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The dragon is slain, but the fire has entered Beowulf's lungs and he knows that Wyrd is at hand. This is his thought, while Wiglaf removes his battered armor:. For fifty years I ruled these people well, and not a king Of those who dwell around me, dared oppress Or meet me with his hosts. At home I waited For the time that Wyrd controls. Mine own I kept, Nor quarrels sought, nor ever falsely swore.
Now, wounded sore, I wait for joy to come. He sends Wiglaf into the firedrake's cave, who finds it filled with rare treasures and, most wonderful of all, a golden banner from which light proceeds and illumines all the darkness. But Wiglaf cares little for the treasures; his mind is full of his dying chief. He fills his hands with costly ornaments and hurries to throw them at his hero's feet. The old man looks with sorrow at the gold, thanks the "Lord of all" that by death he has gained more riches for his people, and tells his faithful thane how his body shall be burned on the Whale ness, or headland:.
I may no more Be with them. Bid the warriors raise a barrow After the burning, on the ness by the sea, On Hronesness, which shall rise high and be For a remembrance to my people. Seafarers Who from afar over the mists of waters Drive foamy keels may call it Beowulf's Mount Hereafter. Earls in their strength are to their Maker gone, And I must follow them. Beowulf was still living when Wiglaf sent a messenger hurriedly to his people; when they came they found him dead, and the huge dragon dead on the sand beside him. Then the Goth's people reared a mighty pile With shields and armour hung, as he had asked, And in the midst the warriors laid their lord, Lamenting.
Then the warriors on the mount Kindled a mighty bale fire; the smoke rose Black from the Swedish pine, the sound of flame Mingled with sound of weeping; Then upon the hill The people of the Weders wrought a mound, High, broad, and to be seen far out at sea. In ten days they had built and walled it in As the wise thought most worthy; placed in it Rings, jewels, other treasures from the hoard. They left the riches, golden joy of earls, In dust, for earth to hold; where yet it lies, Useless as ever.
Then about the mound The warriors rode, and raised a mournful song For their dead king; exalted his brave deeds, Holding it fit men honour their liege lord, Praise him and love him when his soul is fled. Thus the [Geat's] people, sharers of his hearth, Mourned their chief's fall, praised him, of kings, of men The mildest and the kindest, and to all His people gentlest, yearning for their praise. One is tempted to linger over the details of the magnificent ending: the unselfish heroism of Beowulf, the great prototype of King Alfred; the generous grief of his people, ignoring gold and jewels in the thought of the greater treasure they had lost; the memorial mound on the low cliff, which would cause every returning mariner to steer a straight course to harbor in the remembrance of his dead hero; and the pure poetry which marks every noble line.
But the epic is great enough and simple enough to speak for itself. Search the literatures of the world, and you will find no other such picture of a brave man's death. History and Meaning of Beowulf Concerning the history of Beowulf a whole library has been written, and scholars still differ too radically for us to express a positive judgment. This much, however, is clear,--that there existed, at the time the poem was composed, various northern legends of Beowa, a half-divine hero, and the monster Grendel.
The latter has been interpreted in various ways,--sometimes as a bear, and again as the malaria of the marsh lands. For those interested in symbols the simplest interpretation of these myths is to regard Beowulf's successive fights with the three dragons as the overcoming, first, of the overwhelming danger of the sea, which was beaten back by the dykes; second, the conquering of the sea itself, when men learned to sail upon it; and third, the conflict with the hostile forces of nature, which are overcome at last by man's indomitable will and perseverance.
All this is purely mythical; but there are historical incidents to reckon with. About the year a certain northern chief, called by the chronicler Chochilaicus who is generally identified with the Hygelac of the epic , led a huge plundering expedition up the Rhine. After a succession of battles he was overcome by the Franks, but--and now we enter a legendary region once more--not until a gigantic nephew of Hygelac had performed heroic feats of valor, and had saved the remnants of the host by a marvelous feat of swimming.
The majority of scholars now hold that these historical events and personages were celebrated in the epic; but some still assert that the events which gave a foundation for Beowulf occurred wholly on English soil, where the poem itself was undoubtedly written. Poetical Form The rhythm of Beowulf and indeed of all our earliest poetry depended upon accent and alliteration; that is, the beginning of two or more words in the same line with the same sound or letter. The lines were made up of two short halves, separated by a pause. No rime was used; but a musical effect was produced by giving each half line two strongly accented syllables.
Each full line, therefore, had four accents, three of which i. The musical effect was heightened by the harp with which the gleeman accompanied his singing.. The poetical form will be seen clearly in the following selection from the wonderfully realistic description of the fens haunted by Grendel. It will need only one or two readings aloud to show that many of these strange-looking words are practically the same as those we still use, though many of the vowel sounds were pronounced differently by our ancestors. They a darksome land Ward inhabit , wolf cliffs, windy nesses, Frightful fen paths where mountain stream Under nesses' mists nether downward wanders, A flood under earth. It is not far hence, By mile measure, that the mere stands, Over which hang rimy groves.
The poem "Widsith," the wide goer or wanderer, is in part, at least, probably the oldest in our language. The author and the date of its composition are unknown; but the personal account of the minstrel's life belongs to the time before the Saxons first came to England. From the numerous references to rings and rewards, and from the praise given to generous givers, it would seem that literature as a paying profession began very early in our history, and also that the pay was barely sufficient to hold soul and body together. Of all our modern poets, Goldsmith wandering over Europe paying for his lodging with his songs is most suggestive of this first recorded singer of our race. His last lines read:. Thus wandering, they who shape songs for men Pass over many lands, and tell their need, And speak their thanks, and ever, south or north, Meet someone skilled in songs and free in gifts, Who would be raised among his friends to fame And do brave deeds till light and life are gone.
He who has thus wrought himself praise shall have A settled glory underneath the stars. Deor's Lament. In "Deor" we have another picture of the Saxon scop, or minstrel, not in glad wandering, but in manly sorrow. It seems that the scop's living depended entirely upon his power to please his chief, and that at any time he might be supplanted by a better poet. Deor had this experience, and comforts himself in a grim way by recalling various examples of men who have suffered more than himself.
