Lapas attēli

literature. This change was the conversion of the English to Christianity. In 597 ST. AUGUSTINE, a missionary sent directly from Rome, landed with forty monks at the isle of Thanet, the very spot where the Jutish war-ships had landed one hundred and fortyeight years before, and introduced the new religion into the south. Early in the seventh century Christianity was carried north, into Northumbria, the great kingdom of the Angles. But the lasting conversion of the north was due not to the Roman missionaries but the Irish. In 635 an Irish missionary had founded a monastery at Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, whence another missionary came into Northumbria, and became the first great bishop of the north. By the middle of the seventh century (655), while many old heathen beliefs and superstitions remained, Christianity had gained a firm and lasting hold upon the English both south and north.

Work of Christianity among the English. — It is not enough for us to know the mere fact that Christianity was thus brought to the English during the sixth and seventh centuries. We must go farther and know something of the real meaning of this great event, and of its influence on the life and literature of the people. It has been said that even while the English were still heathen, they were by nature religious. The world, to them, was full of mysterious, invisible powers, which manifested themselves in the works of nature. They were untaught, but they were not indifferent. On the contrary, for generations, those who were most thoughtful among them had been pondering over things that they could not understand. Before the Christian missionaries came, many among the English had begun to feel that the crude explanations given in their own

religion were unsatisfactory, yet the wisest had no other explanations to offer. They were curious and uncertain about what lay beyond this world, and one of them compared man's life to a sparrow, which flies out of the darkness into a lighted hall and, passing quickly through the warmth and shelter of the familiar room, again flies out into the darkness. "So,” he said, “ the life of man here, appears for a very short space of time; but of what went before or what is to follow, we are entirely ignorant.” It is easy to see how deeply men like this would be affected by the teachings of the missionaries, for Christianity came to them as a sudden revelation of many things which they had long and vainly tried to understand. Naturally capable, as we have seen, of loyalty and self-sacrifice, and able even as heathen to realize that life should be devoted to a lofty purpose, the English readily responded to the highest Christian ideals. The people, who so short a time before were pitiless sea-robbers, produced great saints, men whose lives were devoted to the loving service of others.

Introduction of Art and Learning. — But this deep spiritual change in the life of the English was not the only result of Christian teaching. Up to this time the English had been practically cut off from the art and learning of Europe, and had added but little to learning or literature. The greatest civilizing force in Europe at this time was the Church. The rulers and nobles were often unable to read or write; learning was largely in the hands of the clergy, — the bishops, monks, and priests, — and the Church was the great patron and encourager of literature and the arts. So it happened that wherever the Church went, education went also. When St. Augustine brought Christianity from Rome,

he brought civilization likewise. In the old days before the English settlement, when Britain was part of the Roman Empire, the island had been bound to Rome, the city that was then the center of the civilized world. When England was Christianized, the island was again brought in contact with the art and culture of southern Europe, she shared in the common life and civilization of Christendom. The introduction of Christianity, therefore, gave a mighty intellectual, as well as spiritual, impulse to the life of the English people. Schools were established throughout England side by side with churches. Latin and Greek were taught at Canterbury. Monasteries were founded, often in the solitude of fenland or forest, and the patient labors of the monks made a savage wilderness beautiful and productive. These monasteries became centers of civilization. They were places of refuge from the barbarity and ignorance of the world without; places of shelter and quiet, where men could study and meditate, and where they found time to practise and develop the arts of peace.


ALFRED As we might expect, the English, finding themselves thus suddenly possessed of new hopes, new opportunities, a wider knowledge, and a new purpose in life, tried to express this wonderful experience in words. They were no longer satisfied with repeating the old songs of battle or adventure, for they were stimulated by new subjects and ideals. So it happened that a great impulse was given to literature, and that here and there, in the quiet shelter of the monasteries, poets and scholars rose up, inspired to sing or write by the new learning or the new religion. The beginning of a great era in

the history of English literature is thus directly due to the introduction of Christianity and foreign culture which widened and enriched the nation's life.

But while many of the poems were composed on Christian or biblical subjects, the old poems were not all forgotten. Some of the old poems of heathen times were rearranged, and passages that show an acquaintance with the Bible were introduced into them. By far the longest and most interesting of the poems thus preserved is the narrative or epic poem of Beowulf.

Beowulf. This poem tells the story of the heroic deeds of Beowulf, a famous warrior among the Geats who dwelt in the southern part of Sweden, and who was a kinsman and companion of the King. As the general tone and spirit of the poem are heathen, and as all the adventures take place out of England, by the shores of the Baltic Sea, it is believed that the story of Beowulf originated on the Continent, and that the English brought it with them in some form from their old home. Only one version of the story has come down to us, and although the legend itself is much older, this version is believed to date from the seventh or eighth century, and to have been made by some Christian poet or scribe in the English kingdom of Northumbria. How far this unknown writer altered or improved upon the old story is not certainly known, but in any case Beowulf gives us a very interesting glimpse of life among the Germanic tribes in early days.

The poem tells how Hrothgar, a Danish king, had built a splendid hall for himself and his followers. It stood near the coast and was the most renowned hall under the heavens. Its roof, to which a stag's antlers were fixed, shone like gold. It was known as Heorot, a name which means in old English a hart or stag. Here

Hrothgar feasted with his thegns, or chosen followers, and here the King and his men would sleep after the feast. The poem tells how a monstrous demon named Grendel, who lives in the neighboring moors and marshes, hears in the darkness the sounds of rejoicing that come from the lighted hall. Filled with hate and envy, Grendel steals out of the waste places where he is lurking and, entering the great hall by night, kills thirty sleeping companions of the King. A creature of darkness, with huge claws, and nails like iron, no man can resist his fiendish strength. From time to time he returns, dragging the bodies of his victims away with him to his haunts in the wilderness, until Hrothgar and his thegns no longer dare to sleep in the hall. After twelve years have passed, the young earl Beowulf, who has heard of these things, comes to Denmark in a ship, resolved to rid Hrothgar of this monster. Hrothgar welcomes the hero, who has the strength of thirty men, and that night Beowulf and his band occupy the hall. All but Beowulf are asleep when Grendel bursts the door and enters, his eyes glowing like flame.

ng like flame. He snatches a sleeping warrior, tears him in pieces, and greedily devours him. Then he clutches Beowulf, and they wrestle in a deadly contest. The hero uses no weapon in this hour of need, but trusts solely to the strength of his own hands. The monster, master of evil, tries to escape; he longs to fly to the dark hollows of the fens, but Beowulf holds him stoutly in his terrible hand-grip. A furious wrestle follows, for the plunging monster is desperate. A great bench is overturned; the hall echoes with the confused noise of the conflict. The Danes, standing without, listen panic-stricken to the howls of the wounded monster. At last the demon, with the loss of an arm and shoulder, wrenches himself free and

« iepriekšējāTurpināt »