Alliteration and it’s Effects in “Beowulf”

In Maria Dahvana Headley’s prologue to her translation of Beowulf, she refers to it as “3,182 lines of alliterative wildness” (Headley ix). Throughout my reading of the first 900 or so lines, I picked out many effective uses of alliteration in the storytelling. Alliteration is one of my favorite literary devices (no, I don’t know why,) so it tends to scratch my brain in a nice way when it’s used a lot.

One instance of alliteration being used that I enjoyed was when Beowulf slays Grendel, and Grendel’s agonizing death is described. “…sickly slow suffering, / his sinning spirit sent to sink / slowly down to Hell” (Headley line 806). This repetition of the letter “s” is effective when the poem is read to oneself, but even more effective when read aloud. It’s a harsh sound that emphasizes the brutality of what is occuring by being hard on the ears of those listening. The usage of the sound is very deliberate.

Another instance of Headley using alliteration deliberately is when describing the poet who writes The Tale of Beowulf. “a man mindful of meter with a / memory made of myriad myths” (Headley line 869). “M” is a sound that is not as harsh to hear; it’s calm and soothing, almost in the same way a poem would be.

Headley uses a lot of alliteration throughout her translation. At first it was subtle, but it slowly became more obvious. What effect is this having on the way we both read and listen to the epic?

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