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Ant shild us from helle ;

For y not whider y shal, ne hou longe
her duelle.^

I will now give a modern version of it, in which
I have spoiled the original of course, but I hope as
little as well may be.

Winter wakeneth all my care ;

Now the trees are waxing bare ;

Oft my sighs my grief declare*

When it comes into my thought

Of this world's joy, how it goes all to nought.

1 " All as if it were not never, I wis."

2 " So that many men say — True it is, all goeth but God's will."
» I conjecture " All that grain (me) groweth green."

* Not is a contraction for ne wot, know not. " For I know not
whither I must go, nor how long here I dwell." I think ^y is omitted
by mistake before duelle.

^ This is very poor compared with the original.


Now it is, and now 'tis not —
As it ne'er had been, I wot.
Hence many say — it is man's lot :

All goeth but God's will ;

We all die, though we like it ill.

Green about me grows the grain ;
Now it yelloweth all again :
Jesus, give us help amain,

And shield us from hell ;

For when or whither I go I cannot tell

There were no doubt many religious poems In
a certain amount of circulation of a different cast
from these ; some a metrical recounting of portions
of the Bible history — a kind unsuited to our ends ;
others a setting forth of the doctrines and duties
then believed and taught. Of the former class is one
of the oldest Anglo-Saxon poems we have, that of
Caedmon, and there are many specimens to be found
in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They
could, however, have been of little service to the
people, so few of whom could read, or could have
procured manuscripts if they had been able to use
them. A long and elaborate composition of the latter
class was written in the reign of Edward II. by
William de Shoreham, vicar of Chart-Sutton in Kent.
He probably taught his own verses to the people
at his catechisings. The intention was, no doubt, by
the aid of measure and rhyme to facilitate the remem-
brance of the facts and doctrines. It consists of a
long poem on the Seven Sacraments ; of a shorter,
associating the Canonical Hours with the principal
events of the close of our Lord's life ; of an exposi-
tion of the Ten Commandments, followed by a kind

S.L, IV. 2*


of treatise on the Seven Cardinal Sins : the fifth part
describes the different joys of the Virgin ; the sixth,
in praise of the Virgin, is perhaps the most poetic ;
the last is less easy to characterize. The poem is
written in the Kentish dialect, and is difficult.

I shall now turn into modern verse a part of " The
Canonical Hours," giving its represented foundation
of the various acts of worship in the Romish Church
throughout the day, from early in the morning to the
last service at night. After every fact concerning
our Lord, follows an apostrophe to his mother, which
I omit, being compelled to choose.

Father's wisdom lifted high,

Lord of us aright —
God and man taken was,

At matin-time by night
The disciples that were his,

Anon they him forsook;
Sold to Jews and betrayed,

To torture him took.

At the prime Jesus was led

In presence of Pilate,
Where witnesses, false and fell,

Laughed at him for hate.
In the neck they him smote.

Bound his hands of might ;
Spit upon that sweet face

That heaven and earth did light

" Cnicify him ! crucify ! "

They cried at nine o'clock ;
A purple cloth they put on him —

To stare at him and mock.
They upon his sweet head

Stuck a thorny crown ;
To Calvary his cross he bears,

Pitiful, from the town


Jesus was nailed on the cross

At the noon-tide ;
Strong thieves they hanged up,

One on either side.
In his pain, his strong thirst

Quenched they with gall ;
So that God's holy Lamb

From sai washed us all.

At the nones Jesus Christ

Felt the hard death ;
He to his father "Eloi !" cried,

Gan up yield his breath.
A soldier with a sharp spear

Pierced his right side ;
The earth shook, the sun grew dim,

The moment that he died.

He was taken off the cross

At even-song's hour ;
The strength left and hid in God

Of our Saviour.
Such death he underwent,

Of life the medicine I
Alas ! he was laid adown —

The crown of bliss in pine !

At complines, it was borne away

To the burying,
That noble corpse of Jesus Christ,

Hope of life's coming.
Anointed richly it was.

Fulfilled his holy book :
I pray, Lord, thy passion

In my mind lock.

Childlike simplicity, realism, and tenderness will
be evident in this, as in preceding poems, especially
in the choice of adjectives. But indeed the combina-

C 2


tion of certain words had become conventional ; as
** The hard tree," " The nails great and strong," and
such like.

I know I have spoiled the poem In half-translating
it thus ; but I have rendered it intelligible to all my
readers, have not wandered from the original, and
have retained a degree of antiqueness both in the
tone and the expression.



The oldest form of regular dramatic representation
in England was the Miracle Plays, improperly called
Mysteries, after the French. To these plays the
people of England, in the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries, owed a very large portion of what religious
knowledge they possessed, for the prayers were in
an unknown tongue, the sermons were very few, and
printing was uninvented. The plays themselves, in-
troduced into the country by the Normans, were, in
the foolish endeavour to make Normans of Anglo-
Saxons, represented in Norman French^ until the
year 1338, when permission was obtained from the
Pope to represent them in English.

The word Miracle, in their case, means anything
recorded in Scripture. The Miracle Plays had for
their subjects the chief incidents of Old and New
Testament history; not merely,- however, of this
history as accepted by the Reformed Church, but of

1 I owe almost all my infoniiation on the history of these plays to
Mr. Collier's well-known work on English Dramatic Poetry.


that contained in the Apocryphal Gospels as well.
An entire series of these Miracles consisted of short
dramatic representations of many single passages of
the sacred story. The whole would occupy about three
days. It began with the Creation, and ended with
the Judgment. That for which the city of Coventry
was famous consists of forty-two subjects, with a long
prologue. Composed by ecclesiastics, the plays would
seem to have been first represented by them only,
although afterwards it was not always considered
right for the clergy to be concerned with them. The
hypocritical Franciscan friar, in " Piers Ploughman's
Creed," a poem of the close of the same century,
claims as a virtue for his order —

At markets and miracles we meddleth us never.

They would seem likewise to have been first repre-
sented in churches and chapels, sometimes in church-
yards. Later, when the actors chiefly belonged to
city-guilds, they were generally represented in the
streets and squares.

It must be borne in mind by any who would
understand the influence of these plays upon the
people, that much in them appearing to us grotesque,
childish, absurd, and even irreverent, had no such
appearance in the eyes of the spectators. A certain
amount of the impression of absurdity is simply the
consequence of antiquity ; and even that which is
rightly regarded as absurd in the present age, will not
at least have produced the discomposing effects of ab-
surdity upon the less developed beholders of that age;


just as the quaint pictures with which their churches
were decorated may make us smile, but were by them
regarded with awe and reverence from their infancy.

It must be confessed that there is in them even
occasional coarseness ; but that the devil for instance
should always be represented as a baffled fool, and
made to play the buffoon sometimes after a disgusting
fashion, was to them only the treatment he deserved :
it was their notion of " poetic justice ; " while most of
them were too childish to be shocked at the discord
thus introduced, and many, we may well hope, too
childlike to lose their reverence for the holy because
of the proximity of the ridiculous.

There seems to me considerably more of poetic
worth scattered through these plays than is generally
recognized ; and I am glad to be able to do a little
to set forth the fact. I cannot doubt that my
readers will be interested in such fragments as the
scope and design of my book will allow me to offer.
Had there been no such passages, I might have
regarded the plays as but remotely connected with
my purpose, and mentioned them merely as a dra-
matic form of religious versification. I quote from
the Coventry Miracles, better known than either of
the other two sets in existence, the Chester Plays
and those of Widkirk Abbey. The manuscript from
which they have been edited by Mr. Halliwell, one
of those students of our early literature to whom
we are endlessly indebted for putting valuable things
within our reach, is by no means so old as the plays
themselves ; it bears date 1468, a hundred and thirty


years after they appeared in their Enghsh dress.
Their language is considerably modernized, a process
constantly going on where transcription is the means
of transmission — not to mention that the actors
would of course make many changes to the speech of
their own time. I shall modernize it a little further,
but only as far as change of spelling will go.

The first of the course is The Creation. God, and
angels, and Lucifer appear. That God should here
utter, I cannot say announce, the doctrine of the
Trinity, may be defended on the ground that he
does so in a soliloquy ; but when we find afterwards
that the same doctrine is one of the subjects upon
which the, boy Jesus converses with the doctors in the
Temple, we cannot help remarking the strange ana-
chronism. Two remarkable lines in the said soliloquy
are these ;

And all that ever shall have being
It is closed in my mind.

The next scene is the Fall of Man, which is full of
poetic feeling and expression both. I must content
myself with a few passages.

Here is part of Eve's lamentation, when she is
conscious of the death that has laid hold upon her.

Alas that ever that speech was spoken

That the false angel said unto me !
Alas ! our Maker's bidding is broken,

For I have touched his o\^ti dear tree.
Our fleshly eyes are all unlokyn, unlocked.

Naked for sin ourself we see ;
That sorry apple that we have sokyn sucked.

To death hath brought my spouse and me.


When the voice of God is heard, saying,

Adam, that wnth my hands I made,

Where art thou now ? what hast thou wrought ?

Adam replies, in two lines, containing the whole truth
of man's spiritual condition ever since :

Ah, Lord ! for sin our flowers do fade :
I hear thy voice, but I see thee nought.

The vision had vanished, but the voice remained ; for
they that hear shall live, and to the pure in heart one
day the vision shall be restored, for " they shall see
God." There is something wonderfully touching in
the quaint simplicity of the following words of God to
the woman :

Unwise woman, say me why
That thou hast done this foul folly,
And I made thee a great lady,
In Paradise for to play ?

As they leave the gates, the angel with the flaming
sword ends his speech thus :

This bliss I spere from you right fast ; dar.

Herein come ye no more.
Till a child of a maid be bom,
And upon the rood rent and torn,
To save all that ye have forlorn, /ost.

Your wealth for to restore.

Eve laments bitterly, and at length offers her throat
to her husband, praying him to strangle her :

Now stumble we on stalk and stone ;
My wit away from me is gone ;
Writhe on to my neck-bone

With hardness of thine hand.


Adam replies — not over politely —

Wife, thy wit is not worth a rush j

and goes on to make what excuse for themselves he
can in a very simple and touching manner :

Our hap was hard, our wit was nesche, soft, weak, still in use

To Paradise when we were brought : [in some provinces.

My weeping shall be long fresh ;

Short liking shall be long bought pleasure.

The scene ends with these words from Eve :

Alas, that ever we wrought this sin !
Our bodily sustenance for to win,
Ye must delve and I shall spin,
In care to lead our life.

Cain and A bel follows ; then Noa/is Flood, in which
God says,

They shall not dread the flood's flow ;

then Abraham's Sacrifice ; then Moses and the Two
Tables ; then The Prophets, each of whom prophesies
of the coming Saviour ; after which we find ourselves
in the Apocryphal Gospels, in the midst of much
nonsense about Anna and Joachim, the parents of
Mary, about Joseph and Mary and the birth of Jesus,
till we arrive at The Shepherds and The Magi, The
Purification, The Slaughter of the Innocents, The Dis-
puting in the Temple, The Baptism, The Temptation,
and The Woman taken iii Adultery, at which point
I pause for the sake of the remarkable tradition
embodied in the scene — that each of the woman's
accusers thought Jesus was writing his individual sins
on the ground. While he is writing the second time.



the Pharisee, the Accuser, and the Scribe, who have
chiefly sustained the dialogue hitherto, separate, each
going into a different part of the Temple, and solilo-
quize thus :

Pharisee. Alas ! alas ! I am ashamed !

I am afeared that I shall die ;
All my sins even properly named

Yon prophet did write before mine eye.
If that my fellows that did espy,

They will tell it both far and wide ;
My sinful living if they outcry,
I wot not where my head to hide.
Accuser, Alas ! for sorrow mine heart doth bleed,
All my sins yon man did write ;
If that my fellows to them took heed,

I cannot me from death acquite.
I would I were hid somewhere out of sight,

That men should me nowhere see nor know ;
If I be taken I am aflyght afraid.

In mekyl shame I shall be throwe. much.

Scribe. Alas the time that this betyd ! happened.

Right bitter care doth me embrace.
All my sins be now unhid,

Yon man before me them all doth trace.
If I were once out of this place,

To suffer death great and vengeance able, ^
I will never come before his face.
Though I should die in a stable.

