Old English Poetry
The Old English world centered around
the chieftain, the king (cynning).
His kinsmen would be noblemen, thegns
or thanes, also called eorls.
Ordinary people of no rank at all would
be ceorls. There were also slaves.
• Family and kinship thus meant a lot to the
Anglo-Saxons, and they valued loyalty
• Because of this sense of loyalty, when
somebody was killed, the killer had to pay
wergild (“man-gold”, blood money) to the
victims family, or there would be blood
• The blood money for an ordinary man, a
ceorl, was the price of thirty oxen. For an
eorl it was five times this.
The chieftains had to be generous,
distributing treasure and gifts
among their people. Thus they
were “ring-givers”, “gold-
They would entertain their retainers
in the mead-hall every evening,
where a gleeman (“music man”)
or a scop would recite poems in
the company of a harp.
Both gleeman and scop meant “bard”.
from the 6th
look like these.
The Germanic people had a
difficult alphabet called the Runic
Alphabet, which they used only to
exchange short messages or for
Thus Old English Poetry was oral,
and it was not written down until
long after the conversion of Anglo-
Saxons to Christianity.
As a result, very little survived of
Old English Poetry.
• The Beowulf Manuscript itself survived in only
one copy, and was not discovered until the 18th
century, when it was damaged in a fire. Although
the manuscript was written in the 10th century, it
refers to events that happened in the 6th century.
• Its setting is the land of the Danes in the early
6th century, and the title hero, Beowulf is a Geat
(from southern Sweden). But it is written in
Anglo-Saxon language, and in a dialect spoken in
• The Anglo-Saxons were pagans until the
6th century. They did not believe in life
after death, and they had difficult lives in
a cold, wet climate, in very harsh
conditions, surrounded by war, death and
hardship. As a result;
• The very little that survives of their
poetry is gloomy, melancholic and
• Their only hope of immortality was by
leaving a good, heroic name behind.
A hero, to achive immortality through his deeds, had to
have these qualities:
We see that Beowulf also :
• Is a good orator (he talks cleverly and impressively)
• Has sense of honour, pride
• Wants to gain fame
• Loves freedom (prefers to act independently)
The few other samples of Old English
poetry that has survived has a lyric
• “The Wanderer”, by an anonymous
poet, is about a persona who has lost his
chieftain and all his friends and
kinsmen. He is exiled from his
homeland, he set out to the cold sea to
find a refuge, but is lost. On the sea,
he hallucinates about his beloved lord
and the dead heroes who were his
friends. He is hopeless and lonely.
All is full of trouble, all this realm of earth.
Doom of weirds is changing all the world below the skies.
Here our foe is fleeting, here the friend is fleeting.
Fleeting here is man, fleeting here is woman;
All the earth’s foundation is an idle thing become.
• In “The Wife’s Lament”, the persona is a
woman. She has been married into a different
tribe to end a feud, but her husband has left, and
her husband’s kinsmen drove her away from her
home. Friendless and very far away from her
own kinsmen, she is forced to live in a cave by
an oak tree in the wilderness. She is very lonely,
she watches happy young lovers on the beach,
and she misses her husband very much. The last
line translates as:
“Woe is the one who, languishing, waits for a
Old English poetry had no end-rhyme.
It depended on alliteration and
• Alliteration is the repetition of the
eg. swift swallow flying to the south
eg. hlafordes hryre, heorth geneatas
• Assonance is the repetition of vowels
creating a kind of internal rhyme.
eg. Dead in da middle of little Italy,
little did we know that we riddled
some middle men who didn't do
• Every line consisted of two “verses”
separated by a ceasura or a pause:
Swa begnornodon / Gaeta leode
hlafordes hryre, / heorth geneatas
Two aspects of the style of Beowulf is
1. The anonymous poet uses a lofty,
formal language, but is often ironic (as
in parts where he uses ironic
2. In his descriptions, he uses a figurative
device called kenning. These are
compound descriptions used to describe
ordinary things in remarkable ways.
e.g. Swan-road means “sea”
whale-path means “sea”
sea-steed means “ship”
battle-lightning means “sword”
war-sweat means “blood”
death-house means “grave”
Archeological finding of a ship like the one used in the funeral
of Scyld Scefing (his was sent out to the sea, this one was
• Reconstruction of the burial chamber on the ship, with the
shield, weapon and valuable possessions
• The helmets of Beowulf and his
comrades would look like these
• Chain mail shirt worn as body armor, Beowulf’s “glitters” as he
first goes to Heorot.
Reconstruction of a Viking mead-hall