The diction of the Old English poem 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. Beowulf uses alliteration [my italics] and accent to achieve the poetic effect which Modern English poetry achieves through the use of poetic feet, each having the same number of syllables and the same pattern of accent (Wilkie 1271). 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 an aesthetic sense of rightness or pleasure. In 1958 two language scholars, Lehmann nd Tabusa, produced an alphabetized list of every alliterated word in Beowulf. One translator, Kevin Crossley-Holland, in his rendition of the poem in Literature of the Western World, actually includes considerable alliteration, but less than the original version of the poem (Wilkie 1271). The Old English poet would “tie” the two half-lines together by their stressed alliteration (Chickering 4).
The first half-line is called the on-verse, which is followed by the off-verse. Each line of poetry ideally contains four principal stresses, two on each side of a strong medial caesura, or pause, and a variable number of less-heavily stressed or unstressed ones. “At least one of the two stresse...
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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.
Renoir, Alain. “Point of View and Design for Terror in Beowulf.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited by Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Stockwell, Robert. P. and Donka Minkova. “Prosody” In A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln, Nebraska: Uiversity of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Tharaud, Barry. “Anglo-Saxon Language and Traditions in Beowulf.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.
Wilkie, Brian. “Beowulf.” Literature of the Western World, edited by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1984.
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