Top of chapter Contents Bibliography 14.1. Vocabulary 14.2. Variation 14.3. Formulas
14.3.1. Phrases 14.3.2. Themes

14. Poetic Style

Reading poetry is always more challenging than reading prose. Poets employ figurative language more intensively than most prose writers do, they leave much for readers to infer, and in many poetic traditions (including those of England and America in the relatively recent past) their language is deliberately archaic. Here, for example, are the first two stanzas of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
   The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
   And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
   And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
   And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds.

Gray’s eighteenth-century masterpiece has stylistic features rarely found in prose of that time. The contraction o’er ‘over’, dialectal in origin, is rare outside of poetry, and lea, from Old English lēah ‘pasture, meadow’, had been an almost exclusively poetic word for centuries.

Further, the word-order of this passage makes it look strange to the modern eye. In line 3 an adverbial element (homeward) comes where it does not normally occur, line 5 has the word-order Verb-Subject, and line 6 has Subject . . . Verb. These three divergences from Modern English word-order would make good Old English, as you remember from Chapter 12. Gray’s use of such archaisms is typical of the poetic idiom of his time, and although that idiom is now out of favor, we still recognize it with no difficulty.

Old English poetry employs a number of words that are rarely or never found in prose, and its syntax differs from that of prose in several respects. The result of these differences is that there is a distinctively poetic Old English idiom, which probably was as easily recognizable to Englishmen of that time as Gray’s poetic idiom is to us.

14.1. Vocabulary

A large number of words are found exclusively, or almost exclusively, in poetry. Some of these are dialectal in origin (much Old English poetry, whether written in the north or the south, displays northern dialect features), while others are presumably archaisms. You might expect most poetic words to represent unusual concepts, but frequently they appear in place of quite common words, as these examples show:[1]

This and other lists of poetic words in this chapter are largely based on the glossary in Fulk, Bjork and Niles 2008, which indicates which words occur only or mostly in poetry and which are unique to Beowulf. These lists present words found in Beowulf and at least one other poem.
āwa, adv. always (for usual ā).
æfnan, wk. 1. perform, do (for fremman).
benn, fem. wound (for wund).
ellor, adv. elsewhere (for elles ġehwǣr).
elra, pron. adj. another (for ōðer).
fricgan, st. 5. ask (for ascian, axian).
gamol, adj. old (for eald).
ġeador, adv. together (for ætgædere or tōgædere).
grēotan, st. 2. weep (for wēpan).
holm, masc. sea (for ).
mearh, masc. horse (for hors).
ōr, neut. beginning, origin (for fruma or anġinn).
sǣlan, wk. 1. fasten, moor (for fæstnian).
siġel, masc. or neut. sun (for sunne).
sīn, possessive adj. his (for his).
swefan, st. 5. sleep (for slǣpan).
til, adj. good (for gōd).
welhwylċ, indefinite pron. every (for ġehwylċ).
wītiġ, adj. wise (for wīs).

Poetic vocabulary has an especially large number of words for human beings, and most of the words within this group mean ‘man’, ‘warrior’ or both:

beorn, masc. man, noble, warrior.
byre, masc. son, young man.
eafora, masc. son, heir.
freca, masc. warrior.
guma, masc. man, warrior.
hæle, hæleð, masc. man, warrior.
hyse, masc. young man.
ides, fem. woman, lady.
mago, masc. son, young man.
mæġð, fem. maiden, woman.
niþðas, masc. men.
rinc, masc. man, warrior.
secg, masc. man, warrior.
wiga, masc. warrior.
ylde, masc. men.

Old English is a compounding language, frequently making new words by forming compounds from old ones. Most of the words in the list above can appear as elements of compounds, greatly expanding the group of words for human beings. Here, for example, are the compounds of rinc:

beadorinc, masc. battle-warrior.
fyrdrinc, masc. army-warrior.
gumrinc, masc. man-warrior.
gūþrinc, masc. war-warrior.
heaðorinc, masc. war-warrior.
hererinc, masc. army-warrior.
hilderinc, masc. war-warrior.
magurinc, masc. son-warrior, young warrior.
sǣrinc, masc. sea-warrior.

