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der the gleemen through many lands. . . . Ever north or south they find one knowing in songs and liberal of gifts, who before his court will exalt his grandeur and show his earl1ship; until all departs, light and life together." This fragment has been held by some scholars to date, in part at least, from the fourth century. If so it is the oldest bit of verse in any modern language, and with it English literature "unlocks its word1hoard."
"Deor's Lament."—The second of these poems dealing with the fortunes of the sc6p is probably not nearly so old. It is called "Deor's Lament," and again the poet himself speaks. His skill has been eclipsed by another singer, Heor1 renda, and his lord has taken away from him his land1right and his place at court, in order to bestow them upon the successful rival. The poet comforts himself by recalling other misfortunes which men and women in past time have lived to overcome, and ends each rude strophe with the refrain, "That he endured, this also may I." The personal nature of the theme, the plaintive sadness of the tone, and above all the refrain, give the poem extraordinary interest. It has been called the first English lyric.
II. BEOWULF, THE ANGLO1SAXON EPIC
Original form of "Beowulf."—Beowulj, the most important work which remains to us from the pagan period of Anglo1Saxon poetry, in all likelihood existed at first in the form of short songs, which were sung among the Angles and Jutes, inhabiting what is now Denmark, and among the Goths in southern Sweden.' Probably as early as the sixth century these lays had begun to be welded together, but just when the poem took its present form we do not know.* It contains something over three thousand lines. The story of the poem is as follows:—
The Story of Beowulf: Hrothgar and Grendel.—Hroth1 gar, king of the West1Danes, has built for himself near the sea a great hall, named Heorot, where he may sit with his thanes at the mead-drinking, and listen to the chanting of the gleemen. For a while he lives in happiness, and is known far and wide as a splendid and liberal prince. But one night there comes from the wild march- land, the haunt of all unearthly and malign creatures, a terrible monster named Grendel. Entering the mead-hall he slays thirty of the sleeping Danes, and carries their corpses away to his lair. The next night the same thing is repeated. No mortal power seems able to cope with the gigantic foe. In the winter nights Grendel couches in the splendid hall, defiling all its bright ornaments. For twelve winters this scourge afflicts the West-Danes, until Hrothgar's spirit is broken.
* In all probability the development of " Beowulf" into a complete poem took place largely on English soil, and was completed by the end of the eighth century.
The Coming of Beowulf.—At last the story of Gren- del's deeds crosses the sea to Gothland, where young Beowulf dwells at the court of his uncle, King Hygelac. Beowulf determines to go to Hrothgar's assistance. With fifteen companions he embarks. "Departed then over the wavy sea the foamy-necked floater, most like to a bird." At dawn of the second day the voyagers catch sight of the promontories of Hrothgar's land; and soon, from the top of the cliffs, they behold in the vale beneath them the famous hall, "rich and gold-variegated, most glorious of dwellings under the firmament." The young heroes in their "shining war byrnies,"* and with their spears like a "grey ashwood above their heads," are ushered into the hall "where old Hrothgar sits amid his band of earls." Beowulf craves permission to cleanse Heorot of its pest, and Hrothgar consents that the Goths shall abide Grendel's coming, in the hall that night. Meanwhile, until darkness draws on, the thanes of Hrothgar and the followers of Beowulf sit drinking mead, "the bright sweet liquor," and listening to the songs of the gleeman. The feast draws to a close when Wealtheow, Hrothgar's queen, after solemnly handing the mead-cup to her lord and to Beowulf, and bidding them "be blithe at the beer-drinking," goes through the hall distributing gifts among the * Corselets of mail.
thanes. The king, queen, and their followers then withdraw to another building for the night, while Beowulf and his men lie down, each with his armor hung on the nail above his head, to wait for the coming of Grendel. All fall asleep except Beowulf, who "awaits in angry mood the battle-meeting."
Beowulf's Fight with Grendel.—The coming of the monster is described with grewsome force. "Then came from the moors, under the misty hills, Grendel stalking. Straightway he rushed on the door, fast with fire-hardened bands. On the variegated floor the fiend trod; he went wroth of mood, from his eyes stood a horrid light like flame." He seizes one of the warriors, bites his "bone- casings," drinks the blood from his veins, and greedily devours him even to the hands and feet. Next he makes for Beowulf, but the hero seizes the fiend with such a mighty hand-grip that he is terror-stricken and turns to flee. Beowulf keeps his hold, and a fearful struggle begins. At last the monster wrenches his own arm from its socket and flees to his lair to die.
In the morning there is great rejoicing. The king, and the queen, with a company of maidens, come through the meadows to gaze in wonder on the huge arm and claw nailed beneath the gold roof of the hall. When the evening feast begins, Beowulf sits between the two sons of the king, and receives the precious gifts,—jewels, rings, and a golden necklace,—which the queen presents to him. But at nightfall, when the warriors have again lain down to sleep in the hall, Grendel's mother comes to take vengeance for her son. She seizes one of Hrothgar's nobles, Aeschere, and bears him away to her watery den.
Beowulf's Fight beneath the Sea.—Beowulf vows to seek the new foe at the bottom of her fen-pool, and there grapple with her. With Hrothgar and a band of followers he goes along the cliffs and windy promontories which bound the moor on the seaward side, until he comes to Grendel's lair. It is a sea-pool, shut in by precipitous rocks, and overhung by the shaggy trunks and aged boughs of a "joyless wood." Trembling passers-by have seen fire fleeting on the waves at night, and the hart wearied by the hounds will lie down and die on these banks rather than plunge into the unholy waters. The pool is so deep that it is a day's space before Beowulf reaches the bottom. Snakes and beasts of the shining deep make war on him as he descends. At last he finds himself in a submarine cave where the "mere-wife" is lurking, and a ghastly struggle begins. Once the giantess throws Beowulf to the ground, and sitting astride his body draws out her broad short knife to despatch him. But with a superhuman effort he struggles up again, throws away his broken sword and seizes from a heap of arms a magic blade, forged by giants of old time. With it he hews off the head of Grendel's mother, and then that of Grendel, whose dead body he finds lying in the cave. So poisonous is the blood of Grendel that it melts the metal of the blade, leaving only the curved hilt in Beowulf's hand. When he reappears with his trophies at the surface of the water, all have given him up for dead. Great is the jubilation when the hero returns to the mead-hall with his thanes, and throws upon the floor the two gigantic heads, which four men apiece can hardly carry.
Beowulf and the Fire-Dragon.—The second great episode of the poem is Beowulf's fight with the Dragon of the Gold-hoard. Beowulf has been reigning as king for fifty years, and is now an old man, when calamity comes upon him and his people in the shape of a monster of the serpent-kind, which flies by night enveloped in fire; and which, in revenge for the theft of a gold cup from its precious hoard, burns the king's hall. Old as he is, Beowulf fights the dragon single-handed. He slays the monster in its lair, but himself receives his mortal hurt.
The Death of Beowulf.—The death of the old king is picturesque and touching. He bids his thane bring out from the dragon's den "the gold-treasure, the jewels, the curious gems," in order that death may be softer to him, seeing the wealth he has gained for his people. Wiglaf, entering the cave of the "old twilight-flier," sees "dishes standing, vessels of men of yore, footless, their ornaments fallen away; there was many a helm old and rusty and many armlets cunningly fastened," and over the hoard droops a magic banner, "all golden, locked by arts of song," from which a light is shed over the treasure. Beowulf gazes with dying eyes upon the precious things; then he asks that his thanes build for him a funeral barrow on a promontory of the sea, which the sailors, as they "drive their foaming barks from afar over the misty floods, may see and name Beowulf's Mount."
III. OTHER EARLY POETRY: SUMMARY
Besides Beowulf, and the short poems "Widsith" and "Deor's Lament," mentioned above, two other pieces remain to us from the pagan period of Anglo-Saxon poetry.* They are both fragments. One, the " Fight at Finnsburg," full of savage vigor, throws light upon an obscure story referred to in Beowulf; the other, "Waldhere," is connected with the old German cycle of poems which were brought together many centuries later as the Niebelungen Lied.
When we look at this early literature as a whole we cannot fail to be struck by its grimness. It has, to be sure, genial moments, moments even of tenderness, but for the most part the darker aspect of nature,—storm and hail and mist, the wintry terror of the sea,—are what the poet loves to dwell upon; and over the fierce martial life which he depicts there hangs the shadow of Wyrd, or Fate, huge and inescapable. The great business of life is war; from it proceeds all honor and dignity. To be faithful and liberal to his friends and deadly to his foes, that is the whole duty of a man. But a time was at hand when these fierce worshippers of Thor and Woden were to hear a new gospel. Sweeping southwestward in their viking ships, they were to conquer a new home for themselves in Britain; and there to be themselves conquered, not by arms, but by bands of eager monks who came from the seat of
* It must be remembered that" Beowulf " is tinged with Christian coloring, given to it, no doubt, by the English monks who transcribed the manuscript. Still, in general tone it is pagan, and in origin continental.