Category: Written and spoken Old English


The Old English poem “Deor” is unique in that it has a repeating refrain “þæs oferēode, þisses swā mæg” (That passed away, and so may this). It also describes five disastrous events in history or mythology, which would have been familiar to the audience, and which are used to demonstrate that terrible situations can be overcome. The poet then explains his own difficulty – he has been replaced in his lord’s favour by a rival.

The five stories mentioned in the poem are:

  1. Weland was the mythical smith-god disabled by King Niðhad upon whom Weland took terrible revenge which included the rape of Beadohild, the king’s daughter and the murder of his sons, before escaping. He is depicted on the 7th century Northumbrian Franks Casket;
  2. Beadohild’s own story in which she is said to have given birth to the hero Widia;
  3. Mæthilde was rescued from drowning by the harpist Geat following her capture by the demonic River King;
  4. The reference to Þeodric is more difficult to interpret; it may be the king or his people who are suffering. The poem could refer to one of the many kings by that name. One option is that is means Þeodric the Great who ruled for 33 years at Ravenna, where he was a strong king but also a heretic in the eyes of the Roman Church. He was responsible for the death of the admired philosopher Boethius (whose work King Alfred believed was one of those “most needful for men to know”);
  5. Eormanric, King of the Goths, died in 375 CE. He appears as a cruel tyrant in a number of stories. Widia is said to have fought for him against Þeodric (the Great).

After this reference there is a more philosophical passage, quite Christian in nature, about the hardships of life.

Finally we discover that Heorrenda is the one who has replaced Deor. He was a poet who helped King Heoden to marry Hild and Deor was (until now) the poet of the same people, the Heodeningas.

You can listen to a reading of the poem and read the text and translation below.

Leofwin2010’s version (abridged) of Deor

Wēlund him be wurman wræces cunnade,      Welund of the Wurmas suffered woe,
ānhydig eorl eorfoþa drēag,                                  Proud lord, he suffered  torments long,
hæfde him tō gesiþþe sorge and longaþ,           Sorrow and longing were his company,
wintercealde wræce; wēan oft onfond               Exile cold as winter. Hardship was his lot
þæs oferēode, þisses swā mæg.                             That passed away, and so may this.

Þēodric āhte þrītig wintra                                        Theodric ruled for thirty years
Maeringa burg; þæt wæs monegum cūþ.           In the Mearings’ city. That was well-known
þæs oferēode, þisses swā mæg.                              That passed away, and so may this.

we geāscodan Eormanrīces                                    We’ve heard much ofthe wolvish nature
wylfenne geþōht; āhte wīde folc                           Of king Ermanaric who long ruled
Gotena rīces. Þæt wæs grim cyning.                    The gothic realms: that was a cruel king.
þæs oferēode, þisses swā mæg.                              That passed away, and so may this.  ic bi mē sylfum secgan wille,                                 I wish to speak about myself
þæt ic hwīle wæs heodeninga scop,                     Once I was minstrel of the Heodenings,
dryhtne dyre. mē wæs Dēor noma.                      Dear to my patron, my name was Deor.
āhte ic fela wintra folgað tilne,                               Many years I had a fine position
holdne hlāford, oþþæt heorrenda nū,                 And a loyal lord, until Heorrenda now,
lēodcræftig monn, londryht geþāh                       That skilful poet, has received my lands,
þæt mē eorla hlēo aer gesealde.                             Which once my noble lord gave to me.
þæs oferēode, þisses swā mæg.                               That passed away, and so may this

The Battle of Maldon

Image of Maldon

The Battle of Maldon is an Old English poem which records a contemporary event. The battle itself was fought in 991 CE on the mainland opposite the island of Northey betweent he English levy and Viking raiders, probably including Olaf Tryggvason. This is close to Maldon in Essex and the island was accessible at low tide by a causeway but isolated at high tide (a bit like Lindisfarne still is today). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the defeat.

The poem deliberately copies the older heroic style of verse such as Beowulf. It is not complete, starting mid-line “…brocen wurde” so the beginning is not known and could affect the theme of the poem. It is often suggested that the battle was lost because of the leader Byrhtnoð’s pride – he allowed the invading Vikings onto the mainland to fight when they were isolated on the island at high tide. However, other interpretations are possible: the poem may be emphasising the effects of disloyalty among his men. It has also been suggested that it was a piece of propaganda against the rule of the king, Æðelred the “Unready”, whose reign suffered badly from Viking raids and the effects of disloyalty and internal fighting.

Furthermore Byrhtnoð was in a difficult postion in real life. If he had refused to allow teh Vikings ashore they could have sailed further along the coast and ravaged areas where there was no levy at all to oppose them.

Leofwin2010‘s version of Battle of Maldon – Byrhtnoth’s Challenge (ll. 42-61)

Byrhtnōð maþelode,     bord hafenode,

  wand wācne æsc,     wordum mǣlde,

  yrre and ānræd     āġeaf him andsware:

 “Gehȳrst þū, sǣlida,     hwæt þis folc seġeð?

  Hī willað ēow tō gafole     gāras syllan

  ǣttrynne ord     and ealde swurd,

  þā hereġeatu     þe ēow æt hilde ne dēah.

  Brimmanna boda,     ābēod eft onġēan:

 seġe þīnum lēodum     miċċle lāþre spell,

  þæt hēr stynt unforcūð     eorl mid his werode

  þe wile ġealgean     ēþel þysne,

  Æþelrēdes eard     ealdres mīnes

  folc and foldan.     Feallan sceolon

 hǣþene æt hilde!     Tō hēanliċ mē þinċeð

  þæt ġē mid ūrum sceattum     tō scype gangon

  unbefohtene,     nū ġē þus feor hider

  on ūrne eard     in becōmon.

  Ne sceole ġē swā sōfte     sinc ġegangan;

 ūs sceal ord and ecg     ǣr ġesēman

  grim gūðplega     ǣr wē gofol syllon.”

Byrhtnoth spoke back, raising up his shield,

waving his slender spear, speaking in words,

angry and resolute, giving them answer:

“Have you heard, sailor, what these people say?

They wish to give you spears as tribute,

the poisonous points and ancient swords,

this tackle of war that will do you no good in battle.

Herald of the brim-men, deliver this again,

say unto your people a more unpleasant report:

here stands with his troops a renowned earl

who wishes to defend this homeland,

the country of Æthelred, my own lord,

and his citizens and territory. The heathens

shall perish in battle. It seems a humiliation

to let you go to your ships with our treasures

unfought—now you have come thus far

into our country. You must not get our gold

so softly. Points and edges must reconcile us first,

a grim war-playing, before we give you any tribute.”

Anglo-Saxon Medical Manuscripts

There are several manuscripts concerning medical treatments and charms, and most of these were collected and published in the 19th century by Thomas Cockayne in a series called “Leechdoms Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England”. Some are copies in Latin and some are in Old English translation of earlier works, but there are a few original Old English texts.

The major manuscripts comprise:

  • Bald’s Leechbook, c.950 CE, the oldest surviving Old English medical work; “leech” here is from the Old English word “lǣce” meaning “healer” and does not refer to actual leeches.
  • The Old English Herbarium, a translation of the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius
  • The Lacnunga Manuscripts, a slightly disordered collection of manuscripts on healing and herblore.

There are a few other references to herblore and healing in other manuscripts, but these are relatively minor entries.

An example from Bald’s Leechbook, Book I, ch. Xi.

“For sore lips”

Wiþ sarum weolorum gesmire mid hunige þa weoloras

genīm þonne ægerfelman besceað mid pipore

lege on

For sore lips, smear the lips with honey,

then take film of egg, scatter it with pepper,

and lay on

“Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England, Vol II.”, Cockayne, Thomas Oswald, 1864, Longman

Listen to a reading in Old English by Stephen Pollington here:

View the mid-10th century manuscript of Bald’s Leechbook online at the British Library


Image of opening lines of Beowulf
the opening lines of Beowulf

Only around 30,000 lines of Old English poetry survive and Beowulf comprises around 10% of these, at about 3,000 lines. The British Library holds the manuscript and it can usually be seen on display or viewed in their digital collection.

Beowulf is the longest surviving epic poem in Old English. It relates the exploits of its eponymous hero, and his successive battles with a monster named Grendel, with Grendel’s revengeful mother, and with a dragon which was guarding a hoard of treasure.

It survives in a single medieval manuscript. The manuscript bears no date, and so its age has to be calculated by analysing the scribes’ handwriting. The poem was copied by two Anglo-Saxon scribes, working in collaboration in the 10th – 11th century. Nobody knows for certain when the poem was first composed but many scholars do support an earlier original composition.

The first-recorded owner of Beowulf is Laurence Nowell (died c. 1570), a pioneer of the study of Old English. Beowulf then entered the famous collection of Sir Robert Cotton  before passing into the hands of his son Sir Thomas Cotton (died 1662), and grandson Sir John Cotton (died 1702), who bequeathed the manuscript to the nation.

During the 18th century, the Cotton manuscripts were moved for safekeeping to Ashburnham House at Westminster. On the night of 23 October 1731 a fire broke out and many manuscripts were damaged, and a few completely destroyed.

Beowulf escaped the fire relatively intact but it suffered greater loss by handling in the following years, with letters crumbling away from the outer portions of its pages. Placed in paper frames in 1845, the manuscript remains incredibly fragile.

Two men in Anglo-Saxon dress performing poetry accompanied by a harp.

You can hear the opening lines of Beowulf in the following reading:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,

monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,

egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð

feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,

weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,

oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra

ofer hronrade hyran scolde,

gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.

Lo! we have heard the glory of the kings of the Spear-Danes in days gone by, how the chieftains

wrought mighty deeds. Often Scyld-Scefiing wrested the mead-benches from troops of foes, from many tribes; he made fear fall upon the earls. After he was first found in misery (he received solace for that), he grew up under the heavens, lived in high honour; until each of his neighbours over the whale-road must needs obey him and render tribute. That was a good king!

“The Song of Beowulf” trans. Professor R.K. Gordon, 1922

Follow this link for Matt Love‘s version of the opening lines of Beowulf

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

In the late 800’s, Alfred the Great ordered the making of a history, or Chronicle, of England and the English. The history was back-dated to Roman times, and was maintained for over two hundred years after Alfred’s death in 899 CE until 1154.

It isn’t a single document but is made up form a number of different copies which were written at Winchester, Canterbury, Peterborough, Abingdon and Worcester, and were all based on a common core which is now lost. Each manuscript has some extra information added to this core text and each covers a different range of years depending on what has survived.

It’s a major source for historians of the Anglo-Saxon period, and was written in ‘Old English’, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, from which modern English is derived. Two extracts are given below as examples.

Britain and the coming of the English
Manuscript written in old english

Figure 1: Manuscript design © MW Love 2010

This example has been adapted and abridged from the opening entry of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle followed by part of the entry for the year 449 AD. Much of the early sections of the Chronicle, before Alfred’s time, were copied form Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”.

brittene igland is ehta hund mila lang and twa hund brad. And her sind on þis iglande fif geþeode: englisc and brittisc and wilsc and scyttisc and pyhtisc and boc leden. erest weron bugend þises landes brittes.

of iotum comon cantwara and wihtwara. of eald seaxum coman east seaxa and suð sexa and west sexa. of angle comon est angla, middel angla, mearca and ealle norðhymbra. heora heretogan  wæron twegen gebroðra: hengest and horsa.

The island of Britain is eight hundred miles long and two hundred broad. And there are on this island five languages: English and British and Welsh* and Scottish and Pictish and book-Latin. First inhabiting this land were Britons.

From Jutes came Kent-people and Wight-people. From old Saxony came east-Saxons and south-Saxons and west-Saxons. From Angle** came east Angles, middle Angles, Mercians and all Northumbrians. Their leaders were Two brothers: Hengest and Horsa.

Part of the entry for 1066 from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
image of a manuscript written in old english

Figure 2: Manuscript design © MW Love 2010

Our second example from the entry for 1066 describes the Battle of Hastings. At the time the English Church believed that the defeat was God’s punishment for the sins of the people.

Þa com Wyllelm eorl of Normandige into Pefnesea on Sancte Michæles mæsseæfen, and sona þær hi fere wæron, worhton castel æt Hæstingaport. Þis wearþ þa Harolde cynge gecydd, and he gaderade þa mycelne here, and com him togenes æt þære haran apuldran, and Wyllelm him com ongean on unwær, ær þis folc gefylced wære. ac se kyng þeah him swiðe heardlice wiþ feaht mid þam mannum þe him gelæsten woldon, and þær wearð micel wæl geslægen on ægðre healfe. þær wearð ofslægen Harold kyng, and Leofwine eorl his broðor and Gyrð eorl his broðor and fela godra manna, and þa  Frenciscan ahton wælstowe geweald, eallswa heom God uðe for folces synnon.

Then came William earl of Normandy into Pevensey on Michaelmas eve, and as soon as they were prepared they built a castle at Hastings. This was then made known to King Harold, and he then gathered a great army and came against him at the ancient apple-tree, and William came at him unawares, before his force was deployed. But the king still fought back hard with the men who would stay with him, and there were many battle-losses on both sides. There King Harold was slain, and earl Leofwine his brother, earl Gyrth his brother, and many good men, and the French held the battlefield, as God granted them for the people’s sins.

An Anglo-Saxon riddle

An Anglo-Saxon Riddle written in old english

The 10th century Exeter Book (from Exeter Cathedral) contains a number of Old English texts which include more than 90 riddles. There may originally have been 100.

The riddles are mostly fairly short poems and are playful in tone. The object described often talks to us directly, even if it is in fact inanimate, such as a book or a weathercock or a butter churn. They vary in style: some are fairly simple descriptions, others may notoriously be rather rude double-entendres, while yet others have never been solved for certain. This was entirely deliberate by the creator(s) and would have provided entertainment at feasts as the guests argued over the solution before it was revealed. Many continue to be argued over and be open to different solutions today.

Here is an example of one of the riddles for you to try and solve. There is an agreed answer to this riddle, which is offered at the end, but be inventive and argue your case!

Old English

Oft ic sceal wiþ wæge winnan ond wiþ winde feohtan, somod wið þam sæcce, þonne ic secan gewite eorþan yþum þeaht; me biþ se eþel fremde. Ic beom strong þæs gewinnes, gif ic stille weorþe; gif me þæs tosæleð, hi beoð swiþran þonne ic, ond mec slitende sona flymað, willað oþfergan þæt ic friþian sceal. Ic him þæt forstonde, gif min steort þolað ond mec stiþne wiþ stanas moton fæste gehabban. Frige hwæt ic hatte.

Modern English

Oft I must with water battle and with wind fight; together, against them contend; then I depart to seek earth swallowed by waves; from me the homeland is estranged. I am strong in that contest, if I fixed become; if I fail at that, they are greater than I, and rend me, soon drive me to flight, will bear off that which I must protect; I resist that from them, if my hold endures and resolutely with me stones might hold fast. Ask what I am called.

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Answer: An anchor

The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Old English Style Poetry

By Martin Vine, in Wiðowinde #181 (Spring 2017)

“…Their ancient verses which are their only record or annals…”

Tacitus Germania Ch2

I AM A POET, AND WINNER OF THE LATEST Cædmon Prize as voted for by gesithas (thanks to everyone who took time to vote). At the last symbel and folcgemot I recited the poem and was asked to explain the techniques that went into writing this style of verse. So here’s a look at aspects of how poetry was constructed in Old English, and how this can be emulated in Modern English.

Firstly a question: what differentiates poetry from normal language?

If I stood up at a gesithas feast and spoke some words, how would you know I was reciting a poem rather than giving a speech, reading out our gerefa’s annual report, or telling a short story? Poets utilise various techniques to make their verses stand out from everyday language. Some common ones are repetition, simile and metaphor, alliteration, rhyme, but the most important is rhythm. To understand why we have to look back at the origins of English poetry.

Poetry began as a spoken art form. It had no choice, it is older than writing. Only with the advent of mass literacy in Victorian times did the poem on a page to be read silently to oneself become prevalent. Old English verse (and Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s) was designed by the poet to be recited out aloud to an audience.

Therefore as spoken art, the spoken rhythm of the poem was crucial. A regular rhythm would contrast with the randomness of ordinary speech. It would also provide the framework to aid memorisation. Having had to learn poetry and monologues, I can certainly vouch that the rhythms of the former makes it easier to recall. As Tacitus indicates in his Germania, verses were used to record history. It would certainly be easier memorising a long list of ancestors or battles using a spoken cadence. In Old English verse this rhythm is accented by the use of alliteration, which would also help with recall.

But what provides the rhythm?

The English language (both Old English and Modern) is stress based. This means that extra emphasis is put on vowel sounds in important syllables to create the spoken rhythm of the language. Linguists work with a complicated system that distinguishes six levels of stress. Luckily for poetry three levels will do. In the various examples I use below, I have indicated the stressed syllables with bold and underline to make them stand out using the following key.

Primary stress – syllables that carry the main stress

Secondary stress – syllables that carry lesser stress.

These are often found in longer polysyllabic words, eg. the secondary stresses gale and path in Nightingale, Sociopath.

• Unstressed – syllables that aren’t emphasised.

The spoken stresses can fall on syllables within words and words within phrases. Poets need to consider both when creating their verses.

Stressed syllables within a word

This can best be heard in words with the same vowel sound in each syllable. For example say out loud the words: photo, uncut, infill. Can you hear the slight difference between the stressed and unstressed vowel in each example? It is subtle but it is there. To produce this emphasis English speakers tend to use a combination of three techniques…

• The pitch (musical note) of the vowel is raised in the stressed syllable.

• The stressed syllable can be pronounced slightly louder.

• The vowel in the stressed syllable can be prolonged. This is something TV presenter Lloyd Grossman was famous for doing to excess, but in moderation it is a valid way to add weight to a syllable.

The other technique used to highlight stress within a word is to deemphasise the vowel in any unstressed syllable. This increases the contrast between the vowel sounds. There is less emphasis if the unstressed vowel is shifted to an easier to make vowel sound. In some words this has turned unstressed syllable’s vowel sound to schwa (. in the International Phonetic Alphabet (I.P.A. for short)). This is a mid-central vowel that produces an ‘ehr’ like sound, eg. the second syllables of china and thorough. The other vowel sound that is shifted to for de-emphasis is ‘i’ (1 in I.P.A). for example the ‘e’ in behold and the second ‘e’ in Element. This process of altering vowel sounds in unstressed syllables started while our ancestors were speaking Old English and was completed by the time Late West Saxon dialect was used c.1000 AD.

In Old and Modern English the main stress would usually fall on the root syllable of a word. This would normally be the first syllable unless preceded by a prefix. Most prefixes were unstressed in Old English as most are in Modern English. Needless to say, as with any language rule there were exceptions. The most important occurred where the prefix was more essential to the meaning of the word than the root syllable. For example: utweard in Old English (like its descendant in Modern English outward) would have the stress on the prefix ut– as it was crucial to the meaning. The word weard indicated that a direction was being headed towards, but the prefix added the detail of the particular direction.

Old English suffixes like –ung, –nes were also unstressed and furthermore they didn’t shift the stress in the root word. Unfortunately for poets trying to recreate an Old English verse style in Modern English certain suffixes picked up from Latin and Norman French can move the stress from the root syllable to the one before the suffix. The suffixes –ity, –ual, –ial in the following examples all shift the stress: electric becomes electricity, context becomes contextual, manor becomes manorial.

Stressed syllables within phrases

There is not much poets can do about the stress within words. Which syllables are accented is pretty fixed, though there are some dialectal variations and a few words change over time. Within phrases the stressed syllables are easier to manipulate. Words can be divided up into two types when considered as part of a phrase or sentence. Lexical words give meaning so they tend to contain stressed syllables. Nouns, adjectives, principle verbs and adverbs are all lexical. Grammatical words explain the relationship between lexical words, for example, articles, prepositions and auxiliary verbs. These words tend to be unstressed. In the phrase ‘the cat sat on the mat’, the lexical words are: cat, sat, mat and the grammatical words are: the, on, the.

Of course context is everything when dealing with stress in phrases. Words that are grammatical can be stressed in certain situations. For example an emphatic And or But or even Or could bear stress. A brief example in Modern English, that I use in my poetry workshops, is the line: ‘I won’t write the poem now’. Depending on which word is stressed, the sentence can mean very different things.

I won’t write the poem now. (Somebody else will write it)

I won’t write the poem now. (I refuse to do it)

I won’t write the poem now. (I will not write it down, perhaps compose it in my head instead)

I won’t write the poem now. (I will write another one)

I won’t write the poem now. (I will write something else)

I won’t write the poem now. (I will write it some other time)

Hopefully the context of surrounding lines would indicate where the stresses would fall within the phrase. Of course there a examples of obscure or damaged lines in Beowulf where the context is uncertain. This has allowed various scholars to debate with each other over which words take stress, and thus what overall significance the poet is trying to imply within sections of the poem.

So how are these two types of stress used to compose lines of traditional verse in Old or Modern English?

A typical line of Old English poetry was split into two half-lines, each containing 2 stresses. The rhythm that the English ear is most comfortable with is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. Experts argue as to why that is. Theories include hearing the heartbeat in womb, or that this pattern is the commonest structure of words in the English language. Whatever the reason, the hearing of a stressed sound followed by an unstressed one is heavily ingrained. For example if I asked you what noise a clock made, you would tell me it is ‘ticktock’. Except it isn’t. Our ears might hear this, but a clock actually goes ‘tick tick’. Listen carefully, it does!

A half-line with the following makeup: stressed syllable, unstressed one, stressed syllable, unstressed one, is the basic building block of poetry in Old English. This type of rhythmic pattern is termed falling. Including half-lines with extra unstressed syllables the falling pattern is heavily used. It accounts for 40% of the half-lines in Beowulf.

In Old English poetry, stress patterns were further accented by alliteration. The first stress in the second half of the line alliterated with either or both of the stresses in the first half of the line. The second stress in the second half of the line didn’t alliterate with either of the stresses in the first half of the line. As I mentioned at the start of the paragraph this is all for a typical line of poetry, there are numerous exceptions and variations. But a standard line like Beowulf Line 4…

oft Scyld Scefing sceaðena þreatum

has its first three stresses alliterating while its last one does not.

Working out the patterns of stresses in Old English poetry lines is something that has kept scholars busy arguing amongst themselves for the last hundred years. The first comprehensive methodology for classifying half-lines of Old English verse was devised by Eduard Sievers in 1885.

