How to Appreciate Anglo-Saxon Poetry
Anglo-Saxon poetry, written during a period of 600 years in Britain between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest, is an often forgotten literary genre. Epic, heroic and guttural, Anglo-Saxon poetry is the poetry of kings and warriors. While many of the poets remain nameless, their works are still studied centuries later, windows to a culture often misunderstood in retrospect.
Study the Anglo-Saxon world. When the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, three Germanic tribes, landed in Britain while escaping from the Huns, they formed a nation they called England. Constantly threatened by outside invasion from the Vikings and other warring peoples, the Anglo-Saxons depended on a strong military and a reverence for heroes. Their religion as well, a combination of Germanic paganism and Norse mythology, eventually fell prey to the encroachment of Christianity. The world of the Anglo-Saxons, tumultuous and barbarian, required an escape--and poetry was the answer. Understanding why the Anglo-Saxons wrote poetry is key to understanding the poetry itself.
Understand the form. Anglo-Saxon poetry, while not as strict as more modern forms such as the sonnet, does follow a few general rules. The poetry is a type of alliterative verse; the poems develop an internal rhythm due to the repetition of consonants and vowels. In an Anglo-Saxon poem, each line is divided in half by a caesura, or a pause. Each half of the line contains only exactly two stressed syllables. The first stressed syllable of the second half of the line must alliterate with one or both of the stressed syllables in the first half of the line. However, the second stressed syllable of the second half of the line must not alliterate with either of the two stressed syllables in the first half of the line. While complicated at first, Anglo-Saxon poetry is actually a lot of fun to write-just as the themes of the poems are often epic and heroic, littered with metaphors and kennings, the poetic form takes on the beat of drums and marching feet.
Read examples. Beowulf, one of England's national epics, is an Anglo-Saxon poem. In total, only about 400 manuscripts have survived from the Anglo-Saxon poetry; luckily, however, most of these are poetic in nature. Caedmon's Hymn, an Anglo-Saxon poem from the 7th century, is the oldest surviving piece of British literature. Like Homer, these poets intended their heroic ballads for an oral audience, recounting tales of battles, valor, kingship and death. These poems embody the culture of the Anglo-Saxons, but they also embody the essence of poetry.
Learn Old English. When Beowulf is studied today, it is usually studied in translation. Sadly, while many translators retain the epic nature of Anglo-Saxon poetry, they do not retain the form. Most English translations of Beowulf and similar ballads, while heroic and guttural, ignore the form and completely, and those translators who do attempt the form fail. Anglo-Saxon poems should be read in the original Old English; that is the only way to ensure that the poems remain as the poets intended.
Write Anglo-Saxon poems. The best way to appreciate any poetic form is to write in the poetic form. Anglo-Saxon poetry, sweeping and epic, brutal and bloody, embodies the culture of an entire nation. The form itself, however, is simple, and can easily be used to explore any other culture in any other nation. Anglo-Saxon form is a form of alliteration and repetition, a form characterized by deliberate slowness and focus--any theme, held under the microscope of Anglo-Saxon verse, can take on an entirely new meaning.
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