“More yellow was her head than the flower of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and fingers than the blossoms of the wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain."
King Arthur and his romantic Knights of the Round Table are Celtic heroes. Possibly the Celtic strain persisting in many of the Scotch people inspires lines like these in more modern times:—
“The corn-craik was chirming
His sad eerie cry 
And the wee stars were dreaming
Their path through the sky.”
In order to produce a poet able to write both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, the Celtic imagination must blend with the Anglo-Saxon seriousness. As we shall see, this was accomplished by the Norman conquest.
When and where written.—We have seen that poetry normally precedes prose. The principal part of Anglo-Saxon poetry had been produced before much prose was written. The most productive poetic period was between 650 and 825. Near the close of the eighth century, the Danes began their plundering expeditions into England. By 800 they had destroyed the great northern monasteries, like the one at Whitby, where Caedmon is said to have composed the first religious song. As the home of poetry was in the north of England, these Danish inroads almost completely silenced the singers. What prose there was in the north was principally in Latin. On the other hand, the Saxon prose was produced chiefly in the south of England. The most glorious period of Anglo-Saxon prose was during Alfred’s reign, 871-901.
Bede.—This famous monk (673-735) was probably the greatest teacher and the best known man of letters and scholar in all contemporary Europe. He is said to have translated the Gospel of St. John into Saxon, but the translation is lost. He wrote in Latin on a vast range of subjects, from the Scriptures to natural science, and from grammar to history. He has given a list of thirty-seven works of which he is the author. His most important work is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is really a history of England from Julius Caesar’s invasion to 731. The quotation from Bede’s work relative to Caedmon shows that Bede could relate things simply and well. He passed almost all his useful life at the monastery of Jarrow on the Tyne.
Alfred (849-901).—The deeds and thoughts of Alfred, king of the West Saxons from 871 until his death in 901, remain a strong moral influence an the world, although he died more than a thousand years ago. Posterity rightly gave him the surname of “the Great,” as he is one of the comparatively few great men of all time. E.A. Freeman, the noted historian of the early English period, says of him:—