Изображения страниц

await the tide of war, he goes out to meet it, and against an enemy of unknown strength, unknown haunts, and unknown resources. In his labours—the fight with Grendel and his dam and the Fire Dragon-human valour and power as idealised by the poet are matched with supernatural adversaries, vaguely imagined, dwellers in a mysterious country. The landscape assists to create an atmosphere of the dim and marvellous. A hidden and perilous place is it, the haunt of the mighty stalkers of the mere, and there is none of the sons of men so wise as to know its depths. Thou knowest not yet the spot, the savage place," says Hrothgar,“ seek it if thou darest." The Athelings follow to the misty mere, over steep slopes of stone, , a narrow and single path, by many an abrupt cliff, the homes of sea monsters, an unknown road.The dragon of the last combat watches its hoard in a high burial mound, "beneath it a path unknown to men."

In the foreground of the Beowulf landscape are the shore, the bold headlands, the wind-swept sea rising clearly before the eyes as in a picture; beyond is a vague region of enchantmentnot mountain country, it is significant that mountains are never mentioned in this east coast epic--gloomy fells and shaggy woods, a land of high and dead romance, but romance in which there is neither sunshine nor warmth, in which terror overpowers beauty. In Celtic story one meets with delightful experiences, exquisite sylvan retreats, meadows rich in flower and fruit, islands of repose and fair winning figures that invite the seaworn mariner. There are no such pleasaunces in Beowulf. In Homer the divine shapes of gods and goddesses, the holy splendours of Nature and of a world fairer than man's, are discerned through the dust and smoke of mortal battle, or beyond the weary leagues of sundering sea; no veil lifts in Beowulf to disclose immortal beauty. What a life, behind all its courtliness, the grace and chivalry the poet imparts, what a life in the ages before his own this epic pictures—days and nights tossing upon the sea, the bitter North Sea, in open vessels, days and nights of unintermitting battle with foes human and inhuman; the fierce quarrels, the ferocity of war, the bodily strain, the sleep



Martis agros

[ocr errors]

less mental vigilance, rage and storm and slaughter, uncouth terrors, and nowhere a harbour of refuge, nowhere lasting peace or beauty-surely a school for heroes. Nor, as in Homer, is the spectacle of life enriched and graced by scenes of domestic happiness, like that of Andromache and Astyanax; Beowulf is the story of men and men's work, the pioneer work of the world. Nunquam has hiemes, haec saxa relinquam,

: ubi copia lei Tanta viris." Never shall I leave this wintry, land, these stony ways, the fields of war, where men meet many a form of death.1"

Wonder and admiration are the emotions proper to heroic poetry, to wonder and admiration this epic calls us. The hero, unlike the hero of tragedy, Edipus or Hamlet or Othello, asks for the tribute of our worship rather than of our pity and of our tears. Yet as he goes down the lonely way to death for his people something of affectionate and human compassion mingles with worship and astonishment—here before the dawn of history is written that marvellous tale of the travailing soul, driven by who knows what divine gale, that would not if she could purchase her deliverance from the strange, unprofitable ideals of allegiance to truth and duty.

Two strains are blended in the Beowulf narrative, the strain of fact and the strain of fable, the strain of history and the strain of imagination. We know when we read of the hero's voyage, of the handling of the ship, of the arms and armour, of the hall of Heorot, that in describing these things the poet had his eye upon the object, so firm and clear is the drawing. We know when he relates the struggle with Grendel or the Fire Drake that he is telling a story he has heard or has invented. And this is as it should be. It is the mark of the true epic that it weaves together legend and history, things familiar with things told or dreamt or believed. In the poem, as we possess it, the stories of marriages and reconciliations, even some of the genealogies and characters, are no doubt historical; the

Argonautica (Valerius Flaccus), vi. 335.



