Beowulf In-Class Writing

*This is an open book and open notes quiz.

2. Give an example of a kenning from the text.(5 pts.)

4. Discuss the status of gold or material wealth in the poem. Does this status change over the course of the text? Refer to specific passages. (20 min, 10 pts.)

5. Discuss the significance of ties of kinship in the poem. Refer to specific passages. (20 min, 10 pts.)

Extra Credit: 1. Give an example of “Litotes,” or ironic understatement, from the text. (2 pts.)


Course Introduction

Venerable Bede from Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)Welcome to English 151w, Great Works of English Literature. For the basic overview of the course as well as information about course texts, expectations, and assignments, please go to the About page. You will find the course schedule (subject to changes), along with homework assignments, under Syllabus.

This course introduces students to a representative selection of the greatest works of poetry, prose and drama written by some of the most important figures in British literary history from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. We will proceed chronologically and our focus in each period will be organized around a consideration of the use and expansion of formal and thematic tradition: the modes in which authors inherit and transform the possibilities for creative expression available to writers in the English language. Students will cultivate a careful reader’s appreciation of one of the richest European traditions by coming to understand the ways in which the matter and the manner of literary works in a cultural and linguistic continuum depend upon and resonate with each other.

We will be asking many questions including: How do literary texts work? How do they give pleasure or inspire thought? How can they be said to be products of the cultural contexts in which they are produced and to which they respond? What formal and thematic aspects are shared across periods and between texts? What forms and ideas become important in the English tradition? What makes a work great or canonical? How can we respond to or critique problematic positions in these works? And what is this labor good for?

We begin with the origins of the English literary tradition in the Old English period of the Middle Ages. Much of what we know of the history and writing of this time comes down to us through the monastic scholar known as the Venerable Bede. Bede produced many theological texts as well as books on science and rhetoric, but his most popular and enduring work is the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (c. 731). This History tells about the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the English isle and the ups and downs of the kingdoms that comprised Anglo-Saxon England. Bede’s main theme, however, is the spread of Christianity and the growth of the English Church. The latter were the great events of Bede’s time, and he regarded them as the unfolding of God’s providence.

What we could call Bede’s ideological investment in a narrative of Christian conversion, of course, poses an interesting problem for readers of his work. To what extent were Bede’s depictions of English history colored by his interest in portraying the positive triumphs of the Christian religion? The excerpts below are good examples that allow us to begin thinking about the ideological forces at work in the writing of this (and any) literary period. In reading Beowulf, as you will do for the first assignment, you will encounter evidence of several seemingly conflicting world-views and traditions, including the classical tradition of Epic poetry (for example, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, and Virgil’s Aeneid), the Germanic Heroic culture (belonging to the warrior society depicted in the poem), and the Ecclesiastical or Christian tradition which was on the rise in Anglo-Saxon England at the time of writing.

mead-hallBede’s Anecdote of the Mead-Hall
from the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (c. 731)

The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus. Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

Bede’s Account of the Poet Cædmon
from the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (c. 731), IV.23-4

“…. In Hild’s monastery was a certain brother specially marked by the grace of God, who used to make pious and religious verses, so that whatever he learned from the holy Scriptures through interpreters, he soon afterwards turned into poetry of great sweetness and humility, in English, which was his native language. By his verses the minds of many were often inspired to despise the world and to long for the heavenly life. After him other Englishmen tried to compose religious poems, but none could ever compare with him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men or through a man,7 but received the gift of song freely by divine grace. For this reason he never could compose any trivial or foolish poem, but only those which were concerned with devotion and were fitting for his pious tongue to utter. 

