Before we get started, did you celebrate Hug a Medievalist Day a couple weeks ago? If not, reach out and hug the medievalist sitting closest to you. When you’re finished, we’ll start our medieval poetry post with a brief lesson in medieval history:
The Anglo-Saxons migrated into England between the fifth and seventh centuries and dominated there until the Normans invaded in 1066. In that span of time, they created a body of literature in Old English, a language that sounds more like German to our modern ears but is the oldest ancestor of contemporary English literature. Most of what we know about Anglo-Saxon poetry comes from the epic poem “Beowulf.”
Here’s how you can write your own Anglo-Saxon poetry: Although we’re more accustomed today to poems that rhyme, Anglo-Saxon poetry was instead organized by alliteration, or the repetition of the initial consonant sound of a word (sounding similar to this self-same sentence). Each line in Anglo-Saxon poetry has four stressed syllables, with a strong pause, or caesura, in the middle of each line, leaving two stresses before the caesura and two stresses after the caesura. The first stressed syllable after the caesura alliterates with the first or the second or both of the stressed syllables before the caesura. Here’s an example from “Beowulf,” translated into English, but with the Anglo-Saxon meter retained in the translation:
and find friendship in the Father’s embrace
Also, while we’re more used to metaphors and similes as the major figures of speech in our poetry, the Anglo-Saxons used a different figure of speech known as a kenning. A kenning substitutes a noun with two other words that, when compounded together, describe the substituted noun. For instance, “wave-vat” is a kenning for “ocean,” and “battle-torch” is used in place of “sword” (and more specifically, a sword that has been sharpened until it shines like a torch).
One of the best-known translations of “Beowulf” by Seamus Heaney often sacrifices the meter of the poem and its kennings for the sake of sounding more natural in modern English, but it should give you some idea of how the rules of Anglo-Saxon poetry work:
The monster wrenched and wrestled with him
but Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
the wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
He relied for help on the Lord of All,
on His care and favour. So he overcame the foe,
brought down the hell-brute.
Now let’s see those kennings!