English poetry

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At the end of this unit, you should be able to discuss Beowulf as a literary product of the Anglo-Saxon period, identify and discuss specific epic qualities in Beowulf and discuss the literary style of Beowulf.
What is an Epic
An epic is along narrative poem on a serious subject representing characters of heroic stature in adventures of great historical, legendary, or religious significance. The following are characteristics of an epic. The setting of the work is vast in scope, covering a whole nation, the world, or even the universe. The actions described in the work are deeds of great valor, often requiring superhuman strength, intelligence, or endurance. Supernatural forces (gods, angels, demons) take interest in the action and intervene from time to time. An elevated style and diction, deliberately distanced from everyday speech, is used throughout the poem. Inmost epic poems, the poet begins the work by stating his topic and by calling upon the Muse of Epic Poetry for help in rising to the task. This convention is

23 known as the invocation to the Muse, apart of which is the epic statement of theme. The poet opens his narrative in medias res (Latin expression for middle of the action. The preceding history is then supplied at various points throughout the remainder of the work by means of retrospection, similar to the flashback of the modern novel. This is exemplified in the story of another Beowulf who has lived before the great Beowulf. There is also a retelling of the story of a good king who “throve under heaven in power and pride/till alien peoples beyond the ocean/Paid toll and tribute. A good king he (Lines 7-10). It is a form introduction to the heritage of greatness into which Hrothgar has grown as a Danish king. Another good example could be found in Lines 993- 1050, which is supposed to give the background of a praise song performed in honour of Beowulf after the slaying of Grendel. It tells of a story a Danish king, Hnaef who was killed while on a visit to his sister and her spouse, Finn the king of the Jutes in
Finnsburg. His people, led by Hengest, came back on a reprisal attack and killed the Jutes for this treachery but only stopped the destruction of the Jutes after a truce was reached- that king Finn would continually give gifts to the Danes to appease the death of their king and that if any Frisian attempted to refer to the unfortunate incidence, the jutes should avenge. Meanwhile, Hengest and some Danish warriors remained with the Jutes but Hengest was ever thinking about avenging the death of his king. So, the opportunity came after winter and he murdered Finn, the king of the Jutes and returned to Danes land with the queen if the Jutes, thereby breaking the truce. Apart from using this to honour Beowulf and his men, it also performs another function which is explained in the next paragraph. This story gives a hint of some of the cultural practices of the Anglo-Saxons such as revenge, burial rites which include pyre burning and the singing of dirge. Pyre burning refers to the burning of the dead with their belongings and treasures. This is the same way Beowulf is buried at the end of the poem. The story is therefore a prospective narrative as well, which tells the audience what is to happen later in the work or after the work. The poet may also include many elaborate enumerations of subjects and items such as ships, warriors, armies, gifts etc this kind of list is called an epic catalogue. In Beowulf, after the defeat of Grendel, king Hrothgar rewards Beowulf with gifts and they are described inelegant terms Hrothgar bestowed a standard of gold, A banner embroidered, a bryny and a helm. Insight of many, a costly sword To others on ale-bench, richer rewards, Four such treasures fretted with gold Eight horses also with plated headstalls

24 The lord of heroes bade lead into hall On one was saddle skillfully fashioned And set with jewels, the battle-seat… And the prince of Ingwines gave all these gifts To the hand of Beowulf, horses and armor Bade him enjoy them With generous heart The noble leader, the lord of heroes, Rewarded the struggle with steeds and with treasure, So that none can belittle, and none can blame, Who tells the tale as it truly happened (lines 946 -975)
Gift-giving as part of the Anglo-Saxon culture is giving prominence in the poem. Many lords like Hrothgar are portrayed as generous leaders who do not allow the efforts and loyalty of their warriors to go unrewarded. The gifts are elaborately described in order to show both the generosity of the giver and the greatness of the acts of the hero. The poet also uses extended and elaborate formal speeches or monologues by the main characters. These speeches are also called epic boast if they are delivered before a war takes place of whenever a great person introduces himself. Beowulf introduces himself toking Hrothgar in Lines 400-411 with an epic boast, recounting the great and heroic deeds he has performed before embarking on the quest to exterminate Grendel The best of my people, prudent and brave, Urged me, King Hrothgar, to seek you out They had in remembrance my courage and might, Many had seen me come safe from conflict, Bloody from battle five foes I bound Of the giant kindred, and crushed their clan.etc The boast is expected to encourage the speaker, his hearers and followers, especially the king that he has come to help. Since this is their first meeting, Beowulf takes his audience through the many feats he has performed so that they might be reassured that they have the right person for the job. Beowulf‟s last boast in the poem is found just before he goes to kill the dragon, which incidentally is his last act I came in safety through many conflicts In the days of my youth and now even yet,

25 Old as I am, I will fight this feud, Do manful deeds, if the dire destroyer Will come from his cavern to meet my sword (Lines 2369-2373) The poet also gives a detailed family background, epic genealogy, for many of the heroes. Importance is attached to paternal lineage. The poet refers to a hero by his patronymic, which means a form of the fathers name with an ending meaning son of. Heorogar, hrothgar‟s brother is describes as the son of Healfdene” (Line
450), Unferth is referred to as “Ecglaf‟s son in Line 481 and Beowulf himself as the son of Ecgtheow”. All these are great men begotten by heroes. The poet also uses long, extended comparisons which are known as epic similes that make the unfamiliar familiar by stressing its similarity to observable, common phenomena and objects. The poet also uses many epithets, adjectives or adjectival phrases used to point out a characteristic quality of a persona god, or less frequently, an animal or an object. Beowulf calls Hrothgar Prince of the Danes, protector of Syldings,/Lord of nations, and leader of men, (lines 412-413). He describes his breastplate as the best of corselets that covers my breast/heirloom of
Hrethel, and Wayland‟s work,/Finest of byrnies.” (Lines 437-438). This implies that the armor is not an ordinary one but a potent one crafted by a skillful magical smith. Also, the rest of Beowulf‟s weapons like his helmet and sword are elaborately described in Lines 1327-11349. The poet may also rely on the use of kennings which mean metaphoric expressions employed to render vivid narrations. Examples Grendel‟s mother is tagged
“battle-flasher” (Line 1407), the sun is named the “world-candle” in Line 1839 and Beowulf is called the “shoulder-companion” of Hygelac in Line. They are epithets deployed to intimate the audience with the qualities of these subjects. The use of foreshadowing, which means warning about something bad that is about to happen, is also common in epic poetry. Likewise, the use of rhetorical and poetic devices such as similes, metaphors, hyperbole and irony are also common features of epic poetry.

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