Building Blocks of Old English Poetry
(This page was created by M. Wendy Hennequin at the University of Connecticut. It has been modified slightly for use in the Beowulf Rap-port.)
This worksheet is designed to give you some information about the structure of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poetry and how this structure fits together. By the end of the class, I hope that you will have the necessary skills to compose an Old English-style poem.
First a word about the structure of Old English poetry. An Old English poetic line consists of two rhythmical half-lines that alliterate. Separating the two half-lines is a caesura, or pause, thought to be the place where the person reciting or chanting the poem strummed a harp. Here is a modern example:
Much have we heard of mighty Sceafa.
Modig the coward murdered that king;
The tribute-thane treasure coveted.
Let’s take these elements (alliteration, rhythm or meter, and how they work together) one at a time.
AlliterationOld English poetry does not generally rhyme, as many more modern English poems do. Instead of rhyming, Old English poetry alliterates. Alliteration,in Old English poetry, is the repetition of initial sounds in stressed syllables. Most tongue-twisters in Modern English alliterate. Here is a modern example of alliteration: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.There are a few simple rules about alliteration in Old English:
Exercise 1: Give three words that alliterate with the following words. mead, water, ever, sword, grim.
Exercise 2: create 5 alliterative phrases. Examples: worthy warrior, mighty mountain, etc.
/ È / È Modig Murderer
È / È / the king enthroned
È / / È his word-weaving
(a) / / ` È fierce death-bringer
/ È È / skilled in the fight
Some important things to remember about composing a half-line:
You must have two accented syllables in each half-line. If you have only one, the half-line is incomplete. If you have three, you are writing hypermetric half-lines, which existed in Old English poetry, but are subject to more complicated rules.
While you must have two accented syllables, you may have as many unaccented syllables as you like. Don’t go overboard, however; keep the number of unaccented syllables between two and five as a general guideline.
Exercise 3: Compose a half-line using each of the Sievers’ types above.
Putting it all together
Don’t use two half-lines of the same Sievers’ type in the same poetic line. It can be done—I’d be lying to you if I told you that it wasn’t done in Old English poetry—but it is considered to show a lack of poetic finesse.
Exercise 4: Put some of your half-lines from Exercise 3 together to make full lines. If they don’t work together, try creating some new half-lines that will work.
A Few Words about Style and Subject
Style first: Old English poetry is especially famous for two stylistic techniques: kennings and variations. A kenning is a poetic compound, sometimes puzzling, that substitutes for a simpler noun. Thus a king is a ring-lord or a treasure-giver; God is often called World-Shaper; and a fighter might be a sword-wielder, shield-breaker, spear-friend, war-companion, among numerous others. A variation is simply another name for an object or person already named in a sentence. This technique actually works better in Old English because of its grammatical structure. Now, what can you write Old English poetry about? Many of us know Beowulf, the heroic epic, but Old English poetry also includes laments, retellings of Biblical stories and saints’ lives, and praise poetry, including translations of the Psalms. Some of the Biblical and saints’ stories center on women (Elene, Juliana, and Judith), so feel no restriction on that account. If you plan to write Old English poetry, it’s worthwhile to do some cultural research and to read at least some of the poetry so that you get a feel for the subject matter. One good place to find translations of Old English poetry is The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume I. You can get a copy in just about any college bookstore; it will probably run you about $35. My edition (which is an older one) has Beowulf, "The Wanderer," The Battle of Maldon, "The Dream of the Rood," and "Caedmon’s Hymn." The translations are in prose. The Norton Anthology of English Literature I also has an impressive collection of later medieval works (Chaucer in the original Middle English) as well as Renaissance ones, and the introductions are especially good. There are other good anthologies of Old English poetry—the best is the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, but it’s in Old English. There are even modern English verse translations of Old English poetry, but keep in mind that most of these do not follow the rules of Old English verse.
Annotated Bibliography for Old English PoetryAbrams, M.H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Volume I. 4th ed. New York: Norton,
Chickering, Howell. "Guide to Reading Aloud." Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. New York:
Robertson, D. W. The Literature of Medieval England. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.
Scragg, Donald. "The Nature of Old English Verse." The Cambridge Companion to Old English
Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse. 15th Edition. Oxford:
|ype your message below|
WARNING! DO NOT PRESS THE
BUTTON UNLESS YOU ARE SURE YOU WANT TO ERASE ALL THE INFORMATION YOU HAVE INSERTED ON THIS PAGE.