1ANGLO-SAXON UNIT READING & NOTES
ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD 449-1066
This unit has to do with the Anglo-Saxon Period of English history and its literature. Click through the topics on the left. Each click will take you to a unique website of information. Items 2 - 7 are required for your reading and note-taking assignment. You don't need to repeat information found on two sites. The others are optional and enrichment.
So grab your note-book, set up each page in Cornell note-taking style, and discover some of the significant points in Anglo-Saxon history and literature. In addition to taking notes on items that catch your interests, conclude by noting the following:
1. Discover their mindset.
--- Views on Deity
--- Views on People
--- Views on Society
--- Views on Environment
--- Views on their Place in the World
2. Discover their literature
--- Representative texts and authors
--- Literary developments
--- Literary terms
3. Threads of meaning, connections to today
--- Where do you find similarities with this time and literature to today's?
--- What new literary or cultural connections are inspired by this period?
--- What do you find most interesting, meaningful, or unique about this period?
2Anglo-Saxon History | Britain Express
See particularly the links to Anglo-Saxon Life and Churches on this site.http://www.britainexpress.com/History/dark_ages_index.htm
3Anglo-Saxon History | BBC site
Read these two main sections you'll see in the introductory menu: OVERVIEW--Note these sections Invaders, Bede, Caedmon (otherwise don't be overwhelmed by the many names and places);and ANGLO-SAXON CULTURE Note the Timeline "Acts 1-2", Anglo-Saxons, and Society). Use the menu tabs down in the page to navigate to these two sections.http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/anglo_saxons/
4Anglo-Saxon History | Prof. Sommerville | U of WI
Read the first 3 pages of this website for a brief but detailed history of the period. Use the arrows at the bottom to navigate.http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/123/123%205%20Anglo%20Saxons%20I.htm
5Anglo-Saxons | Anglo-Saxon.net
This website has Anglo-Saxon literature besides Beowulf, a few shorter poems. Check out the "texts" or "literature" sections to see poems other than Beowulf. Optionally, you may find other information of interest: maps, lists of people, history.http://www.anglo-saxons.net/hwaet/
6Anglo-Saxon Literature | Free Dictionary.com
Here is a brief overview of the contents of Anglo-Saxon Literature from Free Dictionary.http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Anglo-Saxon+literature
7Beowulf | British Library
Background on the text of Beowulf from the British Library, which is where the original copy is kept.http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/englit/beowulf/
8Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons | BCC | YouTube
Watch the first 10 minutes (at least) of this hour-long video that features a recently found hoard of treasure in the UK. Note the culture information mentioned on military, literature, and religion. The historian mentions the Normans, which were the people who conquered the Anglo-Saxons and ended the period. If the page fails to load below, click on Show URL and go directly to the page.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tsWLm0tY6M
9Beowulf | Harvard Classics | Bartleby
A modern translation of the text of Beowulf from Bartleby.com. This can serve as an alternative to your class text. Bartleby.com is a website that offers electronic versions of texts out of copyright and in the public domain.http://www.bartleby.com/49/1/1.html
10British History Timeline | BBC
This interactive timeline is fun to explore. Click "Explore the timeline" and then move your mouse over the line of points in time at the bottom. Click again to go in for details.http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/interactive/timelines/british/index_embed.shtml
11The Literary Context of Beowulf | W.W. Norton & Co.
This is a brief but in-depth article on the literary contexts of Beowulf. If this is of interest to you, don't miss the subtopics listed on the page, to the left.http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/middleages/topic_4/welcome.htm
12A History of Anglo-Saxon Literature
From The History of English Literature. By William Vaugh Moody and William Morss Lovett. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906. Print. Public Domain.
This article gives a narrative history to the literature of the Anglo-Saxon period.
13Anglo-Saxon from Halleck's English Literature:
This chapter from a book on English Literature covers the highlights of the mindset and then the text of BEOWULF in a well-crafted narrative. The only somewhat confusing aspect for the novice is the use of quotations from great works in the first section.
CHAPTER I: FROM 449 A.D. TO THE NORMAN CONQUEST, 1066
Subject Matter and Aim.—The history of English literature traces the development of the best poetry and prose written in English by the inhabitants of the British Isles. For more than twelve hundred years the Anglo-Saxon race has been producing this great literature, which includes among its achievements the incomparable work of Shakespeare.
This literature is so great in amount that the student who approaches the study without a guide is usually bewildered. He needs a history of English literature for the same reason that a traveler in England requires a guidebook. Such a history should do more than indicate where the choicest treasures of literature may be found; it should also show the interesting stages of development; it should emphasize some of the ideals that have made the Anglo-Saxons one of the most famous races in the world; and it should inspire a love for the reading of good literature.
No satisfactory definition of "literature" has ever been framed. Milton's conception of it was "something so written to after times, as they should not willingly let it die." Shakespeare's working definition of literature was something addressed not to after times but to an eternal present, and invested with such a touch of nature as to make the whole world kin. When he says of Duncan:—
"After life's fitful fever he sleeps well,"
he touches the feelings of mortals of all times and opens the door for imaginative activity, causing us to wonder why life should be a fitful fever, followed by an incommunicable sleep. Much of what we call literature would not survive the test of Shakespeare's definition; but true literature must appeal to imagination and feeling as well as to intellect. No mere definition can take the place of what may be called a feeling for literature. Such a feeling will develop as the best English poetry and prose: are sympathetically read. Wordsworth had this feeling when he defined the poets as those:—
"Who gave us nobler loves and nobler cares."
The Mission of English Literature.—It is a pertinent question to ask, What has English literature to offer?
In the first place, to quote Ben Jonson:—
"The thirst that from the soul cloth rise
Doth ask a drink divine."
English literature is of preëminent worth in helping to supply that thirst. It brings us face to face with great ideals, which increase our sense of responsibility for the stewardship of life and tend to raise the level of our individual achievement. We have a heightened sense of the demands which life makes and a better comprehension of the "far-off divine event" toward which we move, after we have heard Swinburne's ringing call:—
"…this thing is God,
To be man with thy might,
To grow straight in the strength
of thy spirit, and live out thy life
as the light."
We feel prompted to act on the suggestion of—
"…him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones,
That men may rise on striping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things."
In the second place, the various spiritual activities demanded for the interpretation of the best things in literature add to enjoyment. This pleasure, unlike that which arises from physical gratification, increases with age, and often becomes the principal source of entertainment as life advances. Shakespeare has Prospero say:—
Was dukedom large enough."
The suggestions from great minds disclose vistas that we might never otherwise see. Browning truly says:—
"…we're made so that we love First when we see them painted, things we have passed Perhaps a hundred tunes nor cared to see."
Sometimes it is only after reading Shakespeare that we can see—
"…winking Mary buds begin
To ope their golden eyes.
With everything that pretty is."
and only after spending some time in Wordsworth's company that the common objects of our daily life become invested with—
"The glory and the freshness of a dream."
In the third place, we should emphasize the fact that one great function of English literature is to bring deliverance to souls weary with routine, despondent, or suffering the stroke of some affliction. In order to transfigure the everyday duties of life, there is need of imagination, of a vision such as the poets give. Without such a vision the tasks of life are drudgery. The dramas of the poets bring relief and incite to nobler action.
