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ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE.
FROM THE EARLIEST TIME TILL THE YEAR 1400.
The first language known to have been spoken in the British Islands, was one which is now totally unknown in England, but still exists, in various slightly altered shapes, in Wales, in the Highlands of Scotland, and in many parts of Ireland. This language is usually called, in reference to England, the British tongue ; in reference to Scotland, the Gaelic; and in reference to Ireland, the Irish. It was originally the language of a large body of people called the Celts, who, several centuries before the Christian era, occupied all the western parts of Europe, but are now to be traced only in the Welsh, the Scottish Highlanders, the Irish, and a few tribes scattered along the western shores of France and Spain. A great number of names of places, both in England and in the Lowlands of Scotland, and many of the designations of natural objects, such as hills and rivers, are borrowed from this language, but we do not derive from it many of the words in our common speech.
In the fifth century, a people called Saxons, from Lower Germany, landed in the country now named England, and soon drove the original inhabitants into the western and northern parts of the island, where their descendants and language have ever since been found. In the course of time, nearly the whole island south of the Firths of Forth and Solway was overspread by Saxons, whose posterity to this day forms the bulk of the people of that part of the country. From a leading
branch of the Saxons, called Angles, the country took the name of England, while the new language was denominated from them, the Anglo-Saxon.
This language was a branch of the Teutonic,—that is, the language of the Teutones, a nation which occupied a large portion of central Europe at the same time that the Celts overspread the west. The Danes, the Dutch, the Germans, and the English, are all considered as nations chiefly of Teutonic origin; and their various languages bear, accordingly, a strong general resemblance.
From the sixth till the eleventh century, the AngloSaxon continued with little change to be the language of England. It only received accessions, during that time, from the Latin, which was brought in by Christian missionaries, and from the Danish, a kindred dialect of the Teutonic, which was introduced by the large hosts from Denmark, who endeavoured to effect settlements in England. At this period, literature was not neglected by the Anglo-Saxons. Their first known writer was Gildus, a historian who flourished about the year 560. Another called Bede, a priest, who lived in the eighth century, was celebrated over all Europe for his learning and his literary productions. But the majority of the writers of that age thought it necessary to compose their works in Latin, as it was only by that means they could make themselves intelligible to the learned of other countries, who were almost their only readers. The earliest existing specimen of composition in the Saxon tongue is a fragment by Cædmon, a monk of Whitby, who wrote religious poetry in a very sublime strain, in the eighth century, and who, for want of learning, was obliged to employ his own language. King Alfred, in the ninth century, employed himself in translating various works into Saxon, for the use of the people ; and some progress seems soon after to have been made in the art of composing poetry in the common language. *Indeed, Alfred himself was, in a degree, acquainted with this art, as he conveyed his instructions to his subjects, in parables and stories, couched in verse. This form of writing he considered best adapted to their capacities in that rude age. This prince may therefore be viewed as one of the earliest versifiers in the Anglo-Saxon tongue.
ANGLO-SAXON AND NORMAN LANGUAGES.
The productions which he made known to his people, in their vernacular language, were, the Fables of Esop, the histories of Orosius, and Beda, and Boethius on the Consolations of Philosophy.* Yet these branches of literature were generally held in contempt in those days; and even for purposes of ordinary intercourse, the Anglo-Saxons became in time unfashionable. About the tenth century, the English gentry used to send their children to be educated in France, in order that they might acquire what was thought a more polite kind of speech.
In the year 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, (a part of France,) invaded and conquered Saxon England; and as the country was immediately parcelled out amongst the officers of the victorious army, NormanFrench thenceforward became the language of the upper ranks, while Saxon remained only as the speech of the peasantry. In the course of time, these two languages melted into each other, and became the basis of the present English language, though it may be remarked that the Saxon is still chiefly employed to express our homelier and more familiar ideas.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, while this process was going on, several writers used the popular language in the composition of rhyming chronicles, which, however, possessed very little merit, either as poems or as histories. *Among these were Layamon, who trans
* lated Wace, his predecessor, in the language of the time, Wace having written in French prose; and also Robert of Gloucester, whose English rhymes are quoted by Camden. Robert, however, is better known by his history of Merlin, and Arthur. These writers, who were rather pioneers of verse than poets, flourished in the reign of Henry II.* About the end of that period, when the French had become nearly identified with the Saxon, there arose a series of poets, who composed long romantic tales, in a manner which had been first practised by the bards of Provence, (the south of France, who are otherwise known by the appellation of Troubadours ; and the singing of these stories, to the melody of the harp, in the presence of persons of rank, became at the same time the employment of a famous set of men called MINSTRELS, some of whom were also poets. But the best part of the intellect of the country, was still employed in learned compositions in Latin.*
The minstrel-poems, though in many respects absurd, were improvements upon the dull chronicles of the preceding age. While they gave a picture of past events scarcely less true, they were more graceful in composition, and possessed something like the spirit of modern poetry. They were generally founded upon the adventures of some real hero, such as Charlemagne or Roland, whose example was held up to imitation as the perfection of human conduct. Nor were the great men of antiquity neglected by these bards. Alexander of Macedonia was a great favourite with them ; and they would even resort to Grecian mythology for the subject of their lays. Theirs was a style of poetry highly suitable to the age in which they flourished—an age in which
* In order to convey at least, to the eye of the reader, a notion of the language employed by the people of England soon after the Norman conquest, the following extract from a poem of that age may be given, with a translation into modern English:
Tha the masse wes isungen,
Wunder ane moni en.
The language which prevailed at the time when the Saxon and French were becoming one, may be exemplified by a verse from a poem on the death of Edward I.; an event which took place in the year
The flour of all chivalerie,
Alas! that he yet shulde deye!
Our baners that bueth hroht to grounde ;
Er we such a kyng hav yfounde!
the spirit of military enterprise, fomented by religious enthusiasm, and a fantastic devotion to the fair sex, produced the system called Chivalry, and led to those gallant but unfortunate expeditions, the Crusades, which had for their object the rescue of the Holy Land from the dominion of the Saracens. A considerable number of the productions of the minstrels have been handed down in manuscript to modern times; and their manner of writing has been in some measure revived by Sir Walter Scott, and several other authors of the present age.
The Provençal poetry produced a greater or less effect in almost all civilized countries. In Italy, during the early part of the fourteenth century, it awakened the genius of Dante and Petrarch, who were the first to produce the sentimental and systematic poetry which has ever since been so considerable a department of European literature. Dante wrote chiefly in an allegorical style ; that is to say, he described all kinds of abstract ideas under the semblance of things real and tangible. Petrarch, on the other hand, wrote amatory poetry with wonderful delicacy. There was another Italian writer, , Boccaccio, who flourished a little later, and composed a series of entertaining stories in prose, which bears the general title of the Decameron. It is necessary to observe these things carefully, for English poetry was, in its origin, greatly affected by them.
The impulse that was felt in England manifested itself in the poetic effusions of Lawrence Minot, Langlande, and Gower. The works of Minot were first discovered in the Cottonian library in 1795. They consisted of battle songs. Langlande wrote the Visions of Pierce Plowman, a poem in twenty parts, reflecting severely on the various professions of life, and particularly hostile to the clergy. Gower made some advances in English poetry on all who went before him, but still, like his predecessors, rather prepared the way for song, than exhibited genuine examples of it. His principal piece was confessio Amantis. He inveighed against the vices and follies of the age.*
Contemporary with Petrarch, and not long after the time of Dante, arose GEOFFRY CHAUCER, who is allowed to be the father of genuine English poetry. He flour
* AM. ED.