Chapter 14 Parents are Concerned to Give the Heroic Impulse

Chapter 14

Parents are Concerned to Give the Heroic Impulse1

Heroic Poetry Inspires to Noble Living––"To set forth, as only art can, the beauty and the joy of living, the beauty and the blessedness of death, the glory of battle and adventure, the nobility of devotion––to a cause, an ideal, a passion even––the dignity of resistance, the sacred quality of patriotism, that is my ambition here," says the editor of Lyra Heroica in his preface. We all feel that some such expression of the 'simpler sentiments, more elemental emotions' should be freely used in the education of children––that, in fact, heroic poetry contains such inspiration to noble living as is hardly to be found elsewhere; and also we are aware that it is only in the youth of peoples that these elemental emotions find free expression in song. We look at our own ballad literature and find plenty of the right material, but it is too occasional and too little connected; and so, though we would prefer that the children should imbibe patriotism and heroism at the one fountain-head, we think it cannot be done. We have no truly English material, so we say, for education in this kind, and we fall back on the Homeric myths in one or other of the graceful and spirited renderings which have been made specially for children.

Beowulf, our English Ulysses––But what if it should turn out that we have our own Homer, our own Ulysses? Mr. Stopford Brooke has made a great discovery for us, who look at all things from the child standpoint. Possibly he would not be gratified to know that his History of Early English Literature, invaluable addition as it is to the library of the student and the man of letters, should be appropriated as food for babes. All the same, here is what we have long wanted. The elemental emotions and heroic adventures of the early English put into verse and tale, strange and eerie as the wildest fairy tale, yet breathing in every line the English temper and the English virtue that go to the making of heroes. Not that Beowulf, the hero of the great poem, was precisely English, but where the English came from, there dwelt he, and Beowulf was early adopted as the national hero, whose achievements were sung in every hall.

Beowulf is Prudent and Patient––The poem, says Mr. Stopford Brooke, consisting of three thousand one hundred and eighty-three lines, is divided into two parts by an interval of fifty years; the first, containing Beowulf's great deeds against the monster Grendel and his dam; the second, Beowulf's conquest of the Fire-drake and his death and burial. We are told that we may fairly claim the poem as English, that it is in our tongue and in our country alone that it is preserved. The hero Beowulf comes of brave and noble parents, and mildness and more than mortal daring meet in him. When he comes to Hrothgar to conquer Grendel, it is of his wise counsel as much as of his strength that we hear. The queen begs him to be friendly in council to her sons, saying to him, 'Thou holdest thy faith with patience and thy might with prudence of mind. Thou shalt be a comfort to thy people and a help to heroes.' None, it is said, could order matters more wisely than he. When he is dying he looks back on his life, and that which he thinks of the most is not his great war deeds, but his patience, his prudence, his power of holding his own well and of avoiding new enmities.

'Have Patience of thy Woes.'––'Each of us must await the close of life,' says he; 'let him who can, gain honour before he die. That is best for a warrior when he is dead. But do thou throughout this day have patience of thy woes; I look for that from thee.' Such the philosophy of this hero, legendary or otherwise, of some early century after Christ, before His religion had found its way among those northern tribes.

'I Swore no False Oaths.'––Gentle, like Nelson, he had Nelson's iron resolution. What he undertook to do he went through without a thought, save of getting to the end of it. Fear is wholly unknown to him, and he seems, like Nelson, to have inspired his captains with his own courage. 'I swore no false oaths,' he said when dying; so also he kept his honour in faithfulness to his lord. On foot, alone, in front, while life lasted, he was his king's defence. He kept it in equal faithfulness when his lord was dead, and that to his own loss, for when the kingdom was offered to him he refused, and trained Heardreg, the king's son, to war and learning, guarded him kindly with honour, and avenged him when he was slain. He kept it in generosity, for he gave away all the gifts that he received; in courtesy, for he gave even to those who had been rude to him; and he is always gentle and grave with women. Above all, he kept it in war, for these things are said of him: 'so shall a man do when he thinks to gain praise that shall never end, and cares not for his life in battle.' 'Let us have fame or death,' he cries, and when Wiglaf comes to help him against the dragon, and Beowulf is wrapped in the flame, Wiglaf recalls to him the aim of his whole life:––

'Bear thyself Well.'––'Beowulf, beloved, bear thyself well. Thou wert wont to say in youth that thou wouldst never let honour go. Now, strong in deeds, ward thy life, firm-souled prince, with all thy might, I will be thy helper.' 'These,' adds Mr. Stopford Brooke, 'are the qualities of the man and the hero, and I have thought it worth while to dwell on them, because they represent the ancient English ideal, the manhood which pleased the English folk even before they came to Britain, and because in all our histories since Beowulf's time, for twelve hundred years or so, they have been repeated in the lives of the English warriors by land and sea whom we chiefly honour.'

The English Ideal––'But it is not only the idea of a hero which we have in Beowulf, it is also the idea of a king, the just governor, the wise politician, the builder of peace, the defender of his own folk at the price of his life, "the good king, the folk king, the beloved king, the war ward of his land, the winner of treasure for the need of his people, the hero who thinks in death of those who sail the sea, the gentle and terrible warrior, who is buried amid the tears of his people."'

We owe Mr. Stopford Brooke much gratitude for bringing this heroic ideal of the youth of our nation within reach of the unlearned. But what have we been about to let a thousand years and more go by without ever drawing on the inspiration of this noble ideal in giving impulse to our children's lives? We have many English heroes, it may be objected: we have no need of this resuscitated great one from a long-buried past. We have indeed heroes galore to be proud of, but somehow they have not often been put into song in such wise as to reach the hearts of the children and the unlearned.

Children should be in Touch with Beowulf––We have to thank Tennyson for our Arthur, and Shakespeare for our Henry the Fifth, but we imagine that parents will find their children's souls more in touch with Beowulf than with either of these, no doubt because the legends of a nation's youth are the pages of history which most easily reach a child; and Beowulf belongs to a younger stage of civilisation than even Arthur. We hope the author of Early English Literature will sometime give us the whole of the poem translated with a special view to children, and interspersed with his own luminous teaching as we have it here. The quaintness of the metre employed gives a feeling of eld which carries the reader back, very successfully, to the long ago of the poem.

We have already quoted largely from this History of Early English Literature but perhaps a fuller extract will give a better idea of the work and of its real helpfulness to parents. The cost of the two rather expensive volumes should be well repaid if a single child were to be fired with emulation of the heroic qualities therein sung:––

Action of the Poem––'The action of the poem now begins with the voyage of Beowulf to the Danish coast. The hero has heard that Hrothgar, the chief of the Danes, is tormented by Grendel, a man-devouring monster. If Hrothgar's warriors sleep in Heorot––the great hall he has built––they are seized, torn to pieces, and devoured. "I will deliver the king," thought Beowulf, when he heard the tale from the roving seamen. Over the swan road I will seek Hrothgar; he has need of men.' His comrades urged him to the adventure, and fifteen of them were willing to fight it out with him. Among the rest was a sea-crafty man who knew the ocean-paths. Their ship lay drawn up on the beach, under the high cliff. Then––

             'There the well-geared heroes
   Stepped upon the stem, while the stream of ocean
   Whirled the sea against the sand. To the ship, to its breast.
   Bright and carved things of cost carried then the heroes
   And the armour well-arrayed. So the men outpushed,
   On desired adventure, their tight ocean wood
   Swiftly went above the waves, with a wind well-fitted,
   Likest to a fowl, the Floater, foam around its neck,
   Till about the same time, on the second day,
   The up-curvéd prow had come on so far,
   That at last the seamen saw the land ahead;
   Shining sea-cliffs, soaring headlands,
   Broad sea-nesses. So the Sailor of the Sea
   Reached the sea-way's end.'
                  Beowulf, I. 211

