Anglo-Saxon poetry depicts a primitive world where life lies in the fight— man has to wage war against the hostile Nature. The precarious existence of man in the face of natural forces and calamities has been the subject of much great literature throughout the ages, and Anglo-Saxon poetry was no different from that convention.
As society was primitive and the advancement of technology was still at an embryonic stage, people had to fight against nature with minimum equipment. The world depicted in Anglo-Saxon poetry is the world of the Nordic people who are a seafaring race. Their life and death are connected to the sea.
Sea Prevails in Anglo-Saxon Poetry As A Natural Force
In Beowulf and the other elegiac poems of the Anglo-Saxon period, we hear the sea waves splashing on the shore now and then. Most characters or speakers are either adventurers or professional sailors. We encounter the sea as the principal form of nature in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Beowulf begins with the hero’s expedition over the North Sea from Geatland to Denmark. The sea-voyage described in vivid terms gives us the idea of the perils of seafaring. In Beowulf, nature appears not only hostile but also mysterious.
Winter Symbolizes Primeval Evil in Anglo-Saxon Poetry
The purple in Heorot share meat and listen to the song of the scup, while the hail and frost of winter beat against the window-panes. The outside world is dark, gloomy, and extremely cold. Out of the bosom of this hostile and cold nature comes Grendel, which symbolizes an ancient evil lurking in nature. Grendel lives in the marshy land among the frost-laden waters of the fen.
In the elegiac poetry, nature is equally hostile and cold for a friendless man who sails over the seas searching for a new home and hearth. In the poem “The Wanderer,” we get a description of the icy sea and the surrounding:
“Awakenth after this friendless man,
Seeth before him fellow waves,
Sea-birds, breathing, broadening out feathers,
Sore for his loved lord sorrow freshens.”The Wanderer, An Old English Poem of Anglo-Saxon Era.
Winter Resembled The Harsh and Uncertain Fate in Anglo-Saxon Poetry
In Anglo-Saxon poetry, there is no summer or spring; it is perpetual winter. No man grows wise without his share of winters. Winter means suffering; winter means the bitter experience of life.
The fatalistic atmosphere of Anglo-Saxon poetry is rooted in this natural world. Nature is so bleak that man earnestly equates nature with ‘wynd’ or fate. The storm, the hail, the wind, and the street are the weapons by which fate punishes mankind:
“Stormsbreak on the stone hillside,
The ground bound by driving street,
Winter’s wrath. Then wanes cometh,
The rough hail to harry mankind.”An Anglo-Saxon Poem
A more bitter picture of nature is sketched in “The Seafarer.” The narrator of the poem is a seafaring man who has to sit day and night on the prow of his boat.
Nailed my feet, frost shrank on
Its chill clamps, cares sighed
Hot about heart, hunger fed
Ona mere-wearied mind.”The Seafarer, An Old English Poem of Anglo-Saxon Era.
Read our article “Special Features of Anglo-Saxon Poetry” for a deeper insight into “The Seafarer”, understanding the elegiac sadness of a weather-beaten seafarer in his hardships.
Both heroic and elegiac, Anglo-Saxon poetry is set against Nature’s bleak, unfriendly, and mysterious background. Nowhere else in literature does nature shape the thoughts of people so thoroughly as in Anglo-Saxon poetry.
It is obvious how Anglo-Saxon poetry revered natural force in essence as a massive influencer in men’s lives and fates.