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society, there was no respect in which its glory shone so conspicuous above that of all other epochs of our history, as in the number and surpassing genius of its literary men,—those whose mission it was to give expression, through philosophy or poetry, to the life and thoughts which characterized their time. This is, therefore, not an unfitting stage at which to review the growth of the national literature.
ENGLISH LITERATURE DOWN TO THE REIGN OF ELIZABETH.
Cymric was the dialect spoken by the Celts of ancient Britain. The triads and songs of their bards still exist as monuments of their simple literature, from which the legends of Prince Arthur and the knights of the Round Table were at a later period compiled. When the great Roman Empire, comprising most of the known world, broke up, and before modern living languages were formed, the Latin tongue, then the sole organ of religion and learning, was the main bond of union amongst the leading men of the various races of Europe. Priests and scholars of all nations wrote and spoke it, thus making Rome once again the centre of religious and intellectual activity. The Venerable Bede (from 672 to 735), Alcuin of York (from 726 to 804), and Erigena (886), are names of three of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors whose great literary labours have come down to us in the Latin tongue.
In considering those early times, we must bear in mind the unavoidable ignorance of the masses of the people, owing to the slow process of multiplying copies of books by the transcribing of manuscripts, which formed one of the most useful functions of the old monks. Yet the people, besides being taught orally, were, through the medium of dramatic representations called "mysteries" and "moralities," instructed in the dogmas of their faith and in the history of their religion. The great Alfred, who seems to have done all things well and wisely, had the Psalms, a Gospel, the Lord's Prayer, and part of the Old Testament translated into the people's tongue, their vernacular
Anglo-Saxon, as well as other books of noble choice, such as Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy, and portions of Saint Augustine's works. The most remarkable relic of Anglo-Saxon poetry is a work by Cadmon, who is supposed to have been a poor Northumbrian shepherd, connected with the monastery of Whitby, and who, we are told, received the gift of song in a sudden and mysterious way after he had grown up to manhood. His works treat in metrical numbers of the Beginning of Things, The Expulsion of the Rebel Angels, the Exodus from Egypt, our Saviour's descent to Hades, and his Ascension. He is called the Milton of this early age of literature. He died about 680, A.D.
When the Normans became masters of England, and introduced greater changes than had ever before been attempted by a conquering race, there was one change they failed to make. They could not subvert the language of the people. The Anglo-Saxons clung tenaciously to their own tongue, and though our present vernacular is called English, its basis and chief ingredients are the old Saxon words, considerably modified and enriched by admixtures from the Norman and Latin. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who lived in the 12th century, wrote in the Latin language a history of Britain, in which he traced the origin of the ancient Britons to a band of Trojans who landed in this country, led by Brutus, grandson of Æneas, 66 years after the destruction of Troy. In his history of the Britons, he collects together the scattered legends connected with Prince Arthur. This work, under the title of "Brut," was translated into Norman-French by Wace, from which version it was again translated by Layamon, into that stage of our tongue called the early English, of which it is said to be one of the best specimens. It is metrical, like most of the old chronicles, and preserves the Anglo-Saxon form of versification--alliteration, with an occasional admission of rhyming couplets, the latter being a feature of poetry due to the Normans.
The Normans, at the time of the conquest of England, were the most energetic, brilliant, chivalrous race of the age. Performing heroic deeds, they had bards, called Trouveres, to sing their praises.
They introduced into England tales of romance and chivalrous poetry. The native English translated or imitated those works, and so gradually infused into their language such alterations, as, in the end, produced the English tongue, and gave it that strength and flexibility which make it plastic in the hands of the poet, the philosopher, and orator. But the process of constructing a language goes on slowly.
