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From the beginning of civilization until now, poetry in spoken, choral or written form has been the link between humans and history. As man evolved his thinking, poetry evolved in focus. Each major evolution brought the beginning of a new movement or period in poetry. I’ve written of poets from different periods, i.e. Modernism and Romantic, yet have not defined those periods under the assumption that they were understood. In retrospect, that assumption was a disservice. With this article, I will start at the beginning as I understand it and work forward with a focus not only on significant poets but also on the poetic movement.

Don your tunics, cloaks and leggings. We are stepping back to the Medieval Period around the time of the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century when Anglo-Saxon or Old English was the native tongue of the king’s court. It was primarily Germanic with grammar and inflections as complicated as the caste system that drew strict boundaries during that era. With the conquest, Norman French became to language of the upper class and aristocracy. England became a land of at least two languages, Anglo-Saxon and Norman French, but was also absorbing the non-native phrases that knights introduced following battles and of course, the complex terminology of the church.

Beowulf is an Old English heroic epic poem consisting of 3,182 alliterative lines. It records a tale of the great hero, Beowulf, who slays the treacherous monster Grendel to end the monsters reign of terror. Grendel’s mother attacks in revenge and is also defeated. Beowulf becomes king of the Geats and later falls victim to wounds received while defeating a dragon. He is then laid to rest. This is a very simplistic summary of the epic tale however it is enough to understand the fantastical hero/savior theme of the poem, a theme that guides the ink of innumerable poets throughout time.

The author of Beowulf is unknown but we do know that it was written between the 8th and 11th century. One manuscript of Beowulf survives although its condition is tenuous following fire and the effects of aging.

Project Gutenberg offers a full and accurate translation of the epic poem, BEOWULF, along with notes to aid the modern reader in understanding the setting, terminology and depth of this great work. I’m offering a few lines from the opening to wet your appetite and demonstrate the language and structure of poetry from the medieval period. Many thanks to the Dept. Of English, McMaster University for this reference material.

Old English Text – excerpt from Chapter 1

Ða wæs on burgum Beowulf Scyldinga,
leof leodcyning, longe þrage
folcum gefræge (fæder ellor hwearf,
aldor of earde), oþþæt him eft onwoc
heah Healfdene; heold þenden lifde,
gamol ond guðreouw, glæde Scyldingas.
ðæm feower bearn forð gerimed
in worold wocun, weoroda ræswan,
Heorogar ond Hroðgar ond Halga til;
hyrde ic þæt wæs Onelan cwen,
Heaðoscilfingas healsgebedda.
þa wæs Hroðgare heresped gyfen,
wiges weorðmynd, þæt him his winemagas
georne hyrdon, oðð þæt seo geogoð geweox,
magodriht micel. Him on mod bearn
þæt healreced hatan wolde,
medoærn micel, men gewyrcean

Modern Text – excerpt from Chapter 1

NOW Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone
away from the world, till awoke an heir,
haughty Healfdene, who held through life,
sage and sturdy, the Scyldings glad.
Then, one after one, there woke to him,
to the chieftain of clansmen, children four:
Heorogar, then Hrothgar, then Halga brave;
and I heard that — was –‘s queen,
the Heathoscylfing’s helpmate dear.
To Hrothgar was given such glory of war,
such honor of combat, that all his kin
obeyed him gladly till great grew his band
of youthful comrades. It came in his mind
to bid his henchmen a hall uprear,
a master mead-house, mightier far
than ever was seen by the sons of earth,

The Medieval Period, generally encompassing the years between 500AD and 1500AD, was a time of great change in language and focus. In this article, I led us to the beginning. Next month, we will step forward approximately four hundred years from Beowulf, past The Song of Roland and The Story of Volsungs to meet Geoffrey Chaucer, a poet whose belief that language did not need to be complex created one of the most major shifts in poetic voice.

I hope you enjoyed this trip back in poetic history. Keep your tunics handy. You’ll need them next month.

I do love a nice set of leggings 😉

The Literature Network
Project Gutenburg
McMaster University, Beowulf in Hypertext