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To know the literature of the Anglo Saxon Period we first need to know about the Anglo Saxon people.The soil on which bloomed the colourful flowers of English literature, as known today, was for many centuries, completely unknown to the people who are known now as English men, had been the savage natives of Germania,  some scattered localities of modern Germany. The land belonged to the Celtic natives who had, perhaps settled there during the gradual spread of Aryan civilization in the West. The Celts also known as Brythrons, lived in the land better known as Britain, but they had to face different aggressions at different stages.

Britain was invaded and finally conquered by Rome in 43 A.D. The Roman rule continued for long and had a cultural bearing on the old natives. But after the fall of the Roman empire, the Celts found themselves quite unprotected and helpless as now there were no Roman army to save and guard their land and lives. It was in such a state that the invasion from the Teutonic tribes took place in England in the latter part of the fifth century A.D. Those tribes were mainly three –Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The militarily untrained people of Britain, without any cultivation of the sense of unity and nationality, could hardly resist the invaders and fled away to the mountaineous region of Wales. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes settled in Britain with a certain sort of regional divisions. The name England has come from Angul, a particular place where the Teutonic race, the Angles used to live. The word English too has derived from the Old Teutonic form Anglisko.

The Teutonic invaders who settled in England were originally heathen Germans and were extremely fierce. They were by nature nomadic warriors and used to live by the means of plunder of different lands. But it was they who gave England its present name and language and what we call today English culture and English literature was also promoted by them.

The Germanic people before settling in Britain no doubt had some sort of unwritten and poetical literature of their own which was carried from mouth to mouth by tradition by different generations. When they settled in England they brought with them this old literature of theirs and that formed the original English literature. Hence we can say English literature did not have its origin in the land we call England today.

However in England the English literature had its further development in various dimensions. Although at first the tradition of the unwritten poetical literature continued but subsequently written literature also developed. The bulk of that unwritten Anglo – Saxon literature was, however written down for the first time after 700 A.D.by the Christian clerks.



The earliest English poetry was unwritten. It consisted of songs and poems which are heroic and stimulating in character. These were sung to the harps by minstrels. These unwritten poetries as already told were handed down from one generation to another, and has survived in that way but in the course of this transition they perhaps have lost much of their original elements. These Anglo Saxon poetries have come to the present generation through copies made by Christian clerks several hundred years after their original composition. It was through their efforts of preserving the literary tradition of these Anglo Saxon poetries in the seventh to the eleventh centuries, that these earliest works are known to a modern reader. But, there always remain the justifiable apprehension that the earliest works have not been retained in their true theme and spirit by those who wrote  them down for the first time long after the actual composition.

WIDSITH: The oldest poem in English language is probably Widsith, the wide goer or wanderer. The author and the date of its composition are unknown, though the account of the minstrel’s life belongs to the time before the Saxons first came to England. There is nothing remarkable in its theme. Its all about a minstrel’s wandering life and experiences about different places he visited. The poem is of nearly one hundred and fifty lines, where Widsith a minstrel, who is a wide wanderer, recounts his journey in different lands and sketches thefeudal ‘ halls’ where he used to sing and the lords who showered gifts on him. The poem ends with the minstrel’s glorification of his art that has always brought for him a ready welcome.Widsith is not a lyrical poem in its actual sense. It is mainly narrative and descriptive but inspite of it lyrical notes are heard in it.  In fact it consists more of epical elements than lyrical.

DEOR’S LAMENT is another specimen of Anglo Saxon pagan lyric poetry. It also speaks about a minstrel who gives his expression in beautiful language but not in glad wandering like Widsith but in manly sorrow for being suddenly thrown out of employment by his masters.Deor’s living depended entirely upon his power to please his chief, and that at any time he might be supplanted by a better poet. In fact Deor had this experience , and comforts himself in a dismal way by reminiscing variousexamples of men who have suffered more than him. The poem is arranged in strophes and each strophe telling of some afflictedhero and ending with the same refrain “His sorrow passed away; so will mine”. This  poem, truly lyrical in its content and form, may be called the first true lyric in the English language.

THE RUINED BURG strikes rather a novel note in its lamentation for the ruin of a great city of the past. This is possibly the Roman built city of Bath. The poem clearly illustrates the poet’s interest and knowledge of that old city. However the essence of a true elegiac poetry, is not evenly present all through.The descriptive art of the poet places the poem as a grand specimen of early English poetry.

THE SEAFARER is perhaps the most Anglo Saxon elegy  which seems to be in two distinct parts. The first part portrays the hardships of ocean life; but above the hardships are the call of the sea. The second part is an allegory, in which the troubles of our life are symbolised by the various troubles faced by the seaman. The call of the Ocean is also a symbol of the call in our soul to be up and away to its true home with God. However it is not certain whether some monk added the second part of it seeing the allegorical possibilities of the first part or whether some sea – loving Christian minstrel wrote both.

THE FIGHT AT FINNSBURGH and WALDERE are two other of the oldest poems of English language that deserves worth mentioning. TheFight at Finnsburgh” is a portion of fifty lines, located on the inside of a piece of parchment drawn over the wooden covers of a book of homilies. It is a splendid war song, narrating with Homeric power the shielding of a hall by Hnaef with sixty warriors, against the attack of Finn and his army. The fight lasts five days and the fragment ends before we learn the outcome.

“Waldere” is only a small portion sited in pages, from which we get just a look of the story of Waldere (Walter of Aquitaine) and his betrothed bride Hildgund,who were held captves at the court of Attila. They escaped with a huge amount of treasure, and while crossing the mountains were attacked by way of Gunther and his soldiers, among whom there was even Walter’s former comrade, Hagen. Walter fights with all of them and escapes.

The same story is also a part of the old German Nibelungenlied. The vital significance of these Waldere pieces lies in the attestation that our ancestors were familiar with the legends and poetry of other Germanic people.

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