Εικόνες σελίδας
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

whom they so looked down upon to come and live among them. Yet in the middle of the fifth century such an invi

tation was given, and a band of English, led by Hen449

gist and Horsa, took advantage of it. The Britons were led to make this invitation by a mixture of fear and prudence. They had at their backs in Scotland, and across the Irish Sea in Ireland, bands of savage enemies, the Picts and the Scots, who were constantly overrunning and devastating Britain. These enemies were dreaded by the British, who dreaded almost equally the savage rovers of the North Sea. But they thought, by making friends with the latter and inviting them to come to Britain, they might get their aid against Scot and Pict. Therefore Vortigern, a British king, introduced Hengist and Horsa into the land as his allies. And after coming thither, Hengist made a marriage between his daughter Rowena and the king, so that an English woman became a queen in Britain.

Having once set foot in the British domains, the English people, with that tenacity which is a part of their character, prepared to stay there. They called the Britons Welsh, which means foreigner, - and began to treat them as if they were really interlopers and foreigners on their own lands. The Britons, no less obstinate than the English, refused to surrender, and were driven, inch by inch, westward and southward into the strongholds in the mountains of Wales and to the rocky peninsula of Cornwall. Here their language, their literature, and their religion were fostered as they had been before the hated English landed in Britain. Meanwhile the English grew and spread over the island now called England, on which they had fought for their place till they were firmly established as the rightful owners of the land. And thus, by the right of conquest, the English people became possessors of England.




[ocr errors]

TOU will readily guess that these warlike English, when

they landed on the shores of England, were not a littrary people. The Britons, who were such savages in the eyes of the cultured Romans, were much more advanced in learning and religion than their English conquerors. Yet the Teutonic peoples did have a system of writing, in characters called Runes, which they claimed had been taught them by their god Odin, or Woden. These Runic letters were carved on stone or wood, which had been used by all ancient peoples before paper or parchment was discovered. Egypt wrote her hieroglyphics on stone, just as the North American Indian cut upon the bowlders of his native country the rude picture-writing which preserves the memory of his battles. Thus the Teutons had engraved their Runes, doubtless on the stones and trees of their various dwellingplaces. Our word book is from boc, the Early English for beech-tree, - probably because the beech is a hard wood, which could easily be used by the early book-makers. Still, with only stone and wood in place of pen, ink, and paper, we cannot expect to find any works of literature among our English when they came to their new home in Britain.

The want of pen, ink, and paper, however, or even of written characters, does not prevent a people from having its poetry or history. We do not know a tribe so barbarous that they have not had among them a story-teller or minstrel, the earliest historian or poet of a people.

These men repeat the traditions of the past or the deeds of the men around them; and these stories, rehearsed from mouth to mouth, or handed down from generation to generation, before the time of book-making, might in later times get written down, and so become the first history or the earliest


poem of a nation. The Britons had their bards, who sang to harps songs of war and praises of heroes. The Scandinavians had a sagaman and scald; the English their scop and gleeman.

The chiefs honored these men as princes honor poets. They had them at their feasts, they took them to the field of battle ; and the court of these old rulers would not have been complete without its minstrel. These singers or story-tellers would keep alive the traditions of their tribes, and it is probable that they preserved from father to son the old stories which had been told among the Teutonic branch of the Aryan family, before they broke up into different tribes; for among the Germans, Scandinavians, and English there is a great likeness in some of the earliest literary remains, which most likely comes from the fact that the root-stories or myths were the same, and dated back to the time when they were one people. What is more natural than to suppose that when these migrating hordes separated, each carried away the early traditions, to embellish them over again with deeds of more recent heroes and the scenery of their new dwelling-places?

How many such myths our English forefathers brought to Britain, we do not know. It was not until long after they had been settled in their new homes that any verses of their singers were written down ; and only after it is committed to writing can we fairly begin the study of literature. First, they were obliged to seek less clumsy means for the writing of poetry than the side of a flat bowlder or the wood of a tree, and for characters more generally understood than the Runic letters. Let us see, then, how the use of parchment and our modern kind of letters first came into England.

It was hardly a hundred and fifty years after the English had conquered Britain that a Roman priest, passing along the streets of his city of Rome, saw some blue-eyed, handsome youths exposed for sale in the slave-market. Their beauty attracted him so much that he stopped, and asked who these strangers were. They are Angles," was the

Not so," said the priest; “not Angles, but angels, for they have angels' faces, and it becomes such



A few years

to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven." later, when this same Roman priest had become Pope Gregory, and was all-powerful over the Roman empire, he remembered these Angles, or English, whose faces had so impressed him, and would not rest till he had sent Christian missionaries to England to snatch these people from heathenism. The English had received no teachings of Christianity from their conquered foes, the Britons. There were only bloody instructions on both sides, and the Britons, with pride in their superior religion, called their conquerors “heathen” and “barbarians," while the English took fierce delight in burning the religious houses and putting to death the holy men among the Britons. So the religion which taught peace and good will among men did not spread from one to the other people.

It was in the year 596 that the ship sent by Pope Gregory landed the good father Augustine, with forty monks, on the shores of Kent. Ethelbert, king of Kent, heard of the coming of this little band of strange men, clad in long robes, bearing aloft a silver cross with the image of Christ painted on a board. The English monarch, not knowing what to think of men who came without weapons, feared

were magicians, and sat under a spreading tree to receive them; because if they tried to use any evil arts of witchcraft, their spells would be less powerful in the free air. Instead of spears and battle-axes, these monks bore rolls of parchment written all over with letters unknown to the English king. These parchments were the Bible, a book of the four Gospels, a Psalter, and a history of the Christian Martyrs.

You will see that the most important book which the Roman priests brought to England was the Old Testament. This was a sacred book of the Hebrew people, who were not related to the Teutonic peoples, from whom our English sprang. The Hebrews belong to another family of mankind, — the Semitic family; and from them we derive

our religion and that wonderful book, the Old Testament, which is made up of the writings of their inspired men, their


poets and prophets. And if we believe that literature, like everything else, grows rich, the greater the number and variety of things that are added to form it, then we must regard it as a great good fortune to English literature to have this rare old book of the Hebrews so early brought to England.

I want you to think of the Old Testament now only as a great literary work, full of wonderful poetry and rich imagination, coming from an entirely different race, to be grafted upon the rude poetry and traditions of this our Northern people. Imagine this poetry of the South, with its odors of spices, its music of sounding harp and tinkling cymbal, its visions of green pastures and still waters, all at once mingled with the songs of the gleemen who sang at barbaric feasts where warriors, clothed in skins, spilled mead to the memory of dead heroes, and celebrated the glories of bloody warfare. Think of the unmelodious rhythm of this English singer blending all at once with the melody of the harp-strings that the Hebrew bard had struck by the rivers of Judæa, under the glowing skies of the Orient. Picture how the kindling imagination of the Northern poet, who had hardly known the language of tenderness or love, would be inspired such ardent strains as these, from the Songs of the great Solomon :


“ Behold, thou art fair, my love,

Behold, thou art fair.
Thou hast dove's eyes within thy locks,
Thy hair is like a flock of goats
That appear from Mount Gilead;
Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet,
And thy speech is comely.
Set me as a seal upon thine heart,
As a seal upon thine arm,
For love is strong as death,
And jealousy is cruel as the grave.
The coals thereof are coals of fire,
A most vehement flame.”

If you are able to imagine all this, you will see what a rich flood of poetry and imagery this great book of this Eastern

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »