A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter One
ANGLO-SAXON POETRY

WESTERN civilisation arose in the basin of the Mediterranean. Greece invented science and perfected many of the arts; Rome gave law and order; and from Judaea came a religion which vanquished the old Aryan nature-worships and the orgiastic cults of the Orient. By A.D. 350 Greek culture, Roman law, and the Christian religion prevailed from the Atlas to the Solway.

But beyond this Mediterranean world, divided from it by great mountains and rivers, another world lay, very different in religion and culture and in the structure of its society, a world where men worshipped not Christ but Odin, and dwelt not in walled cities under laws but in a sort of semi-feudal order in clearings of the forest. The Romans called it by the general name of Germania. From these two worlds, the Mediterranean and the Germanic, our literature has sprung.

The Roman historian Tacitus, writing about A.D. 100, declared that Germania had been fettered for two hundred years; but presently she began to burst her chains and press upon the crumbling ramparts of the Roman Empire. In some regions the Germanic invasion was partial or gradual, infiltration rather than invasion; but on the remote province of Britain the billow of calamity broke in full force. By the middle of the sixth century all the eastern lowlands were submerged in a flood of Anglo-Saxon heathendom; at the end of it the invaders broke through to the Irish Sea and the Bristol Channel, and shattered what remained of the British realm into three fragments. Wales, the largest of these fragments, long remained unconquered, cherishing her sacred memories.

By A.D. 600, however, Christianity had begun to come back to Britain, from Rome and from Iona. The two missions met in Northumbria, which became, and for nearly two centuries remained, the greatest and most civilised of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the home of famous scholars like Bede and Alcuin. When

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