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turned toward him in the hall where at supper
it was customary for each person to sing in his turn, he would often retire to hide his shame. On one of these occasions he quitted the table, and went to the stable, for it was his duty that night to watch the cattle,-and watching awhile he laid himself down, and fell into a sound slumber. In his sleep a stranger came to him, and said, "Cædmon, sing." And he answered, “I know nothing to sing, for my incapacity in this respect was the cause of my leaving the hall to come hither." “Nay," said the stranger, “but thou hast something to sing." "What must I sing?" "Sing the Creation." And thereupon he began to sing verses which he had never heard before. When he awoke he not only remembered the lines that he had made in his sleep, but he found that he could go on with them in the same strain. In the morning he went to the steward, and, telling him what had happened to him, was conducted to the Abbess Hilda, who, ordering portions of the Scriptures to be related to him, bade him go home and turn them into verse. He returned the next day with his task accomplished, and in a short time was received into the monastery, where he continued his Scriptural studies and Scriptural verses. Cædmon paraphrased the whole of Genesis, with the exception of the portion devoted to events subsequent to Isaac, and passed on to the history of Moses and his laws, and the passage through the Red Sea. Then he made an abrupt transition to the Book of Daniel, that he might tell the story of the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, set forth the wisdom of Daniel in expounding dreams, and denounce the doom of Belshazzar. His genius took a broader flight in the second book, which opens with the complaint of the fallen angels in hell and the lamentation of the souls detained in Limbo, and then depicts the descent of Christ for the liberation of those souls, concluding with a description of the terrors of the Day of Judgment. Such was the first English poet, and such was his poem, which was written in short lines, without rhyme, the rhythm depending upon accent.
We stand on firm ground when we come to Cædmon, but before we reach him, and after we leave him, we are without a guide in the shifting sands of chronology. He must have had predecessors, and he must have had descendants; but who they were, and what they wrote, cannot now be determined with any certainty. Belonging to his period, and perhaps his contemporary, was the unknown poet who put Beowulf into verse, and thereby preserved the historical matter which it embodies, and which pertains to the end of the fifth century. In the Traveller's Song, which is thought to have been composed in the latter half of the sixth century, we have the name of its singer, Widsith, and an account of the different peoples which he had visited as a glee-man. The stream of English Verse was distinguished by two main currents as it swept along through the succeeding centuries,-the source of one being history, and the source of the other religion. The next poet whose name has descended to us was Cynewulf. He may have been a Bishop of Lindisfarne, who died in the year 780, or he may have been an Abbot of Peterborough, who died in the year 1014.
He is known to have written three
poems, one entitled Elene, based on the legend of St. Helena, and the finding of the True Cross; a second, entitled Juliana, based on the legend of that martyr in the days of the Emperor Maximian; and a third, which was rather a series of religious poems than a single poem, entitled Christ. There are several other religious poems of Cynewulf's period, which embraced two centuries and a quarter, all the work of unknown hands. The most important are a legend of St. Guthlac, a legend of St. Andrew, a vision of the Holy Rood, the Phænix, an allegory on the life of the Christian, The Panther, a fable applied to the resurrection of Christ, The Fate of the Apostles, The Falsehood of Men, and two Addresses of the Soul to the Body. Besides these remain fragments of a poem on Judith, and a poem on The Grave, and-flotsam and jetsam from the current of history—a fragment of an old chant about the battle of Finnesburgh, a considerable portion of a poem on the battle of Maldon, fought in the year 993, and an Ode on the victory of King Athelstan over the Scots and Danes at Brunanburg, in the year 938, which last the reader will find, if he cares to, in the first volume of Ellis's Specimens.
The historical current in English Verse was soon to be swollen with a powerful affluent, the source of which must be traced to Nennius, who may have lived in the eighth, or ninth, or tenth century. He wrote in Latin prose a History of the Britons, which contains the earliest account of the legend of King Arthur, and was followed by William of Malmesbury, who was probably born in the last decade of the eleventh century, and who also wrote in Latin prose a History of the Kings of
England. A few years after his death Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh priest, wrote a Latin prose History of British Kings. In its earliest form, which consisted of four books, it was a translation of an ancient History of Britain, which Walter Calenius, Archdeacon of Oxford, found in Brittany, written in the Cymric tongue. He afterward enlarged it to eight books, adding to it the Prophecies of Merlin, which he had translated from Cymric verse into Latin prose, and finally completed it in twelve books, in the year 1147. The popularity of the History of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the desire to gratify the wife of a Northern baron who could not read Latin, induced Geoffrey Gaimar to translate this History into French verse of eight syllables. A few years later Wace, a native of the island of Jersey, turned it into a French metrical romance, Brut d'Angleterre,
The early history of Britain, which was filtered, we are told, from a lost Cymric original into the Latin prose of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and which flowed thence, as we have seen, in the French verse of Gaimar and Wace, reached the stream of English Verse through Layamon, or Laweman, a parish priest at Ernley. He expanded Wace's Brut with additions from other sources until its length was more than doubled. His measure was the alliterative measure that Cædmon had employed, though it was less regular in structure, with occasional rhymes. The same elements that were active in the period of Cædmon were active in the period of Layamon, the verse-movements of history and religion being contemporaneous in both. Beside the Brut of Layamon we must place the Ormulum, the work of a canon of the order of St. Augustine, named Ormin, or Orm. This holy man set out to compose a series of Homilies upon those portions of the New Testament which were read in the daily service of the Church, his plan being to give a paraphrastic version of the Gospel of the day, adapting the matter to the rules of his verse, and then to add an exposition of the subject in its doctrinal and practical bearings. “Some idea may be formed of the extent of Ormin's labors when we consider that, out of the entire series of Homilies, provided for nearly the whole of the yearly service, nothing is left but the text of the thirty-second.” As this fragment amounts to nearly ten thousand lines, or nearly twenty thousand as they are printed, some idea may also be formed of the superhuman piety and patience of Ormin's readers. The measure of the Ormulum consists of fifteen syllables, divided into two sections, the one of eight, the other of seven syllables, and is without rhyme or alliteration. Related in spirit to Ormin and Cædmon was an anonymous writer who about the middle of the thirteenth century produced a metrical version of the story of Genesis and Exodus in octosyllabic verse, and a cluster of unknown writers who in the period between Cædmon and Ormin produced various metrical Homilies, Creeds, Paternosters, Joys of the Virgin, besides short devotional and moral poems.