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Gift Weef krwaite 11-14-62


This book is the history of the beginnings of English Poetry. It is the beginning also of a history of that poetry which, I hope, with perhaps too bold an ambition, to finish in the years to come. Life gives too short a time now for a long work, but it is a pleasure to have at least brought to an end this tale of the origins of English verse.

It begins in the older England over the sea. It ends with the accession of Ælfred. When he came to the throne in 871, literature, both Latin and English, had perished, after a career of two hundred years. The final home of both had been Northumbria. A few years after his accession the last: unplundered seats of learning were destroyed. All the Muses were now silent.

But before Alfred died a new English literature had begun, and in a new land, and the King was himself its origin. What had been was poetry; this was prose.

The country of English poetry had been Northumbria; the country of English prose was Wessex. At this date, then, the curtain naturally falls on the first act of this history. At this date, in the intervals of Ælfred's wars, it will naturally rise on the beginning of the second act.

The English literature of this period is entirely poetry, and this book is mainly dedicated to that poetry. I have not put aside the life of the people, the Latin literature, or the political history of England; but I have only spoken of them so far as they bore upon the poetry or illustrated it. That poetry is certainly not of a very fine quality, but it is frequently remarkable. It has its own special qualities, and with the ex

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ception of perhaps a few Welsh and Irish poems, it is the only vernacular poetry in Europe, outside of the classic tongues, which belongs to so early a time as the seventh and eighth centuries. The Welsh and Irish poems are few, problematical, and their range is limited; but the English poems are numerous, well authenticated, and of wide and varied range. In these two centuries our forefathers produced examples, and good examples for the time, of religious, narrative, elegiac, descriptive, and even, in some sort, of epic poetry. This is a fact of singular interest. There is nothing like it- - at this early period - elsewhere in Europe. But the interest is even greater when we consider this poetry in connection with the whole of English song. It will be seen that a great number of the main branches of the tree of English poetry had already opened out at this time from the stem, and that the ideal and sentimental elements of the earliest poetry have continued, with natural changes, up to the present day. Here, then, in the two hundred years between 670 and 870, the roots of English poetry, the roots of that vast over-shadowing tree, were set; and here its first branches clothed themselves with leaves. Here, like the oaks of Dodona, it began to discourse its music; and there is not a murmur now of song in all its immemorial boughs which does not echo from time to time with the themes and the passion of its first melodies. Here, too, we can best discern, and here isolate most easily, those elements in English character which, existing before the race was mixed, have been, not the cause of our poetry, but the cause why the poetry has been of so high an excellence, – that steady consistency of national character, that clinging through all difficulty to the aim in view, that unrelenting curiosity, that desire to better what has been done, which, though not art themselves, are the effectual powers which enable art to strive, to seek, and at last to reach its goal.

Moreover, no national art is good which is not plainly that nation's own. In this Anglo-Saxon poetry of which I write we grasp most clearly the dominant English essence. The

poetry of England has owed much to the different races which mingled with the original English race; it has owed much to the different types of poetry it absorbed - Greek, Latin, Welsh, French, Italian, Spanish — but below all these admixtures, the English nature wrought its steady will. It seized, it transmuted, it modified, it mastered these admixtures both of races and of song.

Of what kind the early English poetry is, what feelings inspired the poets, what imaginations filled their hearts, how did they shape their work — that is the vital, the interesting question; and to answer it, the poetry itself must be read. I have therefore not written much about the poems, but I have translated a great quantity of what seemed to me not only their best, but also their most characteristic passages. I have also, when they were short enough, translated whole poems like the fourth Riddle and the Wanderer.

How to translate them was my chief difficulty. It was necessary, above all, that the translation should be accurate, but it was also necessary that it should have, as far as possible, the rhythmical movement of verse. Of all possible translations of poetry, a merely prose translation is the most inaccurate.

The translations here given are as accurate as I could make them. I do not mean that there are no mistakes in them, which would be an insolence I should soon repent, — but I mean that there is nothing out of my own fancy added to the translation. The original has been rigidly followed, and, for the most part, line for line. I have nearly always bracketed inserted words; and the only licence I have taken is the introduction of such words as then and there and all, when I needed an additional syllable for the sake of the rhythm which I adopted. Permission to do this was, I may say, given to me by the Anglo-Saxon poets themselves; it is their constant habit.

Then I felt that the translation should be in a rhythm which should represent, as closely as I could make it, the movement and the variety of the original verse. A prose translation, even when it reaches excellence, gives no idea whatever of that to which the ancient English listened. The original form is destroyed, and with it our imagination of the world to which the poet sang, of the way he thought, of how he shaped his emotion. Prose no more represents poetry than architecture does music. Translations of poetry are never much good, but at least they should always endeavour to have the musical movement of poetry, and to obey the laws of the verse they translate.

A translation made in any one of our existing rhyming metres seemed to me as much out of the question as a prose translation. None of these metres resemble those of AngloSaxon poetry; and, moreover, their associations would modernise the old English thought. An Anglo-Saxon king in modern Court dress would not look more odd and miserable than an Anglo-Saxon poem in a modern rhyming metre. Blank verse is another matter. It frequently comes near to the "short epic line" of Cynewulf, but it fails in the elasticity which a translation of Anglo-Saxon poetry requires, and in itself is too stately, even in its feminine dramatic forms, to represent the cantering movement of old English verse. Moreover, it is weighted with the sound of Shakspere, Milton, or Tennyson, and this association takes the reader away from the atmosphere of early English poetry. I felt myself then driven to invent a rhythmical movement which would enable me, while translating literally, to follow the changes, and to express, with some little approach to truth, the proper ebb and flow of Anglo-Saxon verse.

The Anglo-Saxon line is divided into two halves by a pause. The first half has two “measures,” and the first syllable of these is accented, or “stressed." The second half has the same number of measures and accents. The binding together of these two halves is done by alliteration. Generally speaking, the two accented syllables in the first half and one of the accented syllables in the second half begin with the same consonant or with any vowels; almost always with different vowels. Frequently, however, there is only one alliterated syllable in

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