The Style of Beowulf
A consideration of the stylistic features in the classic poem Beowulf involves a study of the poetic verse, the vocabulary, alliteration, litotes, simile, kennings, variation and double-meaning or ambiguity.
The poetic conventions used by this poet include two half-lines in each verse, separated by a caesura or pause. The half-lines are joined by the oral stressing of alliterative words in the half-lines, both consonants and vowels (Tharaud 34). “At least one of the two stressed words 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). When a word was stressed in the first half-line, its alliterative counterpart was stressed in the following half-line; the words could either complement each other, like holy/heaven or sin/enemy, or they could contrast each other like happy/wretched or warm/winter.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceapena preatum
monegum maegpum meodo-setla ofteah (4-5)
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 vocabulary of the poem is remarkable in several ways. First of all, about one-third of the vocabulary is compound words. For the concept of “the sea” there are 50 different compounds; likewise there are 50 compounds for the concept of “a battle;” and 30 words for “king” (Chickering 5). It is truly amazing that in this poem of about 3000 lines there are 4000 vocabulary entries. Many of the compounds are different combinations of the same compound elements. These compounds, or formulas, are the backbone of Beowulf: Prof. Magoun, in examining the poem, considers it probable that a high percentage of the language in Beowulf is formulas (88-89), formed from a common “word-hoard” that all scops drew on for their vocabulary. On average there is a nominal or adjectival compound every other line, and a new compound in every third line. Many of these compounds did not exist in the average Old Englishman’s vocabulary; some are found only in this poem and nowhere else.
The style of Beowulf is affected in a very noticeable way by its heavy usage of metaphorical naming, called kenning. 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