Life and Death In Old English Poetry

Life and Death In Old English Poetry

Death and uncertainty pervade Old English poetry, and yet these same poems celebrate the beauty of life.

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Death and uncertainty pervade Old English poetry, and yet these same poems celebrate the beauty of life. Sometimes this is through reverence to God, sometimes through the passage of time, and sometimes through life experience. Examples of this appreciation of life despite the obvious negatives of the time period are found within two Old English poems: Deor and Widsith.

In Deor, the poet focuses on the passage of time and change. Although bad circumstances are abundant, he is assured in the knowledge that, eventually, things will right themselves again. He approaches topics like rape, death, and loss with a positive persepecive. He adopts a “this too shall pass” attitude when discussing these negative circumstances. Sometimes the negatives even lead to a positive, as in the case of Beadohild, whom ends up having a successful warrior son as the result of unwanted male attention. He even applies this ideal to his own unfortunate situation; the loss of his role as a scop. Deor seems to find fulfillment and comfort in the passage of time. It is one of the few assurances in life; things will continue on and burdens will inevitably become easier to bear.

In Widsith, the narrator uses his travels and experiences to celebrate life. He has traveled far and seen many kingdoms, as is made apparent by the constant referencing to the different rulers within the poem. Despite the bad things he’s seen, like battle, he still celebrates life. He has met many great rulers, which give him a positive outlook on the human condition.

He finds fulfillment in the glory and honor that can be achieved in life. He finds happiness in the many treasures that he has been given and is pleased by his own renown. In this poem, one of the beauties in life is human memory (displayed overtly through his ability to recall all those names) as a way to live on. All of the people he has met know of his glory and will continue to tell his story. This is apparent in the way the narrator chooses to conclude the poem: with a reference to the benefits of fame in life.

These two poems, unlike some of the others we have read, examine the positive aspects of life largely through human experience. Deor finds assurance within the passage of a time; a constant, reliable presence that brings change. Widsith finds beauty within fame, memory, and the human condition. Despite the harsh realities that surround the two, they still manage to find an aspect of life that is beautiful and comforting.

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