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We shall not in this story of our Literature attempt to deal with the philosophic history of thought, nor venture into the critical examination of special works, nor enter upon a search into hidden meanings and explanations of early texts : these branches of a higher study are left in far more able and scholarly hands, of whose labours this little book is gratefully content to avail itself. This is only a story of English Literature, and it is only told to those who come quite freshly to the subject, not as critics, nor even yet as students, but who with awakening intelligence are ready to have their eyes opened by Literature to the beauty of the world around them, the sweetness of that love which fills our homes with blessedness, the nobleness of faithfulness to duty at any sacrifice, and the glory of faith and patience, enduring all things with hope and courage to the end. And through it all we shall endeavour to catch a glimpse of the hand of God, leading mankind onwards and upwards from age to age.
It is hoped that this volume may find a place as one of those means employed in a widely founded education, which aims at an early, harmonious development of every God-given faculty. It may serve also as a first introduction to our life-long teachers, from whom we hope, by deeper study of their works, to learn continually more and more as years pass on, who will thus become to us the light and help of our lives, from whom we shall never desire to part, and with whom death itself may bring us into nearer communion.
THE STORY OF
ENGLISH LITERATURE. .
KELTIC AND FIRST ENGLISH LITERATURE
The earliest literature of this country was not written by the English people. Before our forefathers came over from the north of Germany, there was a people living in this island called the Kelts; and the remains of this race are still dwelling amongst us in the north of Scotland, in Ireland, and in Wales. The Kelts were divided into two great families—the Gaels, whose descendants are living in the Highlands and in Ireland, and the Cymri, who were the forefathers of the Welsh. All the Kelts have much power of imagination, and a keen sense of what is beautiful both in nature and life; they have quick feelings also, which are easily stirred to strong emotion, though there is a difference between the Gael and the Cymri in this respect, for while the Gael like to be moved to laughter and joy by what is lively and bright, the Cymri love to be touched to tears by what is pathetic and mournful; but both the Gael and the Cymri are readily stirred to intense enthusiasm by a heroic story of brave deeds and resolute conflict.
If we were asked, what form of literature would such a race produce? we might answer at once-poetry.
The Kelts had among
them a class of men called Bards, who were the poets of the nation. They had, perhaps, not always a much higher poetic gift than many of the people had, but they put the thoughts and feelings of the people into poetic words, and so became as it were the tongues of the people, speaking for them what each one could not utter for himself. These poems were seldom written down, but they were sung by the bards, and learnt by the people, who sang them again to their harps.
Among such a race we can easily imagine that any event which stirred the heart of the whole people would be celebrated in their poetry; and thus we find that most of the fragments which have come down to us relate to the struggle of a clan or family for existence among the Gael, and to a great battle fought by the Cymri against the Teutons, who were gaining possession of Britain.
The Gaelic battle was fought, so it is said, about the year 284; it was called the battle of Gabhra. The Gaels in Ireland were at that time divided into four tribes or clans, and one of these had risen to so much power that the other three clans joined together to destroy it. At the head of this powerful clan was a chief named Fionn, or Fingal ; he had two sons, and the second of them, whose name was Fergus, was the chief bard; the elder, named Oisin, or Ossian, was also a bard and a warrior; and so, too, was Fionn's cousin, Caeilte MacRonan. With three poets in the family, there would be of course much singing of the family history, and especially of the last fierce battle in which the powerful clan of Fionn was crushed by the other tribes. In that battle a son of Oisin, a brave young man, named Oscar, who was greatly beloved by the whole tribe, had fallen on the battle-field; and his death was sung by his uncle Fergus, the chief bard. Fionn, the chief, is supposed to be asking Fergus about the battle, and after Fergus has told him the sad story of the defeat of their clan,
and of the many heroes who had fought bravely and had fallen in the struggle, Fionn says
"Now, O Bard--my son's son, my desire,
How he hewed at the helms ere he fell."
“Hard were it, Fionn, to nuniber,
Heavy for me were the labour,
Of Gabhra's fierce battle-day. “Say!'»* The other great battle celebrated in Keltic literature was fought nearly three hundred years after the battle of
Library of English Literature.” Prof. Henry Morley. Vol. i.