“Far better stainless death
Than life’s dishonored breath.”
III. In this poem, the action outweighs the words. The keynote to Beowulf is deeds. In New England, more than a thousand years later, Thoreau wrote, “Be not simply good; be good for something.” In reading other literatures, for instance the Celtic, we often find that the words overbalance the action. The Celt tells us that when two bulls fought, the “sky was darkened by the turf thrown up by their feet and by the foam from their mouths. The province rang with their roar and the inhabitants hid in caves or climbed the hills.”
Again, more attention is paid to the worth of the subject matter and to sincerity of utterance than to mere form or polish. The literature of this race has usually been more distinguished for the value of the thought than for artistic presentation. Prejudice is felt to-day against matter that relies mainly on art to secure effects.
IV. Repression of sentiment is a marked characteristic of Beowulf and it still remains a peculiarity of the Anglo-Saxon race. Some people say vastly more than they feel. This race has been inclined to feel more than it expresses. When it was transplanted to New England, the same characteristic was prominent, the same apparent contradiction between sentiment and stern, unrelenting devotion to duty. In Snow Bound, the New England poet, Whittier, paints this portrait of a New England maiden, still Anglo-Saxon to the core:—
“A full, rich nature, free to trust,
Truthful and almost sternly just,
Impulsive, earnest, prompt to act,
And make her generous thought a fact,
Keeping with many a light disguise
The secret of self-sacrifice.”
No matter what stars now shine over them, the descendants of the English are still truthful and sternly just; they still dislike to give full expression to their feelings; they still endeavor to translate thoughts into deeds, and in this world where all need so much help, they take self-sacrifice as a matter of course. The spirit of Beowulf, softened and consecrated by religion, still persists in Anglo-Saxon thought and action.
Caedmon.—In 597 St. Augustine began to teach the Christian religion to the Anglo-Saxons. The results of this teaching were shown in the subsequent literature. In what is known as Caedmon’s Paraphrase, the next great Anglo-Saxon epic, there is no decrease in the warlike spirit. Instead of Grendel, we have Satan as the arch-enemy against whom the battle rages.
Caedmon, who died in 680, was until middle life a layman attached to the monastery at Whitby, on the northeast coast of Yorkshire. Since the Paraphrase has been attributed to Caedmon on the authority of the Saxon historian Bede, born in 673, we shall quote Bede himself on the subject, from his famous Ecclesiastical History:—