Almost all this poetry is composed without rhyme, in a characteristic line, or verse, of four stressed syllables alternating with an indeterminate number of unstressed ones. This line strikes strangely on ears habituated to the usual modern pattern, in which the rhythmical unit, or foot, theoretically consists of a constant number (either one or two) of unaccented syllables that always precede or follow any stressed syllable. Another unfamiliar but equally striking feature in the formal character of Old English poetry is structural alliteration, or the use of syllables beginning with similar sounds in two or three of the stresses in each line.
All these qualities of form and spirit are exemplified in the epic poem Beowulf, written in the 8th century. Beginning and ending with the funeral of a great king, and composed against a background of impending disaster, it describes the exploits of a Scandinavian culture hero, Beowulf, in destroying the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. In these sequences Beowulf is shown not only as a glorious hero but also as a savior of the people. The Old Germanic virtue of mutual loyalty between leader and followers is evoked effectively and touchingly in the aged Beowulf's sacrifice of his life and in the reproaches heaped on the retainers who desert him in this climactic battle. The extraordinary artistry with which fragments of other heroic tales are incorporated to illumine the main action, and with which the whole plot is reduced to symmetry, has only recently been fully recognized.
Another feature of Beowulf is the weakening of the sense of the ultimate power of arbitrary fate. The injection of the Christian idea of dependence on a just God is evident. That feature is typical of other Old English literature, for almost all of what survives was preserved by monastic copyists. Most of it was actually composed by religious writers after the early conversion of the people from their faith in the older Germanic divinities.
Sacred legend and story were reduced to verse in poems resembling Beowulf in form. At first such verse was rendered in the somewhat simple, stark style of the poems of Caedmon, a humble man of the late 7th century who was described by the historian and theologian Saint Bede the Venerable as having received the gift of song from God. Later the same type of subject matter was treated in the more ornate language of the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf and his school. The best of their productions is probably the passionate “Dream of the Rood.”
In addition to these religious compositions, Old English poets produced a number of more or less lyrical poems of shorter length, which do not contain specific Christian doctrine and which evoke the Anglo-Saxon sense of the harshness of circumstance and the sadness of the human lot. “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” are among the most beautiful of this group of Old English poems.
Prose in Old English is represented by a large number of religious works. The imposing scholarship of monasteries in northern England in the late 7th century reached its peak in the Latin work Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731) by Bede. The great educational effort of Alfred, king of the West Saxons, in the 9th century produced an Old English translation of this important historical work and of many others, including De Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy), by Boethius. This was a significant work of largely Platonic philosophy easily adaptable to Christian thought, and it has had great influence on English literature.
MIDDLE ENGLISH PERIOD
Extending from 1066 to 1485, this period is noted for the extensive influence of French literature on native English forms and themes. From the Norman-French conquest of England in 1066 until the 14th century, French largely replaced English in ordinary literary composition, and Latin maintained its role as the language of learned works. By the 14th century, when English again became the chosen language of the ruling classes, it had lost much of the Old English inflectional system, had undergone certain sound changes, and had acquired the characteristic it still possesses of freely taking into the native stock numbers of foreign words, in this case French and Latin ones.