1. Literature. The history of English Literature is, in its external aspect, an account of the best books in prose and in verse that have been written by English men and English women; and this account begins with a poem brought over from the Continent by our countrymen in the fifth century, and comes down to the time in which we live. It covers, therefore, a period of nearly fourteen hundred years.

2. The Distribution of Literature.-We must not suppose that literature has always existed in the form of printed books. Literature is a living thing a living outcome of the living mind; and there are many ways in which it has been distributed to other human beings. The oldest way is, of course, by one person repeating a poem or other literary composition he has made to another; and thus literature is stored away, not upon book - shelves, but in the memory of living men. Homer's poems are said to have been preserved in this way to the Greeks for five hundred years. Father chanted them to son; the sons to their sons; and so on from generation to generation. The next way of distributing literature is by the aid of signs called letters made upon leaves, flattened reeds, parchment, or the inner bark of trees. The next is by the help of writing upon paper. The last is by the aid of type upon paper. This has existed in England for more than four hundred years since the year 1474; and thus it is that our libraries contain many hundreds of thousands of valuable books.

For the same reason is it, most probably, that as our power of retaining the substance and multiplying the copies of books has grown stronger, our living memories have grown weaker. This defect can be remedied only by education—that is, by training the memories of the young. While we possess so many printed books, it must not be forgotten that many valuable works exist still in manuscript-written either upon paper or on parchment.

3. Verse, the earliest form of Literature.—It is a remarkable fact that the earliest kind of composition in all languages is in the form of Verse. The oldest books, too, are those which are written in verse. Thus Homer's poems are the oldest literary work of Greece; the Sagas are the oldest productions of Scandinavian literature; and the Beowulf is the oldest piece of literature produced by the Anglo-Saxon race. It is also from the strong creative power and the lively inventions of poets that we are even now supplied with new thoughts and new language that the most vivid words and phrases come into the language; just as it is the ranges of high mountains that send down to the plains the ever fresh soil that gives to them their unending fertility. And thus it happens that our present English speech is full of words and phrases that have found their way into the most ordinary conversation from the writings of our great poets and especially from the writings of our greatest poet, Shakespeare. The fact that the life of prose depends for its supplies on the creative minds of poets has been well expressed by an American writer :—

"I looked upon a plain of green,

Which some one called the Land of Prose,
Where many living things were seen

In movement or repose.

I looked upon a stately hill

That well was named the Mount of Song,
Where golden shadows dwelt at will,

The woods and streams among.

But most this fact my wonder bred
(Though known by all the nobly wise),
It was the mountain stream that fed
That fair green plain's amenities."

4. Our oldest English Poetry.-The verse written by our old English writers was very different in form from the verse that appears now from the hands of Tennyson, or Browning, or Matthew Arnold. The old English or Anglo-Saxon writers used a kind of rhyme called head-rhyme or alliteration; while, from the fourteenth century downwards, our poets have always employed end-rhyme in their verses.

"Lightly down leaping he loosened his helmet."

Such was the rough old English form. At least three words in each long line were alliterative-two in the first half, and one in the second. Metaphorical phrases were common, such as war-adder for arrow, war-shirts for armour, whale's-path or swan-road for the sea, wave-horse for a ship, tree-wright for carpenter. Different statements of the same fact, different phrases for the same thing-what are called parallelisms in Hebrew poetry-as in the line

"Then saw they the sea head-lands-the windy walls," were also in common use among our oldest English poets.

5. Beowulf. The Beowulf is the oldest poem in the English language. It is our "old English epic"; and, like much of our ancient verse, it is a war poem. The author of it is unknown. It was probably composed in the fifth century -not in England, but on the Continent—and brought over to this island—not on paper or on parchment-but in the memories of the old Jutish or Saxon vikings or warriors. It was not written down at all, even in England, till the end of the ninth century, and then, probably, by a monk of Northumbria. It tells among other things the story of how Beowulf sailed from Sweden to the help of Hrothgar, a king in Jutland, whose life was made miserable by a monster—half man, half fiend-named Grendel. For about twelve years this monster had been in the habit of creeping up to the banquetinghall of King Hrothgar, seizing upon his thanes, carrying them off, and devouring them. Beowulf attacks and overcomes the dragon, which is mortally wounded, and flees away to die. The


[ocr errors]

poem belongs both to the German and to the English literature; for it is written in a Continental English, which is somewhat different from the English of our own island. But its literary shape is, as has been said, due to a Christian writer of Northumbria; and therefore its written or printed form- -as it exists at present is not German, but English. Parts of this poem were often chanted at the feasts of warriors, where all sang in turn as they sat after dinner over their cups of mead round the massive oaken table. The poem consists of 3184 lines, the rhymes of which are solely alliterative.

6. The First Native English Poem.-The Beowulf came to us from the Continent; the first native English poem was produced in Yorkshire. On the dark wind-swept cliff which rises above the little land-locked harbour of Whitby, stand the ruins of an ancient and once famous abbey. The head of this religious house was the Abbess Hild or Hilda: and there was a secular priest in it,-a very shy retiring man, who looked after the cattle of the monks, and whose name was Caedmon. To this man came the gift of song, but somewhat late in life. And it came in this wise. One night, after a feast, singing began, and each of those seated at the table was to sing in his turn. Caedmon was very nervous-felt he could not sing. Fear overcame his heart, and he stole quietly away from the table before the turn could come to him. He crept off to the cowshed, lay down on the straw and fell asleep. He dreamed a dream; and, in his dream, there came to him a voice: "Caedmon, sing me a song!" But Caedmon answered: "I cannot sing; it was for this cause that I had to leave the feast." (( But you must and shall sing!" "What must I sing, then?" he replied. "Sing the beginning of created things!" said the vision; and forthwith Caedmon sang some lines in his sleep, about God and the creation of the world. When he awoke, he remembered some of the lines that had come to him in sleep, and, being brought before Hilda, he recited them to her. The Abbess thought that this wonderful gift, which had come to him so suddenly, must have come from God, received him into the monastery, made him a monk, and

had him taught sacred history. "All this Caedmon, by remembering, and, like a clean animal, ruminating, turned into sweetest verse." His poetical works consist of a metrical paraphrase of the Old and the New Testament. It was written about the year 670; and he died in 680. It was read and re-read in manuscript for many centuries, but it was not printed in a book until the year 1655.

7. The War-Poetry of England.-There were many poems about battles, written both in Northumbria and in the south of England; but it was only in the south that these war-songs were committed to writing; and of these written songs there are only two that survive up to the present day. These are the Song of Brunanburg, and the Song of the Fight at Maldon. The first belongs to the date 938; the second to 991. The Song of Brunanburg was inscribed in the SAXON CHRONICLEa current narrative of events, written chiefly by monks, from the ninth century to the end of the reign of Stephen. The song tells the story of the fight of King Athelstan with Anlaf the Dane. It tells how five young kings and seven earls of Anlaf's host fell on the field of battle, and lay there "quieted by swords," while their fellow-Northmen fled, and left their friends and comrades to "the screamers of war-the black raven, the eagle, the greedy battle-hawk, and the grey wolf in the wood." The Song of the Fight at Maldon tells us of the heroic deeds and death of Byrhtnoth, an ealdorman of Northumbria, in battle against the Danes at Maldon, in Essex. The speeches of the chiefs are given; the single combats between heroes described; and, as in Homer, the names and genealogies of the foremost men are brought into the verse.

8. The First English Prose.-The first writer of English prose was Baeda, or, as he is generally called, the Venerable Bede. He was born in the year 672 at Monkwearmouth, a small town at the mouth of the river Wear, and was, like Caedmon, a native of the kingdom of Northumbria. He spent most of his life at the famous monastery of Jarrow-onTyne. He spent his life in writing. His works, which were written in Latin, rose to the number of forty-five; his chief

« VorigeDoorgaan »