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Anglo-Saxon Heroic Poetry

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Old English poetry is divided into two types: the Heroic, the sources of which are pre-Christian Germanic myth, history and custom; and the Christian. Heroic, or Epic Poetry belongs to one of these two types and refers to long narrative poems celebrating the great deeds of one or more legendary heroes, in a grand, ceremonious style. In its strict use by literary critics, the terms ‘Heroic Poetry’ or ‘Epic’ are applied to a work that meets the following criteria: such a poem must be related in an elevated style, and centered upon a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nation, or the human race. The hero, usually protected by or even descended from gods, performs superhuman exploits in battle or in marvellous voyages, often saving or founding a nation or the human race itself. The main characteristics of the Epic Hero include the following:

1.The hero is introduced in the midst of turmoil, at a point well into the story; antecedent action will be recounted in flashbacks.

2.The hero is not only a warrior and a leader, but also a polished speaker who can address councils of chieftains or elders with eloquence and confidence.

3.The hero, often a demi-god, possesses distinctive weapons of great size and power, often heirlooms or presents from the gods.

4.The hero must undertake a long, perilous journey, often involving a descent into the Underworld, testing his endurance, courage, and cunning.

5.Although his fellows may be great warriors (he may have a commitatus, or group of noble followers with whom he grew up), he undertakes a task that no one else dare attempt.

6.Whatever virtues his race most prizes, these, the epic hero as a cultural exemplar, possesses in abundance.

7.The concept of arĂŞte (Greek for “bringing virtue to perfection”) is crucial
to understanding the epic protagonist.

8.The hero gains little honor by slaying a lesser mortal, but only by challenging heroes like himself or adversaries of superhuman power.

9.The two great epic adversaries, the hero and his antagonist, meet at the climax, which must be delayed as long as possible to sustain maximum interest.

10.The hero’s epic adversary is often a “god-despiser”, one who has more respect for his own mental and physical abilities than for the power of the gods. The adversary might also be a good man sponsored by lesser deities, or one whom the gods desert at a crucial moment.

11.The hero may encounter a numinous phenomenon ( a place or person having a divine or supernatural force) such as a haunted wood or enchanting sorceress whose strength, cunning, and divine assistance he must use to overcome obstacles

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 of such inestimable value as a source of knowledge about many aspects of Germanic society.

The “traditional epics” (also called “primary epics” or “folk epics”) were shaped by a literary artist from historical and legendary materials which had developed out of the oral traditions of his nation during a period of expansion and warfare. To this group are ascribed the Iliad and Odyssey of the Greek Homer, and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf . The “literary” or “secondary” epics were composed by sophisticated craftsmen in deliberate imitation of the

traditional form. One such example is Virgil’s Latin poem the Aeneid, which later served as the chief model for Milton’s literary epic Paradise Lost. Virgil and Milton wrote ‘secondary’ or literary epics in imitation of the earlier ‘primary’ or traditional epics of Homer. They adopted many of the conventions of Homer’s work, including the invocation of a muse, the use of epithets, the listening of heroes and combatants, and the beginning in medias res which refers to the notion of action beginning in the middle of critical moments.

An ‘epic’ or ‘heroic’ poem falls into one of two patterns, both established by Homer: the structure (and allegory to life) may be either war or journey, and the hero may be on a quest or pursuing conquest. Features of legend building evident in epic include the following:

1.The hero’s near-invulnerability;

2.The hero’s fighting without conventional weapons (as in Beowulf’s wrestling Grendel);

3.The hero’s inglorious youth;

4.The hero’s auspicious birth, an attempt at the reconstruction of the early life of a notable adult;

5.Transference of the deeds and events associated with one hero to another of similar name. Such events would include the god’s arming a hero ( a metaphor for wondrous strength so great it must have seemed to have divine origins) and the hero is descending to the Underworld ( a metaphor for facing and overcoming death);

6.Historical inclusiveness: the poem presents a whole culture in microcosm – although the action is localized, flashbacks and inset narratives widen the epic’s geographical and chronological scope to include the whole of that race’s world and culture heroes;

7.The hero is a dramatic protagonist in each scene of a play that is too big for any stage

Milton employed the epic machinery of Homer and Virgil while attempting to redefine their ethos from that of the man of action to that of the man of patient endurance and love. In attempting to make this shift, Milton was surely recognizing that the heroic poem is essentially non-Christian since it is based on the deeds of a man of physical action, a warrior and military leader. Although an epic may be either a folk original (primary), it must be unified in plot and action, and not episodic.

