The noble romance of Beowulf is generally considered to exhibit to us the oldest existing specimen of Northern heroic poetry; and perhaps in the whole range of Teutonic literature its original form is only second in antiquity to the Scriptures of Ulfilas. Its bibliographical history is a remarkable illustration of the backwardness of our old national studies. [The reviewer briefly surveys this, with special blame for Thorkelin-‘a more presumptuous or ignorant attempt at editorship was never exhibited’. Even in Kemble’s edition one is faced with many obscurities deriving from both manuscript and poem.] It is certain that in its original structure it must have been composed in times of Paganism, if not even at a date anterior to the Saxon settlement of England. But all the traces of the higher Pagan mythology have been carefully effaced, and adventitious allusions to Christianity introduced. A larger part of it has obviously been lost, and much of it has been written by a scribe who had a very imperfect comprehension of its meaning; while, even where it has not been corrupted, the allusions are obscure, and not fully elucidated by any other records of the Teutonic traditions. With all its imperfections, however, we see the genuine gold shining through the rust of ages. The hero Beowulf presents a characteristic picture of a Teutonic warrior of the highest grade-something far above the vikings of a later age-one whose valour and superhuman strength are devoted, not to causeless contests or unjust aggressions, but to wars with demons, dragons, and all evil things,—labours for extirpating the enemies of mankind, whether fabulous or mythical;—labours which, though sometimes degenerating from so high a standard, have always held a favourite place in Teutonic story, and which, in earlier times, gave glory and immortality to the Grecian Hercules and his companions. The
‘worm’ that had desolated his people, the tender attachment which bound to him in his last perils the faithful Wiglaf alone among all his followers, and the grief with which his subjects consigned him to the funeral pile-all these are depicted with truth and earnestness, and in a spirit of chivalrous magnanimity, and of that true poetry which cannot fail to flow from a clear vision of noble things. Even in Mr Kemble’s literal translation, made purposely, with a philological object, as close to the original as possible, a careful and intelligent eye will see those beauties which the few alone can fully appreciate in the original.