The poem is arranged in strophes, each one telling of some afflicted hero and ending with the same refrain: His sorrow passed away; so will mine. Weland for a woman knew too well exile. Strong of soul that earl, sorrow sharp he bore; To companionship he had care and weary longing, Winter-freezing wretchedness. Woe he found again, again, After that Nithhad in a need had laid him-- Staggering sinew-wounds--sorrow-smitten man!
That he overwent; this also may I. The Seafarer. The wonderful poem of "The Seafarer" seems to be in two distinct parts. The first shows the hardships of ocean life; but stronger than hardships is the subtle call of the sea. The second part is an allegory, in which the troubles of the seaman are symbols of the troubles of this life, and the call of the ocean is the call in the soul to be up and away to its true home with God. Whether the last was added by some monk who saw the allegorical possibilities of the first part, or whether some sea-loving Christian scop wrote both, is uncertain.
Following are a few selected lines to show the spirit of the poem:. The hail flew in showers about me; and there I heard only The roar of the sea, ice-cold waves, and the song of the swan; For pastime the gannets' cry served me; the kittiwakes' chatter For laughter of men; and for mead drink the call of the sea mews. When storms on the rocky cliffs beat, then the terns, icy-feathered, Made answer; full oft the sea eagle forebodingly screamed, The eagle with pinions wave-wet The shadows of night became darker, it snowed from the north; The world was enchained by the frost; hail fell upon earth; 'T was the coldest of grain.
Yet the thoughts of my heart now are throbbing To test the high streams, the salt waves in tumultuous play. Desire in my heart ever urges my spirit to wander, To seek out the home of the stranger in lands afar off. There is no one that dwells upon earth, so exalted in mind, But that he has always a longing, a sea-faring passion For what the Lord God shall bestow, be it honor or death. No heart for the harp has he, nor for acceptance of treasure, No pleasure has he in a wife, no delight in the world, Nor in aught save the roll of the billows; but always a longing, A yearning uneasiness, hastens him on to the sea.
The woodlands are captured by blossoms, the hamlets grow fair, Broad meadows are beautiful, earth again bursts into life, And all stir the heart of the wanderer eager to journey, So he meditates going afar on the pathway of tides. The cuckoo, moreover, gives warning with sorrowful note, Summer's harbinger sings, and forebodes to the heart bitter sorrow. Now my spirit uneasily turns in the heart's narrow chamber, Now wanders forth over the tide, o'er the home of the whale, To the ends of the earth--and comes back to me. Eager and greedy, The lone wanderer screams, and resistlessly drives my soul onward, Over the whale-path, over the tracts of the sea.
The Fight at Finnsburgh and Waldere. Two other of our oldest poems well deserve mention. The "Fight at Finnsburgh" is a fragment of fifty lines, discovered on the inside of a piece of parchment drawn over the wooden covers of a book of homilies. This no eastward dawning is, nor is here a dragon flying, Nor of this high hall are the horns a burning; But they rush upon us here--now the ravens sing, Growling is the gray wolf, grim the war-wood rattles, Shield to shaft is answering. The fight lasts five days, but the fragment ends before we learn the outcome: The same fight is celebrated by Hrothgar's gleeman at the feast in Heorot, after the slaying of Grendel.
They escaped with a great treasure, and in crossing the mountains were attacked by Gunther and his warriors, among whom was Walter's former comrade, Hagen. Walter fights them all and escapes. The same story was written in Latin in the tenth century, and is also part of the old German Nibelungenlied. Though the saga did not originate with the Anglo-Saxons, their version of it is the oldest that has come down to us. The chief significance of these "Waldere" fragments lies in the evidence they afford that our ancestors were familiar with the legends and poetry of other Germanic peoples.
We have now read some of our earliest records, and have been surprised, perhaps, that men who are generally described in the histories as savage fighters and freebooters could produce such excellent poetry. It is the object of the study of all literature to make us better acquainted with men,--not simply with their deeds, which is the function of history, but with the dreams and ideals which underlie all their actions. So a reading of this early Anglo-Saxon poetry not only makes us acquainted, but also leads to a profound respect for the men who were our ancestors. Before we study more of their literature it is well to glance briefly at their life and language. The Name Originally the name Anglo-Saxon denotes two of the three Germanic tribes,--Jutes, Angles, and Saxons,--who in the middle of the fifth century left their homes on the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic to conquer and colonize distant Britain.
Angeln was the home of one tribe, and the name still clings to the spot whence some of our forefathers sailed on their momentous voyage. The old Saxon word angul or ongul means a hook, and the English verb angle is used invariably by Walton and older writers in the sense of fishing. We may still think, therefore, of the first Angles as hook-men, possibly because of their fishing, more probably because the shore where they lived, at the foot of the peninsula of Jutland, was bent in the shape of a fishhook. The name Saxon from seax, sax , a short sword, means the sword-man, and from the name we may judge something of the temper of the hardy fighters who preceded the Angles into Britain. The Angles were the most numerous of the conquering tribes, and from them the new home was called Anglalond.
By gradual changes this became first Englelond and then England. More than five hundred years after the landing of these tribes, and while they called themselves Englishmen, we find the Latin writers of the Middle Ages speaking of the inhabitants of Britain as Anglisaxones ,--that is, Saxons of England,--to distinguish them from the Saxons of the Continent. In the Latin charters of King Alfred the same name appears; but it is never seen or heard in his native speech. There he always speaks of his beloved "Englelond" and of his brave "Englisc" people.
In the sixteenth century, when the old name of Englishmen clung to the new people resulting from the union of Saxon and Norman, the name Anglo-Saxon was first used in the national sense by the scholar Camden  in his History of Britain ; and since then it has been in general use among English writers. In recent years the name has gained a wider significance, until it is now used to denote a spirit rather than a nation, the brave, vigorous, enlarging spirit that characterizes the English-speaking races everywhere, and that has already put a broad belt of English law and English liberty around the whole world.
The Life. If the literature of a people springs directly out of its life, then the stern, barbarous life of our Saxon forefathers would seem, at first glance, to promise little of good literature. Outwardly their life was a constant hardship, a perpetual struggle against savage nature and savage men. Behind them were gloomy forests inhabited by wild beasts and still wilder men, and peopled in their imagination with dragons and evil shapes. In front of them, thundering at the very dikes for entrance, was the treacherous North Sea, with its fogs and storms and ice, but with that indefinable call of the deep that all men hear who live long beneath its influence. Here they lived, a big, blond, powerful race, and hunted and fought and sailed, and drank and feasted when their labor was done.
Almost the first thing we notice about these big, fearless, childish men is that they love the sea; and because they love it they hear and answer its call:. No delight has he in the world, Nor in aught save the roll of the billows; but always a longing, A yearning uneasiness, hastens him on to the sea. As might be expected, this love of the ocean finds expression in all their poetry. In Beowulf alone there are fifteen names for the sea, from the holm , that is, the horizon sea, the "upmounding," to the brim , which is the ocean flinging its welter of sand and creamy foam upon the beach at your feet.
And the figures used to describe or glorify it--"the swan road, the whale path, the heaving battle plain"--are almost as numerous. In all their poetry there is a magnificent sense of lordship over the wild sea even in its hour of tempest and fury:. Often it befalls us, on the ocean's highways, In the boats our boatmen, when the storm is roaring, Leap the billows over, on our stallions of the foam. The Inner Life. A man's life is more than his work; his dream is ever greater than his achievement; and literature reflects not so much man's deed as the spirit which animates him; not the poor thing that he does, but rather the splendid thing that he ever hopes to do.
In no place is this more evident than in the age we are now studying. Those early sea kings were a marvelous mixture of savagery and sentiment, of rough living and of deep feeling, of splendid courage and the deep melancholy of men who know their limitations and have faced the unanswered problem of death. They were not simply fearless freebooters who harried every coast in their war galleys. If that were all, they would have no more history or literature than the Barbary pirates, of whom the same thing could be said. These strong fathers of ours were men of profound emotions. In all their fighting the love of an untarnished glory was uppermost; and under the warrior's savage exterior was hidden a great love of home and homely virtues, and a reverence for the one woman to whom he would presently return in triumph.
So when the wolf hunt was over, or the desperate fight was won, these mighty men would gather in the banquet hall, and lay their weapons aside where the open fire would flash upon them, and there listen to the songs of Scop and Gleeman,--men who could put into adequate words the emotions and aspirations that all men feel but that only a few can ever express:. Music and song where the heroes sat-- The glee-wood rang, a song uprose When Hrothgar's scop gave the hall good cheer.
It is this great and hidden life of the Anglo-Saxons that finds expression in all their literature. Briefly, it is summed up in five great principles,--their love of personal freedom, their responsiveness to nature, their religion, their reverence for womanhood, and their struggle for glory as a ruling motive in every noble life. Springs of Anglo-Saxon Poetry In reading Anglo-Saxon poetry it is well to remember these five principles, for they are like the little springs at the head of a great river,--clear, pure springs of poetry, and out of them the best of our literature has always flowed.
Thus when we read,. Blast of the tempest--it aids our oars; Rolling of thunder--it hurts us not; Rush of the hurricane--bending its neck To speed us whither our wills are bent,. Again, when we read,. Now hath the man O'ercome his troubles. No pleasure does he lack, Nor steeds, nor jewels, nor the joys of mead, Nor any treasure that the earth can give, O royal woman, if he have but thee, . So in the matter of glory or honor; it was, apparently, not the love of fighting, but rather the love of honor resulting from fighting well, which animated our forefathers in every campaign.
The whole secret of Beowulf's mighty life is summed up in the last line, "Ever yearning for his people's praise. Oriental peoples built monuments to perpetuate the memory of their dead; but our ancestors made poems, which should live and stir men's souls long after monuments of brick and stone had crumbled away. It is to this intense love of glory and the desire to be remembered that we are indebted for Anglo-Saxon literature.
Our first recorded speech begins with the songs of Widsith and Deor, which the Anglo-Saxons may have brought with them when they first conquered Britain. At first glance these songs in their native dress look strange as a foreign tongue; but when we examine them carefully we find many words that have been familiar since childhood. We have seen this in Beowulf ; but in prose the resemblance of this old speech to our own is even more striking. Here, for instance, is a fragment of the simple story of the conquest of Britain by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors:. And tha Bryttas tha forleton Cent-lond, and mid myclum ege flugon to Lundenbyrig. At this time Hengest and Aesc, his son, fought against the Britons at the place which is called Crayford and there slew four thousand men.
And then the Britons forsook Kentland, and with much fear fled to London town. The reader who utters these words aloud a few times will speedily recognize his own tongue, not simply in the words but also in the whole structure of the sentences. From such records we see that our speech is Teutonic in its origin; and when we examine any Teutonic language we learn that it is only a branch of the great Aryan or Indo-European family of languages. In life and language, therefore, we are related first to the Teutonic races, and through them to all the nations of this Indo-European family, which, starting with enormous vigor from their original home probably in central Europe  spread southward and westward, driving out the native tribes and slowly developing the mighty civilizations of India, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the wilder but more vigorous life of the Celts and Teutons.
In all these languages--Sanskrit, Iranian, Greek, Latin, Celtic, Teutonic--we recognize the same root words for father and mother, for God and man, for the common needs and the common relations of life; and since words are windows through which we see the soul of this old people, we find certain ideals of love, home, faith, heroism, liberty, which seem to have been the very life of our forefathers, and which were inherited by them from their old heroic and conquering ancestors. It was on the borders of the North Sea that our fathers halted for unnumbered centuries on their westward journey, and slowly developed the national life and language which we now call Anglo-Saxon. Dual Character of our Language It is this old vigorous Anglo-Saxon language which forms the basis of our modern English.
If we read a paragraph from any good English book, and then analyze it, as we would a flower, to see what it contains, we find two distinct classes of words. The first class, containing simple words expressing the common things of life, makes up the strong framework of our language. These words are like the stem and bare branches of a mighty oak, and if we look them up in the dictionary we find that almost invariably they come to us from our Anglo-Saxon ancestors.
The second and larger class of words is made up of those that give grace, variety, ornament, to our speech. They are like the leaves and blossoms of the same tree, and when we examine their history we find that they come to us from the Celts, Romans, Normans, and other peoples with whom we have been in contact in the long years of our development. The most prominent characteristic of our present language, therefore, is its dual character.
