The Subject-Matter and Style of Anglo Saxon Epic Poetry

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      Anglo-Saxon poetry may be broadly divided into two classes-epic and lyric. To the former belongs Beowulf, the first of the epics in English poetry. There are other epic fragments like The Fight of Finnsburh, The Battle of Brunanburh and The Battle of Maldon. War is the main theme here as in all epic poetry. This war may be waged between men or monsters and thus the natural and fairy elements have been strangely intermingled in them.

      Beowulf is a type of a Homeric hero. The incidents of the story are romantic and supernatural. He fights with the monsters like Grendel and Grendel's mother and protects the palace of Hrothgar, King of Danes, who is a real historical figure, from the ravages of the monster. He is the type of the classical hero, Hercules who did similar exploits. As a critic has beautifully said - "It is like an liad which should have Hercules instead of Achilles for hero, his triumphs over monsters for theme, and about whom purely historical beings and scenes should form a frame for the story." The descriptions of Beowulf's fights have a Homeric vigour. There is a good deal of realism in these descriptions but an idealism, probably that of the Christian scribes has transformed the hero into a saint.

      The pictures of banquets and funeral rites, which are Pagan, are strongly coloured by Christian sentiments and counsels of modesty and wisdom. The character of the hero too has been suffused with the light of idealism. In his loyalty and dauntless courage, his courtesy and respect for ladies he foreshadows the knight-errants of the later age of chivalry. The poem is the work of a great art The style has a sustained dignity of tone and grandeur and the regular march of its verses, which are almost classical so that scholars have been led to see in the poem the influence of classical epics.

      But Beowulf is no national epic like Ilind. The hero is no national hero but a Geat. Nevertheless it may be rightly regarded as the first epic in English literature, by its unity of form and tone and grandeur of thought and style, though the epic had not yet assumed a definite form in English literature. The other war poems too are in the epic tradition, describing wars with epic imagination and grandeur of style. The Fight at Finnsburh is only a fragment of forty-eight lines; nevertheless it reveals real powers of an artist. The Battle of Brunanburh has for its theme an actual war fought between the Saxons and Scots in 937, in which the former were victorious. The description of the war is spirited. The Battle of Maldon has for its theme the battle of the same name, fought in 993, in which the old chief of the East Saxons met his death in a bid to drive back a band of Northmen who came in ships to attack his land. It is a detailed epic narrative which in its general characteristics and rhythm of verse, recalls the Homeric battles. Its subject is local and recent. "It is, in fact the only extant fragment of a national epic in Anglo-Saxon."

      Though Anglo-Saxon poetry was predominantly ot a heroic epic character a few poems of more or less lyric nature have survived- Widsith, Deor's Lament, Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife's Complaint, The Husband's Message and The Runed Burg The poems alongwith Beorwulf, The Battle at Finnsburh, Waldere are Pagan in origin because they were brought by the Saxons from original continental home. These were unwritten and were sung by the minstrels. Later they were written and some Christian elements were infused in them.

      These lyrics grew out of and in connection with great epic cycles. Ihe professional scope and minstrels sometimes thought about themselves in a subjective manner, tagged short speeches on to the end of larger epics. Consequently, these lyrics are in the nature of personal poetry and a general.elegiac note pervades all of them except Widsith, They begin with a description of experience from the poet's own life, mostly of suffering and sorrow and end with conventional conclusion about the vanity of worldly things and the inexorability of fate. Stern yet sombre, they thoroughly reflect the Anglo-Saxon national temperament. Their general outlook is Pagan and dark though in most of them a later hand has interpolated a Christian consolatory verse as an epilogue.

      The Ruined Burg is a complaint written on the ruin of a town. It is a series of monotonous laments. The Wife's Complaint is the lamentation of a woman who has been banished by her lover. In The Husband's Message, we find a love sending the message of his love by carving songs upon a piece of wood. The Wanderer is a song of friendship. It contains a philosophical note at the end. The Seafarer is the most original and beautiful of these poems. It has two parts, the second part is mostly obscured by the introduction of an allegory. This poem is modern in sentiment and it glorifies romance and adventure. Widsith is probably the oldest Anglo-Saxon poem. It depicts the adventures of an unknown traveller who has visited many courts and described them. So it tells us something about the life of contemporary courts. It contains language which shows much remoteness to old English. In Deor's Lament the poet speaks of a man who has been suddenly thrown out of employment by his masters. He is a minstrel and so he gives expression to his sorrowful feelings in beautiful language. There is a philosophic note here and its poetical value is very much limited. Wulf and Eadvacer is another monologue which expresses the intense passion of a woman for her out loved lover. It is a poem of passion Eadvacer may be her hated husband or atleast the man with whome she is forced to live.

      These poems reflect the main aspects of Anglo-Saxon life- their love of personal freedom, easy response to Nature, Pagan attitude, faith in wyrd, reverence for women folk and a certain pessimistic attitude to life. Deors Lament, the Seafarer, the Wanderer, the Wife's Complaint, the Ruined Burg are elegies. But the husband's message. Widsith are not elegies. However, all these poems are lyrics.

      Second part of the question: The background of life The picture of life that this Anglo-Saxon poetry reveals is essentially primitive. The minstrels, who were singers and moralists of heathen times figure prominently in that social life. They were an invariable part of the high lite and sang their songs in the courts of the chieftains during and after banquet, to entertain the guests. The songs celebrate the glories and exploits of heroes of the past and stirred the men to deeds of courage and endurance. This we find in Beowulf, Deor, The Wanderer, etc. Patronage was much in request and the exile of the minstrels either by death or anger of the chieftain was a source of lament to them. But they find consolation in the fact that theirs is a universal lot. This we find in The Wanderer. The magnificence of the life in the courts its banquets, revelries, music of the minstrel foreshadow the age of chivalry. But the view of life in general was dark and sombre. The men were of few words and had little gaiety in them. They found life a sad business; efforts, glories appeared vain to them. This was probably due to the infusion of the Christian sentiments in these poems,

      Scenic background: The scenic background too is gloomy and suited to the moods of the men. Most of the poems take us into dark places, in the bottom of lakes and rivers, woods, stormy seas, where the sunlight cannot penetrate, where fogs and vapours are never dissipated by the sun. Nature, as painted in these poems, is dark and sad, cold and rugged. The sunny aspect of nature is almost ruled out in these poems.

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