the single most important influences on Anglo saxon literature was the alliterative measure that had come down to the English from their Germanic origins. This was the organizing device of every fine in poetry, the dominant literary genre of the era. The poetic metre used in Old English poetry is known as ‘alliterative metre' and the poetry written using this technique is called 'alliterative verse’. Allitteration is a figure of speech in which consonants, especially at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables, are repeated in speech or writing. In alliterative verse each line of poetry is divided into two halves; each half-line is divided by a pause, known as the “caesura”.
the alliterative effect is heard in the way that one or both stressed syllables in the first half-line alliterate (have the same consonant sound) as the first stressed syllable in the second half-line.
The forms of Anglo-Saxon literature
Anglo-Saxon literature produced two literary forms: poetry and prose; there was no theatre. Poetry was the dominant form of literature, because it gave imaginative expression to the experience, feelings and values of the period. Although prose was important for the development of Anglo-Saxon civilization, it tended to be the language of learning, religion and historical records.
Poetry was largely anonymous. Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Age was an oral art, recited or sung by bards, known as 'scope', to the accompaniment of a harp or lyre, and listened to communally. Alliterative verse created vivid sound pictures, its development of events drove the narrative along. Its wide use of kennings may also nave helped to involve the listeners. Equally important was their appreciation of his skill at versification, remembering the poem and maintaining the metre.
There were three main kinds of poetry in this period , all sharing alliterative metre and they can be divided into secular or religious poetry:
- epic (secular);
- a form of lyrical poem, known as the Anglo-Saxon elegy' (secular);
- religious lyrical poetry;
- a fourth but minor genre called 'the riddle' (secular),
The major poetic work is the 8th-century epic Beowulf. This is a long narrative poem that looks back to a period before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England. It is set in Scandinavia and tells of the heroic deeds of Beowulf, both as a young warrior and a mature hero. The basic story concerns the defeat of two monsters that are terrorizing the Danish kingdom of King Hrothgar. Beowulf is a young Geatish warrior who is called on to defeat them, and does. His last battle is fought to protect his own kingdom from the ravages of a dragon. he succeeds in this, though he dies after being mortally wounded. The poem is a mixture of heroic adventure and exciting action, vivid description, formulaic genealogies and highly rhetorical laments and speeches.
Another important group of Old English poems is to be found in the Exeter Book, a collection of poems donated by Bishop Leofric to Exeter Cathedral, where it is still kept. This collection contains some of the most important surviving poems in Old English.