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Anglo-Saxon Language, Literature, and Poetry

by New Gresham Encyclopedia

The Anglo-Saxon language, which is simply the earliest form of English, claims kinship with Dutch, Icelandic, Danish, Swedish, and German, especially with the Low German dialects (spoken in North Germany). It was called by those who spoke it Englisc (English). The existing remains of Anglo-Saxon literature show different dialects, of which the northern and the southern were the principal. The former was the first to be cultivated as a literary language, but afterwards it was supplanted in this respect by the southern or that of Wessex. It is in the latter that the principal Anglo-Saxon works are written. The Anglo-Saxon alphabet was substantially the same as that which we still use, except that some of the letters were different in form, while it had two characters either of which represented the sounds of th in thy and in thing. Nouns and adjectives are declined much as in German or in Latin. The pronouns of the first and second person had a dual number, 'we two' or 'us two' and 'you two', besides the plural for more than two. The infinitive of the verb is in -an, the participle in -ende, and there is a gerund somewhat similar in its usage to the Latin gerund. The verb had four moods—indicative, subjunctive, imperative, and infinitive, but only two tenses, the present (often used as a future) and the past. Other tenses and the passive voice were formed by auxiliary verbs. Anglo-Saxon words terminated in a vowel much more frequently than the modern English, and altogether the language is so different that it has to be learned quite like a foreign tongue. Yet, notwithstanding the large number of words of Latin or French origin that our language now contains, and the changes it has undergone, its framework, so to speak, is still Anglo-Saxon. Many chapters of the New Testament do not contain more than 4 per cent of non-Teutonic words, and as a whole it averages perhaps 6 or 7.

The existing remains of Anglo-Saxon literature include compositions in prose and poetry, some of which must be referred to a very early period, one or two perhaps to a time before the Angles and Saxons emigrated to England. The most important Anglo-Saxon poem is the ancient epic of Beowulf, extending to more than 6000 lines. Beowulf is a Scandinavian prince, who slays a monster named Grendel, after encountering supernatural perils, and is at last slain in a contest with a frightful dragon. Its scene appears to be laid entirely in Scandinavia. Its date is uncertain; parts of it may have been brought over at the emigration from Germany, though in its present form it is much later than this. The poetical remains include a number of religious poems, or poems on sacred themes; ecclesiastical narratives, as lives of saints and versified chronicles; psalms and hymns; secular lyrics; allegories, gnomic poems, riddles, &c. The religious class of poems was the largest, and of these Cædmon's (flourished about 660) are the most remarkable. His poems consist of paraphrases of considerable portions of the Bible history, and treat of the creation, the temptation, the fall, the exodus of the Israelites, the story of Daniel, the incarnation, and the harrowing of hell, or release of the ransomed souls by Christ. Other most interesting poems are those ascribed to Cynewulf, the ChristElene, andJuliana, the subjects respectively being Christ, the finding of the cross by the Empress Helena, and the life of Juliana. Rhyme was not used in Anglo-Saxon poetry, alliteration being employed instead, as in the older northern poetry generally. The style of the poetry is highly elliptical, and it is full of harsh inversions and obscure metaphors.

The Anglo-Saxon prose remains consist of translations of portions of the Bible, homilies, philosophical writings, history, biography, laws, leases, charters, popular treatises on science and medicine, grammars, &c. Many of these were translations from the Latin. The Anglo-Saxon versions of the Gospels, next to the Moeso-Gothic, are the earliest scriptural translations in any modern language. The Psalms are said to have been translated by Bishop Aldhelm (died 709), and also under Alfred's direction; and the Gospel of St. John by Bede; but it is not known who were the authors of the extant versions. A translation of the first seven books of the Bible is believed to have been the work of Ælfric, who was Abbot of Ensham and lived about the beginning of the eleventh century. We have also eighty homilies from his pen, several theological treatises, a Latin grammar, &c. King Alfred was a diligent author, besides being a translator of Latin works. We have under his name translations of Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiæ, the Universal History of Orosius, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, the Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great, &c. The most valuable to us of the Anglo-Saxon prose writings is the Saxon Chronicle, as it is called, a collection of annals recording important events in the history of the country, and compiled in different religious houses. Of this Chronicle there are seven MSS. in existence, and the latest text comes down to 1154. A considerable body of laws remains, as well as a large number of charters. The whole of the literature has never yet been printed. For Anglo-Saxon history, see England.—Bibliography: (History) H. M. Chadwick, The Origin of the English Nation(Cambridge); (Language) Sweet, Anglo-Saxon Primer and Reader; (Literature) B. ten Brink, Geschichte der Englischen Litteratur; Stopford A. Brooke,English Literature, from the beginning to the Norman Conquest; Henry Morley, English Writers (vols. i and ii).