Lesson Plans: Grades

The Beauty of Anglo-Saxon Poetry: A Prelude to Beowulf

Created September 7, 2010


The Lesson


The Beauty of Anglo-Saxon Poetry: A Prelude to Beowulf

This sixth-century brooch illustratesthe Anglo-Saxon love ofelaborate surface decoration.

Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Who says the Dark Ages were “dark”? In the world that we sometimes think of as barbaric and violent, beauty was prized in visual ornamentation and literary elaboration. In this introduction to Anglo-Saxon literature, students will study the literature and literary techniques of the early Middle Ages, thus preparing students to read Beowulf with an appreciation for its artistry and beauty. Students will learn the conventions of Anglo-Saxon poetry, solve online riddles, write riddles, and reflect on what they have learned.

Guiding Questions

What can we learn from the manuscripts and literature of the Anglo-Saxons? What are some formal elements of Anglo-Saxon poetry?

Learning Objectives

  • Define and give examples of kennings, alliteration, and caesura
  • Analyze and solve Anglo-Saxon riddles
  • Reflect on how literature and art were important aspects of Anglo-Saxon life

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson and download and copy any handouts you will be using. For Exercise 1: Riddle Background and Analysis, please download the file Riddles Analysis. As this lesson is suitable as a prelude to the study of Beowulf, additional resources dealing with Anglo-Saxon culture, Old English, and information specific to Beowulf have been added to "Preparing the Lesson" below. These are intended as supplementary resources and should be used as needed.
  • Internet Sources for Riddles. Read through the following information on literary elements, and share with your students the following information to help them understand the syntax and style of Anglo-Saxon poetry:
    • The website Anglo-Saxon Riddles, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Labyrinth website, has a wealth of information on riddles, as well as original and translated Exeter Book Riddles for use in the classroom (complete with answers). Analyze several riddles in terms of kennings, caesura, and alliteration in preparation for the students analyzing the riddles on their own.

      The following definitions and examples come from The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, by J.A. Cuddon, third ed. (London and New York: Penguin, 1991).

      Alliteration: A figure of speech in which consonants, especially at the beginning of words, or stressed syllables, are repeated … In (Old English) poetry alliteration was a continual and essential part of the metrical scheme and until the late Middle Ages was often used thus. (Cuddon provides some classic examples, such as Coleridge's description of the sacred river Alph in his poem, Kubla Khan: "Five miles meandering with a mazy motion.")

      Caesura: (Latin: "a cutting") A break or pause in a line of poetry, dictated, usually, by the natural rhythm of the language … In [Old English] verse the caesura was used … to indicate the half line.

      Kenning: The term derives from the use of the Old Norse verb kenna 'to know, recognize'…It is a device for introducing descriptive colour or for suggesting associations without distracting attention from the essential statement. (Cuddon offers the following instances of Old English kennings:

      a) helmberend—"helmet bearer" = "warrior"

      b) beadoleoma—"battle light" = "flashing sword"

      c) swansrad—"swan road" = "sea" Essentially, then, a kenning is a compact metaphor that functions as a name or epithet; it is also, in its more complex forms, a riddle in miniature.)

      Examples of each of these aspects of Anglo-Saxon prosody can readily be found in this online text of Beowulf from the Labyrinth Library (for other texts, see the last bulleted item in this section, below).

    • To help your students understand the pacing of Anglo-Saxon poetry and its relationship to alliteration and caesura, visit Old English Riddles, available from Swathmore College Dept of English Literature. Listen to these poems in Old English and download the sound files to share the experience with your students.
  • Internet Sources for Anglo-Saxon Culture. You may want to supplement this lesson or your future work with Beowulf with a more general discussion about Anglo-Saxon history, culture, and beliefs.
    • The Anglo Saxon Chronicles, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed Labyrinth website, has a wealth of such resources, including information about Beowulf (see next section). Charters from Anglo-Saxon England at Anglo-Saxon Charters, from Trinity College, Cambridge, reveal details about the daily life of these Germanic peoples: marriages, battles, coins, deaths, and other matters.
    • Artwork from the archeological dig at Sutton Hoo that yielded important information about the era can be found at The Sutton Hoo Society, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed ArchNet.
    • Information on the comitatus, the warrior bands, and wergeld—or man-price—is found at The Comitatus and Tribal Identification, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Victorian Web; in this feature from the same website, read in Peace-Weaving about the position of women and tribal relationships (notice the kenning!)
  • Internet Sources for Beowulf
    • This lesson is suitable as a prelude to the study of Beowulf. As an introduction to that text, and as a capstone activity, you may wish to end this lesson by sharing with your students the resources of the Electronic Beowulf Project, a resource available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Labyrinth website.

