The Proper Basis of English Culture

SURELY it is time our popular culture were cited into the presence of the Fathers. That we have forgotten their works is in itself matter of mere impiety which many practical persons would consider themselves entitled to dismiss as a purely sentimental crime ; but ignorance of their ways goes to the very root of growth.

I count it a circumstance so wonderful as to merit some preliminary setting forth here, that with regard to the first seven hundred years of our poetry we English-speaking people appear never to have confirmed ourselves unto ourselves. While we often please our vanity with remarking the outcrop of Anglo-Saxon blood in our modern physical achievements, there is certainly little in our present art of words to show a literary lineage running back to the same ancestry. Of course it is always admitted that there was an English poetry as old to Chaucer as Chaucer is to us ; but it is admitted with a certain inconclusive and amateur vagueness removing it out of the rank of facts which involve grave and important duties. We can deny neither the fact nor the strangeness of it, that the English poetry written between the time of Aldhelm and Cædmon in the seventh century, and that of Chaucer in the fourteenth century, has never yet taken its place by the hearths and in the hearts of the people whose strongest prayers are couched in its idioms. It is not found in the tatters of use, on the floors of our children’s playrooms ; there are no illuminated boys’ editions of it; it is not on the booksellers’ counters at Christmas ; it is not studied in our common schools ; it is not printed by our publishers; it does not lie even in the dusty corners of our bookcases ; nay, the pious English scholar must actually send to Germany for Grein’s Bibliothek in order to get a compact reproduction of the body of Old English poetry.

Nor is this due to any artistic insensibility on our part. Perhaps it will sharpen the outlines of our strange attitude toward the works of our own tongue if we contrast it with our reverence for similar works in other tongues, — say Greek and Latin. In citing some brief details of such a contrast, let it be said by way of abundant caution that nothing is further from the present intention than to make a silly question as between the value of the ancient classic and the English classic. Terms of value do not apply here ; once for all, the prodigious thoughts of Greek poetry are simply invaluable : they permeate all our houses like indirect sunlight; we could not read our life without them. In point of fact, our genuine affection for these beautiful foreign works is here adduced because, in establishing our love for great poetry in general, it necessarily also establishes some special cause for our neglect of native works in particular.

For example, we are all ready to smile with a lofty good humor when we find Puttenham, in 1589, devoting a grave chapter to prove “ that there may be an Arte of our English Poesie as well as there is of the Latine and Greeke ; ” we remember the crushing domination of the old culture in his time, and before it we wonder complacently at all that icy business of “elegant” Latin verses and “ polite ” literature, and we feel quite comfortable in thinking how completely we have changed these matters.

Have we ? One will go into few moderately appointed houses in this country without finding a Homer in some form or other; but it is probably far within the truth to say that there are not fifty copies of Beowulf in the United States.1 Or, again, every boy, though far less learned than that erudite young person of Macaulay’s, can give some account of the death of Hector; but how many boys — or, not to mince matters, how many men — in America could do more than stare if asked to relate the death of Byrhtnoth ? Yet Byrhtnoth was a hero of our own England in the tenth century, whose manful fall is recorded in English words that ring on the soul like arrows on armor. Why do we not draw in this poem — and its like — with our mother’s milk ? Why have we no nursery songs of Beowulf and the Grendel? Why does not the serious education of every English-speaking boy commence, as a matter of course, with the Anglo-Saxon grammar ? These are more serious questions than any one will be prepared to believe who has not followed them out to their logical results.

For the absence of this primal Anglicism from our modern system goes, as was said, to the very root of culture. The eternal and immeasurable significance of that individuality in thought which flows into idiom in speech becomes notably less recognized among us. We do not bring with us out of our childhood the fibre of idiomatic English which our fathers bequeathed to us. A boy’s English is diluted before it has become strong enough for him to make up his mind clearly as to the true taste of it. Our literature needs Anglo-Saxon iron ; there is no ruddiness in its cheeks, and everywhere a clear lack of the red corpuscles. Current English prose, on both sides of the water, reveals an ideal of prose-writing most like the leaden sky of a November day, that overspreads the earth with dreariness, — no rift in its tissue nor fleck in its tint. Upon any soul with the least feeling for color the model “ editorial ” of the day leaves a profound dejection. The sentences are all of a height, like regulars on parade ; and the words are immaculately prim, smug, and clean-shaven. Out of all this regularity comes a kind of prudery in our literature. It ought not to be, that our sensibilities are shocked with strong individualities of style like Carlyle’s or even Ruskin’s. One always finds a certain curious reaction of this sensibility upon these men, manful as they are; they grow nervous with the fine sense of a suspicion of charlatanry in using a ruddy-cheeked style when the general world writes sallow-skinned; and hence sometimes too much color in their style, — a blush, as it were. We are guilty of a gross wrong in our behavior toward these authors and their like. A man should have his swing in his writing. That is the main value of it; not to sweep me off my legs with eloquent propagandism, but simply to put me in position where I may place the frank and honest-spoken view of another man alongside my own, and so make myself as large as two men, quoad rem.

