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England should secure for Robert grateful, even if only passing attention from his countrymen.
"England is a very good land, I ween of all lands the best, set at the end of the world in the extreme west. The sea goes all about it, as in an island. Of foes they need have no fear, save through treachery of the people of the land itself, as has been seen of yore. From south to north it is eight hundred miles long and two hundred broad, going from east to west in the middle of the country and not at one end. Plenty of all goods may one see in England unless the folk spoil them or years be worse. For England is full enough of fruit and trees, of woods and parks that it is a joy to see, of fowls and beasts, both wild and tame, of salt fish and fresh, and fair rivers as well. Enough of wells sweet and cold, of pastures and meadows, of silver ore and gold, of tin and of lead, of steel, of iron, and of brass, great abundance of good corn, of wheat, and of good wool, there is none better. Waters it hath enough, and before all others three, that are as arms out of the land into the sea, whereby the ships may come and go from the sea and bring to land goods enough, bought at each end: Severn and Thames, the third is Humber.”
The Cursor Mundi (circa 1250), a curious and not unsuccessful attempt to make the prevailing passion for romance minister to spiritual edification, is the work of a northern ecclesiastic whose name is unknown. Men delight in these days, says the author, to hear tales of Alexander and Cæsar, of Brutus and Troy, of Arthur and Charlemagne, of Tristram and Iseult. What is there for him who knows not French? Let English be used by Englishmen, and in their native speech let the unlearned have knowledge of the kind that may amend their lives. And forthwith he enters in a poem of 24,000 lines upon the religious history of the world from the Creation to the Day of Judgment. Wondrous and vast the undertaking, yet it is carried through with unflagging spirit and metrical skill, and so skilfully weaves together its composite material, drawn from many sources, that it achieved a high and deserved popularity.
“This is the best boke of alle,
The cours of the werlde men dos hit calle"
writes one of the copyists of the MS., and its anonymous author may well be allowed for the grandeur of his design honourable mention among the English makers of epic poetry. To these early English chroniclers is due at least the praise of high endeavour in their country's cause, in the fields of national speech, national education, and national history.
If England failed to produce an Arthuriad, a national epic, Scotland was more fortunate; she has her Wallace and her Bruce, the latter at least a poem for which stout champions have claimed epic honours, and with which the history of Scottish literature very nobly opens. The story of the making of an independent Scotland, and of its maker, Robert the Bruce, was indisputably an epic theme of the first order, rich in all the traditional requirements-a national not "a classical dictionary
» hero, distinguished by personal valour and resource; armour and weapons of the heroic period; great personages only subsidiary to the hero, like the good James of Douglas; a magnificent variety of combats, sieges, skirmishes; splendid episodes, as, for example, the last ride of Sir Aymer de Valence, or Bruce's encounter with De Bohun, and a great final battle, which makes him an independent sovereign, glorious and undisputed. So superb a subject might well be expected to yield an epic. It converted the Archdeacon of Aberdeen, John Barbour, scholar and churchman, into a poet. Born in 1320, nine or ten years before the death of Robert Bruce, it is possible, though not perhaps probable, that as a boy he may have seen his hero, the poem itself may have been, at least in part, written in the lifetime of the hero's son, David II., and a pension for “the composition of the book of the deeds of the erstwhile King Robert the Bruce” was, we are told, granted to Barbour within sixty-five years of the Battle of Bannockburn. Thus in closest relation to his theme the poet must have known and spoken with many men who had served and fought under the Bruce himself. Nothing in grandeur of theme was lacking, nothing of patriotism, nothing of the necessary knowledge, nothing of the inspiration which contact with great and stirring
events could give. Great was Barbour's opportunity and greatly he took advantage of it. Had he been a poet born, as he was poet made by his love of country and the nobility of his subject, The Bruce might well have been more than a notable epic. As it is, though far from comparable with the greatest, Barbour made for himself an imperishable name.
