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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Anglo-Saxon Literature
Critical Introduction by Robert Sharp (1851–1931)
 
THE EARLIEST recorded utterances of a race, whether in poetry or in prose, become to the representatives of this race in later days a treasure beyond price. The value of such monuments of the remote past is manifold. In them we first begin to become really acquainted with ancestors of the people of to-day, even though we may have read in the pages of earlier writers of alien descent much that is of great concurrent interest. Through the medium of the native saga, epic, and meager chronicle, we see for the first time their real though dim outlines, moving in and out of the mists that obscure the dawn of history; and these outlines become more and more distinct as the literary remains of succeeding periods become more abundant and present more varied aspects of life. We come gradually to know what manner of men and women were these ancestors, what in peace and in war were their customs, what their family and social relations, their food and drink, their dress, their systems of law and government, their religion and morals, what were their art instincts, what were their ideals.  1
  This is essential material for the construction of history in its complete sense. And this evidence, when subjected to judicious criticism, is trustworthy; for the ancient story-teller and poet reflects the customs and ideas and ideals of his own time, even though the combination of agencies and the preternatural proportions of the actors and their deeds belong to the imagination. The historian must know how to supplement and to give life and interest to the colorless succession of dates, names, and events of the chronicler, by means of these imaginative yet truth-bearing creations of the poet.  2
  Remnants of ancient poetry and legend have again an immediate value in proportion as they exhibit a free play of fine imagination; that is, according as they possess the power of stirring to response the æsthetic feeling of subsequent ages,—as they possess the true poetic quality. This gift of imagination varies greatly among races as among individuals, and the earliest manifestations of it frequently throw a clear light upon apparently eccentric tendencies developed in a literature in later times.  3
  For these reasons, added to a natural family pride in them, the early literary monuments of the Anglo-Saxons should be cherished by us as among the most valued possessions of the race.  4
  The first Teutonic language to be reduced to writing was the Mœso-Gothic. Considerable portions of a translation of the Bible into that language, made by Bishop Ulfilas in the fourth century, still remain. But this cannot be called the beginning of a literature; for there is no trace of original creative impulse. The Gothic movement, too, seems to have ceased immediately after its beginning. It is elsewhere that we must seek for the rise of a real Teutonic literature. We shall not find it till after the lapse of several centuries; and we find it not among the tribes that remained in the fatherland, nor with those that had broken into and conquered parts of the Roman empire, only to be absorbed and to blend with other races into Romanic nations. The proud distinction belongs to the Low German tribes that had created an England in Britain.  5
  The conquest of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, begun in 449, seemed at first to promise only retrogression and the ruin of an existing civilization. These fierce barbarians found among the Celts of Britain a Roman culture, and the Christian religion exerting its influence for order and humanity. Their mission seemed to be to destroy both. In their original homes in the forests of northern Germany, they had come little if at all into contact with Roman civilization. At any rate, we may assume that they had felt no Roman influence capable of stemming their national and ethnical tendencies. We cannot yet solve the difficult problem of the extent of their mingling with the conquered Celts in Britain. In spite of learned opinions to the contrary, the evidence now available seems to point to only a small infusion of Celtic blood. The conquerors seem to have settled down to their new homes with all the heathenism and most of the barbarism they had brought from their old home, a Teutonic people still.  6
  In these ruthless, plundering barbarians, whose very breath was battle, and who seemed for the time the very genius of disorder and ruin, there existed, nevertheless, potentialities of humanity, order, and enlightenment far exceeding those of the system they displaced. In all their barbarism there was a certain nobility; their courage was unflinching; the fidelity, even unto death, of thane to lord, repaid the open-handed generosity of lord to thane; they honored truth; and even after we allow for the exaggerated claims made for a chivalrous devotion that did not exist, we find that they held their women in higher respect than was usual even among many more enlightened peoples.  7
  There are few more remarkable narratives in history than that of the facility and enthusiasm with which the Anglo-Saxons, a people conservative then as now to the degree of extreme obstinacy, accepted Christianity and the new learning which followed in the train of the new religion. After a few lapses into paganism in some localities, we find these people, who lately had swept Christian Britain with fire and sword, themselves became most zealous followers of Christ. Under the influence of the Roman missionaries who, under St. Augustine, had begun their work in the south in 597 among the Saxons and Jutes, and under the combined influence of Irish and Roman missionaries in the north and east among the Angles, theological and secular studies were pursued with avidity. By the end of the seventh century we find Anglo-Saxon missionaries, with St. Boniface at their head, carrying Christianity and enlightenment to the pagan German tribes on the Continent.  8
  The torch had been passed to the Anglo-Saxon, and a new center of learning, York,—the old Roman capital, now the chief city of the Northumbrian Angles,—became famous throughout Europe. Indeed, York seemed for a time the chief hope for preserving and advancing Christian culture; for the danger of a relapse into dense ignorance had become imminent in the rest of Europe. Bede, born about 673, a product of this Northumbrian culture, represented the highest learning of his day. He wrote a vast number of works in Latin, treating nearly all the branches of knowledge existing in his day. Alcuin, another Northumbrian, born about 735, was called by Charlemagne to be tutor for himself and his children, and to organize the educational system of his realm. Other great names might be added to show the extent and brilliancy of the new learning. It was more remarkable among the Angles; and only at a later day, when the great schools of the north had gone up in fire and smoke in the pitiless invasion of the Northmen, did the West Saxons become the leaders, almost the only representatives, of the literary impulse among the Anglo-Saxons.  9
  It is significant that the first written English that we know of contains the first Christian English king’s provision for peace and order in his kingdom. The laws of Athelbert, King of Kent, who died in 616, were written down early in the seventh century. This code, as it exists, is the oldest surviving monument of English prose. The laws of Ine, King of the West Saxons, were put into writing about 690. These collections can scarcely be said to have a literary value; but they are of the utmost importance as throwing light upon the early customs of our race, and the laws of Ine may be considered as the foundation of modern English law. Many of these laws were probably much older; but they were now first codified and systematically enforced. The language employed is direct, almost crabbed; but occasionally the Anglo-Saxon love of figure shows itself. To illustrate, I quote, after Brooke, from Earle’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Literature,’ page 153:—
          “In case any one burn a tree in a wood, and it came to light who did it, let him pay the full penalty, and give sixty shillings, because fire is a thief. If one fell in a wood ever so many trees, and it be found out afterwards, let him pay for three trees, each with thirty shillings. He is not required to pay for more of them, however many they may be, because the axe is a reporter, and not a thief.” [The italicized sentences are evidently current sayings.]
  10
  But even these remains, important and interesting as they are, may not be called the beginning of a vernacular literature. It is among the Angles of Northumbria that we shall find the earliest native and truly literary awakening in England. Here we perceive the endeavor to do something more than merely to aid the memory of men in preserving necessary laws and records of important events. The imagination had become active. The impulse was felt to give expression to deep emotions, to sing the deeds and noble character of some hero embodying the loftiest ideals of the time and the race, to utter deep religious feeling. There was an effort to do this in a form showing harmony in theme and presentation. Here we find displayed a feeling for art, often crude, but still a true and native impulse. This activity produced or gave definite form to the earliest Anglo-Saxon poetry, a poetry often of a very high quality; perhaps never of the highest, but always of intense interest. We may claim even a greater distinction for the early fruit of Anglo-Saxon inspiration. Mr. Stopford Brooke says:—“With the exception of perhaps a few Welsh and Irish poems, it is the only vernacular poetry in Europe, outside of the classic tongues, which belongs to so early a time as the seventh and eighth centuries.”  11
  The oldest of these poems belong in all save their final form to the ancient days in Northern Germany. They bear evidence of transmission, with varying details, from gleeman to gleeman, till they were finally carried over to England and there edited, often with discordant interpolations and modifications, by Christian scribes. Tacitus tells us that at his time songs or poems were a marked feature in the life of the Germans; but we cannot trace the clue further. To these more ancient poems many others were added by Christian Northumbrian poets, and we find that a large body of poetry had grown up in the North before the movement was entirely arrested by the destroying Northmen. Not one of these poems, unless we except a few fragmentary verses, has come down to us in the Northumbrian dialect. Fortunately they had been transcribed by the less poetically gifted West Saxons into theirs, and it is in this form that we possess them.  12
  This poetry shows in subject and in treatment very considerable range. We have a great poem, epic in character; poems partly narrative and partly descriptive; poems that may be classed as lyric or elegiac in character; a large body of verse containing a paraphrase of portions of the Bible; a collection of ‘Riddles’; poems on animals, with morals; and others difficult to classify.  13
  The regular verse-form was the alliterative, four-accent line, broken by a strongly marked cæsura into two half-lines, which were in early editions printed as short lines. The verse was occasionally extended to six accents. In the normal verse there were two alliterated words in the first half of the line, each of which received a strong accent; in the second half there was one accented word in alliteration with the alliterated words in the first half, and one other accented word not in alliteration. A great license was allowed as to the number of unaccented syllables, and as to their position in regard to the accented ones; and this lent great freedom and vigor to the verse. When well constructed and well read, it must have been very effective. There were of course many variations from the normal number, three, of alliterated words, as it would be impossible to find so many for every line.  14
  Something of the quality of this verse-form may be felt in translations which aim at the same effect. Notice the result in the following from Professor Gummere’s version of as election from ‘Beowulf’:—
  “Then the warriors went, as the way was showed to them,
        Under Heorot’s roof; the hero stepped,
        Hardy ’neath helm, till the hearth he neared.”
  15
  In these verses it will be noted that the alliteration is complete in the first and third, and that in the second it is incomplete.  16
  A marked feature of the Anglo-Saxon poetry is parallelism, or the repetition of an idea by means of new phrases or epithets, most frequently within the limits of a single sentence. This proceeds from the desire to emphasize attributes ascribed to the deity, or to some person or object prominent in the sentence. But while the added epithets have often a cumulative force, and are picturesque, yet it must be admitted that they sometimes do not justify their introduction. This may be best illustrated by an example. The following, in the translation of Earle, is Cædmon’s first hymn, composed between 658 and 680, and the earliest piece of Anglo-Saxon poetry that we know to have had its origin in England:—
  “Now shall we glorify the guardian of heaven’s realm,
The Maker’s might and the thought of his mind;
The work of the Glory-Father, how He of every wonder,
    He, the Lord eternal, laid the foundation.
    He shaped erst for the sons of men
    Heaven, their roof, Holy Creator;
    The middle world, He, mankind’s sovereign,
    Eternal captain, afterwards created,
    The land for men, Lord Almighty.”
  17
  Many of the figurative expressions are exceedingly vigorous and poetic; some to our taste not so much so. Note the epithets in “the lank wolf,” “the wan raven,” “bird greedy for slaughter,” “the dewy-winged eagle,” “dusky-coated,” “crooked-beaked,” “horny-beaked,” “the maid, fair-cheeked,” “curly-locked,” “elf-bright.” To the Anglo-Saxon poet, much that we call metaphorical was scarcely more than literal statement. As the object pictured itself to his responsive imagination, he expressed it with what was to him a direct realism. His lines are filled with a profusion of metaphors of every degree of effectiveness. To him the sea was “the water-street,” “the swan-path,” “the strife of the waves,” “the whale-path”; the ship was “the foamy-necked floater,” “the wave-farer,” “the sea-wood,” “the sea-horse”; the arrow was “the battle adder”; the battle was “spear-play,” “sword-play”; the prince was “the ring-giver,” “the gold-friend”; the throne was “the gift-stool”; the body, “the bone-house”; the mind, “the breast-hoard.”  18
  Indeed, as it has been pointed out by many writers, the metaphor is almost the only figure of the Anglo-Saxon poetry. The more developed simile belongs to a riper and more reflective culture, and is exceedingly rare in this early native product. It has been noted that ‘Beowulf,’ a poem of three thousand one hundred and eighty-four lines, contains only four or five simple similes, and only one that is fully carried out. “The ship glides away likest to a bird,” “The monster’s eyes gleam like fire,” are simple examples cited by Ten Brink, who gives also the elaborate one, “The sword-hilt melted, likened to ice, when the Father looseneth the chain of frost, and unwindeth the wave-ropes.” But even this simile is almost obliterated by the crowding metaphors.  19
  Intensity, an almost abrupt directness, a lack of explanatory detail, are more general characteristics, though in greatly varying degrees. As some critic has well said, the Anglo-Saxon poet seems to presuppose a knowledge of his subject-matter by those he addresses. Such a style is capable of great swiftness of movement, and is well suited to rapid description and narrative; but at times roughness or meagerness results.  20
  The prevailing tone is one of sadness. In the lyric poetry, this is so decided that all the Anglo-Saxon lyrics have been called elegies. This note seems to be the echo of the struggle with an inhospitable climate, dreary with rain, ice, hail, and snow; and of the uncertainties of life, and the certainty of death. Suffering was never far off, and everything was in the hands of Fate. This is true at least of the earlier poetry, and the note is rarely absent even in the Christian lyrics. A more cheerful strain is sometimes heard, as in the ‘Riddles,’ but it is rather the exception; and any alleged humor is scarcely more than a suspicion. Love and sentiment, in the modern sense, are not made the subject of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and this must mean that they did not enter into the Anglo-Saxon life with the same intensity as into modern life. The absence of this beautiful motive has, to some degree, its compensation in the exceeding moral purity of the whole literature. It is doubtful whether it has its equal in this respect.  21
  Anglo-Saxon prose displays, as a general thing, a simple, direct, and clear style. There is, of course, a considerable difference between the prose of the earlier and that of the later period, and individual writers show peculiarities. It displays throughout a marked contrast with the poetic style, in its freedom from parallelisms in thought and phrase, from inversions, archaisms, and the almost excessive wealth of metaphor and epithet. In its early stages, there is apparent perhaps a poverty of resource, a lack of flexibility; but this charge cannot be sustained against the best prose of the later period. In the translations from the Latin it shows a certain stiffness, and becomes sometimes involved, in the too conscientious effort of the translator to follow the classic original.  22
  No attempt will be made here to notice, or even to name, all the large number of literary works of the Anglo-Saxons. It must be sufficient to examine briefly a few of the most important and characteristic productions of this really remarkable and prolific movement.  23
  The ‘Song of Widsith, the Far Traveler,’ is now generally conceded to be, in part at least, the oldest existing Anglo-Saxon poem. We do not know when it assumed its present form; but it is certain that it was after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, since it has interpolations from the Christian scribe. The poem seems to give evidence of being a growth from an original song by a wandering scôp, or poet, who claims to have visited the Gothic king Eormanric, “the grim violator of treaties,” who died in 375 or 376. But other kings are mentioned who lived in the first half of the sixth century. It is probable, then, that it was begun in the fourth century, and having been added to by successive gleemen, as it was transmitted orally, was finally completed in the earlier part of the sixth. It was then carried over to England, and there first written down in Northumbria. It possesses great interest because of its antiquity, and because of the light it throws upon the life of the professional singer in those ancient times among the Teutons. It has a long list of kings and places, partly historical, partly mythical or not identified. The poem, though narrative and descriptive, is also lyrical. We find here the strain of elegiac sadness, of regretful retrospection, so generally present in Anglo-Saxon poetry of lyric character, and usually much more pronounced than in ‘Widsith.’  24
  ‘Beowulf’ is, in many respects, the most important poetical monument of the Anglo-Saxons. The poem is undoubtedly of heathen origin, and the evidence that it was a gradual growth, the result of grouping several distinct songs around one central figure, seems unmistakable. We may trace it, in its earliest stages, to the ancient home of the Angles in North Germany. It was transplanted to England in the migration of the tribes, and was edited in the present form by some unknown Northumbrian poet. When this occurred we do not know certainly, but there seems good reason for assuming the end of the seventh or the beginning of the eighth century as the time.  25
  The poem is epic in cast and epic in proportion. Although, judged by the Homeric standard, it falls short in many respects of the complete form, yet it may without violence be called an epic. The central figure, Beowulf, a nobly conceived hero, possessing immense strength, unflinching courage, a never-swerving sense of honor, magnanimity, and generosity, the friend and champion of the weak against evil however terrible, is the element of unity in the whole poem. It is in itself a great honor to the race that they were able to conceive as their ideal a hero so superior in all that constitutes true nobility to the Greek ideal, Achilles. It is true that the poem consists of two parts, connected by little more than the fact that they have the same hero at different times of life; that episodes are introduced that do not blend perfectly into the unity of the poem; and that there is a lack of repose and sometimes of lucidity. Yet there is a dignity and vigor, and a large consistency in the treatment of the theme, that is epic. Ten Brink says:—“The poet’s intensity is not seldom imparted to the listener…. The portrayals of battles, although much less realistic than the Homeric descriptions, are yet at times superior to them, in so far as the demoniac rage of war elicits from the Germanic fancy a crowding affluence of vigorous scenes hastily projected in glittering lights of grim half gloom.” In addition to its great poetic merit, ‘Beowulf’ is of the greatest importance to us on account of the many fine pictures of ancient Teutonic life it presents.  26
  In the merest outline, the argument of ‘Beowulf’ is as follows:—Hrothgar, King of the Gar-Danes, has built a splendid hall, called Heorot. This is the scene of royal festivity until a monster from the fen, Grendel, breaks into it by night and devours thirty of the king’s thanes. From that time the hall is desolate, for no one can cope with Grendel, and Hrothgar is in despair. Beowulf, the noble hero of the Geats, in Sweden, hears of the terrible calamity, and with fourteen companions sails across the sea to undertake the adventure. Hrothgar receives him joyfully, and after a splendid banquet gives Heorot into his charge. During the following night, Beowulf is attacked by Grendel; and after one of his companions has been slain, he tears out the arm of the monster, who escapes, mortally hurt, to his fen. On the morrow all is rejoicing; but when night falls, the monster’s mother attacks Heorot, and kills Hrothgar’s favorite thane. The next day, Beowulf pursues her to her den under the waters of the fen, and after a terrific combat slays her. The hero returns home to Sweden laden with gifts. This ends the main thread of the first incident. In the second incident, after an interval of fifty years, we find Beowulf an old man. He has been for many years king of the Geats. A fire-breathing dragon, the guardian of a great treasure, is devastating the land. The heroic old king, accompanied by a party of thanes, attacks the dragon. All the thanes save one are cowardly; but the old hero, with the aid of the faithful one, slays the dragon, not, however, till he is fatally injured. Then follow his death and picturesque burial.  27
  In this sketch, stirring episodes, graphic descriptions, and fine effects are all sacrificed. The poem itself is a noble one and the English people may well be proud of preserving in it the first epic production of the Teutonic race.  28
  The ‘Fight at Finnsburg’ is a fine fragment of epic cast. The Finn saga is at least as old as the Beowulf poem, since the gleeman at Hrothgar’s banquet makes it his theme. From the fragment and the gleeman’s song we perceive that the situation here is much more complex than is usual in Anglo-Saxon poems, and involves a tragic conflict of passion. Hildeburh’s brother is slain through the treachery of her husband, Finn; her son, partaking of Finn’s faithlessness, falls at the hands of her brother’s men; in a subsequent counterplot, her husband is slain. Besides the extraordinary vigor of the narrative, the theme has special interest in that a woman is really the central figure, though not treated as a heroine.  29
  A favorite theme in the older lyric poems is the complaint of some wandering scôp, driven from his home by the exigencies of those perilous times. Either the singer has been bereft of his patron by death, or he has been supplanted in his favor by some successful rival; and he passes in sorrowful review his former happiness, and contrasts it with his present misery. The oldest of these lyrics are of pagan origin, though usually with Christian additions.  30
  In the ‘Wanderer,’ an unknown poet pictures the exile who has fled across the sea from his home. He is utterly lonely. He must lock his sorrow in his heart. In his dream he embraces and kisses his lord, and lays his head upon his knee, as of old. He awakes, and sees nothing but the gray sea, the snow and hail, and the birds dipping their wings in the waves. And so he reflects: the world is full of care; we are all in the hands of Fate. Then comes the Christian sentiment: happy is he who seeks comfort with his Father in heaven, with whom alone all things are enduring.  31
  Another fine poem of this class, somewhat similar to the ‘Wanderer,’ is the ‘Seafarer.’ It is, however, distinct in detail and treatment, and has its own peculiar beauty. In the ‘Fortunes of Men,’ the poet treats the uncertainty of all things earthly, from the point of view of the parent forecasting the ill and the good the future may bring to his sons. ‘Deor’s Lament’ possesses a genuine lyrical quality of high order. The singer has been displaced by a rival, and finds consolation in his grief from reciting the woes that others have endured, and reflects in each instance, “That was got over, and so this may be.” Other poems on other subjects might be noticed here; as ‘The Husband’s Message,’ where the love of husband for wife is the theme, and ‘The Ruin,’ which contains reflections suggested by a ruined city.  32
  It is a remarkable fact that only two of these poets are known to us by name, Cædmon and Cynewulf. We find the story of the inspiration, work, and death of Cædmon, the earlier of these, told in the pages of Bede. The date of his birth is not given, but his death fell in 680. He was a Northumbrian, and was connected in a lay capacity with the great monastery of Whitby. He was uneducated, and not endowed in his earlier life with the gift of song. One night, after he had fled in mortification from a feast where all were required to improvise and sing, he received, as he slept, the divine inspiration. The next day he made known his new gift to the authorities of the monastery. After he had triumphantly made good his claims, he was admitted to holy orders, and began his work of paraphrasing into noble verse portions of the Scriptures that were read to him. Of the body of poetry that comes down to us under his name, we cannot be sure that any is his, unless we except the short passage given here. It is certainly the work of different poets, and varies in merit. The evidence seems conclusive that he was a poet of high order, that his influence was very great, and that many others wrote in his manner. The actors and the scenery of the Cædmonian poetry are entirely Anglo-Saxon, only the names and the outline of the narrative being biblical; and the spirit of battle that breathes in some passages is the same that we find in the heathen epic.  33
