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An Introduction to Beowulf: Language and Poetics
|Grades||11 – 12|
|Lesson Plan Type||Standard Lesson|
|Estimated Time||Two 50-minute sessions|
Washington, Washington DC
- be introduced to Old English, the language of Beowulf.
- know the relationship between Old English and Modern English.
- learn about alliteration and alliterative verse.
- understand kennings, a poetic device common to Old English poetry, and how they are used in Beowulf.
- If desired, use the Literary Guide: Beowulf to introduce the poem. The Overview outlines basic information about the poem.
- Using the Quick Reference Sheet as a guide, explain that English is divided into three periods.
- Introduce students to the unfamiliar letters used in the Old English alphabet. Use the Language section of the Literary Guide: Beowulf to discuss the five characters in the Old English alphabet that are no longer used in Modern English.
- You may want to write the letters on the board and/or show them the first page of Beowulf. In case they ask, the manuscript dates to about 1000 CE and was damaged in a fire, which is why the top and right hand side of the page are badly damaged. The entire Old English alphabet is available in section 16.2 of The Electronic Introduction to Old English.
- If you would like to spend a few minutes illustrating the changes between Old English and Modern English, write “Žęt węs god cyning.” on the board, explain to the class how to pronounce the various sounds, and see if they can translate the sentence into Modern English. If you want to provide an example of how Chaucer might write that sentence, you can add “That wes good king,” “That wes goode king,” and/or “That wes god king” to the board after the class has translated the Old English sentence.
- If you would like the class to hear some of Beowulf in the original Old English, pass out the Old English Beowulf Passage Handout and have the class go to http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/Beowulf.Readings/Beowulf.Readings.html. While the students can listen to and see four Beowulf passages at this site, the handout covers lines 1–11 of the prologue.
Note: while now is a logical time to listen to Beowulf read in Old English, your students may get more out of listening to the poem if you introduce alliteration and alliterative verse to them first (see below). You may also wish to distribute the Modern English Beowulf Passage Handout which provides a translation of the passage.
- Using the Quick Reference Sheet as a guide, explain alliteration. You may wish to begin illustrating alliteration by using tongue-twisters as examples. The excerpt from W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety” and the Old English Beowulf Passage Handout can be used for further examples.
- Once your students understand the concept of alliteration, pass out the excerpt from W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety” if you have not done so already.
- Show the example of alliteration in the Poetics section of the Literary Guide: Beowulf.
- Using the Quick Reference Sheet as a guide and the Auden poem, explain the basics of Old English alliterative verse. (Do not work through the whole Auden poem if you wish the students to work on the assignment alone or in groups.)
- Once your class seems to have an understanding of alliterative verse, you may wish to turn to the Old English Beowulf Passage Handout, listen to the poem (see number 4 in the first session), and identify the alliteration and meter of the first 16 lines of Beowulf.
- Pass out the Modern English Beowulf Passage Handout if you have not done so already and/or show the example of kenning and compounding in the Poetics section of the Literary Guide: Beowulf. Using the Quick Reference Sheet as a guide, explain to your students the concepts of compounding and kenning. While your particular translation may or may not include the compounds and kennings of the poem, the Modern English Beowulf Passage Handout provides examples for you and your class to examine and discuss. The compounds represented by the translation are “Spear-Danes,” “mead-benches,” “hall-troops,” and “boy-child.” The one kenning in the passage is “whale-road.” While some of these compounds also function as formulas (see Quick Reference Sheet), they also have specific poetic functions. Ask your students to discuss the poetic function of compounding and kennings in the passage.
Example: The Old English for Spear-Danes is Gar-Dena. If you look at the Old English Beowulf Passage Handout, you will see that gar (spear) alliterates and that the alliterative meter needs a G-word here. And, if you are familiar with the poem, you will know that Danes are compounded with many words: Ring-Danes, East-Danes, North-Danes, South-Danes, West-Danes, Bright-Danes. As this is the case, it would be simple enough to suggest that the meter requires the use of gar in this compound for metrical purposes, and, sometimes, this is the reason for the use of a particular word or compounding. However, it is worth noting that this passage is about the Dane’s conquests against their neighbors. It would seem then that the use of gar (spear) in this formulaic compound was not only to meet the needs of the alliterative meter, but also to foreground the Danes as an aggressive tribe. Here in the first line of the poem we find meter, poetic flourish, and theme all coming together in the poem’s first use of compounding.
- Either as homework or in class, ask your students to identify the stresses and alliteration in the Auden poem. You may also ask them to do the same with the Old English Beowulf Passage Handout. If you ask them to work with the Old English passage, give them the URL for audio files and suggest they listen to each section before marking the passage.
- If your translation maintains compounding and kennings, select some good passages and ask your students to identify the compounds and kennings and explain their function.
- Formulas: Review the formula section of the Beowulf: Language and Poetics Quick Reference Sheet and The Electronic Introduction to Old English section on formulas (14.3) and have students look for formulas as they read Beowulf.
- Variation: Review the variation section of the Beowulf: Language and Poetics Quick Reference Sheet and The Electronic Introduction to Old English section on variation (14.2) and have students look for variation as they read Beowulf.
- Follow this lesson with the ReadWriteThink lesson, Reading Literature in Translation: Beowulf as a Case Study.
- Observe your students as you work through and discuss Old English and its relationship to Modern English. Do they seem interested and engaged with the discussion? Do their comments and questions demonstrate a growing understanding of the material?
- If you plan on giving quizzes or exams which cover Beowulf, consider including questions on some of this material. If you plan on doing so, let your students know this as you introduce the material to them.
- Observe your students as you work through and discuss the poetics of Beowulf and Old English alliterative verse. Do they seem interested and engaged with the discussion? Do their comments and questions demonstrate a growing understanding of the material?
- Either informally discuss Auden poem after your students have completed them, or, alternatively, collect and grade them.
- If you asked your students to identify and explain compounding or kennings in the poem, have them share their findings with the class, or, alternatively, collect and grade their work.