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Anglo-Saxon Literature By John Earle Characters: 47911

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

We have now seen something of a culture that was introduced from abroad, and guided by foreign models. But our people had a native gift of song, and a tradition of poetic lore, which lived in memory, and was sustained by the profession of minstrelsy. The Christian and literary culture obtained through the Latin tended strongly to the suppression and extinction of this ancient and national vein of poetry. But happily it has not all been lost, and it will be the aim of this chapter to present some specimens of that poetry which is rooted in the native genius of the race, and which we may call the primary poetry. The poetry which is manifestly of Latin material we will call the secondary poetry. It is not asserted that we have two sorts of poetry so entirely separate and distinct the one from the other, that the one is purely native and untinged with foreign influence, while the other springs from mere imitation. The two sorts are not so utterly contrasted as that. Even the secondary poetry is not without originality. On the other hand the primary poetry betrays here and there the Latin culture and the Christian sentiment; and yet if is quite sufficiently distinct and characterised to justify the plan of grouping it apart from the general body of the poetical remains.

The chief features of the Saxon poetry may conveniently be arranged under three heads: 1. The mechanical formation. 2. The rhetorical characteristics. 3. The imaginative elements.

1. Of these the first turns on Alliteration, Accent, and Rhythm; and this part, which is generally held to belong rather to grammar than to literature, I have described elsewhere.74

2. The Rhetorical characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry which is most prominent, is a certain repetition of the thought with a variation of epithet or phrase, in a manner which distinctly resembles the parallelism of Hebrew poetry.

3. The Imaginative element resides chiefly in the metaphor, which is very pervading and seems to be almost unconscious. It seldom rises to that conscious form of metaphor which we call the Simile, and when it does it is laconically brief, as in the comparison of a ship with a bird (fugle gelicost). The later poetry begins to expand the similes somewhat after the manner of the Latin poets. In Beowulf we have four brief similes and only one that is expanded; namely, that of the sword-hilt melting like ice in the warm season of spring (line 1,608).

We will begin with the "Beowulf," the largest and in every sense the most important of the remaining Anglo-Saxon poems. It has much in it that seems like anticipation of the age of chivalry. The story of the "Beowulf" is as follows:75-

Hroegar, king of the Danes, ruled over many nations with imperial sway. It came into his mind to add to his Burg a spacious hall for the greater splendour of his hospitality and the dispensing of his bounty. This hall was named Heorot. But all his glory was undone by the nightly visits of a devouring fiend; Hroegar's people were either killed, or gone to safer quarters. Heorot, though habitable by day, was abandoned at night; no faithful band kept watch around the seat of Danish royalty; Hroegar, the aged king, was in dejection and despair.

Higelac was king in the neighbouring land of the Geatas, and he had about him a young nephew, a sister's son, Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow. Beowulf had great bodily strength, but was otherwise little accounted of. The young man loved adventure, and hearing of Hroegar's misery, he determined to help him. He embarked with fourteen companions, and reached the coast of the Danes, where he was challenged by the coast-warden in a tone of mistrust. After a parley, that officer sped him on his way, and Beowulf's company stood before Hroegar's gate. Asked the meaning of this armed visit, the leader answers: "We sit at Higelac's table: my name is Beowulf. I will tell mine errand to thy master, if he will deign that we may greet him." Hroegar knew Beowulf's name, remembered his father Ecgtheow,76 had the visitor to his presence, heard his high resolve, was ready to hope for deliverance, and prompt to see in Beowulf a deliverer. Festivity is renewed in the deserted hall, and tales of old achievements revive forgotten mirth-mirth broken only by the gibes of the eloquent Hunferth, which give Beowulf occasion to tell the tale of an old swimming-match when he slew sea-monsters; and all is harmony again. But night descends, and with it the fears that were now habitual. Beowulf shrinks not from his adventure; the guests depart, and the king, retiring to his castle, commits to his visitor the night-watch of Heorot.

N?fre ic ?negum men

?r alyfde,

sieean ic hond and rond

hebban mihte,

thryth ?rn Dena:-

buton the nu tha!

Hafa nu and geheald

husa selest;

gemyne m?rtho,

m?gen ellen cyth;

waca with wrathum!

ne bith the wilna gad,

gif thu th?t ellen weorc

aldre gedigest.

Never I to any man

ere now entrusted,

(since hand and shield

I first could heave)

the Guardhouse of the Danes:-

never but now to thee!

Have now and hold

the sacred house;

of glory mindful

main and valour prove;

watch for the foe!

no wish of thine shall fail,

if thou the daring work

with life canst do.

Beowulf and his companions have their beds in the hall.

They sleep; but he watches. It was not long before the depredator of the night was there, and a lurid gleam stood out of his eyes. While Beowulf cautiously held himself on the alert, the fiend had quickly clutched and devoured one of the sleepers. But now Grendel-such was the demon's name-found himself in a grasp unknown before. Long and dire was the strife. The timbers cracked, the iron-bound benches plied, and work deemed proof against all but fire was now a wreck. Grendel finding the foe too strong, thought only of escape. He did escape, and got away to the moor, but he left an arm in Beowulf's grip.

