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but with a good deal of invention; and the stock was afterwards increased by other poets of France.
The Metrical Romances in the English tongue, which celebrate Arthur and his Round Table, are (probably with no exception that is older than the fifteenth century) translations, or, at the utmost, imitations, of those French romances in verse. Such are two of the finest, “ Sir Perceval of Galles," and “Ywaine and Gawayne;" and such also is the celebrated romance of “Sir Tristrem,” which Sir Walter Scott claimed for the Scottish poet, Thomas of Ercildoune, on grounds which, now, are generally admitted to be unsatisfactory.
But hardly any of the English translations, belonging to this series, was made till the fourteenth century. The Tristrem, indeed, is the only one that was certainly translated earlier. There are, however, several extant romances,
be regarded, though not without much allowance for modernizing by transcribers, as specimens of the language of English verse during the last thirty years of the thirteenth century, or the first decade of the next. Such are
Such are "Havelok," "King Horn," and “ Cour de Lion,” all from French originals lately referred to. Such is also the “ King Alisaunder,” one of the most spirited, but most audaciously inventive works of the kind. It devotes eight thousand lines to accoutring the Macedonian conqueror and his contemporaries in the garb of feudalism, and transforming his wars into chivalrous adventures. To these should perhaps be added two extant romances on themes quite imaginary, “Ipomydon,” and “ Florise and Blanchefleur.” All these, with very many others of the Old English Romances, may be found by curious readers in modern reprints.
5. Let us now turn back to watch, somewhat closely, the vicissitudes which the Vernacular Literature had undergone since the Conquest interrupted its course.
The ancient tongue of England decayed and died away. But it decayed as the healthy seed decays in the ground; and it vegetated again as the seed begins to grow, when the suns and the rains of spring have touched it.
The clinging to the old language, with an endeavour to resist the changes it was suffering, is very observable in one memorial of the times, marked otherwise by a spirit strongly adverse to the foreigners. The Saxon Chronicle was still carried on, in more than one of the monasteries. The desponding annalists, while preserving many valuable facts, and setting down many shrewd remarks, recorded eagerly, not only oppressions and violence, deaths and conflagrations, but omens which betokened evil to the aliens. They told how blood gushed out of the earth in Berkshire, near the native place of the immortal Alfred; and how, while King Henry the First was at sea, not long before his death, the sun was darkened at mid-day, and became like a new moon; and how, around the abbey of Peterborough (placed under a Norman Abbot, whom it was doubtless desirable to frighten), horns were heard to blow in the dead of night, and black spectral huntsmen were seen to ride through the woods. It is curious, by the way, to observe, in this last story, an ingenious adaptation of the superstition of the Wild Hunt, which, in various shapes, was current for centuries throughout Germany. At length, when the Saxon language had fairly broken down with the last of the chroniclers, when French words intruded themselves in spite of him, and when, forgetting his native syntax, he wrote without grammar rather than adopt the detested innovations, the venerable record ceased abruptly, at the accession of Henry the Second. on
6. Our remains of the English tongue, in its state of Transition, are chiefly or without exception written in verse: and the versification shows, as instructively as the diction, the struggle between opposing tendencies. Frequently, even in the romances and other translations, the Anglo-Saxon alliteration kept its ground against the French rhymes.
The most important group of these works throws us, once more, back on the Normans.
In the course of the twelfth century, two Frenchmen, both of them residing in England, wrote Metrical Chronicles of our country. About the middle of the century was composed the
History of the Angles,” (L'Estorie des Engles), by Geoffrey Gaimar of Troyes, which comprehends the period from the landing of the West Saxons in the year 495, to the death of William the Red. It was not translated or otherwise used by later English writers; but it is historically curious both for its matter and its sources. Its narrative, till. near the close of the tenth century, is founded chiefly on the Saxon Chronicle, whose meaning, however, the foreigner has often misunderstood. The second chronicle, that of Richard Wace, a native of Jersey, was completed in the second year of Henry the Second's reign. It is called “The Brut of England," (Le Brut d'Angleterre), from Brutus, the fabulous founder of the British monarchy: and, following Geoffrey of Monmouth closely, it proceeds from the landing of the Tro
jans to the death of the Welsh prince Cadwallader in the year 689.
About the beginning of the thirteenth century, or the end of the preceding, Layamon, a priest, living in the north of Worcestershire, composed, in the mixed Saxon of the day, his “Brut," or English Chronicle. This work deserves especial notice, alike as
of the fullest specimens of our early tongue, and on account of its eminent literary merit. It traverses the same ground as Wace's Chronicle, on which indeed it is founded in all its parts; borrowing only a little from Bede, and a good deal from traditional or other authorities of a fabulous kind. It is not a translation of Wace, but rather an amplified imitation. It has more than double the bulk : it adds many legends to his; and throughout, but especially in the earlier parts, it dramatizes speeches and incidents, and introduces, often with excellent effect, original de scriptions and thoughts. The versification is very peculiar. The old alliteration prevails; but there are many rhyming couplets, many which are both rhymed and alliterative, and others that are neither.
