Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

of the words which we now use, being of Latin or French origin, were unknown to our Anglo-Saxon ancestors. The grammatical forms and construction, too, of the old language were very complex, many of the parts of speech being highly inflected, as in Latin; while the English is very simple in its construction, and there are few inflections or variations.

For more than six hundred years—from 449 to 1066-Anglo-Saxon was the language of the people of England. During this time, there were but few changes—the isolation of the country and the home-loving character of the people preventing the introduction of many foreign terms or expressions. The Britons, who inhabited the country previously to the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons, had been either quietly absorbed by the more energetic race or driven to seek refuge among the hills and mountains of the western peninsulas, They spoke a language very different from that of their conquerors; and it is strange that, although these two languages existed side by side for centuries, but very few words of British origin were ever incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon. The language of the Britons is still spoken in its original purity by the Welsh in Wales. And among the 40,000 words in our modern English vocabulary not more than a hundred have been directly derived from British or Welsh sources.

The conversion of the English to Christianity occurred about the year 600. The Roman missionaries, by whom this conversion was effected, were not only zealous in the propagation of their religious faith, but they introduced the use of the Roman alphabet in place of the ancient Runic characters, and taught their disciples to read Latin books. Brought thus into contact with other and higher forms of life and thought, our ancestors made rapid progress in the acquisition of knowledge. Hitherto they had kuown no literature, save a few war-songs and some heroic legends brought with them from the continent and preserved by oral tradition only. But no sooner had the new religion and the learning of Southern Europe been intro

duced, than men began to think and write. A varied and somewhat extensive literature sprang into existence, imperfect in its spontaneous outbursts, but soon embracing works on almost every branch of knowledge. To these crude productions of the Anglo-Saxons we trace the beginnings of English literature. The literature of the AngloSaxon period bears a relation to the more finished literature of later times somewhat similar to that which the imperfect chrysalis bears to the full-formed butterfly. And, as in studying the natural history of the butterfly we cannot ignore its formative period of existence, neither can the student of English literature omit the study of its imperfect beginnings in that first English of our ancestors—the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

The first form in which the literature of the AngloSaxons appeared was poetry; and, indeed, this is the form in which the earliest literature of every people has been written. In a rude state of society, men live in close communion with nature, the source of all poetic inspiration. Their ideas are simple and child-like, and their language abounds in bomely but beautiful imagery. Cold science has not yet taught them to measure and calculate, nor has philosophy checked the reins of their imagination. Everything which they see or hear is regarded as being actuated by some living, sentient force; and every phenomenon of nature is considered as the visible manifestation of some half-natural, half-spiritual principle in sympathy with or antagonistic to mankind. The expression of their commonest thoughts naturally assumes the poetic form, and bursts spontaneously from their lips. All things beautiful, sublime, or terrific are habitually personified; and even abstract ideas are clothed in the garb of metaphor. For instance, the earth is spoken of as a kind mother, the sunlight as a conquering hero, the spring-time as a gentle maiden, the darkness as a plotting thief: ships are great "sea-steeds,” the sea is the "swan-road,” the sun is “God's bright candle.” To a state of society where men thus

think and speak, poetry and mythology trace alike their carliest beginnings.

Another reason why poetry appears before prose in a nation's literature is that among a comparatively illiterate people the memory of great deeds and wonderful events is more easily preserved through the medium of song than by any other means. Poems recounting the achievements of heroes or reciting the praises of the gods are composed ; they are sung at popular gatherings and from house to house by the minstrels or bards; they are handed down by oral tradition from one generation to another, until, finally, they are committed to writing and permanently incorporated in the literature of the people. The great subjects of which all this early poetry treats are Man and Nature : man in his relations to his fellow-men and to the higher powers, and nature in her more awful and seemingly miraculous manifestations.

