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Brief History of English and American Literature
by Henry A. Beers
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E-text prepared by Al Haines



Transcriber's note:

The volume from which this e-book was prepared contains two of Beers' books, "An Outline Sketch of English Literature" and "An Outline Sketch of American Literature," which start on pages 7 and 317, respectively.

Page numbers in this book are indicated by numbers enclosed in curly braces, e.g. {99}, to facilitate use of the index. They have been located where page breaks occurred in the original book. For its Index, a page number has been placed only at the start of that section.



BRIEF HISTORY OF ENGLISH AND AMERICAN LITERATURE

by

HENRY A. BEERS

Introduction and Supplementary Chapters on the Religious and Theological Literature of Great Britain and the United States

by

John Fletcher Hurst



New York: Eaton & Mains Cincinnati: Jennings & Pye

Copyright, 1886, 1887, by Phillips & Hunt New York Copyright, 1897, by Eaton & Mains New York



{3}

INTRODUCTION.

At the request of the publishers the undersigned has prepared this Introduction and two Supplementary Chapters on the Religious and Theological Literature of Great Britain and the United States. To the preacher in his preparation for the pulpit, and also to the general reader and student of religious history, the pursuit of the study of literature is a necessity. The sermon itself is a part of literature, must have its literary finish and proportions, and should give ample proof of a familiarity with the masterpieces of the English tongue.

The world of letters presents to even the casual reader a rich and varied profusion of fascinating and luscious fruit. But to the earnest student who explores with thorough research and sympathetic mind the intellectual products of countries and times other than his own, the infinite variety, so strikingly apparent to the superficial observer, resolves itself into a beautiful and harmonious unity. Literature is the record of the struggles and aspirations of man in the boundless universe of thought. As in physics the correlation and conservation of force bind all the material sciences together into one, so in the world of intellect all the diverse departments of mental life and action find their common bond in literature. Even the {4} signs and formulas of the mathematician and the chemist are but abbreviated forms of writing—the stenography of those exact sciences. The simple chronicles of the annalist, the flowing verses of the poet, clothing his thought with winged words, the abstruse propositions of the philosopher, the smiting protests of the bold reformer, either in Church or State, the impassioned appeal of the advocate at the bar of justice, the argument of the legislator on behalf of his measures, the very cry of inarticulate pain of those who suffer under the oppression of cruelty, all have their literature.

The minister of the Gospel, whose mission is to man in his highest and holiest relations, must know the best that human thought has produced if he would successfully reach and influence the thoughtful and inquiring. Perhaps our best service here will be to suggest a method of pursuing a course of study in literature, both English and American. The following work of Professor Beers touches but lightly and scarcely more than opens these broad and inviting fields, which are ever growing richer and more fascinating. While man continues to think he will weave the fabric of the mental loom into infinitely varied and beautiful designs.

In the general outlines of a plan of literary study which is to cover the entire history of English and American literature, the following directions, it is hoped, will be of value.

1. Fix the great landmarks, the general periods—each {5} marked by some towering leader, around whom other contemporary writers may be grouped. In Great Britain the several and successive periods might thus be well designated by such authors as Geoffrey Chaucer or John Wiclif, Thomas More or Henry Howard, Edmund Spenser or Sir Walter Raleigh, William Shakspere or Francis Bacon, John Milton or Jeremy Taylor, John Dryden or John Locke, Joseph Addison or Joseph Butler, Samuel Johnson or Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper or John Wesley, Walter Scott or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth or Thomas Chalmers, Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle, or William Makepeace Thackeray.

A similar list for American literature would place as leaders in letters: Thomas Hooker or Thomas Shepard, Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Philip Freneau, Noah Webster or James Kent, James Fenimore Cooper or Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Edward Everett, Joseph Addison Alexander or William Ellery Channing, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, or Nathaniel Hawthorne.

2. The prosecution of the study might be carried on in one or more of several ways, according either to the purpose in view or the tastes of the student. Attention might profitably be concentrated on the literature of a given period and worked out in detail by taking up individual authors, or by classifying all the writers of the period {6} on the basis of the character of their writings, such as poetry, history, belles-lettres, theology, essays, and the like.

3. Again, the literature of a period might be studied with reference to its influence on the religious, commercial, political, or social life of the people among whom it has circulated; or as the result of certain forces which have preceded its production. It is well worth the time and effort to trace the influence of one author upon another or many others, who, while maintaining their individuality, have been either in style or method of production unconsciously molded by their confreres of the pen. The divisions of writers may, again, be made with reference to their opinions and associations in the different departments of life where they have wrought their active labors, such as in politics, religion, moral reform, or educational questions.

The influence of the great writers in the languages of the Continent upon the literature of England and America affords another theme of absorbing interest, and has its peculiarly good results in bringing the student into close brotherhood with the fruitful and cultured minds of every land. In fact, the possible applications of the study of literature are so many and varied that the ingenuity of any earnest student may devise such as the exigencies of his own work may require.

JOHN F. HURST,

Washington.



{7}

PREFACE.

In so brief a history of so rich a literature, the problem is how to get room enough to give, not an adequate impression—that is impossible—but any impression at all of the subject. To do this I have crowded out everything but belles-lettres. Books in philosophy, history, science, etc., however important in the history of English thought, receive the merest incidental mention, or even no mention at all. Again, I have omitted the literature of the Anglo-Saxon period, which is written in a language nearly as hard for a modern Englishman to read as German is, or Dutch. Caedmon and Cynewulf are no more a part of English literature than Vergil and Horace are of Italian. I have also left out {8} the vernacular literature of the Scotch before the time of Burns. Up to the date of the union Scotland was a separate kingdom, and its literature had a development independent of the English, though parallel with it.

In dividing the history into periods, I have followed, with some modifications, the divisions made by Mr. Stopford Brooke in his excellent little Primer of English Literature. A short reading course is appended to each chapter.

HENRY A. BEERS.



{9}

CONTENTS.

CHAPTER

I. FROM THE CONQUEST TO CHAUCER, 1066-1400 . . . . . 11 II. FROM CHAUCER TO SPENSER, 1400-1599 . . . . . . . 42 III. THE AGE OF SHAKSPERE, 1564-1616 . . . . . . . . . 76 IV. THE AGE OF MILTON, 1608-1674 . . . . . . . . . . 125 V. FROM THE RESTORATION TO THE DEATH OF POPE, 1660-1744 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 163 VI. FROM THE DEATH OF POPE TO THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, 1744-1789 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 193 VII. FROM THE FRENCH REVOLUTION TO THE DEATH OF SCOTT, 1789-1832 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 222 VIII. FROM THE DEATH OF SCOTT TO THE PRESENT TIME, 1832-1886 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 266 IX. THEOLOGICAL AND RELIGIOUS LITERATURE IN GREAT BRITAIN . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 299



{11}

OUTLINE SKETCH

OF

ENGLISH LITERATURE.

CHAPTER I.

FROM THE CONQUEST TO CHAUCER.

1066-1400.

The Norman conquest of England, in the 11th century, made a break in the natural growth of the English language and literature. The old English or Anglo-Saxon had been a purely Germanic speech, with a complicated grammar and a full set of inflections. For three hundred years following the battle of Hastings this native tongue was driven from the king's court and the courts of law, from parliament, school, and university. During all this time there were two languages spoken in England. Norman French was the birth-tongue of the upper classes and English of the lower. When the latter finally got the better in the struggle, and became, about the middle of the 14th century, the national speech of all England, it was no longer the English of King Alfred. It was a new language, a grammarless tongue, almost wholly {12} stripped of its inflections. It had lost a half of its old words, and had filled their places with French equivalents. The Norman lawyers had introduced legal terms; the ladies and courtiers, words of dress and courtesy. The knight had imported the vocabulary of war and of the chase. The master-builders of the Norman castles and cathedrals contributed technical expressions proper to the architect and the mason. The art of cooking was French. The naming of the living animals, ox, swine, sheep, deer, was left to the Saxon churl who had the herding of them, while the dressed meats, beef, pork, mutton, venison, received their baptism from the table-talk of his Norman master. The four orders of begging friars, and especially the Franciscans or Gray Friars, introduced into England in 1224, became intermediaries between the high and the low. They went about preaching to the poor, and in their sermons they intermingled French with English. In their hands, too, was almost all the science of the day; their medicine, botany, and astronomy displaced the old nomenclature of leechdom, wort-cunning, and star-craft. And, finally, the translators of French poems often found it easier to transfer a foreign word bodily than to seek out a native synonym, particularly when the former supplied them with a rhyme. But the innovation reached even to the commonest words in every-day use, so that voice drove out steven, poor drove out earm, and color, use, and place made good their footing beside hue, {13} wont, and stead. A great part of the English words that were left were so changed in spelling and pronunciation as to be practically new. Chaucer stands, in date, midway between King Alfred and Alfred Tennyson, but his English differs vastly more from the former's than from the latter's. To Chaucer Anglo-Saxon was as much a dead language as it is to us.

