman”), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [see also the Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature entry titled “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”)—have attracted the most critical attention since the rediscovery of alliterative verse in the 17th Century and the 18th Century. Since the 19th Century, study of this poetic tradition has been subdivided along political-historical lines, with the surviving corpus segmented into Old English poetry and Middle English alliterative poetry to reflect the importance of the Norman Conquest of England (1066). Yet, scholars on both sides of the Old/Middle divide have pursued similar research questions in areas such as metrics and poetics, manuscript studies, and genre studies. Modern poets, especially in the 20th Century, have turned to alliterative verse for formal and thematic inspiration.

General Overviews

Reflecting scholarly subspecialization and the abundant production of English writing in the 10th and 14th centuries, the best overviews of alliterative verse generally pertain either to Old English poetry or to Middle English alliterative poetry. An exception is Pearsall 1977, which integrates the entire alliterative tradition into a comprehensive history of medieval English poetry. Fulk and Cain 2013 is a comprehensive history of Old English literature, with an emphasis on poetry. Williams 1970 is the last general overview of the Middle English corpus before a revisionist wave of research that questioned the continuity of the alliterative tradition from Old to Middle English, most notably Turville-Petre 1977. Riddy 1988 does for alliterative poems composed in Scotland what Turville-Petre 1977 had done for those composed in England. Hanna 1999 presents a revisionist argument partly indebted to Turville-Petre 1977 and partly opposed to it. Comprising little more than a dozen poems, Early Middle English alliterative verse has attracted much less attention. Friedlander 1979 offers a forward-looking survey of the range of compositions and their equivocal position in literary history.

  • Friedlander, Carolynn VanDyke. “Early Middle English Accentual Verse.” Modern Philology 76.3 (1979): 219–230.

    DOI: 10.1086/390855

    A critical overview of six Early Middle English alliterative poems, emphasizing their shared metrical and syntactical norms. Comparable in scope to McIntosh 1982, cited under Meter.

  • Fulk, R. D., and Christopher M. Cain. A History of Old English Literature. 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118441138

    The authoritative general guide to Old English literature, emphasizing the variety of its Genres and historical contexts. Complements the more formally aware approach of Pearsall 1977.

  • Hanna, Ralph. “Alliterative Poetry.” In The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Edited by David Wallace, 488–512. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521444200.023

    Diagnoses the so-called Alliterative Revival as a failed historiographical concept, anticipating Cornelius 2017, cited under Meter. Projects a more formally and historically diffuse corpus of alliterative verse than that presented in Williams 1970 or Turville-Petre 1977. The account of alliterative meter on offer here builds on McIntosh 1982, cited under Meter.

  • Pearsall, Derek. Old English and Middle English Poetry. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.

    A judicious literary history emphasizing social context, manuscript context, and literary form. Chapters 1–4 and 6 primarily treat alliterative verse.

  • Riddy, Felicity. “The Alliterative Revival.” In The History of Scottish Literature. Vol. 1, Origins to 1660 (Mediæval and Renaissance). Edited by R. D. S. Jack, 39–54. Aberdeen, Scotland: Aberdeen University Press, 1988.

    Surveys the alliterative poetry composed in medieval Scotland and presents this corpus as a unified new literary movement, mirroring the treatment of alliterative verse from England in Turville-Petre 1977.

  • Turville-Petre, Thorlac. The Alliterative Revival. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1977.

    Introduces Middle English alliterative verse as a singular and abrupt socioliterary movement of the Northwest. Brings together much historical detail, organized into a narrative that has attracted various objections, as in Hanna 1999.

  • Williams, D. J. “Alliterative Poetry in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.” In History of Literature in the English Language. Vol. 1, The Middle Ages. Edited by W. F. Bolton, 107–158. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1970.

    A readable introduction to Middle English alliterative verse, proceeding from formal and social context to detailed discussions of all the major compositions.

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