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Common Features of Old English Literature

Updated on October 14, 2011

Although much of modern-day Western literature has been influenced and adapted from the forms found in Old English poetry, works from period have some specific features that generally disappeared from use in later works. These features are indicative of both the style of writing shared by these often anonymous medieval writers, as well as greater cultural themes and preoccupations faced by a feudal, Germanic society that was quickly being eradicated.

While a significant body of writings from this time have been restored and preserved, two of the most famous examples of Old English writing, "Beowulf" and "The Wanderer" are commonly studied as exemplary of the overall style and theme.

The following list includes four of the most common elements found in Old English literature, using examples from both texts.

The original text of Beowulf was partially destroyed by fire.
The original text of Beowulf was partially destroyed by fire.

Ubi-Sunt Topos

The Ubi-Sunt Topos literally translates as “where are…(fill in the blank)” and is a variation on the question “Where are those who went before us?” Evoking a sense of the transience of life, the Ubi-Sunt topos expresses the feeling of loss, especially for past generations or disappearing culture.

“The Wanderer” is one of the most famous examples of the style, employing the questioning format. “Beowulf” is another, though Ubi-Sunt is exhibited more in the sentiment behind the work than in a rigid adherence to the questioning format.

Alliterative Verse

Alliterative verse uses the same sound at the beginning of words for two or more words in the same line. For example, the "b" sound in "Beowulf bravely went into battle." In a text using alliterative verse, such as Beowulf, the alliteration becomes the structure of the poem, and is sustained throughout. Alliterative verses predates more modern end-rhyme, and also includes use of a caesura, or pause, mid-line. For more information on alliterative verse, see Alliterative Verse in English Literature.

Comitatus

Comitatus was a feature of Germanic Heroism in which the lord’s men would live, breath, and die for the lord, in exchange for honor and treasure. Beyond this rather symbiotic relationship however, a deep significance is attached to the idea of comitatus, one of mutual reverence and respect. Comitatus also expresses the sense of “kinship” between warriors and among clan or tribal lines.

Seledream

Seledream literally translates as "joys of the hall." The hall of a king or lord was a place of respite between travel and battle, often the only place to obtain creature comforts like food, merriment, drink, and the company of women. Because of the difficult life depicted in the Old English epics, the hall-joy was often the only thing to look forward to, besides the idea of comfort in an afterlife.

Kenning

Kenning is the use of two words to express one. For example, in "The Wanderer,” “gold-friend” means lord or thane and “earth-gallery” means castle. In "Beowulf," “sea-shawl” means a sail on a ship. Kennings are used in order to elevate the language to a more poetic form, by taking an indirect route to get at the meaning.

Litotes

Litotes: A device in which something is deliberately understated in a somewhat ironic fashion. For example in “Beowulf” Grendel’s mother, in the midst of a ferocious battle is described as a “wolfish swimmer,” who carries him to her court.

Variation (Specific to OE texts)

Variation uses a large number of different words for the same thing or concept, thus elevating it as a concept and highlighting its importance. For example“Beowulf” employs many different synonyms and kennings for king or lord, for God, and for the castle or hall.

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      maria debnath 4 months ago

      Really helpful for us , as its very difficult for the newly college goers to grab the class lecture and prepare themselves.

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      Zakir alien 4 months ago

      I think it will be helpful for literary students.

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      Adel moussa 2 years ago

      The old Hebrew manuscripts of almost 1900 a year of which was discovered in the caves of Qumran on the Dead Sea beach

      And condition of natural and complete his book on 19 suede column and a length of almost a meter and 36 cm width almost-sale to the highest price yars22@hotmail.com

    • theresa22 profile image

      theresa22 5 years ago from Derby, uk

      As a literature student I found this a very interesting article. I love learning about the history of language. Great Hub!

    • Anaya M. Baker profile image
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      Anaya M. Baker 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Hi Alancaster, appreciate your stopping by. I'm sorry this hub wasn't in depth enough for you. I actually only meant it as a brief introduction to some of these terms. I have a fair amount of other hubs that focus on Old English literature, and I noticed I'd been throwing around terms and concepts without ever sitting down to give an explanation. Thanks for the book recommendation! Perhaps I'll check it out someday when I actually have some free time, though I don't think I'll ever be as ambitious as to want to read Beowulf in Old English! Cheers, Anaya

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      alancaster149 6 years ago

      I like this as a short introduction to O.E., but you could enlarge a little by drawing on sources, i.e., giving us your readers a deeper insight into the language. There's a Teach Yourself edition of Old English by Mark Atherton, a tutor in Old and Middle English at Regent's Park College, Pusey Street, Oxford OX1 2LB As paperbacks go it ain't cheap at £16.99, but the book does give an in-depth view of the subject (ISBN 978-0-340-91504-2). It's definitely worth the investment though - you could even get as far as reading Beowulf in the first written version.

    • Anaya M. Baker profile image
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      Anaya M. Baker 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Max, I think my beagle would agree with you. Normally, he yaps, barks, or whines. He comes when he is called, sits on command, and obeys the leash. But every once in a while, maybe in response to a good scent, or just something that perks his interest, he lets out what I can only describe as the most primal of yowls...and then behavior goes out the window. The only choice is to let him run with, because god forbid anything that gets in his way.

      I definitely see the parallel of the howl in some of the older poetry. I wonder if as time went on, it wasn't only the dogs that felt that loss of freedom and lost their ability to howl, but the people as well.

    • Anaya M. Baker profile image
      Author

      Anaya M. Baker 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Max, I think my beagle would agree with you. Normally, he yaps, barks, or whines. He comes when he is called, sits on command, and obeys the leash. But every once in a while, maybe in response to a good scent, or just something that perks his interest, he lets out what I can only describe as the most primal of yowls...and then behavior goes out the window. The only choice is to let him run with, because god forbid anything that gets in his way.

      I definitely see the parallel of the howl in some of the older poetry. I wonder if as time went on, it wasn't only the dogs that felt that loss of freedom and lost their ability to howl, but the people as well.

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      Max A. Pooch 6 years ago

      In earlier times my ancestoral means of communication was howling. Slowly, as we became more associated with humans we became barkers.

      I wonder if the barking signifies a loss of freedom. Certainly the sound of a dog barking does not invoke the same feelings as hearing a coyote or a wolf howl.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Voted up, very useful, and interesting