CHAPTER III. ANGLO-SAXON LITERATURE AND HISTORY.
The Lineage of the Anglo-Saxon. Earliest Saxon Poem. Metrical
Arrangement. Periphrasis and Alliteration. Beowulf. Caedmon. Other
Saxon Fragments. The Appearance of Bede.
THE LINEAGE OF THE ANGLO-SAXON.
The true origin of English literature is Saxon. Anglo-Saxon is the mother tongue of the English language, or, to state its genealogy more distinctly, and to show its family relations at a glance, take the following divisions and subdivisions of the
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High German branch. Low German branch. Scandinavian branch.
Dead | Languages.
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Gothic. Old Dutch. Anglo-Saxon. Old Frisian. Old Saxon.
Without attempting an analysis of English to find the exact proportion of Saxon words, it must be observed that Saxon is the root-language of English; it might with propriety be called the oldest English; it has been manipulated, modified, and developed in its contact with other languages—remaining, however, radically the same—to become our present spoken language.
At this period of our inquiry, we have to do with the Saxon itself, premising, however, that it has many elements from the Dutch, and that its Scandinavian relations are found in many Danish words. The progress and modifications of the language in that formative process which made it the English, will be mentioned as we proceed in our inquiries.
In speaking of the Anglo-Saxon literature, we include a consideration also of those works written in Latin which are products of the times, and bear a part in the progress of the people and their literature. They are exponents of the Saxon mind, frequently of more value than the vernacular writings.
EARLIEST SAXON POEM.—The earliest literary monument in the Saxon language is the poem called Beowulf, the author and antiquity of which are alike unknown. It is at once a romantic legend and an instructive portraiture of the earliest Saxon period—“an Anglo-Saxon poetical romance,” says Sharon Turner, “true in costume and manners, but with an invented story.” Before proceeding to a consideration of this poem, let us look for a moment at some of the characteristics of Saxon poetry. As to its subject-matter, it is not much of a love-song, that sentiment not being one of its chief inspirations. The Saxon imagination was inflamed chiefly by the religious and the heroic in war. As to its handling, it abounded in metaphor and periphrasis, suggestive images, and parables instead of direct narrative.
METRICAL ARRANGEMENT.—As to metrical arrangement, Saxon poetry differed from our modern English as well as from the classical models, in that their poets followed no laws of metre, but arranged their vernacular verses without any distinct rules, but simply to please the ear. “To such a selection and arrangement of words as produced this effect, they added the habit of frequently omitting the usual particles, and of conveying their meaning in short and contracted phrases. The only artifices they used were those of inversion and transition.” It is difficult to give examples to those unacquainted with the language, but the following extract may serve to indicate our meaning: it is taken from Beowulf:
Crist waer a cennijd
On midne winter:
On thij eahteothan daeg
Hael end gehaten
Heofon ricet theard.
Christ was born
King of glory
On the eighth day
Saviour was called,
Of Heaven's kingdom ruler.
PERIPHRASIS.—Their periphrasis, or finding figurative names for persons and things, is common to the Norse poetry. Thus Caedmon, in speaking of the ark, calls it the sea-house, the palace of the ocean, the wooden fortress, and by many other periphrastic names.
ALLITERATION.—The Saxons were fond of alliteration, both in prose and verse. They used it without special rules, but simply to satisfy their taste for harmony in having many words beginning with the same letter; and thus sometimes making an arbitrary connection between the sentences or clauses in a discourse, e.g.:
The ground for men
The nearest approach to a rule was that three words in close connection should begin with the same letter. The habit of ellipsis and transposition is illustrated by the following sentence in Alfred's prose: “So doth the moon with his pale light, that the bright stars he obscures in the heavens;” which he thus renders in poetry:
With pale light
With this brief explanation, which is only intended to be suggestive to the student, we return to Beowulf.
THE PLOT OF BEOWULF.—The poem contains six thousand lines, in which are told the wonderful adventures of the valiant viking Beowulf, who is supposed to have fallen in Jutland in the year 340. The Danish king Hrothgar, in whose great hall banquet, song, and dance are ever going on, is subjected to the stated visits of a giant, Grendel, a descendant of Cain, who destroys the Danish knights and people, and against whom no protection can be found.
Beowulf, the hero of the epic, appears. He is a great chieftain, the heorth-geneat (hearth-companion, or vassal) of a king named Higelac. He assembles his companions, goes over the road of the swans (the sea) to Denmark, or Norway, states his purpose to Hrothgar, and advances to meet Grendel. After an indecisive battle with the giant, and a fierce struggle with the giant's mother, who attacks him in the guise of a sea-wolf, he kills her, and then destroys Grendel. Upon the death of Hrothgar he receives his reward in being made King of the Danes.
