Poetry Challenge 5: Anglo Saxon Style

So for the fun of it, I want to do something a little different this time around. The due date is July 15th 2014 (although the challenge never expires, as usual.)

And the challenge is to write a chunk of poetry in the Anglo-Saxon style.

Before the Norman conquest, English poetry did not rhyme and it was not metrical – because these effects came in with the marriage of English to French and Latin. However, Old English had its own musical effects and I’d like us to try our hand at these. This is not something I’ve tried before, so I don’t want to make it too heavy or serious. Let’s just take a stab at it.

Here are the guidelines.

1.) Syllables. You can have as many syllables per line as you want to, as long as exactly four syllables are stressed or accented and there’s a pause after the second stressed syllable.

For example,

Then straight she came, sea-dweller’s wife

2) Alliteration. The first stressed syllable after the pause (ceasura) must start with the same letter or sound as one or both of the stressed syllables before the ceasura.

3) Try to use words that are Anglo-Saxon in origin, rather than Latin in origin. Generally you can tell, because Latinate words are longer and more abstract, while Anglo-Saxon words are more picturesque, poetic, concrete, and usually shorter. If you need to look a word up, a dictionary should give the origin, but don’t worry over it too much. An overall effect is what we are going for. If you use un-bookish words that are usually only a syllable or two long and spark pictures in your imagination, you will approximate the usage. Avoid slang but embrace the colloquial.

4) Avoid abstract topics and write about something more concrete or narrative, to match the language.

5) If you want to add something to the challenge, you can look into “kennings.” This is a type of word-smithing in which you avoid using the actual name of a thing, and instead create a temporary metaphoric phrase for it. So for instance, instead of “death by the sword” an Anglo-Saxon poet might say “sword-sleep.” Instead of “a fleet of ships,” you might see “wave-herd.” Kennings might also make reference to theology or mythology. This is something that George Martin borrows in his mythology. One of his peoples in the books are a feirce race of sea-farers, and they make constant reference to “the drowned god” (instead of saying his name.)

Kennings are sometimes defined as a type of poetic circumlocution: a round-about way of saying something. In modern English this can be frustrating so I think that there must be a poetic way to put a kenning together.

6) Finally, remember that we can’t write exactly like our far-distant predecessors, because much of the tradition has been submerged in later developments. However, we can use this challenge to remind ourselves that the metrical-rhyming poetry is a later stage of development that was born out of the combination of Old English and French/Latin, and not an absolute poetic orthodoxy. My feeling is that each language brings with it a tendency towards a certain kind of poetic music.

Let’s feel Old English for a couple of weeks!

4 thoughts on “Poetry Challenge 5: Anglo Saxon Style

    • I don’t think it works exactly like that. Do you understand music? Think of it as if there’s a beat based on eighth notes. You need to make sure there’s an eighth rest somewhere between the second STRESSED syllable and the third STRESSED syllable. Hope that helps.


      • Ah, I meant to say “immediately after the second *stressed* syllable”, but this still helps, to know the pause should just come somewhere between the second and third stress and not necessarily right after the second one.

        I’m clueless about music, unfortunately.


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