Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

legislator were moulded into metre. The measure of verse makes it easy of remembrance, and long before either reading or writing were general accomplishments, and man was dependant on his memory, the convenience of retaining verse in the recollection rendered it popular. Neither was its influence forgotten. As it has more nerve and power than

prose, so was it more calculated to make an impression on the mass of mankind; and hence we find in the fabulous religions of the world, the language of poetry was used in their ceremonies, and their deities communicated with mortals in verse.

In the dark superstition of the Britons, the bards formed one division of the priesthood, and celebrated their gods and heroes to the music of their rude harps.* The Goths who overrun Europe had their scalds or bards, who invoked the warlike Odin, and in lofty lyrics sang their wild and terrible legends and spirit stirring battle songs. The first poetry of an uncivilized race is always nervous and empassioned, abounding in grand but simple metaphor, and preserving a tempestuous harmony through its irregular and unequal lines. The impressions of the uneducated are strong, and their feelings soon excited by the gloomy and sublime. Familiar with the rough accidents of life, their imagination seizes upon whatever

* Such is the power that has been ascribed to the British bards that we are told by Diodorus Siculus that “sometimes when two armies are standing in order of battle, with their swords drawn and lances extended, upon the point of engaging in a most furious conflict, the poets have stepped in between them, and by their soft and fascinating songs calmed the fury of the warriors, and prevented the bloodshed. Thus even among barbarians (he adds) rage gave way to wisdom, and Mars submitted to the Muses."

is marked, bold, and real, and their superstition assumes a stern and substantial character; they crowd the heavens and the earth with beings who still retain the violent passions of men, while their divinities speak in the tempest or hover round the field of

carnage. Images of rugged grandeur and awe first fill the mind, long before it awakens to appreciate whatever is calm lovely and unexciting.

The Saxons in the fifth century brought with them into England the Runic letters and language, and it was not until after their conversion to Christianity* that they neglected those symbols, which thenceforward they esteemed necromantic. With their old gloomy superstition they lost much of their poetic character, their minstrels sang moral rhapsodies or scriptural histories instead of their former wild and warlike fictions, and their allusions to the Scaldic fables and heroes became few and occasional. Their bards degenerated in influence and character, and were afterwards known by the name of gleemen.

The minstrels or gleemen were a peculiar class, whose province it was to wander from place to place, singing legends and receiving money and hospitality in return for their songs and tales, and for the exhibition of those feats of activity which formed part of their performance. They were at once poets, vocalists, and jugglers; and however

* Which took place before the seventh century.

primitive their rhymes, or ordinary their feats, they afforded a welcome amusement in an age that offered little variety of pursuit, when the mind was little instructed, and the rude fiction or ruder jest excited the attention or aroused the ready mirth of a crowd of listeners.

The
progress
of literature among

the Saxons was tardy and gradual. For some time after their invasion, when their power was established, they directed their attention to the arts of peace, but they were eventually exposed to a series of internal divisions, and to the hostile incursions of the Danes. Arms and the warlike amusements appear to have been their pleasure: the enemy was at their doors, and the sword and spear were within their hands. The spirit of minstrelsy however was not quelled, it had charms for the rude soldier, and were other evidence of its power wanting, the entrance of Alfred into the Danish camp, disguised as a harperor gleeman, would shew the influence of poetry and the popularity of its professors.

The Nornan army that invaded England came accompanied by its minstrels, and amongst them the celebrated Taillefer, who encouraged the soldiers with songs of Charlemagne and Roland, and rushed, sword in hand, amidst the Saxon ranks, where he perished.

The Norman minstrels are supposed to have been descendants of the scalds, and to have been celebrated in the north of France long before the troubadours of

Provence arose with their legends and romances in the south; but from the time of the Conquest their occupations were little different from those of the gleemen.* It is true that the Normans introduced a more lively and romantic poetry, and had in some measure caught the spirit of the troubadours, but the verse of the period still extant consists chiefly of rhyming chronicles and scriptural paraphrases; the minstrels had ceased to rely upon their own imagination, they had lost their sturdy superstition, and became little better than tame imitators, pouring forth long poems, the incidents of which they collected from such historical legends as fell within their reach.

The prevalence of the French language amongst the Norman nobility, and its introduction into the court, tended to bring the old Anglo-Saxon tongue into disrepute, and the policy of the conquerors threatened to exterminate it entirely. But it is as difficult to work an immediate revolution in the language as in the manners of a nation ; or (apart from national prejudices in favor of an old dialect) to teach a people a new tongue, without some extraordinary facilities for instructing them. The learned and the courtly composed either in the Norman French, or the language of romance; and as their performances were highly esteemed, so many of them have been

* The Norman minstrels divided the practice of their art into many branches, and distinguished its professors by different names, as “ rimours, chanterres, coptours, jouglours, jestours, lecours, and troubadours or trouveurs." Of these the trouveurs and contours composed the subjects they sung or related, and the jouglours and chanterres used the productions of others. The trouveurs, embellished their productions with rhyme, while the coutours related their histories in prose.

preserved. But there were other poets among the people, who had no higher aim or abilities than to amuse the mass of their countrymen; and they sang their humble but national ballads in popular accents, with an occasional inspiration, which, notwithstanding their fugitive character, has rescued many of their rhymes from oblivion.

In the course of time however the Saxon and Norman languages gradually blended into one, and then was formed the basis of the English which is now spoken ; although by a better acquaintance with ancient as well as with the modern literature of foreign countries, it has from time to time received additions from many sources, and attained a comprehensiveness and vigor, a power and a delicacy which it wanted at its origin, and which nothing but time and circumstance could have matured. New sentiments or more refined reasoning have suggested or required the adoption of new expressions, and poetry, as well as the more precise necessities of science and philosophy, has gradually introduced an improvement into the language of which at first it seemed scarcely susceptible; for though nervous it was rude, and though expressive yet limited.

The Crusades, arousing as they did the spirit of adventure, and the love of what was marvellous and exciting, gave rise to a flood of poetry in which the gallantry and extravagant heroism of the age appear in glowing colors. The dull and tedious rhyming chronicles

« VorigeDoorgaan »