Εικόνες σελίδας
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση
[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small]


First Period.



age presents us with historical chronicles, theological treatises, religious, political, and narrative poetry, in great abundance, written both in Latin and in the native tongue.*

HE ENGLISH LANGUAGE is The earliest name in the list of Anglo-Saxon essentially a writers is that of Gildas, generally described as a branch of the missionary of British parentage, living in the first Teutonic, the half of the sixth century, and the author of a Latin language spo- tract on early British history. Owing to the obken by the scurity of this portion of our annals, it has been the inhabitants of somewhat extraordinary fate of Gildas to be reprecentral Eu-sented, first as flourishing at two periods more than a rope immedi- century distant from each other; then as two differately before ent men of the same name, living at different times; the dawn of and finally as no man at all, for his very existence history, and is now doubted. Nennius is another name of this which constitutes the foun- age, which, after being long connected with a small dation of the modern Ger- historical work, written, like that of Gildas, in Latin, man, Danish, and Dutch. has latterly been pronounced supposititious. The Introduced by the Anglo- first unquestioned British author of distinction is Saxons in the fifth century, ST COLUMBANUS, a native of Ireland, and a man it gradually spread, with the of vigorous ability, who contributed greatly to people who spoke it, over the advancement of Christianity in various parts of nearly the whole of England; Western Europe, and died in 615. He wrote relithe Celtic, which had been gious treatises and Latin poetry. As yet, no eduthe language of the aboriginal people, shrinking cated writer composed in his vernacular tongue: it before it into Wales, Cornwall, and other remote was generally despised by the literary class, as was parts of the island, as the Indian tongues are now the case at some later periods of our history, and retiring before the advance of the British settlers Latin was held to be the only language fit for reguin North America.* lar composition.

The first Anglo-Saxon writer of note, who composed in his own language, and of whom there are any remains, is CEDMON, a monk of Whitby, who died about 680. Cædmon was a genius of the class headed by Burns, a poet of nature's making, sprung from the bosom of the common people, and little indebted to education. It appears that he at one time acted in the capacity of a cow-herd. The circumstances under which his talents were first developed, are narrated by Bede with a strong cast of the marvellous, under which it is possible, however, to trace a basis of natural truth. We are told that he was so much less instructed than most of his equals, that he had not even learnt any poetry; so that he was frequently obliged to retire, in order to hide his shame, when the harp was moved towards him in the hall, where at supper it was customary for each person to sing in turn. On one of these


* Biographia Britannica Literaria: Anglo-Saxon Period. By Thomas Wright, M.A.

occasions, it happened to be Cadmon's turn to keep guard at the stable during the night, and, overcome with vexation, he quitted the table and retired to his post of duty, where, laying himself down, he fell into a sound slumber. In the midst of his sleep, a stranger appeared to him, and, saluting him by his name, said, "Cadmon, sing me something." Cædmon answered, "I know nothing to sing; for my incapacity in this respect was the cause of my leaving the hall to come hither," Nay," said the stranger, "but thou hast something to sing." "What must I sing?" said Cadmon. "Sing the Creation," was the reply, and thereupon Cædmon began to sing verses which he had never heard before," and which are said to have been as follows:


[blocks in formation]

Cadmon then awoke; and he was not only able to repeat the lines which he had made in his sleep, but he continued them in a strain of admirable versification. In the morning, he hastened to the townreeve, or bailiff, of Whitby, who carried him before the Abbess Hilda; and there, in the presence of some of the learned men of the place, he told his story, and they were all of opinion that he had received the gift of song from heaven. They then expounded to him in his mother tongue a portion of Scripture, which he was required to repeat in verse. Cadmon went home with his task, and the next morning he produced a poem which excelled in beauty all that they were accustomed to hear. He afterwards yielded to the earnest solicitations of the Abbess Hilda, and became a monk of her house; and she ordered him to transfer into verse the whole of the sacred history. We are told that he was continually occupied in repeating to himself what he heard, and, "like a clean animal, ruminating it, he turned it into most sweet verse."† Cædmon thus composed many poems on the Bible histories, and on miscellaneous religious subjects, and some of these have been preserved. His account of the Fall of Man is somewhat like that given in Paradise Lost, and one passage in it might almost be supposed to have been the foundation of a corresponding one in Milton's sublime epic. It is that in which Satan is described as reviving from the consternation of his overthrow. A modern translation into English follows:

[Satan's Speech.]

