Anglo-Saxon England

    In the early years of the fifth century, the Roman legions were withdrawn to defend Rome against the Germanic tribes that had been moving into Italy for several centuries.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 his lips.

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:

 Nu sculon herigean   heofonrices Weard
           Meotodes meahte   and his modgethanc
           weorc Wuldor-Faeder   swa he wundra gehwaes
           ece Drihten   or onstealde.
           He aerest sceop   ielda bearnum
           heofon to hrofe   halig Scyppend
           tha middangeard   moncynnes Weard
           ece Drihten   aefter teode
           firum foldan   Frea aelmihtig

 Now must we praise   heaven-kingdom's Guard,
            the Measurer's might   and his mind-thoughts,
            the work of the Glory-Father   when he of wonders each,
            eternal Lord,   the origin established.
            He first created   for men's children
            heaven as a roof,   the holy Creator;
            then middle-earth,   mankind's Guard,
            the eternal Lord,   after made

            for men the earth,   the Master almighty.

 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.

Bede's Ecclesiastical 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 dragon.

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 borders,
one who held the moors, fen and fastness.
Unhappy creature, he lived for a time in the home of the monsters' race,
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, s
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 high hall.
Under the clouds he moved until he could see most clearly the wine- hall,
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, hardier hall-thanes.
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 battle
an avenger still lived for an evil space: Grendel's mother, woman, monster-wife,
was mindful of her misery, she who had to dwell in the terrible water,
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 head.
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 age;
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 his situation:

"War-death has taken each man of my people, evil dreadful and deadly,
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 drinking vessel...
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 castle court.
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 treasures,
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 earthly life.

The Wanderer

1.    He who is alone often survives to find mercy, pity from God,
2.    though he long must stir with his arms the frost-cold sea,
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 kinsfolk.
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 earthly joys.
28.    He can only remember former hall-warriors, the taking of treasure,
29.    the eager feasts of youthful days with the lost gold-friend.
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 sleeping sadly
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 lost kinsmen:
41.    he thinks to hail them gladly, gazes eagerly at that company of warriors
42.    whose shadows fade, gliding away over the waters.
43.    No familiar voices come echoing from those passing shades,
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 days
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 buildings,
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 speaks:
65.    Hwaer cwom mearg? Hwaer cwom mago? Hwaer cwom maththumgyfa?
66.    Hwaer cwom symbla gesetu? Hwaer sindon seledreamas?
67.    Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
68.    Eala theodnes thrym! Hu seo thrag gewat,
69.    genap under nihthelm, swa heo no waere.
70.    Where did the horse go? Where the bold youth? Where is the treasure-giver?
71.    Where is the feast-place? Where the hall's bliss?
72.    Alas, bright cup! Alas, man of arms!
73.    Alas, the lord's might! How those days have gone,
74.    dark under night, as if they never had been.
75.    Now the snake-adorned wall stands there marvellously high,
76.    towering over signs of what was, dear companions.
77.    Spears have taken the lords away, blood-thirsty weapons of Fate almighty.
78.    Storms beat at the walls, and snow heralds winter,
79.    falling thick it binds the earth as darkness falls
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.