The following is an edited essay originally submitted to Oxford University Department for Continuing Education for Ancestral Voices, Michaelmas 2021. Edits were made at the suggestion of Dr. Nicolay Yakovlev.
Each line of Old English poetry is divided into two half-lines with a caesura in the middle. A caesura is a break or pause in the syntactical rhythm of a line of poetry. In modern publications of Old English poetry, publishers indicate the position of the caesura by leaving a white space between the two half-lines. Here is an example of caeserae in a translation of the first lines of Beowulf,
Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won! (Beowulf, ll. 1-3)
There is a caesura between the words “prowess” and “of” in the first line, between “Danes” and “in” in the second, and “honour” and “the” in the third. Because caeserae always occur at a natural break in the rhythm of the sentence, the pause is never abrupt or jarring.
Half-lines of Old English poetry are linked together by alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of sounds in a group of words. In Old English poetry, alliteration is limited to the repetition of the sounds in the stressed syllables. For example, the f’s in “friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him” alliterate (l. 7). Any vowel can alliterate with another vowel. For example, in the original, “oðÞæt him æghwylc Þara ymbsittendra” (l. 9), the æ and y alliterate, even though they are different vowels.1
As in Modern English poetry, Old English poetry uses stress: the rhythmic emphasis of certain syllables. In Old English poetry, each half-line often has two stressed syllables. The stressed syllables usually contain the alliterating sounds. For example, “To him an heir was afterward born, / a son in his halls, whom heaven sent” (ll. 12-13). In the Modern English translation, the stress pattern is not as strict as it is in some modern poetry. However, the lines still sound connected because of the alliteration.
Anglo-Saxon poets used vibrant poetic imagery, often by combining two words into one compound word. The first element in the compound word modifies the second element. In Beowulf, the Old English word geardagum, translated “yore-days,” is an example. “Yore” modifies “days,” making “days” not days only, but “days of yore.” In some compounds, the first element does not significantly modify the second, like the compound “people-kings.” These compounds are called poetic compounds. They are used to provide poetic flair, and the appropriate alliteration and stress for the line.
Other compounds are intricate metaphors. These are called kennings. Kennings have both literal and figurative translations. A famous kenning that occurs in Beowulf is the Old English word hronrade. The literal translation of hronrade is “whale-path.” “Whale-path” is figurative speech for the ocean, the path which the whale travels.
Another technique Anglo-Saxon poets used is called variation. They took an element or idea from one line and repeated it in the next line, using different words. Variation can be used between single words, or between phrases. Examples in the translation are,
the Lord endowed him,
the Wielder of Wonder, with world’s renown.
Famed was this Beowulf: far flew the boast of him (ll. 16b-18).
“Lord” is repeated in the second line as “Wielder of Wonder,” and Beowulf’s fame is repeated three times: “the Lord endowed him…with world’s renown,” “Famed was this Beowulf,” and “far flew the boast of him.”
All text from Beowulf is taken from Beowulf in Hypertext. The translation is by F.B. Gummere.
1The o in oðÞæt does not alliterate because it is not on the stressed syllable.