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Old English poetry

Old English poetry is based upon one system of verse construction which was used for all poems. The system consisted of five permutations on a base verse scheme; any one of the five types could be used in any verse. The system is founded upon accent, alliteration, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation. The system was inherited and exists in one form or another in all of the older Germanic languages; it is generally called alliterative verse.

It should be borne in mind that poetry of the time was primarily oral, and much has been lost through time since it went unrecorded. The poet, referred to as a Scop, was frequently accompanied by a harp in the process of declamation.


A line of poetry in Old English consists of two half-lines or verses, distichs, with a pause or caesura in the middle of the line. Each half-line has two accented syllables. The following example from The Battle of Maldon (poem), spoken by the warrior Byrhtwold shows this:

Hige sceal þe heardra,     heorte þe cenre, 
mod sceal þe mare,         þe ure mægen lytlað 

Translated Courage must be the greater, heart the bolder, Spirit the greater, the more our strength is diminished.


Alliteration is the principal binding agent of Old English poetry. Two syllables alliterate when they begin with the same sound; all vowels alliterate together, but the consonant clusters st-, sp- and sc- are treated as separate sounds (so st- does not alliterate with s- or sp-).

The first stressed syllable of the off-verse, or second half-line, usually alliterates with one or both of the stressed syllables of the on-verse, or first half-line. The second stressed syllable of the off-verse does not usually alliterate with the others.

Other features common in Old English poetry

Kennings, figurative phrases, often formulaic, describe something in terms of another, e.g. in Beowulf, the sea is called the swan's road. Litotes, a figure of speech which is dramatically understated, is frequently employed, often with ironic intent and effect.

The Old English poetic corpus

The longest, and most important, Old English poem is Beowulf, which survived in a single damaged manuscript. It tells the story of the legendary Geatish hero who is the title character. The story is set in Scandinavia, in either Sweden or Denmark, and the tale likewise probably is of Scandinavian origin. The story sets the tone for much of the rest of Old English poetry, as the hero knows that he is doomed to die in one last battle, yet marches off to meet his fate. The complex interplay between this Germanic heroic warrior ethos and the new religion of Christianity is a theme that is touched on many times in Old English poetry.

In addition to Beowulf, other Old English heroic verse exists in fragments. The tale of the Battle of Maldon likewise tells of the last stand of Byrhtnoth and his band of doomed warriors. Within Beowulf itself, the tale of the Fight at Finnsburg is told as a digression. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle preserves a poem on the Battle of Brunanburh.

Related to the heroic tales are the elegies for the fallen and the foredoomed from the Exeter Book. Most closely related to the heroic genre is Widsith, which contains a catalogue of names and places associated with valiant deeds. More consistenly gloomy or contemplative in mood are The Ruin, which tells of the decay of a once glorious city of Roman Britain (Britain fell into decline after the Romans departed in the early 5th c.), and The Wanderer, in which an older man talks about an attack that happened in his youth, where his close friends and kin were all killed; memories of the slaughter have remained with him all his life. He questions the wisdom of the impetuous decision to engage a possibly superior fighting force: the wise man engages in warfare to preserve civil society, and must not rush into battle but seek out allies when the odds may be against him. This poet finds little glory in bravery for bravery's sake.

Old English poetry, along with other early Germanic literatures, often seeks to recast the tales of Christianity into the older heroic ethos. The fit was not always perfect, but the very tension between the two visions lends depth to both of them. Chief among these is the Dream of the Rood, which displays the passion of Jesus Christ in a manner that may owe much to the depiction of Odin in the Old Norse Hávamál. Other long poems in this genre include the Andreas, Juliana, and Elene, which depict the lives of various saints. A hagiography of Saint Guthlac is also given a poetic treatment. The corpus also includes poetic paraphrases of the Book of Daniel, Exodus, and the apocryphal tale of Judith.

In addition to these long poems, there are a number of collections of shorter poems. There are many Old English poetic riddles; these are important also because they shed light on the kennings used in Germanic literatures generally. The curious dialogue between Solomon and Saturn belongs among these as well; the two ancient characters discuss much curious lore, including the runic alphabet. There are also a number of magic charms preserved in the literature, a metaphorical poem about the Phoenix, and Alfred the Great's translation of the Meters by Boethius. Caedmon's nine-line hymn of creation is the oldest surviving text in English.

See also List of poems

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