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of form, there is in Beowulf an intellectual wealth and a depth of reflection no ballad knows. The world upon which this poet looks out is thronged and bustling as the street of a city. Where the ballad horizon is limited by immediate and village interests, a single scene and one or two lonely figures, before this “Son of Memory'a past unrolls in which nations have been born and died, kingdoms won and lost; he recalls tribes and tribal heroes, kings and their kindred, a hundred names of races and of men. He foresees too the future, and looks to it with hope or with foreboding—“such is the deadly grudge of men, doubtless the Swedish folk will come against us when they have learned that our king is dead.” The scene shifts easily from the hall to the galley under sail, from the shore to the moors, from day to night, from winter to spring. There is observation of nature and pleasure in good handicraft, and a Stoic creed of life and honour. To carry all this within a single brain, to space and arrange the material, to order and decorate the verse, to present the characters and the sentiments, the appropriate word, the apposite comment, to leaven the whole mass by the infusion of poetic enthusiasm was no mean personal achievement. In Beowulf the conscious poet emerges. But there is more than this, the high poetic dawn of insight and imagination. Hard the poem is with the hardness of armour and weapons, of a society that gives and expects no quarter, and of this hardness the interpolated Christian passages afford no real mitigation. “God, doubtless, can stay the fell ravager from his deeds,” we read in one passage, and again “Him” (Beowulf) "hath holy God sent to us, as I trust, to us the West Danes, against the terror of Grendel”; these asides hardly even colour the stark pagan tale. But there are utterances, pathetic and penetrating, moving reflections on human life and destiny that vibrate with truth learnt in the harsh grip of experience. The themes are ancient, no more than the brief glory of man's strength, the relentlessness of fate, the sorrows of the weak or the conquered-foreseeing slaughter and shame and the captive's lot. “Now is the
1 The gods have disappeared from Beowulf, the old gods, expelled by the Christian scribe or redactor.
flower of thy strength lasting a while-soon shall it be that sickness or the sword, or the clutch of fire, or wave of the flood, or spearthrust, or flight of arrow, or blinding age shall take away thy might."1 Or again: "Now that the leader in war has laid aside laughter, revel, and song, therefore shall many a spear, cold in the dawn, be grasped by the fingers, raised in the hand. No sound of harp shall rouse the warriors, but the dark raven, busy over the fallen, shall send his frequent cry, telling the eagle how he sped at the feast when, with the wolf, he spoiled the slain.” 2 Or take this, the lament of the last survivor of his clan as he gazes upon the useless treasures of the dead-" None have I to wield sword or burnish the golden beaker, the treasure-cup of price, the warrior host is gone. The hard helmet bright with gold must be stripped of its adornment, they sleep who burnished it, whose part it was to furbish the battle-masks. The corselet that withstood in war, amid the crash of shields, the bite of the sword-edge, moulders with the warrior. No more will the ringed mail, close to his side, make far journeys with the chieftain. There is no gladness of the harp, no joy of the glee-wood, no good hawk swings through the hall, no swift steed paws the yard of the stronghold. Death the despoiler has banished many a one of living kind.” 3 Trite reflections no doubt, but not more trite than those of Homer, and far beyond the range both in content and expression of the mere balladist. For the epic form, as here, envisages a society; it perceives, beyond the immediate actors from whose affairs the ballad never wanders, wide spaces filled with human interests and human figures. The ballad fails to supply any background, any depth of stage. One or two actors or sufferers occupy the immediate scene, and behind them is vacancy. Again, and it is an indisputable sign of maturer art, political relations in the epic supersede the personal. It is aristocratic when the ballad is democratic. There is no talk in Beowulf of lovers, of son and mother, of sisters or domestic doings. The community bond has overpowered that of the family; men and the doings of men, nations and the affairs of nations, are the interests of this
2 V. 3022 ff.*
1 V. lines 1761 ff.
3 V. 2252 ff.
literature, rank and the duties of rank are the pillars of this society.
