History of British Poetry 101: First Epic Poems



Foreword

British poetry is rooted in a strong oral tradition inherited by the Celts, one of the first invaders of Britain. Druids and bards were for long time, holders of the sacred words of the tales of their people’s heroes and history. As great orators, they shaped the first schemes of oral poetry and drew their inspiration from strong imagery and natural elements. The similarities between the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon oral traditions from the 5th to the 7th centuries have already been studied. Three main kinds of poetry were recognizable then: sacerdotal, belligerent and satirical poetry. The Romans, who invaded from the 1st century B.C. to the 5th century A.D., brought the use of Latin. In this article, we will dive deeper into the British poetry landscape depicted by Old English poets between the 7th and the 11th century.

British Poetry 101 will be divided into the following chapters:


  1. History of British Poetry 101: Traditional Oral Poetry

  2. History of British Poetry 101: First Epic Poems

  3. History of British Poetry 101: The Influence of Romances

  4. History of British Poetry 101: Satirical Poetry and Ballads

  5. History of British Poetry 101: Poetry under the Reformation

  6. History of British Poetry 101: Poetry in the Elizabethan Age


Christian Poetry in Old English


In 597 A.D., Christian missionaries were sent to Britain from Rome. Christian influence was already prevailing in Ireland, but the capital of the Roman empire was willing to go further into the Christianisation of the whole British territory. The missionaries brought the usage of pen, ink, parchment and Latin that were at the core of religious customs. Legends, stories and poems could finally be collected and written down. This marks the beginning of a new period that extends from the 7th century to the 12th century' during which Old English prevailed.


Figure 1: St. Augustine of Canterbury preaches to Aethelberht of Kent during Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon

Writing remained a skill limited to few people. It was expensive and mainly practised by monks in monasteries. The information written down was carefully selected and the texts and poems preserved from that time mainly reflected the interests of Christianism. The previous invaders of Britain slowly came to adopt this new religion.


Religious poetry developed and mixed Christian values with the influences from the Germanic people from the east and north. By combining the influences of both people, alliterative poetry – characterised by a strong use of alterations, consonants, syllabic accentuation, and number of vowels – came to light. Nevertheless, poetry remained at first oral rather than written in order to allow the rhythm to resonate. Poets were then going from castle to castle to tell or sing poems which didn’t belong to anyone, and could be adapted by each performer.


The Latin alphabet, with its round-shaped letters, was suited for writing on parchments unlike the Germanic invaders’ writing system known as runes. As a result, Latin later prevailed in the writing of the four manuscripts that recorded the works of Old English poets: the Junius manuscript (also known as the Caedmon manuscript), an illustrated poetic anthology; the Exeter Book; Vercelli Book, a mix of poetry and prose; and the Nowell Codex, also a mixture of poetry and prose.

Figure 2: The Anglo-Saxon futhorc (abecedarium anguliscum) as presented in Codex Sangallensis 878 (9th century)

Twelve Old English poets are known thanks to medieval sources. Among them, four are known for their vernacular works: Bede, Alfred, Cynewulf and Caedmon, considered as the fathers of Old English poetry.


Caedmon mixes in his poems the culture of the Anglo-Saxon verse tradition and Christian themes. According to Bede, he used to be an illiterate herdsman (1075–1142 A.D.). Ashamed of being unable to sing with his fellow men, he once dreamt of a stranger asking him to sing. Caedmon started uttering verses he’d never heard before and soon was considered to be touched by the Divine. He became an inmate of the monastery of Streaneshalch and worked there as a poet. Most of his works comprised of sacred themes and consisted of showing men the right way to turn their back on sin. His initial Hymn, inspired by his first dream, represents the most precious of historical findings regarding the evolution of English language and poetry. It reflects the build of most of Anglo-Saxon poetry of the time.


Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard, Meotodes meahte ond his modgeþanc, weorc Wuldorfæder; swa he wundra gehwæs ece Drihten, or onstealde. He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum heofon to hrofe, halig Scyppend: þa middangeard moncynnes Weard, ece Drihten, æfter teode firum foldan, Frea ælmihtig.

Praise now to the keeper of the kingdom of heaven, the power of the Creator, the profound mind of the glorious father, who fashioned the beginning of every wonder, the eternal Lord. For the children of men, he made first heaven as a roof, the holy Creator. Then the Lord of mankind, the everlasting Shepherd, ordained in the midst as a dwelling place, Almighty Lord, the earth for men.

Caedmon’s Hymn in Old English and its modern translation.

(excerpt from The Earliest English Poems, Third Edition, Penguin Books, 1991)


The second poet known till today is Cynewulf (or Cynwulf, Kynewulf) who lived in the 9th century and presumably came from Mercia or Northumbria. Some of his poems were preserved in late 10th-century manuscripts: Ellen, The Fates of the Apostles, The Ascension, Juliana. These poems anchor themselves in history as a perfect example of application of the technic of Latin rhetoric, unlike the native Anglo-Saxon with their sometimes blurred narrative and confused circumlocution. These poems, besides being a linguistic exploit, also depicted the everyday life of Old English and imagery of Germanic traditions through tales of battles and sea voyages.

Heroic Germanic Poetry in Old English


It is difficult to talk about the origins of English poetry without mentioning one of the greatest Old English works. Anglo-Saxon poetry from the 7th to the 11th century received the most interest from today’s anthropologists, linguists, and historians thanks to its epic gest. The longest of all poems focuses on the tales of a Germanic hero which features in the Nowell Codex, and whose writer still remains unknown, is Beowulf.


Figure 3: The Tale of Beowulf, copy of the manuscript translated by W. Morris and A. J. Wyatt (1895)

The name Beowulf could come from the Old English be, bee, meaning ‘bear’ and wulf, meaning ‘wolf’. It is a long epic poem of 3182 lines that tells the story of its eponymous character and of the battles he led in today’s Scandinavian countries. Beowulf is a goth warrior (the goths being a people from the north of Sweden) who went to help the King Hrothgar who was prosecuted by a monster named Grandel.


Beowulf ends up cutting the monster’s arm off. But the monster’s mother appears and he fights her as well, following her under the lake, cutting her head off and killing her. After countless incidents, he finally returns to his people to serve his king, Hygelac. But he has to overcome the attack of a dragon attracted by a golden cup a slave had stolen from its den. Beowulf dies after he is wounded in a fight against the dragon.


Figure 4: Illustration of Grendel's mother dragging Beowulf to the bottom of the lake

The poem sets the general tone regarding Old English poetry and introduces new technic characteristics of the poets of that time such as the use of similes, metaphors and kennings (a figurative compound that is used for a single word noun especially in Icelandic and Old English verse).

Figure 4: Illustration of Grendel, monster who inspired Tolkien's Gollum

Originally profane, it would have later been Christianised by the monks in the 10th century to become more of a didactic poem. It was common to recast the tales of Christianity into the older heroic poems. One of the contemporary writers known to have studied Beowulf’s value as a literary asset, is J. R. R. Tolkien who took some inspiration from it to write the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. As a teacher of English literature at Oxford University, he did a translation of Beowulf in his early career. In a conference addressed to his contemporaries at the British academy, he was the first to defend this poem as a source of literary interest rather than a simple historic source. (The Monsters and the Critics, 1936).



British poetry of the 7th to 12th century proves to be unique and inventive. The written record that remains of it reveals the coexistence of Germanic themes melted in a Christian heritage brought by Roman missionaries. Latin and its new oratory composition brought new structures and figures of speech to the poetic texts. It became more and more alliterative and the use of similes and metaphors increased greatly. The manuscripts found at that time would undeniably nourish the inspiration of Britain’s literary figures and poets to come.

Bibliographical references

Bede, and A. Sellar. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England: Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.


Baquet Paul, Beowulf (VIIIe s.), Encyclopædia Universalis [online], https://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/beowulf/


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. ‘Caedmon’. Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Caedmon. Accessed 11 May 2022.


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. ‘Cynewulf’. Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cynewulf-English-poet Accessed 11 May 2022.


The Earliest English Poems (1991). Introduction and translation by Michael ALEXANDER. Penguin Books.


Johnson Ben, Caedmon, The First English Poet, historik UK [online], https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Caedmon-the-first-English-poet/


Visual sources

Figure 1: St. Augustine of Canterbury preaches to Aethelberht of Kent during Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon, paintng by James William Edmund Doyle, Public domain, retrieved from https://www.ancient-origins.net/human-origins-religions/christianization-anglo-saxon-england-0013002


Figure 2: The Anglo-Saxon futhorc (abecedarium anguliscum) as presented in Codex Sangallensis 878 (9th century). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Saxon_runes#/media/File:Abecedarium_anguliscum_scan.jpg


Figure 3: The Tale of Beowulf, copy of the manuscript translated by W. Morris and A. J. Wyatt (1895), Hammersmith, Kelmscot Press, BnF, reserve of rare books department, Res M-YK-6, frontispiece, © Bibliothèque nationale de France https://fantasy.bnf.fr/fr/grand/fan_251.php


Figure 4: Illustration of Grendel's mother dragging Beowulf to the bottom of the lake, engraving, public domain (1899), at the BNF (French National Library), retrieved from https://fantasy.bnf.fr/fr/grand/fan_254.php


Figure 5: Illustration of Grendel, MARSHALL Henrietta Elisabeth, Stories of Beowulf (1908). pastel. Retrieved from https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gollum#/media/Fichier:Stories_of_beowulf_grendel.jpg

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Camille Borrelly

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