Although nothing is known about the origins of English Literature, it is plausible to suppose that extemporaneous verse was penned long before the earliest written records were created and that poetry appeared long before the first prose was written down. It is critical to note at the outset that the extant relics of Old English Literature have come down to us (for the most part) through late copies, some of which were prepared three hundred years after the poetry themselves were composed. Again, little or nothing is known about the poets beyond their names, but this has not stopped some scholars from writing their’lives,’ based on hints in the texts themselves, supplemented by scant contemporary references (in the case of Caedmon), but primarily on a mass of conjecture, the majority of which cannot be described as intelligent. Indeed, the lengths to which reviewers will occasionally go is demonstrated by the fact that one Old English poet was presented with a bride based on no real proof whatsoever. Despite the mists that shroud the beginnings and our lack of knowledge about the poets themselves, Old English Literature has a richness that astounds the reader who overcomes the language’s initial difficulty, and it is hoped that this richness will be apparent even in the meagre summary that follows.


The period is lengthy, beginning in the fifth century and continuing in prose at least until approximately 1150, rather than concluding with the Norman Conquest in 1066 as is frequently assumed. However, the incidents should be briefly discarded. After the Romans departed in 410, the British population was left vulnerable to invasion by northern barbarians. According to British tradition, the English arrived as mercenaries to assist in the defence against the Picts and Scots; yet they quickly settled in the land, and archaeological evidence indicates that permanent settlements occurred in the last quarter of the fifth century, if not before. They eventually acquired control of all land between the English Channel and the Firth of Forth to varying degrees. Then came the process of Christianizing the pagan English tribes, which began in Northumbria with the efforts of Irish missionaries, though the influence of Rome begins in Kent (597). Following the Danes’ inroads in the ninth century, the rise of Wessex among the early English kingdoms was aided by Alfred the Great; the establishment of the Danelaw in England was facilitated by the permanent settlement of Danes in the country; the accession of a Danish king (1017); and the Norman influence on the English court began prior to the Conquest in 1066. Each of these occurrences had an impact on the period’s literature.


Origins of the Pagans. Many of the period’s poems, particularly Widsith and Beowulf, appear to have aspects linked with the pagan past, while the Christian components in the latter are no longer seen as ‘clumsy additions,’ as they were by earlier academics. As a result, it looks likely that the first poetry or topics originated in the English peoples’ Continental homeland. These were typical topics for gleemen or’scops,’ who sang them at lords’ feasts. Christian ideals gradually impacted older pagan beliefs, and while the terminology persists, it is hard to refer to any of the remaining poetry as ‘pagan.’ Indeed, this is entirely reasonable given the manuscripts’ origins in monasteries.

2. Anonymous Origins: We have direct mention of only one Caedmon among the Old English poets, however not a single existing poem can be definitively ascribed to him. Cyne-name Wulf’s is known because he inscribed his poetry in runic letters at the conclusion of four pieces. We have no idea what the remainder are called. As previously said, prose appeared later, and because it was frequently employed for practical purposes, its authorship is frequently verified.

3. The Imitative Quality:  Much of the text and part of the poetry are translated or adapted from Latin, though the degree of fidelity to the original varies considerably. The Bible’s books, saints’ biographies, and numerous works of a practical character were among the most frequently translated publications. In some situations, the translations are literal and lack distinction, while in others, the material is transformed through extensions and remarks and carries substantial literary weight. 4. The Original Manuscripts Although just a piece of Old English poetry has survived, it appears likely that the portion that has remained is representative. The poetry is preserved in four manuscripts that date from the late nineteenth century, are one-of-a-kind, and are unique. They are (a) the Beowulf MS. (Cotton Vitellius A. XV in the British Museum), which contains Beowulf and Judith and is believed to date from around 1000; and (b) the Junius MS. (MS. Junius XI in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), which was so named because it belonged to Junius, Lord Arundel’s librarian, and was first printed by him in 1655. It contains the so-called Caedmonian poems; (c) the Exeter Book (in the Chapter Library of Exeter Cathedral), which is known to have been donated to the Cathedral by Bishop Leofric around 1050 and contains two of Cynewulf’s signed poems; and (d) the Vercelli Book (in the Cathedral Library of Vercelli near Milan), which also contains two of Cynewulf’s signed poems (including Elene) and Andreas, as well as The Dream of the Rood.

