Εικόνες σελίδας
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

people added to the rude and unformed literature that was to be nursed under the cold, wintry skies of Northern Europe.

With these Hebrew books the Christian priests also brought the Roman letters, which have ever since been the letters used by the English. Thus all at once upon the English soil came the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, the HEBREW LITERATURE, and the WRITTEN CHARACTERS OF THE ROMANS,

three great gifts to the future of our English race.



IN the British Museum in London, where are collected the

in one library, there is a time-stained and time-eaten manuscript known as the Beowulf. This manuscript is probably almost a thousand years old, although its exact age is not certain. Let everybody who speaks the English language and has a reverence for English literature look at this old manuscript with admiration. It is the oldest epic in the language, the oldest entire poem in our literature.

The Beowulf is written in the Roman letters which were introduced into England by Christianity, and is in the earliest English spoken on the island of Britain. It has been several times translated into modern English and into other languages, and there have been many guesses as to whence it first came, when it was written, and to what people it related. Some learned men have thought it was of German, others of Scandinavian, origin; others hold that the scenery and character of the poem are wholly English. We shall most likely never know all the facts about it, or anything about its unknown author ; but one thing seems certain to my mind, that the traditions or story on which it is founded are far older than the hand that first wrote it. Why may past?

the poem.

[ocr errors]

not this time-encrusted old poem of Beowulf have celebrated the deeds of some Teutonic hero in a prehistoric

When it was first written down by the old poet, a thousand years ago, he might easily have embellished an older story with incidents of his own time and the scenery of the more modern dwelling-place of the Teutons, but he could not entirely lose, in telling the story, that atmosphere of antiquity which carries us back, as we read it, to the time when western Europe was filled with fens and waste places peopled by men living in caves and lake-dwellings, with whom the Teutons may have battled when they were wandering through Europe before they had fixed their homes on the borders of the North and Baltic Seas. But let me tell you here simply and briefly the story of

Beowulf is a chief of the Goths, a " deedbold” warrior, the old poem calls him, accustomed all his life to war.

At the opening of the poem he is going to the help of Hrothgar, a chief of the Danes, who is “old and hairless when the poem begins. Hrothgar has built a great hall, or “ folkstead,” in which he sits at feast with his warriors. It is probably much such a hall as that in which the ancient gleeman or scald first sang the deeds of Beowulf.

Imagine a long room, fifty by two hundred feet, with nave and side aisles formed by two rows of pillars. Down the centre of the hall is the great stone hearth on which burn huge fires of wood. Between the pillars curtains of skins or rudely woven tapestry are sometimes hung, and then they form sleeping-places for the warriors. In others of these alcoves are set great vats, from which the mead and ale are dealt out to the drinkers. On a raised dais at the upper end of the hall sits the chief with his wife, at a table placed transversely to the long tables that run lengthwise through the hall on each side the central hearth. At the chief's tables are the most favored guests, or those of highest rank. The apartments of the women, when there were women in the household, were behind the dais, shut off by thick hangings. If you will read the description in Scott's

[ocr errors][merged small]


Ivanhoe of the hall of Cedric the Saxon, you will see that it was a hall similar to this, with appliances of a more advanced civilization, in which the English chiefs held revel and counsel as late as the coming of their Norman conquer

Such a hall, adorned with barbaric pomp, Hrothgar the Dane built for himself and his warriors, and called Heorot. There the gleeman sang, the warriors feasted, the mead flowed in the cups, and all went happily, until a “grim guest called Grendel came up from his dismal dwelling in neighboring fens, — where lurked giants, dwarfs, and all sorts of misshapen creatures, and each night seized and bore off his prey from among Hrothgar's dearest warriors. On this account Beowulf had been summoned to subdue Grendel. He embarked, therefore, on his “wide-bosomed” ship, and went to the help of the old thane ; or, to quote the most poetical translation of the old poem,

[ocr errors]

“ Departed then o'er the wavy sea,
by wind impelled,
the floater foamy-necked
to a bird most like,
till that about one hour
of the second day
the twisted prow
had sailed,
that the voyagers
saw land;
the ocean shores shine ;
mountains steep ;
spacious sea-nesses;
then was the sea-sailer
at the end of his watery way.”

When they had landed, the “ sea-weary men marched straight for the hall of Hrothgar. Leaning their round shields of hard wood against the wall, they entered. The Danes asked who they were and whence they came. Beowulf answered proudly that he was a chieftain, the “board sharer of the king of the Goths.” On this he was made welcome; and as soon as he was rested and refreshed, he entertained them with tales of his prowess. “The women,” says the


old poem, “ liked the Goths' proud speeches," and the wife of Hrothgar came to sit by her lord and listen.

At night Beowulf waited sleepless for the time when Gren-
del, the grim guest, should come to seize another warrior.
When he heard him enter, he rose and grappled with him.
Then -

• Bodily pain endured
the fell wretch ;
on his shoulder was
a deadly wound manifest;
the sinews sprang asunder,

the bone-casings burst;'
and off went Grendel, leaving his hand and arm in the
strong grasp of Beowulf. He died on his return to the
watery fens, where

“Was with blood
the surge boiling,
the dire swing of waves
was mingled
hot with clotted blood;
it welled with fatal gore.
Grendel had dyed it
after he, joyless,
in his fen-shelter,
laid down his life.”

After this fight is over and Beowulf has been honored as a victor, the giant mother of Grendel comes to avenge her son, and carries away at night Hrothgar's favorite warrior. Beowulf says consolingly to the bereaved chieftain,

[ocr errors]

“Sorrow not, sage man ;
better 't is for every man
that he his friend avenge
than that he greatly mourn;
each of us must
an end await
of this world's life;
let him who can,
work high deeds ere death."

Beowulf then goes to the watery fens and attacks the giantess in her lair, which still reeks with the gore of Grendel,

and finally returns with the two heads of these giant foes. Then he rests in the great hall Heorot.

“ Rested him, the ample-hearted;
the mansion towered,
vaulted, and golden-hued,
the guest slept therein
until the black raven,
Heaven's delight,
blithe of heart, announced
the bright sun coming.”


At the close of the poem Beowulf returns to his home, where, as his last act of prowess, he slays a huge dragon which devastated the land, and in doing it receives his death-wound. Before his death he divides among the young warriors his shield, his war-shirt of “ringed iron,” and his other weapons of war. After his death his people make a great pyre, put all his riches on it, and burn them, with their chief's body.

This is a bare outline, with scanty extracts, from the oldest entire poem which wears the dress of our earliest English speech. If from this you have caught any of its spirit, you may be able to fancy, with me, that there is something Homeric about this rude epic. But it is a Homer of the North, not of the South, who sings. A blast of the north wind seems to blow through and through these lines. The beauty and grace of Homer's heroes are not seen in this Gothic chieftain. It is the brute strength of the Northern peoples that we find in him. Yet some of the characteristics of poetry are not lacking to this early poetry. Night is called “the shadow-covering of creatures ;'

» death is “the terrible life-devourer; the door is the

“ hall's mouth." Although generally bare of ornament, and not rich in imagination, it has a few touches that show the genuine poetic spirit. Bare and bald as it is, may be able to hear in it the birth-cry of our English Muse, –a true nursling of the Northern peoples, cradled under the skies of a rugged and wintry clime.

There are a number of specimens of early English poetry

I think you

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »