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CYCLOPEDIA OF ENGLISH LITERATURE.

First Period.

FROM THE EARLIEST TIMES TO 1400.

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HE ENGLISH LANGUAGE essentially a branch of the Teutonic, the language spoken by the inhabitants of central Europe immediately before the dawn of history, and which constitutes the foundation of the modern German, Danish, and Dutch. Introduced by the AngloSaxons in the fifth century, it gradually spread, with the people who spoke it, over nearly the whole of England; the Celtic, which had been the language of the aboriginal people, shrinking before it into Wales, Cornwall, and other remote parts of the island, as the Indian tongues are now retiring before the advance of the British settlers in North America.*

From its first establishment, the Anglo-Saxon tongue experienced little change for five centuries, the chief accessions which it received being Latin terms introduced by Christian missionaries. During this period, literature flourished to a much greater extent than might be expected, when we consider the generally rude condition of the people. It was chiefly cultivated by individuals of the religious orders, a few of whom can easily be discerned, through their obscure biography, to have been men of no mean genius. During the eighth century, books were multiplied immensely by the labours of these men, and through their efforts learning descended into the upper classes of lay society. This * It is now believed that the British language was not so immediately or entirely extinguished by the Saxons as was generally stated by our historians down to the last age. But certainly it is true in the main, that the Saxon succeeded the British language in all parts of England, except Wales, Cornwall, and some other districts of less note.

age presents us with historical chronicles, theological treatises, religious, political, and narrative poetry, in great abundance, written both in Latin and in the native tongue.*

The earliest name in the list of Anglo-Saxon writers is that of Gildas, generally described as a missionary of British parentage, living in the first half of the sixth century, and the author of a Latin tract on early British history. Owing to the obscurity of this portion of our annals, it has been the somewhat extraordinary fate of Gildas to be represented, first as flourishing at two periods more than a century distant from each other; then as two different men of the same name, living at different times; and finally as no man at all, for his very existence is now doubted. Nennius is another name of this age, which, after being long connected with a small historical work, written, like that of Gildas, in Latin, has latterly been pronounced supposititious. The first unquestionably real author of distinction is ST COLUMBANUS, a native of Ireland, and a man of vigorous ability, who contributed greatly to the advancement of Christianity in various parts of Western Europe, and died in 615. He wrote religious treatises and Latin poetry. As yet, no educated writer composed in his vernacular tongue: it was generally despised by the literary class, as was the case at some later periods of our history, and Latin was held to be the only language fit for regular composition.

The first Anglo-Saxon writer of note, who composed in his own language, and of whom there are any remains, is CEDMON, a monk of Whitby, who died about 680. Cædmon was a genius of the class headed by Burns, a poet of nature's making, sprung from the bosom of the common people, and little indebted to education. It appears that he at one time acted in the capacity of a cow-herd. The circumstances under which his talents were first developed, are narrated by Bede with a strong cast of the marvellous, under which it is possible, however, to trace a basis of natural truth. We are told that he was so much less instructed than most of his equals, that he had not even learnt any poetry; so that he was frequently obliged to retire, in order to hide his shame, when the harp was moved towards him in the hall, where at supper it was customary for each person to sing in turn. On one of these Biographia Britannica Literaria: Anglo-Saxon Period. By Thomas Wright, M.A.

1

occasions, it happened to be Cadmon's turn to keep guard at the stable during the night, and, overcome with vexation, he quitted the table and retired to his post of duty, where, laying himself down, he fell into a sound slumber. In the midst of his sleep, a stranger appeared to him, and, saluting him by his name, said, "Cadmon, sing me something." Cædmon answered, “I know nothing to sing; for my incapacity in this respect was the cause of my leaving the hall to come hither." Nay," said the stranger, "but thou hast something to sing." "What must I sing?" said Cædmon. 'Sing the Creation," was the reply, and thereupon Cædmon began to sing verses "which he had never heard before," and which are said to have been as follows:

Nu we sceolan herian* heofon-ríces weard, metodes mihte, and his mod-ge-thonc, wera wuldor fæder! swa he wundra ge-hwas, ece dryhten, oord onstealde. He ærest ge-scéop ylda bearnum heofon to hrófe, halig scyppend ! tha middan-geard mon-cynnes weard, ece dryhten, æfter teode, firum foldan,

frea almihtig!

66

66

Now we shall praise

the guardian of heaven,
the might of the creator,
and his counsel,
the glory-father of men!
how he of all wonders,
the eternal lord,
formed the beginning.
He first created

for the children of men
heaven as a roof,
the holy creator!
then the world

the guardian of mankind,
the eternal lord,
produced afterwards,
the earth for men,
the almighty master!

Cadmon then awoke; and he was not only able to repeat the lines which he had made in his sleep, but he continued them in a strain of admirable versification. In the morning, he hastened to the townreeve, or bailiff, of Whitby, who carried him before the Abbess Hilda; and there, in the presence of some of the learned men of the place, he told his story, and they were all of opinion that he had received the gift of song from heaven. They then expounded to him in his mother tongue a portion of Scripture, which he was required to repeat in verse. Cadmon went home with his task, and the next morning he produced a poem which excelled in beauty all that they were accustomed to hear. He afterwards yielded to the earnest solicitations of the Abbess Hilda, and became a monk of her house; and she ordered him to transfer into verse the whole of the sacred history. We are told that he was continually occupied in repeating to himself what he heard, and, "like a clean animal, ruminating it, he turned it into most sweet verse.'" † Cædmon thus composed many poems on the Bible histories, and on miscellaneous religious subjects, and some of these have been preserved. His account of the Fall of Man is somewhat like that given in Paradise Lost, and one passage in it might almost be supposed to have been the foundation of a corresponding one in Milton's sublime epic. It is that in which Satan is described as reviving from the consternation of his overthrow. A modern translation into English follows:

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[Satan's Speech.]

Boiled within him

his thought about his heart; Hot was without him

his dire punishment.

* In our specimens of the Anglo-Saxon, modern letters are substituted for those peculiar characters employed in that language to express th, dh, and w.

† Wright.

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iron bonds;

presseth this cord of chain;
I am powerless !
me have so hard
the clasps of hell
so firmly grasped !
Here is a vast fire
above and underneath;
never did I see

a loathlier landskip;
the flame abateth not,
hot over hell.

Me hath the clasping of these rings,
this hard polished band,

impeded in my course,
debarred me from my way.
My feet are bound,
my hands manacled ;
of these hell doors are
the ways obstructed;

so that with aught I cannot
from these limb-bonds escape.
About me lie
huge gratings
of hard iron,
forged with heat,
with which me God

hath fastened by the neck.

Thus perceive I that he knoweth my mind, and that he knew also,

the Lord of hosts,

that should us through Adam

evil befall,

about the realm of heaven,

where I had power of my hands.'*

The specimen of Cadmon above given in the original language may serve as a general one of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It will be observed that it is neither in measured feet, like Latin verse, nor rhymed, but that the sole peculiarity which distinguishes it from prose is what Mr Wright calls a very regular alliteration, so arranged, that in every couplet there should be two principal words in the line beginning with the same letter, which letter must also be the initial of the first word on which the stress of the voice falls in the second line.

A few names of inferior note-Aldhelm, abbot of

*Thorpe's edition of Cadmon, 1832.

ANGLO-SAXON WRITERS.

ENGLISH LITERATURE.

80

he out-
sins inwardly, though
the holy
utan his hiw ne awende. Fac swylce tha halige
fram eallum synnum with-innan, dheah dhe hit with-
from all
wardly his shape not change. Eren
odhrum wæterum, & is under dheod bros-
waters, and is subject to
fant water, dhe is ge-haten lifes wyl-spring, is ge-lic
halgan gastes
on hiwe
font water, which is called life's fountain, is like
in shape (to) other
nunge;
ruption;
ge-nealæcth

ac

but

dhæs

the

cor

tham brosnigendlicum wætere, dhurh

miht

might

water through

sythan

afterwards

Holy Ghost's

(to) the comes

corruptible

(the) priests'

blessing, and it

sacerda bletsunge, & hit mæg

may

wash from
and soul
lichaman & sawle athwean fram eallum synnum,

body
dhurh gastlice mihte.
through ghostly might.

