Distinctive Feature of Pagan Poetry in Old English Literature

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     Much of Old English poetry is of Pagan origin and inspiration. They relate to the pre-Christian age when the Anglo-Saxon forefathers lived in Germany. This is their native poetry which they brought into England as they conquered and settled here. Much of this poetry was unwritten and its authorship is unknown. It was in the later centuries that these poems were written down by the Christian monks and in the process of this compilation and edition they introduced much Christian sentiment in them. Hence, the blend of the incongruous elements of Paganism and Christianity in them. The old passion for adventure together with the memory of the wild lives and legends of their ancestors provide the raw materials for these poems and these are treated with great artistry in some of the poems.


      The poems of this group are Beowulf, Widsith, Waldere, The Fight at Finnsburh, The Battle of Brunanburh and The Battle of Maldon. Beowulf records the historical mythical hero with monsters and dragons. It is a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a great warrior whose character and actions are held up as a model of aristocratic virtue. It reflects the ideals of that state of society we call the Heroic Age, and its resemblance to the Odyssey has been noted. The grave courtesy with which men of rank are received and dismissed, the generosity of rulers and the loyalty of retainers, the solemn boasting of warriors and pride in a noble heredity link it up with the heroic poems. Beowulf is a type of Homeric hero. He fights with the monsters like Grendel and Grendel's mother and protects the palace of Hrothgar, King of Danes. There is sustained epic dignity in its grand manner, the fullness and freedom of treatment, epic breadth of vision, richness and vividness of details as in the description of wild scenes of gloom and the court.

      Widsith is the oldest of the Anglo-Saxon poems. Widsith (Far traveller) recounts the story of his long travels throughout the Germanic world and mentions the princes he has visited and from whom he had received presents. There are rich descriptions of the poet's travels in different countries and of the splendour of court, of the fighting between the Gothic princes and Atilla. Waldere is a fragment consisting of sixty-three lines, telling of some of the exploits of Waldere in his fight with Guthhere. The narrative has vigour and power, which makes the reader regret that the poem is left fragmentary.

      The Fight at Finnsburh is also a fragment of forty-eight lines, which give a vivid description of the fight. The fragment opens with the speech of a Young King (Anlet, the king of the Danes) rousing his followers to defend the hall where they are sleeping. The followers take their appointed place in anticipation of an attack by the Frisians. Then follows a short battle and many of the Frisians were killed. Then a wounded warrior who is not named brings the news to the knight which point the fragment breaks off.

      The Battle of Brunanburh and The Battle of Maldon were written after the introduction of Christianity in England, The Battle of Brunanburh is a spirited war-poem, which is inserted in the Anglo-saxon prose chronicles. Its subject is the famous battle which took place in 937 in which Athelstan, King of Wessex and Merica won a signal victory over the Scots under Constantine and the Northmen whom Anlat led out of Ireland. The poem Contains no original detail of the war, the circumstances being so general. The West Saxons and Mericlans are extolled in a few enthusiastic stanzas. The savage irony of the poem expends itself on the defeated invader Constantine who came to attack Athelstan after he had sworn fealty him. The poem ends with the traditional description of the battlefield covered with the dead. It is a song of victory, gloating over the slaughtered foe. There is a beautiful song in the poem, which is sung by the victorious army and it is genuinely lyrical.

      The Battle of Maldon has for its theme the battle which took place in 993, in which Byrhtnoth, the old chief of the East Saxons met his death in a bid to drive back a band of Northmen, the Danish pirates who invaded his country. Some of the Saxons fled; the rest fought to the death around their dead chief. It is a fragment of 325 lines and an epic narrative having Homeric grandeur and vigour. Its historical subject is local and quite recent. "It is, in fact the only extant fragment of a national epic in Anglo-Saxon." (Legouis). It is a detailed epic narrative which by its rhythm and general shape recalls the Iliad more than any other Anglo-Saxon poem.

      Besides these war poems, there are some poems of lyrical nature. Deor's Lament, The Seafarer, The Nanderer, The Ruin are laments of a poet who has been dismissed from the court, of a sailor who feels the alteration and miseries of the son of a friend deprived of the love of his friend and of a poet who feels sad at the sight of a ruined place.

      The poems were Pagan in origin, but they were written down by, the Christians. So there is a strange blend of Pagan and Christian sentiments. The sentiments in the poems refer to martial valour, love of battle, a leader's sacrifice of himself for his men and the loyalty of the soldiers to their chief. Byrhtnoth allows the enemies to advance up to the Thames out of his eagerness for and also for his chivalrous love of honour. When he is wounded to death, he rejoices and breaks out in laughter. He dies thanking God that he has been allowed to strike great blows before his end and that many joys have been granted to him by God. His death is the signal for the fight of the cowards and traitors but it redoubles the faith of the brave to avenge their fallen chief and they all die about his body. Thus the poem shows that though the Anglo-Saxons had been converted to Christianity they had still the heroic temper of the Pagans in their love of battle and deeds of valour.

      The elegies are Pagan in their melancholy note, in their passion for the sea and storms, in their faith in wyrd (fate). Christian consolatory verse or note is incorporated in each poem. They reflect the temper of the Teutonic race.

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