Anglo-Saxon Attitudes


In 1882 Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “I am learning Anglo-Saxon and it is a vastly superior thing to what we have now” and, at a later date, W. H. Auden described his introduction to Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford: “I was spellbound. This poetry, I knew, was going to be my dish.” He also confirmed that “Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry have been one of my strongest, most lasting influences.” He added that “often some piece of technique thus learnt really unchains one ’s own Daimon quite suddenly.” In the Anglo-Saxon phrase, it unlocks the word-hoard. William Morris translated Beowulf in the last years of his life, and there have been many attempts by other poets culminating in the translation of the epic by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney in 2000. It is as if it represented some kind of primal memory.

The Anglo-Saxon inheritance can work in different ways, and one poem can act as the unacknowledged instigator or inspiration for a different form of perception. The theme of lonely pilgrimage in the short poem “The Seafarer”—one of the “elegies” in the Exeter Book—is the first evocation in the language of a metaphor which haunts the English imagination. The image of the voyager alone upon the ice-cold and raging sea is like some scene from the beginning of the world; “stormas ” and “flodwegas” have surged through English poetry ever since, while sighs of transitoriness and exile have been exhaled for a thousand years. The expatriate American poet Ezra Pound was living in London when he translated “The Seafarer”:

On flood-ways to be far departing

His is a spirited and sonorous re-enactment of the original, and exemplified his attempt to connect himself with an English tradition in order both to reinvent himself and to renew his own language. It is one of the great strengths of the English imagination that it does not represent an exclusive or proprietorial gift; like the language itself, it is open to anyone.

Milton’s poetry bears some relation to “The Seafarer,” too. In the Anglo-Saxon poem there is a description of those who live in cities “wingal,” or flushed with wine; in Paradise Lost the sons of Belial dwell in “luxurious cities” where they are “flown with insolence and wine.” It has often been suggested that the poet of Bread Street and Aldersgate was here memorialising the street brawlers, the Hectors and Scourers, of his native city; but as he sits by his window, the candle glimmering in the dusk, an image of Anglo-Saxon brawlers also emerges. The English imagination has many mansions, and many rooms. There is another Miltonic connection with these English originals. Passages in Paradise Lost, completed by Milton in 1663, concerning the fall of the angels into darkness and the subsequent soliloquy by Satan, bear a startling resemblance to an Anglo-Saxon poem entitled “Genesis B” by scholars and tentatively dated to the mid-ninth century. In that early poem Satan’s first words, for example,

Is thes aenga stede ungelic swithe . . .

are close in cadence and meaning to

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime . . .

An early nineteenth-century scholar, in reviewing both poems, wrote of “a resemblance to Milton so remarkable that much of this portion of ‘Genesis B’ might be almost literally translated”; the biographer of Milton David Masson describes “striking coincidences between notions and phrases.”1 This might be construed as no more than scholarly supposition or source-hunting; if such a resemblance exists, then it may arise simply from the consonance or, one may say, consanguinity within the English imagination itself. There are many examples of poets, or dramatists, who seem to have lifted material from their predecessors but who have in reality only been led forward by the pressures and contours of the language itself. Once a sequence of words enters the vast sphere of language, it is always a potential line of expression for any later writer; the first one or two words will activate the entire sequence.

But the case of Milton and “Genesis B” is more interesting. The manuscript was discovered by a seventeenth-century scholar, Junius, who was in fact a close acquaintance of Milton’s. Previously Milton had pored over Anglo-Saxon sources, and had written an enthusiastic note upon the divine inspiration of Caedmon; he evinced a “long preoccupation with the old English past.”2 What is more natural and inevitable than that his friend, Junius, should read out to him and translate the Creation poem which he had recently discovered? Satan’s great speech of pride and bitterness might then find its way into the blind poet’s consciousness. It offers at least a plausible explanation for continuities between Anglo-Saxon poetry and the poetry of the mid-seventeenth century.

In the seventh chapter of Through the Looking-Glass the messenger Haigha appears “wriggling like an eel . . . with his great hands spread out like fans on each side.” “He’s an Anglo-Saxon Messenger,” the White King explains to Alice, “and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes.” The posture is indeed Anglo-Saxon, and can be seen in the late ninth-century cross of Codford St. Peter and in the figure of King Edgar in the foundation charter for the new minster at Winchester; the position has in fact been described as “in essence completely English.” 3 Carroll parodies it successfully, just as he parodies Old English poetry in his lyric “Jabberwocky”:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

Anglo-Saxon attitudes emerge almost everywhere. The fable in Old English translation Apollonius of Tyre appears in the poetry of John Gower as well as in Shakespeare’s Pericles. The Old English antiphons of the Advent season were known as the “great O’s” because they began with “O” or “Eala,” and are echoed in the 1608 text of King Lear “O, o, o, o.” The satire upon greedy and wastrel priests, in Guthlac and in other Anglo-Saxon originals, is taken up by Langland and Wycliff; the sweet breath of St. Guthlac just before his demise issues from the mouth of Thomas More before his execution. The panther in the Exeter Book, who shines brightly and is the image of Christ, re-emerges as the “tyger” of Blake’s lyric; in T. S. Eliot’s Gerontion there appears in turn “Christ the tiger.” The spiritual narrative of The Dream of the Rood, a devotional poem of the late seventh century with its focus upon the material image of the cross, prefigures the seventeenth-century meditations of George Herbert and Henry Vaughan. The wyrd or doom of Anglo-Saxon poetry is matched by Chaucer’s “executrice of wyrdes” in Troilus and Criseyde before being resurrected as “Life’s Doom” in Thomas Hardy’s epic poem The Dynasts. The conflict between tribal loyalties of revenge and the Christian pieties of forgiveness and redemption, so central to the Anglo-Saxon imagination, was reinterpreted again and again in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy; the great preoccupations of ninth- and tenth-century England were flourishing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. “Periods” of a literary or historical nature do not succeed each other in neat chronology; they overlap and intermingle, fade and then flare up, so that we might call the history of the last two thousand years “the Anglo-Saxon Period.” Instead of asking what is “modern” about the Anglo-Saxons, enquire instead what is Anglo-Saxon about “the modern.”

Middle English


“Sir Bedivere throws the sword Excalibur into the water.” Manuscript illustration, early fourteenth century

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