Old English syntax: some literary illustrations


N.F. Blake, A History of the English Language (NY UP, 1996)

Malcolm Godden, ‘Literary language’, Vol. 1 of Cambridge History of the English Language (CUP, 1992)

Bruce Mitchell, An Invitation to Old English & Anglo-Saxon England (Blackwell, 1995)


‘Cædmon’s hymn’


-traditionally the first vernacular poem on religious themes

-‘adaptation of a traditional poetic language developed primarily for heroic subjects to the subjects of Christianity’

-first appeared in Bede’s (Latin) History of the English Church and People (in Latin with some of the variation eliminated)

-Bede (AD 673-735) presents ‘the origins of religious poetry in OE in a miraculous light, as the product of an angelic visitation’ to a cowherd

-Cædmon quite explicitly dissociated from (and unsullied by?) the secular oral poetic tradition

-convenient for mass dissemination of previously aristocratic faith/literature

-some early manuscripts of EH also contain an English version (in Northumbrian dialect)

-other manuscripts have a version in West-Saxon



OE poetic trends exemplified in it


-fewer determiners (e.g. demonstratives, possessives, ‘articles’) than in prose:

          line 2 does have his modgeðanc ‘his intention’

but heofonrices weard ‘(the) keeper of (the) heavenly kingdom’

but heofon to hrofe ‘heaven as (a) roof’

-more noun phrases than verb phrases

-lots of apposition/‘variation’: Emphasis, definition...

-as Creator: fæder, scyppend, metodes (‘traditional poetic word for fate’)

          as leader: dryhten, frea

          as guardian: weard

-coordinators sometimes omitted

          -line 2 has ‘and’: metodes mihte & his modgeðanc

(NB alliteration emphasizes the antithesis between ‘might’ and ‘mind’)

          -but not many otherwise

-Effects: Godden 508: ‘it is not always clear at what point a series of parallel phrases ceases to define a ‘common referent’ and begins to denote two distinct objects’


-‘sentence boundaries’ and subordination are ambiguous:

-MS punctuation light

-conjunctions often formally indistinguishable from adverbs

          -in line 7, ðá is clearly an adverb ‘then’

          -but in line 3, swá could be

                   an adverb: e.g. ‘In this way, so’

                   a conjunction, e.g.

                             ‘how’ (Latin quomodo): Let’s praise him, how he...

                             ‘because, as’: Let’s praise him because he ...


-grammatical endings aren’t unambiguous

          sculon doesn’t have a subject: could be 1-3 pl.

                   Bede’s Latin has debemus -> ‘we’

                   could also be weorc wuldorfaeder

          eorðan and foldan can be Acc., Gen., or Dat.

                   G. sg. ‘for the children of earth’, ‘for the men of earth’

A.   sg. ‘the earth for [his] children’, ‘the earth for men’

(but 'earth' is unlikely to be the direct object, since he's still working on 'heaven')

OE parataxis: a poetic application

Source: Bruce Mitchell, An Invitation to Old English & Anglo-Saxon England (Blackwell, 1995), pp. 55-56. §120.


“Anglo-Saxon writers made effective use of sequences of simple sentences, sometimes with conjunctions like and, ac ‘but’, and hwæðere ‘nevertheless, yet’, sometimes without them. Both are well exemplified in this extract from The Dream of the Rood, there Christ’s Cross is confessing the part it played in the Crucifixion.”


Ealle ic mihte

All I could


feondas gefyllan hwæðre ic fæste stod.

[the] foes destroy. Yet I fast stood ..


... ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan,

Not dared I however bend to [the] earth,


feallan to foldan sceatum  ac ic sceolde fæste standan.

fall to [the] land’s surface. But I had fast to stand.


Rod wæs ic aræred  ahof ic ricne cyning

Rood/cross was I raised. Raised I [the] mighty king,


heofona hlaford  hyldan me ne dorste.

[the] lord of [the] heavens. [I] bow myself not dared.


Thematic importance, e.g.


-choice: cross is not only a personified weapon but a loyal retainer

-contrast, paradox: the cross has to be loyal by NOT acting; ‘heroic active warrior and the suffering passive cross’ (BM §493)

-transformation: what looks like a tree is a cross, what looks like death is life

OE poetic syntax:  the apo koinou construction


Bruce Mitchell, An Invitation to Old English & Anglo-Saxon England (Blackwell, 1995), pp. 70-71. §165-7.



-etymologically: two Greek words that mean ‘in common’

-“construction in which a word (or phrase or clause) which is expressed once belongs both with what has gone before it and with what follows after it”

-“frequent in OE poetry, although it is often hidden from modern readers by the editorial use of modern punctuation”




Híe dygel lond = warigeað = wulfhleoðu

They (a) mysterious land = inhabit = wolf-slopes


A longer example from the OE poem Andreas (St Andrew)


“Here St Andrew is speaking to the captain of a ship in which he is a passenger, not knowing that the captain is God.’ ‘As Andrew sees it, his poverty is a bar to both the making of his request and the winning of the captain’s friendship.’


Ic wille ðe

eorl unforcuð               anre nu gena

bene biddan         =       ðeah ic beaga lyt

sincweorðunga            syllan mighte,

fætedsinces =               wolde ic freondscipe

ðeoden ðrymfæst          ðinne – gif ic mehte –

begitan godne.


‘And now again, renowned warrior, I wish to ask of theee a favour = though I was able to give thee little treasure, a small store of precious things, of beaten gold = I would win – if I could – thy gracious friendship, O glorious lord.