The first of the seven volumes of Thomas Campbell's Specimens is devoted to a historical survey of English poetry from the middle ages down to Alexander Pope. While the "Essay on Poetry" attracted considerable attention and controversy at the time of publication, it has seldom been discussed since. Part of the reason is that it is an ungainly work with little in the way of sustained narrative or argument. While Campbell spent years researching his subject, he was neither a scholar nor a critic in the modern sense of the word; his "beauties and blemishes" approach is that of a practicing poet. Campbell shines most in his characters and strictures on poets he admired; those devoted to Spenser, Jonson, Milton, Dryden, and Pope are written with great care; Campbell had little empathy for the medieval poetry to which the first of the three parts is devoted.
Another reason why Campbell's essay is seldom cited is the reason it attracted so much controversy: in large and small ways, Campbell's judgments favor the classical school at the expense of the romantic. Not even Chaucer can arouse his enthusiasm for the middle ages,, and Shakespeare is treated superficially while Ben Jonson is praised. The Elizabethans are taken down a peg, while the Jacobean and Caroline dramatists are given great attention. The most important part of this vast essay comes in the final paragraphs on Pope, where Campbell praised the then-deprecated Queen-Anne poets and at last explicitly takes on the Warton school in the person of William Lisle Bowles, whose 1806 edition of Pope's works had again criticized Pope for not being poetical.
It is unlikely that Campbell had any larger programmatic ends in mind in challenging some received opinions — his comments reflect the same fastidious respect for description, craftsmanship, and rhetoric that characterize his verse. But to those unhappy with the romantic turn taken by English poetry — Byron chief among them — Campbell's essay with its defense of Jonson and Pope was very welcome. When Bowles replied with his Invariable Principles of Poetry (1819) a pamphlet war ensued, in which Campbell took no part, which which engaged the literary community for several years. Nothing was settled or established except for the habit of dividing poets into "classical" and "romantic" schools, which has persisted ever since.
Thomas James Mathias to Thomas Campbell: "I am happy to hear it is your intention to publish some Specimens of Poetry, ancient and modern; and it will give me much pleasure in seeing all or any of the beautiful passages of Lydgate — which Mr. [Thomas] Gray selected with so much judgment, and which I inserted into the late edition of all his works — admitted into the volumes with which you will shortly favour the literary world. If I should ever have the pleasure of seeing you, I could show you many extracts from Lydgate, which would prove the injustice of those opinions which have been given of the old Poet, by persons who probably had read but few parts of his works. I am glad that 'Sketches of English Poetry' will appear under the care of a gentleman of your taste, as they will be most acceptable to the world" 8 July 1815; in Beattie, Life and Letters (1849) 2:291.
Francis Jeffrey: "The Essay on English Poetry is very cleverly, and, in many places, very finely written — but it is not equal, and it is not complete. There is a good deal of the poet's waywardness even in Mr. C.'s prose. His historical Muse is as disdainful of drudgery and plain work as any of her more tuneful sisters; — and so we have things begun and abandoned — passages of great eloquence and beauty followed up by others not a little careless and disorderly — a large outline rather meagerly filled up, but with some morsels of exquisite finishing scattered irregularly up and down its expanse — little fragments of detail and controversy — and abrupt and impatient conclusions. Altogether, however, the work is very spirited; and abounds with the indications of a powerful and fine understanding, and of a delicate and original taste" Edinburgh Review 31 (March 1819) 473.
Monthly Magazine: "We were sorry to see the respected name of Campbell affixed to a book-making speculation, in several volumes of common-place Selections from the Poets, with a preface or dissertation, such as might have appeared in any magazine without exciting any particular notice. All the rarity in the work could, indeed, have been printed in a seven-shilling volume; but the public are in danger of being taxed with seven loosely printed volumes at three guineas and a half" 47 (April 1819) 254.
Leigh Hunt: "After reading the Essay prefixed to his Selection of English Poetry, we recollected nothing but three things, which are characteristic enough; — first, that he seemed disagreeably mystified by the great praises bestowed on our old dramatists by certain living writers; — second, that he allows Shakspeare to put us wherever he pleases in a first act, but protests against a repetition of the illegality in the second; and third, that he has written a considerable number of beautiful similes" The Examiner (12 August 1821) 508.
Thomas Frognall Dibdin: "My obligations to it, as the preceding pages attest, have been great; and I consider the Essay, which occupies the first volume, as among the happiest specimens of didactic criticism. It is a sketch only, but the sketch of an experience master. It has been said that 'none but a poet should criticise a poet.' Here is at least proof that a poet can criticise with discernment, taste, and vigour. The 'fling,' at the close of it, against us poor "Bibliographers," might have been spared; for had it not been for the black-letter enthusiasm of old Price, of the Bodleian Library, we had never seen Tom Warton's magnificent History of our Poetry. 'Old Price' used to tell me, that he groped about in all directions for Wynkyns and Pynsons — and threw them in the way of Warton — who, at starting, was utterly ignorant of the nature of the country before him. Mr. Campbell has, I believe, received abundant aid from treasures of a similar description — without which his criticisms would have been scanty and shallow" Library Companion (1824; 1825) 2:744n.
The essay begins with a consideration of when the Saxon and Norman languages merged to become English; Campbell argues that the process was more protracted than George Ellis believes, but agrees that the English language was being used in the thirteenth century. English poetry was more closely tied to the French than the language generally, and was of a later development. Norman poetry was romantic in character and much influenced by the chivarly and the Crusades; "The reign of French metrical romance may be chiefly assigned to the latter part of the twelfth, and the whole of the thirteenth century; that of English metrical romance, to the latter part of the thirteenth, and the whole of the fourteenth century" (1841) xxxiv.
From the thirteenth century survive some satirical ballads, and also some love-lyrics: "Their expression, indeed, is often quaint, and loaded with alliteration; yet it is impossible to look without a pleasing interest upon strains of tenderness which carry us back to so remote an age, and which disclose to us the softest emotions of the human mind, in times abounding with such opposite traits of historical recollection" p. xxxvii. In the verse chronicle by Robert of Gloucester' (the English Ennius) rhyme is used as a memory aid, and is thus an example of poetry in its nonage.
