Language of Old English Literature based on Poetry and Prose – Essay

Alliteration in Modern English poetry, in the poetry of Tennyson or Swinburne, for example, is casual, separable and ornamental; it is not an obligatory constituent of the structure of their verse. Alliteration in Old English poetry, however, is not ornamental; it is the basic principle of the structure of its verse.

The application of this basic principle means organizing each line in such a way that it is divided into two parts with a heavy caesura between the two parts. The vocabulary items are selected in such a way as to have three or four stressed syllables in each line, each syllable beginning with the same consonant and vowel.

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There are two stressed syllables in the first half of each line and two or at least one in the second half. As Shepherd (1983) has rightly pointed out, “the third main alliterating stress of the long line (the first main stress of the second half line …) identifies and prosodically generates the whole long line.

As it carries this determining stress, the second half line is more prominent than the first half line; it is in the second half line that thought usually progresses”. Old English had inherited this kind of alliterative verse from early Germanic poetry.

During the Middle English period it was used by Langland in his book Piers Plowman but after that it more or less completely disappeared under the domineering influence of rhyme and similar other devices. The following lines taken from Beowulf are a typical example of alliterative verse characteristic of Old English poetry.

W.E. Leonard’s rendering of these lines is as follows:

The street was laid with bright stones; the road led on the band;

The battle-byrnies shimmered, the hard, the linked-by hand

The iron rings, the gleaming, amid their armor sang,

Whilst thither, in dread war-gear, to hall they marched alang;

The ocean-warriors set down their bucklers wide,

Their shields, so hard and hardy, against that House’s side;

They stacked points up, these seamen, their ash-wood, gay-tipped spears;

And bent to bench, as clanked their byrnies, battle-gears…

As has been pointed out earlier, Old English poetry was characterized by a frequent use of expressions based on a bold use of metaphors. Such expressions created a sense of heroic majesty and grandeur but at the same time diminished the smooth and easy flow of the verse. Because of this feature, the characteristic use of language in Old English poetry was more suitable for long narratives written in the framework of heroic poetry and less suitable for lyrics.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a number of heroic poems were written in English during the Old English period. Beowulf is the most well-known of all these heroic poems but other poems like “Widsith”, “Waldhere” and “Maldon” deserve no less attention as samples of heroic verse written in the tradition of an epic.

Old English Prose:

From the point of view of the history of the English language, Old English prose deserves no less attention than Old English poetry. During the Old English period, prose-writers had two primary tasks. Rome had attained great heights of intellectual glory and the Christian missionaries who came to England around the end of the 6th century to propagate Christianity there turned out to be, for the Anglo-Saxons, a window on the world of learning available in Latin at that time.

One of the primary tasks before the prose-writers of the Old English period, therefore, was to make at least a certain part of that learning available to Anglo-Saxon community through translation. King Alfred, for example, translated into English the Cura Pastoralis of Pope Gregory and Historia Adversus Paganos, a book of universal history and geography written by Orosius, a priest.

He also translated a book called De Consolation Philosophiae written by Boethius. Some other writers, whose names the historians have not been able to identify with certainty, translated Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica from Latin into English.

These were the first attempts to translate scholarly writings from Latin, and Old English prose, therefore, had to meet an unprecedented task of an overwhelming magnitude, the task of finding out words and expressions for a completely new set of ideas.

No nation that wants to be proud of it can depend entirely on books translated from other languages. Even if the original writings in a vernacular are of a much less intellectual significance than the writings in a foreign tongue, these writings in the vernacular language give a sense of identity to the indigenous writers and to the community as a whole and create in them a sense of pride and achievement/This is what happened to prose-writers during the Old English period. Aelfric derived inspiration from the writings of St Augustine, St Jerome, St Gregory and many other Latin writers and wrote a large number of Christian homilies.

There seems to be a consensus among modern scholars that he was probably the greatest prose writer of his time. Another writer who wrote homilies in support of Christianity was Wulfstan. Wulfstan’s prose was no less energetic and eloquent than Aelfric’s, though Aelfric has probably got more of recognition than his contemporary.

As has been pointed out earlier, Old English poetry is known largely for its narrative poems written in the style characteristic of an epic. This predilection for the narrative manifested itself in prose writings as well. The monks working at different centres compiled a book called The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and thereby produced the first chronological record in English of happenings in England from the beginning of the Christian era to the end of the Old English period.

These prose writings, the translations as well as the indigenous writings, were the early beginnings of English prose. It is possible to argue that considerable sections of these prose writings are clumsy and make a tedious reading but as Jespersen (1972:47) has rightly pointed out, certain other sections of Old

English prose deserves to be admired as “an impassioned prose of real merit”. One may or may not agree that by the end of the Old English period the English language had established itself “as a highly developed, sophisticated, flexible medium” (Dolan & Scattergood 1982).

What is indisputable is that during the Old English period, particularly during the second half of that period, the English language developed very strong roots. It is no wonder that with the passage of time it acquired enough vitality and strength to be the powerful and flexible medium that it is today.