The Columbia History of British Poetry

By Carl Woodring; James Shapiro | Go to book overview
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Old English Poetry

T HE OLD ENGLISH poems that have come down to us were composed over the course of four centuries (roughly 680- 1100)--a span almost as long as that of the Roman Empire and about half that of all the succeeding periods of English poetry combined. Duration is distinction of a sort. So are great age and size. No current European literature can point to an extensive body of verse nearly so old. Some thirty thousand lines of Old English poetry have been preserved, occupying many hundreds of pages in the standard edition.

Anglo-Saxon vernacular culture was notably sophisticated, aristocratic, and mature. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote to his fellow poet Robert Bridges: "I am learning Anglo-Saxon and it is a vastly superior thing to what we have now." (By recent convention, the term Old English is used for the language and vernacular texts of pre-Conquest England, Anglo-Saxon, for the people and culture.) W.H. Auden reported being "spellbound" by his first experience of Old English: "This poetry, I knew, was going to be my dish."

Scholarly tradition wants us to speak well of the works we study. There would be little point in talking about something that was not beautiful and truthful, not "interesting." Old English poetry has interest--almost too much interest--but its beauty is not in the usual places.

The verse is not in the usual places either. Thomas Warton "History of English Poetry" ( 1774- 1781)--the foundation of modern English literary history--begins at the close of the eleventh century, deliberately and self-consciously excluding Old English poetry: this verse, Warton


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The Columbia History of British Poetry


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