What are the features and themes of Anglo-Saxon poetry?

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Anglo-Saxon poetry is the poetry of England attributed to the Anglo-Saxons, Northern Germanic tribes who immigrated to England in the wake of the removal of Roman soldiers needed to defend Rome at its fall. The Anglo-Saxons became the principal group in England, dominating between the mid-400s and 1066 when William of Normandy entered England to take over the throne of King Edward after his death left it unclear who was to be the successor, Godwinson or William of Normandy. Since the 1066 invasion was successful and Godwinson was conquered, the successor was William and the Anglo-Saxon era closed but not without a double legacy: the Anglo-Saxons left us the roots of Modern English in Old English and they left the corpus of Anglo-Saxon poetry, including Beowulf and The Wanderer.

Some features and themes of Anglo-Saxon period poetry include the (1) caesura, (2) alliteration, (3) stressed and unstressed syllables, (4) absence of end-rhymes, (5) kenning, (6) the elegiac theme and (7) the dream vision.

(1-3) Lines are constructed around alliterative stressed syllables and a strong mid-point caesura (strong break between the two halves of each line). There are four stressed syllables in each line. The number of unstressed syllables is variable. There are various patterns possible for alliterated caesura lines.

The overall principle is that there are two stressed and alliterated syllables before the caesura and two stressed syllables after the caesura. One or both of the post-caesura stressed syllables will be alliterated with the pre-caesura stressed syllables. This example from The Wanderer shows the four stressed syllables and related alliteration on both sides of the caesura, which is marked with a comma in this line: "the Measurer’s mercy, though he must." Here, "must" is the second stressed syllable after the caesura, and "must" alliterates /m/ with "Measurer's mercy" before the caesura.

(4) A few random lines from Widsith show that end-rhyme is not a feature of Anglo-Saxon poetry (bearing in mind that Old English has been translated into Modern English). The lines end with the non-rhyming words sprung, Ealhild, time, Hreth-king, Eormanric:

with agreeable treasures. His descent had sprung
from up among the Myrgingas. He with Ealhild,
an unfailing peace-weaver, for the first time
seeking the home of Hreth-king,
east of the Angle, of Eormanric,...

(5) Kenning is a feature of Anglo-Saxon poetry that compounds substitute words to foreground certain identities or concepts expressed as nouns. The substituted compound words convey the same meaning as the original noun but in a metaphoric imagery that elevates one feature to represent the whole (perhaps the precursor to synecdoche and metonymy).

One popular example of kenning (the compounding of two words to substitute for one important noun) is the metaphorical compound "whale-road" in Beowulf to substitute for "sea" or "ocean." The feature of whales, ocean inhabitants, is elevated to foreground the mystery and importance of the ocean: "until all of them had to obey him, / those lying about him across the whale-road,...."

(6) The elegiac theme in Anglo-Saxon poetry honors a hero who has faced tremendous odds. In the elegiac theme, the hero has a happy past that is thrown into stark contrast with the desolation of a horrific present. Think of Beowulf who has a glorious youth but faces Grendel in a desolate and horrific present. Or think of the Wander who, "accustomed as he is to joys," now finds himself alone, desolate and friendless, seeking someone who might wish to comfort him:

... deprived of my homeland,
far from freeborn kindred, since years ago
I concealed my gold-friend in the earth’s darkness,
and went forth from there abjected,
winter-anxious over the binding waves,
hall-wretched, ...
[seeking] who wishes to comfort a friendless me,... (The Wanderer)

(7) The dream vision theme is an Anglo-Saxon poetic feature that continued to be popular into the Middle English era and was used to great effect by Chaucer in poems like The Book of the Duchess.

The dream vision theme places the dreaming hero in a beautiful garden or garden-like location as a result of having fallen asleep during some psychologically disturbing unhappiness or turmoil. The dream vision theme attunes with the belief that some dreams connect the dreamer to supernatural wisdom or Providential intervention. A dream guide escorts the dreamer through allegorical situations but the process of explaining what the dream means is interrupted when the dreamer awakens, leaving a philosophical or spiritual mystery to be sorted out by dreamer and reader. The Anglo-Saxon dream vision poem The Dream of the Rood starts out with the dreamer dreaming:

What I wish to say of the best of dreams,
what came to me in the middle of the night
after the speech-bearers abode at rest! (1-3)

It seemed to me that I saw the greatest tree
conducted to the sky, bewound in light,
the brightest of beams. That beacon was entirely adorned with gold.

Although Chaucer's Middle English dream vision poetry is much later than Anglo-Saxon Old English dream visions, it serves to further illustrate the dreamer mechanism used in dream vision theme poetry. The following is from The Book of the Duchess and describes the dreamer falling asleep ["niste" is  contraction for "ne wist" or "knew not"; "swich" is "such"; "sweven" and "sweveninge" are "dream" and "dreaming"; "mette" is the verb "dream"; "trowe" is "believe"; "conne" is "know"; "rede" is "explain"; "hit yow" is "it you"]:

Right thus as I have told hit yow,
    That sodeynly, I niste how,
    Swich a lust anoon me took
    To slepe, that right upon my book
    I fil aslepe, and therwith even
    Me mette so inly swete a sweven,
    So wonderful, that never yit
    I trowe no man hadde the wit
    To conne wel my sweven rede;... (The Book of the Duchess

Middle English Dictionary extracts

Dr. Aaron K. Hostetter, Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project, Rugers

The Columbia Encyclopedia, available on encyclopedia.com

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