But we lack a primal idiomatic bone and substance ; we have not the stalwart Anglicism of style which can tolerate departures, breaks, and innovations ; we are as uncomfortable over our robustious Carlyle as an invalid, all nerves, with a great rollicking boy in the room, — we do not know what he may do next.

How wonderful this seems, if we take time to think what a strong, bright, picture-making tongue we had in the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the powerful old Anglo - Saxon had fairly conquered all the foreign elements into its own idiom ! For it is about with the beginning of that century that we may say we had a fully developed English literary instrument. Chaucer was not, and could not be, the well of English undefiled which Spenser’s somewhat forgetful antiquarianism would have him. He was fed with two streams of language which were still essentially distinct in many particulars. It was a long while before the primal English conquered the alien elements into its own idioms, — longer, indeed, in Chaucer’s world than in Langland’s.

Almost every house will furnish the means of placing in sharp contrast the vivacity and robust manfulness of the English language early in the sixteenth century, and the more flaccid tongue which had begun to exist even as early as the eighteenth. Warton’s History of English Poetry, for example, collates a couple of stanzas from The Nut-Brown Maid — which must belong to the end of the fifteenth or the beginning of the sixteenth century —— with the corresponding stanzas of a paraphrase made by Prior in 1718. It may not be amiss to make sure by inserting one of these examples here. In the original ballad, the wild lover, testing the girl’s affection, cries : —

“Yet take good hede, for ever I drede
That ye could nat sustayne
The thornie wayes, the depe valeis,
The snowe, the frost, the rayne,
The colde, the hete ; for, dry or wete,
We must lodge on the playne ;
And us abofe none other rofe
But a brake bush or twayne ;
Which gone sholde greve you, I believe,
And ye wolde gladly than
That I had to the grene wode go
Alone, a banyshed man.”

I cannot see how language could well have put it featlier than that; but, two hundred years afterward, this is Prior’s idea of the way it should have been said :

“ Those limbs, in lawn and softest silk array’d,
From sunbeams guarded and of winds afraid,
Can they bear angry Jove ? Can they resist
The parching dog-star and the bleak northeast ?
When, chill’d by adverse snows and beating rain, We tread with weary steps the longsome plain ;
When with hard toil we seek our evening food,
Berries and acorns from the neighbouring wood ;
And find among the cliffs no other house
But the thin covert of some gather’d boughs ;
Wilt thou not then reluctant send thine eye
Around the dreary waste, and, weeping, try
(Though then, alas ! that trial be too late)
To find thy father’s hospitable gate,
And seats where ease and plenty brooding sate ?
Those seats, whence long excluded thou must mourn ;
That gate, for ever barr’d to thy return ;
Wilt thou not then bewail ill-fated love,
And hate a banish’d man, condemn’d in woods to rove ? ”

Or, if it be objected that this may be an exaggerated single example which proves little, almost every bookcase contains Thomas Johnes’s translation of Froissart, in the notes to which occur here and there extracts of parallel passages from Lord Berners’s translation, made in the time of Henry VIII.; and the least comparison of Berners with Johnes shows how immeasurably more bright, many-colored, and powerful is the speech of the former.