Early in the morning men came from far and near to see the hideous trophy on the gable of the hall: men came to rejoice in the great deliverance; for Heorot, they said, was now purged. Great was their joy. Mounted men rode over the moor, tracking Grendel's retreat by his blood; they followed his path to the dismal pool where he had his habitation; then they turn homewards, riding together and conversing as they go. They talk of Beowulf, they liken him with Sigemund, that hero of greatest name. When they come to galloping ground, they break away from the tales, and race over the turf. In another tale they talk of Heremod; but he was proud and cold, not like Beowulf, who is as genial as he is valiant. The early riders are back to Heorot in time to see the king and the queen moving from bower to hall, the king with his guard, the queen with her maidens. Then follows a noble scene. Hroegar sees the hideous trophy on the gable; he stands on the terrace, and utters a thanksgiving to God as stately as it is simple. He reviews the woe and the grief, the disgrace, the helplessness, and the utter despondency of himself and of his people; "and now a boy hath done the deed which we all with our united powers could not compass! Verily that woman is blessed that bare him; and if she yet lives, she may well say that God was very gracious to her in her childbearing. Beowulf, I will love thee as a son, and thou shalt lack nothing that it is in my power to give."

Beowulf spake: "We did our best in a risky tussle; would I could have brought you the fiend a captive. I could not hold him; he gave me the slip: but he left a limb behind; that will be his death." Next Heorot is restored and beautified anew. Marvellous gold-embroidered hangings drape the walls, the admiration of those who have an eye for such things. The whole interior had been a wreck, the roof alone remained entire. Now, it was straight and fair once more; and now it was to be the scene of such a profusion of gifts as poet had never sung.

In honour of his victory Beowulf received a golden banner of quaint device, a helmet, and a coat of mail; but what drew all eyes was the ancient famous sword now brought forth from the treasure house, and borne up to the hero. Furthermore, at the king's word, eight splendid horses, cheek-adorned, were led into the hall; and on one of them was seen the saddle, the well-known saddle of Hroegar, wherein he, never aloof in battle-hour, sate when he mingled in the fray of war. "Take them," said the king, "take them, Beowulf, both horses and armour; and my blessing with them."

The companions of Beowulf were not forgotten: they all received appropriate gifts. The festivities proceed, and we have a picture of the course of the banquet. The minstrel's tale on that occasion was the Fearful Fray in the Castle of Finn, when Danes were there on a visit. The song being ended, Waltheow the queen bears the cup to the king, and bids him be merry and bountiful. Her queenly counsel stops not here. The king had sons of his own; he should give no hint of any other succession to his seat; while he occupied the throne, he should be large in bounty and encircle himself with grateful champions. Next, with like ceremony she honours Beowulf, and hands the cup to him. She also presents her own special gifts to the deliverer:-bracelets, and a rich garment, and a collar surpassing all most famed in story since Hama captured the collar of the Brosings. The queen addresses Beowulf, wishes him joy of her gifts, exalts his merits, bids him befriend her son and be loyal to the king. She took her seat, and the revelry grew. Little deemed they, what next would happen, when the night should be dark, and Hroegar asleep in his bower!

The hall is made ready as a dormitory for the men-at-arms; the benches are slewed round, and the floor is spread from end to end with beds and bolsters. Every warrior's shield is set upright at his head, and by the bench-posts stands his spear, supporting helmet and mail. Such was their custom; they slept as ever ready to rise and do service to their king. Horror is renewed in the night; Grendel's fiendish dam visits the hall and kills one of the sleepers, ?schere by name.

In the morning the king is in great distress. He sends for Beowulf, who, after the purging of Heorot, had occupied a separate bower, like the king. Beowulf arrives, and hopes all is well. Hroegar spake:-"Ask not of welfare; sorrow is renewed for the Danish folk! My trusty friend ?schere is dead; my comrade tried in battle when the tug was for life, when the fight was foot to foot and helmets kissed:-oh! ?schere was what a thane should be! The cruel hag has wreaked on him her vengeance. The country folk said there were two of them, one the semblance of a woman, the other the spectre of a man. Their haunt is in the remote land, in the crags of the wolf, the wind-beaten cliffs, and untrodden bogs, where the dismal stream plunges into the drear abyss of an awful lake, overhung with a dark and grisly wood rooted down to the water's edge, where a lurid flame plays nightly on the surface of the flood-and there lives not the man who knows its depth! So dreadful is the place that the hunted stag, hard driven by the hounds, will rather die on the bank than find a shelter there. A place of terror! When the wind rises, the waves mingle hurly-burly with the clouds, the air is stifling and rumbles with thunder. To thee alone we look for relief; darest thou explore the monster's lair, I will reward the adventure with ancient treasures, with coils of gold if thou return alive!"

Said Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow:-"Sorrow not, experienced sire! Better avenge a friend than idly deplore him:-each must wait the end of life, and should work while he may to make him a name-the best thing after life! Bestir thee, guardian of the folk! let us be quick upon the track of Grendel's housemate. I make thee a promise:-not highest cliff, not widest field, not darkest wood, nor deepest flood-go where he will-shall be his refuge! Bear up for one day, and may thy troubles end according to my wish!" The king mounts, and with his retinue conducts Beowulf to the charmed lake: the wildness of the way, and the strange nature of the scenes, are all in keeping. The armed followers sit them down in a place where they command a view of the dismal water. Monstrous creatures writhe about the crags; the men shoot some of them.

