In the early years of
the fifth century, the Roman legions were withdrawn to defend Rome
against the Germanic tribes that had been moving into Italy for
several centuries. In 410 the capture of Rome by the Visigoths
led by Alaric heralded the beginning of the collapse of Roman
control over western Europe. The towns of Roman Britain soon
ceased to function; the use of Latin ceased. Traditional Celtic
ways continued unchanged.
Before the Romans left Britain, they had been
employing Saxon mercenaries from north Germany (part of
which is still known as Saxony). In the century following the
Roman withdrawal, more Saxons and other groups from north Germany
and the Netherlands, speaking various West Germanic
dialects settled in the eastern and southern parts of
Britain. They subjugated or eliminated the Celts, who remained
dominant in the north and west, and in Ireland. The Germanic
people were not Christian, but had the traditional religion of
northern Europe, with multiple gods led by Thor
and Woden. It is not clear if this process should be seen
as an invasion or as a gradual arrival. One mystery is why
the new arrivals did not learn the local Celtic language. There is
no other example from this age of migration where the language of
a small number of outsiders took over from the native language so
totally. Virtually no word of Celtic origin was adopted. Some
suggest that an epidemic might have decimated the Celtic
population of eastern Britian so that the arriving Angles,
Saxons, Jutes, etc found no one living there..
One of the Germanic group was known as “Angles”
from the name of their spears, just as “Saxon” derives from the
short sword they used. The Angles were to give their name to England
(Angle-land). Soon after the Roman withdrawal, groups from
Ireland, known as “Scots,” began to settle in the western
parts of what is now Scotland. Much of the region was
originally controlled by the mysterious Picts who later
disappeared completely. Ireland started to become
Christian through contacts with Wales during the later Roman
period (Christianity became the official imperial religion around
380) but the main name associated with the foundation of Irish
Christianity is that of Patrick, who brought Christianity
to much of northern Ireland in the later 5th century.
The Conversion of the
Anglo-Saxons. In 597, a team of Christian missionaries
sent from Rome, led by a priest called Augustine, arrived in the
place now called Canterbury, in Kent. They began to bring
Christianity and Latin (Roman) culture to the rulers of the
various kingdoms. Augustine became the first Archbishop of
Canterbury, the mother church of English Christianity. The copy of the Gospels that he
brought with him can still be seen. Other missionaries from
western Scotland brought Christianity to northern England at the
same time. With this new religion came the language, literature,
and legal traditions of Rome and, above all, the art of writing.
The Germanic language and culture of Angles and Saxons now united
with the language and culture of southern Europe.
The old oral tradition of memories and stories was
replaced by written records. Germanic society was centered in the
hall of the farms (in German Hof, the French name
for which gave the English name of the royal court) where
lords and thanes lived together. There the scop
was the professional singer and teller of tales. Now a shift
happened, as the old oral poetry was transformed in the libraries
of Christian monasteries into written “literature.” The
famous story of Caedmon's hymn told by Bede (c.673 - 735) is
symbolic of the transformation of oral, pagan or heroic Germanic
poetry into written, Christian poetry.
In the monastery at Whitby lived a brother
singularly gifted by God's grace. So skilful was he in
composing religious and devotional songs that, when any
passage of the Bible was explained to him by interpreters,
he could quickly turn it into delightful and moving poetry
in his own English tongue. These verses of his have stirred
the hearts of many to despise the world and aspire to
heavenly things. Others after him have tried to compose
religious poems in English, but none could compare with him;
for he did not acquire the art of poetry from men or through
any human teacher, but received it as a free gift from God.
For this reason he could never compose any frivolous or
profane verses; only such as had a religious theme fell from
He had followed a secular occupation until well
advanced in years, without learning anything about poetry.
Indeed it sometimes happened at a feast that all the guests
in turn would be invited to sing and entertain the company;
then, when he saw the harp coming his way, he would get up
from the table and go home.
On one such occasion he left the house in which
the entertainment was being held and went out to the stable,
where it was his duty that night to look after the beasts.
There, when the time came, he settled down to sleep.
Suddenly in a dream he saw a man standing beside him who
called him by name. "Caedmon," he said, "sing me a song." "I
don't know how to sing," he replied, "It is because I cannot
sing that I left the feast and came here." The man who
addressed him then said: "But you shall sing to me." "What
should I sing about?" "Sing about the Creation of all
things," the other answered. And Caedmon immediately began
to sing verses in praise of God the Creator that he had
never heard before:
he wundra gehwaes
ece Drihten or onstealde.
ece Drihten aefter teode
we praise heaven-kingdom's
Measurer's might and
work of the Glory-Father
when he of wonders each,
eternal Lord, the
first created for
heaven as a roof,
the holy Creator;
eternal Lord, after
men the earth, the
When the scholar-monk Bede (c.673 - 735)
recorded this story in the great Ecclesiastical History
of the English People that he completed in 731, he was
writing in Latin, and he gave the words of Caedmon's hymn in
Latin. A few years later, some copies of the History were
made with the text of the hymn in its original language.
Today that language is called Old English; it was part of
the West Germanic family of languages that developed into
modern German, and Dutch, as well as English.
History and his many other works were made possible by
the foresight of Benedict Biscop, the founder of the
monasteries at Wearmouth, who brought back dozens of books from
his visits to Italy and established a library that was to serve as
the link between Rome and the chaotic post-Roman world. The
artistry displayed in some of the great illuminated texts of the
Gospels is breathtaking, as seen in the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Old English Elegy
Old English elegy seems to spring from heroic society's
experience of history as glory and loss. It may perhaps
best be seen as a poetic expression of human fragility, of the
pain of the loss of what deserved not to be lost. It is also
strongly marked by an experience of human solitude, the speaker
being isolated from normal social existence. There is a way of
viewing life in this world as a combination of glory and doom that
does not look beyond the tomb, but leads the reader of the poem
back to the poem, since what had to die is yet memorialized and
thus perpetuated in the elegiac text itself. That the poetics of
temporality and transience should be so strongly present at so
early a stage of English poetry is striking.
The poems which are generally termed elegies are all found in one
manuscript. The Exeter
Book was given to the library of the Cathedral at
Exeter (Devon) by Leofric, the first bishop, who died in 1072. It
is still there. It was probably written about a century before
this. It contains over thirty Old English poems, as well as almost
a hundred short riddles. Some of the poems it contains are
religious, such as Christ, The Judgement Day, or saints'
lives, but it also includes some the oldest heroic fragments, like
Widsith and Deor. The most famous elegies are The
Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Ruin.
The greatest Old English heroic poem, Beowulf,
contained in another manuscript, is also full of elegaic
passages stressing the future disasters that will overwhelm
the now successful 'nations' led by Hygelac and Beowulf. Beowulf
tells of three separate battles fought by Beowulf (Bear's son)
against supernatural enemies of human society: Grendel,
Grendel's Mother, and (fifty years later) a treasure-guarding
dragon. In this last battle, Beowulf is abandoned by all but one
of his cowardly thanes, and dies of his wounds after killing the
Beowulf (summary with extracts)
The poem has three main climaxes, each of them a fight between
Beowulf and a monster. It begins by introducing the Danes of
Zealand, also called the Scyldings; several generations quickly
pass, and Hrothgar is introduced. He has had much military
success, so "It came to his mind that he would command men to
construct a hall, a great mead-building that the children of men
should hear of for ever, and therein he would give to young and
old all that God had given him." This hall was to be "the largest
of hall-dwellings. He gave it the name of Heorot (hart)."
But from the start, this poem is inhabited by echoes of stories
that we do not know: "The hall stood tall, high and wide-gabled:
it would wait for the fierce flames of vengeful fire; the time was
not yet at hand for sword- hate between son-in-law and
father-in-law to awaken after murderous rage." A note of
foreboding, of "doom," is thus left hovering over the hall beyond
the end of the poem. We realize that Hrothgar married his daughter
to Ingeld, king of the Heatho-bards after Ingeld's father had been
killed by the Danes, hoping that this would make peace; but as the
mentality of revenge was omnipresent in his society, finally
Ingeld attacked the Danes, and Heorot was destroyed.
That is not the present story, though:
Then the fierce spirit painfully endured hardship for a time,
he who dwelt in the darkness,
for every day he heard loud mirth in the hall;
there was the sound of the harp, the clear song of the scop....
Thus these warriors lived in joy, blessed,
until one began to do evil deeds, a hellish enemy.
The grim spirit was called Grendel, known as a rover of the
one who held the moors, fen and fastness.
Unhappy creature, he lived for a time in the home of the monsters'
after God had condemned them as kin of Cain...
Then after night, Grendel came to survey the tall house
-- how, after their beer-drinking, the Ring-Danes had disposed
themselves in it.
