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Poetry of the Anglo-Saxon Period

Pagan elegies mostly occur in the Exeter book and some of them include The Wanderer, The Sea-Farer, The Wives Lament, Husband’s message, Deor, The Ruin and Widsith.

The Wanderer is a poem of 115 lines. It deals with the struggles of a wandering man who dreams of the happiness he had in the past and who reflects on chance or destiny. The Sea- Farer is 100 lines long. It deals with the two themes of the hardships of a sailor’s life and the irresistible call of the sea.

Both the above poems are fine examples of artistic composition. They are important for their literary value because in all of Anglo-Saxon literature they are the only two that come closest to the lyric form. Interestingly, the ‘lyric’ comes from the Greek word ‘lyre’, the lyre, a stringed instrument was used to accompany a singer. These 2 poems are examples of lyrics in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Widsith in English today means far traveller – one who has gone to distant places. It is considered to be the oldest poem in the Anglo-Saxon dialect. 150 lines long, it is written in the voice of the imaginary traveller. The voice adopted by the poet in his poem is the ‘persona’. In this case the traveller is the persona and he talks about his experiences. This poem in comparison to Beowulf’s artistic or more poetic poem, carries more historical importance.

Three other poems referred to as national poems are Waldere, only 2 fragments of which remain today talks of Walter of Aquitane. The Fight at Finnsburh has a reference made to it in the Beowulf poem. The Battle of Brunanburh  has to do with the great battle fought in 937.

Religious Poetry of the Period
Caedmon and Cynewulf wrote on religion. The Irish missionaries set up great houses of learning in their monasteries especially in their monasteries of Northumbria. Two of these monastic schools are very important in connection with literature. Jarrow and Whitby were the 2 important monastic schools. The monastery at Jarrow had a very important scholar, Baeba who was also known as Bede given the title ‘Venerable Bede’. He wrote an important book called the Ecclesiastical History, the history of the church in England. This book makes the first mention of Caedmon.

Caedmon was an ordinary herdsman and according to Bede he suddenly received the divine gift of writing religious poems and became a monk. Through his divine inspiration Caedmon is supposed to have written some of the poems from the Bible – Genesis, Exodus and Daniel. Later, scholars believed that these were the works of a later poet.

Cynewulf lived a century after Caedmon. He signed four of his poems in Runic letters, which came from the teutonic alphabet. As apart from being the unknown author of Beowulf, he is also considered to be the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon poets. The poems signed in his name are Elene and Julianna.  Christ and Andreas, The Dream of the Rood (cross), Phoenix and Riddles are other poems attributed to him.

Anglo-Saxon Prose
The leading writer of Anglo-Saxon prose is King Alfred, the Great. He either wrote translations of great works himself or directed that they be written.
Aelfric was another important prose writer. He was the Abbot (chief monk) of a monastery called Eynsham. He was often called ‘Aelfric Grammaticus’. He specialized in Latin grammar and also wrote great sermons or homilies. He wrote on the lives of saints and he also translated the first seven books of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon.

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