Beowulf equips for his adventure. His sword was the famous Hrunting, lent to him by Hunferth, the boastful orator, he who had gibed at Beowulf on the day of his arrival. It was a sword of high repute; a hoarded treasure; its edge was iron; it was damascened with device of coiled twigs; it had never failed in fight the hand that dared to wield it. Now Beowulf spoke, ready for action: "Remember, noble Hroegar, how thou and I talked together, that if I lost life in thy service thou wouldest be as a father to me departed:-protect my comrades if I am taken; and the gifts thou gavest me, beloved Hroegar, send home to Higelac. When he looks on the treasures he will know that I found a bounteous master, and enjoyed life while it lasted. And let Hunfere have his old sword again: I will conquer fame with Hrunting, or die fighting." Act followed word: he was gone, and the wave had covered him. He was most of the day before he reached the depths of the abyss. While yet on the downward way, he was met by the old water-wolf that had dwelt there a hundred years, who had perceived the approach of a human visitor. She clutched him and bore him off, till he found himself with his enemy in a vast chamber which excluded the water and was lighted by some strange fire-glow. At once the fight began, and Hrunting rang about the demon's head; but against such a being the sword was useless, the edge turned that never had failed before: he flung it from him and trusted to strength of arm. In his rage he charged so deadly that he felled the monster to the ground; but she recovered and Beowulf fell. And now the furious wight thought to revenge Grendel; she plunged her knife at Beowulf's breast, and his life had ended there but for the good service of his ringed mail-serk. Protected by this armour, and helped by Him who giveth victory, he passed the perilous moment, and was on his feet again. And now he espied among the armour in that place an old elfin sword, such as no other man might carry; this he seized, and with the force of despair he so smote that the fell hag lay dead:-the sword was gory, and the boy was fain of his work. With rage unsated, he ranged through the place till he came to where Grendel lay lifeless: he smote the head from the hateful carcase.

To Hroegar's men watching on the height the lake appeared as if mingled with blood, and this seemed to confirm their fears. The day was waning: the old men about Hroegar took counsel, and, concluding they should see Beowulf no more, they moved homeward. But Beowulf's followers, though sick at heart and with little hope, yet sate on in spite of dejection.

Meanwhile the huge, gigantic blade had melted marvellously away "likest unto ice, when the Father (he who hath power over times and seasons, that is, the true ruler) looseneth the chain of frost and unwindeth the wave-ropes":-so venomous was the gore of the fiend that had been slain therewith. Beowulf took the gigantic hilt and the monster's head, and, soaring up through the waters, he stood on the shore to the surprise and joy of his faithful comrades, who came eagerly about him to ease him of his dripping harness. Exulting they return to Heorot, Grendel's head carried by four men on a pole; they march straight up the hall to greet the king, and the guests are startled with the ghastly evidence of Beowulf's complete success. Beowulf tells his story and presents the hilt to Hroegar. The aged king extols the unparalleled achievements of Beowulf, and warns him against excessive exaltation of mind by the example of Heremod.

Soon after this we have the parting between the old king and the young hero, who declares his readiness to come with a thousand thanes at any time of Hroegar's need; while Hroegar's words are of love and admiration and confidence in his discretion: and so he lets him go not without large addition of gifts, and embraces, and kisses, and tears. "Thence Beowulf the warrior, elate with gold, trod the grassy plain, exulting in treasure; the sea-goer that rode at anchor awaited its lord; then as they went was Hroegar's liberality often praised." At the coast they are met by the coast-warden with an altered and respectful mien: they are soon afloat, and we hear the whistle of the wind through the rigging as the gallant craft bears away before the breeze to carry them all merrily homewards after well-sped adventure. The welcome is worthy of the work:-Higelac's reception of Beowulf, the joy of getting him back; Beowulf presenting to his liege lord the wealth he had won; old reminiscences called up and couched in song; an ancient sword brought out and presented to Beowulf, and with the sword a spacious lordship, a noble mansion, and all seigneurial rights.