The oldest Anglo-Saxon poem in existence is the legend of the mythical hero Beowulf. It was doubtless composed and sung by our forefathers while yet they lived in the homeland of the race, in Schleswig and Jutland; and it was brought by them to Britain probably as early as the latter part of the fifth century. In its original form, it was,

, no doubt, thoroughly pagan in style and character. But in the form in which we now have it, it is a revision by an English Christian of the eighth century; and it is plain that its monkish reviser has attempted to modify many passages by introducing ideas more in consonance with the new religion. Yet, notwithstanding this doubtful effort to make the old hero-legend more acceptable to Christian readers and hearers, it still preserves much of the original pagan tone and temper; and it paints in. viviil colors the life and manners and modes of thought which characterized our rude forefathers.

Beowuf was a hero of the primitive type, fearless, strong, and generous—“grand simply by his deeds.” “He rowed upon the sea, his naked sword hard in his hand, amidst the

fierce waves and coldest of storms, and the rage of winter hurtled over the waves of the deep.” To the land of the Danes he came, and to the great hall of old King Hrothgar; him he freed from a strange monster of the fens and moors, called Grendel. Then, after a long life of daring deeds and wise chieftainship, having ruled his people well for fifty years, he was slain in combat with a fiery dragon, and his body was solemnly burned, high up on a sea-washed promontory. This, in brief, is the story of Beowulf, but the poem is chiefly valuable for the insight which it gives us into the character and feelings of the people of the time when it was composed. The idea of fatalism-an idea not altogether confined to heathenism-is very prominent throughout this and other poems of the Anglo-Saxon period. “What is to be, must be.” “To us it must be as our Fate betides, that Fate which is every man's lord !” cries Beowulf when he is wounded unto death. “Each one of us must abide the end of his present life.” And yet there was among those sturdy old forefathers of ours an abundance of self-reliance, a strong sense of honor, a contempt for cowardice of every kind. "The Must Be often helps an undoomed man when he is brave." "Let him who can work, work his doomed deeds ere death comes." "Death is better than a life of shame !"

The scene of the story of Beowulf is probably the island of Seeland, in Denmark. But the Englishman who revised the poem has described in it that part of the Northumbrian sea-coast which was familiar to him—the bold promontory and the high cliffs in the neighborhood of Whitby. Everywhere throughout the poem we are brought face to face with wild nature as it was seen and understood by our nature-worshiping ancestors, and our minds are impressed with their intense love for the sea and their fierce passion for war. Rude in manner and rough in action though they were, yet we cannot fail to perceive that their minds were imbued with a high sense of justice, of patriotism, of “manliness and the worth of man.” Worthy ancestors, indeed, were they of the people who, in

[ocr errors]

this nineteenth century, are the acknowledged champions of liberty and the leaders of the world.

Besides the story of Beowulf, we have two or three other war-songs belonging to the Anglo-Saxon period, all breathing the same spirit of submission to the decrees of fate, of stern devotion to principle, and of hatred and defiance to the enemies of the country.

The Battle of Finnesburgh, found written on the back of a manuscript of homilies, also belongs, probably, to the old pagan days:

The army goes forth; the birds sing, the cricket chirps, the war-weapons sound, the lance clangs against the shield. Now shineth the moon, wandering under the sky. Now arise deeds of woe which the enmity of this people makes ready to do. Then in the court came the tumult of war-carnage. They seized in their hands the hollow wood of the shield. They smote through the bones of the head. The roofs of the castle resounded, until Garulf fell in battle, the first of earth-dwelling men, son of Guthlaf. Around him lay many brave men dying. The raven whirled about, dark and sombre, like a willow leaf. There was a sparkling of blades, as if all Finnesburgh were on fire. Never have I heard of a more worthy battle in war.

Compare this with the Battle Song of Brunanburh, written three hundred years later, and we shall see how the old martial spirit survived, and how the sombre earnestness and dreary imagery of the singers suffered no decay.

The king Ethelstan, chief of chiefs, he who bestows the collar of honor on the brave, and his brother Edmund the atheling, a lasting glory won with the edges of swords at Brunanburh. They cleaved the wall of bucklers, they hewed the noble banners with the wrecks of their hammers. So were they taught to defend their land, their homes and their boards against any robber. From sunrise in the morning-tide, and whilst the greatest star, God's candle bright, glided over the earth and until the noble creature sat in the western main, there lay many of the northern men struck down with darts, shot over their shields.

The

« PreviousContinue »