Coming to heroic poetry, Anglo-Saxon in particular, the focus should be placed upon primary epic – these epics were composed without the aid of writing, sung or chanted to a musical accompaniment. Thus, the composition of the oral epics is looser because it was constructed for recitational purposes. They are also more episodic in structure – the episodes can be detached from the whole and may be enjoyed as separate poems or stories. The heroic ideal suggests that the epic heroes in the oral epic are more concerned with their own personal self-fulfilment.

The work focuses on the personal concept of heroism, and the self-fulfilment and identity of the individual hero. The national concept is secondary. The language in the oral epics is formulaic: repetitious use of stock phrases and descriptions to aid its oral recitational nature, tending toward pleasing the ear rather than the eye. Focus is placed upon the spoken word. The movement tends to be cyclical, encompassing the theme of the return. The primary epics were developed in cultures that had not yet attained a national identity or unity: Greek city-states, for instance. Examples of the primary epic include: the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the most essential one, considering the subject of this essay, Beowulf.

Beowulf, a complete epic, is the oldest surviving Germanic epic as well as being 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 century. However, intermittent Christian themes contained within the epic, although affecting in themselves, are not integrated into what is essentially a pagan tale. The epic celebrates the hero’s fearless and bloody struggles against monsters and extols courage, honor, and loyalty as being the chief virtues in a world of brutal force.

Beowulf is a solid and comprehensive example of native epic poetry. It is written in alliterative unrhymed rhythm. Though it is often viewed both as the archetypal Anglo-Saxon literary work and as a cornerstone of modern literature, Beowulf has a peculiar history that complicates both its historical and its canonical position within English literature. By the time the story of Beowulf was composed by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet around 700 AD., much of its material had been in circulation in oral narrative form for many years. The Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian peoples had invaded the island of Britain and settled there several hundred years earlier, bringing with them several closely related Germanic languages that would evolve into Old English. Elements of the Beowulf story–including its setting and characters–date back to the period before the migration. The action of the poem takes place around 500 A.D. Many of the characters in the poem–the Swedish and Danish royal family members, for example–correspond to actual historical figures.

Originally pagan warriors, the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invaders experienced a large-scale conversion to Christianity at the end of the sixth century. Though still an old pagan story, Beowulf thus came to be told by a Christian poet. The Beowulf poet is often at pains to attribute Christian thoughts and motives to his characters, who frequently behave in distinctly un-Christian ways. The Beowulf that we read today is therefore probably quite unlike the Beowulf with which the first Anglo-Saxon audiences were familiar. The element of religious tension is quite commonplace in Christian Anglo-Saxon writings (The Dream of the Rood, for example), but the combination of a pagan story with a Christian narrator is fairly unusual. The plot of the poem concerns Scandinavian culture, but much of the poem’s narrative intervention reveals that the poet’s culture was somewhat different from that of his ancestors, and that of his characters as well.

The world that Beowulf depicts and the heroic code of honor that defines much of the story, is a relic of pre-Anglo-Saxon culture. The story is set in Scandinavia, before the migration. Though it is a traditional story–part of a Germanic oral tradition–the poem as we have it is thought to be the work of a single poet. It was composed in England (not in Scandinavia) and is historical in its perspective, recording the values and culture of a bygone era. Many of those values, including the heroic code, were still operative to some degree when the poem was written. These values had evolved, to some extent, over the course of the intervening centuries and were continuing to change. In the Scandinavian world of the story, tiny tribes of people rally around strong kings, who protect their people from danger–especially from confrontations with other tribes.

The warrior culture that results from this early feudal arrangement is extremely important, both to the story and to our understanding of Saxon civilization. Strong kings demand bravery and loyalty from their warriors, whom they repay with treasures won in war. Mead-halls such as Heorot in Beowulf were places where warriors would gather in the presence of their lord to drink, boast, tell stories, and receive gifts. Although these mead-halls offered sanctuary, the early Middle Ages were a dangerous time, and the paranoid sense of foreboding and doom that pervades throughout Beowulf evidences the constant fear of invasion that plagued Scandinavian society.

Only a single manuscript of Beowulf survived the Anglo-Saxon era. For many centuries, the manuscript was all but forgotten, and, in the 1700s, it was nearly destroyed in a fire. It was not until the nineteenth century that widespread interest in the document emerged among scholars and translators of Old English. For the first hundred years of Beowulf’s prominence, interest in the poem was primarily historical–the text being viewed as historical source material for information concerning the Anglo-Saxon era. It was not until 1936, when the Oxford scholar J.R.R. Tolkien (who later wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, works heavily influenced by Beowulf) published a groundbreaking paper entitled “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” that the manuscript gained recognition as a serious work of art.

