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English Literature

WHILE Burns was weaving his wonderful songs among the Lowland hills of Scotland, another lover of nature was telling of placid English life, of simple everyday doings, in a quiet little country town in England. This man was William Cowper.

THE story of Arthur has led us a long way. We have almost forgotten that it began with the old Cymric stories, the stories of the people who lived in Britain before the coming of the Romans. We have followed it before the coming of the Romans. We have followed it down through many forms: Welsh, in the stories of The Mabinogion; Latin, in the stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth; French, in the stories of Wace and Map; Semi-Saxon, in the stories of Layamon; Middle English, in the stories of Malory; and at last English as we now speak it, in the stories of Tennyson.

WHILE Chaucer was making for us pictures of English life, in the sister kingdom across the rugged Cheviots another poet was singing to a ruder people. This poet was John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen. An older man than Chaucer, born perhaps twenty years before the English poet, he died only five years earlier. So that for many years these two lived and wrote at the same time.

SPENSER'S plan for the Faery Queen was a very great one. He meant to write a poem in twelve books, each book containing the adventures of a knight who was to show forth one virtue. And if these were well received he purposed to write twelve more. Only the first three books were as yet published, but they made him far more famous than the Shepherd's Calendar had done. For never since Chaucer had such poetry been written.

AND now for twenty years the pen of Milton was used, not for poetry, but for prose. The poet became a politician. Victory was still uncertain, and Milton poured out book after book in support of the Puritan cause. These books are full of wrath and scorn and all the bitter passion of the time. They have hardly a place in true literature, so we may pass them over glad that Milton found it possible to spend his bitterness in prose and leave his poetry what it is.

COWPER was as a straw blown along the path; he had no force in himself, he showed the direction of the wind. Now we come to one who was not only a far greater poet, but who was a force in our literature. This man was William Wordsworth. He was the apostle of simplicity, the prophet of nature. He sang of the simplest things, of the common happenings of everyday life, and that too a simple life.

His desire was to choose words only which were really used by men in everyday talk, "and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of the imagination."

By 1730 the authors whose work made the “classic” school in England were dead or had ceased writing; by the same date Samuel Johnson had begun his career as a man of letters. The difference between the period of his maturity and the period we have been examining is not perhaps easy to define; but it exists and it can be felt unmistakably in reading. For one thing “Classicism” had become completely naturalized; it had ceased to regard the French as arbiters of elegance and literary taste; indeed Johnson himself never spoke of them without disdain and hated them as much as he hated Scotsmen.

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