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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: I. Early English Literature

By Gerhard Richard Lomer (1882–1970)

Anglo-Saxon Heathen Literature

THE ANGLO-SAXONS, as they were first called in King Alfred’s reign to distinguish them from the continental Saxons, were a fairly homogeneous people belonging to a group of northern continental tribes. The Angles took their name from the Anglo-Saxon word “angul” or “ongul,” a hook, and were so called either because they were a tribe of fishermen or because they lived on a hook-shaped shore; and the Saxons are so called from the “seax” or “sax,” a short sword, the favorite weapon of this warlike tribe.

In their beliefs and in their lives these ancestors of the modern English were frankly and strenuously pagan. Their religion was largely anthropomorphic; their gods were originally personifications of the powers of nature, and looked upon the warriors in battle, and rewarded them for bravery. The names of the days of the week preserve for us some of these ancient gods. Woden, the giver of victory, remains in Wednesday; Tiw, originally the war-god, in Tuesday; Thor, god of thunder, in Thursday; and Fricge or Frigga, wife of Woden, gave her name to Friday. There was also the dread goddess Wyrd, or Fate, who presided over the destinies of men, “cruel and grim in hate,” as she is described in Beowulf. After brave death in battle, the hero was welcomed in “Walheall” or Valhalla. The wilder regions of the earth were peopled by elves and giants; fire-dragons made a terror of the wilderness and devastated the habitations of men; and Nicors and sea-monsters haunted the fens and inhospitable shores.

It was across the stormy North Sea that these men had come, about the year 449, to the eastern coasts of a land that the Celts had held after the withdrawal of the Roman legions in 410. These “barbarians,” as their southern neighbors called them, were of a roving spirit and restless. They pressed the outlying regions of the Roman Empire to the south, and they migrated westward to the British Isles. From Jutland came the Jutes, who settled chiefly in Kent; from Holstein came the Angles, who occupied the region north of the Thames (Norfolk and Suffolk); and from Schleswig, the Saxons, who settled the district around the Thames (Essex and Sussex), whence they gradually pushed westward (Wessex).

Upon the language and life of Celtic England the Romans had left little impress. By the sixth century the Anglo-Saxons formed the main stock of the population, and supplied the language, social and ecclesiastical organization, laws, and literature which are the foundation of the later development of the English nation.

But this whole period is one of successive invasion and conquest. As the Anglo-Saxons had invaded the land of the Celts and had made it their own, so they in turn were subjected for centuries to incursions by sea-rovers from Denmark, the land of the Danes. It was in 787 that these invaders first landed on the English coasts and began a long series of devastating attacks. The land was harried and tribute was levied. By 850 practically all England was in their power except Wessex, where King Alfred (b. 849) ruled the land (871–901) and kept alive learning and religion. But after him Canute the Dane ruled (1016–1035), to give place to the last of the Saxon kings, Harold, who died in the battle of Hastings (1066) before the force of a new invader, William the Conqueror. With the advent of the Normans the old order changes, and a new, powerful, and centralized régime begins.

During these unsettled centuries of English history, English literature has a precarious existence. We must go back to the fifth century to pick up the thread where we left it. As we might expect, we find much of Fate and fighting, of monsters, and of struggle, of heroic combat, in the literature as well as in the life of these old Anglo-Saxons. Their bravest men spent their lives battling with the phalanxes of the relentless North Sea or winning heroic honors against a foe as determined and as valiant as themselves. ‘Beowulf’ glories in struggle against great odds and does for old England what the ‘Iliad’ does for ancient Greece. ‘The Battle of Maldon’ and ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’ are also good examples of the strenuous sword play that was the zest of life to those men of heroic mold. For the ideal of Hero was ever before them. To be strong and brave of heart, and to do well in the sight of the people so that their brave deeds might be sung by scop and gleeman in the great hall, where the huge fire leaped and the mead flowed after the battle, was the ideal in the minds of all the Anglo-Saxon youth. Two other things they cherished, perhaps not less dearly: first, their homes and wives, for hearth to them was home; and second their deep-seated belief in Wyrd or Fate, and in their stern northern gods, and in the honor of a brave man. This was a heroic age, and the hero is not only the ideal of the young, but the type of the mature warrior. Beowulf himself is the best representative we have of the warrior, feared by his foes, and beloved of his own men, his “fond loving vassals,” for, as the unknown poet says,

  • “’Tis meet one praise his liege lord in words and love him in spirit.”
  • Loyalty to a leader is an outstanding characteristic of Anglo-Saxon life. In poetry it gives us Beowulf; in history, such names as Hengist and Horsa, Ella, Cedric, Arthur, Ida of Anglia, and Ethelbert of Kent. The warrior gave his strong arm and his “war-blade” in the service of his liege-lord, and in return received meat and drink, and gifts of treasure of wrought gold, and a blazing hearth in the great hall. Loyalty and bravery unto death are the ideals of these warriors of old, and these phases of their life we find in their poetry running like a golden thread.

