Anglo-Saxon poetry had two characteristics which make it very different from the poetry of the following ages: it was written in a Germanic language called Old English, and it was mainly oral, in the sense that poems could be sung for centuries before they were actually written down. The singer of tales or scop was an important member of a noble household. On any feast or celebration he would accompany himself on the harp, singing a repertoire of partly improvised verses. The most vivid specimens of Old English poetry are the epics that relate the deeds of the great warrior kings of pre-Christian England. Among these the most famous is undoubtedly Beowulf, the finest poem in Old English.
He greater part of Old English poetry, though, is specifically Christian and is devoted to religious subjects. This religious poetry was mostly in the heroic mode. Just as in heroic poems like Beowulf, Christian ideals were also visible, so in England Christianity was adapted to Anglo-Saxon heroic ideals. In the Old English religious poems, for instance, Moses, Christ and God the father share common traits with Beowulf: they are represented as heroes who perform great deeds, and the crucifixion resembles the pagan hero’s voluntary sacrifice for his people.
Features of Anglo-Saxon Poetry
Anglo-Saxon poetry was eminently didactic: the feats of Beowulf, or the seaman’s description of the hardships of life on the northern seas, or even Christ’s Passion or saint’s life were all submitted to the audience as example to follow. Metrically, the lines are characterized by alliteration and by four stresses t each line.