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English literature from the Norman conquest to Chaucer online

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same mystical " love-tears with sweet mourning," which we learn
that Christ demands, RoUe was once again to write with like
extravagant ecstasy.

More attractive to us are the several graceful songs in which
we hear a truly subjective note, where a definite impression is
evoked by a suggestive scene, the temper being rather that of the
secular lyric. Thus, for example, one poet begins :

When I see blossoms spring,

And here glad foules song,
A sweet love-longing

Enters my heart anon,
A love forever new.
That is so sweet and true,

It gladdeth all my song.
I wot all mid iwys
My joy and eek my bliss

To Him alone belong.

He sees the Christ on the cross, and the sight moves him to
earnest devotion. We find the same tone in a poem, " I sigh when
I sing," in six ten-line stanzas marked by freshness and vigour.
A charming Song on the Passion begins thus :

Summer is come and winter gone,

The days begin to grow long
And the birdes every one

Make joy with song.


Still strong care bindeth me
Despite the joy that's found

in land,
All for a child
That is so mild

of hand.

Thoughts on the transitoriness of worldly pleasure and con-
templation of the hereafter are suitably prepared for by the
following stanza which begins a fine reflective poem :

Winter wakeneth all my care,
Now the leaves have waxed bare ;
Oft I sigh and sorrow sare

When it cometh in my thought
Of our worldly joy, how it goeth to nought.

Perhaps the best of all, however, is another song by a West
Midland poet which is extant in a Southern form

Now shrinketh rose and lily flower.
That whilom bore the sweet savour.

In summer, that sweet tide ;
There is no queen so strong in power.
There is no lady so bright in bower

That death shall not by glide.
Whoso will lust of flesh forego

And Heaven's bliss abide.
On Jesus he his thought bestow,

Christ with the pierced side.

After this introduction, the author tells straightway of his feelings one
morning when, leaving Peterborough in gay mood, he begins to think of his
folly and prays the Lord to save him from ' ' the loathsome house wrought for
the devil." He sees that he is to gain sweetness and soundness of spiritual
nature by penance, which is the medicine of the Virgin, the best leech in
the world. All sick should seek her and be brought to bliss.

More plainly personal is the prayer to his "high lord," his
" trusty king," of an old man in " the sere, the yellow leaf," who
laments the change of his estate in the spirit of the Anglo-
Saxon Wanderer:


Once he was gay and proud, now weak and joyless, "little loved and less
counted." His fast horses, his fine attire, his money are all gone. "When
I see steeds stiff in stall and I go halting in the hall," so he complains, "my
heart begins to sink." He is loath where once he was lief. Those who once
provided him with clothes, now turn away as if they were wroth. Such is
evil and eld (old age) !

Evil and eld and other woe

Follow me so fast,
Meseems my heart shall break in two ;

Sweet God, why shall it so ?
How may it longer last ?

While his life was evil, gluttony was his gleeman, pride his playmate,
lechery his laundress (with her is gab and guile), covetousness bore his keys,
envy and hatred were his comrades, liar his latimer, sloth and sleep his
bediner (bedmaker). He repents his past, apostrophises " dreadful death,"
and prays for succour. In the end he recognises the best remedy for his misery
and looks for the light of Heaven.

Possibly by the same writer is a longer poem, entitled
Maximion, likewise in strophes of varying length, and on the
same general theme, the change of earthly conditions and the
transitoriness of the joys of the world. Maximian's poems are
mentioned in the Chaucerian Court of Love, and Skelton, con-
necting him with Seneca and Boethius in the Garland of Laurel,
speaks of his " mad ditties how doting age would jape with young
folly.'' Certain lines in the Pardoner's Tale are imitated from
the first Elegy of Maximian.

From verse of this mournful character one turns with relief
to the lightsome lyrics of the secular clerks, impregnated with
the spirit both of the native folk-song and the courtly poetry of
France. Of the folk-song proper we have no good example left
unless it be the familiar one of the Cuckoo, wherein the advent of
summer is robustly sung :

Summer is y-comen in, loude sing cuckow !
Groweth seed and bloweth mead and springeth the woode now.
Sing cuckow !


Ewe bleateth after lamb, loweth after calfe cow,
Bullock starteth, bucke verteth, merrye sing cuckow !•

Cuckow, cuckow !
Well singest thou cuckow : ne swick (deceive) thou never now.

This song is particularly , interesting because the music to
which it was sung is preserved in a codex (Harleian 978) written
in I2z6 by John of Fornsete, a monk of Reading, in Berkshire,
the founder of the so-called " First English School " of music.
It is described as " the earliest secular composition in parts which
has hitherto been discovered — a Canon, or Round, for six voices,
now known as the Reading Rota; as melodious as an Italian
Fa la of the best period, and, considering the date at which it
was written, wonderfully free from contrapuntal defects."

Refrains from folk-songs seem to have been adopted by
trained writers to accompany their art-lyrics, which were probably
composed with popular airs in mind. To a charming poem of
the troubadour style, for example, is attached the following

refrain :

Blow, northern wind,

Send thou me my sweeting.

Blow, northern wind, blow, blow, blow !

The author of this poem offers a very graceful, somewhat
allegorical, description of his lady. He appeals to Love for
counsel in tro ible, and is advised to plead with his sweetheart and
implore her to relieve his pain. Thus he concludes :

For her love I cark and care.
For her love I droop and dare (decline).
For her love my bliss is bare.
And all I wax wan.

For her love in sleep I slake.
For her love all night I wake,
For her love mourning I make,
More than any man.

A refrain, more intimately connected with the text, occurs in
the exquisite song of Alysoun :


Between March and April,

When spray beginneth to spring,
The little fowl hath her will
On her land to sing.
I live in love-longing
For seemliest of alle thing.
She may me bliss bring.
I am in her bandoun.'

A hendy hap I have yhent,^
I wot from Heaven it is me sent,
From all women my love is lent,'
And light * on Alysoun.

Very graceful likewise are the six-line stanzas of another short
poem in which is expressed the anguish of a lover who dares not
reveal his love. The poet thus concludes :

I would I were a thrustlecock,
A bountyng,' or a laverok,^

Sweet bride !
Between her kirtle and her smock
I would me hide.

Giraldus Cambrensis, in his Gemma Eccksiastica, tells an
amusing anecdote of a priest of Worcester, who, having the
refrain of a similar song ringing in his ears, chanted at the altar :
" Sweet lemman, thine ore (mercy)," instead of Dominus vobiscum ;
and the bishop forbade that profane song ever to be sung again
in the diocese. Gerald attests the fact that many other lyrics of
the sort were popular in his day.

In Johon we have a carefully- written song in five stanzas of
eight epic long lines with the same rhyme, followed by a couplet
with a different one. Here is also fulness of alliteration, such as
was favoured in the West Midland district where the poem was
written. The poet compares the qualities of his lady with various
sorts of precious stones, flowers, birds, spices, and with certain

' Power. ^ A strange thing has happened to me.

3 Turned. ^ Alighted. '• Blackbird. 8 Lark.


notables of story. By the same author seems to have been
written a clever song in tail -rhyme strophe beginning "With
longing I am led," in which he tells of his amorous madness, and
imagines that all heaven would be in his lady's embrace — a senti-
ment expressed in another poem of similar nature and metre
concerning The Beauty of Ribbesdale, who, to judge from the
poet's phrases, was beyond compare in feature and form. One can
but feel that one is immersed in " the chronicle of wasted time,"
reading descriptions of " the fairest wights," " and beauty making
beautiful old rhyme in praise of ladies dead and valiant knights."
In stanzas of four long lines with the same rhyme are pre-
served two love -complaints, probably by one author, of the
North-East Midland. In one the lover apostrophises his lady
thus :

When the nightingale singeth, the woods waxen green,

Leaf and grass and blossom springeth, in Averil, I ween,

And love is to my hearte gone, with a spear so keen,

Night and day my blood it drinketh, my heart doth to teen (grieve).

I have loved all this year, that I may love no more,
I have sighed many a sigh, lemman, for thine ore (grace),
To me is love no nearer, and that me rueth sore.
Sweet lemman, think of me, I have loved thee yore.

The other complaint is characterised by being in dialogue,
after the following induction :

My death I love, my life I hate, for a lady sheen.

She is bright as day's light, that is in me well seen.

All I fall as doth the leaf in summer when it is green,

If ray thought helpeth me nought, to whom shall I me mene.

Sorrows and sighs and dreary mood bindeth me so fast.
That I ween to walke wod, if it still longer last ;
My sorrow, my care, all with a word she might away cast ;
What helpeth thee, my sweet lemman, my life thus for to waste.

The dialogue begins with the lady's reproachful warning :


" Be off, thou clerk, thou art a fool, with thee I will not chide. Never
wilt thou see the day when I will love thee. If thou art taken here, shame
will betide thee." In return, the clerk pleads despairingly : it will be great
shame to her if he dies for love of her. Again she reproves him for a fool
to be where he is, since he is watclicd by her falher and kin, and if they two
are discovered together she shall be imprisoned and he slain : so he may win
his death.

Sweet lady, thou wend thy mood, pity thou wilt me show;
Now I am as sorry a man as blithe a while ago ;
Fifty times we kissed each other once at a window.
Fair behest makes many a man banish his sorrow.

Waylaway ! Why sayest thou so ? My grief thou makest new ;
I loved a clerk all par amour, of love he was full true.
He was not blithe never a day unless he could me view.
I loved him better than my life, the sooth I tell to you.

M'hile I was a clerk in school, well much I knew of lore,
I have suffered for thy love many woundes sore.
Far from home, and eke from men, near no friendly door,
Sweet lady, have pity on me. Alas ! I can no more !

Thou seemest well to be the clerk, thou speakest with a will,
Thou shalt never for my love woundes suffer ill ;
Father and mother and all my kin shall not hold me still,
For thou art mine and I am thine thy wishes to fulfil.

This poem partakes somewhat of the nature of the estrif, a
form also employed in another poem, in which a maiden desirous
of a husband without guile opposes the seductions of a transient
lover whom she meets in a forest.

From a clerk (probably of Lindsay) we have an ironical poem
of repentance for his sins in mocking the ladies in his previous
verse. He feigns to be wholly converted to their praise, and
envies the renown among them of a Norman poet called Richard,
whose " book of ladies' love," an imitation doubtless of the Pro-
vengal leys damor, had taught him his fault.

These poems, however, are artificial in comparison with
certain other songs of Midland origin, among which perhaps the
best is one, full of the passion of spring, beginning as follows :


Lent is come with love to town,
With blossoms and with birdes roun,

That all this biisse bringeth ;
Daisies in these dales,
Sweet notes of nightingales,

Each fo\vl song singeth.

Another by the same poet in the same twelve-line stanza
regrets the falseness of women and warns them against deceivers.
It too is a spring-song, praising the merry month of May, and
betraying a genuine love of nature, quite different from that ex-
pressed by most of the French poems of the sort which begin with
a reference to the season, but simply, it would seem, as a conven-
tional means of getting under way.

The majority of the lyrics so far mentioned are found in an
important manuscript, Harleian 2253, and some of them only there.
This manuscript was written, it appears, about 13 10, to satisfy the
desire of a secular clerk connected with the priory of Leominster
(Herefordshire) for an anthology of the current works in which he
was especially interested. The collector was a person of varied
taste, and all sorts of secular and religious poetry are represented
in the 115 pieces (Latin, French, and English) that his book con-
tains. Here we find such well-known works, as the Geste of King
Horn, the Proverbs of Hendyng, the Debate of the Body and the
Soul, and the oldest of English miracle-plays. The Harrowing of
Hell. But most interesting are the forty English songs which
accompany them, eight of which are political, fourteen secular, and
eighteen religious. We are most fortunate to have this body of
mediaeval lyrics thus preserved. Harleian MS. 2253 is as valuable
for the study of lyrics as the Auchinleck MS., dating from about
the same time, has been for the study of romance. Another
manuscript, nearly related to the former, perhaps a little older,
but not so exact, is Digby 86 in the Bodleian, in which a second
version of several of the religious songs is extant. Both of these
manuscripts are in the Southern dialect, but the lyrics included
were not all written in the South, or at the same time.


