صور الصفحة
النشر الإلكتروني

of his native language, which procured him the name of the "Grammarian,' besides a collection of homilies, some theological treatises, and a translation of the first seven books of the Old Testament. In imitation of Alfred, he devoted all his energies to the instruction of the common people, constantly writing in Anglo-Saxon, and avoiding as much as possible the use of compound or obscure words. After him appeared Cynewulf, Bishop of Winchester, Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, and others of some note. There was also slowly piled up in the course of ages, and by a succession of authors, that remarkable production, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is thought to have commenced soon after the reign of Alfred, and continued till the times of Henry II. Previous, however, to the Norman invasion, there had been a decided falling off in the learning of the Saxons. This arose from various causes. Incessant wars tended to conserve and increase the barbarism of the people. Various libraries of value were destroyed by the incursions of the Danes. And not a few bishops, and other ecclesiastical dignitaries, began to consider learning as prejudicial to piety—and grammar and ungodliness were thought akin. The effect of this upon the subordinate clergy was most pernicious. In the tenth century, Oswald, Archbishop of Canterbury, found the monks of his province so grossly ignorant, not only of letters, but even of the canonical rules of their respective orders, that he required to send to France for competent masters to give them instruction.

At length came the Conqueror, William, and one battle gave England to the Normans, which had cost the Romans, the Saxons, and the Danes so much time and blood to acquire. The people were not only conquered, but cowed and crushed. England was as easily and effectually subdued as was Ireland, sometime after, by Henry II. But while the Conquest was for a season fatal to liberty, it was from the first favourable to every species of literature, art, and poetry. The influence,' says Campbell

, of the Norman Conquest upon the language of England was like that of a great inundation, which at first buries the face of the landscape under its waters, but which, at last subsiding, leaves behind it the elements of new beauty and fertility, Its first effect was to degrade the Anglo-Saxon tongue to the exclusive use of the inferior orders, and by the transference of estates, ecclesiastical benefices, and civil dignities to Norman possessors, to give the French language, which had begun to prevail at court from the time of Edward the Confessor, a more complete predominance among the higher classes of society. The native gentry of England were either driven into exile, or depressed into a state of dependence on their conqueror, which habituated them to speak his language. On the other hand, we received from the Normans the first germs of romantic poetry; and our language was ultimately indebted to them for a wealth and compass of expression which it probably would not have otherwise possessed.'

The Anglo-Saxon, however, held its place long among the lower orders, and specimens of it, both in prose and verse, are found a century after the Conquest. Gradually the Norman tongue began to amalgamate with it, and the result was, the English. At what precise year our language might be said to begin, it is impossible to determine. · Throughout the whole of the twelfth century, great changes were taking place in the grammatical construction, as well as in the substance of the Anglo-Saxon, Some new words were imported from the Norman, but, as Dr Johnson remarks, 'the language was still more materially altered by the change of its sounds, the cutting short of its syllables, and the softening down of its terminations, and inflections of words.' Somewhere between 1180 and 1216, the majestic speech in which Shakspeare was to write “Macbeth' and 'King Lear,' Lord Bacon his Advancement of Learning,' Milton his 'Paradise Lost' and 'Areopagitica,' Burke his · Reflections,' and Sir Walter Scott the Waverley Novels, and whose rough, but manly accents were to be spoken by at least a hundred million tongues, commenced its career, and not since Homer,

on the Chian strand,
Beheld the Iliad and the Odyssee
Rise to the swelling of the voiceful sea,"

had a nobler era been marked in the history of literature. For here was a tongue born which was destined to mate even with that of Greece in richness and flexibility, to make the language of Cicero and Virgil seem stiff and stilted in comparison, and, if not to vie with the French in airy grace, or with the Italian in liquid music, to excel them far in teeming resources and robust energy. Memorable and hallowed for ever be the hour when the well of English undefiled' first sparkled to the day!

Previous to this the chief of the poets, after the Conquest, were Normans. The country whence that people came had for some time been celebrated for poetry. France was, as to its poetic literature, divided into two great sections—the Provençal and the Northern. The first was like the country where it flourished-gay, flowery, and exuberant; it swam in romance, and its rhymers delighted, when addressing large audiences under the open skies of their delightful climate, to indulge in compliment and fanfaronade, to sing of war, wine, and love. The Normans produced a race of simpler poets. That some of them were men as well as singers, is proved by the fact that it was a bard named Taillefer who first broke the English ranks at the battle of Hastings. After him came Philippe de Thaun, who tried to set to song the science of his day; Thorold, the author of a romance entitled 'Roland;' Samson de Nauteuil, the translator of Solomon's Proverbs into French verse; Geoffrey Gaimar, who wrote a Chronicle of the Saxon kings; and one David, a minstrel of no little note and power in his day. But a more remarkable writer succeeded, and his work, like Aaron's rod, swallowed up all the productions of these clever but petty poets. This was Wace, commonly called Maistre Wace, a native of Jersey. In 1160, or as some say 1155, Wace finished his ‘Brut d'Angleterre,' which is in reality a translation into French of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote a History of Britain from the imaginary Brutus of Troy down to Cadwallader in 689. Literature owes not a little to Wace's poem. He collected into a permanent shape a number of traditions and legendsmany of them interesting—which had been floating through Europe, just as Macpherson preserved in Ossian not a few real fragments of the songs of Selma. And, as we shall see immediately, Wace's production became the basis of the earliest of English poems. Maistre Wace is the author also of a History of the Normans, which he calls “Roman de Rou;' or, 'The Romance of Rollo.' He was a great favourite with Henry II., who bestowed on him a canonry in the Cathedral of Bayeux. Besides Wace, there flourished about the same time Benoit, who wrote a History of the Dukes of Normandy; and Guernes, a churchman of Pont St Maxence in Picardy, who wrote in verse a Life of St Thomas à Becket.

At the beginning of the century following the Conquest, the chief authors, such as Peter of Blois, John of Salisbury, Joseph of Exeter, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, all wrote in Latin. Layamon, however, a priest of Ernesley-upon-Severn, used the vernacular in a poem which, as we have already hinted, was essentially a translation of Wace’s ‘Brut d’Angleterre.' The most remarkable thing about Layamon's poem is the language in which it is written-language in which you catch English in the very act of chipping the Saxon shell, or, as Campbell happily remarks, the style of Layamon is as nearly the intermediate state of the old and new languages as can be found in any ancient specimen-something like the new insect stirring its wings before it has shaken off the aurelia state.'

Between Layamon and Robert of Gloucester a good many miscellaneous strains—some of a satirical, others of an amatory, and others again of a legendary and devout style—were produced. It was customary then for minstrels, at the instance of the clergy, to sing on Sundays devotional strains on the harp to the assembled multitudes. At public entertainments, during week-days, gay ditties were common. One of these is extant, but is too coarse for quotation. It is entitled “The Land of Cokayne,' an allegorical satire on the luxury and vice of the Church, given under the description of an imaginary paradise, in which the nuns are represented as houris, and the black and grey monks as their paramours. Richard of Alemaine' is a ballad, composed by an adherent of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, after the defeat of the Royal party at the battle of Lewes in 1264. In the year after that battle the Royal cause rallied, and the Earl of Warren and Sir Hugh Bigod returned from exile, and helped the King in his victory. In the battle of Lewes, Richard, King of the Romans, his brother




Henry III., and Prince Edward, with many others of the Royal party, were taken prisoners.1

The spirit and the allusions of this song shew that it was composed by Leicester's party in the moment of their victory, and not after the reaction which took place against their cause, and it must therefore belong to the thirteenth century. To this period, too, probably belongs a political satire, published by Ritson, and which Campbell thus characterises : It is a ballad on the execution of the Scottish patriots, Sir William Wallace and Sir Simon Frazer. The diction is as barbarous as we should expect from a song of triumph on such a subject. It relates the death and treatment of Wallace very minutely. The circumstance of his being covered with a mock crown of laurel in Westminster Hall, which Stow repeats, is there mentioned, and that of his legs being fastened with iron fetters“ under his horse's wombe," is told with savage exultation. The piece was probably indited in the very year of the political murders which it celebrates, certainly before 1314, as it mentions the skulking of Robert Bruce, which, after the battle of Bannockburn, must have become a jest out of season.'

Campbell quotes a love-ditty of this period, which is not devoid of merit:

For her love I cark and care,
For her love I droop and dare,
For her love my bliss is bare,

And all I wax wan.
· For her love in sleep I slake,2
For her love all night I wake,
For her love mourning I make

More than any man.'
And another of a pastoral vein :-

“When the nightingale singës the woods waxen green,
Leaf, grass, and blossom springs in Avril I ween,
And love is to my heart gone, with one spear so keen,

Night and day my blood it drinks, my heart doth me teen.' About a hundred years after Layamon (in 1280) appeared a

i See Richard of Alemaine,' Percy's Reliques, vol. ii., p. 2.

2 'In sleep I slake:' am deprived of sleep.

« السابقةمتابعة »