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