The epic hero is always a fighter, a soldier in some good cause. In the medieval French epic he is the champion of the true faith against the Saracen; in Beowulf he is engaged in a no less holy war with the powers of darkness, the enemies of the whole human race. This is not a war of heroes with other heroes, it is a conflict of man with powers hostile to man. Nothing can be clearer than that Beowulf belongs to an age in which nature was felt as unsubdued, in which the elements were unfriendly. His race inhabited the narrow lands, the ridge of unceasing war -the unexplored ocean before him, at his back the equally unexplored and threatening woods. The forest had not yet been cleared nor the protecting walls of the city built. Northern Germany in the pre-Christian centuries can hardly have been a more kindly region than the Central Africa of to-day. The hero in Beowulf stands at bay with Nature, exposed to the attacks of strange, uncouth, silent foes. Neither Grendel nor his dam nor the dragon by whom he is slain make use of any speech. Suddenly and mysteriously they issue from the unknown, suddenly and mysteriously as a plague upon the wind. Everywhere in this poem we have the sense of a savage and menacing world-in the scenery, the stormy seas, the sombre forest, the wild unpenetrated country of the interior. Heroic poetry of this order has small concern with ideas; unlike the chivalric epic, it is desperately occupied with doings. Life is wholly strain and pressure, governed by the simplest emotions, the desire of food and drink, of treasure and good weapons. There is no room for love-episode or protracted courtship, no place for gentleness, for subtleties of thought and feeling, no heart for easy humour, small space for the gay sciences. It reads throughout like a stern record of a painful but necessary undertaking. In this society each group is supporting itself with difficulty against famine, the untamed forces of nature, the raids of rival clans, each individual preserving his existence at the spear's point. These men
"Fierce in their native hardiness of soul,"
are laying the foundations of civilisation and social order, they keep their foothold only by the exercise of eternal vigilance and native valour. The unfriendliness of the physical environment is far more emphasised than the play of motives or the varieties of emotion and character. We are far nearer the elemental conditions of life, the opening days of human history, than with Homer. The nerve of the narrative, the heart of its interest lies therefore in the vivid presentation of a real struggle against deadly odds. Ringed round with enemies the hero proudly takes pleasure in his strength while his strength lasts, he sells his life dearly. When he dies, he would die like Colonsay's fierce lord in Scott, pierced by the lance of De Argentine
“Nail'd to the earth, the mountaineer
And swung his broadsword round!
The blood gushed from the wound;
Hath turn'd him on the ground,
The hero in this epic knows that the day will come when fate will be stronger than he, as it has been stronger than his fathers and kinsmen, when all will seem “ too wide for him, the fields and the homestead." And a natural melancholy tinges the poet's mood when he reflects that if not to-day then to-morrow in the battle the chief goes the fated way, that the bravest must, in the end, sleep“ den eisernen Schlaf des Todes,” the iron sleep of death. The best that can befall, the heart of his desire, is to die the great death, as Beowulf dies, beside the dragon he has slain, or
“ With heroes' hot corpses
High heaped for his pillow." A dark, capricious fate, whose decrees none can foretell, is the ruler of human destiny—“ It is not an easy matter to escape it,” says the poet, or “ Fate did not thus ordain for him.” Yet courage may shield him from the impending blow, " Often does Wyrd save an earl undoomed when his valour avails." The
Beowulf temper is that of the born fighter, the man born never to yield," the temper of the fighter who feels that the very Norns themselves must cringe at last before the simple courage of men standing naked and bare of hope, whether of heaven or hell or doom.”
“The harder shall thought be, the bolder the heart,
The mood the more, as lessens our might.” 1 It was the temper of that long roll of Englishmen, soldiers, sailors, adventurers, explorers, to whom retreat was more bitter than death, who, rather than turn back from the task undertaken, challenged the fates themselves—to pluck, how often, glorious success from the very heart of failure. Beowulf itself does not end, as it is sometimes demanded the epic should end, upon a note of success and triumph. Or if it end upon a note of triumph, it is triumph touched, as are all human triumphs, with a sense of the invincible hardness of the world. It is at best a losing battle in which mankind is engaged, and Beowulf is throughout his life the leader of a forlorn hope. Again and again he is successful in spite of odds, foot by foot he grapples with destiny unafraid, but he knows that there is but one way, and that he must tread at last the pathway to the shades. The clear-sighted philosophy of the old English epic, undimmed by any dream of hope, disturbed by no metaphysical consolations, has in it the more than Roman fortitude that looks unflinchingly into the burning eyes of Truth.
Of the arts of peace Beowulf says little. The skilful craftsman twists collars of gold or bracelets or other personal adornments, but the warrior's weapons are the subject of his peculiar and affectionate regard. The sword, to which perpetual reference is made, is jewelled, carved with runes, often personified and given an individual name, handed down as a precious heirloom, its record preserved in history. The helmet and coat of mail too, the spear and shield, are wrought with a care and skill lavished upon no other possessions. So much are they a part of himself that a warrior is known by his arms. This is true epic-.feeling. In the true epic manner, too, Beowulf does not
1 Maldon, 312-313.