A History of English Literature

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1


The Angles and Saxons conquered what is now called England in the 5th and

6th centuries. In the 7th century, Christian missionaries taught the English to

write. The English wrote down law-codes, and later their poems. Northumbria

soon produced Cædmon and Bede. Heroic poetry, of a Christian kind, is the

chief legacy of Old English literature, notably Beowulfand the Elegies. A

considerable prose literature grew up after Alfred (d.899). There were four

centuries of writing in English before the Norman Conquest.


Britain, England, English

the cliffs of England stand
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Matthew Arnold, ‘Dover Beach’ (c.1851)

The cliffs at Dover were often the first of Britain seen by early incomers, and have
become a familiar symbol of England, and of the fact that England is on an island.
These cliffs are part of what the Romans, perhaps from as early as the 2nd century,
had called the Saxon Shore: the south-eastern shores of Britain, often raided by
Saxons.The Romans left Britain, after four centuries of occupation, early in the 5th
century. Later in that century the Angles and Saxons took over the lion’s share of the
island of Britain. By 600, they had occupied the parts of Great Britain which the
Romans had made part of their empire. This part later became known as Engla-land,
the land of the Angles, and its language was to become English.
It is not always recognized, especially outside Britain, that Britain and England
are not the same thing. Thus, Shakespeare’s King Lear ends by the cliffand beach at
Dover. But Lear was king not of England but of Britain, in that legendary period of
its history when it was pre-Christian and pre-English. The English Romantic poet
William Blake was thinking of the legendary origins of his country when he asked in
his ‘Jerusalem’

Orientations 13
Britain, England, English 13
Oral origins and
conversion 15
Aldhelm, Bede, Cædmon 17
Northumbria and The
Dream of the Rood 22
Heroic poetry 24
Christian literature 25
Alfred 27
Beowulf 29
Elegies 32
Battle poetry 33
The harvest of literacy 34
Further reading 35


Old English Literature:

to 1100



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