He had lived in the secular life until he was well advanced in years, and had never learned any verses; therefore sometimes at feasts, when it was agreed for the sake of entertainment that all present should take a turn singing, when he saw the harp coming towards him, he would rise up from the table in the middle of the feast, go out, and return home. On one occasion when he did this, he left the house of feasting and went to the stable, where it was his turn to take care of the animals that night. In due time he stretched out to rest; a person appeared to him in his sleep, saluted him by name, and said, “Caedmon, sing me something.” Cædmon answered, “I cannot sing; that is why I left the feast and came here, because I could not sing.” The man who was talking to him replied, “Nevertheless, you must sing to me.”“What shall I sing?” he asked. “Sing about the beginning of created things,” he replied. At that, Cædmon immediately began to sing verses which he had never heard before in praise of God, whose general sense is this: “We ought now to praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and his counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory and how He, since He is the eternal God, was the author of all marvels and first, as almighty Guardian of the human race, created heaven as a roof for the sons of men, and then the earth.”9 This is the sense but not the actual order of the words he sang in his sleep, for poetry, no matter how well composed, cannot be literally translated from one language into another without losing much of its beauty and dignity. Awaking from his sleep, Cædmon remembered all that he had sung in his dream, and soon added more verses in the same manner, praising God in a worthy style. 

In the morning he went to the steward, his master, and told him of the gift he had received; the steward led him to the abbess, who ordered him, in the presence of many learned men, to recount his dream and repeat his poem, so that they might all decide what it was and where it had come from. It was clear to all of them he had received a gift of heavenly grace from our Lord. Then they explained to him a passage of sacred history or doctrine, and ordered him, if he could, to turn it into verse. he undertook this task and went away; when he returned the next morning he repeated it to them, composed in excellent verse. At this the abbess, recognizing the grace of God in this man, instructed him to renounce the secular habit and take up the monastic life; when this was done she joined him to the rest of the brethren in her monastery and ordered that he should be taught the whole course of sacred history. He learned all that he could by listening, and turned it over in his mind like a clean beast chewing the cud, turned it into the most harmonious verse, and recited it so sweetly that his teachers became in turn his audience. He sang of the creation of the world, the origin of the human race, and all the history of Genesis: and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt, and their entry into the Promised Land, and many other stories from the holy Scriptures; of the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of our Lord, and of His ascension into heaven, of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the apostles, also of the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the joys of the kingdom of heaven, and many more songs about the Divine mercies and judgments, by which he tried to turn all men away from the love of vice and to inspire in them the love and practice of good works. He was a very devout man, humbly submissive to the discipline of the monastic rule, but full of zeal against those who behaved otherwise; for this reason his life had a lovely ending.” 

Cædmon’s Hymn in Old English
West Saxon version

Now (we) should praise Heaven-kingdom’s guardian 
Nu sculon herian heofonrices weard,
the Maker’s might and his mind-thoughts, 
Metodes meahta ond his modgethanc,
the work of the glory-father, as he of wonders of each 
weorc wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs,
eternal Lord a beginning established. 
ece Drihten, or astealde.
He first shaped for men’s sons 
He ærest scop ielda bearnum
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator; 
heofon to hrofe, halig Scieppend;
then middle-earth mankind’s guardian, 
tha middangeard manncynnes weard,
eternal Lord afterwards prepared, 
ece Drihten, æfter teode,
for men the earth, the Lord almighty. 
firum foldan Frea ælmihtig. 


HOMEWORK: Beowulf (Norton 3-18, 26-32, 36-68).

Optional: Read the “Introduction” in the pdf of Seamus Heaney’s translation, linked below.

*Note: The bookstore ran out and won’t have copies of the Norton until this Thursday, the 30th. If you are desperate to get started with your reading of Beowulf you can start with this pdf: Beowulf trans. Heaney. Read up to line 1250. You are also encouraged to read the introduction. Be aware that there is other reading in the Norton that is not in this pdf, so you need to get the anthology and read those introductory pages before our next class meeting. Pdfs will not be available for course readings in the future.

Come to class ready to contribute to a discussion focusing on the text of Beowulf. Take notes as you read! Underline and mark up passages. Consider rhetorical and literary devices used in the poem. And simply enjoy this interesting and exciting poem.

