Library of the World's Best Literature, Ancient and Modern — Volume 2 online

. (page 7 of 46)
Online LibraryUnknownLibrary of the World's Best Literature, Ancient and Modern — Volume 2 → online text (page 7 of 46)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

children, and to organize the educational system of his realm. Other
great names might be added to show the extent and brilliancy of the new
learning. It was more remarkable among the Angles; and only at a later
day, when the great schools of the north had gone up in fire and smoke
in the pitiless invasion of the Northmen, did the West Saxons become the
leaders, almost the only representatives, of the literary impulse among
the Anglo-Saxons.

It is significant that the first written English that we know of
contains the first Christian English king's provision for peace and
order in his kingdom. The laws of Athelbert, King of Kent, who died in
616, were written down early in the seventh century. This code, as it
exists, is the oldest surviving monument of English prose. The laws of
Ine, King of the West Saxons, were put into writing about 690. These
collections can scarcely be said to have a literary value; but they are
of the utmost importance as throwing light upon the early customs of our
race, and the laws of Ine may be considered as the foundation of modern
English law. Many of these laws were probably much older; but they were
now first codified and systematically enforced. The language employed is
direct, almost crabbed; but occasionally the Anglo-Saxon love of figure
shows itself. To illustrate, I quote, after Brooke, from Earle's
'Anglo-Saxon Literature,' page 153: -

"In case any one burn a tree in a wood, and it came to light
who did it, let him pay the full penalty, and give sixty
shillings, _because fire is a thief_. If one fell in a wood
ever so many trees, and it be found out afterwards, let him
pay for three trees, each with thirty shillings. He is not
required to pay for more of them, however many they may be,
_because the axe is a reporter, and not a thief_." [The
italicized sentences are evidently current sayings.]

But even these remains, important and interesting as they are, may not
be called the beginning of a vernacular literature. It is among the
Angles of Northumbria that we shall find the earliest native and truly
literary awakening in England. Here we perceive the endeavor to do
something more than merely to aid the memory of men in preserving
necessary laws and records of important events. The imagination had
become active. The impulse was felt to give expression to deep emotions,
to sing the deeds and noble character of some hero embodying the
loftiest ideals of the time and the race, to utter deep religious
feeling. There was an effort to do this in a form showing harmony in
theme and presentation. Here we find displayed a feeling for art, often
crude, but still a true and native impulse. This activity produced or
gave definite form to the earliest Anglo-Saxon poetry, a poetry often of
a very high quality; perhaps never of the highest, but always of intense
interest. We may claim even a greater distinction for the early fruit of
Anglo-Saxon inspiration. Mr. Stopford Brooke says: - "With the exception
of perhaps a few Welsh and Irish poems, it is the only vernacular poetry
in Europe, outside of the classic tongues, which belongs to so early a
time as the seventh and eighth centuries."

The oldest of these poems belong in all save their final form to the
ancient days in Northern Germany. They bear evidence of transmission,
with varying details, from gleeman to gleeman, till they were finally
carried over to England and there edited, often with discordant
interpolations and modifications, by Christian scribes. Tacitus tells us
that at his time songs or poems were a marked feature in the life of the
Germans; but we cannot trace the clue further. To these more ancient
poems many others were added by Christian Northumbrian poets, and we
find that a large body of poetry had grown up in the North before the
movement was entirely arrested by the destroying Northmen. Not one of
these poems, unless we except a few fragmentary verses, has come down to
us in the Northumbrian dialect. Fortunately they had been transcribed by
the less poetically gifted West Saxons into theirs, and it is in this
form that we possess them.

This poetry shows in subject and in treatment very considerable range.
We have a great poem, epic in character; poems partly narrative and
partly descriptive; poems that may be classed as lyric or elegiac in
character; a large body of verse containing a paraphrase of portions of
the Bible; a collection of 'Riddles'; poems on animals, with morals; and
others difficult to classify.

The regular verse-form was the alliterative, four-accent line, broken by
a strongly marked cæsura into two half-lines, which were in early
editions printed as short lines. The verse was occasionally extended to
six accents. In the normal verse there were two alliterated words in the
first half of the line, each of which received a strong accent; in the
second half there was one accented word in alliteration with the
alliterated words in the first half, and one other accented word not in
alliteration. A great license was allowed as to the number of unaccented
syllables, and as to their position in regard to the accented ones; and
this lent great freedom and vigor to the verse. When well constructed
and well read, it must have been very effective. There were of course
many variations from the normal number, three, of alliterated words, as
it would be impossible to find so many for every line.

Something of the quality of this verse-form may be felt in translations
which aim at the same effect. Notice the result in the following from
Professor Gummere's version of as election from 'Beowulf': -

"Then the warriors went, as the way was showed to them,
Under Heorot's roof; the hero stepped,
Hardy 'neath helm, till the hearth he neared."

In these verses it will be noted that the alliteration is complete in
the first and third, and that in the second it is incomplete.

A marked feature of the Anglo-Saxon poetry is parallelism, or the
repetition of an idea by means of new phrases or epithets, most
frequently within the limits of a single sentence. This proceeds from
the desire to emphasize attributes ascribed to the deity, or to some
person or object prominent in the sentence. But while the added epithets
have often a cumulative force, and are picturesque, yet it must be
admitted that they sometimes do not justify their introduction. This may
be best illustrated by an example. The following, in the translation of
Earle, is Cædmon's first hymn, composed between 658 and 680, and the
earliest piece of Anglo-Saxon poetry that we know to have had its origin
in England: -

"Now shall we glorify the guardian of heaven's realm,
The Maker's might and the thought of his mind;
The work of the Glory-Father, how He of every wonder,
He, the Lord eternal, laid the foundation.
He shaped erst for the sons of men
Heaven, their roof, Holy Creator;
The middle world, He, mankind's sovereign,
Eternal captain, afterwards created,
The land for men, Lord Almighty."

Many of the figurative expressions are exceedingly vigorous and poetic;
some to our taste not so much so. Note the epithets in "the lank wolf,"
"the wan raven," "bird greedy for slaughter," "the dewy-winged eagle,"
"dusky-coated," "crooked-beaked," "horny-beaked," "the maid,
fair-cheeked," "curly-locked," "elf-bright." To the Anglo-Saxon poet,
much that we call metaphorical was scarcely more than literal statement.
As the object pictured itself to his responsive imagination, he
expressed it with what was to him a direct realism. His lines are filled
with a profusion of metaphors of every degree of effectiveness. To him
the sea was "the water-street," "the swan-path," "the strife of the
waves," "the whale-path"; the ship was "the foamy-necked floater," "the
wave-farer," "the sea-wood," "the sea-horse"; the arrow was "the battle
adder"; the battle was "spear-play," "sword-play"; the prince was "the
ring-giver," "the gold-friend"; the throne was "the gift-stool"; the
body, "the bone-house"; the mind, "the breast-hoard."

Indeed, as it has been pointed out by many writers, the metaphor is
almost the only figure of the Anglo-Saxon poetry. The more developed
simile belongs to a riper and more reflective culture, and is
exceedingly rare in this early native product. It has been noted that
'Beowulf,' a poem of three thousand one hundred and eighty-four lines,
contains only four or five simple similes, and only one that is fully
carried out. "The ship glides away likest to a bird," "The monster's
eyes gleam like fire," are simple examples cited by Ten Brink, who gives
also the elaborate one, "The sword-hilt melted, likened to ice, when the
Father looseneth the chain of frost, and unwindeth the wave-ropes." But
even this simile is almost obliterated by the crowding metaphors.

Intensity, an almost abrupt directness, a lack of explanatory detail,
are more general characteristics, though in greatly varying degrees. As
some critic has well said, the Anglo-Saxon poet seems to presuppose a
knowledge of his subject-matter by those he addresses. Such a style is
capable of great swiftness of movement, and is well suited to rapid
description and narrative; but at times roughness or meagreness results.

The prevailing tone is one of sadness. In the lyric poetry, this is so
decided that all the Anglo-Saxon lyrics have been called elegies. This
note seems to be the echo of the struggle with an inhospitable climate,
dreary with rain, ice, hail, and snow; and of the uncertainties of life,
and the certainty of death. Suffering was never far off, and everything
was in the hands of Fate. This is true at least of the earlier poetry,
and the note is rarely absent even in the Christian lyrics. A more
cheerful strain is sometimes heard, as in the 'Riddles,' but it is
rather the exception; and any alleged humor is scarcely more than a
suspicion. Love and sentiment, in the modern sense, are not made the
subject of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and this must mean that they did not
enter into the Anglo-Saxon life with the same intensity as into modern
life. The absence of this beautiful motive has, to some degree, its
compensation in the exceeding moral purity of the whole literature. It
is doubtful whether it has its equal in this respect.

Anglo-Saxon prose displays, as a general thing, a simple, direct, and
clear style. There is, of course, a considerable difference between the
prose of the earlier and that of the later period, and individual
writers show peculiarities. It displays throughout a marked contrast
with the poetic style, in its freedom from parallelisms in thought and
phrase, from inversions, archaisms, and the almost excessive wealth of
metaphor and epithet. In its early stages, there is apparent perhaps a
poverty of resource, a lack of flexibility; but this charge cannot be
sustained against the best prose of the later period. In the
translations from the Latin it shows a certain stiffness, and becomes
sometimes involved, in the too conscientious effort of the translator to
follow the classic original.

No attempt will be made here to notice, or even to name, all the large
number of literary works of the Anglo-Saxons. It must be sufficient to
examine briefly a few of the most important and characteristic
productions of this really remarkable and prolific movement.

The 'Song of Widsith, the Far Traveler,' is now generally conceded to
be, in part at least, the oldest existing Anglo-Saxon poem. We do not
know when it assumed its present form; but it is certain that it was
after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, since it has interpolations
from the Christian scribe. The poem seems to give evidence of being a
growth from an original song by a wandering scôp, or poet, who claims to
have visited the Gothic king Eormanric, "the grim violator of treaties,"
who died in 375 or 376. But other kings are mentioned who lived in the
first half of the sixth century. It is probable, then, that it was begun
in the fourth century, and having been added to by successive gleemen,
as it was transmitted orally, was finally completed in the earlier part
of the sixth. It was then carried over to England, and there first
written down in Northumbria. It possesses great interest because of its
antiquity, and because of the light it throws upon the life of the
professional singer in those ancient times among the Teutons. It has a
long list of kings and places, partly historical, partly mythical or not
identified. The poem, though narrative and descriptive, is also lyrical.
We find here the strain of elegiac sadness, of regretful retrospection,
so generally present in Anglo-Saxon poetry of lyric character, and
usually much more pronounced than in 'Widsith.'

'Beowulf' is, in many respects, the most important poetical monument of
the Anglo-Saxons. The poem is undoubtedly of heathen origin, and the
evidence that it was a gradual growth, the result of grouping several
distinct songs around one central figure, seems unmistakable. We may
trace it, in its earliest stages, to the ancient home of the Angles in
North Germany. It was transplanted to England in the migration of the
tribes, and was edited in the present form by some unknown Northumbrian
poet. When this occurred we do not know certainly, but there seems good
reason for assuming the end of the seventh or the beginning of the
eighth century as the time.

The poem is epic in cast and epic in proportion. Although, judged by the
Homeric standard, it falls short in many respects of the complete form,
yet it may without violence be called an epic. The central figure,
Beowulf, a nobly conceived hero, possessing immense strength,
unflinching courage, a never-swerving sense of honor, magnanimity, and
generosity, the friend and champion of the weak against evil however
terrible, is the element of unity in the whole poem. It is in itself a
great honor to the race that they were able to conceive as their ideal a
hero so superior in all that constitutes true nobility to the Greek
ideal, Achilles. It is true that the poem consists of two parts,
connected by little more than the fact that they have the same hero at
different times of life; that episodes are introduced that do not blend
perfectly into the unity of the poem; and that there is a lack of repose
and sometimes of lucidity. Yet there is a dignity and vigor, and a large
consistency in the treatment of the theme, that is epic. Ten Brink
says: - "The poet's intensity is not seldom imparted to the listener....
The portrayals of battles, although much less realistic than the Homeric
descriptions, are yet at times superior to them, in so far as the
demoniac rage of war elicits from the Germanic fancy a crowding
affluence of vigorous scenes hastily projected in glittering lights of
grim half gloom." In addition to its great poetic merit, 'Beowulf' is of
the greatest importance to us on account of the many fine pictures of
ancient Teutonic life it presents.

