« PreviousContinue »
POETRY OF THE TENTH CENTURY
advance towards national unity during the middle of the tenth century had not been attended by a simultaneous development of the intellectual life. The recognition, nevertheless, of the importance of the work is shown by the occurrence of MSS. from goo to 1200. Seven are known, three of which have special importance; the Parker Book at Lambeth, from 891 to 1070; the Worcester Book to 1079; and the Peterborough Book in the Bodleian. Written in the Abbey of Peterborough in the early part of the twelfth century, and continued to the death of King Stephen in 1154, this MS. is by far the fullest. The diction of the latter part is frequently incorrect, showing the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English. The dryness of the redaction of the Chronicle of the tenth century is Poems on
historical relieved by the introduction of four poems on contemporary events, for a the preservation of which we are infinitely obliged to the scribes. Three, respectively composed on the expulsion of the Danes from certain Mercian towns (A.D. 942), on the coronation of Edgar (973), and his death (975), have no special poetical merit, but are interesting as expressions of national feeling. The other celebrates the battle of Brunanburh (937), when Athel. stan and his brother overthrew the mixed host of Danes, Scots, and Irish who threatened the kingdom with destruction. This song of triumph, belonging to an order of literature popular with all nations since the days of Miriam and Deborah, is an excellent specimen of its class, full of fire and patriotic spirit, exultant in the victory, but not insulting to the foe. It has been frequently translated, and with marked ability by the present Lord Tennyson, whose version forms the basis of a freer rendering by his father. Our extract follows the less poetical version of Thorpe, in which alliteration is sacrificed to literality :
Departed then the Northmen
The carrion to devour ;
The greedy war hawk,
There is yet another fine example of Anglo-Saxon poetry of the tenth century in the poem on the death of Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, who was killed in battle near Maldon while resisting the Danish invasion of 991. The poet describes with great spirit Byrhtnoth's refusal to buy the invaders off, his romantic but inauspicious generosity in allowing them to land that the fight may be on even terms, his death from many wounds in the front of the battle, the flight of some of his companions, the heroic devotion of others : “Byrthwold, the aged comrade, spoke as he grasped fast his shield and shook his ash: “The spirit should be all the harder, the heart all the bolder, the courage should be the greater, the more our forces lessen; here lieth our prince cut down, the brave one, slain in the dust. May he ever mourn who thinketh now to turn from this battleplay. I am old in days, I will not go away, but I think to lie by my lord's side ; I will lie by such a beloved warrior.'” Here the MS. is mutilated, and the poem breaks off.
Little more poetry of this description is to be found in the remaining period of Anglo-Saxon literature, or, indeed, much literature of any kind. The national spirit needed renovation. As M. Jusserand justly remarks: “In spite of the efforts of Cynewulf, Alfred, Dunstan, and Aelfric, literature goes on repeating itself. Poems, histories, and sermons are conspicuous, now for their grandeur, now for the emotion that is in them ; but their main qualities and main defects are very much alike; they give an impression of monotony. The same notes, not very numerous, are incessantly repeated. Literature is almost stationary, it does not move and develop. A graft is wanted.”
The justice of these remarks is shown by the turn which affairs took e under Edward the Confessor (1042-1066). Edward's partiality for the
Normans among whom he had been educated angered his subjects, who
AGE OF EDWARD THE CONFESSOR
could not perceive that the powerful, and for the age highly civilised state which had grown up on the other side of the Channel must of necessity exercise a strong attractive influence upon one more torpid and backward. They were displeased when Edward for the first time affixed a seal to his charters, a custom borrowed from the Normans; they liked still less the chancellors, clerks, chaplains, legal and spiritual advisers whom he brought from beyond the sea. These were but the forerunners of the great intellectual change which must needs occur if England was ever to hold a foremost place among the nations, which must have come even if there never had been any material Seal of Edward the Confessor (obverse) Norman Conquest. Such literary vitality as the age possessed asserted itself in the endeavour to naturalise a Norman form of literature, the romance. The Normans had not invented, probably at this time not even translated, the romances of
Alexander and of Apollonius of Tyre, but they admired the class of literature of which these were types, and the translation into Anglo-Saxon of Alexander's supposititious letters to Aristotle, and of the probably Byzantine romance of Apollonius, which seems to have come into England through a Latin version, the earliest known copy of which belongs to the ninth or tenth century, were evidences of a new attraction beginning to be exercised upon the Anglo-Saxon
mind, which might have proSeal of Edward the Confessor (reverse)
duced considerable effect upon Anglo-Saxon literature but for the temporary abolition of that literature by the stroke of conquest. This convulsion occurring, as there is every reason to suppose, shortly after the Apollonius romance had been translated,
found and left it the sole representative of its class in Anglo-Saxon. One redeeming feature of the time should not remain unnoticed, that disposition to transcribe ancient writings which produced the priceless Exeter and Vercelli MSS.
Arrived as we are at the eve of a great crisis, it will not be uninstructive to cast a glance upon literature at the other side of the world. In the Far East is a chain of great islands not unlike the British Isles in their configuration, resembling them still more in their physical relation to the adjacent continent and the individuality of the race inhabiting them, and indebted for their civilisation to China, as England to Italy. While, however, intellectual England of the eleventh century is stagnation, intellectual Japan is all animation and brightness. When hardly one Englishwoman could write her name, the literature of eleventh-century Japan was mainly provided by ladies, who displayed qualities akin to those which were to characterise French epistolary and memoir literature in future ages. The comparison seems most mortifying in retrospect, but would have failed to move the contemporaries of Edward the Confessor, who had as little conception of the height from which European literature had descended, or of the possibilities of recovery, as of the dignity and preciousness of literature herself, apart from utility or amusement.
EARLY ENGLISH LITERATURE TO “PIERS PLOWMAN”
We have now accompanied English literature to the eve of the most Transformaviolent and abrupt transformation ever wrought in that of any people. Thomson
• English It is no uncommon circumstance for a literature to undergo profound literature by
the Norman modification through contact with another in presence of whose superior Conquest refinement the old hereditary forms are no longer able to hold their ground. Acquaintance with Greek literature thus remodelled the literature of Rome, and Italian forms of verse displaced the national metres of Portugal and Spain. But sweeping as these changes might be, they did not destroy the continuity of literary tradition. No one would think of separating the primitive stages of Latin and Spanish literature from the more recent, and making them the subject of distinct histories. With English literature it is otherwise, a gulf yawns at the Conquest, and although some stragglers cross the gap, like plants of one zone of vegetation straying into another, we soon become conscious that the conditions of soil and climate have undergone vast mutation, and that Anglo-Saxon literature as we have hitherto known it can exist no more. The case is wholly different from that of Latin borrowings from Greece. Greek literature was recommended solely by its superiority; had the Romans been incapable of perceiving this they could no more have been compel'ed to conform themselves to Hellenic models than the modern Germans can be compelled to adopt the Roman character in writing and printing. In England, however, new literary forms and a new literary language were established upon the same soil as the old, pressing upon and permeating these at every point, and leaving them no choice but to amalgamate with the innovators, or to be crushed out of existence.
It will have been observed that at the time of the Conquest the condition of Anglo-Saxon literature was by no means vigorous. It would indeed be an entire error to assert, as was at one time generally held, that the Danish invasion had reduced the people to barbarism, and that letters were virtually extinct among them. We have seen, on the contrary, that men of considerable learning were still to be found, and even that literature was evincing vitality by assimilating a new form, the romance. It is nevertheless true that