Periods: Early Medieval

Here you will find Old English prosody and style. Other pages cover a general overview and major authors.


Reference Works:

Lapidge, Michael et al. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. (Brief articles on everything relevant.)

Greenfield, Stanley and Daniel Calder. A New Critical History of Old English Literature.

Godden, Malcolm and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature.

Amodio, Mark. Writing the Oral Tradition.

 

Web Sites:

Library Reference Guide

Dan O'Donnell's Guide to OE Meter.
Anglo-Saxon Aloud (all OE poetry read aloud in OE!)

 

Editions:

Literature Online (UMass only)
Poems in Old English

 

Old English Prosody and Style

Meter

As mentioned in our page on major authors, Old English participates in an ancient tradition of oral poetry. We see similar poetry among the Continental tribes writing in Old High German and Old Saxon and among the Old Norse poets. This North-West Germanic poetry is characterized by a four-stress line, divided by a caesura, across which at least two strong stresses alliterate. It is not measured like Latin or Romance poetry (into iambs, trochees, and so forth.) Strong stresses are sometimes called lifts. There are four lifts in a line (called the first through the fourth). Here is a typical line (line 2 of Caedmon's Hymn):

meotodes meahte spacespacespacespacespaceand his modgeþanc
(measurer's might spacespacespacespacespaceand his mood-thought)

The line (or verse) is divided in half. The first half of the line is called the a-line, the second is the b-line. In this case, we are reading lines 2a and 2b. The pause between them is often displayed typographically by a long space. The pause is called the caesura. Two words must alliterate across the caesura, but three make for a stronger line. You can see the alliteration marked in red. I have marked the fourth lift in blue. The first lift or strong stress is the first syllable of meotodes; the second is meahte; the third and fourth are in modgeþanc. The rest of the syllables are weak stresses.

Most alliteration is on consonants, but vowels are permitted as well. Here is line 5 of Caedmon's Hymn:

He ærest sceop spacespacespacespacespace eorðan bearnum

In this case, the vowels were originally phonologically similar, but over time differentiated. The words of the poem remained unchanged for centuries, even though the spellings changed. The same phenomenon is evident at the beginning of Beowulf ("We Gardena in geardagum"), where in later years, the first <g> is hard, the second soft.

Old English half-lines are classified according to the order of strong and weak stresses. The most common classification is by Eduard Seivers. There are five major Seivers Types (and lots of minor ones). Dan O'Donnell has a very good explanation on his web page (listed at left). Here they are—/ means strong, \ means medium, and x means weak.

A-type: / x / x spacespacespacespacespace(UMass Amherst)
B-type: x / x / spacespacespacespacespace(in Amherst Mass.)
C-type: x / / x spacespacespacespacespace(beyond Boston)
D-type: / / \ x spacespacespacespacespace(sits patiently)
E-type: / \ x / spacespacespacespacespace(waiting for June)

(Alternatively, Boston Red Sox | In Fenway Park | In cramped quarters | sit silently | waiting for May)

The variation of these types provide the rhythm and music of the poetry. Poets also place important words in various lifts, so that the third lift is considered by some scholars to be the most important position in the line.

Style.

Old English verse is formulaic, which means that many of the half lines repeat within a poem and between poems. They are thought to belong to a common store. Nevertheless, like common colors (red, yellow, burnt umber), they can be manipulated by artists to great effect.

An important stylistic feature of Old English is vocabulary. Poets use rare words or coin new ones to great effect. One means of coining words is kenning. Poets create compound words that act as metonyms or metaphors. For example, banhelm ("bone" + "helmet") stands in for skull. The sea is a swan-road. The heart is a mood-locker.

Although the need for alliteration has an effect on vocabulary choice, Old English poets are very careful with their language. For example, they observe distinctions between wissan (to know by means of understanding) and cunnan (to know by means of experience). Be careful of Modern English translations that are not as careful as the original poets were.

Another stylistic feature is repetition with variation. Like Cubism, the effect on the reader is to present the same object from multiple perspectives. Metaphysically, the style indicates that we are unable to see into the essences of things, and know them only by their appearances. We can see this at work in Caedmon's Hymn and in the Riddles.

Another stylistic feature has been likened to the Interlace Pattern. Here repetition is established at particular places in the lines. This placement is a sort of grammatical interlace, casting the reader's mind back and forth in particular patterns. Just as later sonnets will play with rhyme to complete their thoughts in stanzas and couplets, so do Old English poets use repetition to complete thoughts in what some critics call envelope patterns.

Another feature concerns the rhythm of the line. In the original Old English, some lines are hypermetrical. This means they include extra syllables. In Judith, the poem alternates between short, Germanic lines and long, hypermetric lines. One can see them cluster on a page. The same is true of The Dream of the Rood. No one knows what these changes in rhythm are meant to imply.

Finally, Old English poets are highly conscious of the sounds of letters. During battle scenes, one can hear the crash and knocking of hard consonants. During the slow, endless watch of the Wanderer, long vowels howl like sea winds through his desolation and longing.