Glossary K

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Universal Elements of Poetry


kenning - A type of metaphor. Attributed to Anglo Saxon poetry, especially Beowulf. The language of Beowulf with its four-beat alliterative line is perfect for the use of a kenning.

The criticism of kennings is that of the compound epithet, overuse. One reason students abandon the study of Beowulf is because the kennings are unfamiliar metaphors and require constant footnote referral. Of course there are standard epithets like “helmet bearers” as warriors, “earth-ball” a burial mound or barrow, “stone-cliffs” as walls of stone, and “stout-hearted” meaning bravery. But the following are kennings:

  • “battle-sweat”, “wound-sea” to mean blood
  • “bane of wood”, “sun of houses” would be fire
  • “swan-road”, “seal bath”, “sail road” and “whale’s way” represent the sea
  • “wound-hoe”, “onion of war”, “blood-worm”, “battle light”, “icicle of blood” all stand for a sword.

In another Anglo Saxon work, The Wanderer, the kenning “storm of spears” means battle.

kyrielle - A French form developed by troubadours of the middle ages. The distinctive feature of the kyrielle is that each stanza ends with the identical final line thus creating a refrain. The repeating of whole lines within a poem is also called "rime en kyrielle". The name kyrielle derives from the kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy), which is part of the Roman Catholic liturgy. A kyrielle is written in rhyming couplets or quatrains. It uses the phrase Lord have mercy, or a variant on it, as a refrain as the second line of the couplet or last line of the quatrain. In less strict usage, other phrases, and sometimes single words, are used as the refrain.

The rhyme scheme seems to depend on whether the poem is written in couplets or quatrains. If written in couplets the rhyme scheme is aA;aA (uppercase indicating refrain). If the kyrielle is constructed in quatrains, then in may be have a-a-b-B, c-c-b-B and a-b-a-B, c-b-c-B. In the original French kyrielle, lines were generally octosyllabic.

The English kyrielle is usually written in iambic tetrameters. It has stanzas of four lines with no set rhyming scheme but most frequently abab or aabb. The kyrielle can be of any length. A good example is Thomas Campion's (1567-1621) A Lenten Hymn. In quatrains with rhyme scheme aabB:

A Lenten Hymn

With broken heart and contrite sigh,
A trembling sinner, Lord, I cry:
Thy pardning grace is rich and free:
O God, be merciful to me.

I smite upon my troubled breast,
With deep and conscious guilt oppress,
Christ and His cross my only plea:
O God, be merciful to me.

Far off I stand with tearful eyes,
Nor dare uplift them to the skies;
But Thou dost all my anguish see:
O God, be merciful to me.

Nor alms, nor deeds that I have done,
Can for a single sin atone;
To Calvary alone I flee:
O God, be merciful to me.

And when, redeemed from sin and hell,
With all the ransomed throng I dwell,
My raptured song shall ever be,
God has been merciful to me.

And another by Campion in quatrains with rhyme scheme abba. With variation in the repeated final lines:

Follow Thy Fair Sun

Follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow;
Though thou be black as night,
And she made all of light,
Yet follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow.

Follow her, whose light thy light depriveth;
Though here thou liv'st disgrac'd,
And she in heaven is plac'd,
Yet follow her whose light the world reviveth.

Follow those pure beams, whose beauty burneth;
That so have scorched thee,
As thou still black must be,
Till her kind beams thy black to brightness turneth.

Follow her, while yet her glory shineth;
There comes a luckless night
That will dim all her light;
And this the black unhappy shade divineth.

Follow still, since so thy fates ordained;
The sun must have his shade,
Till both at once do fade,
The sun still proud, the shadow still disdained.


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Appendix