Its best qualities--strength, simplicity, directness--come from Anglo-Saxon sources; its enormous added wealth of expression, its comprehensiveness, its plastic adaptability to new conditions and ideas, are largely the result of additions from other languages, and especially of its gradual absorption of the French language after the Norman Conquest. It is this dual character, this combination of native and foreign, of innate and exotic elements, which accounts for the wealth of our English language and literature. To see it in concrete form, we should read in succession Beowulf and Paradise Lost , the two great epics which show the root and the flower of our literary development.
The literature of this period falls naturally into two divisions,--pagan and Christian. The former represents the poetry which the Anglo-Saxons probably brought with them in the form of oral sagas,--the crude material out of which literature was slowly developed on English soil; the latter represents the writings developed under teaching of the monks, after the old pagan religion had vanished, but while it still retained its hold on the life and language of the people. In reading our earliest poetry it is well to remember that all of it was copied by the monks, and seems to have been more or less altered to give it a religious coloring.
The coming of Christianity meant not simply a new life and leader for England; it meant also the wealth of a new language. The scop is now replaced by the literary monk; and that monk, though he lives among common people and speaks with the English tongue, has behind him all the culture and literary resources of the Latin language. The effect is seen instantly in our early prose and poetry. In general, two great schools of Christian influence came into England, and speedily put an end to the frightful wars that had waged continually among the various petty kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons. The first of these, under the leadership of Augustine, came from Rome.
It spread in the south and center of England, especially in the kingdom of Essex. It founded schools and partially educated the rough people, but it produced no lasting literature. The other, under the leadership of the saintly Aidan, came from Ireland, which country had been for centuries a center of religion and education for all western Europe. The monks of this school labored chiefly in Northumbria, and to their influence we owe all that is best in Anglo-Saxon literature. The Venerable Bede, as he is generally called, our first great scholar and "the father of our English learning," wrote almost exclusively in Latin, his last work, the translation of the Gospel of John into Anglo-Saxon, having been unfortunately lost.
Much to our regret, therefore, his books and the story of his gentle, heroic life must be excluded from this history of our literature. His works, over forty in number, covered the whole field of human knowledge in his day, and were so admirably written that they were widely copied as text-books, or rather manuscripts, in nearly all the monastery schools of Europe. It is a fascinating history to read even now, with its curious combination of accurate scholarship and immense credulity. In all strictly historical matters Bede is a model. Every known authority on the subject, from Pliny to Gildas, was carefully considered; every learned pilgrim to Rome was commissioned by Bede to ransack the archives and to make copies of papal decrees and royal letters; and to these were added the testimony of abbots who could speak from personal knowledge of events or repeat the traditions of their several monasteries.
Side by side with this historical exactness are marvelous stories of saints and missionaries. It was an age of credulity, and miracles were in men's minds continually. The men of whom he wrote lived lives more wonderful than any romance, and their courage and gentleness made a tremendous impression on the rough, warlike people to whom they came with open hands and hearts. It is the natural way of all primitive peoples to magnify the works of their heroes, and so deeds of heroism and kindness, which were part of the daily life of the Irish missionaries, were soon transformed into the miracles of the saints. Bede believed these things, as all other men did, and records them with charming simplicity, just as he received them from bishop or abbot.
He, Lord everlasting, Established of old the source of all wonders: Creator all-holy, He hung the bright heaven, A roof high upreared, o'er the children of men; The King of mankind then created for mortals The world in its beauty, the earth spread beneath them, He, Lord everlasting, omnipotent God. The words were written about A. Here is a free and condensed translation of Bede's story:. There was, in the monastery of the Abbess Hilda, a brother distinguished by the grace of God, for that he could make poems treating of goodness and religion. Whatever was translated to him for he could not read of Sacred Scripture he shortly reproduced in poetic form of great sweetness and beauty. None of all the English poets could equal him, for he learned not the art of song from men, nor sang by the arts of men.
Rather did he receive all his poetry as a free gift from God, and for this reason he did never compose poetry of a vain or worldly kind. Until of mature age he lived as a layman and had never learned any poetry. Indeed, so ignorant of singing was he that sometimes, at a feast, where it was the custom that for the pleasure of all each guest should sing in turn, he would rise from the table when he saw the harp coming to him and go home ashamed. Now it happened once that he did this thing at a certain festivity, and went out to the stall to care for the horses, this duty being assigned to him for that night.
In the morning he went to the steward of the monastery lands and showed him the gift he had received in sleep. To test him they expounded to him a bit of Scripture from the Latin and bade him, if he could, to turn it into poetry. He went away humbly and returned in the morning with an excellent poem. Thereupon Hilda received him and his family into the monastery, made him one of the brethren, and commanded that the whole course of Bible history be expounded to him. He in turn, reflecting upon what he had heard, transformed it into most delightful poetry, and by echoing it back to the monks in more melodious sounds made his teachers his listeners. In all this his aim was to turn men from wickedness and to help them to the love and practice of well doing.
It is the story of Genesis, Exodus, and a part of Daniel, told in glowing, poetic language, with a power of insight and imagination which often raises it from paraphrase into the realm of true poetry. Aside from the doubtful question of authorship, even a casual reading of the poem brings us into the presence of a poet rude indeed, but with a genius strongly suggestive at times of the matchless Milton. The book opens with a hymn of praise, and then tells of the fall of Satan and his rebel angels from heaven, which is familiar to us in Milton's Paradise Lost. Then follows the creation of the world, and the Paraphrase begins to thrill with the old Anglo-Saxon love of nature.
Quickly the High King's bidding was obeyed, Over the waste there shone light's holy ray. Then parted He, Lord of triumphant might, Shadow from shining, darkness from the light. Light, by the Word of God, was first named day. After recounting the story of Paradise, the Fall, and the Deluge, the Paraphrase is continued in the Exodus, of which the poet makes a noble epic, rushing on with the sweep of a Saxon army to battle. A single selection is given here to show how the poet adapted the story to his hearers:. Then they saw, Forth and forward faring, Pharaoh's war array Gliding on, a grove of spears;--glittering the hosts!