Most of these compounds are redundant, or they state the obvious: that a warrior goes to war, or is a man, or someone’s son. Normally we expect a compound noun to consist of a base word (the second element) with a modifier (the first element); but the only compound in the list that fits this pattern is sǣrinc ‘warrior who goes to sea’. Compounds in which the first element does not modify the second are common enough in Old English poetry that we have a specialized term to describe them: poetic compounds. In these the first element fills out the rhythm of a line and supplies alliteration. The poetic compounds you are most likely to meet have first elements meaning ‘war’, ‘battle’, ‘slaughter’ or ‘army’: beadu-, gūð-, here-, hild(e)-, wæl-, wīġ-. For example, here are the compounds in Beowulf with the first element beadu-:

beadufolm, fem. battle-hand, i.e. a hand used in battle.
beadogrīma, adj. battle-mask, i.e. helmet with mask.
beadohræġl, neut. battle-garment, i.e. coat of mail.
beadulāc, neut. war-play, i.e. battle.
beadolēoma, masc. battle-light, i.e. sword (which gleams in battle).
beadomēċe, masc. battle-sword.
beadorinc, masc. battle-warrior.
beadurōf, adj. battle-bold.
beadurūn, fem. battle-speech, hostile speech.
beaduscearp, adj. battle-sharp (describing a weapon).
beaduscrūd, neut. battle-garment.
beaduserce, fem. battle-corslet.

Some of these (beadomēċe, beadorinc, beaduserce) are true poetic compounds, while in others the first element does modify the second: a beadohræġl is not just any garment, but one worn to battle, i.e. a coat of mail. But more striking than this compound is beadolēoma ‘battle-light’, in which the first element provides a clue to the riddle of the second, a metonymic reference to a gleaming sword. This kind of compound is called a kenning, and it is one of the most striking features of Old English poetic style. A good poet may coin his own kennings (Beowulf has many unique ones), but a number of them appear to belong to a common stock of poetic terms. Here are some kennings that appear in Beowulf and at least one other poem:

bāncofa, masc. bone-chamber, i.e. body.
bānfæt, neut. bone-container, i.e. body.
bānhūs, neut. bone-house, i.e. body.
bānloca, masc. locked bone-enclosure, i.e. body.
brēosthord, neut. breast-hoard, i.e. feeling, thought, character.
frumgār, masc. first spear, i.e. chieftain.
hronrād, fem. whale-road, i.e. sea.
merestrǣt, fem. sea-street, i.e. the way over the sea.
nihthelm, masc. night-helmet, i.e. cover of night.
sāwoldrēor, masc. or neut. soul-blood, i.e. life-blood.
sundwudu, masc. sea-wood, i.e. ship.
swanrād, fem. swan-road, i.e. sea.
wordhord, neut. word-hoard, i.e. capacity for speech.

Sāwoldrēor and sundwudu are like beadolēoma in being metonymic; others (like the bān- compounds) are metaphorical, while some are even more complex: a hronrād is metaphorically a road over the sea, and metonymically for use by whales (and other sea-creatures, but especially ships). Kennings are not always compounds: they can be compound-like phrases consisting, generally, of two nouns, the first in the genitive case, as in hwæles ēþel ‘the whale’s home’ or bēaga brytta ‘giver of rings’.

The best glossaries will give you both a literal translation of a kenning and an interpretation of it:

flǣschoma, masc. flesh-covering, i.e. the body.

But you must be on your guard, for some glossaries may supply only an interpretation. To do so, of course, is to rob poetry of much of what makes it poetry. If you suspect that the definition of a compound is not literal but rather an interpretation, go to a dictionary and look up its elements separately.

To give you an idea of how many poetic words may be available for a single concept, we end this section with a list of poetic words meaning ‘king, lord’ used in Beowulf and at least one other poem:

bēagġyfa, masc. ring-giver.
bealdor, masc. lord.
brego, masc. lord, ruler.
folcāgend, masc. possessor of the people.
folccyning, masc. king of the people.
folctoga, masc. leader of the people.
frēa, masc. lord.
frēadrihten, masc. lord-lord.
frumgār, masc. first spear.
goldġyfa, masc. gold-giver.
goldwine, masc. gold-friend.
gūðcyning, masc. war-king.
herewīsa, masc. leader of an army.
hildfruma, masc. battle-first.
hlēo, masc. cover, shelter.
lēodfruma, masc. first of a people.
lēodġebyrġea, masc. protector of a people.
mondryhten, masc. lord of men.
rǣswa, masc. counselor.
siġedryhten, masc. lord of victory.
sincġifa, masc. treasure-giver.
sinfrēa, masc. great lord.
þenġel, masc. prince.
þēodcyning, masc. people-king.
þēoden, masc. chief, lord.
wilġeofa, masc. joy-giver.
wine, masc. friend.
winedryhten, masc. friend-lord.
wīsa, masc. guide.
woroldcyning, masc. worldly king.

14.2. Variation

Variation is the repetition in different words of an element of a sentence, clause or phrase. In Old English poetry, you should expect to meet frequently with sentences whose subjects, objects or other elements are repeated one or more times. In the simplest case, an element may appear twice, perhaps on either side of another element:

þǣr hē dōme forlēas
[There he lost glory,
the reputation for valor.]   (Beowulf, ll. 1471-72)
Hæfde ðā forsīðod   sunu Ecgþēowes
under ġynne grund   Ġēata cempa
nemne him heaðobyrne   helpe ġefremede
[Then the son of Ecgtheow, the champion of the Geats,
would have fared badly under the spacious earth
if (his) battle-corslet had not given him help]
(ibid., ll. 1550-52)
Ðā se ġist onfand
þæt se beadolēoma   bītan nolde,
aldre sceþðan
[Then the stranger found
that the battle-light would not bite,
injure (her) life]   (ibid., ll. 1522-24)

In the first passage, two dative objects of forlēas appear on either side of that verb; in the second, two subjects appear on either side of a prepositional phrase. In the third, two infinitives governed by nolde are separated by that verb; the second infinitive, used transitively, is accompanied by its object.

Take note of these points about variation:

Variation can be much more complicated—and interesting—than in the examples quoted above. Study this passage, in which Beowulf describes how he once survived an attack by a school of sea-monsters:

Næs hīe ðǣre fylle   ġefēan hæfde,
mānfordǣdlan,   þæt hīe mē þēgon,
symbel ymbsǣton   sǣgrunde nēah.
[They did not, the evil destroyers,
have joy of that meal, that they devoured me,
sat around the feast near the sea-bottom.]
(Beowulf, ll. 562-64)

Let’s count the variations in these three lines. First, the subject of the sentence, hīe ‘they’, is repeated in the next line with mānfordǣdlan ‘evildoers’. Next, the verb hæfde ‘had’ has two objects, the first a noun, ġefēan ‘joy’, and the second a noun clause, þæt . . . nēah. (Did anyone say that elements in variation all had to be the same part of speech, or even that they all had to be words?) Within that noun clause there are two predicates: first, mē þēgon ‘devoured me’ states the matter plainly; then symbel . . . nēah ‘sat around the feast near the sea-bottom’ restates the same action, but more elaborately.

So far you have seen variations consisting of just two elements. But variations can have more elements than that. A poet may easily line up five of them:

hlehhan ne þorftun
þæt hēo beaduweorca   beteran wurdun
on campstede   cumbolġehnastes,
gārmittinge,   gumena ġemōtes,
wǣpenġewrixles . . .
[they had no need to laugh
that they were better at battle-works
on the battlefield, at the clash of banners,
at the meeting of spears, at the gathering of men,
at the exchange of weapons . . .]   (The Battle of Brunanburh, ll. 47-51)

Clearly this poet has allowed his enthusiasm for variation to get the better of his sense of proportion. Further, his piling up of conventional terms for battle adds nothing to our sense of what this battle was about. Let’s see what a better poet can do with variation:

Calde ġeþrungen
wǣron mīne fēt,   forste ġebunden
caldum clommum,   þǣr þā ċeare seofedun
hāt ymb heortan . . .
[My feet were
oppressed by cold, bound with frost,
with cold fetters, where cares sighed,
heat around my heart . . .]   (The Seafarer, ll. 8-11)

In this passage a seafarer describes conditions at sea. There are three variations here: the past participles ġeþrungen ‘pressed, pinched’ and ġebunden ‘bound’, both modifying fēt ‘feet’, the datives calde ‘cold’, forste ‘frost’ and caldum clommum ‘cold fetters’, which go with them, and the nominatives ċeare ‘cares’ and hāt ‘heat’. Through these variations, the speaker incrementally introduces the metaphor of cold and frost as shackles which constrain him; we are unprepared for the sudden introduction of his “cares,” whose temperature contrasts sharply with what has gone before, and which tell us in the most dramatic way that the cold is not so much a physical as an emotional hardship. Here, as often happens, careful attention to the variations you meet will be repaid with greater appreciation of the poet’s artistry.

14.3. Formulas

If you were to search for “o’er the lea” (from Gray’s Elegy, quoted above) in a reasonably complete database of English poetry, you would find that it occurs frequently in poems of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[2] It is a formula, a set phrase used in a conventional way. When a poem—or a poetic tradition—uses formulas frequently, we say it is formulaic. Homeric poetry, as is well known, is formulaic: every student who has ever read The Iliad remembers the “rosy-fingered dawn.”

