Anglo-Saxon Poetry handout

Anglo-Saxon Poetry

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”.

Common Topics

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.

Common Themes

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)

Basic Unit:

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

Type A:

/ 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!

Type B

x / | x /

on þa 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.

Type C

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.

Type D

/ | / \ 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.

Type E

/ \ 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:

Works Cited

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.

Documentation for Hatfield Chase Poem (January 2017 Draft


This poem covers the Battle of Hatfield Chase, which was fought in the year 633. Penda, the pagan king of Mercia and arguably one of the more powerful kings of the time, teamed up with Cadwallon, king of Gwynned (a Roman state). The events of the battle are described in both The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

“This year King Edwin was slain by Cadwalla and Penda, on Hatfield moor, on the fourteenth of October. He reigned seventeen years.” (Chronicle, year 633)

“The glorious reign of Edwin over England and Britons alike lasted seventeen years, during the last six of which, as I had said, he labored for the kingdom of Christ. Then the British king Cadwalla rebelled against him, supported by Penda, a warrior of the Mercian royal house, who from then onwards ruled that nation with varying success for twenty-two years. In a fierce battle on the field called Haethfelth on the twelfth of October 633, when he was 48 years old, Edwin was killed, and his entire army destroyed or scattered.” (from Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II, 20)

For a time before that, Edwin their enemy ruled and expanded the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia (now Northumbria), driving Cadwallon out of his territory. “The bitterest of his enemies was Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd, whom Edwin had at one point driven from his kingdom to cower on the tiny island of Priestholm (Puffin Island) off the east coast of Anglesey.” (Marren) Naturally, this made Cadwallon angry with Edwin, and he became allies with Penda, who was a powerful king in Anglo-Saxon England at the time. Together, the two traveled the Roman road, where Raedwald had traveled in previous years to take Northumbria for Edwin away from Aethelfrith, the king who had exiled him. “Cadwallon’s army marched on York, very probably on the same route that Raedwald had used seventeen years before.” (Marren) This too is described both by Bede and Chronicle.

“This year was Ethelfrith, king of the Northumbrians, slain by Redwald, king of the East-Angles; and Edwin, the son of Ella, having succeeded to the kingdom, subdued all of Britain, except the men of Kent alone, and drove out the Ethelings, the sons of Ethelfrith, namely, Enfrid. Oswald, Oswy, Oslac, Oswood, Oslaf, and Offa.” (Chronicle, year 617)

“As a sign that he would come to the Faith and the heavenly kingdom, King Edwin received wide additions to his earthly realm, and brought under his sway all the territories inhabited by English or by Britons, an achievement unmatched by any previous English king. He also brought the Isles of Anglesey and Man under English rule […]” (from Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II, 9)

Hæðfeld was at the edge of Northumbria, which made it a difficult place to defend. Nevertheless, Edwin and his men tried to defend Northumbria. According to Bede, one of Edwin’s sons was killed in battle, while the other submitted to Penda. Later, Penda would put him to death, breaking his vow of protection. After the battle, Edwin’s head was carried to York. After this, Penda and Cadwallon (who was said to be worse than Penda in temperament, since he never spared women or children) went on to slaughter more people in Northumbria and cause great disorder. Edwin had been a loved king. He was made a saint.

“At this time, a terrible slaughter took place among the Northumbrian church and nation the more horrible because it was carried out by two commanders, one of whom was a pagan and the other a barbarian more savage than any pagan. For Penda and all his Mercians were idol-worshipers ignorant of the name of Christ; by Cadwalla, although he professed to call himself a Christian, was utterly barbarous in temperament and behavior. He was set upon exterminating the entire English race in Britain, and spared neither women nor innocent children, putting them all to horrible deaths with ruthless savagery, and continuously ravaging their whole country.” ( from Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II, 20)

I wrote this poem in a way that is slanted toward Edwin, much like Bede’s writings are. Many of the feelings of negativity toward Cadwallon and Penda are feelings that Bede expressed, and Edwin was one of Bede’s favorites, as he was both Christian and Northumbrian. I placed more importance on Penda than Bede did, as Bede tries to downplay the amount of power he had.


This is written to emulate the Anglo-Saxon style of poetry, which was a type of Germanic poetry. Like other Germanic poetry, Old English poetry was defined chiefly by alliteration. The significant words, those which are stressed, follow an alliterative pattern. In Old English poetry, there is more than one acceptable type of alliteration. There is AA/AY, and there is AX/AY. (Terasawa) In Old English Meter An Introduction, Terasawa lists an example of both. “Fēasceaft funden. // Hē þæs frōfre gebād” – line seven of Beowulf – is an example of AA/AY, and “on flōdes æht // feor gewītan” – line 42 of Beowulf – is an example of AX/AY. As evidenced by Terasawa’s examples, both can be used in the same poem. I chose AX/AY primarily because it was more convenient to write in.

Another rule in Old English meter involves which syllables are stressed. This is important not only because it establishes rhythm, but because it guides alliteration. Not every word is counted when determining stress: particles and possessives are among words which usually do not receive stress (Terasawa). Longer syllables are typically stressed on words with multiple syllables. A typical half line will consist of either two feet of equal length or a short foot and a long one. Each foot will have at least one stressed syllable and one unstressed.

The most difficult part of maintaining this for me was choosing words which alliterated and would allow me not to mess up the stresses. I expect that some of this is a linguistic difference; many of the words we use today are from languages other than English, and our language structure is much more rigid about word order than Old English, which determined the role of a word in the sentence based on its case rather than where in the sentence it was placed. I used mostly words that come from Old English linguistically.

Kennings are another trait of Anglo-Saxon poetry. A kenning is a type of metaphor that tries to describe a commonly known word. Many of my kennings are borrowed from other poems and are kennings that a Saxon audience would be familiar with. For instance, “ring-giver” is a kenning for “ruler”, which is similar to “breaker of rings” in Beowulf. “Blade sweat” is a kenning I used for “blood”, similar to “battle sweat” from Beowulf.


Old English poetry has a good deal of heroic poetry, which generally follows the brave or heroic deeds of its subject. There are fictional accounts, like Beowulf, but there are also poems like mine that recount historical battles in both Old English and British poetry. The two poems that I have read that serve to recount battles are The Battle of Brunanburh and, more famously, The Battle of Maldon. Both depict tenth-century battles, though I believe that their approach is different.

Maldon focuses on the Saxons fighting a foe of a greater number, and talks about the bravery of the leader of the Saxons and the cowardice of those who desert him, and the honor of those who fight to avenge him and honor their oath to his service. We see those themes evidenced in this passage:

Ælfnoth and Wulfmær, wounded to death,

Gave their lives for their lord in the fight.

Then quitted the field the cowards and faint-hearts;

The son of Odda started the flight.

Godric abandoned his good lord in battle,

Who many a steed had bestowed on his thane.

Leaped on the horse that belonged to his leader,

Not his were the trappings, he had no right to them.

Both of his brothers basely fled with him,

Godwin and Godwy, forgetful of honor,

Turned from the fight, and fled to the woods,

Seeking the cover, and saving their lives.

Those were with them, who would have remained,

Had they remembered how many favors

Their lord had done them in days of old.

We see more of this viewpoint spoken by Leofsunu later in the poem:

“Here I stand, and here shall I stay!

Not a foot will I flinch, but forward I’ll go!

Vengeance I’ve vowed for my valiant leader.

Now that my friend is fallen in battle,

My people shall never reproach me, in Stourmere;

Call me deserter, and say I returned,

Leaderless, lordless, alone from the fight.

Better is battle-death; boldly I welcome

The edge and the iron.” Full angry he charged,

Daring all danger, disdaining to fly.

Brunanburh has a great deal of detail given its length and seems to be more of a traditional retelling than a poem focused on the values present in Maldon (from my perspective). This section is an example of the tone:

“They left behind them raw to devour, the sallow kite, the swarthy raven with horny nib, and the hoarse vulture, with the eagle swift to consume his prey; the greedy goshawk, and that grey beast the wolf of the weald. No slaughter yet was greater made e’er in this island, of people slain, before this time, with the edge of the sword; as the books inform us of the old historians; since hither came from the eastern shores the Angles and Saxons, over the broad sea, and Britain sought, – fierce battle-smiths, o’ercame the Welsh, most valiant earls, and gained the land.” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 938)

I would say that my poem errs more toward the narrative style of Brunanburh than the tale of honor and shame in Maldon. I slip in historical events, such as the partnership between Edwin and Raedwald, and I do my best to focus on the three kings – that is, Edwin, Penda, and Cadwallon – rather than the armies and what the men themselves might be feeling or doing. My lens is focused on Edwin’s piety, and in contrast, Penda’s pagan religion and Cadwallon’s brutality. I do try to make mention of some of the themes present in Maldon, like in this passage where I comment on Penda’s breaking of his oath to protect Edwin’s son and how, to a Saxon, that would be a breach of their code of honor:

“In hatred and anger // hunted Edwin.

Penda took Eadfrid, promised shelter.

Oathbreaking Penda // honored nothing.”

I also make mention of the idea that men are expected to fight for their liege, though I am nowhere near as heavy-handed with this theme as the Maldon poet:

Oathbound fighters, // Edwin’s liegemen,

To Penda’s war-field, // praying for boldness,

Deira’s princes // daring to follow,

Praying and hoping // for Penda’s downfall.

Ultimately, my goal was less to retell a piece of history in a way that might seem authentic to an Anglo-Saxon audience. I feel that Brunanburh and Maldon both do an excellent job at that, and my goal was to see if I could take some of Bede’s writing and spin it into a poem. I think that I was more successful in this endeavor than I have been in the past.

Works Cited

Bede, David Hugh. Farmer, R. E. Latham, Egbert, and Cuthbert. Ecclesiastical History of the English People: With Bede’s Letter to Egbert. London, England: Penguin, 1990. Print.

Ingram, J., and J. A. Giles. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1912. Print.

Marren, Peter. Battles of the Dark Ages: British Battlefields AD 410 to 1065. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2006. Print.

Pollington, Stephen. First Steps in Old English. Hockwold-cum-Wilton, Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon, 1997. Print.

Terasawa, Jun. Old English Metre. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2011. Print


“The Battle of Maldon (Fragment).” Translated by J. Duncan Spaeth. Old English Poetry, translated by J. Duncan Speath, Princeton University Press, 1922, p. 164. LitFinder