In poetry, alliteration is a literary device using repetition of sounds between words placed closely together. Usually, the repetitive words begin with the same consonant letter. This device is used by the poet instead of rhyme. Beowulf was written somewhere between 600 CE and 1100 CE in the Anglo-Saxon language of England, commonly referred to as Old English. The anonymous poet of Beowulf wrote the work in unrhymed verses and used alliterative meter to organize his lines in the poem.
Alliteration in this heroic epic is a fundamental literary technique found in the poetic composition. The poet leaves himself a great deal of flexibility in the construction of Beowulf because, coupled with the fact that there is no rhyme, there is no standard amount of syllables throughout the work other than the usual four-stressed syllables found in each line. In the Anglo-Saxon era, poetry was not generally written. Poems were passed down through generations verbally by traveling performers called scops. Accordingly, alliteration became a significant tool used as a memory aid.
For example, the poet describes the joyous celebrations in the great feasting-hall until the evil fiend Grendel attacks and destroys the serenity:
A powerful monster, living down
In the darkness, growled in pain, impatient
As day after day the music rang
Loud in the hall . . .
So Hrothgar’s men lived happy in his hall
Till the monster stirred
This pattern is used throughout the poem. Beowulf is described as a great warrior of the Geat tribe in Sweden and the strongest of men. Grendel is described as a hellish monster—not animal but a very primitive human descended from the biblical Cain. Grendel’s mother, who lives at the bottom of a lake housing monsters, is described as a vengeful creature brooding over Grendel’s death. In each case, the poet interjects alliterative verse to highlight the characters’ demeanors, qualities, and actions.
The Beowulf poet employs alliteration instead of rhyme to somewhat emphasize the qualities and actions of the characters. While he does use alliteration to heighten the contrast between the actions of characters like Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel’s mother, the literary device is primarily used to connect the narrative structure of the poem.