This book contains translations of English poetry which was composed, roughly speaking, between A.D. 650 and 1000, or, in other words, from Widsith, which is perhaps the oldest English poem, to Maldon, which is the last great poem before the Norman Conquest. The coming of the French brought such great changes in language and in literary fashions that the older poetry seems somewhat remote from us.
English poetry before the Conquest may be roughly divided into two classes, heroic and Christian. The heroic poems deal for the most part with Germanic legend and history. About these poems there is nothing distinctively English except the language. The stories they tell or mention, the kings and warriors they refer to, were known to all the Germanic peoples, not merely to the tribes which came over to Britain. The Christian poetry adapts and paraphrases the biblical narrative, records the lives of saints, or uses verse for general moralizing. These religious themes were as much the subject of poetry after the Norman Conquest as before. Chaucer tells us the life of St Cecilia as Cynewulf tells us the life of St Juliana. The Conquest changed the language and metre of the religious poetry, but the substance remained the same.
Of the heroic poetry we can form no final estimate, because we do not know the extent or worth of what has been lost. The ravages of the Danes from the end of the eighth century onward blotted out a flourishing literature in the north of England. Monastic libraries were destroyed. Practically the only Northumbrian poetry preserved has survived in a West Saxon translation and not in its native dress. There are indications that Beowulf was originally a Northumbrian poem. Beowulf has survived complete, not because it was necessarily the best of the old poems, but merely because it was luckier than its fellows. Waldhere, and Finnesburh, of which we have only fragments, were probably in some ways better poems.
The heroic poems, Beowulf, Finnesburh, Waldhere, Deor, and Widsith, probably took their present form in the course of the seventh century. Their substance, however, comes from an earlier time, from the age which had just closed, extending from . . .