The end of Roman rule in Britain enabled the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, which is often regarded as the origin of England and the English people (Wikipedia). The Anglo-Saxons were of Germanic origin who established several kingdoms that became the primary powers in what is now England and parts of Southern Scotland. They introduced the Old English language which displaced the previous British language. The Anglo-Saxons warred with British states in Wales, Cornwall and the Brythonic speaking parts of northern England and southern Scotland. The Vikings and Norsemen raided England about 800AD, took control and introduced Norse language into large parts of what is now England. During this period, several rulers attempted to unite the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and this effort led to the emergence of the kingdom of England by the 10th century.
Meanwhile, of several poems dealing with English history and preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the most notable is “The Battle of Brunanburb,” a panegyric on the occasion of King Athelstan’s victory over a coalition of Norsemen and Scots in the year 937. The Battle of Maldon, is another heroic poetry dealing with English history. The poem describes the defeat of Aldorman Byrhtnoth at the hands of Viking invaders in 991.
Anglo–Saxon poetry is categorized by the manuscripts in which it survives, rather than its date of composition. The most important manuscripts are the four great poetical codices of the late 10th and early 11th centuries known as the Caedmon manuscript, the Vercelli Book, the Exeter Book, and the Beowulf manuscript. Beowulf is the only heroic epic to have survived in it’s entirely but fragments of others such as Waldere and the Funnesburg are also available. Other genres include religious verses, from devotional works to biblical paraphrases such as “The Wanderer”, “The Seafarer” and “The Ruin”.
Anglo-Saxon depends on alterative verse for its structure. The poetry is formulaic, drawing on a common set of stock phrases and phrase patterns, applying standard epithets to various classes of characters, and depicting scenery with such recurring images as the eagle and wolf, which wait during battles to feast on carrion, and the ice and snow, which appear in the landscape to signal sorrow. Several wars took place which shaped the history and language of England. This unit is important for this course as it opens up various factors that led to the emergence of England and its poetry.
The Earliest English Period
Both the Vikings and the Norse men inhabited England and changed its history and language consequently. By 1066, the Normans invaded and conquered England. The Norman Dynasty established by William the Conqueror ruled England for over half a century before the period of succession crisis known as the Anarchy. Following the Anarchy, England came to be ruled by the House of Plantagenet, a dynasty which also had claims to the kingdom of France. Many wars were fought before there could be a stable kingdom in England.
The Earliest English Poetry
The history of English poetry begins from the middle of the 7th century. The earliest surviving manuscripts are dated from the 10th century. Much of the poetry was written in Latin, Brythonic and Anglo-Saxon languages. Probably, much of this old English poetry was intended to be chanted, with harp accompaniment, by the Anglo-Saxon bard. Old English poetry was bold and strong, but also mournful and elegiac in spirit. This poetry emphasizes the sorrow and ultimate futility of life and the helplessness of humans before the power of fate. Almost all this poetry is composed without rhyme, in which a line or verse of four stressed syllables alternate with an indeterminate number of unstressed syllables. Another unfamiliar feature in the formal character of Old English poetry is structural alliteration or the use of syllables beginning with similar sounds in two or three of the stresses in each line. All these features of form and spirit are exemplified in the epic poem Beowulf.
Nevertheless, the earliest known English poem is a hymn on creation. A humble man of the late 7th century who was described by the historian and theologian Saint Bede the Venerable may have written the “Hymn on Creation”. His name was Caedmon. Part of the challenges of the earliest English poetry was dating. For instance, Beowulf’s dating ranges from 608AD to 1000 AD. There has been no consensus ever since (Wikipedia). Many other poems such as “The Battle of Brunanburh” (957) and the “Battle of Maldon” (991) may have been composed to document various was that took place in English history.
Anglo-Saxon poetry is categorized by the manuscripts in which it survives, rather than its date of composition. The most important manuscripts are the four great poetical codices or bound ancient manuscripts of the late 10th and early 11th centuries known as the Caedmon manuscript, the Vercelli Book, the Exeter Book, and the Beowulf manuscripts.
The Style of Earliest English Poetry
Most of the Earliest English poems have similar qualities. According to Albert Tolman (1887), Anglo-Saxon poetry has various qualities which are:
- conciseness and vigour;
- repetition of thought with variation of expression;
- freedom from the sensual and idealization of the common;
- seriousness and
Conciseness and Vigour
The extreme emphasis resulting from accent and alliteration combined in the same syllables naturally goes with a highly intense, vigorous style. Anglo-Saxon poetry is always more than lively, it is intense. The Anglo-Saxon verse demands strong nouns, adjectives, and verbs; and these, of necessity, state the thought with brevity and power.
Repetition of Thought with Variation of Expression
The Anglo-Saxon poet repeats his ideas in every possible way, but not his words. The repetition of the main idea is made enjoyable by the constant variation of the language. Each repetition must emphasize some new phase or characteristic by the use of new terms. This repetition with variation takes many forms. A noun may have three to four appositional phrases scattered through all parts of the sentence, or there may be complete parallelism of successive sentences, which is a favourite form of expression. But parallelism is evidently not a principle with the Anglo-Saxon poet. The principle is as it has been stated. This is an illustration from Beowulf:
The round the mound the battle-brave rode,
Sons of athelings, twelve in all,
Wished to tell their sorrow, bewail the king,
Wreak their words, and speak of the man.
Ideas are usually expressed in disconnected manner in Anglo-Saxon poetry, though it is hard to generalize. Here and there, especially in the later poetry, passages can be found in which the rhetoric is really elaborate and the connections of thought are very fully indicated. This is true of the part of “Genesis”. There is an instance of disconnectedness made expressive:
Alas! Had I control of my hands,
And could I for a time get loose,
Be free for one winter-hour, then I with this troop –
But about me lie iron-bonds,
The rope of fetters rides me.
Freedom from the Sensual and Idealization of the Commonplace
Anglo-Saxon poetry is devoid of sensuality and idealization of the commonplace. There are no Anglo-Saxon love poems. The entire absence of the relation of lover and maid from this poetry, and the scanty references to that of husband and wife, are very striking. A woman appears but rarely, and then as the noble, honoured spouse, chaste and dignified. She is her husband’s best and dearest friend. The relation, who is dearest of all to Anglo-Saxon poetry, is that of lord and follower. The true Lord loves his subjects dearly. He is the kind friend and guardian of all. Beowulf and Hrothgar grieve over the sufferings of their harassed people. It reminds one of the Christian conceptions of Christ’s followers; that they constitute his very body. “The Wanderer”, one of the most touching poems of the Anglo-Saxons, is the lament of a poor solitary follower over his dear, dead lord-friend.
The idealization of all that is commonplace permeates Anglo-Saxon life and poetry. Etiquette is a prime consideration with the Anglo-Saxon; and no good warrior fails in the definite ceremonials which are evidently considered of very great importance. The poem Beowulf is full of interesting details of court and warrior life. This life is all idealized, and nothing gross appears. Every person and object is exalted almost to a state of perfection, or is dismissed from sight and mentioned as completely bad.
There was an ethical sternness and a grand earnestness in the Anglo-Saxons, which was mirrored in an all-pervading seriousness of style. A great fondness for moralizing appears everywhere. The shortness and uncertainty of life are constantly called up. A remarkable instance of moralizing is offered in “Beowulf”, when the hero has just killed Grendel’s mother and so exterminated the hated race. The tone was always serious compared to some of the poems written during the renaissance.
The Anglo-Saxons were as tender and thoughtful as they were brave. The vast problems of life and death oppress the hearts which do not quake before the enemy. Elegiac pathos, tender mournfulness, is then, an important feature of Anglo-Saxon style. “Beowulf” is full of it. “The Wanderer” has lost his dear lord and is friendless in the world.
Often the fugitive findeth mercy,
The mildness of God. Moody and weary,
Wandering ever over the water-way,
Hath he with hands of toil, homeless and sad,
Stirred the sea, rime-cold. Rigorous fate
Behind every joy and at every banquet, to the mind of the Anglo-Saxon, wait disappointment and sorrow.
The article examines the background to the earliest English Poetry and its impact on the poetry of the period. The unit looks into various qualities of the Anglo-Saxon poetry such as conciseness and vigour, repetition of thought with variation of expression, disconnectedness, freedom from the sensual and idealization of the common seriousness and tenderness.
In this article, we have been able to see the background of Anglo Saxon poetry. We also highlighted various features of Anglo Saxon poetry. We hope to take this topic further by discussing Beowulf in detail in the next unit.
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