6 Examples of Kenning in Literature

Kenning represents a unique and evocative rhetorical device. It is a figurative phrase that describes something through compact and imaginative metaphorical language.

Kenning has been employed in Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon verse. Kennings add color, nuance and depth to the poetic works. This technique enables the writers to extend vivid mental images and symbolic associations through a linguistic form of synecdoche.

Definition of Kenning

A kenning is a metaphorical phrase used in place of a single concrete noun. It is employed to describe or symbolize an object or concept. In poetry, Kenning is used to re-envision and re-frame the thing. This rhetorical device redefines the object through vivid metaphor and symbolic association. For example, instead of using the word “ocean”, a poet may employ a kenning like “whale’s road” to metaphorically refer to the sea. Compact phrases like “sky candle” for the sun, “ring giver” for a generous lord, or “storm of swords” for battle are all examples of kennings reimagining concrete objects through figurative language.

Characteristics of Kenning

Kennings exhibit several distinguishing characteristics:

  • Use of Compact Phrasing: Kennings are typically brief, two-word phrases rather than full sentences or clauses. Their rhetorical power comes through condensed, pithy metaphorical language.
  • Innovative Metaphorical Description: Kennings create vivid metaphorical associations between things that ingeniously redefine a noun through creative comparison.
  • Symbolic Undertones: Well-crafted kennings go beyond simple description, imbuing objects or concepts with symbolic significance through specific word choices and juxtapositions.
  • Alliterative Sound Patterns: Many kennings take advantage of alliterative sounds to achieve musical and prompt effects, which are pleasing to the ear.
  • Synecdochal Representation: Kennings utilize a rhetorical technique to describe something through its relation to a figurative form of synecdoche.

Functions of Kenning

Kennings serve many key functions in literary and poetic works:

  • Poetic Enrichment – They poetically embellish verse with creative metaphors. Kenning transforms everyday language into creative one.
  • Memory Aid – The compact phrasing and alliteration of kennings help the poets to memorize and recite oral poetry.
  • Fresh Perspectives – Their innovative metaphors encourage imaginative leaps and new perspectives on ideas.
  • Thematic Resonance – The symbolic word choices of kennings reinforce deeper themes and undertones.
  • Artistic Density – They pack immense representational power into condensed phrasings.
  • Audience Engagement – Kennings imaginative wordplay captures the minds of the readers and emotions, which transports them into the artistic vision.

Kennings provide evocative embellishment that goes beyond mere linguistic ornamentation. They are a powerful device for generating symbolic associations, transforming perceptions, aiding memory and engaging audiences – all within the concise structures of compound phrases.

Examples of Kenning in Literature


“The Seafarer” by Ezra Pound

“And now my spirit twists out of my breast,
my spirit out in the waterways,
over the whale’s home it soars widely through all the corners of the world —
it comes back to me eager and unsated.”

In the above excerpt, the kenning “Whale’s home” has been used, which refers to the ocean. This kenning is used to describe the sea as the dwelling place of whales. It emphasizes the speaker’s deep connection and longing for the vast and mysterious expanse of the sea.


“The Wanderer” (author unknown)

“Often when one man’s fortune fails him after he has to mourn the loss of a gold-friend, a dear one…”

Here, the kenning “Gold-friend” refers to a generous lord and benefactor. In the context of Anglo-Saxon culture, where the poem originates, a lord or king was expected to be generous with wealth and gifts to his loyal followers. This kenning emphasizes the value and importance of this relationship.


“The Battle of Maldon” (John Elphinstone, David Casley)

“Then stood on stern, steered the craft,
the wake of the ship, till that they saw the sandy cliffs.
The warriors stood ready, warriors by the sea,
keenly saw the battle-light.”

The kenning in the above stanza is “Battle-light” which is a reference to the shining of weapons and armor in the sunlight. It signifies the onset of battle. It paints a vivid picture of the gleaming gear of warriors as they prepare for conflict.


“Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull’d by the coil of his crystalline streams.”

Shelley personifies the West Wind as a powerful force that can awaken the Mediterranean Sea from its calmness. This personification attributes human-like abilities to the wind. It enriches the poem with a sense of the wind’s powerful, almost divine influence on nature.


“Bone Dreams” by Seamus Heaney

The writer explores themes of history, identity and connection to the past through the physical objects like bones. Heaney uses metaphorical language to evoke complex ideas in it.

“I push my hands in the wet flax of your hair,
In the watery motions of surrender”

In the excerpt, the writer uses metaphorical language to evoke the tactile sensation and intimate connection with the past by using “wet flax” and movements to “watery motions of surrender.” These expressions create vivid imagery and emotional depth, which corresponds to the purpose kennings serve in Old English and Norse poetry.


“The Oven Bird” by Robert Frost

The use of language in this sonnet is more direct and less given to the compound metaphorical imagery found in kennings.

“He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.”

In these lines, the language of the writer particularly in phrases like, “singing not to sing” captures a paradoxical quality that reflects on the nature of existence and the passage of time. It is a metaphorical expression that suggests the bird’s song is both a celebration of summer and an elegy for its passing. It embodies the dual nature of existence in a way that is reminiscent of the layered meanings found in kennings.

Related Terms


A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in the manner that is not literally true but helps to explain an idea or make a comparison. Kennings are specific type of metaphor, where two words are combined to create a new compound expression.

For example, in Old Norse poetry, a ship might be called a “sea-steed,” where “sea” and “steed” (a term for a horse) are combined to metaphorically suggest the idea of a ship by comparing it to a horse that moves over the sea. The metaphorical nature of kennings allows for rich and evocative imagery within the constraints of the poetic form.


It is a figure of speech, in which, a part is made to represent the whole. Kennings are more metaphorical and often involve compound constructions, so they sometimes overlap with the concept of synecdoche when the compound elements of a kenning refer to a part of something to represent the whole.

For example, a kenning like “whale-road” for the sea uses “whale” (a creature commonly found in the sea) as a part to represent the whole expanse of the sea. This device enriches the text by adding layers of meaning and encouraging readers to make connections between the part and the whole.

Examples of Kenning in Literature
Examples of Kenning in Literature

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