      We know of Beowulf today because of a single manuscript, which was badly damaged by fire in the early eighteenth century. Some sections of the poem exist only in the form of transcriptions made from the original manuscript before the fire; moreover, when in the nineteenth century the remaining fragments of the manuscript were encased in frames to prevent further damage, portions of the text were hidden to anyone not able to physically inspect the original. The Electronic Beowulf Project is an effort to collect and digitize all images from that manuscript, as well as the eighteenth-century transcripts; in addition, it makes available to scholars all over the world those portions of the script previously hidden by the protective frame (you can read more about the process and advantages of Digital Preservation at the Electronic Beowulf website). While the project in its entirety is available only on a set of two CDs, on the website you can find numerous sample images of the manuscript. Having experienced the beauty of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, your students will be ready to approach the Beowulf manuscript with a better understanding of what has been preserved—and what has been lost.
    • You have several options for online versions of Beowulf. Besides the online text of Beowulf from the Labyrinth Library mentioned above, see also the modern English edition of Beowulf, translated by Francis B. Gummere, at Bartleby.com, a resource from Internet Public Library.
    • Beowulf in Hypertext, a link on Labyrinth, has a wonderful hypertext version that allows you to switch between the original and translated text. This valuable resource also provides information about characters, cultural background, and the manuscript history.
    • Old English Aerobics, a link through the EDSITEment resource Center for the Liberal Arts, has Readings from Beowulf, where you can listen to a recording of various parts of Beowulf in Old English.
    • Anglo Saxon Chronicles has an introduction to Beowulf (under the Poetry section), with notes on the historical background, setting, and composition history of the text, followed by links to related websites.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Riddle Background and Analysis
  • This activity should also be conducted either in an Internet/computer room with the means to project images from a computer or in the classroom with a mobile, wireless computer lab, also with the means to project images from a computer. Each student computer should have the relevant web pages book-marked to facilitate student use and learning. If computers are not available, photocopy the texts for the students.
  • Visit the visit Old English Riddles, available from Swarthmore College Department of English Literature. Before class, download the sound files so that you can play them while the students look at the Anglo-Saxon words and "read" along. Show your students what Old English Riddles look like and play the sound files so they understand what Old English sounds like.
  • Share the definitions and give examples of kenning, caesura, and alliteration, typical elements of Anglo-Saxon literature. (See Preparing to Teach this Lesson, above.)
  • Have the students open the bookmarked website Exeter Book Riddles, part of Anglo-Saxon Riddles, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Labyrinth website, (or have them look at the photocopied text).
  • Read one of the riddles (either in Old English or in translation) and then analyze one or two poems for kenning, caesura (look at the gap, the pause, the caesura in each line), and alliteration. Ask students to help analyze a third poem. The teacher and students will discuss how these poetic devices shape our understanding of the poem. Kennings can be discussed as "mini-riddles" in their own right.

    (For definitions of kenning, caesura, and alliteration, see Preparing to Teach).
  • Next, have students pick a poem from Texts and Translations, which lists nearly one hundred Anglo-Saxon riddles. Again, if computers are not available, copy the text for the students. Students can work in pairs or small groups to see if they can solve the riddles. Instructors may want to guide the students in their choice; some Riddles are particularly difficult or do not even have a "best" answer. For example, Riddles #1, 2 and 13 have a reasonable level of difficulty, whereas the answer to Riddle #2 remains uncertain to scholars. Review riddles you plan to assign prior to the class (and you might also print out riddles for student groups, if the internet is unavailable). Warn students that once they click on "solution" that all the answers will be shown, so it is best to write their answers and check them at the end of the given time. Alternatively, you might assign the riddle, but ask the students to present their answer to the class, explaining what led them to guess their particular answer.
  • Download and pass out copies of the handout Riddles (in PDF format). The handout will be used for each of the following activities:
    • Students analyze the riddles for kennings, caesura, and alliteration. They may do this analysis by using either the Anglo-Saxon or translated version.
    • Next, each student writes a riddle in the Anglo-Saxon style and turns it in to the teacher. Compile the riddles and give them to students' classmates or another class to see if they can solve the riddles.
    • Finally, students may write a reflection paper (writing to learn) on what they have learned about the Anglo-Saxon people/culture from their riddles.

The Basics

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > British
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Folklore
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Fables, Fairy tales and Folklore
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Creative writing
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Poetry analysis
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Visual analysis
  • Writing skills


Activity Worksheets

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