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THE ANGLO-SAXON TIMES.
A. D. 449—A. D. 1066.
SECTION SECOND: LITERATURE IN THE ANGLO-SAXON TONGUE.
1. Usual Course of Early National Literature.-2. Peculiar Character of Anglo-Saxon
Literature-Its Causes. POETRY.-3. National and Historical Poems—The Tale of Beowulf-Other Specimens.-4. Poems Didactic and Religious—Extant Specimens -Cædmon's Life and Poems.-5. Versification and Style of Anglo-Saxon Poetry. ProsE.–6. The Living Language freely used— Translations from the Scriptures. 7. Original Composition-Homilies— Miscellaneous Works—The Saxon Chronicle8. King Alfred- His Works-His Character.
1. The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons has a very peculiar character; and that because it was formed by a process which was unusual, and in certain respects artificial.
The natural development of literary cultivation among a people commonly takes place in some such manner as this.
The earliest effusions that appear are metrical in form, and almost always historical in matter. The effects, too, which they are designed to produce on those to whom they are addressed are complex : for, besides striving to cause the imaginative pleasure, which is characteristic of poetry, they aim also at that communication of instruction, and that passionate excitement, which in more refined times are sought chiefly through the medium of prose. The artless verses which constitute this infant literature, have, in most countries, been composed without being written down. Further progress is difficult, if not impossible, until the preservation of literary works by writing has long given opportunity for the attentive and critical study of them.
Such study leads to the next great step in improvement, which is the use of prose, that is, language not metrically modulated. It is adopted in those literary efforts, which aim principally at the imparting or preserving of knowledge, or at such other practical purposes as are least akin to the poetical; and it is only when prose has come into free use, that the several kinds of composition begin to be separated according to their diversity of purpose. So long; indeed, as prose writing is unknown, history itself is not faithful to its distinctive function of truly recording acts and events: and
every thing like philosophy, or the systematic inferring of principles from facts, is of course unattainable. But the setting forth of abstract truths is hardly ever recognised as the proper duty of any literary work, until enlightenment has proceeded very far: histories long continue to be the principal works composed in prose: and poems, whether they are in form narrative, dramatic, or lyrical, are imaginative and impassioned in tone, for ages before they become essentially meditative or didactic.
Such has been, in substance, the early progress of literature in almost all the nations of Christendom. But such was not its early progress among our Germanic ancestors.
2. The Anglo-Saxons neglected almost utterly those ancestral legends, which were at once the poetry and the history of their contemporaries. They avoided, indeed, almost always (at least in such relics as survive to us), the choice of national themes for poetry, preferring to poetize ethical reflections, and religious doctrines or narratives. Their instructed men wrote easily in prose, at a time when other living languages were still entangled in the trammels of verse: they embodied, in rough but lucid phrases, practical information and every-day shrewdness, while the continental Teutons were treating literature merely as an instrument for the expression of impassioned fancy : and many of them deliberately renounced the ambition of originality, to execute, for the good of their people, industrious translations from the classics, the fathers of the church, and the Holy Scriptures.
Our progenitors thus constructed, in their native tongue, a series of literary monuments, to which a parallel is altogether wanting, not only among the nations of the same period, but among all others in the same stage of social advancement.
Their poetical relics, it must be allowed, are not the most attractive we can find. They want alike the pathos which inspires the bardic songs of the vanquished Cymrians, the exulting imagination which reigns in the sagas of the North, and the dramatic life which animates, everywhere, the legendary tales that light up the dim beginnings of a people's history. Their prose works, too, when they are in substance original, are plainly no more than strainings at a task, which could not be adequately performed with the language or the knowledge they possessed. But the literature which thus neither excites by images of barbarism, nor soothes by the refinements of art, possesses legitimate claims to respect and admiration, in the elevation and far-sightedness of the aims which determined its character, and in the calm strength, and the moral and religious purity, which, singly or united, breathe through its principal relics.
The truth is, that both the verse and the prose of almost all our Anglo-Saxon remains differed, both in origin and in purpose, from the specimens of a similar age, that have come down to us from other nations. They were produced by the best-instructed men of the times, who desired, by means of their works, to improve the social condition of their country, and to ennoble the character and sentiments of their countrymen.
The vernacular poetry, with very little exception, was not framed either by genealogical bards, or by wandering minstrels; it was not designed either to cherish national pride, or to excite the fancy, or to whet the barbaric thirst for blood. Some such poetry, the only kind that was known among their neighbours, they unquestionably had. Specimens of it have reached us; but they are so few, and wear so little of a national air, that the stock to which they belonged must have been very small, and calculated to produce very trifling effects.
The prose, again, communicated, to the people at large, knowledge which elsewhere its possessors would have sealed up in a dead language, to be transmitted only from convent to convent, or from the ecclesiastical pupils of one school to those of another.
Altogether, the Anglo-Saxon literature is strongly and interestingly symptomatic of that practical coolness of temper, and that inclination to look exclusively towards the present and the future, which marked the whole history of the race, and which one is half-tempted to consider as foreshowing the spirit that was to bear rule among their modern offspring.
