Background and Summary
The old period is a long one for it opens in the fifth century and does not conclude, as is often, with the Norman Conquest in 1066, but rather continues in prose at least till 1150. The events, however, must be dismissed briefly. The departure of the Roman in 410 left the British population open to inroads of the invaders from north. According to Bristish traditionsthe English from continent came first as mercenaries to help in defense agaist the Picts and Scots; but soon they began to settle in the country, and archeological evidence shows that certain permanent settlements had been made in the last quarter of the fifth century if not before. In the course of time they gained possession of all the land. Then followed the Christianizarion of pagan English tribes, beginning in Northumbria with the work of Irish miisionaries. Though the influence from Rome begins in Kent (597). In succession followed the inroads of Danes in the ninth century; the rise of Wesse among the early English Kingdoms with important contribution of Alfred the great; the establishment of Dane law in England with the permanent settlement of Danes in the country; the accession of a Danish King (1017) and the Norman influnce on the English court which began before the conquest in 1066.
Very little indeed is known of the origin of English literautre. It is important from the outset to remember that the extent remains of English litrature have cown down to us in late copies, some of which were made three hundred years after the composition of the poems themselves. And so far as the poets are concerned again very litltle or nothing is known beyond the names of two of them.
The name of the poem is continental Germanic, and it is likely, that it was the subject of lays long before its present version was composed. There is no mention of England and Beowulf himself is King of the ‘Geatas’. Though there is much in the poem which can be considered ‘Pagan’ and which suggests that the poem in origin maybe considered as such, the extent version was clearly written by a christian for Christianization.
In outline Beowulf may be said that Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, sails to Denmark with a band of warriors and rids the Danish King Hrothgar of a terrible monster called Grendel. The mother of Grendel, seeking vengeance for the death of her son, meets the same fate and Beowulf, fittingly feasted and rewarded, returned to this native land. He becomes King of Geates and after a prosperous reign of some forty years slays a dragon which had ravaged his land, but in the fight he hismelf receives a moral wound. The poem concludes with the funeral ceremonies in honour of the dead hero.
The Pagan Poems
Most old English poery can be said to be “Christian” but a few pieces are distinctly secular. It would be better in many respects to refer to them as national rather than pagan.
-Widshit, usually considered to be the oldest poem in the language. It consists nearly 150 lines of verse, in which a traveler, nore imaginary than real, recount the places and illustrious people he has visited. The poem is of especial importance of historica point of view, but poetically it is of lttle merit.
-Waldare, consists of two fragments, some sixty three lines in all, telling of some of theexploits of Walter of Aquitaine. The work has vigour and power and it is to be gratly regretted that so little is preserved.
-The Fight at Finnsburh, is a fragment of some forty eight lines with a finely told description of the fighting at Finnsburh.
-The Battle of Brunanburh, is a spirited piece on the famous battle which took place in 937.
-The Battle of Maldon describes the battle which took place in 993, with emphasis on individual deeds of varlour and on the feelings of the warriors. It is particularly outstanding for sentiments expressed by those of aged Byrhwold.
-Elegies, these poems, among which are The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Wife’s Lament, and Husband’s Message appear in the Exeter Books.
The Caedmon Group
Caedmon wrote Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and three shorter poems often considered as one under the title Christ and Satan are of unequal merit. As best they are strong and spirited with some gift of descriptive writing at worst they are tedious paraphrases of Biblical stories.
The Cynewulf Group
Four poems contain the signature of Cynewulf Christ in runic characters; Juliana, Elene, and the Fates of the Apostles. This is all that is known of the poet, though unfortunately it has not prevented critics from deducing additional facts about his life.
Alfred began his seires of translations due to the lamentable state of English learning, largely the result of destrcution of Danes. The King in order to encourage learning among the clergy translated some popular books into his own tongue. These works are his contribution to English literature. The fine important literature are Pastoral, Care of Pope Gregory, The History of the World of Orosius, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Boethius, Consolation of Phylosophy and Soliloqueies of St. Augustine.
Several of his works are extant. The Catholic Homilies, Lines of the Saints and His Colloqucy are of great interest as a dialogue between master and pupils not only from literary but also from the historical point of view.
He was Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York. His most famous piece is the sermo lupi Anglos. It is fluent and powerful; indeed wulfstan must have been a most brilliant preacher.
d. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle
This Chronicle was probably inspired by Alfred, who himself may well have dictated some of the entries more particularly those dealing with his own campaigns. It is extent in several manuscript.