In the meanwhile, great intellects were not wanting: Roger Bacon, Michael Scot, and John Duns Scotus, all belonging to the 13th century, wrote in Latin. But the time was at hand when the animosity engendered by our wars against France, and the absorption of the Normans into the Saxon stock, led Edward II. to abolish formally the use of the French tongue, after which the English language rapidly developed; so that in 1380 we have Wycliffe's version of the Bible completely rendered into the English tongue, while Wycliffe's great cotemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English poetry, employed the leisure allowed him by his active public life, in building up, in verse, a monument of his own glory and of early English poetry. Besides his fine scholarship, Chaucer possessed all the advantages that may be derived from extensive travel. He was a favourite at the court of Edward III., whose son, John of Gaunt, was Chaucer's friend and protector, and he was employed in several diplomatic missions to Italy and France. While in the former country, it is probable he became acquainted with his great Italian cotemporaries, Petrarch and Boccaccio. The plan of Chaucer's grand work, the "Canterbury Tales," bears some analogy to the Decameron of Boccaccio. Chaucer not only improved the versification of our language, and enriched it by weaving into it a number of French words, but has handed down to us, through his "Canterbury Tales," a graphic, vivid picture of the life and manners of the various classes of society in his time. He died A.D. 1400. In 1474, William Caxton, a London merchant, returned from the Low Countries, carrying with him the first printing press introduced into England, and amongst the many valuable works that Caxton printed we
find those of Chaucer. The people, also, had their poets, who sang the praises of the people's hero, Robin Hood, and the wondrous exploits of Chevy Chace. Nor should we omit mentioning a remarkable allegorical poem by a monk named Langdale, written in 1362, called the "Vision of Piers Plowman," in which the poet vigorously lashes the vices of society, and exposes ecclesiastical abuses. There is much in the plan and management, as well as in the spirit of the book, to remind us of the great John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress."
If we except a very able work on English Jurisprudence by Sir Thomas Fortescue, the years that intervened, till the close of the civil wars of the Roses, were unproductive in great works. But in Germany, the great Luther eventually proclaimed the Reformation, and this along with the dispersion over Italy and France of the Greek scholars who fled from Constantinople when it fell into the hands of the Turks, prepared new seed for the soil, as soon as quiet and stability should be restored. Under the influence of the Reformation, and the revival of classic literature, were formed the profound and accomplished men who adorned the reign of Henry VIII. Two who shone pre-eminently, Sir Thomas More and Lord Surrey, were beheaded. To Lord Surrey we are indebted for the introduction of blank verse into the English language, which he employed in his translation of the Eneid. His sonnets, too, were the first written in our language. He borrowed them from their native Italy. But the great era of English literature was the reign of Elizabeth, when men wrote books that have added more to the treasures of our country than all the wealth of India or America. Shakspere and Bacon are to our modern literature what Plato and Aristotle were to the previous centuries, the fountainheads from which all draw. The study of their works would alone constitute a liberal education. Add to these the delightful writings of Spenser, where the world of chivalry and knight-errantry are mirrored and immortalized. The literary greatness of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries displayed itself chiefly in the drama, but was not
confined to this. As the early days of the Roman Catholic Church were fostered and formed by such men as St. Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, so likewise was formed the early Protestant Church. It too had its fathers, its divines, in such men as Hooker, Jeremy Taylor, Hall, and Baxter ; some of whom flourished during the Elizabethan epoch, while some adorned the epoch on which we are about to enter.
Cotemporary Sovereigns and Events.-France: Henry II. Francis II. Charles II. Henry III. Henry IV. Scotland: Mary. James vi.
Alva persecutes in the Netherlands (1567). Massacre of St. Bartholomew (1572). Portugal united to Spain (1580). Siberia annexed to Russia (1587). Edict of Nantes (1598). During the sixteenth century the Reformation was effected in northern Europe, but repressed in the south. Literature and science advanced greatly. Telescopes were invented by Jansen and Galileo.
Questions.-1. What were among the first steps taken by Elizabeth in connexion with the Reformation? 2. What was the nature of Elizabeth's connexion with the Reformation in Scotland? 3. Write an account of the life of Mary Queen of Scots. 4. How did Elizabeth encourage the Reformation abroad? 5. Give an account of the Spanish Armada. 6. What were the great characteristics of Elizabeth's reign? 7. What was the social progress of the country; and what party arose in Parliament ?