And so he dwelt until such time as he went forth with Higelac on his fatal expedition against the Frisians, who were backed by a strong alliance of Chauci, and Chattuarii, and Franks; and there Higelac fell, and his army perished. Beowulf, by prodigious swimming, reached his home again, where now was a young widowed queen and her infant son. She offered herself and her kingdom to Beowulf; he preferred the office of the faithful guardian. At a later time the young king fell in battle, and then Beowulf succeeded. He reigned fifty years a good king, and ended life with a supreme act of heroism. He fought and slew a fiery dragon which desolated his country, and was himself mortally wounded in the conflict. One single follower, Wiglaf by name, bolder or more faithful than the rest, was at his side in danger, though not to help; and he received the hero's dying words:-"I should have given my armour to my son if I had heir of my body. I have held this people fifty years; no neighbour has dared to challenge or molest me. I have lived with men on fair and equal terms; I have done no violence, caused no friends to perish, and that is a comfort to one deadly wounded who is soon to appear before the Ruler of men. Now, beloved Wiglaf, go thou quickly in under the hoary stone of the dragon's vault, and bring the treasures out into the daylight, that I may behold the splendour of ancient wealth, and death may be the softer for the sight." When it was done, and the wondrous heap was before his eyes, the victorious warrior spake:-"For the riches on which I look I thank the Lord of all, the king of glory, the everlasting ruler, that I have been able before my death-day to acquire such for my people. Well spent is the remnant of my life to earn such a treasure; I charge thee with the care of the people; I can be no longer here. Order my warriors after the bale-fire to rear a mighty mound on the headland over the sea: it shall tower aloft on Hronesness for a memorial to my people: that sea-going men in time to come may call it Beowulf's Barrow, when foam-prowed ships drive over the scowling flood on their distant courses." Then he removed a golden coil from his neck and gave it to the young thane; the same he did with his helmet inlaid with gold, the collar, and the mail-coat: he bade him use them as his own.

"Thou art the last of our race of the W?gmundings; fate has swept all my kindred off into Eternity; I must follow them." That was his latest word; his soul went out of his breast into the lot of the just. Reflections and discourses proper to the occasion are spoken by Wiglaf, such as chiding of the timorous who stood aloof, and gloomy anticipations of the future.

3,000. Th?t is sio f?htho

and se feondscipe,

w?l nith wera,

th?s the ic wen hafo,

the us seceath to

Sweona leode

syeean hie gefricgeath

frean userne,


thone the ?r geheold

with hettendum

hord and rice;

folc r?d fremede,

oeee furthur gen

eorlscipe efnde.

Nu is ofost betost

th?t we theod cyning

th?r sceawian

and thone gebringan,

the us beagas geaf,

on ad f?re.

Ne scal anes hw?t

meltan mid tham modigan,

ac th?r is mathma hord,

gold unrime

grimme geceapod

and nu ?t sithestan

sylfes feore

beagas gebohte.

Tha sceal brond gretan

?led theccean,

nalles eorl wegan

maeeum to gemyndum,

ne m?gth scyne

habban on healse

hring weorthunge,

ac sceal geomor mod

golde bereafod

oft nalles ?ne

el land tredan;

nu se here wisa

hleahtor alegde,

gamen and gleo dream.

This is the feud

and this the foeman's hate

the vengeful spite

that I expect

against us now will bring

the Swedish bands;

soon as they hear

our chieftain high

of life bereft-

who held till now

'gainst haters all

the hoard and realm;

peace framed at home;

and further off

respect inspired.

Now speed is best

that we our liege and king

go look upon,

And him escort,

who us adorned,

the pile towards.

Not things of petty worth

shall with the mighty melt,

but there a treasure main,

uncounted gold

costly procured

and now at length

with his great life

jewels dear-bought;

them shall flame devour,

burning shall bury:-

never a warrior bear

jewel of dear memory,

nor maiden sheen

have on her neck


nay, shall disconsolate


not once but oft

tread strangers' land;

now the leader in war

laughter hath quenched

game and all sound of glee.

And so this noble poem moves on to its close, ending, like the "Iliad," with a great bale-fire. Two closing lines record like an epitaph the praise of the dead in superlatives; not as a warrior, but as a man and a ruler: how that he was towards men the mildest and most affable, towards his people he was most gracious and most yearning for their esteem.

About the structure of this poem the same sort of questions are debated as those which Wolff raised about Homer-whether it is the work of a single poet, or a patchwork of older poems. Ludwig Ettmüller, of Zürich, who first gave the study of the "Beowulf" a German basis, regarded the poem as originally a purely heathen work, or a compilation of smaller heathen poems, upon which the editorial hands of later and Christian poets had left their manifest traces. In his translation, one of the most vigorous efforts in the whole of Beowulf literature, he has distinguished, by a typographical arrangement, the later additions from what he regards as the original poetry. He is guided, however, by considerations different from those that affect the Homeric debate. He is chiefly guided by the relative shades of the heathen and Christian elements. Wherever the touch of the Christian hand is manifest, he arranges such parts as additions and interpolations.77

Grein saw in the poem the unity of a single work, and he thought the motive allegorical. He interpreted the assaults of the water-fiend as the night attacks of sea-robbers. I cannot see any such allegory as this, but I agree with him as to the unity of the poem, so far as unity is compatible with the traces of older materials. And I see allegory too, but in a different sense.

The material is mythical and heathen; but it is clarified by natural filtration through the Christian mind of the poet. Not only are the heathen myths inoffensive, but they are positively favourable to a train of Christian thought. Beowulf's descent into the abyss to extirpate the scourge is suggestive of that Article in the Apostles' Creed which had a peculiar fascination for the mind of the Dark and Middle Ages; the fight with the dragon; the victory that cost the victor his life; the one fa

ithful friend while the rest are fearful-these incidents seem almost like reflections of evangelical history. Without seeing in the poem an allegorical design, we may imagine that, with the progress of Christianity, those parts of the old mythology which were most in harmony with Christian doctrines had the best chance of survival; and that, as a poet puts a new physiognomy on an old story without distorting the tradition, as we have seen in our own day the story of Arthur told again, not with the elaborate allegory of Spenser, but with a spiritual transfiguration which makes the "Idylls of the King" truly an epic of the nineteenth century, so I conceive that Beowulf was a genuine growth of that junction in time (define it where we may) when the heathen tales still kept their traditional interest, and yet the spirit of Christianity had taken full possession of the Saxon mind-at least, so much of it as was represented by this poetical literature.

