Old English Literature

Historical background of english literature, the making of England. Beowulf: the oldest english epic. Old english poetry: the seafarer and the wanderer. Early christian literature: Bible story in old english verse. Caedmon, Bede, Cynewulf and King Alfred.

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LECTURE 1

OLD ENGLISH LITERATURE

Plan

1. Historical background. The Making of England

2. Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic

3. Old English Poetry: The Seafarer. The Wanderer

4. Early Christian Literature: Bible story in Old English Verse. Caedmon, Bede, Cynewulf, King Alfred

1. Historical background. The Making of England

England was a dwelling place of men long before the dawn of history. Its preliterary history begins, about the close of the Bronze Age, with the occupation of nearly the entire island by the Joidels, a Celtic-speaking people from Europe. Later they were expelled by the Brythons, another Celtic-speaking people from the Continent. Some of them left traces that have lasted to our day - monuments, graves filled with rude implements, a few inscriptions. In the course of centuries they were absorbed by stronger races, sweeping in waves from the continent - the Celts, the Romans and, later, by the hordes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The old Greek and Roman culture was long in reaching the races that one day were to form the nations of modern Europe. Britain was a colony of Rome of Caesar's invasion (55bc). The Roman legions withdrew at the beginning of the fifth century leaving a few Latin words in Old English, a few monuments to remind of colonizers who drained marshes, built roads, established a great export of trade. When the Romans left, they were forgotten by the Celts, who swarmed back from Scotland and Wales and who were conquered in the last half of the fifth century by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who were at last to lay the foundations of the English nation.

Anglo-Saxon or Old English period (from the 5th century to 1066) in the history of English literature is characterized by oral transmission, emphasis on strength, fame and glory, somber view of life which to Anglo-Saxons was a struggle against both nature and man. According to their belief Wyrd, the goddess of destiny ruled every man's life.

In this period of migrations and the clashing of tribes, there was little national feeling or culture.

But these tribes had ballads and legends from which literature was to be made. There were no books; wandering minstrels visited various tribal centers and praised the reigning chief in song.

Many influences went into the making of English literature. Celtic legends, partly pagan and partly Christian, influenced the development of the story of King Arthur and his Knights. Anglo-Saxon legends made up the texture of Beowulf. The history of English literature is not merely a chronicle of authors and their works. Thousands of songs have perished; only a few books have survived.

literature english beowulf poetry

2. Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic

The oldest English poem that has come down to us preserves some traces of the remote period when tribes migrated from place to place in northern Europe. The manuscript of Beowulf dates from the tenth century, but the poem itself is probably three hundred years older. It has references to historical persons and events in the early sixth century, when a King of the Danes raided the lower Rhine and was defeated by the Franks. The story of Beowulf consists of incidents brought together by the unknown author from many sources. These sources, perhaps, were songs. Minstrels (scops) who made these songs were highly honoured. The poem Beowulf is very far from being a primitive poem; it has many of the characteristics of a literary art and the life which it records is one of dignity and beauty.

The first of the three "adventures" of the poem tells how the hero heard of a monster named Grendel that was ravaging the court of the Danish King Hrothgar. With a band of followers Beowulf sails to the Danish coast and makes his way to Heorot, the lofty hall of the King. The poet describes the beauty of this hall and the happiness of the noble King save for the terror caused by the monster. Beowulf is welcomed by the King, who invites him to the banquet. The meal is conducted in a very ceremonious fashion; minstrels sing of heroic deeds; the queen passes among the warriors. Unferth, the retainer, forces upon Beowulf a sort of wit combat. He mentions a swimming match in which Beowulf had been defeated. The prince replied that he had overcome many uncanny creatures of the sea and had won the race. At length the King and Queen retire and Beowulf and the warriors stay in the hall.

The monster came and seized one of the thanes and devoured him, then reached for Beowulf. But the hero was ready. A terrible combat began and at the end Beowulf triumphed, for he tore off the arm and shoulder of the monster, and sent him deadly marked to the marsh.

