Anglo-Saxon poetry was a large part of culture, often recited at mead-halls during great feasts. Due to its subject matter and structure, it can be used for many things, including boasting and verbal sparring, recounting a great battle, retelling your favorite myth, or teaching important moral lessons.
I’ll go into some common topics and themes, then I’ll go into the “rules”.
–Heroic poetry: legends and retellings of historical events, usually highlighting the brave and honorable deeds of the main hero. Beowulf, the most famous Anglo-Saxon poem and the longest, is heroic poetry. The Battle of Maldon retells a historic battle against the Vikings, and the honorable (and shameful) deeds of Saxon soldiers after the death of their leader. The Battle of Brunanburh tells of a Saxon victory. Widsith and Waldere focus on historical figures. Heroic poetry is what I usually write when I write AS poetry. There are so many battles to be retold, but this can also be molded to retell SCA battles or to talk about SCA people you admire. One of my first (horrible) attempts at AS poetry was a retelling of a king’s victories for Midrealm at Pennsic during his reigns.
-Religious poetry: Anglo-Saxon poetry continued well after the conversion of England. Judith is a retelling of the biblical story of Judith. The Lord’s Prayer was translated into Old English. Cædmon’s Hymn is a short but masterful poem praising the Christian God. The Dream of the Rood is a vision of Christ on the cross. Christ and Satan retells multiple biblical events.
–Wisdom Poetry: This is poetry that tells a moral lesson. The Wanderer is my favorite; in it, a man in exile recalls the joy of closeness with his liege and the pain of exile. In the end, he decides that joy is fleeting and his reward is in an eternal afterlife. The Seafarer follows a similar theme.
–Riddles: The Exeter Book has a ton of riddles, a lot of which can be found in Modern English online! Some of them have multiple answers; some of them are dirty; they can certainly be fun to present to an audience.
Like any creative writing, you can write about whatever you want to write about! I definitely want to encourage people to write what they want to write about. However, if you’re sitting around wondering what themes Anglo-Saxon poets wrote about, or if you want to shoot for historical authenticity, it can help to have a springboard. Here are some common themes that I’ve seen in AS poetry:
-honor/shame: A lot of heroic poetry in particular goes into this, especially the honorable deeds of the hero. We see in Maldon both the bravery of the men who would rather die than abandon their fallen liege and the shame of the action of running away even in the face of defeat. In Beowulf, when Beowulf verbally spars with Unferð, he promises to prove his honor with the deed of slaying Grendel, and of course he does.
-loyalty/betrayal: This is a strong theme as well. In Maldon it is clear that leaving one’s fallen liege is betrayal. In The Wanderer, one of the strong laments of the narrator is that he no longer has the closeness of his liege or his kinsmen. He mourns this loss of people to loyally fight with. In Christ and Satan, we see a biblical example of one of the earliest betrayals, that of Satan.
-Religion: Whether it is a biblical retelling like Judith and Christ and Satan or a moral tale like The Seafarer, religious themes are strong in AS poetry. Some emphasize that devotion to Christ and the joys of eternal life far outlast the joys of this life; others, like Christ and Satan, use biblical tales to emphasize Saxon cultural values. Some, like Cædmon’s Hymn, marvel at God and the universe. I would note here that long after the conversion, references to pagan concepts like wyrd (fate) are present; The Wanderer, with its Christian moral, says “Wyrd bið ful aræd!” (fate is inexorable)
A lot of poetry is broken into lines. Anglo-Saxon poetry has the basic unit of half-lines. Half-lines have a set amount of stressed syllables. There are pairs of half-lines which go together based on alliteration. The lines are divided by a caesura or a pause. Here’s what that would look like in Old English:
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,
Wadan wræclastas. Wyrd bið ful aræd! (from The Wanderer)
In Modern English, I might write my half-lines to look something like this:
On Roman roadways, Raedwald’s wyrd-path,
to Aethelfrith’s earth-pit with Edwin the victor.
You can see that at least one of the main words in each half-line starts with the same letter. There should also be the same amount of stressed syllables ideally, but we’ll get to that later.
AS poetry is alliterative. This means that stresses will start with the same letter. Vowels alliterate with each other in AS poetry, so a word that starts with o can pair with a word that starts with a. Sp and st also alliterate!
There are a couple ways that this alliteration can happen within a set of half-lines. The most common one you will see, and the one I showed you above, is AA/AX. That means that both stressed syllables of the first half-line will begin with the same letter, and the first stressed syllable in the second half-line will start with that letter. The second stressed syllable in the second half-line will start with another letter. I showed this above, but another example can be found in Widsiþ:
Hroþwulf ond Hroðgar heoldon lengest
I find that AA/AX can be difficult to do at times because finding three words to alliterate that fit the stress pattern can be more demanding in Modern English. We have AX/AY as an acceptable alliteration form. This means that the second word in both half-lines start with different letters, but the first word in both will start with the same letter. That will look like this:
On flodes æht feor gewitan (from Beowulf)
In Modern English, I might write a set of half-lines that look like this:
And the Briton Cadwallon, to battle they rallied.
In AS poetry, if there is a noun (hall, courage, man, et cetera) and a finite verb (saw, performed, killed, et cetera), alliteration will take precedence over the noun over the verb:
ellen fremedon (from Beowulf)
geseah he in recede (from Beowulf)
To find words that alliterate, usually I’ll have a thesaurus handy and keep looking for words to express the idea I want until I find something. If I can’t find a way to make those words alliterate, I’ll either change the word order or completely rework the sentence until I find something I’m happy with.
AS poetry is metrical, so there are rules governing the rhythm. Rhythm is important, not only if you want your poem to “look good” technically, but because of the strong oral background of AS poetry. Meter was what made these poems sound so appealing in the mead hall!
Each half-line will contain two lifts, or stressed syllables, which will be the syllables that alliterate. There may be various amounts of unstressed syllables; unlike many later forms of poetry, AS poetry doesn’t have a solid syllable count.
If we look at some lines from Anglo-Saxon poetry, we can begin to see these stresses in action, and see the alliteration and stresses come together:
Her Æþelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,
beorna beahgifa and his broþor eac (from The Battle of Brunanburh)
hildebille; heaþoræs fornam (from Beowulf)
Usually we can tell which words will be stressed based on their part of speech. For example, nouns, adjectives, non-finite verbs, and many adverbs will always be stressed. Words which will not be stressed are things like prepositions, possessives, and prefixes. This is how you may end up with some half-lines as short as four syllables and others which could possibly be as long as nine syllables!
We see that AS poetry is governed by stresses; now we will see how this looks in terms of rhythm. According to Old English Metre: An Introduction, there are five rhythmic patterns that we may see of lifts (stressed) and dips (unstressed). This can look kind of confusing at first, so I’ll include a few examples from the book because they make things much clearer. Like in the book, stresses will be written as / over the syllable, and unstressed will be written as x over the syllable so the amount of stressed versus unstressed will be more clear.
Type A: lift, dip | lift, dip
Type B: dip, lift | dip, lift
Type C: dip, lift | lift, dip
Type D: lift | lift, half-lift, dip OR lift | lift, dip, half-lift
Type E: lift, half-lift, dip | lift
/ x | / x
beagas dælde (from Beowulf)
Here we see the pattern broken down for us. It’s a lift and a dip. These dips can be one syllable; often they’re two or three; rarely they’re four or five. We’ll throw in more of the book’s examples to show how this pattern may play out over longer half-lines. As always, the stressed syllables will be in bold.
/ x x | / x
Weox under wolcnum (from Beowulf)
/ x x x | / x
ealle buton anum (from Beowulf)
You may have noticed that no matter how many syllables are unstressed in the first dip, the second dip never has more than one unstressed syllable. This is the case!
x / | x /
on hæþa bearn (from Beowulf)
This is B broken down.
X x x x x / | x x /
Syþðan he hire folmum æthran (from Beowulf)
The first dip allows for many unstressed syllables; the second dip allows for only one or two.
x / | / x
gebun hæfdon (from Beowulf)
x x / | / x
þonne wig cume (from Beowulf)
Like type B, this allows for many unstressed syllables in the first dip, but not the second.
/ | / \ x
frean Scyldinga (from Beowulf)
/ | / x \
weold wideferhð (from Beowulf)
In this type, the first lift is a short syllable alone since it’s immediately followed by another lift.
/ \ x | /
healærna mæst (from Beowulf)
This is just a mirror of Type D.
Rhythm is still something I’m hit and miss with. It helps me if I go to YouTube and listen to a reading of a poem in Old English, since they lose a lot when they’re not read orally. Sometimes I’ll try to read my lines out loud to see if I can catch anything.
Now that we’ve been through the bits on structure, we can talk about one of my favorite things about AS poetry: the kennings! Kennings are basically a type of metaphor where you compound words together instead of using a simple noun. Master Fridrikr Tomasson has his document about kennings in Icelandic poetry available online and it’s more comprehensive than anything I could hope to write at this stage, so I’d direct anyone who’s super interested in kennings to that. The kennings in Icelandic poetry can get more complicated than the ones in AS poetry, but the idea is pretty similar.
Here are a few examples of kennings you might find if you were to read Anglo-Saxon poetry:
battle-sweat (Beowulf) – blood
breaker of rings (Beowulf) – king
whale’s way (The Seafarer) – sea
swan-road (Beowulf) – sea
Some kennings I’ve used in my own poems are saddle-beasts (horses), earth-pit (grave), spear-dew (blood), wound-hoe (sword) and wave-steed (ship). They’re pretty traditional things that would seem familiar to a Saxon audience. You can find a lot of them in Norse poetry. Another common reference is to battle as “feeding the ravens”. Sometimes you’ll see references to pagan legends and concepts like wyrd (destiny), but less than in Icelandic poetry.
You can make your own kennings! Just ask yourself how you might be able to describe an item in a new way.
Here’s the link to Master Fridrikr’s paper on kennings for anyone interested: http://www.academia.edu/4661868/The_Poets_Vision_An_Overview_of_the_Kenning_in_Anglo-Saxon_and_Old_Norse-Icelandic_Poetry
Hutcheson, B. R. Old English poetic metre. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996. Print.
Momma, Hal. The Composition of Old English Poetry. N.p.: Cambridge Univ Pr, 2007. Print.
Pollington, Stephen. The meadhall: the feasting tradition in Anglo-Saxon England. Little Downham: Anglo-Saxon , 2012. Print.
Terasawa, Jun. Old English metre: an introduction. Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 2011. Print.