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Writing Old English commentaries

This handout was prepared specifically for the first year course of the Oxford B.A. in English. Students on other courses may nonetheless find some useful advice about close reading of Old English texts.

In the exam, you will have a choice either of writing a commentary on a passage of verse, or of translating a short unseen piece of prose. The poems set for commentary are The Dream of the Rood, The Battle of Maldon, The Wanderer, and an extract from Beowulf (lines 702-897). You will generally be offered two passages, from which you choose one on which to write your commentary.


You must make sure that you know the four poetry texts very well. Initially, it is necessary to map out what is happening in the plot. These are relatively complex poems, and you may find that making a clear plan of what is happening will help you. For Rood, be clear about which passages are spoken by whom. For Wanderer, be aware that there is some critical debate about how many narrative/speaking voices are contained in the poem, and that editorial punctuation may affect our attitudes towards this argument. For Maldon and Beowulf, be sure that you know what is happening at each point in the action - who does what to whom?

It may be that you need to read the texts in translation a few times to get these aspects clear in your head. However, always remember that your work in the exam must be a reaction to the Old English, so there is no substitute for knowing these texts well in their original language.

Probably the best way to approach these texts for commentary is to annotate your own copies with details of interesting features. In order to be able to scribble on and highlight the texts, you could make photocopies of the texts from Mitchell and Robinson, or cut and paste them from an online source. If you choose this latter option, correct the text against the one in Mitchell and Robinson, since there may be the odd difference in word forms or punctuation which can make a big difference to your understanding of the text.

In the exam itself, take some time to look through the offered passages and decide which one you want to attempt. Your choice will be affected by many factors. Primarily, you will want to choose the passage which you think offers you most scope for comment; the one in which you see more interesting linguistic and literary features. You have three hours to write three answers, and one of those hours should be dedicated to the commentary/translation element - so you have plenty of time to spend reading and planning.


The following is a series of suggestions as to the content of your commentary. The specific Old English linguistic and literary features you choose to discuss will, of course, depend on the passage.

This is an essential feature of your commentary. Begin with a very brief summary of where we are in the poem: state what happens immediately before and after this extract, and who is speaking (whether the narrator or a character). Be very careful, however, not to start telling the whole story of the poem from the beginning - it is sufficient to give enough context to show that you know the placement of the passage in the poem as a whole.

What is the significance of this passage to the poem as a whole? Does it add to the dramatic action? Does it introduce a new character or idea? Does it advance the plot? Does it explore a theme or idea? Does it relate to the themes explored in the poem as a whole? Are there particular concepts (religious, philosophical, political) which underpin this extract, or which are necessary to understanding it?

Again, this should be a relatively brief section of your commentary, showing that you understand the job that this extract does in the wider context.

Poetic form
Perhaps the most obvious aspect of the form used by Old English poets is alliteration. The relatively complex alliterative system is intertwined with strict metrical schemes. For an introduction to this, see Peter Baker's discussion.

Be cautious of making too much of alliteration and metre, since any comments on the effects produced by these techniques are likely to be subjective and rather fuzzy ("repetition of 'b' slows down the reader", "alliteration on 'w' creates a soft ambience"). Remember that the associations we have with certain sounds, as well as our pronunciation of them, may be entirely different from those of an Old English author/audience. Additionally, alliteration is better understood as a structural device rather than an auditory effect in Old English poetry, so to comment on the sounds as having particular meaning in and of themselves will almost certainly be anachronistic.

You may find, however, that a poet uses particularly ornate patterns, or patterns which do not fit the usual set structures, and this should be worthy of comment. Equally, it may be significant that a poet has written a particularly structured and formal set of lines which follow the "rules" very closely.

Another obvious aspect of Old English poetic form is the use of half-lines. You could consider how lines and half-lines relate to each other. Do lines run on at the end, or are they end-stopped? Is there a break between half-lines? What effects might these techniques have? Please remember that punctuation of Old English texts is always editorial, so you cannot comment on it as a feature of the text.

There is a good discussion of the grammar of Old English poetry by Peter Baker.

Consider also the poet's use of grammatical structures and the effects this might have. Is there a prevalence of a certain type of sentence structure (e.g. many simple sentences or much use of subordinate clauses)? Does the poet use unusual syntax? Are expected grammatical components such as subject or verb omitted?

It is likely that the discussion of vocabulary will make up a significant part of your commentary. It is important, therefore, that you have some idea of the categories you will use to discuss it, in order to avoid producing simply a list of interesting words.

Specific Old English poetic vocabulary is discussed by Peter Baker.

You may like to use his lists as a checklist when reading through the poems. Look out particularly for kennings. It is worth quoting Baker's admonition about looking up compounds and kennings in dictionaries: "you must be on your guard, for some glossaries may supply only an interpretation. To do so, of course, is to rob poetry of much of what makes it poetry. If you suspect that the definition of a compound is not literal but rather an interpretation, go to a dictionary and look up its elements separately."

You may find that a poet uses a series of words which are all related. This is referred to as a lexical field. For example, the words sword, fight, warrior, shield, blood, wound belong to a lexical field relating to battle. These last two might, however, belong to an entirely different field if they are placed in conjunction with words such as cross, sacrifice, church. This would then make a religious lexical field. Such groups of words may be used closely together in a few sentences, or spread out across a whole passage.

It is worth considering what types of words a poet is using, and whether there is a preponderance of a particular type:
Verbs may be either dynamic or stative. A stative verb expresses a state or a condition, whereas a dynamic verb expresses an action. For example, to believe, to own, and to prefer are stative whereas to dance, to laugh, and to give are dynamic.

Nouns may be either concrete or abstract. A concrete noun names something that can be experienced with the senses, such as glass, sword, fabric. An abstract noun names something that cannot be experienced in this way, such as love, beauty, religion.

What would be the effect of a poet's using mainly dynamic or stative verbs, or mainly concrete or abstract nouns in a passage?

Consider the poet's use of adjectives and adverbs, and the effect these have on the things or actions they describe.

You might also look at the pronouns in a passage - are there many first-person singular pronouns (I, me, mine)? Or first-person plural pronouns (we, us, ours)? Does the poet contrast first- and second- or third- person pronouns (me/you, me/him, us/them)? What effects do different pronouns have?

Figurative language
In basic terms, figurative language is language which cannot be interpreted in a literal sense. Metaphor and simile are the most obvious examples, but hyperbole, metonymy, synecdoche, personification and many other techniques may be considered figurative because they demand an interpretation that goes beyond the literal meaning of the words used. Richard A. Lanham's "A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms" is an incredibly useful guide to figures of speech as well as other rhetorical techniques, and a good dictionary of literary terms should also prove helpful. Consider how much (or how little) figurative language is used in the extract. What or whom does it describe? What kind of techniques are used?


A commentary is a very different exercise from an essay. You must beware of discussing plot or themes in too much detail. The key things to remember are:

Be brief: expanding on a particular theme or topic is not the aim of a commentary essay.

Be relevant: every point you make should relate back to some aspect of the extract you discuss.

Be confident: get to know the poems inside-out, so that you can approach them with assurance and exercise your critical flair.