We may not dismiss the "Beowulf" without hazarding an opinion as to the date of its production. It has been said to be older than the Saxon Conquest, and some of the materials are doubtless of this antiquity. But for the poem, as we have it, Kemble assigned it to the seventh century; then Ettmüller thought it belonged to the ninth; then Grein went back halfway to the eighth, and this has been adopted by Mr. Arnold, and most generally followed. I think Ettmüller is the nearest to the mark; and I would rather go forward to the tenth than back to the eighth. A pardonable fancy might see the date conveyed in the poem itself. The dragon watches over an old hoard of gold, and it is distinctly a heathen hoard (h?enum horde, 2,217) of heathen gold (h?een gold, 2,277). In the same context we find that the monster had watched over this earth-hidden treasure for 300 years; and if this may be something more than a poetical number, it may possibly indicate the time elapsed since the heathen age. Three hundred years would bring us to the close of the ninth or the beginning of the tenth century, a date which, on every consideration, I incline to think the most probable.78

All the traces of affinity with, or consciousness of, the "Beowulf" that we can discover-and they are very few-are such as to favour this date. The only complete parallel to the fable is found in the Icelandic Saga of Grettir, who is a kind of northern Hercules. This hero performs many great feats, but there are three which belong to the supernatural. In one of these he wrestles with a fiend called Glam, and kills him; and though Glam is not the same as Grendel, yet the circumstances of the encounter are so full of parallels as to establish, at least, the literary affinity of the two stories. The other two supernatural feats are coupled, just in the same way as two of the feats of Beowulf are. It is two fights, one in a hall and one under a waterfall, with two monsters of one family. The fight with the troll-wife in the hall is a true parallel to Beowulf's fight with Grendel; but the fight with the troll in the cavern under the force is in great essentials and in minute details so identical with Beowulf's underwater adventure, that one may call it a prose version of the same thing under different names. A certain house was haunted. Men that were there alone by night were missing, and nothing more was heard of them. Grettir came and lay in that hall. The troll-wife came and he vanquished her. This he had done under an assumed name, but the priest of the district knows he can be no other than Grettir, and he asks Grettir what had become of the men who were lost. Grettir bids the priest come with him to the river. There was a waterfall, and a sheer cliff of fifty fathom down to the water, and under the force was seen the mouth of a cavern. They had a rope with them. The priest drives down a stake into a cleft of the rock and secured it with stones, and he sate by it. Grettir said, "I will search what there is in the force, but thou shalt watch the rope." He put a stone in the bight of the rope, and let it sink down in the water. He made ready, girt him with a short sword, and had no other weapon. He leaped off the cliff, and the priest saw the soles of his feet. Grettir dived under the force, and the eddy was so strong that he had to get to the very bottom before he could get inside the force, where the river stood off from the cliff. By a jutting rock he reached the cavern's mouth. In the cave there was a fire burning on the hearth. A giant sate there, who at once leaped up and struck at the intruder with a pike made equally to cut and to thrust. This weapon had a wooden shaft, and men called it a hepti-sax.79 Grettir's sword demolishes this weapon, and the giant stretched after a sword that hung there in the cave. Then Grettir smote him and killed him, and his blood ran down with the stream past the rope where the priest sate to watch. The priest concluded that Grettir was dead, and it being now evening he went home. But Grettir explored the cave. He found the bones of two men, and put them into a skin. He swam to the rope and climbed up by it to the top of the cliff. When the priest came to church next morning he found the bones in the bag, and a rune-stick whereon the event was carved; but Grettir was gone.

The identity is so manifest that we have only to ask which people (if either) was the borrower, the English or the Danes. And here comes in the consideration that the geography of the "Beowulf" is Scandinavian. There is no consciousness of Britain or England throughout the poem. If this raises a presumption that the Saxon poet got his story from a Dane, we naturally ask, When is this likely to have happened? and the answer must be that the earliest probable time begins after the Peace of Wedmore in 878.

In the "Blickling Homilies" there is a passage which recalls the description of the mere in "Beowulf."80 So far as this coincidence affects the question, it makes for the date here assigned.

Beyond the "Beowulf" we have but small and fragmentary remains of the old heroic poetry. The most important pieces are "The Battle of Finn's Burgh," and "The Lay of King Waldhere." These are now often printed in the editions of the "Beowulf."

Ettmüller conjectured that the "Invitation from a True Lover Settled Abroad," was not a single lyric, but a beautiful incident taken from some epic poem.81 A messenger comes with a token to a lady at home, by which she may credit his message; he bids her take ship as soon as she hears the voice of the cuckoo, and go out to him who has all things ready about him to give her a suitable reception.

