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"Sing the creation," was the reply.
Thereupon Caedmon began to sing verses which he had never heard before, and which are said to have been as follows, —
"Now we shall praise
"He first created
Caedmon then awoke, and was not only able to repeat the lines he had heard in his sleep, but he continued them in a strain of admirable versification.
In the morning he hastened to the bailiff of Whitby, who carried him before the Abbess Hilda, and there, in the presence of the learned men of the place, he told his story, and they were all of opinion that he had received the gift of song from heaven. They then expounded to him in his mother tongue a portion of Scripture, which he was required to repeat in verse.
Credmon went home with his task; and the next morning he produced a poem which excelled in beauty all they were accustomed to hear. Afterward, yielding to the solidtations of the Abbess Hilda, he became an inmate of her house, where she ordered him to transfer into verse the whole of the sacred history, "and," continues the narrator, " he was continually occupied in repeating to himself what he had heard, and like a clean animal ruminating it, he turned it into most sweet verse." He thus composed many poems on the Bible history and on miscellaneous subjects, and some of these have been preserved.
Caodmon has been called the father of Anglo-Saxon poetry, because his name stands first in the history of Saxon song-craft; and also the Milton of our forefathers, because he sang of Lucifer and the loss of Paradise. His account of the fall of man resembles that given in " Paradise Lost;" and one passage in it — the harangue of Satan — it is suggested " might almost be supposed to have been the foundation of a corresponding one in Milton's grand epic." The genuineness of these remains of Caedmon's verse has been called in question. This account of him has indeed "a strong cast of the marvellous," but as competent judges have decided in favor of their authenticity, they are still accepted and approved.
The specimen given of Caedmon may serve as a general one of Anglo-Saxon poetry at that age. As will be observed, it is not rhymed, nor in measured Latin feet, and only distinguished from prose by a very regular alliteration.
In Caedmon's '' simple and childlike verse" we find here and there striking poetic epithets. He calls the sky "the roof of nations, the roof adorned with stars." His Creator is "the blithe Heart-king." A laugher is "a laughter-smith," and Ethiopians a people "brown with the hot coals of heaven." Longfellow happily observes that " whenever Caedmon has a battle to describe, he enters into the matter with so much spirit that one almost imagines he sees looking from under that monkish cowl I
the visage of no parish priest, but a grim war-wolf, as the brave were called in the days when Caedmon wrote."
The Epic poem of " Beowulf" is an important relic of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
It is written in forty-three cantos and some six thousand lines, and is the oldest epic in any modern language. Its exact age is unknown, but it is supposed to have been written somewhere between the seventh and tenth centuries. "Beowulf" exists primitively only in a single manuscript of the tenth century.
The poem is a history of the wonderful adventures of King Beowulf, the Sea-Goth. It contains an account of his battles with Grendels and Fire-drakes, and relates how, after having made the land rich with treasures found in the Dragon's Cave, he dies of his wounds. Longfellow esteems it " a poem of great epic merit. ... In parts," he says, " it is strikingly graphic in description. As we read," he continues, " we can almost smell the brine and hear the sea-breeze blow and see the mainland stretch out its jutting promontories — those sea-noses, as the poet calls them — into the blue waters of the solemn main."
"Judith and Holofernes," another fragment of the poetry of this period, is much esteemed by Anglo-Saxon scholars. This noble passage is spoken by an aged vassal over the dead body of the hero of the poem: —
"Byrhtwold spoke; he was an aged vassal.
That thinketh to fly
From this play of weapons!
Old am I in life,
Yet will I not stir hence:
But I think to lie by the side of my lord,
That much loved man !'"
"The Fight of Finsborough" is another short and less important fragment.
Two others, founded on the lives of saints, are said to exist, though they never have been published.
Of much later date, and in Norman-Saxon, is the " Chronicle of King Lear." It has no merit as a poem, but is important as proof that the story of King Lear is very old, since it refers to a previous account, — " as the book telleth." The Anglo-Saxons had besides these long and elaborate poems their odes and ballads, of which some account has been given in an introductory chapter.
More than eight hundred years ago, as Canute the Dane — the merciless king who used to say, '' He who brings me the head of one of my enemies shall be dearer to me than a brother " — was sailing by the Abbey of Ely, he heard the voices of the monks chanting their holy vesper hymn. Whereupon, it is related, he ordered his knights to row nearer the shore, and sang in his best Anglo-Saxon the following rhyrae : —
"Merry sang the monks in Ely,
As Ring Canute was steering by;
This simple song, that like " a leaf blown about by the wind" has come floating down to us from the past, has little merit in itself, yet reading it, as in a fine old picture we see the rough "war-wolf" leaning landward in the dreamy twilight, listening, sobered and softened, while over the sunset-sprinkled waters float the mellow cadences of the distant vesper hymn.
Then we have in the ninth century the "Metres of King Alfred," translated from the Latin of Boethius, and greatly enriched with interspersed original matter. The memory of " Alfred the Truth-Teller," coming down to us through the discords of the semi-barbarous ninth century, is like a strain of purest harmony; and in all English history there is no sublimer life than his. In his character " the scholar and the man outshone the king."
Thus he writes: "I wished to live honorably while I lived, and after my life to leave to the men who were after me my memory in good works. . . . God has made all men equally noble in their original nature. True nobility is in the mind, not in the flesh." When Alfred was a young man, there were few or none, it is said, among his countrymen who could readily read the Latin language. He was nearly forty years old when he began the study of that language. He died at fifty-three. Many of his translations have come down to us, and he has, it is supposed, executed many that are now lost. It is recorded of King Alfred that he devoted no less than the eighth part of his whole revenue to the support of the school which he founded, to which many of the noblemen repaired "who had far outgrown their youth, but had not begun their acquaintance with books;" for even the royal charters of that time instead of the names of kings sometimes exhibit their marks! To this school, in a true spirit of democracy, he sent his own son Ethelward among the sons of the nobility and inferior classes. "Every person of rank or substance, who either from age or want of capacity was unable to learn to read himself, was compelled to send either his son or kinsman, or if he had neither, a servant, that he might be read to by some one."