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The three most common literary elements present in Anglo-Saxon poetry (like Beowulf) are kennings, alliteration, and caesuras. All of them lend a helping hand to the bard/scope or story-teller. They are memory devices used in even the most modern poetry--music (rap, especially).
Caesuras provide a rhythm. There is usually a pause in the middle of the line and an equal number of syllables on either side of the pause. Telling the story this way helps the story teller vary the meter of the lines in his tale so he can get the audience all wrapped up in what he is saying. This was important to him since in these days, the Bard was as popular and sought after as Hollywood movie stars are today.
Alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words) provides "music" to the poetry. Together with assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) you can have a soft sound (She sold seashells at the seashore ) indicating anything from rest, comfort, peace to hard sounds (If I catch you, I will conk you, cried the cuckolded creature) indcating anything from fear to anger.
Kennings (using a phrase repetitively to represent an iem or person). This memory device is helpful to the story teller since they can use these stock phrases instead of coming up with new words. It also creates rhythm so the story doesn't get boring. Modern kennings include "New kicks" for shoes, "wheels" for car and "bling bling" for jewelry. Kennings from the story include "ring giver" for King, "mighty water witch" for Grendel's mother, and "whaleroad" for the sea.
Beowulf is organized around stress, not syllables. Consider the line “This is the house that Jack built” from an English nursery rhyme. In reciting the line, an English speaker will stress two words and under-stress the rest: “This is the house that Jack
built.” A 10-syllable line (pentameter), as spoken in English, will divide naturally into two half-lines, each containing two stresses. For example: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Half-lines and organization by two stresses per half-line are found in both English and American poetry to the present day.
The 3,000-line narrative is about Beowulf. He is a Geat, a member of a tribe in what is now Sweden. He is a mighty warrior, not yet a king but destined to be one. In the first part of the epic, Beowulf comes to Denmark to help Hrothgar, king of the Scyldings, whose great hall has been terrorized by a monster, Grendel, for 12 years. Beowulf defeats both Grendel and the monster’s mother, and there follows feasting, drinking, and treasure giving before Beowulf sails back to his own people. And the poem ends with Beowulf’s burial.
The opening three lines of the poem appear below, first in Anglo-Saxon English, then in Seamus Heaney’s 2002 translation. Keep in mind the features of Anglo-Saxon poetry: half-lines, alliteration, and the four stresses per line.
Hwæt! We Gardena / in geardagum, þeodcyninga, / þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas / ellen fremedon.
So. The Spear Danes, in Days gone by And the kings who ruled them, had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
The first word in the Anglo-Saxon, Hwæt is our word “what,” used here to attract attention and impose silence. The “Spear Danes” tells listeners what tribes are involved in the story. This will be a historical chronicle, recounting great deeds in the past, among a society known, if only by reputation. We know that the audience is upper class from the references to æþelingas, “princes,” and their “heroic campaigns.” Most impressive in these lines is the poetry. In the first line, the word geardagum (meaning “yore-days” or “days of yore”) contains the essence of Anglo-Saxon verse. Anglo-Saxon compresses into one compound noun, or kenning, a concept that Heaney must translate into four words.
The rugged economy of Anglo-Saxon represents its highest linguistic achievement, along with its ability to create new words, neologisms. It is thanks to such writers that language lives in its best and most precious form.
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