To the fourteenth century belongs the rhyming chronicle of De Brunne, which bears some metrical relation to ballad poetry. It is from this era, Thomas Warton's opinion to the contrary, that one may (following Ritson) date the earliest English metrical romances, though it is difficult to find an example not translated from the French, despite occasional Saxon references. Richard Rolle is pronounced very dull; the ballads of Laurence Minot permit the poet to be described as the "English Tyrtaeus."
In the reign of Edward III one discovers "the genuine commencement of our literature, for the earliest diffusion of free inquiry, and for the first great movement of the national mind towards emancipation from spiritual tyranny" p. xlii. Langland's Piers Plowman is summarized; "notwithstanding Dr. Whitaker's discovery of a plan and unity in this work, I cannot help thinking with Warton, that it possesses neither; at least, if it has any design, it is the most vague and ill-constructed that ever entered into the brain of a waking dreamer"; yet "There is room to suspect that Spenser was acquainted with his works; and Milton, either from accident or design, has the appearance of having had one of Langlande's passages in his mind, when he wrote the sublime description of the lazar-house, in Paradise Lost" p. xliii-iv.
Chaucer is admired less for his allegories (though admittedly pretty) than for his tales in the more natural style of Boccaccio. The "placid and moral Gower," though a civilizing influence, was tedious in his allegories and his tales: "though copiously stored with facts and fables, he is unable either to make truth appear poetical, or to render fiction the graceful vehicle of truth" p. xlv.
The influence of the Norman conquest upon the language of England was like that of a great inundation, which at first buries the face of the landscape under its waters, but which at last subsiding, leaves behind it the elements of new beauty and fertility. Its first effect was to degrade the Anglo-Saxon tongue to the exclusive use of the inferior orders; and by the transference of estates, ecclesiastical benefices, and civil dignities, to Norman possessors, to give the French language, which had begun to prevail at court from the time of Edward the Confessor, a more complete predominance among the higher classes of society. The native gentry of England were either driven into exile, or depressed into a state of dependance on their conqueror, which habituated them to speak his language. On the other hand, we received from the Normans the first germs of romantic poetry; and our language was ultimately indebted to them for a wealth and compass of expression which it probably would not have otherwise possessed.
The Anglo-Saxon, however, was not lost, though it was superseded by French, and disappeared as the language of superior life and of public business. It is found written in prose, at the end of Stephen's reign, nearly a century after the Conquest; and the Saxon Chronicle, which thus exhibits it, contains even a fragment of verse, professed to have been composed by an individual who had seen William the Conqueror. To fix upon any precise time when the national speech can be said to have ceased to be Saxon, and begun to be English, is pronounced by Dr. Johnson to be impossible. It is undoubtedly difficult, if it be possible, from the gradually progressive nature of language, as well as from the doubt, with regard to dates, which hangs over the small number of specimens of the early tongue which we possess. Mr. Ellis fixes upon a period of about forty years, preceding the accession of Henry III., from 1180 to 1216, during which he conceives modern English to have been formed. The opinions of Mr. Ellis, which are always delivered with candour, and almost always founded on intelligent views, are not to be lightly treated; and I hope I shall not appear to be either captious or inconsiderate in disputing them. But it seems to me, that he rather arbitrarily defines the number of years which he supposes to have elapsed in the formation of our language, when he assigns forty years for that formation. He afterwards speaks of the vulgar English having suddenly superseded the pure and legitimate Saxon. Now, if the supposed period could be fixed with any degree of accuracy to thirty or forty years, one might waive the question whether a transmutation occupying so much time could, with propriety or otherwise, be called a sudden one; but when we find that there are no sufficient data for fixing its boundaries even to fifty years, the idea of a sudden transition in the language becomes inadmissible.
The mixture of our literature and language with the Norman, or, in other words, the formation of English, commenced, according to Mr. Ellis, in 1180 . At that period, he calculates that Layamon, the first translator from French into the native tongue, finished his version of Wace's " Brut." This translation, however, he pronounces to be still unmixed, though barbarous Saxon. It is certainly not very easy to conceive how the sudden and distinct formation of English can be said to have commenced with unmixed Saxon; but Mr. Ellis, possibly, meant the period of Layamon's work to be the date after, and not at which the change may be understood to have begun. Yet, while he pronounces Layamon's language unmixed Saxon, he considers it to be such a sort of Saxon as required but the substitution of a few French for Saxon words to become English. Nothing more, in Mr. Ellis's opinion, was necessary to change the old into the new native tongue, and to produce an exact resemblance between the Saxon of the twelfth century, and the English of the thirteenth; early in which century, according to Mr. Ellis, the new language was fully formed, or, as he afterwards more cautiously expresses himself, was "in its far advanced state." The reader will please to recollect, that the two main circumstances in the change of Anglo-Saxon into English, are the adoption of French words, and the suppression of the inflections of the Saxon noun and verb. Now, if Layamon's style exhibits a language needing only a few French words to be convertible into English, the Anglo-Saxon must have made some progress before Layamon's time to an English form. Whether that progress was made rapidly, or suddenly, we have not sufficient specimens of the language, anterior to Layamon, to determine. But that the change was not sudden but gradual, I conceive, is much more probably to be presumed.
Layamon, however, whether we call him Saxon or English, certainly exhibits a dawn of English. And when did this dawn appear? Mr. Ellis computes that it was in 1180 , placing it thus late, because Wace took a great many years to translate his "Brut" from Geoffrey of Monmouth; and because Layamon, who translated that "Brut," was probably twenty-five years engaged in the tasks. But this is attempting to be precise in dates, where there is no ground for precision. It is quite as easy to suppose that the English translator finished his work in ten as in twenty years; so that the change from Saxon to English would commence in 1265 [1165?], and thus the forty years' Exodus of our language, supposing it bounded to 1216, would extend to half a century. So difficult is it to fix any definite period for the commencing formation of English. It is easy to speak of a child being born at an express time; but the birth-epochs of languages are not to be registered with the same precision and facility. Again, as to the end of Mr. Ellis's period: it is inferred by him, that the formation of the language was either completed or far advanced in 1216, from the facility of rhyming displayed in Robert of Gloucester, and in pieces belonging to the middle of the thirteenth century, or perhaps to an earlier date. I own that, to me, this theorizing by conjecture seems like stopping in quicksand. Robert of Gloucester wrote in 1280; and surely his rhyming with facility then, does not prove the English language to have been fully formed in 1216. But we have pieces, it seems, which are supposed to have been written early in the thirteenth century. To give any support to Mr. Ellis's theory, such pieces must be proved to have been produced very early in the thirteenth century. Their coming towards the middle of it, and showing facility of rhyming at that late date, will prove little or nothing.
