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Characteristics of Old English and Middle English poetry


Old English poetry is characterized by its use of alliteration, caesura, and a strong emphasis on oral tradition. Middle English poetry, on the other hand, often features rhyme and meter, influenced by French poetic forms, and marks a transition towards more diverse themes and styles.

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What are the key characteristics of Old English poetry?

The most important characteristics of Old English poetry include alliteration, violence, heroes, and religion.

Many Old English poems are alliterative or organized around alliteration. Authors typically tried to group words that begin with the same letter or that sound similar. One of the most famous Old English poems, Beowulf, features a couple of g words in line 1, a trio of s words in line 4, and a trio of m words in line 5. Another relatively well-known Old English poem, “The Wanderer,” makes use of words starting with m and w in its first stanza.

A second key trait of Old English poems is violence. Beowulf’s eponymous warrior engages in violence when he kills a monster, Grendel; Grendel’s mother; and a dragon. The unnamed warrior in “The Wanderer” is impacted by violence because he has endured “fierce slaughters” and the loss of those close to him due to war. There are also Old English poems like “The Battle of Maldon” which focus on war and violence. Of course, one could also say that Old English poetry features heroes, as the people in them arguably use force for a higher purpose. It’s not as if Beowulf kills Grendel and his mother just for fun.

Another characteristic of Old English poetry is religion. Many Old English poems touched on Christianity. In “The Dream of the Rood,” a tree provides a rather unorthodox description of the crucifixion of Christ. Other poems shine the spotlight on saints and martyrs.

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What are the key characteristics of Old English poetry?

Old English poetry has some interesting characteristics that set it apart from most other kinds of poetry. Let’s look at some of those characteristics to help you better understand this type of literature.

For one thing, Old English poetry usually does not rhyme. When it does, either it is a mere coincidence or the poet is adding another ornament. Instead, Old English poetry uses alliteration, the repetition of initial sounds. Alliteration is found in nearly all Old English poetry.

Here are the first five lines of “The Wanderer” in Old English:

Oft him ānhaga / āre gebīdeþ,
metodes mildse, / þēah þe hē mōdcearig
geond lagulāde / lange scolde
hrēran mid hondum / hrīmcealde sǣ,
wadan wræclāstas. / Wyrd biþ ful ārēd.

Notice the repetition of m in the second line. This is alliteration. The third line alliterates on l, the fourth on h, and the fifth on w. The first line actually alliterates on the vowel, for all vowels alliterate according to the rules of Old English poetry.

Notice something else about these poetic lines. Each line is split into two half-lines. This is another common characteristic of Old English poetry. The space in between these half-lines is called a caesura. Each half-line exhibits a particular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Scholars have identified five common patterns (and several variations within these) that they label A-E. The A type, for instance, is found in the second line, first half-line of “The Wanderer,” and is characterized by a stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed meter. Old English poetic meter is quite complex.

Much Old English poetry also contains a poetic device called a kenning. This is a compound word that serves as a metaphor. For instance, in Beowulf, we have the word hronrāde, which means “whale-road,” and it refers to the ocean, the road on which the whales travel. Old English poetry is filled with such kennings and with vivid descriptions of the natural world.

By the way, the lines from “The Wanderer” translate as follows:

Often for himself the lone-dweller awaits favor,
mercy of Measurer, although he, spirit-troubled,
over sea-way far must
move with hands frost-cold sea,
tread exile-tracks. Fate is fully determined.

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Discuss the characteristics of Old English and Middle English poetry.

Old English poetry is readily divisible into several distinct types, each with clear characteristics. These types are as follows:

Gnomic poetry: these are riddle poems, of the sort found in the Exeter Book.

Heroic poetry: heroic poetry builds upon Germanic traditions and will include motifs such as the "beasts of battle," the heroic boast, the hero on the beach, and so on. Examples include Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon.

Elegies: the Old English elegies all demonstrate similar preoccupations with such issues as loneliness and being exiled from one's clan. Examples include The Seafarer and The Wanderer.

Hagiographies: these are, essentially, poems discussing the lives of saints. Examples include Guthlac A and B and the Judith poem.

Other Christian poetry: this might include Bible stories retold as poems and original poetry such as The Dream of the Rood. Note that the latter poem also contains many elements common to heroic poetry as well; it seems to present Christ in the Germanic tradition of a warrior king and makes references to many motifs and tropes from this category.

Middle English poetry can also be divided into types, but the types and preoccupations are different. These types include the following:

Narrative verse: this category includes all stories told in verse format, including the Matter of Britain stories, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and so on. Some narrative verse also falls into the category of romance. It may be metrical, alliterative, or Chaucerian in form.

Christian poetry: this category includes the most-recorded poem of Middle English times, the Pricke of Conscience, which was translated into multiple dialects and copied hundreds of times. It also includes homilies and other Christian reference texts, written in verse.

Note, however, that the Middle English period of literature produced far more works which survive to us now due to a far higher rate of literacy, so there is much more variation in the poetry that remains. Investigate, for example, the Scots Makars, such as Dunbar and Kennedy, whose "flyting" poems are more similar to Old Norse poetry than to anything else in the Middle English corpus.

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