Lecture 1: Old English Poetry

Lecture 1: Old English Poetry

OLD English/Early Medieval Period (AD 410- 1066)

– In 410, the Romans left Britain
– In 1066, the French Norman Conquest invaded Britain. This is the last successful invasion of the island.

– It was a time of wars, battles, and invasions (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, and the Normans)
– The literature of this period was about heroic culture of people who fought to defend their lands against the invaders.
– These invasions shaped Britain, its architecture, language, and culture.
– Old English, the language of the first literature in English, for a long time remain unwritten/ oral.
– In 597, Christianity arrived in England and brought Christian themes to Literature.
– Thanks to the monks, some of the early literature was preserved. But how much censorship was there?
– The Norman invasion in 1066 brought French culture and language.
– Early English language and culture was a mixture of native, French, Scandinavian, Latin, and Christian influences.
– Despite that, Britain was seeking a new national identity. But this took ages to materialise.

Old English Poetry: features and texts

The monks, who could read and write, first wrote down the words of the early literature, thus preserving and guarding culture and literature. However, this could be considered the first act of censorship since most of the texts they wrote down were religious ones.

1- Collective, Personal and Religious voices
2- The literature of this period was influenced by several peoples and cultures and languages.
3- Themes of the first literature include war, religion, personal sadness and happiness, heroism, and even nationalism.
4- Most of the texts from this era remain anonymous.
5- The poetry of this time depended on music to make it easy to sing and easy to remember.
6- The poetry was also largely narrative; a story is generally easier to memorise.
Main poems:

A. “Caedmon’s Hymn”
1. as the name suggests, this is a religious poem.
2. the poet, Caedmon, was a shepherd who heard the voice of God.
3. Thus, this religious song is the first praise in English literature.
4. The monks took Caedmon to their monastery and his poem entered history.
Now we must praise of heaven’s kingdom the Keeper
Of the Lord the power and his wisdom

Notes on Text: – the caesura, the physical gap in the middle of each line of verse, is employed
– The alliteration, the repetition of the same letter or sound at the beginning of words, too creates a musical beat.
– ‘Now’ indicates the urgency and necessary of praising God.
– ‘Must’ tells of the obligatory religious language.
– The use of many reference to refer to God emphasises the power of God.

B. “Deor’ Lament”
1. as the name suggests, this seems to be a sad personal poem.
2. Unlike Caedmon, we know nothing about Deor.
3. The narrator, however, seems to be an unemployed man who consoles himself by remembering the men who had tough times but later managed to come through.
4. Poetry itself is a consolation. As the poet keep repeating the refrain:
Of that there was an end; so there may be of this.

Notes on Text:

– The repetition of the /s/ sound in the original text: alliteration
– The gap in the middle of the line, which creates an engaging pause and a musical impact: caesura
– The contrast between ‘that’ and ‘was’ in the first part and ‘this’ and ‘may’ in the second part helps the themes of change and the passing of time.
– The line depends on logic helped with the use ‘so’ to convey the theme.

C. “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer”
– both texts are anonymous.
– The poems are personal in tone and elegiac in themes.
– Memory is an important tool here.
– The speakers are alone and recall old legends, battles, and heroes.

D. “The Dream of the Rood”
– this, too, is an anonymous text.
– This text is a Christian text. ‘Rood’ the ‘cross of Christ’.
– The text is famous because it use the ‘dream-vision’ technique.

E. “Beowulf” and “The Battle of the Maldon”
– ‘Beowulf’ is the main heroic anonymous text.
– Beowulf is the name of the hero not the author.
– The poem reflects its time as it describes invasions, battles, legends, and resistance.
– The poem, about 3,000 lines of verse, was set in the 6th century but was not written until the 8th century.
– Beowulf is the first hero in English literature. He fights and wins battles to give safety to his people.
– The text is rich and powerful in language, vocabulary, imagery, and actions.
– “Beowulf” is largely fictional.
– “Beowulf” tells the story of a man from Sweden who helps he King of Denmark defend his people against a monster called Gredel. Brave Beowulf attacks Grendel and cuts of her arm; eventually, Grendel dies. But Beowulf is attacked by the monster’s mother. Beowulf follows Grendel’s mother to the bottom of the lake and kills her. About 50 years later, Beowulf defends his own people against a fire-breathing dragon. Although Beowulf slays the dragon, he is injured during the fight and dies.
– The poem has a sad ending; but the poem praises and encourages heroic values and actions. Beowulf dies a hero.
Beloved Beowulf, keep well the vow that you swore long ago in the days of your youth, not to allow your glory to diminish as long as you lived.

– The death of Beowulf opens the gate for more heroes to follow as Beowulf is succeeded by Wiglaf who continues the struggle.
– “Beowulf” is mostly myth and partly history and its main character is remembered as a hero.
– Central to this long poem are themes of the passing of time, struggle, resistance, and what it means to be a human being.

F. “The Battle of the Maldon”
– This poem, too, is long, anonymous and about battles and heroes; however, the “Battle of the Maldon” is much more factual than “Beowulf” as it describes a real battle.
– This verse, too, is rich and powerful in language and description and rhythms.

– Prose of the Old English era was mainly histories and of religious nature.
– The most famous historian of the period is Venerable Bede, a monk, who is remembered for his “History of the English Church and People”, written in Latin and completed in 731.
– “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” is one of the earliest books of history.
– The book tells the history of England from the beginning of Christianity until 1154 with details about battles and invasions.
– King Alfred helped put the book together.
– His reign was a time of great literary production.
– Alfric, also a monk, was an important writer and translator.
– His works include “Lives of the Saints” and “Catholic Homilies”.
– Alfric is the greatest prose figure in Old English.

Class II Middle English 1150-1485

– The hero became a man of romance
– Love poetry flourished
– Women began to appear more in poetry
– But they were mainly objects of desire and perfection
– Only later women began to take main roles and were treated as humans with feelings
– Italian and French literatures began to influence English writers.
– But the desire to begin pure English literature was getting stronger
– England was developing/constructing its own national identity.

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