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timent, it is here. They do not speak, they sing, or rather they
l shout. Each little verse is an acclamation, which breaks forth like a growl; their strong breasts heave with a groan of anger or enthusiasm, and a vehement or indistinct phrase or expression rises suddenly, almost in spite of them, to their lips. There is no art, no natural talent, for describing singly and in order the different parts of an object or an event. The fifty rays of light which every phenomenon emits in succession to a regular and well-directed intellect, come to them at once in a glowing and confused mass, disabling them by their force and convergence, Listen to their genuine war-chants, unchecked and violent, as became their terrible voices. To this day, at this distance of time, separated as they are by manners, speech, ten centuries, we seem to hear them still :
“The army goes forth: the birds sing, the cricket chirps, the war-weapons sound, the lance clangs against the shield. Now shineth the moon, wandering under the sky. Now arise deeds of woe, which the enmity of this people prepares to do. ... Then in the court came the tumult of war-carnage. They seized with their hands the hollow wood of the shield. They smote through the bones of the head. The roofs of the castle resounded, until Garulf fell in battle, the first of earth-dwelling men, son of Guthlaf. Around him lay many brave men dying. The raven whirled about, dark and sombre, like a willow leaf. There was a sparkling of blades, as if all Finsburg were
Never have I heard of a more worthy battle in war.
“Here Athelstan king, of earls the lord, the giver of the bracelets of the nobles, and his brother also, Edmund the atheling, the Elder a lasting glory won by slaughter in battle, with the edges of swords, at Brunanburh. The wall of shields they cleaved, they hewed the noble banners : with the rest of the family, the children of Edward. . . Pursuing, they destroyed the Scottish people and the ship-fleet. The field was coloured with the warrior's blood! After that the sun on high, the greatest star! glided over the earth, God's candle bright! till the noble creature hastened to her setting. There lay soldiers many with darts struck down, Northern men over their shields shot. So were the Scots; weary of ruddy battle. ... The screamers of war they left behind; the raven to enjoy, the dismal kite, and the black raven with horned beak, and the hoarse toad; the eagle, afterwards to feast on the white flesh; the greedy battle-hawk, and the grey beast, the wolf in the wood.” 2
Here all is imagery. In their impassioned minds events are 1 Conybeare's Illustrations of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, 1826, Battle of Finsborough, p. 175. The complete collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry has been published by M. Grein. 2 Turner, Hist. of Anglo-Saxons, iii., book VOL. I.
ch. i. p. 245.
not bald, with the dry propriety of an exact description ; each fits in with its pomp of sound, shape, coloring; it is almost a vision which is raised, complete, with its accompanying emotions, joy, fury, excitement. In their speech, arrows are “the serpents of Hel, shot from bows of horn ;” ships are “great sea-steeds,” the sea is “ chalice of waves,” the helmet is “the castle of the head:” they need an extraordinary speech to express their vehement sensations, so that after a time, in Iceland, where this kind of poetry was carried on to excess, the earlier inspiration failed, art replaced nature, the Skalds were reduced to a distorted and obscure jargon. But whatever be the imagery, here as in Iceland, though unique, it is too feeble. The poets have not satisfied their inner emotion, if it is only expressed by a single word. Time after time they return to and repeat their idea.
66 The sun on high, the great star, God's brilliant candle, the noble creature !” Four times successively they employ the same thought, and each time under a new aspect. All its different aspects rise simultaneously before the barbarian's eyes, and each word was like a fit of the semihallucination which possessed him. Verily, in such a condition, the regularity of speech and of ideas is disturbed at
The succession of thought in the visionary is not the same as in a reasoning mind. One color induces another; from sound he passes to sound; his imagination is like a diorama of unexplained pictures. His phrases recur and change: he emits the word that comes to his lips without hesitation; he leaps over wide intervals from idea to idea. The more his mind is transported, the quicker and wider the intervals traversed. With one spring he visits the poles of his horizon, and touches in one moment objects which seemed to have the world between them. His ideas are entangled without order; without notice, abruptly, the poet will return to the idea he has quitted, and insert it in the thought to which he is giving expression. It is impossible to translate these incongruous ideas, which quite disconcert our modern style. At times they are unintelligible. Articles, particles, everything capable of illuminating thought, of marking the connection of terms, of producing regularity of ideas, all rational and logical artifices, are neglected.? Passion bellows forth like a
1 The cleverest Anglo-Saxon scholars, Turner, Conybeare, Thorpe, recognize this difficulty.
2 Turner, iii. 231, et passim. The translations in French, however literal, do injustice to
great shapeless beast; and that is all. It rises and starts in little abrupt lines; it is the acme of barbarism. Homer's happy poetry is copiously developed, in full narrative, with rich and extended imagery. All the details of a complete picture are not too much for him; he loves to look at things, he lingers over them, rejoices in their beauty, dresses them in splendid words; he is like the Greek girls, who thought themselves ugly if they did not bedeck arms and shoulders with all the gold coins from their purse,
and all the treasures from their caskets; his long verses flow by with their cadences, and spread out like a purple robe under an Ionian
Here the clumsy-fingered poet crowds and clashes his ideas in a narrow measure; if measure there be, he barely observes it; all his ornament is three words beginning with the same letter. His chief care is to abridge, to imprison thought in a kind of mutilated cry. The force of the internal impression, which, not knowing how to unfold itself, becomes condensed and doubled by accumulation; the harshness of the outward expression, which, subservient to the energy and shocks of the inner sentiment, seeks only to exhibit it intact and original, in spite of and at the expense of all order and beauty,—such are the characteristics of their poetry, and these also will be the characteristics of the poetry which is to follow.
VI. A race so constituted was predisposed to Christianity, by its gloom, its aversion to sensual and reckless living, its inclination for the serious and sublime. When their sedentary habits had reconciled their souls to a long period of ease, and weakened the : fury which fed their sanguinary religion, they readily inclined to a new faith. The vague adoration of the great powers of nature, which eternally fight for mutual destruction, and, when destroyed, rise up again to the combat, had long since disappeared in the dim distance. Society, on its formation, introduced the idea of peace and the need for justice, and the war-gods faded from the minds of men, with the passions which had created them. A century and a half after the invasion by the Saxons, Roman
the text; that language is too clear, too logical. No Frenchman can-understand this extraordinary phase of intellect, except by taking a dictionary, and deciphering some pages of Anglo-Saxon for a fortnight.
1 Turner remarks that the same idea expressed by King Alfred, in prose and then in verse, takes in the first case seven words, in the second five.-History of the Anglo-Saxons, iii. 235.
96-625. Aug. Thierry, i. 81; Bede, xii. 2.
missionaries, bearing a silver cross with a picture of Christ, cane in procession chanting a litany. Presently the high priest of the Northumbrians declared in presence of the nobles that the old gods were powerless, and confessed that formerly " he knew nothing of that which he adored;" and he among the first, lance in hand, assisted to demolish their temple. Then a chief rose in the assembly, and said:
“You remember, it may be, O king, that which sometimes happens in winter when you are seated at table with your earls and thanes. Your fire is lighted, and your hall warmed, and without is rain and snow and storm. Then comes a swallow flying across the hall; he enters by one door, and leaves by another. The brief moment while he is within is pleasant to him ; he feels not rain nor cheerless winter weather; but the moment is brief—the bird flies away in the twinkling of an eye, and he passes from winter to win
Such, methinks, is the life of man on earth, compared with the uncertain time beyond. It appears for a while; but what is the time which comes after—the time which was before? We know not. If, then, this new doctrine may teach us somewhat of greater certainty, it were well that we should regard it.”
This restlessness, this feeling of the infinite and dark beyond, this sober, melancholy eloquence, were the harbingers of spiritual life. We find nothing like it amongst the nations of the south, naturally pagan, and preoccupied with the present life. These utter barbarians embrace Christianity straightway, through sheer force of mood and clime. To no purpose are they brutal, heavy, shackled by infantine superstitions, capable, like King Canute, of buying for a hundred golden talents the arm of Augustine. They possess the idea of God. This grand God of the Bible, omnipotent and unique, who disappears almost entirely in the middle ages, obscured by His court and His family, endures amongst them in spite of absurd or grotesque legends. They do not blot Him out under pious romances, by the elevation of the saints, or under feminine caresses, to benefit the infant Jesus and the Virgin. Their grandeur and their severity raise them to His high level; they are not tempted, like artistic and talkative nations, to replace religion by a fair and agreeable narrative. More than any race in Europe, they approach, by the simplicity and energy of their conceptions, the old Hebraic spirit. Enthusiasm is their natural condition; and their new Deity fills thein
1 Jouffroy, Problem of Human Destiny.
with admiration, as their ancient deities inspired them with fury. They have hymns, genuine odes, which are but a concrete of exclamations. They have no development; they are incapable of restraining or explaining their passion; it bursts forth, in raptures, at the vision of the Almighty. The heart alone speaks herea strong, barbarous heart. Cædmon, their old poet,' says Bede, was a more ignorant man than the others, who knew no poetry; so that in the hall, when they handed him the harp, he was obliged to withdraw, being unable to sing like his companions. Once, keeping night-watch over the stable, he fell asleep. A stranger appeared to him, and asked him to sing something, and these words came into his head: “Now we ought to praise the Lord of heaven, the power of the Creator, and His skill, the deeds of the Father of glory; how He, being eternal God, is the author of all marvels; who, almighty guardian of the human race, created first for the sons of men the heavens as the roof of their dwelling, and then the earth." Remembering this when he woke, he came to the town, and they brought him before the learned men, before the abbess Hilda, who, when they had heard him, thought that he had received a gift from heaven, and made him a monk in the abbey. There he spent his life listening to portions of Holy Writ, which were explained to him in Saxon, “ruminating over them like a pure animal, turned them into most sweet verse.” Thus is true poetry born. These pray
with all the emotion of a new soul; they kneel; they adore; the less they know the more they think. Some one has said that the first and most sincere hymn is this one word O! Theirs were hardly longer; they only repeated time after time some deep passionate word, with monotonous vehemence. 6 In heaven art Thou, our aid and succour, resplendent with happiness! All things bow before thee, before the glory of Thy Spirit. With one voice they call upon Christ; they all cry : Holy, holy art thou, King of the angels of heaven, our Lord ! and thy judgments are just and great : they reign for ever and in all places, in the multitude of Thy works.” We are reminded of the songs of the servants of Odin, tonsured now, and clad in the garments of monks. Their poetry is the same; they think of God, as of Odin, in a string of short, accumulated, passion
1 About 630. See Coder Exoniensis, Thorpe.
2 Bede, iv. 24.