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SPECIMENS WITH MEMOIRS OF THE LESS-KNOWN BRITISH POETS.

With an Introductory Essay,


BY THE REV. GEORGE GILFILLAN.



COMPLETE




VOL. I.

M.DCCC.LX.




INTRODUCTORY ESSAY


We propose to introduce our 'Specimens' by a short Essay on the Origin
and Progress of English Poetry on to the days of Chaucer and of Gower.
Having called, in conjunction with many other critics, Chaucer 'the
Father of English Poetry,' to seek to go back further may seem like
pursuing antenatal researches. But while Chaucer was the sun, a certain
glimmering dawn had gone before him, and to reflect that, is the object
of the following pages.


Britain, when the Romans invaded it, was a barbarous country; and although
subjugated and long held by that people, they seem to have left it nearly
as uncultivated and illiterate as they found it. 'No magnificent remains,'
says Macaulay, 'of Latian porches and aqueducts are to be found in Britain.
No writer of British birth is to be reckoned among the masters of Latin
poetry and eloquence. It is not probable that the islanders were, at any
time, generally familiar with the tongue of their Italian rulers. From
the Atlantic to the vicinity of the Rhine the Latin has, during many
centuries, been predominant. It drove out the Celtic - it was not driven
out by the Teutonic - and it is at this day the basis of the French,
Spanish, and Portuguese languages. In our island the Latin appears never
to have superseded the old Gaelic speech, and could not stand its ground
before the German.' It was in the fifth century that that modification
of the German or Teutonic speech called the Anglo-Saxon was introduced
into this country. It soon asserted its superiority over the British
tongue, which seemed to retreat before it, reluctantly and proudly, like
a lion, into the mountain-fastnesses of Wales or to the rocky sea-beach
of Cornwall. The triumph was not completed all at once, but from the
beginning it was secure. The bards of Wales continued to sing, but their
strains resembled the mutterings of thunder among their own hills, only
half heard in the distant valleys, and exciting neither curiosity nor awe.
For five centuries, with the exception of some Latin words added by the
preachers of Christianity, the Anglo-Saxon language continued much as it
was when first introduced. Barbarous as the manners of the people were,
literature was by no means left without a witness. Its chief cultivators
were the monks and other religious persons, who spent their leisure in
multiplying books, either by original composition or by transcription,
including treatises on theology, historical chronicles, and a great
abundance and variety of poetical productions. These were written at first
exclusively in Latin, but occasionally, in process of time, in the Anglo-
Saxon tongue. The theology taught in them was, no doubt, crude and
corrupted, the history was stuffed with fables, and the poetry was rough
and bald in the extreme; but still they furnished a food fitted for the
awakening mind of the age. When the Christian religion reached Great
Britain, it brought necessarily with it an impulse to intellect as well
as to morality. So startling are the facts it relates, so broad and deep
the principles it lays down, so humane the spirit it inculcates, and so
ravishing the hopes it awakens, that, however disguised in superstition
and clouded by imperfect representation, it never fails to produce, in all
countries to which it comes, a resurrection of the nation's virtue, and a
revival, for a time at least, of the nation's political and intellectual
energy and genius. Hence we find the very earliest literary names in our
early annals are those of Christian missionaries. Such is said to have
been Gildas, a Briton, who lived in the first part of the sixth century,
and is the reputed author of a short history of Britain in Latin. Such was
the still more apocryphal Nennius, also called, till of late, the writer
of a small Latin historical work. Such was St Columbanus, who was born
in Ireland in 560; became a monk in the Irish monastery of Benchor; and
afterwards, at the head of twelve disciples, preached Christianity, in its
most ascetic form, in England and in France; founded in the latter country
various monasteries; and, when banished by Queen Brunehaut on account of
his stern inflexibility of character, went to Switzerland, and then to
Lombardy, proselytising the heathen, and defending, by his letters and
other writings, the peculiar tenets of the Irish Church in reference to
the time of the celebration of Easter and to the popular heresies of the
day. He died October 2, 615, in the monastery of Bobbio; and his religious
treatises and Latin poetry gave an undoubted impulse to the age's progress
in letters.

