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Title: Our Catholic Heritage in English Literature of Pre-Conquest Days
Author: Hickey, Emily
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Transcriber's Note: The author's inconsistent chapter descriptions
and spelling of proper names have been preserved.

[Illustration: DEATH OF ST BEDE. (From the Original Picture at St
Cuthbert's College, Ushaw.) [_Frontispiece_]









_June, 1910._



The beginnings of Literature in England. Two poets of the best period of
    our old poetry, Caedmon and Cynewulf. The language they wrote in.
    The monastery at Whitby. The story of Caedmon's gift of song.
                                                                 page 15


Caedmon and his influence. Poem, "Genesis." "The Fall of the Angels."
    "Exodus." English a war-loving race. Destruction of the Egyptians.
    Fate and the Lord of Fate.                                        24


Allegory. Principle of comparison important in life, language,
    literature. Early use of symbolism; suggested reasons for this. Poem
    of the Phoenix. Allegorical interpretation of the story. Celtic
    influence on English poetry. Gifts of colour, fervour, glow. Various
    gifts of various nations enriching one another.                   31


Prose-writing. St Bede the Venerable. His love of truth. His industry
    and carefulness. Cuthbert's account of his last days. "Bede whom God
    loved".                                                           42


King Alfred, first layman to be a great power in literature; man of
    action; of thought; of endurance. Freedom first great possession;
    afterwards learning and culture. Alfred a loyal Son of the Church.
    Founder of English prose. Earliest literature of a nation in verse;
    why. Influence of Rome on Alfred.                                 48


Decay of learning in England. Revival under Alfred. His translations.
    Edits English Chronicle. His helpers. Some of his sayings.
    Missionary spirit. "Alfred commanded to make me".                 55


Some of greatest pre-Conquest poetry associated with name of Cynewulf.
    Guesses about him. Little known. Probably North-countryman, eighth
    century, an educated man. Finding of the Cross. Elene, story of St
    Helena's mission. Constantine goes to fight invaders. Vision of the
    Cross. Victory. Journey of St Helena, and search for the Cross. The
    Finding.                                                          64


The Poet's love of the Cross: how he saw it in a double aspect. The
    dream of the Holy Rood. The Ruthwell Cross.                       73


"Judith," a great poem founded on Scripture story. Authorship uncertain.
    Part of it lost. Quotations from it. Description of Holofernes'
    banquet as a Saxon feast. Story of Judith dwelt on to encourage
    resistance to Danes and Northmen.                                 83


Byrthnoth, the leader of the East Angles against Anlaf the Dane. Refusal
    to pay unjust tribute. Heroic fight.                              90


The literature of one people owes a debt to that of others.
    Help-bringers. Great work of Benedictine monks. Our debt to Ireland.
    The English Chronicle's account of the Martyrdom of St Ælfeah.    97


Abbot Ælfric, writer of Homilies, Lives of Saints, and other works.
    Wulfstan, Archbishop of Canterbury.                              104


Love of books is love of part of God's world. In books we commune with
    the spirit of their writers. The Church the mother of all Christian
    art and literature. Catholic literature saturated with Holy
    Scripture.                                                       110


Scattering of our old MSS. in Sixteenth Century. Some now in Public
    Libraries. Collections, Exeter book and Vercelli Book.           114


Runes. An early love poem.                                           118


DEATH OF SAINT BEDE      _Frontispiece_

WHITBY ABBEY             _Page_ 19

KING ALFRED THE GREAT                48

THE RUTHWELL CROSS                   80

THE ALFRED JEWEL                    114

A SAXON SHIP                        114


This little book makes no claim to be a history of pre-Conquest
Literature. It is an attempt to increase the interest which Catholics
may well feel in this part of the great 'inheritance of their fathers.'
It is not meant to be a formal course of reading, but a sort of talk, as
it were, about beautiful things said and sung in old days: things which
to have learned to love is to have incurred a great and living debt. I
have tried to clothe some of these in the nearest approach I could find
to the native garb in which their makers had sent them forth, with the
humblest acknowledgement that nothing comes up to that native garb
itself. In writing the book I have naturally incurred debt in various
directions; debt of which the source would be difficult always to trace.
I may mention my obligations to the work of Professor Morley, Professor
Earle, Professor Ten Brink, and Professor Albert S. Cook: also to the
writers of Chapters I-VII of "The Cambridge History of English
Literature," vol. i.

If this little book in any way fulfils the wishes of those Catholic
teachers who have asked me to print some thoughts of mine about English
Literature, I shall be glad indeed.



The beginnings of Literature in England. Two poets of the best period of
    our old poetry, Caedmon and Cynewulf. The language they wrote in.
    The monastery at Whitby. The story of Caedmon's gift of song.

How many of us I wonder, realise in anything like its full extent the
beauty and the glory of our Catholic heritage. Do we think how the Great
Mother, the keeper of truth, the guardian of beauty, the muse of
learning, the fosterer of progress, has given us gifts in munificent
generosity, gifts that sprang from her holy bosom, to enlighten, to
cheer, to guide and to help; gifts that she, large, liberal, glorious,
could not but give, for she, like her Lord, is giver and bestower; and
to be of her children is to be of the givers and bestowers. The Catholic
Church is the source of fine literature, of true art, as of noble speech
and noble deed.

We are going to look at a small portion of that part of our Catholic
heritage which consists of our early literature; we are going to think
about the beginning of Christian work of this kind in the form of poetry
and prose in England. When I say Christian poetry and prose, I am using
the word Christian as opposed to pagan, and inclusive of secular as well
as religious verse, though the amount of secular verse is, in the
earliest time, comparatively very small. Some of the pagan work was
retouched by Christians who cared for the truth and strength and beauty
of it. The ideal of the English heathen poet was, in many respects, a
fine one. He loved valour and generosity and loyalty, and all these
things are found, for instance, in the poem "Béowulf," a poem full of
interest of various kinds; full, too, as Professor Harrison says, "of
evidences of having been fumigated here and there by a Christian
incense-bearer." But "the poem is a heathen poem, just 'fumigated' here
and there by its editor." There is a vast difference between
"fumigating" a heathen work and adapting it to blessedly changed belief,
seeing in old story the potential vessel of Christian thought and
Christian teaching. To fumigate with incense is one thing--to use that
incense in the work of dedication and consecration is another. For
instance, the old story of the "Quest of the Graal," best known to
modern readers through Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," has been
Christianised and consecrated. And so it was with some fine old English
(or Anglo-Saxon) poetry. But, just now, we are going to listen to
Catholic poets and teachers only.

We begin with the work of poets. Out of all those who wrote in what was
the best period of our old poetry, a period that lasted some hundred and
fifty or seventy-five years, we know the names of two only, Caedmon and

And here may I say that scholars agree that the names are to be
pronounced _Kadmon_ and _Kun-e-wolf_; in the second name we sound the
_y_ like a French _u_, make a syllable of the _e_, not sounding it as
_ee_, but short, and make the last syllable just what we now pronounce
as _wolf_.

Both of these poets deserve our love and our praise, as singers and
inspirers of other singers, but we know much more about Caedmon's life
than we know about his share in the poetry that has been attributed to
him; that is the poetry which has gone under his name. That he did
write much fine verse we know. On the other hand, we know a good deal as
to the authenticity of Cynewulf's poetry, and nothing about his life.

Both of these poets wrote in the language spoken in England before the
period of French influence. That influence upon English at first seemed
to be disastrous; the language became broken up and spoilt: but this was
only for a time; and by and by, out of roughness and chaotic grammar
there grew up a beautiful and stately speech meet for great poets to
sing in, and great men and women to use. So it is that what for a time
seems to be disastrous may one day be realised as benign and beautiful.

This pre-Conquest language has to be learned as we learn a foreign
tongue. It is much easier to learn than Latin or German, but still it
has to be learned; so we shall have to listen to the thought of these
poets in the language of our own day, allowing ourselves now and then
the use of words or expressions which it is fair to employ in rendering
old poetry or prose, though we do not use them in ordinary speech or

We shall sometimes use translations, and sometimes I will tell you
about the poetry, giving the gist of it as best I can.

[Illustration: WHITBY ABBEY]

At Whitby you may see the ruins of what must have been a very beautiful
monastery, built high on a hill, swept by brisk and health-giving winds
with the strength and freshness of moorland and sea. This monastery,
part of which was for monks, and part for nuns, was ruled by Abbess
Hild.[A] This seems strange to us, but it was because the Celtic usage
prevailed in the government of the Abbey.

[Footnote A: Hilda is the Latinised form, which it is a pity to use
instead of the English one.]

We must never forget the work of the Celtic missionaries who brought
Christianity from the Western Islands to the North of England: and, of
course, their "ways" as well as their message were impressed on the
converts. Later on, as we know, the Roman usage was established all over
the country.

Among the monks of Streoneshalh, as Whitby was then called, the Danes
having given it its present name, there was, as St Bede the Venerable
tells us, "a brother specially renowned and honoured by Divine grace,
because it was his wont to make fitting songs appertaining to piety and
virtue; so that whatever he learned from scholars about the Divine
Writings, that did he, in a short time, with the greatest sweetness and
fervour, adorn with the language of poetry, and bring forth in the
English speech. And because of his poems the hearts of many men were
brought to despise the world, and were inspired with desire for the
fellowship of the heavenly life.... He was a layman until he was far
advanced in years, and he had never learnt any songs. It was then the
custom that, when there was a feast on some occasion of rejoicing, all
present should sing to the harp in turn. And when Caedmon saw the harp
coming near him, he would get up, feeling ashamed, and go home to his
house. Now once upon a time he had done this and had left the house
where they were feasting, and gone to the stall where the cattle were,
which it was his duty that night to attend to. There, when his work was
done, he lay down and slept, and in a dream he saw a man standing by
him, who hailed him and greeted him and called him by his name, saying:
'Caedmon, sing me something.' And Caedmon answered and said, 'I can sing
nothing, and therefore did I go from this feast, and depart hither,
because I could not.' And again he that was speaking with him, said:
'Nevertheless, thou must sing for me.'"

Then Caedmon understood, and he said in the same spirit that prompted
Our Lady's "Be it done unto me according to thy word," "What shall I
sing?" And the guest of his dream said, "Sing the Creation for me."

As soon as Caedmon had received this answer, he at once began to sing to
the praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard.
St Bede quotes a few lines in the Northern dialect, which may be
rendered thus:

"Now shall we praise the Guardian of the Kingdom of Heaven, the might of
the Creator and the thought of His mind, the works of the Father of
glory; how He made the beginning of all wonders, the everlasting Lord.
First did He shape for the children of men Heaven for a roof, the holy
Shaper. Then the mid-world the Guardian of Mankind, the Eternal Lord,
the King Almighty, created thereafter, the earth for men."

When Caedmon awoke the gift remained with him, and he went on composing
more poetry. He told the town-reeve about the gift he had received, and
the town-reeve took him to the Abbess and showed her all the matter.
Abbess Hild called together all the most learned men and the students,
and by her desire the dream was told to them, and the songs sung to them
that they might all judge what this might be and whence the gift had
come. And they were all sure that a divine gift had been bestowed on
Caedmon by God Himself. They gave him a holy story and words of divine
lore, and bad him sing them if he could, putting them into the measure
of verse. In the morning he came back, having set them in most beautiful
poetry. And after that the Abbess had him instructed, and he left the
life in the world for the religious life. We are told by St Bede that he
made much beautiful verse, being taught much holy lore and making songs
so winsome to hear that his teachers themselves learned at his mouth.

"He sang of the creation of earth and the making of man, and the history
of Genesis, and the going out of the Israelites from the land of the
Egyptians, and their entering into the Land of Promise, and many other
stories told in the Books of the Canon. He also sang concerning the
Humanity of Christ and about His Passion and His Ascension, and about
the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the teaching of the Apostles. And he
sang also of the Judgement to come and of the sweetness of the Kingdom
of Heaven. About these things he made many songs, as well as about the
Divine goodness and judgment. And this poet always had before him the
desire to draw men away from the love of sin and of evil doing, and to
make them earnestly desire to do good deeds."

At last a fair end was set upon his life when, glad of heart, full of
love to those around him, he received Holy Viaticum, and prayed and
signed himself with the Holy Sign, and entered sweetly into his rest.

This is the story told for the most part, as it is best to tell it in
the way in which St Bede recorded it; and Alfred rendered it into the
English of his day, from which English I have now taken it.


Caedmon and his influence. Poem, "Genesis." "The Fall of The Angels."
    "Exodus," English a war-loving race. Destruction of the Egyptians,
    Fate and the Lord of Fate.

We possess poems on the subjects which St Bede tells us that Caedmon
wrote upon, but we cannot be sure that any of these are actually that
poet's work. St Bede tells us that many others after him wrote noble
songs, but he sets Caedmon's work above that of all those others as
having been the product of a gift direct from God. In any case he must
have influenced those who wrote later than he. All our work whether we
are poets, thinkers, fighters, craftsmen, servants, tradesfolk,
teachers, must be only partly in what we do directly. This can to some
extent be measured. We can tell how many hours' work we have done in a
day; how many books we have written in a life's working-time; how much
faithful service we have consciously offered. But by far the larger part
of our work we cannot know. We cannot know how much we may have
influenced others for good, we cannot calculate the effect that we have
had upon them, and, through them, upon others. And to apply this thought
specially to a poet, we may say that what he has done for others by
suggesting, by stimulating, by inspiring, is not only a most valuable
part of his work, but also an immeasurable part. A poet may inspire
another poet simply to sing; or he may inspire him to sing on subjects
akin to those dearest to himself; and the second poet, or the third or
fourth, as it may be, may sing better than the first. But all the same,
he owes it to the first poet, and, in a sense, the work of the latter
poet is a part of the work of the earlier.

The poem "Genesis" is known to be the work of at least two people: part
of it is a version of an old Saxon paraphrase of the Old Testament, and
must have been written later than Caedmon's time. It is always
interesting to know who it was that wrote work we care for, but it is a
more important matter to possess the work itself. People in old times
did not seem to care much whether their names were known or not. The
author, for example, of the book which for so long has been read and
studied and cherished as one of the Church's most treasured
possessions, the "Imitation of Christ," remained for a long time
unknown; and this is by no means a solitary instance. The interest in
literary fame is mostly a modern thing. Besides in these old times
people worked in a different sort of way from now. We must remember that
the art of song went hand in hand with the art of verse-making. All
sorts of people sang the words they had heard, changing, adding, as it
might be; adding to, or taking from the beauty and force of what they
were dealing with, in proportion to the strength of their memory, or the
quality of their imagination.

The story of the "Fall of the Angels" forms part of the "Genesis," and
it is well worth while to consider whether a very great poet of much
later days, John Milton, may not have owed something when writing
"Paradise Lost" to his early forerunner.

"Ten angel-tribes had the Guardian of all, the Holy Lord, created by the
might of His hand, whom He well trusted to work His will in full
allegiance to Him, for He had given them understanding and made them
with His hands, the Lord Most Holy.

"He had set them in such blessedness. One thereof had He made so strong,
so mighty in his intellect; to him did He grant great sway, next to
Himself in the Kingdom of Heaven. So bright had He made him, so
beautiful was his form in Heaven that was given him by the Lord of
Hosts. He was like unto the stars of light. His duty was to praise the
Lord, to laud Him because of his share of the gift of light. Dear was he
to our Lord."

But it could not be hidden from God how pride had taken hold of His
angel. And Satan resolves in that pride not to serve God. Bright and
beautiful in his form, he will not obey the Almighty. He thinks within
himself that he has more might and strength than the Holy God could find
among his fellows. "Why should I toil, seeing there is no need that I
should have a lord? With my hands I can work marvels as many as He.
Great power have I to make ready a goodlier throne, a higher one in
Heaven. Why must I serve Him in liegedom, bow to Him in service? I am
able to be God even as He. Strong comrades stand by me, who will not
fail me in the strife; stout-hearted heroes."

And so does Satan resolve to be the foe of God.

Surely we must be reminded of Milton's great poem when we read how
Satan, ruined and cast into hell, speaks to his comrades, lost with him.
He compares the "narrow place" with the seat he had once known in
Heaven, and denies the right doing of the Almighty in casting him down.
He says too that the chief of his sorrows is that Adam, made out of
earth, shall possess the strong throne that once was his; Adam, made
after God's likeness, from whom Heaven will be peopled with pure souls.
And he plans revenge on God by striving to destroy Adam and his

All this, and the appeal to one of his followers to go upward where Adam
and Eve are, and bring about that they should forsake God's teaching and
break His Commandments, so that weal might depart from them and
punishment await them, may be compared with "Paradise Lost," Books I,

It is needless to say that the English were a war-like race. They loved
the clash of swords, the whizzing of the arrow in its flight, the fierce
combat, the struggle to keep the battle-stead, as they phrased the
gaining of a victory. We shall see more of this by and by. And this
spirit comes out in their poetry written after they had received
Christianity. They delight in the story of struggle, of brave combat,
of victory. They saw in the hosts of Pharaoh the old Teuton warriors,
with the bright-shining bucklers, and the voice of the trumpets and the
waving of banners. Over the doomed host the poet of "Exodus" saw the
vultures soaring in circles, hungry for the fight, when the doomed
warriors should be their prey, and heard the wolves howling their
direful evensong, deeming their food nigh them. Here is the description
of the Destruction of the Egyptians. The translation is by Henry S.

    Then with blood-clots was the blue sky blotted;
    Then the resounding ocean, that road of seamen,
    Threatened bloody horror, till by Moses' hand
    The great Lord of Fate freed the mad waters.
    Wide the sea drove, swept with its death-grip,
    Foamed all the deluge, the doomed ones yielded,
    Seas fell on that track, all the sky was troubled,
    Fell those steadfast ramparts, down crashed the floods.
    Melted were these sea-towers, when the mighty One,
    Lord of Heaven's realm, smote with holy hand
    These heroes strong as pines, that people proud....
    The yawning sea was mad,
    Up it drew, down swirled; dread stood about them,
    Forth welled the sea-wounds. On those war-troops fell,
    As from the heaven high, that handiwork of God.
    Thus swept He down the sea-wall, foamy-billowed,
    The sea that never shelters, struck by His ancient sword,
    Till, by its dint[B] of death, slept the doughty ones;
    An army of sinners, fast surrounded there,
    The sea-pale, sodden warriors their souls up-yielded
    Then the dark upsweltering, of haughty waves the greatest,
    Over them spread; all the host sank deep.
    And thus were drowned the doughtiest of Egypt,
    Pharaoh with his folk. That foe to God,
    Full soon he saw, yea, e'en as he sank,
    That mightier than he was the Master of the waters,
    With His death-grip, determined to end the battle,
    Angered and awful.

[Footnote B: blow.]

How fine a conception it is. Let us notice how far had been travelled
from the old pagan "Fate goeth even as it will" to "the Lord of Fate."
How great is the thought of the vision of God's might, the power of the
Master of the waves, brought before the eyes of Pharaoh before he sinks
in the death-grip that will not let him go!


Allegory. Principle of comparison important in life, language,
    literature. Early use of symbolism; suggested reasons for this. Poem
    of the Phoenix. Allegorical interpretation of the story. Celtic
    influence on English poetry. Gifts of colour, fervour, glow. Various
    gifts of various nations enriching one another.

In these papers we are not going through anything like a course of older
English literature. We are looking at some of the work which our early
writers have left, from the point of view of its being our Catholic
Heritage, and we want to pay special attention to special works, not to
go through a long list of names. It is hoped that the bringing forward
of what is so good and strong in interest may be found really helpful by
those who have little or no time to go to the originals. That it may be
so is alike the desire of writer and publisher.

To-day we are going to consider a poem of a different kind from what we
have had before, an old poem called "The Phoenix."

Literature is full of allusions to the fable of the phoenix; it is
one of those stories which have caught hold of people and fired their
imagination; and the reason is, we may well suppose, because it has
suggested so many comparisons, some of them great and beautiful and
holy. There are some stories which lend themselves easily to an
allegorical interpretation; stories quite true, and yet suggesting
things beyond their own actual scope. I dwell on this before passing on
to the poem, because I want to bring before you the remembrance of what
a tremendous factor in literature, as in thought and in the whole of
life is the principle of comparison, or, as we might put it, the
principle of similitude or likeness. We learn about a thing we do not
know through its likeness, as a whole or in some parts, to a thing we do
know. Our little children can understand most easily something of the
love of Our Father who is in Heaven through the love of their father on
earth: they learn of their Redeemer's Mother, their own dear Mother of
Grace, through their earthly mother, who is ever ready to supply their
wants and give them joy and comfort.

In devotion what do we most need to pray for? Is it not for likeness to
the holy ones and to the holiest of all creatures, Our Lady; and
highest of all, to the Lord, Our Saviour and Example? And is it not the
fairest of promises that one day "we shall be like to Him, for we shall
see Him as He is"? (St John iii.)

So in literature we have, springing from this principle of comparison,
the forms fable, parable, and allegory; and in language the figures of
speech which we know as simile and metaphor.

Ovid, a Roman poet who lived before the Incarnation, tells the old
Eastern fable thus:

"There is a bird that restores and reproduces itself; the Assyrians call
it the Phoenix. It feeds on no common food, but on the choicest of
gums and spices; and after a life of secular length (_i.e._, a hundred
years) it builds in a high tree with cassia, spikenard, cinnamon, and
myrrh, and on this nest it expires in sweetest odours. A young Phoenix
rises and grows, and when strong enough it takes up the nest with its
deposit and bears it to the City of the Sun, and lays it down there in
front of the sacred portals."

It was a much later and a much longer version of the story that our
English poet was debtor to. It was written in Latin by Lactantius, and
the fable there, Professor Earle says, "is so curiously and, as it
were, significantly elaborated, that we hardly know whether we are
reading a Christian allegory or no."

He goes on to say that Allegory has always been a favourite form with
Christian writers, and finds more than one reason for it. There was a
tendency towards symbolism in literature outside Christianity when the
Christian literature arose. Another reason was that the early Christians
used it to convey what it would probably have endangered their lives to
set in plain words; besides this--here I must give the Professor's own
beautiful words--"Christian thought had in its own nature something
which invited allegory, partly by its own hidden sympathies with nature,
and partly by its very immensity, for which all direct speech was felt
to be inadequate." One more reason he suggests, and that is "the
all-pervading and unspeakable sweetness of Christ's teaching by

The Romans used the representation of the phoenix on coins to signify
the desire for fresh life and vigour, and Christian writers used the
phoenix as an emblem of the Resurrection.

Many scholars think that it was Cynewulf who wrote the Anglo-Saxon poem
of "The Phoenix." We are, however, uncertain as to its authorship and
as to its date. Whoever wrote it probably took some hints as to the
allegorical interpretation of the story from both St Ambrose and St
Bede. And this poet, too, gives us much more brightness and colour than
we find in Caedmonic poetry. I use the word "Caedmonic" to cover the
poetry which used to be attributed to Caedmon, and which was probably
written under his influence. That he did write much I have shown in
Chapter I.

I cannot give the poem at full length, but in parts quote from it, and
in part give the gist of it. It begins with a description of the Happy
Land which is the home of the Phoenix. Far away in the East it lies,
that noblest of lands, renowned among men. Not to many of the
earth-owners is it given to have access to that country. God's power
sets it far from the workers of evil. Beautiful is that plain, with joys
endowed and with the sweetest smells of earth. Peerless is the island,
set there by its noble Maker. Oft is the door of Heaven opened for the
blessed ones and the joy of its music known of them. Winsome is the
plain with its wide green woods. And there is neither rain nor snow,
nor breath of frost nor flame of fire, nor the rush of hail, nor the
falling of rime, nor burning heat of the sun, nor everlasting cold, but
blessed and wholesome standeth the plain, and full is the noble country
of the blowing of blossoms.

The glorious land is higher than earth's highest towering mountain,
lying serene in its sunny wooded fairness. Ever and always the trees are
hung with fruits, and never comes the withering of the leaf. No foes may
enter that land, and there is no weeping nor any sorrow, nor losing of
life, nor sin, nor strife, nor age, nor care, nor poverty. When the
Flood covered the earth, this Paradise was shielded from the rush of
angry waters, happy through God's grace and inviolate; and so shall it
remain even to the day of the coming of the Judgement of the Lord.

In this fair country there abides a bird of wondrous beauty and strong
of wing. For him there shall be no death while the world shall last.
Ever he watches the course of the sun, eagerly looks for the radiant
rising over ocean of the noblest of stars, the first work of the Father,
the glowing token of God. At the coming of the sun he flies swift-winged
toward it, singing more wondrously than any son of man hath heard since
the making of heaven and earth. Never was human voice nor sound of any
instrument of music like unto the song. And so twelve times by day he
marks the hours, as twelve times by night he has marked them by his bath
in the glorious fountain, and his drink of its cool clear water.

A thousand years go on, and the burden of years is upon him, and he
flies to a spacious lonely realm and there abides alone. He is lord over
all the birds, and dwells with them in the wilderness. He flies
westward, attended by a great throng, till he gains the country of the
Syrians. Then he sends away his retinue, and stays alone in a grove,
hidden from human eyes. Here is a lofty tree, blossoming bright above
all other trees, and on this tree the Phoenix builds his nest, on a
windless day, when the holy jewel of heaven shines clear. For he is fain
by the activity of his mind to convert old age into life, and thus renew
his youth. He gathers from far and near the sweetest and most
delightsome plants and leaves, and the sweetest perfumes that the Father
of all beginnings has made. On the lofty top of the tree he builds his
house fair and winsome, and sets round his body holy spices and noble
boughs. Then, in the great sheen of mid-day, the Phoenix sits, looking
out on the world and enduring his fate. Suddenly his house is set on
fire by the radiant sun, and amid the glowing spices and sweet odours,
bird and nest burn together in the fierce heat. The life of him, the
soul, escapes when the flame of the funeral pile sears flesh and bone.

Then comes the resurrection of the Phoenix, who rises from the ashes
of his old body, young and wondrously beautiful. Fed on the honey-dew
that oft descends at midnight, he remains a while before his return to
his own dwelling-place, his home of yore.

When he goes he is accompanied by a great retinue of the bird-folk, who
proclaim him their leader. Ere he reaches his own country he outstrips
them all, and comes home alone in his splendour and his might. And the
next thousand years go on, and again comes the change to this creature
who has no dread of death, since he is ever assured of new life after
the fury of the flame.

And so it is that every blessed soul will choose for himself to enter
into everlasting life through the dark portals of death. Much of a like
kind does this bird's nature shadow forth concerning the chosen
followers of Christ, how they may possess pure happiness here, and
secure exalted bliss hereafter.

The allegorical significance is explained by the old poet at
considerable length. The main thought is, of course, the great
Resurrection in which, day by day, we all profess our belief; the
Resurrection through the fire that "shall be astir, and shall consume
iniquities"; the Resurrection at the Day of Judgement, when the just
shall be once more young and comely in the glory of joy and praise,
singing in adoration of the peerless King: "Peace and wisdom and
blessing for these Thy gifts, and for every good, be unto Thee, the true
God, throned in majesty. Infinite, high, and holy is the power of Thy
might. The heavens on high with the angels, are full of the glory, O
Father Almighty, Lord of all gods, and the earth also. Defend us, Author
of Creation. Thou art the Father Almighty in the highest, the Lord of

How familiarly these words ring! For our heritage of praise has come to
us from afar and from of old.

And again rises the chant triumphant, to the endless honour of the
Eternal Son, whose coming into the world and birth and death are all
typified by the mystical Phoenix.

I have dwelt at considerable length upon this poem for various reasons.
One is that it is of a special kind, the allegorical; another is that,
as I have pointed out, it is full of a richness and colour and love of
nature, which is not found in the earlier poetry. Where does it come
from? It is most probably part of the Celtic influence which has set its
magic touch upon English poetry and given to it that "light that never
was on sea or land." It has done far more than give a sense of colour
and beauty and nature-love. More than the love of nature in its beauty
is the sense of fellowship between man and nature, the sense that makes
man see his own joy and sorrow reflected in the mighty heart of Nature.
This is a very big subject, and can only be touched on here. The
beginning of this influence, which came also from Wales and France, is
due to Ireland. We must never forget how great a debt England owes to
Ireland. May we say that it was from the Irish missionaries whose feet
hallowed the soil of Iona that the English north country caught that
intense glowing love of the Holy Faith, which even still, in a measure,
differentiates the north of England from the south?[C] We must value
very greatly the solid foundation of strength, sincerity, what we call
_grit_, directness of expression, simplicity, to be found in early
English work; all these being great things, yet capable of receiving
into their fellowship and above it and beyond it, that which should give
what we look for in a great literature; the power of appeal to various
kinds of people, to "all sorts and conditions of men." And to Celtic
influence, Irish, British, French, we look for that which turns grey,
however fair a grey, to green, and purest pallor to the glory of
whiteness. It is beautiful, is it not, to think how various kinds of men
and women can help to complete one another by giving and taking what
each has to give, and each needs to take? It is the same with nations:
each has its own gifts, its own needs; and for a great and noble
world-literature we need the gifts of all.

[Footnote C: I have not, of course, forgotten the mission of St
Paulinus; but, as history shows, this does not affect the question here.
Glow and fervour permeate life, and literature being its outcome could
not but keep the mark of what had been set upon that life.]


Prose-writing. St Bede the Venerable. His love of truth. His industry
    and carefulness. Cuthbert's account of his last days. "Bede whom God

We leave our poets now for a time, and go to the writers of prose in
early days. We want first to think about a beautiful-souled religious,
who gave us the first great historical work done in England. We know him
as St Bede, the Venerable Bede, as he has been called from the epithet
inscribed on his tomb in Durham Cathedral, which bears the words

    Hac sunt in fossa
    Bedæ Venerabilis ossa.

"In this grave are the bones of Venerable Bede." We know the old story
how the pupil who was writing his dear master's epitaph could not find
the right word, as it has happened to many a one for the time being; and
how he slept and awoke to find the word supplied by the gracious angel

In his Benedictine cell at Jarrow, St Bede read and thought and wrote;
and all that he wrote was done in noble sincerity of purpose, springing
from the dedication of his whole soul to Him who is truth itself. He
told as history what he believed to be true, and collected his materials
from sources acknowledged to be trustworthy; and he is always careful to
tell us when he gives a story on evidence only hearsay.

St Bede refused to be Abbot of Jarrow, because "the office demands
household care, and household care brings with it distraction of mind,
which hinders the pursuit of learning."

He wrote many things, and it has been said that his writings form nearly
a complete encyclopædia of the knowledge of his day; but the work of St
Bede by which he is best known is the "Church History of the English
Race." It is of greater value than we can tell, and has been used for
many generations for knowledge and help.

The history of England was in St Bede's time inseparable from the
history of her Church, as we pray that one day it may again come to be.

The book begins with a short account of Britain before the coming of St
Augustine. St Bede used old writers for this, and he was much helped by
two of his friends, Albinus and Northelm. Northelm used to make
researches for him at Rome, and brought him copies of letters written by
St Gregory the Great, and other Popes, bearing on the Church history of
Britain. From other sources also he took the information which has come
down through him to us, a heritage for which we cannot be too grateful.
Our two great early histories are the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," and
Bede's "Church History of the English Race." Without these, what could
our historians have done?

This great book of St Bede's was, like almost all his work, written in
Latin; the grand old tongue in which our priests say their daily Office
and minister at God's altar. It was King Alfred who gave us a free
translation of it in English. But although it was written in Latin, it
belongs absolutely to our Catholic Heritage in English Literature.

Bede was the first historian to date from the Incarnation of Our Lord,
the form which we have always used. The History comes down to A.D. 731,
a short time before its author went to his rest. We can never think of
St Bede as a mere bookman, a purely "literary man." His own character,
truth-loving, wise, devoted, cheerful, has been felt through his work; a
character that has made people love him and stretch out hands of
affection to him across the heaping-up of the years. How glad are we to
say, we, students, workers, all of us, "St Bede, pray for us."

There is a lovely account of St Bede's last days handed down to us in a
letter written by his pupil Cuthbert, to another of his pupils, Cuthwin.
Cuthwin had written, telling Cuthbert how he was diligently saying
Masses, and praying for their "father and master, Bede, whom God loved,"
and Cuthbert is glad to answer his fellow-student's enquiries as to the
departure of that "dear father and master."

His death-illness began "a fortnight before the day of Our Lord's
Resurrection," and lasted till Holy Thursday. All the time he was full
of joy and thanksgiving. Cuthbert says he has never seen any man "so
earnest in giving thanks to the living God."

He made a little poem in English about the absolute importance of
everybody considering, before his departure, what good or ill he has
done, and how his soul is to be judged after death. "He also sang
antiphons," says Cuthbert, "according to our custom and use." Cuthbert
gives one of them, which is the lovely antiphon to the "Magnificat" at
second Vespers on Ascension Day.

His work went on during his illness. He was making a translation of part
of St John's Gospel into English, "for the benefit of the Church," and
was working at "Some collections out of the 'Book of Notes' of Bishop
Isodorus, saying, 'I will not have my pupils read a falsehood, nor
labour therein without profit after my death.'" As the time went on his
difficulty of breathing increased, and last symptoms began to appear;
but he dictated cheerfully, anxious to do all that he could. On the
Wednesday he ordered them to write with all speed what he had begun; and
then "we walked till the third hour with the relics of saints, according
to the custom of that day."

Then one of them said, "Most dear Master, there is still one chapter
wanting: do you think it troublesome to be asked any more questions?" He
answered, "It is no trouble. Take your pen, and make ready, and write

After this he distributed little gifts to the priests, and spoke to
all, asking that Masses and prayers might be said for him. His desire
was, like St Paul's, to die and be with Christ: Christ Whom he had so
loved, and at Whose feet he had laid all his gifts and all his learning.

"One sentence more," said the boy, was yet to be written. The Master bad
him write quickly. "The sentence is now written," said the boy. And the
dear Saint knew that the end was come, and asked them to receive his
head into their hands. And there sitting, facing the holy place where he
had been used to pray, he sang his last song of praise, "Glory be to the
Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost," and "when he named the
Holy Ghost he breathed his last and so departed to the Heavenly

St Bede was buried at Jarrow, but his relics were afterwards taken to
Durham by a priest named Elfrid, and laid by St Cuthbert's side. In the
twelfth century a glorious shrine was built over these relics by the
Bishop of Durham, Hugh Pudsey: a shrine that, like many another, was
destroyed in the sixteenth century uprising of the king of the country
against the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ.


King Alfred, first layman to be a great power in literature; man of
    action; of thought; of endurance. Freedom first great possession;
    afterwards learning and culture. Alfred a loyal Son of the Church.
    Founder of English prose. Earliest literature of a nation in verse;
    why. Influence of Rome on Alfred.

"Let us praise the men of renown," says Holy Scripture (Ecclesiasticus,
44), "and our fathers in their generations.... Such as have borne rule
in their dominions, men of great power and endued with their wisdom ...
ruling over the present people, and by the strength of wisdom
instructing the people in most holy words."

We have to think now of a man of renown who bore rule in his dominions;
a man of great power, and endued with wisdom; who by strength and wisdom
instructed his people in most holy words. We have hitherto spoken of
work done in the dedicated life of religion: to-day we direct our
attention to the work of a great layman; the first English layman whom
we know to have been a great power in literature; less as a "maker,"
poet or proseman, than as an opener out to "makers" of precious store; a
helper and encourager; a fellow-student; a learner and a teacher of whom
it could be said, as Chaucer says of his Clerk of Oxford, "gladly would
he learn and gladly teach."

[Illustration: STATUE OF KING ALFRED, BY H. THORNEYCROFT, R.A. [_Page 48_]

It would not, I think, be possible for English people to over-estimate
the value of the gift God gave them in KING AELFRED. That is really the
right way to spell his name, but as to most people it looks unfamiliar,
we will adopt the more usual spelling and write of him as Alfred.

We think of him in various aspects: first as the strong, brave man who
did so much toward making noble history for time to come, by his own
action, guided by his piety and devotion. His earliest work was to fight
for the gaining of freedom and unity for his people, and this work went
over many years. When there was an interval of peace, and when a more
settled peace had been won, he worked hard to gain for them the freedom
of the mind which can never exist where ignorance is reigning. Freedom
is the first great possession; afterwards we seek for learning and
culture. People who may be called away at any moment to fight for life
or liberty cannot do much in the way of quiet study; and while the
Danes were not yet finally repulsed or bound by treaty, the great work
of Alfred in civilizing England had to remain in suspense.

We love to think that Alfred's wars were not to greaten himself, but to
set his country free. Then, as later on, if I may quote what I have
elsewhere said, the English

   Had fought for their God-given birthright, their country to have and to hold,
   And not for the lust of conquest, and not for the hunger of gold.

There is another aspect in which we may look at this great King; we
think of him not only as a doer but as a sufferer; and not only as an
endurer of disappointment, a bearer of toil, difficulty, trouble, but as
one who bore in his body a "white martyrdom" of great pain, perhaps even
anguish; and this for some twenty years.

Alfred was always a loyal son of the Church. His father, Æthelwulf, sent
him to Rome when he was quite a little boy, and Pope Leo IV was
godfather to him at his Confirmation, and, on hearing the report of
Æthelwulf's death, consecrated him as king, as he had been asked to do.
But Æthelwulf did not die for a little time after, and took Alfred for
a second visit to Rome. Each of Alfred's three brothers reigned a short
time before he became King of Wessex in 871. In that same year he fought
no fewer than nine battles against the Danes, besides making sundry
raids upon them. It is well to be a good fighting man where need is, and
it is well to use the qualities that go to the making up of the good
fighting man to meet the difficulties that beset the path of duty and
the way of progress. Courage, strength, generosity, perseverance, these
are needed for all work alike in peace and war.

Alfred was familiar in his youth with English songs, and most probably
knew the old Norse sagas; but he had to learn Latin in his later life.
We must remember that most of the literature which Alfred could get at
was locked up in Latin; even the invaluable Church History of St Bede
needed a translator's key; and it was Alfred who first applied this key
to it.

When we think of the prose written in England in early days, we are
thinking of the work of scholars, in a grand language that had done
growing; a language that was to be in Western Christendom the language
of religion, the language of the altar, for how long a time who can
know? the language that gave birth to other languages, as its
literature so powerfully influenced both theirs and that of others not
descended from it. Not yet was the time for a great prose literature in
England, such as grew up many a year ago, and is going on in our own

The earliest literature of a people is almost invariably in verse: the
literature that comes from the heart of a people, and is not the
production of a few learned folk. In early days, there was little
reading or writing, except in the shelter of the great monasteries. The
common folk-literature, which is a very precious thing, is preserved, in
such times as we are thinking of, in people's memories, and circulated
by recitation, this recitation being accompanied by music or by
rhythmical movements of the body. We all know how much easier it is to
remember a page of verse than a page of prose. Thus, the form that could
most easily be carried in the memory and recited, would naturally be the
first to flourish.

We have seen something of early English religious poetry in Caedmon's
work and that of his followers; and next we shall come back to poetry
with Cynewulf, who made great and holy verse.

But beside such work as these poems which were written by cultivated
men, many poems and fragments of verse were floating about the land,
come over from the old native country with the first Angles and Saxons
who made their home in Britain. These were dear to the people and dear,
as we shall see, to the greatest among their kings, Alfred, who was, we
may say, the founder of English prose. It was not English prose as we
know English prose, because the language was then more like German than
anything else; but it was prose in the native tongue, and this was a
good and great thing to begin.

In our gratitude to Alfred, we must not forget our gratitude to the
English scholars of older days, none of whom had put us under so great a
debt as our dear old Benedictine of Jarrow.

A later writer than St Bede, though not so great as he, was Alcuin of
York, who was invited by no less a man than Charlemagne to teach his
children, and who became, as it has been phrased, a sort of Minister of
Public Education in his empire.

Alcuin was good as well as great, and I will give you a little instance
of the rightness of his thought. In a Dialogue which he wrote, in his
teaching days, he supposes Prince Pepin to ask the question, "What is
the liberty of man?" and the answer is, "Innocence."

But the evil days of invasion and war and trouble had swept learning
from its northern home; and Alfred's work was to bring it back to
another part of England.


Decay of learning in England. Revival under Alfred. His translations.
    Edits English Chronicle. His helpers. Some of his sayings.
    Missionary spirit. "Alfred commanded to make me."

We cannot forget the impression that must have been made upon Alfred by
his stay in Rome, young as he was at the time, he being in the centre of
royal state while there, and also being himself a royal child to whom
much would be told and under whose notice much would be brought; and
who, from his position, would be expected to mark and remember much.
Long afterwards, he would recall the magnificence he had seen, and
associate it with the glories of the double history of Rome; Rome pagan
and Rome Christian: Rome, the great conqueror and law-giver, spiritual
as well as temporal. Very often, after Alfred was king, he sent over
embassies and gifts to Rome, loving her, and reverencing her as it was
meet he should. The Holy Father granted him certain privileges for the
English school at Rome, and sent him a piece of the wood of the Holy

There is a pretty story told of Alfred's early learning to read English
verse. Even if it is not true, it points to his love of English, as well
as learning; a love which never left him. He wanted English to be taught
in schools, and he loved the old poems. We owe to him the translation of
the account of the first English poet, Caedmon, from which I have quoted
in my first chapter. But rightly, he felt the very great importance of
learning Latin, and so he learned it himself, and made others learn it

When Alfred came to the throne, he tells us, learning had fallen away so
utterly in England that there were very few of the clergy, on the south
side of the Humber, who could understand the Latin of their Mass-books,
and he thinks not many beyond the Humber. This state of things was very
different from that of old times when the clergy were "so keen about
both teaching and learning and all the services they owed to God": very
different from St Bede's time, and the days when Northumbria was a
centre of learning and culture. Alfred was to create a new centre, not
in the North but in Wessex. Later on, the centre of learning and
cultivation was shifted to the East Midlands, whose dialect became the
language of England, and whose great poet, Chaucer, was the greatest
English poet before Spenser and Shakespere.

In his studies Alfred was helped by various friends, the chief of whom
was a Welsh Bishop, named Asser. So greatly did Alfred value Asser that
he wanted him to live altogether at Court; but Asser felt, it is to be
supposed, that this would not be right, and arranged to spend half his
time in Wales and half with the King. From him we learn a great deal
about Alfred.

One of the Latin books translated by Alfred--perhaps the first--was
called the "Pastoral Care" ("Cura Pastoralis"). It was written by St
Gregory the Great, and was intended for the clergy as a guide to their
duties. The king had a copy sent to every bishopric. He called it the
Herdsman's Book, or Shepherd's Book. Sending all these copies made of
course a great deal of work for scribes or "bookers," as we may render
the old "bóceras," the copyists who had to write out all their books by

As various books had been turned into the "own tongue" of various
nations, so would Alfred give to his people in their "own tongue" books
of help, of knowledge, of wisdom. This is how Alfred tells us he worked.

"I began to turn into English the book which in Latin is named
'Pastoralis,' and in English 'Shepherd's Book'; sometimes word for word,
sometimes meaning for meaning, as I had learned it from Plegmund, my
Archbishop, and Asser my Bishop, and from Grimbold, my Mass-priest, and
from John, my Mass-priest."

At the end of the translation, Alfred put some little verses of his own.

Alfred as we have seen, translated St Bede's History, omitting many
chapters which contained things he may be supposed to have thought were
not of general interest. He also edited the English, usually called the
Anglo-Saxon, Chronicle, which begins with the invasion of Julius Caesar,
and ends with the accession of Henry II. There are a good many MSS. of
it, the earliest of which ends with the year 855. We owe this work, as
we owe so much beside, to the care of the monks who wrote it, adding to
it probably, year by year, sometimes giving poetry as well as prose. It
contains several poems, among them the vigorous lay of the Battle of
Brunanburh, fought in 937 by Athelstane against the Scots and Danes.
You will find a rendering of it among Tennyson's poems, made by him from
a prose translation of his son's. This editing of the A.S. Chronicle was
very important work, work that has helped generations of history-writers
and students. Where should we be without these Histories? How much of it
Alfred actually did himself we do not know: we may suppose he had a good
deal to do with the chronicling of the events of his own reign. I wonder
whether it was he that wrote how three bold Irishmen came over from
Ireland in a boat without any rudder, having stolen away from their
country, "because they desired for the love of God to be in a state of
pilgrimage, they recked not where." They had a boat made of "two hides
and a half," and provisions for a week. They got to Cornwall on the
seventh day, and soon after went to Alfred. We have no account of their
visit to the King, but I think he would have welcomed them right warmly,
and loved to hear how big souls ride in little cockleshells. We know
their names at least: Dubslane, Macbeth, and Maclinnuim. And immediately
after this record we are told something that must also in a different
way have greatly interested Alfred. "And Swifneh, the best teacher
among the Scots (Irish) died."

Another book that Alfred translated was the History written by a Spanish
priest called Orosius, a disciple of St Augustine's (of Hippo), which
"was looked upon as a standard book of universal history." Alfred by no
means gave a literal translation, but used great freedom, and omitted
some things and put in others which he judged of greater interest and
importance for Englishmen. Alfred enlarged the account of Northern
Europe, which he knew a great deal of. He also added the accounts of the
voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, the former of whom got round the north
of Scandinavia and explored the White Sea. Wulfstan's voyage also was of
importance. Both these men told Alfred their stories, and he
incorporated them in the History. They came to see him, and Ohthere gave
him teeth of the walrus, and no doubt Alfred listened to all they told
him, with the keenest interest.

"The account of Ohthere's voyage holds a unique position as the first
attempt to give expression to the spirit of discovery."

Alfred knew how to use helpers. All who understand the "ought to be"
take help as well as give it. The good King encouraged others, and the
office of encourager is no mean part of the office of helper. We cannot
do our work in the world alone: God meant us to work with others, and
man's best work as an individual can never be independent of the work of
others, those who are living or those who have gone before.

Another of the books translated by Alfred was the "Consolations of
Philosophy," by a good and thoughtful Consul of Rome, who was put to
death by Theodoric, the Arian King of the East Goths. He wrote the book
in prison, and there was so much in it that was felt to be in accord
with Christian teaching that some people thought Boethius must have
belonged to the body of Holy Church.

A Christian writer, finding a book seeming to possess much of the spirit
of Christianity, would naturally study it and frequently use it; and
Boethius's book, with more or less adaptation, grew to be a great
favourite with Christians. Its influence can be traced in the work of
the greatest Catholic poet, Dante, and in that of the great English
poet, Chaucer, who rendered it into the English of his day.

Alfred made the translation definitely Christian. For instance, he
writes of "God" and "Christ" where Boethius says "love" or "the good";
and he writes of "angels" instead of "divine substance."

I will give you one or two specimens of the additions to Boethius with
which Alfred is credited.

"He that will have eternal riches, let him build the house of his mind
on the footstone of lowliness; not on the highest hill where the raging
wind of trouble blows, or the rain of measureless anxiety."

"Power is never a good unless he be good who has it."

Here is what he has to say of being well-born:

"Art thou more fair for other men's fairness? A man will not be the
better because he had a well-born father, if he himself is nought. The
only thing which is good in noble descent is this, that it makes men
ashamed of being worse than their elders, and strive to do better than

And here is his standard of self-respect:

"We under-worth ourselves when we love that which is lower than

[Footnote D: Translation by Miss Kate Warren.]

These sayings are worth copying into a little book such as Alfred kept
to note down things he wanted to keep track of. Asser tells us this,
and he tells us of the "Handbook" which grew to a great size, from this
collecting habit of Alfred's. The book was unfortunately lost.

By no means have we exhausted the interest of Alfred's story. It would
be indeed difficult to do so; but we must now bid him good-bye.

We love to think how, amidst all his cares and work for his kingdom, he
had the true Catholic Missionary spirit; for he sent embassies to India,
with alms for "the Christians of St Thomas and St Bartholomew."

There is a valuable thing which we possess, known as the "Alfred Jewel":
it has on it an inscription which we can truly say applies to far more
than this work of art. Its application to Alfred's work is indeed a very
wide one:

    Alfred commanded to make me.


Some of greatest pre-Conquest poetry associated with name of Cynewulf.
    Guesses about him. Little known. Probably North-countryman, eighth
    century, an educated man. Finding of the Cross. Elene, story of St
    Helena's mission. Constantine goes to fight invaders. Vision of the
    Cross. Victory. Journey of St Helena, and search for the Cross. The

We are going now to consider some of the greatest poetry written before
the Conquest. It associates itself with the name of Cynewulf, a name
with which certain poems are signed in runes. By-and-by we shall hear
something about runes and the old writing; and something also about
where our old treasures of literature, part of our dear Catholic
heritage, are found in their original form.

As I have said, certain poems are signed with Cynewulf's name; and there
are others which are with more or less probability of rightness
attributed to him on grounds of likeness of subject, likeness of style,
similar greatness of treatment.

About Cynewulf himself we know, I may say, nothing except what we
gather from his work. Various guesses have been made, and various
theories formed, identifying him with one or other of the men about whom
we know something; but for the present, at all events, we must be
content to think that he probably lived in the eighth century, and that
he probably was a North-countryman. All his writings have come to us in
the dialect of Wessex, except some parts of a poem known as the "Dream
of the Holy Rood." These are carved on an old cross, which I will speak
of by-and-by, and they are in the Northumbrian dialect; but the
manuscript of the entire poem is in West Saxon.

Scholars are working upon old materials and discoveries are being made
and theories formed which are at variance with what used to be set down
as certainty. The main thing is that we have these poems, and that we
want to know about them and learn to prize them. If we want to know them
thoroughly and prize them as they deserve, we must take the trouble to
learn the language they are written in. But many of us have not time for
this, and so must be content, for the present, at least, with making
their acquaintance through translations.

Perhaps Cynewulf was a poet who lived as one of the household of some
great lord, and wrote more at his ease than if he had been merely an
itinerant singer, a "gleeman," who sang his songs as he went about. He
appears, at any rate, to have been an educated man, and I think no one
can read his poetry without feeling that he was a man of deep and
fervent piety.

There are four poems signed by Cynewulf, and these are named "Christ,"
"Juliana," "The Fates of the Apostles," and "Elene." Certain "Riddles"
have also been attributed to him.

The poems I am going to bring before you now are the "Elene" and a poem
on the Holy Cross, which has been attributed to Cynewulf, and which I
for one--and I am not by any means alone in this--love to believe that
he must have written. The "Phoenix," about which we thought in a
former chapter, has by some been supposed to be his. Then there is the
"Judith," of which we possess enough to make us recognise it as indeed
one of our great possessions; but to-day the two poems I have named will
give us enough to think of. To adapt a lovely Scriptural phrase (Judith
vii, 7), there are springs whereof we refresh ourselves a little rather
than drink our fill. Let us drink, if not our fill, at least a draught
long and deep.

We have a church festival, instituted many hundred years ago, the
Festival of the Finding of the Cross. Let us hear something of what our
old poet sings concerning this in the poem named after the heroine of
the finding, St Helena; the poem known as "Elene."

Cynewulf is one of the poets of the Cross. His poetry is literally
stamped with the mark of the Holy Rood. Read over the grand Church
hymns, the "Vexilla Regis," the "Pange lingua gloriosi lauream
certaminis," or recall them in your memory--their Passiontide echoes
sound under the triumphant pealing of the bells of Easter--and then be
glad that one of your own poets has also sent down the ages the song of
his love and his reverence.

Cynewulf knew well the story of Constantine's vision of the Cross of
Victory whereby he was to conquer. He would also have had in mind the
story, not so far remote from his own day, of the English King, St
Oswald, who reared a cross to God's honour before he fought with
Cadwalla, the pagan Welsh king. He would remember how the Saint had
called upon his comrades at Heavenfield to fall down with him before the
Cross and pray Almighty God for salvation from the mighty foe. He would
recall the great victory and the cross-shaped church built to
commemorate it. He knew well the honour of the Cross. He had often knelt
to adore what it symbolised, when he saw it raised on high, lifted up on
the Church's Festival. And he loved the Cross with a great and fervid

The poem of his making tells us how the great army of the Huns and
Goths[E] came against Constantine; how the warriors marched on, having
raised the standard of war with shoutings and the clashing of shields.
Bright shone their darts and their coats of linked mail. The wolf in the
wood howled out the song of war; he kept not the secret of the
slaughter. The dewy-feathered eagle raised a song on the track of the

[Footnote E: This, of course, is unhistorical.]

The King of the Romans was sorrow-smitten when he saw the countless host
of the foreign men upon the river-bank. In his sleep that night came the
vision of one in the likeness of a man, white and bright of hue. The
messenger named him by his name. The helmet of night glided apart. The
behest was given to look up to Heaven to find help, a token of victory.
The Emperor's heart was opened and he looked up as the angel, the
lovely weaver of peace, had bidden him. Above the roof of clouds he saw
the Tree of Glory with its words of promise. The great battle came, when
the Holy Sign was borne forth. Loud sang the trumpets. The raven was
glad thereof, and the dewy-feathered eagle looked on at the march, and
the wolf lifted up his howling. The terror of war was there, the clash
of shields and the mingling of men, and the heavy sword-swing and the
felling of warriors.

When the standard was raised, the Holy Tree, the foe was scattered far
and wide. From break of day till eventide the flying foe was pursued;
his number was indeed made small. It was but a few of the best of the
Huns that went home again.

How the old fighting spirit delights in the "pomp and circumstance of
glorious war"! How it loves to have the clash of spear and shield strike
upon the ear, and to hear how the voice of the eagle and the raven, and
the howl of the wolf, proclaim the place of slaughter, the reek of

Cynewulf calls the angel who stood by Constantine in his vision a
"weaver of peace"; but the peace was to be woven after conflict, and the
wearer of the victor's palm had first to wield the fighter's sword.

When Constantine had learned about the Cross from the few Christians he
could find, he believed and was baptized, says the poet. (In reality his
baptism took place just before his death, several years later.)

The thought of the Tree was ever with Constantine, and when he had
returned he sent his mother with a multitude of warriors to Jerusalem,
on the quest of the Holy Rood that was hidden underground. Helena was
soon ready for her willing journey, and set forth with her escort.

                           The steeds of the sea
    Round the shore of the ocean ready were standing,
    Cabled sea-horses, at rest on the water.
    Then they let o'er the billows the foamy ones go,
    The high wave-rushers. The hull oft received
    O'er the mingling of waters the blows of the waves.
    The sea resounded.

What delight there is to the poet in the sea and its ships!

When they come to Jerusalem, after much enquiry of the wisest men, and
great difficulty, the Queen is conducted to the Mount of Crucifixion, by
one Judas who knows the story of Redemption, and who the Queen insists
shall point out the resting place of the Holy Rood. It is found by the
winsome smoke that rises at the prayer of Judas, who forthwith makes
full confession of his belief in Him who hung upon that Cross. The
three crosses are together, buried far down in the earth, and Judas digs
deep and brings them up, and they are laid before the knees of the
Queen. Glad of heart she asks on which of them the Son of the Ruling One
had suffered. The Lord's Cross is revealed by its power to raise a dead
man who is brought to the place.

Satan assaults Judas, angry and bitter, for again his power has been
brought low. One Judas has made him joyful: the second Judas has humbled
him. He is boldly answered when he pours out threats and foretells that
another king than Constantine will arise to persecute. (Probably the
allusion is to Julian the Apostate.) But Judas answers boldly, and
Helena rejoices at the wisdom with which in so short a time he has been

Far and near the glorious news is spread, and word is sent the Emperor
how the Victorious Token has been found. Then comes the building of a
church by his mother, at his desire; and the adorning of the Rood with
gold and jewels fair and splendid, and its enclosure in a silver chest.
Judas is baptized, and becomes Bishop of Jerusalem under the new name of

The holy nails of the Passion have yet to be found, and again the earth
yields up her treasure. A man great in wisdom tells Elene to bid the
noblest of the kings of the earth to put them on his bridle, make
thereof his horse's bit. This shall bring him good speed in war, and
blessing and honour and greatness.


The Poet's love of the Cross: how he saw it in a double aspect. The
    dream of the Holy Rood. The Ruthwell Cross.

Now let us read what our poet says about the Festival of the Finding of
the Cross.[F]

[Footnote F: The phrase "Invention of the Cross" means the finding of
it; the word invention in English does not now translate the Latin

                          To each of these men
    Be hell's door shut, heaven's unclosed,
    Eternally opened the kingdom of angels,
    Joy without end, and their portion appointed
    Along with Mary, who takes into mind
    The one most dear of festal days
    Of that rood under heaven.

The poet wrote about the Holy Cross, not just because it was a
picturesque subject, capable of picturesque treatment, one that would
make a fine poem; but because, as he tells us, Holy Wisdom had revealed
to him "wider knowledge through her glorious power over the thoughts of
the mind." He tells us how the fetters of sin had bound him in their
bitter bondage, and how, stained and sorrowful, light came to him, and
the Mighty King bestowed on him His bountiful grace, and gave him light
and liberty, opening his heart and setting free for him the gift of
song, that gift which, he says, he has used in the world joyfully and
with a good will.

Not once alone, he says, did he meditate upon the Tree of Glory, but
over and over again. He thought upon it until all his soul was saturated
with it, and hallowed and consecrated for ever.

He may have venerated the Cross in public on the anniversary of the
Lord's Crucifixion. Certainly, many a time he had venerated it in
private. Perhaps, like Alcuin, his habit was to bow toward the Cross
whenever he saw it, and whisper the prayer "Tuam crucem adoramus,
Domine, et Tuam gloriosam recolimus passionem."[G]

[Footnote G: The Veneration of the Cross, or Creeping to the Cross, was
known in Anglo-Saxon times, but whether as early as Cynewulf's day,
seems uncertain.]

He was old, he tells us, when he "wove word-craft, made his poem,
framing it wondrously, pondering and sifting his thoughts in the

The Cross had brought him light and healing, and at the foot of the
Cross he laid his gift of song.

It is a moot point whether the "Elene" or the "Dream of the Holy Rood"
came first. The poetry of the "Dream" is as fine as the conception is
grand, and, at whatever time it was written, it must be classed as being
at the high-water mark of the poet's work.

Wonderful things have been given to us "under the similitude of a
dream"; things beautiful and terrible, things wise and strange. There
have been Dreamers of Dreams into whose souls have sunk the sight and
the hearing of deep things, high things and precious, of comfort and of
warning, of sweetest help and of gravest and most earnest exhortation.

The speech of these Dreamers has sounded in our ears, and has left the
vibrations to go on and on for our lifetime: this we call remembering.

In English literature we have some great tellings "under the similitude
of a dream." We have the nineteenth-century "Dream of Gerontius," our
great Cardinal's drama of the soul in its parting and after. We have the
seventeenth-century dream from the darkness of Bedford Gaol, whence John
Bunyan saw the pilgrims on their way, through dangers and trials, on to
the river that must be crossed before they could come to the Celestial
City. We have the fourteenth-century dream of the gaunt, sad-souled
William Langley, the dreamer of the Malvern Hills. And, earlier by many
a century, we have the dream of the dreamer at the depth of midnight,
the midnight whose heart was bright with the splendour of the glorious
vesting and gem-adorning of the Cross of Jesus Christ, and dark with the
moisture of the Sacred Blood that oozed therefrom.

We have first the simple, quiet prelude.

    Lo, I will tell of the best of dreams, I dreamed at the deep midnight,
    When all men lay at rest.

Then comes the description of the Cross in its glory. It is uplift and
girt with light, flooded with gold and set with precious gems. This is
followed by the seeing through the glory, the seeing of the anguish. The
hues are shifted from dark to bright; the light of gold lights it, and
yet anon it is wet, defiled with Blood. Here are the two sides of the
Passion: the veiled glory, and the illumined anguish: the supreme might,
and the absolute weakness: the darkness of the grave, and the light of
the Resurrection.

While time shall be, the Cross is to us all the Book where we may read
all we choose to read, all God sends us grace to read. Cynewulf chose to
read, and with Cynewulf was the grace of God.

The poet lies beholding the wondrous sight: the sight that all God's
fair angels beheld, and all the universe, and men of mortal breath.

The Rood speaks to Cynewulf. To us, with every look upon the Cross,
should come, would come, were we alive all through with keen, sweet,
spiritual life, the voice telling of the Passion, of the victory, of the
glory. Cynewulf heard the Rood tell how long ago it was hewn down,
ordained to lift up the evil-doers, to bear the law-breakers.

    They bore me on their shoulders then, on hill they set me high,
    And made me fast, a many foes. Then mankind's Lord drew nigh,
    With Mighty courage hasting Him to mount on me and die.
    Though all earth shook, I durst not bend or break without His word;
    Firm I must stand, nor fall and crush the gazing foes abhorred.
    Then the young Hero dighted Him: Almighty God was He:
    Steadfast and very stout of heart mounted the shameful tree,
    Brave in the sight of many there, when man He fain would free.
    I trembled when He clasped me round, yet groundward durst not bend,
    I must not fall to lap of earth, but stand fast to the end.

We notice the obedience of the Cross. In its absolute sympathy with its
Creator's agony, its indignation at the horrible crime of His enemies,
it would fain have fallen and crushed the gazing foes abhorred. But this
was not to be, any more than fire was to come down from heaven at the
Boanerges' call when they were fain to avenge the insult put upon their
Master, whom the people of the Samaritan city would not receive (Luke
ix, 52, etc.).

The Great King is lifted up, and the Rood dare not even stoop: the dark
nails pierce the Cross, and it stands, companion of its Maker's agony
and shame.

    Oh, many were the grievous things upon that hill I bare:
    I saw the God of Hosts Himself stretched in His anguish there:
    The darkness veiled its Maker's corpse with clouds; the shades did weigh
    The bright light down with evil weight, wan under sky that day.
    Then did the whole creation weep and the King's death bemoan;
    Christ was upon the Rood.

How great is the poet's insight! How deeply must he have entered into
the fellowship of that supreme suffering! He knows that throughout
creation that cup is being drunk from, as even yet it is in the groaning
and travailing of every creature, waiting for the adoption of the sons
of God, to wit, the redemption of the body (Romans viii, 22, 3).

The Descent from the Cross and the Burial come next. Tenderly, after the
telling of the anguish, comes the telling of the rest.

    They lifted down Almighty God, after that torment dread,
    They left me standing, drenched with blood, with arrows sore wounded;
    They laid Him down, limb-weary One, and stood about His head;
    Gazed on Heaven's Lord, who, weary now, after that mighty fight,
    Rested Him there a little while. Then in the murderer's sight,
    The brave ones made a tomb for Him, of white stone carved it fair,
    And laid the Lord of Victory within the sepulchre.

The bitter weeping goes up. The fair Body waxes chill. Then, in a very
few words the story told in "Elene" is condensed.

    Then did they fell us to the ground....
    In the deep pit they sank us down; yet the Lord's servants, they,
    His friends did hear of me and seek, and find me on a day,
    And decked with silver and with gold, in beautiful array.

The glory comes after the shame, and we hear of the healing power of the
Cross, and the honour given to it. Even as Almighty God honoured His
Mother above all womankind, the poet says, so this tree is set high
above all trees of the forest.

The command is laid upon the poet to make known his vision. There is a
compulsion whereby a poet as it were has to send abroad the fair thought
and knowledge wherewith he has been graced. To this poet is the task
assigned to tell of the Crucifixion, of the Resurrection, and the
Ascension, and of the Second Coming to judge the world.

    Where is the man, the Lord will ask before that multitude,
    Would for His name taste bitter death, as He upon the Rood?

By the love of His name, by the love that means martyrdom in will if not
in deed also, shall men be judged.

The comfort of his life has come to the poet. The greatest of all great
things is his.

    The Rood my trust shall be.

I cannot close this chapter without saying something about the great
stone rood known as the Ruthwell Cross, because it bears upon it part of
this poem engraved in runes. The cross is at Ruthwell, in Dumfriesshire.
It is very old, probably dating from the tenth or eleventh century.
There are carvings upon it of various events in the life of Our Lord, on
the north and south sides. On the top-stone, north, is a
representation of St John with the eagle, and on the top-stone,
south, is St John with the Agnus Dei. On the east and west is carved a
vine in fruit, with animals feeding, and at each side of the
vine-tracery the runes are carved, which give the words taken from the
poem, in the Northumbrian dialect.

[Illustration: RUTHWELL CROSS [_Page 80_]

This cross used to stand in the church at Ruthwell; it escaped injury at
the time of general destruction in the sixteenth century, but the
General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ordered the "many idolatrous
monuments erected and made for religious worship" to be "taken down,
demolished, and destroyed." It was not till two years later, however,
that the cross was taken down when an Act was passed "anent the
Idolatrous Monuments in Ruthwell." It was shattered, and some of the
carved emblems were nearly obliterated, and in this state the rood was
left where it had fallen, in the altarless church, and was used, it
appears, as a bench to sit upon. Later on it was removed from the church
and left out in the churchyard. But after many years, a good old
minister (God rest his soul!) collected all the pieces he could find,
and put them together, adding two new crossbeams (the original ones
were lost), and having gaps filled in with little pieces of stone.

By-and-by there was a waking up to the importance of preserving ancient
monuments (idolatrous! or not), and so the dear, beautiful old rood that
had been so near to destruction, and been indeed so greatly injured, was
brought into the church again, and set up near its old place. But, alas!
for its old surroundings!

It is a sad story, is it not?

Shall we not pray that, one day, our old crosses may be, to all, more
than "ancient monuments"?

"This stone which I have set up ... shall be called the house of God"
(Gen. xxviii, 22).


"Judith," a great poem founded on Scripture story. Authorship uncertain.
    Part of it lost. Quotations from it. Description of Holofernes'
    banquet as of a Saxon feast. Story of Judith dwelt on to encourage
    resistance to Danes and Northmen.

To-day we shall think about some more of the great poetry that was made
before the Norman Conquest, and we shall first take one of the finest
and most characteristic poems which remain to us, a poem founded on
Bible story; the great poem, of which we have unfortunately only a part,
the "Judith."

It is not certain who wrote this poem: it may have been Cynewulf; but we
do not know.

The story of Judith is a well-known one; the story of the Hebrew lady
who is described in the foreword to the Book of Judith as "that
illustrous woman, by whose virtue and fortitude, and armed with prayer,
the children of Israel were preserved from the destruction threatened
them by Holofernes and his great army."

The earlier part of the poem is lost, so we can only guess how the poet
told of the ravage wrought by the general of King Nabuchodonoser in the
countries close to Palestine, and how submission was as vain as
resistance to a power which, for the time being, was allowed to be so
terribly great.

The poem, as we have it, begins where Judith has come, in the splendour
of her beauty, and the might of her purity, and the power of her faith,
to destroy the destroyer and set her people free.

    The Prince of Glory gave her the shield of His hand in the place
    Where she stood in her uttermost need of the highest Doomer's grace
    To save her in peril extreme; and the Ruler of all things made,
    The glorious Father in Heaven, He granted the prayer she prayed,
    And, because of the might of her faith, He gave His help and His aid.
    I have heard how his word went forth, how Holofernes bad
    His men to the drinking of wine, and the splendid feast he had.
    The prince he called his thanes and the shielded warriors best,
    And the folk-leaders came to the mighty, all fain for the doing his best.
    And now, since the coming of Judith, three days and three nights had been,
    The woman wise in her heart, and fair as the elf-folk sheen.

We have the description of the banquet, with the deep bowls and
well-filled cups and pitchers borne to the sitters along the floor--just
the description of the old Saxon banquet which the poet knew of. We have
the drunken glee of Holofernes, his right noisy laughter and the stormy
mirth that could be heard from afar; and his call to the henchmen to
quit them as warriors ought, till at last they lie in their drunken
sleep, powerless, and as though stricken of death.

Then comes the night, and the sending for Judith, the wise-hearted one,
to Holofernes' tent. Holofernes lies in his drunken sleep, and the
Lord's handmaid draws from the sheath the keen-edged glittering sword,
and prays,

    O God of all created, I pray my prayer to Thee!
    O Spirit of Comfort! O Son Almighty! I bow my knee,
    For Thy mercy to me who need Thee, most glorious Trinity!
    Now is my heart waxed hot, exceeding hot in me,
    And my soul afflicted sore, and sorrowful grievously.
    Give victory, Prince of Heaven, to me, and steadfast faith,
    That so with this sword I slay this dealer of wrong and death.
    O, grant me Thy salvation, most mighty Folk-prince, Thou,
    For ne'er have I needed Thy mercy with greater need than now.
    Avenge, O mighty Lord, the thing whereof I wot,
    Which is anger in my soul, and in my breast burns hot.
    Then the Judge most high He gave her the courage she prayed Him for,
    As yet to each He giveth, who seeketh Him, as of yore,
    With faith and understanding, his help for evermore.

And then,

    Enlarged was the woman's soul, the holy one's hope sprang new.

And she smites the evil general with the strength she had prayed for,
and goes forth victorious with her handmaiden, to bear the tidings to
her people of the deliverance wrought for them, ascribing the glory to
God and His might. Judith leaves the camp of the Assyrians, with her
waiting-woman, who carries the head of Holofernes in a bag. Men and
women in great multitudes flock to the fortress-gate, pressing and
running to meet God's handmaid, glad of heart to know of her
home-coming. They let her in reverently, and the trophy she has brought
is shown them. Judith beseeches them to go forth to the fight, as soon
as the Maker of the beginning of all things, the King of high honour,
hath sent the bright light from the East; to go forth bearing shield and
buckler and the bright helmet, to meet the thronging foemen, and fell
the folk-leaders, the doomed spear-bearers. Their foes are doomed to
death, and they shall have glory and honour in battle. Then follows a
great battle, with full victory to Israel.

The poet has varied from the Biblical story, in representing the
officers of Holofernes' army as drunk; and also in telling of a battle
after the return of Judith to Bethulia. It also may seem strange that
Judith should address the Holy Trinity and each separate Person thereof.
The old Christian poet carried his belief along with him, and the
handmaid of God, the brave Judith, was to him a follower of Our Lord.
The brave Judith, yes! St Dominic's Third Order was at first, as we
know, called "The militia of Jesus Christ." How Judith would have loved
the name! And we may think, may we not? how, looking from her place
among the glorified, she smiled on the great warrior Maiden Saint who
went in the might of the Lord, to deliver her country from the rule of
the stranger.

The story of Judith would especially appeal to people living at a time
when incursions of foreigners were well known, and later on, still
unforgotten. Abbot Ælfric, about whose work I have to tell you something
presently, in writing a short account of the Old Testament with its
various books, says that the Book of Judith "is put into English in our
manner as an example to you men, that you should defend your country
with weapons against an invading army"--the word which he uses, "here,"
always meaning in old English the army of the Danes. Ælfric also wrote
"a homily on Judith to teach the English the virtues of resistance to
the Danes."

It is interesting likewise to think that the poet of "Judith" may have
had in his mind some great Englishwoman concerning whom he wished in a
veiled way to convey well-deserved praise. Perhaps he was inspired to
tell of Judith, by the deeds of King Alfred's daughter, Æthelflaed,
known as the Lady of the Mercians, and sought to do honour to her as
well as to the great Hebrew lady.

Æthelflaed fortified Chester and other towns, and, along with King
Edward, built fortresses, "chiefly along the line of frontier exposed to
the Danes, as at Bridgenorth, Tamworth, Warwick, Hertford, Witham in
Essex, and other places." Of course it is uncertain whether our poet was
thinking of Æthelflaed. We should be able to say whether it were
impossible if we knew the date of "Judith," as, if the poem were
composed before Æthelflaed's time, she could not have entered into the
poet's mind.

The Church has paid a splendid tribute to Judith by applying to her who
is pre-eminently the strong or valiant woman (mulier fortis) full of
the strength that always wore the exquisite veil of humility, the words
spoken to this valiant woman of the Hebrews by her countrymen, as they
adored the Lord, who had given her the victory. See the lesson read on
the Feast of Our Lady's Seven Sorrows.


Byrthnoth, the leader of the East Angles against Anlaf the Dane. Refusal
    to pay unjust tribute. Heroic fight.

We have in the "Battle of Maldon" a great patriotic poem, written about
the "ealdorman"[H] of the East Angles, Byrthnoth, or Brihtnoth, who
stood so valiantly against the Danes. It was he who was so good to the
monks, helping to defend them against the "ealdorman" of the Mercians,
and others who were turning them out: he also helped to found the Abbey
of Ely. He was buried there, we are glad to know. Anlaf, known as Olaf
Tryggvesson, afterwards King of Norway, came with two other Northmen,
and harried Ipswich and other places, and then sailed up the Pant or
Blackwater to Maldon, where the river divides into two parts. The
beginning and end of the poem have been lost, and, as we have it now, it
opens with the command of Byrhtnoth that every man should let his horse
go, and march afoot to meet the enemy and strive with him hand to hand.

[Footnote H: "Alderman" is the modern form, but it does not mean the
same thing.]

    Then Byrthnoth 'gan array his men; he rode and gave the rede,
    He shewed the fighters how to stand and keep the place at need,
    Fast with their hands to hold the shields, nor be afraid indeed.

He took his place among his own bodymen, his immediate followers. On the
other side of the stream the herald of the vikings (or pirates) stood,
and with a loud voice gave the scornful message of the sea-folk to the
English leader. If Byrhtnoth would be in safety he must quickly send
treasure to the foe.

    "And better 'tis for you buy off this onset of the spear
    With tribute than that we should deal so sore a combat here;
    We need not spill each other's lives if ye make fast aright
    A peace with us; if thou agree, thou, here the most of might,
    Thy folk to ransom, and to give the seamen what shall be
    Right in our eyes, and take our peace, make peace with told money.
    We'll haste to ship, we'll keep that peace, and go upon the sea."

This was Brythnoth's answer:

    Dost hear, thou dweller on the sea, what this my people saith!
    Their tribute is the spear, the sword, the arrow tipt with death;
    War-harness that for you in fight full little profiteth.

Not he. He stood for his own soil, his prince's earth, the people and
the land. We may compare with this St Ælfeah's (Alphege) splendid stand
even to death against unjust payment of tribute.

Byrthtnoth ordered his men to march on till they all stood on the bank
of the river. The flood flowed in after the ebb, and the hostile armies
could not reach each other, and it seemed too long to wait for the water
to let them meet. Wulfstan, by race a warrior bold, held the bridge for
his chief, and Ælfhere and Maccus with him, the undaunted mighty twain.
The Danes begged to be allowed to overpass the ford, and Byrhtnoth in
his scorn allowed this.

    Too much the earl in his disdain to that ill folk gave heed.
    The wolves of slaughter strode along, nor for the water cared;
    The host of vikings westward there across the Pante fared.

Byrhtnoth was awaiting them, and the fight began.

    Then rose a cry as round and round the ravens wheeled in air,
    The erne all greedy for his prey. A mighty din was there.
    Oh, bitter was the battle-rush, the rush of war that day,
    Then fell the men; on either hand the gallant young men lay.

The battle-rage grew stronger and keener; the din of war grew louder
and louder. Byrhtnoth fought hand to hand with a strong viking, and with
yet another, dealing death to both.

    The blither was the earl for that, out laughed the warrior grim,
    Thanked God because of that day's work which God had given to him.

But the brave man's time was come, and a dart pierced him, and he fell;
and as he lay on the ground a young lad, a boy who stood beside him,
drew the spear from his lord's body and cast it back to pierce the foe
who had sorely hit his lord. An armed man came to the death-stricken
leader of the English to rob him of his jewels and his warrior's gear
and fretted sword of fame. The dying man struck him on the corslet, but

    Too soon a seaman hindered him; that good arm's strength he marred.

The leader drops his gold hilted sword, no longer able to wield the
weapon, powerless to hold the keen-edged falchion. No more deeds of
valour for him; only to urge on his men, and to commend his soul to God.

    Yet spake the word that warrior hoar, the young men's hearts he cheered,
    Bad the good comrades forward go, nor ever be afeard.
    No longer could he firmly stand on's feet; to heaven looked he--
    "Thanks, Lord of hosts, for these world-joys Thou here didst give to me.
    Now, merciful Creator, now, I stand in deepest need
    That Thou shouldst grant my spirit good, that thus my soul indeed
    Fare forth to Thee, travel with peace, O King of Angels, so:
    I pray Thee that the hell-spoilers nor work her hurt nor woe."
    The heathen varlets smote him down, and those that stood him by,
    Ælfnoth and Wulfmaer, by the side of him in death did lie.

