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LESSON 3. THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE.- - This is the story of what great English men and women thought and felt, and then wrote down in good prose or beautiful poetry in the English language. The story is a long one. .
It begins about the year 670, and it is still going on in the year 1882. into this book, then, is to be put the story of 1,200 years. English men and women have good reason to be proud of the work done by their forefathers in prose and poetry. Every one who can write a good book or a good song may say to himself, 'I belong to a great company which has been teaching and delighting the world for more than 1,000 years.' And that is a fact in which those who write and those who read ought to feel a noble pride.
THE ENGLISH AND THE WELSH.—This literature is written in English, the tongue of our fathers. They lived, while
, England was still called Britain, in Sleswick, Jutland, and Holstein; but, either because they were pressed from the inland or for pure love of adventure, they took to the sea, and, landing at various parts of Britain at various times, drove back, after 150 years of hard fighting, the Britons, whom they called Welsh, to the land now called Wales, and to Cornwall. It is well for those who study English literature to remember that in these two places the Britons remained as a distinct race with a distinct literature of their own, because the stories and the poetry of the Britons crept afterwards into English literature and had a great influence upon it. The whole tale of King Arthur, of which English poetry and even English prose is so full, was a British tale.
THE ENGLISH * TONGUE.—Of the language in which our
** There is no good reason for rejecting the term Anglo-Saxon, and, as has been proposed, emplcying English as the name of the language from the earliest date to the present day. A change of nomenclature like this would expose us to the inconTanience not merely of embracing within one designation objects which have been
literature is written we can say little here. Of course it has changed its look very much since it began to be written. The earliest form of our English tongue is very different from modern English in form, pronunciation, and appearance, and one must learn it almost as if it were a foreign tongue; but still the language written in the year 700 is the same as that in which the prose of the Bible is written, just as much as the tree planted a hundred years ago is the same tree to-day. It is this sameness of language, as well as the sameness of national spirit, which makes the literature one literature for
THE FIRST ENGLISH POETRY.—When the English came to Britain, they were great warriors and great sea pirates— sea wolves' as a Roman poet calls them; and all English poetry down to the present day is full of war, and still more of the sea. No other nation has ever written so much sea-poetry. It was in the blood of these men, who chanted their sea war-songs as they sailed. But they were more than mere warriors. They were a home-loving people when settled either in Sleswick or in England, and all English literature from the first writings to the last is full of domestic love, the dearness of home, and the ties of kinsfolk. They were a religious people, even as heathen, still more so when they became Christian; and their poetry is as much tinged with religion as with war. Whenever literature died down in England, it rose again in poetry; and the first poetry at each recovery was religious, or linked to religion. We shall soon see that the first poems were of war and religion.
conventionally separated but of confounding things logically distinct; for, though our modern English is built upon, and mainly derived from, the Anglo-Saxon, the two dialects are now so discrepant that the fullest knowledge of one would not alone suffice to render the other intelligible to either the eye or the ear. They are too unlike in vocabulary and in inflectional character to be still considered as one speech."-George P. Marsh.
These reasons are equally conclusive against calling our earliest literature Enrli h. Wherever, then, in this Lesson and in the three or four following, Mr. Brooke uses English to designate either the language or the literature before 1066 or even 1150, we suggest that Anglo-Saxon be substituted for it by the teacher and the pupil.
This distribution of our language and our literature, adopted by some of our latest and best authorities, seems to us excellent:I. Anglo-Saxon.
1150-1250 II. Early English
1150-1350 Old English
1250_1350 III. Middle English.
1350-1550 IV. Modern English.
English Poetry was different then from what it is now. It was not written in rhyme, nor were its syllables counted. The lines are short; the beat of the verse depends on the emphasis given by the use of the same letter, except in the case of vowels, at the beginning of words; and the emphasis of the words depends on the thought. The lines are written in pairs; and in the best work the two chief words in the first and the one chief word in the second usually begin with the same letter.