The classical Anglo-Saxon, moreover, had been the Wessex dialect, spoken and written at Alfred's capital, Winchester. When the French had displaced this as the language of culture, there was no longer a "king's English" or any literary standard. The sources of modern standard English are to be found in the East Midland, spoken in Lincoln, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridge, and neighboring shires. Here the old Anglian had been corrupted by the Danish settlers, and rapidly threw off its inflections when it became a spoken and no longer a written language, after the Conquest. The West Saxon, clinging more tenaciously to ancient forms, sunk into the position of a local dialect; while the East Midland, spreading to London, Oxford, and Cambridge, became the literary English in which Chaucer wrote.

The Normans brought in also new intellectual influences and new forms of literature. They were a cosmopolitan people, and they connected England with the continent. Lanfranc and Anselm, the first two Norman archbishops of Canterbury, were learned and splendid prelates of a {14} type quite unknown to the Anglo-Saxons. They introduced the scholastic philosophy taught at the University of Paris, and the reformed discipline of the Norman abbeys. They bound the English Church more closely to Rome, and officered it with Normans. English bishops were deprived of their sees for illiteracy, and French abbots were set over monasteries of Saxon monks. Down to the middle of the 14th century the learned literature of England was mostly in Latin, and the polite literature in French. English did not at any time altogether cease to be a written language, but the extant remains of the period from 1066 to 1200 are few and, with one exception, unimportant. After 1200 English came more and more into written use, but mainly in translations, paraphrases, and imitations of French works. The native genius was at school, and followed awkwardly the copy set by its master.

The Anglo-Saxon poetry, for example, had been rhythmical and alliterative. It was commonly written in lines containing four rhythmical accents and with three of the accented syllables alliterating.

Reste hine tha rum-heort; reced hlifade Geap and gold-fah, gaest inne swaef.

Rested him then the great-hearted; the hall towered Roomy and gold-bright, the guest slept within.

This rude energetic verse the Saxon scop had sung to his harp or glee-beam, dwelling on the {15} emphatic syllables, passing swiftly over the others which were of undetermined number and position in the line. It was now displaced by the smooth metrical verse with rhymed endings, which the French introduced and which our modern poets use, a verse fitted to be recited rather than sung. The old English alliterative verse continued, indeed, in occasional use to the 16th century. But it was linked to a forgotten literature and an obsolete dialect, and was doomed to give way. Chaucer lent his great authority to the more modern verse system, and his own literary models and inspirers were all foreign, French or Italian. Literature in England began to be once more English and truly national in the hands of Chaucer and his contemporaries, but it was the literature of a nation cut off from its own past by three centuries of foreign rule.

The most noteworthy English document of the 11th and 12th centuries was the continuation of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. Copies of these annals, differing somewhat among themselves, had been kept at the monasteries in Winchester, Abingdon, Worcester, and elsewhere. The yearly entries were mostly brief, dry records of passing events, though occasionally they become full and animated. The fen country of Cambridge and Lincolnshire was a region of monasteries. Here were the great abbeys of Peterborough and Croyland and Ely minster. One of the earliest English songs tells how the savage heart of the Danish {16} king Cnut was softened by the singing of the monks in Ely.

Merie sungen muneches binnen Ely Tha Cnut chyning reu ther by; Roweth, cnihtes, noer the land, And here we thes muneches sang.

It was among the dikes and marshes of this fen country that the bold outlaw Hereward, "the last of the English," held out for some years against the conqueror. And it was here, in the rich abbey of Burch or Peterborough, the ancient Medeshamstede (meadow-homestead) that the chronicle was continued for nearly a century after the Conquest, breaking off abruptly in 1154, the date of King Stephen's death. Peterborough had received a new Norman abbot, Turold, "a very stern man," and the entry in the chronicle for 1170 tells how Hereward and his gang, with his Danish backers, thereupon plundered the abbey of its treasures, which were first removed to Ely, and then carried off by the Danish fleet and sunk, lost, or squandered. The English in the later portions of this Peterborough chronicle becomes gradually more modern, and falls away more and more from the strict grammatical standards of the classical Anglo-Saxon. It is a most valuable historical monument, and some passages of it are written with great vividness, notably the sketch of William the Conqueror put down in the year of his death (1086) by one who had "looked upon him and at another time dwelt in his court." {17} "He who was before a rich king, and lord of many a land, he had not then of all his land but a piece of seven feet. . . . Likewise he was a very stark man and a terrible, so that one durst do nothing against his will. . . . Among other things is not to be forgotten the good peace that he made in this land, so that a man might fare over his kingdom with his bosom full of gold unhurt. He set up a great deer preserve, and he laid laws therewith that whoso should slay hart or hind, he should be blinded. As greatly did he love the tall deer as if he were their father."

With the discontinuance of the Peterborough annals, English history written in English prose ceased for three hundred years. The thread of the nation's story was kept up in Latin chronicles, compiled by writers partly of English and partly of Norman descent. The earliest of these, such as Ordericus Vitalis, Simeon of Durham, Henry of Huntingdon, and William of Malmesbury, were contemporary with the later entries of the Saxon chronicle. The last of them, Matthew of Westminster, finished his work in 1273. About 1300 Robert, a monk of Gloucester, composed a chronicle in English verse, following in the main the authority of the Latin chronicles, and he was succeeded by other rhyming chroniclers in the 14th century. In the hands of these the true history of the Saxon times was overlaid with an ever-increasing mass of fable and legend. All real knowledge of the period {18} dwindled away until in Capgrave's Chronicle of England, written in prose in 1463-64, hardly any thing of it is left. In history as in literature the English had forgotten their past, and had turned to foreign sources. It is noteworthy that Shakspere, who borrowed his subjects and his heroes sometimes from authentic English history, sometimes from the legendary history of ancient Britain, Denmark, and Scotland, as in Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth, ignores the Saxon period altogether. And Spenser, who gives in his second book of the Faerie Queene, a resume of the reigns of fabulous British kings—the supposed ancestors of Queen Elizabeth, his royal patron—has nothing to say of the real kings of early England. So completely had the true record faded away that it made no appeal to the imaginations of our most patriotic poets. The Saxon Alfred had been dethroned by the British Arthur, and the conquered Welsh had imposed their fictitious genealogies upon the dynasty of the conquerors. In the Roman de Rou, a verse chronicle of the dukes of Normandy, written by the Norman Wace, it is related that at the battle of Hastings the French jongleur, Taillefer, spurred out before the van of William's army, tossing his lance in the air and chanting of "Charlemagne and of Roland, of Oliver and the peers who died at Roncesvals." This incident is prophetic of the victory which Norman song, no less than Norman arms, was to win over England. The lines which Taillefer {19} sang were from the Chanson de Roland, the oldest and best of the French hero sagas. The heathen Northmen, who had ravaged the coasts of France in the 10th century, had become in the course of one hundred and fifty years, completely identified with the French. They had accepted Christianity, intermarried with the native women, and forgotten their own Norse tongue. The race thus formed was the most brilliant in Europe. The warlike, adventurous spirit of the vikings mingled in its blood with the French nimbleness of wit and fondness for display. The Normans were a nation of knights-errant, with a passion for prowess and for courtesy. Their architecture was at once strong and graceful. Their women were skilled in embroidery, a splendid sample of which is preserved in the famous Bayeux tapestry, in which the conqueror's wife, Matilda, and the ladies of her court wrought the history of the Conquest.

This national taste for decoration expressed itself not only in the ceremonious pomp of feast and chase and tourney, but likewise in literature. The most characteristic contribution of the Normans to English poetry were the metrical romances or chivalry tales. These were sung or recited by the minstrels, who were among the retainers of every great feudal baron, or by the jongleurs, who wandered from court to castle. There is a whole literature of these romans d' aventure in the Anglo-Norman dialect of French. Many of them are {20} very long—often thirty, forty, or fifty thousand lines—written sometimes in a strophic form, sometimes in long Alexandrines, but commonly in the short, eight-syllabled rhyming couplet. Numbers of them were turned into English verse in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. The translations were usually inferior to the originals. The French trouvere (finder or poet) told his story in a straight-forward, prosaic fashion, omitting no details in the action and unrolling endless descriptions of dresses, trappings, gardens, etc. He invented plots and situations full of fine possibilities by which later poets have profited, but his own handling of them was feeble and prolix. Yet there was a simplicity about the old French language and a certain elegance and delicacy in the diction of the trouveres which the rude, unformed English failed to catch.

The heroes of these romances were of various climes: Guy of Warwick, and Richard the Lion Heart of England, Havelok the Dane, Sir Troilus of Troy, Charlemagne, and Alexander. But, strangely enough, the favorite hero of English romance was that mythical Arthur of Britain, whom Welsh legend had celebrated as the most formidable enemy of the Sassenach invaders and their victor in twelve great battles. The language and literature of the ancient Cymry or Welsh had made no impression on their Anglo-Saxon conquerors. There are a few Welsh borrowings in the English speech, such as bard and druid; but in the old Anglo-Saxon literature there are {21} no more traces of British song and story than if the two races had been sundered by the ocean instead of being borderers for over six hundred years. But the Welsh had their own national traditions, and after the Norman Conquest these were set free from the isolation of their Celtic tongue and, in an indirect form, entered into the general literature of Europe. The French came into contact with the old British literature in two places: in the Welsh marches in England and in the province of Brittany in France, where the population is of Cymric race and spoke, and still to some extent speaks, a Cymric dialect akin to the Welsh.

About 1140 Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk, seemingly of Welsh descent, who lived at the court of Henry the First and became afterward bishop of St. Asaph, produced in Latin a so-called Historia Britonum in which it was told how Brutus, the great grandson of Aeneas, came to Britain, and founded there his kingdom called after him, and his city of New Troy (Troynovant) on the site of the later London. An air of historic gravity was given to this tissue of Welsh legends by an exact chronology and the genealogy of the British kings, and the author referred, as his authority, to an imaginary Welsh book given him, as he said, by a certain Walter, archdeacon of Oxford. Here appeared that line of fabulous British princes which has become so familiar to modern readers in the plays of Shakspere and the poems of Tennyson: Lear and his {22} three daughters; Cymbeline, Gorboduc, the subject of the earliest regular English tragedy, composed by Sackville and acted in 1562; Locrine and his Queen Gwendolen, and his daughter Sabrina, who gave her name to the river Severn, was made immortal by an exquisite song in Milton's Comus, and became the heroine of the tragedy of Locrine, once attributed to Shakspere; and above all, Arthur, the son of Uther Pendragon, and the founder of the Table Round. In 1155 Wace, the author of the Roman de Rou, turned Geoffrey's work into a French poem entitled Brut d' Angleterre, "brut" being a Welsh word meaning chronicle. About the year 1200 Wace's poem was Englished by Layamon, a priest of Arley Regis, on the border stream of Severn. Layamon's Brut is in thirty thousand lines, partly alliterative and partly rhymed, but written in pure Saxon English with hardly any French words. The style is rude but vigorous, and, at times, highly imaginative. Wace had amplified Geoffrey's chronicle somewhat, but Layamon made much larger additions, derived, no doubt, from legends current on the Welsh border. In particular the story of Arthur grew in his hands into something like fullness. He tells of the enchantments of Merlin, the wizard; of the unfaithfulness of Arthur's queen, Guenever; and the treachery of his nephew, Modred. His narration of the last great battle between Arthur and Modred; of the wounding of the king—"fifteen fiendly wounds he had, one might in the least {23} three gloves thrust—"; and of the little boat with "two women therein, wonderly dight," which came to bear him away to Avalun and the Queen Argante, "sheenest of all elves," whence he shall come again, according to Merlin's prophecy, to rule the Britons; all this left little, in essentials, for Tennyson to add in his Death of Arthur. This new material for fiction was eagerly seized upon by the Norman romancers. The story of Arthur drew to itself other stories which were afloat. Walter Map, a gentleman of the Court of Henry II., in two French prose romances, connected with it the church legend of the Sangreal, or holy cup, from which Christ had drunk at his last supper, and which Joseph of Arimathea had afterward brought to England. Then it miraculously disappeared and became thenceforth the occasion of knightly quest, the mystic symbol of the object of the soul's desire, an adventure only to be achieved by the maiden knight, Galahad, the son of the great Launcelot, who in the romances had taken the place of Modred in Geoffrey's history, as the paramour of Queen Guenever. In like manner the love-story of Tristan and Isolde was joined by other romancers to the Arthur-Saga. This came probably from Brittany or Cornwall. Thus there grew up a great epic cycle of Arthurian romance, with a fixed shape and a unity and vitality which have prolonged it to our own day and rendered it capable of a deeper and more spiritual treatment and a more artistic {24} handling by such modern English poets as Tennyson in his Idyls of the King, by Matthew Arnold, Swinburne, and many others. There were innumerable Arthur romances in prose and verse, in Anglo-Norman and continental French dialects, in English, in German, and in other tongues. But the final form which the Saga took in mediaeval England was the prose Morte Dartur of Sir Thomas Malory, composed at the close of the 15th century. This was a digest of the earlier romances and is Tennyson's main authority.

Beside the literature of the knight was the literature of the cloister. There is a considerable body of religious writing in early English, consisting of homilies in prose and verse, books of devotion, like the Ancren Riwle (Rule of Anchoresses), 1225; the Ayenbite of Inwyt (Remorse of Conscience), 1340, both in prose; the Handlyng Sinne, 1303; the Cursor Mundi, 1320; and the Pricke of Conscience, 1340, in verse; metrical renderings of the Psalter, the Pater Noster, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, the Gospels for the Day, such as the Ormulum, or Book of Orm, 1205; legends and miracles of saints; poems in praise of virginity, on the contempt of the world, on the five joys of the Virgin, the five wounds of Christ, the eleven pains of hell, the seven deadly sins, the fifteen tokens of the coming judgment, and dialogues between the soul and the body. These were the work not only of the monks, but also of the begging friars, and in {25} smaller part of the secular or parish clergy. They are full of the ascetic piety and superstition of the Middle Age, the childish belief in the marvelous, the allegorical interpretation of Scripture texts, the grotesque material horrors of hell with its grisly fiends, the vileness of the human body and the loathsome details of its corruption after death. Now and then a single poem rises above the tedious and hideous barbarism of the general level of this monkish literature, either from a more intensely personal feeling in the poet, or from an occasional grace or beauty in his verse. A poem so distinguished is, for example, A Luve Ron (A Love Counsel) by the Minorite friar, Thomas de Hales, one stanza of which recalls the French poet Villon's Balade of Dead Ladies, with its refrain.

"Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?" "Where are the snows of yester year? Where is Paris and Heleyne That weren so bright and fair of blee[1] Amadas, Tristan, and Ideyne Yseude and alle the,[2] Hector with his sharpe main, And Caesar rich in worldes fee? They beth ygliden out of the reign[3] As the shaft is of the dee." [4]

A few early English poems on secular subjects are also worthy of mention, among others, The Owl and the Nightingale, generally assigned to the reign of Henry III. (1216-1272), an Estrif, {26} or dispute, in which the owl represents the ascetic and the nightingale the aesthetic view of life. The debate is conducted with much animation and a spirited use of proverbial wisdom. The Land of Cokaygne is an amusing little poem of some two hundred lines, belonging to the class of fabliaux, short humorous tales or satirical pieces in verse. It describes a lubber-land, or fool's paradise, where the geese fly down all roasted on the spit, bringing garlic in the bills for their dressing, and where there is a nunnery upon a river of sweet milk, and an abbey of white monks and gray, whose walls, like the hall of little King Pepin, are "of pie-crust and pastry crust," with flouren cakes for the shingles and fat puddings for the pins.

There are a few songs dating from about 1300, and mostly found in a single collection (Harl, MS., 2253), which are almost the only English verse before Chaucer that has any sweetness to a modern ear. They are written in French strophic forms in the southern dialect, and sometimes have an intermixture of French and Latin lines. They are musical, fresh, simple, and many of them very pretty. They celebrate the gladness of spring with its cuckoos and throstle-cocks, its daisies and woodruff.

"When the nightingale sings the woodes waxen green Leaf and grass and blossom spring in Averil, I ween, And love is to my herte gone with a spear so keen, Night and day my blood it drinks my herte doth me tene."[5]

{27} Others are love plaints to "Alysoun" or some other lady whose "name is in a note of the nightingale;" whose eyes are as gray as glass, and her skin as "red as rose on ris." [6] Some employ a burden or refrain.

"Blow, northern wind, Blow thou me, my sweeting. Blow, northern wind, blow, blow, blow!"

Others are touched with a light melancholy at the coming of winter.

