How Was Old English Poetry Composed

Metres and Rhyme

The oldest form of English poetry is what is known as alliterative verse. This type of poetic composition is based on the repetition of the initial sounds of words within the same line of verse, which creates a sense of rhythm and structure. For example, in the following lines of Anglo-Saxon poetry:

“He found a fount of far-spread fame
In glory girded with a gleaming flame”

The repetition of the consonants f, g and gl gives a feeling of rhythm and structure to the poem. This type of poetry was developed by ancient Germanic peoples who spoke Old English, and was written predominantly in the language known as ‘Old English’. Other than the use of alliteration, this type of poetry is also characterised by its use of a particular metre called ‘four stress lines’.

Four stress lines consists of four syllables in each line of verse, which are stressed as shown below:

“For|bear | to be | per plexed”

Four Stress Lines allows the poet to create a much more complex and intricate structure to their work than was possible with the simplified alliteration-based style. Indeed, this is the style which would later come to dominate English Poetry in the 14th and 15th centuries.

In terms of rhyme, the earliest English poets used a number of different systems of rhyme. The most common of these was known as ‘Crossed Rhyme’. This was a device by which the poets would break up the metre of the poem by inserting a line of verse that rhymed with the line preceding it. This was used in Anglo-Saxon poetry as a way of introducing a new thought or topic. For example, in the following lines of verse:

“The rush of fate, a sorrow sore
He knows, who tries the ruler’s lore”

The two lines are separated by the cross-rhyming line:

“The word of him who wields the throne”

Literary Devices

A number of literary devices were used by Old English poets in order to impart certain meanings to their work. These included the use of allegory, metaphor, and imagery. Alleogory refers to a narrative which conveys a lesson or moral by using symbols to represent abstract ideas. An example of this would be the classic poem ‘The Seafarer’, which employs the image of a man adrift at sea in order to represent mankind’s search for a higher purpose in life.

Metaphor is a figure of speech which makes an implicit comparison between two or more things that are not actually similar. It is a common device in Old English Poetry, and often employed to express abstract ideas. The poem ‘The Wanderer’ employs the metaphor of a solitary ship travelling the snow-covered sea in order to convey the idea of loneliness and despair.

Imagery is the use of vivid and powerful descriptive language in order to evoke a particular emotional or sensory response in the reader. This was a particular feature of the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, and was used to create a sense of longing and melancholy in their works. In the early poem ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, for example, the poet uses the image of a lonely figure standing on the shore of a desolate sea in order to evoke feelings of loneliness and regret.

Syntax and Language Choice

Syntax is the study of the arrangement of words in a sentence in order to convey meaning. In Old English poetry, there was a particular emphasis on the syntax of sentences in order to convey a certain emotional tone. For example, in the poem ‘The Seafarer’, the poet uses long sentences with complicated verb constructions in order to evoke a sense of despair and longing. Similarly, in ‘The Wanderer’, the poet uses short and simple sentences in order to impart a feeling of resignation and weariness.

The language used by Old English poets was also chosen with a view to conveying a specific tone or atmosphere. Many poets would use archaic language or archaic words in order to impart a feeling of antiquity of their work. For example, the poet of ‘The Seafarer’ uses words such as ‘wicge’, which have become obsolete in modern English. Similarly, in ‘The Wanderer’, the poet uses words such as ‘care-thrawn’, which have become obsolete in modern English. This choice of language is an effective way of conveying an emotional tone and atmosphere in the poem.

Sources and Influence

The sources of Old English poetry are varied. Some poets drew upon European tales and legends in order to create their works, while others used more personal sources such as myth, personal experience, and Christian tradition. One of the most important sources of influence on Old English poetry was the Bible. Many Old English poems contained explicit references to Biblical figures and themes. For example, in ‘The Seafarer’, the poet makes a direct reference to God as the source of hope and comfort in times of despair.

Another major influence on Old English Poetry was the pagan Scandinavian and Germanic myths. Many of the poems contained explicit references to these myths, as well as allusions to them. For example, in the poem ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, the poet makes reference to the myth of the wolf, which was a motif in many Norse and Germanic mythologies.

Old English Poetry was also heavily influenced by the social and political conditions of the time. Many of the poems contained explicit references to the political, social, or economic conditions of the period. For example, in the poem ‘The Seafarer’, the poet makes numerous references to the idea of wandering and being adrift, which can be seen as a metaphor for the instability of the period.


The purpose of Old English poetry was primarily didactic. The poets wrote in order to impart moral or religious lessons to their readers, rather than to simply entertain them. This is evident from the poem ‘The Seafarer’, in which the poet uses the metaphor of a man adrift at sea to impart the lesson that human life must be guided by a higher purpose.

Old English poets also sought to evoke and celebrate a shared cultural identity as Anglo-Saxons. This is evident from the poem ‘The Wanderer’, in which the solitary figure of the wanderer is used to evoke a sense of longing and nostalgia for a lost cultural heritage.

The function of Old English poetry was also to convey messages of comfort and hope. This was especially true of Christian poems, which sought to remind their readers of the mercy and love of God. For example, in the poem ‘The Seafarer’, the poet uses the metaphor of the ocean to remind his readers that no matter how far they may wander, God’s love and protection will never desert them.


The legacy of Old English poetry has been far-reaching and enduring. Its influence can be seen in many of the later literature of England, including the Middle English works of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland. It also helped to establish certain themes and motifs which are still seen in modern English literature, such as the use of mythology and the exploration of man’s search for a higher purpose in life.

Old English Poetry also had a great influence on the development of the English language. The poem ‘The Seafarer’, for example, contains words and phrases which are not found anywhere else in the English language. Such words and phrases are known as archaisms, and they provide evidence of the influence of Old English Poetry on the English language.

The legacy of Old English Poetry is also evident in the way that it has come to be viewed as a valuable source of literary inspiration and creativity. The poets of this period wrote with such passion, wit and skill that their works continue to inspire new generations of writers. Indeed, the legacy of Old English Poetry continues to be felt to this day.

Minnie Walters is a passionate writer and lover of poetry. She has a deep knowledge and appreciation for the work of famous poets such as William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and many more. She hopes you will also fall in love with poetry!

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