Here is one example from a war-song:
• Wigu wintrum geong
· Warrior of winters young
After the Norman Conquest there gradually crept in a French system of rhymes and of metres, which we find full-grown in Chaucer's works. But unrhymed and alliterative verse lasted
. in poetry to the reign of John, and alliteration was blended with rhyme up to the sixteenth century. The latest form of it occurs in Scotland.
The greatest early Poems remaining are two-Beowulf and Cædmon's Paraphrase of the Bible. The first is on the whole a war story, the second is religious; and on these two subjects of war and religion English poetry for the most part speaks till the Conquest. Beowulf was brought into England from the Continent, and was rewritten in parts by a Christian Englishman of Northumbria. It is a story of the great deeds and death of a hero named Beowulf. Its social interest lies in what it tells us of the manners and customs of these people before they came to the island; its poetical interest lies in its descriptions of wild nature, of the lives and feelings of the
men of that time, and of the way in which the Nature-worship of these men made dreadful and savage places seem dwelt in —as if the places had a spirit—by monstrous beings. For it was thus that all that half-natural, half-spiritual world began in English poetry which, when men grew gentler and the country more cultivated, became so beautiful as faeryland. Here is the description (taken from Thorpe's edition of the poem) of the dwelling-place of the Grendel, a man-fiend that devoured men, and whom Beowulf overcomes in battle: Hie dygel lond
They that secret land warigeað wulf-hleóðu, inhabit, the wolf's retreats, windige næssas,
the dangerous fen-path,
the flood under the earth.
a mile's distance,
barky groves :
Feba eal gesæt ;
The band all sat ;
TO THE TEACHER.--Note the two A. S. characters for our th ; the one, in line 2, for th in thine; the other, in line 7, for th in thin. Italicized words in the translation have no equivalents in the original. Ask the pupils to name the A. S. words of the extract still in our language, though changed in spelling.
“ The love of wild nature in English poetry, and the peopling of it with wild, half-human things begin in work like this. After the fight Beowulf returns to his own land, where he rules well for many years, till a Fire-drake, who guards a treasure, comes down to harry his people. The old king goes out
. then to fight his last fight, slays the dragon, but dies of its flaming breath, and his body is burned high up on a seawashed Ness, or headland.”
“Similes are very rare in A. S. poetry. The whole romance of Beowulf contains only five, and these are of the simplest kind; the vessel gliding swiftly over the waves is compared to a bird; the Grendel's eyes to fire; his nails to steel; the light which Beowulf finds in the Grendel's dwelling, under the waters, resembles the serene light of the sun; and the sword which has been bathed in the monster's blood melts immediately like ice.”— Wright.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. ANGLO-SAXON LITERATURE AND THE ANGLO-SAXON WRITERS.Turner's Hist. of Manners, Poetry, and Lit. of the Anglo-Saxons ; H. Corson's Hand-book of A. S. and Early Eng.; H. Morley's Eng. Writers; T. Wright's Biographia Britannica Literaria ; Guest's Hist. Eng. Rhythms ; Taine's Eng. Lit.; Craik's Eng. Lit.; J. J. Conybeare's Illust. of A. S. Poetry; G. P. Marsh's Origin and Hist. of Eng. Lang.; Prof. Ten Brink's Hist. Eng. Lit.; H. Sweet's Hist. of A. S. Poetry; A. S. Lit. in Encyclo. Britannica; in Johnson's Cyclo.; in Appleton's, and in others.
CÆDMON. — “The poem of Beowulf has the grave
Teutonic power, but it is not native to English soil. It is not the first true English poem. That is the work of CÆDMON, and is also from Northumbria. The story of it, as told by Bæda, proves that the making of songs was common at the time. Cædmon was a servant to the monastery of Hild, an abbess of royal blood, at Whitby in Yorkshire. He was somewhat aged when the gift of song came to him, and he knew nothing of the art of verse, so that at the feasts, when for the sake of mirth all sang