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The subjects of Anglo-Saxon poetry were taken from many different sources besides the heroic legend which is summarized by Widsith, or contemporary actions like the battle of Maldon. The conversion of the English to Christianity brought with it of course a great deal of Latin literature. The new ideas were adopted very readily by the English, and a hundred years after the coming of the first missionary the Northumbrian schools and teachers were more than equal to the best in any part of Europe.

The new learning did not always discourage the old native kind of poetry. Had that been the case, we should hardly have had anything like Beowulf ; we should not have had the poem of Maldon. Christianity and Christian literature did not always banish the old-fashioned heroes.


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Tastes varied in this respect. The Frankish Emperor Lewis the Pious is said to have taken a disgust at the heathen poetry which he had learned when he was young.

The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century

But there were greater kings who were less delicate in their religion. Alfred the Great, his Welsh biographer tells us, was always ready to listen to Saxon poems when he was a boy, and when he was older was fond of learning poetry by heart. He was bold enough to bring in a Northern hero in his translation of the Latin philosophical book of Boethius. He is the original craftsman like Daedalus in Greece , the brother of the mythical archer Egil and the harper Slagfinn—the hero of one of the finest of the old Scandinavian poems, and of many another song and story.

The royal genealogies in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are an example of the conservative process that went on with regard to many of the old beliefs and fancies—a process that may be clearly traced in the poem of Beowulf —by means of which pre-Christian ideas were annexed to Christianity. The royal house of England, the house of Cerdic, still traces its descent from Woden; and Woden is thirteenth in descent from Noah. Woden is kept as a king and a hero, when he has ceased to be a god. This was kindlier and more charitable than the alternative view, that the gods of the heathen were living devils.

There was no destruction of the heroic poetry through the conversion of the English, but new themes were at once brought in, to compete with the old ones. His motive is different. It is partly the same motive as that of King Alfred in his prose translations. Anglo-Saxon poetry, which had been heathen, Teutonic, concerned with traditional heroic subjects was drawn into the service of the other world without losing its old interests. Hence comes, apart from the poetical value of the several works, the historical importance of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as a blending of Germania , the original Teutonic civilization, with the ideas and sentiments of Christendom in the seventh century and after.

But while there was this common purpose in these [36] poems, there were as great diversities of genius as in any other literary group or school. Sometimes the author is a dull mechanical translator using the conventional forms and phrases without imagination or spirit. Sometimes on the other hand he is caught up and carried away by his subject, and the result is poetry like the Fall of the Angels part of Genesis , or the Dream of the Rood. These are utterly different from the regular conventional poetry or prose of the Middle Ages.

There is no harm in comparing the Fall of the Angels with Milton. The method is nearly the same: narrative, with a concentration on the character of Satan, and dramatic expression of the character in monologue at length. The Dream of the Rood again is finer than the noblest of all the Passion Plays.

It is a vision, in which the Gospel history of the Crucifixion is so translated that nothing is left except the devotion of the young hero so he is called and the glory; it is not acted on any historical scene, but in some spiritual place where there is no distinction between the Passion and the Triumph.

In this way the spirit of poetry does wonderful things; transforming the historical substance. It is quite impossible to dismiss the old English religious poetry under any summary description. Much of it is conventional and ordinary; some of it is otherwise, and the separate poems live in their own way. It is worth remembering that the manuscripts of the Dream of the Rood have a history which is typical of the history in general, the progress of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and the change of centre from Northumberland [37] to Wessex.

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The Ruthwell Cross with the runic inscription on it is thus one of the oldest poetical manuscripts in English, not to speak of its importance in other ways. The Ruthwell verses are Northumbrian. They were at first misinterpreted in various ways by antiquaries, till John Kemble the historian read them truly. Some time after, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript was found at Vercelli in the North of Italy—a regular station on the old main road which crosses the Great St. Bernard and which was commonly used by Englishmen, Danes, and other people of the North when travelling to Rome. In this Vercelli book the Dream of the Rood is contained, nearly in full, but written in the language of Wessex—i.

The West Saxon verses of the Rood corresponding to the old Anglian of the Ruthwell Cross are an example of what happened generally with Anglo-Saxon poetry—the best of it in early days was Anglian, Northumbrian; when the centre shifted to Wessex, the Northern poetry was preserved in the language which by that time had become the proper literary English both for verse and prose. Cynewulf is an old English poet who has signed his name to several poems, extant in West Saxon. He may have been the author of the Dream of the Rood ; he was probably a Northumbrian. As he is the most [38] careful artist among the older poets, notable for the skill of his verse and phrasing, his poetry has to be studied attentively by any one who wishes to understand the poetical ideals of the age between Bede and King Alfred, the culmination of the Northumbrian school.

His subjects are all religious, from the Gospel Crist or the lives of saints Guthlac , Juliana , Elene , probably Andreas also. The legendary subjects may be looked on as a sort of romance; Cynewulf in many ways is a romantic poet. The adventure of St. Andrew in his voyage to rescue St. Matthew from the cannibals is told with great spirit—a story of the sea. Cynewulf has so fine a sense of the minor beauties of verse and diction that he might be in danger of losing his story for the sake of poetical ornament; but though he is not a strong poet he generally manages to avoid the temptation, and to keep the refinements of his art subordinate to the main effect.

There is hardly anything in Anglo-Saxon to be called lyrical. The epic poetry may have grown out of an older lyric type—a song in chorus, with narrative stuff in it, like the later choral ballads. The burden comes after each of these records:. Widsith in form of verse is nearer to this lyric of Deor than to the regular sustained narrative verse of Beowulf. But what is most wanting in Anglo-Saxon literature is the sort of poetry found at the close of the Middle Ages in the popular ballads, songs and carols of the fifteenth century.

To make up for the want of true lyric, there are a few very beautiful poems, sometimes called by the name of elegies—akin to lyric, but not quite at the lyrical pitch. They are poems of reflective sentiment, near to the mood of a time when the bolder poetical kinds have been exhausted, and nothing is left but to refine upon the older themes. When the language of Wessex became the literary English, it was naturally used for poetry—not merely for translations of Northumbrian verse into West Saxon.

The strange thing about this later poetry is that it should be capable of such strength as is shown in the Maldon poem—a perpetual warning against rash conclusions. For poetry had seemed to be exhausted long before this, or at any rate to have reached in Cynewulf the dangerous stage of maturity. In contrast, the earlier poem in the battle of Brunanburh is a fair conventional piece—academic laureate work, using cleverly enough the forms which any accomplished gentleman could learn. Those forms are applied often most ingeniously, in the Anglo-Saxon riddles; pieces, again, which contradict ordinary opinion.

Few would expect to find in Anglo-Saxon the curious grace of verbal workmanship, the artificial wit, of those short poems. The dialogue of Salomon and Saturnus is one of the Anglo-Saxon things belonging to a common European fashion; the dialogue literature, partly didactic, partly comic, which was so useful in the Middle Ages in providing instruction along with varying degrees of amusement.

There is more than one Anglo-Saxon piece of this sort, valuable as expressing the ordinary mind; for, generally speaking, there is a want of merely popular literature in Anglo-Saxon, as compared with the large amount later on.

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The history of prose is continuous from the Anglo-Saxon onwards; there is no such division as between Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry. The English had not the peculiar taste for prose which seems to be dealt by chance to Hebrews and Arabs, to Ireland and Iceland. As in Greece and France, the writing of prose comes after verse. It [41] begins by being useful; it is not used for heroic stories.

The White ladies of Worcester; a romance of the twelfth century. NOVEL (1917)

But the English had more talent for prose than some people; they understood it better than the French; and until the French influence came over them did not habitually degrade their verse for merely useful purposes. There seems no reason, as far as language and technical ability are concerned, why there should not have been in English, prose stories as good as those of Iceland. The episode of King Cynewulf of Wessex, in the Chronicle, has been compared to the Icelandic sagas, and to the common epic theme of valorous fighting and loyal perseverance.

It is a perfectly clean style for matter of fact. The great success of Anglo-Saxon prose is in religious instruction.