The greatest old English poem is Beowulf. This first English epic was written in the seventh century and the name of the author is still unknown. It is a story about the heroic adventures of a hero, Beowulf, in about 3000 lines. The story takes place in Denmark. Beowulf was a young warrior form southern Sweden who went to Denmark to help King Hrothgar. Hrothgar’s great hall, Heorot, was troubled by a lake monster called Grendel. Beowulf fought with Grendel bare handed and killed it. Grendel’s mother came to take revenge, but Beowulf killed her in her home in a lake.
Later, Beowulf became the king and ruled his country peacefully for fifty years. In the end, he died of wounds that he had received while fighting against a dragon.
Though Beowulf is an old English poem, it has achieved a special position in old English literature. This poem gives an interesting picture of life and the attitude of people in those old days. It tells about the heroic deeds and fierce fights and the sufferings of people. It describes about the life of the hall and the terrible creatures with which Beowulf has to fight and defeat. This poem has alliterative and stressed poetic lines without rhyme. Each half line has two main beats. Things are being described indirectly and in a combination of words.
Many of the Old English poems are related to religion and the Bible. Genesis A and Genesis B are related to the creation of the world and the fall of the angels. Exodus and Daniel are related to the Bible stories. Christ and Satan deal with events in Christ’s life. Other Old English poems are Andreas and Guthlac. The second of these is in two parts, and may have been written by two men. Guthlac was a holy man who was tempted in the desert. Another of the better poems is The Dream of the Rood (the rood in Christ's cross) is considered as one of the best English poems.
Caedmon and Cynewulf are the two important Old English poets. Caedmon was a poor peasant who was asked by an angel to sing the praise of God. Only a part of his songs remain. Cynewulf’s poems are religious and were written in the eighth century. He wrote Juliana, The Fates of the Apostles, Christ and Elene.
Old English lyrics include Deor's Complaint, The Husband's Message, The Wanderer and The Wife's Complaint. Deor is a singer who has lost his lord's favour. So he complains, but tries to comfort himself by remembering other sorrows of the world. On each one he says 'That passed over; this may do so also.
There are many other poems in Old English. One of the better ones is a late poem called The Battle of Maldon. The battle was fought against the Danes in 991 and probably the poem was written soon after that. It has been highly praised for the words of courage which the leader uses.
Prose developed later than poetry. The development of prose took place wholly in England as a result of Christianization. The oldest examples of Old English prose are Laws written at the beginning of the seventh century and Anglo Saxon Chronicle, which is a collection of the early history of the country. King Alfred was an important prose writer of Old English. He gave a great contribution to the development of old English prose. He brought learning in England, and educated the people after he translated a number of Latin books into English. Another important prose writer was Aelfric, the writer of Homilies and Lives of Saints. His works were mostly religious. His style is known as the best because he uses alliteration to join his sentences together.