"The soul hath need of prophet and redeemer.
Her outstretched wings against her prisoning bars
She waits for truth, and truth is with the dreamer
Persistent as the myriad light of stars."
We need to listen to a poet like Browning, who—
"Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, tho' right were worsted, wrong would triumph.
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake."
In the fourth place, the twentieth century is emphasizing the fact that neither happiness nor perpetuity of government is possible without the development of a spirit of service,—a truth long since taught by English literature. We may learn this lesson from Beowulf, the first English epic, from Alfred the Great, from William Langland, and from Chaucer's Parish Priest. All Shakespeare's greatest and happiest characters, all the great failures of his dramas, are sermons on this text. In The Tempest he presents Ariel, tendering his service to Prospero:—
"All hail, great master! grave sir, hail! I come
To answer thy best pleasure."
Shakespeare delights to show Ferdinand winning Miranda through service, and Caliban remaining an abhorred creature because he detested service. Much of modern literature is an illuminated text on the glory of service. Coleridge voiced for all the coming years what has grown to be almost an elemental feeling to the English-speaking race:—
"He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small."
The Home and Migrations of the Anglo-Saxon Race.—Just as there was a time when no English foot had touched the shores of America, so there was a period when the ancestors of the English lived far away from the British Isles. For nearly four hundred years prior to the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, Britain had been a Roman province. In 410 A.D. the Romans withdrew their legions from Britain to protect Rome herself against swarms of Teutonic invaders. About 449 a band of Teutons, called Jutes, left Denmark, landed on the Isle of Thanet (in the north-eastern part of Kent), and began the conquest of Britain. Warriors from the tribes of the Angles and the Saxons soon followed, and drove westward the original inhabitants, the Britons or Welsh, i.e. foreigners, as the Teutons styled the natives.
Before the invasion of Britain, the Teutons inhabited the central part of Europe as far south as the Rhine, a tract which in a large measure coincides with modern Germany. The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons were different tribes of Teutons. These ancestors of the English dwelt in Denmark and in the lands extending southward along the North Sea.
The Angles, an important Teutonic tribe, furnished the name for the
new home, which was called Angle-land, afterward shortened into
England. The language spoken by these tribes is generally called
Anglo-Saxon or Saxon.
The Training of the Race.—The climate is a potent factor in determining the vigor and characteristics of a race. Nature reared the Teuton like a wise but not indulgent parent. By every method known to her, she endeavored to render him fit to colonize and sway the world. Summer paid him but a brief visit. His companions were the frost, the fluttering snowflake, the stinging hail. For music, instead of the soft notes of a shepherd's pipe under blue Italian or Grecian skies, he listened to the north wind whistling among the bare branches, or to the roar of an angry northern sea upon the bleak coast.
The feeble could not withstand the rigor of such a climate, in the absence of the comforts of civilization. Only the strongest in each generation survived; and these transmitted to their children increasing vigor. Warfare was incessant not only with nature but also with the surrounding tribes. Nature kept the Teuton in such a school until he seemed fit to colonize the world and to produce a literature that would appeal to humanity in every age.
The Early Teutonic Religion.—In the early days on the continent, before the Teuton had learned of Christianity, his religious beliefs received their most pronounced coloring from the rigors of his northern climate, from the Frost Giants, the personified forces of evil, with whom he battled. The kindly, life-bringing spring and summer, which seemed to him earth's redeeming divinity, were soon slain by the arrows that came from the winter's quivers. Not even Thor, the wielder of the thunderbolt, nor Woden, the All-Father, delayed the inevitable hour when the dusk of winter came, when the voice of Baldur could no longer be heard awaking earth to a new life. The approach of the "twilight of the gods," the Götterdämmerung, was a stern reality to the Teuton.
Although instinct with gloomy fatalism, this religion taught bravery. None but the brave were invited to Valhalla to become Woden's guest. The brave man might perish, but even then he won victory; for he was invited to sit with heroes at the table of the gods. "None but the brave deserves the fair," is merely a modern softened rendering of the old spirit.
The Christian religion, which was brought to the Teuton after he had come to England, found him already cast in a semi-heroic mold. But before he could proceed on his matchless career of world conquest, before he could produce a Shakespeare and plant his flag in the sunshine of every land, it was necessary for this new faith to develop in him the belief that a man of high ideals, working in unison with the divinity that shapes his end, may rise superior to fate and be given the strength to overcome the powers of evil and to mold the world to his will. The intensity of this faith, swaying an energetic race naturally fitted to respond to the great moral forces of the universe, has enabled the Anglo-Saxon to produce the world's greatest literature, to evolve the best government for developing human capabilities, and to make the whole world feel the effect of his ideals and force of character. At the close of the nineteenth century, a French philosopher wrote a book entitled Anglo-Saxon Superiority, In What Does it Consist? His answer was, "In self-reliance and in the happiness found in surmounting the material and moral difficulties of life." A study of the literature in which the ideals of the race are most artistically and effectively embodied will lead to much the same conclusion.
The History of Anglo-Saxon England.—The first task of the Anglo-Saxons after settling in England was to subdue the British, the race that has given King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table to English literature. By 600 A.D., after a century and a half of struggle, the Anglo-Saxons had probably occupied about half of England.
They did not build on the civilization that Rome had left when she withdrew in 410, but destroyed the towns and lived in the country. The typical Englishman still loves to dwell in a country home. The work of Anglo-Saxon England consisted chiefly in tilling the soil and in fighting.
The year 597 marks an especially important date, the coming of St.
Augustine, who brought the Christian faith to the Anglo-Saxons.
Education, literature, and art followed finding their home in the
For nearly 400 years after coming to England, the different tribes were not united under one ruler. Not until 830 did Egbert, king of the West Saxons, become overlord of England. Before and after this time, the Danes repeatedly plundered the land. They finally settled in the eastern part above the Thames. Alfred (849-900), the greatest of Anglo-Saxon rulers, temporarily checked them, but in the latter part of the tenth century they were more troublesome, and in 1017 they made Canute, the Dane, king of England. Fortunately the Danes were of the same race, and they easily amalgamated with the Saxons.
These invasions wasted the energies of England during more than two centuries, but this long period of struggle brought little change to the institutions or manner of life in Anglo-Saxon England. The witan, or assembly of wise men, the forerunner of the present English parliament, met in 1066 and chose Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king.
During these six hundred rears, the Anglo-Saxons conquered the British, accepted Christianity, fought the Danes, finally amalgamating with them, brought to England a lasting representative type of government, established the fundamental customs of the race, surpassed all contemporary western European peoples in the production of literature, and were ready to receive fresh impetus from the Normans in 1066.
The Anglo-Saxon Language.—Our oldest English literature is written in the language spoken by the Angles and the Saxons. This at first sight looks like a strange tongue to one conversant with modern English only; but the language that we employ to-day has the framework, the bone and sinew, of the earlier tongue. Modern English is no more unlike Anglo-Saxon than a bearded man is unlike his former childish self. A few examples will show the likeness and the difference. "The noble queen" would in Anglo-Saxon be s=eo aeðele cw=en; "the noble queen's," ð=aere aeðelan cw=ene. S=eo is the nominative feminine singular, ð=aere the genitive, of the definite article. The adjective and the noun also change their forms with the varying cases. In its inflections, Anglo-Saxon resembles its sister language, the modern German.
After the first feeling of strangeness has passed away, it is easy to recognize many of the old words. Take, for instance, this from Beowulf:—
"…ð=y h=e ðone f=eond ofercw=om, gehn=aegde helle g=ast."
Here are eight words, apparently strange, but even a novice soon recognizes five of them: h=e, f=eond (fiend), ofercw=om (overcame), helle (hell), g=ast (ghost). The word ðone, strange as it looks, is merely the article "the."
…therefore he overcame the fiend,
Subdued the ghost of hell.
Let us take from the same poem another passage, containing the famous simile:—
"…l=eoht inne st=od, efne sw=a of hefene h=adre sc=ineð rodores candel."
Of these eleven words, seven may be recognized: l=eoht (light), inne (in), st=od (stood), of, hefene (heaven),sc=ineð (shineth), candel (candle).
…a light stood within,
Even so from heaven serenely shineth
The firmament's candle.
Some prefer to use "Old English" in place of "Anglo-Saxon" in order to emphasize the continuity of the development of the language. It is, however, sometimes convenient to employ different terms for different periods of development of the same entity. We do not insist on calling a man a "grown boy," although there may be no absolute line of demarcation between boy and man.
Earliest Anglo-Saxon Literature.—As with the Greeks and Romans, so with the Teutons, poetry afforded the first literary outlet for the feelings. The first productions were handed down by memory. Poetry is easily memorized and naturally lends itself to singing and musical accompaniment. Under such circumstances, even prose would speedily fall into metrical form. Poetry is, furthermore, the most suitable vehicle of expression for the emotions. The ancients, unlike modern writers, seldom undertook to make literature unless they felt so deeply that silence was impossible.
The Form of Anglo-Saxon Poetry.—Each line is divided Into two parts by a major pause. Because each of these parts was often printed as a complete line in old texts, Beowulf has sometimes been called a poem of 6368 lines, although it has but 3184.
A striking characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry is consonantal alliteration; that is, the repetition of the same consonant at the beginning of words in the same line:—
"Grendel gongan; Godes yrre baer."
Grendel going; God's anger bare.
The usual type of Anglo-Saxon poetry has two alliterations in the first half of the line and one in the second. The lines vary considerably in the number of syllables. The line from Beowulf quoted just above has nine syllables. The following line from the same poem has eleven:—
"Flota f=amig-heals, fugle gel=icost."
The floater foamy-necked, to a fowl most like.
This line, also from Beowulf has eight syllables:—
"N=ipende niht, and norðan wind."
Noisome night, and northern wind.
Vowel alliteration is less common. Where this is employed, the vowels are generally different, as is shown in the principal words of the following line:—
"On =ead, on =aeht, on eorcan st=an."
On wealth, on goods, on precious stone.
End rime is uncommon, but we must beware of thinking that there is no rhythm, for that is a pronounced characteristic.
Anglo-Saxon verse was intended to be sung, and hence rhythm and accent or stress are important. Stress and the length of the line are varied; but we usually find that the four most important words, two in each half of the line, are stressed on their most important syllable. Alliteration usually shows where to place three stresses. A fourth stress generally falls on a word presenting an emphatic idea near the end of the line.
The Manuscripts that have handed down Anglo-Saxon Literature.—The earliest Anglo-Saxon poetry was transmitted by the memories of men. Finally, with the slow growth of learning, a few acquired the art of writing, and transcribed on parchment a small portion of the current songs. The introduction of Christianity ushered in prose translations and a few original compositions, which were taken down on parchment and kept in the monasteries.
The study of Anglo-Saxon literature is comparatively recent, for its treasures have not been long accessible. Its most famous poem, Beowulf, was not printed until the dawn of the nineteenth century. In 1822 Dr. Blume, a German professor of law, happened to find in a monastery at Vercelli, Italy, a large volume of Anglo-Saxon manuscript, containing a number of fine poems and twenty-two sermons. This is now known as the Vercelli Book. No one knows how it happened to reach Italy. Another large parchment volume of poems and miscellany was deposited by Bishop Leofric at the cathedral of Exeter in Devonshire, about 1050 A.D. This collection, one of the prized treasures of that cathedral, is now called the Exeter Book.
Many valuable manuscripts were destroyed at the dissolution of the monasteries in the time of Henry VIII., between 1535 and 1540. John Bale, a contemporary writer, says that "those who purchased the monasteries reserved the books, some to scour their candlesticks, some to rub their boots, some they sold to the grocers and soap sellers, and some they sent over sea to the bookbinders, not in small numbers, but at times whole ships full, to the wonder of foreign nations."
The Anglo-Saxon Scop and Gleeman.—Our earliest poetry was made current and kept fresh in memory by the singers. The kings and nobles often attached to them a scop, or maker of verses. When the warriors, after some victorious battle, were feasting at their long tables, the banquet was not complete without the songs of the scop. While the warriors ate the flesh of boar and deer, and warmed their blood with horns of foaming ale, the scop, standing where the blaze from a pile of logs disclosed to him the grizzly features of the men, sang his most stirring songs, often accompanying them with the music of a rude harp. As the feasters roused his enthusiasm with their applause, he would sometimes indulge in an outburst of eloquent extempore song. Not infrequently the imagination of some king or noble would be fired, and he would sing of his own great deeds.
We read in Beowulf that in Hrothgar's famous hall—
"…ð=aer was hearpan sw=eg, swutol sang scopes."
…there was sound of harp
Loud the singing of the scop.
In addition to the scop, who was more or less permanently attached to the royal court or hall of a noble, there was a craft of gleemen who roved from hall to hall. In the song of Widsið we catch a glimpse of the life of a gleeman:—
"Sw=a scriðende gesceapum hweorfað
gl=eomen gumena geond grunda fela."
Thus roving, with shapéd songs there wander
The gleemen of the people through many lands.
The scop was an originator of poetry, the gleeman more often a mere repeater, although this distinction in the use of the terms was not observed in later times.
The Songs of Scop and Gleeman.—The subject matter of these songs was suggested by the most common experiences of the time. These were with war, the sea, and death.
The oldest Anglo-Saxon song known, which is called Widsið or the Far Traveler, has been preserved in the Exeter Book. This song was probably composed in the older Angle-land on the continent and brought to England in the memories of the singers. The poem is an account of the wanderings of a gleeman over a great part of Europe. Such a song will mean little to us unless we can imaginatively represent the circumstances under which it was sung, the long hall with its tables of feasting, drinking warriors, the firelight throwing weird shadows among the smoky rafters. The imagination of the warriors would be roused as similar experiences of their own were suggested by these lines in Widsið's song:—
"Ful oft of ð=am h=eape hw=inende fl=eag
giellende g=ar on grome ð=eode."
Full oft from that host hissing flew
The whistling spear on the fierce folk.
The gleeman ends this song with two thoughts characteristic of the poets of the Saxon race. He shows his love fur noble deeds, and he next thinks of the shortness of life, as he sings:—
"In mortal court his deeds are not unsung,
Such as a noble man mill show to men,
Till all doth flit away, both life and light."
A greater scop, looking at life through Saxon eyes, sings:—
"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."
