A consideration of the stylistic features in the classic poem Beowulf involves a study of the poetic verse, the vocabulary, alliteration, litotes, simile, kennings, variation and double-meaning or ambiguity.
The poetic conventions used by this poet include two half-lines in each verse, separated by a caesura or pause. The half-lines are joined by the oral stressing of alliterative words in the half-lines, both consonants and vowels (Tharaud 34). “At least one of the two stressed words 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). When a word was stressed in the first half-line, its alliterative counterpart was stressed in the following half-line; the words could either complement each other, like holy/heaven or sin/enemy, or they could contrast each other like happy/wretched or warm/winter.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceapena preatum
monegum maegpum meodo-setla ofteah (4-5)
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 vocabulary of the poem is remarkable in several ways. First of all, about one-third of the vocabulary is compound words. For the concept of “the sea” there are 50 different compounds; likewise there are 50 compounds for the concept of “a battle;” and 30 words for “king” (Chickering 5). It is truly amazing that in this poem of about 3000 lines there are 4000 vocabulary entri...
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...as involved a study of the poetic verse, the vocabulary, alliteration, litotes, simile, kennings, variation and double-meaning or ambiguity.
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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