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Old English poetry is of two types, the heroic Germanic pre-Christian and the Christian. It has survived for the most part in four manuscripts. The first manuscript is called the Junius manuscript (also known as the Caedmon manuscript), which is an illustrated poetic anthology. The second manuscript is called the Exeter Book, also an anthology, located in the Exeter Cathedral since it was donated there in the 11th century. The third manuscript is called the Vercelli Book, a mix of poetry and prose; how it came to be in Vercelli, Italy, no one knows, and is a matter of debate. The fourth manuscript is called the Nowell Codex, also a mixture of poetry and prose.
Old English poetry had no known rules or system left to us by the Anglo-Saxons, everything we know about it is based on modern analysis. The first widely accepted theory was by Eduard Sievers (1885) in which he distinguished five distinct alliterative patterns. The theory of John C. Pope (1942) uses musical notations which has had some acceptance; every few years a new theory arises and the topic continues to be hotly debated.
The most popular and well known understanding of Old English poetry continues to be Sievers alliterative verse. The system is based upon accent, alliteration, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation. It consists of five permutations on a base verse scheme; any one of the five types can be used in any verse. The system was inherited and exists in one form or another in all of the older Germanic languages. Two poetic figures commonly found in Old English poetry are the Kenning, an often formulaic phrase that describes one thing in terms of another, e.g. in Beowulf, the sea is called the swan's road and Litotes, a dramatic understatement employed by the author for ironic effect.
Old English poetry was an oral craft, our understanding of it in written form is incomplete—for example we know that the poet (referred to as a Scop) could be accompanied by a harp—there may be other audio traditions we are not aware of.
Poetry represents the smallest amount of the surviving Old English text, but Anglo-Saxon culture had a rich tradition of oral story telling, just not much was written down or survived.
Most Old English poets are anonymous; twelve are known by name from Medieval sources, but only three of those are known by their works to us today: Caedmon, Aldhelm, and Cynewulf.
Caedmon is the most well known and considered the father of Old English poetry. He lived at the abbey of Whitby in Northumbria in the 7th century. Only a single nine line poem remains, called Hymn, which is also the oldest surviving text in English:
Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), is known through William of Malmesbury who said he performed secular songs while accompanied by a harp. Much of his Latin prose has survived, but none of his Old English remains.
Cynewulf has proven to be a difficult figure to identify, but recent research suggests he was from the early part of the 9th century to which a number of poems are attributed including The Fates of the Apostles and Elene (both found in the Vercelli Book), and Christ II and Juliana (both found in the Exeter Book).
The Old English poetry which has received the most attention deals with the Germanic heroic past. The longest (3,182 lines), and most important, is Beowulf, which appears in the damaged Nowell Codex. It tells the story of the legendary Geatish hero Beowulf who is the title character. The story is set in Scandinavia, in Sweden and Denmark, and the tale likewise probably is of Scandinavian origin. The story is biographical and sets the tone for much of the rest of Old English poetry. It has achieved national epic status, on the same level as the Iliad, and is of interest to historians, anthropologists, literary critics, and students the world over.
Beyond Beowulf other heroic poems exist. Two heroic poems have survived in fragments, The Fight at Finnsburh, a retelling of one of the battle scenes in Beowulf (although this relation to Beowulf is much debated), and Waldere, a version of the events of the life of Walter of Aquitaine. Two other poems mention heroic figures: Widsith is believed to be in parts very old dating back to events in the 4th century concerning Eormanric and the Goths, and contains a catalogue of names and places associated with valiant deeds. Deor is a lyric, in the style of Consolation of Philosophy, applying examples of famous heroes, including Weland and Eormanric, to the narrators own case.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains various heroic poems inserted throughout. The earliest from 937 is called The Battle of Brunanburh, which celebrates the victory of King Athelstan over the Scots and Norse. There are five shorter poems: capture of the Five Boroughs (942); coronation of King Edgar (973); death of King Edgar (975); death of Prince Alfred (1036); death of King Edward the Confessor (1065)
The 325 line poem Battle of Maldon celebrates Earl Byrhtnoth and his men who fell in battle against the Vikings in 991. It is considered one of the finest, but both the beginning and end are missing and the only manuscript was destroyed in a fire in 1731. A well known speech is near the end of the poem:
Old English heroic poetry was handed down orally from generation to generation. As Christianity began to appear, retellers often recast the tales of Christianity into the older heroic stories.