'This was the voyage, ending in a fiord with two high sea-capes at its entrance. The same kind of scenery belongs to the land whence they had set out. When Beowulf returns over the sea the boat groans as it is pushed forth. It is heavily laden; the hollow, under the single mast with the single sail, holds eight horses, swords and treasure and rich armours. The sail is hoisted, the wind drives the foam-throated bark over the waves, until they see the Geats' Cliffs––the well-known sea-nesses. The keel is pressed up by the wind on the sand, and the "harbour-guard who had looked forth afar o'er the sea with longing for their return"––one of the many human touches of the poem––"fastens the wide-bosomed ship with anchoring chains to the strand, lest the violence of the waves should sweep away the winsome boat." . . . At the end of the bay into which Beowulf sails is a low shore, on which he drives his ship, stem on. Planks are pushed out on either side of the prow; the Weder folk slipped down on the shore, tied up their sea-wood; their battle sarks clanged on them as they moved. Then they thanked the gods that the war-paths had been easy to them . . . On the ridge of the hill above the landing-place the ward of the coast of the Scyldings sat on his horse, and saw the strangers bear their bright shields over the bulwarks of the ship to the shore. He rode down, wondering, to the sea, and shook mightily in his hands his heavy spear, and called to the men––

   'Who are ye of men, having arms in hand,
   Covered with your coats of mail. Who your keel afoaming
   O'er the ocean street thus have urged along.
   Hither on the high sea!'

     *    *    *    *    *

        'Never saw I greater
   Earl upon this earth than is one of you;
   Hero in his harness. He is no home-stayer,
   'Less his looks belie him, lovely with his weapons.
   Noble is his air!'
               Beowulf, II. 237-247.

'Beowulf replies that he is Hrothgar's friend, and comes to free him from "Grendel, the secret foe on the dark nights." He pities Hrothgar, old and good. Yet, as he speaks, the Teutonic sense of the inevitable Wyrd passes by in his mind, and he knows not if Hrothgar can ever escape sorrow. "If ever," he says, "sorrow should cease from him, release ever come, and the welter of care become cooler." The coastguard shows them the path, and promises to watch over their ship. The ground rises from the shore, and they pass on to the hilly ridge, behind which lies Heorot.'

Our Gentle Forefathers––Old English Riddles––The History of the Early English Literature takes us into other pleasant places. Here are two or three specimens of the riddles of the old bards, and in riddle and saga we get most vivid pictures of the life and thoughts, the ways and words of the forefathers whom we are too ready to think of as 'rude,' but who are here portrayed to us as gentle, mild, and large of soul; men and women whom we, their posterity, may well delight to honour.

   I. Here is Cynewulf's Riddle of the Sword.
   'I'm a wondrous wight for warstrife shapen;
   By my Lord beloved, lovelily adorned:
   Many coloured is my corslet, and a clasping wire
   Glitters round the gem of death which my wielder gave to me:
   He who whiles doth urge me, wide-wanderer that I am,
   With him to conquest.

             Then I carry treasure,
   Cold above the garths, through the glittering day;
   I of smiths the handiwork! Often do I quell
   Breathing men with battle edges! Me bedecks a king
   With his hoard and silver; honours me in hall,
   Doth withhold no word of praise! Of my ways he boasts
   'Fore the many heroes, where the mead they drink. In restraint he lulls me, then he lets me loose again,
   Far and wide to rush along; me the weary with wayfarings,
   Cursed of all weapons.'
                  Riddle xxi.

II. The helmet speaks:––

        "Wretchedness I bear;
   Wheresoe'er he carries me, he who clasps the spear!
   On me, still upstanding, smite the streams (of rain);
   Hail, the hard grain (helms me), and the hoar-frost covers me
   And the (flying) snow (in flakes) falls all over me."
                  Riddle lxxix., 6-10.

It is unnecessary to say a word about the literary value and importance of Mr. Stopford Brooke's great work. 'There is nothing like leather,' and to parents all things present themselves as they may tell on education. Here is a very treasure-trove. 


1History of Early English Literature. By Stopford A. Brooke. 2 vols. Macmillan & Co.