Old English Heroic Poetry
Table of Contents
Anglo-Saxon Epic Poetry or Anglo-Saxon Heroic Poetry comprises poems of considerable length containing the impersonal narration of the saga of heroic life with a network of subsidiary tales arranged around the central encounters. Among the heroic poems that have come down to us are the complete epic Beowulf, some epic fragments like Waldhere, The Fight at Finnesburh and Widsth. The Lament of Deor (Deor’s Lament) has heroic associations, though it may also be called an elegy on account of its melancholy tone.
This is a massive poem of three thousand one hundred and eighty two lines and tells the story of the royal Geatish warrior Beowulf.
Beowulf sails to Denmark with a band of violent warriors and kills the monster Grendel who has been troubling the Danish King Hrothgar. Grendel’s mother, seeking revenge, meets the same fate Beowulf reigns for fifty years as the king of the Geats. In his last combat with a fire-breathing dragon he kills the dragon but is himself mortally wounded. The poem ends with a description of the ceremonial funeral of Beowulf.
Beowulf, which is considered to be the earliest epic of the English people unrolls before us the picture of the heroic age of Germanic antiquity, and the rise and fall of Danish and Geatish races are recorded in great detail. The poem embraces war and peace, life and death, and heroic life is crystallized in generic scenes of voyage, welcome, feast, fight, reward, making the poem one of barbaric and stately splendour.
This consists of two fragments of 63 lines in all. It tells the story of Hildegund and Walter who while escaping from imprisonment by Attila the Hun, are attacked by the King of the Franks and his followers including Hagen. The poem ends on a happy note as they are finally married. The first fragment is part of a speech by Hildegund encouraging Walter and the second one contains the end of a speech, probably by Gunther, and Walter’s reply to it. Both fragments ring with the spirit of undaunted heroism. The manuscript is preserved in the Royal library of Copenhagen.
This is preserved in the Exeter Book. It consists of 143 lines and was probably written before the Anglo-Saxons migrated to England. It was probably re-written in the 7th or early 8th century.
Though not exactly an epic poem, Widsith is the song of a wandering minstrel (‘scop’) who tells the stories of the heroes and rulers he has known. The poem is not the record of the travels of an actual gloemen, the minstrel merely gives a catalogue of heroic lorc from the repertoire of stories at his command. At the end the note of the poem changes from a strident martial one to one of fatalism – a recurrent note in Anglo-Saxon poetry. One of the earliest English poems, it lifts a corner of the veil covering the dim past. The poem contains references to Attila the Hun, Eormenric, the king of the Goths and Hrothgar, mentioned in Beowulf.
4. The Lament of Deor
This is the effusion of a minstrel rejected by his lord who has preferred his rival. Deor recalls the tribulation of heroes and ends every strophe with the refrain:
“That passed away, so may this.”
He considers the past misfortunes of others such as Weland the Smith, Theodoric and Hermanric. The narration of heroic lives constitutes its epic qualities while the fatalistic note and stoical resignation contribute towards making it an elegy
Dating from the 9th or 10th century, it is a poem of 42 lines, divided into seven unequal sections and is preserved in the Exeter Book.
5. The Fight at Finnesburh
This is a hopelessly mutilated poem of 48 lines describing a fight at Finnesburh. The manuscript is now lost. The fragment deals with the treacherous attack made by Finn upon his Danish guests. Critics are troubled by the inconsistency between this story and that of Finn as told in Beowulf. The fragmentary poem is nevertheless impressive in grandeur.
In several poems of the 10th century the militant note of Beowulf is once again revived. These may be called later epics and include The Rattle of Brunanburh and The Battle of Maldon. They were written at a period when Christianity had already been accepted as the religion of the English people.
6. The Battle of Brunanburh
This is included in four manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It celebrates the victory of Athelstan, King of Wessex and Mercia, against Constantine, the King of the Scots and his allies, the Welsh and the Danes in 935 at Brunanburh, the site of which remains unknown. The poem is heroic in spirit and rings with a highly patriotic note.
It is full of savage irony directed at the fleeing invaders. Tennyson’s translation of the poem is well-known. However, it fails to create any great impact.
7. The Battle of Maldon
It describes the battle between the English and the Danes fought at Maldon in Essex in 991 A. D. The invading army which was separated by a river was allowed by the magnanimous ‘English chief Byrthnoth to cross over, and the English were completely defeated by the Danes. The vanquished rise to heights of heroism, making the poem more heroic in spirit than any other Anglo-Saxon poem. Its spirit is best expressed in the words of Byrhtwold, the old companion:
“Thought shall be the harder, heart the
keener, courage the grater, as our might lessens.”
The manuscript was destroyed in the fire in the Cotton Library in 1731, and the poem survives only in a transcript.