Then he found therein a band of nobles asleep after the feast:
they felt no sorrow, no misery of men. The creature of evil,
grim and fierce, was quickly ready, savage and cruel,
and seized from their rest thirty thanes.
From there he turned to go back to his home, proud of his plunder,
ought his dwelling with that store of slaughter.
The mannered style, the repetitions and the digressions, the
narratorial comments, all restrain the onward movement of the
tale. The result is a deeper interplay between actual event and
narratorial commentary. Grendel establishes a reign of terror so
that for twelve winters Heorot lies unused and empty, society is
paralysed. Hrothgar seems unable to act, certainly he cannot fight
against Grendel. A thane of Hygelac hears of this, and quickly
crosses the sea with a company of men; fifteen in all they sail
across to the lands of Hrothgar. They are formally welcomed, and
only then do we learn that this is Beowulf ! Several pages
pass in welcoming speeches and a celebration, before he and his
companions settle down in Heorot to see what will happen. Beowulf
takes off his armour, and lays aside his sword, proudly determined
to fight with Grendel on equal terms.
Then from the moor under the mist-hills Grendel came walking,
wearing God's anger.
The foul ravager thought to catch some one of mankind there in the
Under the clouds he moved until he could see most clearly the
treasure-house of men, shining with gold.
That was not the first time that he had sought Hrothgar's home.
Never before or since in his life-days did he find harder luck,
The creature deprived of joy came walking to the hall.
Quickly the door gave way, fastened with fire-forged bands,
when he touched it with his hands. Driven by evil desire,
swollen with rage, he tore it open, the hall's mouth.
Grendel is hungry, he devours one of Beowulf's men, but then
Beowulf seizes his hand, and finally tears off Grendel's entire
arm. His name does not mean Son-of-Bear for nothing.
The next morning they follow the blood as far as the Lake of the
Water- monsters into which he has disappeared. The result is,
naturally, great rejoicing, and a celebration is held in Heorot.
During this the scop sings, as we saw above; but the fragment of
story that is quoted is hardly suitable for a banquet. It evokes
part of the popular tales about Finn the Frisian, and tells of how
a quarrel at a banquet while Danes were visiting Finn led to great
slaughter; this in turn led to further revenge killings: "Then was
the hall reddened from foes' bodies, and thus Finn was slain, the
king in his company, and the queen taken." At the end of the
party, the benches are removed and the hall becomes a community
bedroom. The next section of the poem is introduced:
It came to be seen, wide-known to men, that after the bitter
an avenger still lived for an evil space: Grendel's mother, woman,
was mindful of her misery, she who had to dwell in the terrible
the cold currents, after Cain became sword-slayer of his only
brother, his own father's son.
She comes, grabs a Dane, and runs off with him and the arm of
Grendel that was hanging in the hall. Beowulf is not sleeping in
Heorot, so nobody can stop her. The next morning, Beowulf offers
to destroy her, so they set off in quest of her lair:
Suddenly he found mountain trees leaning out over hoary stone,
a joyless wood; water lay beneath, bloody and troubled...
They saw on the water many a snake-shape, strong sea-serpents
exploring the mere,
and water-monsters lying on the slopes of the shore such as those
that in the morning
often attend a perilous journey on the paths of the sea, serpents
and wild beasts.
Beowulf dives into the water to fight the water-spirit that
Grendel's mother clearly is. This combat is fantastic, it occurs
inside a house deep beneath the lake, a familiar motif in
folk-literature. For hours they fight, but she is invulnerable to
ordinary swords. At last Beowulf sees "a victory- blessed blade,
an old sword made by the giants, strong of its edges, glory of
warriors; it was the best of weapons, except that it was larger
than any other man might bear to war-sport, good and adorned."
With this he kills her "and at once the blaze brightened, light
shone within, just as from the sky heaven's candle shines clear".
In the house Beowulf finds Grendel's dead body; he cuts off the
Meanwhile his friends have given up all hope, and sit staring at
the water while the Danes go back home. Suddenly Beowulf appears,
with Grendel's head. There is more rejoicing in Heorot, and
Hrothgar makes a long speech on the theme of glory, or fame, and
the dangers of pride:
Keep yourself against that wickedness, best of men, and choose
better -- eternal gains.
