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

I. The Beginnings

§ 2. The Gleemen

The first English men of letters of whom we have record—smiths of song, as the poet-priests are called in The Ynglinga Saga—were the gleemen of minstrels who played on the harp and chanted heroic songs while the ale-mug or mead-cup was passed round, and who received much reward in their calling. The teller of the tale in Widsith is a typical minstrel of this kind, concerned with the exercise of his art. The scop composed his verses and “published” them himself; most probably he was a great plagiarist, a forerunner of later musicians whose “adoption” of the labours of their predecessors is pardoned for the sake of the improvements made on the original material. The music of skirling bagpipes and of the regimental bands of later times is in the direct line of succession from the chanting of tribal lays by bards as warriors rushed to the fight; the “chanties” of modern sailors stand in the place of the songs of sea-rovers as they revelled in the wars of the elements, or rested inactive on the lonely seas. And the gift of song was by no means confined to professionals. Often the chieftain himself took up the harp and sang, perhaps a little boastfully, of great deeds. At the other end of the scale, we hear of the man whose duty it was to take a turn at the stable-work of a monastery being sad at heart when the harp was passed round and he had no music to give; and the plough-lad, when he had drawn his first furrow, revealed both his capacity for song and his nature-worship, with faint, if any, traces of Christianity, in lines perhaps among the oldest our language has to show:

  • Hal wes thu, folde, fira modor,
  • beo thu growende on godes faethme;
  • fodre gefylled firum to nytte.
  • Hale be thou Earth, Mother of men!
  • Fruitful be thou in the arms of the god.
  • Be filled with thy fruit for the fare-need of man!
  • Of the history of these early poems, as much as is known, or as can fairly be set forth, is given in the following pages. Beowulf—romance, history and epic—is the oldest poem on a great scale, and in the grand manner, that exists in any Teutonic language. It is full of incident and good fights, simple in aim and clear in execution; its characters bear comparison with those of the Odyssey and, like them, linger in the memory; its style is dignified and heroic. The invasion and conquest of “England” by the English brought heathendom into a Christian communion, and Beowulf is the literary expression of the temper, the thoughts and the customs of these invaders. Its historical worth, apart, altogether, from its great literary value, can scarcely be over-estimated. The Christian elements in it are, probably, alterations of later minstrels; in the main, it presents an ideal of pagan virtues: strength, manliness, acquiescence in the decrees of fate—“what is to be must be”—yet recognition of the fact that “the must-be often helps an undoomed man when he is brave,” a sentiment that finds echo in later days and in other languages besides our own.

    In The Complaint of Deor, and in its companion elegies, we are probably nearer to original poems than in the case of narrative verse, built up of lays and added to year after year by different hands; and we can ask for little better at the hands of Old English poets. Deor shows us the same spirit of courage in adversity seen in Beowulf; and its philosophical refrain (besides shadowing forth the later adoption of rime by reason of a refrain’s recurring sound) is that of a man unbowed by fate. In form as well as in utterance, the verses are those of a poet who has little to learn in the art of translating personal feeling into fitting words.

    It is a real, an unaffected, an entirely human though non-Christian, accent that we hear in the impassioned fragment called The Ruin. The Wyrd that every man must dree has whirled all material things away and has left but a wreck behind. And in The Wanderer also we see the baleful forces of nature and fate at work as they appeared to pagan eyes:

  • See the storms are lashing on the stony ramparts;
  • Sweeping down, the snow-drift shuts up fast the earth—
  • Terror of the winter when it cometh wan!
  • Darkens then the dusk of night, driving from the nor’rard
  • Heavy drift of hail for the harm of heroes.
  • All is full of trouble, all this realm of earth!
  • Doom of weirds is changing all the world below the skies;
  • Here our foe is fleeting, here the friend is fleeting,
  • Fleeting here is man, fleeting is the woman,
  • All the earth’s foundation is an idle thing become.
  • The lighter note of love, of which we have a faint echo in The Husband’s Message, is rare in Old English poetry. The times in which these poems were written were full of war and national struggle; not until long after the settlers had made their permanent home in the new land does the poet turn to the quieter aspects of nature or celebrate less strenuous deeds.

    We can only use comparative terms, however, in speaking of the peaceful years. Apart from the civil struggles of the English in their new home, only two hundred years elapsed after St. Augustine’s conversion of Kent before the Danes began to arrive and, in the centuries that followed, the language of lamentation and woe that Gildas had used in connection with the struggle between Briton and Saxon was echoed in the writings of Alcuin when Lindisfarne was burned, in the homilies of Wulfstan and in the pages of the Chronicle.