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The Heliand

It is to this same ninth century, and in one instance, to the teachings of the convent of St. Gall, that we owe the two earliest specimens of German sacred poetry. They are both Harmonies of the Gospels, and it strikingly shows the affinity of the Teutonic mind for the Jewish Scriptures, that the earliest monuments of its written literature are all drawn from this source--the translation of the Bible into Gothic by Ulphilas, the great Bishop of the Goths, who died in 388, and the two books now before us. The earliest of them is called "The Heliand," or the Saviour, and is written in Saxon, therefore in the ancient Low German dialect. It is said to have been suggested by Louis the Pious to teach the newly-converted Saxons something of the faith they had accepted, and to have been carried out by a peasant who heard in his sleep a voice summoning him to the undertaking. About thirty years later, a similar task was achieved by Otfried, a monk probably of Alemannic race, who had been educated at first at Fulda under Rabanus Maurus, then had lived many years in St. Gall, and finally removed to Weissenburg in Alsace, another of the numerous monasteries scattered along the border of Switzerland, where the mountains break down to the lakes and cultivated country of Northern Europe. Though they thus belong to the same period of time, these works were composed under widely different 15 circumstances. In Southern Germany the Romans had founded large cities, and Roman and Celtic elements were mingled with the Teutonic blood. Christianity had early made its way there, and a considerable amount of it existed before the earliest missionaries from Rome came thither. In the seventh century St. Emmeran found a multitude of priests and churches in Bavaria; the land had already gloried in several native saints before the time of Charlemagne; and culture must have made no inconsiderable progress, when we are told that the noble lady Theudelinde was able to maintain a pious and learned correspondence with Pope Gregory the Great. In Northern Germany, on the other hand, little had been done for the introduction of Christianity until Charlemagne converted the people by force, and the country long remained scantily populated and unsettled. Vast tracts of forest or heath were interrupted by solitary farmsteads of immense extent, where cattle and sheep were the chief source of wealth; for, until the close of the tenth century, there was but little agriculture; towns and monasteries existed but in small numbers and at great distances, and it was long before any churches except the convent chapels were built. Slowly the new religion permeated this wild and scattered people; but as it did so, it rooted itself the more deeply in the popular life, and bore less of the impress of the hierarchical and Roman element than the religion of Southern Germany, a distinction which has maintained itself even to the present day.

The form of the two works is contrasted as we might expect from their origin; the Heliand is written 16 in the alliterative measure of the ancient ballads, but without strophes; the work of Otfried is composed in four-lined verses with rhyme. Rhyme is a peculiarly Christian ornament of verse, and the struggle was long between accented and rhymed forms of poetry, and the ancient forms of classical metre. Otfried's is the first rhymed poem we possess, and thus has always marked an important epoch in European literature. The Heliand is not so much a Harmony of the Gospels as a Saxon epic on the life of our Lord, and it seems to have been intended to form part of a larger work embracing the whole course of Scripture History. The style is simple and naïve: the writer nowhere brings forward his own personality, but is evidently inspired by a strong love to his subject. The relation of the disciples, and implicitly the relation of all Christians to their Lord, is conceived after the true Teutonic type as that of followers bound by an oath to their duke or leader; all that expresses personal loyalty and obedience on the one hand, or affectionate condescension on the other, is brought out with quick insight and strong feeling. In general, the writer keeps very close to his authorities, but in some passages, where the heathen lays may have been recalled to his mind, he permits himself a more excursive description, and echoes of the old Scandinavian ballads float through his verse. The Sermon on the Mount specially attracts him, and he gives it with fulness and evident predilection.

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