Villains, monsters, heroes, bloody battles, dramatic scenery, and beautiful women who don’t do too much. Shockingly enough, that’s not a description for the current blockbuster action film, but a description of one of the oldest existing epic poems written in English: Beowulf.
Maybe you read it once in high school, or in your first English class in University or College, maybe you listened to a clip of it being recited in the original Old English and thought “this will never be useful in real life.” Beowulf is a far cry from modern short-form poets such as Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav. At over 3000 lines, Beowulf is a poem of epic proportions.
If Anglo-Saxon verse sounds ancient, that is because it is. Written in Old English, Beowulf is composed in what is now called four-stress lines. Another key component of Anglo-Saxon verse is alliteration. The technique, however, can be used to make any modern-day situation seem epic:
She stared steadily at the book
words wobbling on the page; blinking
the sleepy scholar sought sustenance
she cradled her coffee cup close but,
the villainous vessel was empty. Damn.
To sum up the above verse: a student is trying to study while sleepy. The villain: one many a writer has succumbed to—no more precious caffeine in the covetous carafe. To illustrate both how much fun it is to write and how easy it is to read and say, the summary includes both alliteration and four-stress lines.
Line one, “She stared steadily at the book” includes alliteration. Stared and steadily have the same beginning sound. The words she, stared, steadily and book are all stressed. Although there are 8 beats or syllables in the line, four of those “she stared steadily at the book” are stressed.
This easy beat allows the speaker to keep a steady rhythm, without having to think of rhyming words; unlike many forms of ancient poetry, Anglo-Saxon verse did not rhyme. At its base, Anglo-Saxon verse, like the long epic Beowulf, is lines of varying lengths that have four stressed syllables per line and include alliteration. Alliteration is a strong literary device in spoken word poetry giving both the listener and reader a sharper, deeper feeling of the overall tone of the poem, strongly illustrated in Blythe Baird’s poem Taking My Mother to a Gay Bar.
Another element, one that is not found in line one, is a caesura. In modern verse, a caesura is a pause, generally in or near the middle of the line. Derived from the Latin word caedere meaning cut or hewn. In Latin or Ancient Greek verse it is a break between words within a metrical foot.
words wobbling on the page; blinking
The semicolon separates blinking from the rest of the line. The line has alliteration with words wobbling, and because of blinking, there are four stresses. But, “blinking” is really the start of the next line:
words wobbling on the page; blinking / the sleepy scholar sought sustenance
If blinking was in the third line, there would not be four stresses in lines two or three. If this sounds like an overdramatic rendition of a study session, yes, yes it is but, it sounds cool and looks epic written on the page.
One thing the above modern verse is missing that Anglo-Saxon verse utilized frequently is a kenning. A kenning is a created phrase that is used in place of a common word. For example, in his translation of Beowulf, Seamus Heaney uses the phrase “swan’s roads” to describe the calm ocean that Beowulf and his men are blessed with on their journey to the Spear-Danes. Instead of telling the reader the ocean was calm, Heaney evokes an image of a calm, peaceful, even graceful ocean with the image of swans gliding across the water.
Commonly known as Old English Poetry, almost all Anglo-Saxon literature was intended for oral performance. By using alliteration, and a pattern of four stressed syllables per line, the result, when spoken out loud, is a harsher, guttural sound with a rhythm that is more of a chant than a song. For hundreds of years, aural poetry and songs were how many people got their information, and their entertainment.
In order to keep audiences entertained, the hero was strong, the history and backstory of the plots were long, and suspense was built up by not revealing key names until it was absolutely necessary. Anglo-Saxon poetry such as Beowulf utilized specific literary devices to have a steady, rhythmic flow throughout the entire poem. As Beowulf has over 3000 lines, a simple beat and no rhyme scheme makes the poem easier to write, and easier to speak. Although for many poetry evokes an image of a stuffy English Professor dryly reading from a thick book, or your high school English teacher telling you how to interpret the poet’s feelings, modern poetry can still evoke strong feelings while speaking about modern issues. Neil Hilborn’s Rejected Ideas for Tinder Profiles is both relatable for anyone who has tried online dating, and horrifyingly funny for anyone who had given up on online dating. When a piece of art “speaks to you,” you are seeing bits of yourself in it.
Poetry, at its root, is an ancient form of communication. From The Epic of Gilgamesh circa 2000 BCE to Olivia Gatwood’s Ode to the Women on Long Island, poetry has been a consistent method of storytelling and news sharing for thousands of years. Like all art forms, poetry is constantly evolving.
Currently, there are two very distinct forms of poetry that are popular among modern-day poets. The first is micropoetry, which is bite-sized poetry that is easy to digest while scrolling through Instagram or Twitter. The second is spoken word. Much like micro-poetry, spoken word poems can be readily accessible on the internet. Button Poetry’s YouTube channel is one of the countless places to find performances by current poets, such as Repetition by Phil Kaye. Much like Anglo-Saxon verse, the poets featured by Button Poetry are meant to be listened to, not read on a screen.
The literary elements of Beowulf can be used for any subject. The effect, when spoken in modern English and not Old English, is a steady rhythmic beat that is easy to follow along while listening, and easy to read out loud. From writing about your struggles with family to writing about your struggles with writing the perfect Tinder bio, if you are passionate, your passion will show. The hard part can be balancing passion with structure. Take a page of parchment from the manuscripts of the past; by using ancient means of structure, any poem can be an epic one.