Anglo-Saxon literature

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Anglo-Saxon literature

Anglo-Saxon literature, the literary writings in Old English (see English language), composed between c.650 and c.1100.

See also English literature.


There are two types of Old English poetry: the heroic, the sources of which are pre-Christian Germanic myth, history, and custom; and the Christian. Although nearly all Old English poetry is preserved in only four manuscripts—indicating that what has survived is not necessarily the best or most representative—much of it is of high literary quality. Moreover, Old English heroic poetry is the earliest extant in all of Germanic literature. It is thus the nearest we can come to the oral pagan literature of Germanic culture, and is also of inestimable value as a source of knowledge about many aspects of Germanic society. The 7th-century work known as Widsith is one of the earliest Old English poems, and thus is of particular historic and linguistic interest.

Beowulf, a complete epic, is the oldest surviving Germanic epic as well as the longest and most important poem in Old English. It originated as a pagan saga transmitted orally from one generation to the next; court poets known as scops were the bearers of tribal history and tradition. The version of Beowulf that is extant was composed by a Christian poet, probably early in the 8th cent. However, intermittent Christian themes found in the epic, although affecting in themselves, are not integrated into the essentially pagan tale. The epic celebrates the hero's fearless and bloody struggles against monsters and extols courage, honor, and loyalty as the chief virtues in a world of brutal force.

The elegiac theme, a strong undercurrent in Beowulf, is central to Deor, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and other poems. In these works, a happy past is contrasted with a precarious and desolate present. The Finnsburgh fragment, The Battle of Maldon, and The Battle of Brunanburh (see Maldon and Brunanburh), which are all based on historical episodes, mainly celebrate great heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. In this heroic poetry, all of which is anonymous, greatness is measured less by victory than by perfect loyalty and courage in extremity.

Much of the Old English Christian poetry is marked by the simple belief of a relatively unsophisticated Christianity; the names of two authors are known. Cædmon—whose story is charmingly told by the Venerable Bede, who also records a few lines of his poetry—is the earliest known English poet. Although the body of his work has been lost, the school of Cædmon is responsible for poetic narrative versions of biblical stories, the most dramatic of which is probably Genesis B.

Cynewulf, a later poet, signed the poems Elene, Juliana, and The Fates of the Apostles; no more is known of him. The finest poem of the school of Cynewulf is The Dream of the Rood, the first known example of the dream vision, a genre later popular in Middle English literature. Other Old English poems include various riddles, charms (magic cures, pagan in origin), saints' lives, gnomic poetry, and other Christian and heroic verse.

The verse form for Old English poetry is an alliterative line of four stressed syllables and an unfixed number of unstressed syllables broken by a caesura and arranged in one of several patterns. Lines are conventionally end-stopped and unrhymed. The form lends itself to narrative; there is no lyric poetry in Old English. A stylistic feature in this heroic poetry is the kenning, a figurative phrase, often a metaphorical compound, used as a synonym for a simple noun, e.g., the repeated use of the phrases whale-road for sea and twilight-spoiler for dragon (see Old Norse literature).


Old English literary prose dates from the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period. Prose was written in Latin before the reign of King Alfred (reigned 871–99), who worked to revitalize English culture after the devastating Danish invasions ended. As hardly anyone could read Latin, Alfred translated or had translated the most important Latin texts. He also encouraged writing in the vernacular. Didactic, devotional, and informative prose was written, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, probably begun in Alfred's time as an historical record, continued for over three centuries. Two preeminent Old English prose writers were Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham, and his contemporary Wulfstan, archbishop of York. Their sermons (written in the late 10th or early 11th cent.) set a standard for homiletics.

A great deal of Latin prose and poetry was written during the Anglo-Saxon period. Of historic as well as literary interest, it provides an excellent record of the founding and early development of the church in England and reflects the introduction and early influence there of Latin-European culture.


See G. P. Krapp and E. V. K. Dobbie, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (6 vol., 1932–53); G. K. Anderson, The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons (1949, repr. 1962); S. B. Greenfield, A Critical History of Old English Literature (1965); C. L. Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature (1967); J. D. Niles, Old English Literature in Context (1981).

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References in classic literature ?
Anglo-Saxon poetry depended for its pleasantness to the ear, not on rhyme as does ours, but on accent and alliteration.
Now, in Anglo-Saxon poetry the lines were divided into two half- lines.
There is also discussion of the themes of water in Anglo-Saxon poetry. The book contains b&w photos, maps, and drawings.
Talking of manuscripts, it's marvellous to know that UNESCO have recognised the Exeter Book in the cathedral library, one of only four surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry manuscripts, and granted it Memory of the World status.
Individual chapters consider the imposition of modern English cultural and linguistic concepts on Old English texts; the textual difficulties of emotional transmission through translation; what the complex structures of Anglo-Saxon poetry reveal about contemporary attitudes to emotion; and emotions as revealed through gesture and their inherently contextual nature.
(19) Benjamin Thorpe, ed., Codex Exoniensis: A Collection of Anglo-Saxon Poetry from a Manuscript in the Library of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1842), ix.
Absent from the Latin source, the gold hoard introduced into the story by Cynewulf is an ancient motif in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Treasure is literally important to the human world in the poem, as it defines the value of the individual in his or her society and the poem centres on contrasting heroic world-view and its material values with Christian outlook.
Tom Shippey's "Tolkien's Development as a Writer of Alliterative Poetry in Modern English" (an updated version of a 2009 essay) shows that Tolkien, through the years, developed a greater ability in using the variety of types of half-lines basic to Anglo-Saxon poetry. Shippey uses several specific works or passages for his evidence and provides counts of the five Sievers types in them.
The story is told of a contest, arranged by Alfred's mother, in which she promised a valuable book of Anglo-Saxon poetry to the first of her sons who could memorize and recite all of the poems in the book.
"Anglo-Saxon poetry is far from being a record of a pagan culture co-opted and rewritten by Christian monks," they write.
Lanier's identification with English tradition embraces the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny, and specifically the popular nineteenth-century fantasy described by Reginald Horsman whereby white Americans imagined their supposed Anglo-Saxon origins as proof of being "a chosen people with an impeccable ancestry." (1) Writing from Baltimore, Maryland, in 1879, Lanier thus explores "the remarkable ease with which our English idioms run into the mould of the sonnet." (2) In an essay on Anglo-Saxon poetry published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly, Lanier exhorts the "strong, bright, picture-making tongue we had in the beginning of the sixteenth century when the powerful old Anglo-Saxon had fairly conquered all the foreign elements into its own idiom" (CE, 4:293; italics mine).
This innovative approach to Anglo-Saxon poetry brings together contemporary poets and the "anonywulfen" of early England.