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And " all this time," we are told that " the brave old king bore manfully the pangs of 'a terrible unknown disease that nothing could relieve," and of which he died, after a glorious reign of thirty years. "Alfred the king," he says, quaintly prefacing his " Metres," "was translator of this book, and turned it from book-latin into English, as he most clearly and plainly could amid the various and manifold worldly occupations which often busied him in mind and body." He ends his task with a prayer.
Some of Alfred's "Metres" have been translated into modern English. The original Anglo-Saxon, in which they are written, is barely intelligible, even to the scholar. "If it is not literally dumb," says Craik, "its voice has for us of the present day entirely lost its music. When the studj7 of this original form of our national speech," he continues, "was revived in England in the middle of the sixteenth century, it is supposed that at least for three preceding centuries there had been no one able to read it." With Alfred ends the list of Anglo-Saxon poets of that remote period. The next three quarters of a century was too troubled to admit of much attention to literature; but in the j-ear 1066 the Norman influence infused new life into the half-torpid native civilization. "It was," says Craik, "the intrusion of another system of social organization, and of another language possessing its own literature, to take the place of what was passing away. For the Norman was already recognized as one of the most brilliantly gifted races, and distinguished for superior aptitude, both in the arts of war and peace, of polity and song."
Though the dawn of the revival of letters in England is properly dated from a point about fifty years antecedent to the Conquest, still an English writer almost contemporary with the Conquest, himself educated abroad,
describes his countrymen generally as having been found by the Normans a rustic and almost illiterate people. The French imported into England by the Conqueror and his people has been called "• a confused jargon of Teutonic, Gaulish, and vitiated Latin." The Saxon, though still spoken in the country, was not without various adulterations from the French. We are told that in the reign of Henry II. the nobles constantly sent their Children into France, lest they should contract habits of barbarism in speech. Of the century following the Conquest is a metrical translation by one Layamon, a priest of Ernley, written in unmixed but barbarous Saxon.
It may be considered as throwing a valuable light on the history of our language at what has been called the most important period of its existence, being composed at a time when the Saxons and Normans in England began to unite into one nation, and to adopt a common language. "How little the English language," observes Craik, " was really affected by foreign converse, as late as the thirteenth century, may be shown by the small amount of the French or Latin element found in Layamon's poetry." He may also be regarded as the first of a series of writers who about the end of that century began to be conspicuous in our early literary history, called " Rhyming Chroniclers." Layamon's " Brut," as the early chronicles of Britain were called — some have supposed from Brutus, the great grandson of ..Eneas, who is represented in them as the first king of the Britains; others maintain from the construction of the word, which is rumor, report, and in the secondary sense a chronicle or history — Layamon's'' Brut," or Chronicle of Britain from the arrival of Brutus to the death of Cadwalader in A. D. 689, is in the main a translation from the French "Brut" of Wace, which is itself a translation from the Latin of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which, again, professes,
and it is supposed, with truth, to be translated from a Celtic original of an unknown date, believed now to be lost .
Layamon by original additions has extended his poem to more than double the length of Wace's " Brut." Scholars have affirmed that Layatnon's style is beyond comparison the most lofty and animated of any of the rhyming chroniclers of his country, reminding the reader of the splendid phraseology of Anglo-Saxon verse. My ignorance of the old Anglo-Saxon disqualifies me for forming a judgment of this as well as many other early poems; but scholars of taste, versed both in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian literature, and possessing such knowledge of its laws as is now attainable, have pronounced it a work conceived with true poetic life, and not wanting in artistic elegance and pathos. It is supposed to have been completed in the reign of King John, about the year 1205, as it alludes to the resistance of that king and his nobles to the collection of the tax called Rome-Scot or Peter-Pence, — an annual tribute formerly paid by the English people to the Pope; being a penny for every house, payable at Lammas Day, — the feast of first-fruits, occurring on the first day of August.
The first rhyming chronicler, after a considerable interval from Layamon, was a monk of Gloucester Abbey, usually called from that circumstance " Robert of Gloucester." His chronicle, a poem of considerable length, the history extending from Brutus to the reign of Edward I., as a work of art, or imagination, possesses little merit.
Robert Manning, a Gilbertine canon in the monastery of
Brunne, and hence commonly called Robert de Brunne,
, a poet of this class, occurs in the reign of Edward I. in
the year 1303. He informs his readers that he is more
studious of truth than ornament, and that aiming to give information rather than pleasure, he has avoided the phraseology then used by the minstrels and harpers. He is thought to have succeeded admirably, as his chronicle, though it was intended to be sung, at least by parts, at public festivals, is as ban-en of true Parnassian fire as that of his predecessor, Robert of Gloucester. "Uncouth and uupleasing," observes \Varton, " and chiefly employed in turning the theology of his age into rhyme, he contributed to form a style to teach expression and to polish his native tongue. In the infancy of language nothing is wanted but writers; at that period even the most artless have their use."
The immediate predecessors of Chaucer are Lawrence Minot, who about 1350 composed a series of short poems on the victories of Edward III., that have been commended for the ease, variety, and harmony of their versification; Richard Rolle, a hermit and D.U., who wrote metrical paraphrases of certain parts of Scripture, and a dull original, moral poem entitled "The Pricke of Conscience ;" and Robert Langland, a secular priest, the author of a satirical poem entitled "The Vision of Piers Ploughman." It has been observed that the tendency of our poetical literature from the days of the Proven9al troubadours has been anti-Roman. The poem of Langland, though produced nearly two centuries before either Protestantism or Puritanism was ever heard of, is almost a puritanical and Protestant work. The satire and invective in his poem is directed altogether against the clergy and especially against the monks and friars. Piers, or Peter, is represented as a poor ploughman who falls asleep upon Malvern Hills "on a May mornynge," and in his dream or vision is divinely enlightened, and receives that instruction in Christian truth which he had sought for in vain from every order of the Church. The "Vision of Piers Ploughman" as a poem has no high merit, but is distinguished as being the earliest original work of any magnitude in the present form of the language, and as showing the progress which was made about the middle of the fourteeenth century toward a literary style. As the popular representative of those doctrines which were silently bringing about the Reformation, it is considered in many points of view as one of the most important works that appeared in England previous to the art of printing.
"As we approach Chaucer," says Warton, "let us stand still and take a retrospect of the general manners." It may be well to do so, quoting largely from that learned and elegant though at times tediously minute author, and adding from various sources whatever might seem to illustrate the subject. "The tournaments and carousals of our ancient princes," he observes, "by forming splendid assemblies of both sexes, while they inculcated the most liberal sentiment of honor and heroism, undoubtedly contributed to introduce ideas of courtesy and decorum. Yet the national manners still retained a degree of ferocity, and the ceremonies of the most refined courts in Europe had often a mixture of barbarism which rendered them ridiculous. Their luxury was inelegant, their pleasures indelicate, and their pomp cumbersome and unwieldy;" those powers of the intellect, we might add, which teach elegant feelings and heighten our natural sensibility, lay unawakened, like the spell-bound princess in the fairy tale, awaiting the touch of the fated enchanter Imagination.
It has been observed that the scarcity of valuable books in England was a serious obstruction to the revival of letters.
Toward the close of the seventh century an English abbot, who with incredible labor and immense expense