As far as the significance of Beowulf is concerned, it is now widely taught and is often presented as the first important work of English literature, creating the impression that Beowulf is in some way the source of the English canon. But because it was not widely read until the 1800s and not widely regarded as an important artwork until the 1900s, Beowulf has had little direct impact on the development of English poetry until the mid-to-late twentieth century, at a time when Beowulf began to influence writers, and, since then, it has had a marked impact on the work of many novelists and poets.

Beowulf is often referred to as the first important work of literature in English, even though it was written in Old English, an ancient form of the language that slowly evolved into the English now spoken. Compared to modern English, Old English is heavily Germanic, with little influence from Latin or French. As English history developed, after the French Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxons in 1066, Old English was gradually broadened by offerings from those languages. Thus, modern English is derived from a number of sources. As a result, its vocabulary is rich with synonyms. The word “kingly,” for instance, descends from the Anglo-Saxon word cyning, meaning “king,” while the synonym “royal” comes from a French word and the synonym “regal” from a Latin word.

Old English poetry is highly formal, but its form is quite unlike anything in modern English. Each line of Old English poetry is divided into two halves, separated by a caesura, or pause, and is often represented by a gap on the page.

Because Anglo-Saxon poetry existed in oral tradition long before it was written down, the verse form contains complicated rules for alliteration designed to help ‘scops,’ or poets, remember the many thousands of lines they were required to know by heart. Each of the two halves of an Anglo-Saxon line contains two stressed syllables, and an alliterative pattern must be carried over across the caesura. Any of the stressed syllables may alliterate except the last syllable; so the first and second syllables may alliterate with the third together, or the first and third may alliterate alone, or the second and third may alliterate alone.

In addition to these rules, Old English poetry often features a distinctive set of rhetorical devices. The most common of these is the kenning, used throughout Beowulf which is a short metaphorical description of a thing used in place of the thing’s name; thus a ship might be called a “sea-rider,” or a king a “ring-giver.” Some translations employ kennings almost as frequently as they appear in the original; others, moderate the use of kennings in deference to a modern sensibility. But the Old English version of the epic is full of them, and they are perhaps the most important rhetorical device present in Old English poetry.

Speaking of the kind of verse line used for epic poetry in a given language, it should be mentioned that it is known as HEROIC LINE: the dactylic hexameter in Greek and Latin which is the most important form of a metrical verse line of six feet; the iambic pentameter in English which is a metrival verse line having five main stresses unrhymed as in blank verse or rhymed as in the heroic couplet; the alexandrine in French – the division of the line into two groups of six syllables, divided by a ceasura; the hendecasyllabic line in Italian – verses written in lines of eleven syllables. As far as heroic quatrain or heroic stanza, a group of verse lines forming a section of a poem and sharing the same structure as all or some of the other sections of the same poem, is concerned, it is not used for epics but so named because it employs the English heroic line.

Having presented various aspects of Beowulf as an essential example of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry, such elements as themes, motifs and symbols used in Beowulf should now be taken into consideration.

‘Themes’ are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Importance of Establishing Identity

As Beowulf is essentially a record of heroic deeds, the concept of identity – of which the two principal components are ancestral heritage and individual reputation–is clearly central to the poem. The opening passages introduce the reader to a world in which every male figure is known as his father’s son. Characters in the poem are unable to talk about their identity or even introduce themselves without referring to family lineage. This concern with family history is so prominent because of the poem’s emphasis on kinship bonds. Characters take pride in ancestors who have acted valiantly, and they attempt to live up to the same standards as those ancestors.

While heritage may provide models for behavior and help to establish identity–as with the line of Danish kings discussed early on–a good reputation is the key to solidifying and augmenting one’s identity. Shield Sheafson, for example, the legendary originator of the Danish royal line, was orphaned; because he was in a sense fatherless, valiant deeds were the only means by which he could construct an identity for himself. While Beowulf’s pagan warrior culture seems not to have a concept of the afterlife, it sees fame as a means of ensuring that an individual’s memory would continue on after death–an understandable preoccupation in a world where death seems always to be knocking at the door.