The scop in the song called The Wanderer (Exeter Book) tells how fleeting are riches, friend, kinsman, maiden,—all the "earth-stead," and he also makes us think of Shakespeare's "insubstantial pageant faded" which leaves "not a rack behind."
Another old song, also found in the Exeter Book, is the Seafarer. We must imagine the scop recalling vivid experiences to our early ancestors with this song of the sea:—
"Hail flew in hard showers.
And nothing I heard
But the wrath of the waters,
The icy-cold way
At times the swan's song;
In the scream of the gannet
I sought for my joy,
In the moan of the sea whelp
For laughter of men,
In the song of the sea-mew
For drinking of mead."
To show that love of the sea yet remains one of the characteristics of English poetry, we may quote by way of comparison a song sung more than a thousand years later, in Victoria's reign:—
"The wind is as iron that rings,
The foam heads loosen and flee;
It swells and welters and swings,
The pulse of the tide of the sea.
Let the wind shake our flag like a feather,
Like the plumes of the foam of the sea!
* * * * *
In the teeth of the hard glad a weather,
In the blown wet face of the sea."
Kipling in A Song of the English says of the sea:—
"…there's never a wave of all her waves
But marks our English dead."
Another song from the Exeter Book is called The Fortunes of Men.
It gives vivid pictures of certain phases of life among the
"One shall sharp hunger slay;
One shall the storms beat down;
One be destroyed by darts,
One die in war.
Orre shall live losing
The light of his eyes,
Feel blindly with his fingers;
And one lame of foot.
With sinew-wound wearily
Musing and mourning;
With death in his mind.
* * * * *
One shall die by the dagger,
In wrath, drenched with ale,
Wild through the wine, on the mead bench
Too swift with his words
Too swift with his words;
Shall the wretched one lose."
The songs that we have noted, together with Beowulf, the greatest of them all, will give a fair idea of scopic poetry.
The Oldest Epic of the Teutonic Race.—The greatest monument of Anglo-Saxon poetry is called Beowulf, from the name of its hero. His character and exploits give unity and dignity to the poem and raise it to the rank of an epic.
The subject matter is partly historical and partly mythical. The deeds and character of an actual hero may have furnished the first suggestions for the songs, which were finally elaborated into Beowulf, as we now have it. The poem was probably a long time in process of evolution, and many different scops doubtless added new episodes to the song, altering it by expansion and contraction under the inspiration of different times and places. Finally, it seems probable that some one English poet gave the work its present form, making it a more unified whole, and incorporating in it Christian opinions.
We do not know when the first scop sang of Beowulf's exploits; but he probably began before the ancestors of the English came to England. We are unable to ascertain how long Beowulf was in process of evolution; but there is internal evidence for thinking that part of the poem could not have been composed before 500 A.D. Ten Brink, a great German authority, thinks that Beowulf was given its present form not far from 700 A.D. The unique manuscript in the British Museum is written in the West Saxon dialect of Alfred the Great's time (849-901).
The characters, scenery, and action of Beowulf belong to the older Angle-land on the continent of Europe; but the poem is essentially English, even though the chief action is laid in what is now known as Denmark and the southern part of Sweden. Hrothgar's hall, near which the hero performed two of his great exploits, was probably on the island of Seeland.
Lo! we, of the Gar-Danes in distant days,
The folk-kings' fame have found.
How deeds of daring the aethelings did.
Oft Scyld-Scefing from hosts of schathers,
From many men the mead seats [reft].
The student who wishes to enter into the spirit of the poem will do well to familiarize himself with the position of these coasts, and with a description of their natural features in winter as well as in summer. Heine says of the sea which Beowulf sailed:—
"Before me rolleth a waste of water … and above me go rolling the storm clouds, the formless dark gray daughters of air, which from the sea in cloudy buckets scoop up the water, ever wearied lifting and lifting, and then pour it again in the sea, a mournful, wearisome business. Over the sea, flat on his face, lies the monstrous, terrible North Wind, sighing and sinking his voice as in secret, like an old grumbler; for once in good humor, unto the ocean he talks, and he tells her wonderful stories."
Beowulf's Three Great Exploits.—The hero of the poem engaged in three great contests, all of which were prompted by unselfishness and by a desire to relieve human misery. Beowulf had much of the spirit that animates the social worker to-day. If such a hero should live in our time, he would probably be distinguished fur social service, for fighting the forces of evil which cripple or destroy so many human beings.
Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, built a hall, named Heorot, where his followers could drink mead, listen to the scop, enjoy the music of the harp, and find solace in social intercourse during the dreary winter evenings.
"So liv'd on all happy the host of the kinsmen
In game and in glee, until one night began,
A fiend out of hell-pit, the framing of evil,
And Grendel forsooth the grim guest was hight,
The mighty mark-strider the holder of moorland,
The fen and the fastness."
This monster, Grendel, came from the moors and devoured thirty of the thanes. For twelve winters he visited Heorot and killed some of the guests whenever he heard the sound of festivity in the hall, until at length the young hero Beowulf, who lived a day's sail from Hrothgar, determined to rescue Heorot from this curse. The youth selected fourteen warriors and on a "foamy-necked floater, most like to a bird," he sailed to Hrothgar.
Beowulf stated his mission, and he and his companions determined to remain in Heorot all night. Grendel heard them and came.
"…he quickly laid hold of
A soldier asleep, suddenly tore him,
Bit his bone-prison, the blood drank in currents,
Swallowed in mouthfuls."
Bare-handed, Beowulf grappled with the monster, and they wrestled up and down the hall, which was shaken to its foundations. This terrible contest ended when Beowulf tore away the arm and shoulder of Grendel, who escaped to the marshes to die.
In honor of the victory, Hrothgar gave to Beowulf many presents and a banquet in Heorot. After the feast, the warriors slept in the hall, but Beowulf went to the palace. He had been gone but a short time, when in rushed Grendel's mother, to avenge the death of her son. She seized a warrior, the king's dearest friend, and carried him away. In the morning, the king said to Beowulf:—
"My trusty friend AEschere is dead… The cruel hag has wreaked on him her vengeance. The country folk said there were two of them, one the semblance of a woman; the other the specter of a man. Their haunt is in the remote land, in the crags of the wolf, the wind-beaten cliffs, and untrodden bogs, where the dismal stream plunges into the drear abyss of an awful lake, overhung with a dark and grizzly wood rooted down to the water's edge, where a lurid flame plays nightly on the surface of the flood—and there lives not the man who knows its depth! So dreadful is the place that the hunted stag, hard driven by the hounds, will rather die on the bank than find a shelter there. A place of terror! When the wind rises, the waves mingle hurly-burly with the clouds, the air is stifling and rumbles with thunder. To thee alone we look for relief."
Beowulf knew that a second and harder contest was at hand, but without hesitation he followed the bloody trail of Grendel's mother, until it disappeared at the edge of a terrible flood. Undaunted by the dragons and serpents that made their home within the depths, he grasped a sword and plunged beneath the waves. After sinking what seemed to him a day's space, he saw Grendel's mother, who came forward to meet him. She dragged him into her dwelling, where there was no water, and the fight began. The issue was for a time doubtful; but at last Beowulf ran her through with a gigantic sword, and she fell dead upon the floor of her dwelling. A little distance away, he saw the dead body of Grendel. The hero cut off the head of the monster and hastened away to Hrothgar's court. After receiving much praise and many presents, Beowulf and his warriors sailed to their own land, where he ruled as king for fifty years.
He engaged in his third and hardest conflict when he was old. A firedrake, angered at the loss of a part of a treasure, which he had for three hundred years been guarding in a cavern, laid waste the land in the hero's kingdom. Although Beowulf knew that this dragon breathed flames of fire and that mortal man could not long withstand such weapons, he sought the cavern which sheltered the destroyer and fought the most terrible battle of his life. He killed the dragon, but received mortal hurt from the enveloping flames. The old hero had finally fallen; but he had through life fought a good fight, and he could say as the twilight passed into the dark:—
"I have ruled the people fifty years; no folk-king was there of them that dwelt about me durst touch me with his sword or cow me through terror. I bided at home the hours of destiny, guarded well mine own, sought not feuds with guile, swore not many an oath unjustly."
The poem closes with this fitting epitaph for the hero:—
"Quoth they that he was a world-king forsooth,
The mildest of all men, unto men kindest,
To his folk the most gentlest, most yearning of fame."
Wherein Beowulf is Typical of the Anglo-Saxon Race.—Beowulf is by far the most important Anglo-Saxon poem, because it presents in the rough the persistent characteristics of the race. This epic shows the ideals of our ancestors, what they held most dear, the way they lived and died.
I. We note the love of liberty and law, the readiness to fight any dragon that threatened these. The English Magna Charta and Petition of Right and the American Declaration of Independence are an extension of the application of the same principles embodied in Beowulf. The old-time spirit of war still prevails in all branches of the race; but the contest is to-day directed against dragons of a different type from Grendel,—against myriad forms of industrial and social injustice and against those forces which have been securing special privileges for some and denying equal opportunity for all.
II. Beowulf is a recognition in general of the great moral forces of the universe. The poem upholds the ideals of personal manliness, bravery, loyalty, devotion to duty. The hero has the ever-present consciousness that death is preferable to dishonor. He taught his thane to sing:—
"Far better stainless death
Than life's dishonored breath."
III. In this poem, the action outweighs the words. The keynote to Beowulf is deeds. In New England, more than a thousand years later, Thoreau wrote, "Be not simply good; be good for something." In reading other literatures, for instance the Celtic, we often find that the words overbalance the action. The Celt tells us that when two bulls fought, the "sky was darkened by the turf thrown up by their feet and by the foam from their mouths. The province rang with their roar and the inhabitants hid in caves or climbed the hills."
Again, more attention is paid to the worth of the subject matter and to sincerity of utterance than to mere form or polish. The literature of this race has usually been more distinguished for the value of the thought than for artistic presentation. Prejudice is felt to-day against matter that relies mainly on art to secure effects.
IV. Repression of sentiment is a marked characteristic of Beowulf and it still remains a peculiarity of the Anglo-Saxon race. Some people say vastly more than they feel. This race has been inclined to feel more than it expresses. When it was transplanted to New England, the same characteristic was prominent, the same apparent contradiction between sentiment and stern, unrelenting devotion to duty. In Snow Bound, the New England poet, Whittier, paints this portrait of a New England maiden, still Anglo-Saxon to the core:—
"A full, rich nature, free to trust,
Truthful and almost sternly just,
Impulsive, earnest, prompt to act,
And make her generous thought a fact,
Keeping with many a light disguise
The secret of self-sacrifice."
No matter what stars now shine over them, the descendants of the English are still truthful and sternly just; they still dislike to give full expression to their feelings; they still endeavor to translate thoughts into deeds, and in this world where all need so much help, they take self-sacrifice as a matter of course. The spirit of Beowulf, softened and consecrated by religion, still persists in Anglo-Saxon thought and action.
THE CAEDMONIAN CYCLE
Caedmon.—In 597 St. Augustine began to teach the Christian religion to the Anglo-Saxons. The results of this teaching were shown in the subsequent literature. In what is known as Caedmon's Paraphrase, the next great Anglo-Saxon epic, there is no decrease in the warlike spirit. Instead of Grendel, we have Satan as the arch-enemy against whom the battle rages.
Caedmon, who died in 680, was until middle life a layman attached to the monastery at Whitby, on the northeast coast of Yorkshire. Since the Paraphrase has been attributed to Caedmon on the authority of the Saxon historian Bede, born in 673, we shall quote Bede himself on the subject, from his famous Ecclesiastical History:—
"Caedmon, having lived in a secular habit until he was well advanced in years, had never learned anything of versifying; for which reason, being sometimes at entertainments, where it was agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in their turns, when he saw the instrument come toward him, he rose from table and returned home.
"Having done so at a certain time, and gone out of the house where the entertainment was, to the stable, where he had to take care of the horses that night, he there composed himself to rest at the proper time; a person appeared to him in his sleep, and, saluting him by his name, said, 'Caedmon, sing some song to me.' He answered, 'I cannot sing; for that was the reason why I left the entertainment and retired to this place, because I could not sing.' The other who talked to him replied, 'However, you shall sing.' 'What shall I sing?' rejoined he. 'Sing the beginning of created beings,' said the other. Hereupon he presently began to sing verses to the praise of God."
Caedmon remembered the poetry that he had composed in his dreams, and repeated it in the morning to the inmates of the monastery. They concluded that the gift of song was divinely given and invited him to enter the monastery and devote his time to poetry.
Of Caedmon's work Bede says:—
"He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis: and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the land of promise, with many other histories from Holy Writ; the incarnation, passion, resurrection of our Lord, and his ascension into heaven; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the Apostles; also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven."
The Authorship and Subject Matter of the Caedmonian Cycle.—The first edition of the Paraphrase was published in 1655 by Junius, an acquaintance of Milton. Junius attributed the entire Paraphrase to Caedmon, on the authority of the above quotations from Bede.
[Illustration: FACSIMILE OF BEGINNING OF JUNIAN MANUSCRIPT OF
For us it is mickle right that we should praise with words, love with our hearts, the Lord of the heavens, the glorious King of the people. He is the mighty power, the chief of all exalted creatures, Lord Almighty.
The Paraphrase is really composed of three separate poems: the Genesis, the Exodus, and the Daniel; and these are probably the works of different writers. Critics are not agreed whether any of these poems in their present form can be ascribed to Caedmon. The Genesis shows internal evidence of having been composed by several different writers, but some parts of this poem may be Caedmon's own work. The Genesis, like Milton's Paradise Lost, has for its subject matter the fall of man and its consequences. The Exodus, the work of an unknown writer, is a poem of much originality, on the escape of the children of Israel from Egypt, their passage through the Red Sea, and the destruction of Pharaoh's host. The Daniel, an uninteresting poem of 765 lines, paraphrases portions of the book of Daniel relating to Nebuchadnezzar's dreams, the fiery furnace, and Belshazzar's feast.
Characteristics of the Poetry.—No matter who wrote the Paraphrase, we have the poetry, a fact which critics too often overlook. Though the narrative sometimes closely follows the Biblical account in Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, there are frequent unfettered outbursts of the imagination. The Exodus rings with the warlike notes of the victorious Teutonic race.
The Genesis possesses special interest for the student, since many of its strong passages show a marked likeness to certain parts of Milton's Paradise Lost. As some critics have concluded that Milton must have been familiar with the Caedmonian Genesis, it will be instructive to note the parallelism between the two poems. Caedmon's hell is "without light and full of flame." Milton's flames emit no light; they only make "darkness visible." The following lines are from the Genesis:—
"The Lord made anguish a reward, a home
In banishment, hell groans, hard pain, and bade
That torture house abide the joyless fall.
When with eternal night and sulphur pains,
Fullness of fire, dread cold, reek and red flames,
He knew it filled."
With this description we may compare these lines from Milton:—
"A dungeon horrible, on all sides round.
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible.
…a fiery deluge, fed
With ever burning sulphur unconsumed."
In Caedmon "the false Archangel and his band lay prone in liquid fire, scarce visible amid the clouds of rolling smoke." In Milton, Satan is shown lying "prone on the flood," struggling to escape "from off the tossing of these fiery waves," to a plain "void of light," except what comes from "the glimmering of these livid flames." The older poet sings with forceful simplicity:—
"Then comes, at dawn, the east wind, keen with frost."
"…the parching air Burns frore, and cold performs the effect of fire."
When Satan rises on his wings to cross the flaming vault, the Genesis gives in one line an idea that Milton expands into two and a half:—
"Swang ðaet f=yr on tw=a f=eondes craefte."
Struck the fire asunder with fiendish craft.
"…on each hand the flames,
Driven backward, slope their pointing spires, and, rolled
In billows, leave i' th' midst a horrid vale."
It is not certain that Milton ever knew of the existence of the Caedmonian Genesis; for he was blind three years before it was published. But whether he knew of it or not, it is a striking fact that the temper of the Teutonic mind during a thousand years should have changed so little toward the choice and treatment of the subject of an epic, and that the first great poem known to have been written on English soil should in so many points have anticipated the greatest epic of the English race.
THE CYNEWULF CYCLE
Cynewulf is the only great Anglo-Saxon poet who affixed his name to certain poems and thus settled the question of their authorship. We know nothing of his life except what we infer from his poetry. He was probably born near the middle of the eighth century, and it is not unlikely that he passed part of his youth as a thane of some noble. He became a man of wide learning, well skilled in "wordcraft" and in the Christian traditions of the time. Such learning could then hardly have been acquired outside of some monastery whither he may have retired.
[Illustration: ANGLO-SAXON MUSICIANS. Illuminated MS., British
In variety, inventiveness, and lyrical qualities, his poetry shows an advance over the Caedmonian cycle. He has a poet's love for the beauty of the sun and the moon (heofon-condelle), for the dew and the rain, for the strife of the waves (holm-ðroece), for the steeds of the sea (sund-hengestas), and for the "all-green" (eal-gr=ene) earth. "For Cynewulf," says a critic, "'earth's crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God.'"
Cynewulf has inserted his name in runic characters in four poems: Christ, Elene, Juliana, a story of a Christian martyr, and the least important, The Fates of the Apostles. The Christ, a poem on the Savior's Nativity, Ascension, and Judgment of the world at the last day, sometimes suggests Dante's Inferno or Paradiso, and Milton's Paradise Lost. We see the—
"Flame that welters up and of worms the fierce aspect,
With the bitter-biting jaws—school of burning creatures."
Cynewulf closes the Christ with almost as beautiful a conception of Paradise as Dante's or Milton's,—a conception that could never have occurred to a poet of the warlike Saxon race before the introduction of Christianity:—
"…Hunger is not there nor thirst,
Sleep nor heavy sickness, nor the scorching of the Sun;
Neither cold nor care."
Elene is a dramatic poem, named from its heroine, Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine. A vision of the cross bearing the inscription, "With this shalt thou conquer," appeared to Constantine before a victorious battle and caused him to send his mother to the Holy Land to discover the true cross. The story of her successful voyage is given in the poem Elene. The miraculous power of the true cross among counterfeits is shown in a way that suggests kinship with the fourteenth century miracle plays. A dead man is brought in contact with the first and the second cross, but the watchers see no divine manifestation until he touches the third cross, when he is restored to life.
Elene and the Dream of the Road, also probably written by
Cynewulf, are an Anglo-Saxon apotheosis of the cross. Some of this
Cynewulfian poetry is inscribed on the famous Ruthwell cross in
Andreas and Phoenix.—Cynewulf is probably the author of Andreas, an unsigned poem of special excellence and dramatic power. The poem, "a romance of the sea," describes St. Andrew's voyage to Mermedonia to deliver St. Matthew from the savages. The Savior in disguise is the Pilot. The dialogue between him and St. Andrew is specially fine. The saint has all the admiration of a Viking for his unknown Pilot, who stands at the helm in a gale and manages the vessel as he would a thought.
Although the poet tells of a voyage in eastern seas, he is describing the German ocean:—
"Then was sorely troubled,
Sorely wrought the whale-mere. Wallowed there the Horn-fish,
Glode the great deep through; and the gray-backed gull
Slaughter-greedy wheeled. Dark the storm-sun grew,
Waxed the winds up, grinded waves;
Stirred the surges, groaned the cordage,
Wet with breaking sea."
Cynewulf is also the probable author of the Phoenix, which is in part an adaptation of an old Latin poem. The Phoenix is the only Saxon poem that gives us the rich scenery of the South, in place of the stern northern landscape. He thus describes the land where this fabulous bird dwells:—
"Calm and fair this glorious field, flashes there the sunny grove;
Happy is the holt of trees, never withers fruitage there.
Bright are there the blossoms…
In that home the hating foe houses not at all,
* * * * *
Neither sleep nor sadness, nor the sick man's weary bed,
Nor the winter-whirling snow…
…but the liquid streamlets,
Wonderfully beautiful, from their wells upspringing,
Softly lap the land with their lovely floods."
GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ANGLO-SAXON POETRY
Martial Spirit.—The love of war is very marked in Anglo-Saxon poetry. This characteristic might have been expected in the songs of a race that had withstood the well-nigh all-conquering arm of the vast Roman Empire.
Our study of Beowulf has already shown the intensity of the martial spirit in heathen times. These lines from the Fight at Finnsburg, dating from about the same time as Beowulf, have only the flash of the sword to lighten their gloom. They introduce the raven, for whom the Saxon felt it his duty to provide food on the battlefield:—
"…hraefen wandrode sweart and sealo-br=un; swurd-l=eoma st=od swylce eal Finns-buruh f=yrenu w=aere."
…the raven wandered
Swart and sallow-brown; the sword-flash stood
As if all Finnsburg were afire.
The love of war is almost as marked in the Christian poetry. There are vivid pictures of battle against the heathen and the enemies of God, as shown by the following selection from one of the poems of the Caedmonian cycle:—
"Helmeted men went from the holy burgh,
At the first reddening of dawn, to fight:
Loud stormed the din of shields.
For that rejoiced the lank wolf in the wood,
And the black raven, slaughter-greedy bird."
Judith, a fragment of a religious poem, is aflame with the spirit of war. One of its lines tells how a bird of prey—
"Sang with its horny beak the song of war."
This very line aptly characterizes one of the emphatic qualities of
The poems often describe battle as if it were an enjoyable game. They mention the "Play of the spear" and speak of "putting to sleep with the sword," as if the din of war were in their ears a slumber melody.
One of the latest of Anglo-Saxon poems, The Battle of Brunanburh, 937, is a famous example of war poetry. We quote a few lines from Tennyson's excellent translation:—
"Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone,
Fiercely we hack'd at the flyers before us.
* * * * *
Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke
Seven strong earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers."
Love of the Sea.—The Anglo-Saxon fondness for the sea has been noted, together with the fact that this characteristic has been transmitted to the more recent English poetry. Our forefathers rank among the best seamen that the world has ever known. Had they not loved to dare an unknown sea, English literature might not have existed, and the sun might never have risen on any English flag.
The scop sings thus of Beowulf's adventure on the North Sea:—
"Swoln were the surges, of storms 'twas the coldest,
Dark grew the night, and northern the wind,
Rattling and roaring, rough were the billows."
In the Seafarer, the scop also sings:—
"My mind now is set,
My heart's thought, on wide waters,
The home of the whale;
It wanders away
Beyond limits of land.
* * * * *
And stirs the mind's longing
To travel the way that is trackless."
In the Andreas, the poet speaks of the ship in one of the most charming of Saxon similes:—
"Foaming Ocean beats our steed: full of speed this boat is;
Fares along foam-throated, flieth on the wave,
Likest to a bird."
Some of the most striking Saxon epithets are applied to the sea. We may instance such a compound as =ar-ge-bland (=ar, "oar"; blendan, "to blend"), which conveys the idea of the companionship of the oar with the sea. From this compound, modern poets have borrowed their "oar-disturbéd sea," "oaréd sea," "oar-blending sea," and "oar-wedded sea." The Anglo-Saxon poets call the sun rising or setting in the sea the mere-candel. In Beowulf, mere-str=aeta, "sea-streets," are spoken of as if they were the easily traversed avenues of a town.
Figures of Rhetoric.—A special characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry is the rarity of similes. In Homer they are frequent, but Anglo-Saxon verse is too abrupt and rapid in the succession of images to employ the expanded simile. The long poem of Beowulf contains only five similes, and these are of the shorter kind. Two of them, the comparison of the light in Grendel's dwelling to the beams of the sun, and of a vessel to a flying bird, have been given in the original Anglo-Saxon on pages 16, 17. Other similes compare the light from Grendel's eyes to a flame, and the nails on his fingers to steel: while the most complete simile says that the sword, when bathed in the monster's poisonous blood, melted like ice.
On the other hand, this poetry uses many direct and forcible metaphors, such as "wave-ropes" for ice, the "whale-road" or "swan-road" for the sea, the "foamy-necked floater" for a ship, the "war-adder" for an arrow, the "bone-house" for the body. The sword is said to sing a war song, the slain to be put to sleep with the sword, the sun to be a candle, the flood to boil. War is appropriately called the sword-game.
Parallelisms.—The repetition of the same ideas in slightly differing form, known as parallelism, is frequent. The author, wishing to make certain ideas emphatic, repeated them with varying phraseology. As the first sight of land is important to the sailor, the poet used four different terms for the shore that met Beowulf's eyes on his voyage to Hrothgar: land, brimclifu, beorgas, saen=aessas (land, sea-cliffs, mountains, promontories).
This passage from the Phoenix shows how repetition emphasizes the absence of disagreeable things:—
"…there may neither snow nor rain,
Nor the furious air of frost, nor the flare of fire,
Nor the headlong squall of hail, nor the hoar frost's fall,
Nor the burning of the sun, nor the bitter cold,
Nor the weather over-warm, nor the winter shower,
Do their wrong to any wight."
The general absence of cold is here made emphatic by mentioning special cold things: "snow," "frost," "hail," "hoar frost," "bitter cold," "winter shower." The absence of heat is emphasized in the same way.
Saxon contrasted with Celtic Imagery.—A critic rightly says: "The gay wit of the Celt would pour into the song of a few minutes more phrases of ornament than are to be found in the whole poem of Beowulf." In three lines of an old Celtic death song, we find three similes:—
"Black as the raven was his brow;
Sharp as a razor was his spear;
White as lime was his skin."
We look in Anglo-Saxon poetry in vain for a touch like this:—
"Sweetly a bird sang on a pear tree above the head of Gwenn before they covered him with a turf."
Celtic literature shows more exaggeration, more love of color, and a deeper appreciation of nature in her gentler aspects. The Celt could write:—
"More yellow was her head than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and fingers than the blossoms of the wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain."
King Arthur and his romantic Knights of the Round Table are Celtic heroes. Possibly the Celtic strain persisting in many of the Scotch people inspires lines like these in more modern times:—
"The corn-craik was chirming
His sad eerie cry 
And the wee stars were dreaming
Their path through the sky."
In order to produce a poet able to write both A Midsummer Night's
Dream and Hamlet, the Celtic imagination must blend with the
Anglo-Saxon seriousness. As we shall see, this was accomplished by the
When and where written.—We have seen that poetry normally precedes prose. The principal part of Anglo-Saxon poetry had been produced before much prose was written. The most productive poetic period was between 650 and 825. Near the close of the eighth century, the Danes began their plundering expeditions into England. By 800 they had destroyed the great northern monasteries, like the one at Whitby, where Caedmon is said to have composed the first religious song. As the home of poetry was in the north of England, these Danish inroads almost completely silenced the singers. What prose there was in the north was principally in Latin. On the other hand, the Saxon prose was produced chiefly in the south of England. The most glorious period of Anglo-Saxon prose was during Alfred's reign, 871-901.
Bede.—This famous monk (673-735) was probably the greatest teacher and the best known man of letters and scholar in all contemporary Europe. He is said to have translated the Gospel of St. John into Saxon, but the translation is lost. He wrote in Latin on a vast range of subjects, from the Scriptures to natural science, and from grammar to history. He has given a list of thirty-seven works of which he is the author. His most important work is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is really a history of England from Julius Caesar's invasion to 731. The quotation from Bede's work relative to Caedmon shows that Bede could relate things simply and well. He passed almost all his useful life at the monastery of Jarrow on the Tyne.
Alfred (849-901).—The deeds and thoughts of Alfred, king of the West Saxons from 871 until his death in 901, remain a strong moral influence an the world, although he died more than a thousand years ago. Posterity rightly gave him the surname of "the Great," as he is one of the comparatively few great men of all time. E.A. Freeman, the noted historian of the early English period, says of him:—
"No man recorded in history seems ever to have united so many great and good qualities… A great part of his reign was taken up with warfare with an enemy [the Danes] who threatened the national being; yet he found means personally to do more for the general enlightenment of his people than any other king in English history."
After a Danish leader had outrageously broken his oaths to Alfred, the Dane's two boys and their mother fell into Alfred's hands, and he returned them unharmed. "Let us love the man," he wrote, "but hate his sins." His revision of the legal code, known as Alfred's Laws, shows high moral aim. He does not forget the slave, who was to be freed after six years of service. His administration of the law endeavored to secure the same justice for the poor as for the rich.