In the merest outline, the argument of 'Beowulf' is as
follows: - Hrothgar, King of the Gar-Danes, has built a splendid hall,
called Heorot. This is the scene of royal festivity until a monster from
the fen, Grendel, breaks into it by night and devours thirty of the
king's thanes. From that time the hall is desolate, for no one can cope
with Grendel, and Hrothgar is in despair. Beowulf, the noble hero of the
Geats, in Sweden, hears of the terrible calamity, and with fourteen
companions sails across the sea to undertake the adventure. Hrothgar
receives him joyfully, and after a splendid banquet gives Heorot into
his charge. During the following night, Beowulf is attacked by Grendel;
and after one of his companions has been slain, he tears out the arm of
the monster, who escapes, mortally hurt, to his fen. On the morrow all
is rejoicing; but when night falls, the monster's mother attacks Heorot,
and kills Hrothgar's favorite thane. The next day, Beowulf pursues her
to her den under the waters of the fen, and after a terrific combat
slays her. The hero returns home to Sweden laden with gifts. This ends
the main thread of the first incident. In the second incident, after an
interval of fifty years, we find Beowulf an old man. He has been for
many years king of the Geats. A fire-breathing dragon, the guardian of a
great treasure, is devastating the land. The heroic old king,
accompanied by a party of thanes, attacks the dragon. All the thanes
save one are cowardly; but the old hero, with the aid of the faithful
one, slays the dragon, not, however, till he is fatally injured. Then
follow his death and picturesque burial.

In this sketch, stirring episodes, graphic descriptions, and fine
effects are all sacrificed. The poem itself is a noble one and the
English people may well be proud of preserving in it the first epic
production of the Teutonic race.

The 'Fight at Finnsburg' is a fine fragment of epic cast. The Finn saga
is at least as old as the Beowulf poem, since the gleeman at Hrothgar's
banquet makes it his theme. From the fragment and the gleeman's song we
perceive that the situation here is much more complex than is usual in
Anglo-Saxon poems, and involves a tragic conflict of passion.
Hildeburh's brother is slain through the treachery of her husband, Finn;
her son, partaking of Finn's faithlessness, falls at the hands of her
brother's men; in a subsequent counterplot, her husband is slain.
Besides the extraordinary vigor of the narrative, the theme has special
interest in that a woman is really the central figure, though not
treated as a heroine.

A favorite theme in the older lyric poems is the complaint of some
wandering scôp, driven from his home by the exigencies of those perilous
times. Either the singer has been bereft of his patron by death, or he
has been supplanted in his favor by some successful rival; and he passes
in sorrowful review his former happiness, and contrasts it with his
present misery. The oldest of these lyrics are of pagan origin, though
usually with Christian additions.

In the 'Wanderer,' an unknown poet pictures the exile who has fled
across the sea from his home. He is utterly lonely. He must lock his
sorrow in his heart. In his dream he embraces and kisses his lord, and
lays his head upon his knee, as of old. He awakes, and sees nothing but
the gray sea, the snow and hail, and the birds dipping their wings in
the waves. And so he reflects: the world is full of care; we are all in
the hands of Fate. Then comes the Christian sentiment: happy is he who
seeks comfort with his Father in heaven, with whom alone all things
are enduring.

Another fine poem of this class, somewhat similar to the 'Wanderer,' is
the 'Seafarer.' It is, however, distinct in detail and treatment, and
has its own peculiar beauty. In the 'Fortunes of Men,' the poet treats
the uncertainty of all things earthly, from the point of view of the
parent forecasting the ill and the good the future may bring to his
sons. 'Deor's Lament' possesses a genuine lyrical quality of high order.
The singer has been displaced by a rival, and finds consolation in his
grief from reciting the woes that others have endured, and reflects in
each instance, "That was got over, and so this may be." Other poems on
other subjects might be noticed here; as 'The Husband's Message,' where
the love of husband for wife is the theme, and 'The Ruin,' which
contains reflections suggested by a ruined city.

