Building Blocks of Old English Poetry

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Building Blocks of Old English Poetry

Dr. M. Wendy Hennequin

Some information about the structure of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poetry and how this structure fits together.

First a word about the structure of Old English poetry. The 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.

I. Alliteration

Old 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:

  1. Alliteration always occurs on stressed syllables
  2. All vowels alliterate with each other. Eager alliterates with apple, both of which alliterate with owl. In general, however, when Old English poetry uses a vowel for the alliteration, it sticks to the same vowel.
  3. A consonant alliterates with itself and with the consonant blends which it begins. In other words, s alliterates with sh, sk, sl , sw, etc.: serve, shield, skill, sleek, and swift are considered to alliterate.

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.

II. Meter

Old English poetry does not have the regular, heart-beatish rhythm or meter that most later English poetry does. Instead, Old English poetry has several specific metrical patterns for the half-lines. These are called Sievers’ types, from the scholar who classified them.

Here is the list of Sievers’ types, along with an example of each. The (/) means a stressed or accented syllable; the ("È") means an unstressed or unaccented syllable. The (`) is a secondary stress or accent.

  1. / È / È Modig Murderer
  2. È / È / the king enthroned
  3. È / / È his word-weaving
  4. / / ` È fierce death-bringer
    / / È ` bold battle-man
  5. / È È / skilled in the fight

Some important things to remember about composing a half-line:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Old English poetry tends to use Sievers’ types A, D, and E most often. Keep this in mind, but don’t let it restrict you too much.

Exercise 3: Compose a half-line using each of the Sievers’ types above.

III. Putting it all together

Here, things become complicated. As I told you above, Old English poetic lines consist of two half-lines put together. So to write an Old English poetic line, you must join two half-lines. Simple enough so far. However, you also have to make these lines alliterate in a certain way.

Once you put two half-lines together, you will have a poetic line with four stressed beats:

knights on horseback listened to the horn. (Types A and E)

Now, horseback and horn do alliterate. In Old English poetry, however, the third stressed syllable MUST alliterate with either the first or the second. This rule is iron-clad; if you break it, you are not doing Old English poetry correctly. A more correct version of the line above would be:

Knights on horseback heard war-soundings (Types A and Da)

Some things to remember when putting the poetic lines together:

  1. 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.
  2. Remember, the third stressed syllable of the line must alliterate with the first or second stressed syllable. You may alliterate the third stress with both the first and second—even with the first, second, third, and fourth, although neither is commonly done.

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.

IV. 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 Poetry

Abrams, M.H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Volume I. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1979.

The Norton Anthlogy, if you don’t know it, is probably the handiest source of period poetry around. Selections from the Old English are in translation and include such classics as Beowulf, "The Dream of the Rood," "Caedmon’s Hymn," and "The Wanderer." Later sections have medieval border ballads, selections from Chaucer and other medieval poets (newer editions also have excerpts from Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe), and even later, selections from the best Renaissance poets, including Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe, Walter Raleigh, Sidney, and Wyatt.

Chickering, Howell. "Guide to Reading Aloud." Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1977. 29-38.

Chickering gives a good introduction to the structure of Old English poetry. The introduction is pretty good too. Also, the bi-lingual edition is a real help if you’re studying Beowulf in the original.

Robertson, D. W. The Literature of Medieval England. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.

Another good source of medieval English literature in general. Robertson includes some works that the Norton does not, such as "The Seafarer" (called "The Soul’s Voyage" in his edition). The translations are in poetry. Robertson also includes translations of Anglo-Latin literature and Old English prose as well. This book may, unfortunately, be out of print..

Scragg, Donald. "The Nature of Old English Verse." The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 55-70.

Explains the structure of Old English poetry, including hypermetrics.

Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse. 15th Edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.

Sweet’s contains lots of great Old English poetry and prose, including excerpts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Judith, and Beowulf. It’s all in Old English; however, it includes a decent glossary.