Old Germanic poetry is very different from the poetry we are used to today, yet it is not at all difficult. The old Germanic poets had a very few basic principles, and stuck to them valiantly, preserving poetic traditions long after their languages had changed. We'll start with a few lines, drawn from throughout the old Germanic world, and see what commonalities they share. The following lines come, respectively, from the Old High German poem about the end of the world, the Muspilli; from an Old Saxon (Low German) amalgamation of the gospel stories into verse known as the Heliand; from the Old English poem Beowulf; and from the Old Norse Völuspá, the Song of the Sibyll. We'll call them all roughly 9th century, except for the Völuspá, which is from the late 10th. The bold indicates stressed syllables (see #3, below).
Old High German:
uuili den reht-kernon daz rihhi kistarkan.
he will the righteous' kingdom strengthen.
uuerod bi themu uuatare, thar uualdand Crist . . .
the crowd [stood] by the water, where the mighty Christ . . .
Fyrst forð gewat; flota wæs on yðum . . .
Time passed further; the boat was on the waves . . .
Hljoðs bið ek allar helgar kindir . . .
I ask attention from all the sacred holy peoples . . .
Notice in these lines the following commonalities:
1. Each line is divided by a space, which indicates the presence of a pause or caesura. The two halves of the line are fittingly called half-lines, or verses. These spaces of course were not written in either the manuscripts or the runic inscriptions, but suffice it to say that the half-line was the basic metrical unit of old Germanic poetry.
2. Each half-line has two main, stressed syllables, and any number of weak ones (at least two). This has some interesting consequences, the most interesting of which to me is that the meter is made to seem subordinate to the text (the text is primary), rather than vice-versa. It draws out the natural rhythm of the language itself. In other words, if you wouldn’t stress a syllable in normal speech, it doesn’t get stress in verse either. Contrast this with classical Latin or Greek poetry, where meter is based on the length of the syllable (long or short) rather than the weight or emphasis. Also contrast it with many poems and songs in English, where every syllable is counted, and words are often stressed that would not be in normal speech. The only other metrical system I know of that places text above meter in this way is Gregorian Chant, with its system of grouping notes into twos and threes so every important syllable gets an important place in the meter.
3. The syllables in a given half-line (almost) always match one of five metrical patterns. This does not contradict the last paragraph, as you will see shortly. While the number of weak-stress syllables is variable within a half-line, their placement between and around the strong-stress syllables has to match one of five configurations (with few exceptions). In this list, the ‘/’ indicates strong or primary stress, ‘\’ indicates secondary stress (not considered a strong-stress syllable), and the ‘x’ indicates weak or no stress. The modern English examples are those of J.R.R. Tolkien.
|A-line:||/ x / x||(falling)||‘knights in armour’|
|B-line:||x / x /||(rising)||‘the roaring sea’|
|C-line:||x / / x||(clashing)||‘on high mountains’|
|D1-line:||/ / \ x||(broken, falling)||‘bright archangels’|
|D2-line:||/ / x \||(broken, rising)||‘bold brazenfaced’|
|E-line:||/ \ x /||(fall-and-rise)||‘highcrested elms’|
[Grr. I can't seem to get rid of that space before my table.]
Anyway, these half-line types were compiled by Edvard Sievers, who put them thus in descending order of occurrence (Type A is the most common). Note that weak-stressed syllables in many cases (e.g., at the beginning of the half-line) don’t count, and therefore may be as numerous as the language requires. (E.g., the first OHG half-line shows the pattern x x x / / x which is a version of type C) Most commonly it is nouns and adjective that receive stress, then verbs, then (almost not at all) smaller helper words. In the examples above, we see: types C-A in the Muspilli, A-B in the Heliand, D2-A in the line from Beowulf, and E-A in the Völuspá.
4. Alliteration occurs between at least one strong syllable in each half-line. This has the effect of binding the two verses of a line together, so that while the basic metrical unit of old Germanic poetry is the half-line, the basic alliterative unit is the (full) line. In the first verse of a line, both stressed syllables in the first half-lines may often alliterate; it is common but not required. Thus the first half-lines in the OS and OE examples have two alliterating syllables, while the OHG and ON examples only show one. In the second half-line, only one stressed syllable alliterates, and it is always this first strong syllable of the second half-line that determines the alliterating letter or sound for the entire line. This is useful if one is unsure of the metrical pattern of a line, since alliteration is easier to spot than meter, and one can always count on alliterated syllables being stressed.
There are two more points to know about alliteration: A) All vowels alliterate with all other vowels. (I suppose technically what is alliterating here is the glottal stop that initiates vowels.) B) In OE, the letter ‘g’ is considered to alliterate, according to the rules, even when representing different sounds. Thus, gear (year), pronounced with the OE soft ‘g’ (like modern consonantal ‘y’) is deemed to alliterate with Grendel, clearly a hard ‘g’ sound. The is one of the ways we know that the Anglo-Saxons inherited their verse system from a time when all their g’s did sound the same.
Just how old is this form of poetry inherited by all the Germanic tribes? One of the oldest runic inscriptions, and probably the most famous, is from one of the the now lost Golden Horns of Gallehus. It has been called proto-Norse, but the forms it exhibits could just as easily be the ancestor of German, Saxon, or English, as of the Scandinavian languages (and it's not really all that far off from Gothic either). Here is the inscription, and its transliteration into Latin figures (those of you studying runes can read along):
ek hlewagastiR holtijaR horna tawidô
I, Hlegest of Holt [the] horn made [did].
This inscription dates from as far back as the 4th century, yet we can still see four major stressed syllables, connected by alliteration. The half-lines appear to be both of type A, the most common. Clearly, by the time the first lines of verse in English, German, and Norse arrive on the scene, the Germanic poetic tradition was already ancient.