The precarious existence of man in the face of natural forces and calamities has been the subject-matter of much great literature throughout the ages. Anglo-Saxon poetry also depicts a primitive world where the basic question of life is the fight – man has to wage against the hostile Nature. As the society was primitive and the advancement of technology was still at an embryonic stage, people had to fight against Nature with minimum equipment. The world depicted in Anglo-Saxon poetry is the world of the Nordic people who are a sea-faring race. Their life and death are connected to the sea. In Beowulf as well as in the elegiac poems of the Anglo-Saxon period, we hear the sound of the rising and falling of the waves of the sea. Most of the characters or speakers are either adventurous or professional sailors. The sea is the principal form of Nature that we encounter in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Beowulf begins with the hero’s expedition over the North Sea from Geatland to Denmark. The sea-voyage described in vivid terms gives us the idea of the perils of sea-faring. In Beowulf, Nature is not only hostile but also mysterious. The purple in Heorot share their meat and listen to the song of the scup while the hail and frost of winter beat against the window-panes. The outside world is dark, gloomy and extremely cold.Out of the bosom of this hostile and cold nature comes Grendel which is the symbol of primeval evil lurking in nature. Grendel lives in the marshy land among the icy frost-laden waters of the fen.
In the elegiac poetry, nature is equally hostile and cold for a friendless man, driver over the seas in search of a new home and hearth. In the poem “The Wanderer”, we get a description of the icy-sea and the surrounding:
“Awakenth after this friendless man,
Seeth before him fellow waves,
Sea-birds, breathing, broading out feathers,
Sore for his loved lord sorrow freshens.”
In Anglo-Saxon poetry there is no summer on spring, it is perpetual winder. No man grows wise without his share of winters. Winter means sufferings, winter means the bitter experience of life.
The fatalistic atmosphere of the Anglo-Saxon poetry is rooted in this Natural World. Nature is so bleak and gloomy that man earnestly equates nature with ‘wynd’ or fate. The storm and the hail, the wind, and the street are the weapons by which fate punishes mankind:
“Stormsbreak on the stone hillside,
The ground bound by driving street,
Winter’s wrath. Then wanes cometh,
The rough hail to harry mankind.”
A more bitter picture of nature is given in “The Seafarer.” The narrator is a seafaring man who has to sit day and night on the prow of his boat.
Nailed my feet, frost shrank on
Its chill clamps, cares sighed
Hot about heart, hunger fed
Ona mere-wearied mind.”
Anglo-Saxon poetry, both heroic and elegiac is set against the bleak unfriendly and mysterious background of Nature. Nowhere else in literature does nature shape the thoughts of people so thoroughly as in Anglo-Saxon poetry.