An Apology for the Study of Northern Antiquities.

The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue, first given in English: With an Apology for the Study of Northern Antiquities. Being very useful towards the understanding our Ancient English Poets, and other Writers. By Elizabeth Elstob.

Elizabeth Elstob

In a late exchange in the Battle of the Books, the antiquary Elizabeth Elstob answers Jonathan Swift's Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712) with an argument in favor of philology and a long digression on the use of monosyllables in English poetry. The digression consists chiefly of an impressive list of historical examples ranging from Chaucer to the Countess of Winchelsea, with Spenser occupying the central position.

Elstob, who has no difficulty finding lines from the Faerie Queene consisting entirely of monosyllables, find an authority in "the incomparable Spencer, against whose Judgment and Practice, I believe scarce any Man will be so bold as to oppose himself" p. xxii. She also praises and quotes from a recent imiation of Spenser, Matthew Prior's Ode to the Queen (1706).

Elstob's reading in early poetry is obviously considerable — she can quote from John Lydgate, Gavin Douglas, and William Vallans' early imitation of Spenser, recently published by Thomas Hearne — though either she did not regard the Elizabethans (apart from Spenser and Drayton) as bearing much critical weight, or else they were not available to her. Milton is presumably omitted for political reasons.

J. W. Adamson: "Elizabeth Elstob, editor of Aelfric's Homilies and author of the earliest Old English grammar, pursued her early education under similar discouraging circumstances [to those of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu]" Cambridge History of English Literature (1913) 9:449.

But to leave these Pedagogues to huff and swagger in the heighth of all their Arrogance. I cannot but think it great Pity, that in our Considerations, for Refinement of the English Tongue, so little Regard is had to Antiquity, and the Original of our present Language, which is the Saxon. This indeed is allow'd by an ingenious Person [Jonathan Swift], who hath lately made some Proposals for the Refinement of the English Tongue, "That the old Saxon, except in some few Variations in the Orthography, is the same in most original Words with our present English, as well as with the German and other Northern Dialects"; which makes it a little surprizing to me, to find the same Gentleman not long after to say, "The other Languages of Europe I know nothing of, neither is there any occasion to consider them": because, as I have before observ'd, it must be very difficult to imagin, how a Man can judge of thing he knoweth nothing of, whether there can be occasion or not to consider it. I must confess I hope when ever such a Project shall be taken in hand, for correcting, enlarging, and ascertaining our Language, a competent Number of such Persons will be advised with, as are knowing, not only in Saxon, but in the other Languages of Europe, and so be capable of judging how far those Languages may be useful in such a Project. The want of understanding this aright, wou'd very much injure the Success of such an Undertaking, and the bringing it to Perfection; in denying that Assistance toward adjusting the Propriety of Words, which can only be had from the Knowledge of the Original, and likewise in depriving us of the Benefit of many useful and significant Words, which might be revived and recalled, to the Increase and Ornament of our Language, which wou'd be the more beautiful, as being more genuine and natural, by confessing a Saxon Original for their native Stock, or an Affinity with those Branches of the other Northern Tongues, which own the same Original.

The want of knowing the Northern Languages, has occasion'd an unkind Prejudice towards them: which some have introduc'd out of Rashness, others have taken upon Tradition. As if those Languages were made up of nothing else but Monosyllables, and harsh sounding Consonants; than which nothing can be a greater Mistake. I can speak for the Saxon, Gothick, and Francick, or old Teutonick: which for aptness of compounded, and well sounding Words, and variety of Numbers, are by those learned Men that understand them, thought scarce inferior to the Greek itself. I never cou'd find my self shocked with the Harshness of those Languages, which grates so much in the Ears of those that never heard them. I never perceiv'd in the Consonants any Hardness, but such as was necessary to afford Strength, like the Bones in a human Body, which yield it Firmness and Support. So that the worst that can be said on this occasion of our Forefathers is, that they spoke as they fought, like Men.

The Author of the Proposal, may think this but an ill Return, for the soft things he has said of the Ladies, but I think it Gratitude at least to make the Return, by doing Justice to the Gentlemen. I will not contradict the Relation of the ingenious Experiment of his vocal Ladies, tho' I could give him some Instances to the contrary, in my Experience of those, whose Writings abound with Consonants; where Vowels must generally be understood, and appear but very rarely. Perhaps that Gentleman may be told that I have a Northern Correspondence, and a Northern Ear, probably not so fine as he may think his own to be, yet a little musical.

And now for our Monosyllables. In the Controversy concerning which, it must be examin'd, first whether the Charge which is exhibited against the Northern Languages is true, that they consist of nothing but Monosyllables; and secondly, whether or no the Copiousness and Variety of Monosyllables may be always justly reputed a fault, and may not sometimes as justly be thought, to be very useful and ornamental. . . .