"Winter wakeneth all my care Now these leaves waxeth bare. Oft I sigh and mourne sare When it cometh in my thought Of this worldes joy, how it goeth all to nought"

Some of these poems are love songs to Christ or the Virgin, composed in the warm language of earthly passion. The sentiment of chivalry united with the ecstatic reveries of the cloister had produced Mariolatry and the imagery of the Song of Solomon, in which Christ wooes the soul, had made this feeling of divine love familiar. Toward the end of the 13th century a collection of lives of saints, a sort of English Golden Legend, was prepared at the great abbey of Gloucester for use on saints' days. The legends were chosen partly from the hagiology of the Church Catholic, as the lives of Margaret, Christopher, and Michael; partly from the calendar of the English Church, as the {28} lives of St. Thomas of Canterbury, of the Anglo-Saxons, Dunstan, Swithin—who is mentioned by Shakspere—and Kenelm, whose life is quoted by Chaucer in the Nonne Presto's Tale. The verse was clumsy and the style monotonous, but an imaginative touch here and there has furnished a hint to later poets. Thus the legend of St. Brandan's search for the earthly paradise has been treated by Matthew Arnold and William Morris.

About the middle of the 14th century there was a revival of the Old English alliterative verse in romances like William and the Werewolf, and Sir Gawayne, and in religious pieces such as Clannesse (purity), Patience and The Perle, the last named a mystical poem of much beauty, in which a bereaved father sees a vision of his daughter among the glorified. Some of these employed rhyme as well as alliteration. They are in the West Midland dialect, although Chaucer implies that alliteration was most common in the north. "I am a sotherne man," says the parson in the Canterbury Tales. "I cannot geste rom, ram, ruf, by my letter." But the most important of the alliterative poems was the Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman. In the second half of the 14th century French had ceased to be the mother-tongue of any considerable part of the population of England. By a statute of Edward III., in 1362, it was displaced from the law courts. By 1386 English had taken its place in the schools. The {29} Anglo-Norman dialect had grown corrupt, and Chaucer contrasts the French of Paris with the provincial French spoken by his prioress, "after the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe." The native English genius was also beginning to assert itself, roused in part, perhaps, by the English victories in the wars of Edward III. against the French. It was the bows of the English yeomanry that won the fight at Crecy, fully as much as the prowess of the Norman baronage. But at home the times were bad. Heavy taxes and the repeated visitations of the pestilence, or Black Death, pressed upon the poor and wasted the land. The Church was corrupt; the mendicant orders had grown enormously wealthy, and the country was eaten up by a swarm of begging friars, pardoners, and apparitors. The social discontent was fermenting among the lower classes, which finally issued in the communistic uprising of the peasantry, under Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. This state of things is reflected in the Vision of Piers Plowman, written as early as 1362, by William Langland, a tonsured clerk of the west country. It is in form an allegory, and bears some resemblance to the later and more famous allegory of the Pilgrim's Progress. The poet falls asleep on the Malvern Hills, in Worcestershire, and has a vision of a "fair field full of folk," representing the world with its various conditions of men. There were pilgrims and palmers; hermits with hooked staves, who went to Walsingham—and {30} their wenches after them—great lubbers and long that were loth to work: friars glossing the Gospel for their own profit; pardoners cheating the people with relics and indulgences; parish priests who forsook their parishes—that had been poor since the pestilence time—and went to London to sing there for simony; bishops, archbishops, and deacons, who got themselves fat clerkships in the Exchequer, or King's Bench; in short, all manner of lazy and corrupt ecclesiastics. A lady, who represents holy Church, then appears to the dreamer, explains to him the meaning of his vision, and reads him a sermon the text of which is, "When all treasure is tried, truth is the best." A number of other allegorical figures are next introduced, Conscience, Reason, Meed, Simony, Falsehood, etc., and after a series of speeches and adventures, a second vision begins in which the seven deadly sins pass before the poet in a succession of graphic impersonations, and finally all the characters set out on a pilgrimage in search of St. Truth, finding no guide to direct them save Piers the Plowman, who stands for the simple, pious laboring man, the sound heart of the English common folk. The poem was originally in eight divisions or "passus," to which was added a continuation in three parts, Vita Do Wel, Do Bet, and Do Best. About 1377 the whole was greatly enlarged by the author.

Piers Plowman was the first extended literary work after the Conquest which was purely English in character. It owed nothing to France but the {31} allegorical cast which the Roman de la Rose had made fashionable in both countries. But even here such personified abstractions as Langland's Fair-speech and Work-when-time-is, remind us less of the Fraunchise, Bel-amour, and Fals-semblaunt of the French courtly allegories than of Bunyan's Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and even of such Puritan names as Praise-God Barebones, and Zeal-of-the-land Busy. The poem is full of English moral seriousness, of shrewd humor, the hatred of a lie, the homely English love for reality. It has little unity of plan, but is rather a series of episodes, discourses, parables, and scenes. It is all astir with the actual life of the time. We see the gossips gathered in the ale-house of Betun the brewster, and the pastry cooks in the London streets crying "Hote pies, hote! Good gees and grys. Go we dine, go we!" Had Langland not linked his literary fortunes with an uncouth and obsolescent verse, and had he possessed a finer artistic sense and a higher poetic imagination, his book might have been, like Chaucer's, among the lasting glories of our tongue. As it is, it is forgotten by all but professional students of literature and history. Its popularity in its own day is shown by the number of MSS. which are extant, and by imitations, such as Piers the Plowman's Crede (1394), and the Plowman's Tale, for a long time wrongly inserted in the Canterbury Tales. Piers became a kind of typical figure, like the French peasant, Jacques Bonhomme, and was {32} appealed to as such by the Protestant reformers of the 16th century.

The attack upon the growing corruptions of the Church was made more systematically, and from the stand-point of a theologian rather than of a popular moralist and satirist, by John Wyclif, the rector of Lutterworth and professor of Divinity in Baliol College, Oxford. In a series of Latin and English tracts he made war against indulgences, pilgrimages, images, oblations, the friars, the pope, and the doctrine of transubstantiation. But his greatest service to England was his translation of the Bible, the first complete version in the mother tongue. This he made about 1380, with the help of Nicholas Hereford, and a revision of it was made by another disciple, Purvey, some ten years later. There was no knowledge of Hebrew or Greek in England at that time, and the Wiclifite versions were made not from the original tongues, but from the Latin Vulgate. In his anxiety to make his rendering close, and mindful, perhaps, of the warning in the Apocalypse, "If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life," Wiclif followed the Latin order of construction so literally as to make rather awkward English, translating, for example, Quid sibi vult hoc somnium? by What to itself wole this sweven? Purvey's revision was somewhat freer and more idiomatic. In the reigns of Henry IV. and V. it was forbidden to read or to have any {33} of Wiclif's writings. Such of them as could be seized were publicly burned. In spite of this, copies of his Bible circulated secretly in great numbers. Forshall and Madden, in their great edition (1850), enumerate one hundred and fifty MSS. which had been consulted by them. Later translators, like Tyndale and the makers of the Authorized Version, or "King James' Bible" (1611), followed Wiclif's language in many instances; so that he was, in truth, the first author of our biblical dialect and the founder of that great monument of noble English which has been the main conservative influence in the mother-tongue, holding it fast to many strong, pithy words and idioms that would else have been lost. In 1415; some thirty years after Wiclif's death, by decree of the Council of Constance, his bones were dug up from the soil of Lutterworth chancel and burned, and the ashes cast into the Swift. "The brook," says Thomas Fuller, in his Church History, "did convey his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wiclif are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over."

Although the writings thus far mentioned are of very high interest to the student of the English language, and the historian of English manners and culture, they cannot be said to have much importance as mere literature. But in Geoffrey Chaucer (died 1400) we meet with a poet of the first rank, whose works are increasingly read and {34} will always continue to be a source of delight and refreshment to the general reader as well as a "well of English undefiled" to the professional man of letters. With the exception of Dante, Chaucer was the greatest of the poets of mediaeval Europe, and he remains one of the greatest of English poets, and certainly the foremost of English story-tellers in verse. He was the son of a London vintner, and was in his youth in the service of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, one of the sons of Edward III. He made a campaign in France in 1359-60, when he was taken prisoner. Afterward he was attached to the court and received numerous favors and appointments. He was sent on several diplomatic missions by the king, three of them to Italy, where, in all probability, he made the acquaintance of the new Italian literature, the writings of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. He was appointed at different times Comptroller of the Wool Customs, Comptroller of Petty Customs, and Clerk of the Works. He sat for Kent in Parliament, and he received pensions from three successive kings. He was a man of business as well as books, and he loved men and nature no less than study. He knew his world; he "saw life steadily and saw it whole." Living at the center of English social and political life, and resorting to the court of Edward III., then the most brilliant in Europe, Chaucer was an eye-witness of those feudal pomps which fill the high-colored pages of his contemporary, the French chronicler, {35} Froissart. His description of a tournament in the Knight's Tale is unexcelled for spirit and detail. He was familiar with dances, feasts, and state ceremonies, and all the life of the baronial castle, in bower and hall, the "trompes with the loude minstralcie," the heralds, the ladies, and the squires,

"What hawkes sitten on the perch above, What houndes liggen on the floor adown."

