English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History - Designed as a Manual of Instruction
by Henry Coppee
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English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History.

Designed as a Manual of Instruction.


Henry Coppee, LL.D.,

President of the Lehigh University.

The Roman Epic abounds in moral and poetical defects; nevertheless it remains the most complete picture of the national mind at its highest elevation, the most precious document of national history, if the history of an age is revealed in its ideas, no less than in its events and incidents.—Rev. C. Merivale.

History of the Romans under the Empire, c. xli.

Second Edition. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger. 1873.

Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1872, by Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, in the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.

Stereotyped by J. Fagan & Son, Philadelphia.

To The Right Reverend William Bacon Stevens, D.D., LL.D., Bishop Of Pennsylvania.

My Dear Bishop:

I desire to connect your name with whatever may be useful and valuable in this work, to show my high appreciation of your fervent piety, varied learning, and elegant literary accomplishments; and, also, far more than this, to record the personal acknowledgment that no man ever had a more constant, judicious, generous and affectionate brother, than you have been to me, for forty years of intimate and unbroken association.

Most affectionately and faithfully yours,

Henry Coppee.


It is not the purpose of the author to add another to the many volumes containing a chronological list of English authors, with brief comments upon each. Such a statement of works, arranged according to periods, or reigns of English monarchs, is valuable only as an abridged dictionary of names and dates. Nor is there any logical pertinence in clustering contemporary names about a principal author, however illustrious he may be. The object of this work is to present prominently the historic connections and teachings of English literature; to place great authors in immediate relations with great events in history; and thus to propose an important principle to students in all their reading. Thus it is that Literature and History are reciprocal: they combine to make eras.

Merely to establish this historic principle, it would have been sufficient to consider the greatest authors, such as Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope; but it occurred to me, while keeping this principle before me, to give also a connected view of the course of English literature, which might, in an academic curriculum, show students how and what to read for themselves. Any attempt beyond this in so condensed a work must prove a failure, and so it may well happen that some readers will fail to find a full notice, or even a mention, of some favorite author.

English literature can only be studied in the writings of the authors here only mentioned; but I hope that the work will be found to contain suggestions for making such extended reading profitable; and that teachers will find it valuable as a syllabus for fuller courses of lectures.

To those who would like to find information as to the best editions of the authors mentioned, I can only say that I at first intended and began to note editions: I soon saw that I could not do this with any degree of uniformity, and therefore determined to refer all who desire this bibliographic assistance, to The Dictionary of Authors, by my friend S. Austin Allibone, LL.D., in which bibliography is a strong feature. I am not called upon to eulogize that noble work, but I cannot help saying that I have found it invaluable, and that whether mentioned or not, no writer can treat of English authors without constant recurrence to its accurate columns: it is a literary marvel of our age.

It will be observed that the remoter periods of the literature are those in which the historic teachings are the most distinctly visible; we see them from a vantage ground, in their full scope, and in the interrelations of their parts. Although in the more modern periods the number of writers is greatly increased, we are too near to discern the entire period, and are in danger of becoming partisans, by reason of our limited view. Especially is this true of the age in which we live. Contemporary history is but party-chronicle: the true philosophic history can only be written when distance and elevation give due scope to our vision.

The principle I have laid down is best illustrated by the great literary masters. Those of less degree have been treated at less length, and many of them will be found in the smaller print, to save space. Those who study the book should study the small print as carefully as the other.

After a somewhat elaborate exposition of English literature, I could not induce myself to tack on an inadequate chapter on American literature; and, besides, I think that to treat the two subjects in one volume would be as incongruous as to write a joint biography of Marlborough and Washington. American literature is too great and noble, and has had too marvelous a development to be made an appendix to English literature.

If time shall serve, I hope to prepare a separate volume, exhibiting the stages of our literature in the Colonial period, the Revolutionary epoch, the time of Constitutional establishment, and the present period. It will be found to illustrate these historical divisions in a remarkable manner.

H. C.

The Lehigh University, October, 1872.




Literature and Science—English Literature—General Principle—Celts and Cymry—Roman Conquest—Coming of the Saxons—Danish Invasions—The Norman Conquest—Changes in Language



The Uses of Literature—Italy, France, England—Purpose of the Work—Celtic Literary Remains—Druids and Druidism—Roman Writers—Psalter of Cashel—Welsh Triads and Mabinogion—Gildas and St. Colm



The Lineage of the Anglo-Saxon—Earliest Saxon Poem—Metrical Arrangement—Periphrasis and Alliteration—Beowulf—Caedmon—Other Saxon Fragments—The Appearance of Bede



Biography—Ecclesiastical History—The Recorded Miracles—Bede's Latin—Other Writers—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: its Value—Alfred the Great—Effect of the Danish Invasions



Norman Rule—Its Oppression—Its Benefits—William of Malmesbury—Geoffrey of Monmouth—Other Latin Chronicles—Anglo-Norman Poets—Richard Wace—Other Poets



Semi-Saxon Literature—Layamon—The Ormulum—Robert of Gloucester—Langland. Piers Plowman—Piers Plowman's Creed—Sir Jean Froissart—Sir John Mandevil



A New Era: Chaucer—Italian Influence—Chaucer as a Founder—Earlier Poems—The Canterbury Tales—Characters—Satire—Presentations of Woman—The Plan Proposed



Historical Facts—Reform in Religion—The Clergy, Regular and Secular—The Friar and the Sompnour—The Pardonere—The Poure Persone—John Wiclif—The Translation of the Bible—The Ashes of Wiclif



Social Life—Government—Chaucer's English—His Death—Historical Facts—John Gower—Chaucer and Gower—Gower's Language—Other Writers



Greek Literature—Invention of Printing. Caxton—Contemporary History—Skelton—Wyatt—Surrey—Sir Thomas Moore—Utopia, and other Works—Other Writers



The Great Change—Edward VI. and Mary—Sidney—The Arcadia—Defence of Poesy—Astrophel and Stella—Gabriel Harvey—Edmund Spenser: Shepherd's Calendar—His Great Work



The Faerie Queene—The Plan Proposed—Illustrations of the History—The Knight and the Lady—The Wood of Error and the Hermitage—The Crusades—Britomartis and Sir Artegal—Elizabeth—Mary Queen of Scots—Other Works—Spenser's Fate—Other Writers



Origin of the Drama—Miracle Plays—Moralities—First Comedy—Early Tragedies—Christopher Marlowe—Other Dramatists—Playwrights and Morals



The Power of Shakspeare—Meagre Early History—Doubts of his Identity—What is known—Marries and goes to London—"Venus" and "Lucrece"—Retirement and Death—Literary Habitudes—Variety of the Plays—Table of Dates and Sources



The Grounds of his Fame—Creation of Character—Imagination and Fancy—Power of Expression—His Faults—Influence of Elizabeth—Sonnets—Ireland and Collier—Concordance—Other Writers



Birth and Early Life—Treatment of Essex—His Appointments—His Fall—Writes Philosophy—Magna Instauratio—His Defects—His Fame—His Essays



Early Versions—The Septuagint—The Vulgate—Wiclif; Tyndale—Coverdale; Cranmer—Geneva; Bishop's Bible—King James's Bible—Language of the Bible—Revision



Historical Facts—Charles I.—Religious Extremes—Cromwell—Birth and Early Works—Views of Marriage—Other Prose Works—Effects of the Restoration—Estimate of his Prose



The Blind Poet—Paradise Lost—Milton and Dante—His Faults—Characteristics of the Age—Paradise Regained—His Scholarship—His Sonnets—His Death and Fame



Cowley and Milton—Cowley's Life and Works—His Fame—Butler's Career—Hudibras—His Poverty and Death—Izaak Walton—The Angler; and Lives—Other Writers



The Court of Charles II.—Dryden's Early Life—The Death of Cromwell—The Restoration—Dryden's Tribute—Annus Mirabilis—Absalom and Achitophel—The Death of Charles—Dryden's Conversion—Dryden's Fall—His Odes



The English Divines—Hall—Chillingsworth—Taylor—Fuller—Sir T. Browne—Baxter—Fox—Bunyan—South—Other Writers



The License of the Age—Dryden—Wycherley—Congreve—Vanbrugh— Farquhar—Etherege—Tragedy—Otway—Rowe—Lee—Southern



Contemporary History—Birth and Early Life—Essay, on Criticism—Rape of the Lock—The Messiah—The Iliad—Value of the Translation—The Odyssey—Essay on Man—The Artificial School—Estimate of Pope—Other Writers



The Character of the Age—Queen Anne—Whigs and Tories—George I.—Addison: The Campaign—Sir Roger de Coverley—The Club—Addison's Hymns—Person and Literary Character



Sir Richard Steele—Periodicals—The Crisis—His Last Days—Jonathan Swift: Poems—The Tale of a Tub—Battle of the Books—Pamphlets—M. B. Drapier—Gulliver's Travels—Stella and Vanessa—His Character and Death



