The Anglo-Saxon invaders, who came to Britain in the latter part of the 5th century A.D and eventually established their kingdom there, were the founders of English culture and English literature. The surviving Anglo-Saxon literature consists of two types of writing; the heroic poetry which bears the pictures of the pre-Christian heroic society of the continental Saxons, and the predominantly religious poetry of Christiansted English.
The heroic poetry is the product of a pagan society. Beowulf is the best specimen of that kind of poetry although it was modified by relatively sophisticated Christian sentiments. One of the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon poems is Widsith which is the autobiographical record of a cup or a court minstrel. Although some parts of the poem is a later interpolation, the core of the work reflects the heroic attitude and gives us a fascinating glimpse of the Germanic world as it appeared to the imagination of the Anglo-Saxons, Excepting Widsith and Beowulf, there is little else surviving of the Anglo-Saxon literature which makes direct contact with the older heroic view of life.
Beowulf represents the characteristic features of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry most vividly. It is a poetic representation of that by gone Germanic civilization where heroic code and pagan virtues were held in utmost veneration, where people lived and died for honor. Beowulf is the earliest epic poem concerned with exploits of a hero who has superhuman powers. The poem has all the features of an epic – a grand theme, a grand hero and an objective narration.
One important feature of Anglo-Saxon poetry is the note of melancholy or elegiac sadness. There is a whole group of Anglo-Saxon lyric poems which can be grouped neither under ‘heroic’ or under ‘religious’ subtitles. These poems are elegiac in the note and generally known as laments of individual people. “The Wanderer”, “The Seafarer”, “The Wife’s Lament” is notable among the poems. In these poems hardship and sorrow in association with the theme of exile from the subject of personal lyrical laments. In fact, a note of sadness pervades the whole body of Anglo-Saxon literature. Even heroic poetry life Beowulf is not free from the elegiac tone. Beowulf is not free from the elegiac tone. Beowulf, the indomitable hero who wrenches victory from the clutches of the dragons and monstrous, also suffers from pessimism from the start to the end.
Elegiac tone or note of sadness is present in many other heroic poems like “The Battle of Malden” and “The Ruin.” But the first expression of this motif is found in the body of shorter lyrical poems, the speaker is an exile or wander. They contrast their present state of misery, with an earlier happier life and in most of them, the feeling of the speaker evokes references to external natural surrounding and phenomena. As a result, nature plays a significant role in Anglo-Saxon elegiac poetry.
“The Seafarer” is the lament of a weather-beaten sailor who has passed most of his life on the sea. He has undergone terrible psychical as well as mental hardship. He is far away from his near and dear ones, from his friends who live on the shore. He 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
On a mere-wearied mind”
The wanderer is the lament of a solitary man who had once been happy in the service of a loved-lord. He now long after his lord’s death and passing away of that earlier time of happiness has become a wanderer journeying the path of exile across the icy-sea.
These elegiac poems are basically pagan in sentiment but all of them end with conventional Christian moralizing about the temporariness f the world and the short-livedness of earthly fame and glory. It seems possible that Christian scribes supernatural superadded the Christian moralizations while they put them into writing. This is true about Beowulf also. These poems show a blend of pagan and Christian elements – they move in two worlds at the same time. Although Beowulf is a pagan hero, the Christian poet who wrote the existing story into an epic form, gave the whole narrative a Christian coloring. As a result, the pagan hero Beowulf’s fight with the Dragon becomes a symbol of Jesus Christ’s fight against Satan, and so on. In the shorter elegiac poems also the two worlds have been blended together.
These remain to be discussed another set of Anglo-Saxon poetry – the Christian poems. The Christianizing of the Anglo-Saxons had a far-reaching effect on their literature. By the 8th century, the techniques of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry were being applied to purely Christian themes. As a result, we have a substantial body of Anglo-Saxon religious poetry.
Instead of seeking subjects poetry in the heroic themes common to old Germania, the Anglo-Saxon turned their face to the new world of Christianity. Two poets of the 8th century are known to have written a large number of poems on religious themes – Caedmon and Cynewulf.