Upon this follows The Raisi7ig of Lazarus ; next
The Cou7icil of the Jews, to which the devil appears as
a Prologue, dressed in the extreme of the fashion of
the day, which he sets forth minutely enough in his
speech also. The Entry into Jernsalem; The Last

1 Able to stiffer, deserving, subject to, obnoxious to, liable to death
and vengeance.


Supper; The Betrayal ; King Herod ; The Trial of
Christ ; Pilate's Wife's Dream come next ; to the
subject of the last of which the curious but generally-
accepted origin is given, that it was inspired by
Satan, anxious that Jesus should not be slain, because
he dreaded the mischief he would work when he
entered Hades or Hell, for there is no distinction
between them either here or in the Apocryphal
Gospel whence the Descejit into Hell is taken. Then
follow The Crucifixion and The Descent into Hell —
often called the Harrowing of Hell — that is, the
making war upon or despoili7ig of hell} for which the
authority is a passage in the Gospel of Nicodemus, full
of a certain florid Eastern grandeur. I need hardly
remind my readers that the Apostles' Creed, as it now
stands, contains the same legend in the form of an
article of faith. The allusions to it are frequent in
the early literature of Christendom.

The soul of Christ comes to the gates of hell, and
says :

Undo your gates of sorwatorie ; place of sorrow^

On man's soul I have memorie ;
There cometh now the king of glory,

These gates for to breke !
Ye devils that are here within,
Hell gates ye shall unpin ;
I shall deliver man's kin —

From woe I will them wreke. avenge.

1 The word harry is still used in Scotland, but only in regard to a
bird's nest.


Against me it were but waste
To holdyn or to standyn fast ;
Hell-lodge may not last

Against the king of glory.
Thy dark door down I throw ;
My fair friends now well I know ;
I shall them bring, reckoned by row,

Out of their purgatory !

The Burial ; The Resurrection; The Three Maries;
Christ appearing to Mary ; The Pilgrim of Emmaus ;
The Ascensio7t ; The Descent of the Holy Ghost ; The
Assumption of the Virgin; and Doomsday ^ close the
series. I have quoted enough to show that these
plays must, in the condition of the people to whom
they were presented, have had much to do with their
religious education.

This fourteenth century was a wonderful time of
outbursting life. Although we cannot claim the
Miracles as entirely English products, being in all pro-
bability translations from the Norman-French, yet
the fact that they were thus translated is one remark-
able amongst many in this dawn of the victory of
England over her conquerors. From this time, English
prospered and French decayed. Their own language
was now, so far, authorized as the medium of religious
instruction to the people, while a similar change had
passed upon processes at law ; and, most significant
of all, the greatest poet of the time, and one of the
three greatest poets as yet of all English time, wrote,
although a courtier, in the language of the people.
Before selecting some of Chaucer's religious verses,
however, I must speak of two or three poems by
other writers. o*


The first of these is The Vision of William con-
cerning Piers Ploiv77tan^ — a poem of great influence
in the same direction as the writings of Wyclifife. It
is a vision and an allegory, wherein the vices of the
time, especially those of the clergy, are unsparingly
dealt with. Towards the close it loses itself in a meta-
physical allegory concerning Dowel, Dobet, and Do-
best.^ I do not find much poetry in it. There is
more, to my mind, in another poem, written some
thirty or forty years later, the author of which is
unknown, perhaps because he was an imitator of
William Langland, the author of the Vision. It is
called Pierce tJte Ploughma7t's Crede. Both are written
after the fashion of the Anglo-Saxon poetry, and
not after the fashion of the Anglo-Norman, of which
distinction a little more presently. Its object is to
contrast the life and character of the four orders
of friars with those of a simple Christian. There
is considerable hum.our in the working plan of the

A certain poor man says he has succeeded in
learning his ABC, his Paternoster, and his Ave
Mary, but he cannot, do what he will, learn his
Creed. He sets out, therefore, to find some one
whose life, according with his profession, may give
him a hope that he will teach him his creed aright.
He applies to the friars. One after another, every
order abuses the other ; nor this only, but for money
offers either to teach him his creed, or to absolve

1 Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best.


him for ignorance of the same. He finds no helper
until he falls rn with Pierce the Ploughman, of whose
poverty he gives a most touching description. I shall,
however, only quote some lines of The Believe as
taught by the Ploughman, and this principally to
show the nature of the versification :

Leve thou on our Lord God, that all the world wroughte ; believe.

Holy heaven upon high wholly he formed ;

And is almighty himself over all his workes ;

And wrought as his will was, the world and the heaven ;

And on gentle Jesus Christ, engendered of himselven,

His own only Son, Lord over all y-knowen.