About this period the better sort of Saxons, both clergy and laity, got
into the habit of visiting Rome; while Rome, in her turn, sent emissaries
to England. Thus, while the one insensibly imbibed new knowledge as well
as devotion from the great centre, the other brought with them to our
shores importations of books, including copies of such religious classics
as Josephus and Chrysostom, and of such literary classics as Homer. About
680, died Caedmon, a monk of Whitby, one of the first who composed in
Anglo-Saxon, and some of whose compositions are preserved. Strange and
myth-like stories are told by Bede about this remarkable natural genius.
He was originally a cow-herd. Partly from want of training, and partly
from bashfulness, when the harp was given him in the hall, and he was
asked, as all others were, to raise the voice of song, Caedmon had often
to abscond in confusion. On one occasion he had retired to the stable,
where he fell into a sound sleep. He dreamed that a stranger appeared to
him, and said, 'Caedmon, sing me something.' Caedmon replied that it was
his incapacity to sing which had brought him to take refuge in the stable.
'Nay,' said the stranger, 'but thou hast something to sing.' 'What shall I
sing?' rejoined Caedmon. 'Sing the Creation,' and thereupon he began to
pour out verses, which, when he awoke, he remembered, repeated, and to
which he added others as good. The first lines are, as translated into
English, the following: -

Now let us praise
The Guardian of heaven,
The might of the Creator
And his counsel -
The Glory! - Father of men!
He first created,
For the children of men,
Heaven as a roof -
The holy Creator!
Then the world -
The Guardian of mankind!
The Eternal Lord!
Produced afterwards
The Earth for men -
The Almighty Master!'

Our readers all remember the well-known story of Coleridge falling asleep
over Purchas's 'Pilgrims'; how the poem of 'Kubla Khan' came rushing
from dreamland upon his soul; and how, when awakened, he wrote it down,
and found it to be, if not sense, something better - a glorious piece
of fantastic imagination. We knew a gentleman who, slumbering while in
a state of bad health, produced, in the course of a few hours, one or
two thousand rhymed lines, some of which he repeated in our hearing
afterwards, and which were full of point and poetry. We cannot see that
Caedmon's lines betray any weird inspiration; but when rehearsed the next
day to the Abbess Hilda, to whom the town-bailiff of Whitby conducted him,
she and a circle of learned men pronounced that he had received the gift
of song direct from heaven! They, after one or two other trials of his
powers, persuaded him to become a monk in the house of the Abbess, who
commanded him to transfer to verse the whole of the Scripture history. It
is said that he was constantly employed in repeating to himself what he
had heard; or, as one of his old biographers has it, 'like a clean animal
ruminating it, he turned it into most sweet verse.' In this way he wrote
or rather improvised a vast quantity of poetry, chiefly on religious
subjects. Thorpe, in his edition of this author, has preserved a speech
of Satan, bearing a striking resemblance to some parts of Milton: -

'Boiled within him
His thought about his heart,
Hot was without him,
His due punishment.
"This narrow place is most unlike
That other that we formerly knew
High in heaven's kingdom,
Which my master bestowed on me,
Though we it, for the All-Powerful,
May not possess.

* * * * *

That is to me of sorrows the greatest,
That Adam,
Who was wrought of earth,
Shall possess
My strong seat;
That it shall be to him in delight,
And we endure this torment,
Misery in this hell.

* * * * *

Here is a vast fire,
Above and underneath.
Never did I see
A loathlier landscape.
The flame abateth not
Hot over hell.
Me hath the clasping of these rings,
This hard-polished band,
Impeded in my course,
Debarred me from my way.
My feet are bound,
My hands manacled;
Of these hell-doors are
The ways obstructed,
So that with aught I cannot
From these limb-bonds escape.
About me lie
Huge gratings
Of hard iron,
Forged with heat,
With which me God
Hath fastened by the neck.
Thus perceive I that he knoweth my mind,
And that he knew also,
The Lord of hosts,
That should us through Adam
Evil befall,
About the realm of heaven,
Where I had power of my hands."'

Through these rude lines there flashes forth, like fire through a thick
dull grating, a powerful conception - one which Milton has borrowed and
developed - that of the Evil One feeling in his dark bosom jealousy at
young Man, almost overpowering his hatred to God; and another conception
still more striking, that of the devil's thorough conviction that all
his plans and thoughts are entirely known by his great Adversary, and
are counteracted before they are formed -

'Thus perceive I that he knoweth my mind.'