The Language

The difficulty in reading Old English Literature stems from the language being so dissimilar to contemporary English. Its lexicon is largely indigenous, however, some borrowing from Latin has occurred. Its language features declinable nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, as well as a more complex verbal system than modern English. There were four major dialects: Northumbrian, the first to produce literature; Mercian, the Midlands dialect; Kentish, the southeast dialect spoken in an area larger than the modern county of Kent; and West Saxon, Alfred’s language, which became a ‘standard’ due to Wes-political sex’s supremacy and in which almost all extant texts are preserved.

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1. Origin of the Poem. The poem’s theme is Continental Germanic, and it is possible that it has been the subject of lays for a long period of time.

It was composed in its current form. There is no mention of England in the poem, and Beowulf himself is king of the ‘Geatas.’ While much of the poem is ‘pagan’ in nature and suggests that the poem originated as such, the extant version was clearly composed by a Christian, as the ‘Christianization’ is not a mere veneer. There is no indication of its true authorship. Modern scholars generally regard it as a Christian’s rewriting of earlier material, rather than as a collection of tales put together by one hand. The book is written in West Saxon, while there is a considerable indication that it was originally written in an Anglian dialect, maybe Mercian or Northumbrian.

2. The Narrative: The storey of Beowulf has so many episodes and digressions that it is nearly hard to summarise the narrative succinctly. In summary, Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, journeys to Denmark with a band of soldiers in order to relieve the Danish King Hrothgar of a monstrous mere-monster known as Grendel. Grendel’s mother, seeking vengeance for her son’s death, suffers the same fate, and Beowulf departs to his own realm after being suitably feasted and rewarded. He becomes king of the Geatas and, after a happy forty-year reign, slays a dragon that had ravaged his realm, but he himself suffers a fatal wound in the conflict. The poem closes with the hero’s funeral rituals.

3. Style. To demonstrate the style, a little excerpt is included below, along with a literal translation. The excerpt describes the hero’s death rites and appears near the poem’s conclusion (lines 3137-49).

Him oa gegiredan     Geata leode
For him then the people of the Geats made ready ad on eordan    unwaclicne, a splendid funeral pyre on the earth, helmum behongen,     hildebordum, hung around with helmets, with battle-shields, beorhtum byrnum,    swa he bena waes; with shining corslets, as he requested; alegdon oa tomiddes    maerne peoden then they laid in the midst of it the illustrious prince, haeleo hiofende,    hlaford leofne. the weeping warriors, the beloved lord. Ongunnon pa on beorge    baelfyra maest Then the warriors began to kindle on the cliff
wigend weccan:     wudurec astah
the greatest of funeral fires: the wood-smoke rose up sweart ofer swiooole,    swSgende leg,
dark above the fire, the roaring flames, wope bewunden   –windblond gelaeg–
surrounded by lamentation–the tumult of the winds subsided-oopaet he he banhus    gebrocen haefde, till it had completely crushed the body, hat on hreore.     Higum unrote hot in his breast. Sad in mind modceare maendon,    mondryhtnes cwealm.
they complained of the sorrow of their hearts, the death of their liege-lord

It will be noted that the language is forceful and emotive, portraying the image of the funeral pyre on the clifftop and the warriors’ sorrow for their deceased monarch with economy of words. It is worth noting the usage of compound words, as well as the kenning, which was deftly managed and “took on the form of a compressed vivid statement of a highly original image.” The passage’s best illustration is banhus, which literally translates as ‘bone home,’ i.e., ‘body.’ Another stylistic feature worth noting is the use of repetition and variation. The same concept is represented multiple times through the use of various Words that were more or less synonymous. Parallel phrasing is evident in lines 5 and 6 above: malrne peoden and hlaford leofne (‘illustrious prince’ and ‘beloved lord,’ respectively), as well as elsewhere, as the translation will indicate. The verse is very rhythmical, with four stresses per complete line and two per half-line; it is also alliterative, with two alliterating syllables in the first half-line and one (often the first) in the second. The stressed syllables contain alliteration.