Fluttered there the banners, there the folk the march trod. Onwards surged the war, strode the spears along, Blickered the broad shields; blew aloud the trumpets Wheeling round in gyres, yelled the fowls of war, Of the battle greedy; hoarsely barked the raven, Dew upon his feathers, o'er the fallen corpses-- Swart that chooser of the slain! Sang aloud the wolves At eve their horrid song, hoping for the carrion. The longest of these is Judith , in which the story of an apocryphal book of the Old Testament is done into vigorous poetry.
Holofernes is represented as a savage and cruel Viking, reveling in his mead hall; and when the heroic Judith cuts off his head with his own sword and throws it down before the warriors of her people, rousing them to battle and victory, we reach perhaps the most dramatic and brilliant point of Anglo-Saxon literature. Of Cynewulf, greatest of the Anglo-Saxon poets, excepting only the unknown author of Beowulf , we know very little. Indeed, it was not till , more than a thousand years after his death, that even his name became known. Though he is the only one of our early poets who signed his works, the name was never plainly written, but woven into the verses in the form of secret runes,  suggesting a modern charade, but more difficult of interpretation until one has found the key to the poet's signature.
Works of Cynewulf. Unsigned poems attributed to him or his school are Andreas , the Phoenix , the Dream of the Rood , the Descent into Hell , Guthlac , the Wanderer , and some of the Riddles. The last are simply literary conundrums in which some well-known object, like the bow or drinking horn, is described in poetic language, and the hearer must guess the name. The Christ Of all these works the most characteristic is undoubtedly The Christ , a didactic poem in three parts: the first celebrating the Nativity; the second, the Ascension; and the third, "Doomsday," telling the torments of the wicked and the unending joy of the redeemed.
Cynewulf takes his subject-matter partly from the Church liturgy, but more largely from the homilies of Gregory the Great. The whole is well woven together, and contains some hymns of great beauty and many passages of intense dramatic force. Throughout the poem a deep love for Christ and a reverence for the Virgin Mary are manifest. More than any other poem in any language, The Christ reflects the spirit of early Latin Christianity. Here is a fragment comparing life to a sea voyage,--a comparison which occurs sooner or later to every thoughtful person, and which finds perfect expression in Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar.
Now 'tis most like as if we fare in ships On the ocean flood, over the water cold, Driving our vessels through the spacious seas With horses of the deep. A perilous way is this Of boundless waves, and there are stormy seas On which we toss here in this reeling world O'er the deep paths. Ours was a sorry plight Until at last we sailed unto the land, Over the troubled main. Help came to us That brought us to the haven of salvation, God's Spirit-Son, and granted grace to us That we might know e'en from the vessel's deck Where we must bind with anchorage secure Our ocean steeds, old stallions of the waves.
Andreas and Elene In the two epic poems of Andreas and Elene Cynewulf if he be the author reaches the very summit of his poetical art. Andreas , an unsigned poem, records the story of St. Andrew, who crosses the sea to rescue his comrade St. Matthew from the cannibals. A young ship-master who sails the boat turns out to be Christ in disguise, Matthew is set free, and the savages are converted by a miracle. Elene has for its subject-matter the finding of the true cross. It tells of Constantine's vision of the Rood, on the eve of battle. After his victory under the new emblem he sends his mother Helena Elene to Jerusalem in search of the original cross and the nails.
The poem, which is of very uneven quality, might properly be put at the end of Cynewulf's works. He adds to the poem a personal note, signing his name in runes; and, if we accept the wonderful "Vision of the Rood" as Cynewulf's work, we learn how he found the cross at last in his own heart. There is a suggestion here of the future Sir Launfal and the search for the Holy Grail. The same northern energy which had built up learning and literature so rapidly in Northumbria was instrumental in pulling it down again.
Toward the end of the century in which Cynewulf lived, the Danes swept down on the English coasts and overwhelmed Northumbria. Monasteries and schools were destroyed; scholars and teachers alike were put to the sword, and libraries that had been gathered leaf by leaf with the toil of centuries were scattered to the four winds. So all true Northumbrian literature perished, with the exception of a few fragments, and that which we now possess  is largely a translation in the dialect of the West Saxons. This translation was made by Alfred's scholars, after he had driven back the Danes in an effort to preserve the ideals and the civilization that had been so hardly won. With the conquest of Northumbria ends the poetic period of Anglo-Saxon literature.
With Alfred the Great of Wessex our prose literature makes a beginning. This is now to be said, that whilst I live I wish to live nobly, and after life to leave to the men who come after me a memory of good works. So wrote the great Alfred, looking back over his heroic life. That he lived nobly none can doubt who reads the history of the greatest of Anglo-Saxon kings; and his good works include, among others, the education of half a country, the salvage of a noble native literature, and the creation of the first English prose. Life and Times of Alfred. For the history of Alfred's times, and details of the terrific struggle with the Northmen, the reader must be referred to the histories.
The struggle ended with the Treaty of Wedmore, in , with the establishment of Alfred not only as king of Wessex, but as overlord of the whole northern country. Then the hero laid down his sword, and set himself as a little child to learn to read and write Latin, so that he might lead his people in peace as he had led them in war. It is then that Alfred began to be the heroic figure in literature that he had formerly been in the wars against the Northmen.
With the same patience and heroism that had marked the long struggle for freedom, Alfred set himself to the task of educating his people. First he gave them laws, beginning with the Ten Commandments and ending with the Golden Rule, and then established courts where laws could be faithfully administered. Safe from the Danes by land, he created a navy, almost the first of the English fleets, to drive them from the coast. Then, with peace and justice established within his borders, he sent to Europe for scholars and teachers, and set them over schools that he established. Hitherto all education had been in Latin; now he set himself the task, first, of teaching every free-born Englishman to read and write his own language, and second, of translating into English the best books for their instruction.
Every poor scholar was honored at his court and was speedily set to work at teaching or translating; every wanderer bringing a book or a leaf of manuscript from the pillaged monasteries of Northumbria was sure of his reward. In this way the few fragments of native Northumbrian literature, which we have been studying, were saved to the world. Alfred and his scholars treasured the rare fragments and copied them in the West-Saxon dialect.