Related to the heroic tales are a number of short poems from the Exeter Book which have come to be described as "Wisdom poetry". They are lyrical and Boethian in their description of the up and down fortunes of life. Gloomy in mood is The Ruin, which tells of the decay of a once glorious city of Roman Britain (Britain fell into decline after the Romans departed in the early 5th c.), and The Wanderer, in which an older man talks about an attack that happened in his youth, where his close friends and kin were all killed; memories of the slaughter have remained with him all his life. He questions the wisdom of the impetuous decision to engage a possibly superior fighting force: the wise man engages in warfare to preserve civil society, and must not rush into battle but seek out allies when the odds may be against him. This poet finds little glory in bravery for bravery's sake. The Seafarer is the story of a somber exile from home on the sea, from which the only hope of redemption is the joy of heaven. Other wisdom poems include Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife's Lament, and The Husband's Message. King Alfred the Great wrote a wisdom poem over the course of his reign based loosely on the neoplatonic philosophy of Boethius called the Lays of Boethius.
Several Old English poems are adaptions of late classical philosophical texts. The longest is a 10th century translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy contained in the Cotton manuscript. Another is The Phoenix in the Exeter Book, an allegorization of the De ave phoenice by Lactantius.
Other short poems derived from the Latin bestiary tradition such as The Panther, The Whale and The Partridge.
The Vercelli Book and Exeter Book contain four long narrative poems of saints' lives, or hagiography. In Vercelli are Andreas and Elene and in Exeter are Guthlac and Juliana.
Andreas is 1,722 lines long and is the closest of the surviving Old English poems to Beowulf in style and tone. It is the story of Saint Andrew and his journey to rescue Saint Matthew from the Mermedonians. Elene is the story of Saint Helena (mother of Constantine) and her discovery of the True Cross. The cult of the True Cross was popular in Anglo-Saxon England and this poem was instrumental.
Guthlac is actually two poems about English Saint Guthlac (7th century). Juliana is the story of the virgin martyr Juliana of Nicomedia.
The Junius manuscript contains three paraphrases of Old Testament texts. These were re-wordings of Biblical passages in Old English, not exact translations, but paraphrasing, sometimes into beautiful poetry in its own right. The first and longest is of Genesis. The second is of Exodus. The third is Daniel.
The Nowell Codex contains a Biblical paraphrase, which appears right after Beowulf, called Judith, a retelling of the story of Judith.
The Psalter Psalms 51-150 are preserved, following a prose version of the first 50 Psalms. It is believed there was once a complete psalter based on evidence, but only the first 150 have survived.
There are a number of verse translations of the Gloria in Excelsis, the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed as well as a number of hymns and proverbs.
In addition to Biblical paraphrases are a number of original religious poems, mostly lyrical (non-narrative).
The Exeter Book contains a series of poems entitled Christ, sectioned into Christ I, Christ II and Christ III.
Considered one of the most beautiful of all Old English poems is Dream of the Rood, contained in the Vercelli Book. It is a dream vision of Christ on the cross, with the cross personified, speaking thus:
The dreamer resolves to trust in the cross, and the dream ends with a vision of heaven.
There are a number of religious debate poems. The longest is Christ and Satan in the Junius manuscript, it deals with the conflict between Christ and Satan during the forty days in the desert. Another debate poem is Solomon and Saturn, surviving in a number of textual fragments, Saturn is portrayed as a magician debating with the wise king Solomon.
Other poetic forms exist in Old English including riddles, short verses, gnomes, and mnemonic poems for remembering long lists of names.
The Exeter Book has a collection of ninety-five riddles. The answers are not supplied, a number of them to this day remain a puzzle, and some of the answers are obscene.
There are short verses found in the margins of manuscripts which offer practical advice There are remedies against the loss of cattle, how to deal with a delayed birth, swarms of bees, etc.. the longest is called Nine Herbs Charm and is probably of pagan origin.
There are a group of mnemonic poems designed to help memorise lists and sequences of names and to keep objects in order. These poems are named Menologium, The Fates of the Apostles, The Rune Poem, The Seasons for Fasting, and the Instructions for Christians.
Anglo-Saxon poetry is marked by the comparative rarity of similes. This is a particular feature of Anglo-Saxon verse style, and is a consequence of both its structure and the rapidity with which images are deployed, to be unable to effectively support the expanded simile. As an example of this, the epic Beowulf contains at best five similes, and these are of the short variety. This can be contrasted sharply with the strong and extensive dependence that Anglo-Saxon poetry has upon metaphor, particularly that afforded by the use of kennings.
It is also a feature of the fast-paced dramatic style of Anglo-Saxon poetry that it is not prone, in the way that, say, Celtic literature of the period was, to overly elaborate decoration. Where typically a Celtic poet of the time might use 3 or 4 similes to make a point, typically an Anglo-Saxon poet might reference a kenning, before moving swiftly on.