1. Poems of the Pagans. While the majority of Old English poetry can be classified as ‘Christian,’ a few works are clearly secular. It might be preferable to refer to them as ‘national’ rather than pagan in many ways, given several of those included in this group are of tenth-century composition.

a) Widsith (i.e., ‘the distant traveller’), which is frequently regarded as the language’s oldest poem. It is composed of roughly 150 lines of poem in which an illusory traveller recalls the sites and notable persons he has visited. While the poem is significant historically, it lacks artistic quality. b)Waldere is composed of two fragments totalling around sixty-three lines that recount some of Walter of Aquitaine’s deeds. The work possesses vitality and force, and, regrettably, so little has been retained. It may easily have been one of the finest narrative pieces ever written.

(c) The Fight at Finnsburh is a forty-eight-line fragment that contains a vivid depiction of the fighting at Finnsburh, which is alluded to in Beowulf’s Finn Episode.

d)The Fight of Brunanburh is a lively account of the legendary battle that occurred in 937.

e)The Combat of Maldon recounts the battle that occurred in 993, with an emphasis on individual acts of valour and the troops’ emotions. It is notable for the sentiments voiced by the warriors, notably those of the elderly Byrhtwold.

The Elegies. The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Wife’s Lament, and Husband’s Message are among the poetry included in the Exeter Book. There is no connection between the separate pieces, yet they all share a meditative quality and could be considered monologues. The first two are the more refined creative pieces, achieving true peaks of emotional emotion. They are closest to the lyric in Old English literature, a genre that is not represented in the current corpus.

3. The So-called Caedmon Group. Bede recounts in his Ecclesiastical History the incident of the lay brother Caedmon, who was converted by divine inspiration from a state of tongue-tied ineffectiveness to poetical rapture. He was summoned into the presence of abbess Hilda of Whitby (658–80), converted to monasticism, and thereafter sang of numerous Biblical occurrences. Bede recounts in his account the Hymn attributed to Caedmon, which is nine lines long and demonstrates to a great degree the repetition and parallel phrasing highlighted above.

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This is all that is known about Caedmon’s life and activity, but the four poems in the Junius MS. are so closely related to Bede’s description of the themes on which Caedmon wrote that they have long been connected with his name. Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and three shorter poems frequently referred to collectively as Christ and Satan are all of uneven worth. At their best, they are powerful and passionate individuals with an aptitude for descriptive writing and incident selection; at their worst, they are monotonous paraphrases of Biblical stories. They are undoubtedly not all by the same hand, and few, if any, are early enough to be attributed to Caedmon himself. They almost certainly have nothing to do with the Northumbrian poet himself, despite their historical association with his name.

4. The Cynewulf Group. Juliana, Elene, Christ, and The Fates of the Apostles all feature Cynewulf’s signature in runic characters (in the two last-named spelt Cynwulf). This is all that is known about the poet, however, critics have ‘deduced’ additional facts about his life. Similarly, additional poems have been credited to him on little or no basis, the most notable being The Dream of the Rood, unquestionably the finest of all Old English religious poetry in terms of emotional intensity, conceptual brilliance, and surety of execution. It is the work of a true poet and artist.

The signed poems are far more scholarly than the Caedmon verses.

There is a higher ability to express oneself, a more secure technique, and true descriptive abilities. The concepts are more expansive and nuanced, and there are moments when a lyrical aspect emerges. Their origins are most likely around the ninth century.


