Изображения страниц


passions, is, during the earlier stages of society, celebrated in verse. This

may be partly owing to the ease with which poetry is retained upon the memory, in those ruder ages, when written monuments, if they at all exist, are not calculated to promote general information; and it may be partly owing to that innate love of song, and sensibility to the charms of flowing numbers, which is distinguishable even among the most savage people. But, whatever be the cause, the effect is most certain; the early works of all nations have been written in verse, and the history of their poetry is the history of the language itself. It therefore seems surprising, that where the subject is interesting in a peculiar as well as in a general point of view, a distinct and connected history of our poetry, and the language in which it is written, should so long have been a desideratum in English literature; and the wonder becomes greater when we recollect, that an attempt to supply the deficiency was long since made by a person who seemed to unite every quality necessary for the task.

The late Mr. Warton, with a poetical enthusiasm which converted toil into pleasure, and gilded, to himself and his readers, the dreary subjects of antiquarian lore, and with a capacity of labour apparently inconsistent with his more brilliant powers, has produced a work of great size, and, partially speaking, of great interest, from the perusal of which we rise, our fancy delighted with beautiful imagery, and with the happy analysis of ancient tale and song, but certainly with very vague ideas of the history of English poetry. The error seems to lie in a total neglect of plan and system; for, delighted with every interesting topic which occurred, the historical poet pursued it to its utmost verge, without considering that these digressions, however beautiful and interesting in themselves, abstracted alike his own attention, and that of the reader, from the professed purpose of his book. Accordingly, Warton's History of English Poetry has remained, and will always remain, an immense commonplace-book of memoirs to serve for such an history. No antiquary can open it, without drawing information from a mine which, though dark, is inexhaustible in its treasures; nor will he who reads merely for amusement ever shut it for lack of attaining his end; while both may probably regret the desultory excursions of an author, who wanted only system, and a more rigid attention to minute accuracy, to have perfected the great task he has left incomplete.

It is therefore with no little pleasure that we see a man of taste and talents advance to supply the deficiency in so in. teresting a branch of our learning, -a task to which Johnson was unequal, through ignorance of our poetical antiquities, and in which Warton failed, perhaps, because he was too deeply enamoured of them.

T'he elemental part of the English language, that from which it derives, not indeed the greater proportion of its words, but the rules of its grammar and construction, is the Anglo-Saxon; and Mr. Ellis has dedicated his first chapter to make the English reader acquainted with it. The exam. ple of their poetry, which he has chosen to exhibit, is the famous war-song in praise of Athelstane's victory in the battle of Brunenburg,-an engagement which checked for ever the victorious progress of the Picts and Scots, and limited their reign to the northern part of Britain. We cannot, from this poem, nor indeed from any other remnant of Anglo-Saxon poetry, determine what were the rules of their verse. Rhyme they had none; their rhythm seems to have been uncertain; and perhaps their whole poetry consisted in the adaptation of the words to some simple tune; although Mr. Ellis seems inclined to think, with Mr. Tyrwhitt, the verse of the Saxons was only distinguished from their prose by a “greater pomp of diction, and a more stately kind of march.” To this spe. cimen of Saxon poetry Mr. Ellis has subjoined a translation of it into the English of the age of Chaucer, which we recommend to our readers as one of the best executed imita. tions that we have ever met with. It was written by a friend of Mr. Ellis (Mr. Frere, if we mistake not) while at Eton School.

"The Mercians fought I understond,

There was gamen of the hond." .. &c.
“In Dacie of that gaming
Mony wemen hir hondis wring.
The Normannes passed that rivere,
Mid hevy hart and sorry chere.
The broihers to Wessex yode,
Leving the crowen and the tode,
Hawkes, doggis, and wolves, tho
Egles and mony other mo,
With the dede men for their mede,
On hir corses for to fede.

Sen the Saxonis first come
In schippes over the sea-fome,
Of the years that ben for gone
Greater bataile was never none,” &c.

This appears to us an exquisite imitation of the antiquated English poetry; not depending on an accumulation of hard words, like the language of Rowley, which, in everything else, is refined and harmonious poetry, nor upon an agglomeration of consonants in the orthography, the resource of Jater and more contemptible forgers, but upon the style itself, upon its alternate strength and weakness, now nervous and concise, now diffuse and eked out by the feeble aid of exple. tives. In general, imitators wish to write like ancient poets, without ceasing to use modern measure and phraseology; but, had the conscience of this author permitted him to palm these verses upon the public as an original production of the fourteenth century, we know no internal evidence by which the imposture could have been detected.

