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The players of the sea climb on the island, waken a fire, and are joyous, but suddenly the Ocean-guest plunges down with the bark, and in the hall of death makes fast with drowning ship and seamen. So plays the Fiend with the souls of men. Yet another fashion has this proud Rusher through the water. When he is hungry this Ocean-ward opens his wide lips, and so winsome an odour pours forth that the other fishes stream into his mouth till it is filled;' then quick together crash the grim gums around his prey. So too it is with men and the accursed one. When life is over, he claps his fierce jaws, the gates of hell, behind them. This is the common image of the entrance of hell—as seen, for example, in the rude pictures of the Caedmon manuscript, - like the gaping mouth of a monstrous fish.
I think it probable that these three small poems, which a literary connection has led me to link on to the Phoenix, were collected together if not actually made at York during the time when its great school was flourishing. The history of that School will form the following and the last chapter of this book. It was in full career during the whole time in which we suppose Cynewulf was writing; and though I do not think that he wrote in that town, yet what he wrote was read, we may be sure, at that central seat of Northumbrian learning. Among all the Latin studies pursued there, it is not likely that English would altogether be neglected. A few scholars at least — and we know that Baeda did so — · would care for the native poetry of their own country, study it, and collect it. The seats of great libraries become the home of literary collections. I conjecture, then, that during the fifty years or so when the School of York was famous over England and on the Continent, the English poetry of the past, the lays of Beowulf, the war-songs, the songs of Caedmon and many others, were gathered at York, studied, and arranged. It is likely enough that the Christian editing of Beowulf, and of semi-heathen poems like the Wanderer and the Seafarer, was done in the cloistered shades of the great School.
It is still more likely that the class of poems of which I now briefly write — collections of proverbial folk-sayings, senten
1 I wonder if the ancient sailors had ever met the sperm-whale, for this part of the legend contains things true both of it and of the Greenland whale. When the sperm-whale dies of the disease which produces Ambergris, it leaves behind it, lingering on the ocean, a sweet scent. The Right whale feeds on small animaleulæ, which the whalers call Brit. It takes in with open mouth the sea thick with these small beasts, and then closing its gates of whale-bone ejects the water. The Brit are retained behind the fence of bone.
tious moral poems containing selected passages from the old or the new poetry put together within a framework of the collector's own writing - were made at York during the literary leisure of the time, and received and heard with pleasure by Ecgberht, Æthelberht, and Alcuin. However that may be, it is under this convenient and probable supposition that I place the Gnomic Verses, the Crafts or Gifts of Men, and the Weirds of Men, all of which are contained in the Exeter Book.
The Gnomic Verses are in four parts, three of which are in the Exeter Book, and the fourth is in the Cotton MS. at Cambridge. They consist of folk-proverbs, maxims, short descriptions of human life and natural occurrences, thrown together without any apparent arrangement in subjects. They vary in length from half a line to six or eight lines. Some are of the plainest simplicity, others show some knowledge of the world ; some are quotations from the poets; there is one at the eightyfirst line which is taken from Beowulf, 1387; there are two others which seem to be extracted from the Seafarer. Some of them relate to natural phenomena, some to the life of animals, many to the customs and manners of men and women ; some may have come down from heathen times and be very old, others have been Christianised; others, as plainly, have had their origin when Christianity had been well established; and some belong, I think, to a time long after the eighth century. I think it probable that the original collector was some literary person at York, during Ecgberht's or Æthelberht's time, who was interested in heathen verse and customs. The lines from Beowulf suggest this, and the resemblances to the Seafarer suggest that the collector was a Northumbrian. Then we may imagine that the collection, brought southward to Wessex, was taken up again after the days of Ælfred, new matter added, the introduction of the first part written, the close of the first, second, and third. The last line, for example, of the first part is the wish of the editor to be thanked by his readers for the trouble he has taken, “Let him have thanks who got together for us these pleasures." The last four lines of the third part do not appear to me to belong to the lines which precede them, but to be an ancient folk-saying concerning weapons. I conjecture, then, that they formed part of the
1 These are of special interest. It is not improbable (and this has been frequently said) that we have in some of them old folk-verses which the English used in the old England over the sea, and that they are specimens of the earliest form of English verse. I have inserted a few of them into a note at the end of this volume.
body of the manuscript which the scribe was copying, and that, finding he had omitted them as he wrote, he tagged them on at the end. I give them here
Yare be the Warboard and lance-head on shaft,
That has the heroic heathen ring. It belongs to the other phrases in earlier parts of the Verses which treat of weapons of war,
“ The bow must have its arrow." Two other poems, somewhat related to each other in subject, may also have been edited at the School of York. They are writings which, in their contemplative view of human life, would naturally attract the attention of retired and pensive scholars, men like Gray, who looked from their college windows on the vicissitudes of human affairs and turned them into reflective odes. These are the Gifts of Men and the Fates of Men. They have both, without any sufficient proof, been allotted to Cynewulf. They have also been made into two separate treatments by the same poet of one subject. Whoever wrote, says Rieger, the Gifts of Men, wrote also the Weirds of Men. Our gifts are often our fates. But few support Rieger in this, and Wülker maintains that the art in both poems is different, and the poets different, and that Cynewulf had nothing to do with either.
The chief interest of the Gifts of Men is that some of it may have come down from heathen times. The introduction plainly belongs to a Christian editor, and so does the close; and it borrows its main theme either from Gregory's homily on Job or from St. Paul's enumeration of the Gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians xii., “There are diversities of gifts, but the same spirit.” Half of the gifts are profane enough harp-playing, knowledge of the stars, building, running, archery, steering the war-ship through the sea, smithery of warweapons, the goldsmith's craft, companionship in the mead-hall, skill in dice, in riding, in hunting, in drinking, in giving dooms in council when wise men make national laws, in hawking, in juggling. It is probable there was a heathen or semiheathen poem on the gifts of men which both Cynewulf in the Christ and the writer of this poem had before them, and that this writer mingled it up with a free adaptation of Gregory's homily, of the xii. of 1 Corinthians, and perhaps of some Latin hymn on the same matter. There is no poetic or liter
ary quality in this catalogue of gifts, or in the reflections on them.
A different air breathes through the poem on the Weirds of Men. It has some form; the introduction of the poem is brief and excellent; the different fates of men are touched with a poet's hand. It is a strange criticism which imagines that he who composed this could have composed the Gifts of Men. It belongs to the good time, and I should not be surprised if it were written within the first three decades of the eighth century, and perhaps by Cynewulf in his semi-heathen, semiChristian time. There is a manner of painting human life in it which recalls some of the Riddles. But this is mere conjecture. It begins with the birth of a child, its growth, its education by its parents. “God only knows," it says, “what the winters will bring to the grown-up man," —and then it enumerates the different kinds of miserable deaths which may befall him— death by the wolf, “the gray ganger of the heath," death by hunger, from blindness, in war, by lameness, by falling from a tree, by the gallows, by fire, by quarrel at the feast; misery through exile and loss of friends, and poverty. But others, by the might of God, will win through all misfortune to a hoar old age, happy and prosperous, and with troops of friends, --so manifold are the dooms God gives to men. Then he seems to slip into a telling of the gifts rather than of the fates of men and we have done over again, only done by a poet, all that we have read of in the previous poem, — the gifts of the warrior, the learned man, the booncompanion, the harper, the falcon-trainer, and the goldsmith who adorns with his art the man of the Britons' king (brytencyninges beorn) a phrase which may help us to approach the date of the poem.
As I have already used the most vigorous of the pictures of English life contained in these poems in the chapters on the Settlement and War in Poetry, I may, with this short sketch, leave the poem behind me,' and with it all the poetry which preceded Ælfred, except the Dream of the Rood. Other verses, it is true, on various subjects, lie scattered through the Exeter Book, and through the manuscripts in various libraries. But they do not belong to this time, or might have been writ
1 There are two other poems in the Exeter Book which have been somewhat mixed up with these —one On the Spirit of Men (“ Bi manna mode”), and the other on the Leasing of Men (“Bi manna lease”). They have no literary value whatever. They are nothing more than fragments of sermons in verse, and may have been written at any time. The first is on the glory of humility and the baseness of pride, and the second is built on Psalm xxviii.
ten at any time, and I may say by any monk, from the seventh to the eleventh centuries. They belong to the next volume of this book, and we turn, to end this long tale of our earliest poetry, to the Dream of the Rood, the last, as it seems to me, of the important poems of the eighth century.
One portion of this poem has been already discussed - the personal epilogue with which it closes. I have taken it to be the last thing that Cynewulf wrote, and that it tells the tale of his last days. It speaks his farewell to life, and seems to sing the dirge of Northumbrian poetry. I place it here as the epilogue to this history of Early English song. I believe the position I give it to be historical, but I do not assert it to be historical. It is not possible to say with any certainty that its date falls within the last ten or twenty years of the eighth century, or that it was even written by Cynewulf. A great debate clashes round its authorship. A large number of German and English scholars assert that Cynewulf was its writer, but they have somewhat lessened the weight of their opinion by fastening also on him many inferior poems which have nothing of the artist in them from head to tail. Wülker, with others, seems to think it most improbable, if not impossible, that Cynewulf wrote the poem, and goes so far as to include the discussion of it among the poems he classifies under the name of Caedmon. Some have attributed it to Caedmon himself, partly backing their opinion by the supposed translation of the runic title on the Ruthwell Cross - Caedmon me fawed (“ Caedmon made me”), and connecting this with the lines carved on the Cross, which are almost identical with lines contained in this Dream of the Rood. But the lines may have been carved in the tenth century, and the assertion that “Caedmon made me
be no more than the carver's opinion, or even the name of the carver. No certainty can be gained on that path.
A much stronger argument against Cynewulf's authorship arises, I think, from the metre of the poem; and the argument is stronger against my own view that it was the last of the poems of Cynewulf, than it would be against those who think it to be one of his earliest poems. Almost the whole of the story of the dream is written in the long-epic and Caedmonian line, and though Cynewulf does use this line now and then in his signed poems, he uses it with great rarity, and never in any continuous narration. He does not use it at all in the
1 He has collected the reasons as yet given for or against the authorship of Cynewulf, in his Grundriss, at pp. 189-19.