Compare this with Milton's lines -

'So should I purchase dear
Short intermission, bought with double smart.
_This knows_ my Punisher; therefore as far
From granting he, as I from begging peace.'

Caedmon saw, without being able fully to express, the complex idea of
Satan, as distracted between a thousand thoughts, all miserable - tossed
between a thousand winds, all hot as hell - 'pale ire, envy, and despair'
struggling within him - fury at man overlapping anger at God - remorse and
reckless desperation wringing each other's miserable hands - a sense of
guilt which will not confess, a fear that will not quake, a sorrow that
will not weep, a respect for God which will not worship; and yet,
springing out of all these elements, a strange, proud joy, as though
the torrid soil of Pandemonium should flower, which makes 'the hell he
suffers seem a heaven,' compared to what his destiny might be were he
either plunged into a deeper abyss, or taken up unchanged to his former
abode of glory. This, in part at least, the monk of Whitby discerned;
but it was reserved for Milton to embody it in that tremendous figure
which has since continued to dwindle all the efforts of art, and to
haunt, like a reality, the human imagination.

Passing over some interesting but subordinate Saxon writers, such as
Ceolfrid, Abbot of Wearmouth; Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury; Felix of
Croyland; and Alcuine, King Egbert's librarian at York, we come to one
who himself formed an era in the history of our early literature - the
venerable Bede. This famous man was educated in the monastery of
Wearmouth, and there appears to have spent the whole of his quiet,
innocent, and studious life. He was the very sublimation of a book-worm.
One might fancy him becoming at last, as in the 'Metamorphoses' of Ovid,
one of the books, or rolls of vellum and parchment over which he con-
stantly pored. That he did not marry, or was given in marriage, we are
certain; but there is little evidence that he even ate or drank, walked
or slept. To read and to write seemed the 'be all and the end all' of
his existence. Important as well as numerous were his contributions
to literature. He translated from the Scriptures. He wrote religious
treatises, biographies, and commentaries upon portions of Holy Writ.
Besides his very valuable Ecclesiastical History, he composed various
pieces of Latin poetry. His works in all were forty-four in number: and
it is said that on the very day of his death (it took place in 735) he
was dictating to his amanuensis, and had just completed a book. His works
are wonderful for his time, and not the less interesting for a fine
cobweb of fable which is woven over parts of them, and which seems in
keeping with their venerable character. Thus, in speaking of the Magi who
visited the infant Redeemer, he is very particular in describing their
age, appearance, and offerings. Melchior, the first, was old, had gray
hair, and a long beard; and offered 'gold' to Christ, in, acknowledgment
of His sovereignty. Gaspar, the second, was young, and had no beard;
and he offered 'frankincense,' in recognition of our Lord's divinity.
Balthasar, the third, was of a dark complexion, had a large beard, and
offered 'myrrh' to our Saviour's humanity. We should, we confess, miss
such pleasant little myths in other old books besides Bede's Histories.
They seem appropriate to ancient works, as the beard is to the goat
or the hermit; and the truth that lies in them is not difficult to
eliminate. The next name of note in our literary annals is that of the
great Alfred. Surely if ever man was not only before his age, but before
'all ages,' it was he. A palm of the tropics growing on a naked Highland
mountain-side, or an English oak bending over one of the hot springs of
Hecla, were not a stranger or more preternatural sight than a man like
Alfred appearing in a century like the ninth. A thousand theories about
men being the creatures of their age, the products of circumstances, &c.,
sink into abeyance beside the facts of his life; and we are driven to the
good old belief that to some men the 'inspiration of the Almighty giveth
understanding;' and that their wisdom, their genius, and their excellency
do not proceed from them-selves. On his deeds of valour and patriotism it
is not necessary to dwell. These form the popular and bepraised side of
his character, but they give a very inadequate idea of the whole. On one
occasion he visited the Danish camp - a king disguised as a harper; but
he was, all his life long, a harper disguised as a king. He was at once
a warrior, a legislator, an architect, a shipbuilder, a philosopher,
a scholar, and a poet. His great object, as avowed in his last will,
was to leave his people 'free as their own thoughts.' Hence he bent the
whole force of his mind, first, to defend them from foreign foes, by
encouraging the new naval strength he had himself established; and then
to cultivate their intellects, and make them, as well as their country,
worth defending. Let us quote the glowing words of Burke: - 'He was
indefatigable in his endeavours to bring into England men of learning in
all branches from every part of Europe, and unbounded in his liberality
to them. He enacted by a law that every person possessed of two hides of
land should send their children to school until sixteen. He enterprised
even a greater design than that of forming the growing generation - to
instruct even the grown, enjoining all his sheriffs and other officers
immediately to apply themselves to learning, or to quit their offices.
Whatever trouble he took to extend the benefits of learning among his
subjects, he shewed the example himself, and applied to the cultivation
of his mind with unparalleled diligence and success. He could neither
read nor write at twelve years old, but he improved his time in such
a manner, that he became one of the most knowing men of his age, in
geometry, in philosophy, in architecture, and in music. He applied
himself to the improvement of his native language; he translated several
valuable works from Latin, and wrote a vast number of poems in the Saxon
tongue with a wonderful facility and happiness. He not only excelled in
the theory of the arts and sciences, but possessed a great mechanical
genius for the executive part. He improved the manner of shipbuilding,
introduced a more beautiful and commodious architecture, and even taught
his countrymen the art of making bricks; most of the buildings having
been of wood before his time - in a word, he comprehended in the greatness
of his mind the whole of government, and all its parts at once; and what
is most difficult to human frailty was at the same time sublime and
minute.'