    That the Anglo-Saxons were foes to be reckoned with and marauders of unquestioned valor is a fact attested to as early as the fifth century by Sidonius Apollinaris, a Roman patrician, senator, and bishop (c. 430–482). “When you see their rowers,” he writes to a friend, “you may make up your mind that every one of them is an arch pirate, with such wonderful equanimity do all of them at once command, obey, teach, and learn their business of brigandage…. To these men a shipwreck is a school of seamanship rather than a matter of dread. They know the dangers of the deep like men who are every day in contact with them. For since a storm throws off their guard those whom they wish to attack, while it hinders their own coming onset from being seen from afar, they gladly risk themselves in the midst of wrecks and sea-beaten rocks in the hope of making profit out of the very tempest.”

    If we studied history alone, we might come to think that the Anglo-Saxon people were only a nation of fighters and of sea-rovers. When we study their literature, however, we find that they were also great tellers of tales and singers of rather sad songs; that, even as they conquered the sea with their “foamy-necked floaters,” so they themselves were compelled to acknowledge its mystery and its power. The Anglo-Saxon had a hard and continuous struggle with enemies who were constantly pushing him westward, and with a rigorous climate and a hostile sea. The uncertainty of life, the weariness of much wandering, and the perils of the deep are all reflected in his writings. There is the yearning uneasiness for action felt by all who know and love the sea in spite of its cruelty; there is the melancholy of those who are too well acquainted with the limitations of man in the face of nature. These echoes we hear with no uncertainty. When he sings, there is “the still sad music of humanity” in his lyric poetry. ‘Widsith,’ ‘The Wanderer,’ ‘Deor’s Lament,’ ‘The Seafarer,’ ‘The Fortunes of Men,’ all show the Anglo-Saxon mind in a reflective, controlled, and moral mood, chastened by strenuous experience and by the rude turmoil of life.

    Reading Recommended

    The student should first read the careful introduction to ‘Anglo-Saxon Literature,’ by Robert Sharp, noting particularly the characteristics of Anglo-Saxon verse and the use of parallel and metaphorical phrases. He should then read the selections listed below, first of all merely for the enjoyment they will give him as literature; secondly, for the light they throw upon Anglo-Saxon life and thought; and thirdly, for the literary characteristics of style which they manifest.

    Anglo-Saxon Christian Literature

    Whatever infiltration there had been of Christianity into Britain in Roman times had now become tenuous and had practically disappeared. It remained for Rome to enter the islands of the north a second time, no longer now under the standards of the Roman legions, but under the sign of the cross. By two distinct routes this invasion of Christian missionaries made its way into England. In the south, Augustine and a band of Roman monks landed in 597, and, with headquarters at Canterbury, where the old Anglo-Saxon Church of St. Martin still stands, they carried their creed throughout the southern and central parts of the land. Previous to this, however, in the north, Irish monks, led by Aidan, had come from Iona and converted the rude north Anglians to a Celtic form of Christianity. Their most famous centres were Whitby and Jarrow. It was not until 664 that the Synod of Whitby assured the unity of the Christian Church in England by submitting to Roman control. The introduction of Christianity into England had an important influence upon the literature as well as upon the life of the people. One must not forget that it provided in the first place an ever-growing band of men who could read and write, and who had the ability, the leisure, and the desire to record the stories of old that the scop had improvised or the gleeman had recited. As these stories were written down, a small tincture of Christian ideas and beliefs was, perhaps not unnaturally, infused into the heathen mass, so that we find here and there touches of literary color and flavor which we can distinctly trace to the Church. It was an easy transformation of the heathen Valhalla into the Christian heaven, and of gifts of earthly gold into the reward of a heavenly crown. The sadness and stern striving of the old Anglo-Saxon heathen world accorded well with the new seriousness of the Christian soul intent on a peace beyond the struggle and the turmoil of the earthly life: Christianity, then, found in England a fertile soil in which to grow.

    But there is also another side to this new influence. The monks brought Anglo-Saxon civilization into contact with an older and richer culture, and this contact with Rome on its more spiritual side had a very stimulating effect upon English literature. The Church provided, at the same time, that sheltered leisure which has so often been a condition of literary composition. Four great names stand out, hazy in the far-distant historical perspective, yet landmarks in this pre-Chaucerian region: Cædmon and Cynewulf in poetry; and Bede and Alfred in prose.

    In Northumbria in the seventh century there is the so-called Cædmonian cycle of ‘Paraphrases’ (Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel) probably of composite authorship, though attributed by Bede to Cædmon (d. c. 680), an uneducated monk of Whitby who late in life discovered his gift of spiritual song. He was possibly also the author of ‘Christ and Satan.’ Cynewulf (eighth century), endowed with the love of nature and the dramatic power of a true poet, wrote four poems: ‘Christ,’ ‘Elene,’ ‘Juliana,’ and ‘The Fates of the Apostles.’ To this period, but of unsettled authorship, belong ‘The Dream of the Rood’ and ‘Andreas,’ both based on biblical stories; ‘Judith,’ a fragment based on the Apocrypha; and ‘The Phœnix,’ noteworthy for its ideal tropical scenery and its love of nature, and significant as a first conscious effort at literary art.

    As is usually the case in the development of literature, prose comes relatively later than poetry among the Anglo-Saxons or the English. It must not be forgotten that this was a great period of missionary effort, of teaching the people, of monastic life. It is a time when much prose which does not concern us was written by the monks, notably by Gildas and by Nennius. Of all of these Bede (673–735) stands out as the first great teacher, Alcuin (735–804) as the great writer, and King Alfred (849–899) as the great king, friend of learning, and protector of the people. Of Bede’s many Latin works, his ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ is the most important, and King Alfred, who is responsible for the translation of this ‘History,’ put also into English Gregory’s ‘Pastoral Care,’ Boethius’s ‘Consolation of Philosophy,’ and an epitome of universal history by Orosius. Alfred is also to be credited with revising the English legal code and with systematizing the old Anglo-Saxon ‘Chronicle,’ which now covers the years 60 B.C.–1154 A.D. and which is really the first English history in the vernacular. The only writer of any note after Alfred was ælfric (tenth century) who wrote a series of ‘Homilies’ and ‘Lives of the Saints.’

    Most of this prose writing is simple, direct, earnest, vivid, and impressive. It has not yet become an art-medium, not an instrument for anything but utilitarian and ecclesiastical purposes. Its chief interest lies in the historical information which it gives us. The reader should contrast it with the English prose of Macaulay, Ruskin, Carlyle, and Stevenson.

    Reading Recommended

    The student who wishes further critical or historical information on this period should consult: Stopford Brooke’s ‘English Literature from the Beginning to the Norman Conquest,’ F. B. Gummere’s ‘The Oldest English Epic.’ For an imaginative treatment of the end of the Anglo-Saxon period in fiction, he may read Charles Kingsley’s ‘Hereward the Wake.’ A good biography of Alfred is C. Plummer’s ‘Life and Times of Alfred the Great.’

    For a general history of English Literature, the reader may consult Saintsbury’s ‘History of English Literature,’ which is the fullest and most recent account in one volume; Garnett and Gosse’s ‘English Literature: an Illustrated Record,’ which is a larger and more popular treatment; and ‘The Cambridge History of English Literature’ which has the authority of the most recent scholarship. For additional fiction dealing with the different periods, the reader should consult E. A. Baker’s ‘Guide to Historical Fiction.’

    Chronological Table of Anglo-Saxon Period

  • 409–420Romans leave Britain
  • 449Settlements of Jutes (Kent)
  • 477Settlements of Saxons (Sussex)
  • 520Badon Hill (?), King Arthur
  • 527Settlements of Angles (Anglia)
  • 597Augustine converts Ethelbert and Kent to Christianity
  • d. 680Cædmon
  • 673–735Bede
  • c. 700‘Beowulf’
    ‘Lament of Deor’
    ‘Fight at Finnsburgh’
  • 787First landing of the Danes
  • c. 725–800Cynewulf
  • c. 735–804Alcuin
  • 827Egbert of Wessex overlord of England
  • 849–899King Alfred
  • 875–1154‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’
  • c. 890Alfred’s Translations
  • 937‘Battle of Brunanburh’
  • 991‘Battle of Maldon’
  • 1016–1135Canute
  • 1066Harold
  • 1066Battle of Hastings and Norman Conquest