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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

§ 4. Genesis, Exodus, Daniel

The most important of the religious poems at one time attributed to Caedmon are Genesis, Exodus, Daniel.

From the point of view of the historian of literature, Genesis is the most interesting of these. It is a poetical paraphrase of the first of the canonica books in the Old Testament, extending to the story of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. The poem opens with the praise of the Creator in a style recalling the lines quoted by Bede. The poet then proceeds to relate the revolt and fall of the angels (which, according to ancient theology, necessitated the creation of man to fill the vacant place in heaven), and then the creation of the earth, in accordance with the opening chapters of the Vulgate. At this point we have a repetition of the first motif, the fall of the angels; Satan, in anger at having fallen from his high estate, avenges himself on God by tempting man; and the rest of the narrative proceeds in accordance with the Biblical narrative.

Attention has been drawn to metrical and linguistic peculiarities distinguishing the second version (Genesis B) of the fall of the angels and the temptation (11. 235–851) from the rest of the poem; but it remained for Sievers to point out that this obviously interpolated passage was borrowed from a foreign source, that the structure of the alliterative lines resembled that in vogue amongst continental Saxons, and that the vocabulary and syntax were now and again Old Saxon, not English. Relying upon the accuracy of his observation in detail, he then hazarded the bold conjecture that these lines were an Anglicised version of a portion of an Old Saxon paraphrase of the Old Testament, long lost, composed by the author of the Old Saxon paraphrase of the New Testament, commonly known as the Heliand. This brilliant conjecture has since been confirmed by the discovery in the Vatican library of portions of the Old Saxon original, which dates from the latter portion of the ninth century. One of the Old Saxon fragments so found corresponded to a passage in the Old English Genesis. Caedmonian authorship is, therefore, rendered impossible for the interpolation, and the scholarship of the author seems to preclude the possibility poem, though Caedmon’s hymns may have been familiar to, and used by, the writer. It matters little whether we assume the interpolated passage to be the work of an Old Saxon monk resident in England, but unable to dissociate himself entirely from native habits of speech, or whether we look upon it as a somewhat imperfect translation from Old Saxon by some Old English monk whom professional duties—we need only think of Boniface—had brought into contact with the learning and literature of the continent. At any rate it is an early, and a pleasing, instance of the fruitful exchange of literary ideas between two great nations.

The relative age of the two poems is a matter still under discussion. Genesis B cannot have been composed earlier than the second half of the ninth century, since we know that the author of the Heliand, upon whose work it is based, wrote in response to a command from King Lewis the Pious; but we have hardly any data for determining whether it is earlier or later in date of composition than Genesis A. Its author, like the author of the Heliand, apparently made use of the works of bishop Avitus of Vienne, the medieval Latin poet.

Genesis A contains not a few passage illustrative of that blending of heathen and Christian elements which is characteristic of Old English religious poetry. The description of Old Testament fights shows that the spirit of the author of the Battle of Finnsburh is to be found beneath the veneer of Christianity. And, on the other hand, the description of the dove, seeking rest and finding none, could only be the work of a Christian poet. The tenderness of feeling for the dumb creation and the joy in “rest after toil” which it expresses are due to Christian influences upon the imaginative powers of an Old English scop.

Genesis B contains some fine poetic passages. The character of Satan is admirably conceived, and the familiar theme of a lost paradise is set forth in dignified and dramatic language not unworthy of the height of its great argument. In the dark regions and “swart mists” of Hell, Satan and his host, swept thither by the Lord of Heaven himself, indulge in a joy that is purely heathen, in contemplating the vengeance to be taken on the race that has supplanted them in the favour of God.

Exodus is a paraphrase of a portion only of the book from which it takes its name, i.e. the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptians. Part of the poem, in which the ancestors of the Israelites are enumerated and described, is, possibly, the work of a second poet, as it is simpler in style than the body of the poem, and the theme is not entirely relevant; there is certainly a break after 1. 445. The distinctive feature of the poem is the beauty and vigour with which martial scenes are depicted. Here, again, the feeling of the old epic writers, under another guise, is clearly apparent. Not even in Judith or The Battle of Maldon do we find more successful attempts in dramatic grouping; the din and clash of battle, though no actual battle is described, the war-wolf and the raven greedy for prey, the heaving of the shields, the brandishing of battle-bille, recall the martial tone of the best war-poetry of our battle-loving ancestors. The author of Genesis A writes as though afraid to depart even from the wording of his original; the author of Exodus, possessed by the lust for word-painting, draws upon an exuberant imagination steeped in reminiscences of brave blows and doughty deeds, not even nominally Christian.

The poem entitled Daniel need not detain us. After a historical introduction, for which the poet is not indebted to his source, he versifies selected portions of the book of Daniel. The poem has one new feature. The author uses his material for homiletic purposes and inculcates certain moral virtues: for instance, the duty of humility and obedience to the will of God. Daniel is transmitted in the Junian codex. A portion of the subject, dealing with the episode of the three children in the fiery furnance, is transmitted also in the Exeter Book, in a short poem of 75 lines called Azarias, in which are the beautiful lines descriptive of the change wrought by the appearance of the angel of the Lord:

  • Then ’twas in the oven when the angel came,
  • Windy cool and winsome, to the weather likest
  • When is sent to earth in the summer tide,
  • Dropping down of dew-rain at the dawn of day.