Works of Alfred. Aside from his educational work, Alfred is known chiefly as a translator. After fighting his country's battles, and at a time when most men were content with military honor, he began to learn Latin, that he might translate the works that would be most helpful to his people. His important translations are four in number: Orosius's Universal History and Geography , the leading work in general history for several centuries; Bede's History ,  the first great historical work written on English soil; Pope Gregory's Shepherds' Book , intended especially for the clergy; and Boethius's Consolations of Philosophy , the favorite philosophical work of the Middle Ages.
The Saxon Chronicle. More important than any translation is the English or Saxon Chronicle. This was probably at first a dry record, especially of important births and deaths in the West-Saxon kingdom. When it touches his own reign the dry chronicle becomes an interesting and connected story, the oldest history belonging to any modern nation in its own language. The record of Alfred's reign, probably by himself, is a splendid bit of writing and shows clearly his claim to a place in literature as well as in history. The Chronicle was continued after Alfred's death, and is the best monument of early English prose that is left to us.
Here and there stirring songs are included in the narrative, like "The Battle of Brunanburh" and "The Battle of Maldon. The Chronicle was continued for a century after the Norman Conquest, and is extremely valuable not only as a record of events but as a literary monument showing the development of our language. Close of the Anglo-Saxon Period. After Alfred's death there is little to record, except the loss of the two supreme objects of his heroic struggle, namely, a national life and a national literature.
It was at once the strength and the weakness of the Saxon that he lived apart as a free man and never joined efforts willingly with any large body of his fellows. The tribe was his largest idea of nationality, and, with all our admiration, we must confess as we first meet him that he has not enough sense of unity to make a great nation, nor enough culture to produce a great literature.
A few noble political ideals repeated in a score of petty kingdoms, and a few literary ideals copied but never increased,--that is the summary of his literary history. For a full century after Alfred literature was practically at a standstill, having produced the best of which it was capable, and England waited for the national impulse and for the culture necessary for a new and greater art. Both of these came speedily, by way of the sea, in the Norman Conquest.
Summary of Anglo-Saxon Period. Our literature begins with songs and stories of a time when our Teutonic ancestors were living on the borders of the North Sea. This Issue October 21, Ben Lerner. The Storyteller. Carolina A. Laura Marsh. Are the Kids All Right? News about upcoming issues, contributors, special events, online features, and more. The New York Review of Books: recent articles and content from nybooks. I consent to having NYR add my email to their mailing list. Syria: A Savage Peace. Not Over Yet. Andrea Cohen. George Orwell. Jason Epstein. Rae Armantrout. Tongo Eisen-Martin. Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh. Midge Decter. Not all of it resulted in technology — although some may have; read our article on the Menorah — but after Rome's destruction of the ancient world, it took mankind nearly fifteen centuries to restore some of its former levels of understanding, and a few more to actually construct the electrical power grid.
The ancients never had that kind of time. But they had the knowledge. Unlike later leanings, the Bible writers held foreign traditions in the highest regard Isaiah , 1 Corinthians , Luke ; also read our article on Homer. The literature they had access to came literally from all the ends of the earth and the literature they in turn produced remains beyond compare of anything mankind has achieved since.
It was their version of the Internet, and contained all the verified wisdom of the world in data-compressed format John Its chronology is fractalic, non-linear and has multiple axes of symmetry. Its narrative progresses along an anti-intuitive axis of complexity rather than a common temporal one. Its network of gestalts discusses all imaginable real-time events, its cultural memory goes back into deep prehistory and its scope is boundless, having always covered the whole of humanity in the entire known world. The literary Jesus is so at home in the environment provided by the natural evolution of the wisdom tradition that the demand for a human individual to validate the literary character demonstrates a brutish ignorance of the nature of either.
The actual historical entity that the literary character of Jesus represents is man's understanding of natural law. The story of Jesus is a story of people. For ancient civilizations as much as modern ones, sound information was a matter of life or death Proverbs , People who peddled lies were killed Deuteronomy , 1 Kings , and whatever was preserved organically — that is: not by central decree but by standing the tests of time and human convention — had been tirelessly tried and weighed.
Doubtlessly much was rejected, and certainly much was amended. What was handed over to the modern age was a Scripture truly refined like silver in the furnace of the earth Psalm The historical significance of both Mary and Jesus is the same as that of any Biblical hero and lies solely in large-scale social dynamic. The topic of discussion in the Bible is not political power how tribes compete over resources and territory, and nations emerge but that of the wisdom tradition how schools of thought compete over skills and theory, and conventions emerge.
The historical significance of Biblical characters is to give faces to milestones in global science and technology. All Bible books are edits from older sources that have since long perished, but by the time the Bible was written in its final form, the wisdom tradition wasn't yet fractured into independent disciplines. Any wizard a wise-ard knew everything about everything, and the folks who ultimately penned down the Bible were the most intensely and diversely skilled people on the planet. These were the torch bearers of the same world-wide tradition that had invented writing, art, music, animal husbandry, agriculture, metallurgy, psychology, cosmology, meteorology, and statesmanship.
They had built monuments and temples of an unmistakably global style. They had bred edible corn, apples and olives from poisonous ancestors. They had pried wooly sheep, pigs and even dogs from their disagreeable feral families, and told of their exploits in their oral and later written traditions. Hence "King Solomon became greater than all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. All the earth was seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart" 1 Kings The subsequent "temple in Jerusalem ," which was brought about on the merits of Phoenician skill 1 Kings 5 , employed 24, overseers 1 Chronicles , which obviously does not denote some local cult but rather a world-wide effort.
The Phoenicians had been more than instrumental in bringing about the celebrated temple of Solomon, and not long after their architectural generosity they were still supremely praised for their earlier wisdom tradition Ezekiel They had of course invented the consonantal alphabet, which had lifted the art of reading and writing out of the hands of esoteric priests and opened the world of wisdom to the common man — a story of which all traditions breathlessly told: the Hebrews anticipated a kingdom of priests Exodus ; the Greeks told of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods, and the Vedas related of Matarisvan "he who grows in the mother" whose eponymous mother was the fire called Agni.
