The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 6. Northern Studies: Hickess Thesaurus
Here, it may be objected that this kind of exploration was nothing new; that the Middle Ages themselves had collected stories from all the ends of the earth; that Elizabethans range as far as Southey or Victor Hugo; that Racine, too, calculates the effect of what is distant and what is foreign, in his choice of subjects for tragedy, Iphigénie or Bajazet. What, then, is specially remarkable in the fact that Scandinavian legend was noted as interesting and that Sir William Temple gave an hour of study to the death-song of Ragnar? The novelty is in the historical motive. The Death-Song of Ragnar is intelligible without much historical commentary; any one can understand the emphatic phrases: “we smote with swords” (pugnavimus ensibus); “laughing I die” (ridens moriar)—not to speak of the mistranslated lines which represent the heroes in Valhalla drinking ale out of the skulls of their enemies:
Scandinavian suggestions did not lead immediately to any very large results in English poetry or fiction. Macpherson came in later and took their ground; the profits all went to Ossian. Students of northern antiquities were too conscientious and not daring enough; Percy’s Five Pieces of Runic Poetry came out humbly in the wake of Macpherson; his book is like what the Icelanders, in a favourite contemptuous figure, call “the little boat towed behind.” But the history of Scandinavian studies is worth some notice, though Odin and his friends achieved no such sweeping victories as the heroes of Morven.
Temple’s authorities are Scandinavian, not English, scholars; he conversed at Nimeguen on these subjects with count Oxenstierna, and he quotes from Olaus Wormius. But northern studies were already flourishing in England by means of the Oxford press, to which Junius had given founts of type from which were printed his Gothic and Old English gospels, and where the founts are still preserved and ready for use. Junius’s type was used in printing Hickes’s Icelandic grammar, which was afterwards included in the magnificent Thesaurus Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium. It was used, also, for E. G.’s (Edmund Gibson’s) Oxford edition of Polemo-Middinia and of Christis Kirk on the Grene (1691), which was brought out as a philological joke, with no detriment to philological science. Gothic, Icelandic, Old English and the languages of Chaucer and Gawain Douglas are all employed in illustration of these two excellent comic poems, for the benefit of the “joco-serious Commonwealth” to which the book is dedicated.
Hickes’s Thesaurus is a great miscellaneous work on the antiquities of all the Teutonic languages. One page in it has now the authority of an original Old English document, for there he printed the heroic lay of Finnsburh from a manuscript at Lambeth which is not at present to be found. On the opposite page and immediately following is an Icelandic poem: Hervor at her father Angantyr’s grave, calling upon him to give up the magic sword which had been buried with him. This poem is translated into English prose, and it had considerable effect on modern literature. It was thought good enough, and not too learned or recondite, to be reprinted in the new edition of Dryden’s Miscellany, Part