1. Alfred. Though some official prose documents (such as legislation) existed before to Alfred’s reign, there can be no argument against the often asserted assertion that he is ‘the father of English prose.’ As he states in the prologue to the Pastoral Care, he began his series of translations in response to the dismal situation of English education, which is primarily the product of Danish depredations. Even knowledge of Latin was dwindling, and in order to stimulate learning among the clergy, the king translated several popular works into his native tongue. These are his contributions to our literary heritage. At times he translated word for word, at others more freely, but the sections that are most valuable for understanding the king’s character and for their literary qualities are those in which originals are freely incorporated as explanations or expansions. The five major translations are Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Orosius’ History of the World, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, and St Augustine’s Soliloquies, however, Alfred’s claim to the translation of Bede is disputed. Additionally, there is a Handbook or commonplace-book whose existence was confirmed by Asser, the king’s biographer, but which is no longer extant. The chronological order of the translations is unknown, but it is apparent that the Pastoral Care was the first and the Soliloquies were the last in the series.

A little excerpt is included here to demonstrate his written style, however it should be noted that this is from his early work, and comparisons with the Preface to the Soliloquies should be made to see the evolution. It is not a polished style, but that is to be anticipated given the point at which writing as a literary form is developing. For the most part, it is a basic style, and while Alfred never quite masters it, there is always the sense that he was a gifted natural artist—though speculation on what he may have produced had he lived at a later period when a more developed prose style had arisen is fruitless.

Swa claene hio waes oofeallen on Angelcynne oaette swi&e feawe waeron behionan Humbre pe hiora oenunga cuoen understandan on Englisc oaee furoum an srendgewrit of Laedene on Englisc areccan, ond ic wene oaestte noht monige begeondan Humbre naeren; swa feawe hiora waeron oastte ic anne anlepne ne maeg geoencean besuoan Temese oaoa ic to rice feng. Gode aelmihtegum sie onc oaestte we nu aesnigne onstal habbao lareowa.
Foroam ic oe bebeode oaet ou do swa ic gelife oaet ou wille.. . .

So completely has it [learning] decayed in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their mass-books in English and could even translate a letter from Latin into English, and I believe there were not many beyond the Humber either; so few of them were there that I cannot remember a single one south of the Thames when I became king. To God, Almighty be the thanks that we have now any supply of teachers.

Therefore I command you that you do as I believe you will. … (Preface to Pastoral Care)

2. AElfric, who is probably best known for his Grammar, was a churchman who was appointed abbot of Eynsham in 1005 as a churchman. Several of his works survive the Catholic Homilies, two series of sermons suited for delivery by priests, a third series—the Lives of the Saints (written before to 998), and biblical translations. AElfric’s fluid and forceful language demonstrates extraordinary ability in the art of distilling complex thought into narrative form. It is natural and effortless, and frequently alliterative. His Colloquy is fascinating as a debate between teacher and pupil, not just literary but also historical.

3. Wulfstan was Archbishop of York and Bishop of Worcester. Several of his autographed homilies survive, and there are numerous others that are thought to be by him based on circumstantial evidence. Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, his most famous work, is characterised by its sheer power and energy, its repetition of ideas, and its alliterative style. It is fluid and strong; Wulfstan must have been an exceptionally gifted preacher.

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4. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was almost certainly inspired by Alfred, who may have dictated several entries, most notably those concerning his own campaigns. It is preserved in a number of manuscripts, the most significant of which are the A or Parker and the E or Laud MSS. To the year 915, the majority of the manuscripts share a great deal of material, albeit their relationships to one another offer considerable challenges. Local events and random elements are incorporated into the many versions, and their attitudes toward events demonstrate clearly yarying points of view. They all come to an end at different times, the most recent being 1154. (E).

