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And namelichë?1 thurf?2 a maid : that this Gilbert lovede faste,
The Prince's douchter Admiraud : that hire hurte” al upe?4 him caste.
And eschtë25 him of Engëlonde : and of the manere there,
“ Ich wole,
,983 heo seidë, “al mi lond : leve for love of the, And Cristene womman become: if thu wolt spousi34 me.”
6. That new stage of the language, which has been called Middle English, presents itself quite unequivocally in the latter half of the fourteenth century. It was used by Chaucer and Wycliffe : we read it at this day in passages of our noblest poetry, and in our first complete translation of the Holy Scriptures.
Thus interesting as the organ both of inventive genius and of divine truth, it is, in all essentials, so like to our own every-day speech, that there is hardly any thing except the antique spelling, (capricious and incorrect in all our old books, besides being unusual,) to prevent any tolerable English scholar from understanding readily almost every word of it. Further, it has peculiarities so well marked as to make it easily distinguishable in every particular instance, both from the forms of the tongue that are much older, and from those that are perfectly modernized. philologers are not quite agreed in their way of describing it.
The truth is this. On the one hand, this form of our language is easily understood; because the foundations of the grammatical system which rules in Modern English had been immovably laid, and were by all good writers regularly built on. Ou the other hand, its exact character is not easily analyzed ; because now, more perhaps than in any preceding period, the modes of speech were rapidly undergoing transformation in minor points.
23 Heart. 25 Asked.
Belief. 27 Hight, was called; see Alfred, Note 18. 28 In, in it.
30 Meed, reward. 31 Anglo-Saxon, heona, heonon, hence. 82 Wend, to go; still in use.
34 Infinitive in -i, -ie, or -y; found in Layamon, and held to be a token of western dialect.
There still lingered vestiges of the antique, which could not but very soon melt away. Although, of the Anglo-Saxon forms which the inen of this generation inherited, many were immediately dropped, many others were still retained after they had lost their old significance: the step which still remained to be taken, was the abandoning of the forms which had thus become useless. Examples are the vowel-endings, no longer indicative of difference in gender or declension. It is observable, likewise, that writers evidently had not yet become aware, how thorough a remodelling of arrangement was called for by the new forms which the nouns had assumed.
A few specific features should be noticed. In the first place, the Anglo-Saxon rules for the Gender of Substantives having, as we have seen, been long applied with great caprice and uncertainty, the principle of fixing gender by termination was now deserted altogether. All names of things without life were, as ever afterwards, treated as neuters. The Semi-Saxon Infinitive in -en was sometimes retained; sometimes the final -n was dropped, as it soon was always; and this step was speedily followed by the dropping of the -e, which had then become of no use. Another change now grew common in the Plurals of the Present Indicative. These had ended in -ath, afterwards in eth (or in -es in the northern Semi-Saxon, as, “ We hopes "). They now passed into -en, though not always.*
One other change, and that a mighty one, now affected the Vocabulary. This, as we learned long ago, was the age during which began in earnest the naturalizing of words from the French. The innovations which the terrors of the Norman lash had been powerless to enforce, were voluntarily adopted by the literary men, admiringly emulous of the wealth of expression offered by their foreign poetical models. There is only a slight introduction of French words in such books as Piers Plowman, appealing to national and practical interests, and expressly designed for circulation among the mass of the people. But Chaucer's poems,
and Gower's, are studded all over with them : and the style of these favourite writers exercised a commanding influence ever after.
