« PreviousContinue »
that with this song begins and ends the Old English lyric,' * for the other chief short poems are rather elegiac or epic in tone. Whether with Matthew Arnold we are to seek an explanation of the note of sadness in English verse in Celtic influence or not, it is certainly present from the first.
Listen ! you hear the grating roar
Begin, and cease, and then again begin
The melancholy of these lines from. Dover Beach,' or of Thackeray's ballad of ‘Bouillabaisse,' is already heard in the Wanderer,t the Seafarer, the Wife's Complaint, the Husband's Message, and in the Ruin of early days. Like the faces of the seers in Dante's Inferno, the gaze of the poet in the finest of the Old English shorter poems is ever backward.
Tennyson has given a modern rendering of the best of the five poems inserted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that on the Battle of Brunanburh, gained by Athelstan in 937.5 But the noblest of the later poems is the truly epic fragment on the Battle of Maldon or the Death of Byrhtnoth, 991. It tells in 650 lines of the gallant fight of the East Saxon ealdorman Byrhtnoth against the Danes, and of his death. It is the last epic strain, full of vigour, life, and feeling. S Its excellence is the more noticeable as it was written at a time of poetic decadence, when the laws of alliteration were loosely observed and when rhyme was becoming more common. Some may see a striking appropriateness in the fact that what might be termed the last pote of Old English song is a poem called The Grave. ll Of this Longfellow has given a modern rendering.
7. Prose Writings. We possess a longer podigree of prose literature than any other country in Europe ;'( but it was not till the ninth century, under King Alfred, that our prose assumed any importance. This was owing to the invasions of the Danes. Our earliest vernacular prose is only seen in laws, charters, and brief chronicle entries, because, under the influence of the learning introduced with Christianity, scholars preferred to express their thoughts in Latin. The religious prose of Aldhelm, Bæda, Alcuin, and Erigena is in Latin; this is the language of the History of Bæda, of the Historia Britonum of Nennius in which we have our earliest mention of King Arthur, and of the brief chronicle of Ethelward : our earliest. biography, the life of Wilfred by Eddius Stephanus, like that of Alfred attributed to Bishop Asser (d. 910), is in Latin. But the Danish invasions in sweeping away the centres of learning destroyed learning itself. Alfred looked longingly backward to earlier days, and lamented that there were • few on this side of the Humber who can understand the divine service, or even explain a Latin epistle in English . . . they are so few, that indeed I cannot remember one south of the Thames when I began to reign.' Politically, the invasions of the Danes assured the supremacy of Wessex and promoted national unity, while as regards literature it is to them that we owe our vernacular prose. Alfred found learning dead, and he restored it; education neglected, and he revived it,' * but he was forced to provide for the lack of learning by translations. He is the first of our long line of translators. His work, however, possesses & distinct individuality on account of the free treatment of his original. Not an accurate scholar himself, he, like Pope in later days, was. obliged to render the sense of a passage rather than its exact meaning, while his thoroughly practical nature led him to omit, rearrange, or add to his original if he felt he could thus better meet the needs of his people. In his rendering of the General History of Orosius he supplied a fair manual of the world's history written by a Spanish presbyter about A.D. 418, his own individuality being marked by the insertion of two accounts of sea voyages which might stimulate the enterprise of his own people. He tells of Othere's voyage to the White Sea, and that of Wulfstan along the Baltic coasts. An English history was supplied by a translation of that of Bæda, but we can only regret that Alfred did not supplement this by additions dealing more fully with the history of the South of England with which the Northern historian had been somewhat unfamiliar. A book of philosophy was given in the De Consolatione Philosophiæ by Boethius, famous throughout Europe, and destined to be englished in later days by Chaucer. It is the most interesting of Alfred's works on account of the freedom of its rendering, and the light this casts upon the king's character. He also appears as & poet in the verse renderings of the metrical portions of this work; but, to adopt a Miltonic phrase, he indeed made use of his left hand'
* Stopford Brooke, Early English Literature.
† Renderings of this fine poem will be found in Stopford Brooke's Early English Literature, and in the Academy, May 14, 1881, by Miss E. Hickey. Professor Morley gives a rendering of the Seafarer' in English Writers, ii.
See Appendix A, Extract III.
It is translated in prose in Conybeare's Illustrations, and in verse by Lieut.-Ool. Lumsden in Macmillan's Magazine, March 1887.
See Appendix A, Extract IV. | Professor Earle, English Prose, 1895, p. 369.
when he ventured into verse. The influence of Pope Gregory is still seen after centuries in the rendering of the Pastoral Care, & work brought over by Augustino 300 years before. This is the most accurate and thus least interesting of the translations, but the purity of the text which has come down to us makes it very valuable to the philologist. Alfred's Handbook, in which he inserted extracts, notes, and observations, is unfortunately lost, but his influence is traceable upon the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Meagre entries had long been made by monks, and the Winchester Annals had been extended and added to in 885, under Æthelwulf; another rovision was undertaken in Alfred's reign in 891. This, the oldest Teutonic contemporary record, extends as far as Stephen's reign in 1154,* and besides occasional verse contains our noblest specimens of early prose. Dr. Sweet has endorsed Professor Earle's eulogy on the entries from the years 894-897: 'compared with this passage, every other piece of prose . . , throughout the whole range of extant Saxon literature must assume a secondary rank.'t It is a perfect model of Old English prose.' 1
The later prose, that of the tenth century, is chiefly religious, and is largely due to the religious revival of Dunstan and Æthelwold.
The nineteen anonymous Blickling Homilies, so called from a manuscript dated 971 at Blickling Hall, a seat of the Marquis of Lothian, are indirectly due to this. Their language is archaic, and the grammatical structure complex, so that the contrast is great between them and the Homilies of Abbot Elfric (c. 955-c. 1020), who has been called ' in point of style, the Addison of Old English literature,' in spite of an undue use of alliteration, especially marked in his later prose. His mind was assimilative rather than original, and his works, classic in their purity of language, are chiefly translations. We hare three series of Homilies, the third consiste ing of Lives of Saints.|| Bible translations were a feature of tenthcentury literature, and Ælfric rendered portions of the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, and Job, into his alliterative prose. He made our first Dictionary, when he compiled his Latin-English Glossary; and his Grammar and Colloquium, a Latin discourse between teacher and scholar, are other educational works. Archbishop Wulfstan of York also produced homilies, which Professor Napier has reprinted;
* See Appendix A, Extract V.
H. Sweet, Anglo-Saxon Reader.
Mr. B. Thorpe published two series (85 homilies) in 1844-46 for the Ælfrio Society. _Professor Skeat has edited the Metrical Lives of Saints for the Early English Text Society, 1881,
sereral of the fifty-three preserved, however, are by other hands. A translation of the late Greek story Apollonius of Tyre is interest.r ing as a specimen of the beginnings of the romance influence upon England, which under the Normans was to be so potent (see p. 19). It is also the first appearance of a story afterwards used by Gower in his Confessio Amantis, and by Shakespeare in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. A Letter of Alexander to Aristotle in verse, preserved in the manuscript of Beowulf, is the first indication of any familiarity with the Alexander saga ; while a prose fragment in the same manuscript tells of the Wonders of the East.
These last-mentioned works are but further indications of widening influences upon our early literature, one of the chief interests of which, it has been truly said, is not its originality, but that it reflects the process by which the native Teutonic civilisation of the English became metamorphosed by the intrusion of alien ideas, either Latin or transmitted through Latin.' Our older prose, as has been indicated, has little claim to originality; and while the far nobler verse 'may be compared even by temperate critics to the Homeric poetry of Greece, and the comparison need not be misleading,' yet it also is true that it was not in England that the most wonderful things were produced: there is nothing in Old English that takes hold of the mind with that masterful and subduing power which still belongs to the lyrical stanzas of the troubadours and minnesingers, to Welsh romances, or to the epic prose of the Icelandic histories.' * But if it would be wrong to over-estimate the literary value of our oldest literature, would it not be far worse to undervalno it? We 'speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake,' exclaims Wordsworth in one of his noble sonnets; and “sure, to neglect the beginnings of such an excellent tongue,' wrote one soon after the gravo at Stratford had closed, will bring rpon vs the foule disgrace not onely of ignorance . . . but of extreme ingratitude toward our famous ancestors, who left vs so many goodly monuments in this their old dialect recorded.'t
* Prof. W. P. Ker, from whom the above two quotations are also made. Of, bis Introduction to H. Craik's English Prose Selections, i. 1893.
Wm. L'Isle, Divers ancient Monuments in the Saxon tongue, 1638,
FROM THE NORMAN CONQUEST TO CHAUCER.
8, THE LANGUAGE OF THE NORMANS; LANGUE D'OYL, LANGUE D'OC.-9. PRO.
GRESS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.-10. THE LITERATURE OF THE ANGLO.
8. The Language of the Normans.- In the preceding chapter mention was made of the establishment in England of the Scandinavians or Danes (see p. 13, s. 7). In the districts formerly comprised in the ancient Danelagh (Dane-law) which Alfred ceded to them, traces of their speech still linger in the names of localities, and in the dialects of the peasantry, But their arrival produced no marked or lasting influence upon the language spoken in the South.* They do not seem to have extended their limits; and, speaking, as they did, a tongue differing little more than dialectically from that of those around them-for Old Norse, or Danish, and Old English, both belong to the Teutonic stock of the Aryan family—they easily relinquished it to adopt the language of their neighbours. By the time of the Norman Conquest a complete fusion of races and speech appears to have been effected.
With the Norman Conquest, however, came another and a widely different language. It is true that the Northmen under Rollo, or Rolf the Ganger, who, in 912, had extorted the cession of Normandy from Charles the Simple, were Scandinavians, like those who, in 878, had obtained the Danelagh from Alfred, and Scandinavians, moreover, who had first endeavoured to find a settlement in Eng. land. But whereas, in the latter case, they had adopted a language derived from a Teutonic stock, and not materially differing from their own, in the former they had learned a Southern dialect of an entirely different descent, and issuing from the Classical or Greco-Latin group of the Aryan or Indo-European Family of Languages.
* See Skeat's Principles of Eng. Etymology, i. 1887, ch. xiii. for the Scandi. navian influence; also his Dictionary, 2nd ed. p. 750, for a list of about 700 words.