Also be sure to read through the blog post on Beowulf and to attempt to answer, in your notes, some of the response questions.

Lastly, if you are unfamiliar or want a refresher on the terminology of literary discussion, please look through this pdf, as some of these terms may be relevant to in-class writing and quizzes: “Denotation and Connotation,” “Imagery,” “Figurative Language 1: Simile, Metaphor, Personification, Apostrophe, Metonymy,” “Figurative Language 2: Symbol, Allegory,” “Figurative Language 3: Paradox, Overstatement, Understatement, Irony,” “Allusion,” and “Tone”

Poetic Closure and the Sonnets of William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

posh_gold_frame_stock_by_sockmonkeystockPoetic Form and Content

According to Barbara Hernstein Smith’s definition in Poetic Closure, “Formal elements [of a poem] are defined as those which arise from the physical nature of words, and would include all such features as rhyme, alliteration, and syllabic meter. The thematic elements [elements relating to content] of a poem are those which arise from the symbolic of conventional nature of words, and to which someone familiar with the language could respond; they would include everything from reference to syntax to tone” (Smith 1968, 6).

In essence, form is all of that which comes from the sensory experience of the poem or how the poem conveys its message. “Thematic elements,” which we can tentatively call content, is all that comes from the intellectual experience of the ideas, references, symbols, and other cultural conventions in the poem, or what the poem is about.

Poetic Forms

Poetic form, in the general sense, is not to be confused with what we call forms, for example, the Sonnet, Sestina, Villanelle, or Haiku. These are particular formal patterns that have become popularized by various poets over time. Sometimes, specific forms are given to certain tendencies in their effects, tendencies that then, as the forms develop over the course of history, make different thematic concerns common to them respectively. Haiku, because they are short and because of the development of  Japanese Haiku conventions, are often meditative descriptions of the natural world. Sonnets are associated with love poetry. Sestina’s with the speech act of complaint.


Closure is the affect that produces a feeling of completion in one’s experience of a poem or work of art. Smith writes, “Closure, then, may be regarded as a modification of structure that makes stasis, or the absence of further continuation, the most probable succeeding event. Closure allows the reader to be satisfied by the failure of continuation or, put another way, it creates in the reader the expectation of nothing” (Smith, 1968, 34). Closure can be both thematic and formal. A good example of formal closure is the affect of the final rhyming couplet in an English sonnet. The rhyme and stanzaic pattern leading up to the final couplet is modified in the last two lines. That modification lets us know we’ve come to an end. Thematic closure occurs when a poem comes to an intellectual conclusion or a statement with apparent finality. A death occurring at the close of a poem would produce great closure, as in Dickinson’s  “[The Heart asks Pleasure–first–].”

Closure implies the neat wrapping up of experience or thought in a poem, a kind of completion that also separates the poem from actual life, in which we seldom achieve true conclusions. As such, there has been a negative reaction to closure in the 20th Century, largely because many poets feel that it does not adequately represent lived experience, or because it divides the realm of art from that of life, where many artists want there to be no distinction. Ted Berrigan’s book The Sonnets is an example of a text that seems to attempt formal closure, in part by referencing the sonnet form, while working against the forces of thematic closure, through a cut-up or remixing technique that involves recycling lines and generates poems that may seem nonsensical or difficult to paraphrase.


The Petrarchan Sonnet

  • Petrarch (1304-1374)
  • Rhyme ABBA ABBA then either CDE CDE or CDC DCD
  • Octave lines 1-8 / Sestet lines 8-14
  • Volta comes after line 8
  • Petrarch wrote sonnets to and about a beautiful woman called Laura
  • He drew on the tradition of courtly love poetry; his poems praise and idealize the beloved while they also reflect on the torment of unrequited love for the unreachable Laura and the unbearable desire that conflicts with Christian chastity
  • Petrarch: “I find no peace, and yet I make no war: and fear, and hope: and burn, and I am ice”

Sonnet 159

In what bright realm, what sphere of radiant thought
Did Nature find the model whence she drew
That delicate dazzling image where we view
Here on this earth what she in heaven wrought?
What fountain-haunting nymph, what dryad, sought
In groves, such golden tresses ever threw
Upon the gust? What heart such virtues knew?—
Though her chief virtue with my death is frought.
He looks in vain for heavenly beauty, he
Who never looked upon her perfect eyes,
The vivid blue orbs turning brilliantly –
He does not know how Love yields and denies;
He only knows, who knows how sweetly she
Can talk and laugh, the sweetness of her sighs.

Sonnet 227

Breeze, blowing that blonde curling hair,
Stirring it, and being softly stirred in turn,
Scattering that sweet gold about, then
Gathering it, in a lovely knot of curls again,

You linger around bright eyes whose loving sting
Pierces me so, till I feel it and weep,
And I wander searching for my treasure,
Like a creature that often shies and kicks:

Now I seem to find her, now I realize
She’s far away, now I’m comforted, now despair,
Now longing for her, now truly seeing her.

Happy air, remain here with your
Living rays: and you, clear running stream,
Why can’t I exchange my path for yours?

William Shakespeare

William_Shakespeares_birthplace,_Stratford-upon-Avon_26l2007Rebuilt Globe Theater, LondonInside the Globe Theater

Title Page of the 1609 edition of the sonnetsDedication

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, 1594First page

The Shakespearian Sonnet

  • Shakespeare (1564-1616)
  • 14 lines (some exceptions) 3 quatrains and a closing couplet
  • Rhyme: abab cdcd efef gg
  • Iambic pentameter
  • Argument develops in first two quatrains. Sometimes a question is asked or a thesis or hypothetical situation is considered
  • Volta usually at third quatrain – an intellectual, argumentative, or tonal turn
  • Intensely closural
  • Yes, Shakespeare wrote sonnets about love. However, this was not his only subject. You may also be surprised to note that many of his amorous sonnets are addressed to a man.
  • Shakespeare also played with the thematic conventions of the love sonnet as it was conceived by Petrarch. So you will discover sonnets, like #130 (“My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) that seem to subvert to Petrarchan tendency of uncompromising adulation of the beloved.
  • Shakespeare also was attentive to what we could call the immortalizing technology of the poem, the ability of the poem to reach into the future like a sort of time-capsule.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate;
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


The Modern Sonnet

  • No fixed requirements, though often Modern sonnets will be 14 lines long.
  • Modern sonnets tend to do away with rhyme and meter
  • But writers of modern sonnets often still engage somehow with the tradition of the form. At the simplest level, this may mean that modern sonnets also attempt to present the complexities of developing thought or are concerned with the generation of closural effects.
  • Ted Berrigan’s book The Sonnets (1964) is a very interesting, and not all that representative, example of a sequence of modern sonnets. These poems may also be considered examples of “cut-ups,” meaning that it often seems as if lines have simply been cut out of other contexts and inserted with no clear regard for making sense. Yet at the same time, you’ll discover that the poems feel complete and that closure is, in a way, achieved. And while the poems can present as non-sense, they are nonetheless exciting, pleasurable events that appear full of references to the poet’s daily experiences. The Sonnets could be read as an early example of the kind of re-mixing and sampling that is common in popular music today.


His piercing pince-nez. Some dim frieze
Hands point to a dim frieze, in the dark night.
In the book of his music the corners have straightened:
Which owe their presence to our sleeping hands.
The ox-blood from the hands which play
For fire for warmth for hands for growth
Is there room in the room that you room in?
Upon his structured tomb:
Still they mean something. For the dance
And the architecture.
Weave among incidents
May be portentous to him
We are the sleeping fragments of his sky,
Wind giving presence to fragments.

Listen to Ted Berrigan reading sonnet I


Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m
dear Berrigan. He died
Back to books. I read
It’s 8:30 p.m. in New York and I’ve been running around all day
old come-all-ye’s streel into the streets. Yes, it is now,
How Much Longer Shall I Be Able To Inhabit the Divine
and the day a bright gray turning green
feminine marvelous and tough
watching the sun come up over the Navy Yard
to write scotch-tape body in a notebook
had 17 and 1/2 milligrams
Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.
****ed til 7 now she’s late to work and I’m
18 so why are my hands shaking I should know better

Listen to Ted Berrigan reading sonnet II



Canterbury Tales from Caxton's 2nd printingchristMagna_Carta3estates

Wheel of Fortune from Boccaccio MS





    • *The narrator – Chaucer. A fool who tells a bad tale
  • Aristocracy

    • *Knight
    • *Squire (son of knight)
    • Yeoman (lower aristocracy/middle class – forester for knight)
  • Clergy

    • *Prioress (Daughter of noble – nun who head of her order)
    • *Nun (travels with Prioress)
    • *Three priests (travel with Prioress)
    • *Monk (maybe formerly of aristocracy)
    • *Friar (monks who live in service in secular world – not at abbey)
  • Middle class

    • *Merchant
    • *Clerk / Student
    • *Seargent of Law
    • *Franklin (“freeholder” / land owner)
    • Five guildsmen (haberdasher, carpenter, weaver, dyer, tapestry weaver)
    • *Cook (for guildsmen)
    • *Shipman
    • *Doctor / Physician
    • *Wife of Bath
  • Lower class

    • *Parson (clergy/lower class – priest of local church)
    • Ploughman
    • *Miller
    • *Manciple (administrator for lawschool)
    • *Reeve (overseer of an estate – manages peasants)
    • *Summoner (clergy/lower class – summons people to religious court)
    • *Pardoner (clergy/lower class – sells indulgences and pardons sins)
    • Harry Bailey (innkeeper and judge of the tales)

Beowulf (c. 750 ?)

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

43 ­– c. 420: Roman invasion and occupation of Britannia (the modern day island of Great Britain, which encompasses England, Wales, and Scotland)

307 – 337: Reign of Constantine the Great leads to adoption of Christianity as official religion of the Roman Empire and the Christian conversion of the inhabitants of Brittania

c. 405: Completion of Latin translation of the Bible that becomes standard for the Roman Catholic Church

c. 450: Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain begins after Roman occupation recedes. Several Germanic peoples from the northwest coast of Europe and Scandinavia begin migration to the British isle. Primary kingdoms in Beowulf include the Danes (Sheildings), the Geats, and the Swedes (Shylfings). Others tribes include the Angles, Franks, Frisians, Heatho-Bards, Jutes, Waegmundings

c. 450 – ? c. 600: Historical setting of Beowulf (after beginning of Anglo-Saxon migration but before it is completed). Sometimes called the Germanic Heroic Age. The events of the poem, though not all are historical, take place on the Frankish and Saxon coasts of northern Europe, and in Scandinavia.

597: St. Augustine of Canterbury’s mission to Kent (south east England) begins conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity

c. 658-680: “Caedmon’s Hymn,” earliest poem recorded in English, composed

c. 700: Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity largely completed

731: Bede completes Ecclesiastical History of the English People

? c. 750: Beowulf composed. Author unknown

c. 1000: Beowulf transcribed into manuscript form

Anglo-Saxon Migration

Germanic Heroic Poetry and the World of Beowulf

The age in which the historical events of Beowulf may be dated is sometimes called the Germanic Heroic Age. The poetry of this age was disseminated through an oral tradition by bards called scops (pronounced “shops”). Scops were both composers and storytellers who travelled from court to court. They were expected to know a broad range of tales and also to create new ones as tribute to the patrons who financed them. We can only imagine, with the help of the text of Beowulf and a few other, shorter heroic poems in Old English, and later works of poetry and prose in Old Saxon, Old Icelandic, and Middle High German, what Germanic oral epic must have been like when performed. The Beowulf poet was, in effect, reviving the heroic language, style, and pagan world of his characters.

