Anglo Saxon Poetry Examples

The Anglo-Saxon poetry referred to as Old English poetry was written during the 600 years of Anglo-Saxon rule. Literary works written during this period had a definitive impact and continues to influence modern English even today.

Most of the works written during this period were orally transmitted and was meant for oral rendition.

Anglo-Saxon Poetry-Beowulf
Anglo-Saxon Poetry-Beowulf

Anglo Saxon Literature History

The Anglo-Saxon literature was mainly divided into two parts namely heroic poetry and religious poetry.

The heroic poetries were mainly autobiographies and gave a glimpse of the old German customs, beliefs, and lives of the heroes of the war.

The religious or pagan poems brought forward the conventional Christian morality and values of old German pagan society.

Although the Anglo-Saxon poems were never written down, some evidence of their works still exists in the form of short lyrics, epic poetries, riddles, and chronicles.

Most of the manuscripts written during the early Anglo-Saxon period were in mainly in Latin and Old English. It was King Alfred the Great who realized that Latin was accessible only to few. So, he proposed teaching Old English to the students. In this way, around 400 ancient texts written in Old English have survived till date and enlightens us about the history and culture of those times.

Anglo-Saxon Book in display at Exeter Cathedral
Anglo-Saxon Book in display at Exeter Cathedral

What are the characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poetry?

The Anglo-Saxon literary works mainly emerged from the oral tradition of storytelling or recitations. One of the unique features of Anglo-Saxon poetry was that they followed a system of rhythmic alliteration. This allowed the poems to be recited more like a chant rather than a song.

The poems were written mainly in blank verse with a caesura or pause in the middle which allowed the scops (Anglo-Saxon poets) to take a breath while reciting.

The epic poetry of the Anglo-Saxons depicted the heroic life, moral lessons, and righteousness that were taught in the form of fables or songs.

One of the important characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poems where they reflected a sense of melancholy or sadness which were evident in most of the literary works. Even the great epic poem ‘Beowulf’ is not devoid of such rendition. An elegiac tone of pensive sadness pervades almost all of the lyrical poems and verses.

Anglo Saxon Poetry
Anglo Saxon Poetry

What is the greatest Anglo-Saxon poem?

Beowulf is the oldest surviving epic poem and laments the journey of a great Geatish hero. Set in the background of Scandinavia, the hero narrates the various hardships he encounters fighting monsters and dragons and how he emerges victorious in the end.

Beowulf-Douglas Wilson Narration
Beowulf-Douglas Wilson Narration

Anglo-Saxon Poems in Modern English

The Old English was developed from the dialects used by the native Germanic tribes of the Anglo-Saxon communities.

This Old English dialect was based on ‘futhorc runes’ and since writing tools were scarce, only a few written records survived till date. For instance, the epic poem of Beowulf was written in West Saxon dialect which is quite different from the modern-day English.

‘The Wife’s Lament’ is one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon elegies that exemplifies the misery and sadness of a lonely wife who was left in isolation by her husband who sailed away. The heart wrenching 53-line poem describes the despair and relentless effort of a devoted wife in search of her estranged husband. Unfortunately, the writer of this poem is not known.

Bede’s “Death Song” was written in 735 circa AD by Venerable Bede in his death bed. Bede also referred to as Saint Bede by his followers was a Benedictine Monk at Monastery of Saint Peter, Northumbria. He was a scholar and a translator and many of his Greek and Latin works are major contributions to early Christianity.

“The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” are similar poems. They both narrate the remoteness of two lonely travelers and the dark unpredictable future that await them. These poems were often referred to as ‘Wisdom Poetry’ are lyrical and gloomy and signifies the ebb and flow of life.

Heroic poems like The Battle of Maldon and The Ruin laments the haunting feeling of death and sorrow. The speaker of the poems evokes their past glorious days in comparison to their present day of exile and misery. The poems beautifully encapsulate the natural surroundings and events. The poems also depict the loyalty and love towards one’s own land and the importance of one’s duty.

Biblical and early Christian poems like ‘Dream of the Rood’ of the Vercelli Book is a vision-poem whereby the author is experiencing a dream of ‘Christ in the cross’.

Caedmon’s ‘Hymn’ is one of the earliest surviving hymnals of the Saxon times. This nine-line poem speaks about the ‘Creator’ and his ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.

Bede's Death Song
Bede’s Death Song
Found info useful?