Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Little History of Literature and the Poet Caedmon

"Literature" by Maurice Francis Egan
from the McBride Art and Literature Reader, Book 6, Copyright 1902

Literature is a verbal reflection of life. It is the only means by which we know how mankind in other times lived, thought, and acted. English literature includes all literature written in the English language.

In speaking of American literature, we must remember that it means many writings not in English. In South America and Mexico there are great authors who do not write the English language; and in Canada, which is part of America, there are numbers of writers of the French language deservedly celebrated.

Before the invention of the art of writing, or when only a few wrote, literature was perpetuated by tradition; it was handed down from father to son. Then the memory of man was his library. It is said that the works of Homer were preserved in this manner among the Greeks for five hundred years. Later, symbolical characters, or letters, were impressed on various substances, such as the bark of trees and prepared leaves. About the year 1471, books began to be printed in England, and the monks, who had laboriously preserved great masterpieces of literature by writing and illuminating them with wonderful care and taste, now learned to print by the aid of carved blocks and hand presses. Many of the terms now in use among printers may be traced to the printing-offices of the Benedictine monks, who eagerly made use of the new art. To the care of the monks we owe not only the preservation of the Bible, but of the Greek and Latin classics.

Verse was the earliest form of literature in all languages. The old English poetry was not in rhyme as we understand it. Alliteration and accents were essential.

The language in which the earliest English poems were spoken or sung differs much from the English of today. It was brought from Jutland, or Saxony, by the tribes who landed in Britain and drove the Britons, whom they called Welsh, into Wales and Cornwall, and into the part of France called Brittany. The latter preserve a separate language and literature to this day.

Later the stories of the Britons crept into English literature. The "Tales of King Arthur," on which Tennyson founded his great epic, was British, not Saxon. The Britons left us some Celtic words of domestic import or the names of places: avon and ex (meaning water), cradle, mop, pillow, mattock, crock, kiln, and a few others. Saxons probably married British wives, and hence we have the domestic British terms; but the majority of the Britons fled, leaving the land to the Saxon conqueror and his language.

The first English poems and the epic "Beowulf" were doubtless composed long before the seventh century, and taken from the Continent to England in the memory of Saxon bards. "Beowulf" was reduced to writing in the eighth century by a monk of Northumbria. "The Song of the Traveler," the earliest poem, enumerates the singer's experiences with the Goths. "Deor's Complaint" is a sad story of one who is made a beggar by war; it speaks of dumb submission to the gods.

"The Fight at Finnsburg" and "Waldhere" are, with "Beowulf," all the poems or parts of poems brought to England from the homes of the Saxons.

These fragments and the epic of "Beowulf" may be studied with the help of an Anglo-Saxon grammar. "Beowulf" is the story of a ferocious monster called Grendel. It was sung in parts, by the warriors at their feasts, each chanting a part. This monster, Grendel, like the dragons of the fairy tales, had the habit of eating human flesh. He harassed Hrothgar, Thane of Jutland, appearing in the banquet hall and devouring any guest that suited his fancy.

Beowful of Sweden sails to Jutland to assist the unfortunate king, and succeeds in killing the monster. "Beowulf," however, no more shows the worst spirit of the Saxon pagan than Sir Edwin Arnold's poem, "The Light of Asia," shows the selfishness of Buddhism. The Northumbrian Christian who transcribed it in 3,184 alliterative lines put the mark of his finer and gentler thoughts upon it.

To understand something of the spirit of the Teutonic tribes that began to make England, one might read Longfellow's Skeleton in Armor, and the Invasion, by Gerald Griffin, and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. In the last occurs the famous dialogue between Gurth and Wamba on the growth of the Norman, or corrupt Latin, element in the English language.

About the year 670, the first entirely English poem was written by Caedmon. It is a poetical paraphrase of the Old and New Testaments. It was written in Yorkshore, on a wind-swept cliff, in the abbey presided over by St. Hilda, a religious of noble blood. Caedmon was an elderly servant of the abbey, and when, after the feast, he was called on to sing in his turn, over his cup of mead, with the other servants, he refused because he had heard no songs that were not of cruelty and in praise of evil passions.

One night he crept away from the table, sad because the others jeered at him, and went to sleep in the cow-shed; and a voice in his dream said to him, "Sing me a song!" Caedmon answered that he could not sing; for that reason he had left the feast.

"You must sing!" said the voice. "Sing the beginning of created things."

Caedmon sang some lines in his sleep about God and the creation. He remembered these lines when he awoke. The Abbess Hilda, believing that his gift must come from God, had him taught sacred history, and he became a monk.

Caedmon's paraphrases are full of the poet's individuality. His description of the unholy triumph of Satan, when he succeeds in tempting Eve, is as striking as any passage in Milton's poem Paradise Lost, on the same subject. Caedmon's simplicity, naturalness, and deep religious feeling cause this ancient poem to be read and quoted by scholars today. It is said that the author died in 680 - a date which is also given as that of the death of St. Hilda, his friend and patroness. Caedmon gave the English a taste for the Old and New Testament. Caedmon's poems suggested to Milton the great epic, Paradise Lost.

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