Since the recent publication of this venerable record, Layamon seems likely to be honoured as The English Ennius.” But this title had formerly been bestowed on Robert of Gloucester, a metrical chronicler then known better. His work was probably completed about the close of the thirteenth century, and certainly not three years earlier. Extending from Brutus to the death of Henry the Third, it follows Geoffrey of Monmouth so far as his work goes, adopting, as its chief authority afterwards, -William of Malmesbury. It is in rhymed lines of fourteen syllables or seven accents, usually divisible into a couplet of the common measure of the Psalms. Although it is much more than a mere translation, it shows exceedingly little of literary talent or skill.
There is still less of either in the last two of the metrical chronicles, in search of which, to complete the set, we may look forward into the fourteenth century. Soon after the death of Edward the First, a chronicle from Brutus to that date was written in French verse, by Peter Langtoft, an ecclesiastic in Yorkshire, who follows Geoffrey till the close of the Anglo-Saxon times. A little before the middle of the century was compiled, in English, the chronicle of Robert Mannyng, called De Brunne from his birthplace in Lincolnshire. His book is entirely taken from two of the French authorities, used in succession, and each translated into the rhymed metre of the original. Thus he renders Wace into the romance-couplets of eight syllables or four accents, and Langtoft into Alexandrines.
7. Of English Metrical remains, besides the romances and chronicles, we have very few, and none of any importance, from the time between the Conquest and the middle of the twelfth century. It is to be observed, as a feature very important, that, on the revival of such compositions, after the latter of those dates, they imitated, from the beginning, the comparative simplicity and bareness of style that prevailed in the French pieces. The old Anglo-Saxon taste for obscure metaphor and pompous diction had entirely vanished. The versification also shows, more decisively than that of the translations that have been noticed, the progress from the ancient alliterative metres to those rhymed measures which, at first copied from the French, soon supplanted all the older forms.
From the latter half of the twelfth century we have a composition which its author, a canon of some priory in the east of England, whimsically called the “Ormulum," from his own name Ormin or Orm. The design, executed only in part, was that of constructing a kind of metrical harmony of those passages from the Gospels, which are contained in the service of the mass. It has less of poetical merit than of ingenuity in reflection and allegory: but great praise has been bestowed on its purity of doctrine; and it is second only to Layamon as an instructive specimen of the Semi-Saxon stage of our tongue. Its measure is a line of fourteen syllables, or, more properly, of seven accents; which is usually or always divisible into two lines, making a couplet of our common Psalm metre. The verses are unrhymed, and very imperfectly alliterative.
Perhaps to the same time, and certainly to no later period than the close of Edward the First's reign, belongs the long fable of “ The Owl and the Nightingale.” This is one of the most pleasing of our early relics, easy in rhythm, and natural and lively in description. It is a contest for superiority of merit, caried on in dialogue between the two birds. The measure is that which is most common in the romances, and has been made familiar to us by Scott; consisting of rhymed couplets, in which each line has eight syllables or four accents
. Alliterative syllables also occur frequently as incidental ornaments; a fashion very prevalent in our early poetry, even in pieces where rhymes chiefly prevailed. The poem has been attributed, on doubtful grounds, to an author otherwise unknown, called either Nicholas or John of Guildford.
To the thirteenth century belong several small pieces by Michael of Kildare, the first Irishman who is known to have written verses in English; and to him has been assigned, among others, the frequently quoted satirical poem, “The Land of Cockayne." Of anonymous poems, chiefly lyrical, composed towards the end of the century, many have been published; some of which, both amatory and religious, are promising symptoms of the poetical success which was to distinguish the succeeding age. Of the same date are not a few metrical legends of the saints; and Robert of Gloucester is said to have been the author of one large collection of these, the published specimens of which are, like his Chronicle, more curious than poetical.
It should be recorded, also, that the origin of the Old English Drama may be said to have been almost contemporaneous with the formation of the Old English Language. The earliest extant pieces are assigned to the close of Henry the Third's reign. But it is enough to note the fact in the way of parenthesis. The dramatic efforts of our ancestors were, till the sixteenth century, so exceedingly rude, that we may delay learning any thing in regard to this branch of our literature till we have emerged from the Middle Ages. They were designed exclusively for being acted, with no view, and as little aptitude, to the ordeal of reading: their spectators were the best instructed of the community: and the ecclesiastics, in whose hands (especially those of the monks) the management of them long continned, confined them to sacred and moral themes; and used them for communicating to the mass of the people such scraps of religious knowledge as it was thought right to impart.