Total Pageviews

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Literary features, the Historical background and Language of the Old English period

Literary features, the Historical background and Language of the Old English period



Little indeed is known of the origin of English Literature, though it is reasonable to assume that verse of an extemporary kind was composed long before the period of the earliest written records and that we can be certain that poetry made its appearance long before the first prose was written down. It is important from the outset to remember that the extant remains of Old English Literature have come down to us (for the most part) in late copies, some of which were made three hundred years after the composition of the poems themselves. So far as poets are concerned, again little or nothing is known beyond the names of two of them, but this has not prevented some scholars from writing their' lives,' from hints in the texts themselves, fortified by scanty contemporary references (in the case of Caedmon) but mainly from a mass of conjecture, most of which cannot be described as intelligent. Indeed, the lengths to which critics will at times go is clearly indicated by the fact that one Old English poet has been provided with a wife on no valid evidence whatsoever. Notwithstanding the mists which shroud the beginnings and our lack of knowledge of the poets themselves Old English Literature has a richness which amazes the reader who overcomes the initial difficulty of the language, and it is hoped that this richness will be seen even in the meagre summary which appears in the following pages.


The period is a long one, for it opens in the fifth century and does not conclude, as is often supposed, with the Norman Conquest in 1066, but rather continues in prose at least till c. 1150. The events, however, must be dismissed briefly. The departure of the Romans in 410 left the British population open to the inroads of the invaders from the north. According to British traditions the English from the Continent came first as mercenaries to help in the defence against the Picts and Scots; but soon they began to settle in the country, and archaeological evidence shows that certainly permanent settlements had been made in the last quarter of the fifth century if not before. In the course of time they gained possession of all the land from the English Channel to the Firth of Forth to a greater or lesser degree. Then followed the Christianization of the pagan English tribes, beginning in Northumbria with the work of Irish missionaries, though the influence from Rome begins in Kent (597). In succession followed the inroads of the Danes in the ninth century; the rise of Wessex among the early English kingdoms with the important contribution of Alfred the Great; the establishment of the Danelaw in England with the permanent settlement of Danes in the country; the accession of a Danish king (1017); and the Norman influence on the English court which began before the Conquest in 1066. All these events had their effect on the literature of the period.


1.Pagan Origins. Many of the poems of the period appear to have in them features which are associated with the pagan past, in particular Widsith and Beowulf, though the Christian elements in the latter are no longer looked upon, as was the case among the earlier scholars, as 'clumsy additions.' It appears likely, therefore, that the earliest poems or themes have their origin in the Continental home of the English peoples. Such themes were the common property of the gleemen or 'scops,' who sang them at the feasts of the nobles. As time went on Christian ideas influenced the earlier pagan, and, though the phraseology remains, it is impossible to refer to any of the extant poetry as 'pagan.' Indeed this is only what is to be expected when it is remembered that the manuscripts themselves were written down in the monasteries.

2.Anonymous Origins. Of all the Old English poets we have direct mention of only one Caedmon, though not one of the extant poems can definitely be ascribed to him. The name of another poet, Cyne-wulf, is known because of the fact that he signed his poems in runic letters at the end of four poems. Of the rest we do not even know their names. Prose, as we have noticed, came later, and as it was used for practical purposes its authorship in many cases is established.

3.The Imitative Quality. Much of the prose and some of the poetry is translated or adapted from the Latin, though the debt to the original varies greatly. The favourite works for translation were the books of the Bible, the lives of the saints, and various works of a practical nature. In some cases the translations are close and without much individuality, but in others the material is reshaped with expansions and comments and has considerable literary importance. 4. The Manuscripts. It is certain that only a portion of Old English poetry has survived, though it would appear likely that the surviving portion is representative. The manuscripts in which the poetry is preserved are late in date, are unique, and are four in number. They are (a) the Beowulf MS. (Cotton Vitellius A. XV in the British Museum), containing Beowulf and Judith and is to be dated c. 1000; (b) the Junius MS. (MS. Junius XI in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), so called since it belonged to Junius, librarian to Lord Arundel, and was first printed by him in 1655. It contains the so-called Caedmonian poems; (c) the Exeter Book (in the Chapter Library of Exeter Cathedral), known to have been donated to that Cathedral by Bishop Leofric c. 1050, containing two of the signed poems of Cynewulf; and (d) the Vercelli Book (in the Cathedral Library at Vercelli near Milan), containing also two of the signed poems of Cynewulf (including Elene) and Andreas and The Dream of the Rood. 



The difficulty encountered in reading Old English Literature lies in the fact that the language is very different from that of to-day. Its vocabulay is for the most part native, though already there has been some borrowing from Latin. Its grammar shows declinable nouns, pronouns, and adjectives and a more elaborate verbal system than that of to-day. There were four main dialects: Northumbrian, which was the first to produce a literature; Mercian, the language of the Midlands; Kentish, the language of the south east spoken in an area larger than that of the modern county of Kent; and West Saxon, the language of Alfred, which--due to the political supremacy of Wes-sex--became a 'standard' and in which almost all the extant texts are preserved.


No comments:

Post a Comment