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the next thing, and somehow his imagination and music puts us
into a long peculiar mood and makes us feel as if we were in
strange, mysterious realms, half hidden in mist and echoing the
sounds of gray, cold seas, in spite of the golden hall of Heorot and
the flashing of brave men’s helmets and swords. His art has a
massive, weird vagueness. It is a very different art from that of the
story-tellers of old Iceland. In the younger Edda, for instance, we
read that once “Thor grasped his hammer-handle so hard that his
knuckles grew white.” Homely, realistic details like this are not in
our poet’s manner at all.
There is a world of difference between strange shadowy shapes
and familiar vivid outlines; but each of the two worlds of art has its
own peculiar meaning and suggestion for our imagination. And
our poet has the old-time warrior’s love of battle. A terrible love
was that-not ignoble, but terrible-when we think what it has
always meant in blood and pain and tears. What a piece of work is
man, after all, that so much of his great loyalty and great honor and
valor should have been spent then, and spent ever since, on killing.
But in the poem Beowulf, the foes that are killed are chiefly Ogres
and Dragons -real enemies of civilization and human happiness
(not merely members of other tribes like ourselves whom our
hatred and fear distorts into Monsters). That is why I for one can
rejoice in most of Beowulf’s battle-work, though I am a pacifist and
what Theodore Roosevelt used to call a molly-coddle.
The poet of Beowulf was also a man clever in making verses-in
those days a very special craft. There were not all kinds of metres
as nowadays; there was just one. This had been developed and
handed down by poets long, long before the poet who used it in
telling the Beowulf-stories. There was for many generations this
one way of making verses, as there was for long years one way of
making shields out of linden-wood or of weaving cloth for dress.
For in old times there was less change and variety in the way folks
made things. The father taught his son, the mother her daughter,
and the master his apprentice the old devices and methods in every
art and custom. So our poet had learned an art, a special kind of
verse-craft, handed down from the past.
Perhaps the reader would like to see a sample of that old verse.
Here are two lines:
Gewat tha ofer waeg-holm, winde gefysed, Flota fami-heals fugla
gelicost They mean:
“Then went over the billowy ocean, driven by the wind, the floater
(ship), with foamy neck (prow), very like a (wild-) fowl.” Now, if
he’ll pardon a somewhat twisted translation, I can put these verses
into a sort of equivalent English verse. Like this: