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How the Beowulf Poet Composed His Poem

Robert Payson Creed

Oral Tradition Volume 18, Number 2

Received wisdom has it that the Beowulf poet put together his poem halfline by halfline (“verse” by “verse”). My work on the poem over the past fifty years has led me to think that we can begin to understand how the poet composed his tale, clause by clause, only if we turn our attention to the whole lines in which he told the story. The poet built each four-measure-line—and each of the rare five- and six-measure lines—around the alliteration of the root syllables of stressed words. His tradition seems to have provided him with many alliterating word pairs that encapsulate culturally significant ideas. For example, the poet built five lines around the pair dom (achievement) and dea∂ (death)—dom before death, at least seven lines around the pair eorl (nobleman) and ellen (brave action), and nine around the pair soπ (truth) and
secgan (say). This does not mean, however, that the poet was constrained to frame each clause within the confines of a single alliteration: rather, he composed many passages with suppleness and flexibility simply by beginning a new clause in the middle of the line. This expedient left him free to develop the clause around different alliterations.

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