The Principal Poetical Works of Old English literature

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      The extant Anglo-Saxon poetry may be broadly divided into two classes- Pagan and Christian. The Anglo-Saxon settlers of the island brought with them certain poems which are of Pagan origin and inspiration. They belonged to the continent and had nothing to do with Britain, though most were compiled or edited between the eighth and tenth centuries in England by clerks who knew Latin and whose minds were coloured by Christian doctrines and morality. Thus there is a curious blend of the Pagan and Christian sentiments in them. To this group belong most of the beautiful poems which have been preserved in their original freshness and excellence, for instance, Beowulf, Widsith and The Fight at Finnsburh, The Battle of Brunanburh, The Battle of Maldon. The Anglo-Saxon elegies like The Wanderer, Deor, The Seafarer, The Wife's Complaint, The Ruin, though not of continental origin, come from the Pagan tradition, though some of them have been touched with Christian sentiments. All these poems breathe a poignant melancholy, which became a strong note in much of later English poetry. Their world is a sombre, bleak world, with sunless mores, icy seas, and windy heath. A profound sense of fate pervades all these poems.

      Christianity produced two poets Caædmon (c. 675) and Cynewulf (c. 800). Bede in his Eeclesinstical History tells the story how his lay brother in St. Hildas Abbey, Caædmon became divinely inspired and wrote poetry. He sang of Creation, the Exodus, the Passion of Christ and paraphrased in verse many other Biblical stories. The four poems in the Junius Ms. Genesis, Exodus, Daniel and Christ and Satan are generally attributed to Cædmon on the basis of this authority of Bede but scholars no longer believe that these poems are by Cædmon. They are certainly not all by one hand.


      The other Anglo-Saxon poet whom we know by name and who signed some of the poems in runic characters is Cynewulf. These poems are Christ, Elene, Juliana and The Fates of the Apostles. These poems show great poetical qualities a power of expression and description. Other poems ascribed to him are The Fall of Angels, The Dream of the Rood, The Phoenix etc.

      From this meagre mass of Anglo-Saxon poetry it is not difficult to choose two great poems which are significant in more senses than one. These are Beowulf and The Dream of the Rood.

      Beowulf is the first of the epics in English poetry. The Angles brought the story of Beowulf with them to England in the sixth century. The story is about the Scandinavians. It contains over three thousand lines and deals with three episodes which are connected together only by the central figure of the hero himself. It was written down in Britain by a Christian scribe about 700 A.D. but the materials from which it was composed belong to an earlier date and to a distant Pagan land. Beowulf is no national epic like Homer's Iliad. The story is mere folklore. Beowulf (meaning the bear) is like the folk-tale heroes, who have been suckled by a wild beast and imbibed strength from that.

      The story is briefly this. Beowulf (who belongs to the Geats) with some of his valiant companions comes to the help of Hrothgar, the King of the Danes, whose palace is ravaged by the nightly attacks of a monster named Grendel that lives in a lair in a fen. In a hand-to-hand fight he mortally wounded the monster, which fled to the lair to die. There is all joy tor the victory and deliverance.

      But Grendel's mother, more fearsome than the son avenges the death by renewing her attack on the palace of the King. she inhabits a cave under a sinister lake and Beowulf dives down and meets her in a combat. This conflict is more harrowing than the previous one and is described with Homeric vigour. When Beowulf is about to succumb he comes across a magic sword hanging on the wall and plunges it into the body of the fearful beast. The Danes believed that the hero had fallen a victim to the monster. Then Beowulf returns in triumph, bearing Grendel's gigantic head. He then becomes the King of the Geats this own race) and reigns for fifty years. He had his third adventure with a tairy dragon, who guarded some ancient treasure, and set out furiously to devastate the King's realm when the treasure was stolen. Beowulf slays the dragon and is himself mortally wounded. His funeral is also described with great pathos and beauty.

      The poem has remarkable literary qualities which lift it to the level of an epic. The poem is written with a long line. The lines do not rhyme, but each line has alliteration, and the poet has a special and extensive vocabulary. He uses 'picture names' for the things and people he has to describe; so the 'sea' is the 'swan's road' and the body is the 'bone-house'. The description of Beowulf's fight with Grendel has a Homeric vigour. The description of the marshes in which Grendel's mother dwells is said to be the most famous passage in the poem. "A sombre imagination and the sadness of the northern landscape have united to paint this powerful' picture." The scenic background is like that in Hardy's novels. Nature here is bleak and sinister, rough and rugged. The view of life is equally gloomy, though the poem is a glorification of prowess and adventure. There is no joy, no tenderness to relieve the gloom. The hero has been depicted with great imagination and insight and made vital. His loyalty and dauntless courage, his courtesy and respect for ladies foreshadow the later chivalry; he is, as it were, the knight-errant before the days of chivalry. The style too has a great dignity throughout. As a picture of the social life of a primitive age it has a great historical significance. The splendour and the banquets and revelries in the court are drawn with realism. Life of the common people, who eat and drink and sleep after day's labour, too receives the attention of the poet.

      The Dream of the Rood is undoubtedly the finest of old English religious poems in its intensity of feeling, brilliance of conception and certainty of execution. It is the work of a real artist and a poet. In this poem, by a strange fiction the story of the crucifixion is told by the Cross itself in a strain of adoration unmatched in Anglo-Saxon poetry. In his dream the poet sees the miraculous tree, by turns shining in jewels and bathed in blood, It related to him the story of its life from the day when it was struck down on the verge of the forest, to that on which "the young Hero, brave and strong" was lifted on to it and it trembled as it received the kiss of God-in-Man. It is now honoured by men, their beacon-light and cure for all ills of life. Allegory has been used here to admirable artistic purpose to bring out the full pathos of the crucifixion. The poem is all aglow with a deep religious piety and some of the verses attain lyrical heights. The allegory foreshadows the later allegorical school of mediaeval English poetry.

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