Despite coming up with a reasonably robust system, there were problems with his classification. Unfortunately, Sievers thought that vowel length indicated the primary syllables as in various Latinate languages. As was shown earlier, Old English like Modern English is a stress based language. If we substitute stress for vowel length as the indicator of primary syllables, we get the types listed below. (Here primary stresses are indicated with a 1, secondary stresses with a 2, and unstressed syllables with a hyphen).

Max Kaluza refined Sievers system. To accommodate all the stress pattern variations in Beowulf he had to expand the 5 types of half-line up to 90. A J Bliss also worked out a more flexible and accurate system for mapping out the stress patterns but again at the expense of complexity.

J C Pope used a system of musical notation so that each line was of equal time length. This included rests where no words were spoken and the gap was filled by a strum of the harp. This system was a good solution for some of the awkward lines that didn’t fit neatly into Sievers’ system, but at the same time required other simple lines to be squashed or stretched unreasonably. Robert Creed and John Nist each came up with alternative theories working from the basis of Pope’s musical patterning. No one theory is universally accepted.

Unfortunately for the scholars we don’t know how harp strums were used within a poem or whether each line was of equal duration. What we do know from Bede, is that Cædmon’s fellow farm workers were expected to be able to compose poetry at a feast, and the fact that Cædmon couldn’t was seen as unusual. Therefore the rules of composition must be simple enough for anyone with an ear for rhythm and good turn of phrase to produce acceptable verse.

Table 1: Sievers Stress Patterns

Type  DescriptionExample 1Example 2Sample from Beowulf
AFalling1-1-1—1-Grendel gongan
BRising-1-1—1–1syððan ærest wearð
CRising / Falling-11-—11–oft Scyld Scefing
D2 Stress Start112-11-2bat banlocan
EFalling . Rising1-2112-1fyrbendum fæst

So, luckily being a poet rather than a scholar I don’t have to follow any particular theory. Personally, I think that if we want a system that describes the stress patterns of most halflines in Old English verse, then the one based on Sievers and shown in the table above will do. As long as we realise it is not a definite rule and plenty of exceptions occur, we can use it as a basis for writing traditional style verse in Old or Modern English.

Tricks of the trade

As well as rhythm and its associated alliteration, Anglo-Saxon poets used other techniques to make their verses stand out as poetry. I mentioned some that modern poets use at the start of the article. Here I shall mention some that were used in Anglo-Saxon times and will give a traditional flavour to a verse if a modern poet adopted them.

Compounds: Old English poetry was full of compound words, these were usually two nouns joined together. They could be literal or figurative or somewhere between. At the figurative end you have kennings like woruldcandel used to describe the sun. At the more literal end are words like maððumsweord meaning precious sword from the Old English words for treasure and sword. In the middle are compounds like heaðowæd from the nouns heaðo meaning battle and wæd meaning garb thus creating a word meaning armour. Often the root syllable of the second element in compound words would receive a secondary stress which is useful for forming Sievers type D and E stress patterns.

Poetic vocabulary: Words like guð meaning war and reced meaning hall are only found in poetry not prose. Therefore they would seem to be special poetic or possibly archaic wordings. This is tricky to replicate now. Littering a poem with verrily and doth wouldn’t work in Modern English unless writing a pastiche. In my verses I sometimes include Anglo-Saxon terminology that has dropped out of use eg. shieldwall. I think this falls somewhere between the use of poetic vocabulary and the use of compound words, but still gives an Anglo-Saxon flavour to verses.

Reiteration: This uses various expressions to refer to the same object or person, repeatedly describing them in different term or attributes. This adds volume to the description for extra emphasis. Kings in Beowulf are often referred to: as protectors of their people, as givers of treasure, by whose son they are, and by who they’ve slain, as well as by name.

Self containment: Though half-lines are continuous grammatically, they are often almost self-contained syntactic units. The gap between the half-lines is seen as a divide and phrases tend not to run on through it. For example if I wrote the line…

warily the wounded    warrior battled

I would have put the two closest related words, the noun warrior and its adjective wounded in separate half-lines running over the divide. I have also split the adverb warily from its verb battled. Rearranging the line into…

the wounded warrior warily battled

better fits the syntactic units into the half-line structure.

This style of self-containment lends a steady sweeping grandeur to a lot of Anglo-Saxon verse.

Alternate alliterative patterns: Once the regular alliteration has been established, other variations can be used occasional as a contrast. These can include…

Bunched alliteration. This is where one or two alliteration sounds are used repeatedly in nearby lines. In Beowulf lines 760-764 have many stressed syllables starting with f and w.

Transverse alliteration where the second stress in the line instead of alliterating with the first and third stresses, alliterates with the fourth. An example from Beowulf is line 39…

hildewæpnum ond heaðowædum

Triple alliteration where in Type D or E half-lines the secondary stress also alliterates with the two primary ones. For example in the first half of Beowulf line 743…

synsnædum swealh sona hæfde

Alternatively in a line with two or more secondary stresses they could alliterate with each other rather than the primary stress. eg. Beowulf line 236…

mægenwudu mundum meþelwordum frægn

Similarly unstressed syllables could alliterate in this manner, but as they were unstressed the effect would be more subtle.

Follow on alliteration is another pattern, where the fourth stress of one line alliterates with the stresses on the next line. In Beowulf lines 1949-50, the word flet alliterates with the first three stressed syllables in the following line.

æþelum diore syððan hio Offan flet

ofer fealone flod be fæder lare

An Example in Modern English

So below is my Caedmon Prize winning poem. It is written in Modern English but using the form of Old English poetry. I have put the verse in a font where all the letters are the same width. This makes it easier to lay the poem out. I have indicated the primary stresses with bold and underlining, secondary stress with bold, and left unstressed syllables unembellished. I have included the Sievers Type for each half-line and a line number for easy referencing. X indicates that the half-line does not fit easily into the basic Sievers system. I have added notes explaining some of the effects included in the poem.

The Commuter

E          01                                            I’m careworn weary

B B       02        a faceless face            in a flock of suits

X A       03        a sullen shieldwall      shifting homeward

B B       04        from platform push    to packed out train

A E       05        crumpled in carriage  I’m careworn weary

B B       06        enclosed by stress      and collar white

A B       07        my neck abraded        I need escape

A A       08        bound to bosses         bondsman loyal

X A       09        tied by necktie            tightly knotted

E A       10        oathsworn to office    unappreciated

C B       11        the rails rumble          a rhythmic dirge

A B       12        an uneasy echo           of my empty life

B A       13        a sorrowful sound      sets me mourning

C X       14        then brakes biting      breaks the spellsong

B A       15        a squealing scream     shriek of ravens

A X       16        slows to standstill      our steel paved journey

B A       17        this train of thralls      tired and jaded

B B       18        that waits for word    of what is wrong

A C       19        the carriage carries     its crowd nowhere

C E       20        I crave comfort           I’m careworn weary

C A       21        the guard gives           a grim announcement

B E       22        an obstruction struck stopping all routes

A E       23        mute commuters        make no complaint

A X       24        a broken body            blocks the homepath

C B       25        my nerves ruined       I needed escape

A C       26        but stopped beside me          the austere mortgage

A E       27        with finger fetters      fast round my throat

A B       28        its threat a whispered            “I know where you live

As a final point on the poem, I will leave you to decide whether the commuter is in the train, on the tracks or both.


Line 1b: The secondary stress worn alliterates with the primary stresses of the next syllable to produce an unusual rhythm that highlights the words which provide the mood of the poem, and are repeated later.

Line 2a: Repetition of face as stressed syllables, and the paradoxical image of a faceless face. I’ve included these early as effects to show this is a poem.

Line 3a/8b/10a: Using terms (shieldwall, bondsman, oathsworn) to replicate the Anglo-Saxon style poetic vocabulary.

Line 3a: Doesn’t neatly fit within Sievers’ types. This makes the poetic archaic compound word shieldwall a little more noticeable, which hopefully adds to the Anglo-Saxon flavour of a poem set in the modern world.

Line 5b: Repeats the first half-line of the poem to reinforce that this is a poem and to restate the mood of the commuter.

Line 8-10a: Reiteration of the same point in different terms to heighten how the commuter feels trapped by his job.

Line 9: Uses transverse alliteration, this should give a constricting feel to match the subject matter at this point. This is further accented by another X type half-line that contrasts with the two A types that precede it.

Line 10b: In the word ‘unappreciated’ the syllable ‘pre’ takes primary stress and ‘un’ and ‘at’ secondary stress. So I choose to raise the ‘un’ to a main stress in the poem and try to  emphasise that when reciting it.

Line 11-13: To simulate the rhythm of the railway tracks, I recite this section using the ideas of J C Pope, trying to make each half-line last the same length of time.

Line 14b: Uses a compound word spellsong and an unusual half-line rhythm to emphasise it.

Line 15b: shriek of ravens as an image to describe the train brakes, also adds a bit more Anglo-Saxon flavour.

Line 16: Contains the most stressed syllables in the poem. It stands out when recited, thus emphasising the line that divides the poem in half and holds important meaning.

Line 18: The visual joke of the word wrong that looks to alliterate with other Ws but doesn’t. Of course this doesn’t come across during a recital.

