There are two types of Old English poetry: the heroic, the sources of which are pre-Christian Germanic myth, history, and custom; and the Christian. Although nearly all Old English poetry is preserved in only four manuscripts—indicating that what has survived is not necessarily the best or most representative—much of it is of high literary quality. Moreover, Old English heroic poetry is the earliest extant in all of Germanic literature. It is thus the nearest we can come to the oral pagan literature of Germanic culture, and is also of inestimable value as a source of knowledge about many aspects of Germanic society. The 7th-century work known as Widsith is one of the earliest Old English poems, and thus is of particular historic and linguistic interest.
Beowulf, a complete epic, is the oldest surviving Germanic epic as well as the longest and most important poem in Old English. It originated as a pagan saga transmitted orally from one generation to the next; court poets known as scops were the bearers of tribal history and tradition. The version of Beowulf that is extant was composed by a Christian poet, probably early in the 8th cent. However, intermittent Christian themes found in the epic, although affecting in themselves, are not integrated into the essentially pagan tale. The epic celebrates the hero's fearless and bloody struggles against monsters and extols courage, honor, and loyalty as the chief virtues in a world of brutal force.
The elegiac theme, a strong undercurrent in Beowulf, is central to Deor, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and other poems. In these works, a happy past is contrasted with a precarious and desolate present. The Finnsburgh fragment, The Battle of Maldon, and The Battle of Brunanburh (see Maldon and Brunanburh), which are all based on historical episodes, mainly celebrate great heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. In this heroic poetry, all of which is anonymous, greatness is measured less by victory than by perfect loyalty and courage in extremity.
Much of the Old English Christian poetry is marked by the simple belief of a relatively unsophisticated Christianity; the names of two authors are known. Cædmon—whose story is charmingly told by the Venerable Bede, who also records a few lines of his poetry—is the earliest known English poet. Although the body of his work has been lost, the school of Cædmon is responsible for poetic narrative versions of biblical stories, the most dramatic of which is probably Genesis B.
Cynewulf, a later poet, signed the poems Elene, Juliana, and The Fates of the Apostles ; no more is known of him. The finest poem of the school of Cynewulf is The Dream of the Rood, the first known example of the dream vision, a genre later popular in Middle English literature. Other Old English poems include various riddles, charms (magic cures, pagan in origin), saints' lives, gnomic poetry, and other Christian and heroic verse.
The verse form for Old English poetry is an alliterative line of four stressed syllables and an unfixed number of unstressed syllables broken by a caesura and arranged in one of several patterns. Lines are conventionally end-stopped and unrhymed. The form lends itself to narrative; there is no lyric poetry in Old English. A stylistic feature in this heroic poetry is the kenning, a figurative phrase, often a metaphorical compound, used as a synonym for a simple noun, e.g., the repeated use of the phrases whale-road for sea and twilight-spoiler for dragon (see Old Norse literature).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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