« ZurückWeiter »
existence on land and sea, made life a deeply serious thing. Human agency was felt to be weak in comparison with the great invisible forces of nature. The sense of fate and death weighed heavily on the Anglo-Saxon mind. Thus, in “The Wanderer,” a poem of an unknown author, we read:
“ Earth is enwrapped in the lowering tempest,
Fierce on the stone-cliff the storm rushes forth,
Hail-storms are laden with death from the north.
Here the decrees of the Fates have their sway -
Here man is transient, here friends pass away.
The Anglo-Saxon literature that has been preserved to us, though of small extent, is of incalculable value, not so much for its intrinsic merit as for the light it throws on the life and character of our Teutonic ancestors. About thirty thousand lines of poetry and a few prose works have come down to us. This literature, especially the poetical part of it, shows us the force of thought and imagination which they possessed as a racial inheritance. It reveals to us their manner of life; but above all, it shows us the depth of soul with which they contemplated the mysteries of existence, and the courage with which they met its inevitable hardships and duties. The literature of the Anglo-Saxon reveals to us a nation strong in its mental and moral potentialities the substructure on which was to be built English and American civilization.
1 Translation of W. R. Sims.
Cædmon, the earliest of English poets, lived in the latter part of the seventh century. He has with justice been called "the Milton of our forefathers"; and his poems are strongly suggestive of “Paradise Lost.” He seems to have been a laborer on the lands attached to the monastery of St. Hilda at Whitby, and was advanced in years before his poetical powers were developed. When at festive gatherings it was agreed that all present should sing in turn, Cædmon was accustomed, as the harp approached him, quietly to retire with a humiliating sense of his want of skill. Having left the banqueting hall on one occasion, he went to the stable, where it was his turn to care for the horses. In a vision an angel appeared to him and said : "Cadmon, sing a song to me.” He answered: “I cannot sing; for that is the reason why I left the entertainment, and retired to this place.” “Nevertheless,” said the heavenly visitor, “thou shalt sing.” “What shall I sing?” inquired the poet, as he felt the movement of an awakening power. Sing the beginning of created things," said the angel.
His mission was thus assigned him. In the morning the good abbess Hilda, with a company of learned men, witnessed an exhibition of his newly awakened powers; and concluding that heavenly grace had been bestowed upon him, she bade him lay aside his secular habit and received him into the monastery as a monk. Here he led a humble, exemplary life in the exercise of his poetic gifts. “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 ... by which he endeavored to turn away all men from the love of vice, and to excite in them the love of, and application to, good actions."
The following description of the Creation illustrates Cædmon's manner of amplifying the Scripture narrative :
“ There was not yet then here,
Except gloom like a cavern,
Though rude in form, Cædmon's Paraphrase contains genuine poetry. It is the product of admirable genius, but genius fettered by unfavorable surroundings and lack of culture.
The most important Anglo-Saxon poem that has descended to us is “Beowulf,” a primitive epic of some three thousand lines. It was probably composed in its present form in the eighth century, but the events it celebrates are of a much earlier date. It brings before us the spirit and-manners of our forefathers, before they left their continental home. The hero of the poem is Beowulf:
1 Bede, “Ecclesiastical History.”
“Of heroes then living He was the stoutest and strongest, sturdy and noble." Sailing to the land of the Danes, he slew a monster of the fens called Grendel, whose nightly ravages brought dismay into Hrothgar's royal palace. After slaying the fiend of the marshes and his mother beneath the waters, Beowulf, loaded with presents and honors, returned to Sweden, where he became king, and ruled fifty years. But at last, in slaying a fire-dragon “under the earth, nigh to the sea-wave,” he was mortally wounded.
His body was burned on a lofty funeral pyre amidst the lamentations of his vassals.
Such in brief is the story of this epic of heroic daring and achievement, in which the old Teutonic character is reflected in its fulness. Its details are full of interest. The fierceness of northern seas and skies is brought before us. We assist at mead-hall banquets, in which gracious queens and beautiful maidens hand the ale cup. The loyalty of liegemen is beautifully portrayed. A stern sense of honor prevails among the rude warriors :
“Death is more pleasant To every earlman than infamous life is."
Their courage is dauntless, and words count for less than actions. Beowulf thus states to the queen the object of his visit:
“ I purposed in spirit when I mounted the ocean,
When I boarded my boat with a band of my liegemen,
I would work to the fullest the will of your people,
The poem concludes with the following lines in praise of Beowulf :
“ 'Round the dead-mound rode then the doughty-in-battle,
Bairns of all twelve of the chiefs of the people,
Other Anglo-Saxon poems that deserve mention are “ The Seafarer,” “Deor's Complaint,” “The Fight at Maldon,” and “Judith.” The former deal with the hardships and sorrows of life; the latter breathe the martial spirit of the Teutonic race. Besides these and other secular poems, there is a cycle of religious poetry dating from the eighth or ninth centuries. It was stimulated by the work of Cædmon. “Others after him," says Bede, “tried to make religious poems, but none could vie with him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men, nor of men, but from God.” This religious poetry is usually based on Scripture or on legends of saints. Cynewulf, a North
1 Translation of J. L. Hall.