Similarly of various date and district are the many short
religious poems (prayers, orisons, Hail -Marys, and the like)
contained in the important Vernon MS., written late in the four-
teenth century. Worthy of particular note in this manuscript is
a collection of some thirty lyrics with refrains. These poems,
however, are all in the temper of the age of Chaucer and the
author of The Pearl, and their consideration may well be post-
l^oned until we come to treat particularly of the writings of that

Strictly, the popular ballad should be kept apart from this
division; for it is not a product of conscious literary art — is
not reflective or subjective or intricate. And the lyric proper
offers in these respects a striking contrast : its best qualities
are personal feeling, original thought, and perfection of form.
Nevertheless, it is well to remark again that ballads were current
in great numbers in early England, and though few are preserved
in old manuscripts, of their existence from the earliest times no
one need doubt. In connection with the lays have already been
mentioned many ballads embodying ancient material ; but in no
instance have we a mediseval version of these in similar form. Only
one ballad is preserved in a manuscript earlier than the fifteenth
century, namely yz/^aJ, which exists in thirteenth-century writing;
but another poem of the same sort, likewise based on apocryphal
story, is the picturesque account of St. Stephen and Herod, which,
though not extant in a record earlier than 1450, is considered as
equally old ; and these were far from being isolated works. Lang-
land's allusion to the rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolph,
Earl of Chester, shows that such things were current before 1377.

The Battle of Otterburn was fought on August 19, 1388, and
the original version of the famous ballad concerning it must have
been composed before Chaucer's death. It was h propos of
Chevy Chace, which treats the same theme, that Addison wrote
in the Spectator the following significant words :

"When I travelled, I took particular delight in hearing the
songs and fables that are come from father to son, and are most


450 SONGS AND LYRICS chap, x

in vogue among the common people of the countries through
which I passed; for it is impossible that anything should be
universally tasted and approved by a multitude, though they
are only the rabble of a nation, which hath not in it some
peculiar aptness to please and gratify the mind of man. Human
nature is the same in all reasonable creatures ; and whatever falls
in with it, will meet with admirers amongst readers of all qualities
andjionditions. . . .

" I know nothing which more shows the essential and
inherent perfection of simplicity of thought, above that which I
call the Gothic manner in writing, than this ; the first pleases all
kinds of palates, and the latter only such as have formed to
themselves a wrong artificial taste upon little fanciful authors
and writers of epigram. Homer, Virgil, or Milton, so far as the
language of their poems is understood, will please a reader of
plain common-sense, who would neither relish nor comprehend
an epigram of Martial, or a poem of Cowley : so, on the con-
trary, an ordinary song or ballad that is the delight of the
common people, cannot fail to please all such readers as are
not unqualified for the entertainment by their affectation or
ignorance; and the reason is plain, because the same paintings
of nature which recommend it to the most ordinary reader, will
appear beautiful to the most refined."



It will not require many words with which to conclude this
survey of the literary history of Eng^^nd during the early Middle
Ages. The reader has been made acquainted with practically
all extant writings of the period which have any literary signi-
ficance, and he is in a position to judge of the character and
scope of the native production — so far as these can be determined
from the documents now available as evidence. This last
restrictive clause needs emphasis here again, for it cannot have
escaped notice how often the statement has been made in the
preceding pages, concerning all sorts of Middle English poems
from Gaivain and the Green Knight back to the Ormulian and
Layamon's BnU^ that they exist in unique manuscripts, or not at
all in their original forms. And this fact should be constantly
kept in mind, not only because it serves to make more tolerant
our critical judgment of particular works, but also because it
evidently throws light on the station of the persons to whom in
general such works made appeal. " Books written in English,"
as Mr. Pollard has pointed out, " had to fight their way into a
field already occupied, and it is clear that until the fourteenth
century they failed to obtain any real popularity among well-to-do
people. Of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Reguvi Britanniae
there are thirty-five manuscripts in the British Museum alone, and
nearly a third of these date from the twelfth century. Of English
works, on the other hand, written before 1360, perhaps the


452 CONCLUSION chap.

majority survive only in a single copy, which in no single case
bears any trace of the fine writing found in manuscripts for
wealthy book-buyers. At a later date there is no lack of manu-
scripts of Langland, the Wycliffite Bible, and Chaucer, some of
them most beautifully written and decorated. The inference is
obvious that in the earlier period English books appealed to a
very small and by no means wealthy class of readers, and the
development of our literature was retarded for lack of encourage-
ment ; while of the books written some at least which we would
gladly have inherited, perished utterly, partly, no doubt, because
so few copies were made in the first instance." Plainly, to
estimate aright the value of early Middle English writings, one
must understand their authors' special mission, the province
committed to their control, the extent of their delegated
authority. One must recognise the fact that in general they
wrote with intent simply to instruct the ignorant and humble,
that they rarely aimed at originality in either substance or form,
that their works were for the most part disregarded by the learned
and the polite.