The Bruce is an epic of the secondary type=the work of one .. man—not of the type we owe to the imagination of Such a poem to reach the highest excellence demands shining poetical powers, educated artistic powers. The famous poems in that category, like Virgil's, are wrought with transcendent skill by men whose whole nature was poetical. Barbour was not primarily a poet at all. Primarily he was an ecclesiastic and a man of affairs. We cannot trace the writing of The Bruce to the imperative prompting of the divine spirit, to the mandate of the Muse. Patriotism was “the mother and nurse of his song,” it was undertaken as a national duty. Compared again with poems like that of Tasso or of Milton, it fails on the side of art, of technique, it belongs to a ruder age, the age of the rhymed chronicle. On the other hand, Barbour inherited no great poetic tradition, no style prepared for him by previous minstrels steeped in the lays and legends of their country. He belonged to no school of "makers," he had no share in the bardic spirit. The folk songs, of which he himself speaks, were of a rude and unsophisticated type, and can have afforded him little real assistance. Thus though admirable the theme and dazzling the opportunity, since he belonged neither to a time like Milton's, rich in Renaissance culture, conversant with all forms and models, trained in No all refinements of the poetic art, nor to a time like that of the ho decre author of Roland, who dealt in matter already poetised and ready to his hand, schooled by the numerous singers of the story who preceded him, Barbour, since he stood thus alone and unsupported, achieved only a measure of success. A poem is a work of art and must be judged as art. “Poetical history" is not epic even if the history be true. That cannot in the least help it as a poem, except in so far as the “truth” may inspire
a or assist the poet while at work. In a sense possibly Barbour
stood too near his subject, and it is doubtful whether he gained more than he lost by this proximity. Advantageous as it may appear, this nearness precluded the poetic and artistic enrichment which prepare the subject for the final and consummate rendering. Unlike his countryman Burns, who drew largely upon the imagination and the poetic experience of his predecessors, Barbour was a solitary, a lonely figure. This is not indeed to say that he was a poet altogether original and without models. He was, for instance, profoundly indebted to the French romance of Alexander the Great. “As regards style and narrative, and even to some extent in plan, the impress of the French romance is vital.” 2 None the less he remains a writer insufficiently supported by native poetic tradition, insufficiently supported by artistic culture, insufficiently supported by a language not completely subdued to his purposes. Barbour, fortunate in his theme, cannot be reckoned equally fortunate in his times or in his artistic education. Distinguished he was, but as I have said, rather for patriotic than for poetic passion. That difficult thing, the fusion of history and poetry, is not perfectly achieved in The Bruce. That Barbour should have failed to write his name as high as that of the great epic poets is not wonderful, what is wonderful is the measure of his success. He is original, as far as we know, in his use of the octo-syllabic couplet in his own language, a metre admirably adapted for simple narrative, original in his grasp and command of his materials, and in the shaping of his narrative, original in the spirit that animates the whole poem. The noble simplicity, the chivalric sentiment, the sympathy with heroic deeds, the pleasure in " the pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war are all Homeric.
1“ He was not the first,” says Voltaire of Lucan, “who thought a recent history the proper subject of an epick poem, for Varius ventur'd before him (and with success) on such a dangerous undertaking. The proximity of the times and the notoriety of the events which he took for his theme, were certainly a great clog to his poetical invention (if he had any).” -An Essay on Epick Poetry, p. 42.
: George Neilson's John Barbour; Poet and Translator, to which, as well as to another Glasgow scholar's work, Mr. J. T. T. Brown's The Wallace and the Bruce Řestudied, all students of Scottish literature are indebted.
“ Men mycht se than, that had beyn by,
Thai suld vencus the warld all hale.” 1
“ And Bannokburn, betuix the brais,
Of hors and men so chargit was,
Men mycht pass dry atour it then."
“ To put in wryt a suthfast story
That it lest ay furth in memory.” He is without rival on the Scottish side for the history of the time with which he deals, though critics doubt whether we possess the poem in its original form, question too how far the poet overcame the chronicler, and to what degree his knowledge of many particulars was at fault. Much has been made of the singular mistake by which Robert the Bruce is identified with his grandfather-viewed by some commentators not as an error but a deliberate falsification to rescue his hero from the degradation of the oath of fealty to Edward and homage to Ballioland many demonstrations given that the numbers, according to Barbour's account, engaged at Bannockburn are impossible. Some of the exploits ascribed to Bruce, too, as when he engages two hundred Galloway men single-handed and slays fourteen of them, place some strain upon our faith. Yet if due allowance be made for poetic license, there is little reason to question the authenticity of the facts in general outline. In handling such a theme, even with historical intentions, the poet must be permitted a certain freedom, a certain play of imagination, perhaps
1 Sterand, active; weid, clothing; at semyt, that it seemed; vencus, vanquish; 'warld all hale, the whole world.