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English Literature: The Old English Period

Old English literature has a special significance, it achieved, a union of the Northern, the Germanic, and the Greco-latin classic spirits.

The period of old English literature is known as the main periods into which English literature is divided by literary historians, covering roughly the 500 years, from A.D. 550, the end of the Anglo-Saxon invasion to A.D. 1050, the beginning of the Norman conquest.

The rise of a rich poetic literature in the north of England during the eighth century in no doubt due to the larger infusion of Celtic blood and the influence of Irish missionaries in the location settled by the angles, as compared with the more homogeneous Saxon south.

With very a couple of exceptions, the poetry of the Old English Period is in the traditional German alliterative verse form, the unit of which is a long line with four strong stress-beats, accentuated in recital by strokes on the harp; the line is nominally separated by a pause into two two-stressed parts, but these parts are bound together by the initial sound of the first stressed syllable of the second half, with which one or both of the stresses of the first half alliterate.

The Old English epic poem Beowulf via Wikipedia

Old English poetry is far from primitive. It represents a highly developed and extremely conventionalized art form, employing rhetorical devices such as descriptive epithets, kennings, balanced antitheses, repetitions of images or ideas with variations of diction, and an organic rhythm often strikingly akin to the cadences of the Book of Psalms in the Cover-dale or King James versions of the Bible.

The corpus of Old English poetry is transmitted in four single manuscripts, preserved by chance:

  • The Exeter Book, a manuscript which formed part of the library collected by Leofric, Bishop of Exeter. At the Bishop’s death in 1071, he left the manuscript in his church, where it has remained ever since, except for a brief period during World War II.
  • The Beowulf or cotton manuscript in the British Museum, copied about A.D. 1000 from earlier originals, and discovered in 1705 in the library of Sir Robert Cotton.
  • The Vercelli Book, discovered in 1832 in the Cathedral library of Vercelli, near Milan. It contains chiefly prose homilies but there are two signed poems of Cynewulf, The Fates of the Apostles, as well as the poems, The Dreams of the Road, Andreas, The Address of the Soul to the Body.
  • The Junius Manuscript, in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, given by Archbishop Ussher to the Dutch scholar, Francis Dujon, who printed its contents in 1655. It contains four poems: Exodus, Genesis, Daniel, and Christ and Satan with interesting illustration drawn.

Old English Literature may be conveniently bifurcated into four periods: 550 to 650, the time of oral tradition and continental memories, originating at a time previous to the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity by Roman missionaries; 650 to 750, the first bloom of poetry in Northumbria in the time of Bede, with Beowulf and the Biblical narratives of The Junius Manuscript as its chief monuments; 750 to 850, the age of Cynewulf; and 850 to 1050, the West Saxon revival under Alfred and Aelfric.

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