English Literature - Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World
by William J. Long
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In our study we have noted: (1) the great epic or heroic poem Beowulf, and a few fragments of our first poetry, such as "Widsith," "Deor's Lament," and "The Seafarer." (2) Characteristics of Anglo-Saxon life; the form of our first speech. (3) The Northumbrian school of writers. Bede, our first historian, belongs to this school; but all his extant works are in Latin. The two great poets are Caedmon and Cynewulf. Northumbrian literature flourished between 650 and 850. In the year 867 Northumbria was conquered by the Danes, who destroyed the monasteries and the libraries containing our earliest literature. (4) The beginnings of English prose writing under Alfred (848-901). Our most important prose work of this age is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was revised and enlarged by Alfred, and which was continued for more than two centuries. It is the oldest historical record known to any European nation in its own tongue.

SELECTIONS FOR READING. Miscellaneous Poetry. The Seafarer, Love Letter (Husband's Message), Battle of Brunanburh, Deor's Lament, Riddles, Exodus, The Christ, Andreas, Dream of the Rood, extracts in Cook and Tinker's Translations from Old English Poetry[39] (Ginn and Company); Judith, translation by A.S. Cook. Good selections are found also in Brooke's History of Early English Literature, and Morley's English Writers, vols. 1 and 2.

Beowulf. J.R.C. Hall's prose translation; Child's Beowulf (Riverside Literature Series); Morris and Wyatt's The Tale of Beowulf; Earle's The Deeds of Beowulf; Metrical versions by Garnett, J.L. Hall, Lumsden, etc.

Prose. A few paragraphs of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in Manly's English Prose; translations in Cook and Tinker's Old English Prose.


HISTORY. For the facts of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England consult first a good text-book: Montgomery, pp. 31—57, or Cheyney, pp. 36-84. For fuller treatment see Green, ch. 1; Traill, vol. 1; Ramsey's Foundations of England; Turner's History of the Anglo-Saxons; Freeman's Old English History; Allen's Anglo-Saxon England; Cook's Life of Alfred; Asser's Life of King Alfred, edited by W.H. Stevenson; C. Plummer's Life and Times of Alfred the Great; E. Dale's National Life and Character in the Mirror of Early English Literature; Rhys's Celtic Britain.

LITERATURE. Anglo-Saxon Texts. Library of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, and Albion Series of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English Poetry (Ginn and Company); Belles Lettres Series of English Classics, sec. 1 (Heath & Co.); J.W. Bright's Anglo-Saxon Reader; Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer, and Anglo-Saxon Reader.

General Works. Jusserand, Ten Brink, Cambridge History, Morley (full titles and publishers in General Bibliography).

Special Works. Brooke's History of Early English Literature; Earle's Anglo-Saxon Literature; Lewis's Beginnings of English Literature; Arnold's Celtic Literature (for relations of Saxon and Celt); Longfellow's Poets and Poetry of Europe; Hall's Old English Idyls; Gayley's Classic Myths, or Guerber's Myths of the Northlands (for Norse Mythology); Brother Azarias's Development of Old English Thought.

Beowulf, prose translations by Tinker, Hall, Earle, Morris and Wyatt; metrical versions by Garnett, J.L. Hall, Lumsden, etc. The Exeter Book (a collection of Anglo-Saxon texts), edited and translated by Gollancz. The Christ of Cynewulf, prose translation by Whitman; the same poem, text and translation, by Gollancz; text by Cook. Caedmon's Paraphrase, text and translation, by Thorpe. Garnett's Elene, Judith, and other Anglo-Saxon Poems. Translations of Andreas and the Phoenix, in Gollancz's Exeter Book. Bede's History, in Temple Classics; the same with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (one volume) in Bohn's Antiquarian Library.


1. What is the relation of history and literature? Why should both subjects be studied together? Explain the qualities that characterize all great literature. Has any text-book in history ever appealed to you as a work of literature? What literary qualities have you noticed in standard historical works, such as those of Macaulay, Prescott, Gibbon, Green, Motley, Parkman, and John Fiske?

2. Why did the Anglo-Saxons come to England? What induced them to remain? Did any change occur in their ideals, or in their manner of life? Do you know any social or political institutions which they brought, and which, we still cherish?

3. From the literature you have read, what do you know about our Anglo- Saxon ancestors? What virtues did they admire in men? How was woman regarded? Can you compare the Anglo-Saxon ideal of woman with that of other nations, the Romans for instance?

4. Tell in your own words the general qualities of Anglo-Saxon poetry. How did it differ in its metrical form from modern poetry? What passages seem to you worth learning and remembering? Can you explain why poetry is more abundant and more interesting than prose in the earliest literature of all nations?

5. Tell the story of Beowulf. What appeals to you most in the poem? Why is it a work for all time, or, as the Anglo-Saxons would say, why is it worthy to be remembered? Note the permanent quality of literature, and the ideals and emotions which are emphasized in Beowulf. Describe the burials of Scyld and of Beowulf. Does the poem teach any moral lesson? Explain the Christian elements in this pagan epic.

6. Name some other of our earliest poems, and describe the one you like best. How does the sea figure in our first poetry? How is nature regarded? What poem reveals the life of the scop or poet? How do you account for the serious character of Anglo-Saxon poetry? Compare the Saxon and the Celt with regard to the gladsomeness of life as shown in their literature.

7. What useful purpose did poetry serve among our ancestors? What purpose did the harp serve in reciting their poems? Would the harp add anything to our modern poetry?

8. What is meant by Northumbrian literature? Who are the great Northumbrian writers? What besides the Danish conquest caused the decline of Northumbrian literature?

9. For what is Bede worthy to be remembered? Tell the story of Caedmon, as recorded in Bede's History. What new element is introduced in Caedmon's poems? What effect did Christianity have upon Anglo-Saxon literature? Can you quote any passages from Caedmon to show that Anglo-Saxon character was not changed but given a new direction? If you have read Milton's Paradise Lost, what resemblances are there between that poem and Caedmon's Paraphrase?

10. What are the Cynewulf poems? Describe any that you have read. How do they compare in spirit and in expression with Beowulf? with Caedmon? Read The Phoenix (which is a translation from the Latin) in Brooke's History of Early English Literature, or in Gollancz's Exeter Book, or in Cook's Translations from Old English Poetry, and tell what elements you find to show that the poem is not of Anglo-Saxon origin. Compare the views of nature in Beowulf and in the Cynewulf poems.

11. Describe the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. What is its value in our language, literature, and history? Give an account of Alfred's life and of his work for literature. How does Anglo-Saxon prose compare in interest with the poetry?

CHRONOLOGY ===================================================================== HISTORY LITERATURE - 449(?). Landing of Hengist and Horsa in Britain 477. Landing of South Saxons 547. Angles settle Northumbria 547. Gildas's History 597. Landing of Augustine and his monks. Conversion of Kent 617. Eadwine, king of Northumbria 635-665. Coming of St. Aidan. Conversion of Northumbria 664. Caedmon at Whitby 673-735. Bede 750 (cir.). Cynewulf poems 867. Danes conquer Northumbria 871. Alfred, king of Wessex 860. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle begun 878. Defeat of Danes. Peace of Wedmore 901. Death of Alfred 991. Last known poem of the Anglo-Saxon period, The Battle of Maldon, otherwise called Byrhtnoth's Death 1013-1042. Danish period 1016. Cnut, king 1042. Edward the Confessor. Saxon period restored 1049. Westminster Abbey begun 1066. Harold, last of Saxon kings. Norman Conquest =====================================================================

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THE NORMANS. The name Norman, which is a softened form of Northman, tells its own story. The men who bore the name came originally from Scandinavia,—bands of big, blond, fearless men cruising after plunder and adventure in their Viking ships, and bringing terror wherever they appeared. It was these same "Children of Woden" who, under the Danes' raven flag, had blotted out Northumbrian civilization in the ninth century. Later the same race of men came plundering along the French coast and conquered the whole northern country; but here the results were altogether different. Instead of blotting out a superior civilization, as the Danes had done, they promptly abandoned their own. Their name of Normandy still clings to the new home; but all else that was Norse disappeared as the conquerors intermarried with the native Franks and accepted French ideals and spoke the French language. So rapidly did they adopt and improve the Roman civilization of the natives that, from a rude tribe of heathen Vikings, they had developed within a single century into the most polished and intellectual people in all Europe. The union of Norse and French (i.e. Roman-Gallic) blood had here produced a race having the best qualities of both,—the will power and energy of the one, the eager curiosity and vivid imagination of the other. When these Norman-French people appeared in Anglo-Saxon England they brought with them three noteworthy things: a lively Celtic disposition, a vigorous and progressive Latin civilization, and a Romance language.[42] We are to think of the conquerors, therefore, as they thought and spoke of themselves in the Domesday Book and all their contemporary literature, not as Normans but as Franci, that is, Frenchmen.

