Page images

the miseries and horrors that he saw, and spent the rest of his life in desolate places, singing only of sorrow and mourning, until he was at last found lying dead on the bank of a river.

At length the long struggle between the two races came to an end. The Teutons made settlements and dwelt as conquerors in the land ; but the Kelts still held undisturbed possession of Wales. With the coming in of the Teutons we shall find a new element in the literature of our country.

We have said that there runs through all English literature an earnest striving after the highest ideal of what is right, as well as of what is beautiful. Now this steadfast desire to find out the right and to put down wrong comes into our literature from the Teutons. They had less imagination than the Kelts, and seldom made use of any figures of speech, but spoke the truth in simple, plain words. By degrees our island became peopled by the Teutons, and as the principal tribe among the settlers was called Englisc, the people all took the name of English, and called the country England.

They spoke a language which was formed by the mixing of the different dialects of the Teutonic settlers, and they called this language English. It forms the great foundation of the language we first learned to speak as little children; but the English of the present day has undergone some changes, which we shall hear of later on in the story of our English literature. The earliest literature we have in English is perhaps the story of Beowulf. The saga of Beowulf was brought into England by the northern tribes which settled in Northumbria, for it is a story of Scandinavian life. But the language in which it comes to us is the First English, of the period after the Teutons had settled in England, and the scenery of the poem is very like that of the Yorkshire coast around Whitby; there are also indications of its having been written after the

conversion of the Teutons to Christianity. It is probably, therefore, an old, well-known Scandinavian story put into First English verse by some poet of a later time.

This is the story :-Hrothgar, King of Denmark, had built a great house for himself and his followers, or “hearthsharers,” as the poem calls them. It was a large hall, with flat stones down the centre, which formed the hearth. Around were tables and benches, and the latter served for beds at night. There was a great feast when the hall was finished, and the sounds of minstrelsy and song floated far out into the dark night. They reached the ears of a monster who lived at the bottom of a lonely lake across the moors. When all the warriors were asleep, the door of the hall was pushed opened, and Grendel, the monster, stalked into the hall. He seized thirty of the sleepers, carried them off and ate them. Night after night the warriors one after another disappeared, until Hrothgar had lost nearly all his men, and those which remained had to find another sleeping-place, so that the beautiful hall, the pride of Hrothgar and his hearth-sharers, stood empty and deserted.

One day the watchers on the coast saw a vessel approaching the shore of Denmark from Norway. A young Viking was on board, tall and strong as a young oak-tree, whose single hand had in it the grip of thirty men. This was Beowulf. In his own land the wandering minstrels had told of Grendel and his deeds, and Beowulf was come to slay the monster. That night the warriors feasted again in Hrothgar's hall, and then lay down to sleep; but Grendel had heard the sounds of revelry, and came striding across the moors into the dark hall. He laid his hand on Beowulf, and instantly found himself seized in a grip from which he could not get free. A struggle began, and at last Grendel tore himself away, leaving his arm in Beowulf's hand.

There was feasting and joy that night in Hrothgar's hall, and the warriors lay down to sleep, as they thought, in peace.

But in the dead of night a more terrible monster, in the form of a woman, strode into the hall, and seized one of the best of Hrothgar's men. This was Grendel's mother, come to avenge her son. Beowulf was sleeping in another place, and in vain did the warriors draw their swords upon the monster. She escaped ; and the next day Beowulf undertook to find her and slay her also. He found the waste of waters where she dwelt, and descended through it till he came to her dwelling. There he saw the dead body of Grendel, and there also he saw stores of treasures heaped up high, and amongst these an old sword of the giants. With this he killed, after a long struggle, the mother of Grendel. Taking the head of Grendel only, and leaving the hoard of treasures, Beowulf rose up through the water, to the joy of the waiting warriors who had thought him dead. Four men could scarcely carry Grendel's head between them back to the hall.

The second part of the saga of Beowulf tells how he fought with and killed a fiery dragon, who had wasted his own land, and how he found in the dragon's cave a vast hoard of treasure, which the monster guarded. But Beowulf saved his country at the expense of his own life; the dragon had wounded him, and for that poison there was no cure.

He left the treasure to his people, and bade them bury him on the high cliff by the sea-shore. Over his grave the warriors raised a mighty mound, and rode around it singing a song of mourning for their chief, and praising him as the very king of men, and yet the mildest, kindest of them all.

Although when the Teutons first settled in this country they were heathen, yet they did not remain so. Augustine came over from Rome, and taught Christianity to the English in the south; and the Kelts, many of whom were Christians before the Teutons came, taught the settlers in the north ; but it was long before the whole English people became Christians, and there was much good work to be done by those who had received the light of God's truth, in teaching others who were still ignorant of it. In order the better to carry on this work with system and lasting success, religious houses were established in different parts of the country, very like our mission stations in heathen lands. In these houses a number of good men and women dwelt ; they gave themselves to the study of God's Word, and of everything which could help them to teach and raise the people living around them; and by their holy, loving lives they showed the people the power of Christianity, and how just and true are God's commands. These religious houses became thus the centres of light and spiritual life, and from them came forth most of the English literature of that time.

One of these houses had been built upon the East Cliff at Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast. It was presided over by a good woman, named Hilda, of whom it was said that “All who knew her called her mother, for her singular piety and grace; she was not only an example of good life to those that lived in her house, but gave occasion of salvation and amendment to many who lived at a distance, to whom the happy fame was brought of her virtue and industry."

Hilda and the other servants of God living in the religious house at Whitby gave their best energies to the work of teaching Christianity to the heathen in that district, and one of their first converts was a farmer named Cædmon. After he became a Christian, it happened one day that Cædmon was at a feast in the neighbourhood of Whitby; when after supper, according to the custom of the time, the harp was brought into the hall, and passed from guest to guest, every one being expected to sing in turn some song in praise of the old Teutonic gods. Cædmon had listened to the wild songs extolling the deeds of Thor and Wodin, and he thought there is a far greater God than these, who has done better, nobler things than they, even our own Father and Maker—the Good. And he felt he could not be so untrue to Him, as to take the harp and sing praises to false gods, and yet he could not sing songs of the power and love of the true God, because he did not know any.

So before the harp came to him, he got up from his seat and said he would go to the stable and look after the horses and oxen, which had brought the guests to the feast, and which were put up there for the night, and needed guarding from robbers and wolves.

When Cædmon found himself alone in the stable, where he was to keep watch all night, his thoughts would turn to the glory and the love of the true God. It was only lately that he had heard of how God made the heavens and the earth, and all things that are therein ; and the thought was, no doubt, much more strongly present in his mind than in ours, who have been told ever since we first opened our eyes upon this world, that it was God's world, and that He made it and us. And joined with this thought there was the deep regret in his heart, that while he knew songs about the old false gods, he could not sing the high praise of the true Creator and Father. With these feelings in his mind Cædmon fell asleep, and as he slept his waking thoughts mixed themselves with his dreams, and he fancied that a person came to him and said, “Cædmon, sing some song to me;" then he said, “I cannot sing, and that is why I left the feast.” But the other, who talked to him, replied, “Yet you shall sing.” So Cædmon said, “What shall I sing?” “Sing of how God made all things,” answered the person.

Then Cædmon began to sing, and the verses came to him in his dream, and he sang a song of praise to God,

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »