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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 kuight-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 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
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, it 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 Phønix (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./
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;
and Cædmon, receiving some education, was enrolled among the monks, and spent the remainder of his life in writing religious poetry. His dream-song, preserved by Alfred, is more coherent than Coleridge's verses of similar origin, but has none of their fanciful richness.
Other works of his, which we still possess, though probably neither in perfect purity, nor at all complete, are inspired by a noble tone of solemn imagination. Their bulk in all is nearly equal to half of the Paradise Lost; to which some parts of them bear, not only in story but in thought, such a distant resemblance as may exist between the fruits of lofty genius, guided by knowledge and art, and those of genius allied in character if not in degree, but lamed by ignorance and want of constructive skill. They are narrative poems, handling scriptural events, but using the original in most places as loosely as it is used by Milton. Perhaps they were intended to make up one consecutive story : but, as we have them, they present several obvious blanks, and may most conveniently be regarded as falling into no more than two parts, the one dealing with events from the Old Testament, and the other taking up the New.
The First Part, beginning with the Expulsion of the Rebel Angels, follows the Bible History from the Creation and the Fall of Man till it reaches the Offering up of Isaac. It then passes suddenly to a full narrative of the Exodus from Egypt, and thence, with like abruptness, to the Life of Daniel. At this point we may hold the First Part as coming to a close. The Second Part is much shorter, and its divisions are so ill-connected that we can hardly suppose it to be more than a fragment. It opens with a conference of Lucifer and his attendant Spirits, held in their place of punishment. Miltonic in more features than one, this very animated scene is introduced with a very different
and breathes a very different spirit, from the corresponding scene in our great Epic. The speakers are full of horror and despair: their last hope has been shattered by the Incarnation : and the passage serves merely as a prelude to the next narrative, which represents the Saviour's Descent to Hades, an event long holding a prominent place in the popular theology of our ancestors. The Deliverer reascends, bearing with him redeemed souls from Adam to the time of the Advent; and among these it may be noticed, Eve for a moment lingers behind to confess her sin, just as in Michael Angelo's celebrated picture of the Last Day, she hides her face from the Judge. The poem next describes briefly the Saviour's stay on earth after the resurrection : and it closes with the Ascension, and a kind of prophetic delineation of the Day of Judgment.
5. Both the versification of the Anglo-Saxon poetry and its style, are too peculiar to be left altogether unnoticed.
The melody is regulated, like that of our modern verse, by syllabic emphasis or accent, not by quantity, as in the classical metres. The feet oftenest occurring are dactyls and trochees, a point of difference from the modern tongue, whose words fall most rapidly into iambics. Rhyme is used in but few of the surviving pieces. Instead of it, they have what is called alliteration, which consists in the introduction, into the same stanza, of several syllables beginning with the same letter. It seems to be a universal law of the system, that each complete stanza shall be a couplet containing two verses or sections, in each of which there must be at least one accented syllable beginning with the same letter which begins one of those in the other: while more usually the first verse has two of the alliterative syllables. The length of the couplets varies much; but most of them have from four to six accents.
The style is highly elliptical, omitting especially the connecting particles. It is full of harsh inversions and of obscure metaphors: and there occurs, very frequently, an odd kind of repetition, which has been shown to depend, in many instances, on a designed parallelism between the successive members of the sentence.
None of these features owed its origin to the Anglo-Saxons. Both the alliterative metres, and the strained and figurative diction, were derived from their continental ancestors, and are exhibited, though less decidedly, in the older poetry of the Northmen.
6. The metrical composition of the Anglo-Saxons is not more remarkable for its anxious and obscure elaboration, than their prose for its straightforward and perspicuous simplicity. The uses, indeed, to which prose writing was put among them, were almost always of a practical cast.
The preference of the Anglo-Saxon tongue over the Latin was very marked, especially after the impulse had been given by Alfred, to whose time, and those that succeeded, belong almost all our extant specimens of prose. Matters of business, which would not have been recorded in the language of the time in any other country, then or for centuries afterwards, were almost always so recorded in England. This was the case with charters, leases, and the like documents, it was the case, also, with ecclesiastical constitutions, and with the code of laws which was di
gested by Alfred, and again promulgated with alterations by several of his successors.
Among prose works claiming a literary character, the original compositions are far less numerous than the translations from the Latin, in many of which, however, the writers freely insert matter of their own. None of these invite our attention so forcibly as the versions of parts of the Scriptures. There is still preserved, in several manuscripts, a Latin Psalter, with an interlined Anglo-Saxon translation, partly metrical ; there are transla: tions and paraphrases of the Gospels, with which comments are intermixed; and there are versions of some historical books of the Old Testament.
Several distinguished men are named as having laboured in this sacred task: the Psalms are said to have been translated by Bishop Aldhelm ; the Gospel of St John by Bede; and the Psalms or other books by Alfred, or rather by the ecclesiastics who were about him. But we cannot say positively who were the authors of any of the existing versions ; unless it has been rightly inferred that the Heptateuch, which has been pub
lished, was a work of #lfric, who was archbishop of
Canterbury in the close of the tenth century. This, however, we do know; that, although the Mæso-Gothic version of the Gospels wat older than any of ours, the Anglo-Saxon translations came next in date; and that they preceded, by several generations, all other attempts of the sort made in any languages of Europe.
7. Among the original compositions in prose, is a large stock of Homilies or Sermons. Eighty of these were written by the venerable Ælfric, already named, and he, in the times of the Protestant Reformation, was appealed to as having in some of them combated the doctrines of the Church of Rome. He has bequeathed to us also more than one theological treatise, a Latin Grammar, a Glossary, and probably a curious Manual of Astronomy. He is, however, the only man named, as having, after the time of Alfred, been eminent in the cultivation of the vernacular tongue. A good many anonymous works interest us chiefly as illustrative of the state of thinking and knowledge. Such are treatises on geography, medicine, and medical botany (in which magical spells play a leading part), a series of arithmetical problems, whimsical collections of riddles, and a singular dialogue between Solomon and Saturn, seemingly designed for use as a catechism, and extant in more shapes than one.
If the relics now briefly described have their chief importance, merely as showing what our ancestors knew, or wished to
of the new