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

VII. From Alfred to the Conquest

§ 12. Judith

The verses in the Chronicle have little literary merit, with the exception of the poem on the battle of Brunanburh, and this seems to have been strongly influenced by the epic of Judith. Of this latter, unfortunately, only a beautiful fragment, consisting of some 350 lines survives. Judith was, perhaps, composed as a eulogy of Aethelflaed, queen of Mercia, who fought nobly against the Danes in the first quarter of the tenth century. It has been attributed to Caedmon; but its use of rime and the character of its language has led some critics to place the poem comparatively late. The use of rime, however, is no conclusive argument. It recounts, in vigorous language, the deeds of the Apocryphal heroine, and dwells especially on the way in which her deed stired up the timorous Jews to more courageous patriotism. It is noteworthy that Aelfric himself had written a homily on Judith, to teach the English the virtues of resistance to the Danes. This homily must have been written earlier, and, perhaps, it influenced the writer of Judith to choose her as a national type in the fight for God and fatherland. The poem, as we have it, begins at the end of the ninth canto; cantos X, XI and XII are preserved in full, but the earlier part of the poem is entirely wanting. This loss, however, is the less to be regretted since the remaining cantos, containing the crisis of the story, are, probably, the finest of all, and deal with a complete episode, to which the fragment of canto IX, telling of the faith of the heroine and the invitation to the feast of Holofernes, serves as introduction. Canto X describes, with all the delight of Old English poets in such pictures, the banquet in the Assyrian camp, the deep bowls of wine borne along the benches, and the shouts and laughter of the revellers. Darkness descends, and the warriors bring the maiden to their master’s tent. Overcome with wine, he falls into a deep slumber, and the heroine, with a supplication to heaven for help draws the sword from its sheath. She hales the heathen towards her by his hair, and smites twice with her weapon, till his head rolls upon the floor. In canto XI, we read how Judith and her maid steal from the camp with the head of Holofernes, and return to Bethulia, where their kinsmen are waiting for them on the wall. As soon as the two approach, men and women hasten together to meet them, and Judith bids her servant uncover the trophy and exhibit it to the warriors. Then, with passionate words, she exhorts them to attack the camp, to bear forth shields and bucklers and bright helmets among the foe. So, at dawn of day, they set out, the wolf and raven rejoicing in the tumult, and the dewy-feathered eagle singing his war-song above them, their sudden onset on the camp distrubing the enemy, drowsy with mead. The next canto relates how the terrified Assyrians hasten to tell their leader of the assault, and how, when they find only his dead body, they, “sorrowfully minded, cast down their weapons, and turn, sad at heart, to flight.” The poem ends with the entire overthrow of the Assyrians, the return of the conquerors with their booty to Bethulia, and Judith’s praise of the Almighty for the triumph of her stratagem.

From this sketch of the poem it will be seen that it is closely allied in theme to those of Cynewulf and his school, and this led to the assumption of Ten Brink and others that it was composed in the early part of the ninth century. A close investigation of its diction by Gregory Foster led him to place it a century later; and, if, as he thinks, it was composed to commemorate the valiant deeds of Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia, who wrested the five boroughs from the Danes, it was probably written about 918. But nothing can be said with certainty on the subject.

As poetry, this fragment stands in the front rank of Old English literature, with Beowulf and Elene and Andreas. In wealth of synonym it is equal to the best poems of Cynewulf, while the construction of the sentences is simpler, and the narrative, in consequence, less obscure. An impression of intensity is produced by the heaping of synonyms in moments of stress, as in the prayer of Judith, and in the fierce lines which describe the onset against the Assyrians; while a sense of dramatic fitness is shown in the transitions, the divisions of the cantos and the preparation for each great adventure. The tragedy is alive, and the actors play their parts before our eyes.