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 alliteration also includes stressed vowels (Tharaud 34).
These pairs are the backbone of Beowulf
: Prof. Magoun, in examining the poem, considers it probable that nearly 100% of the language in Beowulf is formulas, (88-89) or phrases from a common bank of phraseology that all poets drew their language from.
A second poetic device found in the poem is the reliance on kennings to portray the imagery of the poem. Kennings are compound expressions using characteristics to name something. The kenning hronrade literally means “whale-road,” which translates as “sea” to the listener or reader. There are hundreds of kennings in the poem:
Life-lord living Lord war-dress armor
bed-companion spouse earth-dwellers humans
kin-slaughter killing of relatives gift-throne throne
wave-rider boat sea-skilled sailor
sea-currents waves battle-dress armor
battle-shirts mail word-hoard vocabulary
hearth-companions friends pitch-black dark
shield-bearer thane fire-hardened forged
earth-dwellers people war-gear armor
The author of Beowulf employs a poetic device called litotes, wherein a positive statement is made by stating the negative of its opposite. When King Hrothgar is describing Grendel’s mere, he says: “Not a pleasant place” (1372). Near the end of the poem, when the hero has led his warriors to the shore where he suspected the fire-dragon resided and protected her riches: “no easy bargain for any man to try to acquire them” (2415-6) – another example of litotes. Beowulf recalls when “once Ongentheow sought out Eofor. . . the hand could recall enough of the quarrel, did not withhold the blow” (2486-89). As the hero went to face the fire-dragon, he “trusted the strength of a single man – hardly the coward’s way” (2540-41). As Beowulf enters into combat with the dragon: “the good war-king had already drawn his heirloom sword, an edge not dull” (2562-2564). When Wiglaf talks of the hero: “I know for a truth that the worth of his deeds is not so poor” (2656-57). Some of Beowulf’s final words: “Not often I swore deceitful oaths” (2739-40). I would estimate that nearly every page of the poem has an instance of litotes.
Another poetic device in the poem is the simile. It is not a popular device with this anonymous medieval poet. The simile uses “like” or “as” (either stated or implied) to compare two persons, places or things. In the poem when Beowulf’s party is sailing toward Dane-land:
Across open seas, blown by the wind,
the foamy-necked ship went like a bird, (217-18)
The phrase “like a bird” is the simile in this passage. Weohstan is said to have held the “mail-shirt and sword till his son was ready to show as much courage as his graying father” (2621-22). Wiglaf showed “strength and daring, as was his nature” (2696). Ongentheow threatened his enemies: “that some would swing on the gallows-tree as sport [for the birds] (2941-42). Wiglaf spoke to his people after the hro’s death: “often many earls must suffer . . . as we do now” (3077-78). When the warriors constructed Beowulf’s burial chamber, there were “walls as splendidly worked as men wise in skill knew how to fashion” 3161-62).
Toward the end of the poem, when Beowulf is pondering his past, he recalls how King Hrethel’s younger son Haethcyn accidentally shot and killed his older brother, Herebeald, with an arrow, and what a devastating impact this tragedy had on King Hrethel, the Weder-king. Here the poet uses an extended simile to compare the king in his sorrow to the elderly father of a son who dies on the gallows:
“So it is bitter for an old man
to have seen his son go riding high,
young on the gallows; then may he tell
a true sorrow-song, when his son swings,
a joy to the raven, and old and wise
and sad, he cannot help him at all. . . .
Thus the Weder-king
carried in his heart 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.