3. The general idea which we have thus gained of the literature of our mother-tongue, will be made more distinct by a few examples, the metrical monuments being studied first, and the prose afterwards.
We possess three Historical Poems, all of which record Teutonic recollections of the continent, and must have been composed before the beginning of the emigrations to England. The Gleeman's Song, a piece very valuable to the antiquary, proves its remote origin both by the character of its geographical traditions, and by its bare and prosaic rudeness. The poem on the Battle of Finsburgh relates, with great animation, a story of exterminating slaughter, the place of which is doubtful, but certainly must be sought somewhere among the continental seats of the AngloSaxops. The Tale of Beowulf, a legend containing more than six thousand lines, is not only the most bulky, but by far the most
interesting of the group. It presents a highly spirited and picturesque series of semi-romantic scenes, curiously illustrative of the early Gothic manners and superstitions. It is essentially a Norse saga; and its scene appears to be laid entirely in Scandinavia. Its hero, a Danish prince, goes out, somewhat in the guise of a knight-errant, on two adventures. In the first of these he slays a fiendish cannibal, encountering supernatural perils both on land and in the bosom of the waters, and overcoming them by superhuman strength and enchanted weapons: in the other, he sacrifices his own life in destroying a frightful earthdrake or dragon.
It may be instructive to note, in passing, how common are stories like these in all early poetry, and how naturally they spring out of the real occurrences of primitive history. When, after a contest between two rude tribes, the conquerors, wanting authentic records, have had time to forget the particular facts, they willingly exaggerate the glory of their victory, by imagining their vanquished enemies to have possessed extraordinary strength, or to have been assisted by superhuman protectors. Thus arise tales of giants, and such inventions as those which adorn the first of Beowulf's exploits.' So, likewise, the earliest occupants of uninhabited tracts, even in our own country, may have had to destroy wild animals, which to them were actually not less formidable than the monsters described so frightfully in the legends. Hardy woodsmen, who extirpated the noxious reptiles of some neighbouring swamp, were probably the originals of that long train of dragon-killers, which (to say nothing of the classical IIercules) begins with our Anglo-Saxon poem, and attends us through the series of the chivalrous romances. The slaying of wild boars is commemorated, as a useful service to the community, in our old historical memorials as well as in the stories of knight-errantry: and the fierce bisons, whose skeletons are still sometimes disinterred from our soil, were enemies dangerous enough to give importance to such adventures, as that in which the “dun cow” is said to have been destroyed by the famous knight Guy of Warwick.
That the continental memorials just described were preserved by the minstrels of England, is proved by some features, both of language and of manners, which show them, especially the Beowulf, to have undergone the kind of changes naturally taking place in poems orally transmitted from age to age. But no other works of their class and date have been preserved.
Poems celebrating public or warlike events, if called forth at all by the wars with the Britons or with the earlier Danish invaders, have not reached our hands. Our only other specimens
of the kind belong to the tenth century, which gives us several. One is a vigorous song on Athelstan's victory over the Northmen, Britons, and Scots, at Brunanburgh ; there are two pieces commemorating the coronation and death of Edgar; and the finest of all is the spirited and picturesque poem which relates the fall of the brave chief Byrthnoth at Maldon, in battle against a powerful army of Danes and Norwegians.
4. Meanwhile, from the time when the tumult and warfare of the colonization had subsided, the language received numerous metrical contributions of a different class. The distant echoes of the heathen past had almost died away, lingering doubtless among the superstitions of the people, but never heard in the literature which then arose, and which spoke with the gentler voice of Christianity and infant civilization. The poems in which these sentiments found vent belong to the seventh, ninth, and tenth centuries. A very large proportion of them are religious; and all are more or less reflective.
Even the many which are professedly translations treat their originals with a freedom, which leaves them a claim to be regarded as in part invented.
Among them are metrical lives of saints, prayers, hymns, and paraphrases of Scripture; and there is at least one poem, the Tale of Judith, in which incidents from the Bible-history are woven into a narrative poem strikingly fanciful. In the ethical class, we find such works as the Allegory of the Phænix (expanded from a Latin model,) a quaintly fine poem on Death, and an Address by the Departed Soul to the Body, which was repeatedly imitated in subsequent times.
The most remarkable of the religious poems are those attrid. ab. į buted to the Northumbrian Cædmon, who lived in the 680. } latter part of the seventh century. His poetic vein came to light in a singular fashion. Employed as a servant of the monastery at Whitby, he passed his best days without instruction, nourishing the love of sacred song, but unable to give expression to the images and feelings that possessed him, or even to find voice for chanting hymns or ballads composed by others.
Mortified, one evening, by having to remain silent in a company of rustics more musical or less modest, he retreated to his humble lodging in the abbey grange. In his troubled sleep, a stranger, appearing to him, commanded, without admitting his excuses, that he should sing of the Beginning of Created Things. Original verses flowed to the dreamer's tongue, were remembered when he awoke, and recited with a new-born confidence. The natural ebullition of untutored fancy was hailed as a miracle :