Germanic heroic poetry depicted a warrior society in which the most important human relationship was that between the warrior (the thane) and his lord, a relationship based less on subordination of one man’s will to another’s than on mutual trust and respect. When a warrior vowed loyalty to his lord, he became not so much his servant as his voluntary companion, one who would take pride in defending him and fighting in his wars. In return, the lord was expected to take care of his thanes and to reward them richly for their valor; a good king, one like Hrothgar or Beowulf, is referred to by such poetic epithets as “ring-giver” and as the “helmet” and “shield” of his people. Glory or fame—the reputation of the individual warrior, leader, or tribe—was also of the utmost importance for it secured the place of a warrior or king in relation to his people.

h_sutton_hoo_helmetWergild or the Man-Price

The relationship between kinsmen was also of deep significance to this society. If one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had a moral obligation either to kill the slayer or to exact the payment of wergild (man-price) in compensation. Each rank of society was evaluated at a definite price, which had to be paid to the dead man’s kin by the killer if he wished to avoid their vengeance—even if the killing had been an accident. In the absence of any legal code other than custom or any body of law enforcement, it was the duty of the family (often with the lord’s support) to execute justice. The failure to take revenge or to exact compensation was considered shameful. Hrothgar’s anguish over the murders committed by Grendel is not only for the loss of his men but also for the shame of his inability either to kill Grendel or to exact a “death price” from the killer. “It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (lines 1384-85) Beowulf says to Hrothgar, who has been thrown back into despair by the revenge-slaying of his old friend Aeschere by Grendel’s mother. Yet the young Beowulf’s attempt to comfort the bereaved old king by invoking the code of vengeance may be one of several instances of the poet’s ironic or critical treatment of the tragic futility of the never-ending blood feuds.


An epic is a long narrative poem celebrating the great deeds of one or more legendary heroes, in a grand ceremonious style. The hero, usually produced or even descended from gods, performs superhuman exploits in battle or in marvellous voyages, often saving or founding a nation–as in Virgil’s Aeneid (30-20 BCE)–or the human race itself, in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Virgil and Milton wrote what are called ‘secondary’ or literary epics in imitation of the earlier ‘primary’ or traditional epics of Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey (c.8th century BCE) are derived from an oral tradition of recitation. They adopted many of the conventions of Homer’s work, including the invocation of a muse, the use of epithets, the listing of heroes and combatants, and the beginning in medias res. The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is a primary epic, as is the oldest surviving epic poem, the Babylonian Gilgamesh (c. 3000 BCE). The action of epics takes place on a grand scale, and in this sense the term has sometimes been extended to long romances, to ambitious historical novels like Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1863-9), and to some large-scale film productions on heroic or historical subjects.

Beowulf may be distinguished from the classical epics for the poems depiction of a distinctly Germanic hero (of the Germanic Heroic Age), as opposed to the classical hero. The Germanic hero is a warrior concerned with loyalty, honor, fame and often revenge. His death tends to be heroic rather than tragic, and often brings with it destruction rather than restoration or renewal.


A kenning is a stock phrase of the kind used in Old Norse and Old English verse as a poetic circumlocution in place of a more familiar word. Examples are banhus (bone-house) for body, and saewudu (sea-wood) for ship. A true kenning is one in which neither word on each side of the hyphen names the object being metaphorically described.


The repetition of the same sounds–usually initial consonants of words or of stressed syllables–in any sequence of neighboring words: ‘Landscape -lover, lord of language’ (Tennyson).  Now an optional or incidental decorative effect in verse or prose, it was once a required element in the poetry of Germanic languages (including Old English and Old Norse).  Such poetry, in which alliteration rather than rhyme is the chief principle of repetition, is known as alliterative verse; its rules also allow a vowel sound to alliterate with any other vowel.

Alliterative Meter

The distinctive verse form of Old Germanic poetry, including Old English. It employed a long line divided by a caesura (a break or complete stop) into two balanced half-lines, each with a given number of stressed syllables (usually two) and a variable number of unstressed syllables. These half-lines are linked by alliteration between both (sometimes one) of the stressed syllables on the first half and the first (and sometimes the second) stressed syllable in the second half.

The Influence of Christianity on the Text

The characters of Beowulf and the Danish society on which the poem is based were definitively pagan in their religion. However, as you read you will notice many references to biblical texts (for example, when the monster Grendel is described as a descendent of Cain–see below) and to Christian ideas. This is because the poem was most likely written by a Christian inhabitant of the British island, probably descended from the Anglo-Saxon invaders, who is looking back several hundred years and across the sea, to the pagan, warrior culture of the people of Europe’s northern coast. Scholars actually debate about the precise date the poem was composed and this may significantly affect our sense of the poet’s attitude toward the Danes. At the end of the 700s, descendants of this society, known as Vikings, began to raid the British Isles. Whether or not the poem was composed before or after its author’s society would have been exposed to incredible violence at the hands of the the Vikings changes the way we read the text. If composed before the raids, the author may have been expressing sympathy with Danish culture. If composed after, then perhaps the poem’s representation of the warrior culture in the text is more negative or ironic than one might suspect upon first read There are, for example, many passages in the poem that seem to directly conflict with the Christian worldview: “It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning / For every one of us, living in this world / means waiting for our end. Let whoever can / win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, / that will be his best and only bulwark” (lines 1384-85). These lines directly conflict with the Christian faith in spiritual salvation in the afterlife. So there is an ideological struggle in the text as well as a series of physical ones, a struggle between competing belief systems that very much recapitulates the actual transformations occurring within Anglo-Saxon society during the early Middle Ages. A good question to ask is why and to what extent does the author of Beowulf choose to depict its protagonist in a relatively heroic light? Is Beowulf a pagan hero or a Christian anti-hero?

Genesis 4.1 – 16: Cain and Abel[1]

4.1 And Adam knew Eve his wife; who conceived and brought forth Cain, saying: I have gotten a man through God. 2 And again she brought forth his brother Abel. And Abel was a shepherd, and Cain a husbandman. 3 And it came to pass after many days, that Cain offered, of the fruits of the earth, gifts to the Lord. 4 Abel also offered of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat: and the Lord had respect to Abel, and to his offerings. 5 But to Cain and his offerings he had no respect: and Cain was exceeding angry, and his countenance fell. 6 And the Lord said to him: Why art thou angry? and why is thy countenance fallen? 7 If thou do well, shalt thou not receive? but if ill, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door? but the lust thereof shall be under thee, and thou shalt have dominion over it. 8 And Cain said to Abel his brother: Let us go forth abroad. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him. 9 And the Lord said to Cain: Where is thy brother Abel? And he answered: I know not: am I my brother’s keeper?10 And he said to him: What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth to me from the earth. 11 Now therefore cursed shalt thou be upon the earth, which hath opened her mouth and received the blood of thy brother at thy hand. 12 When thou shalt till it, it shall not yield to thee its fruit: a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be upon the earth. 13 And Cain said to the Lord: My iniquity is greater than that I may deserve pardon. 14 Behold thou dost cast me out this day from the face of the earth, and from thy face I shall be hid, and I shall be a vagabond and a fugitive on the earth: every one therefore that findeth me, shall kill me. 15 And the Lord said to him: No, it shall not so be: but whosoever shall kill Cain, shall be punished sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, that whosoever found him should not kill him. 16 And Cain went out from the face of the Lord, and dwelt as a fugitive on the earth at the east side of Eden.