Alfred's example has caused many to stop making excuses for not doing more for their kind. If any one ever had an adequate excuse for not undertaking more work than his position absolutely demanded, that man was Alfred; yet his ill health and the wars with the Danes did not keep him from trying to educate his people or from earning the title, "father of English prose." Freeman even says that England owes to Alfred's prose writing and to the encouragement that he gave to other writers the "possession of a richer early literature than any other people of western Europe" and the maintenance of the habit of writing after the Norman conquest, when English was no longer used in courtly circles.
[Illustration: THE BEGINNING OF ALFRED'S LAWS. Illuminated MS.,
Although most of his works are translations from the Latin, yet he has left the stamp of his originality and sterling sense upon them all. Finding that his people needed textbooks in the native tongue, he studied Latin so that he might consult all accessible authorities and translate the most helpful works, making alterations and additions to suit his plan. For example, he found a Latin work on history and geography by Orosius, a Spanish Christian of the fifth century; but as this book contained much material that was unsuited to Alfred's purposes, he omitted some parts, changed others, and, after interviewing travelers from the far North, added much original matter. These additions, which even now are not uninteresting reading, are the best material in the book. This work is known as Alfred's Orosius.
Alfred also translated Pope Gregory's Pastoral Rule in order to show the clergy how to teach and care for their flocks. Alfred's own words at the beginning of the volume show how great was the need for the work. Speaking of the clergy, he says:—
"There were very few on this side Humber who would know how to render their services in English, or so much as translate an epistle out of Latin into English; and I ween that not many would be on the other side Humber. So few of them were there, that I cannot think of so much as a single one, south of Thames, when I took to the realm."
Alfred produced a work on moral philosophy, by altering and amending the De Consolatione Philosophiae of Boethius, a noble Roman who was brutally thrown into prison and executed about 525 A.D. In simplicity and moral power, some of Alfred's original matter in this volume was not surpassed by any English writer for several hundred years. We frequently find such thoughts as, "If it be not in a man's power to do good, let him have the good intent." "True high birth is of the mind, not of the flesh." His Prayer in the same work makes us feel that he could see the divine touch in human nature:—
"No enmity hast Thou towards anything… Thou, O Lord, bringest together heavenly souls and earthly bodies, and minglest them in this world. As they came hither from Thee, even so they also seek to go hence to Thee."
AElfric, 955?-1025?—The most famous theologian who followed Alfred's example in writing native English prose, and who took Alfred for his model, was a priest named AElfric. His chief works are his Homilies, a series of sermons, and the Lives of the Saints. Although much of his writing is a compilation or a translation from the Latin Fathers, it is often remarkably vigorous in expression and stimulating to the reader. We find such thoughts as:—
"God hath wrought many miracles, and He performs them every day, but these miracles have become much less important in the sight of men because they are very common… Spiritual miracles are greater than the physical ones."
To modern readers the most interesting of Aelfric's writings is his Colloquium, designed to teach Latin in the monastery at Winchester. The pupils were required to learn the Latin translation of his dialogues in the Anglo-Saxon vernacular. Some of these dialogues are today valuable illustrations of the social and industrial life of the time. The following is part of the conversation between the Teacher and the Plowman:—
"Teacher. What have you to say, plowman? How do you carry on your work?
"Plowman. O master, I work very hard; I go out at dawn, drive the oxen to the field, and yoke them to the plow. There is no storm so severe that I dare to hide at home, for fear of my lord, but when the oxen are yoked, and the share and coulter have been fastened to the plow, I must plow a whole acre or more every day. * * * * * "Teacher. Oh! oh! the labor must be great!
"Plowman. It is indeed great drudgery, because I am not free."
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.—This is the first history of any branch of the Teutonic people in their own tongue. The Chronicle has come down to us in several different texts, according as it was compiled or copied at different monasteries. The Chronicle was probably begun in Alfred's reign. The entries relating to earlier events were copied from Bede's Ecclesiastical History and from other Latin authorities. The Chronicle contains chiefly those events which each year impressed the clerical compilers as the most important in the history of the nation. This work is a fountainhead to which writers of the history of those times must turn.
A few extracts (translated) will show its character:—
"A.D. 449. This year … Hengist and Horsa, invited by Vortigern,
King of Britons, landed in Britain, on the shore which is called
Wappidsfleet; at first in aid of the Britons, but afterwards they
fought against them."
"806. This year the moon was eclipsed on the Kalends of September; and Eardulf, King of the Northumbrians. was driven from his kingdom; and Eanbert, Bishop of Hexham, died."
Sometimes the narrative is extremely vivid. Those who know the difficulty of describing anything impressively in a few words will realize the excellence of this portraiture of William the Conqueror:—
"1087. If any would know what manner of man King William was, the glory that he obtained, and of how many lands he was lord; then will we describe him as we have known him… He was mild to those good men who loved God, but severe beyond measure to those withstood his will… So also was he a very stern and a wrathful man, so that none durst do anything against his will, and he kept in prison those earls who acted against his pleasure. He removed bishops from their sees, and abbots from their offices, and he imprisoned thanes, and at length he spared not his own brother. Odo… Amongst other things, the good order that William established is not to be forgotten; it was such that any man, who was himself aught, might travel over the kingdom with a bosom-full of gold, unmolested; and no man durst kill another… He made large forests for the deer, and enacted laws therewith, so that whoever killed a hart or a hind should be blinded … and he loved the tall stags as if he were their father."
The Anglo-Saxons, a branch of the Teutonic race, made permanent settlements in England about the middle of the fifth century A.D. Like modern German, their language is highly inflected. The most flourishing period of Anglo-Saxon poetry was between 650 and 825 A.D. It was produced for the most part in the north of England, which was overrun by the Danes about 800. These marauders destroyed many of the monasteries and silenced the voices of the singers. The prose was written chiefly in the south of England after the greatest poetic masterpieces had been produced. The Norman Conquest of England, beginning in 1066, brought the period to a close.
Among the poems of this age, we may emphasize: (1) the shorter scopic pieces, of which the Far Traveler, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Fortunes of Men, and The Battle of Brunanburh are important examples; (2) Beowulf, the greatest Anglo-Saxon epic poem, which describes the deeds of an unselfish hero, shows how the ancestors of the English lived and died, and reveals the elemental ideals of the race; (3) the Caedmonian Cycle of scriptural paraphrases, some of which have Miltonic qualities; and (4) the Cynewulf Cycle, which has the most variety and lyrical excellence. Both of these Cycles show how the introduction of Christianity affected poetry.
The subject matter of the poetry is principally war, the sea, and religion. The martial spirit and love of the sea are typical of the nation that has raised her flag in every clime. The chief qualities of the poetry are earnestness, somberness, and strength, rather than delicacy of touch, exuberance of imagination, or artistic adornment.
The golden period of prose coincides in large measure with Alfred's reign, 871-901, and he is the greatest prose writer. His translations of Latin works to serve as textbooks for his people contain excellent additions by him. AElfric, a tenth century prose writer, has left a collection of sermons, called Homilies, and an interesting Colloquium, which throws strong lights on the social life of the time. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an important record of contemporaneous events for the historian.
14Anglo-Saxon History in Detail
A great site for overview and details for students wishing to study this period and its literature for the in-depth independent study.http://www.englandandenglishhistory.com/anglo-saxon-history/early-english-timeline-410-1066-ad
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