With thorn y-crowned, crucified, and on the cross died ;
And sythen his blessed body was in a stone buried ; after that.

And descended adown to the dark helle.

And fetched out our forefathers ; and they full fain weren. glad.

The third day readily, himself rose from death.
And on a stone there he stood, he stey up to heaven, where: ascended.

Here there is no rhyme. There is measure a

dance-movement in the verse ; and likewise, in most of

the lines, what was essential to Anglo-Saxon verse

three or more words beginning with the same sound.
This is somewhat of the nature of rhyme, and was all
our Anglo-Saxon forefathers had of the kind. Their
Norman conquerors brought in rhyme, regularity
of measure, and division into stanzas, with many
refinements of versification now regarded, with some
justice and a little more injustice, as peurilities.
Strange as it may seem, the peculiar rhythmic move-
ment of the Anglo-Saxon verse is even yet the most
popular of all measures. Its representative is now
that kind of verse which is measured not by the


number of syllables, but by the number of accented
syllables. The bulk of the nation is yet Anglo-
Saxon in its blind poetic tastes.

Before taking my leave of this mode, I would give
one fine specimen from another poem, lately printed,
for the first time in full, from Bishop Percy's manu-
script. It may chronologically belong to the begin-
ning of the next century : its proper place in my
volume is here. It is called Death and Liffe, Like
Langland's poem, it is a vision ; but, short as it is in
comparison, there is far more poetry in it than in
Piers Plowman. Life is thus described :

She was brighter of her blee ^ than was the bright sun ;
Her rudd2 redder than the rose that on the rises hangeth ;
Meekly smiling with her mouth, and merry in her looks ;
Ever laughing for love, as she like would.

Everything bursts into life and blossom at her

And the grass that was grey greened belive. forthwith.

But the finest passage is part of Life's answer to
Death, who has been triumphing over her :

How didst thou joust at Jerusalem, with Jesu, my Lord,

Where thou deemedst his death in one day's time ! judgedst.

There wast thou shamed and shent and stripped for aye ! rebuked.

When thou saw the king come with the cross on his shoulder,

On the top of Calvary thou camest him against ;

Like a traitor untrue, treason thou thought ;

Thou laid upon my liege lor J loathful hands,

Sithen beat him on his body, and buffeted him rightly, then.

Till the railing red blood ran from his sides ; pouring down.

^ Complexion. "^ Ruddiness — complexion. ^ Twig.


Sith rent him on the rood with full red wounds : then.

To all the woes that him wasted, I wot not few,

Then deemedst (him) to have been dead, and dressed for ever.

But, Death, how didst thou then, with all thy derffe words, fierce.

When thou pricked at his pap with the point of a spear,

And touched the tabernacle of his true heart,

Where my bower was bigged to abide for ever ? built.

When the glory of his Godhead glinted in thy face.

Then wast thou feared of this fare in thy false heart ; affair.

Then thou hied into hell-hole to hide thee belive ; at once.

Thy falchion flew out of thy fist, so fast thou thee hied ;

Thou durst not blush once back, for better or worse, look.

But drew thee down full in that deep hell.

And bade them bar bigly Belzebub his gates. greatly^ strongly.

Then thou told them tidings, that teened them sore ; grieved.

How that king came to kithen his strength, sho2v.

And how she^ had beaten thee on thy bent, 2 and thy brand taken.

With everlasting life that longed him till. belonged to him.

When Life has ended her speech to Death, she
turns to her own followers and says : —

Therefore be not abashed, my bames so dear, children.

Of her falchion so fierce, nor of her fell words.

She hath no might, nay, no means, no more you to grieve.

Nor on your comely corses to clap once her hands.

I shall look you full lively, and latch full well, search for : lay hold of.

And keere ye further of this kithe,^ above the clear skies.

I now turn from those poems of national scope and
wide social interest, bearing their share, doubtless, in
the growth of the great changes that showed them-
selves at length more than a century after, and from
the poem I have just quoted of a yet wider human
interest, to one of another tone, springing from the
grief that attends love, and the aspiration born of the

1 Life (?).—! think she should be he. 2 pield.

^ " Carry you beyond this region."

S.L. IV. D

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Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldEngland's antiphon → online text (page 2 of 19)