Poetry History: Poetic Devices in English Literature through the Ages (Part 1: Beowulf to the Renaissance)

by hannah ang, photo credits.

“I love how you use both traditional and modern poetic devices here!” exclaimed my literature- student friend upon reading a poem I’d written.

I gaped at her.

“I… did?”

That was the moment I realised, despite my love of writing, I knew nothing about poetry. Thus began my attempt to explore some of the poetic devices and structures found in English poetry through the ages.

Old English literature: 658 – 1100

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

Beowulf, author unknown

The earliest English poetry was written in Old English. There are about 400 surviving manuscripts, spanning many genres including epic poetry, sermons, bible translations, legal works, riddles, and chronicles. Back in the day oral tradition was strong, so it is likely many pieces of Old English literature were adapted from Germanic war poems, and then handed down orally through the generations. The earliest piece is said to be the epic poem Beowulf, which dates back to circa 1000 AD.

Alliterative Verse

The marble maid,   under mask of stone
shook and shuddered.   As a shadow streams
Over the wheat waving,   over the woman’s face
Life came lingering.   Nor was it long after

Down its blue pathways,   blood returning
Moved, and mounted   to her maiden cheek.


The Nameless Isle, by C.S. Lewis


In alliterative verses, each line in the poem has at least four stressed syllables of alliterative words (words that repeat the same sound). Each long line, or verse, is divided into two shorter ones, the first being called the a-verse and the second the b-verse. Each verse has two heavily stressed syllables, or lifts. The first lift of the a-verse alliterates with the first lift of the b-verse, but does not alliterate with the second lift of the b-verse. Each verse is separated by a heavy pause. For example, C.S. Lewis’ poem The Nameless Isle makes use of alliterative verse:

Middle English literature: 1100–1500

Well garbed was this giant geared in green,
and the hair of his head like his horse’s mane.
Fair fanned-out flax enfolds his shoulders;
A beard big as a bush over his breast hangs,
that with the haul of hair that from his head reaches
was clipped all round about above his elbows,
that half his hands thereunder were hid in the wise
of a king’s broad cape that’s clasped at his neck.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by the “Pearl Poet”

Another genre of writing, known as Romances or Chivalric Romances, emerged during the 13th century. They featured fantastic stories of incredible deeds, often portraying the protagonist as heroic and chivalrous. Unlike in epic poems of Old English Literature, courtly manners and heterosexual romance were emphasized.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an example of a late 14th century Romance which is still famous today, and is one of the best known Arthurian stories. It was originally written in stanzas of alliterative verse, which was still popular at the time.

The English Renaissance: 1500-1660

I desire to perish, and yet I ask health.
I love another, and thus I hate myself.

I Find No Peace, by Thomas Wyatt

With the introduction of printing press in England came the increase in vernacular literature, or literature written in the speech of the common people. Poetry flourished. Many pieces incorporated influences from medieval theatre, Italian language and culture, and Roman literature and drama. Comedic and tragic works were also on the rise.

The Sonnet


Aura che quelle chiome bionde et crespe
cercondi et movi, et se’ mossa da loro,
soavemente, et spargi quel dolce oro,
et poi ’l raccogli, e ’n bei nodi il rincrespe,

Breeze, blowing that blonde curling hair,
stirring it, and being softly stirred in turn,
scattering that sweet gold about, then
gathering it, in a lovely knot of curls again,

tu stai nelli occhi ond’amorose vespe
mi pungon sí, che ’nfin qua il sento et ploro,
et vacillando cerco il mio thesoro,
come animal che spesso adombre e ’ncespe:

ch’or me ’l par ritrovar, et or m’accorgo
ch’i’ ne son lunge, or mi sollievo or caggio,
ch’or quel ch’i’ bramo, or quel ch’è vero scorgo.

Aër felice, col bel vivo raggio rimanti; et tu corrente et chiaro gorgo,
ché non poss’io cangiar teco vïaggio?

You linger around bright eyes whose loving sting
pierces me so, till I feel it and weep,
and I wander searching for my treasure,
like a creature that often shies and kicks:

now I seem to find her, now I realise
she’s far away, now I’m comforted, now despair,
now longing for her, now truly seeing her.

Happy air, remain here with your
living rays: and you, clear running stream,
why can’t I exchange my path for yours?

-Petrach’s Sonnet 227

The sonnet was introduced from Italy in the early 16th centuary by Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 1543) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516 – 1547). Wyatt’s sonnets, while similar in subject matter to Italian Petrachan sonnets, differ somewhat in structure. The Petrachan sonnet has two parts which add up to a total of 14 lines. The first part, consisting of 8 lines, is called the octave. The octave’s rhyming scheme is typically “a b b a a b b a”. The second part, which has 6 lines, is called the sestet. The rhyming scheme for the sestet is more flexible. While it is typically “c d e c d e”or“cdcdcd”, “cddcdd”, “cddece”, or “cddccd” are also possible. In his sonnets, Thomas Wyatt followed the Petrachan octave, but the rhyming scheme he usually used for the sestet was “c d d c, e e”. This form would evolve into the English sonnet, which has three sets of four lines and a closing couplet.

Later, Shakespeare popularised the English Sonnet. Like Wyatt’s sonnets, they comprised three sets of four lines each followed by a closing couplet. However, they followed a different rhyming scheme: “a b a b, c d c d, e f e f, g g”.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds (a)
Admit impediments, love is not love (b)
Which alters when it alteration finds, (a)
Or bends with the remover to remove. (b)
O no, it is an ever fixèd mark (c)
That looks on tempests and is never shaken; (d)
It is the star to every wand’ring bark, (c)
Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken. (d)
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks (e)
Within his bending sickle’s compass come, (f)
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, (e)
But bears it out even to the edge of doom: (f)
If this be error and upon me proved, (g)
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (g)

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare

This is the first of two instalments; it begins with Old English Literature and will end with the English Renaissance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: