Page images
PDF
EPUB
[blocks in formation]

AMONG every people the earliest form of literature is the Ballad. The History and the Poetry of a nation are, in their infant forms, identical. When the old .Greeks taught, in their mythology, that Memory was the mother of the Muses, they embodied in a striking personification the fact that the rude language, in which men emerging froin savagery used to chant the story of their deeds to their children, was couched in rough metre, in order that the ring of the lines might help the memory to retain the tale.

Oldest of all British literature, or, indeed, of all literature in modern Europe, of which any specimens remain, are some scraps of Irish verse, found in the Annalists and ascribed to the fifth century. The Psalter of Cashel, the oldest existing manuscript of the Irish literature, is a collection of metrical legends, sung by the bards, which was compiled towards the end of the ninth century, by a man who seems to have held the offices of Bishop of Cashel and King of Munster. More important, however, as giving in careful prose a calm account of early Irish history, are the Annals of Tigernach and of the Four Masters of Ulster.

The very scanty remains of the Scottish Gaelic are of much later date than the earliest Irish ballads. The poems of OssianFingal and Temora—which were published in 1762 and 1763 by James Macpherson, as translations from Gaelic manuscripts as old as the fourth century, are now generally looked on as literary forgeries, executed by their clever but not very scrupulous editor. The ancient manuscripts, from which he professed to have translated these graphic pictures of old Celtic life, have never been produced. A narrative in verse, called the Albanic Duan, is thought to have been composed in the eleventh century.

LATIN AUTHORS AMONG THE CELTS.

17

In Wales, which was the stronghold of Druidism, the profession of the bard was held in high honour. The poems of Taliesin, Merlin, and other bards of the sixth century, still remain. The Welsh Triads, some of which are ascribed to writers of the thirteenth century, are sets of historical events and moral proverbs, arranged in groups of three. Both in these and in the ballads of the bards, one of the leading heroes is the great Prince Arthur, whose prowess against the Saxons was so noted in those dim days.

Besides those who wrote and sang in their native Celtic tongue, there were also among the ancient British people a few Latin authors. Three may be named. First on the long and brilliant roll of British historians stands Gildas, born at Aleluyd (Dumbarton) about the beginning of the sixth century. He is known to us as the author of a History of the Britons, and an Epistle to his countrymen, both in Latin, and both containing fiery assaults upon the Saxon invaders. Nennius, thought to have been a monk of Bangor, is said also to have written a History of the Britons. The Latin poems of St. Columbanus, an Irish missionary to the Gauls, are spoken of by Moore as “shining out in this twilight period of Latin literature with no ordinary distinction.”

[ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

Alcuin.

Dunstan.

Alfric the Grammarian.
The "Saxon Chronicle."
Aldhelm.
Bede.

His"

The Saxon gleeman.

King Alfred.
Saxon verse.

Erigena.
The Epic Beowulf.
Caedmon.

Decay.
“Paraphrase."
THE Gleeman or Minstrel of the Anglo-Saxons was a most impor-
tant person. When the evening shadows fell, and the “mead-
bench” was filled, his scene of triumph came. His touch on the
“wood of joy” had power alike to rouse the fiery passions of the
warriors or soothe their ruffled moods. He related the deeds of
dead heroes, or sung the praise of their living descendants; stung
the coward with his sweet-voiced scorn, or exulted in his proudest
tones over the beaten foe. From earliest days his training was
directed to the storing of his memory with the poetic legends of
his country; and when, grown more skilful, he learned to string
into rude verses the story of his own day, it went, without his
name to mark it, into the common stock of his craft. Hence the
Anglo-Saxon poetry is anonymous.

The structure of the verse in which these gleemen sang is thus described by Wright:-“The poetry of the Anglo-Saxons was neither modulated according to foot-measure, like that of the Greeks and Romans, nor written with rhymes, like that of many modern languages. Its chief and universal characteristic was a very regular alliteration, so arranged that in every couplet there should be two principal words in the first line beginning with the same letter, which letter must also be the initial of the first word, on which the stress of the voice falls in the second line. The only approach to a metrical system yet discovered is, that two risings and two fallings of the voice seem necessary to each perfect line. Two distinct measures are met with, a shorter and a longer, both commonly mixed together in the same poem; the former being used for the ordinary narrative, and the latter adopted when the

CAEDMON, THE MONK OF WHITBY.

19

poet sought after greater dignity. In the manuscripts the Saxon poetry is always written continuously, like prose; but the division of the lines is generally marked by a point.”

The chief Anglo-Saxon poems that bave come down to us are the Romance of Beowulf, and Caedmon's Paraphrase.

Beowulf is a nameless poem of more than 6000 lines, thought to be much older than the manuscript of it which we possess. Its hero, BEOWULF, is a Danish soldier, who, passing through many dangers by land and sea, slays a monster, Grendel, but is himself slain in an attack upon a huge dragon. It is a striking picture of dim old Gothic days, much heightened in its effect by the minuteness of the descriptive lines. As we read, the gleaming of mail flashes in our eyes, and we hear the clanging march of the warriors, as the “ bright ring-iron sings in its trappings. phors are common in the language of Beowulf, and some are of noble simplicity, such as, “They lay aloft, put to sleep with swords;" but in all this long poem there are only five similes. This scarcity of similes is a characteristic of all Anglo-Saxon verse.

CAEDMON, the author of the Paraphrase, was originally a cowherd near Whitby in Northumbria. Bede tells the story of his inspiration. It was the custom in those days for each to sing in turn, as the harp was pushed round the hall at supper. This Caedmon could never do; and when he saw his tum coming, he used to slip out of the room, blushing for his want of skill and eager to hide his shame. One night, having left the hall, he lay down to sleep in the stable; and as he slept, he dreamed that a stranger came to him, and said, “ Caedmon, sing me something.” “I know nothing to sing,” said the poor herd, “and so I had to slink away out of the hall.” “Nay,” said the stranger, “but thou hast something to sing." “What must I sing ?” “Sing the Creation,” replied the stranger; upon which words of sweet music began to flow from the lips that had been sealed so long. Caedmon awoke, knew the words he had been reciting, and felt a new-born power in his breast. The mantle of song had fallen on him; and when next day, before the Abbess Hilda and some of the scholars of the place, he told what had occurred, they gave

20

THE “ PARAPHRASEOF CAEDMON.

him a passage of the Bible to test his new-found skill. Within a few hours he composed, on the given subject, a poem of surpassing sweetness and power.

Thenceforward this monk of Whitby spent his life in the composition of religious poetry.

The "Paraphrase" of Caedmon contained, besides other portions of the Bible, the story of the Creation and the Fall, the history of Daniel, with many passages in the life and death of our Saviour. From the similarity of subject, a likeness has been traced between him and Milton, upon which a charge of plagiarism against our great epic poet has been most foolishly grounded.

It is believed that Caedmon died about 680. Some think that there were two poets of the name, the elder of whom composed those lines on the Creation, which are acknowledged to be among the oldest existing specimens of Anglo-Saxon, while the younger was the author of the “ Paraphrase.”

The principal fragmentary Anglo-Saxon poems, which still survive, are the Battle of Finsborough; the Traveller's Song, which contains a good many geographical names; and the fragment of Judith. In the Saxon Chronicle of 938 we find a poem called Athelstan's Song of Victory.

The following extract from Caedmon's “Paraphrase”—part of the Song of Azariah-may be taken as a specimen of Anglo-Saxon

verse :

Tha of roderum wæs.
Engel ælbeorht.
Ufan onsended.
Wlite scyne wer.
On his wuldor-haman.
Se him cwom to frofre.
& to feorh-nere.
Mid lufan & mid lisse.
Se thone lig tosceaf.
Halig and heofon-beornt.
Hatan fyres.
Tosweop hine & toswende.
Thurh tha swithan miht.
Ligges leoma.
That hyra lice ne wæs.
Owiht geegled.

Thorpe's Translation.
Then from the firmament was
An all-bright angel
Sent from above,
A man of beauteous form,
In his garb of glory:
Who to them came for comfort,
And for their lives' salvation,
With love and with grace ;
Who the flame scattered
(Holy and heaven-bright)
Of the hot fire,
Swept it and dashed away,
Through his great might,
The beams of flame;
So that their bodies were pot
Injured aught.

« PreviousContinue »