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Maldon is not an epic poem; it is, like Finnsburh, an epic episode. It is such an episode as might have filled a book in an epic conceived like that of Homer. It is of course also a belated episode, the event itself occurred too late in history to be taken up into any epic process. From just such lays, however, dealing with matter of the same kind in the same spirit, a great national epic might possibly have sprung. But architectural faculty which enabled the poet or poets of the Iliad to invent a scheme, such as the wrath of Achilles, was wanting. By means of that scheme—the absence of Achilles from the war-episode after episode was introduced without destroying the unity of the poem. Room was left for the achievements of other heroes, while the nominal hero sulked in his tent, and a mass of heterogeneous material thus swept within the framework of a single poem. In the Odyssey the device employed is a different one. The action waits while Odysseus at the court of Alcinous relates in four books his earlier adventures, into which narrative is set all the matter through which the poet found it inconvenient or impossible to conduct his hero himself. Three more books are occupied with the adventures of Telemachus on his search for his father. The Teutonic epic process reached the episode; it went further, in Beowulf it made a practically successful effort to unify several episodes. But to impose unity upon such a complex of episodes and characters as meet us in Homer was beyond its strength. At a critical moment in its development it met unfriendly forces. It combated those forces indeed vigorously, imposed its ideals and methods in a field very foreign to that of its own interests, but, sapped of its strength, gradually lost ground, declined, and finally sank below the mind's horizon.
1 It is held by some critics, perhaps with truth, that the Teutonic lays, such as we possess or can from the fragments imagine, characterised as they ure by a certain independence and native sufficiency, had reached the highest development possible to the type, and would not readily have yielded themselves to a process of“ stitching” into epos of the eminent or Homeric pattern. See Professor Ker's Epic and Romance.
EARLY CHRISTIAN EPIC
The epic matter, the hero-sagas our ancestors brought with them to England, attained in Beowulf its noblest and most comprehensive form. Of this heroic material—there must have been store of it-none was written, and Beowulf itself was stitched together from lays for long carried in the memory and orally recited. But its ideals, the ideals of a branch of the Germanic peoples, are there refined and ennobled by contact with Christianity and the Celtic civilisation of Britain. There is clear evidence of an alien influence at work. The heroic sagas-ruder compositions, the image of a ruder society—submitted to the spiritual and softening forces of their altered life when the invaders crossed the North Sea and from pirates became settlers. Of Anglo-Saxon poetry untouched by such influences nothing of importance survives. “The immigrants in Britain did not," as Ten Brink says, “live with a native population permeated by Roman culture, as in Gaul, and ready to communicate this culture. Only dumb witnesses, monuments of Roman art and industry, spoke to them of the greatness of the people whose place they had taken.” The settlers preserved their language, they preserved their political constitution, they preserved many of the ancient virtues of the race, yielding only, after a campaign in which for long the issue seemed doubtful, to the Christian creed. That submission was of itself, however, sufficient to prove fatal to the epic impulse. In the campaign against Teutonic paganism Christianity was powerfully assisted by certain features in the political organisation and in the character of the English settlers. Even Christian sentiment discerned in these fierce sea-farers, and in their literature - the old heathen sagas themselves friendly elements, a high sense of duty, a moral depth and power of feeling, a reverence for the mysterious, a respect for chastity and the keeping of faith. The new religion found potent allies in the camp of its foes, something, indeed, approaching the spiritual temper it desired to inculcate. There was need to soften the manners, to subdue the ferocity of the old English and their poetry; there was hardly need in order to transform it for Christian use, to heighten its seriousness, or altogether to alter its spirit and character. The ethical ideals, the sense of loyalty, the generous instincts abroad in it passed easily into religious literature. Some virtues peculiarly Christian our ancestors must in the beginning have found it difficult to accept-forbearance, humility, meekness—yet the converts, once made, displayed a sincerity of faith and a religious zeal which distinguished the English branch of the Church among all others. But if Christianity thus tamed the fiercer characteristics of the race, it was forced in turn to submit to ideals, political and literary, grown in a pagan soil.
The early Christian poetry of England is hardly to be distinguished in temper and spirit, it is not at all to be distinguished in form and method, from that of the earlier heroic and heathen lays. Nothing at first sight might appear more alien to Christian feeling and sentiment than the poetry of battle, to the lamb of peace than the wolf of war.
There was nevertheless an aspect of Christianity, a figure under which its nature might be partially revealed. It was possible to represent it as a warfare. Under what better symbol than that of an age-long conflict between the powers of light and the powers of darkness could Christianity be presented to a warrior race? Thus translated into the terms of a life peculiar to them, our forefathers discovered within the new religion room for the old ways of thought, the ideals of their military life. Much, particularly in the Old Testament story, found ready acceptance. The wanderings of the Israelites, the tribal battles, the disaffections and revolts—all this they grasped easily. The conceptions, too, of God as "the Lord of hosts," a King "mighty in battle,” of Satan as a chief in revolt, surrounded by rebel followers, were in no respect foreign to their mental experience. In the early literature of the converted English it was inevitable
that Christianity should be transformed into the image of the heroic world. Into its scheme and history entered prince and earl, thane and clansman, all the details of long understood social and political relations. "Wyrd " by natural translation became Providence,
Christ a man of war » who invades Hell as a king the territory of his enemy, the saints and patriarchs
ealdormen” and warriors," Abraham "a bold earl,” the apostles " fierce and warlike leaders of the host,” Peter and Paul “thanes of Christ.” The phrases and motives of the old pagan poetry, strangely inappropriate in our ears, passed into the new, and Christianity is forced for a season to accommodate itself to ideals not its own. The revolted “thanes of Satan” engage in a hand-to-hand struggle with Christ and his followers, the bow and spear are their weapons, Hell is the prison to which God, the victorious monarch, consigns his captives, loyal service to Him is such allegiance as the warrior owes his chief.
The subjects of this early Christian literature are portions of the Bible story, as in the Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, preserved in a single MS. now in the Bodleian, or narratives of saintly lives like Juliana, in the Exeter Book, or tales from the Apocrypha, like Judith, contained in the same MS. as Beowulf, but in them all are preserved the old seafaring and martial experiences, the old relations between earl and comitatus, the old note of exultation in victory, the familiar references to the horny-nibbed raven, the dewy-winged eagle, and the wolf, greedy for slaughter, to the trusty sword and byrnie, the meadhall, the crowded ale-benches, the gifts, the treasure of rings and jewels. Religious though the subjects are, the treatment remains epic, and only where such treatment is possible is the glow of inspiration felt. The earliest of these poems, Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, have been ascribed to a late seventh-century poet, Caedmon, most of the later, Elene, Andreas, Juliana, to Cynewulf, a Northumbrian poet of the eighth century. Of Caedmon we know nothing save from the famous passage in Bede's Ecclesiastical History (A.D. 731), which describes
1 Exodus and Daniel have been edited in the Belles-Lettres Series by Professor Blackburn, Juliana in the same series by Professor Strunk, Judith by Professor Cook,
him as a certain brother of Whitby monastery, "greatly distinguished and honoured by divine grace," whose power of song was the gift of God, since he had lived in the world till of advanced years and had learnt nothing of the art, and when the harp went round was accustomed to leave the feast in shame and retire to his home. To him upon one such occasion there came in a dream a man who saluted him, and calling him by his name, requested him to sing. And Caedmon answered, "I cannot sing." Then he who spoke to him replied, “Yet it is in thy power to sing," and Caedmon asked, “What shall I sing ? " And the man said, “Sing the beginning of all things." And Caedmon sang, and when he awoke from sleep he remembered all that he had sung, and added to that song others and all to the praise of God. It was formerly usual to ascribe the Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel all to Caedmon, but it is now customary to regard them as separate poems and the work of different authors. Yet although these works in the form in which we possess them can no longer be claimed for Caedmon, it is probable that he was the author of similar poems, and portions even of these may with probability be assigned to him.
The earlier, or Caedmonian, Genesis (which has to be distinguished from an interpolation in the MS. of much later date, about 900, generally known as Genesis B.), gives the narrative as in the Scripture story, down to the sacrifice of Isaac; it is followed by the narrative of the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea as related in Exodus, and by a poetical version of the first five chapters of Daniel, which leaves unfinished the account of Belshazzar's feast. Of these poems probably the earliest in date of composition is Exodus, the next in date Daniel, and the latest Genesis 1
The Genesis has a varied interest. Not only does it exhibit that curious blend of Christian and pagan sentiment, and that heightened epic manner so characteristic of early English poetry, it is a poem of rare quality distinguished for the imaginative elevation in the opening description of the creation of the world
1 Part of Genesis may be older than either Exodus or Daniel.