Some exaggeration must be allowed for in all this account of Alfred the
Great. But the fact that he left a stamp in his age so deep, - that
nothing except what was good and great has been ascribed to him, - that
the very fictions told of him are of such _vraisemblance_ and magnitude
as to FIT IN to nothing less than an extraordinary man, - and that, as
Burke says, 'whatever dark spots of human frailty may have adhered to
such a character, are entirely hid in the splendour of many shining
qualities and grand virtues, that throw a glory over the obscure period
in which he lived, and which is for no other reason worthy of our
knowledge,' - all proclaim his supremacy. Like many great men, - like
Julius Caesar, with his epilepsy - or Sir Walter Scott and Byron, with
their lameness - or Schleiermacher, with his deformed appearance, - a
physical infirmity beset Alfred most of his life, and at last carried
him off at a comparatively early age. This was a disease in his bowels,
which had long afflicted him, 'without interrupting his designs, or
souring his temper.' Nay, who can say that the constant presence of such
a memento of weakness and mortality did not operate as a strong, quiet
stimulus to do with his might what his hand found to do - to lower pride,
and to prompt to labour? If Saladin had had for his companion some such
faithful hound of sorrow, it would have saved him the ostentatious flag
stretched over his head, in the hour of wassail, with the inscription,
'Saladin, Saladin, king of kings! Saladin must die!'

Alfred wrote little that was original, but he was a copious translator.
He rendered into the Anglo-Saxon tongue - which he sought to enrich with
the fatness of other soils - the historical works of Orosius and of Bede;
nay, it is said the Fables of Aesop, and the Psalms of David - desirous,
it would seem, to teach his people morality and religion, through the
fine medium, of fiction and poetry.

Alfric, Archbishop of Canterbury, is the name of another important
contributor to Saxon literature. He wrote a grammar of his native
language, which procured him the name of the 'Grammarian,' besides a
collection of homilies, some theological treatises, and a translation
of the first seven books of the Old Testament. In imitation of Alfred,
he devoted all his energies to the instruction of the common people,
constantly writing in Anglo-Saxon, and avoiding as much as possible the
use of compound or obscure words. After him appeared Cynewulf, Bishop of
Winchester, Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, and others of some note. There
was also slowly piled up in the course of ages, and by a succession of
authors, that remarkable production, 'The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.' This
is thought to have commenced soon after the reign of Alfred, and
continued till the times of Henry II. Previous, however, to the Norman
invasion, there had been a decided falling off in the learning of the
Saxons. This arose from various causes. Incessant wars tended to
conserve and increase the barbarism of the people. Various libraries
of value were destroyed by the incursions of the Danes. And not a few
bishops, and other ecclesiastical dignitaries, began to consider
learning as prejudicial to piety-and grammar and ungodliness were
thought akin. The effect of this upon the subordinate clergy was most
pernicious. In the tenth century, Oswald, Archbishop of Canterbury,
found the monks of his province so grossly ignorant, not only of
letters, but even of the canonical rules of their respective orders,
that he required to send to France for competent masters to give them
instruction.