Next we will consider


The subject of this piece is a city in ruins. There is massive masonry: the place was once handsomely built and decorated and held by warriors, but now all tumbled about; works of art exposed to view and forming a strange contrast with the desolation around; there is a wide pool of water, hot without fire; and there are the once-frequented baths. This is no vague poetic composition, but the portrait of a definite spot. It suits the old Brito-Roman ruin of Akeman after 577; and it suits no other place that I can think of in the habitable world. The old view that it was a fortress or castle seems misplaced in time, as well as incompatible with the expressions in the text.83

The poem begins:-

Wr?tlic is thes weal stan

wyrde gebr?con,

Stupendous is this wall of stone,

strange the ruin!

The strongholds are bursten, the work of giants decaying, the roofs are fallen, the towers tottering, dwellings unroofed and mouldering, masonry weather-marked, shattered the places of shelter, time-scarred, tempest-marred, undermined of eld.

Eorth grap hafath

waldend wyrhtan

forweorene geleorene

heard gripe hrusan

oth hund cnea

wer theoda gewitan.

Oft thes wag gebad

r?g har and read fah

rice ?fter othrum

ofstonden under stormum....

Earth's grasp holdeth

the mighty workmen

worn away lorn away

in the hard grip of the grave

till a hundred ages

of men-folk do pass.

Oft this wall witnessed

(weed-grown and lichen-spotted)

one great man after another

take shelter out of storms....

* * *

How did the swift sledge-hammer flash and furiously come down upon the rings when the sturdy artizan was rivetting the wall with clamps so wondrously together. Bright were the buildings, the bath-houses many, high-towered the pinnacles, frequent the war-clang, many the mead-halls, of merriment full, till all was overturned by Fate the violent. The walls crumbled widely; dismal days came on; death swept off the valiant men; the arsenals became ruinous foundations; decay sapped the burgh. Pitifully crouched armies to earth. Therefore these halls are a dreary ruin, and these pictured gables;84 the rafter-framed roof sheddeth its tiles; the pavement is crushed with the ruin, it is broken up in heaps; where erewhile many a baron-

gl?dmod and goldbeorht

gleoma gefr?twed

wlonc and wingal

wig hyrstum scan;

seah on sinc on sylfor

on searo gimmas;

on ead, on ?ht,

on eorcan stan:

on thas beorhtan burg

bradan rices.

Stan hofu stodan;

stream hate wearp

widan wylme,

weal eal befeng

beorhtan bosme;

th?r tha bathu w?ron,

hat on hrethre;

th?t wes hythelic!

joyous and gold-bright

gaudily jewelled

haughty and wine-hot

shone in his harness;

looked on treasure, on silver,

on gems of device;

on wealth, on stores,

on precious stones;

on this bright borough

of broad dominion.

There stood courts of stone!

The stream hotly rushed

with eddy wide,

(wall all enclosed)

with bosom bright,

(There the baths were!)

not in its nature!

That was a boon indeed!


In patriarchal or sub-patriarchal times social life was still confined within the family pale; and the man who belonged to no household was a wanderer and a vagabond on the face of the earth. Through invasion or war or other accidents a man who had been the honoured member of a well-found home might live to see that home broken up or pass into strange hands, and he might be thus like a plant uprooted when he was too old to get planted in a fresh connexion. His only chance of any share in social life was to wander from house to house, getting perhaps a brief lodging in each; and such a homeless condition might be well expressed by the compound eardstapa, one who tramps (stapa) from one habitation (eard) to another. In such an outcast plight the speaker in this piece went to sea, and there he often thought of the old happy days that were gone. He would dream of the pleasure of his old access to the giefstol of his lord, whom he saluted with kiss and head on knee, and then he would wake a friendless man in the wintry ocean, and his grief would be the sorer at his heart for the recollections of lost kindred that the dream had revived. Such a lot is in ready sympathy with old-world ruins, of which there were many in England at that time, and they raise the anticipation of a time when a like ruin will be the end of all! "It becomes a wise man to know how awful it will be when all this world's wealth stands waste, as now up and down in the world there are wind-buffeted walls standing in mouldering decay"-and the description which follows is either a reminiscence of "The Ruined City," or else it shows that the subject of ruins was familiar with the Scōpas.86


Ettmüller reckoned this the oldest of the Saxon lyrics; influenced, perhaps, by the mythical nature of the contents. But, if we regard the form rather than the material, there is a refinement about the versification which does not look archaic. The poem is cast in irregular stanzas, and it has a refrain. The poet, whose name is Deor, has experienced the fallaciousness of early success. His prospects are clouded; once the favourite minstrel of his patron, he is now superseded by a newer Scōp. His consolation is a well-known one; perhaps the oldest and commonest of all the formul? of consolation. Others have been in trouble before him, and have somehow got over it. This is not conveyed as a mere generalisation; it is done poetically through striking examples, of which Weland is the first, and Beadohild the second. After each example comes the refrain:-

th?s ofereode

thisses swa m?g!

That [distress] he overwent,

So . I . can . this!

The failures of life's hopes and ambitions have been so often lamented, that the subject is rather hackneyed and conventional. Here is a piece out of the beaten track; fresh, though ingenious and artistic. Such a poem is all the more welcome as the subject belongs to an extinct career-the career of a court minstrel.