It is a remarkable fact that only two of these poets are known to us by
name, Cædmon and Cynewulf. We find the story of the inspiration, work,
and death of Cædmon, the earlier of these, told in the pages of Bede.
The date of his birth is not given, but his death fell in 680. He was a
Northumbrian, and was connected in a lay capacity with the great
monastery of Whitby. He was uneducated, and not endowed in his earlier
life with the gift of song. One night, after he had fled in
mortification from a feast where all were required to improvise and
sing, he received, as he slept, the divine inspiration. The next day he
made known his new gift to the authorities of the monastery. After he
had triumphantly made good his claims, he was admitted to holy orders,
and began his work of paraphrasing into noble verse portions of the
Scriptures that were read to him. Of the body of poetry that comes down
to us under his name, we cannot be sure that any is his, unless we
except the short passage given here. It is certainly the work of
different poets, and varies in merit. The evidence seems conclusive that
he was a poet of high order, that his influence was very great, and that
many others wrote in his manner. The actors and the scenery of the
Cædmonian poetry are entirely Anglo-Saxon, only the names and the
outline of the narrative being biblical; and the spirit of battle that
breathes in some passages is the same that we find in the heathen epic.

Cynewulf was most probably a Northumbrian, though this is sometimes
questioned. The dates of his birth and death are unknown. It seems
established, however, that his work belongs to the eighth century. A
great deal of controversy has arisen over a number of poems that have
been ascribed to him and denied to him with equal persistency. But we
stand upon sure ground in regard to four poems, the 'Christ,' the 'Fates
of the Apostles,' 'Juliana,' and 'Elene'; for he has signed them in
runes. If the runic enigma in the first of the 'Riddles' has been
correctly interpreted, then they, or portions of them, are his also. But
about this there is much doubt. The 'Andreas' and the 'Dream of the
Rood' may be mentioned as being of exceptional interest among the poems
that are almost certainly his. In the latter, he tells, in a personal
strain, the story of the appearance to him of the holy cross, and of his
conversion and dedication of himself to the service of Christ. The
'Elene,' generally considered the finest of his poems, is the story of
the miraculous finding of the holy cross by St. Helena, the mother of
the Emperor Constantine. The poet has lent great charm to the tradition
in his treatment. The poem sounds a triumphant note throughout, till we
reach the epilogue, where the poet speaks in his own person and in a
sadder tone.

The quality of Cynewulf's poetry is unequal; but when he is at his best,
he is a great poet and a great artist. His personality appears in direct
subjective utterance more plainly than does that of any other
Anglo-Saxon poet.

While we must pass over many fine Anglo-Saxon poems without mention,
there are two that must receive some notice. 'Judith' is an epic based
upon the book of Judith in the 'Apocrypha.' Only about one-fourth of it
has survived. The author is still unknown, in spite of many intelligent
efforts to determine to whom the honor belongs. The dates assigned to it
vary from the seventh to the tenth century; here, too, uncertainty
prevails: but we are at least sure that it is one of the best of the
Anglo-Saxon poems. It has been said that this work shows a more definite
plan and more conscious art than any other Anglo-Saxon poem. Brooke
finds it sometimes conventional in the form of expression, and denies it
the highest rank for that reason. But he does not seem to sustain the
charge. The two principal characters, the dauntless Judith and the
brutal Holofernes, stand out with remarkable distinctness, and a fine
dramatic quality has been noted by several critics. The epithets and
metaphors, the description of the drunken debauch, and the swift,
powerful narrative of the battle and the rout of the Assyrians, are in
the best Anglo-Saxon epic strain. The poem is distinctly Christian; for
the Hebrew heroine, with a naïve anachronism, prays thus: "God of
Creation, Spirit of Consolation, Son of the Almighty, I pray for Thy
mercy to me, greatly in need of it. Glory of the Trinity."

'The Battle of Maldon' is a ballad, containing an account of a fight
between the Northmen and the East Saxons under the Aldorman, Byrhtnoth.
The incident is mentioned in one MS. of the Chronicle under the date of
991; in another, under the date of 993. The poem is exceedingly graphic.
The poet seems filled with intense feeling, and may have been a
spectator, or may indeed have taken part in the struggle. He tells how
the brave old Aldorman disdains to use the advantage of his position,
which bade fair to give him victory. Like a boy, he cannot take a dare,
but fatuously allows the enemy to begin the battle upon an equal footing
with his own men. He pays for his noble folly with his life and the

Online LibraryUnknownLibrary of the World's Best Literature, Ancient and Modern — Volume 2 → online text (page 7 of 46)