CHAPTER I. THE HISTORICAL SCOPE OF THE SUBJECT.
Literature and Science. English Literature. General Principle. Celts
and Cymry. Roman Conquest. Coming of the Saxons. Danish Invasions. The
Norman Conquest. Changes in Language.
LITERATURE AND SCIENCE.
There are two words in the English language which are now used to express the two great divisions of mental production—Science and Literature; and yet, from their etymology, they have so much in common, that it has been necessary to attach to each a technical meaning, in order that we may employ them without confusion.
Science, from the participle sciens, of scio, scire, to know, would seem to comprise all that can be known—what the Latins called the omne scibile, or all-knowable.
Literature is from litera, a letter, and probably at one remove from lino, litum, to anoint or besmear, because in the earlier times a tablet was smeared with wax, and letters were traced upon it with a graver. Literature, in its first meaning, would, therefore, comprise all that can be conveyed by the use of letters.
But language is impatient of retaining two words which convey the same meaning; and although science had at first to do with the fact of knowing and the conditions of knowledge in the abstract, while literature meant the written record of such knowledge, a far more distinct sphere has been given to each in later times, and special functions assigned them.
In general terms, Science now means any branch of knowledge in which men search for principles reaching back to the ultimate, or for facts which establish these principles, or are classified by them in a logical order. Thus we speak of the mathematical, physical, metaphysical, and moral sciences.
Literature, which is of later development as at present used, comprises those subjects which have a relation to human life and human nature through the power of the imagination and the fancy. Technically, literature includes history, poetry, oratory, the drama, and works of fiction, and critical productions upon any of these as themes.
Such, at least, will be a sufficiently exact division for our purpose, although the student will find them overlapping each other's domain occasionally, interchanging functions, and reciprocally serving for each other's advantage. Thus it is no confusion of terms to speak of the poetry of science and of the science of poetry; and thus the great functions of the human mind, although scientifically distinct, co-operate in harmonious and reciprocal relations in their diverse and manifold productions.
ENGLISH LITERATURE.—English Literature may then be considered as comprising the progressive productions of the English mind in the paths of imagination and taste, and is to be studied in the works of the poets, historians, dramatists, essayists, and romancers—a long line of brilliant names from the origin of the language to the present day.
To the general reader all that is profitable in this study dates from the appearance of Chaucer, who has been justly styled the Father of English Poetry; and Chaucer even requires a glossary, as a considerable portion of his vocabulary has become obsolete and much of it has been modified; but for the student of English literature, who wishes to understand its philosophy and its historic relations, it becomes necessary to ascend to a more remote period, in order to find the origin of the language in which Chaucer wrote, and the effect produced upon him by any antecedent literary works, in the root-languages from which the English has sprung.
GENERAL PRINCIPLE.—It may be stated, as a general principle, that to understand a nation's literature, we must study the history of the people and of their language; the geography of the countries from which they came, as well as that in which they live; the concurrent historic causes which have conspired to form and influence the literature. We shall find, as we advance in this study, that the life and literature of a people are reciprocally reflective.
I. CELTS AND CYMRY.—Thus, in undertaking the study of English literature, we must begin with the history of the Celts and Cymry, the first inhabitants of the British Islands of whom we have any record, who had come from Asia in the first great wave of western migration; a rude, aboriginal people, whose languages, at the beginning of the Christian era, were included in one family, the Celtic, comprising theBritish or Cambrian, and the Gadhelic classes. In process of time these were subdivided thus:
The British into
Welsh, at present spoken in Wales.
Cornish, extinct only within a century.
Armorican, Bas Breton, spoken in French Brittany.
The Gadhelic into
Gaelic, still spoken in the Scottish Highlands.
Irish, or Erse, spoken in Ireland.
Manx, spoken in the Isle of Man.
Such are the first people and dialects to be considered as the antecedent occupants of the country in which English literature was to have its birth.
II. ROMAN CONQUEST.—But these Celtic peoples were conquered by the Romans under Caesar and his successors, and kept in a state of servile thraldom for four hundred and fifty years. There was but little amalgamation between them and their military masters. Britain was a most valuable northern outpost of the Roman Empire, and was occupied by large garrisons, which employed the people in hard labors, and used them for Roman aggrandizement, but despised them too much to attempt to elevate their condition. Elsewhere the Romans depopulated, where they met with barbarian resistance; they made a solitude and called it peace—for which they gave a triumph and a cognomen to the conqueror; but in Britain, although harassed and endangered by the insurrections of the natives, they bore with them; they built fine cities like London and York, originally military outposts, and transformed much of the country between the Channel and the Tweed from pathless forest into a civilized residence.
III. COMING OF THE SAXONS.—Compelled by the increasing dangers and troubles immediately around the city of Rome to abandon their distant dependencies, the Roman legions evacuated Britain, and left the people, who had become enervated, spiritless, and unaccustomed to the use of arms, a prey to their fierce neighbors, both from Scotland and from the continent.
The Saxons had already made frequent incursions into Britain, while rival Roman chieftains were contesting for pre-eminence, and, as early as the third century, had become so troublesome that the Roman emperors were obliged to appoint a general to defend the eastern coast, known as comes litoris Saxonici, or count of the Saxon shore.
These Saxons, who had already tested the goodliness of the land, came when the Romans departed, under the specious guise of protectors of the Britons against the inroads of the Picts and Scots; but in reality to possess themselves of the country. This was a true conquest of race—Teutons overrunning Celts. They came first in reconnoitring bands; then in large numbers, not simply to garrison, as the Romans had done, but to occupy permanently. From the less attractive seats of Friesland and the basin of the Weser, they came to establish themselves in a charming country, already reclaimed from barbarism, to enslave or destroy the inhabitants, and to introduce their language, religion, and social institutions. They came as a confederated people of German race—Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and Frisians; but, as far as the results of their conquest are concerned, there was entire unity among them.
The Celts, for a brief period protected by them from their fierce northern neighbors, were soon enslaved and oppressed: those who resisted were driven slowly to the Welsh mountains, or into Cornwall, or across the Channel into French Brittany. Great numbers were destroyed. They left few traces of their institutions and their language. Thus the Saxon was established in its strength, and has since remained the strongest element of English ethnography.
IV. DANISH INVASIONS.—But Saxon Britain was also to suffer from continental incursions. The Scandinavians—inhabitants of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark—impelled by the same spirit of piratical adventure which had actuated the Saxons, began to leave their homes for foreign conquest. “Impatient of a bleak climate and narrow limits, they started from the banquet, grasped their arms, sounded their horn, ascended their ships, and explored every coast that promised either spoil or settlement.” To England they came as Danes; to France, as Northmen or Normans. They took advantage of the Saxon wars with the British, of Saxon national feuds, and of that enervation which luxurious living had induced in the Saxon kings of the octarchy, and succeeded in occupying a large portion of the north and east of England; and they have exerted in language, in physical type, and in manners a far greater influence than has been usually conceded. Indeed, the Danish chapter in English history has not yet been fairly written. They were men of a singularly bold and adventurous spirit, as is evinced by their voyages to Iceland, Greenland, and thence to the Atlantic coast of North America, as early as the tenth and eleventh centuries. It is more directly to our purpose to observe their character as it is displayed in their conquest of the Frankish kingdom of Neustria, in their facile reception and ready assimilation of the Roman language and arts which they found in Gaul, and in their forcible occupancy, under William the Conqueror, of Saxon England, in 1066.
V. THE NORMAN CONQUEST.—The vigor of the Normans had been trained, but not weakened by their culture in Normandy. They maintained their supremacy in arms against the efforts of the kings of France. They had long cultivated intimate relations with England, and their dukes had long hankered for its possession. William, the natural son of Duke Robert—known to history and musical romance as Robert le Diable—was a man of strong mind, tenacious purpose, and powerful hand. He had obtained, by promise of Edward the Confessor, the reversion of the crown upon the death of that monarch; and when the issue came, he availed himself of that reversion and the Pope's sanction, and also of the disputed succession between Harold, the son of Godwin, and the true Saxon heir, Edgar Atheling, to make good his claim by force of arms.
Under him the Normans were united, while divisions existed in the Saxon ranks. Tostig, the brother of Harold, and Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, combined against Harold, and, just before the landing of Duke William at Pevensey, on the coast of Sussex, Harold was obliged to march rapidly northward to Stanford bridge, to defeat Tostig and the Norwegians, and then to return with a tired army of uncertain morale, to encounter the invading Normans. Thus it appears that William conquered the land, which would have been invincible had the leaders and the people been united in its defence.
As the Saxons, Danes, and Normans were of the same great Teutonic family, however modified by the different circumstances of movement and residence, there was no new ethnic element introduced; and, paradoxical as it may seem, the fusion of these peoples was of great benefit, in the end, to England. Though the Saxons at first suffered from Norman oppression, the kingdom was brought into large inter-European relations, and a far better literary culture was introduced, more varied in subject, more developed in point of language, and more artistic.
Thus much, in a brief historical summary, is necessary as an introduction to our subject. From all these contests and conquests there were wrought in the language of the country important changes, which are to be studied in the standard works of its literature.
CHANGES IN LANGUAGE.—The changes and transformations of language may be thus briefly stated:—In the Celtic period, before the arrival of the Romans, the people spoke different dialects of the Celtic and Gadhelic languages, all cognate and radically similar.
These were not much affected by the occupancy of the Romans for about four hundred and fifty years, although, doubtless, Latin words, expressive of things and notions of which the British had no previous knowledge, were adopted by them, and many of the Celtic inhabitants who submitted to these conquerors learned and used the Latin language.
When the Romans departed, and the Saxons came in numbers, in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Saxon language, which is the foundation of English, became the current speech of the realm; adopting few Celtic words, but retaining a considerable number of the Celtic names of places, as it also did of Latin terminations in names.
Before the coming of the Normans, their language, called the Langue d'oil, or Norman French, had been very much favored by educated Englishmen; and when William conquered England, he tried to supplant the Saxon entirely. In this he was not successful; but the two languages were interfused and amalgamated, so that in the middle of the twelfth century, there had been thus created the English language, formed but still formative. The Anglo-Saxon was the foundation, or basis; while the Norman French is observed to be the principal modifying element.
Since the Norman conquest, numerous other elements have entered, most of them quietly, without the concomitant of political revolution or foreign invasion.
Thus the Latin, being used by the Church, and being the language of literary and scientific comity throughout the world, was constantly adding words and modes of expression to the English. The introduction of Greek into Western Europe, at the fall of Constantinople, supplied Greek words, and induced a habit of coining English words from the Greek. The establishment of the Hanoverian succession, after the fall of the Stuarts, brought in the practice and study of German, and somewhat of its phraseology; and English conquests in the East have not failed to introduce Indian words, and, what is far better, to open the way for a fuller study of comparative philology and linguistics.
In a later chapter we shall reconsider the periods referred to, in an examination of the literary works which they contain, works produced by historical causes, and illustrative of historical events.