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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

§ 2. Changes wrought by the New Spirit

This subjectivity is a new feature in English literature; for most non-Christian English poetry is sternly epic. Beowulf is a tale of brave deeds nobly done, with but few reflections concerning them. At rare intervals, scattered here and there throughout the poem, we meet with some touch of sentiment, a foreboding of evil to come, a few words on the inexorable character of fate, an exhortation to do great deeds so that in Walhalla the chosen warrior may fare the better, occasionally a half-Christian reference to an all-ruling Father (probably the addition of a later and Christian hand); but, as a rule, no introspection checks the even flow of narrative: arma virumque cano. When Christianity became the source of poetic inspiration, we find the purely epic character of a poem modified by the introduction of a lyric element. The hero no longer aspires to win gold from an earthly king; his prize is a heavenly crown, to be won, it may even be, in spiritual conflict; the glories of life on earth are transitory; earthly valour cannot atone for the stains of sin upon the soul; the beauty of nature, in her fairest aspects, cannot compare with the radiance of a better land; the terror that lurks waiting for the evil-doer upon earth fades away at the contemplation of that day of wrath and mourning when the Judge of all the earth shall deal to every man according to his deeds. The early Christian poet does not sing of earthly love; we have no erotic poetry in pre-Conquest England; but the sentiment that gives life to the poetry of Dante and Milton is not absent from the best of our early poet’s attempts at religious self-expression.