But his sympathy reached no less the life of the lowly, the poor widow in her narrow cottage, and that "trewe swynkere and a good," the plowman whom Langland had made the hero of his vision. He is, more than all English poets, the poet of the lusty spring, of "Aprille with her showres sweet" and the "foules song," of "May with all her floures and her greene," of the new leaves in the wood, and the meadows new powdered with the daisy, the mystic Marguerite of his Legend of Good Women. A fresh vernal air blows through all his pages.

In Chaucer's earlier works, such as the translation of the Romaunt of the Rose (if that be his), the Boke of the Duchesse, the Parlament of Foules, the Hous of Fame, as well as in the Legend of Good Women, which was later, the inspiration of the French court poetry of the 13th and 14th centuries is manifest. He retains in them the mediaeval machinery of allegories and dreams, the elaborate descriptions of palaces, {36} temples, portraitures, etc., which had been made fashionable in France by such poems as Guillaume de Lorris's Roman de la Rose, and Jean Machault's La Fontaine Amoureuse. In some of these the influence of Italian poetry is also perceptible. There are suggestions from Dante, for example, in the Parlament of Foules and the Hous of Fame, and Troilus and Cresseide is a free handling rather than a translation of Boccaccio's Filostrato. In all of these there are passages of great beauty and force. Had Chaucer written nothing else, he would still have been remembered as the most accomplished English poet of his time, but he would not have risen to the rank which he now occupies, as one of the greatest English poets of all time. This position he owes to his masterpiece, the Canterbury Tales. Here he abandoned the imitation of foreign models and the artificial literary fashions of his age, and wrote of real life from his own ripe knowledge of men and things.

The Canterbury Tales are a collection of stories written at different times, but put together, probably, toward the close of his life. The frame-work into which they are fitted is one of the happiest ever devised. A number of pilgrims who are going on horseback to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket, at Canterbury, meet at the Tabard Inn, in Southwark, a suburb of London. The jolly host of the Tabard, Harry Bailey, proposes that on their way to Canterbury, each of the company shall tell two tales, and two more on their way back, and {37} that the one who tells the best shall have a supper at the cost of the rest when they return to the inn. He himself accompanies them as judge and "reporter." In the setting of the stories there is thus a constant feeling of movement and the air of all outdoors. The little "head-links" and "end-links" which bind them together, give incidents of the journey and glimpses of the talk of the pilgrims, sometimes amounting, as in the prologue of the Wife of Bath, to full and almost dramatic character-sketches. The stories, too, are dramatically suited to the narrators. The general prologue is a series of such character-sketches, the most perfect in English poetry. The portraits of the pilgrims are illuminated with the soft brilliancy and the minute loving fidelity of the miniatures in the old missals, and with the same quaint precision in traits of expression and in costume. The pilgrims are not all such as one would meet nowadays at an English inn. The presence of a knight, a squire, a yeoman archer, and especially of so many kinds of ecclesiastics, a nun, a friar, a monk, a pardoner, and a sompnour or apparitor, reminds us that the England of that day must have been less like Protestant England, as we know it, than like the Italy of some thirty years ago. But however the outward face of society may have changed, the Canterbury pilgrims remain, in Chaucer's description, living and universal types of human nature. The Canterbury Tales are twenty-four in number. There were {38} thirty-two pilgrims, so that if finished as designed the whole collection would have numbered one hundred and twenty-eight stories.

Chaucer is the bright consummate flower of the English Middle Age. Like many another great poet, he put the final touch to the various literary forms that he found in cultivation. Thus his Knight's Tale, based upon Boccaccio's Teseide, is the best of English mediaeval romances. And yet the Rime of Sir Thopas, who goes seeking an elf queen for his mate, and is encountered by the giant Sir Olifaunt, burlesques these same romances with their impossible adventures and their tedious rambling descriptions. The tales of the prioress and the second nun are saints' legends. The Monk's Tale is a set of dry, moral apologues in the manner of his contemporary, the "moral Gower." The stories told by the reeve, miller, friar, sompnour, shipman, and merchant, belong to the class of fabliaux, a few of which existed in English, such as Dame Siriz, the Lay of the Ash, and the Land of Cokaygne, already mentioned. The Nonne Preste's Tale, likewise, which Dryden modernized with admirable humor, was of the class of fabliaux, and was suggested by a little poem in forty lines, Dou Coc et Werpil, by Marie de France, a Norman poetess of the 13th century. It belonged, like the early English poem of The Fox and the Wolf, to the popular animal-saga of Reynard the Fox. The Franklin's Tale, whose scene is Brittany, and the Wife of Baths' {39} Tale, which is laid in the time of the British Arthur, belong to the class of French lais, serious metrical tales shorter than the romance and of Breton origin, the best representatives of which are the elegant and graceful lais of Marie de France.

Chaucer was our first great master of laughter and of tears. His serious poetry is full of the tenderest pathos. His loosest tales are delightfully humorous and life-like. He is the kindliest of satirists. The knavery, greed, and hypocrisy of the begging friars and the sellers of indulgences are exposed by him as pitilessly as by Langland and Wiclif, though his mood is not like theirs, one of stern, moral indignation, but rather the good-natured scorn of a man of the world. His charity is broad enough to cover even the corrupt sompnour of whom he says,

"And yet in sooth he was a good felawe."

Whether he shared Wiclif's opinions is unknown, but John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and father of Henry IV., who was Chaucer's life-long patron, was likewise Wiclif's great upholder against the persecution of the bishops. It is, perhaps, not without significance that the poor parson in the Canterbury Tales, the only one of his ecclesiastical pilgrims whom Chaucer treats with respect, is suspected by the host of the Tabard to be a "loller," that is, a Lollard, or disciple of Wiclif, and that because he objects to the jovial inn-keeper's swearing "by Goddes bones."

{40} Chaucer's English is nearly as easy for a modern reader as Shakspere's, and few of his words have become obsolete. His verse, when rightly read, is correct and melodious. The early English was, in some respects, more "sweet upon the tongue" than the modern language. The vowels had their broad Italian sounds, and the speech was full of soft gutturals and vocalic syllables, like the endings en, es, and e, which made feminine rhymes and kept the consonants from coming harshly together.

Great poet as Chaucer was, he was not quite free from the literary weakness of his time. He relapses sometimes into the babbling style of the old chroniclers and legend writers; cites "auctours" and gives long catalogues of names and objects with a naive display of learning; and introduces vulgar details in his most exquisite passages. There is something childish about almost all the thought and art of the Middle Ages—at least outside of Italy, where classical models and traditions never quite lost their hold. But Chaucer's artlessness is half the secret of his wonderful ease in story-telling, and is so engaging that, like a child's sweet unconsciousness, one would not wish it otherwise.

The Canterbury Tales had shown of what high uses the English language was capable, but the curiously trilingual condition of literature still continued. French was spoken in the proceedings of Parliament as late as the reign of Henry {41} VI. (1422-1471). Chaucer's contemporary, John Gower, wrote his Vox Clamantis in Latin, his Speculum Meditantis (a lost poem), and a number of ballades in Parisian French, and his Confessio Amantis (1393) in English. The last named is a dreary, pedantic work, in some 15,000 smooth, monotonous, eight-syllabled couplets, in which Grande Amour instructs the lover how to get the love of Bel Pucell.

1. Early English Literature. By Bernhard ten Brink. Translated from the German by H. M. Kennedy. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1883.

2. Morris and Skeat's Specimens of Early English. (Clarendon Press Series.) Oxford.

3. Langland's Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman. Wright's Edition; or Skeat's, in Early English Text Society publications.

4. Chaucer: Canterbury Tales. Tyrwhitt's Edition; or Wright's, in Percy Society publications.

5. Complete Writings. Morris's Edition. 6 vols. (In Aldine Series.)



[1] Hue.

[2] Those.

[3] Realm.

[4] Bowstring.

[5] Pain.

[6] Branch.



{42}

CHAPTER II.

FROM CHAUCER TO SPENSER.

1400-1599.

The 15th century was a barren period in English literary history. It was nearly two hundred years after Chaucer's death before any poet came, whose name can be written in the same line with his. He was followed at once by a number of imitators who caught the trick of his language and verse, but lacked the genius to make any fine use of them. The manner of a true poet may be learned, but his style, in the high sense of the word, remains his own secret. Some of the poems which have been attributed to Chaucer and printed in editions of his works, as the Court of Love, the Flower and the Leaf, the Cuckow and the Nightingale, are now regarded by many scholars as the work of later writers. If not Chaucer's, they are of Chaucer's school, and the first two, at least, are very pretty poems after the fashion of his minor pieces, such as the Boke of the Duchesse and the Parlament of Foules.

Among his professed disciples was Thomas Occleve, a dull rhymer, who, in his Governail of Princes, a didactic poem translated from the Latin {43} about 1413, drew, or caused to be drawn, on the margin of his MS. a colored portrait of his "maister dere and fader reverent,"

"This londes verray tresour and richesse, Dethe by thy dethe hath harm irreparable Unto us done; hir vengeable duresse Dispoiled hath this londe of the swetnesse Of Rhetoryk."

Another versifier of this same generation was John Lydgate, a Benedictine monk, of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, in Suffolk, a very prolix writer, who composed, among other things, the Story of Thebes, as an addition to the Canterbury Tales. His ballad of London Lyckpenny, recounting the adventures of a countryman who goes to the law courts at Westminster in search of justice,

"But for lack of mony I could not speede,"

is of interest for the glimpse that it gives us of London street life.

Chaucer's influence wrought more fruitfully in Scotland, whither it was carried by James I., who had been captured by the English when a boy of eleven, and brought up at Windsor as a prisoner of State. There he wrote during the reign of Henry V. (1413-1422) a poem in six cantos, entitled the King's Quhair (King's Book), in Chaucer's seven lined stanza which had been employed by Lydgate in his Falls of Princes (from Boccaccio), and which was afterward called {44} the "rime royal," from its use by King James, The King's Quhair tells how the poet, on a May morning, looks from the window of his prison chamber into the castle garden full of alleys, hawthorn hedges, and fair arbors set with

"The sharpe, greene, sweete juniper."

He was listening to "the little sweete nightingale," when suddenly casting down his eyes he saw a lady walking in the garden, and at once his "heart became her thrall." The incident is precisely like Palamon's first sight of Emily in Chaucer's Knight's Tale, and almost in the very words of Palamon, the poet addresses his lady:

"Ah, sweet, are ye a worldly creature Or heavenly thing in likeness of nature? Or are ye very Nature, the goddess, That have depainted with your heavenly hand This garden full of flowres as they stand?"

Then, after a vision in the taste of the age, in which the royal prisoner is transported in turn to the courts of Venus, Minerva, and Fortune, and receives their instruction in the duties belonging to Love's service, he wakes from sleep and a white turtle-dove brings to his window a spray of red gillyflowers, whose leaves are inscribed, in golden letters, with a message of encouragement.

James I. may be reckoned among the English poets. He mentions Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate as his masters. His education was English, and so was the dialect of his poem, although the {45} unique MS. of it is in the Scotch spelling. The King's Quhair is somewhat overladen with ornament and with the fashionable allegorical devices, but it is, upon the whole, a rich and tender love song, the best specimen of court poetry between the time of Chaucer and the time of Spenser. The lady who walked in the garden on that May morning was Jane Beaufort, niece to Henry IV. She was married to her poet after his release from captivity and became Queen of Scotland in 1424. Twelve years later James was murdered by Sir Robert Graham and his Highlanders, and his wife, who strove to defend him, was wounded by the assassins. The story of the murder has been told of late by D. G. Rossetti, in his ballad, The King's Tragedy.

The whole life of this princely singer was, like his poem, in the very spirit of romance.

The effect of all this imitation of Chaucer was to fix a standard of literary style, and to confirm the authority of the East-Midland English in which he had written. Though the poets of the 15th century were not overburdened with genius, they had, at least, a definite model to follow. As in the 14th century, metrical romances continued to be translated from the French, homilies and saints' legends and rhyming chronicles were still manufactured. But the poems of Occleve and Lydgate and James I. had helped to polish and refine the tongue and to prolong the Chaucerian tradition. The literary English never again slipped {46} back into the chaos of dialects which had prevailed before Chaucer.

In the history of every literature the development of prose is later than that of verse. The latter being, by its very form, artificial, is cultivated as a fine art, and its records preserved in an early stage of society, when prose is simply the talk of men, and not thought worthy of being written and kept. English prose labored under the added disadvantage of competing with Latin, which was the cosmopolitan tongue and the medium of communication between scholars of all countries. Latin was the language of the Church, and in the Middle Ages churchman and scholar were convertible terms. The word clerk meant either priest or scholar. Two of the Canterbury Tales are in prose, as is also the Testament of Love, formerly ascribed to Chaucer, and the style of all these is so feeble, wandering, and unformed that it is hard to believe that they were written by the same man who wrote the Knight's Tale and the story of Griselda. The Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville—the forerunner of that great library of Oriental travel which has enriched our modern literature—was written, according to its author, first in Latin, then in French, and, lastly, in the year 1356, translated into English for the behoof of "lordes and knyghtes and othere noble and worthi men, that conne not Latyn but litylle." The author professed to have spent over thirty years in Eastern travel, to have penetrated as far {47} as Farther India and the "iles that ben abouten Indi," to have been in the service of the Sultan of Babylon in his wars against the Bedouins, and, at another time, in the employ of the Great Khan of Tartary. But there is no copy of the Latin version of his travels extant; the French seems to be much later than 1356, and the English MS. to belong to the early years of the fifteenth century, and to have been made by another hand. Recent investigations make it probable that Maundeville borrowed his descriptions of the remoter East from many sources, and particularly from the narrative of Odoric, a Minorite friar of Lombardy, who wrote about 1330. Some doubt is even cast upon the existence of any such person as Maundeville. Whoever wrote the book that passes under his name, however, would seem to have visited the Holy Land, and the part of the "voiage" that describes Palestine and the Levant is fairly close to the truth. The rest of the work, so far as it is not taken from the tales of other travelers, is a diverting tissue of fables about gryfouns that fly away with yokes of oxen, tribes of one-legged Ethiopians who shelter themselves from the sun by using their monstrous feet as umbrellas, etc.

During the 15th century English prose was gradually being brought into a shape fitting it for more serious uses. In the controversy between the Church and the Lollards Latin was still mainly employed, but Wiclif had written some of his tracts in English, and, in 1449, Reginald Peacock, Bishop of {48} St. Asaph, contributed, in English, to the same controversy, The Represser of Overmuch Blaming of the Clergy. Sir John Fortescue, who was chief-justice of the king's bench from 1442-1460, wrote during the reign of Edward IV. a book on the Difference between Absolute and Limited Monarchy, which may be regarded as the first treatise on political philosophy and constitutional law in the language. But these works hardly belong to pure literature, and are remarkable only as early, though not very good, examples of English prose in a barren time. The 15th century was an era of decay and change. The Middle Age was dying, Church and State were slowly disintegrating under the new intellectual influences that were working secretly under ground. In England the civil wars of the Red and White Roses were breaking up the old feudal society by decimating and impoverishing the baronage, thus preparing the way for the centralized monarchy of the Tudors. Toward the close of that century, and early in the next, happened the four great events, or series of events, which freed and widened men's minds, and, in a succession of shocks, overthrew the mediaeval system of life and thought. These were the invention of printing, the Renascence, or revival of classical learning, the discovery of America, and the Protestant Reformation.

William Caxton, the first English printer, learned the art in Cologne. In 1476 he set up his press and sign, a red pole, in the Almonry at Westminster. Just before the introduction of printing the demand {49} for MS. copies had grown very active, stimulated, perhaps, by the coming into general use of linen paper instead of the more costly parchment. The scriptoria of the monasteries were the places where the transcribing and illuminating of MSS. went on, professional copyists resorting to Westminster Abbey, for example, to make their copies of books belonging to the monastic library. Caxton's choice of a spot was, therefore, significant. His new art for multiplying copies began to supersede the old method of transcription at the very head-quarters of the MS. makers. The first book that bears his Westminster imprint was the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, translated from the French by Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, a brother-in-law of Edward IV. The list of books printed by Caxton is interesting, as showing the taste of the time, as he naturally selected what was most in demand. The list shows that manuals of devotion and chivalry were still in chief request, books like the Order of Chivalry, Faits of Arms, and the Golden Legend, which last Caxton translated himself, as well as Reynard the Fox, and a French version of the Aeneid. He also printed, with continuations of his own, revisions of several early chronicles, and editions of Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate. A translation of Cicero on Friendship, made directly from the Latin, by Thomas Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, was printed by Caxton, but no edition of a classical author in the original. The new learning of the Renascence had not, as {50} yet, taken much hold in England. Upon the whole, the productions of Caxton's press were mostly of a kind that may be described as mediaeval, and the most important of them, if we except his edition of Chaucer, was that "noble and joyous book," as Caxton called it, Le Morte Darthur, written by Sir Thomas Malory in 1469, and printed by Caxton in 1485. This was a compilation from French Arthur romances, and was by far the best English prose that had yet been written. It may be doubted, indeed, whether, for purposes of simple story telling, the picturesque charm of Malory's style has been improved upon. The episode which lends its name to the whole romance, the death of Arthur, is most impressively told, and Tennyson has followed Malory's narrative closely, even to such details of the scene as the little chapel by the sea, the moonlight, and the answer which Sir Bedwere made the wounded king, when bidden to throw Excalibur into the water, "'What saw thou there?' said the king. 'Sir,' he said, 'I saw nothing but the waters wap and the waves wan.'"

"I heard the ripple washing in the reeds And the wild water lapping on the crag."

And very touching and beautiful is the oft-quoted lament of Sir Ector over Launcelot, in Malory's final chapter: "'Ah, Launcelot,' he said, 'thou were head of all Christian knights; and now I dare say,' said Sir Ector, 'thou, Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly {51} knight's hand; and thou were the courtiest knight that ever bare shield; and thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse; and thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman; and thou were the kindest man that ever strake with sword; and thou were the goodliest person ever came among press of knights; and thou were the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.'"

Equally good, as an example of English prose narrative, was the translation made by John Bourchier, Lord Berners, of that most brilliant of the French chroniclers, Chaucer's contemporary, Sir John Froissart. Lord Berners was the English governor of Calais, and his version of Froissart's Chronicles was made in 1523-25, at the request of Henry VIII. In these two books English chivalry spoke its last genuine word. In Sir Philip Sidney the character of the knight was merged into that of the modern gentleman. And although tournaments were still held in the reign of Elizabeth, and Spenser cast his Faery Queene into the form of a chivalry romance, these were but a ceremonial survival and literary tradition from an order of things that had passed away. How antagonistic the new classical culture was to the vanished ideal of the Middle Age may be read in Toxophilus, a treatise on archery published in 1545, by Roger Ascham, a Greek lecturer in Cambridge, and the {52} tutor of the Princess Elizabeth and of Lady Jane Grey. "In our forefathers' time, when Papistry as a standing pool covered and overflowed all England, few books were read in our tongue saving certain books of chivalry, as they said, for pastime and pleasure, which, as some say, were made in monasteries by idle monks or wanton canons: as one, for example, Morte Arthure, the whole pleasure of which book standeth in two special points, in open manslaughter and bold bawdry. This is good stuff for wise men to laugh at or honest men to take pleasure at. Yet I know when God's Bible was banished the Court, and Morte Arthure received into the prince's chamber."

The fashionable school of courtly allegory, first introduced into England by the translation of the Romaunt of the Rose, reached its extremity in Stephen Hawes's Passetyme of Pleasure, printed by Caxton's successor, Wynkyn de Worde, in 1517. This was a dreary and pedantic poem, in which it is told how Graunde Amoure, after a long series of adventures and instructions among such shadowy personages as Verite, Observaunce, Falshed, and Good Operacion, finally won the love of La Belle Pucel. Hawes was the last English poet of note whose culture was exclusively mediaeval. His contemporary, John Skelton, mingled the old fashions with the new classical learning. In his Bowge of Courte (Court Entertainment or Dole), and in others of his earlier pieces, he used, like Hawes, Chaucer's seven-lined stanza. But his later {53} poems were mostly written in a verse of his own invention, called after him Skeltonical. This was a sort of glorified doggerel, in short, swift, ragged lines, with occasional intermixture of French and Latin.

"Her beautye to augment. Dame Nature hath her lent A warte upon her cheke, Who so lyst to seke In her vysage a skar, That semyth from afar Lyke to the radyant star, All with favour fret, So properly it is set. She is the vyolet, The daysy delectable, The columbine commendable, The jelofer amyable; For this most goodly floure, This blossom of fressh colour, So Jupiter me succour, She florysheth new and new In beaute and vertew; Hac claritate gemina, O gloriosa femina, etc."

Skelton was a rude railing rhymer, a singular mixture of a true and original poet with a buffoon; coarse as Rabelais, whimsical, obscure, but always vivacious. He was the rector of Diss, in Norfolk, but his profane and scurrilous wit seems rather out of keeping with his clerical character. His Tunnyng of Elynoure Rummyng is a study of very low life, reminding one slightly of Burns's Jolly {54} Beggars. His Phyllyp Sparowe is a sportive, pretty, fantastic elegy on the death of a pet bird belonging to Mistress Joanna Scroupe, of Carowe, and has been compared to the Latin poet Catullus's elegy on Lesbia's sparrow. In Speke, Parrot, and Why Come ye not to Courte? he assailed the powerful Cardinal Wolsey with the most ferocious satire, and was, in consequence, obliged to take sanctuary at Westminster, where he died in 1529. Skelton was a classical scholar, and at one time tutor to Henry VIII. The great humanist, Erasmus, spoke of him as the "one light and ornament of British letters." Caxton asserts that he had read Virgil, Ovid, and Tully, and quaintly adds, "I suppose he hath dronken of Elycon's well."

In refreshing contrast with the artificial court poetry of the 15th and first three quarters of the 16th century, was the folk-poetry, the popular ballad literature which was handed down by oral tradition. The English and Scotch ballads were narrative songs, written in a variety of meters, but chiefly in what is known as the ballad stanza.

"In somer, when the shawes[1] be sheyne,[2] And leves be large and longe, Hit is full merry in feyre forest To here the foulys song.

"To se the dere draw to the dale, And leve the hilles hee,[3] And shadow them in the leves grene, Under the grene-wode tree."

[55]

It is not possible to assign a definite date to these ballads. They lived on the lips of the people, and were seldom reduced to writing till many years after they were first composed and sung. Meanwhile they underwent repeated changes, so that we have numerous versions of the same story. They belonged to no particular author, but, like all folk-lore, were handled freely by the unknown poets, minstrels, and ballad reciters, who modernized their language, added to them, or corrupted them, and passed them along. Coming out of an uncertain past, based on some dark legend of heart-break or bloodshed, they bear no poet's name, but are ferae naturae, and have the flavor of wild game. In the forms in which they are preserved few of them are older than the 17th century, or the latter part of the 16th century, though many, in their original shape, are, doubtless, much older. A very few of the Robin Hood ballads go back to the 15th century, and to the same period is assigned the charming ballad of the Nut Brown Maid and the famous border ballad of Chevy Chase, which describes a battle between the retainers of the two great houses of Douglas and Percy. It was this song of which Sir Philip Sidney wrote, "I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas but I found myself more moved than by a trumpet; and yet it is sung but by some blind crouder,[4] with no rougher voice than rude style." But the style of the ballads was not always rude. {56} In their compressed energy of expression, in the impassioned abrupt, yet indirect way in which they tell their tale of grief and horror, there reside often a tragic power and art superior to any English poetry that had been written since Chaucer, superior even to Chaucer in the quality of intensity. The true home of the ballad literature was "the north country," and especially the Scotch border, where the constant forays of moss-troopers and the raids and private warfare of the lords of the marches supplied many traditions of heroism, like those celebrated in the old poem of the Battle of Otterbourne, and in the Hunting of the Cheviot, or Chevy Chase, already mentioned. Some of these are Scotch and others English; the dialect of Lowland Scotland did not, in effect, differ much from that of Northumberland and Yorkshire, both descended alike from the old Northumbrian of Anglo-Saxon times. Other ballads were shortened, popular versions of the chivalry romances which were passing out of fashion among educated readers in the 16th century, and now fell into the hands of the ballad makers. Others preserved the memory of local countryside tales, family feuds, and tragic incidents, partly historical and partly legendary, associated often with particular spots. Such are, for example, The Dowie Dens of Yarrow, Fair Helen of Kirkconnell, The Forsaken Bride, and The Twa Corbies. Others, again, have a coloring of popular superstition, like the beautiful ballad concerning {57} Thomas of Ersyldoune, who goes in at Eldon Hill with an Elf queen and spends seven years in fairy land.

