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Outlines of English and American Literature
Anglo-Saxon Songs
by Long, 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.


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