Figures of Rhetoric.—A special characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry is the rarity of similes. In Homer they are frequent, but Anglo-Saxon verse is too abrupt and rapid in the succession of images to employ the expanded simile. The long poem of Beowulf contains only five similes, and these are of the shorter kind. Two of them, the comparison of the light in Grendel’s dwelling to the beams of the sun, and of a vessel to a flying bird, have been given in the original Anglo-Saxon on pages 16, 17. Other similes compare the light from Grendel’s eyes to a flame, and the nails on his fingers to steel: while the most complete simile says that the sword, when bathed in the monster’s poisonous blood, melted like ice.
On the other hand, this poetry uses many direct and forcible metaphors, such as “wave-ropes” for ice, the “whale-road” or “swan-road” for the sea, the “foamy-necked floater” for a ship, the “war-adder” for an arrow, the “bone-house” for the body. The sword is said to sing a war song, the slain to be put to sleep with the sword, the sun to be a candle, the flood to boil. War is appropriately called the sword-game.
Parallelisms.—The repetition of the same ideas in slightly differing form, known as parallelism, is frequent. The author, wishing to make certain ideas emphatic, repeated them with varying phraseology. As the first sight of land is important to the sailor, the poet used four different terms for the shore that met Beowulf’s eyes on his voyage to Hrothgar: land, brimclifu, beorgas, saen=aessas (land, sea-cliffs, mountains, promontories).
This passage from the Phoenix shows how repetition emphasizes the absence of disagreeable things:—
“...there may neither snow nor rain, Nor the furious air of frost, nor the flare of fire, Nor the headlong squall of hail, nor the hoar frost’s fall, Nor the burning of the sun, nor the bitter cold, Nor the weather over-warm, nor the winter shower, Do their wrong to any wight."
The general absence of cold is here made emphatic by mentioning special cold things: “snow,” “frost,” “hail,” “hoar frost,” “bitter cold,” “winter shower.” The absence of heat is emphasized in the same way.
Saxon contrasted with Celtic Imagery.—A critic rightly says: “The gay wit of the Celt would pour into the song of a few minutes more phrases of ornament than are to be found in the whole poem of Beowulf.” In three lines of an old Celtic death song, we find three similes:—
“Black as the raven was his brow;
Sharp as a razor was his spear;
White as lime was his skin.”
We look in Anglo-Saxon poetry in vain for a touch like this:—
“Sweetly a bird sang on a pear tree
above the head of Gwenn before
they covered him with a turf."
Celtic literature shows more exaggeration, more love of color, and a deeper appreciation of nature in her gentler aspects. The Celt could write:—