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The truth is, that the influence of Literature does in itself tend to do good. It wars against the influence of sensualism and thoughtlessness. The present bears us down heavily towards the earth : we are lifted upwards, though it may be but a short way, by-all that prompts us to meditate on the past and the future. He to whom there has been hinted a striking general truth, or a vivid poetical image, has inhaled a draught of that purer air which every
rational and accountable creature should always desire to breathe. By knowing more clearly, or by imagining more actively, he has been prepared for feeling, more finely, for wishing more worthily, perhaps for resolving more firmly.
Yet there are kinds of literary composition which raise us so very little above the dust we live in, that their real worth is inappreciably small; and all departments have given birth to many works which elevate us only to lead astray ; out of these facts arises a responsibility, resting indeed most heavily on those who write, but stretching likewise over all who read.
We ought to remember, for ourselves, in the selection of our studies, that every choice we make may, and probably will, modify permanently our future character. Every new thought which our reading prompts, every emotion or desire which that thought awakens, may be a link, never to be unfastened; in the chain of mental phenomena which runs unbroken through the life of man, and which reaches from life into the world beyond the grave. Every thought steadily attended to, excites a series of others whose nature it powerfully affects ; and these again become elements in new trains of associated ideas. An impure image, a false doctrine, a grovelling or malevolent wish, excited by a book we read, may be the opening of a gate that will lead us downward into deep moral depravation. We may be made, for our whole existence, better as well as wiser, by an hour of well-advised study, which has led to earnest meditation on our own character and destiny, or has inspired gratitude for the goodness of Him from whom we receive knowledge, and intellectual enjoyment, and life, and all things.
In the preparation of this little Manual of Literary History, it has been a duty to collect facts and receive opinions from many and various sources; and it would be a duty not less agreeable to cite these often and thankfully, if the limits and purpose and small pretensions of the bouk did not make notes and references both inconvenient and needless.
It must be enough to offer cordial acknowledgment, once for all, in pointing out to the student some of those works, distinctively historical,
by the careful reading of which he ought to fill up in his mind the elementary outline here presented to him.
The History of English Literature, in all its periods and kinds, is given, with many specimens and valuable criticisms, in two popular text-books: Chamlers’ "Cyclopædia of English Literature,” 2 vols. large 8vo, 1843– 44; and Craik's “Sketches of the History of Literature and Learning in England,” 6 vols. 12mo, 1844–45. The leading facts are related, with very full and able remarks on some of the principal writers, in Shaw's “Outlines of English Literature,” 1 vol. 8vo, 1849.
All the other books to be named are confined either to particular periods or to particular classes of writings, or in both ways.
The Anglo-Saxon period and that which is nearest to it have been illustrated, in our own day, by a very large number of instructive publi. cations, of which the only one falling within the scope of this short list is Wright's “Biographia Britannica Literaria,” 2 vols. 8vo: Anglo-Saxón Period, 1842; Anglo-Norman Period, 1846.
For our Poetical Literature, from the infancy of the English language till near the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign, the leading authority is still Warton's “ History of English Poetry,” 1774-1781, now in 3 volumes, 8vo, with corrections and supplements. Coming much farther down, embracing in its masterly review all departments of intellectual effort, and especially interesting for its history of letters in England, is Hallam’s standard work, the “Introduction to the Literature of Europe in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries,” first published in 1839, and now in 3 volumes, 8vo.
A sketch of our poetical history, and criticisms written in the fine spirit of a poet, accompany the beautiful series of extracts in Thomas Campbell's “Specimens of the British Poets,” which first appeared in 1819, and is now in'one volume, 8vo. The early Literature of Scotland is admirably treated in Irving's “Lives of the Scottish Poets,” 2 vols. 1804, and the more recent learning of the country in the saine author's Lives of Scottish Writers,” 2 vols. 1839.
SECTION FIRST: LITERATURE IN THE CELTIC AND LATIN TONGUES,
1. The Four Languages used in Literature-Latin and Anglo-Saxon-The two Celtic
Tongues--The Welsh-The Irish and Scottish Gaelic. -CELTIO LITERATURE.-2. Gaelic Literature-Irish Metrical Relics and Prose Chronicles-Scottish Metrical Relics-Ossian.—3. Welsh Literature-The Triads-Supposed Fragments of the Bards-Romances-Legends of King Arthur.-LATIN LITERATURE.-4. Introduction of Christianity-Saint Patrick-Columba-Augustine.-5. Learned Men-Superiority of Ireland-Intercourse with the Continent–The Anglo-Saxons in Rome.-6. The Four Great Names of the Times-Alcuin and Erigena-Bede and Alfred-Latin Learning among the Anglo-Saxons.
