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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.

VII. From Alfred to the Conquest

§ 15. Be Domes Daege

Of more literary value is the poem entitled Be Domes Daege, a free version of the Latin poem De Die Judicii, by some scholars ascribed to Bede and by others to Alcuin. The 157 lines of the Latin original are expanded to 304 by the translator, whose imaginative gift is especially visible in the way he enlarges on a hint from his source. The opening passage is extremely beautiful. It tells how, as the author sat lonely within a bower in a wood where the streams murmured among pleasant plants, a wind suddenly arose that stirred the trees and darkened the sky, so that his mind was troubled, and he began to sing of the coming of death. He describes how he wept and lay upon the earth, beating his breast for sorrow, and he calls upon all his fellow sinners to confess their sins with tears and to throw themselves of the mercy of Christ. Then comes another highly imaginative passage, describing the terrors that will foretell the second advent. “All the earth shaketh, and the hills also quiver and fall; the gates of the mountains bend and melt, and the terrible tumult of the stormy sea fearfully frights the minds of men.” Then the Lord shall come with hosts of angels, the sins of all shall be revealed and fire shall consume the unrepentant. The poem ends with a passage, partly borrowed from the Latin, on the joys of the redeemed. They shall be numbered in heaven among the angels, and there, amidst clusters of red roses, shall shine for ever. A throng of virgin souls shall wander there, garlanded with flowers, led by that most blessed of maidens who bore the Lord on earth.

The translation is one of the finest in Old English. It is far more powerful than its Latin original, and many of the most beautiful passages are new matter put in by the Old English translator; for example, the lengthening of the opening, telling of the woodlands scene, the section of the terrors of judgement and hell, and the whole passage describing Mary leading the flower-decked maiden throng in Heaven.

In the same manuscript occurs another poem to which its editor, Lumby, gave the title of L[char]r, and which he ascribed to the author of the previous poem. It has, however, none of the imaginative power of Be Domes Daege, and consists simply of eighty lines of exhortatory verse addressed by one friend to another, bidding him work, fear God, pray, give alms and go to church in cold weather. And, since the length of life is unknown, and the enemies of man are ever at hand to assail him, they must be routed by earnest prayer and meditation, and the abandonment of all bad habits. The low poetical worth of this piece would seem to show that it was not by the translator of Be Domed Daege.

Next follow in the manuscript some curious verses, of which each line is half in Latin and half in English, and which were formerly also attributed to the author of Be Domes Daege. The poems, however, differ so much in merit that this theory must certainly be rejected. The further theory that the invocation of saints in these verses shows that it was not by the author of Be Domes Daege is, however, scarcely sound, for it disregards contemporary theology and overlooks the English verses in praise of the Virgin added by the translator of that poem. Hence our truest warrant for attributing these verses to a different author lies rather in the beauty and dignity of Be Domes Daege. The hymn in question is an ingenious piece of trickery, like many a Proven¸al poem of later date. It opens with a prayer for God’s mercy on the reader, and then goes on to speak of the incarnation, ending with an invocation to Mary and the saints. These verses, however, are of inestimable value metrically, since they show, by their Latin equivalents, the two-beat characters of the rhetorical verse, just as similar Old German poems show, by their far greater length in the Latin portions, the four-beat characters of Germanic sung verse.

More interesting are the eleventh century metrical versions of the Psalms, in a manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale. This MS. contains only Psalms 1 to c1, but Bouterwek discovered further fragments in a Benedictine office, which partly fill up the gaps, and point to the existence of a complete metrical version of the Psalter in Old English. Taken altogether, however, this Benedictine office is merely a heap of fragments.The translation is, as a rule, good, when play is given to love of nature or to feeling, common in Old English poetry. An isolated version exists of Pslam 1 in Kentish dialect, which was formerly supposed to belong to the eighth century, but which is shown, by its language, to be two hundred years later. It was not, apparently, one of a series, but was complete in itself, being rounded off at the close by a short hymn-like passage on David’s sin and his atonement.

A gloomy poem on The Grave, “For thee was a house built Ere thou wast born,” etc., written in the margin of a volume of homilies in the Bodleian and known to all readers of Longfellow and many beside, need not detain us long. It is, probably, of later date than any of the poems already referred to and shows signs of the coming metrical change.

Last, there must be mentioned a poem on the city of Durham, which, though not composed within our period, is the latest in classical rhetorical metre that is known to exist, and is, therefore, most suitably described in this place. One version was printed by Hickes in his Thesaurus (1703–05), and another copy occurs at the close of a manuscript of the Historia Ecclesia Dunelmensis of Simeon of Durham in the University Library, Cambridge. The poem, which contains twenty long lines, falls in two parts, the first eight describing the city on the hill, surrounded with steep rocks, girdled by the strong flowing river, and full of many kinds of fish, and environed by forests in whose deep dells dwell countless wild beasts; while the last twelve tell of the wonderful relics preserved there, memorials of Cuthbert and Oswald, Aidan and Eadberg, Eadfrith and bishop Aethelwold, as well as of the famous writers Bede and Boisil, which, amidst the veneration of the faithful, awaited in the minster the doomsday of the Lord. It is this catalogue of saints which enables us to fix the date of the poem, for the translation of their relics to the new cathedral took place in 1104, and the poem follows closely the order of enumeration found in Simeon of Durham’s description of that ceremony. Although it is written in a trained archaistic attempt at West Saxon spelling, yet we catch many clear glimpses of south-eastern twelfth century phonology in its faulty attempts at correctness.

After 1100, English poetry ceases to exist for nigh a hundred years, although fragments remain to bear witness to that popular verse which was to keep in the west midlands and north some continuity with the old poetry—for the sung rhythm never died out amongst the common folk, and rose ever and anon to such songs as that of The Pearl, to heroic lays of Arthur, Alexander and Troy and, in our own days, has been revived in the rhythm of the mystic Christabel.

English prose was wrecked for many a hundred year. Centuries elapsed before Aelfric had his equal again.