The New Age—Daniel Defoe—Robinson Crusoe—Richardson—Pamela, and Other Novels—Fielding—Joseph Andrews—Tom Jones—Its Moral—Smollett—Roderick Random—Peregrine Pickle



The Subjective School—Sterne: Sermons—Tristram Shandy—Sentimental Journey—Oliver Goldsmith—Poems: The Vicar—Histories, and Other Works—Mackenzie—The Man of Feeling



The Sceptical Age—David Hume—History of England—Metaphysics—Essay on Miracles—Robertson—Histories—Gibbon—The Decline and Fall



Early Life and Career—London—Rambler and Idler—The Dictionary—Other Works—Lives of the Poets—Person and Character—Style—Junius



The Eighteenth Century—James Macpherson—Ossian—Thomas Chatterton—His Poems—The Verdict—Suicide—The Cause



The Transition Period—James Thomson—The Seasons—The Castle of Indolence—Mark Akenside—Pleasures of the Imagination—Thomas Gray—The Elegy. The Bard—William Cowper—The Task—Translation of Homer—Other Writers



The Progress of the Drama—Garrick—Foote—Cumberland—Sheridan—George Colman—George Colman, the Younger—Other Dramatists and Humorists—Other Writers on Various Subjects



Walter Scott—Translations and Minstrelsy—The Lay of the Last Minstrel—Other Poems—The Waverley Novels—Particular Mention—Pecuniary Troubles—His Manly Purpose—Powers Overtasked—Fruitless Journey—Return and Death—His Fame



Early Life of Byron—Childe Harold and Eastern Tales—Unhappy Marriage—Philhellenism and Death—Estimate of his Poetry—Thomas Moore—Anacreon—Later Fortunes—Lalla Rookh—His Diary—His Rank as Poet



Robert Burns—His Poems—His Career—George Crabbe—Thomas Campbell—Samuel Rogers—P. B. Shelley—John Keats—Other Writers



The New School—William Wordsworth—Poetical Canons—The Excursion and Sonnets—An Estimate—Robert Southey—His Writings—Historical Value—S. T. Coleridge—Early Life—His Helplessness—Hartley and H. N. Coleridge



Alfred Tennyson—Early Works—The Princess—Idyls of the King—Elizabeth B. Browning—Aurora Leigh—Her Faults—Robert Browning—Other Poets



New Materials—George Grote—History of Greece—Lord Macaulay—History of England—Its Faults—Thomas Carlyle—Life of Frederick II.—Other Historians



Bulwer—Changes in Writers—Dickens's Novels—American Notes—His Varied Powers—Second Visit to America—Thackeray—Vanity Fair—Henry Esmond—The Newcomes—The Georges—Estimate of his Powers



Charles Lamb—Thomas Hood—Thomas de Quincey—Other Novelists—Writers on Science and Philosophy



Roman News Letters—The Gazette—The Civil War—Later Divisions—The Reviews—The Monthlies—The Dailies—The London Times—Other Newspapers

Alphabetical Index of Authors



Literature and Science. English Literature. General Principle. Celts and Cymry. Roman Conquest. Coming of the Saxons. Danish Invasions. The Norman Conquest. Changes in Language.


There are two words in the English language which are now used to express the two great divisions of mental production—Science and Literature; and yet, from their etymology, they have so much in common, that it has been necessary to attach to each a technical meaning, in order that we may employ them without confusion.

Science, from the participle sciens, of scio, scire, to know, would seem to comprise all that can be known—what the Latins called the omne scibile, or all-knowable.

Literature is from litera, a letter, and probably at one remove from lino, litum, to anoint or besmear, because in the earlier times a tablet was smeared with wax, and letters were traced upon it with a graver. Literature, in its first meaning, would, therefore, comprise all that can be conveyed by the use of letters.

But language is impatient of retaining two words which convey the same meaning; and although science had at first to do with the fact of knowing and the conditions of knowledge in the abstract, while literature meant the written record of such knowledge, a far more distinct sphere has been given to each in later times, and special functions assigned them.

In general terms, Science now means any branch of knowledge in which men search for principles reaching back to the ultimate, or for facts which establish these principles, or are classified by them in a logical order. Thus we speak of the mathematical, physical, metaphysical, and moral sciences.

Literature, which is of later development as at present used, comprises those subjects which have a relation to human life and human nature through the power of the imagination and the fancy. Technically, literature includes history, poetry, oratory, the drama, and works of fiction, and critical productions upon any of these as themes.

Such, at least, will be a sufficiently exact division for our purpose, although the student will find them overlapping each other's domain occasionally, interchanging functions, and reciprocally serving for each other's advantage. Thus it is no confusion of terms to speak of the poetry of science and of the science of poetry; and thus the great functions of the human mind, although scientifically distinct, co-operate in harmonious and reciprocal relations in their diverse and manifold productions.

ENGLISH LITERATURE.—English Literature may then be considered as comprising the progressive productions of the English mind in the paths of imagination and taste, and is to be studied in the works of the poets, historians, dramatists, essayists, and romancers—a long line of brilliant names from the origin of the language to the present day.

To the general reader all that is profitable in this study dates from the appearance of Chaucer, who has been justly styled the Father of English Poetry; and Chaucer even requires a glossary, as a considerable portion of his vocabulary has become obsolete and much of it has been modified; but for the student of English literature, who wishes to understand its philosophy and its historic relations, it becomes necessary to ascend to a more remote period, in order to find the origin of the language in which Chaucer wrote, and the effect produced upon him by any antecedent literary works, in the root-languages from which the English has sprung.

GENERAL PRINCIPLE.—It may be stated, as a general principle, that to understand a nation's literature, we must study the history of the people and of their language; the geography of the countries from which they came, as well as that in which they live; the concurrent historic causes which have conspired to form and influence the literature. We shall find, as we advance in this study, that the life and literature of a people are reciprocally reflective.

I. CELTS AND CYMRY.—Thus, in undertaking the study of English literature, we must begin with the history of the Celts and Cymry, the first inhabitants of the British Islands of whom we have any record, who had come from Asia in the first great wave of western migration; a rude, aboriginal people, whose languages, at the beginning of the Christian era, were included in one family, the Celtic, comprising the British or Cambrian, and the Gadhelic classes. In process of time these were subdivided thus:

The British into Welsh, at present spoken in Wales. Cornish, extinct only within a century. Armorican, Bas Breton, spoken in French Brittany. The Gadhelic into Gaelic, still spoken in the Scottish Highlands. Irish, or Erse, spoken in Ireland. Manx, spoken in the Isle of Man.

Such are the first people and dialects to be considered as the antecedent occupants of the country in which English literature was to have its birth.

II. ROMAN CONQUEST.—But these Celtic peoples were conquered by the Romans under Caesar and his successors, and kept in a state of servile thraldom for four hundred and fifty years. There was but little amalgamation between them and their military masters. Britain was a most valuable northern outpost of the Roman Empire, and was occupied by large garrisons, which employed the people in hard labors, and used them for Roman aggrandizement, but despised them too much to attempt to elevate their condition. Elsewhere the Romans depopulated, where they met with barbarian resistance; they made a solitude and called it peace—for which they gave a triumph and a cognomen to the conqueror; but in Britain, although harassed and endangered by the insurrections of the natives, they bore with them; they built fine cities like London and York, originally military outposts, and transformed much of the country between the Channel and the Tweed from pathless forest into a civilized residence.

III. COMING OF THE SAXONS.—Compelled by the increasing dangers and troubles immediately around the city of Rome to abandon their distant dependencies, the Roman legions evacuated Britain, and left the people, who had become enervated, spiritless, and unaccustomed to the use of arms, a prey to their fierce neighbors, both from Scotland and from the continent.

The Saxons had already made frequent incursions into Britain, while rival Roman chieftains were contesting for pre-eminence, and, as early as the third century, had become so troublesome that the Roman emperors were obliged to appoint a general to defend the eastern coast, known as comes litoris Saxonici, or count of the Saxon shore.[1]

These Saxons, who had already tested the goodliness of the land, came when the Romans departed, under the specious guise of protectors of the Britons against the inroads of the Picts and Scots; but in reality to possess themselves of the country. This was a true conquest of race—Teutons overrunning Celts. They came first in reconnoitring bands; then in large numbers, not simply to garrison, as the Romans had done, but to occupy permanently. From the less attractive seats of Friesland and the basin of the Weser, they came to establish themselves in a charming country, already reclaimed from barbarism, to enslave or destroy the inhabitants, and to introduce their language, religion, and social institutions. They came as a confederated people of German race—Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and Frisians;[2] but, as far as the results of their conquest are concerned, there was entire unity among them.

The Celts, for a brief period protected by them from their fierce northern neighbors, were soon enslaved and oppressed: those who resisted were driven slowly to the Welsh mountains, or into Cornwall, or across the Channel into French Brittany. Great numbers were destroyed. They left few traces of their institutions and their language. Thus the Saxon was established in its strength, and has since remained the strongest element of English ethnography.

