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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain
Anglo-Saxon Literature
by Allen, Grant (B.A.)


Nothing better illustrates the original peculiarities and subsequent development of the early English mind than the Anglo-Saxon literature. A vast mass of manuscripts has been preserved for us, embracing works in prose and verse of the most varied kind; and all the most important of these have been made accessible to modern readers in printed copies. They cast a flood of light upon the workings of the English mind in all ages, from the old pagan period in Sleswick to the date of the Norman Conquest, and the subsequent gradual supplanting of our native literature by a new culture based upon the Romance models.

All national literature everywhere begins with rude songs. From the earliest period at which the English and Saxon people existed as separate tribes at all, we may be sure that they possessed battle-songs, like those common to the whole Aryan stock. But among the Teutonic races poetry was not distinguished by either of the peculiarities—rime or metre—which mark off modern verse from prose, so far as its external form is concerned. Our existing English system of versification is not derived from our old native poetry at all; it is a development of the Romance system, adopted by the school of Gower and Chaucer from the French and Italian poets. Its metre, or syllabic arrangement, is an adaptation from the Greek quantitative prosody, handed down through Latin and the neo-Latin dialects; its rime is a Celtic peculiarity borrowed by the Romance nationalities, and handed on through them to modern English literature by the Romance school of the fourteenth century. Our original English versification, on the other hand, was neither rimed nor rhythmic. What answered to metre was a certain irregular swing, produced by a roughly recurrent number of accents in each couplet, without restriction as to the number of feet or syllables. What answered to rime was a regular and marked alliteration, each couplet having a certain key-letter, with which three principal words in the couplet began. In addition to these two poetical devices, Anglo-Saxon verse shows traces of parallelism, similar to that which distinguishes Hebrew poetry. But the alliteration and parallelism do not run quite side by side, the second half of each alliterative couplet being parallel with the first half of the next couplet. Accordingly, each new sentence begins somewhat clumsily in the middle of the couplet. All these peculiarities are not, however, always to be distinguished in every separate poem.

The following rough translation of a very early Teutonic spell for the cure of a sprained ankle, belonging to the heathen period, will illustrate the earliest form of this alliterative verse. The key-letter in each couplet is printed in capitals, and the verse is read from end to end, not as two separate columns.[1]
Balder and Woden Went to the Woodland:
There Balder's Foal Fell, wrenching its Foot.
Then Sinthgunt beguiled him, and Sunna her Sister:
Then Frua beguiled him, and Folla her sister,
Then Woden beguiled him, as Well he knew how;
Wrench of blood, Wrench of bone, and eke Wrench of limb:
Bone unto Bone, Blood unto Blood,
Limb unto Limb as though Limèd it were.


In this simple spell the alliteration serves rather as an aid to memory than as an ornamental device. The following lines, translated from the ballad on Æthelstan's victory at Brunanburh, in 937, will show the developed form of the same versificatory system. The parallelism and alliteration are here well marked:—
Æthelstan king, lord of Earls,
Bestower of Bracelets, and his Brother eke,
Eadmund the Ætheling, honour Eternal
Won in the Slaughter, with edge of the Sword
By Brunnanbury. The Bucklers they clave,
Hewed the Helmets with Hammered steel,
Heirs of Edward, as was their Heritage,
From their Fore-Fathers, that oft the Field
They should Guard their Good folk Gainst every comer,
Their Home and their Hoard. The Hated foe cringed to them,
The Scottish Sailors, and the Northern Shipmen;
Fated they Fell. The Field lay gory
With Swordsmen's blood Since the Sun rose
On Morning tide a Mighty globe,
To Glide o'er the Ground, God's candle bright,
The endless Lord's taper, till the great Light
Sank to its Setting. There Soldiers lay,
Warriors Wounded, Northern Wights,
Shot over Shields; and so Scotsmen eke,
Wearied with War. The West Saxon onwards,
The Live-Long day in Linkèd order
Followed the Footsteps of the Foul Foe.


