A Treasury of Great Poems: English and American

By Louis Untermeyer | Go to book overview

II
Foundations of the English Spirit

THE first great work of English literature is a throwback to the heroic age of the Anglo-Saxons, yet no Anglo-Saxon character is celebrated in the poem. The epic of unknown authorship, BEOWULF, dates from a manuscript of the tenth century and concerns itself with Swedes and Danes and an uncertain but warlike tribe called the Geats. It is thought that the Viking Danes may have brought the outlines of the poem to England as early as the seventh century, but researchers are still busy tracing its remote origins. The work itself is partly historical, partly mythical. It revolves about Beowulf, King of the Geats, his companion, his exploits -- particularly his combats with a treasure-guarding dragon and a pair of monsters, Grendel and Grendel's mother -- and his death.

Written in Old English, a language incomprehensible to all but the scholars, with a vocabulary practically obsolete, BEOWULF lends itself poorly to translation. It is not only the language hazards but the very devices of Anglo-Saxon poetry which make the poem difficult to follow. The rules were strict. Each line of BEOWULF contains four accented syllables plus several unaccented ones, and the rule insisted that there should be a marked pause between the second and third accents. To make the verse more resonant, and more difficult, the first three accented syllables in each line were forced to begin with the same sound. Besides the strict alliteration, the

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