[ocr errors]

representation of manners and customs, of social usages and methods of warfare, making allowance for the refinements of courtesy and chivalry gathered from a later time, are indisputably exact. But to these are added from the mythology and folk-lore of Northern Europe the hero's adventures with the demon and the dragon in the sea cavern or on the lonely moor. All the elements proper to the epic are present, yet all dominated by the central interest, the appeal made in an age which knew the value of heroic and masculine qualities by the figure of Beowulf himself, a good comrade, a leader such as men gladly followed, a chief they proudly served. He is an ideal rather than an individual, and this too is right, the highest conceivable in an heroic age, a man of vast bodily strength, wise in council yet adventurous, hungry of fame, not content to guard but to gain, friendly to his own people and their protector to the point of death, terrible to his enemies, a king like to none other in the world.He had need of all his valour and resolution for helper he had none. The spiritual atmosphere of the Anglo-Saxon epic is the bleakest of any poem in literature. The Christian sentiments of the scribe or poet serve but to accentuate, to throw into high relief the unparalleled situation that Beowulf faces all the powers of evil without hint or hope of divine or supernatural assistance. There are no gods or goddesses interested in his fate, angels or archangels there are none to call on. In a terrible blank world, empty of all spiritual aid or consolation, he goes down to the battle with dragon or monster. There is no divine cloud to hide his weariness, to shield him from the exultant foe, no good fairy by his side, no heavenly voices to cheer, no miraculous wells for the healing of his wounds. Like Capaneus he might have boasted

“ Virtus mihi numen, et ensis

Quem teneo."

My gods are valour and the sword I bear.1 If he conquers, it is well: if he fails, he dies. Vae Victis ! Nor in death is his heart comforted by hope of recovering lost friends in the other world; with life he leaves all that was dear to him,

1 Statius, Thebaid, iii. 615.

[ocr errors]

kindred and folk, hall joys, the pleasant glee-wood, and the praises of valour. Sorely unwilling he departs he knows not whither. Yet there are no tears in Beowulf as in Homer, the man of the North does not shed even such tears as angels weep. 1 And to his folk of the European races, however widely separated in time and circumstance, the spirit of adventure, the unflinching temper in Beowulf, still call with resistless power; the motives by which he is governed, desire of fame, of honour, the gratitude and esteem of his kinsfolk and friends, still stir their nerves and keep at bay the monster of the creeping mist, the spiritual despair, that paralyses the energies of Asia.

Rude as is the society depicted in Beowulf, savage as are the features of its daily life, bleak and dismal as are its climate and many of its surroundings, crude as are its superstitions, it expresses a certain magnificence of manhood. The unshaken hardihood and fortitude which made the future England utter themselves in every line; in every line there is the ring of iron. We hear it again at Naseby and at Worcester. And not less does it foreshadow in its sombre vein of reflection the Elizabethan drama and the philosophy of English moralists. It is the forerunner of Hamlet and of Rasselas.

1 Hrothgar, however, weeps at the parting.

* These are significant hints of an earlier savagery. The son of Ecgtheow is praised that he lived justly, “ never, when drunk, slew his hearth companions."



[ocr errors]

Beowulf is not the oldest document in the history of English literature. Assign to it what date you please, it is far older than Roland or the Niebelungenlied, and in scope and excellence it is incomparable in the age to which it belongs; 1 but older yet is at least part of Widsith, the far-wanderer,"contained in the wonderful Exeter Book, given by Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter, to his cathedral in the eleventh century. This book, published in 1842 as Codex Exoniensis, contains, besides much of the poetry of Cynewulf, that most famous of early English lyrics, The Seafarer, and the Lament of Deor, a later composition than Widsith but to be read with it, since both are occupied with the experiences and fortunes of the professional poet in the heroic age. Neither can be properly described as in itself an epic fragment, but both assist us in the reconstruction of the epic period in Northern Europe. The opening lines of Widsith introduce the scôp or gleeman," the stitcher of lays," who tells his story, a story of his wanderings, much of it apocryphal, amid many kindreds and nations.

“ Widsith spoke
Unlocking his word-hoard:
He, who of all men
Farthest had fared among
Earth-folk and tribesmen:
Oft in the hall given

Gifts that were costly."
He has known many men, rulers and earls, Huns and Goths,
Swedes and Geats and Southern Danes, Angles and Sueves

1 There is only one piece of extant Germanic verse which can claim to be as old as Beowulf or any of the early English fragments we possess. It is a poem of about seventy lines, the lay of Hadubrand and Hildebrand, and tells part of the same story as that told by Arnold in Sohrab and Rustum, a story in which the father slays his son in personal conflict. (See for a translation Gummere's The Oldest English Epic.)

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »