Formulas in an Alliterative Poetry (on the basis of Beowulf)

Jonathan Roper

University of Tartu


As is well-known, alliterative poetries are not confined to the Baltic-Finnic world. Examples include the poetries found in the Germanic and in the Mongolic worlds. In the belief that comparative examination of the workings of these poetries may well prove informative, this paper presents some of the pecularities of the interaction of verbal formulas with the requirements of alliteration in the Old English poem Beowulf. The formulas work within a system where each line consists of four units. At least two of the first three units must contain alliteration, while the fourth unit must not. This constraint shapes the formulas, which, as this paper will show, work to support the poet meet its demands.