But the most popular of all the ballads were those which cluster about the name of that good outlaw, Robin Hood, who, with his merry men, hunted the forest of merry Sherwood, where he killed the king's deer and waylaid rich travelers, but was kind to poor knights and honest workmen. Robin Hood is the true ballad hero, the darling of the common people, as Arthur was of the nobles. The names of his Confessor, Friar Tuck; his mistress, Maid Marian; his companions, Little John, Scathelock, and Much, the Miller's son, were as familiar as household words. Langland, in the 14th century, mentions "rimes of Robin Hood," and efforts have been made to identify him with some actual personage, as with one of the dispossessed barons who had been adherents of Simon de Montfort in his war against Henry III. But there seems to be nothing historical about Robin Hood. He was a creation of the popular fancy. The game laws under the Norman kings were very oppressive, and there were, doubtless, dim memories still cherished among the Saxon masses of Hereward and Edric the Wild, who had defied the power of the Conqueror, as well as of later freebooters, who had taken to the woods and lived by plunder. Robin Hood was a thoroughly national character. He had the English love of fair-play, the English readiness to shake hands and {58} make up, and keep no malice when worsted in a square fight. He beat and plundered the rich bishops and abbots, who had more than their share of wealth, but he was generous and hospitable to the distressed, and lived a free and careless life in the good green wood. He was a mighty archer, with those national weapons, the long-bow and the cloth-yard-shaft. He tricked and baffled legal authority in the person of the proud sheriff of Nottingham, thereby appealing to that secret sympathy with lawlessness and adventure which marked the free-born, vigorous yeomanry of England. And finally the scenery of the forest gives a poetic background and a never-failing charm to the exploits of "the old Robin Hood of England" and his merry men.

The ballads came, in time, to have certain tricks of style, such as are apt to characterize a body of anonymous folk-poetry. Such is their use of conventional epithets; "the red, red gold," "the good, green wood," "the gray goose wing." Such are certain recurring terms of phrase like,

"But out and spak their stepmother."

Such is, finally, a kind of sing-song repetition, which doubtless helped the ballad singer to memorize his stock, as, for example,

"She had'na pu'd a double rose, A rose but only twae."

{59}

Or again,

"And mony ane sings o' grass, o' grass, And mony ane sings o' corn; An mony ane sings o' Robin Hood, Kens little whare he was born.

It was na in the ha', the ha', Nor in the painted bower; But it was in the gude green wood, Amang the lily flower."

Copies of some of these old ballads were hawked about in the 16th century, printed in black letter, "broad sides," or single sheets. Wynkyn de Worde printed, in 1489, A Lytell Geste of Robin Hood, which is a sort of digest of earlier ballads on the subject. In the 17th century a few of the English popular ballads were collected in miscellanies, called Garlands. Early in the 18th century the Scotch poet, Allan Ramsay, published a number of Scotch ballads in the Evergreen and Tea-Table Miscellany. But no large and important collection was put forth until Percy's Reliques, 1765, a book which had a powerful influence upon Wordsworth and Walter Scott. In Scotland some excellent ballads in the ancient manner were written in the 18th century, such as Jane Elliott's Lament for Flodden, and the fine ballad of Sir Patrick Spence. Walter Scott's Proud Maisie is in the Wood, is a perfect reproduction of the pregnant, indirect method of the old ballad makers.

In 1453 Constantinople was taken by the Turks, {60} and many Greek scholars, with their MSS., fled into Italy, where they began teaching their language and literature, and especially the philosophy of Plato. There had been little or no knowledge of Greek in western Europe during the Middle Ages, and only a very imperfect knowledge of the Latin classics. Ovid and Statius were widely read, and so was the late Latin poet, Boethius, whose De Consolatione Philosophiae had been translated into English by King Alfred and by Chaucer. Little was known of Vergil at first hand, and he was popularly supposed to have been a mighty wizard, who made sundry works of enchantment at Rome, such as a magic mirror and statue. Caxton's so-called translation of the Aeneid was in reality nothing but a version of a French romance based on Vergil's epic. Of the Roman historians, orators, and moralists, such as Livy, Tacitus, Caesar, Cicero, and Seneca, there was an almost entire ignorance, as also of poets like Horace, Lucretius, Juvenal, and Catullus. The gradual rediscovery of the remains of ancient art and literature which took place in the 15th century, and largely in Italy, worked an immense revolution in the mind of Europe. MSS. were brought out of their hiding places, edited by scholars and spread abroad by means of the printing-press. Statues were dug up and placed in museums, and men became acquainted with a civilization far more mature than that of the Middle Age, and with models of perfect {61} workmanship in letters and the fine arts. In the latter years of the 15th century a number of Englishmen learned Greek in Italy and brought it back with them to England. William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre, who had studied at Florence under the refugee, Demetrius Chalcondylas, began teaching Greek, at Oxford, the former as early as 1491. A little later John Colet, Dean of St. Paul's and the founder of St. Paul's School, and his friend, William Lily, the grammarian and first master of St. Paul's (1500), also studied Greek abroad, Colet in Italy, and Lily at Rhodes and in the city of Rome. Thomas More, afterward the famous chancellor of Henry VIII., was among the pupils of Grocyn and Linacre at Oxford. Thither also, in 1497, came in search of the new knowledge, the Dutchman, Erasmus, who became the foremost scholar of his time. From Oxford the study spread to the sister university, where the first English Grecian of his day, Sir Jno. Cheke, who "taught Cambridge and King Edward Greek," became the incumbent of the new professorship founded about 1540. Among his pupils was Roger Ascham, already mentioned, in whose time St. John's College, Cambridge, was the chief seat of the new learning, of which Thomas Nash testifies that it "was as an universitie within itself; having more candles light in it, every winter morning before four of the clock, than the four of clock bell gave strokes." Greek was not introduced at the universities without violent {62} opposition from the conservative element, who were nicknamed Trojans. The opposition came in part from the priests, who feared that the new study would sow seeds of heresy. Yet many of the most devout churchmen were friends of a more liberal culture, among them Thomas More, whose Catholicism was undoubted and who went to the block for his religion. Cardinal Wolsey, whom More succeeded as chancellor, was also a munificent patron of learning and founded Christ Church College, at Oxford. Popular education at once felt the impulse of the new studies, and over twenty endowed grammar schools were established in England in the first twenty years of the 16th century. Greek became a passion even with English ladies. Ascham in his Schoolmaster, a treatise on education, published in 1570, says, that Queen Elisabeth "readeth here now at Windsor more Greek every day, than some prebendarie of this Church doth read Latin in a whole week." And in the same book he tells how calling once upon Lady Jane Grey, at Brodegate, in Leicestershire, he "found her in her chamber reading Phaedon Platonis in Greek, and that with as much delite as some gentlemen would read a merry tale in Bocase," and when he asked her why she had not gone hunting with the rest, she answered, "I wisse, all their sport in the park is but a shadow to that pleasure that I find in Plato." Ascham's Schoolmaster, as well as his earlier book, Toxophilus, a Platonic dialogue on archery, bristles with quotations from the Greek and Latin {63} classics, and with that perpetual reference to the authority of antiquity on every topic that he touches, which remained the fashion in all serious prose down to the time of Dryden.

One speedy result of the new learning was fresh translations of the Scriptures into English, out of the original tongues. In 1525 William Tyndal printed at Cologne and Worms his version of the New Testament from the Greek. Ten years later Miles Coverdale made, at Zurich, a translation of the whole Bible from the German and the Latin. These were the basis of numerous later translations, and the strong beautiful English of Tyndal's Testament is preserved for the most part in our Authorized Version (1611). At first it was not safe to make or distribute these early translations in England. Numbers of copies were brought into the country, however, and did much to promote the cause of the Reformation. After Henry VIII. had broken with the Pope the new English Bible circulated freely among the people. Tyndal and Sir Thomas More carried on a vigorous controversy in English upon some of the questions at issue between the Church and the Protestants. Other important contributions to the literature of the Reformation were the homely sermons preached at Westminster and at Paul's Cross by Bishop Hugh Latimer, who was burned at Oxford in the reign of Bloody Mary. The English Book of Common Prayer was compiled in 1549-52. More was, perhaps, the best {64} representative of a group of scholars who wished to enlighten and reform the Church from inside, but who refused to follow Henry VIII. in his breach with Rome. Dean Colet and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, belonged to the same company, and Fisher was beheaded in the same year (1535) with More, and for the same offense, namely, refusing to take the oath to maintain the act confirming the king's divorce from Catherine of Arragon and his marriage with Anne Boleyn. More's philosophy is best reflected in his Utopia, the description of an ideal commonwealth, modeled on Plato's Republic, and printed in 1516. The name signifies "no place" (Outopos), and has furnished an adjective to the language. The Utopia was in Latin, but More's History of Edward V. and Richard III., written in 1513, though not printed till 1557, was in English. It is the first example in the tongue of a history as distinguished from a chronicle; that is, it is a reasoned and artistic presentation of an historic period, and not a mere chronological narrative of events.

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