If you open a book written in the English of to-day, it is easy to read it—just as easy as to [Pg 38] understand the speech we use among one another. But the English of fifteen or sixteen hundred years ago would be difficult to read. There is an illustration of this English in a line from "Deor's Lament":.
It is easy to pick this out word for word, and see that it means, "That was overcome or overpassed , so may this be. Old English poetry, too, seems as different from the poetry of to-day as the language we speak seems different from the language they used to speak.
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For one thing, old English poetry did not have rhymes. This poem was written somewhat over a hundred years ago by William Blake, but it is modern and part of that brightest and most beautiful room of all English poetry—Nineteenth Century Poetry. What is a rhyme? You can tell if you will study this stanza from "The Lamb. If you drum on the table and count the syllables of the first and second lines, you will see that each has six, and the following six lines have seven syllables each, and the last two six each.
Then if you drum a little more you will see that each of the first two lines has three accents or stresses, and the following six four accents or stresses each. Then, you ask, what was this old English poetry like? Even if the syllables were not counted and there was no rhyme, it had accents just as our modern poetry has. Every line was divided into half verses by a pause, as, for example:. There are two accented syllables in the first half of this line, and one in the second. And now, instead of rhyme, what do you think the old English [Pg 40] poetry had?
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That is a big word, but it is not nearly so difficult as it seems, for it means simply the repetition of the same letter at the beginning of two or more words. Here it is, the letter "w" that is repeated. This young man later became the Abbot of Malmesbury. He was not only a religious poet, but he also made songs and could sing them to music.
He traveled from town to town, and, finding that the men at the fairs did not come to church as they should, he would stand on the bridge and sing songs to them in the English tongue, persuading them thus to come to hear the word of God. Living at this same time—that is, during the latter half of the seventh century—was St. Cuthbert, not so great a scholar as Ealdhelm, but as great a wanderer. There is a little valley between England and [Pg 42] Scotland called Lauderdale—a little valley watered by a river which flows into the Tweed.
There Cuthbert did not keep the flocks of his father as did David, yet, like David, he was a warrior lad. Day and night Cuthbert lived in the open, shepherding the sheep of many masters. There was not among the lads of that time a boy more active, more daring than Cuthbert. He could walk on his hands, turn somersaults, fight boldly, and become a victor in almost every race. There was no other boy so active but that Cuthbert was better at games and sports. And when all the others were tired he would ask whether there was not some one who could go on playing.
Then suddenly a swelling came on his knee and the poor little boy could play no longer, and had to be carried in and out, up and down, by attendants. This continued until one day a horseman, clothed in white garments and riding a horse of incomparable beauty, appeared before the sick boy and cured his knee. Little Cuthbert was now able to walk about once more, but never again did he play the games he used to play.
Not far from where Cuthbert lived was the monastery of Tiningham, by the mouth of the river Tyne.
Some of the monks were bringing down on rafts wood which they had spent a long time felling and sawing up. They were almost opposite the monastery and were just about to draw the wood to the shore, when a great wind came up from the west and drove the rafts out [Pg 43] toward the sea. There were five of them, and so quickly did they drift away that it was not more than a few minutes before they began to look in the distance as small as five little birds.
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Those upon the rafts were in much danger of losing their lives. Those in the monastery came out and prayed upon the shore for them. But the five rafts that now looked like the tiniest of birds went on drifting out to sea. And the populace, which had been heathens very lately, began to jest at the monks because their prayers were in vain.
Then said Cuthbert: "Friends, you do wrong to speak evil of those you see hurried away to death. Would it not be better to pray for their safety? At this the young Cuthbert began to pray, bowing his head to the ground.
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And the winds were turned around and brought the rafts in safety to the shore of the monastery. Like David, this boy Cuthbert was very near to God, and one night, while keeping the sheep of his masters, he saw angels descending from heaven. Cuthbert was on a remote mountain with other shepherds, and keeping not only his sheep, but also the vigil of prayer, when a light streamed down from heaven and broke the thick [Pg 44] darkness.
Then Cuthbert made up his mind to serve God by entering a monastery. One day he was on a journey on horseback when he was not quite fifteen years old. He turned aside to the farmstead which he saw at some distance, and entered the house of a very good woman. He wanted to rest himself. But even more he wanted to get food for his horse. The woman urged him to let her prepare dinner for him. But Cuthbert would not eat, for it was a fast-day. Wherefore, I beg of you to take some food before setting out, lest you be obliged to fast all day, or perhaps even until to-morrow.
But Cuthbert would not break his fast. Night came on and he saw that he could not finish his journey, and there was no house anywhere in which to take shelter. As he went on, however, he noticed some shepherds' huts which had been roughly thrown together in the summer. He entered one of these to pass the night there, tied his horse to the wall, and set before the horse a bundle of hay to eat. Suddenly Cuthbert noticed that his horse was raising his head and pulling at the thatching of the hut.
And as the horse drew the thatch down there fell out also a folded [Pg 45] napkin. In the napkin was wrapped the half of a loaf of bread, yet warm, and a piece of meat—enough for Cuthbert's supper. At last, followed by his squire, and with his lance in hand, the youthful shepherd-warrior, then but fifteen years old, appeared before the gates of the monastery of Melrose. For Cuthbert had decided to serve God in a religious life rather than upon the battle-field.
There was not a village so far away, or a mountain so steep, or a cottage so poverty-stricken, but that the boy Cuthbert, strong and energetic, visited it. Most often he traveled on horseback; but there were places so rough and wild they were not to be reached on horseback.
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These places along the coast he visited in a boat. Cuthbert thought nothing of hunger and thirst and cold. From the Solway to the Forth he covered Scotland with his pilgrimages. This, of course, was in the seventh century—a long time ago—yet stories are still told there of the wonderful work of Cuthbert. While he was young in the life of the monastery it was Cuthbert's good fortune to entertain an angel unawares, as, perhaps, we all do sometimes.
At the monastery Cuthbert, so pleasant and winning were his manners, was appointed guest-master.