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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

§ 2. Teutonic Epic Poetry

The history of our national epic poetry is rendered obscure by the fact that there is little elsewhere with which it may be compared. We need not doubt that it is descended ultimately from the songs in which the ancients were wont to celebrate deeds of famous men, such as Arminius; but, regarding the form of these songs, we are unfortunately without information. The early national epic poetry of Germany is represented only by a fragment of 67 lines, while the national poetry of the north, rich as it is, contains nothing which can properly be called epic. It cannot, therefore, be determined with certainty, whether the epos was known to the English before the invasion or whether it arose in this country, or, again, whether it was introduced from abroad in later times. Yet the fact is worth nothing that all the poems of which we have any remains deal with stories relating to continental or Scandinavian lands. Indeed, in the whole of our early national poetry, there is no reference to persons who are known to have lived in Britain. Kögel put forward the view that epic poetry originated among the Goths, and that its appearance in the north-west of Europe is to be traced to the harpist who was sent to Clovis by Theodric, king of the Ostrogoths. Yet the traditions preserved in our poems speak of professional minstrels before the time of Clovis. The explanation of the incident referred to may be merely that minstrelsy had attained greater perfection among the Goths than elsewhere. Unfortunately Gothic poetry has wholly perished.

Although definite evidence is wanting, it is commonly held that the old Teutonic poetry was entirely strophic. Such is the case with all the extant Old Norse poems, and there is no reason for thinking that any other form of poetry was known in the north. Moreover, in two of the earliest Old English poems, Widsith and Deor, the strophes may be restored practically without alteration of the text. An attempt has even been made to reconstruct Beowulf in strophic form; but this can only be carried out by dealing with the text in a somewhat arbitrary manner. In Beowulf, as indeed in most Old English poems, new sentences and even new subjects begin very frequently in the middle of the verse. The effect of this is, of course, to produce a continuous metrical narrative, which is essentially foreign to the strophic type of poetry. Further, it is not to be overlooked that all the strophic poems which we possess are quite short. Even Atlamàl, the longest narrative poem in the Edda, scarcely reaches one eighth of the length of Beowulf. According to another theory epics were derived from strophic lays, though never actually composed in strophic form themselves. This theory is, of course, by no means open to such serious objections. It may be noted that, in some of the earliest Old Norse poems, e.g. Helgakvi[char]a Hundingsbana II. and Helgakvi[char]a Hiö[char]ssonar the strophes contain only speeches, while the connecting narrative is given quite briefly, in prose. Such pieces might very well serve as the bases of epic poems. The greater length of the latter may, then, be accounted for by the substitution of detailed descriptions for the short prose passages, by the introduction of episodes drawn from other sources and perhaps also by the combination of two or more lays in one poem. In any such process, however, the original materials must have been largely transformed.