CHAPTER VI. THE MORNING TWILIGHT OF ENGLISH LITERATURE.
Semi-Saxon Literature. Layamon. The Ormulum. Robert of Gloucester.
Langland. Piers Plowman. Piers Plowman's Creed. Sir Jean Froissart. Sir
Moore, in his beautiful poem, “The Light of the Harem,” speaks of that luminous pulsation which precedes the real, progressive morning:
... that earlier dawn
Whose glimpses are again withdrawn,
As if the morn had waked, and then
Shut close her lids of light again.
The simile is not inapt, as applied to the first efforts of the early English, or Semi-Saxon literature, during the latter part of the twelfth and the whole of the thirteenth century. That deceptive dawn, or first glimpse of the coming day, is to be found in the work of Layamon. The old Saxon had revived, but had been modified and altered by contact with the Latin chronicles and the Anglo-Norman poetry, so as to become a distinct language—that of the people; and in this language men of genius and poetic taste were now to speak to the English nation.
LAYAMON.—Layamon was an English priest of Worcestershire, who made a version of Wace's Brut, in the beginning of the thirteenth century, so peculiar, however, in its language, as to puzzle the philologist to fix its exact date with even tolerable accuracy. But, notwithstanding the resemblance, according to Mr. Ellis, to the “simple and unmixed, though very barbarous Saxon,” the character of the alphabet and the nature of the rhythm place it at the close of the twelfth century, and present it as perhaps the best type of the Semi-Saxon. The poem consists partly of the Saxon alliterative lines, and partly of verses which seem to have thrown off this trammel; so that a different decision as to its date would be reached according as we consider these diverse parts of its structure. It is not improbable that, like English poets of a later time, Layamon affected a certain archaism in language, as giving greater beauty and interest to his style. The subject of the Brut was presented to him as already treated by three authors: first, the original Celtic poem, which has been lost; second, the Latin chronicle of Geoffrey; and, third, the French poem of Wace. Although Layamon's work is, in the main, a translation of that of Wace, he has modified it, and added much of his own. His poem contains more than thirty thousand lines.
THE ORMULUM.—Next in value to the Brut of Layamon, is the Ormulum, a series of metrical homilies, in part paraphrases of the gospels for the day, with verbal additions and annotations. This was the work of a monk named Orm or Ormin, who lived in the beginning of the thirteenth century, during the reign of King John and Henry III., and it resembles our present English much more nearly than the poem of Layamon. In his dedication of the work to his brother Walter, Orm says—and we give his words as an illustration of the language in which he wrote:
Ice hafe don swa summ thu bad
Annd forthedd te thin wille
Ice hafe wennd uintill Ennglissh
Goddspelless hallghe lare
Affterr thatt little witt tatt me
Min Drihhten hafethth lenedd
I have done so as thou bade,
And performed thee thine will;
I have turned into English
Gospel's holy lore,
After that little wit that me
My lord hath lent.
The poem is written in Alexandrine verses, which may be divided into octosyllabic lines, alternating with those of six syllables, as in the extract given above. He is critical with regard to his orthography, as is evinced in the following instructions which he gives to his future readers and transcriber:
And whase willen shall this booke
Eft other sithe writen,
Him bidde ice that he't write right
Swa sum this booke him teacheth
And whoso shall wish this book
After other time to write,
Him bid I that he it write right,
So as this book him teacheth.
The critics have observed that, whereas the language of Layamon shows that it was written in the southwest of England, that of Orm manifests an eastern or northeastern origin. To the historical student, Orm discloses the religious condition and needs of the people, and the teachings of the Church. His poem is also manifestly a landmark in the history of the English language.
ROBERT OF GLOUCESTER.—Among the rhyming chroniclers of this period, Robert, a monk of Gloucester Abbey, is noted for his reproduction of the history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, already presented by Wace in French, and by Layamon in Saxon-English. But he is chiefly valuable in that he carries the chronicle forward to the end of the reign of Henry III. Written in West-country English, it not only contains a strong infusion of French, but distinctly states the prevailing influence of that language in his own day:
Vor bote a man couthe French, me tolth of him well lute
Ac lowe men holdeth to Englyss, and to her kunde speche zute.
For unless a man know French, one talketh of him little;
But low men hold to English, and to their natural speech yet.
The chronicle of Robert is written in Alexandrines, and, except for the French words incongruously interspersed, is almost as “barbarous" Saxon as the Brut of Layamon.
LANGLAND—PIERS PLOWMAN.—The greatest of the immediate heralds of Chaucer, whether we regard it as a work of literary art, or as an historic reflector of the age, is “The Vision of Piers Plowman,” by Robert Langland, which appeared between 1360 and 1370. It stands between the Semi-Saxon and the old English, in point of language, retaining the alliterative feature of the former; and, as a teacher of history, it displays very clearly the newly awakened spirit of religious inquiry, and the desire for religious reform among the English people: it certainly was among the means which aided in establishing a freedom of religious thought in England, while as yet the continent was bound in the fetters of a rigorous and oppressive authority.
Peter, the ploughboy, intended as a representative of the common people, drops asleep on Malvern Hills, between Wales and England, and sees in his dream an array of virtues and vices pass before him—such as Mercy, Truth, Religion, Covetousness, Avarice, etc. The allegory is not unlike that of Bunyan. By using these as the personages, in the manner of the early dramas called the Moralities, he is enabled to attack and severely scourge the evil lives and practices of the clergy, and the abuses which had sprung up in the Church, and to foretell the punishment, which afterward fell upon the monasteries in the time of Henry VIII., one hundred and fifty years later:
And then shall the Abbot of Abingdon, and all his issue forever,
Have a knock of a king, and incurable the wound.
His attack is not against the Church itself, but against the clergy. It is to be remarked, in studying history through the medium of literature, that the works of a certain period, themselves the result of history, often illustrate the coming age, by being prophetic, or rather, as antecedents by suggesting consequents. Thus, this Vision of Piers Plowman indicates the existence of a popular spirit which had been slowly but steadily increasing—which sympathized with Henry II. and the priest-trammelling “Constitutions of Clarendon,” even while it was ready to go on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket, the illustrious victim of the quarrel between Henry and his clergy. And it points with no uncertain finger to a future of greater light and popular development, for this bold spirit of reform was strongly allied to political rights. The clergy claimed both spiritualities and temporalities from the Pope, and, being governed by ecclesiastical laws, were not like other English subjects amenable to the civil code. The king's power was thus endangered; a proud and encroaching spirit was fostered, and the clergy became dissolute in their lives. In the words of Piers Plowman:
I found these freres, | For profit of hem selve;
All the four orders, | Closed the gospel,
Preaching the people | As hem good liked.
Ac now is Religion | And a loud buyer,
A rider, a roamer about, | A pricker on a palfrey,
A leader of love days | From manor to manor.
PIERS PLOWMAN'S CREED.—The name of Piers Plowman and the conceit of his Vision became at once very popular. He stood as a representative of the peasant class rising in importance and in assertion of religious rights.
An unknown follower of Wiclif wrote a poem called “Piers Plowman's Creed,” which conveys religious truth in a formula of belief. The language and the alliterative feature are similar to those of the Vision; and the invective is against the clergy, and especially against the monks and friars.
FROISSART.—Sire Jean Froissart was born about 1337. He is placed here for the observance of chronological order: he was not an English writer, but must receive special mention because his “Chronicles,” although written in French, treat of the English wars in France, and present splendid pictures of English chivalry and heroism. He lived, too, for some time in England, where he figured at court as the secretary of Philippa, queen of Edward III. Although not always to be relied on as an historian, his work is unique and charming, and is very truthful in its delineation of the men and manners of that age: it was written for courtly characters, and not for the common people. The title of his work may be translated “Chronicles of France, England, Scotland, Spain, Brittany, Gascony, Flanders, and surrounding places.”
SIR JOHN MANDEVIL, (1300-1371.)—We also place in this general catalogue a work which has, ever since its appearance, been considered one of the curiosities of English literature. It is a narrative of the travels of Mandevil in the East. He was born in 1300; became a doctor of medicine, and journeyed in those regions of the earth for thirty-four years. A portion of the time he was in service with a Mohammedan army; at other times he lived in Egypt, and in China, and, returning to England an old man, he brought such a budget of wonders—true and false—stories of immense birds like the roc, which figure in Arabian mythology and romance, and which could carry elephants through the air—of men with tails, which were probably orang-outangs or gorillas.
Some of his tales, which were then entirely discredited, have been ascertained by modern travellers to be true. His work was written by him first in Latin, and then in French—Latin for the savans, and French for the court—and afterward, such was the power and demand of the new English tongue, that he presented his marvels to the world in an English version. This was first printed by Wynken de Worde, in 1499.
Other Writers of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Who Preceded Chaucer.
Robert Manning, a canon of Bourne—called also Robert de Brunne: Translated a portion of Wace's Brut, and also a chronicle of Piers de Langtoft bringing the history down to the death of Edward I. (1307.) He is also supposed to be the author of a translation of the “Manuel des Peches,” (Handling of Sins,) the original of which is ascribed to Bishop Grostete of Lincoln.
The Ancren Riwle, or Anchoresses' Rule, about 1200, by an unknown writer, sets forth the duties of a monastic life for three ladies (anchoresses) and their household in Dorsetshire.
Roger Bacon, (1214-1292,) a friar of Ilchester: He extended the area of knowledge by his scientific experiments, but wrote his Opus Magus, or greater work, in comparison with the Opus Minus, and numerous other treatises in Latin. If he was not a writer in English, his name should be mentioned as a great genius, whose scientific knowledge was far in advance of his age, and who had prophetic glimpses of the future conquests of science.
Robert Grostete, Bishop of Lincoln, died 1253, was probably the author of the Manuel des Peches, and also wrote a treatise on the sphere.
Sir Michael Scott: He lived in the latter half of the thirteenth century; was a student of the “occult sciences,” and also skilled in theology and medicine. He is referred to by Walter Scott as the “wondrous wizard, Michael Scott.”
Thomas of Ercildoun—called the Rhymer—supposed by Sir Walter Scott, but erroneously, as is now believed, to be the author of “Sir Tristram.”
The King of Tars is the work of an unknown author of this period.
In thus disposing of the authors before Chaucer, no attempt has been made at a nice subdivision and classification of the character of the works, or the nature of the periods, further than to trace the onward movement of the language, in its embryo state, in its birth, and in its rude but healthy infancy.