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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.

I. The Beginnings

§ 1. Characteristics of the earliest Poetry

BY the time the English settlements in Britain had assumed permanent form, little seems to have been left from the prior Roman occupation to influence the language and literature of the invaders. Their thought and speech, no less than their manners and customs, were of direct Teutonic origin, though these were afterwards, in some slight degree, modified by Celtic ideas, derived from the receding tribes, and, later, and in a greater measure, by the Christian and Latin elements that resulted from the mission of St. Augustine. Danish inroads and Norman-French invasions added fresh qualities to the national character and to its modes of expression; but, in the main, English literature, as we know it, arose from the spirit inherent in the viking makers of England before they finally settled in this island.

Of the origins of Old English poetry we know nothing; what remains to us is chiefly the reflection of earlier days. The fragments that we possess are not those of a literature in the making, but of a school which had passed through its age of transition from ruder elements. The days of apprenticeship were over; the Englishman of the days of Beowulf and Widsith, The Ruin and The Seafarer, knew what he wished to say, and said it, without exhibiting any apparent trace of groping after things dimly seen or apprehended. And from those days to our own, in spite of periods of decadence, of apparent death, of great superficial change, the chief constituents of English literature—a reflective spirit, attachment to nature, a certain carelessness of “art,” love of home and country and an ever present consciousness that there are things worse than death—these have, in the main, continued unaltered. “Death is better,” says Wiglaf, in Beowulf, “for every knight than ignominious life,” and, though Claudio feels death to be “a fearful thing,” the sentiment is only uttered to enable Shakespeare to respond through the lips of Isabella, “And shamed life a hateful.”

It is, for instance, significant of much in the later history of the English people and of their literature, that the earliest poems in Old English have to do with journeyings in a distant land and with the life of the sea. Our forefathers had inhabited maritime regions before they came to this island; the terror and the majesty and the loneliness of the sea had already cast their natural spells on “far-travelled” “seafarers” when English literature, as we know it, opens. The passionate joy of the struggle between man and the forces of nature, between seamen and the storms of the sea, finds its expression in the relation of the struggle between Beowulf and the sea monster Grendel, and of the deeds of Beowulf and his hard-fighting comrades. Though die Nordsee ist eine Mordsee, love of the sea and of seathings and a sense of the power of the sea are evident in every page of Beowulf. The note is struck in the very opening of the poem, wherein the passing of the Danish king Scyld Scefing, in a golden-bannered ship, is told in lines that recall those in which a later poet related the passing of an English king, whose barge was seen to

  • pass on and on, and go
  • From less to less and vanish into light.
  • The life of those whose task it was to wander along “the ocean-paths” across “the ice-cold” northern sea, where feet were “fettered by the frost,” is described in The Seafarer as a northern fisher of to-day might describe it, could he “unlock the word-hoard”; English and northern also is the spirit of the lines in the same poem wherein is described the spell cast by the sea on its lovers:

  • For the harp he has no heart, nor for having of the rings,
  • Nor in woman is his weal; in the world he’s no delight,
  • Nor in anything whatever save the tossing o’er the waves!
  • O for ever he has longing who is urged towards the sea.
  • These “wanderers” are of the same blood as the sea kings and pirates of the old sagas, and their love of nature is love of her wilder and more melancholy aspects. The rough woodland and the stormy sky, “the scream of the gannet” and “the moan of the sea-mew” find their mirror and echo in Old English literature long before the more placid aspects of nature are noted, for it is not to be forgotten that, as Jusserand says, the sea of our forefathers was not a Mediterranean lake. The more placid aspects have their turn later, when the conquerors of the shore had penetrated inland and taken to more pastoral habits; when, also, the leaven of Christianity had worked.