Boiled within him

his thought about his heart;

Hot was without him

his dire punishment.

*In our specimens of the Anglo-Saxon, modern letters are substituted for those peculiar characters employed in that language to express th, dh, and w.

† Wright.

[blocks in formation]

The specimen of Cædmon above given in the original language may serve as a general one of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It will be observed that it is neither in measured feet, like Latin verse, nor rhymed, but that the sole peculiarity which distinguishes it from prose is what Mr Wright calls a very regular alliteration, so arranged, that in every couplet there should be two principal words in the line beginning with the same letter, which letter must also be the initial of the first word on which the stress of the voice falls in the second line.

A few names of inferior note-Aldhelm, abbot of

*Thorpe's edition of Cædmon, 1832.

Malmsbury, Ceolfrid, abbot of Wearmouth, and Felix of Croyland-bring down the list of Anglo-Saxon writers to BEDE, usually called the Venerable Bede, who may be allowed to stand at the head of the class. He seems to have spent a modest studious life, unchequered by incident of any kind, at the monastery of Wearmouth, where he died in 735. His works, consisting of Scriptural translations and commentaries, religious treatises, biographies, and an ecclesiastical history of the AngloSaxons, which is the only one useful in the present age, were forty-four in number; and it is related that he dictated to his amanuensis, and completed a book, on the very day of his death. Almost all the writings of these men were in Latin, which renders it less necessary to speak particularly of them in this place. Our subsequent literary history is formed of comparatively obscure names, until it presents to us the enlightened and amiable King ALFRED (848-901),* in whom learning and authorship graced the royal state, without interfering with its proper duties. He translated the historical works of Orosius and Bede, and some religious and moral treatises, perhaps also Esop's Fables and the Psalms of David, into the Anglo-Saxon tongue, designing thereby to extend their utility among his people. No original compositions certainly his have been preserved, excepting the reflections of his own, which he takes leave here and there to introduce into his translations. The character of this monarch, embracing so much gentleness, along with manly vigour and dignity, and displaying pure tastes, calculated to be beneficial to others as well as himself, seems as if it would have graced the most civilised age nearly as much as it did one of the rudest.

Chair of Bede.

After Alfred, the next important name is that of ALFRIC, archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1006. This learned prelate was a voluminous writer, and, like Alfred, entertained a strong wish to enlighten the people; he wrote much in his native tongue, particularly a collection of homilies, a translation of the first seven books of the Bible, and some religious treatises. He was also the author of a grammar of the Latin tongue, which has given him the sub-name of "the Grammarian." Alfric himself declares that he wrote in Anglo-Saxon, and in that avoided the use of all obscure words, in order that he might be understood by unlettered people. As he was really successful in writing simply, we select a specimen of Anglo-Saxon prose from his Paschal homily, adding an interlinear translation:

Hæthen cild bith ge-fullod, ac hit ne bræt na (A) heathen child is christened, yet he altereth not his hiw with-utan, dheah dhe hit beo with-innan his shape without, though he be within awend. Hit bith ge-broht synfull dhurh Adames changed. He is brought sinful through Adam's forgregednysse to tham fant fate. Ac hit bith athwogen disobedience to the font-vessel. But he is washed

*Where double dates are thus given, it will be understood that the first is the year of the birth, and the second the year of the death, of the individual mentioned.

fram eallum synnum with-innan, dheah dhe hit withfrom all sins inwardly, though he oututan his hiw ne awende. Eac swylce tha halige wardly his shape not change. Even 80 the holy fant water, dhe is ge-haten lifes wyl-spring, is ge-lic font water, which is called life's fountain, is like on hiwe odhrum wæterum, & is under dheod brosin shape (to) other waters, and is subject to cornunge; ac dhæs halgan gastes miht ruption; but the Holy Ghost's might ge-nealæcth tham brosnigendlicum wætere, dhurh comes (to) the corruptible water through sacerda bletsunge, & hit mæg sythan (the) priests' blessing, and it may afterwards lichaman & sawle athwean fram eallum synnum, body and soul wash from all sin, dhurh gastlice mihte. through ghostly might.


