Poetry of the Dawn

Reflections on the Birth of the English Language

Through his experience of the sentient- and intellectual-soul dispositions of the northern and southern streams of medieval Europe, as expressed in their poetic traditions, the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer set the stage for the language of the consciousness soul in his time. Clifford Venho takes us on a journey through this development, seen through the lens of poetic form.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400 CE) by an unknown artist. National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-NC)

Laying the Foundation: The Anglo-Saxon Bards

I once spent an afternoon at the Seven Sisters, a range of limestone cliffs on the southeastern coast of England. It was a wet day, and walking along the cliffside with the sea waves crashing in thunderous symphony below, I felt transported back to the age of the Anglo-Saxon bards. Through a powerful connection to nature, the Anglo-Saxons had composed one of humanity’s great epics—Beowulf—forging the images of their story out of the consonantal surge of the elements around them. As if steeling themselves against the elements, they developed a poetic form whose principal feature is alliteration, an expression of the soul’s response to the physical-spiritual processes of nature. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting place to utter some lines of Beowulf than on that cliffside, with the whipping wind, the crashing waves, and the mist-like rain saturating the atmosphere.

When the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes arrived on the isle of Britannia in the sixth century AD, two other cultures had already left their mark—the Celts and the Romans. To this day, remnants of Roman architecture and infrastructure can be seen scattered throughout the landscape like tombstones of that ancient civilization. The Celtic culture, of an entirely different disposition than the Roman, was ordered around the cosmic rhythms of nature and the revelations of the spiritual world, as revealed to initiates in the Hibernian Mysteries. Rudolf Steiner describes, for example, how the Druid priests, whose culture still thrived in the early days of Christianity, participated in the Mystery of Golgotha through clairvoyant vision, witnessing the transformation of the earth’s aura through Christ’s deed. This Celtic religion was a cosmic, pre-Christian Christianity that saw Christ as the great sun god, ruling in wind and weather.1

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, on the other hand, arriving some centuries later from Scandinavia, brought with them a different soul disposition. Theirs was a warrior culture, rooted in the Teutonic Mysteries, whose echo is recorded in the great sagas of Norse and Germanic mythology. They pushed the Celtic peoples north and west, into the areas of present-day Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. Over the next couple of centuries, the various Germanic tribes banded together, coalescing to a certain extent in the ninth century under Alfred the Great. Thus, the unique community of Anglo-Saxons was formed.

In a significant turn of events, it was Celtic Christian monks from Ireland who established Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon community in the seventh century. Although Christianity had come from the South in its exoteric form, it had failed to develop strong roots among the Germanic settlers, who quickly reverted to their pagan ways. Irish monks, like St. Aidan—founder of the monastic community on Lindisfarne (the Holy Isle), which produced the extraordinary illuminated manuscripts known as the Lindisfarne Gospels—helped to reestablish and strengthen the presence of Christianity in Britain. Going from door to door, according to the ancient style of apostolic work, he offered them “first the milk of gentle doctrine, to bring them by degrees, while nourishing them with the Divine Word, to the true understanding and practice of the more advanced precepts.”2 In this way, a more inward Christianity was introduced to the Anglo-Saxon people.

Manuscript of Beowulf. Opening words of the epic poem, beginning “Hwæt” (”Listen!”). British Library, Public Domain

In later centuries, the early Anglo-Saxon tribes were looked upon as barbarians, devoid of any significant cultural gifts. The Beowulf manuscript, which had been all but forgotten in the archives of the British Museum, was rescued from horrible neglect in 1845, and the groundbreaking discovery of a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artifacts at Sutton Hoo in 1938 helped to establish the artistic legacy of this culture. The twentieth century saw a burgeoning interest in the literary masterpiece of the Anglo-Saxons, which is among the few surviving manuscripts written in Old English. Modern writers and poets, such as J. R. R. Tolkien and Seamus Heaney, drew inspiration from the epic for their own artistic creations.

The poetic form of Beowulf, as mentioned, is an alliterative verse—that is, it uses the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or stressed syllables as a basic structural principle. These verses consist of four-beat lines, divided by a short pause, or caesura. The quality of four is essential to the work as a whole. Four is an earthly number—grounded, solid. Four to one is also the rhythm of heart and lung, without which we cannot be human beings on Earth. The expansive lines of the ancient Greek epics, which feature six metrical feet per line, are formed through a regular rhythm of one long syllable followed by two short syllables (called a dactyl, from the Greek word for finger, the three bones of the finger corresponding to the three syllables). By contrast, the sturdy and roughly hewn lines of the Anglo-Saxon epic are like seaside cliffs battered by ceaseless waves. In this alliterative verse, there is no meter as such, no regular rhythm of short and long, or stressed and unstressed syllables. Everything is oriented around the constancy of the alliteration and the four strong beats. Take this example from Beowulf: “Da com of more under mist-hleothum / Grendel gongan, Goddes ire baer. / Mynte se manshatha, manna kines / Symne besirwan in selethan hean.” Notice the alliteration (in bold) and the irregular, choppy rhythm of unstressed syllables gathered around the pillars of the four beats (in italics).3

All of this speaks to a life of soul rooted in the natural world, in the powerful forces of the elements. It is the life of the sentient soul that comes most to expression here. Independent thought as such has not yet emerged from this surging life of feeling in relation to nature. What is predominant instead is the life of pictures. Vital and visceral, the picture of Beowulf battling the monster Grendel stands before us as a central motif, and we can sense how the life of thought has not yet freed itself from the life of imagination. Rudolf Steiner refers to this way of experiencing the world as “pictorial consciousness.”4 Such pictorial consciousness represents not mere poetic fancy but a profound participation in the activity of spiritual beings within the realms of nature.

This brings us to another feature of Anglo-Saxon poetry that speaks strongly to this pictorial consciousness—namely, the kenning. A kenning is, in essence, a concentrated metaphor forged out of two or more pictures. For example, “whale-road” means sea, “light-of-battle” means sword, and “sky-candle” means sun. The kenning is an expression of a consciousness that lives in the pictorial quality of the world—not in abstract thought. Philosophy, as such, is an impossibility because the independent life of thought has not yet emerged from the creative womb of picture-making. As Steiner states, “When independent inner thought experience began, it brought the earlier pictorial consciousness to extinction.”5 The evolutionary development from pictorial consciousness to an independent life of thought gives us a clue as to how this Anglo-Saxon culture, with its direct relationship to the elemental world of nature and its self-evident trust in action—as exemplified by its consummate hero, Beowulf—would eventually lead to the inner turmoil and vicissitudes of Hamlet.

Manuscript of Lindisfarne Gospels. This folio is incipit to the Gospel of Matthew with illuminated words of “Liber generationis Iesu Christi filii David filii Abraham”. British Library, Public Domain

Geoffrey Chaucer: Poet of the Dawn

The path to the consciousness soul, with which the English language has a special relationship, took a great leap forward with the appearance of an individuality with a world-historic mission—the first great wordsmith of the “Englisshe tunge”—Geoffrey Chaucer.

Longfellow called Chaucer “the poet of the dawn.” Indeed, Chaucer was like the brightening sky before the dawn of the consciousness soul.6 He was born around 1340, an extremely significant year in the history of the English people and language. It was the year of the Englishry Act. After the Norman conquest in 1066, which marked the defeat of the Anglo-Saxons and the rise to power of the Normans, French became not only the language of the court but that of trade, law, schooling, and parliament. The Anglo-Saxon language was relegated to the homes of the conquered people, who continued their traditions and incorporated little of the French language into daily life.

It is because of this division in the life of society at that time that we often have two words for the same thing in modern English. For example, when we want to name the farm animal grazing in the fields, we say, “cow” (a Germanic word). But if we are speaking the language of cuisine—which invariably goes back to the language of the court—we say, “beef,” which comes from the Old French boef.

The Englishry Act of 1340 dissolved the legal distinctions between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons. This Act was a watershed event that led to the ousting of the French language from schools, courts of law, and parliament. By 1399, the year before Chaucer’s death, Henry IV became the first English king to claim his crown in the “Englisshe tunge.” It was into this newly emerging life of a people, who were in the process of forming a united language and culture, that Chaucer was born.

In his Letters to the Members, Rudolf Steiner made a significant remark about Chaucer and the birth of English literature:

Chaucer, who died in 1400, laid the foundations of English literature. We need only remember the great spiritual consequences which took their start in Europe from the founding of this literature, and we shall see the importance of the fact that such an event was not able to work itself out freely, but fell into the midst of the confusions of a prolonged war [i.e., the Hundred Years War].7

One of the “carpet pages” from the Lindisfarne Gospels. These pages contain each a different image of a cross, emphasising the importance of the Christian religion? British Library, Public Domain

Steiner depicts the struggling emergence of a new kind of consciousness, aided and willed from the spiritual worlds by the archangel Michael and his hosts. But the “confusions of a prolonged war” between France and England, which Chaucer experienced first-hand, constituted a hindrance brought on by the adversarial powers.

What was it about Chaucer’s work that laid a foundation for English literature and “the great spiritual consequences which took their start in Europe from the founding of this literature”? The first thing to consider is that there was a multilingual environment in England at that time, especially during Chaucer’s youth. Chaucer himself grew up surrounded by French, Italian, and the London-East-Midland dialect of Middle English. But, the English he spoke was by no means the only dialect spoken at the time. There were four main dialects of Middle English, each influenced by their region and the other languages (Celtic, Danish, French) with which it had most contact. Chaucer’s task was to establish a unified English language that would become the vehicle for the dawning consciousness soul. To do this, he had to bring the elements of the Romance languages (connected with the intellectual soul) together with Germanic Old English (sentient soul) and, by an alchemical process, transmute them into the prototype for modern English (consciousness soul).

We have already looked at the form of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with its strong four-beat lines and surging elemental life of alliteration. This form continued to influence Middle English poetry, which was largely alliterative. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, belongs to what is referred to as the Alliterative Revival style, which sought to go back to its Anglo-Saxon roots by making use of that older form. Although influenced by the French chivalric tradition, as well as native folklore, its form relies heavily on Old English, and its content is largely pictorial-symbolic in nature. Something similar can be said of other works of this period, such as Piers Plowman and Pearl.