But of those poetical fragments supposed to commence either with or early in the thirteenth century, our antiquaries afford us dates which, though often confidently pronounced, are really only conjectural; and in fixing those conjectural dates, they are by no means agreed. Warton speaks of this and that article being certainly not later than the reign of Richard I.; but he takes no pains to authenticate what he affirms. He pronounces the love-song," Blow, northern wind, blow, blow, blow!" to be as old as the year 1200. Mr. Ellis puts it off only to about half a century later. Hickes places the "Land of Cokayne" just after the Conquest. Mr. Warton would place it before the Conquest, if he were not deterred by the appearance of a few Norman words, and by the learned authority of Hicks. Layamon would thus be superseded, as quite a modern. The truth is, respecting the "Land of Cokayne," that we are left in total astonishment at the circumstance of men, so well informed as Hickes and Warton, placing it either before or immediately after the Conquest, as its language is comparatively modern. It contains allusions to pinnacles in buildings, which were not introduced till the reign of Henry III. Mr. Ellis is not so rash as to place that production, which Hickes and Warton removed to near the Conquest, earlier than the thirteenth century; and I believe it may be placed even late in that century. In short, where shall we fix upon the first poem that is decidedly English? and how shall we ascertain its date to a certainty within any moderate number of years? Instead of supposing the period of the formation of English to commence at 1180 [1185?], and to end at 1216, we might, without violence to any known fact, extend it back to several years earlier, and bring it down to a great many years later. In the fair idea of English we surely, in general, understand a considerable mixture of French words. Now, whatever may have been done in the twelfth century, with regard to that change from Saxon to English which consists in the extinction of Saxon grammatical inflections, it is plain that the other characteristic of English, viz. its Gallicism, was only beginning in the thirteenth century. The English language could not be said to be saturated with French, till the days of Chaucer; i.e. it did not, till his time, receive all the French words which it was capable of retaining. Mr. Ellis nevertheless tells us that the vulgar English, not gradually, but suddenly, superseded the legitimate Saxon. When this sudden succession precisely began, it seems to be as difficult to ascertain, as when it ended. The sudden, transition, by Mr. Ellis's own theory, occupied about forty years; and, to all appearance, that term might be lengthened, with respect to its commencement and continuance, to fourscore years at least.
The Saxon language, we are told, had ceased to be poetically cultivated for some time previous to the Conquest. This might be the case with regard to lofty efforts of composition; but Ingulphus, the secretary of William the Conqueror, speaks of the popular ballads of the English, in praise of their heroes, which were sung about the streets; and William of Malmsbury, in the twelfth century, continues to make mention of them. The pretensions of these ballads to the name of poetry we are unhappily, from the loss of them, unable to estimate. For a long time after the Conquest, the native minstrelsy, though it probably was never altogether extinct, may be supposed to have sunk to the lowest ebb. No human pursuit is more sensible than poetry to national pride or mortification; and a race of peasants, like the Saxons, struggling for bare subsistence, under all the dependence, and without the protection, of the feudal system, were in a state the most ungenial to feelings of poetical enthusiasm. For more than one century after the Conquest, as we are informed, an Englishman was a term of contempt. So much has time altered the associations attached to a name, which we should now employ as the first appeal to the pride or intrepidity of those who bear it. By degrees, however, the Norman and native races began to coalesce, and their patriotism and political interests to be identified. The crown and aristocracy having become during their struggles, to a certain degree, candidates for the favour of the people, and rivals in affording them protection, free burghs and chartered corporations were increased, and commerce and social intercourse began to quicken. Mr. Ellis alludes to an Anglo-Norman jargon having been spoken in commercial intercourse, from which he conceives our synonymes to have been derived. That individuals, imperfectly understanding each other, might accidentally speak a broken jargon, may be easily conceived; but that such a lingua Franca was ever the distinct dialect, even of a mercantile class, Mr. Ellis proves neither by specimens nor historical evidence. The synonymes in our language may certainly be accounted for by the gradual entrance of French words, without supposing an intermediate jargon. The national speech, it is true, received a vast influx of French words; but it received them by degrees, and subdued them, as they came in, to its own idioms and grammar.
Yet, difficult as it may be to pronounce precisely when Saxon can be said to have ceased and English to have begun, it must be supposed that the progress and improvement of the national speech was most considerable at those epochs which tended to restore the importance of the people. The hypothesis of a sudden transmutation of Saxon into English appears, on the whole, not to be distinctly made out. At the same time, some public events might be highly favourable to the progress and cultivation of the language. Of those events, the establishment of municipal governments, and of elective magistrates in the towns, must have been very important, as they furnished materials and incentives for daily discussion and popular eloquence. As property and security increased among the people, we may also suppose the native minstrelsy to have revived. The minstrels, or those who wrote for them, translated or imitated Norman romances; and in so doing, enriched the language with many new words, which they borrowed from the originals, either from want of corresponding terms in their own vocabulary, or from the words appearing to be more agreeable. Thus, in a general view, we may say that, amidst the early growth of her commerce, literature, and civilisation, England acquired the new form of her language, which was destined to carry to the ends of the earth the blessings from which it sprung.
In the formation of English from its Saxon and Norman materials, the genius of the native tongue might be said to prevail, as it subdued to Saxon grammar and construction the numerous French words, which found their way into the language. But it was otherwise with respect to our poetry — in which, after the Conquest, the Norman Muse must be regarded as the earliest preceptress of our own. Mr. Tyrwhitt has even said, and his opinion seems to be generally adopted, that we are indebted for the use of rhyme, and for all the forms of our versification, entirely to the Normans. Whatever might be the case with regard to our forms of versification, the chief employment of our earliest versifiers certainly was to transplant the fictions of the Norman school, and to naturalise them in our language.
