Common Features of Old English Literature
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 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 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 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 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 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: 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.