Definition of Kenning

A kenning, which is derived from Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, is a stylistic device defined as a two-word phrase that describes an object through metaphors. A Kenning poem is also defined a riddle that consists of a few lines of kennings, which describe someone or something in confusing detail. It is also described as a “compressed metaphor,” which means meanings illustrated in a few words. For example, a two-word phrase “whale-road” represents the sea.

Characteristics of Kenning

A literary piece may be considered as a kenning example if it possesses the following defining characteristics:

  • It is used to describe an object in detail.
  • The two parts of a compound word represent a relationship between subjects and objects, which creates associations in an abstract and concise way.
  • It is also called a compressed metaphor.

Examples of Kenning in Literature

Example #1: The Seafarer (By Ezra Pound)

“May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent.

That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Over the whale’s acre, would wander wide
Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer,
Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly.”

The Seafarer is one of the best examples of kenning poems. Here, “whale-path,” “whale-road,” and “whale’s acre” refer to the ocean. “Breast-hoard” refers to the heart.

Example #2: Bone Dreams (By Seamus Heaney)

“… and its yellowing, ribbed
impression in the grass —
¬a small ship-burial.
As dead as stone,
flint-find, nugget
of chalk,
I touch it again,
I wind it in

the sling of mind
to pitch it at England
and follow its drop
to strange fields …
a skeleton
in the tongue’s
old dungeons …”

This poem is also a very good example of kenning. Here, the words which are used as metaphors are “ship-burial,” “flint-find,” and “bone-house.” The two-word phrases give descriptions of objects in an alternative way. Though complex, kennings can make a poem more enjoyable.

Example #3: The Oven Bird (By Robert Frost)

“There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast…”

In the given example, Frost has also employed kenning. For instance, “mid-wood” refers to a bird. And the second obvious kenning is “petal-fall,” which represents autumn or the fall season.

Example #4: North (By Seamus Heaney)

“I returned to a long strand
Were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany

was buoyant with hindsight—
it said Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,
the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace…

It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain…”

Here again, Heaney has utilized kenning. The two word phrases include: “ocean-deafened,” which refers to inaudible and warning voices, and other metaphors such as “thick-witted” and “word-hoard,” for erudition and books respectively.

Example #5: The Dream of the Rodd (By Caedmon and Cynewulf)

“Listen, I will tell the best of visions,
what came to me in the middle of the night,
when voice-bearers dwelled in rest.
It seemed to me that I saw a more wonderful tree…
That beacon was entirely … likewise there were five
upon the cross-beam. All those fair through creation.
Wondrous was the victory-tree, and I stained with sins,
wounded with guilts…”

This is an example of kenning from an old Anglo-Saxon poem. Here, the phrases “voice-bearer,” “cross-beam,” and “victory-tree” serve as metaphors. These help in describing an object’s detail by employing compound words.

Function of Kenning

Kenning is used as a poetic device, and its function in poetry is to describe something in alternative ways, in order to provide a richer and different meaning. Kenning is related to dialects as well, wherein it works as a showcase example of regional or local dialect. Also, metaphorical usage of kenning makes the poetic language more vibrant, and increases thought-provoking vocabulary. Hence, it tends to keep readers engaged.

Help us out with our hosting costs by chucking us your spare pennies. You get no reward other than enjoying how horrible we feel every time we have to refer to ourselves as "content creators" on this website