Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Anglo-Saxon Or Old-English Period (670-1100)

The earliest phase of English literature started with Anglo-Saxon literature of the Angles and Saxons (the ancestors of the English race) much before they occupied Britain. English was the common name and tongue of these tribes. Before they occupied Britain they lived along the coasts of Sweden and Denmark, and the land which they occupied was called Engle-land. These tribes were fearless, adventurous and brave, and during the later years of Roman occupation of Britain, they kept the British coast in terror. Like other nations they sang at their feasts about battles, gods and their ancestral heroes, and some of their chiefs were also bards. It was in these songs of religion, wars and agriculture, that English poetry began in the ancient Engle-land while Britain was still a Roman province.

Though much of this Anglo-Saxon poetry is lost, there are still some fragments left. For example, Widsith describes continental courts visited in imagination by a far-wandering poet; Waldhere tells how Walter of Aquitaine withstood a host of foes in the passes of the Vosges; the splendid fragment called The Fight at Finnesburg deals with the same favourite theme of battle against fearful odds; and Complaint of Deor describes the disappointment of a lover. The most important poem of this period is Beowulf. It is a tale of adventures of Beowulf, the hero, who is an champion an slayer of monsters; the incidents in it are such as may be found in hundreds of other stories, but what makes it really interesting and different from later romances, is that is full of all sorts of references and allusions to great events, to the fortunes of kings and nations. There is thus an historical background.
After the Anglo-Saxons embraced Christianity, the poets took up religious themes as the subject-matter of their poetry. In fact, a major portion of Anglo-Saxon poetry is religious. The two important religious poets of the Anglo-Saxon period were Caedmon and Cynewulf. Caedmon sang in series the whole story of the fate of man, from the Creation and the Fall to the Redemption and the Last Judgment, and within this large framework, the Scripture history. Cynewulf’s most important poem is the Crist, a metrical narrative of leading events of Christ’s ministry upon earth, including his return to judgment, which is treated with much grandeur.
Anglo-Saxon poetry is markedly different from the poetry of the next period—Middle English or Anglo-Norman period—for it deals with the traditions of an older world, and expresses another temperament and way of living; it breathes the influence of the wind and storm. It is the poetry of a stern and passionate people, concerned with the primal things of life, moody, melancholy and fierce, yet with great capacity for endurance and fidelity.
The Anglo-Saxon period was also marked by the beginning of English prose. Through the Chronicles, which probably began in King Alfred’s time, and through Alfred’s translations from the Latin a common available prose was established, which had all sorts of possibilities in it. In fact, unlike poetry, there was no break in prose of Anglo-Saxon period and the Middle English period, and even the later prose in England was continuation of Anglo-Saxon prose. The tendency of the Anglo-Saxon prose is towards observance of the rules of ordinary speech, that is why, though one has to make a considerable effort in order to read verse of the Anglo-Saxons, it is comparatively easy to understand their prose. The great success of Anglo-Saxon prose is in religious instructions, and the two great pioneers of English prose were Alfred the Great, the glorious king of Wessex, who translated a number of Latin Chronicles in English, and Aelfric, a priest, who wrote sermons in a sort of poetic prose.
The Angles and Saxons first landed in England in the middle of the fifth century, and by 670 A.D. they had occupied almost the whole of the country. Unlike the Romans who came as conquerors, these tribes settled in England and made her their permanent home. They became, therefore, the ancestors of the English race. The Anglo-Saxon kings, of whom Alfred the Great was the most prominent, ruled till 1066, when Harold, the last of Saxon kings, was defeated at the Battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror of Normandy, France. The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Period in English literature, therefore, extends roughly from 670 A.D. to 1100 A.D.
As it has been made clear in the First Part of this book that the literature of any country in any period is the reflection of the life lived by the people of that country in that particular period, we find that this applies to the literature of this period. The Angles and Saxons combined in themselves opposing traits of character—savagery and sentiment, rough living and deep feeling, splendid courage and deep melancholy resulting from thinking about the unanswered problem of death. Thus they lived a rich external as well as internal life, and it is especially the latter which is the basis of their rich literature. To these brave and fearless fighters, love of untarnished glory, and happy domestic life and virtues, made great appeal. They followed in their life five great principles—love of personal freedom, responsiveness to nature, religion, love for womanhood, and struggle for glory. All these principles are reflected in their literature. They were full of emotions and aspirations, and loved music and songs. Thus we read in Beowulf:
Music and song where the heroes sat—
The glee—wood rang, a song uprose
When Hrothgar’s scop gave the hall good cheer.
The Anglo Saxon language is only a branch of the great Aryan or Indo-European family of languages. It has the same root words for father and mother, for God and man, for the common needs and the common relations of life, as we find in Sanskrit, Iranian, Greek and Latin. And it is this old vigorous Anglo-Saxon language which forms the basis of modern English.

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