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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Thematic and Structural Function of the Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf

The hypermetric passages of Beowulf must have stood out as dramatically for the poem’s original listeners as they do on the page for readers of modern editions. Oddly, though, a review of past Beowulf criticism reveals that virtually no attention has been given their function in the poem. Considering that the poet's command of the subtleties of his language and his technical skill as a versifier have been amply demonstrated, it seems likely that this strikingly anomalous metrical variation must have been consciously employed toward specific ends. Indeed, examination of the three loci in Beowulf where hypermetric lines occur indicates that they serve to reinforce important thematic concerns in each instance, and, further, that they play a significant role in the design of the poem as a whole.
Past analysis of the hypermetric lines has, for the most past, been descriptive, merely noting their existence and attempting in various ways to assimilate them as variations of some ordinary line. The discussion in Pope's The Rhythm of Beowulf [1] is perhaps the most prominent example. Several critics have, however, broached the subject of the aesthetics of hypermetrism. B.J. Timmer expands upon the sketchy and impressionistic comments by Sievers, [2] but his treatment, too, is vague and incomplete. He regards the first Beowulf passage as a “slowed” section and all but dismisses the other two. Viewing the phenomenon in general, however, throughout Old English poetry, he lists three functions for hypermetric lines: 1) slowing (and this for Timmer is generally associated with expressing solemnity, portent, or simple emphasis), 2) opening and closing speeches and other divisions of poetic material, and 3) a specialized “gnomic” use hypothesized since gnomic texts have a disproportionately large number of hypermetric lines. Apart from this rather suggestive contribution, other commentators have been exclusively concerned with technical prosodic classifications, with historical origins, or they have weakly assented to the received idea of “slowing.” [3]

The first hypermetric passage (11. 1163-1168) is part of the description of the victory celebration at Heorot following Beowulf's struggle with Grendel. Beginning in the middle of a sentence, it tells of Wealhtheow's entry into the hall, of Hrothulf and Hrethric sitting together in friendship, and of Unferth, obedient at the feet of Hrothgar. The overall scene is one of triumphal festivity, and the specific details stress the present peace between members of the royal family and between loyal retainers and their lord. The queen passes before this tableau of harmony almost like a divinity of order, but with her address to Hrothgar the spell is broken and the normal line length returns.

The Beowulf does not, though, paint this picture of national beatitude without including very clear suggestions of its contrary. The reference to future discord within the household over succession to the throne gives to the adjective “godan” the ominous, characteristically dark coloration that tinges even the most joyful scenes of the poem. The image of Unferth's faithful role, emphasized by his physical position, is complicated by the disclosure of his fratricide, thus problematizing his own nature and implying even more strongly that the harmony of the royal family is only temporary.

Still, this passage does appear at a time of high rejoicing, one of the most “optimistic” moments of the poem. Sievers original comment that the extension of the line would slow reading and induce a tone of solemnity is probably just, but — even ignoring this effect — simply due to the indisputable fact that their greater length causes these lines to stand out in the text, they seem to constitute something of a vignette, a miniature of “the happy kingdom,” in spite of the fact that the seeds of destruction are explicitly present as well.

The second hypermetric passage (11. 1705-1707) occurs after Beowulf's defeat of Grendel's mother, again during a victory feast in Heorot. Hrothgar praises Beowulf in extravagant terms, saying that his glory is spread among every people, that he rules with power and wisdom, and reaffirming his own debt to Beowulf and his intention of rewarding him. Though the hypermetric passage again begins in midsentence and gives the appearance of being casual and unmotivated, it is placed in precisely the same sort of celebration as the first. Again, it stresses feudal ties, the power of a just ruler and the stability derived from strong social bonds among allies. All the major areas of heroic excellence are included in the grand encomium: fame, power, and wisdom. The moment is one of total success, optimism, and order. The only cloud that might be imagined on this bright horizon is the fact of Beowulf's eventual doom, presumably familiar to the poem's audience.

The third passage (11. 2995-2996) is a part of Wiglaf's speech during Beowulf's obsequies after his death in combat with the dragon. While the location of the passage following the third of the three major battles of the text exactly parallels the other two, the occasion can no longer be a joyful one. The speaker's very name, Wiglaf, suggests the woeful destructive potential of war. Indeed, after the death of the hero, the entire society is in the position of a vulnerable remnant of survivors, rather like Finn's decimated troop mentioned earlier. Wiglaf is attempting to place the danger of a Swedish attack upon the leaderless state in a historical context by recounting incidents of old battles. Specifically, the hypermetric lines tell how Hygelac rewarded Wulf and Eofer for bringing him the arms of Ongentheow. He is said to have given them generous gifts of land and rings and the presentation is said to have been altogether fitting in view of their extraordinary and valiant deeds. Thus, for the third time, the hypermetric lines evoke a victory celebration, a time of reaffirmation of the bonds that hold society together, but in this instance the prosperous and united kingdom is available only to retrospective contemplation. Its strength is mentioned only while alerting the company to the grave perils that await them. The identical placement (after an engagement with a monster) and semantic content (the strong and well-ordered monarchy) only heighten the contrast of this moment with the first two. Something essential is gone with the passing of Beowulf; never again will such stable and glorious rule occur.

In formal terms, the hypermetric lines serve to delineate the major narrative divisions of the text. Like ornaments or flourishes following each battle, they reinforce the poem's tripartite structure. However, they also preserve the two-part division implied by Beowulf's age, location, and species of enemy being the same for adventures one and two, yet different for the third. The pattern, then, is a statement which is then repeated (sometimes with variation), and completed by an answering third term that contradicts, complicates, or extends the initial proposition. This design is both known as a rhetorical formula and familiar from such other forms as the standard American AAB blues lyric.