The Ballads have a peculiar value of their own. There is a sense in which they are the best representatives of the native muse. There are several extant specimens of various merit, but two are pre-eminent, and these are, beyond all doubt, preserved in their original and unaltered form. They were manifestly produced in the moment when the sensation of a great event was yet fresh. They are impassioned and effusive, and they bear good witness to the characteristics of primitive poetry. One spontaneous element they preserve, which has been quite discarded from modern poetry, and of which the other traces are few. I mean the poetry of derision. The light and shade of the ballad is glory and scorn. The most popular subject of this species of poetry is a battle. Whether your ballad is of victory or of disaster, these two elements, not indeed with the same intensity or the same proportions, but still these two, are the constituents required. Our best examples are the "Victory of Brunanburh" (937), and the "Disaster of Maldon" (991).

The battle of Brunanburh was fought by King Athelstan and his brother Edmund (children of Edward), against the alliance of the Scots under Constantinus with the Danes under Anlaf.

Various attempts have been made to present in modern English the Ballad of Brunanburh, the most successful being that by the Poet Laureate. Our language is rather out of practice for kindling a poetic fervour around the sentiment of flinging scorn at a vanquished foe; but the following will serve to illustrate this heathenish element, or such relics of it as survived in the tenth century. The person first railed at is Constantinus:-


Slender reason had

He to be proud of

The welcome of war-knives-

He that was reft of his

Folk and his friends that had

Fallen in conflict,

Leaving his son, too,

Lost in the carnage,

Mangled to morsels,

A youngster in war!


Slender reason had

He to be glad of

The clash of the war-glaive-

Traitor and trickster

And spurner of treaties-

He nor had Anlaf,

With armies so broken,

A reason for bragging

That they had the better

In perils of battle

On places of slaughter-

The struggle of standards,

The rush of the javelins,

The crash of the charges,

The wielding of weapons-

The play that they played with

The children of Edward.

Alfred Tennyson, "Ballads and Other Poems," 1880, p. 174.

The longest of our ballads, though it is imperfect, is that of the "Battle of Maldon." In the year 991 the Northmen landed in Essex, and expected to be bought off with great ransom; but Brithnoth, the alderman of the East Saxons, met them with all his force, and, after fighting bravely, was killed. The lines here quoted occur after the alderman's death:-

Leofsunu gem?lde,

and his linde ahof,

bord to gebeorge;

he tham beorne oncw?th;

Ic th?t gehate,

th?t ic heonon nelle

fleon fotes trym,

ac wille furthor gan,

wrecan on gewinne

mine wine drihten!

Ne thurfon me embe Sturmere

stede f?ste h?leth,

wordum ?twitan,

nu min wine gecranc,

th?t ic hlafordleas

ham sithie

wende from wige!

ac me sceal w?pen niman,

ord and iren!

Then up spake Leveson

and his shield uphove,

buckler in ward;

he the warrior addressed:

I make the vow,

that I will not hence

flee a foot's pace,

but will go forward;

wreak in the battle

my friend and my lord!

Never shall about Stourmere,

the stalwart fellows,

with words me twit

now my chief is down,

that I lordless

homeward go march,

turning from war!

Nay, weapon shall take me,

point and iron.

Other ballads, or something like ballads, that are embodied in the Saxon chronicles are:-"The Conquest of Mercia" (942); "The Coronation of Eadgar at Bath" (973); "Eadgar's Demise" (975); "The Good Times of King Eadgar" (975); "The Martyr of Corf Gate" (979); "Alfred the Innocent ?theling" (1036); "The Son of Ironside" (1057); "The Dirge of King Eadward" (1065).

Others there are of which only brief scraps remain, almost embedded in the prose of the chronicles:-"The Sack of Canterbury" (1011); "The Wooing of Margaret" (1067); "The Baleful Bride Ale" (1076); "The High-handed Conqueror" (1086).88

Our last piece shall be "Widsith, or the Gleeman's Song."89 This is a string of reminiscences of travel in the profession of minstrelsy; some part of which has a genuine air of high antiquity.90 In the course of a long tradition it has undergone many changes which cannot now be distinguished. But, besides these, there are some glaring patches of literary interpolation, chiefly from Scriptural sources. I quote the concluding lines:-

Swa scrithende

gesceapum hweorfath,

gleo men gumena

geond grunda fela;

thearfe secgath

thonc word sprecath,

simle suth oththe north

sumne gemetath,

gydda gleawne

geofum unhneawne,

se the fore duguthe

wile dom ar?ran

eorlscipe ?fnan;

oth th?t eal scaceth

leoht and lif somod:

Lof se gewyrceth

hafath under heofenum

heahf?stne dom.

So wandering on

the world about,

glee-men do roam

through many lands;

they say their needs,

they speak their thanks,

sure south or north

some one to meet,

of songs to judge

and gifts not grudge,

one who by merit hath a mind

renown to make

earlship to earn;

till all goes out

light and life together.

Laud who attains

hath under heaven

high built renown.

