In the absence of contemporary references to Old English poetic genres, literary critics have grown increasingly skeptical about the validity of genre criticism; elegy and epic, in particular, have come to be viewed as retrospective and subjective categories. But evidence for the existence of genres can also be deduced from the poems themselves. Opening formulas are among the most common literary devices for signaling genre, and Old English verse is no exception. The “traditional opening,” which occurs in many poems, contains genre-specific cues that alert the audience to what manner of poem will follow. Analysis of the “traditional opening” reveals three distinct kinds of verse: epic, elegy, and wisdom poetry. Each type of opening also provides information about the respective genre’s distinctive features, as shown by the first verses of Beowulf, The Wife’s Lament, and Vainglory. Because genres exist in relation to each other, examining several together yields valuable insights. Most Old English poems are generic hybrids, combining the characteristics of several genres; for instance, Juliana combines epic and saint’s life, Judgment Day II blends elegy and planctus, The Phoenix unites wisdom poetry and “Physiologus” lore, and Fates of the Apostles juxtaposes epic and elegy. The choices made by the authors of these works show that Anglo-Saxon poets were certainly conscious of genre in composing their texts. Much work remains to be done on Old English poetic genre, ranging from the existence of other genres and genre-markers to further analysis of individual poems.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 1-33
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.