IV. DANISH INVASIONS.—But Saxon Britain was also to suffer from continental incursions. The Scandinavians—inhabitants of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark—impelled by the same spirit of piratical adventure which had actuated the Saxons, began to leave their homes for foreign conquest. "Impatient of a bleak climate and narrow limits, they started from the banquet, grasped their arms, sounded their horn, ascended their ships, and explored every coast that promised either spoil or settlement."[3] To England they came as Danes; to France, as Northmen or Normans. They took advantage of the Saxon wars with the British, of Saxon national feuds, and of that enervation which luxurious living had induced in the Saxon kings of the octarchy, and succeeded in occupying a large portion of the north and east of England; and they have exerted in language, in physical type, and in manners a far greater influence than has been usually conceded. Indeed, the Danish chapter in English history has not yet been fairly written. They were men of a singularly bold and adventurous spirit, as is evinced by their voyages to Iceland, Greenland, and thence to the Atlantic coast of North America, as early as the tenth and eleventh centuries. It is more directly to our purpose to observe their character as it is displayed in their conquest of the Frankish kingdom of Neustria, in their facile reception and ready assimilation of the Roman language and arts which they found in Gaul, and in their forcible occupancy, under William the Conqueror, of Saxon England, in 1066.

V. THE NORMAN CONQUEST.—The vigor of the Normans had been trained, but not weakened by their culture in Normandy. They maintained their supremacy in arms against the efforts of the kings of France. They had long cultivated intimate relations with England, and their dukes had long hankered for its possession. William, the natural son of Duke Robert—known to history and musical romance as Robert le Diable—was a man of strong mind, tenacious purpose, and powerful hand. He had obtained, by promise of Edward the Confessor, the reversion of the crown upon the death of that monarch; and when the issue came, he availed himself of that reversion and the Pope's sanction, and also of the disputed succession between Harold, the son of Godwin, and the true Saxon heir, Edgar Atheling, to make good his claim by force of arms.

Under him the Normans were united, while divisions existed in the Saxon ranks. Tostig, the brother of Harold, and Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, combined against Harold, and, just before the landing of Duke William at Pevensey, on the coast of Sussex, Harold was obliged to march rapidly northward to Stanford bridge, to defeat Tostig and the Norwegians, and then to return with a tired army of uncertain morale, to encounter the invading Normans. Thus it appears that William conquered the land, which would have been invincible had the leaders and the people been united in its defence.

As the Saxons, Danes, and Normans were of the same great Teutonic family, however modified by the different circumstances of movement and residence, there was no new ethnic element introduced; and, paradoxical as it may seem, the fusion of these peoples was of great benefit, in the end, to England. Though the Saxons at first suffered from Norman oppression, the kingdom was brought into large inter-European relations, and a far better literary culture was introduced, more varied in subject, more developed in point of language, and more artistic.

Thus much, in a brief historical summary, is necessary as an introduction to our subject. From all these contests and conquests there were wrought in the language of the country important changes, which are to be studied in the standard works of its literature.

CHANGES IN LANGUAGE.—The changes and transformations of language may be thus briefly stated:—In the Celtic period, before the arrival of the Romans, the people spoke different dialects of the Celtic and Gadhelic languages, all cognate and radically similar.

These were not much affected by the occupancy of the Romans for about four hundred and fifty years, although, doubtless, Latin words, expressive of things and notions of which the British had no previous knowledge, were adopted by them, and many of the Celtic inhabitants who submitted to these conquerors learned and used the Latin language.

When the Romans departed, and the Saxons came in numbers, in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Saxon language, which is the foundation of English, became the current speech of the realm; adopting few Celtic words, but retaining a considerable number of the Celtic names of places, as it also did of Latin terminations in names.

Before the coming of the Normans, their language, called the Langue d'oil, or Norman French, had been very much favored by educated Englishmen; and when William conquered England, he tried to supplant the Saxon entirely. In this he was not successful; but the two languages were interfused and amalgamated, so that in the middle of the twelfth century, there had been thus created the English language, formed but still formative. The Anglo-Saxon was the foundation, or basis; while the Norman French is observed to be the principal modifying element.

Since the Norman conquest, numerous other elements have entered, most of them quietly, without the concomitant of political revolution or foreign invasion.

Thus the Latin, being used by the Church, and being the language of literary and scientific comity throughout the world, was constantly adding words and modes of expression to the English. The introduction of Greek into Western Europe, at the fall of Constantinople, supplied Greek words, and induced a habit of coining English words from the Greek. The establishment of the Hanoverian succession, after the fall of the Stuarts, brought in the practice and study of German, and somewhat of its phraseology; and English conquests in the East have not failed to introduce Indian words, and, what is far better, to open the way for a fuller study of comparative philology and linguistics.

In a later chapter we shall reconsider the periods referred to, in an examination of the literary works which they contain, works produced by historical causes, and illustrative of historical events.



The Uses of Literature. Italy, France, England. Purpose of the Work. Celtic Literary Remains. Druids and Druidism. Roman Writers. Psalter of Cashel. Welsh Triads and Mabinogion. Gildas and St. Colm.


Before examining these periods in order to find the literature produced in them, it will be well to consider briefly what are the practical uses of literature, and to set forth, as a theme, that particular utility which it is the object of these pages to inculcate and apply.

The uses of literature are manifold. Its study gives wholesome food to the mind, making it strong and systematic. It cultivates and delights the imagination and the taste of men. It refines society by elevating the thoughts and aspirations above what is sensual and sordid, and by checking the grosser passions; it makes up, in part, that "multiplication of agreeable consciousness" which Dr. Johnson calls happiness. Its adaptations in religion, in statesmanship, in legislative and judicial inquiry, are productive of noble and beneficent results. History shows us, that while it has given to the individual man, in all ages, contemplative habits, and high moral tone, it has thus also been a powerful instrument in producing the brilliant civilization of mighty empires.

A TEACHER OF HISTORY.—But apart from these its subjective benefits, it has its highest and most practical utility as a TEACHER OF HISTORY. Ballads, more powerful than laws, shouted forth from a nation's heart, have been in part the achievers, and afterward the victorious hymns, of its new-born freedom, and have been also used in after ages to reinspire the people with the spirit of their ancestors. Immortal epics not only present magnificent displays of heroism for imitation, but, like the Iliad and Odyssey, still teach the theogony, national policy, and social history of a people, after the Bema has long been silent, the temples in ruin, and the groves prostrate under the axe of repeated conquests.

Satires have at once exhibited and scourged social faults and national follies, and remained to after times as most essential materials for history.

Indeed, it was a quaint but just assertion of Hare, in his "Guesses at Truth," that in Greek history there is nothing truer than Herodotus except Homer.

ITALY AND FRANCE.—Passing by the classic periods, which afford abundant illustration of the position, it would be easy to exhibit the clear and direct historic teachings in purely literary works, by a reference to the literature of Italy and France. The history of the age of the Guelphs and Ghibellines is clearly revealed in the vision of Dante: the times of Louis XIV. are amply illustrated by the pulpit of Massillon, Bourdaloue, and Bridaine, and by the drama of Corneille, Racine, and Moliere.

ENGLISH LITERATURE THE BEST ILLUSTRATION.—But in seeking for an illustration of the position that literature is eminently a teacher and interpreter of history, we are fortunate in finding none more striking than that presented by English literature itself. All the great events of English history find complete correspondent delineation in English literature, so that, were the purely historical record lost, we should have in the works of poetry, fiction, and the drama, correct portraitures of the character, habits, manners and customs, political sentiments, and modes and forms of religious belief among the English people; in a word, the philosophy of English history.

In the works of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Dryden, and Addison, are to be found the men and women, kings, nobles, and commons, descriptions of English nature, hints of the progress of science and advancement in art; the conduct of government, the force of prevailing fashions—in a word, the moving life of the time, and not its dry historic record.

"Authors," says the elder D'Israeli, "are the creators or creatures of opinion: the great form the epoch; the many reflect the age." Chameleon-like, most of them take the political, social, and religious hues of the period in which they live, while a few illustrate it perhaps quite as forcibly by violent opposition and invective.

We shall see that in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and in Gower's Vox Clamantis are portrayed the political ferments and theological controversies of the reigns of Edward III. and Richard II. Spenser decks the history of his age in gilded mantle and flowing plumes, in his tribute to Gloriana, The Faery Queen, who is none other than Elizabeth herself. Literature partakes of the fierce polemic and religious enthusiasm which mark the troublous times of the Civil War; it becomes tawdry, tinselled, and licentious at the Restoration, and develops into numerous classes and more serious instruction, under the constitutional reigns of the house of Hanover, in which the kings were bad, but the nation prosperous because the rights of the people were guaranteed.

Many of the finest works of English literature are purely and directly historical; what has been said is intended to refer more particularly to those that are not—the unconscious, undesigned teachers of history, such as fiction, poetry, and the drama.

PURPOSE OF THE WORK.—Such, then, is the purpose of this volume—to indicate the teachings of history in the principal productions of English literature. Only the standard authors will be considered, and the student will not be overburdened with statistics, which it must be a part of his task to collect for himself. And now let us return to the early literature embodied in those languages which have preceded the English on British soil; or which, by their combination, have formed the English language. For, the English language may be properly compared to a stream, which, rising in a feeble source, receives in its seaward flow many tributaries, large and small, until it becomes a lordly river. The works of English literature may be considered as the ships and boats which it bears upon its bosom: near its source the craft are small and frail; as it becomes more navigable, statelier vessels are launched upon it, until, in its majestic and lakelike extensions, rich navies ride, freighted with wealth and power—the heavy ordnance of defence and attack, the products of Eastern looms, the precious metals and jewels from distant mines—the best exponents of the strength and prosperity of the nation through which flows the river of speech, bearing the treasures of mind.

CELTIC LITERARY REMAINS. THE DRUIDS.—Let us take up the consideration of literature in Britain in the order of the conquests mentioned in the first chapter.

We recur to Britain while inhabited by the Celts, both before and after the Roman occupation. The extent of influence exercised by the Latin language upon the Celtic dialects cannot be determined; it seems to have been slight, and, on the other hand, it may be safely assumed that the Celtic did not contribute much to the world-absorbing Latin.

The chief feature, and a very powerful one, of the Celtic polity, was Druidism. At its head was a priesthood, not in the present meaning of the word, but in the more extended acceptation which it received in the middle ages, when it embraced the whole class of men of letters. Although we have very few literary remains, the system, wisdom, and works of the Druids form one of the strong foundation-stones of English literature and of English national customs, and should be studied on that account. The Druid proper was governor, judge, philosopher, expounder, and executioner. The ovaidd, or ovates, were the priests, chiefly concerned in the study of theology and the practice of religion. The bards were heroic poets of rare lyric power; they kept the national traditions in trust, and claimed the second sight and the power of prophecy. Much has been said of their human sacrifices in colossal images of wicker-work—the "immani magnitudine simulacra" of Caesar—which were filled with human victims, and which crackled and disappeared in towering flame and columns of smoke, amid the loud chantings of the bards. The most that can be said in palliation of this custom is, that almost always such a scene presented the judicial execution of criminals, invested with the solemnities of religion.

In their theology, Esus, the God Force—the Eternal Father—has for his agents the personification of spiritual light, of immortality, of nature, and of heroism; Camul was the war-god; Tarann the thunder-god; Heol, the king of the sun, who inflames the soldier's heart, and gives vitality to the corn and the grape.[4]

But Druidism, which left its monuments like Stonehenge, and its strong traces in English life, now especially found in Wales and other mountainous parts of the kingdom, has not left any written record.

ROMAN WRITERS.—Of the Roman occupancy we have Roman and Greek accounts, many of them by those who took part in the doings of the time. Among the principal writers are Julius Caesar, Tacitus, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and Suetonius.

PSALTER OF CASHEL.—Of the later Celtic efforts, almost all are in Latin: the oldest Irish work extant is called the Psalter of Cashel, which is a compilation of the songs of the early bards, and of metrical legends, made in the ninth century by Cormac Mac Culinan, who claimed to be King of Munster and Bishop of Cashel.

THE WELSH TRIADS.—The next of the important Celtic remains is called The Welsh Triads, an early but progressive work of the Cymbric Celts. Some of the triads are of very early date, and others of a much later period. The work is said to have been compiled in its present form by Caradoc of Nantgarvan and Jevan Brecha, in the thirteenth century. It contains a record of "remarkable men and things which have been in the island of Britain, and of the events which befell the race of the Cymri from the age of ages," i.e. from the beginning. It has also numerous moral proverbs. It is arranged in triads, or sets of three.

As an example, we have one triad giving "The three of the race of the island of Britain: Hu Gadarn, (who first brought the race into Britain;) Prydain, (who first established regal government,) and Dynwal Moelmud, (who made a system of laws.)" Another triad presents "The three benevolent tribes of Britain: the Cymri, (who came with Hu Gadarn from Constantinople;) the Lolegrwys, (who came from the Loire,) and the Britons"

Then are mentioned the tribes that came with consent and under protection, viz., the Caledonians, the Gwyddelian race, and the men of Galedin, who came from the continent "when their country was drowned;" the last inhabited the Isle of Wight. Another mentions the three usurping tribes; the Coranied, the Gwydel-Fichti, (from Denmark,) and the Saxons. Although the compilation is so modern, most of the triads date from the sixth century.

THE MABINOGION.—Next in order of importance of the Celtic remains must be mentioned the Mabinogion, or Tales for Youth, a series of romantic tales, illustrative of early British life, some of which have been translated from the Celtic into English. Among these the most elaborate is the Tale of Peredur, a regular Romance of Arthur, entirely Welsh in costume and character.

BRITISH BARDS.—A controversy has been fiercely carried on respecting the authenticity of poems ascribed to Aneurin, Taliesin, Llywarch Hen, and Merdhin, or Merlin, four famous British bards of the fifth and sixth centuries, who give us the original stories respecting Arthur, representing him not as a "miraculous character," as the later histories do, but as a courageous warrior worthy of respect but not of wonder. The burden of the evidence, carefully collected and sifted by Sharon Turner,[5] seems to be in favor of the authenticity of these poems.

These works are fragmentary and legendary: they have given few elements to the English language, but they show us the condition and culture of the British mind in that period, and the nature of the people upon whom the Saxons imposed their yoke. "The general spirit [of the early British poetry] is much more Druidical than Christian,"[6] and in its mysterious and legendary nature, while it has been not without value as a historical representation of that early period, it has offered rare material for romantic poetry from that day to the present time. It is on this account especially that these works should be studied.

GILDAS.—Among the writers who must be considered as belonging to the Celtic race, although they wrote in Latin, the most prominent is Gildas. He was the son of Caw, (Alcluyd, a British king,) who was also the father of the famous bard Aneurin. Many have supposed Gildas and Aneurin to be the same person, so vague are the accounts of both. If not, they were brothers. Gildas was a British bard, who, when converted to Christianity, became a Christian priest, and a missionary among his own people. He was born at Dumbarton in the middle of the sixth century, and was surnamed the Wise. His great work, the History of the Britons, is directly historical: his account extends from the first invasion of Britain down to his own time.

A true Celt, he is a violent enemy of the Roman conquerors first, and then of the Saxon invaders. He speaks of the latter as "the nefarious Saxons, of detestable name, hated alike by God and man; ... a band of devils breaking forth from the den of the barbarian lioness."

The history of Gildas, although not of much statistical value, sounds a clear Celtic note against all invaders, and displays in many parts characteristic outlines of the British people.

ST. COLUMBANUS.—St. Colm, or Columbanus, who was born in 521, was the founder and abbot of a monastery in Iona, one of the Hebrides, which is also called Icolmkill—the Isle of Colm's Cell. The Socrates of that retreat, he found his Plato in the person of a successor, St. Adamnan, whose "Vita Sancti Columbae" is an early work of curious historical importance. St. Adamnan became abbot in 679.

A backward glance at the sparse and fragmentary annals of the Celtic people, will satisfy us that they have but slight claims to an original share in English literature. Some were in the Celtic dialects, others in Latin. They have given themes, indeed, to later scholars, but have left little trace in form and language. The common Celtic words retained in English are exceedingly few, although their number has not been decided. They form, in some sense, a portion of the foundation on which the structure of our literature has been erected, without being in any manner a part of the building itself.



The Lineage of the Anglo-Saxon. Earliest Saxon Poem. Metrical Arrangement. Periphrasis and Alliteration. Beowulf. Caedmon. Other Saxon Fragments. The Appearance of Bede.


The true origin of English literature is Saxon. Anglo-Saxon is the mother tongue of the English language, or, to state its genealogy more distinctly, and to show its family relations at a glance, take the following divisions and subdivisions of the

TEUTONIC CLASS. . -. High German branch. Low German branch. Scandinavian branch. Dead Languages. . - . Gothic. Old Dutch. Anglo-Saxon. Old Frisian. Old Saxon. English.

Without attempting an analysis of English to find the exact proportion of Saxon words, it must be observed that Saxon is the root-language of English; it might with propriety be called the oldest English; it has been manipulated, modified, and developed in its contact with other languages—remaining, however, radically the same—to become our present spoken language.

At this period of our inquiry, we have to do with the Saxon itself, premising, however, that it has many elements from the Dutch, and that its Scandinavian relations are found in many Danish words. The progress and modifications of the language in that formative process which made it the English, will be mentioned as we proceed in our inquiries.

