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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

IV. Old English Christian Poetry

§ 1. Celtic Christianity

ONLY two names emerge from the anonymity which shrouds the bulk of Old English Christian poetry, namely, those of Caedmon and Cynewulf; and in the past, practically all the religious poetry we possess had been attributed to one or other of these two poets. But, as well shall see, the majority of the poems to be considered here should rather be regarded as the work of singers whose names have perished, as folk-song, as manifestations of the spirit of the people—in the same sense in which the tale of Beowulf’s adventures embodied the aspirations of all valiant thegns, or the epic of Waldhere summarised the popular ideals of love and honour. The subject of the Christian epic is indeed, for the most part, apparently, foreign and even at times Oriental: the heroes of the Old and New Testaments, the saints as they live in the legends of the church, furnish the theme. The method of treatment hardly differs, however, from that followed in non-Christian poetry; the metrical form with rare exceptions is the alliterative line constructed on the same principles as in Beowulf; Wyrd has become the spirit of providence, Christ and His apostles have become English kings or chiefs followed, as in feudal duty bound, by hosts of clansmen; the homage paid to the Divine Son is the allegiance due to the scion of an Anglian king, comparable to that paid by Beowulf to his liege lord Hygelac, or to that displayed by Byrhtnoth on the banks of the Panta; the ideals of early English Christianity do not differ essentially from those of English paganism. And yet there is a difference.

The Christianity of England in the seventh and eighth centuries, and the Latin influences brought in its wake, which inspired the poetry under discussion, was a fusion, a commingling, of two different strains. Accustomed as we are to date the introduction of Christianity into England from the mission of St. Augustine, we are apt to forget that, prior to the landing of the Roman missionary on the shores of Kent, Celtic missionaries from the islands of the west had impressed upon the northern kingdoms, the earliest home of literary culture in these islands, a form of Christianity differing in many respects from the more theological type preached and practised by St. Augustine and his followers. Oswald, the martyr king of Northumbria, had been followed from Iona, where, in his youth, he had found sanctuary, by Aidan, the apostle of the north, to whose missionary enterprise was due the conversion of the rude north Anglian tribes. The monastery at Streoneshalh, or Whitby, for ever famous as the home of Caedmon, was ruled by the abbess Hild in accordance with Celtic, not Roman, usage; and though, at the synod of Whitby in 664, the unity of the church in England was assured by the submission of the northern church to Roman rule, yet the influence of Celtic Christianity may be traced in some of the features that most characteristically distinguish Christian from non-Christian poetry. It would for instance, be hard to deny that the depth of personal feeling expressed in a poem like The Dream of the Rood, the joy in colour attested by the vivid painting of blossom and leaf in The Phoenix and the melancholy sense of kinship between the sorrow of the human heart and the moaning of the grey cold waves that make The Seafarer a human wail, are elements contributed to English poetry by the Celts. St. Columba had built his monastery on the surf-beaten shores of the Atlantic, where man’s dependence on nature was an ever-present reality. The Celtic monastery was the home of a brotherhood of priests, and the abbot was the father of a family as well as its ecclesiastical superior. The Christian virtues of humility and meekness, in which the emissaries of the British church found Augustine so deficient, were valued in Iona above orthodoxy and correctness of religious observance; and the simplicity of ecclesiastical organisation characteristic of Celtic Christianity, differing from the comparatively eleborate nature of Roman organisation and ritual, produced and simple form of Christianity, readily understood by the unlettered people of the north. It is the personal relation of the soul to God the Father, the humanity of Christ, the brotherhood of man, the fellowship of saints, that the Celtic missionaries seem to have preached to their converts; and these doctrines inspired the choicest passages of Old English religious poetry, passages worthy of comparison with some of the best work of a later, more self-conscious and introspective age.