Anglo Saxon Poetry

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Anglo-Saxon Poetry: 

Anglo-Saxon Poetry

What NOT to Know: 

What NOT to Know According to the editors of The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature, students of traditional poetry must “learn to forget three considerations which (we have) been taught are fundamental: syllable count (decasyllabic line, etc.), recurrent patterns of stress (iambic feet, etc.), and rhyme. Instead, alliteration must be recognized as the basic formal requirement” (pg?)

What else to FORGET: 

What else to FORGET Students should forget that they “read” poetry; audiences of Anglo-Saxon poetry listened to a bard (or scop) recite or sing the poetry. Anglo-Saxon poetry was oral/aural. Forget that “nations” are rather large entities now. The Anglo-Saxon world was tribal, so the people who are the subjects of the poems had a different way of seeing where they lived; they had different “laws” and ways of life as well.

The Basic Rules: 

The Basic Rules Alliteration is the central organizing poetic device in Anglo-Saxon poetry The basic formal unit in A-S poetry is the single line, not a stanza or a couple of lines (couplets, quatrains, etc.). When we use the term formal in literary study it usually refers to how parts are formed together. Think of a baking form as an example. A bundt cake has a certain, familiar form, as does an angel-food cake. They get their shape from the form into which the baker pours the batter. So alliteration is what helped the poet form individual lines of poetry. (See how much “formal” looks like “form”


Alliteration Alliteration is “The repetition of consonant sounds in words that are close to one another” (Elements 1259). In more general terms, it is the use of words with similar sounding beginnings (Great, big gobs of greasy, grimy, gopher guts . . . ) Alliteration linked the two halves of a line of poetry. The line was divided by a caesura, which is . . .


Caesura . . . Caesura is “A pause or break within a line of poetry, usually dictated by the natural rhythm of language” (Elements 1260). In Anglo-Saxon, the Caesura is medial; that is, it occurs in the middle of the line. Words in one half of the line were stressed one way, while words in the second half could be stressed another. The stresses, the alliteration, and the caesura are tied together in a rather complex way . . .

An Example:: 

An Example: The best way to understand Anglo-Saxon poetry is to see an example: Alliteration of /sc/ sounds; further alliteration in /th/ sound “Oft Scyld Scefing sceaÞena Þreatum” Stresses in first half Stresses in second half Caesura This is the fourth line of Beowulf.


Kennings Simple definition: A kenning is a compound word More precise definition (from Elements): “The Kenning, a specialized metaphor made of compound words, is unique to the Old Germanic languages, and is especially prominent in Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature. The earliest and simplest kennings are compound words formed of two common nouns: “sky-candle” for the sun, “battle-dew” for blood, and “whale-road” for the sea. Later, kennings grew more elaborate, and compound adjectives joined the compound nouns. A ship became a “foamy-throated ship,” then a “foamy-throated sea-stallion,” and finally a “foamy-throated stallion of the whale-road’” (40).

Why did poets use kennings?: 

Why did poets use kennings? Again, according to the Holt textbook: “Scholars believe that kennings filled three needs for these early bards:” Alliteration’s centrality to the poetry creates a need for words with certain sounds, so the bards created new words (paraphrased) Bards needed to memorize the poetry (remember, it was oral/aural), and kennings helped them remember parts of the poem Audiences would have liked the “elaborate” coining of the phrases. It is important to note that Heaney has done a wonderful job of retaining the kenning’s importance to the poem (look for them!)


Tone You will notice that the tone of Beowulf is somber, or dark. There are a few reasons for this (my own reasoning): The poet is reminiscing about “the good ol’ days” and the code of honor which is dying The poem itself is about loss—loss of innocence, loss of life, loss of one’s lords, friends, etc. It is about loss through death. The peoples in the poem lived in constant fear of the elements and their human predators

The Use of Digressions: 

The Use of Digressions The term “digression” has a rather negative connotation, but as Seamus Heaney argues, when the Beowulf poet gets off topic (off of the central story-line), it appears almost always to be for a very good reason. Ultimately, the poem is very complex, and certainly not “rambling,” or as we say today, “random.” The digressions almost always shed light on the characters, their actions, and the Anglo-Saxon & Scandinavian worlds.

The Major Digressions: 

The Major Digressions Apart from minor moves in and out of the central story line, there are two major digressions. Each is an example of a story-within-a-story (in this case, a song within a song): 883-914: the story of Siegemund’s victory over a dragon 1070-1158: “The Finnsburg Episode” There are other digressions, too: Unferth’s challenge (Unferth tells one version of the story (brief and defamatory), and Beowulf tells another (honorable)

Other Minor Literary/Poetic Devices Used in Beowulf: 

Other Minor Literary/Poetic Devices Used in Beowulf Synecdoche: a part used for the whole Keel used for ship Iron used for sword Variation: the use of parallel and appositive expressions which gives the verse a highly structured and musical quality (Norton Introduction 6) Irony: achieved through indirection, sometimes understatement (litotes = a classical rhetorical term which means “ironic understatement”). Irony is not just used as a figure of speech, it is used as a mode of perception (Beowulf when young contrasted with older Hrothgar and even older version of Beowulf) (Norton Intro. 6)

Review of Important Terms: 

Review of Important Terms Alliteration (the most important term) Caesura Kenning Tone Digression Story-within-a-story


Bibliography Abrams, M. H., and Stephen Greenblatt, Eds. Introduction. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, seventh ed., vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. 1-22, 29-32. Anderson, Robert, et al. Eds. Elements of Literature, Sixth Course, Literature of Britain. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1993. 2-42. Burrow, J. A. “Old and Middle English Literature, c. 700-1485.” The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature. Ed. Pat Rogers. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987. Heaney, Seamus. Introduction. Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000. ix-xxx.

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