Have no care for pride, great warrior. Now for a time there is
glory in your might;
yet soon it shall be that sickness or sword will diminish your
strength, or fire's fangs,
or flood's surge, or sword's swing, or spear's fight, or appalling
brightness of eyes will fail and grow dark; then it shall be that
death will overcome you, warrior.
The note of elegy is clear. The night that follows is untroubled,
and the Geats are able to return home. Beowulf goes to report to
his king, Hygelac, on all that he has seen, including the doubtful
friendship between Danes and Heatho-bards, and offers to his king
the gifts he has received.
The poem leaps ahead and begins a new story when Beowulf has
himself been king of the Geats for fifty years. A new enemy is
introduced quite casually: "in the dark night a certain one, a
dragon, began to hold sway, which on the high heath kept watch
over a hoard, a steep stone-barrow. Beneath lay a path unknown to
men". A criminal on the run came in by chance and stole a golden
cup. This caused the sleeping dragon to awake and begin to
terrorize the neighborhood. There is a digression describing how
the treasure came to be put there by a lone survivor who evokes
"War-death has taken each man of my people, evil dreadful and
each of those who has given up this life, the hall-joys of men.
I have none who wears sword or cleans the plated cup, rich
even the coat of mail, which withstood the bite of swords after
the crashing of shields,
decays like its warrior... There is no harp-delight, no mirth of
the singing wood,
no good hawk flies through the hall, no swift horse stamps in the
Baleful death has sent away many races of men."
The treasure this man entrusted to the ground was found by the
smooth hateful dragon who flies at night wrapped in flame and it
is this dragon that is now terrorizing Beowulf's kingdom. Brought
to the place, Beowulf sits and reflects:
"His mind was mournful, restless and ripe for death; very
close was the fate which should come to the old man, seek his
soul's hoard, divide life from his body; not for long was the life
of the noble one wound in his flesh". There is a strong sense of
foreboding, Beowulf speaks a long review of his adventures before
setting out alone to fight the dragon.
The scene is a typical heroic conflict. Beowulf, fully armed,
stands alone before the gate to the tomb and shouts a challenge.
The dragon comes coiling out and Beowulf strikes a blow, but his
sword fails him, the dragon is only wounded. The fire of the
dragon's breath overpowers Beowulf, while his thanes "crept to the
wood, protected their lives." Only one, Wiglaf, comes out to help
his king. There is a description of the origin of his weapons, and
of his thoughts, before he reaches Beowulf's side. Again Beowulf
strikes with his sword, and this time it breaks. The dragon seizes
Beowulf by the neck, but Wiglaf is able to drive his sword into
it, and Beowulf has time to use his dagger to finish off the
beast. Beowulf sends Wiglaf into the barrow, to bring out the
treasures so he can see them before he dies. This is done, and
Beowulf dies after a curiously Christian speech:
"I speak with my words thanks to the Lord of All for these
to the King of Glory, eternal Prince, for what I gaze on here,
that I might get such for my people before my death-day."
When the other thanes come creeping out of the woods, Wiglaf
foretells the end of their nation: "Now there shall cease for your
race the receiving of treasure and the giving of swords, all
enjoyment of pleasant homes, comfort..." and he goes on to evoke
long histories of conflict and revenge-in-store from the Frisians
and the Swedes, all of whom will come running now that Beowulf is
gone; "many a spear, cold in the morning, shall be grasped with
fingers, raised by hands; no sound of harp shall waken the
warriors, but the dark raven, low over the doomed, shall tell many
tales, say to the eagle how he fared at the feast when with the
wolf he spoiled the slain bodies." The dragon's body is pushed
over the cliff, while Beowulf, with the treasure, is carried to
Hronesness. There the body is burned on a great pyre (cf. Homer's
Illiad), the ashes are covered with a mound, and the final poetic
memorial is given:
Then the brave in battle rode round the mound, children of nobles,
twelve in all,
would bewail their sorrow and mourn their king, recite dirges and
speak of the man.
They praised his great deeds and his acts of courage, judged well
of his prowess.
So it is fitting that man honor his liege lord with words,
love him in heart when he must be led forth from the body.
Thus the people of the Geats, his hearth-companions, lamented the
death of their lord.
They said that he was of world-kings
the mildest of men and the gentlest,
kindest to his people, and most eager for fame.
(cwaedon thaet he waere wyruldcyninga
mannum mildust ond mondwaerust,
leodum lidost ond lofgeornost.)
The Old-English elegies have been especially popular in
the 20th century, because their suggestive evocations of what seem
to be (but is not) intense individual experience are in
some ways close to the dramatic monologues which Robert
Browning developed in the 19th century and which represent one
major form of modern lyric poetry. Ezra Pound ventured to
write his own version of The
Seafarer, freer than a strict translation since he
knew little Old English. The Seafarer depicts a situation
of mysterious isolation, the speaker is seemingly adrift in a
boat. Much the same motif is found in The Wanderer, in
which the general moral application of the poem is clearer, and
the rhetorical development more varied. Some critics consider that
the Christian passages at the beginning and end were added
later but this is not very likely. The central figure has lost his
social role and finds no replacement; misfortune drives him to
meditate on the fragility of all human relations. He
contemplates the ruins of abandoned Roman buildings and tries to
imagine what life in them was like. He asks a series of questions
echoing the classical ubi sunt theme -- "where have
they all gone?" that stresses the transience of all
1. He who is alone often survives to find mercy,
pity from God,
2. though he long must stir with his arms the
3. troubled in heart obliged to tread paths of
exile over watery ways.
4. Full-fixed is that man's fate.
5. So spoke the traveller, recalling hard times,
6. fierce battle-slaughter, the deaths of dear
7. Before day broke, many times I have had to
tell out alone my cares;
8. there is no-one alive now to whom I dare
reveal my secret thoughts.
26. There is nothing left but the path of exile,
no sign of twisted gold armlets;
27. in his heart-case frozen thoughts, no
28. He can only remember former hall-warriors,
the taking of treasure,
29. the eager feasts of youthful days with the
30. All those delights are gone now.
31. Any who have long been obliged to forgo the
guiding of a lord they love,
32. will know: when the poor lonely fellow lies
33. it will seem at times that he is once again
there kissing and holding his liege,
34. expressing thanks, laying hands and head on
his knees as in former times
35. when gifts were being shared out.
36. But then he wakes, and has no lord,
37. but only the tawny waves and the gulls
bathing with wings outstretched,
38. under frost and snowfall, mingled with hail.
39. Then his heart aches more, longing for the
lord he once loved;
40. sorrows renew with the sudden memory of long
41. he thinks to hail them gladly, gazes eagerly
at that company of warriors
42. whose shadows fade, gliding away over the
43. No familiar voices come echoing from those
44. and cares deepen as he sets out again, time
after time, over the web of the waves.
54. A wise warrior should think of the dreadful
55. when all this world's wealth will lie waste;
56. just as we see in many places wind-blown
walls covered with layers of frost,
57. storm-beaten and drear. The old wine-halls
totter, their former lords lie bereft of joy,
58. for all the heroes have fallen who formerly
sat against the wall;
59. some went in war, carried away, this one
borne by a bird over the deep,
60. and this devoured by a wolf and Death, while
another sadly hid in an earthen grave.
61. Mankind's Maker laid waste all those
62. the old work of giants stood there useless,
no echo now of their former guards' songs.
63. So the wise man ponders deeply upon these
ruins, and this dark life,
64. recalls the slaughters of the past, and
65. Hwaer cwom
mearg? Hwaer cwom mago? Hwaer cwom maththumgyfa?
70. Where did the horse go?
Where the bold youth? Where is the treasure-giver?
66. Hwaer cwom symbla
gesetu? Hwaer sindon seledreamas?
67. Eala beorht bune! Eala
68. Eala theodnes thrym!
Hu seo thrag gewat,
69. genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no waere.
71. Where is the feast-place? Where the hall's
72. Alas, bright cup! Alas, man of arms!
73. Alas, the lord's might! How those days have
74. dark under night, as if they never had been.
75. Now the snake-adorned wall stands there
76. towering over signs of what was, dear
77. Spears have taken the lords away,
blood-thirsty weapons of Fate almighty.
78. Storms beat at the walls, and snow heralds
79. falling thick it binds the earth as darkness
80. while northern hailstones harshly proclaim
hatred for men.
81. Earth's kingdoms are wretched, for Fate
intervenes to change the world.
82. Wealth is fleeting, friends, all men, and
women too are fleeting.
83. Every home shall soon lie bare.
84. So spoke the man whose heart was wise,
sitting apart at the council-meeting.
85. The good man does not break his word,
86. and one should never speak before one knows
what will truly bring relief,
87. such is a leader with his courage.
88. And all will be well for the one who seeks
favor and comfort from the Father above,
89. with whom alone all stability dwells.