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26 June, 2013
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
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.