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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.

III. Early National Poetry

§ 1. Early National Poems the work of Minstrels

THE POETRY of the Old English period is generally grouped in two main divisions, national and Christian. To the former are assigned those poems of which the subjects are drawn from English, or rather Teutonic, tradition and history or from the customs and conditions of English life; to the latter those which deal with Biblical matter, ecclesiastical traditions and religious subjects of definitely Christian origin. The line of demarcation is not, of course, absolutely fixed. Most of the national poems in their present form contain Christian elements, while English influence often makes itself felt in the presentation of Biblical or ecclesiastical subjects. But, on the whole, the division is a satisfactory one, in spite of the fact that there are a certain number of poems as to the classification of which some doubt may be entertained.

We are concerned here only with the earlier national poems. With one or two possible exceptions they are anonymous, and we have no means of assigning to them with certainty even an approximate date. There can be little doubt, however, that they all belong to times anterior to the unification of England under King Alfred (A.D. 886). The later national poetry does not begin until the reign of Aethelstan.

With regard to the general characteristics of these poems one or two preliminary remarks will not be out of place. First, there is some reason for believing that, for the most part, they are the work of minstrels rather than of literary men. In two cases, Widsith and Deor, we have definite statements to this effect, and from Bede’s account of Caedmon we may probably infer that the early Christian poems had a similar origin. Indeed, it is by no means clear that any of the poems were written down very early. Scarcely any of the MSS. date from before the tenth century and, though they are doubtless copies, they do not betray traces of very archaic orthography. Again, it is probable that the authors were as a rule attached to the courts of kings or, at all events, to the retinues of persons in high position. For this statement also we have no positive evidence except in the cases of Widsith and Deor; but it is favoured by the tone of the poems. Some knowledge of music and recitation seems, indeed, to have prevailed among all classes. Just as in Beowulf not only Hrothgar’s bard but even the king himself is said to have taken part among others in the recitation of stories of old time, so Bede, in the passage mentioned above, relates how the harp was passed around at a gathering of villagers, each one of whom was expected to produce a song. But the poems which survived, especially epic poems, are likely to have been the work of professional minstrels, and such persons would naturally be attracted to courts by the richer rewards—both in gold and land—which they received for their services. It is not only in Old English poems that professional minstrels are mentioned. From Cassiodorus (Variarum, II, 40 f.) we learn that Clovis begged Theodric, king of the Ostrogoths, to send him a skilled harpist. Again, Priscus, in the account of his visit to Attila, describes how, at the evening feast, two men, whom probably we may regard as professional minstrels, came forward and sang of the king’s victories and martial deeds. Some of the warriors, he says, had their fighting spirit roused by the melody, while others, advanced in age, burst into tears, lamenting the loss of their strength—a passage which bears rather a striking resemblance to Beowulf’s account of the feast in Hrothgar’s hall.

It is customary to classify the early national poems in two groups, epic and elegiac. The former, if we may judge from Beowulf, ran to very considerable length, while all the extant specimens of the latter are quite short. There are, however, one or two poems which can hardly be brought under either of these heads, and it is probably due to accident that most of the shorter poems which have come down to us are of an elegiac character.