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A SHORT HISTORY

OF ENGLAND'S LITERATURE

CHAPTER I

CENTURIES V-XI

EARLY ENGLISH PERIOD

I. POETRY

1. Our English ancestors. About fifteen hundred years ago, our English ancestors were living in Jutland and the northern part of what is now Germany. They were known as Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, all different tribes of Teutons. They were bold and daring, and delighted in dashing through the waves wherever the tempest might carry them, burning and plundering on whatever coast they landed. If a man died fighting bravely in battle, they believed that the Valkyries bore him to the Valhalla of Odin and Thor, where the joys of fighting and feasting would never end. Yet these savage warriors loved music; they were devoted to their homes and their families; and, independent as they were, they would yield to any one whom they believed to be their rightful ruler. They were honest in their religion, and they thought seriously about the puzzling questions of life and death. They were sturdy in body and mind, the best of material to found a nation. About the middle of the fifth century, they began to go in large numbers to Britain, and there they remained, either slaying

or driving to the west and north the Celts who had previously occupied the country. The Angles were one of the strongest Teutonic tribes, and gradually the island became known as the land of the Angles, then Angleland, then England.

The scop.

However rough the Teutons might be, there was one person whom they never forgot to treat with special honor, and that was the "scop," the maker, or former. It was his noble office to chant the achievements of heroes at the feasts of which the Teutons were so fond. Imagine a rude hall with a raised platform at one end. A line of stone hearths with blazing fires runs down the room from door to door. Between the hearths and the side walls are places for the sleeping-benches of the warriors. In the fires great joints of meat are roasting, and on either side of the hearths are long, rude tables. On the walls are shields and breastplates and helmets, and coats of mail made of rings curiously fastened together. Here and there are clusters of spears standing against the wall. The burnished mail flashes back the blazing of the fires, and trembles with the heavy tread of the thegns, with their merriment and their laughter, for the battle or the voyage is over, and the time of feasting has come. On the platform is the table of the chief, and with him sit the women of his family, and any warriors to whom he wishes to show special honor. After the feasting and the drinking of mighty cups of "mead," gifts are presented to those who have been bravest, sometimes by the chief, and sometimes an even greater honor - by the wife of the chief herself. These gifts are horses, jewelled chains for the neck or golden bracelets for the arms, brightly polished swords, and coats of mail and helmets. The scop sits on the platform by the side

of the chief. When the feasting is ended, he strikes a heavy chord on his harp and begins his song with "Hwæt!" that is, "Lo!" or "Listen!"

2. Growth of the epic. - Beowulf. These songs chanted by the scops were composed many years before they were written, and probably no two singers ever sang them exactly alike. One scop would sing some exploit of a hero; another would sing it differently, and perhaps add a second exploit greater than the first. Little by little the poem grew longer. Little by little it became more united. The heroic deeds grew more and more marvellous, they became achievements that affected the welfare of a whole people; the poem had a hero, a beginning, and an end. The simple tale of a single adventure had become an epic. After a while it was written; and the manuscript of one of these epics has come down to us, though after passing through the perils of fire, and is now in the British Museum. It is called Beowulf because it is the story of the exploits of a hero by that name. The scene is apparently laid in Denmark and southern Sweden, and it is probable that bits of the poem were chanted at feasts long before the Teutons set sail for the shores of England. The story of the poem is as follows:

Beowulf.

Hrothgar, king of the Danes, built a more beautiful hall than men had ever heard of before. There he and his thegns enjoyed music and feasting, and divided the treasures that they had won in many a hard-fought battle. They were very happy together; but down in the marshes by the ocean was a monster named Grendel, who envied them and hated them. One night, when the thegns were sleeping, he came up stealthily through the mists and the darkness and dragged away thirty of the men and devoured them.

Night after night the slaughter went on, for Hrothgar was

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