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7/31/2017 Common Features of Old English Literature | LetterPile

Common Features of Old English

Updated on October 14, 2011

Anaya M. Baker more

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

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.

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The original text of Beowulf was partially destroyed by fire.

Ubi-Sunt Topos
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
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 lords 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

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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 Grendels 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 exampleBeowulf employs many different synonyms and kennings for king or lord,
for God, and for the castle or hall.

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