first page of Beowulf (written in accentual verse). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Accentual verse is a metrical system based only on the number of stressed or accented syllables in a line. In accentual verse the total number of syllables can vary, so long as each line has the prescribed number of accents.[1]

Accentual verse is common in languages that are stress-timed, such as English. It was the system used in Germanic poetry, including Norse and Old English.[1]

Accentual verse derives its musical qualities from its flexibility with unstressed syllables, and tends to follow the natural speech patterns of English.

Children's verse Edit

Accentual verse is common in children's verse. "Traditional nursery rhymes, such as 'Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake,' are often accentual."[2] Nursery rhymes and the less well-known skipping-rope rhymes are arguably the most common form of accentual verse in the English Language. The following poem, Baa Baa Black Sheep, has two stresses in each line, but a varying number of syllables. (CAPITALS represent stressed syllables, and the number of syllables in each line is noted)

BAA, baa, BLACK sheep, (4)
HAVE you any WOOL? (5)
YES sir, YES sir, (4)
THREE bags FULL; (3)
ONE for the MAS-ter, (5)
And ONE for the DAME, (5)
And ONE for the LIT-tle boy (7)
Who LIVES down the LANE. (5)

History Edit

Old English Edit

Accentual verse was a traditionally common form in Germanic regions, with similar forms found in Germany, Scandinavia, Iceland, and Britain.[3] Accentual verse has been common in English poetry for as long as it has been recorded, with Old English poetry written in a special form of accentual verse termed alliterative verse, of which Beowulf is a notable example. Anglo-Saxon poetry generally added two further basic elements to the basic four-beat accentual verse pattern: alliteration of three of the four beats, and a medial pause (caesura).[3] Anglo-Saxon poets made frequent use of epithets to achieve the desired alliteration, and had various other more complex rules and forms, though these have not been as popular in later poetry.

Middle EnglishEdit

Accentual verse lost its dominant position in English poetry following the Norman conquest of England, where French forms, with their syllabic emphasis, gained prominence. Accentual verse continued in common use in all forms of Middle English poetry until the codification of accentual-syllabic verse in Elizabethan poetry, whereupon it largely disappeared from literary poetry for three hundred years, but remained very popular in folk poetry. A notable example from this period is William Langland's Piers Ploughman, here retaining the alliteration:

I loked on my left half || as þe lady me taughte
And was war of a womman || worþeli ycloþed.
I looked on my left side || as the lady me taught
and was aware of a woman || worthily clothed.

A large source for accentual verse from the post-Elizabethan period is Mother Goose's Melody (1765), as this recorded popular verse.

Modern EnglishEdit

Samuel Taylor Coleridge independently discovered the 'new principle' of accentual verse, which he used to write his unfinished gothic poem, Christabel. As he wrote in the poem's preface:

I have only to add that the metre of Christabel is not, properly speaking, irregular, though it may seem so from its being founded on a new principle: namely, that of counting in each line the accents, not the syllables. Though the latter may vary from seven to twelve, yet in each line the accents will be found to be only four. Nevertheless, this occasional variation in number of syllables is not introduced wantonly, or for the mere ends of convenience, but in correspondence with some transition in the nature of the imagery or passion.[4]

Sprung rhythm as developed by Gerard Manley Hopkins was essentially a form of accentual verse. Sprung rhythm was based on a constant number of feet per line; but because Hopkins let the number of syllables vary within feet, while keeping the number of stressed syllables per foot constant (at one), the verse he produced was practically accentual.

A modern codification was given by Robert Bridges in 1921, in his "Bridges' Prosody of Accentual Verse" section of Milton's Prosody.

Wallace Stevens used accentual verse in two of his long poems, a four-beat line in The Man with the Blue Guitar and a five-beat in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction .

Modern practitioners include Richard Wilbur ("Junk"), Earle Birney ("Anglo-Saxon Street"), and W.H. Auden, and the form has notably been advanced by New Formalist Dana Gioia.[3]

Outside of children's poetry and literary poetry, accentual verse remains popular in verse composed for oral presentation, such as cowboy poetry and rap.[3]

Contemporary formEdit

In modern literary use, in addition to the detailed codification given in Bridges' Prosody of Accentual Verse, three basic rules are followed:[3]

  1. Four stresses per line;
  2. A medial pause, with two stress on each side;
  3. Generally, three of the four stresses alliterate.

Some variations and other subtleties are found:[3]

  • Rather than a triple alliteration in a line, having two pairs of double alliterations on either side of the pause, or only having a single double alliteration, with one alliterating stress on each side of the pause.
  • Alliteration falls on the (first) stressed syllable of a word, not the first syllable of the word.
  • Minor stresses are often eliminated to reduce ambiguity.
  • While individual lines may have a regular syllabic structure, this is not kept constant over the poem – only the stress pattern is consistent – as otherwise the poem becomes accentual-syllabic verse.

Special forms Edit

A number of stricter forms of accentual verse exist, including:

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Accentual verse," Encyclopaedia Britannica,, Web, June 18, 2011.
  2. "Accentual verse," Glossary of Poetic Terms, Poetry Foundation, Web, June 19, 2011.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 "Accentual verse", Dana Gioia
  4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge,", Web, June 17, 2011.

External linksEdit

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