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Read about A History of English Literature.
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Anglo-Saxon Poetry
from A History of English Literature


by Robert Huntington Fletcher

Preface | How to Study | Tabular View | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | Assignments

from Chapter I. Period I. The Britons And The Anglo-Saxons. To A.D. 1066


The Anglo-Saxons doubtless brought with them from the Continent the rude beginnings of poetry, such as come first in the literature of every people and consist largely of brief magical charms and of rough 'popular ballads' (ballads of the people). The charms explain themselves as an inevitable product of primitive superstition; the ballads probably first sprang up and developed, among all races, in much the following way. At the very beginning of human society, long before the commencement of history, the primitive groups of savages who then constituted mankind were instinctively led to express their emotions together, communally, in rhythmical fashion. Perhaps after an achievement in hunting or war the village-group would mechanically fall into a dance, sometimes, it might be, about their village fire. Suddenly from among the inarticulate cries of the crowd some one excited individual would shout out a fairly distinct rhythmical expression. This expression, which may be called a line, was taken up and repeated by the crowd; others might be added to it, and thus gradually, in the course of generations, arose the regular habit of communal composition, composition of something like complete ballads by the throng as a whole. This procedure ceased to be important everywhere long before the literary period, but it led to the frequent composition by humble versifiers of more deliberate poems which were still 'popular' because they circulated by word of mouth, only, from generation to generation, among the common people, and formed one of the best expressions of their feeling. At an early period also professional minstrels, called by the Anglo-Saxons scops or gleemen, disengaged themselves from the crowd and began to gain their living by wandering from village to village or tribe to tribe chanting to the harp either the popular ballads or more formal poetry of their own composition. Among all races when a certain stage of social development is reached at least one such minstrel is to be found as a regular retainer at the court of every barbarous chief or king, ready to entertain the warriors at their feasts, with chants of heroes and battles and of the exploits of their present lord. All the earliest products of these processes of 'popular' and minstrel composition are everywhere lost long before recorded literature begins, but the processes themselves in their less formal stages continue among uneducated people (whose mental life always remains more or less primitive) even down to the present time.

Out of the popular ballads, or, chiefly, of the minstrel poetry which is partly based on them, regularly develops epic poetry. Perhaps a minstrel finds a number of ballads which deal with the exploits of a single hero or with a single event. He combines them as best he can into a unified story and recites this on important and stately occasions. As his work passes into general circulation other minstrels add other ballads, until at last, very likely after many generations, a complete epic is formed, outwardly continuous and whole, but generally more or less clearly separable on analysis into its original parts. Or, on the other hand, the combination may be mostly performed all at once at a comparatively late period by a single great poet, who with conscious art weaves together a great mass of separate materials into the nearly finished epic.

Not much Anglo-Saxon poetry of the pagan period has come down to us. By far the most important remaining example is the epic 'Beowulf,' of about three thousand lines. This poem seems to have originated on the Continent, but when and where are not now to be known. It may have been carried to England in the form of ballads by the Anglo-Saxons; or it may be Scandinavian material, later brought in by Danish or Norwegian pirates. At any rate it seems to have taken on its present form in England during the seventh and eighth centuries. It relates, with the usual terse and unadorned power of really primitive poetry, how the hero Beowulf, coming over the sea to the relief of King Hrothgar, delivers him from a monster, Grendel, and then from the vengeance of Grendel's only less formidable mother. Returned home in triumph, Beowulf much later receives the due reward of his valor by being made king of his own tribe, and meets his death while killing a fire-breathing dragon which has become a scourge to his people. As he appears in the poem, Beowulf is an idealized Anglo-Saxon hero, but in origin he may have been any one of several other different things. Perhaps he was the old Germanic god Beowa, and his exploits originally allegories, like some of those in the Greek mythology, of his services to man; he may, for instance, first have been the sun, driving away the mists and cold of winter and of the swamps, hostile forces personified in Grendel and his mother. Or, Beowulf may really have been a great human fighter who actually killed some especially formidable wild beasts, and whose superhuman strength in the poem results, through the similarity of names, from his being confused with Beowa. This is the more likely because there is in the poem a slight trace of authentic history. (See below, under the assignments for study.)

'Beowulf' presents an interesting though very incomplete picture of the life of the upper, warrior, caste among the northern Germanic tribes during their later period of barbarism on the Continent and in England, a life more highly developed than that of the Anglo-Saxons before their conquest of the island. About King Hrothgar are grouped his immediate retainers, the warriors, with whom he shares his wealth; it is a part of the character, of a good king to be generous in the distribution of gifts of gold and weapons. Somewhere in the background there must be a village, where the bondmen and slaves provide the daily necessaries of life and where some of the warriors may have houses and families; but all this is beneath the notice of the courtly poet. The center of the warriors' life is the great hall of the king, built chiefly of timber. Inside, there are benches and tables for feasting, and the walls are perhaps adorned with tapestries. Near the center is the hearth, whence the smoke must escape, if it escapes at all, through a hole in the roof. In the hall the warriors banquet, sometimes in the company of their wives, but the women retire before the later revelry which often leaves the men drunk on the floor. Sometimes, it seems, there are sleeping-rooms or niches about the sides of the hall, but in 'Beowulf' Hrothgar and his followers retire to other quarters. War, feasting, and hunting are the only occupations in which the warriors care to be thought to take an interest.

The spirit of the poem is somber and grim. There is no unqualified happiness of mood, and only brief hints of delight in the beauty and joy of the world. Rather, there is stern satisfaction in the performance of the warrior's and the sea-king's task, the determination of a strong-willed race to assert itself, and do, with much barbarian boasting, what its hand finds to do in the midst of a difficult life and a hostile nature. For the ultimate force in the universe of these fighters and their poets (in spite of certain Christian touches inserted by later poetic editors before the poem crystallized into its present form) is Wyrd, the Fate of the Germanic peoples, cold as their own winters and the bleak northern sea, irresistible, despotic, and unmoved by sympathy for man. Great as the differences are, very much of this Anglo-Saxon pagan spirit persists centuries later in the English Puritans.

For the finer artistic graces, also, and the structural subtilties of a more developed literary period, we must not, of course, look in 'Beowulf.' The narrative is often more dramatic than clear, and there is no thought of any minuteness of characterization. A few typical characters stand out clearly, and they were all that the poet's turbulent and not very attentive audience could understand. But the barbaric vividness and power of the poem give it much more than a merely historical interest; and the careful reader cannot fail to realize that it is after all the product of a long period of poetic development.

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