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pecimens of Anglo-Saxon Poetry
I. ARTS OF THE ANGLO-SAXONS. - II. LITERATURE, ETC. IN THE
ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD. — FIRST, THEIR VERNACULAR LITERA-
WAEN the Saxons arrived on the English coasts, they were among the most barbarous of the Germanic tribes. Unacquainted with the use of letters; savage in their habits ; ignorant of the necessary arts of life; and despising all except that of war: with no desires except such as, in their gratification, were injurious to public or individual prosperity ; acknowledging no law, except
individual will ; and contemning more polished because more feeble nations; they were, in the truest sense of the word, barbarians. Nor was their contact with the Britons likely to benefit them. The Britons were almost as rude as themselves : the last lingering traces of Roman civilisation were almost faded away, through the interminable wars which signalised the long decline of the empire ; and, even if the natives had been qualified to instruct their victors, an hostile spirit would for ever have kept the two people separate. To Christianity the Saxons were indebted, not only for the ornamental, but for the useful arts of life; not only for literature, but for science. Without the instructions of the missionaries, and that intercourse with the civilised continent which followed their conversion, they would have continued to live, like the wild beasts of the forests, the terror of their local habitations. Historians with more prejudice than information, or, perhaps, with a dishonesty superior to both, have not hesitated to condemn the labours and views of the Roman missionaries; have deplored the subversion of the ancient British church ; and regarded the arrival of the strangers as in every respect portentous of evil to this island. The truth, however, is, that to the Roman missionaries our ancestors were indebted for every thing that improves life, for their hopes of immortality, for their greatness, probably for their existence as a nation. The effects of this moral revolution were, indeed, vast, but sufficiently explicable. Hitherto the only path to distinction lay in war: the use of arms, therefore, was the chief, almost the only branch of education ; and with such intensity had it been cultivated, that the “ strife of spears
was loved even for its own sake, and the human feelings completely forgotten.
Hence, the noblest faculties of our nature had lain dormant, until religion called them forth. She indicated to the eye of ambition other fields than that of blood, other enjoyments than that of tossing the helpless infant on the point of the lance. By her precepts, by the preaching and example of the missionaries, by intercommunication with the civilised states of France and Italy, the character of the people was soon elevated; not only religion, but intellectual knowledge, began to be esteemed : in the cloister, all that could be learned at that period was prosecuted with eager study; and, in less than two centuries from the arrival of St. Augustine, England could boast of a higher degree of mental culture, we use the comparison advisedly, — than any other European country. In some arts, indeed, she was below both Gaul and Italy; but in other objects of the intellect, especially in literature, she had the undoubted superiority; a fact which has been acknowledged by the best foreign critics. Let us not forget, however, that, during the Anglo-Saxon period, knowledge was only in its infancy ; that, compared with its present advanced state, it was rude: but the efforts of a people emerging from barbarism is at all times an interesting subject of contemplation : we applaud at every step ; we weigh the men and their circumstances; and, if perfection be not approached, the human mind is seen to vindicate its origin, its high destiny; to manifest its infinitely progressive powers.
And we must bear in remembrance, that, even respecting a nation but newly entered on the boundless career of improvement, something useful may be discovered. In the first place, its infant conception will be impressed with the spirit of the times: we shall see, and know, and feel, what our forefathers saw, and knew, and felt ; and shall thus revert to a scene of existence which, though widely different from the present, may not deserve contempt. In the second place, if there are many truths, the full developement of which depends on progressive improvements, on the acuteness of the human intellect, and the aggregated treasures of human experience, there are many others, which, being in their nature eternal and immutable, are not substantially affected by social accidents. We say substantially ; for, in the manner of