Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 6. Northern Studies: Hickes’s Thesaurus

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

X. The Literary Influence of the Middle Ages

§ 6. Northern Studies: Hickes’s 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:

  • Bibemus cerevisiam
  • Ex concavis crateribus craniorum.
  • Those things caught men’s fancy; and the honourable, courageous viking was launched to try his fortune in modern romantic literature. But there was the historical interest, besides; and Temple, in his essay Of Heroic Virtue, notices the song of Ragnar because it explains something in the past, and contributes something to the experience of the human race. He takes up “runic” literature again in his essay Of Poetry; he is working on the same lines as Sidney and attending the progress of poesy from its early life among the barbarians. He vindicates, like Daniel, the right of the Gothic nations to a share in the humanities. And he proves, by particulars, what Sidney and Daniel had left vague; he exhibits this specimen from a definite tract of country; and his quotation has a double effect; it touches those readers who may be looking for a new thrill and fresh sources of amazement; it touches those also who, besides this craving, are curious about the past; who are historically minded and who try to understand the various fashions of thought in different ages. Thus, one significance of this quotation from Ragnar’s death-song is that it helps to alter the historical view of the world. Historical studies had suffered from the old prevalent opinion (still strong in the eighteenth century, if not later) that all ages of the world are very much alike. The Death-Song of Ragnar and other references to the heroic poetry of Norway were like distance marks which brought out the perspective.

    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 VI, in 1716, Icelandic text and all. It seems to have been an afterthought of the editor, or in compliance with a suggestion from outside which the editor was too idle to refuse—for the piece is printed with Hickes’s heading, which refers to the preceding piece (Finnsburh) in the The saurus and compares the Icelandic with the Old English verse—quite unintelligible as it stands, abruptly, in the Miscellany. But, however it came about, the selection is a good one, and had as much success as is possible to those shadowy ancient things.