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Outlines of English and American Literature
Later Prose and Poetry
by Long, William J.


The works we have just considered were wholly pagan in spirit, but all reference to Thor or other gods was excluded by the monks who first wrote down the scop's poetry.

With the coming of these monks a reform swept over pagan England, and literature reflected the change in a variety of ways. For example, early Anglo-Saxon poetry was mostly warlike, for the reason that the various earldoms were in constant strife; but now the peace of good will was preached, and moral courage, the triumph of self-control, was exalted above mere physical hardihood. In the new literature the adventures of Columb or Aidan or Brendan were quite as thrilling as any legends of Beowulf or Sigard, but the climax of the adventure was spiritual, and the emphasis was always on moral heroism.

Another result of the changed condition was that the unlettered scop, who carried his whole stock of poetry in his head, was replaced by the literary monk, who had behind him the immense culture of the Latin language, and who was interested in world history or Christian doctrine rather than in tribal fights or pagan mythology. These monks were capable men; they understood the appeal of pagan poetry, and their motto was, "Let nothing good be wasted." So they made careful copy of the scop's best songs (else had not a shred of early poetry survived), and so the pagan's respect for womanhood, his courage, his loyalty to a chief,--all his virtues were recognized and turned to religious account in the new literature. Even the beautiful pagan scrolls, or "dragon knots," once etched on a warrior's sword, were reproduced in glowing colors in the initial letters of the monk's illuminated Gospel.

A third result of the peaceful conquest of the missionaries was that many monasteries were established in Britain, each a center of learning and of writing. So arose the famous Northumbrian School of literature, to which we owe the writings of Bede, Cędmon, Cynewulf and others associated with certain old monasteries, such as Peterborough, Jarrow, York and Whitby, all north of the river Humber.

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