With this occurrence the original poem ends: it is the oldest epic poem in any modern language. At a later day, new cantos were added, which, following the fortunes of the hero, record at length that he was killed by a dragon. A digest and running commentary of the poem may be found in Turner's Anglo-Saxons; and no one can read it without discerning the history shining clearly out of the mists of fable. The primitive manners, modes of life, forms of expression, are all historically delineated. In it the intimate relations between the king and his people are portrayed. The Saxon cyning is compounded of cyn, people, and ing, a son or descendant; and this etymology gives the true conditions of their rule: they were popular leaders—elected in the witenagemot on the death of their predecessors. We observe, too, the spirit of adventure—a rude knight-errantry—which characterized these northern sea-kings
that with such profit and for deceitful glory
labor on the wide sea explore its bays
amid the contests of the ocean in the deep waters
there they for riches till they sleep with their elders.
We may also notice the childish wonder of a rude, primitive, but brave people, who magnified a neighboring monarch of great skill and strength, or perhaps a malarious fen, into a giant, and who were pleased with a poem which caters to that heroic mythus which no civilization can root out of the human breast, and which gives at once charm and popularity to every epic.
CAEDMON.—Next in order, we find the paraphrase of Scripture by Caedmon, a monk of Whitby, who died about the year 680. The period in which he lived is especially marked by the spread of Christianity in Britain, and by a religious zeal mingled with the popular superstitions. The belief was universal that holy men had the power to work miracles. The Bible in its entire canon was known to few even among the ecclesiastics: treasure-house as it was to the more studious clerics, it was almost a sealed book to the common people. It would naturally be expected, then, that among the earliest literary efforts would be found translations and paraphrases of the most interesting portions of the Scripture narrative. It was in accordance with the spirit of the age that these productions should be attended with something of the marvellous, to give greater effect to the doctrine, and be couched in poetic language, the especial delight of people in the earlier ages of their history. Thus the writings of Caedmon are explained: he was a poor serving-brother in the monastery of Whitby, who was, or feigned to be, unable to improvise Scripture stories and legends of the saints as his brethren did, and had recourse to a vision before he exhibited his fluency.
In a dream, in a stall of oxen of which he was the appointed night-guard, an angelic stranger asked him to sing. “I cannot sing,” said Caedmon. “Sing the creation,” said the mysterious visitant. Feeling himself thus miraculously aided, Caedmon paraphrased in his dream the Bible story of the creation, and not only remembered the verses when he awoke, but found himself possessed of the gift of song for all his days.
Sharon Turner has observed that the paraphrase of Caedmon “exhibits much of a Miltonic spirit; and if it were clear that Milton had been familiar with Saxon, we should be induced to think that he owed something to Caedmon.” And the elder D'Israeli has collated and compared similar passages in the two authors, in his “Amenities of Literature.”
Another remarkable Anglo-Saxon fragment is called Judith, and gives the story of Judith and Holofernes, rendered from the Apocrypha, but with circumstances, descriptions, and speeches invented by the unknown author. It should be observed, as of historical importance, that the manners and characters of that Anglo-Saxon period are applied to the time of Judith, and so we have really an Anglo-Saxon romance, marking the progress and improvement in their poetic art.
Among the other remains of this time are the death of Byrhtnoth, The Fight of Finsborough, and the Chronicle of King Lear and his Daughters, the last of which is the foundation of an old play, upon which Shakspeare's tragedy of Lear is based.
It should here be noticed that Saxon literature was greatly influenced by the conversion of the realm at the close of the sixth century from the pagan religion of Woden to Christianity. It displayed no longer the fierce genius of the Scalds, inculcating revenge and promising the rewards of Walhalla; in spirit it was changed by the doctrine of love, and in form it was softened and in some degree—but only for a time—injured by the influence of the Latin, the language of the Church. At this time, also, there was a large adoption of Latin words into the Saxon, especially in theology and ecclesiastical matters.
THE ADVENT OF BEDE.—The greatest literary character of the Anglo-Saxon period, and the one who is of most value in teaching us the history of the times, both directly and indirectly, is the man who has been honored by his age as the venerable Bede or Beda. He was born at Yarrow, in the year 673; and died, after a retired but active, pious, and useful life, in 735. He wrote an Ecclesiastical history of the English, and dedicated it to the most glorious King Ceowulph of Northumberland, one of the monarchs of the Saxon Heptarchy. It is in matter and spirit a Saxon work in a Latin dress; and, although his work was written in Latin, he is placed among the Anglo-Saxon authors because it is as an Englishman that he appears to us in his subject, in the honest pride of race and country which he constantly manifests, and in the historical information which he has conveyed to us concerning the Saxons in England: of a part of the history which he relates he was an eye-witness; and besides, his work soon called forth several translations into Anglo-Saxon, among which that of Alfred the Great is the most noted, and would be taken for an original Saxon production.
It is worthy of remark, that after the decline of the Saxon literature, Bede remained for centuries, both in the original Latin and in the Saxon translations, a sealed and buried book; but in the later days, students of English literature and history began to look back with eager pleasure to that formative period prior to the Norman conquest, when English polity and institutions were simple and few, and when their Saxon progenitors were masters in the land.