Then, alas! came the shameful flight of some whom he had loved and
trusted, and graced with noble gifts. One Godric, to whom he had given
many a goodly steed, leapt upon the horse in his trappings which his
lord had owned, and his two brothers fled with him.

    And with them more than had behoved if these had thought upon
    The gifts and goods so free bestowed by him, their mighty one.

But there were but few cowards and mean. Of his own hearth-comrades
there went forth men, hasting eagerly,

    One of two things their heart's desire, to avenge their lord or die.

Young Ælfwine heartened them with noble words, and gave them the
example of noble deeds. And Offa, and Leofsunu, and Dunnere, the old
man, fought stubbornly. And a hostage from among the Northumbrian folk,
a man come of gallant kin, helped them; and Edward the Long, and many

    Then Bryhtwold spake, that comrade old, he raised the shield on high
    He shook the ashwood spear, he taught the men unfearingly:
    "The braver must our spirit be, our hearts the stronger far,
    The greater must our courage wax, the fewer that we are.
    Here lies our prince all pierced and hewn, the good one in the clay;
    Aye may he mourn who thinketh now to leave this battle-play.
    I am old in life; I will not hence; I think to lay me here,
    The rather by my chieftain's side, a man so lief and dear."

And the men grew bold in heart at his words and fought on. Godric full
often sent the spear flying among the vikings, and fought till he too
was laid low in the battle.

    'Twas not that Godric who had turned his back upon the fight,

says the poet--and the end is lost! It will help us in appreciating this
poem to remember that the battle of Maldon took place in the reign of
that poor weak king Æthelred, known as the "Unready," or the Man of no
Counsel. As Freeman the historian says, "No doubt he had to struggle
with very hard times, but the times now were no harder than the times
which Ælfred had to struggle against, and we know how much he could


The literature of one people owes a debt to that of others.
    Help-bringers. Great work of Benedictine monks. Our debt to Ireland.
    The English Chronicle's account of the Martyrdom of St Ælfeah.

The literature of a country is not merely what the men and women born in
it have written. The thought of one people is fed, or enlarged, or in
some way strengthened by the thought of other peoples; and the
literature of the times we are speaking of could not have been what it
was, had it not had other sources than these purely English to draw
from. And, of all kinds of help-bringers, we owe much to the monks, and
chiefly the great Benedictine order. King Alfred had to do his work at a
time when things were at a low ebb in the English monasteries. You will
remember how he bewailed the poor state of learning in England, and the
ignorance of the clergy; a state very different indeed from that of the
old days of St Bede and Alcuin. After Alfred's time there came a
revival--and revival in life means revival in work. So we get much good
prose literature, and, through the monks, note well, we have it, fed
from whatever old lore was then to be got at.

I have reminded you of England's great debt to Ireland through St Aidan
and others. I must tell you of a record of St Bede's, which shows how
gladly Ireland in old days, as ever, shared the priceless gift which she
of all countries, received with the most passionate entireness and held
with the most unswerving steadfastness. It was in the year 664 that
there was a great pestilence, raging both in England and Ireland. At the
time there were many Englishmen in Ireland who had gone there, "either
for the sake of divine studies, or of a more continent life"; some of
them, he says, became monks, and others devoted themselves to study,
"going about from one master's cell to another." "The Scots (that is the
Irish) willingly received them all, and took care to supply them with
food, as also to furnish them with books to read, and their teaching,

Where should we be but for the work done in the monasteries? How can we
be grateful enough for what went on there in the way of thought,
research and the collecting of materials, in addition to the work of
teaching: all fed by the life of prayer and praise and self-denial? Let
us try to think about the quiet, patient work of scholars and students;
about their noting of so many facts and detailing of them. Let us think
of the beginnings of English history and literature; of the writing of
precious manuscripts; the careful copying of them; each of them taking
so much time to complete and being so costly in production, especially
when there was added to care and skill the artistic beauty of decoration
and illumination.

From these quiet abodes of the piety that transfused itself through
loving toil and discipline, light streamed forth to go on shining and
shining, on through the long centuries to come.

We must now have a look into the pages of the great English Chronicle
which we should not possess had it not been for these good monks, and we
will take the account of the martyrdom of Archbishop Ælfeah, whom you
know best under the Latinized form of his name, Alphege. His heavenly
birthday was the 19th of April. The king who is spoken of was Æthelred
who was called the Unready, which word means without counsel, and then
of ill-counsel. You know how we talk of "ill-advised" conduct or speech.
There is a fourteenth century poem which speaks of Richard the Second as
"redeless." And, because there is no such thing as being neutral;
because, if we are not good, we are bad, the word got the meaning of
foolish or worse. Freeman, the great historian says that Æthelred "was
perhaps the only thoroughly bad king among all the Kings of the English
of the West Saxon line; he seems to have been weak, cowardly, cruel, and
bad altogether."

As long as St Dunstan lived, Æthelred was not so bad as he afterwards
became. We must remember what a bad mother Æthelred had in Ælfthryth, or
Elfrida, who was an evil wife to her first husband, and most probably
caused the murder of the king her step-son, the son of King Edgar, who
was her second husband. This was the Edward known as St Edward the

The story of Ælfeah comes under the year A.D. 1011. "In this year sent
the king and his witan to the (Danish) army, and desired peace, and
promised them tribute and food on condition that they ceased from their
harrying. They had then overrun East Anglia, and Essex, and Middlesex,
and Oxfordshire, and Cambridgeshire, and Hertfordshire; and south of
Thames, all Kent and Sussex, and Hastings, and Surrey, and Berkshire,
and Hampshire, and much of Wiltshire. All these misfortunes befell us
through ill counsel, that they were not in time (either) offered tribute
or fought against, but when they had done the greatest ill, then peace
and truce were made with them. And nevertheless for all the truce and
tribute, they went flockmeal everywhere and harried and robbed and slew
our poor folk. And then, in this year, between the nativity of St Mary
and St Michael's Mass, they sat round Canterbury and came into it
through treachery, because Ælfmaer betrayed it, whose life the
Archbishop Ælfeah had before saved. And there they took the Archbishop
Ælfeah, and Ælfweard, the king's reeve, and Abbot Ælfmaer, and Bishop
Godwin. And Abbot Ælfmaer they let go away. And they took there within
all the clergy, and men and women: it was untellable to any man how much
of the folk there was. And they were afterwards in the town as long as
they would. And when they had thoroughly surveyed the city then went
they to their ships and led the Archbishop with them. Then was he a
captive who erewhile had been the head of the English race and of
Christendom.[I] There might then be seen misery there where oft erewhile
men had seen bliss, in that wretched city whence had first come to us
Christendom and bliss before God and before the world.

[Footnote I: _i.e._ of English Christianity.]

"And they kept the archbishop with them as long as to the time when they
martyred him.

"A.D. 1012. In this year came Eadric the ealdorman, and all the chief
witan, religious and lay, of the English folk of London, before Easter:
Easterday was then on the date of the Ides of April (13th April). And
they were there then so long as until all the tribute was paid, after
Easter; that was eight and forty thousand pounds. Then on the Saturday
(19th April) was the (Danish) army greatly stirred up against the
bishop, because he would not promise them any money; but he forbad that
anything should be given for him. They were also very drunken, because
wine had been brought there from the south. Then took they the bishop,
led him to their husting on the eve of Sunday, the octave of the Pasch;
and there they then shamefully killed him: they pelted him with bones
and the heads of oxen, and then one of them struck him with an axe-iron
on the head, so that with the blow he sank down; and his holy blood fell
on the earth, and that his holy soul be sent to God's kingdom."

A sorrowful story of evil folly and treachery: a splendid story of
steadfastness to the end: of glorious martyrdom. The refusal to allow
himself to be ransomed at his pillaged people's cost; the greed of the
Danes; the death-stroke given him, we are told, in another chronicle, in
mercy, to put an end to his sufferings, given him by a newly-made
convert of his. And see how the Church has shown us, in her canonisation
as a martyr saint, of this man, who died not directly to testify to the
truth of the religion of Jesus, but for the sake of justice, that
justice is the outcome of Christianity, and that he who dies for justice
sake dies for God.

It was said by Lanfrane that Æfeah was not a martyr, because he had not
died for the Faith; but St Anselm said he was a true martyr, because he
died for justice and charity.


Abbot Ælfric, writer of Homilies, Lives of Saints, and other works.
    Wulfstan, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The greatest of English prose-writers before the Conquest was Ælfric,
who was educated at the school at Winchester which Æthelwold, a pupil of
St Dunstan, had founded. His works are very numerous. He wrote Homilies,
or Sermons, on Scriptural subjects, and Lives of the Saints. I have
quoted a passage about "Judith," which occurs in the summary of the
books of the Old Testament, written for a friend of his, one Sigeweard,
who had often asked him for English writings, which he had delayed
giving him until after he had, at Sigeweard's earnest request, come to
his house, and then Sigeweard had complained to him that he could not
get at his writings. This little incident reminds us how differently
from now people had to arrange about books and writings, and how much
more dependent they were on teaching through the ear and the eye.

I must give you a little specimen of Ælfric's writing, a piece taken
from his beautiful homily on Holy Innocents' Day. It is in very simple,
direct language, and I think you will say it is not without a touch of
that lovely thing which it is easy to feel and hard to define--poetry. I
should like to have heard the sermon, and I hope you will feel somewhat
as I do!

"Christ despised not His young soldiers, although he was not present in
body at their slaughter. Blessed were they born that they might for His
sake suffer death. Happy is that their (tender) age, which was not yet
able to confess Christ, and was allowed to suffer for Christ. They were
the Saviour's witnesses, although as yet they knew Him not. They were
not ripe for the slaughter, but yet did they blessedly die to live!
Blessed was their birth, for they found eternal life on the threshold of
this present life. They were snatched from mother-breasts, but they were
straightway given into the keeping of angel-bosoms. The cruel persecutor
(Herod) could with no service benefit those little ones so greatly as he
benefited them with the hatred of his cruel persecution. They are called
martyrs' blossoms because they were as blossoms upspringing in the cold
of earth's unbelief, thus withered with the frost of persecution.
Blessed are the wombs that bare them, and the breasts which suckled such
as these. The mothers indeed suffered in the martyrdom of their
children; the sword which pierced the children's limbs pierced to the
mothers' hearts: and it must needs be that they be sharers of the
eternal reward, when they were companions in the suffering."

I will now tell you about a very different kind of sermon from
Ælfric's--one of the sermons preached by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York,
who was not, like Ælfric, leading a quiet life in an abbey, but throwing
himself into the struggles and needs of a most disastrous time. He saw
how the Danish inroads had terribly demoralised the English people, and
he spoke out as God's preacher, who comes face to face with wrong, must

He begins by telling his "beloved men" how evil will go on increasing
till Antichrist's coming; and then will it be awful, and terrible all
through the world. "Too greatly has the devil for many years led this
folk astray, and little faithfulness has there been among men, albeit
they spake well; and wrongs too many have ruled in the land; and not
always were there many who thought earnestly about the remedy as they
should; but day by day they added one evil upon another and they reared
up wrong, and many evil laws all throughout this nation. And therefore
have we suffered many losses and shames: and if we shall await any cure
then must we deserve it from God better than heretofore have we done.
For with great earning have we earned the miseries that oppress us, and
with great earning must we obtain the remedy from God if from henceforth
it is to grow better." He tells them how in heathen lands they dare not
withhold what has been devoted to the worship of idols: "and here we
withhold the rights of God. And everywhere in heathen lands none dare
injure or lessen within or without any of the things offered to idols:
and we have robbed God's houses within and without." And so he goes on
pouring out from his very soul the fiery words that tell of the warning
of God's laws, and the worsening of folk-laws; and how the Sanctuaries
are unprotected, and God's houses are robbed and stripped of their
property, and holy orders are despised, and widows forced wrongfully to
marry, and too many are made poor and humbled, and poor men are sorely
betrayed and cruelly plotted against; and far and wide innocent people
are given into the power of foreigners, and cradle-children made slaves
through cruel evil laws for a little theft: and freeman's right taken
away, and thrall's right narrowed, and alms' right diminished. It goes
on and on, the terrible list of wrongs that have brought God's wrath on
the land. The sermon is not for the building-up of faithful ones, but
for the rousing and stirring up of those whose baptismal vow has been
terribly and shamefully broken, His words are clashed out as he brings
men face to face with their sin.

And then comes the preaching of the true penance. "Let us do what is
needful, bow to the right, and in somewise forsake the wrong, and mend
where we have broken." And the preacher's voice now takes the tender
tone of entreaty. "Let us creep to Christ and with trembling heart often
call upon Him, and deserve His mercy; and let us love God, and obey His
laws, and fulfil what we promised when we received baptism; or what
those promised who were our sponsors at baptism. And let us rightly
order word and work, and earnestly cleanse the thoughts of our hearts,
and carefully keep oath and pledge and have honesty among us without
weakness, and let us often understand the great judgement which we all
must meet, and earnestly protect ourselves against the burning fire of
the punishment of hell, and earn for ourselves the glories and the joys
which God has prepared for them that do His will in the world. God help
us. Amen."


Love of books is love of part of God's world. In books we commune with
    the spirit of their writers. The Church the mother of all art and
    all literature. Catholic literature saturated with Holy Scripture.

A man who made many a man and woman love literature and helped them to
study it, the late Professor Henry Morley, has said that one who thinks
that a bookroom is not a part of the world; one who thinks that, in
leaving his books and going forth to commune with nature he is, as it
were, passing from death to life, is one who has not yet learned to
read. The good Professor saw that books have souls in them, so to speak,
and that to love a book really and truly is to hold communion with that
which is living and is a part of the great, beautiful scheme of God's
great, beautiful world. To love one part of what Our Father has given us
should never lead us to despise, or even undervalue, other parts. And we
must remember, too, must we not? how one thing helps us to understand
another; how great painters and great poets help us to understand the
beauty of nature as we might not have understood it without them, just
as they help us also to know men and women, and help us to know better
some of the fair things in our great and glorious religion; things which
God can and does teach without their help when He chooses, though He
graciously and lovingly often uses their help--the help He has given
them the power of giving--to teach others of His children. Our Father,
being _Our_ Father, not just _your_ Father and _my_ Father and _his_
Father and _her_ Father, but _Our_ Father, the Father of us all as one
big family of His, brothers and sisters in Him, wills that we all help
one another with the gifts He has given us; and the more we can realise
that all separate gifts are parts of one great harmonious whole, the
more fully we shall live and feel and enjoy.

There is, of course, a delight in exquisite typography, and hand-made
paper, and binding into which the soul of a true artist has gone. People
may be willing to give large sums for these things, independently of the
value of what is under them; or people may value books for their age, or
because they are rare, or because they are records of facts which it is
well to know and good to be able to verify.

But there is a better way of love than all of these. One may love the
book through which one holds communion with the spirit of its writer,
being ready to learn from him by direct learning, or by the learning
received through suggestion, or through the rousing of the spirit of
enquiry, or the spirit of opposition. Is not this the best kind of love,
the love by which the thought of man is used by man, the spirit of man
holds communion with the spirit of man?

All through the ages, great things have been handed down by written
words, and people of all nations have shared one another's national
heritage of written thought, and in that sharing made it larger and
greater. We are now considering the earlier story of English Catholic
literature, and it is surely well that people should know something of
what things were said and sung in the olden time; the time when all art,
all literature was fed by the great Mother of all Christian art and all
Christian literature, the Holy Catholic Church.

You will find our Catholic literature saturated with sacred lore and
knowledge of Holy Scripture. Before printing was invented people could
not multiply copies of the Sacred Books as they can now, but they knew
them probably much better than many of those who can easily now buy them
for a few pence. We have translations of various parts of the Bible in
these early times. You will remember how in St Bede's last days he
finished his translation of part of St John's Gospel. We have lovely
manuscripts, such as that of the Lindisfarne Gospels, written in fine
clear writing, which can be seen at the British Museum; and facsimiles
of parts of them can be had for a small sum. It is simply an uneducated
error to suppose that the heretical editing, as I may call it, of Holy
Scripture in the mother-tongue of English people, made by Tyndale and
Coverdale, was the first attempt to put the Bible into English. We
should have had plenty of printed copies of Holy Scripture in the
mother-tongue of English people, had these versions never been made and
circulated to attack and injure Holy Church, without whom the originals
could never have existed.


Scattering of our old MSS. in Sixteenth Century. Same now in public
    libraries. Collections. Exeter Book and Vercelli Book.

Where are all our old manuscripts, our treasures from days of yore, the
work of the cunning scribe, the pages whereon so many of our religious
spent hour after hour, in patient and loving toil? They were scattered
abroad in the sixteenth century by wholesale. Many of them found their
way into private collections, and the collectors often generously gave
them to college libraries. Matthew Parker, the Protestant Archbishop of
Canterbury, was a great book-collector, and gave a good many volumes to
Corpus Christi College at Cambridge. Among these is the oldest copy of
the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. John Bale, once a friar, afterwards, alas! a
Protestant Bishop, says that some of the books from the monasteries were
used to scour candlesticks or to rub boots; some were sold to grocers
and soap-vendors; and whole ships-full went abroad.

As used by our Forefathers in the time of King Alfred

[_Page 114_]

Robert Bruce Cotton was another great book-collector. His library was
sold to the nation about seventy years after his death. Many books and
MSS. belonging to it were destroyed or injured by a fire that broke out
where it had been placed; among those injured was the only copy of the
old poem of Béowulf, which I have not talked about because it is
apparently outside our _Catholic_ Heritage in literature. The reduced
library is now at the British Museum. It includes the beautiful
Lindisfarne Gospels, or Durham Book, which once belonged to Durham

There is another collection which was bought for the British Museum,
made by Harley, Earl of Oxford.

William Laud, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in Charles the First's
time, and, like him, died on the scaffold, was also greatly interested
in collecting books. He gave generously to Oxford University, and his
books are in the Bodleian Library, with many other valuable literary

Francis Junius collected Anglo-Saxon literature, and other books. He
left them to the Bodleian Library. Among them is the unique "Caedmon"
Manuscript, given him by Archbishop Usher, who founded the library of
Trinity College, Dublin. People are now alive to the value of these
great possessions, and we must be glad that scholars have worked at
them, and published many of them, and so made their contents accessible
to everyone. But we must never forget our debt to the earliest writers,
and chiefly to the monks who wrote and who copied, much and long and
well. As we trust, they have their reward.

There are two specially interesting collections of manuscript
Anglo-Saxon poems, known respectively as the Exeter Book and the
Vercelli Book. The Exeter Book is one of some sixty volumes acquired by
Leófric, Bishop of Crediton, when he was making his library for the
cathedral of his new bishopric at Exeter. It is described as "a large
English book of many things wrought in verse." It is one of the few of
Leófric's books that remain at Exeter, where it has been over eight
hundred years. It contains various poems by Cynewulf and others. Several
leaves are missing, and ink has been spilt over part of one page. This
Exeter library was scattered at the "Reformation." Some of its treasures
are in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, or at Corpus Christi College, at

The Vercelli Book is so called because it was discovered in its home in
the cathedral library at Vercelli in Italy a good many years ago. It
contains twenty-two sermons in Anglo-Saxon, and six poems, among which
is our beautiful "Dream of the Holy Rood." Perhaps some English pilgrim
or pilgrims, on the way to Rome, left this book as a gift, or through
inadvertence, at the hospice where hospitality had been received. Or
perhaps Cardinal Guala, who was over here in the days of John and of
Henry III, bought the book for his library at Vercelli. Or perhaps it
was one of the books of which John Bale tells us whole ships-full went
abroad. We have to be very grateful to the scholars whose researches
have recovered for us so much of our old heritage, and to those who have
made their contents in various ways so easy to get at.


Runes. An early love-poem

I said I would tell you a little about runes, which I have had more than
once occasion to mention. The runes were the alphabet used by the
Teutonic tribes, to which the English belonged. This alphabet is very
old, and it is not certain where it originally came from. The word
"rune" means secret or mystery. To "round" in a person's ear means to
whisper, so that what is said is a "secret" or a "mystery." The word
comes from "rune." When we use the word to "write" we think of setting
down words on paper with a pen or a pencil. But the old meaning of
"write" is to incise, or to cut, or engrave. Probably the runes were at
first cut in wood. A wooden tablet was called "bóc," from beechwood
being used for it. When we talk of a book we are away from the first
idea of a book a good distance. Runes were also carved, or incised, in
metal and in bone. They were associated, not only with secrecy or
mystery, but with magic, and were supposed to possess power for good or
evil. People thought that "runes could raise the dead from their graves;
they could preserve life or take it, they could heal the sick or bring
on lingering disease; they could call forth the soft rain or the violent
hailstorm; they could break chains and shackles, or bind more closely
than bonds or fetters; they could make the warrior invincible and cause
his sword to inflict none but mortal wounds; they could produce frenzy
and madness, or defend from the deceit of a false friend."

There is a story in an old Norse book telling that Odin, the
Scandinavian god, learned them and used them. St Bede tells in his
"Church History" a story which proves that the belief in the magic power
of runes lingered on in England after Christianity had become the
professed religion of the people. It takes a good while to lose
superstition that has been with people for a long, long time. Because
Christianity condemns anything like magic, the use of the runes,
associated with it, gradually went out. The Irish missionaries in the
North of England taught the people there a beautiful kind of handwriting
from which the English handwriting of later times was formed. The
"Lindisfarne Gospels" are written in the earlier Irish rounded
characters. In a copy of St Bede's "Church History" written after
A.D. 730, a more pointed hand is used. If we want to write fast, we do
not write so round as when we write slowly. Afterwards, in the tenth
century, the English began to use the French style of writing.

The runes were sometimes used as ordinary letters, without any thought
of the old connection with magic. So the great Christian poet, Cynewulf,
wrote his name in runes, which is how we know him to be the author of
some of the poems we have been considering.

The portions of the "Dream of the Holy Rood" which are on the Ruthwell
Cross (see Chapter IV) are carved in runes. There is a small sword in
the British Museum with runes on it, which was found in the Thames.

In connection with the runes I want to tell you of two old poems, which
may be related to each other. One is known as "The Wife's Complaint,"
the other as, "The Husband's Message." The first of them is apparently
spoken by a woman who laments her hard fate, her husband having gone
over the sea, away from her. She is imprisoned in an old earthen
dwelling under an oak; she has no friends near, and she tells how vain
were the vows of love exchanged between her and her husband. Now the
second poem, "The Husband's Message," may be written for this wife; we
do not know; at any rate it conveys a message from an absent husband to
a wife; and I will give it to you as an early love-letter. It consists
of two parts, one of which has been thought to be a riddle, but they
have been put together by a learned Professor, and if they do belong to
each other, the arrangement is as interesting as it is beautiful. The
message is given by the letter itself--the slip of bark or wood on which
it was carved--and this wood speaks. First it tells us about itself. It
had dwelt on the beach near the sea-shore: there were few to behold its
home in the solitude, but every morning the brown wave encircled it with
a watery embrace. Then it little thought that even, though itself
mouthless, it should speak among the mead-drinkers and utter words.

                          A great marvel it is,
    Strange in the mouth that knoweth it not,
    How the point of the knife and the right hand,
    The thought of a man, and his blade therewith,
    Shaped me with skill, that boldly I might
    So deliver a message to thee
    In the presence of us two alone,
    That to other men our talk
    May not make it more widely known.

The letter then tells how it had come in the keeled vessel, and how the
lady would now know how in her heart she may think of the love of her
lord. "I dare maintain," says the letter, "that there thou wilt find
true loyalty." He that carved the characters on the wood, bad it pray
her, the lady decked with jewels, to remember the vows they twain had
often made when they dwelt together in their home in the same land.

                         Force drove him
    Out of the land. Now hath he bidden me
    Earnestly to urge thee to sail the sea
    When thou hast heard on the brow of the hill
    The mournful cuckoo call in the wood.
    Then let no living man keep thee
    From the journey, or hinder thy going.
    Betake thee to the sea, the home of the mew,
    Seat thee in the boat, that southward from here
    Beyond the road of the sea thou mayest find the man
    Where waits thy prince in hope of thee.

We hope the lady betook herself to the sea-mew's home, and found her
beloved at the end of the journey! Her beloved had no thought of any
greater joy than the granting of Almighty God that together they should
be givers of treasure to men. The beloved has enough of beaten gold and
wealth, and a fair home among the strangers, the noble warriors that
obey him. Banished from home, gone forth a homeless one, in the
stranger-land good has come to him; he has no lack of anything but of
her, who had with him come under an old threat, and had been parted from
him. He vows to fulfil his pledge and love-troth, and he writes in runes
some message, which she, as it appears, would understand, and she alone.

The old, old story, written fair and full.

You will have noticed in the literature we have been considering the
absence of certain elements which are an integral part of our modern
literature. This poem, for instance, is, as far as I know, the only love
poem before the Conquest which has come down to us. There is no romance
either, and there is, we may say, no humour. Life is a very serious
thing, so often lying close to the sword-edge; and the duties of life
are simple. There is to be a great, very great enlargement of the
borders of English literature later on. Prose and poetry are to have new
developments. Romances are to show us heroic ideals. Lyrics of joy, of
sorrow, of passion, of emotion natural and spiritual, are to be sung.
The sense of beauty is to grow. The drama is to arise from beginnings to
be but faintly traced in early days. Epic poetry is to take a great
place. Character modified, enriched by foreign strains, is to mould a
noble literature--noble through many and many a gift and grace. A great
poet is to arise with sympathies large and wide, to show us, in verse
most musical, in words full meaning, with that grace of humour which is
a fresh light upon life, how men and women lived: and to be the great
precursor of a greater than he. Geoffrey Chaucer is to come to us. After
him William Shakespere.



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