In speaking of the Anglo-Saxon literature, we include a consideration also of those works written in Latin which are products of the times, and bear a part in the progress of the people and their literature. They are exponents of the Saxon mind, frequently of more value than the vernacular writings.

EARLIEST SAXON POEM.—The earliest literary monument in the Saxon language is the poem called Beowulf, the author and antiquity of which are alike unknown. It is at once a romantic legend and an instructive portraiture of the earliest Saxon period—"an Anglo-Saxon poetical romance," says Sharon Turner, "true in costume and manners, but with an invented story." Before proceeding to a consideration of this poem, let us look for a moment at some of the characteristics of Saxon poetry. As to its subject-matter, it is not much of a love-song, that sentiment not being one of its chief inspirations. The Saxon imagination was inflamed chiefly by the religious and the heroic in war. As to its handling, it abounded in metaphor and periphrasis, suggestive images, and parables instead of direct narrative.

METRICAL ARRANGEMENT.—As to metrical arrangement, Saxon poetry differed from our modern English as well as from the classical models, in that their poets followed no laws of metre, but arranged their vernacular verses without any distinct rules, but simply to please the ear. "To such a selection and arrangement of words as produced this effect, they added the habit of frequently omitting the usual particles, and of conveying their meaning in short and contracted phrases. The only artifices they used were those of inversion and transition."[7] It is difficult to give examples to those unacquainted with the language, but the following extract may serve to indicate our meaning: it is taken from Beowulf:

Crist waer a cennijd Cyninga wuldor On midne winter: Maere theoden! Ece almihtig! On thij eahteothan daeg Hael end gehaten Heofon ricet theard.

Christ was born King of glory In mid-winter: Illustrious King! Eternal, Almighty! On the eighth day Saviour was called, Of Heaven's kingdom ruler.

PERIPHRASIS.—Their periphrasis, or finding figurative names for persons and things, is common to the Norse poetry. Thus Caedmon, in speaking of the ark, calls it the sea-house, the palace of the ocean, the wooden fortress, and by many other periphrastic names.

ALLITERATION.—The Saxons were fond of alliteration, both in prose and verse. They used it without special rules, but simply to satisfy their taste for harmony in having many words beginning with the same letter; and thus sometimes making an arbitrary connection between the sentences or clauses in a discourse, e.g.:

Firum foldan; Frea almihtig;

The ground for men Almighty ruler.

The nearest approach to a rule was that three words in close connection should begin with the same letter. The habit of ellipsis and transposition is illustrated by the following sentence in Alfred's prose: "So doth the moon with his pale light, that the bright stars he obscures in the heavens;" which he thus renders in poetry:

With pale light Bright stars Moon lesseneth.

With this brief explanation, which is only intended to be suggestive to the student, we return to Beowulf.

THE PLOT OF BEOWULF.—The poem contains six thousand lines, in which are told the wonderful adventures of the valiant viking Beowulf, who is supposed to have fallen in Jutland in the year 340. The Danish king Hrothgar, in whose great hall banquet, song, and dance are ever going on, is subjected to the stated visits of a giant, Grendel, a descendant of Cain, who destroys the Danish knights and people, and against whom no protection can be found.

Beowulf, the hero of the epic, appears. He is a great chieftain, the heorth-geneat (hearth-companion, or vassal) of a king named Higelac. He assembles his companions, goes over the road of the swans (the sea) to Denmark, or Norway, states his purpose to Hrothgar, and advances to meet Grendel. After an indecisive battle with the giant, and a fierce struggle with the giant's mother, who attacks him in the guise of a sea-wolf, he kills her, and then destroys Grendel. Upon the death of Hrothgar he receives his reward in being made King of the Danes.

With this occurrence the original poem ends: it is the oldest epic poem in any modern language. At a later day, new cantos were added, which, following the fortunes of the hero, record at length that he was killed by a dragon. A digest and running commentary of the poem may be found in Turner's Anglo-Saxons; and no one can read it without discerning the history shining clearly out of the mists of fable. The primitive manners, modes of life, forms of expression, are all historically delineated. In it the intimate relations between the king and his people are portrayed. The Saxon cyning is compounded of cyn, people, and ing, a son or descendant; and this etymology gives the true conditions of their rule: they were popular leaders—elected in the witenagemot on the death of their predecessors.[8] We observe, too, the spirit of adventure—a rude knight-errantry—which characterized these northern sea-kings

that with such profit and for deceitful glory labor on the wide sea explore its bays amid the contests of the ocean in the deep waters there they for riches till they sleep with their elders.

We may also notice the childish wonder of a rude, primitive, but brave people, who magnified a neighboring monarch of great skill and strength, or perhaps a malarious fen, into a giant, and who were pleased with a poem which caters to that heroic mythus which no civilization can root out of the human breast, and which gives at once charm and popularity to every epic.

CAEDMON.—Next in order, we find the paraphrase of Scripture by Caedmon, a monk of Whitby, who died about the year 680. The period in which he lived is especially marked by the spread of Christianity in Britain, and by a religious zeal mingled with the popular superstitions. The belief was universal that holy men had the power to work miracles. The Bible in its entire canon was known to few even among the ecclesiastics: treasure-house as it was to the more studious clerics, it was almost a sealed book to the common people. It would naturally be expected, then, that among the earliest literary efforts would be found translations and paraphrases of the most interesting portions of the Scripture narrative. It was in accordance with the spirit of the age that these productions should be attended with something of the marvellous, to give greater effect to the doctrine, and be couched in poetic language, the especial delight of people in the earlier ages of their history. Thus the writings of Caedmon are explained: he was a poor serving-brother in the monastery of Whitby, who was, or feigned to be, unable to improvise Scripture stories and legends of the saints as his brethren did, and had recourse to a vision before he exhibited his fluency.

In a dream, in a stall of oxen of which he was the appointed night-guard, an angelic stranger asked him to sing. "I cannot sing," said Caedmon. "Sing the creation," said the mysterious visitant. Feeling himself thus miraculously aided, Caedmon paraphrased in his dream the Bible story of the creation, and not only remembered the verses when he awoke, but found himself possessed of the gift of song for all his days.

Sharon Turner has observed that the paraphrase of Caedmon "exhibits much of a Miltonic spirit; and if it were clear that Milton had been familiar with Saxon, we should be induced to think that he owed something to Caedmon." And the elder D'Israeli has collated and compared similar passages in the two authors, in his "Amenities of Literature."

Another remarkable Anglo-Saxon fragment is called Judith, and gives the story of Judith and Holofernes, rendered from the Apocrypha, but with circumstances, descriptions, and speeches invented by the unknown author. It should be observed, as of historical importance, that the manners and characters of that Anglo-Saxon period are applied to the time of Judith, and so we have really an Anglo-Saxon romance, marking the progress and improvement in their poetic art.

Among the other remains of this time are the death of Byrhtnoth, The Fight of Finsborough, and the Chronicle of King Lear and his Daughters, the last of which is the foundation of an old play, upon which Shakspeare's tragedy of Lear is based.

It should here be noticed that Saxon literature was greatly influenced by the conversion of the realm at the close of the sixth century from the pagan religion of Woden to Christianity. It displayed no longer the fierce genius of the Scalds, inculcating revenge and promising the rewards of Walhalla; in spirit it was changed by the doctrine of love, and in form it was softened and in some degree—but only for a time—injured by the influence of the Latin, the language of the Church. At this time, also, there was a large adoption of Latin words into the Saxon, especially in theology and ecclesiastical matters.

THE ADVENT OF BEDE.—The greatest literary character of the Anglo-Saxon period, and the one who is of most value in teaching us the history of the times, both directly and indirectly, is the man who has been honored by his age as the venerable Bede or Beda. He was born at Yarrow, in the year 673; and died, after a retired but active, pious, and useful life, in 735. He wrote an Ecclesiastical history of the English, and dedicated it to the most glorious King Ceowulph of Northumberland, one of the monarchs of the Saxon Heptarchy. It is in matter and spirit a Saxon work in a Latin dress; and, although his work was written in Latin, he is placed among the Anglo-Saxon authors because it is as an Englishman that he appears to us in his subject, in the honest pride of race and country which he constantly manifests, and in the historical information which he has conveyed to us concerning the Saxons in England: of a part of the history which he relates he was an eye-witness; and besides, his work soon called forth several translations into Anglo-Saxon, among which that of Alfred the Great is the most noted, and would be taken for an original Saxon production.

It is worthy of remark, that after the decline of the Saxon literature, Bede remained for centuries, both in the original Latin and in the Saxon translations, a sealed and buried book; but in the later days, students of English literature and history began to look back with eager pleasure to that formative period prior to the Norman conquest, when English polity and institutions were simple and few, and when their Saxon progenitors were masters in the land.



Biography. Ecclesiastical History. The Recorded Miracles. Bede's Latin. Other Writers. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: its Value. Alfred the Great. Effect of the Danish Invasions.


Bede was a precocious youth, whose excellent parts commended him to Bishop Benedict. He made rapid progress in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; was a deacon at the unusual age of nineteen, and a priest at thirty. It seems probable that he always remained in his monastery, engaged in literary labor and offices of devotion until his death, which happened while he was dictating to his boy amanuensis, "Dear master," said the boy, "there is yet one sentence not written." He answered, "Write quickly." Soon after, the boy said, "The sentence is now written." He replied. "It is well; you have said the truth. Receive my head into your hands, for it is a great satisfaction to me to sit facing my holy place where I was wont to pray, that I may also sitting, call upon my Father." "And thus, on the pavement of his little cell, singing 'Glory be unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost,' when he had named the Holy Ghost he breathed his last, and so departed to the heavenly kingdom."

HIS ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY.—His ecclesiastical history opens with a description of Britain, including what was known of Scotland and Ireland. With a short preface concerning the Church in the earliest times, he dwells particularly upon the period, from the arrival of St. Augustine, in 597, to the year 731, a space of one hundred and thirty-four years, during nearly one-half of which the author lived. The principal written works from which he drew were the natural history of Pliny, the Hormesta of the Spanish priest Paulus Orosius, and the history of Gildas. His account of the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, "being the traditions of the Kentish people concerning Hengist and Horsa," has since proved to be fabulous, as the Saxons are now known to have been for a long period, during the Roman occupancy, making predatory incursions into Britain before the time of their reputed settlement.[9]

For the materials of the principal portions of his history, Bede was indebted to correspondence with those parts of England which he did not visit, and to the lives of saints and contemporary documents, which recorded the numerous miracles and wonders with which his pages are filled.

BEDE'S RECORDED MIRACLES.—The subject of these miracles has been considered at some length by Dr. Arnold,[10] in a very liberal spirit; but few readers will agree with him in concluding that with regard to some miracles, "there is no strong a priori improbability in their occurrence, but rather the contrary." One of the most striking of the historical lessons contained in this work, is the credulity and superstition which mark the age; and we reason justly and conclusively from the denial of the most palpable and absurd, to the repudiation of the lesser demands on our credulity. It is sufficient for us that both were eagerly believed in his day, and thus complete a picture of the age which such a view would only serve to impair, if not destroy. The theology of the age is set forth with wonderful clearness, in the numerous questions propounded by Augustine to Gregory I., the Bishop of Rome, and in the judicious answers of that prelate; in which may also be found the true relation which the Church of Rome bore to her English mission.

We have also the statement of the establishment of the archbishoprics of Canterbury and York, the bishopric of London, and others.

The last chapter but one, the twenty-third, gives an important account "of the present state of the English nation, or of all Britain;" and the twenty-fourth contains a chronological recapitulation, from the beginning of the year 731, and a list of the author's works. Bede produced, besides his history, translations of many books in the Bible, several histories of abbots and saints, books of hymns and epigrams, a treatise on orthography, and one on poetry.

To point the student to Bede's works, and to indicate their historic teachings, is all that can be here accomplished. A careful study of his Latin History, as the great literary monument of the Anglo-Saxon period, will disclose many important truths which lie beneath the surface, and thus escape the cursory reader. Wars and politics, of which the Anglo-Saxon chronicle is full, find comparatively little place in his pages. The Church was then peaceful, and not polemic; the monasteries were sanctuaries in which quiet, devotion, and order reigned. Another phase of the literature shows us how the Gentiles raged and the people were imagining a vain thing; but Bede, from his undisturbed cell, scarcely heard the howlings of the storm, as he wrote of that kingdom which promised peace and good-will.

BEDE'S LATIN.—To the classical student, the language of Bede offers an interesting study. The Latin had already been corrupted, and a nice discrimination will show the causes of this corruption—the effects of the other living languages, the ignorance of the clergy, and the new subjects and ideas to which it was applied.

Bede was in the main more correct than his age, and his vocabulary has few words of barbarian origin. He arose like a luminary, and when the light of his learning disappeared, but one other star appeared to irradiate the gloom which followed his setting; and that was in the person and the reign of Alfred.

OTHER WRITERS OF THIS AGE.—Among names which must pass with the mere mention, the following are, after Bede, the most illustrious in this time. Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury, who died in the year 709, is noted for his scientific computations, and for his poetry: he is said to have translated the Psalms into Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Alcuin, the pride of two countries, England and France, was born in the year of Bede's death: renowned as an Englishman for his great learning, he was invited by Charlemagne to his court, and aided that distinguished sovereign in the scholastic and literary efforts which render his reign so illustrious. Alcuin died in 804.

The works of Alcuin are chiefly theological treatises, but he wrote a life of Charlemagne, which has unfortunately been lost, and which would have been invaluable to history in the dearth of memorials of that emperor and his age.

Alfric, surnamed Grammaticus, (died 1006,) was an Archbishop of Canterbury, in the tenth century, who wrote eighty homilies, and was, in his opposition to Romish doctrine, one of the earliest English reformers.

John Scotus Erigena, who flourished at the beginning of the ninth century, in the brightest age of Irish learning, settled in France, and is known as a subtle and learned scholastic philosopher. His principal work is a treatise "On the Division of Nature," Both names, Scotus and Erigena, indicate his Irish origin; the original Scoti being inhabitants of the North of Ireland.

Dunstan, (925-988,) commonly called Saint Dunstan, was a powerful and dictatorial Archbishop of Canterbury, who used the superstitions of monarch and people to enable him to exercise a marvellous supremacy in the realm. He wrote commentaries on the Benedictine rule.

These writers had but a remote and indirect bearing upon the progress of literature in England, and are mentioned rather as contemporary, than as distinct subjects of our study.

THE ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE.—We now reach the valuable and purely historical compilation known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is a chronological arrangement of events in English history, from the birth of Christ to the year 1154, in the reign of Henry the Second. It is the most valuable epitome of English history during that long period.

It is written in Anglo-Saxon, and was begun soon after the time of Alfred, at least as a distinct work. In it we may trace the changes in the language from year to year, and from century to century, as it passed from unmixed Saxon until, as the last records are by contemporary hands, it almost melted into modern English, which would hardly trouble an Englishman of the present day to read.

The first part of the Chronicle is a table of events, many of them fabulous, which had been originally jotted down by Saxon monks, abbots, and bishops. To these partial records, King Alfred furnished additional information, as did also, in all probability, Alfric and Dunstan. These were collected into permanent form by Plegmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, who brought the annals up to the year 891; from that date they were continued in the monasteries. Of the Saxon Chronicle there are no less than seven accredited ancient copies, of which the shortest extends to the year 977, and the longest to 1154; the others extend to intermediate dates.

ITS VALUE.—The value of the Chronicle as a statistic record of English history cannot be over-estimated; it moves before the student of English literature like a diorama, picturing the events in succession, not without glimpses of their attendant philosophy. We learn much of the nation's thoughts, troubles, mental, moral, and physical conditions, social laws, and manners. As illustrations we may refer to the romantic adventures of King Alfred; and to the conquest of Saxon England by William of Normandy—"all as God granted them," says the pious chronicler, "for the people's sins." And he afterward adds, "Bishop Odo and William the Earl built castles wide throughout the nation, and poor people distressed; and ever after it greatly grew in evil: may the end be good when God will." Although for the most part written in prose, the annals of several years are given in the alliterative Saxon verse.

A good English translation of Bede's history, and one of the Chronicle, edited by Dr. Giles, have been issued together by Bohn in one volume of his Antiquarian library. To the student of English history and of English literature, the careful perusal of both, in conjunction, is an imperative necessity.

ALFRED THE GREAT.—Among the best specimens of Saxon prose are the translations and paraphrases of King Alfred, justly called the Great and the Truth-teller, the noblest monarch of the Saxon period. The kingdoms of the heptarchy, or octarchy, had been united under the dominion of Egbert, the King of Wessex, in the year 827, and thus formed the kingdom of England. But this union of the kingdoms was in many respects nominal rather than really complete; as Alfred frequently subscribes himself King of the West Saxons. It was a confederation to gain strength against their enemies. On the one hand, the inhabitants of North, South, and West Wales were constantly rising against Wessex and Mercia; and on the other, until the accession of Alfred upon the death of his brother Ethelred, in 871, every year of the Chronicle is marked by fierce battles with the troops and fleets of the Danes on the eastern and southern coasts.

It redounds greatly to the fame of Alfred that he could find time and inclination in his troubled and busy reign, so harassed with wars by land and sea, for the establishment of wise laws, the building or rebuilding of large cities, the pursuit of letters, and the interest of education. To give his subjects, grown-up nobles as well as children, the benefits of historical examples, he translated the work of Orosius, a compendious history of the world, a work of great repute; and to enlighten the ecclesiastics, he made versions of parts of Bede; of the Pastorale of Gregory the First; of the Soliloquies of St. Augustine, and of the work of Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae. Beside these principal works are other minor efforts. In all his writings, he says he "sometimes interprets word for word, and sometimes meaning for meaning." With Alfred went down the last gleams of Saxon literature. Troubles were to accumulate steadily and irresistibly upon the soil of England, and the sword took the place of the pen.