Of course no songs of the old heathen period were committed to writing either in Sleswick or in Britain. The minstrels who composed them taught them by word of mouth to their pupils, and so handed them down from generation to generation, much as the Achæan rhapsodists handed down the Homeric poems. Nevertheless, two or three such old songs were afterwards written out in Christian Northumbria or Wessex; and though their heathendom has been greatly toned down by the transcribers, enough remains to give us a graphic glimpse of the fierce and gloomy old English nature which we could not otherwise obtain. One fragment, known as the Fight at Finnesburh (rescued from a book-cover into which it had been pasted), probably dates back before the colonisation of Britain, and closely resembles in style the above-quoted ode. Two other early pieces, the Traveller's Song and the Lament of Deor, are inserted from pagan tradition in a book of later devotional poems preserved at Exeter. But the great epic of Beowulf, a work composed when the English and the Danes were still living in close connexion with one another by the shores of the Baltic, has been handed down to us entire, thanks to the kind intervention of some Northumbrian monk, who, by Christianising the most flagrantly heathen portions, has saved the entire work from the fate which would otherwise have overtaken it. As a striking representation of early English life and thought, this great epic deserves a fuller description.[2]

Beowulf is written in the same short alliterative metre as that of the Brunanburh ballad, and takes its name from its hero, a servant or companion of the mighty Hygelac, king of the Geatas (Jutes or Goths). At a distance from his home lay the kingdom of the Scyldings, a Danish tribe, ruled over by Hrothgar. There stood Heorot, the high hall of heroes, the greatest mead-house ever raised. But the land of the Danes was haunted by a terrible fiend, known as Grendel, who dwelt in a dark fen in the forest belt, girt round with shadows and lit up at eve by flitting flames. Every night Grendel came forth and carried off some of the Danes to devour in his home. The description of the monster himself and of the marshland where he had his lair is full of that weird and gloomy superstition which everywhere darkens and overshadows the life of the savage and the heathen barbarian. The terror inspired in the rude English mind by the mark and the woodland, the home of wild beasts and of hostile ghosts, of deadly spirits and of fierce enemies, gleams luridly through every line. The fen and the forest are dim and dark; will-o'-the-wisps flit above them, and gloom closes them in; wolves and wild boars lurk there, the quagmire opens its jaws and swallows the horse and his rider; the foeman comes through it to bring fire and slaughter to the clan-village at the dead of night. To these real terrors and dangers of the mark are added the fancied ones of superstition. There the terrible forms begotten of man's vague dread of the unknown—elves and nickors and fiends—have their murky dwelling-place. The atmosphere of the strange old heathen epic is oppressive in its gloominess. Nevertheless, its poetry sometimes rises to a height of great, though barbaric, sublimity. Beowulf himself, hearing of the evil wrought by Grendel, set sail from his home for the land of the Danes. Hrothgar received him kindly, and entertained him and his Goths with ale and song in Heorot. Wealtheow, Hrothgar's queen, gold-decked, served them with mead. But when all had retired to rest on the couches of the great hall, in the murky night, Grendel came. He seized and slew one of Beowulf's companions. Then the warrior of the Goths followed the monster, and wounded him sorely with his hands. Grendel fled to his lair to die. But after the contest, Grendel's mother, a no less hateful creature—the "Devil's dam" of our mediæval legends—carries on the war against the slayer of her son. Beowulf descends to her home beneath the water, grapples with her in her cave, turns against her the weapons he finds there, and is again victorious. The Goths return to their own country laden with gifts by Hrothgar. After the death of Hygelac, Beowulf succeeds to the kingship of the Geatas, whom he rules well and prosperously for many years. At length a mysterious being, named the Fire Drake, a sort of dragon guarding a hidden treasure, some of which has been stolen while its guardian sleeps, comes out to slaughter his people. The old hero buckles on his rune-covered sword again, and goes forth to battle with the monster. He slays it, indeed, but is blasted by its fiery breath, and dies after the encounter. His companions light his pyre upon a lofty spit of land jutting out into the winter sea. Weapons and jewels and drinking bowls, taken from the Fire Drake's treasure, were thrown into the tomb for the use of the ghost in the other world; and a mighty barrow was raised upon the spot to be a beacon far and wide to seafaring men. So ends the great heathen epic. It gives us the most valuable picture which we possess of the daily life led by our pagan forefathers.

But though these poems are the oldest in tone, they are not the oldest in form of all that we possess. It is probable that the most primitive Anglo-Saxon verse was identical with prose, and consisted merely of sentences bound together by parallelism. As alliteration, at first a mere memoria technica, became an ornamental adjunct, and grew more developed, the parallelism gradually dropped out. Gnomes or short proverbs of this character were in common use, and they closely resembled the mediæval proverbs current in England to the present day.

With the introduction of Christianity, English verse took a new direction. It was chiefly occupied in devotional and sacred poetry, or rather, such poems only have come down to us, as the monks transcribed them alone, leaving the half-heathen war-songs of the minstrels attached to the great houses to die out unwritten. The first piece of English literature which we can actually date is a fragment of the great religious epic of Cædmon, written about the year 670. Cædmon was a poor brother in Hild's monastery at Whitby, and he acquired the art of poetry by a miracle. Northumbria, in the sixth and seventh centuries, took the lead in Teutonic Britain; and all the early literature is Northumbrian, as all the later literature is West Saxon. Cædmon's poem consisted in a paraphrase of the Bible history, from the Creation to the Ascension. The idea of a translation of the Bible from Latin into English would never have occurred to any one at that early time. English had as yet no literary form into which it could be thrown. But Cædmon conceived the notion of paraphrasing the Bible story in the old alliterative Teutonic verse, which was familiar to his hearers in songs like Beowulf. Some of the brethren translated or interpreted for him portions of the has come down to us in the original form. There is a later complete epic, however, also attributed to Cædmon, of the same scope and purport; and it retains so much of the old heathen spirit that it may very possibly represent a modernised version of the real Cædmon's poem, by a reviser in the ninth century. At any rate, the latter work may be treated here under the name of Cædmon, by which it is universally known. It consists of a long Scriptural paraphrase, written in the alliterative metre, short, sharp, and decisive, but not without a wild and passionate beauty of its own. In tone it differs wonderfully little from Beowulf, being most at home in the war of heaven and Satan, and in the titanic descriptions of the devils and their deeds. The conduct of the poem is singularly like that of Paradise Lost. Its wild and rapid stanzas show how little Christianity had yet moulded the barbaric nature of the newly-converted English. The epic is essentially a war-song; the Hebrew element is far stronger than the Christian; hell takes the place of Grendel's mere; and, to borrow Mr. Green's admirable phrase, "the verses fall like sword-strokes in the thick of battle."

In all these works we get the genuine native English note, the wild song of a pirate race, shaped in early minstrelsy for celebrating the deeds of gods and warriors, and scarcely half-adapted afterward to the not wholly alien tone of the oldest Hebrew Scriptures. But the Latin schools, set up by the Italian monks, introduced into England a totally new and highly-developed literature. The pagan Anglo-Saxons had not advanced beyond the stage of ballads; they had no history, or other prose literature of their own, except, perhaps, a few traditional genealogical lists, mostly mythical, and adapted to an artificial grouping by eights and forties. The Roman missionaries brought over the Roman works, with their developed historical and philosophical style; and the change induced in England by copying these originals was as great as the change would now be from the rude Polynesian myths and ballads to a history of Polynesia written in English, and after English prototypes, by a native convert. In fact, the Latin language was almost as important to the new departure as the Latin models. While the old English literary form, restricted entirely to poetry, was unfitted for any serious narrative or any reflective work, the old English tongue, suited only to the practical needs of a rude warrior race, was unfitted for the expression of any but the simplest and most material ideas. It is true, the vocabulary was copious, especially in terms for natural objects, and it was far richer than might be expected even in words referring to mental states and emotions; but in the expression of abstract ideas, and in idioms suitable for philosophical discussion, it remained still, of course, very deficient. Hence the new serious literature was necessarily written entirely in the Latin language, which alone possessed the words and modes of speech fitted for its development; but to exclude it on that account from the consideration of Anglo-Saxon literature, as many writers have done, would be an absurd affectation. The Latin writings of Englishmen are an integral part of English thought, and an important factor in the evolution of English culture. Gradually, as English monks grew to read Latin from generation to generation, they invented corresponding compounds in their own language for the abstract words of the southern tongue; and therefore by the beginning of the eleventh century, the West Saxon speech of Ælfred and his successors had grown into a comparatively wealthy dialect, suitable for the expression of many ideas unfamiliar to the rude pirates and farmers of Sleswick and East Anglia. Thus, in later days, a rich vernacular literature grew up with many distinct branches. But, in the earlier period, the use of a civilised idiom for all purposes connected with the higher civilisation introduced by the missionaries was absolutely necessary; and so we find the codes of laws, the penitentials of the Church, the charters, and the prose literature generally, almost all written at first in Latin alone. Gradually, as the English tongue grew fuller, we find it creeping into use for one after another of these purposes; but to the last an educated Anglo-Saxon could express himself far more accurately and philosophically in the cultivated tongue of Rome than in the rough dialect of his Teutonic countrymen. We have only to contrast the bald and meagre style of the "English Chronicle," written in the mother-tongue, with the fulness and ease of Bæda's "Ecclesiastical History," written two centuries earlier in Latin, in order to see how great an advantage the rough Northumbrians of the early Christian period obtained in the gift of an old and polished instrument for conveying to one another their higher thoughts.