Tensions between the Heroic Code and Other Value Systems

Much of Beowulf is devoted to articulating and illustrating the Germanic heroic code, which values strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors; hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings; ceremoniousness in women; and good reputation in all people. Traditional and much respected, this code is vital to warrior societies as a means of understanding their relationships to the world and the menaces lurking beyond their boundaries. All of the characters’ moral judgments stem from the code’s mandates. Thus, individual actions can be seen only as either conforming to or violating the code.

The poem highlights the code’s points of tension by recounting situations that expose its internal contradictions in values. The poem contains several stories that concern divided loyalties, situations for which the code offers no practical guidance about how to act. For example, the poet relates that the Danish Hildeburh marries the Frisian king. When, in the war between the Danes and the Frisians, both her Danish brother and her Frisian son are killed, Hildeburh is left doubly grieved. The code is also often in tension with the values of medieval Christianity. While the code maintains that honor is gained during life through deeds, Christianity asserts that glory lies in the afterlife. Similarly, while the warrior culture dictates that it is always better to retaliate than to mourn, Christian doctrine advocating a peaceful, forgiving attitude toward one’s enemies. Throughout the poem, the poet strives to accommodate these two sets of values. Though he is Christian, he cannot (and does not seem to want to) deny the fundamental pagan values of the story.

The Difference between a Good Warrior and a Good King

Over the course of the poem, Beowulf matures from a valiant combatant into a wise leader. His transition demonstrates that a differing set of values accompanies each of his two roles. The difference between these two sets of values manifests itself early on in the outlooks of Beowulf and King Hrothgar. Whereas the youthful Beowulf, having nothing to lose, desires personal glory, the aged Hrothgar, having much to lose, seeks protection for his people. Though these two outlooks are somewhat oppositional, each character acts as society dictates he should given his particular role in society.

While the values of the warrior become clear through Beowulf’s example throughout the poem, only in the poem’s more didactic moments are the responsibilities of a king to his people discussed. The heroic code requires that a king reward the loyal service of his warriors with gifts and praise. It also holds that he must provide them with protection and the sanctuary of a lavish mead-hall. Hrothgar’s speeches, in particular, emphasize the value of creating stability in a precarious and chaotic world. He also speaks at length about the king’s role in diplomacy, both with his own warriors and with other tribes.

Beowulf’s own tenure as king elaborates upon many of the same points. His transition from warrior to king, and, in particular, his final battle with the dragon, reiterates the dichotomy between the duties of a heroic warrior and those of a heroic king. In the eyes of several of the Geats, Beowulf’s bold encounter with the dragon is morally ambiguous because it dooms them to a kingless state in which they remain vulnerable to attack by their enemies. Yet Beowulf also demonstrates the sort of restraint proper to kings when, earlier in his life, he refrains from usurping Hygelac’s throne, choosing instead to uphold the line of succession by supporting the appointment of Hygelac’s son. But since all of these pagan kings were great warriors in their youth, the tension between these two important roles seems inevitable and ultimately irreconcilable.

‘Motifs’ are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

The Oral Tradition

Intimately connected to the theme of the importance of establishing one’s identity is the oral tradition, which preserves the lessons and lineages of the past, and helps to spread reputations. Indeed, in a culture that has little interaction with writing, only the spoken word can allow individuals to learn about others and make their own stories known. This emphasis on oral communication explains the prevalence of bards’ tales (such as the Heorot scop’s relating of the Finnsburg episode) and warriors’ boastings (such as Beowulf’s telling of the Breca story). From a broader perspective, Beowulf itself contributes to the tradition of oral celebration of cultural heroes. Like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf was passed on orally over many generations before being written down.

The Mead-Hall

The poem contains two examples of mead-halls: Hrothgar’s great hall of Heorot, in Denmark, and Hygelac’s hall in Geatland. Both function as important cultural institutions that provide light and warmth, food and drink, and singing and revelry. Historically, the mead-hall represented a safe haven for warriors returning from battle, a small zone of refuge within a dangerous and precarious external world that continuously offered the threat of attack by neighboring peoples. The mead-hall was also a place of community, where traditions were preserved, loyalty was rewarded, and, perhaps most important, stories were told and reputations were spread.


‘Symbols’ are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Because ritual behaviors and tokens of loyalty are so central to pagan Germanic culture, most of the objects mentioned in Beowulf have symbolic status not just for the readers but also for the characters in the poem.

The Golden Torque

The collar or necklace that Wealhtheow gives Beowulf is a symbol of the bond of loyalty between her people and Beowulf–and, by extension, the Geats. Its status as a symbolic object is reinforced when we learn that Hygelac died in battle wearing it, furthering the ideas of kinship and continuity.

The Banquet

The great banquet at Heorot after the defeat of Grendel, represents the restoration of order and harmony to the Danish people. The preparation involves the rebuilding of the damaged mead-hall, which, in conjunction with the banquet itself, symbolizes the rebirth of the community. The speeches and giving of gifts, essential components of this society’s interactions, contribute as well to the sense of wholeness renewed.

Returning to the presentation and the transmitting of the stories, the focus should be placed upon the ‘scop.’ It is an Old English name for the professional entertainer, a harpist and poet-singer, normally a member of a royal household, who was the shaper and conservator in England of Old Germanic poetic tradition. He was of an old and honored class, sharing with his audience a critical interest in his craft; he commanded a mastery of the complex oral-formulaic materials of Old Germanic prosody hardly comprehensible to lettered societies. His repertory included more than encomiastic court verse: he was also a folk historian: and his narrative celebrations of heroic boldness and sacrifice, mingled with lyrical reflection and secular or Christian morality, have been preserved in later written forms as a central part of the Anglo-Saxon poetical corpis.

It is likely that the trasmission of verse depended less upon the personality and talent of an individual scop than upon the formulaic materials with which he worked, the cooperative appreciation of his audience, and their common familiarity with traditional themes. It is sometimes hard to distinquish between the art of popular and courtly poetry, between the art of a court gleeman and that perhaps of a chieftain who might take up the harp and recite a lay himself; or that of a warrior-singer whose function as a singer would be incidential to his personal knowledge of a battle; or even that of an humble person like Caedmon, who had no training as a singer, but who nevertheless developed the art of narrative verse on Christian themes in what must have technically been a thoroughly traditional manner.

The elegiac theme, a strong undercurrent in Beowulf, is central to such poems as The Wanderer and The Seafarer. In these works, a happy past is contrasted with a precarious and desolate present. In this heroic poetry, all of which is anonymous, greatness is measured less by victory than by perfect loyalty and courage in extremity.

Taking into consideration an elegy as a genre, it needs to be said that they are common in world literature, and that very issue tells us something about the human condition and poetry’s function, independent of cultural difference. In some national literatures, elegies are formally defined in meter, rhyme, and stanzaic structure. In Old English, elegy is more of a “mode” or manner of writing that can produce poems of many types, all using the basic four-stress, oral-formulaic line. In the elegiac mode, we see evidence that the poet’s job as keeper of the community’s collective memory produced frequent occasions on which the dead and the vanished must be recalled in sadness.

Like the biblical psalmist, however, the Anglo-Saxon bards tended to generalize the consequences of Time’s corrosive effect on all human ambitions, turning the poems into firce, sad condemnations of the very structures whose glories are celebrated in the epic war songs: rings, horses, falcons, swords, warriors, ladies, and the great halls of kings. The elegy confronts the epic with the inevitable extinction of its subjects, listing them in acts of repeated, balanced parallelism similar to the syntax with which both poems like to construct their sentences.

“The Seafarer” has its origins in the Old English period of English literature, 450-1100, a time when very few people knew how to read or write. Even in its translated form from Old English, “The Seafarer” provides an accurate portrait of the sense of stoic endurance, suffering, loneliness, and spiritual yearning so characteristic of Old English poetry. “The Seafarer” is divisible into two sections, the first elegiac and the second didactic. “The Seafarer” can be read as two poems on separate subjects or as one poem moving between two subjects. Moreover, the poem can be read as a dramatic monologue, the thoughts of one person, or as a dialogue between two people. The first section is a painfully personal description of the suffering and mysterious attractions of life at sea.

In the second section, the speaker makes an abrupt shift to moral speculation about the fleeting nature of fame, fortune, and life itself, ending with an explicitly Christian view of God as being wrathful and powerful. In this section, the speaker urges the reader to forget earthly accomplishments and anticipate God’s judgment in the afterlife. The poem addresses both pagan and Christian ideas about overcoming this sense of suffering and loneliness. For example, the speaker discusses being buried with treasure and winning glory in battle (Pagan) and also fearing God’s judgment in the afterlife (Christian). Moreover, “The Seafarer” can be considered an allegory discussing life as a journey and the human condition as that of exile from God on the sea of life.

The Wanderer is an epic song, sometimes described as an “elegy” or lament for things and persons lost to death. The poem’s date is impossible to determine except that it must have been composed and written down before the Exeter Book, in which its sole surviving copy was found, was donated to the Exeter Cathedral library by Exeter’s first bishop, Leofric, upon his death in 1072. Scholars generally accept the conclusion that this, the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, is the manuscript the bishop’s will calls : “one great English book with many things written in verse.”

