A History of English Literature

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

Alfred’s educational programme for the laity did not succeed at first but bore fruit
later in the Wessex of his grandson Edgar, who ruled 959–76. After the Ages of Bede
and Alfred, this is the third clearly defined Age of Anglo-Saxon literature, the
Benedictine Revival, under Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury 960–88, himself a
skilled artist. Bishop Æthelwold made Winchester a centre of manuscript illumina-
tion. In its profusion of manuscripts the Wessex of Dunstan, Æthelwold and Ælfric
is better represented today than the more remarkable early Northumbria of Bede. In
this period English prose became the instrument for a flourishing civilization, with
scientific, political and historical as well as religious interests. It was in this second
Benedictine age, towards AD1000, that the four poetry manuscripts were made: the
Vercelli Book, the Junius Book, the Exeter Book and the Beowulfmansucript.


Like Greek literature, English literature begins with an epic, a poem of historic scope
telling of heroes and of the world, human and non-human. Compared with the
epics of Homer,Beowulfis short, with 3182 verses, yet it is the longest as well as the
richest of Old English poems. Like other epics, it has a style made for oral composi-
tion, rich in formulas. The poem is found in a manuscript of the early 11th century,
but was composed perhaps two centuries earlier, and it is set in a world more than
two centuries earlier still, on the coasts of the Baltic. This was the north-west
Germanic world from which the English had come to Britain. The coming of the
Saxons is recalled in a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 937.

... from the east came
Angles and Saxons up to these shores,
Se eking Britain across the broad seas,
Smart for glory, those smiths of war
That overcame the Welsh, and won a homeland.

The first great work of English literature is not set in Britain.Beowulfopens with the
mysterious figure of Scyld, founder of the Scylding dynasty of Denmark, who would
have lived c.400, before England existed. A Hengest mentioned in a sub-story of the
poem may be the Hengest invited into Kent in 449 (see p. 14). The Offa who is
mentioned may be an ancestor of Offa, King of Mercia in the 8th century.
Beowulfshowed the English the world of their ancestors, the heroic world of the
north,a world both glorious and heathen. Dynasties take their identity from their
ancestors, and the rulers of the English kingdoms ruled by right of ancestral
conquest. The date and provenance ofBeowulfare uncertain, and its authorship
unknown, but the poem would have had ancestral interest to such a ruler. West-
Saxon genealogies go back to Noah via Woden; they include three names mentioned
in Beowulf– Scyld, Scef and Beow. When in the 7th century the English became
Christian they sent missionaries to their Germanic cousins. The audience for poetry
was the lord of the hall and the men of his retinue. Such an audience was proud of
its ancestors – even if, as the poem says of the Danes, ‘they did not know God’.
The text ofBeowulfis found in a manuscript in the West-Saxon dialect of Wessex
which had become the literary standard. All the texts in the manuscript are about
monsters, but the prime concern ofBeowulfis not with monsters or even heroes but
with human wisdom and destiny. It recounts the doings over two or three genera-
tions about the year 500 of the rulers of the Danes and the Swedes, and of a people


The sceptre from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

A bar of fine-grained stone
two feet long, tapered to a
terminal knob with a human
face on each side; on a
bronze stand, and surmounted
by a bronze ring bearing a
stag. The ship may have been
the grave of Rædwald, King of
East Anglia (d.c.625). © The
Trustees of the British
Museum. All rights reserved.
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