At length came the Conqueror, William, and one battle gave England to
the Normans, which had cost the Romans, the Saxons, and the Danes so
much time and blood to acquire. The people were not only conquered, but
cowed and crushed. England was as easily and effectually subdued as was
Ireland, sometime after, by Henry II. But while the Conquest was for a
season fatal to liberty, it was from the first favourable to every
species of literature, art, and poetry. 'The influence,' says Campbell,
'of the Norman Conquest upon the language of England was like that of a
great inundation, which at first buries the face of the landscape under
its waters, but which, at last subsiding, leaves behind it the elements
of new beauty and fertility. Its first effect was to degrade the Anglo-
Saxon tongue to the exclusive use of the inferior orders, and by the
transference of estates ecclesiastical benefices, and civil dignities to
Norman possessors, to give the French language, which had begun to
prevail at court from the time of Edward the Confessor, a more complete
predominance among the higher classes of society. The native gentry of
England were either driven into exile, or depressed into a state of
dependence on their conqueror, which habituated them to speak his
language. On the other hand, we received from the Normans the first
germs of romantic poetry; and our language was ultimately indebted to
them for a wealth and compass of expression which it probably would not
have otherwise possessed.'

The Anglo-Saxon, however, held its place long among the lower orders,
and specimens of it, both in prose and verse, are found a century after
the Conquest. Gradually the Norman tongue began to amalgamate with it,
and the result was, the English. At what precise year our language might
be said to begin, it is impossible to determine. Throughout the whole of
the twelfth century, great changes were taking place in the grammatical
construction, as well as in the substance of the Anglo-Saxon. Some new
words were imported from the Norman, but, as Dr Johnson remarks, 'the
language was still more materially altered by the change of its sounds,
the cutting short of its syllables, and the softening down of its
terminations, and inflections of words.' Somewhere between 1180 and
1216, the majestic speech in which Shakspeare was to write 'Macbeth'
and 'King Lear,' Lord Bacon his 'Advancement of Learning,' Milton his
'Paradise Lost' and 'Areopagitica,' Burke his 'Reflections,' and Sir
Walter Scott the Waverley Novels, and whose rough, but manly accents
were to be spoken by at least a hundred million tongues, commenced its
career, and not since Homer,

"on the Chian strand,
Beheld the Iliad and the Odyssee
Rise to the swelling of the voiceful sea,"

had a nobler era been marked in the history of literature. For here was
a tongue born which was destined to mate even with that of Greece in
richness and flexibility, to make the language of Cicero and Virgil seem
stiff and stilted in comparison, and, if not to vie with the French in
airy grace, or with the Italian in liquid music, to excel them far in
teeming resources and robust energy. Memorable and hallowed for ever be
the hour when the 'well of English undefiled' first sparkled to the day!

Previous to this the chief of the poets, after the Conquest, were
Normans. The country whence that people came had for some time been
celebrated for poetry. France was, as to its poetic literature, divided
into two great sections - the Proven├žal and the Northern. The first was
like the country where it flourished - gay, flowery, and exuberant; it
swam in romance, and its rhymers delighted, when addressing large
audiences under the open skies of their delightful climate, to indulge
in compliment and fanfaronade, to sing of war, wine, and love.

The Normans produced a race of simpler poets. That some of them were men
as well as singers, is proved by the fact that it was a bard named
Taillefer who first broke the English ranks at the battle of Hastings.
After him came Philippe de Thaun, who tried to set to song the science
of his day; Thorold, the author of a romance entitled 'Roland;' Samson
de Nauteuil, the translator of Solomon's Proverbs into French verse;
Geoffrey Gaimar, who wrote a Chronicle of the Saxon kings; and one



Online LibraryVariousSpecimens with Memoirs of the Less-known British Poets, Complete → online text (page 1 of 64)