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Anglo-Saxon Elegy or Old English Lyric Poetry

 Anglo-Saxon Elegy

Old English Lyric Poetry
Anglo-Saxon Elegy or Old English lyric Poetry

Anglo-Saxon Elegy or Old English lyric Poetry

Answer: Elegy or a poem of lamentation is as old as the epic, for the fall of the hero in an epic is nearly always bewildered ceremoniously, sometimes through many a chapter.

No wonder, therefore that we have a few Old English poems which are poetic lamentations or to borrow Milton’s phrase, “melodious tears". Their note of sadness, as Legouis points out, is reminiscent of the “Songs of Ossian”. It is the Anglo-Saxons elegies which for the first time attempt at ‘exploring personal emotions’ (David Daiches) or aestheticizing personal suffering.

The elegiac state of mind gushes, then, at that point, in an incredible number of Old English poetry. These Old English elegies are The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Ruined Burg, The Husband's Message, The Wife’s Complaint and Wulf and Eadwacer.

In any case, these six alleged, Anglo-Saxon Elegies are poetry where the actual topic is misfortune – such as, loss of a ruler, loss of a friend or family member, the deficiency of fine structures fallen into rot. They are all to be found in the Exeter Book, an original copy now in Exeter Cathedral Library. 

Exeter Cathedral, UK

In this regard, at the heart of the Anglo-Saxon society laid two relationships.

The first was that between a master and his retainers, one of the trademarks in any gallant society, which ensured the ruler military and agrarian help and ensured the retainer protection and land.

The second was the relationship, as it is today, between any man and his adored one, and the family encompassing them.

So one of the most grievous individuals from this world was (regardless) oust, the one who, in view of his own shortcoming, (cowardice, for example) or through no fault of his own, was sentenced to live out his days wandering from place to place, far from the comforts of home. This is the fundamental circumstances of these four elegies.

Hardly anything is known about the time of the composition of these Old English elegies, some of which may date back to the period of Beowulf. Of these, The Wonderland and The Seafarer have a spiritual affinity. 

Beowulf, the warrior

Admired enthusiastically by Auden, The Wanderer, a somber elegy of 115 lines, dwells on the vicissitudes of fortune of a young thegn (king) compelled to live in exile after the death of his protector lord.

In The Ruined Burg, a fragment of 45 lines, the poet contrasts the present desolation of a town, possibly Bath, with its earlier posterity and sinks into an elegiac mood.

Three other songs of lamentation or elegies are The Husband’s Message, The Wife’s Complaint and Wulf and Edwacer. They can be termed as domestic elegies, for each is a lover’s sigh caused by the pangs of separation.   

Exeter Book

The Seafarer, dating back to the 8th century and found in the Exeter Book, is critically acclaimed as the most original of old English lyrics. The poem impresses one as an Old sea-dog’s faithful account of the perils and challenges of life at sea, a yarn which casts a hypnotizing spell on a young mariner. Sometimes interpreted as an allegorical representation of human exile from God on the sea of life, the powerful poem has been pleasing generations of readers and Ezra Pound is known to have made an evocative translation of it.

It may be safely concluded that though most of the Old English poems are didactic, these elegies belonging to the Exeter Book have escaped that allegation. They continue to be ‘passionate renderings of personal emotion’, hardly found in the bulk of Old English poem that has come down to us.


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