1. DURING the Anglo-Saxon times, four languages were used, for literary communication, in the British islands.
Latin was the organ of the church and of learning, here as elsewhere, throughout the Dark and Middle Ages. Accordingly, till we reach Modern Times, we cannot altogether overlook the literature which was expressed in it, if we would acquire a full idea of the progress of intellectual culture.
Of the other three languages, all of which were national and living, one was the Anglo-Saxon, the monuments of which, with its history, will soon call for close scrutiny. The second and third were Celtic tongues, spoken by the nations of that race who still possessed large parts of the country. These, with their scanty stock of literary remains, must receive some attention at present; although they will be left out of view when we pass to those later periods, in which the Germanic population became decisively predominant in Great Britain.
The first of the Celtic tongues hảs oftenest been called Erse or Gaelic. It was common, with dialectic varieties only, to the Celts of Ireland and those of Scotland. Ireland was wholly occupied by tribes of this stock, except some small Norse settlements on the seacoast. Whether Scotland, beyond the Forth and Clyde, was so likewise, is a question not to be answered, until it shall have been determined whether the Picts, the early inhabitants of the eastern Scottish counties, were Celts or Goths. It is certain, at least, that either before the Norman conquest, or soon afterwards, the Celtic Scots were confined within limits corresponding nearly with those which now bound their descendants.
And here, while we are looking beyond the Anglo-Saxon frontiers, it is to be noted that the Romans did not conquer any part of Ireland, and that their hold on the north and west of Scotland had been so slight as to leave hardly any appreciable effects.
The second Celtic tongue, that of the Cymrians or ancient Britons, has been preserved in the Welsh. Its seats, during the Anglo-Saxon period, were the provinces which were still held by Britons, quite independent or imperfectly subdued. Accordingly, it was universally used in Wales, and, for a long time, in Cornwall; and, for several centuries, it kept its hold in the petty kingdoms of Cumbria and Strathclyde, extending to the Clyde from the middle of Lancashire, and thus covering the north-west of England and the south-west of Scotland.
We have not time to study the history of Galloway, situated in Strathclyde, but long occupied chiefly by Gaelic Celts ; nor that of the Hebrides and other islands, disputed for centuries between the Gaelic Celts and the Northmen.
2. Of the two Celtic nations whose living tongue was the Erse, Ireland had immeasurably the advantage, in the success with which its vernacular speech was applied to uses that may be called literary.
To others must be left the task of estimating rightly the genuineness, as well as the poetical merit, of the ancient metrical relics still extant in the Irish language. They consist of many Bardic Songs and Historical Legends. Some of these are asserted to be much older than the ninth century, the close of which was the date of the legendary collection called the Psalter of Cashel, still surviving, and probably in its genuine shape. Competent critics have admitted the great historical value of the
Prose Chronicles, preserved to this day, which grew up, by the successive additions of many generations, in the monasteries of the “ Island of Saints.” In the form in which these now exist, none of them seems to be so ancient as the Annals compiled by Tigernach, who died in the close of the eleventh century ; but it is believed, on .good grounds, that, both in this work, in the Annals of the Five Masters, and in several such local records as the Annals of Ulster and Innisfallen, there are incorporated the substance, and often the very words, of many chronicles composed much earlier. It does not thus appear rash to say, that the Irish
possess contemporary histories of their country, written in the language of the people, and authentic though meagre, from the fifth century or little later. No other nation of modern Europe is able to make a similar boast.
Nor does it appear that the Scottish Celts can point to literary monuments of any kind, having an antiquity at all comparable to this. Indeed their social position was, in all respects, much below that of their western kinsmen. All the earliest relics of their language are metrical. Such is the Albanic Duan, an historical poem, described as possessing a bardic and legendary character, and said to belong to the eleventh century. The poems which bear the name of Ossian are professedly celebrations, by an eye-witness, of events occurring in the third century. But, though we were to throw out of view the modern patchwork which disguises the original from the English reader, and though likewise we should hesitate to assert positively that the Fingalic tales were really borrowed from Ireland, it is still impossible to satisfy oneself that any pieces, now exhibited as the groundwork of the poems, have a just claim to so remote an origin. All such productions seem to be merely attempts, some of them exceedingly imaginative and spirited, to invest with poetical and mythical glory the legends of generations which had passed away long before the poet's time.
3. The literature of the Cymric Celts becomes an object of lively interest, through our familiarity with circumstances relating to it
, which occurred in the Middle Ages. We seek eagerly, among the fallen fragments of British poetry and history, for the foundations of the magnificent legend, which, in the days of chivalry, was built up to immortalize King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. We desire to trace upward, till the dim distance hides it, the memory of those Welsh bards, who, in the decay of their race, were the champions, and at last the martyrs, of national freedom.
Ancient Welsh writings, still extant, are described as dealing