From considering the state of the Anglo-Saxon poetry at and previous to the Conquest, Mr. Ellis turns his consideration to that of the invaders, and treats at considerable length of what may be called Anglo-Norman literature. It is well known, that the monarchs who immediately succeeded the conqueror, adopted his policy in fostering the language and arts of Normandy, in opposition to the Anglo-Saxons, whom they oppressed, and by whom they were detested. The French poetry was not neglected; and it is now considered as an established point, that the most ancient metrical romances existing in that language were composed, not for the court of Paris, but for that of London; and hence a British story, the glories of King Arthur, became their favourite theme. The ingenious Abbé de la Rue wrote several essays printed in the Archæologia, which throw great light upon the Anglo-Norman poets; and of this information Mr. Ellis has judiciously availed himself. But he also discovers, by the explanations attached to his extracts from Wace, that intimate acquaintance with the Romanz language, which is at once so difficult to acquire, and so indispensable to the exe. cution of his history.

In the third chapter, we see the last rays of Saxon literature, in a long extract from Layamon's translation of the Brut of Wace. But so little were the Saxon and Norman languages calculated to amalgamate, that though Layamon wrote in the reign of Henry II, his language is almost pure Saxon, and hence it is probable, that if the mixed language, now called English, at all existed, it was deemed as yet unfit

for composition, and only used as a piebald jargon for carrying on the indispensable intercourse betwixt the Anglo-Saxons and Normans. In process of time, however, the dialect, so much despised, made its way into the service of the poets, and seems to have superseded the use of the Saxon, although the French, being the court language, continued to maintain its ground till a later period. Mr. Ellis has traced this change with a heedful and discriminating eye, and has guided us through the harsh numbers of the romancers and the compilers of legends, and through the wide waste of prosaic verse, in which

it was the pleasure of Robert of Gloucester and Robert de Brunne to record the history of their country, down to that period when English poetry began to assume a classical form, and to counterbalance, in the esteem even of the kings and nobles, the hitherto triumphant Anglo-Norman. This grand change was doubtless brought on by very slow degrees, and it is difficult exactly to ascertain its progress. The history of English Minstrelsy, in opposition to that of the Anglo-Normans, would probably throw great light on this subject; for these itinerant poets must have made use of the English lung before it was thought fit for higher purposes.

The epoch from which English may be considered as a classical language, may be fixed in the reign of Edward III, the age of Gower and of Chaucer, in which it was no longer confined to what the latter has called “the drafty riming” of the wandering minstrel, but employed in the composition of voluminous and serious productions, by men possessed of all the learning of the times.

It has been warmly disputed in what particular manner the father of English poetry contributed to its improvement. Mr. Ellis with great plausibility, ascribes this effect chiefly to the peculiar ornaments of his style, consisting in an affec. tation of splendour, and especially of Latinity, which is not to be found in the simple strains of Robert of Gloucester, or any of the anterior poets, nor indeed in that of Laurence Minot, or others about his own time.

In chapter ninth, the language of Scotland, and the history of her early poetry comes into consideration. This is a thorny point with every antiquary. The English and Scottish languages are in earlier times exactly similar; and yet, from the circumstances of the two countries, they must ne.

cessarily have had a separate origin. Mr. Ellis seems disposed to adopt the solution of Mr. Hume, who supposes the Saxon language to have been imposed upon the Scottish, by a series of successful invasions and conquests, of which his. tory takes no notice. To this proposition in a limited degree, we are inclined to subscribe; for there is no doubt that the Anglo-Saxons of Bernicia extended themselves, at least occa. sionally, as far as the frith of Forth, occupied the Merse and Lothian, introduced into them their language, and when conquered by the Scots and Picts, were in fact the Angli, to whom, as subjects of the crown of Scotland, our King's charters were so frequently addressed. But we cannot admit these conquests to be supposed farther than they are proved; nor do we conceive that one province, though a rich one, could have imposed its language upon the other subjects of the kings who acquired it by conquest. There must have been some other source from which the Scoto-Teutonic is derived, than the Anglo-Saxon spoken in Lothian. This grand source we conceive to have been the language of the ancient Picts; nor would it be easy to alter our opinion. Those who are connoisseurs in the Scottish dialects, as now spoken, will observe many instances of words in the idiom of Angusshire (the seat of the Picts) which can only be referred to a Belgic root; whereas those of South-country idiom may almost universally be traced to the Anglo-Saxon. The Norman, from which, as Mr. Ellis justly remarks, the Scottish dialect, as soon as we have a specimen of it, appears to have borrowed as much as the English, was probably introduced by the influx of Norman nobles, whom the oppression of their own kings drove into exile, or whom their native chivalrous and impatient temper urged to seek fortune and adventures in the court of Scotland. Having traced the origin of our language, the earlier Scottish poets, Barbour and Winton, pass in review, with specimens from each, very happily selected, to illustrate at once their own powers of composition, and the manners of the age in which they wrote. These are intermingled with criticisms, in which the reader's attention is directed to what is most worthy of notice, and kept perpetually awake by the lively and happy style in which they are conveyed.

The merit of Occleve and Lydgate are next examined, who, with equal popularity, but with merit incalculably in

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »