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Outlines of English and American Literature
Types of Saxon Poetry
by Long, William J.


Other fragments of the period are valuable as indicating that the Anglo-Saxons were familiar with various types of poetry. "Deor's Lament," describing the sorrows of a scop who had lost his place beside his chief, is a true lyric; that is, a poem which reflects the author's feeling rather than the deed of another man. In his grief the scop comforts himself by recalling the afflictions of various heroes, and he ends each stanza with the refrain:

  That sorrow he endured; this also may I.


Among the best of the early poems are: "The Ruined City," reflecting the feeling of one who looks on crumbling walls that were once the abode of human ambition; "The Seafarer," a chantey of the deep, which ends with an allegory comparing life to a sea voyage; "The Wanderer," which is the plaint of one who has lost home, patron, ambition, and as the easiest way out of his difficulty turns eardstappa, an "earth-hitter" or tramp; "The Husband's Message," which is the oldest love song in our literature; and a few ballads and battle songs, such as "The Battle of Brunanburh" (familiar to us in Tennyson's translation) and "The Fight at Finnsburgh," which was mentioned by the gleemen in Beowulf, and which was then probably as well known as "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is to modern Englishmen.

Another early war song, "The Battle of Maldon" or "Byrhtnoth's Death," has seldom been rivaled in savage vigor or in the expression of deathless loyalty to a chosen leader. The climax of the poem is reached when the few survivors of an uneven battle make a ring of spears about their fallen chief, shake their weapons in the face of an overwhelming horde of Danes, while Byrhtwold, "the old comrade," chants their defiance:

  The sterner shall thought be, the bolder our hearts,
  The greater the mood as lessens our might.


We know not when or by whom this stirring battle cry was written. It was copied under date of 991 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and is commonly called the swan song of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The lion song would be a better name for it.

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