Not What it was

Andy Orchard

in The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy

Published in print April 2010 | ISBN: 9780199228133
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks of Literature

 Not What it was

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This article emphasizes the linkage of the theme of exile with elegy, and observes what ‘elegiac instinct’ was pervasive in Anglo-Saxon literature, ‘as befits a culture torn between worlds’. This is also haunted by the spectre of an entire earlier elegiac tradition now lost to silence. This pervasive attitude has made the particular identification of individual poems as ‘elegies’ something of a tendentious business. Beowulf is particularly rich in an elegiac ethos, which is perhaps only appropriate for a poem that begins and ends with a funeral, and offers a sometimes surprisingly sympathetic Christian view of the heroic pagan past. If the mechanism of transmission has necessarily emphasised the central importance of literate and Latinate and Christian influence on what has survived in written form, there remain deep traces of an earlier elegiac tradition based on spoken words now lost to silence, distant echoes of which seem to have lived on.

Keywords: Anglo-Saxon literature; Old English elegy; Beowulf; Latinate; Christian; elegiac tradition

Article.  8170 words. 

Subjects: Literature ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Literary Studies (Poetry and Poets)

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