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That the poems, of which king Alfred is known to have been the writer, are in themselves a better illustration of Anglo-Saxon poetry in general, than any laboured essay on the subject, has been already observed by the author of this version, in the short preface to the separate edition of the work.*
But as these essays are professedly a regular series, having for their object to illustrate the Manners, Literature &c. of the ninth century, it seems desirable—if only as a matter of mere form—not to let this version, with its running commentary, appear a second time before the public without a few words on the poetry and general poetic character of our ancestors.
It is a great draw-back to our appreciation of early poetry, that the help of rhythm and music can no longer be obtained. These are the most frail and fleeting of all the graces that wait upon the Fine Arts. It would seem, too, as if the very physical character of musical instruments were as transitory as the music itself. It appears, by the result of historical research, that the instruments used in different ages vary so considerably, that even those which pass under the same name, have never borne exactly the same form, and often not even the same adaptation to the uses of the musician.
A very large, and in many cases, a very heterogeneous assortment of instruments, are all included under the name of HARP: and, though this instrument, as far as we know, was the only one generally used by the Saxons, yet we have little or no clue to a knowledge of its shape, size, or principle of construction. This is the more to be lamented, because almost every fragment that remains of Anglo-Saxon poetry bears evident marks of having been written to be sung to the harp.
Thus, then, we have no external aid to guide us to the metrical principles of the ancient Anglo-Saxon Poems, and are, therefore, driven by necessity to an examination of those now existing, as the only source from which we can derive a scanty information on this subject
The eminent historian of the Anglo-Saxons, Mr Turner, has, * King Alfred's Poems, now first turned into English metres, by M. F. Tupper esq. London, 12mo, A. Hall, Virtue and Co. 1850.
with his usual diligence, discovered a passage in the works of venerable Bede, which aids us wonderfully in this enquiry.
In defining rhythm, Bede says, “It is a modulated composition of words, not according to the laws of metre, but adapted in the number of its syllables to the judgment of the ear, as are the verses of our vulgar (or native] poets
. Rhythm may exist without metre, but there cannot be metre without rhythm, which is thus more clearly defined.
Metre is an artificial rule with modulation ; rhythmus is the modulation without the rule. Yet, for the most part, you may find, by a sort of chance, some rule in rhythm; but this is not from an artificial government of the syllables. It arises because the sound and the modulation lead to it. The vulgar poets effect this rustically; the skilful obtain it by their skill. Thus that celebrated hymn is very beautifully made like iambic metre:
Rex eterne! Domine !
Such are other Ambrosian poems, and those not a few. So they sing the hymn on the day of judgment, made alphabetically, in the form of the trochaic metre:
Thus, then, it appears that the Anglo-Saxon poetry is not based upon a rigid metrical system of quantity like that of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, or upon the almost equally rigid system of accent, like that of the modern European nations; but is adapted in the number of its syllables to the judgment of the ear.
Let us then see what peculiarities an investigation of the existing AngloSaxon poems will furnish us with.
1. They consist entirely of short lines, containing not always the same number of syllables, but nearly the same number, according to the judgment of the ear.
2. A second peculiarity is the almost total omission of particles. This Mr Turner considers to be a peculiarity of all rude nations. It may however be no more than an instance of the usual tendency of poetry to omit all such small words as impede the expression of poetic thought, or are unnecessary to the greatness of the poetic conception.
In instance of these two peculiarities may be adduced the opening lines of King Alfred's poems, which rendered literally run thus;
Thus Alfred (to] us
[The king of [the] West Saxons
And again the first lines of Metre I :
Out of Scythia
[Their] shield men led. 3. The third feature of Anglo-Saxon verse--for we must enumerate them very briefly is their periphrastic nature, observable in almost every portion that remains. Take for example that beautiful description of the exile of Oslac in the Saxon Chronicle, A. D. 973: And then was eke driven out,
Wise and word-skilled,
Over the water's throng,
Over the whale's domain,
Of home bereav’d. All these lines express no more than the first and third alone express, and yet how beautifully are they varied—they remind us of Hebrew poetry.
4. The same specimen displays to us the fourth peculiarity of Anglo-Saxon poetry, metaphor. It will be remarked that the sea is therein described not only as the 'rolling waters,' but as the 'ganet's bath'—the 'whale's domain.'
5. INVERSION OF WORDS. This peculiarity is derived from the strong likeness which the Anglo-Saxon bears to all the Teutonic dialects, including the modern German. It is observable in almost every piece of Saxon verse that has come down to us, remarkably so in the ballad of king Edgar [Sax. Chron. A. 973]. Here was Edgar,
But it the islanders,
Beorns, by another word,
And on earth wide spread.
They who would not erewhile
To his living body bow down,
They now humbly
On knees bend
To his dead bones. 6. The last and most interesting feature of our ancestral poetry was its alliteration,—a sort of rhyme—not that rhyme which, re
, curring regularly at the ends of the lines, leads the reader to expect its recurrence, and, whether rightly or wrongly, is now
looked upon as one of the ornaments which all poetry, in modern tongue, requires, but a rhyme, irregularly recurring, at very uncertain intervals, and as often at the beginnings as at the ends of the verses, nay even sometimes limited to a single letter, generally an aspirate or sibilant, occurring at the beginning of two following words. Of this peculiarity, very numerous instances will be found in the following version of king Alfred's poems, to which the reader's attention is now invited.
J. A. G.
The “Poems of king Alfred” are here for the first time given to the English reader in a rhythmical dress : and that, without any known or meant sacrifice of faithfulness, any ill-judged attempt at “improvements” or additions, any other wish than the simple one of making Alfred's mind known to us his distant children, as much as possible in his own words. The writer has aimed everywhere at these five points : 1. To be literal. 2. To keep the still used words of our ancient Anglo-Saxon tongue wherever he could, and to throw aside all Latinized and other mixed forms of expression. 3. To vary the metres at least as often as Boethius, never admitting a false or doubtful rhyine. 4. To keep constantly in view the alliterations, the parallelisms, the frequently recurring echoes both in sense and in sound, which are principal features of the Anglo-Saxon poetry. 5. To catch the spirit, and not the notes alone, of Alfred's harp, and to be at once easy and exact, rhymed (often doubly and trebly) and yet, as a first rule, representing what Alfred really said, and not what a modern may put into his mouth for rhyme's sake. It will readily be believed, that, if these five rules have been at all regarded, the work here done has been one of no small difficulty: to use the neat phrase