The most liberal patronage was afforded to Norman minstrelsy in England by the first kings of the new dynasty. This encouragement, and the consequent cultivation of the northern dialect of French, gave it so much the superiority over the southern or troubadour dialect, that the French language, according to the acknowledgment of its best informed antiquaries, received from England and Normandy the first of its works which deserve to be cited. The Norman trouveurs, it is allowed, were more eminent narrative poets than the Provencal troubadours. No people had a better right to be the founders of chivalrous poetry than the Normans. They were the most energetic generation of modern men. Their leader, by the conquest of England in the eleventh century, consolidated the feudal system upon a broader basis than it ever had before possessed. Before the end of the same century, Chivalry rose to its full growth as an institution, by the circumstance of martial zeal being enlisted under the banners of superstition. The crusades, though they certainly did not give birth to jousts and tournaments, must have imparted to them a new spirit and interest, as the preparatory images of a consecrated warfare. And those spectacles constituted a source of description to the romancers, to which no exact counterpart is to be found in the heroic poetry of antiquity. But the growth of what may properly be called romantic poetry was not instantaneous after the Conquest; and it was not till "English Richard ploughed the deep," that the crusaders seem to have found a place among the heroes of romance. Till the middle of the twelfth century, or possibly later, no work of professed fiction, or bearing any semblance to epic fable, can be traced in Norman verse — nothing but songs, satires, chronicles, or didactic works, to all of which, however, the name of Romance, derived from the Roman descent of the French tongue, was applied in the early and wide acceptation of the word. To these succeeded the genuine Metrical Romance, which, though often rhapsodical and desultory, had still invention, ingenuity, and design, sufficient to distinguish it from the dry and dreary chronicle. The reign of French metrical romance may be chiefly assigned to the latter part of the twelfth, and the whole of the thirteenth century; that of English metrical romance, to the latter part of the thirteenth, and the whole of the fourteenth century. Those ages of chivalrous song were, in the mean time, fraught with events which, while they undermined the feudal system, gradually prepared the way for the decline of chivalry itself. Literature and science were commencing, and even in the improvement of the mechanical skill employed to heighten chivalrous or superstitious magnificence, the seeds of arts, industry, and plebeian independence were unconsciously sown. One invention, that of gunpowder, is eminently marked out as the cause of the extinction of Chivalry; but even if that invention had not taken place, it may well be conjectured that the contrivance of other means of missile destruction in war, and the improvement of tactics, would have narrowed that scope for the prominence of individual prowess which was necessary for the chivalrous character, and that the progress of civilisation must have ultimately levelled its romantic consequence. But to anticipate the remote effects of such causes, if scarcely within the ken of philosophy, was still less within the reach of poetry. Chivalry was still in all its glory; and to the eye of the poet appeared as likely as ever to be immortal. The progress of civilisation even ministered to its external importance. The early arts made chivalrous life, with all its pomp and ceremonies, more august and imposing, and more picturesque as a subject for description. Literature, for a time, contributed to the same effect, by her jejune and fabulous efforts at history, in which the athletic worthies of classical story and of modern romance were gravely connected by an ideal genealogy. Thus the dawn of human improvement smiled on the fabric which it was ultimately to destroy, as the morning sun gilds and beautifies those masses of frost-work, which are to melt before its noonday heat.
The elements of romantic fiction have been traced up to various sources; but neither the Scaldic, nor Saracenic, nor Armorican theory of its origin can sufficiently account for all its materials. Many of them are classical, and others derived from the Scriptures. The migrations of Science are difficult enough to be traced; but Fiction travels on still lighter wings, and scatters the seeds of her wild flowers imperceptibly over the world, till they surprise us by springing up with similarity in regions the most remotely divided. There was a vague and unselecting love of the marvellous in romance, which sought for adventures, like its knights errant, in every quarter where they could be found; so that it is easier to admit of all the sources which are imputed to that species of fiction, than to limit our belief to any one of them.
Norman verse dwelt for a considerable time in the tedious historic style, before it reached the shape of amusing fable; and we find the earliest efforts of the Native Muse confined to translating Norman verse, while it still retained its uninviting form of the chronicle. The first of the Norman poets, from whom any versifier in the language is known to have translated, was Wace, a native of Jersey, born in the reign of Henry II. In the year 1155, Wace finished his "Brut d'Angleterre," which is a French version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of Great Britain, deduced from Brutus to Cadwallader, in 689. Layamon, a priest of Ernleye upon Severn, translated Wace's Metrical Chronicle into the verse of the popular tongue; and notwithstanding Mr. Ellis's date of 1180, [1185?] may be supposed, with equal probability, to have produced his work within ten or fifteen years after the middle of the twelfth century. Layamon's translation may be considered as the earliest specimen of metre in the native language, posterior to the Conquest; except some lines in the Saxon Chronicle on the death of William I., and a few religions rhymes, which, according to Matthew Paris, the Blessed Virgin was pleased to dictate to St. Godric, the hermit, near Durham; unless we add to these the specimen of Saxon poetry published in the Archaeologia by Mr. Conybeare, who supposes that composition to be posterior to the Conquest, and to be the last expiring voice of the Saxon Muse. Of the dialect of Layamon, Mr. Mitford, in his Harmony of Languages, observes, that it has "all the appearance of a language thrown into confusion by the circumstances of those who spoke it. It is truly neither Saxon nor English." Mr. Ellis's opinion of its being simple Saxon has been already noticed. So little agreed are the most ingenious speculative men on the characteristics of style, which they shall entitle Saxon or English. We may, however, on the whole, consider the style of Layamon to be as nearly the intermediate state of the old and new languages as can be found in any ancient specimen: — something like the new insect stirring its wings, before it has shaken off the aurelia state. But of this work, or of any specimen supposed to be written in the early part of the thirteenth century, displaying a sudden transition from Saxon to English, I am disposed to repeat my doubts.
Without being over credulous about the antiquity of the Lives of the Saints, and the other fragments of the thirteenth century, which Mr. Ellis places in chronological succession next to Layamon, we may allow that before the date of Robert of Gloucester, not only the legendary and devout style, but the amatory and satirical, had begun to be rudely cultivated in the language. It was customary, in that age, to make the minstrels sing devotional strains to the harp, on Sundays, for the edification of the people, instead of the verses on gayer subjects which were sung at public entertainments; a circumstance which, while it indicates the usual care of the Catholic church to make use of every hold over the popular mind, discovers also the fondness of the people for their poetry, and the attractions which it had already begun to assume. Of the satirical style I have already alluded to one example in the "Land of Cokayne," an allegorical satire on the luxury of the church, couched under the description of an imaginary paradise, in which the nuns are represented as houris, and the black and grey monks as their paramours. This piece has humour, though not of the most delicate kind; and the language is easy and fluent, but it possesses nothing of style, sentiment, or imagery, approaching to poetry. Another specimen of the pleasantry of the times is more valuable; because it exhibits the state of party feeling on real events, as well as the state of the language at a precise time. It is a ballad, entitled "Richard of Alemaigne," composed by one of the adherents of Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, after the defeat of the royal party at the battle of Lewes, in 1264. In the year after that battle the royal cause was restored, and the earl of Warren and Sir Hugh Bigod returned from exile, and assisted in the king's victory. In this satirical ballad, those two personages are threatened with death, if they should ever fall into the hands of their enemies. Such a song and such threats must have been composed by Leicester's party in the moment of their triumph, and not after their defeat and dispersion; so that the date of the piece is ascertained by its contents. This political satire leads me to mention another, which the industrious Ritson published, and which, without violent anachronism, may be spoken of among the specimens of the thirteenth century; as it must have been composed within a few years after its close, and relates to events within its verge. It is a ballad on the execution of the Scottish patriots, Sir William Wallace and Sir Simon Fraser. The diction is as barbarous as we should expect from a song of triumph on such a subject. It relates the death and treatment of Wallace very minutely. The circumstance of his being covered with a mock crown of laurel in Westminster Hall, which Stowe repeats, is there mentioned; and that of his legs being fastened with iron fetters "under his horses wombe," is told with savage exultation. The piece was probably endited in the very year of the political murders which it celebrates certainly before 1314, as it mentions the skulking of Robert Bruce, which, after the battle of Bannockburn, must have become a jest out of season.
A few love-songs of that early period have been preserved, which are not wholly destitute of beauty and feeling. Their expression, indeed, is often quaint, and loaded with alliteration; yet it is impossible to look without a pleasing interest upon strains of tenderness which carry us back to so remote an age, and which disclose to us the softest emotions of the human mind, in times abounding with such opposite traits of historical recollection. Such a stanza as the following would not disgrace the lyric poetry of a refined age.
For her love I cark and care,
For her love I droop and dare;
For her love my bliss is bare,
And all I wax wan.
For her love in sleep I slake:
For her love all night I wake:
For her love mourning I make
More than any man.
In another pastoral strain the lover says:—
When the nightingale singes the woods waxen green;
Leaf, and grass, and blosme, springs in Averyl, I ween:
And love is to my heart gone with one spear so keen,
Night and day my blood it drinks — my heart doth me teen.
Robert, a monk of Gloucester, whose surname is unknown, is supposed to have finished his Rhyming Chronicle about the year 1280. He translated the Legends of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and continued the history of England down to the time of Edward I., in the beginning of whose reign he died. The topographical, as well as narrative, minuteness of his Chronicle has made it a valuable authority to antiquaries; and as such it was consulted by Selden, when he wrote his Notes to Drayton's "Polyolbion." After observing some traits of humour and sentiment, moderate as they may be, in compositions as old as the middle of the thirteenth century, we might naturally expect to find in Robert of Gloucester not indeed a decidedly poetical manner, but some approach to the animation of poetry. But the Chronicle of this English Ennius, as he has been called, whatever progress in the state of the language it may display, comes in reality nothing nearer the character of a work of imagination than Layamon's version of Wace, which preceded it by a hundred years. One would not imagine, from Robert of Gloucester's style, that he belonged to a period when a single effusion of sentiment, or a trait of humour and vivacity, lead appeared in the language. On the contrary, he seems to take us back to the nonage of poetry, when verse is employed not to harmonise and beautify expression, but merely to assist the memory. Were we to judge of Robert of Gloucester not as a chronicler, but as a candidate for the honours of fancy, we might be tempted to wonder at the frigidity with which he dwells, as the first possessor of such poetical ground, on the history of Lear, of Arthur, and Merlin; and with which he describes a scene so susceptible of poetical effect as the irruption of the first crusaders into Asia, preceded by the sword of fire which hung in the firmament, and guided them eastward in their path. But, in justice to the ancient versifier, we should remember, that he had still only a rude language to employ the speech of boors and burghers, which, though it might possess a few songs and satires, could afford him no models of heroic narration. In such an age, the first occupant passes uninspired over subjects which might kindle the highest enthusiasm in the poet of a riper period; as the savage treads unconsciously, in his deserts, over mines of incalculable value, without sagacity to discover, or implements to explore them. In reality, his object was but to be historical. The higher orders of society still made use of French; and scholars wrote in that language or in Latin. His Chronicle was therefore recited to a class of his contemporaries to whom it must have been highly acceptable, as a history of their native country believed to be authentic, and composed in their native tongue. To the fabulous legends of antiquity he added a record of more recent events, with some of which he was contemporary. As a relater of events, he is tolerably succinct and perspicuous; and wherever the fact is of any importance, he shows a watchful attention to keep the reader's memory distinct with regard to chronology, by making the date of the year rhyme to something prominent in the narration of the fact.
Our first known versifier of the fourteenth century is Robert, commonly called de Brunne. He was born (according to his editor Hearne) at Malton, in Yorkshire lived for some time in the house of Sixhill, a Gilbertine monastery in Yorkshire; and afterwards became a member of Brunne, or Browne, a priory of black canons in the same county. His real surname was Mannyng; but the writers of history in those times (as Hearne observes) were generally the religious, and when they became celebrated, they were designated by the names of the religious houses to which they belonged. Thus, William of Malmsbury, Matthew of Westminster, and John of Glastonbury, received those appellations from their respective monasteries. De Brunne was, as far as we know, only a translator. His principal performance is a Rhyming Chronicle of the History of England, in two parts, compiled from the works of Wace and Peter de Langtoft. The declared object of his work is "Not for the lerid (learned) but for the lewed (the low).
For the a that in this land wonn,
That the latyn no Frankys conn.
He seems to reckon, however, if not on the attention of the "lerid," at least on that of a class above the "lewed," as he begins his address to "Lordynges that be now here." He declares also that his verse was constructed simply, being intended neither for seggers (reciters), nor harpours (harpers). Yet it is clear from another passage, that he intended his Chronicle to be sung, at least by parts, at public festivals. In the present day it would require considerable vocal powers to make so dry a recital of facts as that of De Brunne's work entertaining to an audience; but it appears that he could offer one of the most ancient apologies of authorship, namely, "the request of friends" — for he says,
Men besoght me many a time
To torn it bot in light rhyme.
His Chronicle, it seems, was likely to be an acceptable work to social parties, assembled
For to haf solace and gamen
In fellawship when they sit samen.
In rude states of society, verse is attached to many subjects from which it is afterwards divorced by the progress of literature; and primitive poetry is found to be the organ not only of history, but of science, theology, and of law itself. The ancient laws of the Athenians were sung at their public banquets. Even in modern times, and within the last century, the laws of Sweden were published in verse.
De Brunne's versification, throughout the body of the work, is sometimes the entire Alexandrine, rhyming in couplets; but for the most part it is only the half Alexandrine, with alternate rhymes. He thus affords a ballad metre, which seems to justify the conjecture of Hearne, that our most ancient ballads were only fragments of metrical histories. By this time (for the date of De Brunne's Chronicle brings us down to the year 1339) our popular ballads must have long added the redoubted names of Randal [Earl] of Chester, and Robin Hood, to their list of native subjects. Both of those worthies had died before the middle of the preceding century, and, in the course of the next 100 years, their names became so popular in English song, that Langlande, in the fourteenth century, makes it part of the confession of a sluggard, that he was unable to repeat his paternoster, though he knew plenty of rhymes about Randal of Chester and Robin Hood. None of the extant ballads about Robin Hood are, however, of any great antiquity.
The style of Robert de Brunne is less marked by Saxonisms than that of Robert of Gloucester; and though he can scarcely be said to come nearer the character of a true poet than his predecessor, he is certainly a smoother versifier, and evinces more facility in rhyming. It is amusing to find his editor, Hearne, so anxious to defend the moral memory of a writer, respecting whom not a circumstance is known, beyond the date of his works, and the names of the monasteries where he wore his cowl. From his willingness to favour the people with historic rhymes for their "fellawship and gamen," Hearne infers that he must have been of a jocular temper. It seems, however, that the priory of Sixhill, whore he lived for some time, was a house which consisted of women as well as men, a discovery which alarms the good antiquary for the fame of his author's personal purity. "Can we therefore think," continues Hearne, "that since he was of a jocular temper, he could be wholly free from vice, or that he should not sometimes express himself loosely to the sisters of that place? This objection (he gravely continues) would have had some weight, lead the priory of Sixhill been any way noted for luxury or lewdness; but whereas every member of it, both men and women, were very chaste, we ought by no moans to suppose that Robert of Brunne behaved himself otherwise than became a good Christian, during his whole abode there." This conclusive reasoning, it may be hoped, will entirely set at rest any idle suspicions that may have crept into the reader's mind respecting the chastity of Robert de Brunne. It may be added, that his writings betray not the least symptom of his having been either an Abelard among priests, or an Ovid among poets.
Considerably before the date of Robert de Brunne's Chronicle, as we learn from De Brunne himself, the English minstrels, or those who wrote for them, had imitated from the French many compositions more poetical than those historical canticles, namely, genuine romances. In most of those metrical stories, irregular and shapeless as they were, if we compare them with the symmetrical structure of epic fable, there was still some portion of interest, and a catastrophe brought about, after various obstacles and difficulties, by an agreeable surprise. The names of the writers of our early English romances have not, except in one or two instances, been even conjectured, nor have the dates of the majority of them been ascertained with anything like precision. But in a general view, the era of English metrical romance may be said to have commenced towards the end of the thirteenth century. Warton, indeed, would place the commencement of our romance poetry considerably earlier; but Ritson challenges a proof of any English romance being known or mentioned, before the close of Edward the First's reign, about which time, that is, the end of the thirteenth century, he conjectures that the romance of Hornchild may have been composed. It would be pleasing, if it were possible, to extend the claims of English genius in this department to any considerable number of original pieces. But English romance poetry, having grown out of that of France, seems never to have improved upon its original, or, rather, it may be allowed to have fallen beneath it. As to the originality of old English poems of this kind, we meet, in some of them, with heroes, whose Saxon names might lead us to suppose them indigenous fictions, which lead not come into the language through a French medium. Several old Saxon ballads are alluded to, as extant long after the Conquest, by the Anglo-Norman historians, who drew from them many facts and inferences; and there is no saying how many of these ballads might be recast into a romantic shape by the composers for the native minstrelsy. But, on the other hand, the Anglo-Normans appear to have been more inquisitive into Saxon legends than the Saxons themselves; and their muse was by no means so illiberal as to object to a hero, because he was not of their own generation. In point of fact, whatever may be alleged about the minstrels of the North Country, it is difficult, if it be possible, to find an English romance which contains no internal allusion to a French prototype. Ritson very grudgingly allows, that three old stories may be called original English romances, until a Norman original shall be found for them; while Mr. Tyrwhitt conceives, that we have not one English romance anterior to Chaucer, which is not borrowed from a French one.
In the reign of Edward II., Adam Davie, who was marshal of Stratford-le-Bow, near London, wrote "Visions" in verse, which appear to be original; and the "Battle of Jerusalem," in which he turned into rhyme the contents of a French prose romance. In the course of Adam Davie's account of the siege of Jerusalem, Pilate challenges our Lord to single combat. From the specimens afforded by Warton, no very high idea can be formed of the genius of this poetical marshal. Warton anticipates the surprise of his reader, in finding the English language improve so slowly, when we reach the verses of Davie. The historian of our poetry had, in a former section, treated of Robert do Brunne as a writer anterior to Davie; but as the latter part of Be Brunne's Chronicle was not finished till 1339, in the reign of Edward III., it would he surprising indeed if the language should seem to improve when we go back to the reign of Edward II. Davie's work may be placed in our poetical chronology, posterior to the first part of De Brunne's Chronicle, but anterior to the latter.
Richard Rolle, another of our earliest versifiers, died in 1349. He was a hermit, and led a secluded life, near the nunnery of Hampole, in Yorkshire. Seventeen of his devotional pieces are enumerated in Ritson's "Bibliographia Poetica." The penitential psalms and theological tracts of a hermit were not likely to enrich or improve the style of our poetry; and they are accordingly confessed, by those who have read them, to be very dull. His name challenges notice, only from the paucity of contemporary writers.
Laurence Minot, although he is conjectured to have been a monk, had a Muse of a livelier temper; and, for want of a better poet, he may, by courtesy, be called the Tyrtaeus of his age. His few poems which have reached us are, in fact, short narrative ballads on the victories obtained in the reign of Edward III., begining with that of Hallidown Hill, and ending with the siege of Guisnes Castle. As his poem on the last of these events was evidently written recently after the exploit, the era of his poetical career may be laid between the years 1332 and 1352. Minot's works lay in absolute oblivion till late in the last century, in a MS. of the Cotton Collection, which was supposed to be a transcript of the works of Chaucer. The name of Richard Chawfir having been accidentally scrawled on a spare leaf of the MS. (probably the name of its ancient possessor), the framer of the Cotton catalogue, very good-naturedly converted it into Geoffrey Chaucer. By this circumstance Mr. Tyrwhitt, when seeking materials for his edition of the "Canterbury Tales," accidentally discovered an English versifier older than Chaucer himself. The style of Minot's ten military ballads is frequently alliterative, and has much of the northern dialect. He is an easy and lively versifier, though not, as Mr. G. Chalmers denominates him, either elegant or energetic.
In the course of the fourteenth century our language seems to have been inundated with metrical romances, until the public taste had been palled by the mediocrity and monotony of the greater part of them. At least, if Chaucer's host in the "Canterbury Tales" be a fair representation of contemporary opinion, they were held in no great reverence, to judge by the comparison which the vintner applies to the "drafty rhymings" of Sir Topaz. The practice of translating French metrical romances into English did not, however, terminate in the fourteenth century. Nor must we form an indiscriminate estimate of the ancient metrical romances, either from Chaucer's implied contempt for them, nor from mine host of the Tabard's ungainly comparison with respect to one of them. The ridiculous style of Sir Topaz is not an image of them all. Some of them, far from being chargeable with impertinent and prolix description, are concise in narration, and paint, with rapid but distinct sketches, the battles, the banquets, and the rites of worship of chivalrous life. Classical poetry has scarcely ever conveyed in shorter boundaries so many interesting and complicated events, as may be found in the good old romance of Le Bone Florence. Chaucer himself, when he strikes into the new or allegorical school of romance, has many passages more tedious and less affecting than the better parts of those simple old fablers. For in spite of their puerility in the excessive use of the marvellous, their simplicity is often touching, and they have many scenes that would form adequate subjects for the best historical pencils.
The reign of Edward III. was illustrious not for military achievements alone; it was a period when the English character displayed its first intellectual boldness. It is true that the history of the times presents a striking contrast between the light of intelligence which began to open on men's minds, and the frightful evils which were still permitted to darken the face of society. In the scandalous avarice of the church, in the corruptions of the courts of judicature, and in the licentiousness of a nobility who countenanced disorders and robbery, we trace the uabanished remains of barbarism; but, on the other hand, we may refer to this period for the genuine commencement of our literature, for the earliest diffusion of free inquiry, and for the first great movement of the national mind towards emancipation from spiritual tyranny. The abuses of religion were, from their nature, the most powerfully calculated to arrest the public attention; and poetry was not deficient in contributing its influence to expose those abuses, both as subjects of ridicule and of serious indignation. Two poets of this period, with very different powers of genius, and probably addressing themselves to different classes of society, made the corruptions of the clergy the objects of their satire-taking satire not in its mean and personal acceptation, but understanding it as the moral warfare of indignation and ridicule against turpitude and absurdity. Those writers were Langlande and Chaucer, both of whom have been claimed as primitive reformers by some of the zealous historians of the Reformation. At the idea of a full separation from the Catholic Church, both Langlande and Chaucer would possibly have been struck with horror. The doctrine of predestination, which was a leading tenet of the first Protestants, is not, I believe, avowed in any of Chancer's writings, and it is expressly reprobated by Langlande. It is, nevertheless, very likely that their works contributed to promote the Reformation. Langlande, especially, who was an earlier satirist and painter of manners than Chaucer, is undaunted in reprobating the corruptions of the papal government. He prays to Heaven to amend the Pope, whom he charges with pillaging the Church, interfering unjustly with the king, and causing the blood of Christians to be wantonly shed; and it is a curious circumstance, that he predicts the existence of a king, who, in his vengeance, would destroy the monasteries.
The work entitled "Visions of William concerning Piers Plowman," and concerning the origin, progress, and perfection of the Christian life, which is the earliest known original poem, of any extent, in the English language, is ascribed to Robert Langlande [or Longlande], a secular priest, born at Mortimer's Cleobury, in Shropshire, and educated at Oriel College, Oxford. That it was written by Langlande, I believe, can be traced to no higher authority than that of Bale, or of the printer Crowley; but his name may stand for that of its author, until a better claimant shall be found.
Those Visions, from their allusions to events evidently recent, can scarcely be supposed to have been finished later than the year 1362, almost thirty years before the appearance of the Canterbury Tales.
It is not easy, even after Dr. Whitaker's laborious analysis of this work, to give any concise account of its contents. The general object is to expose, in allegory, the existing abuses of society, and to inculcate the public and private duties both of the laity and clergy. An imaginary seer, afterwards described by the name of William, wandering among the bushes of the Malvern hills, is overtaken by sleep, and dreams that he beholds a magnificent tower, which turns out to be the tower or fortress of Truth, and a dungeon, which, we soon after learn, is the abode of Wrong. In a spacious plain in front of it, the whole race of mankind are employed in their respective pursuits; such as husbandmen, merchants, minstrels with their audiences, begging friars, and itinerant venders of pardons, leading a dissolute life under the cloak of religion. The last of these are severely satirized. A transition is then made to the civil grievances of society; and the policy, not the duty, of submitting to bad princes, is illustrated by the parable of the Rats and Cats. In the second canto, True Religion descends, and demonstrates, with many precepts, how the conduct of individuals, and the general management of society, may be amended, lathe third and fourth canto, Mede or Bribery is exhibited, seeking a marriage with Falsehood, and attempting to make her way to the courts of justice, where it appears that she has many friends, both among the civil judges and ecclesiastics. The poem, after this, becomes more and more desultory. The author awakens more than once; but, forgetting that he has told us so, continues to converse as freely as ever with the moral phantasmagoria of his dream. A long train of allegorical personages, whom it would not be very amusing to enumerate, succeeds. In fact, notwithstanding Dr. Whitaker's discovery of a plan and unity in this work, I cannot help thinking with Warton, that it possesses neither; at least, if it has any design, it is the most vague and ill-constructed that ever entered into the brain of a waking dreamer. The appearance of the visionary personages is often sufficiently whimsical. The power of Grace, for instance, confers upon Piers Plowman, or "Christian Life," four stout oxen, to cultivate the field of Truth; these are, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the last of whom is described as the gentlest of the team. She afterwards assigns him the like number of stots or bullocks, to harrow what the evangelists had ploughed; and this new horned team consists of saint or stot Ambrose, stot Austin, stot Gregory, and stot Jerome.
The verse of Langlande is alliterative, without rhyme, and of triple time. In modern pronunciation it divides the ear between an anapaestic and dactylic cadence; though some of the verses are reducible to no perceptible metre. Mr. Mitford, in his "Harmony of Languages," thinks that the more we accommodate the reading of it to ancient pronunciation, the more generally we shall find it run in an anapestic measure. His style, even making allowance for its antiquity, has a vulgar air, and seems to indicate a mind that would have been coarse, though strong, in any state of society. But, on the other hand, his work, with all its tiresome homilies, illustrations from school divinity, and uncouth phraseology, has some interesting features of originality. He employs no borrowed materials; he is the earliest of our writers in whom there is a tone of moral reflection; and his sentiments are those of bold and solid integrity. The zeal of truth was in him; and his vehement manner sometimes rises to eloquence, when he denounces hypocrisy and imposture. The mind is struck with his rude voice, proclaiming independent and popular sentiments, from an age of slavery and superstition, and thundering a prediction in the ear of papacy, which was doomed to he literally fulfilled at the distance of nearly two hundred years. His allusions to contemporary life afford some amusing glimpses of its manners. There is room to suspect that Spenser was acquainted with his works; and Milton, either from accident or design, has the appearance of having had one of Langlande's passages in his mind, when he wrote the sublime description of the lazar-house, in "Paradise Lost."
Chaucer was probably known and distinguished as a poet anterior to the appearance of Langlande's Visions. Indeed, if he had produced nothing else than his youthful poem, "The Court of Love," it was sufficient to indicate one destined to harmonise and refine the national strains. But it is likely, that before his thirty-fourth year, about which time Langlande's Visions may be supposed to have been finished, Chaucer had given several compositions to the public.
The simple old narrative romance had become too familiar in Chaucer's time to invite him to its beaten track. The poverty of his native tongue obliged him to look round for subsidiary materials to his fancy, both in the Latin language, and in some modern foreign source that should not appear to be trite and exhausted. His age was, unfortunately, little conversant with the best Latin classics. Ovid, Claudian, and Statius, were the chief favourites in poetry, and Boethius in prose. The allegorical style of the last of those authors seems to have given an early bias to the taste of Chaucer. In modern poetry, his first and long continued predilection was attracted by the new and allegorical style of romance which had sprung up in France in the thirteenth century, under William de Lorris. We find him, accordingly, during a great part of his poetical career, engaged among the dreams, emblems, flower-worshippings, and amatory parliaments of that visionary school. This, we may say, was a gymnasium of rather too light and playful exercise for so strong a genius; and it must be owned, that his allegorical poetry is often puerile and prolix. Yet, even in this walk of fiction, we never entirely lose sight of that peculiar grace and gaiety which distinguish the muse of Chaucer; and no one who remembers his productions of the "House of Fame," and "The Flower and the Leaf," will regret that he sported for a season in the field of allegory. Even his pieces of this description the most fantastic in design and tedious in execution are generally interspersed with fresh and joyous descriptions of external nature.
In this new species of romance, we perceive the youthful muse of the language in love with mystical meanings and forms of fancy, more remote, if possible, from reality than those of the chivalrous fable itself; and we could sometimes wish her back from her emblematic castles to the more solid ones of the elder fable; but still she moves in pursuit of those shadows with an impulse of novelty, and an exuberance of spirit, that is not wholly without its attraction and delight.
Chaucer was afterwards happily drawn to the more natural style of Boccaccio, and from him he derived the hint of a subject, in which, besides his own original portraits of contemporary life, he could introduce stories of every description, from the most heroic to the most familiar.
Gower, though he had been earlier distinguished in French poetry, began later than Chaucer to cultivate his native tongue. His "Confessio Amantis," the only work by which he is known as an English poet, did not appear till the sixteenth year of Richard II. He must have been a highly accomplished man for his time, and imbued with a studious and mild spirit of reflection. His French sonnets are marked by elegance and sensibility, and his English poetry contains a digest of all that constituted the knowledge of his age. His contemporaries greatly esteemed him; and the Scottish, as well as English writers of the subsequent period, speak of him with unqualified admiration. But though the placid and moral Gower might be a civilising spirit among his contemporaries, his character has none of the bold originality which stamps an influence on the literature of a country. He was not, like Chaucer, a patriarch in the family of genius, the scattered traits of whose resemblance may be seen in such descendants as Shakspeare and Spenser. The design of his "Confessio Amantis" is peculiarly ill contrived. A lover, whose case has not a particle of interest, applies, according to the Catholic ritual, to a confessor, who, at the same time, whimsically enough, bears the additional character of a pagan priest of Venus. The holy father, it is true, speaks like a good Christian, and communicates more scandal about the intrigues of Venus than pagan author ever told. A pretext is afforded by the ceremony of confession, for the priest not only to initiate his pupil in the duties of a lover, but in a wide range of ethical and physical knowledge; and at the mention of every virtue and vice a tale is introduced by way of illustration. Does the confessor wish to warn the lover against impertinent curiosity? He introduces, apropos to that failing, the history of Actaeon, of peeping memory. The confessor inquires if he is addicted to a vain-glorious disposition; because if he is, he can tell him a story about Nebuchadnezzar. Does he wish to hear of the virtue of conjugal patience? it is aptly inculcated by the anecdote respecting Socrates, who, when he received the contents of Xantippe's pail upon his head, replied to the provocation with only a witticism. Thus, with shrieving, narrations and didactic speeches, the work is extended to thirty thousand lines, in the course of which the virtues and vices are all regularly allegorized. But in allegory Gower is cold and uninventive, and enumerates qualities when he should conjure up visible objects. On the whole, though copiously stored with facts and fables, he is unable either to make truth appear poetical, or to render fiction the graceful vehicle of truth.