Line 19: The A followed by C half-lines pushes the emphasis onto the no of nowhere as does the alliteration of the three previous stresses.

Line 20b: Repeats the opening half-line to contrast with the dramatic developments within the poem.

Line 22a/23a: Like line 2a, these half-lines use identical stressed syllables (obstruction struck & mute commuters) as poetic effects.

Line 22b: In the words all routes the all would not normally take much stress but can do so. Therefore I give it some emphasis to make an E type half-line.

Line 24b: Like line 14b, uses a compound word homepath and an unusual half-line rhythm to emphasise it.

Line 27b28a: Follow on alliteration of throat & threat is given extra potency by the similarity of the two words. This change of alliterative pattern is a hint the poem is reaching its  conclusion.

Line 28b: Like my example of ‘I won’t write the poem now’ any word in this half line can take stress. When reciting out aloud I tend to emphasise the words where (as the anthropomorphic Mortgage will have the commuter’s address) and live and this neatly creates a B rhythm. Thus the poem matches its words, ending sharply with a stressed syllable rather than dribbling on with a couple of unstressed one

In summary

I would encourage anyone to write poetry in a traditional Anglo-Saxon style. There are conventions but poets never hold conventions in high regard, so don’t let them limit your creativity. Once you have written your verse I would urge you to recite it out aloud to yourself. Your bathroom mirror is your best friend. You will be able to hear which bits work and which need changing, while catching an echo of a rhythm that stretches back over a thousand years.

Sources Consulted

Randolph Quirk & C.L. Wren, An Old English Grammar 1955 Cambridge University Press

J.D.A. Ogilvy & Donald Baker, Reading Beowulf 1983 University of Oklahoma Press

Philip Davies Roberts, How Poetry Works 1986 Penguin George Jack (ed.), Beowulf: A student edition 1994 Oxford University Press

Written and Spoken Old English

In this part of the website we look at the language of the Anglo-Saxons. They spoke a language called Old English from which eventually became modern English. They produced beautiful manuscripts and wrote evocative poetry, but the letters and spellings they used were sometimes different, so we also have recordings and videos to help bring the language alive.

Members of the English Companions can also study a tutor-supported Correspondence Course to learn to read and speak Old English.

You can see the list of articles and recordings in the menu on the right, or use the search option to look for specific pieces.

We will be producing new items regularly so do come back to see what has been added.

Fourteen Carols for Christmas

Click on the link below to download a PDF file of fourteen traditional Christmas carols in English and translated into Old English by David Hinch.


  1. Silent Night
  2. O Holy Night
  3. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
  4. In The Bleak Midwinter
  5. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  6. O Come All Ye Faithful
  7. Once In Royal David’s City
  8. Away In A Manger
  9. Joy To The World
  10. O Come O Come Emmanuel
  11. It Came Upon The Midnight Clear
  12. The Holly And The Ivy
  13. O Little Town Of Bethlehem
  14. See, Amid The Winter’s Snow

Old English Alphabet

Letters of the Old English alphabet

Christianity brought with it the Latin alphabet, which was adapted to fit the sounds of Old English



Old English letters no longer in modern English*

*some are still used in other languages such as Swedish





j, v, w ‘s’

a letter called ‘ash’. It makes an ‘a’ sound as in ‘black’

this letter is called ‘eth’. It makes the ‘th’ sounds as in ‘thing’ or ‘that’ a letter called ‘thorn’. It makes the same sounds as the letter ‘eth’

this letter was called ‘wynn’. It makes the sound ‘w’

weren’t used in Old English, while q, k and z were only rarely used could be ‘long’, as shown above, or ‘insular’, just like the modern letter was not originally dotted
in Old English was just a smaller ‘T’
was a special symbol used for ‘and’. Known as the Tironian nota

Long and short vowels – approximate sounds


æ as in modern English ‘cat

a as in modern English ‘broad’

e as in modern English ‘bed’

i as in modern English ‘sit’

o as in modern English ‘not’

u as in modern English ‘put’

y as in French ‘tu


ǣ as in ‘there’

ā as in ‘father’

ē as in ‘bed’ but longer, like ‘bade’ ī as in ‘machine’

ō as in ‘not’ but longer, like ‘note’ ū as in NE ‘boot’

ȳ as in French ‘tu’ but longer

Long and short diphthongs

ea as in modern English ‘cat’ + neutral vowel
eo two short vowels together
ie as in ‘sit’ + neutral vowel

ēa = ǣ + a

ēo = ē + o

īe = ī + e

A ‘neutral vowel’ is the sound at the end of a word like ‘leader’

image showing old english runes and their meaning
Old English Runes