Beowulf: Language and Poetics Quick Reference

Beowulf: Language and Poetics Quick Reference
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Beowulf is an old poem written several years ago and commonly known for using varieties of writing techniques such as kennings, variation, litotes, and appellation. The poem was written at a time when German tribes invaded England; therefore, the atmosphere was that of war resulting in the demise of people (Maria, 2006). Beowulf reflects on some occurrences such as Paganism that was practiced by the ancient people, and wars that traditional warriors participated in. There are themes that the poet has brought out in the poem, for example, a relationship that existed between God and the warriors. Other themes include evil in the society, courage, mortality, and relationship between the relatives and the wergild. The effects of techniques such as kennings, litotes, and violations on the Beowulf are discussed broadly in this essay.


Kennings are metaphoric naming of words, which are in a compound form that consists of two words. They express a situation or an activity using the common characteristics that define the state of affairs. The literal meaning of ‘kenning’ is whale-road, which refers to the sea. Some of the kennings used in the poem include life-lord, wardress, bed-companion, sea-skilled, battle-dress, and earth-dwellers. For example, the ship was referred to as ‘the swan- road’ and the dragon as ‘the twilight-spoiler’. Kennings indeed increase the strangeness of the modern reader, since currently; readers are used to listening to the actual writing of an object or word. The progress of the poem is not affected, the ideas or plot of the poem flowing easily in his mind. Kennings make the reader of the poem view it as a serious work of literature because it takes time for a composer of a poem to find descriptive words to define the nouns in the poem. For example, the noun dragon is described as the twilight-spoiler.


Variation is the use of several statements referring to a similar concept or idea in a work of literature, and each restatement represents a new side of the main concept discussed. The writers of the Old English often employed the style in their writing; hence, the style was exceptionally popular among previous poets. The composer of the Beowulf poem has used variation extensively throughout the entire poem. The style does not increase in strangeness to the modern ear of the reader because current writers still commonly use the style. For example in Beowulf, there are sentences that describe God which include; ‘They knew not the Lord, the judge of our deeds, were ignorant of God, the protector above’ (Shippery and Williamson, 2011). This technique mainly describes events, hence it is not strange to the current writers who use it often. The technique slows down the progress of the poem since they take the time and space of the writer and the reader. Variation makes the work of the poet appear a serious work because events are fully described and evaluated for easy understanding.


Litotes are understatements written when a positive statement is constructed by writing the negative of its positive. ‘Not a pleasant place (1372)’ was a statement king Hrothgar commented when describing Grendel’s mere (Bjork, Fulk, and Niles, 2008). The technique increases strangeness for the current readers since the use of Litotes is difficult to understand and can be complicated. This is shown in the following example when the hero had directed his warriors to the riches of the fire-dragon, he said the following words, “no easy bargain for any man to try to acquire them” (2415-6). The technique slows down the progress of the poem because one may not get the meaning if he/she misses the first negative word. Litotes make the work of literature less serious since sentences are constructed casually and the point is not written directly.

Bjork, R., Fulk, R., and Niles, J. (2008). Klaebers Beowulf and The fight at Finnsburg. London:
University of Toronto Press.
Maria, L. (2006). Reading the English Epic: Changing Noetics from Beowulf to the Morte
Darthur. The University of Pretoria. Retrieved on September 20, 2011, from:

Shippery, T. and Williamson, C. (2011). Beowulf and Other Old English Poems. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press.