Chaucer, on the other hand, who traveled to both France and Italy, was able to extract what he needed from those poetic traditions and make use of it in a new way in his native tongue. Instead of the four-beat alliterative line, he fashioned the verse form of his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, from lines of iambic pentameter: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / the droghte of March hath perced to the roote.” This introduced three essential elements into the poetic structure: the first was the expansion of the line from four beats to five; the second was the rhythmic regularity of the iambic meter (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable); and the third was end rhyme. All of this had the effect of tempering the surging elemental power inherited from Old English into a finely wrought, exacting instrument. It represents, in a way, a death process, insofar as the powerful life of the sentient soul, which lives pictorially in the world, dies away in order to give rise to “independent inner thought experience.”8

Manuscript of Canterbury Tales. Title page. National Library of Wales, Public Domain (CC0 1.0)

The third element, rhyme, which comes from the southerly French stream, is described by Rudolf Steiner as an expression of the memory of ancient imaginations within the intellectual soul.9 The end rhyme is indeed a form-giving element of a more abstract nature, less vital than alliteration, though more pleasing to the mind. Steiner describes how the sentient soul, on the other hand, expresses this memory of ancient imaginations through the surging life of alliteration. The meeting of the intellectual-soul culture of Southern Europe—fructified as it was by the Mystery of Golgotha—with the dormant sentient-soul culture of Central and Northern Europe resulted in the possibility of a unique blossoming of the consciousness soul.10 In Chaucer’s day, the consciousness soul had not yet been born, and ideas were still often experienced as inspirations from a higher world. But (as had already been argued by Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics a century earlier) the power of independent thought was now entering individual human beings.11 Chaucer had his part to play in awakening the first tender shoots of the consciousness soul. This required human beings to become more and more conscious of their earthly environment in all its extraordinary detail and to become equally aware of the extraordinary complexity of the human personality. Thoughts were no longer to be received from outside but forged from within the individual soul itself.12

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is no medieval allegory. It is the story of everyday people on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Chaucer moves away from the allegorical character, so frequently seen in medieval literature and drama, toward the characteristics that define individual personality. His characters are vibrant and life-like, possessing distinct features and idiosyncrasies. In this way, Chaucer introduces a note of three-dimensionality to his characters at the same time that, in late medieval art, the laws of perspective are beginning to appear in rough outline on the canvases of the great painters.

Thus, we see how, building on the two heritages of the northern and southern streams, Chaucer planted the seeds for the language of the consciousness soul in his time. I look to this first great wordsmith of the English language for inspiration, humor, and insight into the peculiar nature of our own time. I’ve wondered: why did Rudolf Steiner spend so many of his final hours illuminating the complex karmic threads of early modern history and shedding light, in his Letters to the Members, on the dawn of the age of the consciousness soul? This had been a theme from the beginning of his anthroposophical work—for example, in his Mystics at the Dawn of the Modern Age in 1900. It seems that he wanted this work to be taken up and expanded by all who, working out of anthroposophy, seek a renewal of culture in our time. This short essay is one contribution to this ongoing work of trying to understand the signatures of the age in which we live and the sources from which it springs, in order to see more clearly the tasks at hand and our own role in serving the spirit of our time.

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  1. See the lecture given in London on August 27, 1924, in Karmic Relationships, Vol. VIII (CW 240).
  2. Baring-Gould, The Lives of the Saints (Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1914), p. 392.
  3. For an excellent and thorough exploration of the development of the English language, to which this essay is greatly indebted, see John Wulsin, The Spirit of the English Language (Lindisfarne Press, 2008). See also the important study by D. E. Faulkner-Jones, The English Spirit (1935). See also Adam Bittleston, “The Future of the English Language,” in For the Love of Literature (Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press).
  4. Rudolf Steiner, The Riddles of Philosophy (CW 18), trans. Fritz Koelln and David Wood, Chadwick Library Edition (Great Barrington, MA: SteinerBooks, 2018), p. 42.
  5. Rudolf Steiner, Riddles, pp. 44–45.
  6. The dates given by Rudolf Steiner for the age of the consciousness soul are: 1413–3573 AD.
  7. Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts, trans. George and Mary Adams (Forest Row, UK: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1973), p. 112. In a brilliant essay entitled “Chaucer and the Modern Consciousness,” Isabel Wyatt bears out in detail the view of Chaucer as the founder of English literature, examining the various aspects of his life and work in reference to this quote from the Letters to the Members. The essay is published in For the Love of Literature (Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press).
  8. Rudolf Steiner, The Riddles of Philosophy, pp. 44–45.
  9. Rudolf Steiner, Three Lectures on the Mystery Dramas, trans. Hans and Ruth Pusch (Spring Valley, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1983), 94–98.
  10. Lecture of December 19, 1911, in The Mission of the New Spirit of Revelation (CW 127).
  11. See, e.g., the lecture of July 1, 1924, in Karmic Relationships, Vol. III (CW 237).
  12. See Theosophy (CW 9), chapter 1.

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