Outlines of English and American Literature Anglo-Saxon Songs byLong, William J.
Beside the epic of Beowulf a few mutilated poems
have been preserved, and these are as fragments of a plate or film upon
which the life of long ago left its impression. One of the oldest of these
poems is "Widsith," the "wide-goer," which describes the wanderings and
rewards of the ancient gleeman. It begins:
Widsith spake, his word-hoard unlocked,
He who farthest had fared among earth-folk and tribe-folk.
Then follows a recital of the places he had visited, and the gifts he had
received for his singing. Some of the personages named are real, others
mythical; and as the list covers half a world and several centuries of
time, it is certain that Widsith's recital cannot be taken literally.
Meaning of Widsith
Two explanations offer themselves: the first, that the poem contains the
work of many scops, each of whom added his travels to those of his
predecessor; the second, that Widsith, like other gleemen, was both
historian and poet, a keeper of tribal legends as well as a shaper of
songs, and that he was ever ready to entertain his audience with things new
or old. Thus, he mentioned Hrothgar as one whom he had visited; and if a
hearer called for a tale at this point, the scop would recite that part of
Beowulf which tells of the monster Grendel. Again, he named Sigard
the Volsung (the Siegfrid of the Niebelungenlied and of Wagner's
opera), and this would recall the slaying of the dragon Fafnir, or some
other story of the old Norse saga. So every name or place which Widsith
mentioned was an invitation. When he came to a hall and "unlocked his
word-hoard," he offered his hearers a variety of poems and legends from
which they made their own selection. Looked at in this way, the old poem
becomes an epitome of Anglo-Saxon literature.