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An Analysis of the Epic Poem, Beowulf - Poetic Devices in Beowulf

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Poetic Devices in Beowulf

    There are a small variety of poetic devices employed in the composition of the poem Beowulf, and they are repeated numerous times.


The Old English poetry of Beowulf is distinguished primarily by its heavy use of  allliteration, or the repetition of the initial sounds of words. In the original manuscript version of the poem, alliteration is employed in almost every line (or two half-lines); in modern translations of the poem this is not so. In lines 4 and 5 of the poem we find:


Oft Scyld Scefing                               sceapena preatum

monegum maegpum                           meodo-setla ofteah


The repetition of the “s” sound in line 4 and of the “m” sound in line 5 illustrate alliteration, and this occurs throughout the poem, providing to the listener what the rhyme of modern-day poetry provides – an aesthetic sense of  rightness or pleasure. The Old English poet would “tie” the two half-lines together by their stressed alliteration (Chickering 4). Each line of poetry ideally contains four principal stresses, two on each side of a strong medial caesura, or pause. “At least one of the two stressed swords in the first half-line, and usually both of them, begin with the same sound as the first stressed word of the second half-line” (Donaldson 67). Such stressed alliterative binding together created hundreds of pairs that are used over and over, such as halig/heofon holy/heaven, dryhten/dugud lord/troop, fyren/feond sin/enemy. The pairs need not be complementary, but rather can be contrastive, like eadig/earm happy/wretched and wearm/winter warm/winter. These dictional contrasts provide the listener additional pleasure by surprising his expectations. The al...

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...        overflowing grief

for Herebeald (2444-64)


The poetic devices used in this classic poem are not great in variety, but indeed considerable in their repetition.




Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.


Donaldson, E. Talbot. “Old English Prosody and Caedmon’s Hymn.” Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975.


Magoun, Frances P. “Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry.”  In TheBeowulf Poet, edited by Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.


Tharaud, Barry. “Anglo-Saxon Language and Traditions in Beowulf.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.



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