And this brightness, color, and power make for the doctrine of this present writing, because they are simply exuberant manifestations of pure Anglicism put forth in the moment of its triumph. We are all prone to forget the odds against which this triumph was achieved. For four hundred years — that is, in round numbers, from 670 to 1070 — the English language was desperately striving to get into literature, against the sacred wishes of Latin ; and now, when the Normans come, the tongue of Aldhelm and Cædmon, of Alfred and Ælfric and Cynewulf, must begin and fight again for another four hundred years against French, — fight, too, in such depths of disadvantage as may be gathered from many a story of the relentless Norman efforts to exterminate the native tongue. Witness, for example, Matthew Paris’s account of the deposition of the Bishop of Worcester in 1095 by the Normans because he “ was a superannuated English idiot who could not speak French ; ” or Ralph Higden’s complaint, as John Trevisa translates it from the Polychronicon : “ Children in scole, ayenst the usage and manir of all other nations, beeth compelled for to leve hire owne langage and for to construe hire lessons and hire thinges in French; and so they haveth sethe Normans came first into Engelond ; ” moreover, “ Gentilmen children beeth taught to speke Frensche from the tyme that they bith rokked in hire cradle and kumeth speke and play with a child’s broche.”

Eight hundred years the tough old tongue has been grimly wrestling and writhing, life and death on the issue, now under this enemy, now under that, when Lord Berners and Sir Thomas More begin to speak.

It is, therefore, with all the sacred sanction of this long conflict that a man can drive home upon our time these following charges : first, that it is doing its best, in most of its purely literary work, to convert the large, manful, and simple idioms of Alfred and Cynewulf into the small, finical, and knowing clevernesses of a smart half-culture, which knows neither whence it came nor whither it is going; and secondly, that as a people we are utterly ignorant of even the names of the products of English genius during the first four hundred of the eight hundred years just mentioned, insomuch that if a fervent English-lover desire to open his heart to some one about Beowulf, or The Battle of Maldon, or The Wanderer, or Deor’s Lament, or The Phœnix, or The Sea-farer, or The Address of the Departed Soul to its Body, or Elene, or the like, he must do it by letter, for there are scarcely anywhere two in a town who have read, or can read, these poems.

In short, our literary language2 has suffered a dilution much like that which music has undergone at the hands of the weaker devotees since the free use of the semitone began. Soon after the chromatic tone had attained its place a wonderful flexibility shows itself in music, the art expands in many directions, the province of harmony becomes indefinitely large; but this very freedom proves the ruin of the weaker brethren: the facilities of modulation afforded by the minor chords and the diminished sevenths tempt into unmeaning and cloying impertinences of composition, and these have to be relieved, again, by setting over-harsh and crabbed chords in the midst of a too gracious flow of tone.

Now, as music has reached a point where it must pause, and reëstablish the dominancy of the whole tone, fortifying it with whatever new tones may be found possible in developing the scale according to primal — or what we may call musically idiomatic — principles, so must our tongue recur to the robust forms, and from these to the underlying and determining genius, of its Anglo-Saxon 3 period.

In other words, — for what has so far been said has been in defense and explication of the sentence which stands at the beginning of this paper,—culture must be cited into the presence of the Fathers.

In the humblest hope of contributing to that end, I eagerly embrace the opportunity of calling the general reader’s attention to the rhythmical movement — and afterward to the spiritual movement — of an Anglo-Saxon poem dating from about A. D. 993, known as The Death of Byrhtnoth, or otherwise as The Battle of Maldon, which, in the judgment of my ear, sets the grace of loyalty and the grimness of battle to noble music. I think no man could hear this poem read aloud without feeling his heart beat faster and his blood stir.

The rhythm of this poem — let it be observed as the reader goes through the scheme—is strikingly varied in timedistribution from bar to bar. The poem, in fact, counts with perfect confidence upon the sense of rhythm, which is wellnigh universal in our race, often boldly opposing a single syllable in one bar to three or four in the next. I should not call this " bold ” except for the timidity of English poetry during the last two hundred years, when it has scarcely ever dared to venture out of the round of its strictly defined iambics, forgetting how freely our folk songs and nursery rhymes employ rhythms and rhythmic breaks, — as “ Peas porridge hot,” for example, or almost any verse out of Mother Goose, — which, though “ complex ” from the standpoint of our customary rhythmic limitations, are instantly seized and coordinated by children and child-minded nurses.4

[Apart from its literary merit, this poem has other features of interest. It is an example, perhaps singular, of an epic contemporary with the events it recites, and probably written by one who had a share in the battle. The poet’s point of view never moves from the English side ; he does not know what is done or said among the Danes ; he knows none of their names, not even that of their leader. We may therefore rely on its being a faithful picture of what was done, said, and even thought during this last resolute stand of England against the vikings.

The incident itself is memorable. In A. D. 979 Æthelred Lack-Counsel (generally called " the Unready ”) was crowned at Kingston, and the “ bloody cloud in the likeness of fire, seen at midnight,” which followed that event, may well have seemed to the old chronicler, in the light of later experience, a foretokening of the years to come, when the heavens, night after night, were red with the glare of burning towns and homesteads, and the ground was crimson with the blood of the slaughtered English. For the Danes had begun their terrible invasions, and met with but little resistance. In the next year, Leicester, Thanet, and Southampton were plundered, and the inhabitants “ mostly slain,” says the chronicle ; in the next, Padstow in Cornwall was plundered, and Devonshire harried with fire and sword ; in the next, London was burnt. We come at last to the year 991, and we are told : —

“ In this year came Anlaf with ninetythree ships to Staines and harried all roundabout that; and then fared thence to Sandwich, and thence on to Ipswich, and overran all that, and so to Maldon [Essex]. And there against them came the ealdorman Byrhtnoth with his army, and fought with them, and they slew the ealdorman and held the battlefield. And in this year for the first time men counselled that they should rather pay tribute to the Danish men for the mickle terror that they wrought at the sea-coasts. And the tribute was at first a thousand pounds. The giver of the counsel was Sigeric the archbishop.”

It is plain from this that the fall of Byrhtnoth snapped the sinews of English resistance ; and from this time forth we read of nothing but feeble and futile musterings of men, without plan or concert of action, and all to no purpose : half-battles lost because the support did not arrive in time; fleets ordered to help the land force, and coming after all was over ; “ and ever,” says the chronicler, “ when they should have been forwarder, then were they later, ain ever the foes waxed more and more.” And the tribute grew heavier and heavier, and there was less to pay it with, and leaders like Ælfric turned traitors in sheer despair, until the doomed king, crowning a life of imbecility by a deed of bloody madness, slaughtered the peaceful colonists of the Danelagh, and Swegen came in a storm of fire and blood, hurling the wretched descendant of Cerdic from the throne, while England bent her neck to the Danish rule. After half a century, two phantoms of a monk and a warrior, Edward and Harold, seemed to wear the Saxon crown ; but the monarchy of Alfred received its death-blow at Maldon, not because the East Saxon militia was broken, but because Byrhtnoth fell.

And now who was Byrhtnoth ? The chronicler, overmuch given to recording investitures and deaths of bishops and abbots, tells us but little ; but from the Book of Ely, an abbey’ founded by Byrhtnoth himself, we get glimpses of him, probably from the hand of one who had seen him face to face. He was ealdorman — that is, lord or general — of the East Saxons, and one of the greatest nobles in England. “ He was,” says the monkish historian, “ eloquent of speech, great of stature, exceeding strong, most skillful in war, and of courage that knew no fear. He spent his whole life in defending the liberty of his country, being altogether absorbed in this one desire, and preferring to die rather than to leave one of its injuries unavenged. And all the leaders of the shires put their trust altogether in him.”

After telling of several of his victories, the historian comes to his last fight. His force was far inferior to that of the invaders, but he hastened to meet them without waiting for reinforcements, — a piece of rashness like that recorded in the poem, where, from mere excess of haughty courage, he disdains to defend the ford of Panta, and lets the vikings cross unmolested, a fatal hardihood which cost him the battle and his life. On his march, when he came to Ramsey Abbey he asked for provisions for his men. The abbot said that it was not possible for him to feed so great a number, but, not to seem churlish, he would receive as his guests the ealdorman and seven others. Byrhtnoth rejected the mean offer with scorn. “ I cannot fight without them,” he said, “ and I will not eat without them,” and so marched on to Ely, where Abbot Ælfsig bounteously entertained him and his force.

“ But the ealdorman, thinking that he had been burdensome to the abbeys, would not leave it unrewarded; and on the following morning bestowed upon it six rich manors, and promised nine more, with thirty marks of gold and twenty pounds of silver, on the condition that if he fell in the battle his body should be brought and buried there. To this gift he also added two crosses of gold and gems, and a pair of curiously wrought gloves. And so, commending himself to the prayers of the brethren, he went forth to meet the enemy.

“ When he met them, undeterred by the multitude of foes and the fewness of his own men, he attacked them at once, and for fourteen days fought with them daily. But on the last day, but few of his men being left alive, and perceiving that he was to die, he attacked them with none the less courage, and had almost put them to flight, when the Danes, taking heart from the small numbers of the English, formed their force into a wedge, and threw themselves upon them. Byrhtnoth was slain, fighting valiantly, and the enemy cut off his head, and bare it with them to their own country ! ”

Plainly a prince of men, and the true king of England at that day, though he never wavered in his allegiance to “ Æthelred, my prince.” And this last day of the “ great dim battle ” in the east, more worthy the poet’s song than that merely fabulous “ battle in the west ” which the late Laureate celebrated in such singing verse, — this last agony of the last vigorous struggle to free England from the ferocious invaders, is the subject of the poem.

True, Byrhtnoth is not so musical a name as Arthur, and Leofsunu and Wulfmær sound harsh compared with Lancelot and Percivale ; but the fantastic chivalry of the Round Table and their phantom-like king are not only historically untrue, but merely impossible, — a bright-hued web of the stuff that dreams are made of, — while these gallant men of Essex and their heroic chief veritably lived, and fought, and died where they stood, rather than yield one foot of English ground or forsake their fallen leader; and they were men of our own race, and it may be that their blood flows in our own veins.

Unflinching courage, personal devotion to the chief, absolute contempt of death, are matters of course in this warrior-poet’s mind, and need no particular eulogy.]

I have translated two hundred lines of the poem, — which is a fragment, of three hundred and twenty-five lines in all, lacking the original beginning and end,—with special reference to two matters.

(1.) In the first hundred lines — being the first hundred of the poem as it stands — I have had particularly in view the send and drive of the rhythm : and to keep these in the reader’s mind I have made the translation, so far as the end of that hundred, mostly in dactyls, which continually urge the voice forward to the next word, with an occasional trochee for breath and variety.

(2.) But in my second hundred lines —being those consecutively following the first, up to the hundred and eighty-fifth line of the poem, when I pass to the last sixteen, with an intercalary account in short of the matter of the intervening hundred and twenty-five — I have abandoned the metrical purpose, and changed the paramount object to that of showing the peculiar idioms of Anglo-Saxon poetry : the order of words, the vigorous use of noun and verb, the parallelisms and repetitions (like those of Hebrew poetry, as in the lines near the last, “ Ælfnod and Wulf inter lay slain; by the side of their prince they parted, with life”), and the like. I have thought that the modern reader might contemplate with special profit the sparing use of those particles — such as “ the,” “ a ” or “ an,” las,” " their,” and others — which have made the modern tongue so different from the old, both in its rhythmical working and in its weight or momentum. The old tongue is notably sterner, and often stronger, by its ability to say “ man,” “ horse,” “ shield,” and not" the man,” “ a horse,” “ his shield,” etc. ; and it is an interesting question, at least, whether we might not with advantage educate our modern sense to be less shocked by the omission of these particles at need. Without here adducing many considerations which would have to be weighed before any one could make up his judgment on this point, I have simply called attention to these particles, where modern usage required me to supply them in the translation, by inclosing them in parentheses.

In both the metrical and the unmetrical portions of the translation I have discarded the arrangement into lines as interfering with the objects in view ; the poem showing clearly enough, by the plane of its thought, that it is a poem, though presented in whatever forms of prose.

The fragment begins with the last two words of some sentence, brocen wurde ” (was broken), and then proceeds as follows : —

Bade then (that is, Byrhtnoth bade) each warrior loose him his horse and drive it afar, and fare thus on to the hand-fight, hopeful of heart.

Then straightway the stripling of Offa beheld that the earl would abide no cowardly thing : so there from his hand he let fly his falcon, his beloved hawk, away through the wood, and strode to the battle; and man might know that never that youth would fail from the fight when once he fell to his weapon. Thereat Eadric was minded to stand by his ealdorman fast in the fight; forth ’gan bear his javelin foe-ward, manful in mood, whilever that he in his hands might hold his buckler and broadsword ; his vaunt he avouched with his deeds, that there he should fight in front of his prince.

Then Byrhtnoth began to array him his warriors, rode and directed, counselled the fighters how they should stand and steadfastly hold to their places, showed them how shields should be gripped full hard with the hand, and bade them to fear not at all. When fairly his folk were formed he alighted in midst of the liegemen that loved him fondliest; these full well he wist that his faithfullest hearth-fighters were.

Then stood forth one from the vikings, strongly called, uttered his words, shouted the sea-rogues’ threat to the earl where he stood on the adverse shore: “ Me have the scathful seamen sent, and bidden me say that now must thou render rings 5 for thy ransom, and better for you shall it be that ye buy off a battle with tribute than trust the harddealing of war. No need that we harm you, if only ye heed this message; firm will we fashion a peace with the gold. If thou that art richest wouldst ransom thy people, pay, for a peace, what the seamen shall deem to be due ; we will get us to ship with the gold, and fare off over the flood, and hold you acquit.”

Byrhtnoth cried to him, brandished the buckler, shook the slim ash, with words made utterance, wrathful and resolute, gave him his answer : “ Hearest thou, sea-rover, that which my folk sayeth ? Yes, we will render you tribute . . . in javelins — poisonous point, and old-time blade—good weapons, yet forward you not in the fight. Herald of pirates, be herald once more; hear to thy people a bitterer message : that here stands dauntless an earl with his warriors, will keep us this country, — land of my lord, Prince Æthelred, —folk and field ; the heathen shall perish in battle. Too base, methinketh that ye with your gold should get you to ship all unfoughten with, now that so far ye have come to be in our land : never so soft shall ye slink with your treasure away : us shall persuade both point and blade—grim game of war — ere we pay you for peace! ”

Bade he then bear forward bucklers, and warriors go, till they all stood ranged on the bank that was east. Now there, for the water, might never a foeman come to the other: there came flowing the flood after ebb-tide, mingled the streams: too long it seemed to them, ere that together the spears would come.

There stood they in their strength by Panta’s stream, the East-Saxon force and the ship-host: nor might either of them harm the other, save when one fell by an arrow’s flight.

The tide outflowed : the pirates stood yare, many vikings wistful for war.

Bade then the Shelter-of-Men 6 a warhardened warrior hold him the bridge, who Wulfstan was hight, bold with his kinsmen, Ceola’s son ; he smote with his spear the first man down that stepped over-bold on the bridge. There stood by Wulfstan warriors dauntless, Maccus and Ælfere, proud-souled twain; they recked not of flight at the ford, but stoutly strove with the foe what while they could wield their weapons. When they 7 encountered and eagerly saw how bitter the bridgewards were, then the hostile guests betook them to cunning; ordered to seize the ascents, and fare through the ford and lead up the line. Now the earl in his over-bold mood gave over-much8 land to the foe. There, while the warriors whist, fell Byrhthelm’s bairn9 to calling over the waters cold: —

“Now there is room for you, rush to us, warriors to warfare ; God wot, only, which of us twain shall possess this place of the slaughter ! ”

Waded the war - wolves west over Panta, recked not of water, warrior vikings. There, o’er the wave they bore up their bucklers, the seamen lifted their shields to the land. In wait with his warriors, Byrhtnoth stood; he bade form the war-hedge of bucklers, and hold that ward firm to the foe. The fight was at hand, the glory of battle ; the time was come for the falling of men that were doomed.

There was a scream uphoven, ravens hovered, (and) the eagle sharp for carnage ; on earth was clamor.

They let from (their) hands (the) filehard spears, (the) sharp-ground javelins, fly ; bows were busy, shield caught spearpoint, bitter was the battle-rush, warriors fell, on either hand warriors lay. Wounded was Wulf nicer, chose (his) bed of death, Byrhtnoth’s kinsman, his sister’s son ; he with bills was in pieces hewn. (But) there to the vikings quittance made ; heard I that Edward slew one sheerly with his sword, withheld not the swing (of it), that to him at feet fell (the) fated warrior. For that his prince said thanks to him — to his bower-thane — when he had time. So dutiful wrought (the) strong - souled fighters at battle, keenly considered who there might quickliest pierce with (his) weapon ; carnage fell on earth. Stood (they) steadfast. Byrhtnoth heartened them, bade that each warrior mind him of battle that would fight out glory upon (the) Danes.

Waded then (forward) (a) warrior tough, upheaved (his) weapon, shield at ward, and strode at the earl; as resolute went the earl to the carl: 10 each of them to the other meant mischief. Sent then the sea-warrior (a) Southern spear that the lord of warriors 11 was wounded ; he wrought then with his shield that the shaft burst in pieces and that spear broke that it sprang again. Angry-souled was the warrior ; he with (his) spear stung the proud viking that gave him his wound. Prudent was the chieftain ; he let his spear wade through the viking’s neck ; (his) hand guided it that it reached to the life of his dangerous foe. Then he suddenly shot another that his corselet burst ; he was wounded in the breast through the ring-mail; at his heart stood the fatal spear-point. The earl was all the blither ; laughed the valorous man, said thanks to the Creator for the day’swork that the Lord gave him.

Then some (one) of the warriors let fly from his hand a dart that it forthright passed through the noble thane12 of Æthelred. Then stood him beside an unwaxen warrior,13 a boy in fight; he full boldly plucked from the prince the bloody javelin (Wulfstan’s son, Wulfmær the young) ; let the sharp (steel) fare back again ; the spear-point pierced that he lay on the earth who before had grievously wounded the prince. Ran there a cunning warrior to the earl; he wished to plunder the prince of (his) treasures, armor and rings and adorned sword. Then Byrhtnoth drew from sheath his broad and brown-edged sword and smote on the (warrior’s) corselet; (but) too soon one of the pirates prevented him ; he maimed the arm of the earl; fell to the ground the yellow-hilted sword ; he might not hold the hard blade, not wield (a) weapon. There nevertheless some words spoke the hoary chieftain, heartened his warriors, bade the good comrades go forward ; now no longer could he stand firm on (his) feet; he looked towards heaven: —

“ I thank Thee, Ruler of nations, for all the delights that were mine in the world; now do I own, mild Creator, most need that Thou give good to my ghost, whereby my soul may depart unto Thee in Thy kingdom. Prince of (the) angels, may fare forth in peace; I am suppliant to Thee that the hell-foes may humble it not! ”

Then the heathen men hewed him and both the chieftains that stood by him ; Ælfnod and Wulfmær lay slain; by the side of their prince they parted with life.

And hereupon — as the next hundred and twenty-five lines go on to relate — there was like to be a most sorrowful panic on the English side. Several cowards fled ; notably one Godric, who leaped upon Byrhtnoth’s own horse, and so cast many into dead despair with the belief that they saw — what no man had ever dreamed he saw before — Byrhtnoth in flight. But presently Ælfwine and Offa and other high-souled thanes heartened each other and led up their people, yet to no avail: and so thane after thane and man after man fell for the love of Byrhtnoth and of manhood, and no more would flee. Finally (at line 309, after which there are but sixteen lines more of the fragment) we find Byrhtwold, an old warrior, sturdily bearing up his shield and waving his ash and exhorting the few that remained, beautifully crying: —

Soul be the scornfuller, heart be the bolder, front be the firmer, as our might lessens ! Here, all hewn, lieth our chieftain, a good man on the ground ; for ever let (one) mourn who now from this warplay thinketh to wend. I am old of life ; hence will I not; for now by the side of my lord, by the so-beloved man, I am minded to lie ! ”

Then Æthelgar’s son (Godric) the warriors all to combat urged ; oft he (a) javelin let hurl — a bale-spear — upon the vikings ; so he among the folk went foremost, hewed and felled, till that he sank in fight; he w’as not that Godric who fled from the battle.

Sidney Lanier.

  1. Since this was written (about 1880), two editions of the work have been published here.
  2. As distinguished from the modern scientific English, which is certainly an admirable instrument in the hands of Tyndall, of Huxley, and of many more.
  3. A term for which it is now pretty generally agreed to substitute “Old English.” I shall use the two interchangeably in this paper.
  4. The historical paragraphs following (in brackets) have been supplied by Dr. William Hand Browne.
  5. Rings, that is, of gold, — a favorite form of treasure among our Anglo-Saxon ancestors.
  6. Byrhtnoth.
  7. The pirates.
  8. Voluntarily drew back and allowed them to gain the hither bank, in order to bring on the fight.
  9. Byrhtnoth.
  10. The churl, —common person or yeoman.
  11. Byrhtnoth.
  12. Byrhtnoth.
  13. That is, a youthful warrior.