OLD ENGLISH LITERATURE: GENERAL REMARKS
Some 30,000 lines of Old English(OE) Poetry have come down to us from Anglo-Saxon times. Their alliterative form Appears, with minor modification, in the oldest poetic remains of other early Germanic languages, such as Old Icelandic.
Certain features of its Diction, even verse formulas and themes, are similarly shared and betray a common Germanic inheritance.
In England itself the Earliest poetry of the Anglo-Saxon settlers was necessarily composed orally and It was often sung or chanted to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.
Despite the introduction Of writing, oral composition was practiced throughout the period. But Focusing on the writing (as a literary art), we can assert that it was introduced among the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century by missionaries from the Mediterranean world.
Englishmen were engaged In literary pursuits, writing in Latin or English, prose or verse, soon after The Conversion. Thus we have some four and a half centuries of writings In OE before the Norman Conquest.
Poetic discourse in OE is Marked by the use of poetic vocabulary and everything in OE verse Promotes the use of a wide variety of poetic terms. We should also mention the Fact that many OE words are found only in verse with the frequent occurrence of Hapax legomenon à An example of one could Be the word : Slæpwerigne "sleep-weary" occurs exactly Once in the old-English corpus, the Exeter Book.
The need to multiply Poetic diction prompts the widespread use of apposition as Rhetorical device
Much of the appeal of Poetic vocabulary to the Anglo-Saxons derived from its traditional nature: Poetic words are mostly archaic or dialectal terms that have passed out of use Which evoke the better world of days gone by
The poets also Continually coined new poetic terms by the method of compounding, Or the combining of two words to express new or complex concept. This is a Vital process of word formation in all the Germanic languages to this day, we Can find English examples such as battleship And barefoot.
A particular type of Compound is characteristic of the traditional diction of heroic verse: Neither element of the compound refers Literally to the thing denoted, but meaning is derived from the juxtaposition of Terms in a metaphoric or metonymic process. For example, feorh-hus is Literally “life-house,” the dwelling place of the spirit, and thus the body. This Sort are known as kenningsor kenningar.
The traditions of OE verse Composition are so conservative that the formal properties of Cædmon’s Hymn, Composed between 657 and 680, are indistinguishable from those of The Battle Of Brunanburh, written between 937 and 955. As a consequence of this compositional Uniformity, in conjunction with the Anglo-Saxon practice of anonymity, most OE poems cannot be dated even to a particular century or two.
Moreover, most OE poetry Is preserved in manuscripts datable to the second half of the tenth century, The time of the Benedictine reform, when monastic life was revitalized Throughout England.
Scribes did not always Treat vernacular texts in verse the way they did texts in Latin, but being Familiar with poetic traditions, they sometimes recomposed the poems as they Copied them.
The result is the virtual Assurance that the OE poetic texts known to us must contain many manuscript Readings that were never intended by those who first wrote them down.