Next day the warriors rode out to the mere, where they saw the thick waters red with Grendel's blood. On their return to Heorot, Hrothgar thanked the hero in stately words and Beowulf responded in the same fashion. Then they prepared for the evening's banquet, when splendid gifts were presented to the hero and his men. Songs of heroic deeds were heard in the hall. After this the queen appeared and gave the hero a magnificent present, asking his favour for her sons. At length the revel ended and Heorot was still.

The happiness of the Danes was brief. The mother of Grendel, a monster, comes in the night and slays a retainer to avenge her offspring. Heorot was on a narrow strip of shore. On one side was the sea, on the other was the impenetrable forest, filled with marshes and evil spirits.

From this dark realm Grendel's mother came and challenged Beowulf.

Beowulf accepted the challenge and after a dreadful battle he won victory.

Then follows the episode of his life between his return from Hrothgar's court and his last great adventure. For a time he was the trusted counselor of his King, defending him in battle. Later he served the young prince, then he became King and ruled long and wisely. When Beowulf was an old man, word was brought of the devastation caused by a fire-drake. The dragon flew over Beowulf's realm, dropping fire that destroyed farm houses and villages. Now Beowulf had to save his subjects from the monster that brought terror at night. With eleven of his warriors he went to the hill in which dwelt the enemy. He reviewed his life, as folk-defender, and then went into the grim place alone. Against the fiery power of the drake he fought courageously. In the time of peril, Wiglaf, a thane, rushed bravely forward just in time to help his master give the final fatal blow to the monster, but Beowulf, mortally wounded, died by the hill.

Something in the structure of the epic, the art with which it is put together, is apparent even from this short summary. Despite the fact that only three major adventures are given and the remaining details of the hero's life being introduced by indirect means, the final effect is that of a unified story. We do not have in "Beowulf", as in the Greek and Roman epics, the theme of the founder of a people. Beowulf is less important as a sovereign and law-giver than as a man who is afraid of no danger. But indirectly the poem tells much about the life of those who were to become the founders of England. Life at Hrothgar's court is not primitive. There is good manner and dignity about the characters. The story of Grendel, a supernatural monster, is based on a folk legend but it seems no more of a tale than the witches in "Macbeth" or the ghost in "Hamlet". Pagan superstitious are found together with traces of Christian theology; nevertheless, the poem doesn't present the realm of mere superstition, but of an ordered conception of life and man's destiny. Fate is the ruler of life; the happiness of man is to be found not in external possessions but in duty and service to others. The poem gives pictures which are symbols of a life stern, yet far removed from barbarism.

3. Old English Poetry: The Seafarer. The Wanderer

Old English poetry often reflects the griefs and changes of life. Few men in those days had settled homes; whole tribes migrated from place to place. Men didn't seek developing a great farm or building up a business but a distant realm where their courage might win them fame. Fate seemed to rule man's life; only the supremely good man could hope to overcome hard circumstances. Thus the oldest English poetry is often mournful, filled with memories of a happier past. That this sense of threatening fate and the hardships of life did not dampen the courage of these sturdy people is proved by their poetry as well as by their deeds.

In the poem "The Seafarer" the speaker is apparently an old sailor who describes the dangers of his life, but draws a sharp contrast between a peaceful, and prosperous life on land and the stern joy that thrills one who has surrended himself to the mystery of the sea:

"He ever has longing who is lured by the sea".

The poem describes this longing for the wide stretches of the waters, but there is none more thrilling than this old English song of the sea by a poet whose name is not known.

The deep melancholy of the song "The Wanderer" is reflected in the description of the singer's travels in many lands; he trails the track of the exile; no treasure he has but heart-chilling frost. In such a mood he falls asleep and seems to see, in his dream, his long dead lord. When he awakens, nothing is before him save the waves, with the sea-birds bathing and beating their wings, frost and snow falling:

Where are the horses? Where are the heroes?

Alas the bright wine-cup alas the burnie-warriors!

Alas the princes' pride! How passes the time

Under the shadow of night as it never had been!

Over the trusty troop now towers full high

A wall adorned with wondrous dragons

The strength of the spear has destroyed the earls,

War greedy weapons, Wyrd inexorable;

And the storms strike down on the stony cliffs,

The snows descend and seize all the earth

In the dread of winter.

4. Early Christian Literature. Bible story in Old English verse. Caedmon, Bede, Cynewulf. King Alfred

The ancient Celts or Britons believed in a form of nature worship which assigned deities, both good and evil, to places and things. Their most important men, called Druids, were both priests and statesmen. To be a member of this class long and patient preparations were necessary. Great quantities of verse, containing religions and political matter and legends, had to be memorized. Some elements of this old faith are reflected in later English Literature. The oak and mistletoe were sacred elements in their worship. The invaders of Britain who came from Northern Germany and drove out the Celts brought with them the old Teutonic faiths.

Odin, or Woden was their chief god; his name is preserved in "Wednesday". Another powerful deity was Thor, god or rain and thunder, whose name remains in "Thursday". Other Teutonic deities have given names to "Thursday", "Friday" and possibly "Saturday". Some traces of the old faith are found in such customs as Harvest-home (Thanksgiving), May-day (Easter) an the like.

In the year 597 a Roman priest named Augustine came to northern England with a group of missionaries and began the work of converting the English to Christianity. Canterbury became the center of this movement which gradually spread throughout the land. Thirty years later Paulinus came to northern English, and a similar center of Christian teaching was founded at York. The story of the conversion of Edwin, King of Northumbria, is told by Bede, a great historian of the early English church. Paulinus called upon King Edwin to become a Christian. A great assembly was called and an old counselor made a speech in favour of the new faith that could teach the people of whence and whither they were going, explain more of the unknown. This new faith seemed deserving to be followed. England became Christian. With the coming of priests from Rome, who were scholars as well as missionaries, a great impulse was given to learning and to the writing of poetry and prose based on the new faith.

Alcuin, one of the most learned of these early scholars and teachers, tells of the daily life at York. Grammar and rhetoric were taught, the elements of law and some classical literature. The English churchmen collected and copied manuscripts, founded libraries, taught young men. Travelers and merchants presented costly manuscripts brought from Europe to the monastic libraries; by the end of the eighth century the library at York was nearly equal to that at Rome. King Alfred was a translator, and took deep interest in promoting learning. Bede, one of the greatest of the scholars of his time, refused high office because he couldn't bear to leave his beloved manuscripts. For thirty years he studied the Bible, wrote treatises, perfected himself in learning. At the end of his great "History of the English Church" he records the scholar's prayer: "And I pray Thee, good Jesus, that, as thou hast mercifully granted to me sweetly to drink in the words of Thy Knowledge, so Thou mayest grant me of Thy goodness some day to come to Thee, Fountain of all Wisdom, and to appear continually before Thy face". Bede lived in the 8th century, and his history of the church is as valuable as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the infatuation it gives of these early times. The venerable Bede was educated at the monasteries and lived in the monastery at Jarrow devoting his life to teaching theology, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. His writings are characterized by a concise style and are full of piety. The most important of them are "De Natura Rerum" (a work on physical science), "Historia Abbatum" (a history of the abbots). He was particularly noted for Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation written in Latin. About a century later it was translated into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred the Great. In Bede's Chronicle many stories about poets and learned men among them there is an account of the poet Caedmon, who had been a servitor at the monastery at Whitby in Northumbria. He had no learning and his evenings were spent with companions who used to sing to accompaniment of the harp. One night he went to sleep in the cattle-shed. In a vision an angel came to him and said, "Caedman, sing something". The angel told him that he should sing "the beginnings of created things". In his dream the words of the famous hymn ascribed to him were put into his mouth, and so vivid was the dream that when he awoke he could remember every detail:

"Now shall we praise the Warden of Heaven,

The might of the Master and his manifold thought"

The nine lines of this hymn he recited to his companions, who brought him into the presence of abbess. Here in the company of many learned men, he told of the vision and sang his hymn. They told him some portion of the sacred history and asked him to render it in song. Next morning he returned and through the same divine inspiration he was able to render what had been told him in excellent verse. So the servitor was taken into the company of learners, where he received instruction in the sacred stories. And he converted into sweetest song all things he could learn by hearing. His theme was the creation of the world and the whole story of Genesis and of the sojourn of Israel people in Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land. He sang also of Christ's life and passion, of the coming of the Holy Chost and of the apostles, of the terror of the judgement and of hell. Many others made songs after, but none could equal him, for he learned not of man, but through divine inspiration.

Many centuries after the death of Caedmon and his biographer Bede, an Old English manuscript was discovered which contained poetic versions of large parts of the books of Genesis, Exodus and Daniel. Parts of the poems are very dull; other parts are intensely dramatic, such as the account, in Genesis, of the fall of Satan and his angels. In Exodus, the story of the passage through the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptians is told with great vigor and imagination.

The style of these Biblical paraphrases is often heroic, like Beowulf and the battle pieces in the Chronicle.

The leading characteristic of Old English versification is the use of alliteration instead of rime. Each line has a break in the middle and contains four stresses, or accents. Two or three of the accented syllables begin with the same consonant, or with the same vowel. The number of syllables in a line varies; there must be four stressed syllables, but there may be any number of unstressed syllables.

Old English poetic style is further marked by the frequent use of what are called "Kennings", or metaphors, in which the name of the thing is replaced by a compound word or phrase describing one of its qualities. Thus the King is called the "ring giver"; the sea is "the whale's road" or "the gannet's bath".

King Alfred, a famous monarch, who ruled Wessex in the ninth century was not only a statesman and military genius who warred successfully on the Danes and firmly established himself as the King of all England, but also a man remembered for his great services to English learning. He wanted to develop a truly national spirit. The literature and learning flourished brilliantly in the north. Much was destroyed by the Danes later and all England seemed about to lapse into barbarism. Alfred was a zealous patron of learning, he established a court school and brought to it British and foreign scholars. Alfred found time, in spite of the perplexing problems of his heroic life, to become a humble learner himself, to arouse the spirit of learning in others, and to establish schools. He gathered about him a group of scholars, and they busily translated into English tongue many books of history, philosophy and geography. He himself made translations of such works as the "Consolations of Philosophy" by Roman statesmen, "The History of the World: Pastoral Care" by Pope Gregory the Great.

Another Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf or Cynwulf who lived in the 8th century is thought to have been a Northumbrian minstrel. Historians attribute to him such works as "Christ", the epic of Salvation, "The Tales of the Apostles" (stories of the travels and missionary work of the apostles), "Helene" (the story of the finding of the true Cross by Helena, mother of Constantine and Juliana, a saint's legend).

This is an outline of the earliest English literature. The language is strange, though a little study of it reveals that it is indeed intimately related to the language that is spoken today. The versification is not less strange. But the verse is heroic, with a sturdy rhythm that suited those strong, simple men, the pioneers of a great race. Both because of its grave beauty and because this is the foundation on which English literature has been built, students should know something about this fine old epic. To understand the spirit that permeates English literature one needs to understand the spirit of Beowulf. This noble epic was the first great poem in English. The world today may need more than ever the indomitable spirit of service and hatred of cruelty and tyranny that can be found in Beowulf's words as he went forth to his last battle:

"I have lived through many

Wars in my youth; now once again,

Old folk-defender, feud will I seek,

Do doughty deads, if the dark destroyer

Forth from his cavern come to fight me.

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