Cynewulf, bishop of Winchester, Wulfstan, archbishop of York, and some others, bring down the list of Anglo-Saxon authors to the Conquest, giving to this portion of our literature a duration of nearly five hundred years, or about the space between Chaucer and our own day. During this time, there were many seats of learning in England, many writers, and many books; although, in the main, these have now become matter of curiosity to the antiquary only. The literature may be said to have had a kind of protracted existence till the breaking up of the language in the latter part of the twelfth century; but it was graced by no names of distinction. We are here called upon to advert to the historical production usually called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which consists of a view of early English history, written, it is believed, by a series of authors, commencing soon after the time of Alfred, and continued till the reign of Henry II. Altogether, considering the general state of Western Europe in the middle ages, the literature of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers may be regarded as a creditable feature of our national history, and as something of which we might justly be proud, if we did not allow ourselves to remain in such ignorance of it.


The Conquest, by which a Norman government and nobility were imposed upon Saxon England, led to a great change in the language. Norman French, one of the modifications of Latin which arose in the middle ages, was now the language of education, of the law courts, and of the upper classes generally, while Saxon shared the degradation which the people at large experienced under their conquerors. Though depressed, yet, as the speech of the great body of the people, it could not be extinguished. Having numbers on its side, it maintained its ground as the substance of the popular language, the Norman infusing only about one word for every three of the more vulgar tongue. But it was destined, in the course of the twelfth century, to undergo great grammatical changes. Its sounds were greatly altered, syllables were cut short in the pronunciation, and the terminations and inflections of words were softened down until they were entirely lost. Dr Johnson expresses his opinion, that the Normans affected the Anglo-Saxon more in this manner than by the introduction of new words. So great was the change, that the original Anglo-Saxon must have become, in the first half of the thirteenth century, more difficult to be understood than the Idiction of Chaucer is to us. The language which resulted was the commencement of the present English. Its origin will afterwards be traced more minutely.


The first literary productions which call for attention after the Conquest, are a class which may be considered as in a great measure foreign to the country and its language. Before the invasion of England by William, poetical literature had begun to be cultivated in France with considerable marks of spirit and taste. The language, which from its origin was named Romane (lingua Romana),* was separated into two great divisions, that of the south, which is represented popularly by the Provençal, and that of the north, which was subdivided into French and Anglo-Norman, the latter dialect being that chiefly confined to our island. The poets of the south were called in their dialect trobadores, or troubadours, and those of the north were distinguished by the same title, written in their language trouveres. In Provence, there arose a series of elegant versifiers, who employed their talents in composing romantic and complimentary poems, full of warlike and amatory sentiment, which many of them made a business of reciting before assemblages of the great. Norman poets, writing with more plainness and simplicity, were celebrated even before those of Provençe; and one, named Taillefer, was the first man to break the English ranks at the battle of Hastings. From the preference of the Norman kings of England for the poets of their own country, and the general depression of Anglo-Saxon, it results that the distinguished literary names of the first two centuries after the Conquest are those of NORMAN POETS, men who were as frequently natives of France as of England. Philippe de Thaun, author of treatises on popular science in verse; Thorold, who wrote the fine romance of Roland; Samson de Nanteuil, who translated the proverbs of Solomon into French verse; Geoffroi Gaimar, author of a chronicle of the Anglo-Saxon kings; and David, a trouveere of considerable eminence, whose works are lost, were the most noted predecessors of one of much greater celebrity, named Maistre WACE, a native of Jersey. About 1160, Wace wrote, in his native French, a narrative poem entitled Le Brut D'Angleterre (Brutus of England). The chief hero was an imaginary son of Æneas of Troy, who was represented as having founded the state of Britain This was many centuries before the Christian era. no creation of the fancy of the Norman poet. He only translated a serious history, written a few years before in Latin by a monk named GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH, in which the affairs of Britain were traced with all possible gravity through a series of imaginary kings, beginning with Brutus of Troy, and ending with Cadwallader, who was said to have lived in the year 689 of the Christian era.

This history is a very remarkable work, on account of its origin, and its effects on subsequent literature. The Britons, settled in Wales, Cornwall, and Bretagne, were distinguished at this time on account of the numberless fanciful and fabulous legends which they possessed-a traditionary kind of literature resembling that which has since been found amongst the kindred people of the Scottish Highlands. For centuries past, Europe had been supplied with tale and fable from the teeming fountain of Bretagne, as it now is with music from Italy, and metaphysics from Germany. Walter Calenius, archdean of Oxford, collected some of these of a professedly his

torical kind relating to England, and communicated them to Geoffrey, by whom they were put into the form of a regular historical work, and introduced for the first time to the learned world, as far as a learned world then existed. As little else than a bundle of incredible stories, some of which may be slightly founded on fact, this production is of small worth; but it supplied a ground for Wace's poem, and proved an unfailing resource for the writers of romantic narrative for the ensuing two centuries nor even in a later age was its influence exhausted; for from it Shakspeare drew the story of Lear, and Sackville that of Ferrex and Porrex, while Drayton reproduces much of it in his Polyolbion, and it has given occasion to many allusions in the poems of Milton and others.*


Any book written in this tongue was cited as the livre Romans (liber Romanus), and most frequently as simply the Romans: as a great portion of these were works of fiction, the term has since given rise to the word now in general use,


Maistre Wace also composed a History of the Normans, under the title of the Roman de Rou, that is, the Romance of Rollo, first Duke of Normandy, and some other works. Henry II., from admiration of his writings, bestowed upon him a canonry in the cathedral of Bayeux. Benoit, a contemporary of Wace, and author of a History of the Dukes of Normandy; and Guernes, an ecclesiastic of Pont St Maxence, in Picardy, who wrote a metrical life of Thomas à Becket, are the other two Norman poets of most eminence whose genius or whose writings can be connected with the history of English literature. These writers composed most frequently in rhymed couplets, each line containing eight syllables.†


Of the century following the Conquest, the only other compositions that have come down to us as the production of individuals living in, or connected

*Ellis's Metrical Romances.

+ Ellis's Specimens, i., 35-59. A short passage from Wace's

description of the ceremonies and sports presumed to have taken place at King Arthur's coronation, will give an idea of the writings of the Norman poets. It is extracted from Mr Ellis's work, with his notes:

"Quant li rois leva del mangier,
Alé sunt tuit esbanoier,1
De la cité es champs issirent;
A plusors gieux se despartirent.
Li uns alerent bokorder,*

Et les incaux3 chevalx monstrer:
Li autre alerent e cremir,
Ou pierres getier, ou saillir.
Tielx i avoit qui dars lancoent,
Et tielx i avoit qui lutoent;
Chascun del gieu s'entremetoit,
Qui entremetre se savoit.
Cil qui son compaignon vainquoit,
Et qui d'aucun gieu pris avoit,
Estoit sempres au roi mené,
Et à tous les autres monstré ;
Et li rois del sien li donoit,
Tant donc cil licz s'en aloit.
Les dames sor les murs aloent,
Por esgarder ceulx qui joient.
Qui ami avoit en la place,
Tost li tornost l'oil ou la face.

Trois jorz dura la feiste ainsi;
Quand vint au quart, au merere i,
Li rois les bacheliers ficufas
Enors deliverez devisa,
Lor servise a celx rendi,
Qui por terre l'orent servi:
Bois dona, et chasteleriez,
Et evesquiez, et abbaiez.

A ceulx qui d'autres terres estoient,
Qui par amor au roi venoent,
Dona coupes, dona destriers,
Dona de ses avers plus chers, &c."

To amuse themselves. 2 To just. 3 Fleet (isne!). 4 To leap. 5 Fief, gave fiefs. 6 He gave them livries of lands.

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »