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and literature of England during the two centuries between 1150 and 1350—all bear evident marks of immaturity and instability. While the range of thought is trivial and mean, the form of the language, and the character of the style, indicate that the national mind, during this period, was uncultivated and unformed. It was feeling the effects of the Norman conquest. For, although the Norman was more cultivated than the Saxon whom he conquered, still the Saxon serf could derive to himself but little of the culture of his Norman lord. The relation existing between the two parties precluded any civilizing and cultivating influence of one upon the other. Only in proportion as the Saxon recovered his rights and political freedom, did he profit by the culture which his conquerors possessed. During the two centuries of which we are speaking, the English nation was slowly recovering its freedom, and the English mind was slowly emerging from the ignorance and barbarism of a servile condition. The literary productions of the period, although they must receive, sooner or later, the careful study of every one who wishes to obtain a complete knowledge of the English language and literature, are crude in their matter, inelegant and even barbarous in their form. There is the same objection, therefore, to commencing with them that there is to commencing with the Saxon, in order to a complete knowledge of English. They are too naked and bald for the mere beginner. They are not thoughtful and attractive enough to waken the interest of the student, in the first period of his English studies. They need to be examined in the light thrown back upon them from a succeeding age, and under the interest excited by their seen relation to forms of English that have already been studied and mastered. For it is plain that the natural method for the Englishman to pursue, in the study of his mother tongue, is retrogressive. He should work his way back, from the present form of the language, step by step, until he reaches its heart and root. Instead, therefore, of leaping from the last and newest form to
i This remark is only partially true of the Vision of Piers Plowman, which is a vigorous and lively picture of life and manners.
the first and oldest ; from the present English to the Saxon of Beowulf or Caedmon; he should study, one by one, the intermediate forms, until, by a natural and imperceptible progress, he arrives at the beginning. All that is needed is, that he study the subject by distinctly-marked periods; that he investigate authors, who are sufficiently far apart to enable him to see and realize that the language has undergone a great change.
As one of the first steps, then, in English study, let Chaucer be taken up as an author to be studied critically and for years to come.
This is a better method than merely to peruse a history of the language and literature, like those of Warton and Ellis, and there stop. It is true, that such histories afford a selection of extracts from the principal writers of each period, from which some general notions and views may be formed ; but they are the last works to be put into the hands of a beginner. He who has already mastered the few leading authors of the different periods, may make use of them as an aid in epitomizing and generalizing his knowledge. For, by this independent and accurate study of individual authors, he has obtained a clue that will lead him through the maze and perplexity of a historical series, and leave him in possession of distinct and well-methodized information. But without this clue and previous preparation, the vast amount of material contained in such a history as that of Warton, will only confuse and overwhelm the mind, leaving it full of obscurity and vagueness. In selecting a particular author, and devoting the whole attention to him for the time being, the student has only a single end in view. He is busied with one individual mind, and in endeavoring to penetrate into its nature and spirit, his own mind moves in one straight line, and all his acquisitions are simple and homogeneous in their character. And if the author whom he selects be worthy of such an undivided attention; especially if he be one in whom the general culture and spirit of his age found expression ; the knowledge acquired is not only thorough, but extensive. For such minds are very broad as well as deep, and there need be no fear of becoming nar
rowed by such exclusive study of one writer. That close and undivided attention which the Greeks, in all ages of their history, devoted to their Homer, contributed, as much as any one thing, to the liberal and expanded feeling so characteristic of Greek literature. The Greek, unlike the Englishman, did not allow the dialect or the poetry of the father of his national literature to become strange or obsolete. His works were, alike, familiar to the educated Greek of the Attic and Alexandrine periods. In the words of Heeren: “ The dialect of Homer remained the principal one for epic poetry, and had an important influence on Grecian literature. Amidst all the changes and improvements in the language, it prevented the ancient from becoming antiquated, and secured it a place among the later modes of expression.” 1 And had the Englishman been as careful to prevent the language and works of the English Homer from becoming obsolete and unknown, the English language and literature would have been different from what it now is, by a very important modification. If that stream of sweet, fresh, and hearty thought had been kept running, for four centuries past, into the great main volume of English thought, there would be more of nature and less of art in it. If that simple, expressive, nervous, and (notwithstanding all that has been said to the contrary by critics who had not imbued themselves with Chaucer) that melodious diction had come along down as a familiar form of the language, the English of the present day would be a higher type of the language than it is.
Another reason for selecting Chaucer, and making him the subject of exclusive and close study for a long time, is found in the fact, that in this way alone can he be understood and appreciated. To read a few extracts from his works in a compendium, in connection with a few extracts from all the other leading writers of England, is not the way to a worthy and fruitful knowledge of him. Indeed the first effect of Chaucer upon the modern, is to repel; and it is only the first effect that is experienced upon the perusal of extracts. The immediate impression of an old writer upon an uncul1 Ancient Greece. Chapter Sixth. Bancroft's Translation.
tivated mind, generally, is that of disappointment. The unschooled reader finds nothing but strangeness of diction, excessive simplicity of sentiment bordering upon triviality, pathos that is bathos, and a verse from which no ingenuity can extract either melody or harmony. All this is true in its full extent of Chaucer. Even such clear heads and sensible minds as Dean Swift and Alexander Pope, saw no poetry or charm in him; if their burlesques and travesties of him afford, as they unquestionably do, any index of their real opinion. But it is the effect of the critical and prolonged study of Chaucer, to so imbue the mind with his matter and manner, that his truthfulness, and charm, and power, as a poet, are felt vividly and fully. Perhaps the point upon which the sceptic would hold out longest in relation to him, would be his verse; it being an unquestioned assertion, in some very respectable schools of criticism, that it is destitute of both melody and harmony. But we do not hesitate to aflirm, that when the student has by long continued in. tercourse become familiar with him ; when his antique strangeness has worn off, and the ear has become accustomed to certain variations from the modern custom in pronunciation; when, in short, he has so cultivated himself, that Chaucer is to him what he was to the ear and the poetic feeling, of his own age, we affirm that more melodious and har. monious verse is not to be found in the literature. It can be read longer, and not weary the ear, than the verse of Scott or Moore can be; because the melody is ever subordinate to the harmony; because the sentiment is natural, and the measure undulates with the sentiment. But such a genial and truthful appreciation of Chaucer is not the work of a day. The scholar must gradually grow into it, and grow up to it. Time alone imparts the sense and vernacular feeling of his excellence.
When this author has been completely mastered, the student is prepared for those still earlier and ruder forms of English, of which we have spoken. Once at home in the English of Chaucer, the passage to that of the metrical chronicles is easy and natural; and when these have been studied, the few
remains of Saxon that are left, furnish the matter for the final study in this direction.
(2) The second practical recommendation respecting the best manner of pursuing the study of the English language and literature is this : select from leading periods in the history of the literature, those productions in which the power of the great minds found its fullest expression, and regard them as models to be studied. As examples, may be cited such productions as Bacon's Advancement of Learning, the first book of Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity, Milton's Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, Locke's Conduct of the Understanding, Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution.
Productions like these are eminently English. They are eminently characterized by the solid sense, the strong understanding, and the thoughtful spirit of England. These qualities, it is true, are characteristic of all genuine products of the English mind, but they are found in their greatest energy, only in the productions of leading minds. With these, therefore, the student should imbue himself. He may peruse the second-rate writers without being greatly affected by these characteristics, but he cannot meditate upon such treatises as the above mentioned, without becoming more thoroughly English in the process. The importance of a national spirit in culture cannot be overestimated, and to this point we would direct attention for a moment. The individual mind is not individual merely; it is also national in its structure. It partakes of the peculiarities of the par
1 An English Chrestomathy is a great desideratum. Commencing with selections from Gower's Confessio Amantis (1415), followed by most of the Canter. bury Tales (1590), then with extracts from Langland's Piers Plowman (1360), from Lawrence Minot (1340), from the hybrid form of the language in Robert de Brunne's Chronicle (1339), and Robert of Gloucester's (1280), from Layamon's translation of Wace (1165), and ending with specimens of the Saxon in all its periods; such a reading book, provided with a full glossary, and a brief AngloSaxon Grammar, would do great service towards imparting an etymological and critical knowledge of English. For the study of Saxon alone, the life of Alfred, by Pauli, in Bohn's Antiquarian Library, which is supplemented by a very correct edition of the text of Alfred's Orosius, together with a glossary and a concise Anglo-Saxon Grammar, furnishes a very convenient apparatus.