Old English poetry

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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.


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, spoken by the warrior Byrthnoth 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 a consonant cluster such as st- only alliterates with the same cluster (so st- does not alliterate with s-).

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 stereotypical, used to 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.

[to be continued.. sjc]