Literature is a form of entertainment, the need to tell stories, to recount important events of a community, in a given time and a specific place, has always characterised mankind for the sense of identity that it gave humans, and the Anglo-Saxons were no exception.
The oldest literary genre was poetry because with its rhythm and musical qualities it allowed quicker comprehension and it was easier to memorise, or learn by heart, since it was not written but passed on orally by the scops (it’s pronounced “shop”), the scops were bards that travelled from court to court, they usually sang their poems accompanied by a lyre or harp during banquets or feasts celebrating a victory, or any public gathering. The scop sang about history, chronicles of the time and legends of their people, that is why they held an important function in Anglo-Saxon society, since they represented their living memory and passed on to others their knowledge orally. Because it was an oral tradition, poems could be embellished, modified as they were transferred from one scop to the other and that is why the authors are all anonymous.
The origins of these poems is Germanic as is the language they were first composed in, Old English. Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, is a very different language than modern English and it has Germanic origins, basically a mixture of the dialects spoken by the most important Anglo-Saxon tribes that colonised England. It was spoken from 700 to 1100, its main features consist of inflexional endings, such as the infinitive of verbs ending in –an- as we can see in the verb gongan for instance, later replaced by “to go” in modern English. It was based on the alphabet of the runes and it did not have any written form till the advent of the Latin alphabet. It was king Alfred the Great that began to translate in Old English many Latin literary works. When monasteries became cultural centres the monks began to collect and record in writing these poems, often adding a religious flair to them, but it is thanks to these manuscripts that we have come to know about them.
Formal and Technical Aspects
There are some formal aspects that need to be noted here such as stress and alliteration, each line was divided in two halves by a break and contained three or four stress, giving it rhythm; whereas alliteration is the repetition of the same initial consonant sound and it was used to link the two halves of the line. Some other interesting features are the kennings a sort of primitive metaphor, or formulaic phrase that is used instead of a name or noun, some examples are: whale’s road for sea, battle light for sword, or storm of swords for battle. The litotes is an understatement in which an affirmative is stated by negating its opposite. Finally the riddle is a linguistic guessing game meant to mislead or mystify.
The two most important types of poetry during this time are the epic poem and the elegy.
The Epic Poem – this is a long narrative composition dealing with the recollection of a glorious past of a nation through a specific event generally regarding the magnificent deeds of a great hero who usually perishes in the noble of act of defending and protecting the land and the people. It celebrates the function and role of leadership in heroic society, the heroic ethic, meaning that each man’s actions should signify the pursuit of glory and praise. Historical events, although important, are mainly the background needed to frame the actual issues at stakes regarding supernatural folk-tales and mythological events. The society described is noble and military, the common people are never mentioned since their existence is merely linked to that of the aristocracy from where the heroes come from. There is no criticism of the ideals or customs of the society they belong to, on the contrary this poetry is specifically meant to celebrate everything about it. The language used is rich in vocabulary and elevated, and it describes vivid, pictorial flashes of scenes set in banquets, battles, journeys or funerals, it’s a meditation of the event rather than a visual description.
The Pagan Elegy – this is a lyrical poem. The elegy rather than remembering the past splendour of a country, it expresses the mourning for the loss of friendship and favour and an individual glorious past. It is generally in the form of a dramatic monologue through which a single protagonist laments the fate of a lone wanderer or exiled soul. The reasons that may have led to such a dramatic situation are not openly described, on the contrary they are hinted at, or implied, the melancholic atmosphere is portrayed through a vivid and descriptive language rich in alliteration to underline the oral rhythm of the poem. The universal aspects of human condition are blended with the personal experience of the isolated speaker outlining a development of the story so that it doesn’t appear static.
The idea of isolation and loss of favour is of utmost importance for the Anglo-Saxons and it seemed to have haunted their imagination. In fact, the strongest fear they perceived is that of a potential destruction of the clan or community they belonged to due to internal conflict or an attack coming from the outside. Being forced to live outside the family bonds represented for the Anglo-Saxons the worst fate since out in the wilderness without any protection even the strongest of the individuals risked his life constantly because of the many dangers that nature and other individuals could behold for them, they thus felt vulnerable and open to any menace. It is for all these reasons that any audience could easily identify with the solitary wanderer of the elegy and feel sympathy for his mishaps as they do express the truth of their condition.
Religious Poetry – The literature of the time also has some evidence of religious poetry. In order to be of any appeal to the Saxon population though, it adopts the vocabulary, the style and the modes of the elegy, often portraying Bible events and Christ as much as possible similar to the Germanic society and taste. Not many of them have survived in time, but we do have some verses of Caedmon, an uneducated lay man that was believed to be inspired by Heaven and thus composed some poems on the creation of the world, the flight from Egypt and other Old and New Testament stories. Unfortunately, only nine lines of alliterative verse, called Caedmon Hymn, are known to us. Another religious poet of the 9th century is Cynewulf, four of his poems have survived and they are: Christ, Juliana, Elene and The Fates of the Apostles. Elene is about the finding of the “True Cross” of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. Some scholars have ascribed to Cynewulf two anonymous poems, The Dream ofthe Rood and Christ and Satan. The former is the oldest English allegory in the form of a dream vision; the latter tells the story of Christ being tempted by Satan. Satan is portrayed as an elegiac character lamenting the pain he suffers because of his exile from joys and beauty of Heaven. These poems are all much more poetic and all have artistic variety and skill.
A. Rigotti, A. B. (2012). Timelines. Editrice La Scuola.
Daiches, D. (1983). A Critical History of English Literature. Milano; Garzanti.
M. Spiazzi, M. T. (2010). Only Connect, New Directions; Vol. 1 (3 ed., Vol. Vol. 1). Zanichelli.
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© L. R. Capuana