THE CONQUEST. At the battle of Hastings (1066) the power of Harold, last of the Saxon kings, was broken, and William, duke of Normandy, became master of England. Of the completion of that stupendous Conquest which began at Hastings, and which changed the civilization of a whole nation, this is not the place to speak. We simply point out three great results of the Conquest which have a direct bearing on our literature. First, notwithstanding Caesar's legions and Augustine's monks, the Normans were the first to bring the culture and the practical ideals of Roman civilization home to the English people; and this at a critical time, when England had produced her best, and her own literature and civilization had already begun to decay. Second, they forced upon England the national idea, that is, a strong, centralized government to replace the loose authority of a Saxon chief over his tribesmen. And the world's history shows that without a great nationality a great literature is impossible. Third, they brought to England the wealth of a new language and literature, and our English gradually absorbed both. For three centuries after Hastings French was the language of the upper classes, of courts and schools and literature; yet so tenaciously did the common people cling to their own strong speech that in the end English absorbed almost the whole body of French words and became the language of the land. It was the welding of Saxon and French into one speech that produced the wealth of our modern English.

Naturally such momentous changes in a nation were not brought about suddenly. At first Normans and Saxons lived apart in the relation of masters and servants, with more or less contempt on one side and hatred on the other; but in an astonishingly short time these two races were drawn powerfully together, like two men of different dispositions who are often led into a steadfast friendship by the attraction of opposite qualities, each supplying what the other lacks. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was continued for a century after Hastings, finds much to praise in the conquerors; on the other hand the Normans, even before the Conquest, had no great love for the French nation. After conquering England they began to regard it as home and speedily developed a new sense of nationality. Geoffrey's popular History,[43] written less than a century after the Conquest, made conquerors and conquered alike proud of their country by its stories of heroes who, curiously enough, were neither Norman nor Saxon, but creations of the native Celts. Thus does literature, whether in a battle song or a history, often play the chief role in the development of nationality.[44] Once the mutual distrust was overcome the two races gradually united, and out of this union of Saxons and Normans came the new English life and literature.

LITERARY IDEALS OF THE NORMANS. The change in the life of the conquerors from Norsemen to Normans, from Vikings to Frenchmen, is shown most clearly in the literature which they brought with them to England. The old Norse strength and grandeur, the magnificent sagas telling of the tragic struggles of men and gods, which still stir us profoundly,—these have all disappeared. In their place is a bright, varied, talkative literature, which runs to endless verses, and which makes a wonderful romance out of every subject it touches. The theme may be religion or love or chivalry or history, the deeds of Alexander or the misdeeds of a monk; but the author's purpose never varies. He must tell a romantic story and amuse his audience; and the more wonders and impossibilities he relates, the more surely is he believed. We are reminded, in reading, of the native Gauls, who would stop every traveler and compel him to tell a story ere he passed on. There was more of the Gaul than of the Norseman in the conquerors, and far more of fancy than of thought or feeling in their literature. If you would see this in concrete form, read the Chanson de Roland, the French national epic (which the Normans first put into literary form), in contrast with Beowulf, which voices the Saxon's thought and feeling before the profound mystery of human life. It is not our purpose to discuss the evident merits or the serious defects of Norman-French literature, but only to point out two facts which impress the student, namely, that Anglo-Saxon literature was at one time enormously superior to the French, and that the latter, with its evident inferiority, absolutely replaced the former. "The fact is too often ignored," says Professor Schofield,[45] "that before 1066 the Anglo-Saxons had a body of native literature distinctly superior to any which the Normans or French could boast at that time; their prose especially was unparalleled for extent and power in any European vernacular." Why, then, does this superior literature disappear and for nearly three centuries French remain supreme, so much so that writers on English soil, even when they do not use the French language, still slavishly copy the French models?

To understand this curious phenomenon it is necessary only to remember the relative conditions of the two races who lived side by side in England. On the one hand the Anglo-Saxons were a conquered people, and without liberty a great literature is impossible. The inroads of the Danes and their own tribal wars had already destroyed much of their writings, and in their new condition of servitude they could hardly preserve what remained. The conquering Normans, on the other hand, represented the civilization of France, which country, during the early Middle Ages, was the literary and educational center of all Europe. They came to England at a time when the idea of nationality was dead, when culture had almost vanished, when Englishmen lived apart in narrow isolation; and they brought with them law, culture, the prestige of success, and above all the strong impulse to share in the great world's work and to join in the moving currents of the world's history. Small wonder, then, that the young Anglo-Saxons felt the quickening of this new life and turned naturally to the cultured and progressive Normans as their literary models.


In the Advocates' Library at Edinburgh there is a beautifully illuminated manuscript, written about 1330, which gives us an excellent picture of the literature of the Norman period. In examining it we are to remember that literature was in the hands of the clergy and nobles; that the common people could not read, and had only a few songs and ballads for their literary portion. We are to remember also that parchments were scarce and very expensive, and that a single manuscript often contained all the reading matter of a castle or a village. Hence this old manuscript is as suggestive as a modern library. It contains over forty distinct works, the great bulk of them being romances. There are metrical or verse romances of French and Celtic and English heroes, like Roland, Arthur and Tristram, and Bevis of Hampton. There are stories of Alexander, the Greek romance of "Flores and Blanchefleur," and a collection of Oriental tales called "The Seven Wise Masters." There are legends of the Virgin and the saints, a paraphrase of Scripture, a treatise on the seven deadly sins, some Bible history, a dispute among birds concerning women, a love song or two, a vision of Purgatory, a vulgar story with a Gallic flavor, a chronicle of English kings and Norman barons, and a political satire. There are a few other works, similarly incongruous, crowded together in this typical manuscript, which now gives mute testimony to the literary taste of the times.

Obviously it is impossible to classify such a variety. We note simply that it is mediaeval in spirit, and French in style and expression; and that sums up the age. All the scholarly works of the period, like William of Malmesbury's History, and Anselm's[46] Cur Deus Homo, and Roger Bacon's Opus Majus, the beginning of modern experimental science, were written in Latin; while nearly all other works were written in French, or else were English copies or translations of French originals. Except for the advanced student, therefore, they hardly belong to the story of English literature. We shall note here only one or two marked literary types, like the Riming Chronicle (or verse history) and the Metrical Romance, and a few writers whose work has especial significance.

GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH. (d. 1154). Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae is noteworthy, not as literature, but rather as a source book from which many later writers drew their literary materials. Among the native Celtic tribes an immense number of legends, many of them of exquisite beauty, had been preserved through four successive conquests of Britain. Geoffrey, a Welsh monk, collected some of these legends and, aided chiefly by his imagination, wrote a complete history of the Britons. His alleged authority was an ancient manuscript in the native Welsh tongue containing the lives and deeds of all their kings, from Brutus, the alleged founder of Britain, down to the coming of Julius Caesar.[47] From this Geoffrey wrote his history, down to the death of Cadwalader in 689.

The "History" is a curious medley of pagan and Christian legends, of chronicle, comment, and pure invention,—all recorded in minute detail and with a gravity which makes it clear that Geoffrey had no conscience, or else was a great joker. As history the whole thing is rubbish; but it was extraordinarily successful at the time and made all who heard it, whether Normans or Saxons, proud of their own country. It is interesting to us because it gave a new direction to the literature of England by showing the wealth of poetry and romance that lay in its own traditions of Arthur and his knights. Shakespeare's King Lear, Malory's Morte d'Arthur, and Tennyson's Idylls of the King were founded on the work of this monk, who had the genius to put unwritten Celtic tradition in the enduring form of Latin prose.

WORK OF THE FRENCH WRITERS. The French literature of the Norman period is interesting chiefly because of the avidity with which foreign writers seized upon the native legends and made them popular in England. Until Geoffrey's preposterous chronicle appeared, these legends had not been used to any extent as literary material. Indeed, they were scarcely known in England, though familiar to French and Italian minstrels. Legends of Arthur and his court were probably first taken to Brittany by Welsh emigrants in the fifth and sixth centuries. They became immensely popular wherever they were told, and they were slowly carried by minstrels and story-tellers all over Europe. That they had never received literary form or recognition was due to a peculiarity of mediaeval literature, which required that every tale should have some ancient authority behind it. Geoffrey met this demand by creating an historical manuscript of Welsh history. That was enough for the age. With Geoffrey and his alleged manuscript to rest upon, the Norman- French writers were free to use the fascinating stories which had been-for centuries in the possession of their wandering minstrels. Geoffrey's Latin history was put into French verse by Gaimar (c. 1150) and by Wace (c. 1155), and from these French versions the work was first translated into English. From about 1200 onward Arthur and Guinevere and the matchless band of Celtic heroes that we meet later (1470) in Malory's Morte d' Arthur became the permanent possession of our literature.

LAYAMON'S BRUT (c. 1200). This is the most important of the English riming chronicles, that is, history related in the form of doggerel verse, probably because poetry is more easily memorized than prose. We give here a free rendering of selected lines at the beginning of the poem, which tell us all we know of Layamon, the first who ever wrote as an Englishman for Englishmen, including in the term all who loved England and called it home, no matter where their ancestors were born.

Now there was a priest in the land named Layamon. He was son of Leovenath —may God be gracious unto him. He dwelt at Ernley, at a noble church on Severn's bank. He read many books, and it came to his mind to tell the noble deeds of the English. Then he began to journey far and wide over the land to procure noble books for authority. He took the English book that Saint Bede made, another in Latin that Saint Albin made,[48] and a third book that a French clerk made, named Wace.[49] Layamon laid these works before him and turned the leaves; lovingly he beheld them. Pen he took, and wrote on book-skin, and made the three books into one.

The poem begins with the destruction of Troy and the flight of "AEneas the duke" into Italy. Brutus, a great-grandson of AEneas, gathers his people and sets out to find a new land in the West. Then follows the founding of the Briton kingdom, and the last third of the poem, which is over thirty thousand lines in length, is taken up with the history of Arthur and his knights. If the Brut had no merits of its own, it would still interest us, for it marks the first appearance of the Arthurian legends in our own tongue. A single selection is given here from Arthur's dying speech, familiar to us in Tennyson's Morte d'Arthur. The reader will notice here two things: first, that though the poem is almost pure Anglo-Saxon,[50] our first speech has already dropped many inflections and is more easily read than Beowulf; second, that French influence is already at work in Layamon's rimes and assonances, that is, the harmony resulting from using the same vowel sound in several successive lines:

And ich wulle varen to Avalun: And I will fare to Avalun, To vairest alre maidene, To fairest of all maidens, To Argante there quene, To Argante the queen, Alven swithe sceone. An elf very beautiful. And heo seal mine wunden And she shall my wounds Makien alle isunde, Make all sound; Al hal me makien All whole me make Mid haleweiye drenchen. With healing drinks. And seothe ich cumen wulle And again will I come To mine kiueriche To my kingdom And wunien mid Brutten And dwell with Britons Mid muchelere wunne. With mickle joy. Aefne than worden Even (with) these words Ther com of se wenden There came from the sea That wes an sceort bat lithen, A short little boat gliding, Sceoven mid uthen, Shoved by the waves; And twa wimmen ther inne, And two women therein, Wunderliche idihte. Wondrously attired. And heo nomen Arthur anan And they took Arthur anon And an eovste hine vereden And bore him hurriedly, And softe hine adun leiden, And softly laid him down, And forth gunnen lithen. And forth gan glide.

METRICAL ROMANCES. Love, chivalry, and religion, all pervaded by the spirit of romance,—these are the three great literary ideals which find expression in the metrical romances. Read these romances now, with their knights and fair ladies, their perilous adventures and tender love-making, their minstrelsy and tournaments and gorgeous cavalcades,—as if humanity were on parade, and life itself were one tumultuous holiday in the open air,—and you have an epitome of the whole childish, credulous soul of the Middle Ages. The Normans first brought this type of romance into England, and so popular did it become, so thoroughly did it express the romantic spirit of the time, that it speedily overshadowed all other forms of literary expression.

Though the metrical romances varied much in form and subject-matter, the general type remains the same,—a long rambling poem or series of poems treating of love or knightly adventure or both. Its hero is a knight; its characters are fair ladies in distress, warriors in armor, giants, dragons, enchanters, and various enemies of Church and State; and its emphasis is almost invariably on love, religion, and duty as defined by chivalry. In the French originals of these romances the lines were a definite length, the meter exact, and rimes and assonances were both used to give melody. In England this metrical system came in contact with the uneven lines, the strong accent and alliteration of the native songs; and it is due to the gradual union of the two systems, French and Saxon, that our English became capable of the melody and amazing variety of verse forms which first find expression in Chaucer's poetry.

In the enormous number of these verse romances we note three main divisions, according to subject, into the romances (or the so-called matter) of France, Rome, and Britain.[51] The matter of France deals largely with the exploits of Charlemagne and his peers, and the chief of these Carlovingian cycles is the Chanson de Roland, the national epic, which celebrates the heroism of Roland in his last fight against the Saracens at Ronceval. Originally these romances were called Chansons de Geste; and the name is significant as indicating that the poems were originally short songs[52] celebrating the deeds (gesta) of well-known heroes. Later the various songs concerning one hero were gathered together and the Geste became an epic, like the Chanson de Roland, or a kind of continued ballad story, hardly deserving the name of epic, like the Geste of Robin Hood.[53]

The matter of Rome consisted largely of tales from Greek and Roman sources; and the two great cycles of these romances deal with the deeds of Alexander, a favorite hero, and the siege of Troy, with which the Britons thought they had some historic connection. To these were added a large number of tales from Oriental sources; and in the exuberant imagination of the latter we see the influence which the Saracens—those nimble wits who gave us our first modern sciences and who still reveled in the Arabian Nights—had begun to exercise on the literature of Europe.

To the English reader, at least, the most interesting of the romances are those which deal with the exploits of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table,—the richest storehouse of romance which our literature has ever found. There were many cycles of Arthurian romances, chief of which are those of Gawain, Launcelot, Merlin, the Quest of the Holy Grail, and the Death of Arthur. In preceding sections we have seen how these fascinating romances were used by Geoffrey and the French writers, and how, through the French, they found their way into English, appearing first in our speech in Layamon's Brut. The point to remember is that, while the legends are Celtic in origin, their literary form is due to French poets, who originated the metrical romance. All our early English romances are either copies or translations of the French; and this is true not only of the matter of France and Rome, but of Celtic heroes like Arthur, and English heroes like Guy of Warwick and Robin Hood.

The most interesting of all Arthurian romances are those of the Gawain cycle,[54] and of these the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is best worth reading, for many reasons. First, though the material is taken from French sources,[55] the English workmanship is the finest of our early romances. Second, the unknown author of this romance probably wrote also "The Pearl," and is the greatest English poet of the Norman period. Third, the poem itself with its dramatic interest, its vivid descriptions, and its moral purity, is one of the most delightful old romances in any language.

In form Sir Gawain is an interesting combination of French and Saxon elements. It is written in an elaborate stanza combining meter and alliteration. At the end of each stanza is a rimed refrain, called by the French a "tail rime." We give here a brief outline of the story; but if the reader desires the poem itself, he is advised to begin with a modern version, as the original is in the West Midland dialect and is exceedingly difficult to follow.

On New Year's day, while Arthur and his knights are keeping the Yuletide feast at Camelot, a gigantic knight in green enters the banquet hall on horseback and challenges the bravest knight present to an exchange of blows; that is, he will expose his neck to a blow of his own big battle-ax, if any knight will agree to abide a blow in return. After some natural consternation and a fine speech by Arthur, Gawain accepts the challenge, takes the battle-ax, and with one blow sends the giant's head rolling through the hall. The Green Knight, who is evidently a terrible magician, picks up his head and mounts his horse. He holds out his head and the ghastly lips speak, warning Gawain to be faithful to his promise and to seek through the world till he finds the Green Chapel. There, on next New Year's day, the Green Knight will meet him and return the blow.

The second canto of the poem describes Gawain's long journey through the wilderness on his steed Gringolet, and his adventures with storm and cold, with, wild beasts and monsters, as he seeks in vain for the Green Chapel. On Christmas eve, in the midst of a vast forest, he offers a prayer to "Mary, mildest mother so dear," and is rewarded by sight of a great castle. He enters and is royally entertained by the host, an aged hero, and by his wife, who is the most beautiful woman the knight ever beheld. Gawain learns that he is at last near the Green Chapel, and settles down for a little comfort after his long quest.

The next canto shows the life in the castle, and describes a curious compact between the host, who goes hunting daily, and the knight, who remains in the castle to entertain the young wife. The compact is that at night each man shall give the other whatever good thing he obtains during the day. While the host is hunting, the young woman tries in vain to induce Gawain to make love to her, and ends by giving him a kiss. When the host returns and gives his guest the game he has killed Gawain returns the kiss. On the third day, her temptations having twice failed, the lady offers Gawain a ring, which he refuses; but when she offers a magic green girdle that will preserve the wearer from death, Gawain, who remembers the giant's ax so soon to fall on his neck, accepts the girdle as a "jewel for the jeopardy" and promises the lady to keep the gift secret. Here, then, are two conflicting compacts. When the host returns and offers his game, Gawain returns the kiss but says nothing of the green girdle.

The last canto brings our knight to the Green Chapel, after he is repeatedly warned to turn back in the face of certain death. The Chapel is a terrible place in the midst of desolation; and as Gawain approaches he hears a terrifying sound, the grating of steel on stone, where the giant is sharpening a new battle-ax. The Green Knight appears, and Gawain, true to his compact, offers his neck for the blow. Twice the ax swings harmlessly; the third time it falls on his shoulder and wounds him. Whereupon Gawain jumps for his armor, draws his sword, and warns the giant that the compact calls for only one blow, and that, if another is offered, he will defend himself.

Then the Green Knight explains things. He is lord of the castle where Gawain has been entertained for days past. The first two swings of the ax were harmless because Gawain had been true to his compact and twice returned the kiss. The last blow had wounded him because he concealed the gift of the green girdle, which belongs to the Green Knight and was woven by his wife. Moreover, the whole thing has been arranged by Morgain the fay-woman (an enemy of Queen Guinevere, who appears often in the Arthurian romances). Full of shame, Gawain throws back the gift and is ready to atone for his deception; but the Green Knight thinks he has already atoned, and presents the green girdle as a free gift. Gawain returns to Arthur's court, tells the whole story frankly, and ever after that the knights of the Round Table wear a green girdle in his honor.[56]

THE PEARL. In the same manuscript with "Sir Gawain" are found three other remarkable poems, written about 1350, and known to us, in order, as "The Pearl," "Cleanness," and "Patience." The first is the most beautiful, and received its name from the translator and editor, Richard Morris, in 1864. "Patience" is a paraphrase of the book of Jonah; "Cleanness" moralizes on the basis of Bible stories; but "The Pearl" is an intensely human and realistic picture of a father's grief for his little daughter Margaret, "My precious perle wythouten spot." It is the saddest of all our early poems.

On the grave of his little one, covered over with flowers, the father pours out his love and grief till, in the summer stillness, he falls asleep, while we hear in the sunshine the drowsy hum of insects and the faraway sound of the reapers' sickles. He dreams there, and the dream grows into a vision beautiful. His body lies still upon the grave while his spirit goes to a land, exquisite beyond all words, where he comes suddenly upon a stream that he cannot cross. As he wanders along the bank, seeking in vain for a ford, a marvel rises before his eyes, a crystal cliff, and seated beneath it a little maiden who raises a happy, shining face,—the face of his little Margaret.

More then me lyste my drede aros, I stod full stylle and dorste not calle; Wyth yghen open and mouth ful clos, I stod as hende as hawk in halle.

He dares not speak for fear of breaking the spell; but sweet as a lily she comes down the crystal stream's bank to meet and speak with him, and tell him of the happy life of heaven and how to live to be worthy of it. In his joy he listens, forgetting all his grief; then the heart of the man cries out for its own, and he struggles to cross the stream to join her. In the struggle the dream vanishes; he wakens to find his eyes wet and his head on the little mound that marks the spot where his heart is buried.

From the ideals of these three poems, and from peculiarities of style and meter, it is probable that their author wrote also Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. If so, the unknown author is the one genius of the age whose poetry of itself has power to interest us, and who stands between Cynewulf and Chaucer as a worthy follower of the one and forerunner of the other.

MISCELLANEOUS LITERATURE OF THE NORMAN PERIOD. It is well-nigh impossible to classify the remaining literature of this period, and very little of it is now read, except by advanced students. Those interested in the development of "transition" English will find in the Ancren Riwle, i.e. "Rule of the Anchoresses" (c. 1225), the most beautiful bit of old English prose ever written. It is a book of excellent religious advice and comfort, written for three ladies who wished to live a religious life, without, however, becoming nuns or entering any religious orders. The author was Bishop Poore of Salisbury, according to Morton, who first edited this old classic in 1853. Orm's Ormulum, written soon after the Brut, is a paraphrase of the gospel lessons for the year, somewhat after the manner of Caedmon's Paraphrase, but without any of Caedmon's poetic fire and originality. Cursor Mundi (c. 1320) is a very long poem which makes a kind of metrical romance out of Bible history and shows the whole dealing of God with man from Creation to Domesday. It is interesting as showing a parallel to the cycles of miracle plays, which attempt to cover the same vast ground. They were forming in this age; but we will study them later, when we try to understand the rise of the drama in England.

Besides these greater works, an enormous number of fables and satires appeared in this age, copied or translated from the French, like the metrical romances. The most famous of these are "The Owl and the Nightingale,"—a long debate between the two birds, one representing the gay side of life, the other the sterner side of law and morals,—and "Land of Cockaygne," i.e. "Luxury Land," a keen satire on monks and monastic religion.[57]

While most of the literature of the time was a copy of the French and was intended only for the upper classes, here and there were singers who made ballads for the common people; and these, next to the metrical romances, are the most interesting and significant of all the works of the Norman period. On account of its obscure origin and its oral transmission, the ballad is always the most difficult of literary subjects.[58] We make here only three suggestions, which may well be borne in mind: that ballads were produced continually in England from Anglo-Saxon times until the seventeenth century; that for centuries they were the only really popular literature; and that in the ballads alone one is able to understand the common people. Read, for instance, the ballads of the "merrie greenwood men," which gradually collected into the Geste of Robin Hood, and you will understand better, perhaps, than from reading many histories what the common people of England felt and thought while their lords and masters were busy with impossible metrical romances.

In these songs speaks the heart of the English folk. There is lawlessness indeed; but this seems justified by the oppression of the times and by the barbarous severity of the game laws. An intense hatred of shams and injustice lurks in every song; but the hatred is saved from bitterness by the humor with which captives, especially rich churchmen, are solemnly lectured by the bandits, while they squirm at sight of devilish tortures prepared before their eyes in order to make them give up their golden purses; and the scene generally ends in a bit of wild horse-play. There is fighting enough, and ambush and sudden death lurk at every turn of the lonely roads; but there is also a rough, honest chivalry for women, and a generous sharing of plunder with the poor and needy. All literature is but a dream expressed, and "Robin Hood" is the dream of an ignorant and oppressed but essentially noble people, struggling and determined to be free.

Far more poetical than the ballads, and more interesting even than the romances, are the little lyrics of the period,—those tears and smiles of long ago that crystallized into poems, to tell us that the hearts of men are alike in all ages. Of these, the best known are the "Luve Ron" (love rune or letter) of Thomas de Hales (c. 1250); "Springtime" (c. 1300), beginning "Lenten (spring) ys come with luve to toune"; and the melodious love song "Alysoun," written at the end of the thirteenth century by some unknown poet who heralds the coming of Chaucer:

Bytuene Mersh and Averil, When spray biginneth to springe The lutel foul[59] hath hire wyl On hyre lud[60] to synge. Ich libbe[61] in love longinge For semlokest[62] of all thinge. She may me blisse bringe; Icham[63] in hire baundoun.[64] An hendy hap ichabbe yhent,[65] Ichot[66] from hevene it is me sent, From alle wymmen mi love is lent[67] And lyht[68] on Alysoun.

SUMMARY OF THE NORMAN PERIOD. The Normans were originally a hardy race of sea rovers inhabiting Scandinavia. In the tenth century they conquered a part of northern France, which is still called Normandy, and rapidly adopted French civilization and the French language. Their conquest of Anglo-Saxon England under William, Duke of Normandy, began with the battle of Hastings in 1066. The literature which they brought to England is remarkable for its bright, romantic tales of love and adventure, in marked contrast with the strength and somberness of Anglo-Saxon poetry. During the three centuries following Hastings, Normans and Saxons gradually united. The Anglo-Saxon speech simplified itself by dropping most of its Teutonic inflections, absorbed eventually a large part of the French vocabulary, and became our English language. English literature is also a combination of French and Saxon elements. The three chief effects of the conquest were (1) the bringing of Roman civilization to England; (2) the growth of nationality, i.e. a strong centralized government, instead of the loose union of Saxon tribes; (3) the new language and literature, which were proclaimed in Chaucer.

At first the new literature was remarkably varied, but of small intrinsic worth; and very little of it is now read. In our study we have noted: (1) Geoffrey's History, which is valuable as a source book of literature, since it contains the native Celtic legends of Arthur. (2) The work of the French writers, who made the Arthurian legends popular. (3) Riming Chronicles, i.e. history in doggerel verse, like Layamon's Brut. (4) Metrical Romances, or tales in verse. These were numerous, and of four classes: (a) the Matter of France, tales centering about Charlemagne and his peers, chief of which is the Chanson de Roland; (b) Matter of Greece and Rome, an endless series of fabulous tales about Alexander, and about the Fall of Troy; (c) Matter of England, stories of Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwick, Robin Hood, etc.; (d) Matter of Britain, tales having for their heroes Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. The best of these romances is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (5) Miscellaneous literature,—the Ancren Riwle, our best piece of early English prose; Orm's Ormulum; Cursor Mundi, with its suggestive parallel to the Miracle plays; and ballads, like King Horn and the Robin Hood songs, which were the only poetry of the common people.

SELECTIONS FOR READING. For advanced students, and as a study of language, a few selections as given in Manly's English Poetry and in Manly's English Prose; or selections from the Ormulum, Brut, Ancren Riwle, and King Horn, etc., in Morris and Skeat's Specimens of Early English. The ordinary student will get a better idea of the literature of the period by using the following: Sir Gawain, modernized by J. L. Weston, in Arthurian Romances Series (Nutt); The Nun's Rule (Ancren Riwle), modern version by J. Morton, in King's Classics; Aucassin and Nicolete, translated by A. Lang (Crowell & Co.); Tristan and Iseult, in Arthurian Romances; Evans's The High History of the Holy Grail, in Temple Classics; The Pearl, various modern versions in prose and verse; one of the best is Jewett's metrical version (Crowell & Co.); The Song of Roland, in King's Classics, and in Riverside Literature Series; Evans's translation of Geoffrey's History, in Temple Classics; Guest's The Mabinogion, in Everyman's Library, or S. Lanier's Boy's Mabinogion (i.e. Welsh fairy tales and romances); Selected Ballads, in Athenaeum Press Series, and in Pocket Classics; Gayley and Flaherty's Poetry of the People; Bates's A Ballad Book.


HISTORY. Text-book, Montgomery, pp. 58-86, or Cheyney, pp. 88-144. For fuller treatment, Green, ch. 2; Traill; Gardiner, etc. Jewett's Story of the Normans (Stories of the Nations Series); Freeman's Short History of the Norman Conquest; Hutton's King and Baronage (Oxford Manuals of English History).

LITERATURE. General Works. Jusserand; Ten Brink; Mitchell, vol. I, From Celt to Tudor; The Cambridge History of English Literature.

Special Works. Schofield's English Literature from the Norman Conquest to Chaucer; Lewis's Beginnings of English Literature; Ker's Epic and Romance; Saintsbury's The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory; Newell's King Arthur and the Round Table; Maynadier, The Arthur of the English Poets; Rhys's Studies in the Arthurian Legends.

Ballads. Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads; Gummere's Old English Ballads (one volume); Hazlitt's Early Popular Poetry of England; Gayley and Flaherty's Poetry of the People; Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, in Everyman's Library.

Texts, Translations, etc. Morris and Skeat's Specimens of Early English; Morris's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in Early English Text Series; Madden's Layamon's Brut, text and translation (a standard work, but rare); The Pearl, text and translation, by Gollancz; the same poem, prose version, by Osgood, metrical versions by Jewett, Weir Mitchell, and Mead; Geoffrey's History, translation, in Giles's Six Old English Chronicles (Bohn's Antiquarian Library); Morley's Early English Prose Romances; Joyce's Old Celtic Romances; Guest's The Mabinogion; Lanier's Boy's Mabinogion; Arthurian Romances Series (translations). The Belles Lettres Series, sec. 2 (announced), will contain the texts of a large number of works of this period, with notes and introductions.

Language. Marsh's Lectures on the English Language; Bradley's Making of English; Lounsbury's History of the English Language; Emerson's Brief History of the English Language; Greenough and Kittredge's Words and their Ways in English Speech; Welsh's Development of English Literature and Language.

SUGGESTIVE QUESTIONS. 1. What did the Northmen originally have in common with the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes? What brought about the remarkable change from Northmen to Normans? Tell briefly the story of the Norman Conquest. How did the Conquest affect the life and literature of England?

2. What types of literature were produced after the Conquest? How do they compare with Anglo-Saxon literature? What works of this period are considered worthy of a permanent place in our literature?

3. What is meant by the Riming Chronicles? What part did they play in developing the idea of nationality? What led historians of this period to write in verse? Describe Geoffrey's History. What was its most valuable element from the view point of literature?

4. What is Layamon's Brut? Why did Layamon choose this name for his Chronicle? What special literary interest attaches to the poem?

5. What were the Metrical Romances? What reasons led to the great interest in three classes of romances, i.e. Matters of France, Rome, and Britain? What new and important element enters our literature in this type? Read one of the Metrical Romances in English and comment freely upon it, as to interest, structure, ideas, and literary quality.

6. Tell the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. What French and what Saxon elements are found in the poem? Compare it with Beowulf to show the points of inferiority and superiority. Compare Beowulf's fight with Grendel or the Fire Drake and Sir Gawain's encounter with the Green Knight, having in mind (1) the virtues of the hero, (2) the qualities of the enemy, (3) the methods of warfare, (4) the purpose of the struggle. Read selections from The Pearl and compare with Dear's Lament. What are the personal and the universal interests in each poem?

7. Tell some typical story from the Mabinogion. Where did the Arthurian legends originate, and how did they become known to English readers? What modern writers have used these legends? What fine elements do you find in them that are not found in Anglo-Saxon poetry?

8. What part did Arthur play in the early history of Britain? How long did the struggle between Britons and Saxons last? What Celtic names and elements entered into English language and literature?

9. What is a ballad, and what distinguishes it from other forms of poetry? Describe the ballad which you like best. Why did the ballad, more than any other form of literature, appeal to the common people? What modern poems suggest the old popular ballad? How do these compare in form and subject matter with the Robin Hood ballads?

CHRONOLOGY ============================================================================= HISTORY LITERATURE - 912. Northmen settle in Normandy 1066. Battle of Hastings. William, king of England 1086. Domesday Book completed 1087. William Rufus 1093. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury 1094(cir.). Anselem's Cur Deus Homo 1096. First Crusade 1100. Henry I 1110. First recorded Miracle play in England (see chapter on the Drama) 1135. Stephen 1137(cir.). Geoffrey's History 1147. Second Crusade 1154. Henry II 1189. Richard I. Third Crusade 1199. John 1200 (cir.). Layamon's Brut 1215. Magna Charta 1216. Henry III 1225 (cir.). Ancren Riwle 1230 (cir.). University of Cambridge chartered 1265. Beginning of House of Commons. Simon de Montfort 1267. Roger Bacon's Opus Majus 1272. Edward I 1295. First complete Parliament 1300-1400. York and Wakefield. Miracle plays 1307. Edward II 1320 (cir.). Cursor Mundi 1327. Edward III 1338. Beginning of Hundred Years' War with France 1340 (?). Birth of Chaucer 1350 (cir.). Sir Gawain. The Pearl =======================================+====================================

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THE AGE OF CHAUCER (1350-1400)


HISTORY OF THE PERIOD. Two great movements may be noted in the complex life of England during the fourteenth century. The first is political, and culminates in the reign of Edward III. It shows the growth of the English national spirit following the victories of Edward and the Black Prince on French soil, during the Hundred Years' War. In the rush of this great national movement, separating England from the political ties of France and, to a less degree, from ecclesiastical bondage to Rome, the mutual distrust and jealousy which had divided nobles and commons were momentarily swept aside by a wave of patriotic enthusiasm. The French language lost its official prestige, and English became the speech not only of the common people but of courts and Parliament as well.

The second movement is social; it falls largely within the reign of Edward's successor, Richard II, and marks the growing discontent with the contrast between luxury and poverty, between the idle wealthy classes and the overtaxed peasants. Sometimes this movement is quiet and strong, as when Wyclif arouses the conscience of England; again it has the portentous rumble of an approaching tempest, as when John Ball harangues a multitude of discontented peasants on Black Heath commons, using the famous text:

When Adam delved and Eve span Who was then the gentleman?

and again it breaks out into the violent rebellion of Wat Tyler. All these things show the same Saxon spirit that had won its freedom in a thousand years' struggle against foreign enemies, and that now felt itself oppressed by a social and industrial tyranny in its own midst.

Aside from these two movements, the age was one of unusual stir and progress. Chivalry, that mediaeval institution of mixed good and evil, was in its Indian summer,—a sentiment rather than a practical system. Trade, and its resultant wealth and luxury, were increasing enormously. Following trade, as the Vikings had followed glory, the English began to be a conquering and colonizing people, like the Anglo-Saxons. The native shed something of his insularity and became a traveler, going first to view the places where trade had opened the way, and returning with wider interests and a larger horizon. Above all, the first dawn of the Renaissance is heralded in England, as in Spain and Italy, by the appearance of a national literature.

FIVE WRITERS OF THE AGE. The literary movement of the age clearly reflects the stirring life of the times. There is Langland, voicing the social discontent, preaching the equality of men and the dignity of labor; Wyclif, greatest of English religious reformers, giving the Gospel to the people in their own tongue, and the freedom of the Gospel in unnumbered tracts and addresses; Gower, the scholar and literary man, criticising this vigorous life and plainly afraid of its consequences; and Mandeville, the traveler, romancing about the wonders to be seen abroad. Above all there is Chaucer,—scholar, traveler, business man, courtier, sharing in all the stirring life of his times, and reflecting it in literature as no other but Shakespeare has ever done. Outside of England the greatest literary influence of the age was that of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, whose works, then at the summit of their influence in Italy, profoundly affected the literature of all Europe.

CHAUCER (1340?-1400)

'What man artow?' quod he; 'Thou lokest as thou woldest finde an hare, For ever upon the ground I see thee stare. Approche neer, and loke up merily.... He semeth elvish by his contenaunce.' (The Host's description of Chaucer, Prologue, Sir Thopas)

ON READING CHAUCER. The difficulties of reading Chaucer are more apparent than real, being due largely to obsolete spelling, and there is small necessity for using any modern versions of the poet's work, which seem to miss the quiet charm and dry humor of the original. If the reader will observe the following general rules (which of necessity ignore many differences in pronunciation of fourteenth-century English), he may, in an hour or two, learn to read Chaucer almost as easily as Shakespeare: (1) Get the lilt of the lines, and let the meter itself decide how final syllables are to be pronounced. Remember that Chaucer is among the most musical of poets, and that there is melody in nearly every line. If the verse seems rough, it is because we do not read it correctly. (2) Vowels in Chaucer have much the same value as in modern German; consonants are practically the same as in modern English. (3) Pronounce aloud any strange-looking words. Where the eye fails, the ear will often recognize the meaning. If eye and ear both fail, then consult the glossary found in every good edition of the poet's works. (4) Final e is usually sounded (like a in Virginia) except where the following word begins with a vowel or with h. In the latter case the final syllable of one word and the first of the word following are run together, as in reading Virgil. At the end of a line the e, if lightly pronounced, adds melody to the verse.[70]

In dealing with Chaucer's masterpiece, the reader is urged to read widely at first, for the simple pleasure of the stories, and to remember that poetry and romance are more interesting and important than Middle English. When we like and appreciate Chaucer—his poetry, his humor, his good stories, his kind heart—-it will be time enough to study his language.

LIFE OF CHAUCER. For our convenience the life of Chaucer is divided into three periods. The first, of thirty years, includes his youth and early manhood, in which time he was influenced almost exclusively by French literary models. The second period, of fifteen years, covers Chaucer's active life as diplomat and man of affairs; and in this the Italian influence seems stronger than the French. The third, of fifteen years, generally known as the English period, is the time of Chaucer's richest development. He lives at home, observes life closely but kindly, and while the French influence is still strong, as shown in the Canterbury Tales, he seems to grow more independent of foreign models and is dominated chiefly by the vigorous life of his own English people.

Chaucer's boyhood was spent in London, on Thames Street near the river, where the world's commerce was continually coming and going. There he saw daily the shipman of the Canterbury Tales just home in his good ship Maudelayne, with the fascination of unknown lands in his clothes and conversation. Of his education we know nothing, except that he was a great reader. His father was a wine merchant, purveyor to the royal household, and from this accidental relation between trade and royalty may have arisen the fact that at seventeen years Chaucer was made page to the Princess Elizabeth. This was the beginning of his connection with the brilliant court, which in the next forty years, under three kings, he was to know so intimately.

At nineteen he went with the king on one of the many expeditions of the Hundred Years' War, and here he saw chivalry and all the pageantry of mediaeval war at the height of their outward splendor. Taken prisoner at the unsuccessful siege of Rheims, he is said to have been ransomed by money out of the royal purse. Returning to England, he became after a few years squire of the royal household, the personal attendant and confidant of the king. It was during this first period that he married a maid of honor to the queen. This was probably Philippa Roet, sister to the wife of John of Gaunt, the famous Duke of Lancaster. From numerous whimsical references in his early poems, it has been thought that this marriage into a noble family was not a happy one; but this is purely a matter of supposition or of doubtful inference.

In 1370 Chaucer was sent abroad on the first of those diplomatic missions that were to occupy the greater part of the next fifteen years. Two years later he made his first official visit to Italy, to arrange a commercial treaty with Genoa, and from this time is noticeable a rapid development in his literary powers and the prominence of Italian literary influences. During the intervals between his different missions he filled various offices at home, chief of which was Comptroller of Customs at the port of London. An enormous amount of personal labor was involved; but Chaucer seems to have found time to follow his spirit into the new fields of Italian literature:

For whan thy labour doon al is, And hast y-maad thy rekeninges, In stede of reste and newe thinges, Thou gost hoom to thy hous anoon, And, also domb as any stoon, Thou sittest at another boke Til fully daswed is thy loke, And livest thus as an hermyte.[71]

In 1386 Chaucer was elected member of Parliament from Kent, and the distinctly English period of his life and work begins. Though exceedingly busy in public affairs and as receiver of customs, his heart was still with his books, from which only nature could win him:

And as for me, though that my wit be lyte, On bokes for to rede I me delyte, And to hem yeve I feyth and ful credence, And in myn herte have hem in reverence So hertely, that ther is game noon That fro my bokes maketh me to goon, But hit be seldom, on the holyday; Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May Is comen, and that I here the foules singe, And that the floures ginnen for to springe— Farwel my book and my devocioun![72]

In the fourteenth century politics seems to have been, for honest men, a very uncertain business. Chaucer naturally adhered to the party of John of Gaunt, and his fortunes rose or fell with those of his leader. From this time until his death he is up and down on the political ladder; to-day with money and good prospects, to-morrow in poverty and neglect, writing his "Complaint to His Empty Purs," which he humorously calls his "saveour doun in this werlde here." This poem called the king's attention to the poet's need and increased his pension; but he had but few months to enjoy the effect of this unusual "Complaint." For he died the next year, 1400, and was buried with honor in Westminster Abbey. The last period of his life, though outwardly most troubled, was the most fruitful of all. His "Truth," or "Good Counsel," reveals the quiet, beautiful spirit of his life, unspoiled either by the greed of trade or the trickery of politics:

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothfastnesse, Suffyce unto thy good, though hit be smal; For hord[73] hath hate, and climbing tikelnesse, Prees[74] hath envye, and wele[75] blent[76] overal; Savour no more than thee bihove shal; Werk[77] wel thyself, that other folk canst rede; And trouthe shal delivere, hit is no drede. Tempest[78] thee noght al croked to redresse, In trust of hir[79] that turneth as a bal: Gret reste stant in litel besinesse; And eek be war to sporne[80] ageyn an al[81]; Stryve noght, as doth the crokke with the wal. Daunte[82] thyself, that dauntest otheres dede; And trouthe shal delivere, hit is no drede. That thee is sent, receyve in buxumnesse, The wrastling for this worlde axeth a fal. Her nis non hoom, her nis but wildernesse: Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stall, Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al; Hold the hye wey, and lat thy gost thee lede: And trouthe shal delivere, hit is no drede.

WORKS OF CHAUCER, FIRST PERIOD. The works of Chaucer are roughly divided into three classes, corresponding to the three periods of his life. It should be remembered, however, that it is impossible to fix exact dates for most of his works. Some of his Canterbury Tales were written earlier than the English period, and were only grouped with the others in his final arrangement.

The best known, though not the best, poem of the first period is the Romaunt of the Rose,[83] a translation from the French Roman de la Rose, the most popular poem of the Middle Ages,—a graceful but exceedingly tiresome allegory of the whole course of love. The Rose growing in its mystic garden is typical of the lady Beauty. Gathering the Rose represents the lover's attempt to win his lady's favor; and the different feelings aroused—Love, Hate, Envy, Jealousy, Idleness, Sweet Looks—are the allegorical persons of the poet's drama. Chaucer translated this universal favorite, putting in some original English touches; but of the present Romaunt only the first seventeen hundred lines are believed to be Chaucer's own work.

Perhaps the best poem of this period is the "Dethe of Blanche the Duchesse," better known, as the "Boke of the Duchesse," a poem of considerable dramatic and emotional power, written after the death of Blanche, wife of Chaucer's patron, John of Gaunt. Additional poems are the "Compleynte to Pite," a graceful love poem; the "A B C," a prayer to the Virgin, translated from the French of a Cistercian monk, its verses beginning with the successive letters of the alphabet; and a number of what Chaucer calls "ballads, roundels, and virelays," with which, says his friend Gower, "the land was filled." The latter were imitations of the prevailing French love ditties.

SECOND PERIOD. The chief work of the second or Italian period is Troilus and Criseyde, a poem of eight thousand lines. The original story was a favorite of many authors during the Middle Ages, and Shakespeare makes use of it in his Troilus and Cressida. The immediate source of Chaucer's poem is Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, "the love-smitten one"; but he uses his material very freely, to reflect the ideals of his own age and society, and so gives to the whole story a dramatic force and beauty which it had never known before.

The "Hous of Fame" is one of Chaucer's unfinished poems, having the rare combination of lofty thought and simple, homely language, showing the influence of the great Italian master. In the poem the author is carried away in a dream by a great eagle from the brittle temple of Venus, in a sandy wilderness, up to the hall of fame. To this house come all rumors of earth, as the sparks fly upward. The house stands on a rock of ice

writen ful of names Of folk that hadden grete fames.

Many of these have disappeared as the ice melted; but the older names are clear as when first written. For many of his ideas Chaucer is indebted to Dante, Ovid, and Virgil; but the unusual conception and the splendid workmanship are all his own.

The third great poem of the period is the Legende of Goode Wimmen. As he is resting in the fields among the daisies, he falls asleep and a gay procession draws near. First comes the love god, leading by the hand Alcestis, model of all wifely virtues, whose emblem is the daisy; and behind them follow a troup of glorious women, all of whom have been faithful in love. They gather about the poet; the god upbraids him for having translated the Romance of the Rose, and for his early poems reflecting on the vanity and fickleness of women. Alcestis intercedes for him, and offers pardon if he will atone for his errors by writing a "glorious legend of good women." Chaucer promises, and as soon as he awakes sets himself to the task. Nine legends were written, of which "Thisbe" is perhaps the best. It is probable that Chaucer intended to make this his masterpiece, devoting many years to stories of famous women who were true to love; but either because he wearied of his theme, or because the plan of the Canterbury Tales was growing in his mind, he abandoned the task in the middle of his ninth legend,—fortunately, perhaps, for the reader will find the Prologue more interesting than any of the legends.

THIRD PERIOD. Chaucer's masterpiece, the Canterbury Tales, one of the most famous works in all literature, fills the third or English period of his life. The plan of the work is magnificent: to represent the wide sweep of English life by gathering a motley company together and letting each class of society tell its own favorite stories. Though the great work was never finished, Chaucer succeeded in his purpose so well that in the Canterbury Tales he has given us a picture of contemporary English life, its work and play, its deeds and dreams, its fun and sympathy and hearty joy of living, such as no other single work of literature has ever equaled.