In reading a few passages from Chaucer, we must take with us one or two rules as to his versification, a matter not yet altogether clear, but much less dark than it once was. We must call to mind, once again, the doctrine, (which cannot be too anxiously
* The plural form in -th has lately been found surviving in a peculiar dialect occupying the barony of Forth, in the Irish county of Wexford. The district was colonized by Englishmen, brought over by Strongbow in the year 1170. Transactions of the Philological Society, vol. iv. 1850.
insisted on,) that here, as elsewhere in our language, the safest way of scanning is by the accents, not by the number of syllables. The versification of Christabel, and that of the Lay of the Last Minstrel, are good modern examples; indeed they are mo delled on our antique poetry. This principle we should apply boldly, remembering that we read verses constructed in an unripe dialect, and in an uncritical time. If we freely run unemphatic syllables into each other, a manly and vigorous melody will often be heard in lines which would defy all scrupulous prosody. It is also important to observe, that the emphasis was by no means fixed on certain syllables of words with the precision of modern pronunciation; that there is great vacillation in the accenting of many common words; and that the accentuation of the halfnaturalized French forms is especially capricious. The prosodial value of the final e is still the great point of dissension among Chaucer's critics. Sometimes it is a syllable; sometimes it is not; and contradictory rules have been proposed for distinguishing the cases. Perhaps the truth is nearly this : that generally, though not always, the e has a syllabic force when it represents either an old inflexion or the mute e of the French; and (it has also been said) when it is an adverbial ending. Many difficult scannings will also be disposed of by this remark; that the terminating e may or should be omitted in pronunciation, when the next word begins with a vowel or an h.*
7. Our first Extracts are two passages occurring in the Prologue of the Tales. They are taken from the description of the Parish Priest or Parson, and that of the Squire.
A good man was ther of religioun,
Parishioners. The u for e which afterwards occurs frequently in final syllables (as wondur for wonder) is worth noting. It exemplifies those intermediate sounds of unaccented vowels, to which our language owes so many of its irregularities both in pronunciation and spelling.
* Wright's “ Canterbury Tales” (Percy Society ; the text of which is followed in the extracts. It will be remarked that the same word is not always spelt exactly in the same way. This feature of the old manu. scripts seemed worth preserving.
Wyd was his parisch, and houses fer asondur;2
To drawë folk to hevën by fairnesse,
With him? ther was his sonë, a yong squyer,
* A line requiring, for the melody, a running together of unaccented syllables.
, ceased, omitted. * Two negatives; Anglo-Saxon.
6 Both not and nor; here nor. 6 Farthest. ? Great and small.
8 See Note 2. • An approach to those. 10 A lewd man, i. e. a layman; very common in Old English. 11 Unless.
The rudiments of whatsoever. 13 Chide ; familiarly, s'ub. 14 For the occasion; common till long after Shakspeare. 1 The Knight, described by the poet immediately before. Curled.
Agile; a word common in the romances. 5 Knightly warfare.
's As if.
And born him wel, as in so litel space,
with sleevës long and wyde.
8. Our next readings are from the Knight's Tale, the Iliad of the middle-age poetry of England. Palamon and Arcite, Grecian knights, have been taken prisoners by Theseus, who, as in the Midsummer Night's Dream, is Duke of Athens. Imprisoned in a tower overlooking the palace gardens, they see and fall in love with Emilie, the sister of the Amazon queen Hippolyta. Their former friendship is now changed into jealousy and hate. Afterwards, the one escaping and the other being released, they encounter in a single combat, which is related with infinite spirit. Theseus, coming to the wood in which they had met, separates them, and proclaims a tournament, of which the lady shall be the prize. The passages describing the adornment of the lists, and the supernatural agency which presides over the strife, are among the most strikingly beautiful in English poetry. Not less admirable is the touching close. A seeming accident, caused by the gods, destroys Arcite; and he dies, after commending Palamon to the favour of his lady.
The following passages contain the description of May morning which precedes the interrupted duel, and a few verses from the last words of Arcite.
The busy larkë, messager of daye,
the morwe gray ; And fyry Phebus ryseth up so bright,
Red. 8 Fluting. 9 Joust : for justen ; perhaps a mis-spelling. 10 He could both copy manuscripts and illuminate them with paintings. 11 Carved.
13 Father. * To be pronounced in only two syllables.
? Pure Anglo-Saxon; used also by Chaucer for heora. See Alfred Note 11.