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FAMILIAR TALKS

ON

ENGLISH

LITERATURE.

INTRODUCTORY.

A

GREAT preacher of the past, writing many hundred

years before the invention of printing, said : “Of making many books there is no end.” I often wonder what he would think of this century in which we live. More than any other since the world began, this is an age of books. Every year the great printing-presses turn out thousands of volumes and innumerable magazines and newspapers. Every year books become more and more a factor in the education of all classes of people, the poor as well as the rich. In days when there were no printingpresses, when everything had to be copied with tedious labor upon parchment or paper, the knowledge of books was confined to few. Now the boys and girls in our common schools can know more books, and can easily own a larger number, than could the kings and nobles of early days. This does not prove that the man without books need be ignorant, or the man with them altogether learned. There is a great deal of culture to be gained outside a printed page, and a man may be a narrow-minded pedant with his head stuffed with book-learning; a great poet has told us about

“ The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,

With loads of learned lumber in his head.”

But the man who combines the largest knowledge of good books with breadth of thought, wide experience, and practical knowledge of the world, is likely to be a man of the highest and best culture.

Since we believe, therefore, that books are among the most important tools with which we are to carve out our lives, we want to know something about the best books in the world. Among the great quantities of matter which come day after day from our printing-presses there must, of course be a great deal of rubbish; and the books preserved to us from the past are likely to be the best, because time has sifted much of the chaff from the wheat, and preserved only the wisest and wittiest things that have issued from men's minds. In the old books of the past we find a record of the best thoughts of the greatest minds that have ever lived.

And in the books written by men of the past who spoke the language that we speak, we shall find a record of the thoughts and deeds of that race from which we are descended. See, then, what an influence these deeds and thoughts of the great Englishmen of the past must have on us to-day. Picture in your imagination this stream of thought, like a great river, flowing down through hundreds of years, bearing in its bosom so much to fertilize and enrich the age in which we live, and bearing onward to the future, from our own time, all that is noblest and greatest. This wonderful river of thought, flowing down to us and beyond us, is ENGLISH LITERATURE. And if you can feel how interesting is the knowledge of the books that keep a record of this thought, written in our English speech from the earliest days, and how important it is to know something about it, we can begin together, with real interest and sympathy, these Talks on English Literature.

In one sense literature comprises all the books ever written, —- books on philosophy, science, text-books on all subjects, as well as poetry, essays, and fiction. But by general understanding there has come to be a division in the world of books; and the department of poetry, fiction, and the elegant classics is separated from the more profound and scientific order of writing. This first department is sometimes called pure literature, or “polite literature.” The French say belles lettres, meaning beautiful literature. It is this beautiful literature - the writings of the poets, the essayists, and the novelists — that these Talks are designed

to touch upon.

Among these writers the poet is the chief, and it is the poet to whom in this book we shall give the most attention. Of all writers the poet has done most in all ages to refine and elevate. There is something in the melodious arrangement of words, richly clothing a beautiful thought, that has been able to influence the mind in all ages. The poet makes even common things seem rich, and if he puts a noble spirit in his verse, he makes life seem purer and higher. As Sir Philip Sidney says: “Now therein, of all sciences is our poet the monarch. He cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well-enchanting skill of music, and with a tale, forsooth, he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney-corner. And pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue, even as the child is often brought to take most wholesome things by hiding them in such other as have a pleasant taste.” Therefore, although we intend in these Talks to follow the whole course of English literature, we shall dwell longest upon the poets and their works.

I have thus given you in brief the plan of our Talks. I hope, as we go on together, you will find such an interest in literature, and so feel its worth and richness, that from such brief accounts of the great authors and their works as I can give you, you will be led to know them more thoroughly, and to make them your friends. “ And the love of books,” says a French writer, “is one which, having taken possession of a man, will never leave him ; a book is a friend which never changes."

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I.

TELLING ABOUT THE ENGLISH PEOPLE, WHO THEY WERE, AND

HOW THEY FIRST CAME TO THE ISLAND OF BRITAIN.

BEFORE

EFORE we begin to talk of English literature, we nat

urally want to know something about the people from whom the name of “ England” and “ English " is derived, since from their language our modern speech has been formed, and it is they whom we are proud to call our forefathers. Let us first ask, then, who these people were that have stamped their name and speech so powerfully on the world's history.

We find them, first, as a union of tribes known by the names of Saxons, Jutes, and Angles, or “ English,” dwelling in that part of Europe which borders the North Sea, and in the islands close to this mainland. Whence they came thither, and how long they had possessed that soil, we are not certain. We are told that most of the nations of Europe have sprung from a great mother-race called the Aryan race; that this Aryan race has many branches; and that the Teutonic branch of the family is among the strongest of them all. Wherever we find these fair-haired, blue-eyed, strong-limbed men, who speak in Teutonic tongues,' we find them playing an important part in history. It was a tribe of these Teutons, the Goths, who in the fourth and fifth centuries swooped down on the great Roman empire and trampled it under their feet. It was another band of these strong heroes, called Franks, or "free-men," who conquered what was formerly known as Gaul, and gave it its modern

1

1 The languages derived from the Teutonic branch of the Aryan are: ist, Gothic; 2d, Scandinavian; 3d, High-German ; 4th, LowGerman. The Gothic is the oldest of these. From the High-German comes modern German; from the Scandinavian, the languages of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland; from the Low-German, English and Dutch.

66

name of France. It was the Scandinavian division of these peoples who, spreading from Denmark to Norway and Sweden, became the sea-kings of the North, — sending their ships to colonize Iceland, and sailing over the Northern Atlantic to Greenland more than four hundred years before Columbus discovered America. And it was still another horde of these Teutons who, settling all along the moist, uninviting shores of the North Sea, finally became the conquerors

and holders of the British Isles. Angles, or English,” was the name common to the tribes inhabiting the various settlements along the coasts of the North Sea and in its islands; so that of all the names which could have been given to this great nation, none is so appropriate as the English

Adventurous and bold as they were by nature, and living on the borders of the North Sea, or in the islands surrounded by its waters, they naturally became daring sailors, holding stern rule over the waves they claimed as their rightful domain. Their power was soon felt among neighboring nations, and they were heard of in the island of Britain, separated from it only by the seas on which they ranged.

This island of Britain was then inhabited by a people who belonged to the Keltic branch of the great Aryan family. These were the Kymry, the Ancient Britons of history. Long before the coming of the English the country of the Britons had been invaded by Roman legions under the great Cæsar, and the Roman empire had kept up a sort of rule through the reigns of several emperors. The Romans had built military roads, camps, and walls on British soil; and as they were the best road-makers in the world, you may find many traces of their work in England to this day. The Romans, too, had brought Christianity to Britain, and the new religion was adopted there ; so that the Britons felt their superiority over other peoples, and looked on their neighbor Teutons across the North Sea as barbarous and heathen men who knew not the true God and were outside the pale of religion and civilization. You will find it hard to believe that the Britons could have invited a people

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