74 In "A Book for the Beginner in Anglo-Saxon," Clarendon Press Series; ed. 2 (1879), p. 70.

75 The editions and translations are by Thorkelin, Copenhagen, 1815; Kemble, ed. 1, London, 1833; ed. 2, London, 1835; translation, 1837; Ettmüller, German translation, Zurich, 1840; Schaldemose, with Danish translation, Copenhagen, 1851; Thorpe, with English translation, Oxford, 1855; Grundtvig, Copenhagen, 1861; Moritz Heyne, German translation, Paderborn, 1863; Grein, 1867; Arnold, Oxford, 1876; Moritz Heyne, Text, ed. 4, 1879.


Wulfgar then spoke to his own dear lord:

"Here are arrived, come from afar

Over the sea-waves, men of the Geats;

The one most distinguished the warriors brave

Beowulf name. They are thy suppliants

That they, my prince, may with thee now

Greetings exchange; do not thou refuse them

Thy converse in turn, friendly Hrothgar!

They in their war-weeds seem very worthy

Contenders with earls; the chief is renowned

Who these war-heroes hither has led."

Hrothgar then spoke, defence of the Scyldings;

"I knew him of old when he was a child;

His aged father was Ecgtheow named;

To him at home gave Hrethel the Geat

His only daughter: his son has now

Boldly come here, a trusty friend sought."

This is from Mr. Garnett's translation, which is made line for line. Published by Ginn, Heath, & Co., Boston, 1882.

77 Dr. Karl Müllenhof (papers in Haupt's "Zeitschrift") follows the same line. His treatment is thus described by Mr. Henry Morley:-"The work was formed, he thinks, by the combination of several old songs-(1) 'The Fight with Grendel,' complete in itself, and the oldest of the pieces; (2) 'The Fight with Grendel's Mother,' next added; then (3) the genealogical introduction to the mention of Hrothgar, forming what is now the opening of the poem. Then came, according to this theory, a poet, A, who worked over the poem thus produced, interpolated many passages with skill, and added a continuation, setting forth Beowulf's return home. Last came a theoretical interloper, B, a monk, who interspersed religious sayings of his own, and added the ancient song of the fight with the dragon and the death of Beowulf. The positive critic not only finds all this, but proceeds to point out which passages are old, older, and oldest, where a few lines are from poet A, and where other interpolation is from poet B."-"English Verse and Prose" in "Cassell's Library of English Literature," p. 11.

78 No one needs to be told that the dragon story is of high antiquity. But even of the elements which have most the appearance of history some may be traced so far back till they seem to fade into legend. Thus Higelac can hardly be any other than that Chochilaicus of whom Gregory of Tours records that he invaded the Frisian coast from the north, and was slain in the attempt. In our poem, this recurs with variations no less than four times as a well-known passage in the adventures of Higelac. But it affords a doubtful basis for argument about the date of our poem.

79 See Dr. Vigfusson's remarks in the Prolegomena to his edition of the "Sturlinga Saga," Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1878.

80 See Dr. Morris's Preface to the Blickling Homilies.

81 Cod. Exon., ed. Thorpe, p. 473.

82 Cod. Exon., ed. Thorpe, p. 476; Grein, i., 248.

83 Years ago I discussed this little poem before the Bath Field Club; and my arguments were subsequently printed in the "Proceedings" of that society (1872). Professor Wülcker has since agreed with me that the subject of the poem is a city, and not a fortress. My identification of the ruin with Acemanceaster (Bath) has been approved by Mr. Freeman in his volume on "Rufus."

84 The feeling which pervades this remarkable fragment was strangely recalled by the following passage in a recent book that has interested many:-"Masses of strange, nameless masonry, of an antiquity dateless and undefined, bedded themselves in the rocks, or overhung the clefts of the hills; and out of a great tomb by the wayside, near the arch, a forest of laurel forced its way, amid delicate and graceful frieze-work, moss-covered and stained with age. In this strangely desolate and ruinous spot, where the fantastic shapes of nature seem to mourn in weird fellowship with the shattered strength and beauty of the old Pagan art-life, there appeared unexpectedly signs of modern dwelling."-"John Inglesant," by J. H. Shorthouse, new edition, 1881, vol. ii., p. 320.

85 Cod. Exon., ed. Thorpe, p. 286.

86 A translation of this poem in Alexandrines appeared in the Academy, May 14, 1881, by E. H. Hickey.

87 Cod. Exon., ed. Thorpe, p. 377. His title is "Deor the Scald's Complaint." I have adopted the title from Professor Wülcker, "Des S?ngers Trost."

88 Sometimes a prose passage of unusual energy raises the apprehension that it may be a ballad toned down. Dr. Grubitz has suggested this view of the Annal of 755, in which there is a fight in a Saxon castle (burh). The graphic description of the place, the dramatic order of the incidents, and the life-like dialogue of the parley, might well be the work of a poet.

89 Kemble called it "The Traveller's Song;" Thorpe, Cod. Exon., p. 318, "The Scop or Scald's Tale."

90 A valuable testimony is borne to the substantial antiquity of this poem, by the fact that Schafarik, who is the chief ethnographer for Sclavonic literature, regards it as a valuable source on account of the Sclavonic names contained in it. I am indebted to Mr. Morfil, of Oriel College, for this information.

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