The Anglo-Saxons, settlers from Holland, Denmark and Germany who colonized Britain after the Roman departure in 410 A.D., left behind a poetic literature composed in Old English. Only a limited amount of Anglo-Saxon poetry remains, since early Christian scribes considered it the work of pagans. A handful of classic examples survived, however, to study and to inspire those who wish to write their own poetry in the Anglo-Saxon-style.
Features of Anglo-Saxon Poetry
Though the modern conception of poetry centers on the use of poetic forms and end rhymes, Anglo-Saxon poetry relied on alliteration. Alliteration describes the repeated use of the same consonant sound to begin words, as in “Sailor Sam sailed the seas.” Individual lines break into two segments of two syllables apiece, separated with a strong pause, or caesura. Anglo-Saxon poems had no length restrictions, and could extend to hundreds of lines. Lastly, instead of metaphors or similes, Anglo-Saxon poems used figures of speech called kennings. A kenning substitutes two hyphenated words for another, as in “battle-sweat” for blood.
The Anglo-Saxon poetry that survives centers on heroic, fantastic or religious subject matter. Anglo-Saxons organized into tribes, with a dominant leader and a central, communal structure that provided a base for the social order. Anglo-Saxon poems such as “Beowulf” celebrate the heroic achievements of powerful leaders, and depict the fears and goals of the tribal society. These leaders battle fantastic creatures -- Grendel, for example -- that may represent natural forces, such as the disease and drought that played havoc with the fortunes of an agricultural people. Some Anglo-Saxon poems, such as “Caedmon,” reflect Christian themes spread throughout Britain through the efforts of early missionaries.
Anglo-Saxon poetry is plot driven, so a writer should begin with a clear conception of his subject. In other words, let your imagination craft the story, and then refine and develop your narrative through the act of composition. For your kennings, strive to create your own original imagery, because recycled literary devices diminish a work’s impact. Read each line aloud, since the vocalization of prose and poetry can reveal problems with syntax and phrasing. Do not overthink your first draft, and try above all to get material down on paper. Once you have something to work with, you can revise until your poem reads like an authentic tale of Anglo-Saxon glory.
The most significant Old English poem, “Beowulf,” appeared around 1000 A.D. and encapsulates many of Anglo-Saxon literature’s hallmarks. Contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney rendered an acclaimed translation that eschewed Anglo-Saxon meter in favor of artistry, which makes it an ideal choice for the writer in search of thematic inspiration. “The Wanderer,” which Christian scribes wrote down in the 10th century, inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of “The Lord of the Rings.” “The Wanderer” presents a portrait of early medieval society and warfare, and also showcases the influence of Christianity on the Anglo-Saxon people. Other classic examples of Anglo-Saxon poetry include “Dream of the Rood,” “The Seafarer” and “The Battle of Maldon.”