PLAN OF THE CANTERBURY TALES. Opposite old London, at the southern end of London Bridge, once stood the Tabard Inn of Southwark, a quarter made famous not only by the Canterbury Tales, but also by the first playhouses where Shakespeare had his training. This Southwark was the point of departure of all travel to the south of England, especially of those mediaeval pilgrimages to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. On a spring evening, at the inspiring time of the year when "longen folk to goon on pilgrimages," Chaucer alights at the Tabard Inn, and finds it occupied by a various company of people bent on a pilgrimage. Chance alone had brought them together; for it was the custom of pilgrims to wait at some friendly inn until a sufficient company were gathered to make the journey pleasant and safe from robbers that might be encountered on the way. Chaucer joins this company, which includes all classes of English society, from the Oxford scholar to the drunken miller, and accepts gladly their invitation to go with them on the morrow.

At supper the jovial host of the Tabard Inn suggests that, to enliven the journey, each of the company shall tell four tales, two going and two coming, on whatever subject shall suit him best. The host will travel with them as master of ceremonies, and whoever tells the best story shall be given a fine supper at the general expense when they all come back again,—a shrewd bit of business and a fine idea, as the pilgrims all agree.

When they draw lots for the first story the chance falls to the Knight, who tells one of the best of the Canterbury Tales, the chivalric story of "Palamon and Arcite." Then the tales follow rapidly, each with its prologue and epilogue, telling how the story came about, and its effects on the merry company. Interruptions are numerous; the narrative is full of life and movement, as when the miller gets drunk and insists on telling his tale out of season, or when they stop at a friendly inn for the night, or when the poet with sly humor starts his story of "Sir Thopas," in dreary imitation of the metrical romances of the day, and is roared at by the host for his "drasty ryming." With Chaucer we laugh at his own expense, and are ready for the next tale.

From the number of persons in the company, thirty-two in all, it is evident that Chaucer meditated an immense work of one hundred and twenty-eight tales, which should cover the whole life of England. Only twenty-four were written; some of these are incomplete, and others are taken from his earlier work to fill out the general plan of the Canterbury Tales. Incomplete as they are, they cover a wide range, including stories of love and chivalry, of saints and legends, travels, adventures, animal fables, allegory, satires, and the coarse humor of the common people. Though all but two are written in verse and abound in exquisite poetical touches, they are stories as well as poems, and Chaucer is to be regarded as our first short-story teller as well as our first modern poet. The work ends with a kindly farewell from the poet to his reader, and so "here taketh the makere of this book his leve."

PROLOGUE TO THE CANTERBURY TALES. In the famous "Prologue" the poet makes us acquainted with the various characters of his drama. Until Chaucer's day popular literature had been busy chiefly with the gods and heroes of a golden age; it had been essentially romantic, and so had never attempted to study men and women as they are, or to describe them so that the reader recognizes them, not as ideal heroes, but as his own neighbors. Chaucer not only attempted this new realistic task, but accomplished it so well that his characters were instantly recognized as true to life, and they have since become the permanent possession of our literature. Beowulf and Roland are ideal heroes, essentially creatures of the imagination; but the merry host of the Tabard Inn, Madame Eglantyne, the fat monk, the parish priest, the kindly plowman, the poor scholar with his "bookes black and red,"—all seem more like personal acquaintances than characters in a book. Says Dryden: "I see all the pilgrims, their humours, their features and their very dress, as distinctly as if I had supped with them at the Tabard in Southwark." Chaucer is the first English writer to bring the atmosphere of romantic interest about the men and women and the daily work of one's own world,—which is the aim of nearly all modern literature.

The historian of our literature is tempted to linger over this "Prologue" and to quote from it passage after passage to show how keenly and yet kindly our first modern poet observed his fellow-men. The characters, too, attract one like a good play: the "verray parfit gentil knight" and his manly son, the modest prioress, model of sweet piety and society manners, the sporting monk and the fat friar, the discreet man of law, the well-fed country squire, the sailor just home from sea, the canny doctor, the lovable parish priest who taught true religion to his flock, but "first he folwed it himselve"; the coarse but good-hearted Wyf of Bath, the thieving miller leading the pilgrims to the music of his bagpipe,—all these and many others from every walk of English life, and all described with a quiet, kindly humor which seeks instinctively the best in human nature, and which has an ample garment of charity to cover even its faults and failings. "Here," indeed, as Dryden says, "is God's plenty." Probably no keener or kinder critic ever described his fellows; and in this immortal "Prologue" Chaucer is a model for all those who would put our human life into writing. The student should read it entire, as an introduction not only to the poet but to all our modern literature.

THE KNIGHT'S TALE. As a story, "Palamon and Arcite" is, in many respects, the best of the Canterbury Tales, reflecting as it does the ideals of the time in regard to romantic love and knightly duty. Though its dialogues and descriptions are somewhat too long and interrupt the story, yet it shows Chaucer at his best in his dramatic power, his exquisite appreciation of nature, and his tender yet profound philosophy of living, which could overlook much of human frailty in the thought that

Infinite been the sorwes and the teres Of olde folk, and folk of tendre yeres.

The idea of the story was borrowed from Boccaccio; but parts of the original tale were much older and belonged to the common literary stock of the Middle Ages. Like Shakespeare, Chaucer took the material for his poems wherever he found it, and his originality consists in giving to an old story some present human interest, making it express the life and ideals of his own age. In this respect the "Knight's Tale" is remarkable. Its names are those of an ancient civilization, but its characters are men and women of the English nobility as Chaucer knew them. In consequence the story has many anachronisms, such as the mediaeval tournament before the temple of Mars; but the reader scarcely notices these things, being absorbed in the dramatic interest of the narrative.

Briefly, the "Knight's Tale" is the story of two young men, fast friends, who are found wounded on the battlefield and taken prisoners to Athens. There from their dungeon window they behold the fair maid Emily; both fall desperately in love with her, and their friendship turns to strenuous rivalry. One is pardoned; the other escapes; and then knights, empires, nature,—the whole universe follows their desperate efforts to win one small maiden, who prays meanwhile to be delivered from both her bothersome suitors. As the best of the Canterbury Tales are now easily accessible, we omit here all quotations. The story must be read entire, with the Prioress' tale of Hugh of Lincoln, the Clerk's tale of Patient Griselda, and the Nun's Priest's merry tale of Chanticleer and the Fox, if the reader would appreciate the variety and charm of our first modern poet and story-teller.

FORM OF CHAUCER'S POETRY. There are three principal meters to be found in Chaucer's verse. In the Canterbury Tales he uses lines of ten syllables and five accents each, and the lines run in couplets:

His eyen twinkled in his heed aright As doon the sterres in the frosty night.

The same musical measure, arranged in seven-line stanzas, but with a different rime, called the Rime Royal, is found in its most perfect form in Troilus.

O blisful light, of whiche the bemes clere Adorneth al the thridde hevene faire! O sonnes leef, O Joves doughter dere, Plesaunce of love, O goodly debonaire, In gentil hertes ay redy to repaire! O verray cause of hele and of gladnesse, Y-heried be thy might and thy goodnesse! In hevene and helle, in erthe and salte see Is felt thy might, if that I wel descerne; As man, brid, best, fish, herbe and grene tree Thee fele in tymes with vapour eterne. God loveth, and to love wol nought werne; And in this world no lyves creature, With-outen love, is worth, or may endure.[84]

The third meter is the eight-syllable line with four accents, the lines riming in couplets, as in the "Boke of the Duchesse":

Thereto she coude so wel pleye, Whan that hir liste, that I dar seye That she was lyk to torche bright, That every man may take-of light Ynough, and hit hath never the lesse.

Besides these principal meters, Chaucer in his short poems used many other poetical forms modeled after the French, who in the fourteenth century were cunning workers in every form of verse. Chief among these are the difficult but exquisite rondel, "Now welcom Somer with thy sonne softe," which closes the "Parliament of Fowls," and the ballad, "Flee fro the prees," which has been already quoted. In the "Monk's Tale" there is a melodious measure which may have furnished the model for Spenser's famous stanza.[85] Chaucer's poetry is extremely musical and must be judged by the ear rather than by the eye. To the modern reader the lines appear broken and uneven; but if one reads them over a few times, he soon catches the perfect swing of the measure, and finds that he is in the hands of a master whose ear is delicately sensitive to the smallest accent. There is a lilt in all his lines which is marvelous when we consider that he is the first to show us the poetic possibilities of the language. His claim upon our gratitude is twofold:[86] first, for discovering the music that is in our English speech; and second, for his influence in fixing the Midland dialect as the literary language of England.


WILLIAM LANGLAND (1332? ....?)

LIFE. Very little is known of Langland. He was born probably near Malvern, in Worcestershire, the son of a poor freeman, and in his early life lived in the fields as a shepherd. Later he went to London with his wife and children, getting a hungry living as clerk in the church. His real life meanwhile was that of a seer, a prophet after Isaiah's own heart, if we may judge by the prophecy which soon found a voice in Piers Plowman. In 1399, after the success of his great work, he was possibly writing another poem called Richard the Redeless, a protest against Richard II; but we are not certain of the authorship of this poem, which was left unfinished by the assassination of the king. After 1399 Langland disappears utterly, and the date of his death is unknown.

PIERS PLOWMAN. "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord," might well be written at the beginning of this remarkable poem. Truth, sincerity, a direct and practical appeal to conscience, and a vision of right triumphant over wrong,—these are the elements of all prophecy; and it was undoubtedly these elements in Piers Plowman that produced such an impression on the people of England. For centuries literature had been busy in pleasing the upper classes chiefly; but here at last was a great poem which appealed directly to the common people, and its success was enormous. The whole poem is traditionally attributed to Langland; but it is now known to be the work of several different writers. It first appeared in 1362 as a poem of eighteen hundred lines, and this may have been Langland's work. In the next thirty years, during the desperate social conditions which led to Tyler's Rebellion, it was repeatedly revised and enlarged by different hands till it reached its final form of about fifteen thousand lines.

The poem as we read it now is in two distinct parts, the first containing the vision of Piers, the second a series of visions called "The Search for Dowel, Dobet, Dobest" (do well, better, best). The entire poem is in strongly accented, alliterative lines, something like Beowulf, and its immense popularity shows that the common people still cherished this easily memorized form of Saxon poetry. Its tremendous appeal to justice and common honesty, its clarion call to every man, whether king, priest, noble, or laborer, to do his Christian duty, takes from it any trace of prejudice or bigotry with which such works usually abound. Its loyalty to the Church, while denouncing abuses that had crept into it in that period, was one of the great influences which led to the Reformation in England. Its two great principles, the equality of men before God and the dignity of honest labor, roused a whole nation of freemen. Altogether it is one of the world's great works, partly because of its national influence, partly because it is the very best picture we possess of the social life of the fourteenth century:

Briefly, Piers Plowman is an allegory of life. In the first vision, that of the "Field Full of Folk," the poet lies down on the Malvern Hills on a May morning, and a vision comes to him in sleep. On the plain beneath him gather a multitude of folk, a vast crowd expressing the varied life of the world. All classes and conditions are there; workingmen are toiling that others may seize all the first fruits of their labor and live high on the proceeds; and the genius of the throng is Lady Bribery, a powerfully drawn figure, expressing the corrupt social life of the times.

The next visions are those of the Seven Deadly Sins, allegorical figures, but powerful as those of Pilgrim's Progress, making the allegories of the Romaunt of the Rose seem like shadows in comparison. These all came to Piers asking the way to Truth; but Piers is plowing his half acre and refuses to leave his work and lead them. He sets them all to honest toil as the best possible remedy for their vices, and preaches the gospel of work as a preparation for salvation. Throughout the poem Piers bears strong resemblance to John Baptist preaching to the crowds in the wilderness. The later visions are proclamations of the moral and spiritual life of man. The poem grows dramatic in its intensity, rising to its highest power in Piers's triumph over Death. And then the poet wakes from his vision with the sound of Easter bells ringing in his ears.

Here are a few lines to illustrate the style and language; but the whole poem must be read if one is to understand its crude strength and prophetic spirit:

In a somer sesun, whon softe was the sonne, I schop[87] me into a shroud, as I a scheep were, In habite as an heremite, unholy of werkes, Went wyde in this world, wondres to here. Bote in a Mayes mornynge, on Malverne hulles, Me byfel a ferly,[88] of fairie me thoughte. I was wery, forwandred, and went me to reste Undur a brod banke, bi a bourne[89] side; And as I lay and lened, and loked on the watres, I slumbred in a slepyng—-hit swyed[90] so murie....

JOHN WYCLIF (1324?-1384)

Wyclif, as a man, is by far the most powerful English figure of the fourteenth century. The immense influence of his preaching in the native tongue, and the power of his Lollards to stir the souls of the common folk, are too well known historically to need repetition. Though a university man and a profound scholar, he sides with Langland, and his interests are with the people rather than with the privileged classes, for whom Chaucer writes. His great work, which earned him his title of "father of English prose," is the translation of the Bible. Wyclif himself translated the gospels, and much more of the New Testament; the rest was finished by his followers, especially by Nicholas of Hereford. These translations were made from the Latin Vulgate, not from the original Greek and Hebrew, and the whole work was revised in 1388 by John Purvey, a disciple of Wyclif. It is impossible to overestimate the influence of this work, both on our English prose and on the lives of the English people.

Though Wyclif's works are now unread, except by occasional scholars, he still occupies a very high place in our literature. His translation of the Bible was slowly copied all over England, and so fixed a national standard of English prose to replace the various dialects. Portions of this translation, in the form of favorite passages from Scripture, were copied by thousands, and for the first time in our history a standard of pure English was established in the homes of the common people.

As a suggestion of the language of that day, we quote a few familiar sentences from the Sermon on the Mount, as given in the later version of Wyclif's Gospel:

And he openyde his mouth, and taughte hem, and seide, Blessid ben pore men in spirit, for the kyngdom of hevenes is herne.[91] Blessid ben mylde men, for thei schulen welde[92] the erthe. Blessid ben thei that mornen, for thei schulen be coumfortid. Blessid ben thei that hungren and thristen rightwisnesse,[93] for thei schulen be fulfillid. Blessid ben merciful men, for thei schulen gete merci. Blessid ben thei that ben of clene herte, for thei schulen se God. Blessid ben pesible men, for thei schulen be clepid[94] Goddis children. Blessid ben thei that suffren persecusioun for rightfulnesse, for the kyngdom of hevenes is herne.[95] ...

Eftsoone ye han herd, that it was seid to elde men, Thou schalt not forswere, but thou schalt yelde[96] thin othis to the Lord. But Y seie[97] to you, that ye swere not for ony thing;... but be youre worde, yhe, yhe; nay, nay; and that that is more than these, is of yvel....

Ye han herd that it was seid, Thou schalt love thi neighbore, and hate thin enemye. But Y seie to you, love ye youre enemyes, do ye wel to hem[98] that hatiden[99] you, and preye ye for hem that pursuen[100] and sclaundren[101] you; that ye be the sones of youre Fadir that is in hevenes, that makith his sunne to rise upon goode and yvele men, and reyneth[102] on just men and unjuste.... Therefore be ye parfit, as youre hevenli Fadir is parfit.


About the year 1356 there appeared in England an extraordinary book called the Voyage and Travail of Sir John Maundeville, written in excellent style in the Midland dialect, which was then becoming the literary language of England. For years this interesting work and its unknown author were subjects of endless dispute; but it is now fairly certain that this collection of travelers' tales is simply a compilation from Odoric, Marco Polo, and various other sources. The original work was probably in French, which was speedily translated into Latin, then into English and other languages; and wherever it appeared it became extremely popular, its marvelous stories of foreign lands being exactly suited to the credulous spirit of the age.[103] At the present time there are said to be three hundred copied manuscripts of "Mandeville" in various languages,—more, probably, than of any other work save the gospels. In the prologue of the English version the author calls himself John Maundeville and gives an outline of his wide travels during thirty years; but the name is probably a "blind," the prologue more or less spurious, and the real compiler is still to be discovered.

The modern reader may spend an hour or two very pleasantly in this old wonderland. On its literary side the book is remarkable, though a translation, as being the first prose work in modern English having a distinctly literary style and flavor. Otherwise it is a most interesting commentary on the general culture and credulity of the fourteenth century.

SUMMARY OF THE AGE OF CHAUCER. The fourteenth century is remarkable historically for the decline of feudalism (organized by the Normans), for the growth of the English national spirit during the wars with France, for the prominence of the House of Commons, and for the growing power of the laboring classes, who had heretofore been in a condition hardly above that of slavery.

The age produced five writers of note, one of whom, Geoffrey Chaucer, is one of the greatest of English writers. His poetry is remarkable for its variety, its story interest, and its wonderful melody. Chaucer's work and Wyclif's translation of the Bible developed the Midland dialect into the national language of England.

In our study we have noted: (1) Chaucer, his life and work; his early or French period, in which he translated "The Romance of the Rose" and wrote many minor poems; his middle or Italian period, of which the chief poems are "Troilus and Cressida" and "The Legend of Good Women"; his late or English period, in which he worked at his masterpiece, the famous Canterbury Tales. (2) Langland, the poet and prophet of social reforms. His chief work is Piers Plowman. (3) Wyclif, the religious reformer, who first translated the gospels into English, and by his translation fixed a common standard of English speech. (4) Mandeville, the alleged traveler, who represents the new English interest in distant lands following the development of foreign trade. He is famous for Mandeville's Travels, a book which romances about the wonders to be seen abroad. The fifth writer of the age is Gower, who wrote in three languages, French, Latin, and English. His chief English work is the Confessio Amantis, a long poem containing one hundred and twelve tales. Of these only the "Knight Florent" and two or three others are interesting to a modern reader.

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