Nothing better illustrates the original peculiarities and subsequent development of the early English mind than the Anglo-Saxon literature. A vast mass of manuscripts has been preserved for us, embracing works in prose and verse of the most varied kind; and all the most important of these have been made accessible to modern readers in printed copies. They cast a flood of light upon the workings of the English mind in all ages, from the old pagan period in Sleswick to the date of the Norman Conquest, and the subsequent gradual supplanting of our native literature by a new culture based upon the Romance models.
All national literature everywhere begins with rude songs. From the earliest period at which the English and Saxon people existed as separate tribes at all, we may be sure that they possessed battle-songs, like those common to the whole Aryan stock. But among the Teutonic races poetry was not distinguished by either of the peculiarities—rime or metre—which mark off modern verse from prose, so far as its external form is concerned. Our existing English system of versification is not derived from our old native poetry at all; it is a development of the Romance system, adopted by the school of Gower and Chaucer from the French and Italian poets. Its metre, or syllabic arrangement, is an adaptation from the Greek quantitative prosody, handed down through Latin and the neo-Latin dialects; its rime is a Celtic peculiarity borrowed by the Romance nationalities, and handed on through them to modern English literature by the Romance school of the fourteenth century. Our original English versification, on the other hand, was neither rimed nor rhythmic. What answered to metre was a certain irregular swing, produced by a roughly recurrent number of accents in each couplet, without restriction as to the number of feet or syllables. What answered to rime was a regular and marked alliteration, each couplet having a certain key-letter, with which three principal words in the couplet began. In addition to these two poetical devices, Anglo-Saxon verse shows traces of parallelism, similar to that which distinguishes Hebrew poetry. But the alliteration and parallelism do not run quite side by side, the second half of each alliterative couplet being parallel with the first half of the next couplet. Accordingly, each new sentence begins somewhat clumsily in the middle of the couplet. All these peculiarities are not, however, always to be distinguished in every separate poem.