For example, a search of the Chadwyck-Healey database of English poetry, 600-1900 yields 118 instances of the phrase.

It has long been recognized that Old English poetry is also formulaic. We will discuss Old English formulas under two headings: phrases and themes.

14.3.1. Phrases

Look at these lines from Beowulf, all of which introduce speeches:

Hrōðgār maþelode,   helm Scyldinga
[Hrothgar, helmet of the Scyldings, spoke]
(l. 456)
Unferð maþelode,   Ecglāfes bearn
[Unferth, the son of Ecglaf, spoke]
(l. 499)
Bēowulf maþelode,   bearn Ecgþēowes
[Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, spoke]
(l. 529)

Such lines are common in Beowulf: clearly we are dealing with a formula here, but it differs from “o’er the lea” in being variable, not fixed. From the examples above, we might hazard a guess at the principles by which it was constructed: it consisted of the name of the person who was about to speak, the verb maþelode ‘spoke, made a speech’ and, in the second half-line, a noun phrase consisting of a noun and a genitive modifier, in variation with the proper name.

So far so good; and it is easy to find additional examples of formulas on exactly that pattern:

Wīġlāf maðelode,   Wēohstānes sunu
[Wiglaf, the son of Weohstan, spoke]
(Beowulf, l. 2862)

But it is not hard to find formulas that belong to the same formulaic system but diverge from the pattern

Weard maþelode   ðǣr on wicge sæt
ombeht unforht
[The guard spoke where he sat on his horse,
a fearless officer]
(Beowulf, ll. 286-86)
Wulfgār maþelode   (þæt wæs Wendla lēod;
wæs his mōdsefa   manegum ġecȳðed,
wīġ ond wīsdōm)
[Wulfgar spoke (he was a man of the Wendels;
his character, his warfare and wisdom
were known to many)]
(ibid., ll. 348-50)

Now we know that the first word in the formula does not have to be a name, and that the verb can be followed not only by a noun phrase, but also by a clause or even a parenthetical statement. There is a good bit of flexibility in this formulaic system. You will find it to be generally true that the Old English poetic formula is not a set phrase, but rather a syntactical pattern built around a word or short phrase.

An analysis of the first fifty half-lines of Beowulf, in a classic article by Francis P. Magoun, showed that about three quarters of them were paralleled in other Old English poems. Although a parallel in another poem does not guarantee that a phrase is a formula, it is nevertheless clear that Beowulf is heavily formulaic. So, it should be added, is most Old English poetry.

Magoun’s article has often been reprinted, and so you are very likely to encounter it in your study of Old English poetry. Magoun made some rather sweeping claims in that article, of which the most influential was that the formulaic character of Old English poetry showed that it had been composed orally. His argument is simple, logical and compelling; but you should be aware that a central claim on which Magoun’s “oral-formulaic theory” rests, that “the recurrence in a given poem of an appreciable number of formulas or formulaic phrases brands the latter as oral, just as a lack of such repetitions marks a poem as composed in a lettered tradition,” has long since been shown to be false. It turns out that a number of Old English poems that are unlikely to have been composed orally, such as translations of Latin poems, are every bit as formulaic as Beowulf. Many scholars still hold that Beowulf and other important poems were composed orally, but few now rest their arguments to that effect entirely on the formulaic character of these poems.

14.3.2. Themes

One of the better Old English poems is a paraphrase of that part of Exodus which narrates the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt. As the Hebrews race towards the Red Sea, pursued by the doomed Egyptians, we find these lines:

Hrēopon herefugolas,   hilde grǣdiġe,
dēawiġfeðere,   ofer drihtnēum,
wonn wælċēasega.   Wulfas sungon
atol ǣfenlēoð   ǣtes on wēnan,
carlēasan dēor,   cwyldrōf beodan
on lāðra lāst   lēodmæġnes fyl;
hrēopon mearcweardas   middum nihtum.
[The dewy-feathered war-birds, greedy
for battle, and the dark corpse-picker
screamed over the corpses. Wolves, careless
wild animals, expecting a meal, sang
a terrible evening song; the slaughter-bold awaited
the fall of the army on the path of the hated ones;
the border-wardens screamed in the middle of the nights.]
(Exodus, ll. 162-68)

This grisly passage, which depicts carrion-eating birds and wolves hungrily awaiting the outcome of a battle, has no parallel in the poem’s biblical source. It may, however, remind readers of The Battle of Maldon of this passage, which occurs just as the battle is getting underway:

Þǣr wearð hrēam āhafen,   hremmas wundon,
earn ǣses ġeorn;   wæs on eorþan ċyrm.
[There an outcry was raised up, ravens circled
and the eagle eager for carrion; there was an uproar upon the earth.]
(ll. 106-07)

And those who have read The Battle of Finnsburg may be reminded of these two half-lines:

Hræfen wandrode,
sweart and sealobrūn.
[The dark and deep brown
raven wandered]   (ll. 35-36)

In fact, whenever men gather to do battle in Old English poetry, it is customary for some combination of ravens, eagles and wolves to gather as well, in expectation of a feast of human flesh. Their doing so is a formulaic theme, a motif or narrative element that occurs, generally at predictable moments, in various poems.

Readers of Old English elegies such as The Wanderer, The Seafarer and The Wife’s Lament will recognize such a theme in the storms and frost that symbolize the speakers’ emotional state. Readers of Beowulf should know that the Unferth episode (ll. 499-607) is a formulaic narrative element called a flyting with parallels in several poetic traditions, especially the Norse. Indeed, formulaic themes are pervasive in Old English poetry, though they tend to be harder to spot than formulaic phrases.

The formulaic theme, like the formulaic phrase, is a flexible form, allowing expanded, leisurely treatments like the one in the Old English Exodus or extremely compressed treatments like the one in The Battle of Finnsburg. The choices these poets made were consonant with their other stylistic choices: Exodus is an ornate and much-elaborated treatment of the biblical story while The Battle of Finnsburg is spare and fast-paced.

14.3.3. Originality and quality

Naive readers of Old English poetry sometimes worry that, if poets were required by the tradition in which they worked to use formulaic diction, motifs and narrative elements, they must have had difficulty saying anything new. And if they could say nothing new, how could they say anything good? Keep the following points in mind when thinking about the implications of formulaic diction and themes.

First, although Old English poetry is formulaic, few scholars, if any, now believe Magoun’s assertion that a poem such as Beowulf must have been made up entirely of formulas. On the contrary, it is probable that the Beowulf poet not only composed a great many lines that conformed to no formulaic pattern, but also coined a great many of his own kennings. The same is no doubt true of other poets as well.

Second, as we have seen, both the formulaic phrase and the formulaic theme were flexible: the materials that Old English poets worked with were not building blocks of fixed shape, size and color, but rather a generous set of malleable shapes and flexible rules for the construction of poetry, rather like the vocabulary and grammar of a language.

Third, it is clear that Anglo-Saxon audiences valued originality in poetry less than we do—or at least they evaluated the “originality” of poetry differently from the way we do now. The formulas of Beowulf and other poems, together with such features as frequent use of the phrase iċ ġefræġn ‘I have heard’, seem to have assured the audience that both the matter and manner of these poems were traditional, and the poet was not presuming to try anything new. Old English poets avoided the appearance of originality.

But if an entertainer must offer some kind of novelty to keep an audience engaged, the best poets certainly did so—sometimes by playing with the formulaic elements of style. Here is what becomes of the “Beasts of Battle” theme in the hands of the Beowulf poet, as a messenger, having announced Beowulf’s death to the waiting Geats, predicts that a time of strife is nearly upon them:

Forðon sceall gār wesan
moniġ morgenċeald   mundum bewunden,
hæfen on handa,   nalles hearpan swēġ
wīġend weċċean,   ac se wonna hrefn
fūs ofer fǣġum   fela reordian,
earne secgan   hū him æt ǣte spēow,
þenden hē wið wulf   wæl rēafode.
[Therefore must many a
morning-cold spear be grasped in fists,
raised in the hand, not the sound of the harp
wake the warriors, but the dark raven,
greedy over the doomed, talking away,
saying to the eagle how it went for him at his meal,
while, with the wolf, he plundered the slain.]
(ll. 3021-27)

We imagine a morning scene, announced to us by an attribute applied to the chill of the spears that warriors must grasp. Then we are told what will awaken the warriors that morning: not the sound of the harp, as in peacetime, but the excited “talking” of the raven as he describes to the eagle how he and the wolf “plundered” (that is, ate) the corpses on the battlefield. We have traded direct statement (“the raven wheeled above”) for indirection: we do not see the raven eat, but rather enter the warriors’ minds as they hear him croak and imagine what he is saying. Their terror makes this passage by far the darkest of all the “Beasts of Battle” passages in Old English poetry.

These lines are untraditional in a way, but an audience could hardly fail to respond to them.