Old English, otherwise known as Anglo-Saxon poetry, was written in the language of Old English between 650 and 1100 A.D. It includes such famous works as "The Wanderer," "The Seafarer" and the epic poem "Beowulf." Most Old English poets are anonymous, with only four known authors: Caedmon, Cynewulf, Bede and Alfred the Great. Much of Old English poetry consists of heroic epics, elegies, riddles and Christian poems.


Old English poetry was written during a time with many battles and struggles over land, culture and religion. Themes include good versus evil, religion, bravery and mortality. Much Old English poetry consists of epics featuring battles and heroes, drawing on Christian and pagan sources. One example of this type of heroic epic poem is "Beowulf," the longest Old English poem, which glorifies the hero and commends him for his bravery. Christian themes from both the Old and New Testament are also often present in Old English poetry, particularly in the poems of Caedmon and Cynewulf.

Poetic Line and Meter

Lines in Old English poetry are broken into two further half-lines, or verses. A pause, or caesura, separates the two verses. The first verse is called the on verse, and the second is called the off verse. Each verse contains two rhythm units called feet, which contain a stressed syllable either followed or preceded by one or more unstressed syllables. These stressed and unstressed syllables make up the five most common rhythmical patterns in Old English poetry.

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Because Old English poetry doesn't rhyme, alliteration becomes a key characteristic and plays a large part in the structure of the meter and its distinctive sound. Alliteration is the repetition of the initial consonant sound of stressed syllables. The two half-lines, or verses, are joined together by this alliteration, which occurs either when a pair of accented syllables both begin with the same consonant, or when they both begin with any vowel. One syllable in each verse must alliterate.


A significant characteristic of Old English poetry is its use of compounds words, with either one word modifying the other word, or, more commonly, with both words meaning relatively the same thing. A kenning is an important type of compound used in Old English poetry, referring to a thing more metaphorically or as a metonym. For example, the human body might be called "bone-house," or a ship might be called a "sea goer" or "sea-house. " In "The Wanderer," the sea is called the "whale-way." Alliteration plays a big part in these compounds.

About the Author

Gale Marie Thompson's work has been published in "Denver Quarterly," "Los Angeles Review" and "Best New Poets 2012." Thompson holds a BA in English and creative writing from the College of Charleston, a MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and is working on a PhD at the University of Georgia.