As could be expected, the language ranges considerably, from brief notifications to lengthy narrative and description portions. Certain character profiles, particularly that of the Conqueror, are particularly interesting, but the well-known tales of the atrocities of Stephen’s rule are also noteworthy. A brief excerpt from the annal for 1086’s depiction of William the Conqueror demonstrates quite clearly several of the Chronicle’s subsequent stylistic features:

Se cyng Willelm  be we embe sprecao waes swioe wis man and swioe rice and wurofulre and strengere ponne aenig his foregenga waere. He waes milde pam godum mannum pe God lufedon and ofer eall gemett stearc pam mannum pe wiocwaedon his willan. On 5am ilcan steode be God him geuoe paet he moste Engleland gegan he arerde maere mynster and munecas paer gesaette and hit waell gegodade. On his dagan waes paet maere mynster on Cant-warbyrig getymbrad and eac swioe manig ooer ofer eall.

England. King William, about whom we have spoken, was an extremely wise man who was also extremely powerful, glorious, and stronger than any of his predecessors. He was gentle with good persons who loved God but ruthless with those who rejected his agenda. At the same location where God granted him the right to conquer England, he founded a splendid monastery and endowed it with monks. During his lifetime, the famed monastery in Canterbury was built, as were numerous others around England.


Throughout the period, Old English Literature develops noticeably, however it is worth noting that this development is the consequence of hundreds of years of sluggish growth, and it is hard to compartmentalise the many varieties of verse, for example, into distinct watertight compartments.

1. Poetry. Poetry predates writing, and the heroic style popularised by Beowulf, Waldere, and The Fight at Finnsburh endures throughout the time, as identical characteristics are present in a poem as late as The Battle of Maldon.

a) The epic occurs in one of its forms in Beowulf, which lacks the ‘finer’ traits of the classical epic, such as rigid coherence, high dignity, and vast motivation, but retains an undeniable energy and majesty. Christian epics, on the other hand, have little claim to the term and should be omitted from consideration here.

b) The lyric does not exist in Old English, while certain poems, for example, The Wanderer and The Seafarer, exhibit some of the expressive melancholy and personal passion associated with the lyric.

2. Prose. Although much Old English prose is a translation from Latin and is unmistakably inspired by the originals, it is far from accurate to dismiss the prose of the period as lacking in originality or personality. The homilies of Aelfric and Wulfstan are the genuine precursors to the Authorized Version’s prose. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains the first historical writings, and the growth of historical literature is shown by comparing the Cynewulf and Cyneheard storey in the annal for 755 to the subsequent annals in the E’MS.


1. Poetry. A comparison of the so-called Caedmonian and Cynewulfian poetry reveals a distinct progression in technique. The later poetry in general has a smoother flow, a greater assurance in handling material, a greater uniqueness of approach and sentiment, a less dependence on stock phrases, a more nuanced use of alliteration, and a stronger concern for stylistic effect. This is the normal progression of literature, and while it appeared that alliterative poetry would perish with the Conquest, the flowering of a comparable form in the fourteenth century demonstrates that this was more apparent than actual.

2. Prose. Despite its limited scope as the primary vehicle for homilies and historical writing, a significant stylistic advancement is easily apparent. From the simpler, halting prose of the Chronicle and Alfred, where the writers tend to become obscure and elliptical when confronted with more abstruse thoughts, from the period when sentence structure is fairly Ibose and devoid of finer touches of rhythm and cadence, the later prose is notable for its fluency, animation, and, as is to be expected, confidence. Some, particularly AElfric’s and Wulfstan’s prose, make good use of alliteration and rhetorical devices. The author’s true personality is revealed.

The consequences of the Conquest on poetry and prose have almost certainly been exaggerated in the past. Rhyme was to supplant alliteration, but even before the end of the period, there are indications that this would have been a natural progression as a result of Latin’s impact. The Conquest undoubtedly diminished the power of the audience for whom the older type was composed, and the impetus was lost; but, as will be noted, the later flowering of the alliterative type, albeit with a looser structure, demonstrates unequivocally that the composition of the older type was never entirely lost. Before the impacts of the Conquest became apparent, the inflexional system was already loosening, and while this process was definitely accelerated by the events after] 066, it cannot be asserted that there was any genuine degradation in the writing style of, say, Wulfstan. The evolution of the homiletic prose style in Middle English has been proved to be authentic to the Old English period. In other words, despite the Conquest, there is apparent continuity.

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