The global wisdom tradition that left us the Hebrew Bible expanded the already miraculous Phoenician consonantal alphabet with vowel notation not to be mistaken for medieval Masoretic vowel pointing. The ancient Hebrews selected three symbols that already represented consonants and gave them double agency by additionally employing them to represent vowels.
Vowel notation was an unimaginable godsend. It allowed sounds to be represented which in itself was an unprecedented miracle but also syllables, syntax and sentence structure. It made reading vastly simpler, and script so accurate that data could be transferred or preserved with very little chance of corruption — hence the Psalmist jubilant outcry: "You will not let your Holy One [the Word] see decay! Vowel notation had given both eternal life to the wisdom tradition, and prosperity and peace to all people.
The Virgin cult which managed to attach itself to Mary was not originally Marian because it stems from deep antiquity. In Biblical times it had its most recent installment in Pallas Athena. It's not wholly clear where the name Athena technically comes from but various stories suggest that it represents a plural Athenai which in turn refers to a cluster of divine daughters of Zeus , which were personifications of city states, or more precise: the societies that could crystallize by merit of specific social theories and their enforcement.
The second part of the name Athena — we agree with Plato Crat. Pallas Athena became the patron of the city of Athens after she beat Poseidon by creating the olive tree — from whence tellingly came oil for healing and illumination, and in the obviously similar Jewish tradition also for installing people in high office; hence our words Messiah and Christ. Ogled by all the surrounding societies, the city of Athens slowly evolved from kingdom until the 9th century BC to democracy from the 5th century BC and became antiquity's great democratic experiment in which not some royal ruler that's male but a collective senate that's female held sway. Athena was known as The Virgin and when Isaiah foretold that "the virgin would be with child" nobody in the classical world would have thought of anything other than the radical social theory expressed as Athens' republic, particularly after the reforms of Solon.
The Hebrew authors discussed the transition from kingdom to republic in their story of the Return, in which Jews from Babylon returned to Jerusalem and restored the temple according to the decrees and design of the Persian emperor, and funded by the same Ezra To make sure that nobody missed the central theme, the emphasis of the story lay heavily on the "guided but not-presided" senatorial representatives of larger groups of people Ezra 2, Nehemiah 7 and 10 , and written constitutions, ratified by these representatives Nehemiah The name Ezra means Helper and is the same feminine word as used in God's famous assertion that "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a Helper suitable for him" Genesis That Helper became Eve, of course; the mother of all living.
As Athens' social theory developed, Athena's divine character grew increasingly pronounced. While her brother Ares or Mars came to represent the brute force of war, Athena assumed the craft and art of it, along with various other skills and wisdoms. She particularly came to patron the art of weaving and see the Hebrew commentary on this in the obvious parallel of Samson and Delilah Judges The ancient art of weaving is expressed by the proto-Indo-European root teks- , from which we get our word "textile".
The child that the Virgin was hoped to produce was a citizen of a perfect democracy, in which every person was an "anointed", that is: utterly free and thus both self-governing and forming the collective government — hence Isaiah's further vision that the government would be upon his shoulders Athens became a world power when the Athenians defeated the Persian army at the battle of Marathon.
The name Marathon probably stems from the same root as our name Mary, but the Jews may actually have been rooting for the Persians. The Persian emperor, after all, had released them from captivity and had ordered and funded the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple Ezra Instead of returning in a physical sense, a large collective of Jews remained in Persia but "returned" to their veneration of righteousness by establishing the thriving Jewish community that ultimately produced the still revered Talmud. Impressed by Athens' achievements, neighboring principalities quickly followed Athens' social model and a few hundred of them federated into the Athens chaired, anti-Persian Delian League.
It heralded the most splendid and productive period of the western world, and most of the signature elements of our modern society stem from post-Marathon Athens: from architecture to literary models, from mathematics to philosophy, from natural science to social theory. The beginning of the end of Athens was set in motion by less prominent members of the Delian League who objected to Athens' selfish appropriation of collective resources most notably its fleet. This resulted in the Peloponnesian War around the time of Nehemiah and Malachi , which relived the horrors of the Bronze Age collapse but on a smaller scale. The war bankrupted the economy. Glorious Athens was demoted and Sparta took control of Greece Matthew Democracy and diplomacy made way for Sparta's oligarchy and slug fests.
Local and civil wars became common, and one in particular gave Phillip II of Macedon control over what was left of Athens and environs. Phillip's son Alexander famously expanded the Macedonian realm until it encompassed the known world. After his death his empire too destabilized and formed four lesser successors that continued to battle each other. In the chaos that ensued, the Jews led by Judas Maccabee created their own state and monarchy, namely that of the Hasmoneans, but in 63 BC the Roman general Pompey annexed it and its neighbors to Rome Daniel 8.
Biblical Israel was never a gene pool but always a school of thought. It was never a local effort but always a global one. Grafted on the Canaanite schools of Salem Genesis and Mamre , and having absorbed all the wealth and women of Shechem it was formed from tributaries ranging from Babylon Abraham , Sarah , Assyria Haran to Egypt Moses; also see Exodus and from Midian in Arabia Jethro to Jericho Rahab , Moab Ruth , the Hittites Uriah and Bathsheba and a further influx of people from all over: 32, Midianite virgins Numbers and , a certain "mixed multitude" Exodus and countless others Deuteronomy , Exodus Hence the Lord could say of Israel: "Your origin and your birth are from the land of the Canaanite, your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite" Ezekiel Even Judah's international character lasted well until Roman times Acts , Israel's primary topic of inquiry, into which all other inquiries fed, was statesmanship: the study of how a society would function at its most optimum.
It was understood that the Virgin had sought to conceive since the Spirit first hovered over the waters Genesis , but although there were all kinds of benefits to getting into bed with the political powers that be, stories from Homer's Helen of Troy to David's Bathsheba and Persia's Esther discussed its ultimate limitation: the marriage of king and Virgin did somehow not suffice. Fortunately the Virgin-queen came with a little sister, who herself was of course a Virgin too. The story of the Two Sisters is one of the Bible's most dominant archetypes.
