صور الصفحة
PDF
النشر الإلكتروني

and in literature, nothing can save us from ceaseless revulution but a frequent recourse to the primitive authorities and the recognized canons of highest perfection.

In commencing the study of early English, young persons are not unfrequently repelled by differences of form, which seem to demand a considerable amount of labor to master, and the really trifling difficulties of our archaic dialect are magnified into insurmountable obstacles. Unhappily, Eng. lish scholars, themselves often better instructed in other tongues than in their own, have very frequently sanctioned the mistake, and encouraged the indolence of contemporary readers, by editing modernized editions of good old authors, and, in thus clothing them anew, so changed their outward aspect, and often their essential character, that the parents would scarcely. be able to recognize their own progeny. The British press has teemed with mutilated and disguised editions, while scrupulously faithful reprints of early English works have, until lately, not been often attempted, or ever well encouraged. As a general rule, in the printing of old manuscripts, and the republication of works which genius and time have sealed with the stamp of authority, no change whatever, except the correction of obvious clerical or typographical errors, should be tolerated ; and even this should be ventured on only with extreme caution, because it often turns out that what is hastily assumed to have been a misspelling or a misprint, is, in fact, a form deliberately adopted by a writer better able to judge what was the true orthography for the time, than any later scholar can be.

The rule of Coleridge has nowhere a juster application than here: That, when we meet an apparent error in a good author, we are to presume ourselves “ignorant of his under

i

standing, until we are certain that we understand his ignorance." The number of scholars who are so thoroughly possessed of the English of the sixteenth, not to mention earlier centuries, as to be safely intrusted with the correction of authors of that period, is exceedingly small, and I doubt whether it would be possible to cite a single instance where this has been attempted, without grievous error, while, in most cases, the book has been not merely lessened in value, but rendered worse than useless for all the purposes of philology and true literature.

But for the unfortunate readiness with which editors and publishers have yielded to the popular demand for conformity to the spelling and the vocabulary of the day, the knowledge of genuine English would now be both more general and further advanced than it is. The habit of reading books as they were written would have kept up the comprehension, if not the use, of good old forms and choice words which have irrecoverably perished, and the English of the most vigorous period of our literature would not now be sneered at as obsolete and unintelligible.

After all, the difficulties of acquiring a familiar acquaintance with the dialect of the reign of Edward III. are extremely small. Let not the student be discouraged by an antiquated orthography,* or, now and then, a forgotten word, and a month's study will enable him to read, with entire readiness and pleasure, all that the genius of England has produced during the five centuries that hare elapsed since English literature can be said to have had a being.

* The irregularity of the spelling in early English books is very frequently chargeable almost wholly to the printer. The original manuscript of the Ormulum is nearly as uniform in its orthography as the most systematic modern writers, and some of the codices on which Pauli's edition of Gower is founded are described as scarcely less consistent in their spelling.–See post, Lectures xx, and xxi.

I cannot, of course, here dilate upon the value of a familiarity with the earlier English writers, but I may, perhaps, be indulged in a momentary reference to the greatest of them, the perusal of whose works alone would much more than compensate the little labor required to understand the dialect in which they are written. Neither the prose nor the verse of the English literature of the fourteenth century comes up to the elaborate elegance and the classic finish of Boccaccio and of Petrarch. But, in original power, and in all the highest qualities of poetry, no Continental writer of that period, with the single exception of Dante, can, for a moment, be compared with Chaucer, who, only less than Shakespeare, deserves the epithet, myriad-minded, so happily applied by Coleridge to the great dramatist. He is eminently the creator of our literary dialect, the introducer, if not the inventor, of some of our finest poetical forms, and so essential were his labors in the founding of our national literature, that, without Chaucer, the seventeenth century could have produced no Milton, the nineteenth no Keats.* It is from defect of

I must here, once for all, make the sad concession, that many of Chaucer's works are disfigured, stained, polluted, by a grossness of thought and of language which strangely and painfully contrasts with the delicacy, refinement, and moral elevation of his other productions. The only apology, or rather palliation of this offence, is that which serves to excuse similar transgressions in Shakespeare; namely, that the thoughts, the images, the words, are such as belong to the character presented, or for the time assumed, by the poet; and we must remember that the moral and religious degradation of the fourteenth was far deeper and more pervadiny than that of the sixteenth and seventeenth cen. turies.

I am not ignorant that Chaucer's poems are in great part translations, para. phrases, or imitations. But this was the habit of the time. Every man built on the foundation of his predecessors, and Choucer, while he touched nothing which he did not improve, is always best when he is most original in the concep

knowledge alone, that his diction and i.is versification have been condemned as rude and unpolished. There are, indeed, some difficulties in his prosody, which have not yet been fully solved; but these will, doubtless, chiefly yield to a more critical revision of the text, and even with the corrupt reading of the old printed editions, the general flow of his verse is scarcely inferior to the melody of Spenser. There can be little doubt that his metrical system was in perfect accordance with the orthoepy of his age, and it was near two centuries before any improvements were made upon his diction or his numbers.

I remarked that there are circumstances in the position and the external relations of the English language, which recommend its earnest study and cultivation. I refer, of course, to the commanding political influence, the widespread territory, and the commercial importance of the two great motlier-countries whose vernacular it is. Although England is no longer at the head of the European political system, yet she is still the leading influence in the sphere of commerce, of industry, of progressive civilization, and of enlightened Christian philanthropy.

tion as well as the treatment of his theme. There is no doubt a strong resem. blance between the general diction of this poet and of Gower. The etymological proportions of their vocabularies are not widely different, nor are the grammatical discordances between them very great. But in the choice of words as determined by subject, in metrical construction, in poetic coloring, in compass, variety, beauty, and appositeness of illustration, in dramatic power, in nice perception of character, and in justness of thought, the superiority of Chaucer is almost mmeasurable. A reader who should note the passages in his works, which, in point of thought or expression, are particularly suited to serre as effective quotations, would find on reviewing his list, that no English writer except Shakespeare, has uttered so many striking and pithy sentences as Chaucer.

Few of his greater qualities were inherited by his immediate successors. The influence of his style is perceptible enough in the poetic diction of all after ages; but it is strange that the following century should have given birth to almost nothing better than what, in spite of the ingenious arguments of Skelton's defenders, I must still characterize as the wretched ribaldry of that author. In speaking of the relations of Chaucer to the author of Paradise Lost, I, of course, refer to language only, and especially to the diction of the minor poems of Milton, which are as important in any just view of his poetical character as his great epic itself. Keats, both in verbal form and in the higher qualities of poetry, is constantly reminding us of the more imaginative works of Chaucer.

The British capital is at the geographical centre of the terrestrious portion of the globe, and while other great cities represent individual nationalities, or restricted and temporary aims, the lasting, cardinal interests of universal humanity have their brightest point of radiation in the city of London.

The language of England is spoken by greater numbers than any other Christian speech, and it is remarkable that, while some contemporaneous dialects and races are decaying and gradually disappearing from their natal soil, the English speech and the descendants of those who first employed it are making hourly conquests of new territory, and have already established their posts within hailing distance throughout the circuit of the habitable globe. The English language is the special organ of all the great, world-wide charities which so honorably distinguish the present from all preceding ages. With little of the speculative universal philanthropy which has been so loudly preached and so little practised elsewhere, the English people have been foremost in every scheme of active benevolence, and they have been worthily seconded by their American brethren. The English Bible has been scattered by hundreds of millions over the face of the earth, and English-speaking missionaries have planted their maternal dialect at scores of important points, to which, had not their courageous and self-devoting energy paved the way, not even the enterprise of trade could have opened a path. Hence, English is emphatically the language.

« السابقةمتابعة »