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ESSAY ON ENGLISH POETRY.
The influence of the Norman conquest upon
posed by an individual who had the language of England was like that of a the Conqueror. To fix upon any great inundation, which at first buries the face when the national speech can be of the landscape under its waters, but which at ceased to be Saxon, and begun to last subsiding, leaves behind it the elements of is pronounced by Dr. Johnson new beauty and fertility. Its first effect was to sible t. It is undoubtedly diffi degradethe Anglo-Saxon tongue to the exclusive possible, from the gradually prog use of the inferior orders ; and by the transfer- of language, as well as from the ence of estates, ecclesiastical benefices, and civil regard to dates, which hangs ou dignities, to Norman possessors, to give the number of specimens of the early French language, which had begun to prevail at we possess. Mr. Ellis fixes upoi court from the time of Edward the Confessor, a about forty years, preceding the more complete predominance among the higher Henry III., from 1180 to 1216, classes of society. The native gentry of Eng- he conceives modern English land were either driven into exile, or depressed formed . The opinions of Mr. into a state of dependance on their conqueror, are always delivered with cando which habituated them to speak his language. always founded on intelligent v On the other hand, we received from the Nor to be lightly treated; and I ho mans the first germs of romantic poetry; and appear to be either captious or our language was ultimately indebted to them in disputing them. But it seem for a wealth and compass of expression which it he rather arbitrarily defines tl probably would not have otherwise possessed. years which he supposes to ha
The Anglo-Saxon, however, was not lost, the formation of our language, w though it was superseded by French, and dis
+ Introduction to Johnson's Dictionar appeared as the language of superior life and expected, from the nature of things gra of public business. It is found written in prose,
that any time can be assigned when Sa
to cease, and the English to commenc at the end of Stephen's reign, nearly a century
sudden transformations of a language sel after the Conquest ; and the Saxon Chronicle, About the year 1150, the Saxon began which thus exhibits it *, contains even a frag
which the beginning of the present Englis
discovered : this change seems not to have ment of verse, professed to have been com
the Norman conquest, for very few Frenc (* As the Saxon Chronicle relates the death of Stephen,
to have been introduced in the first hund it must have been written after that event. Ellis, Early
the language must therefore have been Eng. Poets, vol. i. p. 60, and vol. iii. p. 404, Ed. 1801.
like those which, notwithstanding the ca What is commonly called the Saxon Chronicle is con
societies instituted to obviate them, are tinued to the death of Stephen, in 1154, and in the same
making innovations in every living langu language, though with some loss of its purity. Besides (# It is only justice to Mr. Ellis to give h the neglect of several grammatical rules, French words “We may fairly infer,” Mr. Ellis now and then obtrude themselves, but not very frequently,
Saxon language and literature began to h in the latter pages of this Chronicle.-HALLAM, Lit. Hist. Norman about 1185; and that in 1216 th vol. i. p. 59.)
considered as complete."]
forty years for that formation. He afterwards opinion, was necessary to change the old into speaks of the vulgar English having suddenly the new native tongue, and to produce an exact superseded the pure and legitimate Saxon. resemblance between the Saxon of the twelfth Now, if the supposed period could be fixed century, and the English of the thirteenth ; with any degree of accuracy to thirty or forty early in which century, according to Mr. Ellis, years, one might waive the question whether the new language was fully formed, or, as he a transmutation occupying so much time could, afterwards more cautiously expresses himself, with propriety or otherwise, be called a sudden was“ in its far advanced state.” The reader will one ; but when we find that there are no suf- please to recollect, that the two main circumficient data for fixing its boundaries even to stances in the change of Anglo-Saxon into fifty years, the idea of a sudden transition in English, are the adoption of French words, and the language becomes inadmissible.
the suppression of the inflections of the Saxon The mixture of our literature and language noun and verb. Now, if Layamon's style exwith the Norman, or, in other words, the hibits a language needing only a few French formation of English, commenced, according words to be convertible into English, the to Mr. Ellis, in 1180 . At that period, he Anglo-Saxon must have made some progress calculates that Layamon, the first translator before Layamon's time to an English form. from French into the native tongue, finished Whether that progress was made rapidly, or his version of Wace's “ Brut.” This trans- suddenly, we have not sufficient specimens of lation, however, he pronounces to be still un- the language, anterior to Layamon, to determixed, though barbarous Saxon t. It is cer mine. But that the change was not sudden tainly not very easy to conceive how the sudden but gradual, I conceive, is much more probably and distinct formation of English can be said to be presumed S. to have commenced with unmixed Saxon ; but Layamon, however, whether we call him Mr. Ellis, possibly, meant the period of Laya- Saxon or English, certainly exhibits a dawn of mon's work to be the date after, and not at English. And when did this dawn appear ? which the change may be understood to have
§ If Lavamon's work was finished in 1180 (1185), the begun. Yet, while he pronounces Layamon's verses in the Saxon Chronicle, on the death of William the language unmixed Saxon, he considers it to be Conqueror, said to be written by one who had seen that such a sort of Saxon as required but the sub
monarch, cannot be considered as a specimen of the lan
guage immediately anterior to Layamon. But St. Godric stitution of a few French for Saxon words to
is said to have died in 1170, and the verses ascribed to him become English I. Nothing more, in Mr. Ellis's might have been written at a time nearly preceding Laya
mon's work. Of St. Godric's verses a very few may be *"The most striking peculiarity," says Mr. Ellis, “in compared with a few of Layamon's the establishment of our vulgar English is, that it seems to have very suddenly superseded the pure and legitimate Saxon, from which its elements were principally derived,
Sainte Marie Christie's bur! instead of becoming its successor, as generally has been
Maiden's clenhud, Modere's flur! supposed, by a slow and imperceptible process.” Specimens
Dillie mine sinnen, rix in mine mod, of Early English Poetry, vol. iii. p. 404. Conclusion.
Bring me to winne with selfé God. (t Mr. Ellis (p. 73) says, very barbarous Saxon."
In English. Saint Mary, Christ's bower - Maiden's “So little," says Sir Walter Scott in his Review of Mr. purity, Motherhood's flower-Destroy my sin, reign in my Ellis's Specimens, “were the Saxon and Norman lan
mood or mind-Bring me to dwell with the very God. guages calculated to amalgamate, that though Layamon wrote in the reign of Henry II., his language is almost pure Saxon; and hence it is probable, that if the mixed
And of alle than folke language now called English at all existed, it was deemed
The wuneden ther on folde, as yet unfit for composition, and only used as a piebald
Wes thisses londes folk jargon for carrying on the indispensable intercourse
Leodene hendest itald ; betwixt the Anglo-Saxons and Normans. In process of
And alswa the wimmen time, however, the dialect so much despised made its
Wunliche on heowen. way into the service of the poets, and seems to have super In English. And of all the folk that dwelt on earth was seded the use of the Saxon, although the French, being the this land's folk the handsomest, (people told ;) and also the court language, continued to maintain its ground till a women handsome of hue. later period." Misc. Pr. Works, vol. xvii. p. 8.)
Here are four lines of St Godric, in all probability earlier ( It seems reasonable to infer that Layamon's work than Layamon's; and yet does the English reader find was composed at or very near the period when the Saxons Layamon at all more intelligible, or does he seem to make and Normans in this country began to unite into one anything like a sudden transition to English as the poetical nation, and to adopt a common language. Ellis, vol. i. p. 75.) successor of St. Godric ?
Mr. Ellis computes that it was in 1180 , middle of the thirteenth century, placing it thus late, because Wace took a great an earlier date. I own that, to m many years to translate his “Brut” from rizing by conjecture seems like Geoffrey of Monmouth; and because Layamon, quicksand. Robert of Gloucest who translated that “ Brut,” was probably 1280 8 ; and surely his rhyming twenty-five years engaged in the task*. But then, does not prove the English this is attempting to be precise in dates, where have been fully formed in 1216. there is no ground for precision. It is quite pieces, it seems, which are supp as easy to suppose that the English translator been written early in the thirtee finished his work in ten as in twenty years ; To give any support to Mr. Ellis's so that the change from Saxon to English pieces must be proved to have be would commence in 1265 [1165 ?), and thus the very early in the thirteenth cen forty years' Exodus of our language, supposing coming towards the middle of it, it bounded to 1216, would extend to half a facility of rhyming at that late da century. So difficult is it to fix any definite little or nothing. period for the commencing formation of En But of these poetical fragment glish. It is easy to speak of a child being born commence either with or early at an express time; but the birth-epochs of teenth century, our antiquaries af languages are not to be registered with the which, though often confidently same precision and facilityt. Again, as to the are really only conjectural; a end of Mr. Ellis's period : it is inferred by those conjectural dates, they are him, that the formation of the language was agreed. Warton speaks of this an either completed or far advanced in 1216, from being certainly not later than the facility of rhyming displayed in Robert of Richard I.; but he takes no pain Gloucester I, and in pieces belonging to the cate what he affirms. He pronou [* Wace finished his translation in 1155, after, Mr. Ellis
song, “Blow, northern wind, blow, supposcs, thirty years' labour: Layamon, he assumes, was to be as old as the year 1200 ||. Mr the same period, finishing it in 1185; “ perhaps," he says, off only to about half a century la “the earliest date that can be assigned to it.” Specimens of Early English Poetry, vol. i. pp. 75-6.
places the “ Land of Cokayne" " Layamon's age,” says Mr. Hallam, " is uncertain; it Conquest. Mr. Warton would F must have been after 1155, when the original poem was the Conquest, if he were not de completed, and can hardly be placed below 1200. His language is accounted rather Anglo-Saxon than English." | appearance of a few Norman w Lit. Hist. vol. i. p. 59.]
the learned authority of Hickes [+ Nothing can be more difficult, except by an arbitrary would thus be superseded, as qui line, than to determine the commencement of the English The truth is, respecting the “ Land language. When we compare the earliest English of the thirteenth century with the Anglo-Saxon of the twelfth,
that we are left in total astonis it seems hard to pronounce why it should pass for a sepa circumstance of men, so well rate language, rather than a modification or simplification Hickes and Warton, placing it of the former. We must conform, however, to usage, and say that the Anglo-Saxon was converted into English-Ist,
mediate diction, neither Saxon nor Engli by contracting or otherwise modifying the pronunciation therefore, we see the transition exhibited and orthography of words; 2ndly, by omitting many in [S'As Robert of Gloucester alludes to flections, especially of the nouns, and consequently making of St. Louis in 1297, it is obvious, howeve more use of articles and auxiliaries ; 3rdly, by the intro
before, he was writing after that event. duction of French derivatives ; 4thly, by using less in den's Havelok, p. liii.) version and ellipsis, especially in poetry. Of these, the
[Warton says, " before or about," whi second alone I think can be considered as sufficient to de
Price's Warton, vol. i. p. 28. Ed. 1824.] scribe a new form of language; and this was brought about [ It is not of the “ Land of Cokayne"1 so gradually, that we are not relieved from much of our
this, but of a religious or moral ode, consi difficulty-whether some compositions shall pass for the dred and ninety-one stanzas. Price's IV latest offspring of the mother, or the earliest fruits of the
Of the " Land of Cokayne" he has said t daughter's fertility. It is a proof of this difficulty, that
which clearly exemplifies the Saxon ad the best masters of our ancient language have lately intro
Norman, and was evidently written 500 duced the word Semi-Saxon, which is to cover everything quest, at least soon after the reign of Hen from 1150 to 1250.-HALLAM, Lit. Hist. vol. i. p. 57.] Price (p. 7) follows Mr. Campbell in th
[+ Robert of Gloucester, who is placed by the critics in attach to the verse quoted in the first sex the thirteenth century, seems to have used a kind of inter which is, he says, very arbitrary and uncı