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We propose to introduce our ‘Specimens' by a short Essay on the Origin and Progress of English Poetry on to the days of Chaucer and of Gower. Having called, in conjunction with many other critics, Chaucer the Father of English Poetry,' to seek to go back further may seem like pursuing antenatal researches. But while Chaucer was the sun, a certain glimmering dawn had gone before him, and to reflect that, is the object of the following pages.
Britain, when the Romans invaded it, was a barbarous country; and although subjugated and long held by that people, they seem to have left it nearly as uncultivated and illiterate as they found it. "No magnificent remains,' says Macaulay, of Latian porches and aqueducts are to be found in Britain. No writer of British birth is to be reckoned among the masters of Latin poetry and eloquence. It is not probable that the islanders were, at any time, generally familiar with the tongue of their Italian rulers. From the Atlantic to the vicinity of the Rhine the Latin has, during many centuries, been predominant. It drove out the Celtic—it was not driven out by the Teutonic—and it is at this day the basis of the French, Spanish, and Portuguese languages. In our island the Latin appears never to have superseded the old Gaelic speech, and could not stand its ground before the German. It was in the fifth century that that modification of the German or Teutonic speech called the Anglo-Saxon was introduced into this country. It soon asserted its superiority over the British tongue, which seemed to retreat before it, reluctantly and proudly, like a lion, into the mountain-fastnesses of Wales or to the rocky sea-beach of Cornwall. The triumph was not completed all at once, but from the beginning it was secure.
The bards of Wales continued to sing, but their strains resembled the mutterings of thunder among their own hills, only half heard in the distant valleys, and exciting neither curiosity nor awe. For five centuries, with the exception of some Latin words added by the preachers of Christianity, the Anglo-Saxon language continued much as it was when first introduced. Barbarous as the manners of the people were, literature was by no means left without a witness. Its chief cultivators were the monks and other religious persons, who spent their leisure in multiplying books, either by original composition or by transcription, including treatises on theology, historical chronicles, and a great abundance and variety of poetical productions. These were written at first exclusively in Latin, but occasionally, in process of time, in the Anglo-Saxon tongue. The theology taught in them was, no doubt, crude and corrupted, the history was stuffed with fables, and the poetry was rough and bald in the extreme; but still they furnished a food fitted for the awakening mind of the age. When the Christian religion reached Great Britain, it brought necessarily with it an impulse to intellect as well as to morality. So startling are the facts it relates, so broad and deep the principles it lays down, so humane the spirit it inculcates, and so ravishing the hopes it awakens, that, however disguised in superstition and clouded by imperfect representation, it never fails to produce, in all countries to which it comes, a resurrection of the nation's virtue, and a revival, for a time at least, of the nation's political and intellectual energy and genius. Hence we find the very earliest literary names in our early annals are those of Christian missionaries. Such is said to have been Gildas, a Briton, who lived in the first part of the sixth century, and is the reputed author of a short history of Britain in Latin. Such was the still more apocryphal Nennius, also called, till of late, the writer of a small Latin historical work. Such was St Columbanus, who was born in Ireland in 560; became a monk in the Irish monastery of Benchor; and afterwards, at the head of twelve disciples, preached Christianity, in its most ascetic form, in England and in France; founded in the latter country various monasteries; and, when banished by Queen Brunehaut on account of his stern inflexibility of character, went to Switzerland, and then to Lombardy, proselytising the heathen, and defending, by his letters and other writings, the peculiar tenets of the Irish Church in reference to the time of the celebration of Easter and to the popular heresies of the day. He died October 2, 615, in the monastery of Bobbio; and his religious treatises and Latin poetry gave an undoubted impulse to the age's progress in letters.
About this period the better sort of Saxons, both clergy and laity, got into the habit of visiting Rome; while Rome, in her turn, sent emissaries to England. Thus, while the one insensibly imbibed new knowledge as well as devotion from the great centre, the other brought with them to our shores importations of books, including copies of such religious classics as Josephus and Chrysostom, and of such literary classics as Homer. About 680, died Caedmon, a monk of Whitby, one of the first who composed in Anglo-Saxon, and some of whose compositions are preserved. Strange and myth-like stories are told by Bede about this remarkable natural genius. He was originally a cowherd. Partly from want of training, and partly from bashfulness, when the harp was given him in the hall, and he was asked, as all others were, to raise the voice of song, Caedmon had often to abscond in confusion. On one occasion he had retired to the stable, where he fell into a sound sleep. He dreamed that a stranger appeared to him, and said, “Caedmon, sing me something.' Caedmon replied that it was his incapacity to sing which had brought him to take refuge in the stable. "Nay,' said the stranger, “but thou hast something to sing.' 'What shall I sing?' rejoined Caedmon. "Sing the Creation,' and thereupon he began to pour out verses, which, when he awoke, he remembered, repeated, and to which he added others as good. The first lines are, as translated into English, the following :
Now let us praise
He first created,
The Almighty Master!' Our readers all remember the well-known story of Coleridge falling asleep over Purchas's Pilgrims;' how the poem of • Kubla Khan' came rushing from dreamland upon his soul; and how, when awakened, he wrote it down, and found it to be, if not sense, something better—a glorious piece of fantastic imagination. We knew a gentleman who, slumbering while in a state of bad health, produced, in the course of a few hours, one or two thousand rhymed lines, some of which he repeated in our hearing afterwards, and which were full of point and poetry. We cannot see that Caedmon's lines betray any weird inspiration; but when rehearsed the next day to the Abbess Hilda, to whom the town-bailiff of Whitby conducted him, she and a circle of learned men pronounced that he had received the gift of song direct from heaven! They, after one or two other trials of his powers, persuaded him to become a monk in the house of the Abbess, who commanded him to transfer to verse the whole of the Scripture history. It is said that he was constantly employed in repeating to himself what he had heard; or, as one of his old biographers has it, like a clean animal ruminating it, he turned it into most sweet verse.' In this way he wrote or rather improvised a vast quantity of poetry, chiefly on religious subjects. Thorpe, in his edition of this author, has preserved a speech of Satan, bearing a striking resemblance to some parts of Milton :
Boiled within him
That other that we formerly knew