As poetry began as song and was easier to memorize because of the rhyme scheme and the rhythmic pattern, Anglo-Saxon poetry outstripped the period’s prose. The poems were passed from one generation to another by word of mouth.
Customarily, Anglo-Saxon poetry contains three alliterating syllables, two in the first line and one in the second. Most of the poems were created by troupes of musicians called “gleemen,” who traveled about the countryside entertaining nobles and the aristocracy.
The poems characteristically contained a moral. A tone of brooding melancholy can be found in many. The themes include a love of freedom, a duty to nature, and demonstration of glory as the ruling motivation in the hero’s (the warrior) life.
“There are two types of Old English poetry: the heroic, the sources of which are pre-Christian Germanic myth, history, and custom; and the Christian. Although nearly all Old English poetry is preserved in only four manuscripts—indicating that what has survived is not necessarily the best or most representative—much of it is of high literary quality. Moreover, Old English heroic poetry is the earliest extant in all of Germanic literature. It is thus the nearest we can come to the oral pagan literature of Germanic culture, and is also of inestimable value as a source of knowledge about many aspects of Germanic society. The 7th-century work known as Widsith is one of the earliest Old English poems, and thus is of particular historic and linguistic interest. [InfoPlease: The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press.]
Widsith, or the Wanderer is dated to the 6th or 7th Century. This is the song of a wandering minstrel. “‘The Wanderer’ tells of the grief and the hardships of one whose lord’s hall has been overthrown. Over yellow waves, through snow and hail, he plies his oars with weary arms. At times – for the setting is vague – he seems to be living in solitude in a new country. Always in memory or in dreams, his thought returns to the generosity of his lord, the noble deeds of his friends of the comitatus, the content of nights in the mead-hall. He concludes with maxims on the caution and fortitude which this dark world demands.” [History of English Literature: Part I-Early Saxon Through Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, pp. 11-12]
The first English lyric poem was Deor’s Lament. It was found in the late 10th Century collection the Exeter Book. The poem consists of the lament of the scop Deor, although contemporary scholars do not credit Deor as the poem’s author. “A scop was a poet as represented in Old English poetry. The scop is the Anglo-Saxon counterpart of the Old Norse skald, with the important difference that “skald” was applied to historical persons while ‘scop’ is used, for the most part, to designate oral poets within Old English literature.” (Wikipedia)
Deor is a bard at the court of the Heodenings, who laments “his eclipse by a rival poet of a newer school. He compares his plight with other tragic situations well-known to contemporaries. Strophes 1 and 2 touch the story of Weland – his horrible torture by Nithad and the tragic impact of his revenge upon Beadohild. At the end of each strophe comes the Stoic refrain, ‘That (sorrow) passed; so may this.'”[History of English Literature: Part I-Early Saxon Through Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, pg. 12]
Deor holds a place of reference in the Anglo-Saxon lyrics for its use of the strophic form. “Wulf and Eadwacer” is the only other Old English poem displaying these devices. It also examples an attitude typical of our early verse: the moving contrast between courage and dark misfortune. Also, the poem makes references to historical figures commemorated in lays.
Another example of Anglo-Saxon poetry which has survived is The Sea Farer. As with the others, the date and author are unknown. The poem contains a dialogue between an old sailor and a young man eager to set off to sea. It consists of 124 lines followed by the single word “Amen.” It is recorded in the Exeter Book, one of the four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry. It is considered an elegy.
“The poem begins with a recounting by the old mariner of the hardships he has endured on his various voyages. Nevertheless, he brings out the irresistible desire of a sailor to make new voyages and the pleasures of an adventurous life. He talks of the ease and comfort to be had on land, but then turns to the evils of life. He invokes courage to bear him up whenever the fear of death is upon him. The latter part of the poem is an allegory in which the troubles of the seaman are symbols of the troubles of this life and the call of the ocean are the call of God.” [History of English Literature: Part I-Early Saxon Through Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, pp. 12=13]