Of this new literature (which began with the Latin biography of Wilfrith by Æddi or Eddius, and the Latin verses of Ealdhelm) the great representative is, in fact, Bæda, whose life has already been sufficiently described in an earlier chapter. Living at Jarrow, a Benedictine monastery of the strictest type, in close connection with Rome, and supplied with Roman works in abundance, Bæda had thoroughly imbibed the spirit of the southern culture, and his books reflect for us a true picture of the English barbarian toned down and almost obliterated in all distinctive features by receptivity for Italian civilisation. The Northumbrian kingdom had just passed its prime in his days; and he was able to record the early history of the English Church and People with something like Roman breadth of view. His scientific knowledge was up to that of his contemporaries abroad; while his somewhat childish tales of miracles and visions, though they often betray traces of the old heathen spirit, were not below the average level of European thought in his own day. Altogether, Bæda may be taken as a fair specimen of the Romanised Englishman, alike in his strength and in his weakness. The samples of his historical style already given will suffice for illustration of his Latin works; but it must not be forgotten that he was also one of the first writers to try his hand at regular English prose in his translation of St. John's Gospel. A few English verses from his lips have also come down to us, breathing the old Teutonic spirit more deeply than might be expected from his other works.

During the interval between the Northumbrian and West Saxon supremacies—the interval embraced by the eighth century, and covered by the greatness of Mercia under Æthelbald and Offa—we have few remains of English literature. The laws of Ine the West Saxon, and of Offa the Mercian, with the Penitentials of the Church, and the Charters, form the chief documents. But England gained no little credit for learning from the works of two Englishmen who had taken up their abode in the old Germanic kingdom: Boniface or Winfrith, the apostle of the heathen Teutons subjugated by the Franks, and Alcuin (Ealhwine), the famous friend and secretary of Karl the Great. Many devotional Anglo-Saxon poems, of various dates, are kept for us in the two books preserved at Exeter, and at Vercelli in North Italy. Amongst them are some by Cynewulf, perhaps the most genuinely poetical of all the early minstrels after Cædmon. The following lines, taken from the beginning of his poem "The Phœnix" (a transcript from Lactantius), will sufficiently illustrate his style:—
I have heard that hidden Afar from hence
On the east of earth Is a fairest isle,
Lovely and famous. The lap of that land
May not be reached By many mortals,
Dwellers on earth; But it is divided
Through the might of the Maker From all misdoers.
Fair is the field, Full happy and glad,
Filled with the sweetest Scented flowers.
Unique is that island, Almighty the worker
Mickle of might Who moulded that land.
There oft lieth open To the eyes of the blest,
With happiest harmony, The gate of heaven.
Winsome its woods And its fair green wolds,
Roomy with reaches. No rain there nor snow,
Nor breath of frost, Nor fiery blast,
Nor summer's heat, Nor scattered sleet,
Nor fall of hail, Nor hoary rime,
Nor weltering weather, Nor wintry shower,
Falleth on any; But the field resteth
Ever in peace, And the princely land
Bloometh with blossoms. Berg there nor mount
Standeth not steep, Nor stony crag
High lifteth the head, As here with us,
Nor vale, nor dale, Nor deep-caverned down,
Hollows or hills; Nor hangeth aloft
Aught of unsmooth; But ever the plain,
Basks in the beam, Joyfully blooming.
Twelve fathoms taller Towereth that land
(As quoth in their writs Many wise men)
Than ever a berg That bright among mortals
High lifteth the head Among heaven's stars.


Two noteworthy points may be marked in this extract. Its feeling for natural scenery is quite different from the wild sublimity of the descriptions of nature in Beowulf. Cynewulf's verse is essentially the verse of an agriculturist; it looks with disfavour upon mountains and rugged scenes, while its ideal is one of peaceful tillage. The monk speaks out in it as cultivator and dreamer. Its tone is wholly different from that of the Brunanburh ballad or the other fierce war-songs. Moreover, it contains one or two rimes, preserved in this translation, whose full significance will be pointed out hereafter.



The anarchy of Northumbria, and still more the Danish inroads, put an end to the literary movement in the North and the Midlands; but the struggle in Wessex gave new life to the West Saxon people. Under Ælfred, Winchester became the centre of English thought. But the West Saxon literature is almost entirely written in English, not in Latin; a fact which marks the progressive development of vocabulary and idiom in the native tongue. Ælfred himself did much to encourage literature, inviting over learned men from the continent, and founding schools for the West Saxon youth in his dwarfed dominions. Most of the Winchester works are attributed to his own pen, though doubtless he was largely aided by his advisers, and amongst others by Asser, his Welsh secretary and Bishop of Sherborne. They comprise translations into the Anglo-Saxon of Boëthius de Consolatione, the Universal History of Orosius, Bæda's Ecclesiastical History, and Pope Gregory's Regula Pastoralis. But the fact that Ælfred still has recourse to Roman originals, marks the stage of civilisation as yet mainly imitative; while the interesting passages intercalated by the king himself show that the beginnings of a really native prose literature were already taking shape in English hands.

The chief monument of this truly Anglo-Saxon literature, begun and completed by English writers in the English tongue alone, is the Chronicle. That invaluable document, the oldest history of any Teutonic race in its own language, was probably first compiled at the court of Ælfred. Its earlier part consists of mere royal genealogies of the first West Saxon kings, together with a few traditions of the colonisation, and some excerpts from Bæda. But with the reign of Æthelwulf, Ælfred's father, it becomes comparatively copious, though its records still remain dry and matter-of-fact, a bare statement of facts, without comment or emotional display. The following extract, giving the account of Ælfred's death, will show its meagre nature. The passage has been modernised as little as is consistent with its intelligibility at the present day:—
An. 901. Here died Ælfred Æthulfing [Æthelwulfing—the son of Æthelwulf], six nights ere All Hallow Mass. He was king over all English-kin, bar that deal that was under Danish weald [dominion]; and he held that kingdom three half-years less than thirty winters. There came Eadward his son to the rule. And there seized Æthelwold ætheling, his father's brother's son, the ham [villa] at Winburne [Wimbourne], and at Tweoxneam [Christchurch], by the king's unthank and his witan's [without leave from the king]. There rode the king with his fyrd till he reached Badbury against Winburne. And Æthelwold sat within the ham, with the men that to him had bowed, and he had forwrought [obstructed] all the gates in, and said that he would either there live or there lie. Thereupon rode the ætheling on night away, and sought the [Danish] host in Northumbria, and they took him for king and bowed to him. And the king bade ride after him, but they could not outride him. Then beset man the woman that he had erst taken without the king's leave, and against the bishop's word, for that she was ere that hallowed a nun. And on this ilk year forth-fared Æthelred (he was ealdorman on Devon) four weeks ere Ælfred king.
During the Augustan age the Chronicle grows less full, but contains several fine war-songs, of the genuine old English type, full of savagery in sentiment, and abrupt or broken in manner, but marked by the same wild poetry and harsh inversions as the older heathen ballads. Amongst them stand the lines on the fight of Brunanburh, whose exordium is quoted above. Its close forms one of the finest passages in old English verse:—
Behind them they Left, the Lych to devour,
The Sallow kite and the Swart raven,
Horny of beak,— and Him, the dusk-coated,
The white-afted Erne, the corse to Enjoy,
The Greedy war-hawk, and that Grey beast,
The Wolf of the Wood. No such Woeful slaughter
Aye on this Island Ever hath been,
By edge of the Sword, as book Sayeth,
Writers of Eld, since of Eastward hither
English and Saxons Sailed over Sea,
O'er the Broad Brine,— landed in Britain,
Proud Workers of War, and o'ercame the Welsh,
Earls Eager of fame, Obtaining this Earth.


During the decadence, in the disastrous reign of Æthelred, the Chronicle regains its fulness, and the following passage may be taken as a good specimen of its later style. It shows the approach to comment and reflection, as the compilers grew more accustomed to historical writing in their own tongue:—
An. 1009. Here on this year were the ships ready of which we ere spake, and there were so many of them as never ere (so far as books tell us) were made among English kin in no king's day. And man brought them all together to Sandwich, and there should they lie, and hold this earth against all outlanders [foreigners'] hosts. But we had not yet the luck nor the worship [valour] that the ship-fyrd should be of any good to this land, no more than it oft was afore. Then befel it at this ilk time or a little ere, that Brihtric, Eadric's brother the ealdorman's, forwrayed [accused] Wulfnoth child to the king: and he went out and drew unto him twenty ships, and there harried everywhere by the south shore, and wrought all evil. Then quoth man to the ship-fyrd that man might easily take them, if man were about it. Then took Brihtric to himself eighty ships and thought that he should work himself great fame if he should get Wulfnoth, quick or dead. But as they were thitherward, there came such a wind against them such as no man ere minded [remembered], and it all to-beat and to-brake the ships, and warped them on land: and soon came Wulfnoth and for-burned the ships. When this was couth [known] to the other ships where the king was, how the others fared, then was it as though it were all redeless, and the king fared him home, and the ealdormen, and the high witan, and forlet the ships thus lightly. And the folk that were on the ships brought them round eft to Lunden, and let all the people's toil thus lightly go for nought: and the victory that all English kin hoped for was no better. There this ship-fyrd was thus ended; then came, soon after Lammas, the huge foreign host, that we hight Thurkill's host, to Sandwich, and soon wended their way to Canterbury, and would quickly have won the burg if they had not rather yearned for peace of them. And all the East Kentings made peace with the host, and gave it three thousand pound. And the host there, soon after that, wended till it came to Wightland, and there everywhere in Suth-Sex, and on Hamtunshire, and eke on Berkshire harried and burnt, as their wont is. Then bade the king call out all the people, that men should hold against them on every half [side]: but none the less, look! they fared where they willed. Then one time had the king foregone before them with all the fyrd as they were going to their ships, and all the folk was ready to fight them. But it was let, through Eadric ealdorman, as it ever yet was. Then, after St. Martin's mass, they fared eft again into Kent, and took them a winter seat on Thames, and victualled themselves from East-Sex and from the shires that there next were, on the twain halves of Thames. And oft they fought against the burg of Lunden, but praise be to God, it yet stands sound, and they ever there fared evilly. And there after mid-winter they took their way up, out through Chiltern, and so to Oxenaford [Oxford], and for-burnt the burg, and took their way on to the twa halves of Thames to shipward. There man warned them that there was fyrd gathered at Lunden against them; then wended they over at Stane [Staines]. And thus fared they all the winter, and that Lent were in Kent and bettered [repaired] their ships.
We possess several manuscript versions of the Chronicle, belonging to different abbeys, and containing in places somewhat different accounts. Thus the Peterborough copy is fullest on matters affecting that monastery, and even inserts several spurious grants, which, however, are of value as showing how incapable the writers were of scientific forgery, and so as guarantees of the general accuracy of the document. But in the main facts they all agree. Nor do they stop short at the Norman Conquest. Most of them continue half through the reign of William, and then cease; while one manuscript goes on uninterruptedly till the reign of Stephen, and breaks off abruptly in the year 1154 with an unfinished sentence. With it, native prose literature dies down altogether until the reign of Edward III.

As a whole, however, the Conquest struck the death-blow of Anglo-Saxon literature almost at once. During the reigns of Ælfred's descendants Wessex had produced a rich crop of native works on all subjects, but especially religious. In this literature the greatest name was that of Ælfric, whose Homilies are models of the classical West Saxon prose. But after the Conquest our native literature died out wholly, and a new literature, founded on Romance models, took its place. The Anglo-Saxon style lingered on among the people, but it was gradually killed down by the Romance style of the court writers. In prose, the history of William of Malmesbury, written in Latin, and in a wider continental spirit, marks the change. In poetry, the English school struggled on longer, but at last succumbed. A few words on the nature of this process will not be thrown away.