all

sin,

Malmsbury, Ceolfrid, abbot of Wearmouth, and Felix
of Croyland-bring down the list of Anglo-Saxon
writers to BEDE, usually called the Venerable Bede,
who may be allowed to stand at the head of the class.
He seems to have spent a modest studious life, unche-
Wearmouth, where
quered by incident of any kind, at the monastery of
he died in 735.
His works, consist-
ing of Scriptural
and
translations
commentaries, reli-
gious treatises, bio-
graphies, and an
ecclesiastical his-
tory of the Anglo-
Saxons, which is
the only one useful
in the present age,
Cynewulf, bishop of Winchester, Wulfstan, arch-
were forty-four in
number; and it is bishop of York, and some others, bring down the list
related that he dic- of Anglo-Saxon authors to the Conquest, giving to
tated to his amanu- this portion of our literature a duration of nearly five
com- hundred years, or about the space between Chaucer
ensis,
and our own day. During this time, there were many
seats of learning in England, many writers, and many
books; although, in the main, these have now become
matter of curiosity to the antiquary only. The litera-
ture may be said to have had a kind of protracted
existence till the breaking up of the language in the
latter part of the twelfth century; but it was graced
by no names of distinction. We are here called upon
to advert to the historical production usually called
the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which consists of a view
of early English history, written, it is believed, by a
series of authors, commencing soon after the time of
Alfred, and continued till the reign of Henry II.
Altogether, considering the general state of Western
Europe in the middle ages, the literature of our
Anglo-Saxon forefathers may be regarded as a
creditable feature of our national history, and as
something of which we might justly be proud, if we
did not allow ourselves to remain in such ignorance.
of it.

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pleted a book, on the very day of his death. Almost all the writings of these men were in Latin, which renders it less necessary to speak particularly of them in this place. Our subsequent literary history is formed of comparatively obscure names, until it presents to us the enlightened and amiable King ALFRED (848-901).* in whom learning and authorship graced the royal state, without interfering with its proper duties. He translated the historical works of Orosius and Bede, and some religious and moral treatises, perhaps also Esop's Fables and the Psalms of David, into the Anglo-Saxon tongue, designing thereby to extend their utility among his people. No original compositions certainly his have been preserved, excepting the reflections of his own, which he takes leave here and there to introduce into his translations. The character of this monarch, embracing so much gentleness, along with manly vigour and dignity, and displaying pure tastes, calculated to be beneficial to others as well as himself, seems as if it would have graced the most civilised age nearly as much as it did one of the rudest.

After Alfred, the next important name is that of ALFRIC, archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1006. This learned prelate was a volumincus writer, and, like Alfred, entertained a strong wish to enlighten the people; he wrote much in his native tongue, particularly a collection of homilies, a translation of the first seven books of the Bible, and some religious treatises. He was also the author of a grammar of the Latin tongue, which has given him the sub-name of the Grammarian.' Alfric himself declares that he wrote in Anglo-Saxon, and in that avoided the use of all obscure words, in order that he might be understood by unlettered people. As he was really successful in writing simply, we select a specimen of Anglo-Saxon prose from his Paschal homily, adding an interlinear translation:

Hæthen

cild bith ge-fullod, ac hit ne bræt na
(4) heathen child is christened, yet he altereth not
he be within
his hiw with-atan, dheah dhe hit beo with-innan
his shape without, though
Hit bith ge-broht synfull dhurh Adames
awend.
is brought sinful through Adam's
changed. He
forgægednysse to tham fant fate. Ac hit bith athwogen
disobedience to the font-vessel. But he is washed
* Where double dates are thus given, it will be understood
that the first is the year of the birth, and the second the year
of the death, of the individual mentioned.

INTRODUCTION OF NORMAN FRENCH.

The Conquest, by which a Norman government and nobility were imposed upon Saxon England, led to a great change in the language. Norman French, one of the modifications of Latin which arose in the middle ages, was now the language of education, of the law courts, and of the upper classes generally, while Saxon shared the degradation which the people at large experienced under their conquerors.. Though depressed, yet, as the speech of the great body of the people, it could not be extinguished. Having numbers on its side, it maintained its ground as the substance of the popular language, the Norman Its sounds were greatly infusing only about one word for every three of the more vulgar tongue. But it was destined, in the altered, syllables were cut short in the pronunciation, course of the twelfth century, to undergo great and the terminations and inflections of words were grammatical changes. affected the Anglo-Saxon more in this manner than softened down until they were entirely lost. Dr Johnson expresses his opinion, that the Normans by the introduction of new words. So great was The language which the change, that the original Anglo-Saxon must. century, more difficult to be understood: than the diction of Chaucer is to us. have become, in the first half of the thirteenth minutely. resulted was the commencement of the present English. Its origin will afterwards be traced more

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