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Next evening another feast is spread in Beowulf's honor, and rich gifts are presented to him. The time of rejoicing, however, is short; for when the warriors have again sought their beds, Grendel's mother comes seeking vengeance, and carries off Æschere, Hrothgar's dearest counsellor. Beowulf pursues her to her cave under the waters; and after a day of hard fighting returns with the heads of both monsters as trophies. The Geats then set sail for home, laden with treasures sent by Hrothgar to Hygelac and his queen, Hygd.
Subsequently, when Beowulf has been king of the Geats for fifty years, his land is ravaged by a dragon. The old king slays
the fire-spitting beast, but is himself mortally wounded. In accordance with his dying request, the treasure is brought from the dragon's lair; the dragon's body is thrown into the sea, the hero's body is burned, and the treasure deposited in a mound built on the funeral pyre.
Importance of the Poem. The poem gives a fairly full account of the life of our ancestors before they came to Britain. Lines 838-1250 present an entire day, from early morning when the warriors gathered in the gift-hall, till the hour when they "sank to sleep," each with his armor and
weapons at hand.
"It was their custom," says the poet, 'to be always ready to fight, whether at home or in the field, wherever their liege-lord needed them." We learn that they were a seafaring people; that they believed their lives (and deaths) were ordained by fate (wyrd); that music, both vocal and instrumental,
was with them a muchloved and all but universally practised art; and that the virtues of courtesy and hospitality were in high esteem among them.
The author, the time,
Beowulf are unknown. Indeed the general belief is that, while in its present form it is the work of one man, it was built up from several separate lays; and that "the formation of the poem. . . must have occupied at least the greater part of a century."
Although the authors
of these productions of
pagan England are unknown, the names of two early Christian poets have come down to us, Cadmon and Cynewulf. (Kǎ'd mun, Ky'newulf.) Beyond the characterization of
1 Cambridge History of English Literature, I, 31.
them furnished by their poems, however, it cannot be said that we have any certain knowledge of them.
Cadmon. The first-named lived at the Abbey of Whitby, in Yorkshire, toward the end of the seventh century. We learn from Beda, the early historian of Britain, that Cædmon was an uneducated man, and that for this reason he used to leave the gatherings in the Abbey at festival times before his turn to sing. One night when he had retired from such a gathering and was sleeping in the stable, a voice said to him: "Cædmon, sing me something." He replied that he could not the voice repeated its demand. "What shall I sing?" asked he. "Sing the beginning of things," said the voice. Immediately he began a poem in praise of God, which he subsequently enlarged greatly, telling the story of Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. This poem, commonly referred to as Cædmon's Paraphrase, is thought by some to have given Milton hints for Paradise Lost.
Cynewulf. The name of Cynewulf we know from his working it into several of his poems by means of symbols called "runes." Of his life it cannot be said that we really know anything, though several more or less plausible theories give him a time and a place. Many poems have been attributed to him which most scholars to-day believe to be not his; but there are three which are still accepted as written by Cynewulf somewhat less than a hundred years after Cædmon. They are Christ, treating of the Birth, Ascension, and Second Coming of Christ; Life of Saint Juliana; and Elene, based on the story of the Emperor Constantine's mother, who found the true cross. These poems of Cynewulf, with Beowulf, and the Phoenix, founded on a Latin poem of the fourth century, but modified into an allegory of the Resurrection, show Anglo-Saxon poetry at its best.