The influence of Christianity upon Anglo-Saxon Poetry

Also Read

      Saint Augustine came to the British Islands towards the end of the sixth century but it took four centuries to Christianize the whole of the islands. The new religion spread by slow, gradual, peaceful persuasion absorbing the old faith and moulding it anew. For long, many people, specially the poets continue to live in both the worlds. Consequently there was a thorough mingling and interpenetration of Christian and heathen elements. Pagan ideas entered into Christian poetry and heathen lays in turn were penetrated by Christian poetry and heathen lays in turn were penetrated by Christian faith.

Anglo-Saxon Christianity

      Even after the introduction of Christianity the heathen Spirit survived in the love of war and adventure and wild scenes, in laws and usages, ceremonies and superstitions as also in the belief in inexorable fate, though now slightly veiled by faith in providence. The new religion did not exile the captured deities of old but took them into service, gave them new names and clothe them in Christian garments. Thus the subjects of the early Christian poet were taken mostly from the Old Testament which is more eventful than the life history of Christ, and were treated from the heroic rather than from the spiritualistic aspects as in Caedmon's Poetry. God was represented almost as a chieftain like Hrothgar. The Apostles were warriors famous for their physical strength. Spiritual contlict was represented as hand-to-hand battle.

      What was gracious and beneficent in nature was retained in the Christian thought. Also the dark and dreadful elements of nature personified in giants and monsters were not altogether lost as poetry. For instance, the most widespread of the heathen myths, the war of day and night, of summer and winter became now the war between Christ and Satan, between the Church and the Pagan world.

      With the coming of Christianity, there was a change in the imagination and sentiment in poetry. While poetry in the past had drawn its elements only from war and nature myths, the new poetic feeling drew its sustenance from the whole of human life. Woman took an equal place with man in poetry. To the dignity and valour of the Anglo-Saxon heroine were added the grace and humanity of the virgin as in Juliana and Judifh. Christianity also came as a salvation to a people yearning for spiritual consolation, and there was a welcome change in the moral view of life. The sadness of destiny still remains, but it is now met by the noble Consolation of eternal holiness and peace in the life to come. Christianity brought a fresh element of sorrow which created an entirely new class of poetry - the sorrow of repentance for sins committed in past life. These gave birth to the poetry of regret and Prayer, intensely personal, richly vivid and deeply religious as in Cædmon's poetry Juliana and fudith and The Dreann of the Rood. Another new element that was introduced was the love of fair scenery. When Christianity came with its message of brightness and hope in everything, there naturally came the desire to free oneself from the evil climate. Soft wind, blue sky and warm sunlight have since then been a fruitful source of English poetry.

      In both Cædmon and Cynewulf we come across passage which describe the serene, qureter aspects o Nature. In Dae, there is the enchanting picture of Nature absent in Anglo-Saxon Pagan poetry.

      "In the summer tide shining is the sun, And the elf-enchanted dew at the dawning of the day, Winnowed is by wind."

      Cunewulf describes the nil where Guthlac iived in hermitage; "Serene was the ariois plain, fresh his dwelling place, sweet the song of birds, blossoming the cuckoos announced the year:" In Phoenix, Cynewulf gives a glorious picture of the calm, fair and glorious flashes of the sunny grove, bright blossoms etc. Moreover, there is the lofty music of praise and prayer which is a legacy of Anglo-Saxon Christian poetry to the poetry of Milton and other religous poets.

أحدث أقدم