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Anglo-Saxon Poetry


Anglo-Saxon Poetry What NOT to Know According to the editors of The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature, students of traditional poetry must learn to ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Anglo-Saxon Poetry

Anglo-Saxon Poetry
What NOT to Know
  • According to the editors of The Oxford
    Illustrated History of English Literature,
    students of traditional poetry must learn to
    forget three considerations which (we have) been
    taught are fundamental syllable count
    (decasyllabic line, etc.), recurrent patterns of
    stress (iambic feet, etc.), and rhyme. Instead,
    alliteration must be recognized as the basic
    formal requirement (pg?)

What else to FORGET
  • Students should forget that they read poetry
    audiences of Anglo-Saxon poetry listened to a
    bard (or scop) recite or sing the poetry.
    Anglo-Saxon poetry was oral/aural.
  • Forget that nations are rather large entities
    now. The Anglo-Saxon world was tribal, so the
    people who are the subjects of the poems had a
    different way of seeing where they lived they
    had different laws and ways of life as well.

The Basic Rules
  • Alliteration is the central organizing poetic
    device in Anglo-Saxon poetry
  • The basic formal unit in A-S poetry is the single
    line, not a stanza or a couple of lines
    (couplets, quatrains, etc.). When we use the term
    formal in literary study it usually refers to how
    parts are formed together. Think of a baking form
    as an example. A bundt cake has a certain,
    familiar form, as does an angel-food cake. They
    get their shape from the form into which the
    baker pours the batter. So alliteration is what
    helped the poet form individual lines of poetry.
    (See how much formal looks like form

  • Alliteration is The repetition of consonant
    sounds in words that are close to one another
    (Elements 1259).
  • In more general terms, it is the use of words
    with similar sounding beginnings (Great, big gobs
    of greasy, grimy, gopher guts . . . )
  • Alliteration linked the two halves of a line of
    poetry. The line was divided by a caesura, which
    is . . .

  • . . . Caesura is A pause or break within a line
    of poetry, usually dictated by the natural rhythm
    of language (Elements 1260).
  • In Anglo-Saxon, the Caesura is medial that is,
    it occurs in the middle of the line.
  • Words in one half of the line were stressed one
    way, while words in the second half could be
    stressed another.
  • The stresses, the alliteration, and the caesura
    are tied together in a rather complex way . . .

An Example
  • The best way to understand Anglo-Saxon poetry is
    to see an example
  • Alliteration of /sc/ sounds further alliteration
    in /th/ sound
  • Oft Scyld Scefing sceaÞena Þreatum
  • Stresses in first half Stresses in second half
  • Caesura
  • This is the fourth line of Beowulf.

  • Simple definition A kenning is a compound word
  • More precise definition (from Elements)
  • The Kenning, a specialized metaphor made of
    compound words, is unique to the Old Germanic
    languages, and is especially prominent in Old
    Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature.
  • The earliest and simplest kennings are compound
    words formed of two common nouns sky-candle
    for the sun, battle-dew for blood, and
    whale-road for the sea.
  • Later, kennings grew more elaborate, and compound
    adjectives joined the compound nouns. A ship
    became a foamy-throated ship, then a
    foamy-throated sea-stallion, and finally a
    foamy-throated stallion of the whale-road (40).

Why did poets use kennings?
  • Again, according to the Holt textbook Scholars
    believe that kennings filled three needs for
    these early bards
  • Alliterations centrality to the poetry creates a
    need for words with certain sounds, so the bards
    created new words (paraphrased)
  • Bards needed to memorize the poetry (remember, it
    was oral/aural), and kennings helped them
    remember parts of the poem
  • Audiences would have liked the elaborate
    coining of the phrases.
  • It is important to note that Heaney has done a
    wonderful job of retaining the kennings
    importance to the poem (look for them!)

  • You will notice that the tone of Beowulf is
    somber, or dark. There are a few reasons for this
    (my own reasoning)
  • The poet is reminiscing about the good ol days
    and the code of honor which is dying
  • The poem itself is about lossloss of innocence,
    loss of life, loss of ones lords, friends, etc.
    It is about loss through death.
  • The peoples in the poem lived in constant fear of
    the elements and their human predators

The Use of Digressions
  • The term digression has a rather negative
    connotation, but as Seamus Heaney argues, when
    the Beowulf poet gets off topic (off of the
    central story-line), it appears almost always to
    be for a very good reason.
  • Ultimately, the poem is very complex, and
    certainly not rambling, or as we say today,
    random. The digressions almost always shed
    light on the characters, their actions, and the
    Anglo-Saxon Scandinavian worlds.

The Major Digressions
  • Apart from minor moves in and out of the central
    story line, there are two major digressions. Each
    is an example of a story-within-a-story (in this
    case, a song within a song)
  • 883-914 the story of Siegemunds victory over a
  • 1070-1158 The Finnsburg Episode
  • There are other digressions, too
  • Unferths challenge (Unferth tells one version of
    the story (brief and defamatory), and Beowulf
    tells another (honorable)

Other Minor Literary/Poetic Devices Used in
  • Synecdoche a part used for the whole
  • Keel used for ship
  • Iron used for sword
  • Variation the use of parallel and appositive
    expressions which gives the verse a highly
    structured and musical quality (Norton
    Introduction 6)
  • Irony achieved through indirection, sometimes
    understatement (litotes a classical rhetorical
    term which means ironic understatement). Irony
    is not just used as a figure of speech, it is
    used as a mode of perception (Beowulf when young
    contrasted with older Hrothgar and even older
    version of Beowulf) (Norton Intro. 6)

Review of Important Terms
  • Alliteration (the most important term)
  • Caesura
  • Kenning
  • Tone
  • Digression
  • Story-within-a-story

  • Abrams, M. H., and Stephen Greenblatt, Eds.
    Introduction. The Norton Anthology of English
    Literature, seventh ed., vol. 1. New York W.W.
    Norton, 2000. 1-22, 29-32.
  • Anderson, Robert, et al. Eds. Elements of
    Literature, Sixth Course, Literature of Britain.
    Austin Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1993. 2-42.
  • Burrow, J. A. Old and Middle English Literature,
    c. 700-1485. The Oxford Illustrated History of
    English Literature. Ed. Pat Rogers. Oxford
    Oxford UP, 1987.
  • Heaney, Seamus. Introduction. Beowulf. Trans.
    Seamus Heaney. New York W. W. Norton Co.,
    2000. ix-xxx.