The old Teutonic poetry, with its treble system of accent, alliteration, and parallelism, was wholly different from the Romance poetry, with its double system of rime and metre. But, from an early date, the English themselves were fond of verbal jingles, such as "Scot and lot," "sac and soc," "frith and grith," "eorl and ceorl," or "might and right." Even in the alliterative poems we find many occasional rimes, such as "hlynede and dynede," "wide and side," "Dryht-guman sine drencte mid wine," or such as the rimes already quoted from Cynewulf. As time went on, and intercourse with other countries became greater, the tendency to rime settled down into a fixed habit. Rimed Latin verse was already familiar to the clergy, and was imitated in their works. Much of the very ornate Anglo-Saxon prose of the latest period is full of strange verbal tricks, as shown in the following modernised extract from a sermon of Wulfstan. Here, the alliterative letters are printed in capitals, and the rimes in italics:—
No Wonder is it that Woes befall us, for Well We Wot that now full many a year men little care what thing they dare in word or deed; and Sorely has this nation Sinned, whate'er man Say, with Manifold Sins and with right Manifold Misdeeds, with Slayings and with Slaughters, with robbing and with stabbing, with Grasping deed and hungry Greed, through Christian Treason and through heathen Treachery, through guile and through wile, through lawlessness and awelessness, through Murder of Friends and Murder of Foes, through broken Troth and broken Truth, through wedded unchastity and cloistered impurity. Little they trow of marriage vow, as ere this I said: little they reck the breach of oath or troth; swearing and for-swearing, on every side, far and wide, Fast and Feast they hold not, Peace and Pact they keep not, oft and anon. Thus in this land they stand, Foes to Christendom, Friends to heathendom, Persecutors of Priests, Persecutors of People, all too many; spurners of godly law and Christian bond, who Loudly Laugh at the Teaching of God's Teachers and the Preaching of God's Preachers, and whatso rightly to God's rites belongs.
The nation was thus clearly preparing itself from within for the adoption of the Romance system. Immediately after the Conquest, rimes begin to appear distinctly, while alliteration begins to die out. An Anglo-Saxon poem on the character of William the Conqueror, inserted in the Chronicle under the year of his death, consists of very rude rimes which may be modernised as follows—
Gold he took by might,
And of great unright,

From his folk with evil deed
For sore little need.
He was on greediness befallen,
And getsomeness he loved withal.
He set a mickle deer frith,
And he laid laws therewith,
That whoso slew hart or hind
Him should man then blinden.
He forbade to slay the harts,

And so eke the boars.
So well he loved the high deer
As if he their father were.
Eke he set by the hares
That they might freely fare.
His rich men mourned it
And the poor men wailed it.
But he was so firmly wrought
That he recked of all nought.

And they must all withal
The king's will follow,
If they wished to live
Or their land have,
Or their goods eke,
Or his peace to seek.
Woe is me,
That any man so proud should be,
Thus himself up to raise,

And over all men to boast.
May God Almighty show his soul mild-heart-ness,
And do him for his sins forgiveness!
From that time English poetry bifurcates. On the one hand, we have the survival of the old Teutonic alliterative swing in Layamon's Brut and in Piers Plowman—the native verse of the people sung by native minstrels: and on the other hand we have the new Romance rimed metre in Robert of Gloucester, "William of Palerne," Gower, and Chaucer. But from Piers Plowman and Chaucer onward the Romance system conquers and the Teutonic system dies rapidly. Our modern poetry is wholly Romance in descent, form, and spirit.

Thus in literature as in civilisation generally, the culture of old Rome, either as handed down ecclesiastically through the Latin, or as handed down popularly through the Norman-French, overcame the native Anglo-Saxon culture, such as it was, and drove it utterly out of the England which we now know. Though a new literature, in Latin and English, sprang up after the Conquest, that literature had its roots, not in Sleswick or in Wessex, but in Greece, in Rome, in Provence, and in Normandy. With the Normans, a new era began—an era when Romance civilisation was grafted by harsh but strong hands on to the Anglo-Saxon stock, the Anglo-Saxon institutions, and the Anglo-Saxon tongue. With the first step in this revolution, our present volume has completed its assigned task. The story of the Normans will be told by another pen in the same series.
[1] The original of this heathen charm is in the Old High German dialect; but it is quoted here as a good specimen of the early form of alliterative verse. A similar charm undoubtedly existed in Anglo-Saxon, though no copy of it has come down to our days, as we possess a modernised and Christianised English version, in which the name of our Lord is substituted for that of Balder.

[2] It is right to state, however, that many scholars regard Beowulf as a late translation from a Danish original.


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