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The extracts in this book, which represent the chief English authors in verse and prose, will be made more interesting if we obtain a connected view of our literature, and its growth. In this way, by seeing how each age was influenced by that which preceded it, we shall have some idea of the relation which these authors bear to one another.
For this purpose it is necessary to divide the history of our literature into several parts. The division may very well be made in various ways; and we must not hope to find that any one epoch or period is very clearly marked off, either in time or in character, from that which precedes, and from that which follows it. It will be quite enough if the division tells us something of the character of each age, and does so in such a way as to make what it tells us remain in our memories. The division, then, with which we begin is
I. The Period of Old English. 1. This period is often distinguished by the name Anglo-Saxon ; but this name is misleading, if for no other
reason, because it leads us to suppose that there is some decided break between the language then in use and the language of a later time. The older and the later languages are indeed one and the same; only into the later language great changes and additions have been admitted. But the groundwork remains.
2. This period extends from the conquest of Britain by our ancestors, in the fifth century, down to the year 1066. These ancestors came from the country lying about the mouths of the Elbe and the Weser, and spoke a Teutonic tongue, a dialect of the Low Dutch. The earlier part of the period was too much occupied with war and conquest, which was slow and gradual, to produce anything in the way of literature. But the conquering race had brought over with them a number of legends and songs, which were current amongst them, although perhaps not written down.
3. It was one of these, the Legend of the hero Beowulf and his toils, that became the subject of perhaps the earliest English poem of which any fragments remain. It was written in the form in which it has come down to us, certainly after the English became Christian (at the close of the sixth century), and we may take it to belong to a period not earlier than the seventh century. But the deeds it describes belong to the countries with which the race had been familiar before they came to England, though the scene is laid in Yorkshire; and the poem preserves the general colouring of Pagan times, in spite of the occasional touches of Christianity with which it has been overlaid. It is interesting, not so
much from its poetry, as because it tells us how much of courage against adversity, of perseverance in toil, of determination never to yield, there must have been in the race for whom it was written ; and how prone they were to imagine some sympathy with themselves in the storms and the convulsions of nature. 4. The next English poem is the Paraphrase of Caedmon's
Paraphrase. Caedmon. This is a metrical version of several books of 670. the Old and New Testaments, and in the treatment of its subject it bears a striking resemblance to the · Paradise Lost' of Milton. The author lived on the lands of the monastery of Whitby, a house connected with the Celtic monastery of Lindisfarne. This shows us how the early impulse to poetry in England was perhaps stirred by contact with the Celtic race; that race about whose life and character there was so much of picturesqueness and of poetry
In the ordinary songs of his companions, we are told Caedmon would not join ; and, in obedience to a vision seen in his dreams, he began to “sing of the origin of things.”
5. In northern England lived also Baeda or Bede, Bede. who belonged to the monastery of Jarrow-on-Tyne. He lived a generation after Caedmon, and, although we hear of his writing in English, although his name is celebrated in the early history of our literature, yet his only works which remain to us are in Latin. The principal of these is his Ecclesiastical History, which tells us of the conversion of England to Christianity. His name is venerable, not for what he wrote only, but for the earnest work of education, on which he spent his life
and strength. Surrounded by his students, he dictated to them, even on his death-bed, his English translation of St. John's Gospel.
6. The Danish invasions of the ninth century broke up many of the monasteries, and distracted men's
attention from literary work. Scholarship decayel; and Alfred King Alfred found work to do, not only in settling some
terms with the Danes, but in bettering the state of learning in his country. The decay of Latin Scholar
ship, if no better reason, compelled him to give his His transla- attention to English, and he translated from Boethius,
the latest Pagan philosopher, and from other Latin authors, for the benefit of his people. In his time also
the Saxon Chronicle, which keeps up a continuous Chronicle.
record of events in old English, down to the reign of Henry II., was, in its present shape, begun. Alfred's is the earliest English prose.
7. No other name of marked importance occurs in the remainder of this period. Occasional songs, the principal occurring throughout the Saxon Chronicle, and celebrating some victory for the national arms, show that the national genius was still alive. But with the
Norman Conquest, the oldest form of the language Conquest.
comes to an end, and a new period begins.
II. Period of Transition.
FROM 1066 TO 1360.
1. With the Norman Conquest, a race, which, though Teutonic like our own, had adopted French customs and the French language, becomes dominant in England.