Matthew 6:19-21: On Earthly vs. Heavenly Wealth

19 Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. 20 But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. 21 For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.

Matthew 5:38-39: On Revenge

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. 39 But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Bede’s Anecdote of the Mead-Hall

The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus. Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

Beowulf reading questions

  1.  (A.) Consider the distance and differences (temporal, geographic, and cultural) between the Beowulf poet’s world and the world in which the poem is set. What are the clues that help us to discern these differences? How does the poet create this sense of distance between the characters and himself? Is there irony or criticism in this vision of the past? (B.) Now consider the continuities between these two worlds. What aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture does the poet affirm and how well do these integrate with what seems to be the value-system of his present?
  2. What is the status of gold and gift giving in the poem? Does this status change? If so, how? Are the modern concepts of wealth, payment, monetary worth, and greed appropriate for the world of Beowulf?
  3. Do some research and/or think back to what you know about the genre of epic poetry. (You’ve probably read epic poems like Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, or Virgil’s Aeneid in the past.) What makes a poem epic and how does Beowulf fit into this category? What kinds of values does the poem promote, and how does it promote them? What sort of social order produces epic poetry? What sorts of conflict with or resistance to the ideology of epic can be expressed and how, if at all, does Beowulf express them?
  4. Consider the religious references in the poem. What are the names for god? What biblical events are mentioned and who mentions them? What specifically pagan practices (sacrifice, burial, augury etc…) are described? How do the characters see their relationship to god (or the gods)? Why would a Christian author write a poem about a pagan hero?
  5. Does the heroic code expressed in Beowulf conflict with a Christian sensibility?
  6. Look back at the roles of Wealhtheow, Hygd, Hildeburth, and Grendel’s mother. What do the female characters in Beowulf do? How do they do it? Do they offer alternatives to the heroic world, which seems to be centered around male action?
  7. Discuss the nature and significance of social behavior and manners in the poem. Describe specific episodes. Why do you think courtly manners might have been important to Anglo-Saxon culture? Why does the poet, who seems otherwise concerned with narrating scenes of action, focus on these issues?
  8. Every culture makes distinctions between what is inside the social order and what is outside, between the human and the non-human (a category which can include animals, plants, natural processes, monsters, and the miraculous). Cultures organize themselves to exclude these “outside” things; social organization also works to control certain violent human tendencies inside culture (anger, lust, fear, greed, etc…) How does the social world depicted in the poem do this? That is, what does it exclude, and why? What is its attitude toward the “outside” of culture? How does it control the forces of social stability within the hall?
  9. Describe in detail the different architectural and social spaces depicted in the poem. How do these spaces and the way they are used reinforce the culturally constructed distinction between “inside” and “outside” outlined in the previous question?
  10. Consider the narrative structure of Beowulf. The manuscript of the poem is divided into forty-three numbered sections (plus an unnumbered prologue); most critics, however, view the structure as either two-part (young Beowulf / old Beowulf) or three-part (the three main battles). What grounds do critics have for these arguments? What are some ways the poem suggests its structure? Are there other seemingly intentional structural aspects that you notice? What purpose do these structural elements play in the poem?
  11. The three major battle scenes in Beowulf differ greatly. Do a close reading of each of these scenes. Consider the differences in circumstance (action leading up to the battle), setting, fighting method, tone, and outcome, and what kind of progression or narrative arc this trajectory constructs. How is the nature of each battle distinct and why does the poet choose to render these distinctions?
  12. There are several poems performed by “scops” within Beowulf. What are these poems about, to whom and for what purpose are they presented? Often, when an author includes references to her own medium within a work, we can read these moments as indicative of that authors ideas about the proper form and function of literature. What might the poems within Beowulf say about the poet’s ideas about poetry?

Additional Links

Audio of a segment of Beowulf read in the Old English

An animated version of Beowulf from 1998

[1] Given here in the “douay-Rheims English translation of the Latin Bible known to the medieval audience of Beowulf