Old English Poetry

Disc brooch, 8th century; image © The Trustees of the British Museum, used under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

…I have always best enjoyed things in a foreign language, or one so remote as to feel like it (such as Anglo-Saxon). — J.R.R. Tolkien

Many students first encounter elements of Old English via the fantasy writing of J.R.R. Tolkien. Old English was one of Tolkien’s major professional preoccupations. His first position after World War I was on the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary, where his particular abilities in Germanic languages soon became useful as he toiled on entries for “w.” He later taught at Leeds, and then in 1925 he was elected to the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. One of his most famous scholarly contributions remains the lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” You can read about his early adventures on the OED in Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner’s The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). 

Tolkien’s invented words and names often draw on Old English (Earendil, for example, is based on the OE earendel, ray of light), and he wrote alliterative verse himself. In addition, while aspects of the society of, for example, the Rohirrim, clearly depend on the northern heroic tradition more generally, much of their language draws on Old English words, and the sense of sadness one often feels in The Lord of the Rings may suggest the elegiac traditions of both Old English and Middle Welsh. Tolkien drew directly on The Wanderer, for example, in a lament sung by Aragorn. Peter Jackson assigned this text to Theoden, who speaks it before the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

This page is not intended as a true introduction either to the Old English (Tolkien calls it Anglo-Saxon) language, or the poetry. Instead, it will simply highlight a few formal features of Old English verse, useful for understanding the poems we are reading. If you have come across this page from outside the world of my course (an introductory British literature survey), those poems are Caedmon’s Hymn, The Ruin, The Wanderer, and Beowulf.

Disc on bow brooch, 6th century. image © The Trustees of the British Museum, used under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

Alliteration is important in Old English verse. Two verses — sometimes now called half-lines — are connected through a system of the repetition of initial consonants. Modern editions tend to print the two verses — the first half is called the on- verse, and the second the off-verse — in a single line, divided by extra space to indicate the caesura. Alliteration and stress work together in these lines. There are 3 main patterns of alliteration:

aa:ax; ax:ay; xa:ay 

The syllables marked “a” constitute the principal alliteration. There can also be supplementary alliteration on the weaker syllables, yielding the following patterns:

ab:ab; ba:ab; aab:ab 

Alliteration is not the only means of organizing the verses (half lines); patterns of stress are also important. The philologist Eduard Sievers (1850-1932) classified the rhythmic forms found in Beowulf into 5 types, and these are still used to discuss Old English verse. They are described by patterns of lift(stress) and drop. They are:

A: (the most common): lift, drop, lift, drop: ece Dryhten

B: (the first drop may have as many as 5 syllables) drop, lift, drop, lift: wæs thæt beorhte bold

C: drop, lift, lift, drop: Oft Scyld Scefing

D: lift, lift, half-lift, drop; or lift, lift, drop, half-lift: Frea ælmihtig

E: lift, half-lift, drop, lift: mann-cynnes Weard

These patterns have various subtypes, and there are many other complexities associated with Old English metrics not outlined here. There is a very thorough introduction called Old English Metre: A Brief Guide which goes into much more detail.

An important feature of Old English is its use of compounds. Sometimes these are combinations of two words in which one word modifies the other in some way, but often a compound may result from the combination of two words which mean more or less the same thing. These poetic compounds are useful to an alliterative poet who is often in the position of needing many different words to express the same thing, and compounds also help to fulfill the metrical requirements of Old English verse.

Kennings are a particular kind of compound (they can also be phrases) which refer to things metonymically or metaphorically; the use of “hwælweg” (whale-way) in The Seafarer to refer to the sea is an example. Alliterative verse often relies in part on formulae to fill out the lines, and some kennings did become formulaic — but poets could and did also invent their own compounds.

Formulaic phrases and clusters of elements sometimes referred to as formulaic themes can also characterize Old English poetry. In the elegiac poems we will be reading in class, the treatment of winter is a theme, as is the ubi sunt motif.

There are four important manuscripts that together preserve most of what we know about Old English verse. These are the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library, MS 3501); the Vercelli Book (Archivo e Biblioteca Capitolare di Vercelli, Codex Vercellensis CXVII); the Nowell Codex (part of London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A xv); and the Junius Manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11).

Exeter Cathedral has an information page about the Exeter Book

You can see the Vercelli Book at the Digital Vercelli Book project (this is an older project); the British Library also has a good Vercelli Book page, with high-quality selected images

There is a complete digitization of Cotton Vitellius A xv; the Nowell Codex begins at what is now folio 94r (Beowulf starts on folio 132r)

There is also a complete digitization of Junius 11 (it used to be called the Caedmon manuscript)