Images de page
PDF
ePub

II.

10. Teutonic Invasion. After the withdrawal of the Roman legions in the fifth century, Britain was invaded by the Angles, Saxonw, and Jutes — Teutonic tribes that inhabited Schleswig, Jutland, and adjacent territory on the Continent. The beginning of this invasion is usually dated from 449, the year in which Hengist and Horsa, according to the AngloSaxon Chronicle, landed on the shores of Kent. The invading Teutons, hated for their cruelty and their heathenism, were stubbornly resisted by the native Celts, and it was nearly a hundred years before the Britons were finally driven back into Cornwall and Wales. They slowly retired, as did the American Indians in this country, without assimilation; and beyond a few names of places, they left scarcely any trace in our language. The Saxons occupied the south, and the Angles the north and centre of Britain; and to the latter, who were the more numerous, belongs the honor of giving to the country its modern name of England a word signifying the land of the Angles.

Racial Character. In the character of these Teutonic tribes are to be found the fundamental traits of the English people and of English literature. In their continental home they led a semi-barbarous and pagan life. The sterile soil and dreary climate fostered a serious disposition, and developed great physical strength. Courage was esteemed 2 leading virtue, and cowardice was finished with drowning. No other men were ever braver. They welcomed the fierce excitement of danger; and in rude vessels they sailed from coast to coast on expeditions of piracy, war, and pillage. Laughing at storms and shipwrecks, these daring sea-kings sáng: “The blast of the tempest aids our oars; the bellowing of heaven, the howling of the thunder hurts us not; the hurricane is our servant, and drives us whither we wish to go.

With an unconquerable love of independence, they preferred death to slavery. Refined tastes and delicate instincts were crushed out by their inhospitable surroundings; and their pleasures, consisting chiefly of drinking, gambling, and athletic sports, were often coarse and repulsive. Yet under their coarsest enjoyment we discover a sturdy, masculine strength. They felt the presence of the mysterious forces of nature, and deified them in a colossal mythology. Traces of their religion are seen in the names of the days of the week. Wednesday is Woden's day, Thursday is Thor's day, Friday is Frea's day. Eostre, the goddess of dawn and of spring, lends her name to the festival of the Resurrection. With these Teutons the sense of obligation and duty was strong; and having once pledged fidelity to a leader or cause, they remained loyal to death. They honored women and revered virtue. In a word, they possessed a native seriousness, virtue, and strength, which, ennobled by Christianity and refined by culture, raised their descendants to an eminent position among the nations of the earth.

12. Anglo-Saxon Language.- The Anglo-Saxon belongs to the Teutonic branch of the Aryan family, and is closely related, on the one hand, to German, and on the other to Scandinavian. It is an inflected language with four cases. In England it was divided into four dialects — the Northumbrian, the Mercian, the Kentish, and the West Saxon. Most of our Anglo-Saxon remains are in the West Saxon dialect, though it is from the Mercian, which was spoken in central England, that modern English is most directly derived. The Lord's Prayer in Anglo-Saxon, with an interlinear translation, will serve for illustration.

nama

name

on

Ure Fæder, thu the eart on heofonum, si thin

gehalgod. Our Father, thou who art in [the] heavens, be thy

hallowed. Tocume thin rice. Geweorthe thin willa on eorthan swa-swa on heofonum. May come thy kingdom. Be thy will

earth as in[the]heavens. Sele us to-dæg urn dæg-hwamlican hlaf. And forgif us ure gyltas Give us to-day our daily bread (loaf). And forgive us our guilts

we fogifath urum gyl-tendum. And ne læd thu us on costnunge. as

we forgive our guilty ones. And not lead thou us into temptation. Ac alys us from yfel. Si hit swa. but release us from evil. Be it so.

swa-swa

13. The Gleeman.— The first literature of a people is poetry. In national as in individual life, the imagination is active during the period of youth. Among the Anglo-Saxons, as among some other nations, narrative poems, before they were reduced to writing, were sung by the wandering gleeman,

“A man of celebrity, mindful of rhythms,

Who ancient tradition treasured in memory,
New word-groups found properly bound.” 1

The most pleasing picture that comes to us from the early days of our English forefathers, is that of the scop or gleeman at their feasts. While the stern warriors sit at their long tables and quaff their mead in the large hall hung with shields and armor, and lighted by great blazing logs on the hearth, the rude poet, to the sound of his harp, recounts the deeds of heroes in rhythmical song.