To give greater Probability to what I have said concerning Monosyllables, I will give some Instances, as well form such Poets as have gone before him [Dryden], as those which have succeeded him. It will not be taken amiss by those who value the Judgment of Sir Philip Sydney, and that of Mr. Dryden, if I begin with Father Chaucer.

Er it was Day, as was her won to do.


And but I have her Mercy and her Grace,
That I may seen her at the leste way;
I nam but deed there nis no more to say.


Alas, what is this wonder Maladye?
For heate of colde, for colde of heate I dye.
Chaucer's first Book of Troylus, fol. 159. b.

And since we are a united Nation, and he as great a Poet, considering his time, as this Island hath produced, I will with due Veneration for his Memory, beg leave to cite the learned and noble Prelate, Gawen Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld in Scotland, who in his Preface to his judicious and accurate Translation of Virgil, p. 4, says,

Nane is, nor was, nor zit sal be, trowe I,

Had, has, or sal have, sic craft in Poetry:

Again, p. 5.

Than thou or I, my Freynde, quhen we best wene.

But before, at least contemporary with Chaucer, we find Sir John Gower, not baulking Monosyllables;

Myne herte is well the more glad
To write so as he me bad,
And eke my Fear is well the lasse.

To Henry the Fourth.
King Salomon which had at his asking
Of God, what thyng him was levest crave.
He chase Wysedom unto governyng
Of Goddes Folke, the whiche he wolde save:
And as he chase it fyl him for to have.
For through his Witte, while that his Reigne laste,
He gate him Peace, and Rest, into his laste.


Peace is the chefe of al the Worldes Welth,
And to the heven it leveth eke the way,
Peace is of Soule and Lyfe the Mannes helth,
Of Pestylence, and doth the Warre away,
My Liege Lord take hede of that I say.
If Warre may be lefte, take Peace on hande
Which may not be without Goddes Sande.

Nor were the French, however more polite they may be thought, than we are said to be, more scrupulous in avoiding them, if these Verses are upon his Monument;

En toy qui es fitz de Dieu le Pere,
Savve foit, qui giff sours cest pierre.

This will be said to be old French, let us see whether Boileau will help us out, who has not long since writ the Art of Poetry;

Mais moi, grace au Destin, qui n'ai ni feu ne lieu.

Je me loge ou je puis, & comme il plaist a Dieu, Sat. vi.

And in that which follows,

Et tel, en vous lisant, admire chaque traite,

Qui dans le fonde de l'ame, & vous craint & vous hait.

Let Lydgate, Chaucer's Scholar also be brought in for a Voucher;

For Chaucer that my Master was and knew
What did belong to writing Verse and Prose,
Ne'er tumbled at small faults, nor yet did view
With scornful Eye the Works and Books of those
That in his time did write, nor yet would taunt
At any Man, to fear him or to daunt.

Tho' the Verse is somewhat antiquated, yet the Example ought not to be despised by our modern Criticks, especially those who have any Respect for Chaucer.

I might give more Instances out of John Harding, and our good old Citizen, Alderman Fabian, besides many others: but out of that Respect to the nice Genii of our Time, which they seldom allow to others, I will hasten to the Times of greater Politeness, and desire that room may be made, and attention given to a Person of no less Wit than Honour, the Earl of Surrey, who at least had all the Elegancy of a gentle Muse, that may deserve the Praises of our Sex.

Her Praise I tune whose Tongue doth tune the Spheres,
And gets new Muses in her Hearers Ears.
Stars fall to fetch fresh Light from her rich Eyes,
Her bright Brow drives the Sun to Clouds beneath.


A Glass! with too much Joy my Thoughts thou greets.

And again upon the Chamber where his admired Geraldine was born;

Oh! if Elyzium be above the Ground,
Then here it is, where nought but Joy is found.

And Michael Drayton, who had a Talent fit to imitate, and to celebrate so great a Genius, of all our English Poets, seems best to have understood the sweet and harmonious placing of Monosyllables, and his practised it with so great a Variety, as discovers in him a peculiar Delight, even to Fondness; for which however, I cannot blame him, notwithstanding this may be reputed the Vice of our Sex, and in him be thought effeminate. But let the Reader judge for himself;

Care draws on Care, Woe comforts Woe again,
Sorrow breeds Sorrow, one Griefe brings forth twine,
If live or dye, as thou doost, so do I,
If live, I live, and if thou dye, I dye;
One Hart, one Love, one Joy, one Griefe, one Troth,
One Good, one Ill, one Life, one Death to both.


Where as thou cam'st unto the Word of Love,
Even in thine Eyes I saw how Passion strove;
That snowy Lawn which covered thy Bed,
Me thought lookt white, to see thy cheeke so red,
Thy royse cheeke oft changing in my sight,
Yet still was red to see the Lawn so white:
The little Taper which should give the Light,
Me thought waxt dim, to see thy Eye so bright.


Your Love and Hate is this, I now do proove you,

You Love in Hate, by Hate to make me love you.

And to the Countess of Bedford, one of his great Patronesses;

Sweet Lady, yet, grace this poore Muse of mine,

Whose Faith, whose Zeal, whose Life, whose All is thine.

The next that I shall mention, is taken out of an ingenious Poem, entituled, The Tale of the Swans, written by William Vallans in blank Verse in the time of Queen Elizabeth; for the reprinting of which, we are obliged to that ingenious and most industrious Preserver and Restorer of Antiquities, Mr. Thomas Hearne of Oxford;

Among the which the merrie Nightingale
With swete, and swete (her Brest again a Thorne.)

In another Place,

And in the Launde, hard by the Parke of Ware


To Ware he comes, and to the Launde he flies.


And in this Pompe they hie them to the Head.

I come not to the incomparable Spencer, against whose Judgment and Practice, I believe scarce any Man will be so bold as to oppose himself;

Assure your self, it fell not all to Ground;
For all so dear as Life is to my Heart,
I deem your Love, and hold me to you bound.


Go say his Foe thy Shielde with his doth bear.


More old than Jove, whom thou at first didst breed.


And now the Prey of Fowls in Field he lies.

Nor must Ben. Johnson be forgotten;

Thy Praise or Dispraise is to me alike;
One doth not stroke me, nor the other strike.


Curst be his Muse, that could lye dumb, or hid

To so true Worth, though thou thy self forbid.

In this Train of Voters for Monosyllables, the inimitable Cowley marches next, whom we must not refuse to hear;

Yet must I on; what Sound is't strikes mine Ear?
Sure I Fames Trumpet hear.

And a little after,

Come my best Friends, my Books, and lead me on;
'Tis time that I were gone.
Welcome, great Stagirite, and teach me now
All I was born to know.

And commending Cicero, he says,

Thou art the best of Orators; only he
Who best can praise thee, next must be.

And of Virgil thus,

Who brought green Poesy to her perfect Age,
And made that Art, which was a Rage.

And in the beginning of the next Ode, he wou'd not certainly have apply'd himself to WIT in the harsh Cadence of Monosyllables, had he thought them so very harsh;

Tell me, O tell, what kind of thing is Wit,
Thou who Master are of it.


In a true Piece of Wit all things must be
Yet all things there agree.

But did he believe such Concord to be inconsistent with the use of Monosyllables, he had surely banished them from these two Lines; and were I to fetch Testimonies out of his Writings, I might pick a Jury of Twelve out of every Page.

And now comes Mr. Waller, and what does he with his Monosyllables, but,

Give us new Rules, and set our Harp in Tune.

And that honourable Peer whom he commends, the Lord Roscommon thus keeps him in Countenance;

Be what you will, so you be still the same.

And again,

In her full Flight, and when she shou'd be curb'd.

Soon after,

Use is the Judge, the Law, and Rule of Speech.

And by and by,

We weep and laugh, as we see others do,
He only makes me sad who shews the way:
But if you act them ill, I sleep or laugh.

The next I shall mention is my Lord Orrery, who, as Mr. Anthony Wood says, was a great Poet, Statesman, Soldier, and great every thing which merits the Name of Great and Good. In his Poem to Mrs. Philips, he writes thus;

For they imperfect Trophies to you raise,
You deserve Wonder, and they pay but Praise;
A Praise which is as short of your great due,
As all which yet have writ come short of you.


In Pictures none hereafter will delight,
You draw more to the Life in black and white;
The Pencil to your Pen must yield the Place,
This draws the Soul, where that draws but the Face.

But having thank'd these noble Lords for their Suffrage, we will proceed to some other Witnesses of Quality: And first I beg leave to appeal to my Lord Duke of Buckinghamshire, in his Translation of the Temple of Death;

Her Chains were Marks of Honour to the Brave,

She made a Prince when e'er she made a Slave.


By wounding me, she learnt the fatal Art,
And the first Sigh she had, was from my Heart.

My Lord Halifax's Muse hath been very indulgent to Monosyllables, and no Son of Apollo will dare to dispute his Authority in this Matter. Speaking of the Death of King Charles the Second, and his Improvement of Navigation, and Shipping; he says,

To ev'ry Coast, with ready Sails are hurl'd,
Fill us with Wealth, and with our Fame the World.


Us from our Foes, and from our selves did shield.


As the stout Oak, when round his Trunk the Vine
Does in soft Wreaths, and amorous Foldings twine.

And again,

In Charles, so good a Man and King, we see,
A double Image of the Deity.
Oh! Had he not more resembled it! Oh why
Was he not still more like; and cou'd not die?

My Lord Lansdown's Muse, which may claim her Seat in the highest Point of Parnassus, gives us these Instances of her Sentiments in our Favour;

So own'd by Heaven, less glorious far was he,

Great God of Verse, than I, thus prais'd by thee.

Again on Mira's singing.

The Slave that from her Wit or Beauty flies

If she but reach him with her Voice, he dies.

In such noble Company, I imagin Mr. Addison will not be ashamed to appear, thus speaking of Mr. Cowley;

His Turns too closely on the Reader press;
He more had pleas'd us, had he pleas'd us less.

And of Mr. Waller,

Oh had not thy Muse not come an Age too soon.

And of Mr. Dryden's Muse,

Whether in Comick Sounds or Tragick Airs
She forms her Voice, she moves our Smiles or Tears.

And to his Friend Dr. Sacheverell,

I've done at length, and now, dear Friend, receive
The last poor Present that my Muse can give.
And so at once, dear Friend and Muse, fare well.

To these let me add the Testimony of that Darling of the Muses, Mr. Prior, with whom all the Poets of ancient and modern Times of other Nations, or our own, might seem to have intrusted the chief Secrets, and greatest Treasures of their Art. I shall speak only concerning our Island, where his Imitations of Chaucer, of Spencer, and of the old Scotch Poem, inscribed the Nut-Brown Maid, shew how great a Master he is, and how much every thing is to be valued which bears the stamp of his Approbation. And we shall certainly find a great deal to countenance the use of Monosyllables in his Writings. Take these Examples;

Me all too mean for such a Task I weet.


Grasps he the Bolt? we ask, when he has hurl'd the Flame.


Nor found they lagg'd too slow, nor flew too fast.

And again,

With Fear and with Desire, with Joy and Pain

She sees and runs to meet him on the Plain.


With all his Rage, and Dread, and Grief, and Care.

In his Poem in answer to Mrs. Eliz. Singer, on her Poem upon Love and Friendship,

And dies in Woe, that thou may'st live in Peace.

The only farther Example of Monosyllabic Verses I shall insert here, and which I cannot well omit, is what I wou'd desire the Author to apply to his own Censure of Monosyllables, they are these which follow;

Then since you now have done your worst,
Pray leave me where you found me first.
Part of the seventh Epistle of the first Book of Horace imitated, and addressed to a noble Peer, p. ult.

After so many Authorities of the Gentlemen, these few Instances from some of our Female Poets, may I hope be permitted to take place. I will begin with Mrs. Philips on the Death of the Queen of Bohemia;

Over all Hearts and her own Griefs she reign'd.

And on the Marriage of the Lord Dungannon,

May the vast Sea for your sake quit his Pride,
And grow so smooth, while on his Breast you ride,
As may not only bring you to your Port,
But shew how all things do your Virtues court.

To Gilbert Lord Archbishop of Canterbury,

That the same Wing may over her be cast,

Where the best Church of all the World is plac'd.

Mrs. Wharton upon the Lamentations of Jeremiah;

Behold those Griefs which no one can repeat,
Her Fall is steep, and all her Foes are great.

And my Lady Winchelsea in her Poem entituled, The Poor Man's Lamb;

Thus wash'd in Tears, thy Soul as fair does show

As the first Fleece, which on the Lamb does grow.

Sir, from these numerous Instances, out of the Writings of our greatest and noblest Poets, it is apparent, That had the Enmity against Monosyllables, with which there are some who make so great a Clamour, been so great in all Times, we must have been deprived of some of the best Lines, and finest Flowers, that are to be met with in the beautiful Garden of our English Posie. Perhaps this may put our Countreymen upon studying with greater Niceness the use of these kind of Words, as well in the Heroick Compositions, as in the softer and more gentle Strains. I speak not this, upon Confidence of any Judgment I have in Poetry, but according to that Skill, which is natural to the Musick of a Northern Ear, which if it be deficient, as I shall not be very obstinate in its Defence, I beg leave it may at least be permitted to the Benefit of Mr. Dryden's Apology, for the Musick of old Father Chaucer's Numbers, "That there is the rude Sweetness of a Scotch Tune in it, which is natural and pleasing, tho' not perfect."

Sir, I must beg your Pardon for this long Digression, upon a Subject which many will think does not deserve it: but if I have herein discover'd some of the greatest Beauties of our English Poets, it will be more excusable, at least for the respect that is intended to so noble an Art as theirs. But to suspect the worst, considering that I am now writing a Preface, I am provided with another Apology form Mr. Dryden, who cautions his Reader with this Observation, That the Nature of a Preface is Rambling, never wholly out of the way, nor in it. Yet I cannot end this Preface, without desiring that such as shall be employ'd in refining and ascertaining our English Tongue, may entertain better Thoughts both of the Saxon Tongue, and of the Study of Antiquities. . . .

[pp. ix-xi; xvi-xxi]