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be sluggish, so neither be proud. I worship the recesses of the devout and humble breast." 1
The first literature of a people is poetry. In national, as in individual life, the imagination is strong during the period of youth. An acquaintance with Anglo-Saxon life and character enables us to anticipate the spirit of their poetry. Not love, but war and religion, form its leading themes. The language is abrupt, elliptical, highly metaphorical, but often of overpowering energy. In form, Anglo-Saxon poetry consists of short, exclamatory, alliterative verses. Narrative poems, recited to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, often formed a part of their ale-drinking banquets.
The most important Anglo-Saxon poem that has descended to us is "Beowulf," an epic of six thousand short lines. It was probably composed in its present form in the eighth century, but the deeds it celebrates belong to a much earlier period. It possesses great value, not only for philology, but also for history, since it portrays the manners and customs of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers before they left their continental home. The hero of the poem is Beowulf, who, sailing to the land of the Danes, slew a monster of the fens called Grendel, whose nightly ravages brought dismay into the royal palace. After slaying the monster of the marshes, Beowulf returned to his native country, where he became king and ruled fifty years. But at last, in attacking a wrathful dragon "under the earth, nigh to the sea wave," he was mortally wounded. At his burial, "about the mound rode his hearth-sharers, who sang that he was of kings, of men, the mildest, kind1 Turner, History of the Anglo-Saxons, Vol. II.
est, to his people sweetest, and the readiest in search of praise." Such, in a word, is the substance of the story, but it gives no idea of the interest of the details.
Cadmon, the earliest of English poets, lived in the latter part of the seventh century. He has with justice. been called "the Milton of our forefathers;" and his poems are strongly suggestive of "Paradise Lost." He seems to have been a laborer on the lands attached to the monastery of St. Hilda at Whitby, and was advanced in years before his poetical powers were developed. When at festive gatherings it was agreed that all present should sing in turn, Cædmon was accustomed, as the harp approached him, quietly to retire with a humiliating sense of his want of skill. Having left the banqueting hall on one occasion, he went to the stable, where it was his turn to care for the horses. In a vision an angel appeared to him and said, "Cadmon, sing a song to me." He answered, "I cannot sing; for that is the reason why I left the entertainment, and retired to this place." "Nevertheless," said the heavenly visitor, "thou shalt sing." "What shall I sing?" inquired the poet, as he felt the movement of an awakenSing the beginning of created things," said
His mission was thus assigned him. In the morning the good abbess Hilda, with a company of learned men, witnessed an exhibition of his newly awakened powers; and concluding that heavenly grace had been bestowed upon him, she bade him lay aside his secular habit and received him into the monastery as a monk. Here he led a humble, exemplary life in the exercise of his poetic gifts. "He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis; and made many
verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the Land of Promise, with many other histories from Holy Writ . . . by which he endeavored to turn away all men from the love of vice, and to excite in them the love of, and application to, good actions." 1
The following description of the Creation illustrates Cadmon's manner of amplifying the simple Scripture narrative :
"There was not yet then here,
Except gloom like a cavern,
Any thing made.
But the wide ground
Stood deep and dim
For a new lordship,
Shapeless and unsuitable.
On this with his eyes he glanced,
The King stern in mind,
And the joyless place beheld.
He saw the dark clouds
Black under the sky,
Void and waste;
Till that this world's creation
Through the word was done
Of the King of Glory."
Though rude in form, Cædmon's Paraphrase contains genuine poetry. It is the product of admirable genius, but genius fettered by unfavorable surroundings and lack of culture.
Bede may be justly regarded as the father of English prose. From an interesting autobiographical sketch at the close of his "Ecclesiastical History," we learn the leading events in his unpretentious life. He was born in
1 Bede, Ecclesiastical History, B. IV. ch. xxiv.
673, near the monastery of Jarrow in northern England. As pupil, deacon, and priest, he passed his entire life in that monastic institution. The leisure that remained to him after the faithful performance of his various official duties, he assiduously devoted to learning; for he always took delight, as he tells us, "in learning, teaching, and writing." He was an indefatigable worker, and wrote no less than forty-five separate treatises, including works on Scripture, history, hymnology, astronomy, grammar, and rhetoric, in which is embodied all the learning of his age.
His scholarship and aptness as a teacher gave celebrity to the monastic school at Jarrow, which was attended at one time by six hundred monks in addition to many secular students. His fame extended as far as Rome, whither he was invited by Pope Sergius, who wished the benefit of his counsel. He led an eminently simple, devout, and earnest life. He declined the dignity of abbot, lest the duties of the office might interfere with his studies. writer he was clear, succinct, and artless. astical History," which was composed in chief source of information in regard to the early AngloSaxon church. The credulity he exhibits in regard to ecclesiastical miracles was characteristic of his time.
As a His "Ecclesi
Latin, is our
His pupil Cuthbert has left us a pathetic account of his death. Industrious to the last, he was engaged on an Anglo-Saxon version of St. John. It was Wednesday morning, the 27th of May. One of his pupils, who was acting as scribe, said to him: "Dearest master, there is still one chapter wanting; do you think it troublesome to be asked any more questions?" He answered, "It is no trouble. Take your pen and write fast." In the afternoon he called his friends together, distributed a few sim
ple gifts, and then amidst their tears bade them a solemn farewell. At sunset his scribe said: "Dear master, there is yet one sentence not written." He answered, “Write quickly." "It is finished now," said the scribe at last. “You have spoken truly," the aged scholar replied, “it is finished. Receive my head into your hands, for it is a great satisfaction to me to sit facing the holy place where I was wont to pray." And thus on the pavement of his little cell, in the year 735, he quietly passed away with the last words of the solemn chant, "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost."
Thus closed the life of the first great English scholar. Not inaptly did later ages style him the Venerable Bede. "First among English scholars, first among English theologians, first among English historians, it is in the monk of Jarrow that English literature strikes its roots. In the six hundred scholars who gathered round him for instruction he is the father of our national education. In his physical treatises he is the first figure to which our science looks back."1
Not many sovereigns deserve a place in literature because of their own writings. But Alfred was as great with the pen as with the sword. His history, around which legendary stories have gathered, reads in its reality like a piece of fiction. Known ages ago as the "darling of the English," he grows in greatness with the passing years. The unfavorable surroundings of his life serve as a foil to set off his virtues.
He was born in 849. A part of his childhood was spent in Rome, while much of its ancient splendor still remained. At the residence of King Æthelwulf, his
1 Green, History of the English People, Vol. I.