It tells the story of how two sisters or close associates; Romans , 1 Timothy engage an alpha male a king in order to deal with their closely related male, who is sometimes a brother but usually a son. The son is that in which the Two Sisters find their own perpetuation. He usually dies but is revived or somehow changes hands, and the Two Sisters continue, either in the rightful mother of the son while the other one is heard from no more or as some purified and revitalized version of the Two Sisters. The story of the Two Sisters is never simply about good guys versus bad guys or forwards a singular morale but forms a web of iterations and bears countless interpretations. It returns in Ezekiel's parable of Oholah and Oholibah Ezekiel 23 , Solomon's wise decree 1 Kings and ultimately in the enigmatic Johannine report of "his mother and his mother's sister" who stood at the cross of Jesus John The archetype of the Two Sisters is so fundamental that it's established as the core event of the second creation day — where one body of water becomes two, and of these two only one produces dry land Genesis — and even forms the quintessential Golgotha image of Christ between the two murderers; one accepted and the other rejected.
Since its much lamented fall from natural glory at the end of the Bronze Age, in the century of Christ the world's government had slumped the lowest. The non-centralized but highly advanced worlds of the Celts and the Phoenicians had been destroyed, millions or its people slaughtered and its territories turned to waste lands. The democratic experiment of Athens and even Rome's ancient senate or curia had failed. Rome's Republic too had become unstable and greedy generals such as Pompey and Julius Caesar had turned it into a tyranny. A milestone in primitivity was reached when Octavian became Emperor Augustus and the suffocated Republic was resurrected as Empire: a governmental zombie without a soul and a true horror; the world's first fascist state.
The Roman Empire was a death machine in which only one man was always right and everybody else a slave. Men were constricted into uniforms and poised into legions , where they were made to obey remote masters Ephesians and serve the currencies of terror and coercion. The world became a vortex that directed mankind's proceeds to Rome where it was converted into concrete and madness by millions of slaves, many of whom died of abuse or suicide. The city of Rome became the greatest altar of human sacrifice the world had ever seen and the death toll among civilians was so high that a continuous stream of fresh citizens was required just to keep its squalor going.
The individual counted for nothing and the masses were entertained with death and ignorance. The higher up the social ladder, the more in line with the structure of tyranny one had to be, the more noble one was deemed, and the more one could count on the system's protective machine: the police and judicial courts. Ordinary people had very little claim to such protection, unless their discomfort bore directly upon someone higher up.
Rich people could literally get away with murder and rarely suffered a punishment worse than forced relocation. Rome's signature mode of torture — namely crucifixion, which after a day or three led to death by exhaustion — was reserved for uppity slaves and foreigners and specifically designed as a public deterrent. That so many still ended up on crosses shows that a very large segment of Rome's population valued resistance more than their own lives.
Ultimately, only very few people really benefitted from Rome and a great many felt imprisoned by it and fought to get out. Even from before its inception, people from all walks of life, both foreigners and Romans alike, battled this atrocious beast with all their might. The empire's architect Julius Caesar found himself murdered by a large group of senators who called themselves Liberators namely mankind from tyranny , the last of whom were defeated at the battle of Philippi but whose purpose lived on in anti-Roman zealots as unlikely as Pilate and the Stoic philosophers.
In a final bid for life, the Germanians and Illyrians nearly toppled Rome in 9 AD, but Rome prevailed and the world descended further into darkness. An orgy of death ensued. Roman violence was of a barbarism beyond all proportions, and to put that into perspective: The Roman Empire was home to about 60 million people and the total army consisted of between , to , men. That doesn't sound like many, but the Roman legion was a trained killing machine that made little distinction between enemy soldiers and enemy civilians. Modern historians Ben Kiernan accredit the late Roman Republic with the invention of the genocide. The siege of Carthage from to BC ended in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of people, and the ten percent of the population that survived the carnage was sold into slavery.
Early Roman historians estimated that on his northern campaigns 50s BC , Julius Caesar had killed 1,, Celts and had enslaved 1,, more Plutarch: Caes. The number of Jews alone who were murdered during the Jewish Wars from 67 to AD was a staggering 2,, As in 70 AD the fall of Jerusalem became imminent, Romans would crucify Jewish refugees per day; mostly civilians with their wives and children.
Bored legionnaires would catch them when they tried to flee the siege and for sport would whip and torture them and then nail them upside down or sideways to racks and crosses to slowly die. This went on until they ran out of wood for crosses and space to place them, so they resorted to merely chopping off people's hands JW. Imagine the rage, the cries and the mad mass hysteria. Imagine the laughing and the fields of bloody mud. Imagine the industrial scale of this never-ending and inescapable sadistic horror that these devils devised for their victims.
No hell was ever imagined more gruesome than this. Where once the Word of God was expected to come from the lips of foreigners, the Romans tagged anything non-Roman for acute annihilation. The wisdom that had been tried and accumulated since time immemorial, as a joint venture of the whole of humanity to benefit all of mankind, went up in thin smoke. Stupidity rolled in on fatty billows and the world turned into a smoldering hole. The ancient pathways of discourse became intersected by military highways and iron curtains. The wealth of nations was no longer its freely shared wisdom but the material surplus this wisdom generated.
Wisdom can be copied and perpetually dispensed — like water from an eternal well or oil from a jar that never depletes — but gold is finite, and if it can't be earned by lack of wisdom, it would simply have to be taken by force. They targeted the intellectual elite, the scholars, druids and priests and killed them all, and burned whatever libraries there were. What was left they annexed and taxed. They reverted entire sophisticated societies to pre-Pleistocene levels of collective comprehension, and dazzled the survivors with luxury and entertainment, which was then as much as now just "part of their enslavement" in the words of Tacitus; Agricola.
In order to not having to fight them, they made them believe, and for this the wizards who pursued natural law had to die.University of North Carolina Press. July Imprisonment In The Book The Society Of Captives British Journal of Nutrition. But what I know Alice Walker Everyday Use Conflict Imprisonment In The Book The Society Of Captives I promise to do all you wish if you allow me to accompany you where Imprisonment In The Book The Society Of Captives are going. The youngest of the gospels, Imprisonment In The Book The Society Of Captives of John, placed itself on the shoulders of the synoptic giants.