We divide the history of English literature into seven periods; the first is the Old English Period. All works that were written before the year 1066 belong to it. It is generally assumed that a great deal of Old English poems have perished without trace. Those that survive are mostly in a single manuscript, written down in the West Saxon dialect. The English language of those days was quite different from present-day English: there were many different Anglo-Saxon dialects, which together are now called Old English. We know the names of only two poets from this early period: Cædmon and Cynewulf. Cædmon composed a great deal of religious verse in the Abbey of Whitby in Northumbria, and his work 'Cædmon's Hymn' is an important work that survived. But almost all Old English poetry is untitled and anonymous; so is 'Beowulf', a long epic poem of 3,182 lines. We still do not know the name of its author; moreover, it was not given the title 'Beowulf' until 1805 and not printed until 1815. It is the finest surviving old poem, remarkable for its grandeur of tone and the brilliance of its style. It contains appreciative descriptions of valour in battle, stirring speeches, elegiac reflections on man and his world, love of the past, and a keen sense of the transience of things. It was transcribed in the West Saxon dialect at the end of the tenth century, at least two centuries after its composition. We possess the poem only because the unique manuscript survived the fire of 1731, which destroyed or damaged much of the remarkable library of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), in which the 'Beowulf, manuscript then was.
'Beowulf' is the first great English heroic poem, and yet its subject is not England but men and women from Germanic legend and history. It takes place in Northern Europe before Christianity had reached that part of the world. The poet, who wrote centuries later than the time of the poem's action, was a Christian and may even have been a churchman, but he claimed for his subject pre-Christian nations living in and around the lands from which the Anglo-Saxons had originally migrated to England. The Germanic tribes who settled in England in the fifth century brought with them the Germanic heroic code. The Germanic warrior was a member of a comitatus, a warrior band. Life was a struggle against the inevitable doom of a meaningless fate: wyrd, which originally meant: what happens. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans, and there is no evidence in their literature that they believed in a life after death like that of Valhalla, the hall in Scandinavian mythology reserved for dead heroes. However, there are references to the worship of heathen gods such as Woden, and the practise of placing coins, weapons and other goods with the bodies of their dead suggests a belief in some kind of after-life where they could be used. But in their literature a different kind of immortality is stressed. This was 'lof', which was won by bravery in battle and consisted of glory among men, the praise of those still living. These two ideas of 'wyrd' and 'lof' gradually acquired Christian overtones, and the reference of passages from 'Beowulf' is not likely to be entirely pagan:
|Swa sceal mandon,|
|þonne he æt guðe||gegan þenceð||longsumne lof;||na ymb his lif cearað|
|Wyrd oft nereð|
|unfægne eorl,||þonne his ellen deah!|
A pagan warrior brought up in this tradition would show a reckless disregard for his life. Whether he was doomed or not, courage was best, for the brave man could win 'lof' while the coward might die before his time. This is the spirit, which inspired the code of the 'comitatus': while his lord lived, the warrior owed him loyalty unto death. If his lord were killed, the warrior had to avenge him or die in the attempt. The lord in his turn had the duty of protecting his warriors. He had to be a great fighter to attract men, a man of noble character and a generous giver of feasts and treasures to hold them.
The poem 'Beowulf' describes how a powerful warrior from the lands of the Geats, a Scandinavian people dwelling in southern Sweden, travels to Denmark to do battle with a man-eating monster Grendel that is killing King Hrothgar's thanes in a series of nocturnal attacks. Beowulf rids the Danes of their tormentor and returns to Geatland, where he puts his great strength at the service of his own people in their wars with hostile neighbours. Eventually, he becomes King of the Geats, and years later, when he is an old man, he gives his life in the course of slaying a dragon that had threatened to destroy the nation. 'Beowulf' is an interesting poem because it gives us a very good picture of how people lived and thought in the 7th and 8th centuries. We know that the poem was admired in the 9th century by King Alfred among others, and that poets then used it to strengthen their own work. The author of 'The Battle of Maldon', at the end of the tenth century, borrowed from 'Beowulf'. The code of the 'comitatus' receives one of its last and finest expressions in this poem, especially in the often quoted lines spoken by the old warrior Byrhtwold:
|Hige sceal þe heardra,||heorte þe cenre,|
|mod sceal þe mare,||þe ure mægen lytlað|
Here we see a noble manifestation of 'man's unconquerable mind'. In order to appreciate the often beautiful aural effects of Old English poetry, one must know something about Old English metre, which is fundamentally different from the metres of Modern English verse. In Modern English there are many different metrical forms, in Old English there was but one form of versification. The system is based upon accent, alliteration, vowel quantity and specified patterns of unaccented and accented syllables. Each line of Old English poetry is composed of two half-lines, the caesura being indicated by an extra space between the halves. Each half-line has two syllables that are accented: that is, in normal speech they would be pronounced with a heavier accent than the other syllables in the line. The metrical pattern may be described as stressed / unstressed. In this respect Modern English and Old English are much the same.
|Stræt wæs stanfah||stig wisode|
|gumun ætgædere.||Guðbyrne scan|
|heard hondlocen,||hringiren scir|
|song in searwum.|
|The street was paved with stone||the path guided|
|the men together.||War-corslet shone,|
|hard, hand-linked,||bright ring-iron|
|sang in the harness.|
In the first Old English line just cited three of the accented syllables alliterate with each other. That is, they all begin with 'st'. It is only alliteration of accented syllables that counts. Unaccented syllables which happen to alliterate are irrelevant. An important rule of alliteration in Old English is that 'st' alliterates only with another syllable beginning with 'st'. It does not alliterate with 's'. The same is true of 'sc' and 'sp' each of which alliterates only with syllables beginning with the same consonant cluster. Any accented syllable beginning with a vowel alliterates with any other accented syllable with a vowel; the vowels do not have to be the same. Nowadays the old verse is printed with modern punctuation and in a modern English alphabet. Three Old English letters are used: æ (called 'ash' and pronounced as a short 'a' or a long 'ee'); þ (thorn) and ð (eth) both pronounced 'th'. This is not the way that Old English poetry was first written down in manuscripts. There it appears as if it were continuous prose, without caesura markings, without line divisions, without punctuation except the period, and with some other letter forms that are no longer in use.