As far as the form of The Wanderer is concerned, it refers to four-stress lines of varying syllable lengths, divided in halves by a caesura which often indicates a breath pause. The prose translation obscures many of the work’s poetic features, but Anglo-Saxon verse is notoriously difficult to translate into Modern English verse.

As to the characters, there is the narrator of the ‘wise man’s speech, and the ‘wise man,’ presumably the “wanderer,” himself. It needs to be stated that some critics have argued that “Wanderer” was the product of the fusion between the three poems, but contemporary readers tend to distrust this, arguing that Anglo-Saxon poetic productions need not satisfy Modern English aesthetic standards for aesthetic unity.

The narrator advises to listen to the voice of the Wanderer, whose recollections of lost lords, ladies, and courtly settings, establishes the need for self-restraint, endurance, and an appreciation for the fleeting nature of all earthly things.

“The Wanderer” alludes familiarly to numerous now-vanished aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture as known to the warrior elite who ruled and defended it. The “liege lord” stands at the top pf the hierarchy, taking paths and dispensing treasure, serving all of the socially constitutive functions that are assigned to employers, priests, presidents, teachers, judges, and generals. The warrior serves the warlord eagerly because there is no other route of advancement, no other way to be, in the culture.

As far as The Seafarer and The Wanderer are concerned, a brief comparison of these two Anglo-Saxon poems should be presented.

The Wanderer is in search of an eternal lord. Right now he is sulking because his human lord has died. With nothing to bring him pleasure again the warrior exiles himself because the man made things of the world “stand empty of life.” If the first and last 6 lines of the epic were taken out, there would be no reference to God seen. This is because the monk that transcribed the epic makes the references when in the first and last 6 lines. Because the Wanderer put faith in an earthly God, he drove himself out of the town and at the end, finds faith in an eternal God. The Seafarer and The Wanderer are connected in the aspect that they both realize that everyone dies. A close kin dies in the Seafarer, and an earthly God dies in the Wanderer. By escaping the worldly attributes placed on the lands, both of them sought refuge and had to escape in one way or another in order to find their faith in something that would always be there, an eternal God. The two epics are an indication that polytheism is no longer evident, and that the people have accepted Christ, and therefore we move out of the Anglo- Saxon era and into the middle ages where Christianity is introduced, and where the churches will have control, not the people.

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. Caedmon – 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 Caedmon is responsible for poetic narrative versions of biblical stories, the most dramatic of which is probably Genesis.

Cynewul, 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 Old English lyric The Dream of the Rood is the earliest English dream poem to be found in written form. The Dream of the Rood is an explicitly Christian poem that attempts to appeal to Anglo-Saxons from a pagan culture.

In The Dream of the Rood, an unknown poet dreams that he encounters a beautiful tree. It is the “rood,” or cross, on which Jesus Christ was crucified. It is gloriously decorated with gold and gems, but the poet can discern ancient wounds. The rood tells the poet how it had been forced to be the instrument of Christ’s death, describing how it, too, experienced the nails and spear thrusts along with the savior.

The rood goes on to explain that the cross was once an instrument of torture and death, and is now the dazzling sign of mankind’s redemption. It charges the poet to tell of his vision to all men, so that they too might be redeemed of sin.

From a historical perspective, the poem has been the subject of literary and historical study for generations and has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Profound and moving of itself, The Dream of the Rood also provides a valuable window into early Christian England.

The dream vision uses strong, virile images of Christ in order to reach members of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, who valued strength above humility. This may have been a deliberate strategy to convert pagans to Christianity. It also reflects how the image of Jesus was adapted to suit different cultures.


– Beowulf – fragments as in the semester I syllabus / Kermode’s The Oxford Anthology of English Literature

– The Seafarer / Helsztynski’s Specimens of English Poetry and Prose

– The Wanderer / Kermode’s The Oxford Anthology of English Literature

– The Dream of The Rood / Kermode’s The Oxford Anthology of English Literature

– C. Baldick, Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, OXFORD, 2004

– D. Daiches, A Critical History of English Literature

– P. Mroczkowski, Historia literatury angielskiej

– A. Preminger, Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics

– A. Sanders, The Short Oxford History of English Literature

– Heroic Poetry / http://www.britannica.com

– Epic Poetry / http://ancienthistory.about.com

– notes made during History of English Literature classes

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