The Oldest English Epic
THE OLDEST ENGLISH EPIC
BEOWULF, FINNSBURG, WALDERE, DEOR, WIDSITH, AND THE GERMAN HILDEBRAND
TRANSLATED IN THE ORIGINAL METRES WITH INTRODUCTIONS AND NOTES
FRANCIS B. GUMMERE
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
All rights reserved
By THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.
Set up and electrotyped.Published April, 1909.
J. S. Cushing Co.—Berwick & Smith Co.
Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.
KEENEST OF CRITICS, KINDEST OF FRIENDS
Old English epic in the specific sense is that ancient and wholly heathen narrative poetry which Englishmen brought from their continental home and handed down by the agency of professional singers. The material thus accumulated either kept its original form of the short lay, fit for chant or recitation at a banquet, full of immediate effects, often dramatic and always vigorous, or else it was worked over into longer shape, into more leisurely considered and more leisurely appreciated poems. This second class is represented by Beowulf, the sole survivor in complete form of all the West-Germanic epic. Waldere, of which two brief fragments remain, seems also to have been an epic poem; like Beowulf, it has been adapted both in matter and in manner to the point of view of a monastery scriptorium. Finnsburg, on the other hand, so far as its brief and fragmentary form allows such a judgment, has the appearance of a lay. Its nervous, fiery verses rush on without comment or moral; and it agrees with the description of a lay which the court minstrel of Hrothgar sings before a festal throng, and of which the poet of Beowulf gives a summary. Not English at all, but closely related to English traditions of heroic verse, and the sole rescued specimen of all its kind in the old German language, is Hildebrand, evidently a lay. By adding this to the English material, one has the entire salvage from oldest narrative poetry of the West-Germanic peoples in mass. Finally, there are two lays or poems purporting to describe at first hand the life of these old minstrels, who either sang in permanent and well-rewarded office for their king, or else wandered from court to court and tasted the bounty of many chieftains. These two poems, moreover, contain many references to persons and stories of Germanic heroic legends that appear afterward in the second growth of epic, in the Scandinavian poems and sagas, in the cycle of the Nibelungen, Gudrun, and the rest. Such is the total rescue from oldest English epic that fate has allowed. It deserves to be read in its full extent by the modern English reader; and it is now presented to him for the first time in its bulk, and in a form which approximates as closely as possible to the original.
The translator is under great obligations to Professor Walter Morris Hart, of the University of California, not only for his generous aid in reading the proof-sheets of this book, but also for the substantial help afforded by his admirable study of Ballad and Epic.
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