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ANGLO-SAXON LITERATURE forms of itself a special department of study. It is one of those stop-gap products of the human mind, working with scanty materials, imperfect tools, and under adverse circumstances, which, like stars scattered over a dark portion of the sky, stud the dreary period that intervenes between the break-up of the ancient civilisation and literature, and the rise of those of modern times. It is a thing apart, like the Irish or the Icelandic literature, and requires to be studied in connection with the fossil remains of other extinct cognate languages, such as the Old Saxon, the Mosogothic, and the Frisian. It is a chapter in Palæontology. Yet, since
the present English tongue is in its essential elements derived from the Anglo-Saxon, and since the existence of an Anglo-Saxon literature probably stimulated our earliest English writers to persist in the use of the vernacular, when interest, fashion, and the torrent of literary example would have led them to. adopt the Norman French,
it seems desirable to commence with a brief sketch of that literature.
We know of no Anglo-Saxon composition, produced in England, that can be traced back with certainty to the times of Paganism. We must not look to the dwellers on the muddy Elbe, or the inhabitants of the grassy plains of Holstein, for the teeming imagination which characterised the Northmen of Iceland and Scandinavia, and which, ages before the stirring stimulus of Christianity was applied to them, produced the wonderful mythology of the Edda. In 596, St. Augustine, sent by Gregory the Great, brought the faith to the Anglo-Saxon tribes; and the moral ferment which the introduction of this new spiritual element occasioned, acting upon a towardly and capable race, full of dormant power and energy of every kind, induced also such intellectual exertion as the times permitted, and as the partial communication by the missionaries of the literature of the ancient world tended to enkindle and to sustain. From this period until the Norman Conquest, (and in one memorable instance beyond it), the AngloSaxon mind was ever labouring, so far as intestine war and Danish inroad would allow, and executed a very creditable amount of work. Its chief successes, it is true, were obtained through the medium of the Latin, then and long after the common language of Europe, and which a generous and expansive mind, sick of irrational local usages, and material isolation, would rejoice to employ.
The Venerable Bede (673-735), in whom the Saxon intellect culminated, wrote all his extant works in Latin. Alcuin, Eddi Stephanus, and Ethelwerd, did the same. But the rough vernacular was employed in popular poetry, and in all such prose writings, as had a didactic purpose Such writings which included the laity within its scope. were naturally for the most part translations, since it was evidently safer and wiser to gain an insight into, and acquaintance with, the wisdom of antiquity, before essay
ing, under less favourable conditions, to make conquests in the realm of original thought.
. I. Poetry. By far the longest, and in some respects the most interesting, relic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, is the epic poem of Beowulf, in forty-three Cantos, first published at Copenhagen, in 1815, by Thorkelin, the keeper of the royal archives, and reproduced in this country in 1833, an English translation being added in 1837, by the eminent Saxon scholar, John Mitchell Kemble. The poem was probably composed in Anglen, a district of Sleswick, before the great Angle migration to Britain in the middle of the fifth century (since it nowhere contains the slightest allusion to Britain), and was brought over, according to a conjecture of Mr. Kemble's, about the year 495, by those who accompanied Cerdic and Cynewine. The poem is Angle, and the chief heroes mentioned in it are Angles; and yet the word "Angle" does not occur through the whole poem. The race to which that local designation was finally fixed are described in Beowulf as "Geatas," a name probably derived from that of some god or demi-god; just as the general name of "Hellenes" is nowhere met with in Homer, and as the Romans in early times called themselves Quirites.
Two other pieces of what Mr. Kemble calls the " Angle Cyclus," are, the Traveller's Song, and the Battle of Finnes-burh. Both these, like Beowulf, refer to the times of heathenism and to continental transactions. It is not known by whom they were written. The first known Anglo-Saxon poet is Caedmon, the Northumbrian, who flourished about the year 680, when Christianity was already the faith of all the seven kingdoms. He was at first a lay-brother, afterwards a monk, of St. Hilda's monastery at Whitby. "He sang," says Bede, "the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis; and made many verses on the departure of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the
land of promise, with many other histories from holy writ; the incarnation, passion, resurrection, of Our Lord, and His ascension into Heaven; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the Apostles; also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven; besides many more about the divine benefits and judgments, by which he endeavoured to turn away all men from the love of vice, and excite in them the love of, and application to, good actions; for he was a very religious man."
II. The extant prose writings, though numerous, are, with one exception, valuable, not so much for any literary merits as for the light which they throw on the labours of the historian and the antiquary. There exists in the public Record offices an immense body of documents-charters, conveyances, declarations, laws, edicts, &c.-many of which have been arranged and translated by the labours of Thorpe and Kemble, and have greatly contributed to deepen our knowledge of the way of life of our forefathers. But such documents are of course not literature, and therefore need not be here considered. Another large portion of the extant works consists of translations, many of which proceed from the pen of Alfred himself, who has explained his own motives for undertaking the work. The views of an "Educational Reformer" in the ninth century are worthy of our careful attention. His object is, he says, "the translation of useful books into the language which we all understand; so that all the youth of England, but more especially those who are of gentle kind and at ease in their circumstances, may be grounded in letters, for they cannot profit in any pursuit until they are well able to read English." With these views Alfred translated the work of Pope Gregory, De Curâ Pastorali, the epitome of universal history by Orosius, the work of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophia, and the Ecclesiastical History of Bede.