It is noteworthy, too, that each of these passages is shorter than the one before, dwindling from six to three to two lines. This pattern coincides with the thematic movement of the story as a whole as it moves from the early victories to the hero's inevitable death as the possibility of “the happy kingdom” becomes more and more elusive. The first passage only hints at the potential for fighting and discord, though quite explicitly, while by the last the anxious national mood provides the context, though the information in the hypermetric lines themselves is full of nostalgic well-being. These two scenes are absolutely symmetrical mirror-images in that the first is a situation of unreserved joy that contains the seeds of its own degeneration into chaos, while the last is a scene of immediately threatening chaos in which joy is present only in traces of memory. These surround a calm second passage in which the problematic status of heroic values and polity is momentarily concealed. In this way the group of three passages repeats the structure evident within each individually, privileging in the end neither side of the antinomies order/ disorder, peace/ war, virtue/ vice, and so on.

It is significant, too, that each of the passages begins in midsentence. This technique smooths over the otherwise abrupt transition between line lengths and maintains the tension-filled ambivalence of the contrast between a condition of secure felicity (flourishing briefly or recollected from the past) and the harsh realities of life among the Danes and the Geats. The sudden change in metrical convention is then masked in the same way that the contradiction-laden seams of society are masked in ordinary social interaction as illustrated in this series of passages.

The fact that hypermetric lines are particularly prominent in gnomic verse is also suggestive. Gnomic associations may highlight the teaching function of these scenes, their paradoxical content (related to the popularity of riddles in early Germanic literatures), and the resulting sense of poetic didacticism as the revelation of mysteries. In these passages, the listener or reader sees encoded the governing ideology of the time: in terms of personal values such as courage and wisdom, and social values such as peace, loyalty, and hierarchy, but these are no sooner defined than they are radically interrogated and finally revealed, not as hollow, but as inexorably, tragically self-contradictory. The existential anxiety of Beowulf's vague subjective sense that he must have done something wrong is not a contemporary misreading. It constitutes the great and poignant strength of Old English verse that it expresses the love for pleasures of this world in terms the more moving for the realization that those pleasures are only temporary.

In the hypermetric passages of Beowulf the same attitude is applied to the subclass of social pleasures and the result defines the poet’s characteristic tone, one common throughout Old English poetry. He always sees through his material, but he does not for that reason dismiss or replace it. His inscription of defeat within victory and victory within defeat defines a heroism beyond bravado, a heroism born of the struggle with the mercilessly frustrating terms of existence.

The tendency to undercut the heroic simultaneously with its presentation is inherent in the distinctively Germanic poetic usage of litotes, so pervasive in Beowulf as well as, for instance, in the Nibelungenlied. While this device was relatively little used among the classical rhetoricians, it is favored not only by the writers of Germanic epic, but also by the Minnesinger who recount the similarly problematic wars of the heart where pleasure and pain are closely linked. The fact that even the Germanic gods were limited by mortality seems emblematic of the fact that this culture resisted the comfort of imaginative absolutes on heaven as well as earth.

As much as the moral imperatives of heroism were in fact mandatory, they were simultaneously seen as hollow. The function of the hypermetric passages in Beowulf seems clear. They serve formally to define the major sections of the text and to epitomize its theme. They isolate moments depicting the happiness of a peaceful and strong court in which people joined securely by deep loyalties are exultant with success. This wish-fulfillment dream court forms a contrast to those one encounters in the poem where cowardice, subversion, dissension, and the appearance of mighty foes are ever-present dangers. The passages follow each of the hero's encounters with prodigious enemies almost as a series of sighs of relief that for the time being people possess ephemeral peace, but they end as suddenly as they began, providing foreboding in the first two instances and realization in the third of the fact that stability is an illusion and fate is inscrutable. The hypermetric passages insist upon what much of the text implies: that the heroic ideology is at once imperative and inadequate. It is this double-bind that gives Beowulf its grandeur and its tragedy.




1. Pope, J.C. The Rhythm of Beowulf, rev. ed. New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1966.

2. Timmer, B.J. “Expanded Lines in Old English Poetry,” Neophilologus 35
(1952), pp. 226-230.

3. Bliss, Alan J. "The Appreciation of Old English Metre," in English and Medieval Studies Presented to J.R.R. Tolkien on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday. ed. Norman Davis and C.L. Wrenn, London: Allen and Unwin, 1962, pp. 27-40.
Here Bliss argues that the regular OE line is close to speech rhythms while the longer line is more artificial and poetic. Repeating the notion that hypermetric lines slow the movement of the verse, he suggests that they increase its continuity and fluidity as he thinks there to have been no pause after the recitation of a longer line.
In “The Origin and Structure of the Old English Hypermetric Line.” Notes and Queries, n. s. 19 (1972), pp. 242-248 Bliss is primarily concerned with setting forth a historical theory deriving the OE hypermetric line from a primitive Germanic model. Here he says that the rationale for the use of such lines “remains mysterious” and “no convincing explanation for their function” has been adduced.
Hieatt, Constance B. “A New Theory of Triple Rhythm in the Hypermetric Lines of Old English Verse,” Modern Philology, 67 (1969), pp. 1-8 claims that the hypermetric lines would best be scanned with three measures to a verse rather than four.

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