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of his art, though its cordial reception by great folk contributes also to his happiness. The poem has little interest in itself; but it is valuable for its side-light on some characters in Beowulf, and for the portrayal of the "scop," or professional poet, an important member of every nobleman's retinue. His business it was to inspire the warriors to battle, to entertain them at night in the mead-hall, and to chant requiems over the great dead.
"Beowulf." The oldest piece of English literature having real interest to-day is the epic poem, Beowulf. Though the date of composition of this hero-poem is unknown, it is certainly the oldest epic in any Teutonic language. Parts of it were undoubtedly written after the Christianizing of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain (i.e., after 597 A.D.); but most of the poem is as certainly pre-Christian. Furthermore, although the only version we have of the story is in the language of England, the hero is a Scandinavian, and the action takes place somewhere on the continent the geography of the poem is far from clear. The story, in brief, is as follows:
Beowulf, nephew to Hygelac, King of the Geats (in Southern Sweden?), hears that Hrothgar, King of the Danes, is suffering from the nightly ravages of a monster named Grendel. For twelve years this terrible being has been visiting Hrothgar's great hall, Heorot, and making away with the king's warriors — with as many as thirty in a single night. When this story reaches Beowulf's ears, he sets out with fourteen comrades to rid Heorot of its terror. On the night of their arrival a great feast is set forth, graced by the presence of Hrothgar's queen, Wealhtheow. When the warriors (all except Beowulf) have retired, Grendel comes; and after devouring one of the Danes, attacks Beowulf. Finding that the Geat hero is too strong for him, Grendel escapes, but leaves an arm in Beowulf's grasp, and dies of the wound in his cave at the bottom of a lake.
Next evening another feast is spread in Beowulf's honor, and rich gifts are presented to him. The time of rejoicing, however, is short; for when the warriors have again sought their beds, Grendel's mother comes seeking vengeance, and carries off Eschere, Hrothgar's dearest counsellor. Beowulf pursues her to her cave under the waters; and after a day of hard fighting returns with the heads of both monsters as trophies. The Geats then set sail for home, laden with treasures sent by Hrothgar to Hygelac and his queen, Hygd.
Subsequently, when Beowulf has been king of the Geats for fifty years, his land is ravaged by a dragon. The old king slays
the fire-spitting beast, but is himself mortally wounded. In accordance with his dying request, the treasure is brought from the dragon's lair; the dragon's body is thrown into the sea, the hero's body is burned, and the treasure deposited in a mound built on the funeral pyre.
Importance of the Poem. The poem gives a fairly full account of the life of our ancestors before they came to Britain. Lines 838-1250 present an entire day, from early morning when the warriors gathered in the gift-hall, till the hour when they "sank to sleep," each with his armor and
weapons at hand. "It was their custom," says the poet, "to be always ready to fight, whether at home or in the field, wherever their liege-lord needed them." We learn that they were a seafaring people; that they believed their lives (and deaths) were ordained by fate (wyrd); that music, both vocal and instrumental,
was with them a muchloved and all but universally practised art; and that the virtues of courtesy and hospitality were in high esteem among them.
The author, the time, and the scene Beowulf are unknown. Indeed the general belief is that, while in its present form it is the work of one man, it was built up from several separate lays; and that "the formation of the poem . . . must have occupied at least the greater part of a century." 1
Although the authors of these productions of
pagan England are unknown, the names of two early Christian poets have come down to us, Cædmon and Cynewulf. (Kǎ'd mun, Ky'newulf.) Beyond the characterization of
1 Cambridge History of English Literature, I, 31.
them furnished by their poems, however, it cannot be said that we have any certain knowledge of them.
Cadmon. The first-named lived at the Abbey of Whitby, in Yorkshire, toward the end of the seventh century. We learn from Beda, the early historian of Britain, that Cædmon was an uneducated man, and that for this reason he used to leave the gatherings in the Abbey at festival times before his turn to sing. One night when he had retired from such a gathering and was sleeping in the stable, a voice said to him: "Cadmon, sing me something." He replied that he could not the voice repeated its demand. "What shall I sing?" asked he. "Sing the beginning of things," said the voice. Immediately he began a poem in praise of God, which he subsequently enlarged greatly, telling the story of Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. This poem, commonly referred to as Cædmon's Paraphrase, is thought by some to have given Milton hints for Paradise Lost.
The name of Cynewulf we know from his working it into several of his poems by means of symbols called runes." Of his life it cannot be said that we really know anything, though several more or less plausible theories give him a time and a place. Many poems have been attributed to him which most scholars to-day believe to be not his; but there are three which are still accepted as written by Cynewulf somewhat less than a hundred years after Cadmon. They are Christ, treating of the Birth, Ascension, and Second Coming of Christ; Life of Saint Juliana; and Elene, based on the story of the Emperor Constantine's mother, who found the true cross. These poems of Cynewulf, with Beowulf, and the Phoenix, founded on a Latin poem of the fourth century, but modified into an allegory of the Resurrection, show Anglo-Saxon poetry at its best.
Characteristics of Anglo-Saxon Poetry: (1) Form. The student who for the first time looks at a page of Anglo-Saxon poetry is naturally bewildered. Not only is the language entirely unfamiliar to him: he is impressed by the utter dissimilarity between the verse and modern English poetry. Beowulf, on his presentation to Hrothgar, says:
"Wæs bu, Hroðgar, hal!
mæg ond mago-degn;
ongunnen on geogobe.
on minre ebel-tyrf
Ic eom Higelaces
There is no end-rhyme; the lines are of varying length; and there is a space in the middle of each line dividing it into two parts.
It is, of course, altogether different from the poetry of, say, Tennyson or Poe. The unit is, not the line, but the half-line; and the half-line is classified, not by the number of syllables it contains, but by the number and position of its accents. The
VET PE BARD
na mga daginn þess cynn bym non huda felingaf elle Fre medom oft feyld seeping feerbes hem mone6 mæum medo feel
coal fode conl syddan quente pea sceape punder he per poppe sel pear under polemm pod myndun fa
two parts of the line are bound together by alliteration i.e., "the riming of the initial sounds of . . . rhythmically accented syllables."
1 Free translation: "Hail to thee, Hrothgar! I am Hygelac's kinsman and retainer; I did many great deeds in my youth. To me in my native land has come news of this affair of Grendel." (The symbols band are equivalent to modern th; a is not a+e, but a separate vowel sounded nearly like a in modern at.)