The Poetry of Anglo-Saxon England

Because Beowulf accounts for nearly a tenth of all the lines of Old English poetry that have survived, it’s impossible to reconstruct in any detail the literary context in which it was written. The story of Beowulf had probably been passed down orally for many generations before Beowulf was written. It’s possible that the Beowulf-poet was drawing on earlier written versions of the story, or on existing poems about other heroic warriors. Many educated Anglo-Saxons knew Latin, and some readers have suggested that the Beowulf-poet may have been familiar with The Aeneid, a heroic epic by the Roman poet Virgil. What’s certain is that Beowulf has several features which are common to most or all of the Anglo-Saxon poetry which survives. Beowulf’s celebration of the warrior code, and particularly of unyielding courage in the face of overwhelming opposition, can be found in another surviving poem, The Battle of Maldon. The tension in Beowulf between the new ethical principles of Christianity and the older principles of pagan Scandinavia can be found in much Anglo-Saxon religious poetry, most notably The Dream of the Rood. Beowulf’s melancholy tone is also common in Old English poetry. Two poems in particular, The Seafarer and The Wanderer, crystallize this melancholy mood.