NEW ERA LIBRARY
AN INTRODUCTION TO ENGLISH
W. H. KING, B.A.
THE New Era Library represents an attempt
to meet the demand on the part of the general
reader for works which are, frankly, merely
introductions to a subject and not indigestible
tabloid primers. They give in broad outline
something of the main principles and sphere of
activity of the subject covered by the title or
sub-title. They do not profess to be encyclo-
paedic in character, and they assume little if any
previous knowledge on the part of the reader.
The explanations are in each case full enough
to permit a person, unaided, to get a wide
general view of some important topic, un-
burdened with excessive detail, in order that the
larger classical works may afterwards be the
more easily attacked by those who desire to
pursue their studies further.
In these days it is necessary for the man in
the street to know a little of many things. Our
aim is to present 'that little* in such a way that
it is easily assimilated, and yet so accurately that
nothing has to be unlearned at a later stage.
THE STAGE OF A LONDON THEATRE IN 1596
From an original sketch made by a Dutch visitor^ and now
preserved in the University Library at Utrecht
GEORGE PHILIP & SON UP
I. INTRODUCTORY I
II. CHAUCER 5
III. THE CANTERBURY TALES: THE PROLOGUE . 12
IV. OLD BALLADS 21
V. THE RENASCENCE AND MORTE D 'ARTHUR . 32
VI. THE REFORMATION AND THE BIBLE . . 42
VII. THE DRAMA AND MARLOWE .... 51
VIII. SHAKESPEARE . . . . . .63
IX. BEN JONSON 74
X. SPENSER . . . . . . . .83
XI. POETRY AND PROSE ..... 92
XII. PURITANS AND CAVALIERS . . . .100
XIII. TWO GREAT PURITANS I"
XIV. DRYDEN AND POPE ... .124
XV. JOURNALISTS AND ESSAYISTS . . . .136
XVI. DR. JOHNSON AND HIS AGE . . . .147
XVII. THE REVIVAL OF ROMANCE . . . .156
XVIII. THE AGE OF ROMANCE W
XIX. THREE YOUNG ROMANTICS . . . .181
XX. ESSAYS . , . . . . .194
XXI. NOVELS . . . . . . , . 204
XXII. VICTORIAN POETS . . . . . .214
XXIII. VICTORIAN ESSAYISTS . . -226
XXIV. VICTORIAN NOVELISTS . . . .236
SOME USEFUL DATES 247
NE often reads or hears the expression,
the ' soul ' of a nation thus, ' the
soul of France ' or * the soul of
England ' ; and one may come across
some such sentence as ' Russia has
found her soul/
What is the ' soul ' of a country or nation ?
What do men mean, when they say that a nation
is only great so long as she is true to her soul ?
What is the soul of England ? What is the English
spirit, if you will ? It is, some answer, the spirit
of St. George, who rode out to the help of the weak
and oppressed. It is, others will say, the spirit
of Shakespeare, a kind and tender spirit, yet
fond of the frolic of life and revelling in all its
rough realities. That modest, kind, gentle,
laughter - loving and manly soul is the soul of
It is the spirit we find in the speaking beauty of
the English countryside, in its still valleys, in its
peaceful villages, and in its old grey churches.
It is in the English singing. We find it, too,
in the old ballads, those wild flowers of our litera-
ture, and, indeed, in all our great writers. For
the literature of a nation, even more than her
art and music, is the expression of that nation's
spirit. The English spirit is in Chaucer, in
Shakespeare, and in Dickens.
. * ^ > %>* > * ,^ *
In the literature of a nation are reflected the
ideals of that nation its ideals of beauty and of
truth. If one is to understand the English
spirit, one must not be content with reading the
national history only. It is not enough to know
the beautiful deeds of a St. George or the valiant
victories of a Nelson. One must read also the
literature of the country and learn the dreams
behind these deeds the dreams, in fact, that made
the deeds possible. The dream is always greater
than the deed, but without the one there cannot
be the other. Columbus discovered America ;
his discovery was not his dream ; but had he not
dreamed he would have discovered nothing. The
literature of a country is the expression of that
country's activity. Every strand in the stuff of
our nation's life is woven into the fabric of our
Before coming to the great books of English
literature, then, one must realise the connection
that exists between life and literature. Harking
back through the centuries, we find that no matter
how great the personality of a writer, even though
to some extent his genius mark the age, yet the age
also sets its stamp on him. He is the expression of
the spirit of the time, and shows how the people of
that period looked upon life and what they thought
If a writer is the product of his time, then the
history of literature has a national as well as a
personal character. But, of course, every writer
must be affected differently, according to his
temperament, by the spirit and movements of the
period in which he lives. To realise this it is only
necessary to think of the Puritan per od and the
two great writers it produced, Milton and Bunyan,
or, again, of the French Revolution and its power-
ful influence on writers in this country as well as in
Or, to take as another example, the Industrial
Revolution. During that dark period of our
history, when the country was passing from the
beauty of its agricultural life into the wild welter of
black industrialism, the soul of the land passed
under a cloud. The age was one of discontent, but
a noble discontent. It found its voice in Blake,
who, pondering on the dark, satanic mills, cried :
' I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.*
The cry became more bitter in Byron, the
violent poet of rebellion. And even in the last
century it was taken up by two great prose
writers, Carlyle and Ruskin, who railed against
Thus literature is an expression of life. All our
great books have sprung from life. They are real,
vital, vivid things, and, if we would understand the
history of the nation, we must go to the works of
the great writers. One should not be content to
read what is written about these men and their
books. Such is not the study of literature. Our
ambition is to know literature, not what has been
written about it, and to do this we must go to the
great books, to the fountain-heads of literature.
There is no better advice than that of Dr. Johnson.
He is speaking of Shakespeare, but his advice holds
throughout all literature :
1 Let him that is unacquainted with the powers of Shake-
speare, and who desires to feel the highest pleasure that the
drama can give, read every play from the first scene to
the last, with utter negligence of all his commentators.
When his fancy is once on the wing, let it not stop at cor-
rection or explanation. When his attention is strongly
engaged, let it disdain to turn aside to the name of Theobald
and of Pope. Let him read on through brightness and
obscurity, through integrity and corruption ; let him
preserve his comprehension of the dialogue and his interest
in the fable, and when the pleasures of novelty have ceased,
let him attempt exactness and read the commentators.'
In the following chapters an attempt will be
made to show the relation between the events of
history and the books and lives of our writers.
Only the greatest authors will be mentioned, and
their lives will be briefly told, in order to throw
their books on the background of the life of the
OTHER BOOKS TO READ
In this Series
England in Her Days of Peace. E. Doorly.
The Romance of Building. A. Walker.
Literary Taste. Arnold Bennett. Hodder and Stoughton.
Books and Persons. Arnold Bennett. Chatto and
Rudiments of Criticism. Lambourne. Oxford University
Short History of the English People. Green. Mac-
F a national literature is the expression
of the thoughts and feelings of a
nation, then there cannot be a
national literature without a nation
and a national language.
Now it was a long time before
the English people could be said to be a nation, a
united people owing allegiance to a central govern-
ment. We are compounded of many materials
Britons, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Normans and
in the pages of the historian the story is set forth
of how all these different elements were welded
into one. It will be sufficient here to state that it
was not until the fourteenth century that we can
be considered as one people, each man regarding
his neighbour as an Englishman like himself, no
matter by what social differences they might be
In the second place, it was a long time before
we had a national language. Anglo-Saxon, the
ancestor of our modern speech, came to us with
wandering tribes from the North Sea and the
Baltic. But to read, say Beowulf, the great poem
that the invaders brought with them, it is necessary
to study Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, almost as
one would study a foreign tongue, though it must
not, for that reason, be regarded as a foreign
When William, Duke of Normandy, subdued
England, people were compelled to learn the
speech of the conqueror, and for three centuries, a
period known as the Middle Ages, French was the
language of the upper classes, of the law courts, and
of Parliament. But Anglo-Saxon was not dead,
for the people clung to their own speech, and used
it amongst themselves in their daily life. An im-
portant part, too, was played by the friars, who
went about the country preaching, not in French,
but in the speech of the people. The language
changed very much with the years, so that, when
Chaucer began to write, he found in use a number
of dialects rather than a language.
The English tongue was a kind of medley, a
mixture of French and English and other words
and constructions, and the special gift of Chaucer
in this direction is that he fused the French and
English elements and gave us what is really
modern English. Out of a dialect he created a
language. He was the first writer to use the simple
words and phrases of the people, and to weld them
all together, in such a way that we can read him
without having to use a dictionary and a grammar.
This fact was realised by the men of his own time
and those who came soon after him. The greatest
compliment that can perhaps be paid him is that of
the poet Spenser, who calls him 'the well of English
But besides a nation and a national language
something else is required before there can be a
national literature, and that is something to
express something, moreover, that the people
care about expressing. There must be some body
of thought and feeling, which arouses so much
interest, that there is a desire to discuss these
thoughts and feelings both in speech and in writing.
Thus, for instance, the Great War of 191 4- 1918 was
the cause of much literary work essays, poems,
novels, and plays. Sometimes it is a religious
movement that moves the mind and heart, some-
times politics and revolutions. But there is never
any noble literature, unless there is something
stirring in the minds and hearts of those who
In the fourteenth century, the century of
Chaucer, there was a great awakening of the
national spirit. It was a time of tumult ; there
were abuses in the Government, the Church, and
society, and topics to argue about, and even to fight
about, were neither few nor feeble. Chaucer was
born in 1340 and died in 1400, so that he lived
during more than half of those tumultuous years
when the discontent of the mass of the people was
expressing itself so strongly. Out of this tumult
was born the English national spirit ; its growth
was hastened by the victories in the Hundred
Years' War with France, and reached its height in
the reign of Edward in., when all political ties with
France were severed, the bondage of Rome was
broken, and English took the place of French as
the language of court and Parliament.
In the reign of Edward's successor the unrest
became critical. The tremendous cost of the
French wars had to be met by heavy burdens of
taxation. Following the Black Death, and result-
ing from the scarcity of labour, there arose a bitter
struggle between landowners and labourers. At
bottom this struggle was the eternal fight between
wealth and want, between the idle rich and the
overburdened poor. At one time the movement
gets dignity from the leadership of John Wyclif,
who speaks for the disturbed Christian conscience ;
at another it gathers violence under the rhetoric
of John Ball, known as ' the mad priest of Kent,'
who preaches socialism from the text :
1 When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman ? '
This widespread social unrest led to the Peasant
Revolt under Wat Tyler.
While his contemporaries, Langland, Wyclif , and
Gower, reflect all the discontent and unrest of the
time, and show a lively interest in questions of
social reform, Chaucer, on the other hand, is little
touched by such questions. He reflects rather the
English spirit, the spirit which rises above it all.
It is the spirit of Shakespeare, which will have its
jest on the moor in the thunderstorm with the
mad old King, the spirit which finds humour at
the heart of sorrow and the fun of the tragedy
the spirit, if you will, of the British soldier.
Born in Thames Street, near the river, Geoffrey
Chaucer spent his early life in London. His father
was a wine merchant, purveyor to the ro3ral house-
hold. In this way Geoffrey probably found his
way to the court, for at the age of seventeen he
was appointed page to the wife of Lionel, son of
Edward in. Henceforward, for nearly forty years,
he was closely connected with this brilliant court,
which he knew intimately under three kings. At
an early age he accompanied Edward in. on a
military expedition to the Continent, and was taken
prisoner at the unsuccessful siege of Rheims.
Ransomed with money from the royal purse, he
became personal attendant of the King and later a
squire. About this time he married one of the
Queen's rnaids of honour.
For some years after his appointment to the
King's service Chaucer was frequently sent to
France and Italy on commercial and diplomatic
missions. In 1372 he visited Italy, and his im-
agination was vividly impressed by his stay in such
cities as Florence, Genoa, and Padua. It was the
golden age of Italian literature. Dante had just
died, but Petrarch and Boccaccio were still living.
Indeed, Chaucer is said to have met the latter at
Of these it will be well to add a word about
Boccaccio. He was the great raconteur, the story-
teller of the Middle Ages. Some of his stories he
wrote in verse, but his great work, The Decameron,
is in prose. In it he imagines seven ladies and
three gentlemen, who, withdrawn from plague-
stricken Florence, tell tales of love and adven-
ture, to beguile the time in the safety and luxury of
their country retreat. It was from Boccaccio's
Decameron that Chaucer borrowed the plan of
his greatest work.
Chaucer paid many visits to Italy, and during
the intervals filled the post of Comptroller of the
Customs at Aldgate. In 1386 he was elected
member of Parliament for Kent.
Very little is actually known about Chaucer as a
man, though much has been written about him as a
poet. An attempt has been made to find, in his
own works, information about his appearance,
his tastes, and his habits, but all the conclusions
arrived at are, at best, but guess-work.
Thus the first three following passages point to
his love of reading, a not unnatural pursuit for a
man who was well read in Latin, French, and
Italian, while the fourth is evidence of his love of
nature. At first sight the language looks rather
difficult. The grammar is different from that of
modern English, and some of the words used have
since disappeared. But there is no need, for that
reason, to make a modernised version of the poems.
One has only to read them aloud the true way
of appreciating all poetry and one cannot fail to
hear the melody, and so get the meaning of the
most musical of all poets. Most difficulties dis-
appear, and, when a word is unfamiliar to the eye,
the ear will often recognise it by the sound. The
metre will also decide the pronunciation of the
final ' e.' The final ' e ' is pronounced unless the
following word begins with a vowel or with ' h ' ;
at the end of a line it should be only lightly
' (I) But of thy verray neyghebores,
That dwellen almost at thy dores,
Thou herest neither that ne this ;
For whan thy labour doon al is,
And hast y-maad thy rekeninges,
Instede of reste and newe thinges,
Thou gost hoom to thy hous anoon ;
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another boke,
Till fully daswed is thy loke,
And livest thus as an hermyte,
Although thyn abstinence is lyte.
(II) And, as for me, though that my wit be lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte,
And in myn herte have hem in reverence ;
And to hem yeve swich lust and swich credence,
That ther is wel unethe game noon
That from my bokes make me to goon,
But hit be other up-on the haly-day,
Or elles in the joly tyme of May ;
Whan that I here the smale foules singe,
And that the floures ginne for to springe,
Farwel my studie, as lasting that sesoun.
(III) So whan I saw I might not slepe,
Til now late, this other night,
Upon my bedde I sat upright,
And bad oon reche me a book
A romaunce, and he hit me took
To rede and dryve the night away ;
For me thoghte it better play
Than playen either at chesse or tables.
(IV) Of alle the floures in the mede,
Than love I most these floures whyte and rede,
Swiche as men callen daysies in our toun
To hem have I so greet affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whan comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam up, and walking in the mede
To seen this flour agein the sonne sprede,
Whan hit upryseth erly by the morwe ;
That blisful sighte softeneth all my sorwe,
So glad am I whan I have presence
Of hit, to doon al maner reverence,
As she, that is of alle floures flour,
Fulfilled of al vertu and honour,
And ever ylyke fair, and fresh of hewe ;
And I love hit and ever ylyke newe,
And ever shal, til that myn herte dye.'
OTHER BOOKS TO READ
Works. Chaucer. Oxford University Press.
My Study Windows. Lowell. Routledge.
Chaucer Primer. Pollard. Macmillan.
THE CANTERBURY TALES
HAUCER had been soldier, courtier,
diplomat, ambassador, man of affairs,
and politician. He had seen much
in many countries. He knew both
the court and the people. As a
result of all this wide and varied
experience, he had much to say, and amongst the
many ways he chose of saying it the greatest is that
of The Canterbury Tales. Of this work the best-
known portion is the Prologue.
1 Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour ;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages)
That longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
(And palmers for to seken straunge strondes)
To feme halwes, couthe in sondry londes ;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke.'
At the head of the Pilgrim's Road to Canterbury
CANTERBURY TALES : THE PROLOGUE 13
stood the Tabard Inn, in Southwark. On just
such an evening Chaucer came hither :
* In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come into that hostelrye
Wei nyne and twenty in a companye
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde ;
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon,
That I was of hir felawshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To make our wey, ther as I yow devyse.'
This varied company of pilgrims is now described
to us in a wonderful series of portraits. Dryden
says of the Prologue : * 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 Inn at Southwark/
As an illustration, take the first portrait, that o
the Knight :
* A knight ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And therto hadde he ridden (no man ferre)
As wel in Christendom as hethenesse
And ever honoured for his worthinesse
At Alisaundre he was, whan it was wonne,
And though that he were worthy, he was wys,
And of his port as meke as is a mayde.
He never yet no vileinye ne sayde
In all his lyf, unto no maner wight.
He was a verray parfit gentle knight.
But for to tellen yow of his array,
His hors were gode, but he was nat gay.
Of fustian he wered a gipoun
Al bismotered with his habergeoun ;
For he was late y-come from his viage,
And wente for to doon his pilgrimage.'
Do you really want to chatter about that ?
Cannot you take it on trust ? Read on. Let
Chaucer have his own way. Let his words drop
like the gentle rain from heaven and sink in.
This is only one portrait. There are many more,
for all classes of society are painted on the crowded
canvas, from a knight to a poor ploughman and a
begging friar. With the Knight was his son, a
young Squyer, ' as fresh as is the month of May/
and attendant Yeman.
Eleven of the pilgrims were in the service of the
Church. Of these, the chief was the Prioresse :
1 Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioresse
That of hir smyling was ful simple and coy ;
Hir gretteste ooth was but by seynt Loy ;
And she was cleped madam Eglentyne,
Ful wel she song the service divyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely, \
And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe,
For Frensh of Paris was to hir unknowe.
At mete wel y-taught was she with alle ;
She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,
Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe.
Wel coude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe,
That no drope ne fille upon hir brest.
In curteisye was set ful muche hir lest.
Hir over lippe wyped she so clene,
That in hir coppe was no ferthing sene
Of grece, whan she dronken hadde hir draughte.
Full semely after hir mete she raughte,
CANTERBURY TALES : THE PROLOGUE 15
And sikerly she was of greet disport,
And ful plesaunt, and amiable of port,
And peyned hir to countrefete chere
Of court, and been estatlich of manere,
And to ben holden digne of reverence.
But, for to speken of hir conscience,
She was so charitable and so pitous,
She wolde wepe, if that she sawe a mous
Caught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes had she, that she fedde
With rosted flesh, or milk and wastel-breed.
But sore weep she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte.
And al was conscience and tendre herte.
Ful semely hir wimpel pinched was
Hir nose tretys ; hir eyen greye as glas
Hir mouth ful smal and ther-to softe and reed ;
But silkerly she hadde a fair forheed ;
It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe,
For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe.
Ful fetis was hir cloke, as I was war ;
Of smal coral aboute hir arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,
And ther-on heng a broche of gold ful shene,
On which ther was first write a crowned A,
And after, Amor vincit omnia.'
With the Prioresse were her chapeleyne and
three Preestes. Then came the Monk and the
Frere. Later we have a Somnour (or summoner
of offenders against ecclesiastical law), and a
Pardoner, who sold pardons. More attractive
Church characters, however, are the Povre Persotm,
a picture of an ideal parish priest, and the Clerk of
Oxenford, a picture of the true mediaeval scholar.