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The most famous Anglo-Saxon poem is ‘Beowulf’. The story is easy to find retold online. It’s a very long poem full of dragons, man-eating monsters, heroes, ships, travels, fights, swords, honour, gold and a bit of drinking.

(i) look at the ‘original’ manuscript – any page will do, the opening is always easy to find. Go online – wikipedia or the British Library, just type them in with ‘Beowulf manuscript’.

(ii) See if you can read any of it (you aren’t Professor Tolkien, so no worries if it’s all beyond your ken)

(iii) can you recognise the letters/style of writing/spot any weird letters? You can look up the Anglo-Saxon alphabet on wikipedia too.

(iv) look at the way the ‘poem’ is laid out on the page … hm …

(v) poem? It looks like a bit of prose. But remember this isn’t a poem written out by the poet him/herself. It’s a version/copy of another version/copy, probably made by monks, who were the most accomplished writers at the time. Way back before, the poem was probably remembered by reciters, and then got written down bit by bit until the monks put it onto paper (vellum). There’s lots of debate amongst boffins concerning reciting and concerning how much Christian stuff was stuck into a Pagan poem, and when.

(vi) if you’re mad-keen, there are recordings of a real enthusiasts reciting the ‘original’ on youtube, and somewhere there’s one of a seriously enthusiastic Saxonite reciting to the accompaniment of a reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo harp.


Get acquainted with some other Anglo-Saxon poems. The most famous are probably ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Seafarer’ and ‘The Dream of the Rood’. There are loads of translations of these online.


So now look at a ‘modern’ print version of the poem, and see how it’s laid out. The most famous is Klaeber’s ‘Beowulf’. Just type in online ‘Klaeber Beowulf pdf’ and you can see it and browse it all.

It is very different from the ‘original manuscript’. It’s a real POEM. But an Anglo-Saxon one. So … take note of :

(i) the half-lines – each line made up of two separated halves. No verses, stanzas here.

(ii) the ‘alliteration’ (VERY IMPORTANT) – where words in both halves of each line start with the same letter. This is the building-block of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is called ‘assonance’ when the starting letters are vowels (a,e,I,o,u), and any VOWEL works with any of the others.

(iv) see how the ‘binding’ of the half-lines with alliteration and assonance works – sometimes there’s lots, sometimes only one, there is no hard and fast rule.

(v) Rhyme? Pah, rhyme is something that comes later in the history of poetry, and looks a bit silly and weedy when compared to the thumping and clever alliterative way of writing poetry by the Saxons.

That’s it for Week 1 : in Week 2 you’re ready to choose a subject, and start a few easy lines.

Remember to send any work that you would like looked at to John at