  Cynewulf was most probably a Northumbrian, though this is sometimes questioned. The dates of his birth and death are unknown. It seems established, however, that his work belongs to the eighth century. A great deal of controversy has arisen over a number of poems that have been ascribed to him and denied to him with equal persistency. But we stand upon sure ground in regard to four poems, the ‘Christ,’ the ‘Fates of the Apostles,’ ‘Juliana,’ and ‘Elene’; for he has signed them in runes. If the runic enigma in the first of the ‘Riddles’ has been correctly interpreted, then they, or portions of them, are his also. But about this there is much doubt. The ‘Andreas’ and the ‘Dream of the Rood’ may be mentioned as being of exceptional interest among the poems that are almost certainly his. In the latter, he tells, in a personal strain, the story of the appearance to him of the holy cross, and of his conversion and dedication of himself to the service of Christ. The ‘Elene,’ generally considered the finest of his poems, is the story of the miraculous finding of the holy cross by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. The poet has lent great charm to the tradition in his treatment. The poem sounds a triumphant note throughout, till we reach the epilogue, where the poet speaks in his own person and in a sadder tone.  34
  The quality of Cynewulf’s poetry is unequal; but when he is at his best, he is a great poet and a great artist. His personality appears in direct subjective utterance more plainly than does that of any other Anglo-Saxon poet.  35
  While we must pass over many fine Anglo-Saxon poems without mention, there are two that must receive some notice. ‘Judith’ is an epic based upon the book of Judith in the ‘Apocrypha.’ Only about one-fourth of it has survived. The author is still unknown, in spite of many intelligent efforts to determine to whom the honor belongs. The dates assigned to it vary from the seventh to the tenth century; here, too, uncertainty prevails: but we are at least sure that it is one of the best of the Anglo-Saxon poems. It has been said that this work shows a more definite plan and more conscious art than any other Anglo-Saxon poem. Brooke finds it sometimes conventional in the form of expression, and denies it the highest rank for that reason. But he does not seem to sustain the charge. The two principal characters, the dauntless Judith and the brutal Holofernes, stand out with remarkable distinctness, and a fine dramatic quality has been noted by several critics. The epithets and metaphors, the description of the drunken debauch, and the swift, powerful narrative of the battle and the rout of the Assyrians, are in the best Anglo-Saxon epic strain. The poem is distinctly Christian; for the Hebrew heroine, with a naïve anachronism, prays thus: “God of Creation, Spirit of Consolation, Son of the Almighty, I pray for Thy mercy to me, greatly in need of it. Glory of the Trinity.”  36
  ‘The Battle of Maldon’ is a ballad, containing an account of a fight between the Northmen and the East Saxons under the Aldorman, Byrhtnoth. The incident is mentioned in one MS. of the Chronicle under the date of 991; in another, under the date of 993. The poem is exceedingly graphic. The poet seems filled with intense feeling, and may have been a spectator, or may indeed have taken part in the struggle. He tells how the brave old Aldorman disdains to use the advantage of his position, which bade fair to give him victory. Like a boy, he cannot take a dare, but fatuously allows the enemy to begin the battle upon an equal footing with his own men. He pays for his noble folly with his life and the defeat of his army. The devotion of the Aldorman’s hearth-companions, who refuse to survive their lord, and with brave words meet their death, is finely described. But not all are true; some, who have been especially favored, ignobly flee. These are treated with the racial contempt for cowards. The poem has survived in fragmentary form, and the name of the poet is not known.  37
  As distinguished from all poetical remains of such literature, the surviving prose of the Anglo-Saxons, though extensive, and of the greatest interest and value, is less varied in subject and manner than their poetry. It admits of brief treatment. The earliest known specimens of Anglo-Saxon prose writing have been already mentioned. These do not constitute the beginning of a literature, yet, with the rest of the extensive collection of Anglo-Saxon laws that has survived, they are of the greatest importance to students. Earle quotes Dr. Reinhold Schmid as saying, “No other Germanic nation has bequeathed to us out of its earliest experience so rich a treasure of original legal documents as the Anglo-Saxon nation has,”—only another instance of the precocity of our ancestors.  38
  To the West Saxons belongs nearly the whole of Anglo-Saxon prose. Whatever may have existed in Northumbria perished in the inroads of the Northmen, except such parts as may have been incorporated in West Saxon writings. It will be remembered, however, that the great Northumbrian prose writers had held to the Latin as their medium. The West Saxon prose literature may be said to begin in Alfred’s reign.  39
  The most important production that we have to consider is the famous Anglo-Saxon ‘Chronicle.’ It covers with more or less completeness the period from 449 to 1154. This was supplemented by fanciful genealogies leading back to Woden, or even to Adam. It is not known when the practice of jotting down in the native speech notices of contemporary events began, but probably in very early times. It is believed, however, that no intelligent effort to collect and present them with order and system was made until the middle of the ninth century. In the oldest of the seven MSS. in which it has come down to us, we have the ‘Chronicle’ to 891, as it was written down in Alfred’s time and probably under his supervision.  40
  The meagerness of the earliest entries and the crudeness of the language, together with occasional picturesque force, indicate that many of them were drawn from current song or tradition. The style and fullness of the entries differ greatly throughout, as might be expected, since the ‘Chronicle’ is the work of so many hands. From mere bare notices they vary to strong, full narrative and description. Indeed, the ‘Chronicle’ contains some of the most effective prose produced by the Anglo-Saxons; and in one instance, under the date 937, the annalist describes the battle of Brunanburh in a poem of considerable merit. But we know the name of no single contributor.  41
  This ‘Chronicle’ is the oldest and most important work of the kind produced outside of the classical languages in Europe. It is meager in places, and its entire trustworthiness has been questioned. But it and Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History,’ supplemented by other Anglo-Saxon writings, constitute the basis of early English history; and this fact alone entitles it to the highest rank in importance among ancient documents.  42
  A large body of Anglo-Saxon prose, nearly all of it translation or adaptation of Latin works, has come down to us under the name of King Alfred. A peculiar interest attaches to these works. They belong to a period when the history of England depended more than at any other time upon the ability and devotion of one man; and that man, the most heroic and the greatest of English kings, was himself the author of them.  43
  When Alfred became king, in 871, his throne seemed tottering to its fall. Practically all the rest of England was at the feet of the ruthless Northmen, and soon Alfred himself was little better than a fugitive. But by his military skill, which was successful if not brilliant, and by his never-wavering devotion and English persistency, he at last freed the southern part of the island from his merciless and treacherous enemies, and laid the firm foundation of West Saxon supremacy. If Alfred had failed in any respect to be the great king that he was, English history would have been changed for all time.  44
  Although Alfred had saved his kingdom, yet it was a kingdom almost in ruins. The hopeful advance of culture had been entirely arrested. The great centers of learning had been utterly destroyed in the north, and little remained intact in the south. And even worse than this was the demoralization of all classes, and an indisposition to renewed effort. There was, moreover, a great scarcity of books.  45
  Alfred showed himself as great in peace as in war, and at once set to work to meet all those difficulties. To supply the books that were so urgently needed, he found time in the midst of his perplexing cares to translate from the Latin into the native speech such works as he thought would supply the most pressing want. This was the more necessary from the prevailing ignorance of Latin. It is likely that portions of the works that go under his name were produced under his supervision by carefully selected co-workers. But it is certain that in a large part of them we may see the work of the great Alfred’s own hand.  46
  He has used his own judgment in these translations, omitting whatever he did not think would be immediately helpful to his people, and making such additions as he thought might be of advantage. Just these additions have the greatest interest for us. He translated, for instance, Orosius’s ‘History’; a work in itself of inferior worth, but as an attempt at a universal history from the Christian point of view, he thought it best suited to the needs of his people. The Anglo-Saxon version contains most interesting additions of original matter by Alfred. They consist of accounts of the voyages of Ohtere, a Norwegian, who was the first, so far as we know, to sail around the North Cape and into the White Sea, and of Wulfstan, who explored parts of the coast of the Baltic. These narratives give us our first definite information about the lands and people of these regions, and appear to have been taken down by the king directly as related by the explorers. Alfred added to this ‘History’ also a description of Central Europe, which Morley calls “the only authentic record of the Germanic nations written by a contemporary so early as the ninth century.”  47
  In Gregory’s ‘Pastoral Care’ we have Alfred’s closest translation. It is a presentation of “the ideal Christian pastor” (Ten Brink), and was intended for the benefit of the lax Anglo-Saxon priests. Perhaps the work that appealed most strongly to Alfred himself was Boethius’s ‘Consolations of Philosophy’; and in his full translation and adaptation of this book we see the hand and the heart of the good king. We shall mention one other work of Alfred’s, his translation of the already frequently mentioned ‘Historia Ecclesiastica Anglorum’ of the Venerable Bede. This great work Alfred, with good reason, considered to be of the greatest possible value to his people; and the king has given it additional value for us.  48
  Alfred was not a great scholar. The wonder is that, in the troublous times of his youth, he had learned even the rudiments. The language in his translations, however, though not infrequently affected for the worse by the Latin idiom of the original, is in the main free from ornament of any kind, simple and direct, and reflects in its sincerity the noble character of the great king.  49
  The period between the death of Alfred (901) and the end of the tenth century was deficient in works of literary value, except an entry here and there in the ‘Chronicle.’ “Alfric’s is the last great name in the story of our literature before the Conquest,” says Henry Morley. He began writing about the end of the tenth century, and we do not know when his work and his life ended. This gentle priest, as he appears to us through his writings, following Alfred’s example, wrote not from personal ambition, but for the betterment of his fellow-men. His style is eminently lucid, fluent, forcible, and of graceful finish. Earle observes of it:—“The English of these Homilies is splendid; indeed, we may confidently say that here English appears fully qualified to be the medium of the highest learning.” This is high praise, and should be well considered by those disposed to consider the Anglo-Saxon as a rude tongue, incapable of great development in itself, and only enabled by the Norman infusion to give expression to a deep and broad culture.  50
  Alfric’s works in Anglo-Saxon—for he wrote also in Latin—were very numerous, embracing two series of homilies, theological writings of many kinds, translations of portions of the Bible, an English (Anglo-Saxon) grammar, adapted from a Latin work, a Latin dictionary, and many other things of great use in their day and of great interest in ours.  51
  The names of other writers and of other single works might well be added here. But enough has been said, perhaps, to show that a great and hopeful development of prose took place among the West Saxons. It must be admitted that the last years of the Anglo-Saxon nationality before the coming of the Normans show a decline in literary productiveness of a high order. The causes of this are to be found chiefly in the political and ecclesiastical history of the time. Wars with the Northmen, internal dissensions, religious controversies, the greater cultivation of Latin by the priesthood, all contributed to it. But hopeful signs of a new revival were not wanting. The language had steadily developed with the enlightenment of the people, and was fast becoming fit to meet any demands that might be made upon it, when the great catastrophe of the Norman Conquest came, and with it practically the end of the historical and distinctive Anglo-Saxon literature.  52
 
 
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