Poetic Devices in Beowulf
There are a small variety of poetic devices employed in the composition of the poem Beowulf, and they are repeated numerous times.
The Old English poetry of Beowulf is distinguished primarily by its heavy use of allliteration, or the repetition of the initial sounds of words. In the original manuscript version of the poem, alliteration is employed in almost every line (or two half-lines); in modern translations of the poem this is not so. In lines 4 and 5 of the poem we find:
Oft Scyld Scefing sceapena preatum
monegum maegpum meodo-setla ofteah
The repetition of the “s” sound in line 4 and of the “m” sound in line 5 illustrate alliteration, and this occurs throughout the poem, providing to the listener what the rhyme of modern-day poetry provides – an aesthetic sense of rightness or pleasure. The Old English poet would “tie” the two half-lines together by their stressed alliteration (Chickering 4). Each line of poetry ideally contains four principal stresses, two on each side of a strong medial caesura, or pause. “At least one of the two stressed swords in the first half-line, and usually both of them, begin with the same sound as the first stressed word of the second half-line” (Donaldson 67). Such stressed alliterative binding together created hundreds of pairs that are used over and over, such as halig/heofon holy/heaven, dryhten/dugud lord/troop, fyren/feond sin/enemy. The pairs need not be complementary, but rather can be contrastive, like eadig/earm happy/wretched and wearm/winter warm/winter. These dictional contrasts provide the listener additional pleasure by surprising his expectations. The alliteration also includes stressed vowels (Tharaud 34).
These pairs are the backbone of Beowulf: Prof. Magoun, in examining the poem, considers it probable that nearly 100% of the language in Beowulf is formulas, (88-89) or phrases from a common bank of phraseology that all poets drew their language from.
A second poetic device found in the poem is the reliance on kennings to portray the imagery of the poem. Kennings are compound expressions using characteristics to name something. The kenning hronrade literally means “whale-road,” which translates as “sea” to the listener or reader. There are hundreds of kennings in the poem:
Life-lord living Lord war-dress armor
bed-companion spouse earth-dwellers humans
kin-slaughter killing of relatives gift-throne throne
wave-rider boat sea-skilled sailor
sea-currents waves battle-dress armor
battle-shirts mail word-hoard vocabulary
hearth-companions friends pitch-black dark