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SAXON GLEEMEN AND THEIR SONGS.
The Saxon gleeman.
When the evening shadows fell, and the “meadbench” was filled, his scene of triumph came. His touch on the “wood of joy” had power alike to rouse the fiery passions of the warriors or soothe their ruffled moods. He related the deeds of dead heroes, or sung the praise of their living descendants; stung the coward with his sweet-voiced scorn, or exulted in his proudest tones over the beaten foe. From earliest days his training was directed to the storing of his memory with the poetic legends of his country; and when, grown more skilful, he learned to string into rude verses the story of his own day, it went, without his name to mark it, into the common stock of his craft. Hence the Anglo-Saxon poetry is anonymous.
The structure of the verse in which these gleemen sang is thus described by Wright:—“The poetry of the Anglo-Saxons was neither modulated according to foot-measure, like that of the Greeks and Romans, nor written with rhymes, like that of many mudern languages. Its chief and universal characteristic was a very regular alliteration, so arranged that in every couplet there should be two principal words in the first line beginning with the same letter, which letter must also be the initial of the first word, on which the stress of the voice falls in the second line. The only approach to a metrical system yet discovered is, that two risings and two fallings of the voice seem necessary to each perfect line. Two dist inct measures are met with, a shorter and a longer, both commonly mixed together in the same poem; the former being used for the ordinary narrative, and the latter adopted when the
CAEDMON, THE MONK of whitby. 19
poet sought after greater dignity. In the manuscripts the Saxon poetry is always written continuously, like prose; but the division of the lines is generally marked by a point.” The chief Anglo-Saxon poems that have come down to us are the Romance of Beowulf, and Caedmon's Paraphrase. Beowulf is a nameless poem of more than 6000 lines, thought to be much older than the manuscript of it which we possess. Its hero, BEowULF, is a Danish soldier, who, passing through many dangers by land and sea, slays a monster, Grendel, but is himself slain in an attack upon a huge dragon. It is a striking picture of dim old Gothic days, much heightened in its effect by the minuteness of the descriptive lines. As we read, the gleaming of mail flashes in our eyes, and we hear the clanging march of the warriors, as the “bright ring-iron sings in its trappings.” Metaphors are common in the language of Beowulf, and some are of noble simplicity, such as, “They lay aloft, put to sleep with Swords;” but in all this long poem there are only five similes. This scarcity of similes is a characteristic of all Anglo-Saxon verse. CAEDMON, the author of the Paraphrase, was originally a cowherd near Whitby in Northumbria. Bede tells the story of his inspiration. It was the custom in those days for each to sing in turn, as the harp was pushed round the hall at supper. This Caedmon could never do; and when he saw his turn coming, he used to slip out of the room, blushing for his want of skill and eager to hide his shame. One night, having left the hall, he lay down to sleep in the stable; and as he slept, he dreamed that a stranger came to him, and said, “Caedmon, sing me something.” “I know nothing to sing,” said the poor herd, “and so I had to slink away out of the hall.” “Nay,” said the stranger, “but thou hast something to sing.” “What must I sing?” “Sing the Creation,” replied the stranger; upon which words of sweet music began to flow from the lips that had been sealed so long. Caedmon awoke, knew the words he had been reciting, and felt a new-born power in his breast. The mantle of song had fallen on him; and when next day, before the Abbess Hilda and some of the scholars of the place, he told what had occurred, they gave
THE “ PARAPHRASE
him a passage of the Bible to test his new-found skill Within a few hours he composed, on the given subject, a poem of surpassing sweetness and power.
Thenceforward this monk of Whitby spent his life in the composition of religious poetry.
The “Paraphrase" of Caedmon contained, besides other portions of the Bible, the story of the Creation and the Fall, the history of Daniel, with many passages in the life and death of our Saviour. From the similarity of subject, a likeness has been traced between him and Milton, upon which a charge of plagiarism against our great epic poet has been most foolishly grounded.
It is believed that Caedmon died about 680. Some think that there were two poets of the name, the elder of whom composed those lines on the Creation, which are acknowledged to be among the oldest existing specimens of Anglo-Saxon, while the younger was the author of the “ Paraphrase.”
The principal fragmentary Anglo-Saxon poems, which still survive, are the Battle of Finsborough; the Traveller's Song, which contains a good many geographical names; and the fragment of Judith. In the Saxon Chronicle of 938 we find a poem called Athelstan's Song of Victory.
The following extract from Caedmon's “Paraphrase "-part of the Song of Azariah-may be taken as a specimen of Anglo-Saxon
Tha of roderum wæs.
ANGLO-SAXON PROSE. ALFRED.-King Alfred is the leading writer of Anglo-Saxon prose, whose works remain. The Welshman Asser has preserved for us an account of this royal scholar's life and works.
What Alfred did for England in those dark days, when Danish pirates ravaged the land so sorely, every reader of our history knows. Here it is not as the warrior, victorious at Ethandune and on the banks of the Lea, that we must view this greatest of the Anglo-Saxons; but as the peaceful man of letters, sitting among his books and plying his patient pen, as his time-candle burns down, ring after ring, through the hours allotted to literary toil. Both sword and pen were familiar tools in that cunning right hand.
Alfred the Great was born in 848, at Wantage in Berkshire. Two visits to Rome in his early days gave him a wider range of observation and thought than Anglo-Saxon children commonly enjoyed. When he had reached his twelfth year, he won as a prize a beautiful book of Saxon poetry, which his mother had promised to that one of her sons who should first commit its contents to memory. Already Alfred had been noted in the family circle for the ease with which he remembered the songs sung by the wandering gleemen.
When in 871 he ascended the throne of Wessex, his great inind found its destined work. Through many perils and disheartening changes he broke the power of the insolent Danes, taming the pirates into tillers of the Danelagh. And then, his warlike task for the present done, he turned to the elevation of his people's mind.
There being few scholars in the troubled land, he invited learned men from France to preside over the leading schools. Much of his scanty leisure was spent in literary work, chiefly translations into Anglo-Saxon. His chief works were his versions of Bede's History of the Anglo-Saxon Church, and Boethius on the Consolation of Philosophy. Translations of Orosius, of Pope Gregory's Pastorale, and an unfinished rendering of the Psalms, are also named among his contributions to literature.
22 THE “saxox CHRONICLE”
ALFRIC.—There was an author in the latter days of the AngloSaxon period, known as Alfric the Grammarian, about whom much confusion exists among writers on the Anglo-Saxon literature. Whoever this man was, whether, as is generally thought, that monk of Abingdon who was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 995, or another man of York, or yet another of Malmesbury, he contributed largely to the literature of his day. Most of his writings are still extant. His name, the Grammarian, was taken from a Latin Grammar, which he translated from Donatus and Priscian. His Latin Glossary and Book of Latin Conversation are works of merit. But his Eighty Homilies, written in the simplest Anglo-Saxon, for the use of the common people, are undoubtedly his greatest work. Among these is his famous Paschal Sermon, which embodies the Anglo-Saxon belief on the subject of the Lord's Supper. Alfric of Canterbury died in November 1006.
The famous Saron Chronicle was the work of centuries. An Archbishop of Canterbury, named Plegmund, drawing largely from Bede, is said to have compiled the work up to 891. It was then carried on in various monasteries until 1154, when the registers ceased to be kept. As a work of history, embracing the events of many hundred years, and written for the most part by men who lived in the midst of the scenes they described, it is perhaps the most valuable inheritance we have received from the native literature of our Saxon forefathers.
A romance founded on the story of Apollonius of Tyre, King Alfred's Will,—some Laws and Charters, some Homilies, and a few works on Grammar, Medicine, and Botany, are nearly all the specimens of Anglo-Saxon prose that remain.
The learned tongue of Europe was then, as it long continued to be, Latin, the writing of which was revived in England by Augustine and his monks. In the stern soldiering days of the Roman period, much Latin had been spoken and read, but little had been written within British bounds. But the Anglo-Saxon monks,—