These latter, the learned and the polite, though they wrote
almost exclusively in what we now regard as foreign tongues,
undoubtedly reflect best the enduring sentiments and spirit of the
Middle Ages. We cannot, therefore, in justice, fail to consider
their compositions carefully, if we would reconstruct the intel-
lectual and artistic life of that period — a most important period,
it should be remembered, when the foundations of modern
English institutions were being laid, and when the literary
tendencies of later times were taking root in established custom.
Only when we shall drop from the records of our history these
centuries of foreign control, when we shall refuse to employ the
foreign words that then replenished and enriched our vocabulary,
can we justifiably neglect the chief records of our literature during
the same epoch. Far from ignoring the writings of men of the
time because from a variety of causes Latin and French were the
chosen instruments of English thought, we are in duty bound to


examine these with increasing pains in the effort to appreciate
adequately the circumstances under which our composite race
developed more varied and more refined modes of expression,
together with a broader outlook, greater catholicity of temper, and
a less parochial spirit in the domain of literary art.

For the contrast is great between the types of literature
favoured in England before and after the Conquest. To regard
the writers of the fourteenth century and later as the lineal
descendants of Anglo-Saxon precursors is fundamentally false.
Chaucer did not exhibit the spirit of early times reawakened after
a slumber of centuries, but was the product of conditions secured
by Norman and Angevin rule. English literature did not go
through a tunnel on a long underground journey, as some con-
ceive, to emerge at the end of it, the same in essentials of style.
The whole nation had been immensely modified by the events of
the intervening period, and literature, its voice, had helped to
effect the change. So blended is English blood that no attainable
knowledge of ethnic facts will ever provide a safe basis for inclu-
sive generalisation concerning the contribution of the diverse
racial currents to the majestic river of English literature. But
thorough study alone is required to ascertain the source of its
tributaries, the historical causes that affected at different times its
general appearance and course. The profound change in the
literary predilection of Englishmen during the Middle Ages was
due to the continuous influx of foreign ideas which our ancestors
were powerless, even if anxious, to withstand.

The Middle Ages have been sadly misrepresented. Ecstatic
romanticists and ecclesiologists on the one hand, and scornful
classicists and dissenters on the other, have variously deluded the
public concerning the characteristics of the epoch. Both parties
have based their judgments on incomplete or inaccurate know-
ledge of the actual conditions of mediaeval life. The former have
forgotten that "all that glitters is not gold"; the latter, that
" people in glass houses should not throw stones.'' The Middle
Ages were ages of reality as well as romance, of scepticism as well


as faith, of cynicism as well as idealistic devotion, of rollicking
" sunburnt mirth " as well as gorgeous pomp and pageantry. They
were ages, moreover, when keen acumen, subtle wit, liberal learn-
ing, large knowledge of the world, untiring industry, and practical
administrative power were possessed by a host of representative
men. But after all is said which " mesure," sanity, and historical
truth require, the fact remains that the Middle Ages allure the
imaginative with a peculiar, abiding charm. They constitute the
most genuinely poetic era that Europe has known, and in litera-
ture as well as in architecture much was then achieved which
surpasses in beauty anything else of its kind. It is true that the
names of very few distinguished writers in the vernacular can be
mentioned ; but no one will deny that many poetic themes which
then originated may be counted " among the posterities " of
literature; and it is not a question easily answered, whether that
age is more valuable to the world, more significant in the history
of civilisation, which discovers and displays the ore of the imagina-
tion, or that which takes what is placed in its hands and perfects

Online LibraryWilliam Henry SchofieldEnglish literature from the Norman conquest to Chaucer → online text (page 40 of 46)