14. Alliterative Character. The principle of AngloSaxon poetry is not rhyme nor metre, but alliteration. Each line is divided into two parts by a cæsura, and two principal words of the first hemistich, and one of the second, regularly begin with the same consonant. If these principal words begin with vowels, they are different. Parallelism — the repetition of the same thought in different words, as in Hebrew poetry - is also

The following extract from “ Beowulf” exhibits the Anglo-Saxon alliterative form:

common.

“His armor of iron off him he did then,
His helmet from his head - to his henchman committed,
His chased-handled chain-sword, choicest of weapons,
And bade him bide, — with his battle-equipment.”

15. Style and Tone.-The language of Anglo-Saxon poetry is abrupt, elliptical, and highly metaphorical, but often of great energy. The range of ideas is necessarily limited. From what we already know of the life and character of the Angles and Saxons, it is not difficult to understand the spirit of their poetry. Not love, but war and religion form its leading themes. Its prevailing tone, especially of that portion which contains an echo of the continental home of the Angles and Saxons, is one of sadness. The inhospitable climate of northern Germany, and the stern struggle for existence on land and sea, made life a deeply serious thing. Human agency was felt to be weak in comparison with the great invisible forces of nature. The sense of fate and death weighed heavily on the Anglo-Saxon mind. Thus, in “The Wanderer," a poem of an unknown author, we read :

1 Beowulf, XIV.

“Earth is enwrapped in the lowering tempest,

Fierce on the stone-cliff the storm rushes forth,
Cold winter-terror, the night-shade is dark’ning,

Hail-storms are laden with death from the north.
All full of hardships is earthly existence

Here the decrees of the Fates have their sway –
Fleeting is treasure and fleeting is friendship –

Here man is transient, here friends pass away.
Earth's widely stretching, extensive domain,
Desolate all — empty, idle, and vain.”

16. Cædmon.— Cædmon, the earliest of English poets, lived in the latter part of the seventh century.

He has with justice been called “the Milton of our forefathers " ; and his poems are strongly suggestive of “Paradise Lost.” He seems to have been a laborer on the lands attached to the monastery of St. Hilda at Whitby, and was advanced in years before his poetical powers were developed. When at festive gatherings it was agreed that all present should sing in turn, Cædmon was accustomed, as the harp approached him, quietly to retire with a humiliating sense of his want of skill. Having left the banqueting hall on one occasion, he went to the stable, where it was his turn to care for the horses. In a vision an angel appeared to him and said : “Cædmon, sing a song to me.” He answered: “I cannot sing; for that is the reason why I left the entertainment, and retired to this place." "Nevertheless," said the heavenly visitor, “thou shalt sing.” “What shall I sing?” inquired the poet, as he felt the movement of an awakening power. Sing the beginning of created things," said the angel.

17. Paraphrase of Scripture.- His mission was thus assigned him. In the morning the good abbess Hilda, with a company of learned men, witnessed an exhibition of his newly awakened powers; and concluding that heavenly grace had been bestowed upon him, she bade him lay aside his secular habit and received him into the monastery as a monk. Here he led a humble, exemplary life in the exercise of his poetic gifts. “He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis; and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the Land of Promise, with many other histories from Holy Writ ... by which he endeavored to turn away all men from the love of vice, and to excite in them the love of, and application to, good actions.

18. Beowulf. The most important Anglo-Saxon poem that has descended to us is “ Beowulf," a primitive epic of some three thousand lines. It was probably composed in its present form in the eighth century, but the events it celebrates are of a much earlier date. It brings before us the spirit and manners of our forefathers, before they left their continental home.

The hero of the poem is Beowulf:

"1

“Of heroes then living
He was the stoutest and strongest, sturdy and noble."

Sailing to the land of the Danes, he slew a monster of the fens called Grendel, whose nightly ravages brought dismay into Hrothgar's royal palace. After slaying the fiend of the marshes and his mother beneath the waters, Beowulf, loaded with presents and honors, returned to Sweden, where he became king, and ruled fifty years. But at last, in slaying a firedragon “under the earth, nigh to the sea-wave,” he was mortally wounded. His body was burned on a lofty funeral pyre amidst the lamentations of his vassals.

19. Interesting Details. Such in brief is the story of this epic of heroic daring and achievement, in which the old Teutonic character is reflected in its fulness. Its details are full of interest. The fierceness of northern seas and skies is brought before us. We assist at mead-hall banquets, in which gracious queens and beautiful maidens hand the ale cup. The

[ocr errors]

1 Bede, “ Ecclesiastical History.”

« PrécédentContinuer »