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ENGLISH POETRY AND POETS.
ANCIENT BARDS AND MINSTRELS.
OETRY is older than prose. Tracing her pathway
down the dim ages, as she comes, slowly at first, but ever surely, to exalt and ennoble the soul of man, and to weave his dreams, imaginations, and ideals into imperishable fabric, we must grope half-blindly backward to a time when papyrus and parchment had not yet been succeeded by paper, and when no prophetic vision of " Carter's Ink” or “ Gillott's Best” had ever dawned upon the imagination in its boldest flight.
The only thoughts which men in their first rude state would be prompted to utter in composition of any length would naturally assume the form of poetry, -as praises of their gods and their ancestors, lamentations over their misfortunes, and rehearsal of their warlike exploits.
When thought depended for its perpetuity on verbal repetition, prose composition, having far less hold upon the imagination and memory than verse, could not well have been retained and transmitted by oral tradition, as were our ancient songs and poems, the rude and meagre beginnings of our literature. Thus it will appear that to poetry we owe not only the cultivation and perfection of our composition, but its very birth.
We are told by the historian that a few years before the birth of Christ a nation of Asiatic Gothis who possessed that region of Asia which is now called Georgia, and is connected on the south with Persia, alarmed at the progressive encroachments of the Roman armies, retired in vast multitudes under the conduct of their leader Odin, or Woden, into the northern parts of Europe not subject to the Roman Government, settling in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and other districts of the Scandinavian territory.
These Goths were bospitably received by the natives, who seem to have finally adopted their language, laws, and religion. The superior ability and address of Odin won the admiration of a more savage people, and they readily gave to this Asiatic chief the title of God. In the Scandinavian mythology he is permanently enthroned as " All-father,” the supreme of the immortals. The Goths are said to have brought with them many useful arts, among them the knowledge of " Runes," or letters, which Odin, it is claimed, invented. It may be observed that the word “ Rune” is by some derived from “runeu," — that is, to make a slight incision or scratch ; by others from the German word “rauneu,” – that is, whisper. Hence “Runic" designates a secret mysterious writing belonging to the priests, to whom at one period the art seems to have been wholly confined. The Runic alphabet has but sixteen characters. From the similarity of the Runic signs to corresponding Roman ones, it has been suggested that this alphabet was borrowed from the Romans; this, however, is said to have been explained from the fact that the Romans themselves received their characters from an Eastern source, as the Asiatic Goths must have done.
Modern travellers report that there are Runic inscriptions now existing in the deserts of Tartary, which would seem to prove that the art or custom of writing on rocks is Asiatic.
The most ancient specimens of the Norse language are the rune-stones, rings, and wooden tablets, with inscriptions in the old Runic characters.
" Their skill in poetry,” says the historian, “was among the arts which the Goths implanted in Scandinavia. With their poetry, they imported into Europe a species of poets called Scalds, or polishers of language.'”
The Scalds were from the earliest ages held in the highest veneration by our Teutonic ancestors. As the origin of their art was attributed to Odin, their skill was considered as something divine; their persons were deemed sacred; their attendance was solicited by kings, whom they accompanied in battle and whose victories they celebrated ; and they were everywhere loaded with honors and rewards. Dr. Blair's fine essay on the “ Poems of Ossian " contains this graphic description of the era of the early Scalds :
“ There are," he observes, “ four great stages of society: the first and earliest is the life of hunters; pasturage succeeds to this as the ideas of property begin to take root; next, agriculture, and lastly commerce. In the first of these periods, during which hunting was the chief employment of men and their principal method of obtaining subsistence, the art of poetry was planted by Odin in the north of Europe. Whatever was beyond the necessaries of life was known to the Goths only as the spoil of the Roman Province. At their feasts the heroes prepared their own repasts; and as they sat round the light of the burning oak, the wind lifted their locks and whistled through their open
halls. “ The rudest face of Nature appears, - a country wholly un. cultivated, thinly inhabited, and recently settled. The circle of ideas and transactions was no wider than suits such an age. Valor and bodily strength are the admired qualities. Conten. tions arise, as is usual among savage nations, from the slightest