THE DANES.—The Danes thronged into the realm in new incursions, until 850,000 of them were settled in the North and East of England. The Danegelt or tribute, displaying at once the power of the invaders and the cowardice and effeminacy of the Saxon monarchs, rose to a large sum, and two millions[11] of Saxons were powerless to drive the invaders away. In the year 1016, after the weak and wicked reign of the besotted Ethelred, justly surnamed the Unready, who to his cowardice in paying tribute added the cruelty of a wholesale massacre on St. Brice's Eve—since called the Danish St. Bartholomew—the heroic Edmund Ironsides could not stay the storm, but was content to divide the kingdom with Knud (Canute) the Great. Literary efforts were at an end. For twenty-two years the Danish kings sat upon the throne of all England; and when the Saxon line was restored in the person of Edward the Confessor, a monarch not calculated to restore order and impart strength, in addition to the internal sources of disaster, a new element of evil had sprung up in the power and cupidity of the Normans.

Upon the death of Edward the Confessor, the claimants to the throne were Harold, the son of Godwin, and William of Normandy, both ignoring the claims of the Saxon heir apparent, Edgar Atheling. Harold, as has been already said, fell a victim to the dissensions in his own ranks, as well as to the courage and strength of William, and thus Saxon England fell under Norman rule.

THE LITERARY PHILOSOPHY.—The literary philosophy of this period does not lie far beneath the surface of the historic record. Saxon literature was expiring by limitation. During the twelfth century, the Saxon language was completely transformed into English. The intercourse of many previous years had introduced a host of Norman French words; inflections had been lost; new ideas, facts, and objects had sprung up, requiring new names. The dying Saxon literature was overshadowed by the strength and growth of the Norman, and it had no royal patron and protector since Alfred. The superior art-culture and literary attainments of the South, had long been silently making their impression in England; and it had been the custom to send many of the English youth of noble families to France to be educated.

Saxon chivalry[12] was rude and unattractive in comparison with the splendid armor, the gay tournaments, and the witching minstrelsy which signalized French chivalry; and thus the peaceful elements of conquest were as seductive as the force of arms was potent. A dynasty which had ruled for more than six hundred years was overthrown; a great chapter in English history was closed. A new order was established, and a new chapter in England's annals was begun.



Norman Rule. Its Oppression. Its Benefits. William of Malmesbury. Geoffrey of Monmouth. Other Latin Chronicles. Anglo-Norman Poets. Richard Wace. Other Poets.


With the conquest of England, and as one of the strongest elements of its permanency, the feudal system was brought into England; the territory was surveyed and apportioned to be held by military tenure; to guard against popular insurrections, the curfew rigorously housed the Saxons at night; a new legislature, called a parliament, or talking-ground, took the place of the witenagemot, or assembly of the wise: it was a conquest not only in name but in truth; everything was changed by the conqueror's right, and the Saxons were entirely subjected.

ITS OPPRESSION.—In short, the Norman conquest, from the day of the battle of Hastings, brought the Saxon people under a galling yoke. The Norman was everywhere an oppressor. Besides his right as a conqueror, he felt a contempt for the rudeness of the Saxon. He was far more able to govern and to teach. He founded rich abbeys; schools like those of Oxford and Cambridge he expanded into universities like that of Paris. He filled all offices of profit and trust, and created many which the Saxons had not. In place of the Saxon English, which, however vigorous, was greatly wanting in what may be called the vocabulary of progress, the Norman French, drawing constantly upon the Latin, enriched by the enactments of Charlemagne and the tributes of Italy, even in its infancy a language of social comity in Western Europe, was spoken at court, introduced into the courts of law, taught in the schools, and threatened to submerge and drown out the vernacular.[13] All inducements to composition in English were wanting; delicious songs of Norman Trouveres chanted in the Langue d'oil, and stirring tales of Troubadours in the Langue d'oc, carried the taste captive away from the Saxon, as a regal banquet lures from the plain fare of the cottage board, more wholesome but less attractive.

ITS BENEFITS.—Had this progress continued, had this grasp of power remained without hinderance or relaxation, the result would have been the destruction or amalgamation of the vigorous English, so as to form a romance language similar to the French, and only different in the amount of Northern and local words. But the Norman power, without losing its title, was to find a limit to its encroachments. This limit was fixed, first, by the innate hardihood and firmness of the Saxon character, which, though cast down and oppressed, retained its elasticity; which cherished its language in spite of Norman threats and sneers, and which never lost heart while waiting for better times; secondly, by the insular position of Great Britain, fortified by the winds and waves, which enabled her to assimilate and mould anew whatever came into her borders, to the discomfiture of further continental encroachments; constituting her, in the words of Shakspeare,

"... that pale, that white-faced shore, Whose foot spurns back the ocean's roaring tides, And coops from other lands her islanders;"

and, thirdly, to the Crusades, which, attracting the nobles to adventures in Palestine, lifted the heel of Norman oppression off the Saxon neck, and gave that opportunity, which alone was needed, to make England in reality, if not in name—in thews, sinews, and mental strength, if not in regal state and aristocratic privilege—Saxon-England in all its future history. Other elements are still found, but the Saxon greatly predominates.

The historian of that day might well bemoan the fate of the realm, as in the Saxon Chronicle already quoted. To the philosopher of to-day, this Norman conquest and its results were of incalculable value to England, by bringing her into relations with the continent, by enduing her with a weight and influence in the affairs of Europe which she could never otherwise have attained, and by giving a new birth to a noble literature which has had no superior in any period of the world's history.

As our subject does not require, and our space will not warrant the consideration of the rise and progress of French literature, before its introduction with the Normans into England, we shall begin with the first fruits after its transplantation into British soil. But before doing so, it becomes necessary to mention certain Latin chronicles which furnished food for these Anglo-Norman poets and legendists.

WILLIAM OF MALMESBURY.—William of Malmesbury, the first Latin historian of distinction, who is contemporary with the Norman conquest, wrote a work called the "Heroic Deeds of the English Kings," (Gesta Regum Anglorum,) which extends from the arrival of the Saxons to the year 1120; another, "The New History," (Historia Novella,) brings the history down to 1142. Notwithstanding the credulity of the age, and his own earnest recital of numerous miracles, these works are in the main truthful, and of real value to the historical student. In the contest between Matilda and Stephen for the succession of the English crown, William of Malmesbury is a strong partisan of the former, and his work thus stands side by side, for those who would have all the arguments, with the Gesta Stephani, by an unknown contemporary, which is written in the interest of Stephen.

GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH.—More famous than the monk of Malmesbury, but by no means so truthful, stands Geoffrey of Monmouth, Archdeacon of Monmouth and Bishop of St. Asaph's, a writer to whom the rhyming chronicles and Anglo-Norman poets have owed so much. Walter, a Deacon of Oxford, it is said, had procured from Brittany a Welsh chronicle containing a history of the Britons from the time of one Brutus, a great-grandson of AEneas, down to the seventh century of our era. From this, partly in translation and partly in original creation, Geoffrey wrote his "History of the Britons." Catering to the popular prejudice, he revived, and in part created, the deeds of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table—fabulous heroes who have figured in the best English poetry from that day to the present, their best presentation having been made in the Idyls of the King, (Arthur,) by Tennyson.

The popular philosophy of Geoffrey's work is found in the fact, that while in Bede and in the Saxon Chronicle the Britons had not been portrayed in such a manner as to flatter the national vanity, which seeks for remote antecedents of greatness; under the guise of the Chronicle of Brittany, Geoffrey undertook to do this. Polydore Virgil distinctly condemns him for relating "many fictitious things of King Arthur and the ancient Britons, invented by himself, and pretended to be translated by him into Latin, which he palms on the world with the sacred name of true history;" and this view is substantiated by the fact that the earlier writers speak of Arthur as a prince and a warrior, of no colossal fame—"well known, but not idolized.... That he was a courageous warrior is unquestionable; but that he was the miraculous Mars of the British history, from whom kings and nations shrunk in panic, is completely disproved by the temperate encomiums of his contemporary bards."[14]

It is of great historical importance to observe the firm hold taken by this fabulous character upon the English people, as evinced by the fact that he has been a popular hero of the English epic ever since. Spenser adopted him as the presiding genius of his "Fairy Queen," and Milton projected a great epic on his times, before he decided to write the Paradise Lost.


Ingulphus, Abbot of Croyland, 1075-1109: History of Croyland. Authenticity disputed.

William of Poictiers, 1070: Deeds of William the Conqueror, (Gesta Gullielmi Ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum.)

Ordericus Vitalis, born about 1075: general ecclesiastical history.

William of Jumieges: History of the Dukes of Normandy.

Florence of Worcester, died 1118: (Chronicon ex Chronicis,) Chronicle from the Chronicles, from the Creation to 1118, (with two valuable additions to 1141, and to 1295.)

Matthew of Westminster, end of thirteenth century (probably a fictitious name): Flowers of the Histories, (Flores Historiarum.)

Eadmer, died about 1124: history of his own time, (Historia Novorum, sive sui seculi.)

Giraldus Cambrensis, born 1146, known as Girald Barry: numerous histories, including Topographia Hiberniae, and the Norman conquest of Ireland; also several theological works.

Henry of Huntingdon, first half of the twelfth century: History of England.

Alured of Rievaux, 1109-66: The Battle of the Standard.

Roger de Hoveden, end of twelfth century: Annales, from the end of Bede's history to 1202.

Matthew Paris, monk of St. Alban's, died 1259: Historia Major, from the Norman conquest to 1259, continued by William Rishanger to 1322.

Ralph Higden, fourteenth century: Polychronicon, or Chronicle of Many Things; translated in the fifteenth century, by John de Trevisa; printed by Caxton in 1482, and by Wynken de Worde in 1485.

THE ANGLO-NORMAN POETS AND CHRONICLERS.—Norman literature had already made itself a name before William conquered England. Short jingling tales in verse, in ballad style, were popular under the name of fabliaux, and fuller epics, tender, fanciful, and spirited, called Romans, or Romaunts, were sung to the lute, in courts and camps. Of these latter, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, and Roland were the principal heroes.

Strange as it may seem, this langue d'oil, in which they were composed, made more rapid progress in its poetical literature, in the period immediately after the conquest, in England than at home: it flourished by the transplantation. Its advent was with an act of heroism. Taillefer, the standard-bearer of William at Seulac, marched in advance of the army, struck the first blow, and met his death while chanting the song of Roland:

Of Charlemagne and Roland, Of Oliver and his vassals, Who died at Roncesvalles.

De Karlemaine e de Reliant, Et d'Olivier et des vassals, Ki moururent en Renchevals.

Each stanza ended with the war-shout Aoi! and was responded to by the cry of the Normans, Diex aide, God to aid. And this battle-song was the bold manifesto of Norman poetry invading England. It found an echo wherever William triumphed on English soil, and played an important part in the formation of the English language and English literature. New scenes and new victories created new inspiration in the poets; monarchs like Henry I., called from his scholarship Beauclerc, practised and cherished the poetic art, and thus it happened that the Norman poets in England produced works of sweeter minstrelsy and greater historical value than the fabliaux, Romans, and Chansons de gestes of their brethren on the continent. The conquest itself became a grand theme for their muse.

RICHARD WACE.—First among the Anglo-Norman poets stands Richard Wace, called Maistre Wace, reading clerk, (clerc lisant,) born in the island of Jersey, about 1112, died in 1184. His works are especially to be noted for the direct and indirect history they contain. His first work, which appeared about 1138, is entitled Le Brut d'Angleterre—The English Brutus—and is in part a paraphrase of the Latin history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who had presented Brutus of Troy as the first in the line of British kings. Wace has preserved the fiction of Geoffrey, and has catered to that characteristic of the English people which, not content with homespun myths, sought for genealogies from the remote classic times. Wace's Brut is chiefly in octo-syllabic verse, and extends to fifteen thousand lines.

But Wace was a courtier, as well as a poet. Not content with pleasing the fancy of the English people with a fabulous royal lineage, he proceeded to gratify the pride of their Norman masters by writing, in 1171, his "Roman de Rou, et des Ducs de Normandie," an epic poem on Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy—Rollo, called the Marcher, because he was so mighty of stature that no horse could bear his weight. This Rollo compromised with Charles the Simple of France by marrying his daughter, and accepting that tract of Neustria to which he gave the name of Normandy. He was the ancestor, at six removes, of William the Conqueror, and his mighty deeds were a pleasant and popular subject for the poet of that day, when a great-grandson of William, Henry II., was upon the throne of England. The Roman de Rou contains also the history of Rollo's successors: it is in two parts; the first extending to the beginning of the reign of the third duke, Richard the Fearless, and the second, containing the story of the conquest, comes down to the time of Henry II. himself. The second part he wrote rapidly, for fear that he would be forestalled by the king's poet Benoit. The first part was written in Alexandrines, but for the second he adopted the easier measure of the octo-syllabic verse, of which this part contains seventeen thousand lines. In this poem are discerned the craving of the popular mind, the power of the subject chosen, and the reflection of language and manners, which are displayed on every page.

So popular, indeed, was the subject of the Brut, indigenous as it was considered to British soil, that Wace's poem, already taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth, as Geoffrey had taken it, or pretended to take it from the older chronicle, was soon again, as we shall see, to be versionized into English.


Philip de Than, about 1130, one of the Trouveres: Li livre de creatures is a poetical study of chronology, and his Bestiarie is a sort of natural history of animals and minerals.

Benoit: Chroniques des Ducs de Normandie, 1160, written in thirty thousand octo-syllabic verses, only worthy of a passing notice, because of the appointment of the poet by the king, (Henry II.,) in order to forestall the second part of Wace's Roman de Rou.

Geoffrey, died 1146: A miracle play of St. Catherine.

Geoffrey Gaimar, about 1150: Estorie des Engles, (History of the English.)

Luc de la Barre, blinded for his bold satires by the king (Henry I.).

Mestre Thomas, latter part of twelfth century: Roman du Roi Horn. Probably the original of the "Geste of Kyng Horn."

Richard I., (Coeur de Lion,) died 1199, King of England: Sirventes and songs. His antiphonal song with the minstrel Blondel is said to have given information of the place of his imprisonment, and procured his release; but this is probably only a romantic fiction.



Semi-Saxon Literature. Layamon. The Ormulum. Robert of Gloucester. Langland. Piers Plowman. Piers Plowman's Creed. Sir Jean Froissart. Sir John Mandevil.


Moore, in his beautiful poem, "The Light of the Harem," speaks of that luminous pulsation which precedes the real, progressive morning:

... that earlier dawn Whose glimpses are again withdrawn, As if the morn had waked, and then Shut close her lids of light again.

The simile is not inapt, as applied to the first efforts of the early English, or Semi-Saxon literature, during the latter part of the twelfth and the whole of the thirteenth century. That deceptive dawn, or first glimpse of the coming day, is to be found in the work of Layamon. The old Saxon had revived, but had been modified and altered by contact with the Latin chronicles and the Anglo-Norman poetry, so as to become a distinct language—that of the people; and in this language men of genius and poetic taste were now to speak to the English nation.

LAYAMON.—Layamon[15] was an English priest of Worcestershire, who made a version of Wace's Brut, in the beginning of the thirteenth century, so peculiar, however, in its language, as to puzzle the philologist to fix its exact date with even tolerable accuracy. But, notwithstanding the resemblance, according to Mr. Ellis, to the "simple and unmixed, though very barbarous Saxon," the character of the alphabet and the nature of the rhythm place it at the close of the twelfth century, and present it as perhaps the best type of the Semi-Saxon. The poem consists partly of the Saxon alliterative lines, and partly of verses which seem to have thrown off this trammel; so that a different decision as to its date would be reached according as we consider these diverse parts of its structure. It is not improbable that, like English poets of a later time, Layamon affected a certain archaism in language, as giving greater beauty and interest to his style. The subject of the Brut was presented to him as already treated by three authors: first, the original Celtic poem, which has been lost; second, the Latin chronicle of Geoffrey; and, third, the French poem of Wace. Although Layamon's work is, in the main, a translation of that of Wace, he has modified it, and added much of his own. His poem contains more than thirty thousand lines.

THE ORMULUM.—Next in value to the Brut of Layamon, is the Ormulum, a series of metrical homilies, in part paraphrases of the gospels for the day, with verbal additions and annotations. This was the work of a monk named Orm or Ormin, who lived in the beginning of the thirteenth century, during the reign of King John and Henry III., and it resembles our present English much more nearly than the poem of Layamon. In his dedication of the work to his brother Walter, Orm says—and we give his words as an illustration of the language in which he wrote:

Ice hafe don swa summ thu bad Annd forthedd te thin wille Ice hafe wennd uintill Ennglissh Goddspelless hallghe lare Affterr thatt little witt tatt me Min Drihhten hafethth lenedd

I have done so as thou bade, And performed thee thine will; I have turned into English Gospel's holy lore, After that little wit that me My lord hath lent.

The poem is written in Alexandrine verses, which may be divided into octosyllabic lines, alternating with those of six syllables, as in the extract given above. He is critical with regard to his orthography, as is evinced in the following instructions which he gives to his future readers and transcriber:

And whase willen shall this booke Eft other sithe writen, Him bidde ice that he't write right Swa sum this booke him teacheth

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