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A History of English Literature

1918

by Robert Huntington Fletcher


Preface | How to Study | Tabular View | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | Assignments

Chapter I. Period I. The Britons And The Anglo-Saxons. To A.D. 1066

FOREWORD. The two earliest of the nine main divisions of English Literature are by far the longest--taken together are longer than all the others combined--but we shall pass rather rapidly over them. This is partly because the amount of thoroughly great literature which they produced is small, and partly because for present-day readers it is in effect a foreign literature, written in early forms of English or in foreign languages, so that to-day it is intelligible only through special study or in translation.

THE BRITONS. The present English race has gradually shaped itself out of several distinct peoples which successively occupied or conquered the island of Great Britain. The earliest one of these peoples which need here be mentioned belonged to the Celtic family and was itself divided into two branches. The Goidels or Gaels were settled in the northern part of the island, which is now Scotland, and were the ancestors of the present Highland Scots. On English literature they exerted little or no influence until a late period. The Britons, from whom the present Welsh are descended, inhabited what is now England and Wales; and they were still further subdivided, like most barbarous peoples, into many tribes which were often at war with one another. Though the Britons were conquered and chiefly supplanted later on by the Anglo-Saxons, enough of them, as we shall see, were spared and intermarried with the victors to transmit something of their racial qualities to the English nation and literature.

The characteristics of the Britons, which are those of the Celtic family as a whole, appear in their history and in the scanty late remains of their literature. Two main traits include or suggest all the others: first, a vigorous but fitful emotionalism which rendered them vivacious, lovers of novelty, and brave, but ineffective in practical affairs; second, a somewhat fantastic but sincere and delicate sensitiveness to beauty. Into impetuous action they were easily hurried; but their momentary ardor easily cooled into fatalistic despondency. To the mysterious charm of Nature--of hills and forests and pleasant breezes; to the loveliness and grace of meadow-flowers or of a young man or a girl; to the varied sheen of rich colors--to all attractive objects of sight and sound and motion their fancy responded keenly and joyfully; but they preferred chiefly to weave these things into stories and verse of supernatural romance or vague suggestiveness; for substantial work of solider structure either in life or in literature they possessed comparatively little faculty. Here is a description (exceptionally beautiful, to be sure) from the story 'Kilhwch and Olwen':

'The maid was clothed in a robe of flame-colored silk, and about her neck was a collar of ruddy gold, on which were precious emeralds and rubies. More yellow was her head than the flowers of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain. The eye of the trained hawk, the glance of the three-mewed falcon, was not brighter than hers. Her bosom was more snowy than the breast of the white swan, her cheeks were redder than the reddest roses. Who beheld her was filled with her love. Pour white trefoils sprang up wherever she trod. And therefore was she called Olwen.'

This charming fancifulness and delicacy of feeling is apparently the great contribution of the Britons to English literature; from it may perhaps be descended the fairy scenes of Shakespeare and possibly to some extent the lyrical music of Tennyson.

THE ROMAN OCCUPATION. Of the Roman conquest and occupation of Britain (England and Wales) we need only make brief mention, since it produced virtually no effect on English literature. The fact should not be forgotten that for over three hundred years, from the first century A. D. to the beginning of the fifth, the island was a Roman province, with Latin as the language of the ruling class of Roman immigrants, who introduced Roman civilization and later on Christianity, to the Britons of the towns and plains. But the interest of the Romans in the island was centered on other things than writing, and the great bulk of the Britons themselves seem to have been only superficially affected by the Roman supremacy. At the end of the Roman rule, as at its beginning, they appear divided into mutually jealous tribes, still largely barbarous and primitive.

The Anglo-Saxons. Meanwhile across the North Sea the three Germanic tribes which were destined to form the main element in the English race were multiplying and unconsciously preparing to swarm to their new home. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes occupied territories in the region which includes parts of the present Holland, of Germany about the mouth of the Elbe, and of Denmark. They were barbarians, living partly from piratical expeditions against the northern and eastern coasts of Europe, partly from their flocks and herds, and partly from a rude sort of agriculture. At home they seem to have sheltered themselves chiefly in unsubstantial wooden villages, easily destroyed and easily abandoned; For the able-bodied freemen among them the chief occupation, as a matter of course, was war. Strength, courage, and loyalty to king and comrades were the chief virtues that they admired; ferocity and cruelty, especially to other peoples, were necessarily among their prominent traits when their blood was up; though among themselves there was no doubt plenty of rough and ready companionable good-humor. Their bleak country, where the foggy and unhealthy marshes of the coast gave way further inland to vast and somber forests, developed in them during their long inactive winters a sluggish and gloomy mood, in which, however, the alternating spirit of aggressive enterprise was never quenched. In religion they had reached a moderately advanced state of heathenism, worshipping especially, it seems, Woden, a 'furious' god as well as a wise and crafty one; the warrior Tiu; and the strong-armed Thunor (the Scandinavian Thor); but together with these some milder deities like the goddess of spring, Eostre, from whom our Easter is named. For the people on whom they fell these barbarians were a pitiless and terrible scourge; yet they possessed in undeveloped form the intelligence, the energy, the strength--most of the qualities of head and heart and body--which were to make of them one of the great world-races.

THE ANGLO-SAXON CONQUEST AND SETTLEMENT. The process by which Britain became England was a part of the long agony which transformed the Roman Empire into modern Europe. In the fourth century A. D. the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began to harry the southern and eastern shores of Britain, where the Romans were obliged to maintain a special military establishment against them. But early in the fifth century the Romans, hard-pressed even in Italy by other barbarian invaders, withdrew all their troops and completely abandoned Britain. Not long thereafter, and probably before the traditional date of 449, the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons began to come in large bands with the deliberate purpose of permanent settlement. Their conquest, very different in its methods and results from that of the Romans, may roughly be said to have occupied a hundred and fifty or two hundred years. The earlier invading hordes fixed themselves at various points on the eastern and southern shore and gradually fought their way inland, and they were constantly augmented by new arrivals. In general the Angles settled in the east and north and the Saxons in the south, while the less numerous Jutes, the first to come, in Kent, soon ceased to count in the movement. In this way there naturally came into existence a group of separate and rival kingdoms, which when they were not busy with the Britons were often at war with each other. Their number varied somewhat from time to time as they were united or divided; but on the whole, seven figured most prominently, whence comes the traditional name 'The Saxon Heptarchy' (Seven Kingdoms). The resistance of the Britons to the Anglo-Saxon advance was often brave and sometimes temporarily successful. Early in the sixth century, for example, they won at Mount Badon in the south a great victory, later connected in tradition with the legendary name of King Arthur, which for many years gave them security from further aggressions. But in the long run their racial defects proved fatal; they were unable to combine in permanent and steady union, and tribe by tribe the newcomers drove them slowly back; until early in the seventh century the Anglo-Saxons were in possession of nearly all of what is now England, the exceptions being the regions all along the west coast, including what has ever since been, known as Wales.

Of the Roman and British civilization the Anglo-Saxons were ruthless destroyers, exulting, like other barbarians, in the wanton annihilation of things which they did not understand. Every city, or nearly every one, which they took, they burned, slaughtering the inhabitants. They themselves occupied the land chiefly as masters of scattered farms, each warrior established in a large rude house surrounded by its various outbuildings and the huts of the British slaves and the Saxon and British bondmen. Just how largely the Britons were exterminated and how largely they were kept alive as slaves and wives, is uncertain; but it is evident that at least a considerable number were spared; to this the British names of many of our objects of humble use, for example mattoc and basket, testify.

In the natural course of events, however, no sooner had the Anglo-Saxons destroyed the (imperfect and partial) civilization of their predecessors than they began to rebuild one for themselves; possessors of a fertile land, they settled down to develop it, and from tribes of lawless fighters were before long transformed into a race of farmer-citizens. Gradually trade with the Continent, also, was reestablished and grew; but perhaps the most important humanizing influence was the reintroduction of Christianity. The story is famous of how Pope Gregory the Great, struck by the beauty of certain Angle slave-boys at Rome, declared that they ought to be called not Angli but Angeli (angels) and forthwith, in 597, sent to Britain St. Augustine (not the famous African saint of that name), who landed in Kent and converted that kingdom. Within the next two generations, and after much fierce fighting between the adherents of the two religions, all the other kingdoms as well had been christianized. It was only the southern half of the island, however, that was won by the Roman missionaries; in the north the work was done independently by preachers from Ireland, where, in spite of much anarchy, a certain degree of civilization had been preserved. These two types of Christianity, those of Ireland and of Rome, were largely different in spirit. The Irish missionaries were simple and loving men and won converts by the beauty of their lives; the Romans brought with them the architecture, music, and learning of their imperial city and the aggressive energy which in the following centuries was to make their Church supreme throughout the Western world. When the inevitable clash for supremacy came, the king of the then-dominant Anglian kingdom, Northumbria, made choice of the Roman as against the Irish Church, a choice which proved decisive for the entire island. And though our personal sympathies may well go to the finer-spirited Irish, this outcome was on the whole fortunate; for only through religious union with Rome during the slow centuries of medieval rebirth could England be bound to the rest of Europe as one of the family of cooperating Christian states; and outside that family she would have been isolated and spiritually starved.

One of the greatest gifts of Christianity, it should be observed, and one of the most important influences in medieval civilization, was the network of monasteries which were now gradually established and became centers of active hospitality and the chief homes of such learning as was possible to the time.

ANGLO-SAXON POETRY. THE EARLY PAGAN POETRY AND 'BEOWULF.' The Anglo-Saxons doubtless brought with them from the Continent the rude beginnings of poetry, such as come first in the literature of every people and consist largely of brief magical charms and of rough 'popular ballads' (ballads of the people). The charms explain themselves as an inevitable product of primitive superstition; the ballads probably first sprang up and developed, among all races, in much the following way. At the very beginning of human society, long before the commencement of history, the primitive groups of savages who then constituted mankind were instinctively led to express their emotions together, communally, in rhythmical fashion. Perhaps after an achievement in hunting or war the village-group would mechanically fall into a dance, sometimes, it might be, about their village fire. Suddenly from among the inarticulate cries of the crowd some one excited individual would shout out a fairly distinct rhythmical expression. This expression, which may be called a line, was taken up and repeated by the crowd; others might be added to it, and thus gradually, in the course of generations, arose the regular habit of communal composition, composition of something like complete ballads by the throng as a whole. This procedure ceased to be important everywhere long before the literary period, but it led to the frequent composition by humble versifiers of more deliberate poems which were still 'popular' because they circulated by word of mouth, only, from generation to generation, among the common people, and formed one of the best expressions of their feeling. At an early period also professional minstrels, called by the Anglo-Saxons scops or gleemen, disengaged themselves from the crowd and began to gain their living by wandering from village to village or tribe to tribe chanting to the harp either the popular ballads or more formal poetry of their own composition. Among all races when a certain stage of social development is reached at least one such minstrel is to be found as a regular retainer at the court of every barbarous chief or king, ready to entertain the warriors at their feasts, with chants of heroes and battles and of the exploits of their present lord. All the earliest products of these processes of 'popular' and minstrel composition are everywhere lost long before recorded literature begins, but the processes themselves in their less formal stages continue among uneducated people (whose mental life always remains more or less primitive) even down to the present time.

Out of the popular ballads, or, chiefly, of the minstrel poetry which is partly based on them, regularly develops epic poetry. Perhaps a minstrel finds a number of ballads which deal with the exploits of a single hero or with a single event. He combines them as best he can into a unified story and recites this on important and stately occasions. As his work passes into general circulation other minstrels add other ballads, until at last, very likely after many generations, a complete epic is formed, outwardly continuous and whole, but generally more or less clearly separable on analysis into its original parts. Or, on the other hand, the combination may be mostly performed all at once at a comparatively late period by a single great poet, who with conscious art weaves together a great mass of separate materials into the nearly finished epic.

Not much Anglo-Saxon poetry of the pagan period has come down to us. By far the most important remaining example is the epic 'Beowulf,' of about three thousand lines. This poem seems to have originated on the Continent, but when and where are not now to be known. It may have been carried to England in the form of ballads by the Anglo-Saxons; or it may be Scandinavian material, later brought in by Danish or Norwegian pirates. At any rate it seems to have taken on its present form in England during the seventh and eighth centuries. It relates, with the usual terse and unadorned power of really primitive poetry, how the hero Beowulf, coming over the sea to the relief of King Hrothgar, delivers him from a monster, Grendel, and then from the vengeance of Grendel's only less formidable mother. Returned home in triumph, Beowulf much later receives the due reward of his valor by being made king of his own tribe, and meets his death while killing a fire-breathing dragon which has become a scourge to his people. As he appears in the poem, Beowulf is an idealized Anglo-Saxon hero, but in origin he may have been any one of several other different things. Perhaps he was the old Germanic god Beowa, and his exploits originally allegories, like some of those in the Greek mythology, of his services to man; he may, for instance, first have been the sun, driving away the mists and cold of winter and of the swamps, hostile forces personified in Grendel and his mother. Or, Beowulf may really have been a great human fighter who actually killed some especially formidable wild beasts, and whose superhuman strength in the poem results, through the similarity of names, from his being confused with Beowa. This is the more likely because there is in the poem a slight trace of authentic history. (See below, under the assignments for study.)

'Beowulf' presents an interesting though very incomplete picture of the life of the upper, warrior, caste among the northern Germanic tribes during their later period of barbarism on the Continent and in England, a life more highly developed than that of the Anglo-Saxons before their conquest of the island. About King Hrothgar are grouped his immediate retainers, the warriors, with whom he shares his wealth; it is a part of the character, of a good king to be generous in the distribution of gifts of gold and weapons. Somewhere in the background there must be a village, where the bondmen and slaves provide the daily necessaries of life and where some of the warriors may have houses and families; but all this is beneath the notice of the courtly poet. The center of the warriors' life is the great hall of the king, built chiefly of timber. Inside, there are benches and tables for feasting, and the walls are perhaps adorned with tapestries. Near the center is the hearth, whence the smoke must escape, if it escapes at all, through a hole in the roof. In the hall the warriors banquet, sometimes in the company of their wives, but the women retire before the later revelry which often leaves the men drunk on the floor. Sometimes, it seems, there are sleeping-rooms or niches about the sides of the hall, but in 'Beowulf' Hrothgar and his followers retire to other quarters. War, feasting, and hunting are the only occupations in which the warriors care to be thought to take an interest.

The spirit of the poem is somber and grim. There is no unqualified happiness of mood, and only brief hints of delight in the beauty and joy of the world. Rather, there is stern satisfaction in the performance of the warrior's and the sea-king's task, the determination of a strong-willed race to assert itself, and do, with much barbarian boasting, what its hand finds to do in the midst of a difficult life and a hostile nature. For the ultimate force in the universe of these fighters and their poets (in spite of certain Christian touches inserted by later poetic editors before the poem crystallized into its present form) is Wyrd, the Fate of the Germanic peoples, cold as their own winters and the bleak northern sea, irresistible, despotic, and unmoved by sympathy for man. Great as the differences are, very much of this Anglo-Saxon pagan spirit persists centuries later in the English Puritans.

For the finer artistic graces, also, and the structural subtilties of a more developed literary period, we must not, of course, look in 'Beowulf.' The narrative is often more dramatic than clear, and there is no thought of any minuteness of characterization. A few typical characters stand out clearly, and they were all that the poet's turbulent and not very attentive audience could understand. But the barbaric vividness and power of the poem give it much more than a merely historical interest; and the careful reader cannot fail to realize that it is after all the product of a long period of poetic development.

THE ANGLO-SAXON VERSE-FORM. The poetic form of 'Beowulf' is that of virtually all Anglo-Saxon poetry down to the tenth century, or indeed to the end, a form which is roughly represented in the present book in a passage of imitative translation two pages below. The verse is unrimed, not arranged in stanzas, and with lines more commonly end-stopped (with distinct pauses at the ends) than is true in good modern poetry. Each line is divided into halves and each half contains two stressed syllables, generally long in quantity. The number of unstressed syllables appears to a modern eye or ear irregular and actually is very unequal, but they are really combined with the stressed ones into 'feet' in accordance with certain definite principles. At least one of the stressed syllables in each half-line must be in alliteration with one in the other half-line; and most often the alliteration includes both stressed syllables in the first halfline and the first stressed syllable in the second, occasionally all four stressed syllables. (All vowels are held to alliterate with each other.) It will be seen therefore that (1) emphatic stress and (2) alliteration are the basal principles of the system. To a present-day reader the verse sounds crude, the more so because of the harshly consonantal character of the Anglo-Saxon language; and in comparison with modern poetry it is undoubtedly unmelodious. But it was worked out on conscious artistic principles, carefully followed; and when chanted, as it was meant to be, to the harp it possessed much power and even beauty of a vigorous sort, to which the pictorial and metaphorical wealth of the Anglo-Saxon poetic vocabulary largely contributed.

This last-named quality, the use of metaphors, is perhaps the most conspicuous one in the style of the Anglo-Saxon poetry. The language, compared to that of our own vastly more complex time, was undeveloped; but for use in poetry, especially, there were a great number of periphrastic but vividly picturesque metaphorical synonyms (technically called kennings). Thus the spear becomes 'the slaughter-shaft'; fighting 'hand-play'; the sword 'the leavings of the hammer' (or 'of the anvil'); and a ship 'the foamy-necked floater.' These kennings add much imaginative suggestiveness to the otherwise over-terse style, and often contribute to the grim irony which is another outstanding trait.

ANGLO-SAXON POETRY. THE NORTHUMBRIAN PERIOD. The Anglo-Saxons were for a long time fully occupied with the work of conquest and settlement, and their first literature of any importance, aside from 'Beowulf,' appears at about the time when 'Beowulf' was being put into its present form, namely in the seventh century. This was in the Northern, Anglian, kingdom of Northumbria (Yorkshire and Southern Scotland), which, as we have already said, had then won the political supremacy, and whose monasteries and capital city, York, thanks to the Irish missionaries, had become the chief centers of learning and culture in Western Christian Europe. Still pagan in spirit are certain obscure but, ingenious and skillfully developed riddles in verse, representatives of one form of popular literature only less early than the ballads and charms. There remain also a few pagan lyric poems, which are all not only somber like 'Beowulf' but distinctly elegiac, that is pensively melancholy. They deal with the hard and tragic things in life, the terrible power of ocean and storm, or the inexorableness and dreariness of death, banishment, and the separation of friends. In their frequent tender notes of pathos there may be some influence from the Celtic spirit. The greater part of the literature of the period, however, was Christian, produced in the monasteries or under their influence. The first Christian writer was Caedmon (pronounced Kadmon), who toward the end of the seventh century paraphrased in Anglo-Saxon verse some portions of the Bible. The legend of his divine call is famous. The following is a modern rendering of the hymn which is said to have been his first work:

Now must we worship the heaven-realm's Warder,
The Maker's might and his mind's thought,
The glory-father's work as he every wonder,
Lord everlasting, of old established.
He first fashioned the firmament for mortals,
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.
Then the midearth mankind's Warder,
Lord everlasting, afterwards wrought,
For men a garden, God almighty.

After Caedmon comes Bede, not a poet but a monk of strong and beautiful character, a profound scholar who in nearly forty Latin prose works summarized most of the knowledge of his time. The other name to be remembered is that of Cynewulf (pronounced Kinnywulf), the author of some noble religious poetry (in Anglo-Saxon), especially narratives dealing with Christ and Christian Apostles and heroes. There is still other Anglo-Saxon Christian poetry, generally akin in subjects to Cynewulf's, but in most of the poetry of the whole period the excellence results chiefly from the survival of the old pagan spirit which distinguishes 'Beowulf'. Where the poet writes for edification he is likely to be dull, but when his story provides him with sea-voyages, with battles, chances for dramatic dialogue, or any incidents of vigorous action or of passion, the zest for adventure and war rekindles, and we have descriptions and narratives of picturesque color and stern force. Sometimes there is real religious yearning, and indeed the heroes of these poems are partly medieval hermits and ascetics as well as quick-striking fighters; but for the most part the Christian Providence is really only the heathen Wyrd under another name, and God and Christ are viewed in much the same way as the Anglo-Saxon kings, the objects of feudal allegiance which is sincere but rather self-assertive and worldly than humble or consecrated.

On the whole, then, Anglo-Saxon poetry exhibits the limitations of a culturally early age, but it manifests also a degree of power which gives to Anglo-Saxon literature unquestionable superiority over that of any other European country of the same period.

THE WEST-SAXON, PROSE, PERIOD. The horrors which the Anglo-Saxons had inflicted on the Britons they themselves were now to suffer from their still heathen and piratical kinsmen the 'Danes' or Northmen, inhabitants or the Scandinavian peninsula and the neighboring coasts. For a hundred years, throughout the ninth century, the Danes, appearing with unwearied persistence, repeatedly ravaged and plundered England, and they finally made complete conquest of Northumbria, destroyed all the churches and monasteries, and almost completely extinguished learning. It is a familiar story how Alfred, king from 871 to 901 of the southern kingdom of Wessex (the land of the West Saxons), which had now taken first place among the Anglo-Saxon states, stemmed the tide of invasion and by ceding to the 'Danes' the whole northeastern half of the island obtained for the remainder the peace which was the first essential for the reestablishment of civilization. Peace secured, Alfred, who was one of the greatest of all English kings, labored unremittingly for learning, as for everything else that was useful, and he himself translated from Latin into Anglo-Saxon half a dozen of the best informational manuals of his time, manuals of history, philosophy, and religion. His most enduring literary work, however, was the inspiration and possibly partial authorship of the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,' a series of annals beginning with the Christian era, kept at various monasteries, and recording year by year (down to two centuries and a half after Alfred's own death), the most important events of history, chiefly that of England. Most of the entries in the 'Chronicle' are bare and brief, but sometimes, especially in the accounts of Alfred's own splendid exploits, a writer is roused to spirited narrative, occasionally in verse; and in the tenth century two great battles against invading Northmen, at Brunanburh and Maldon, produced the only important extant pieces of Anglo-Saxon poetry which certainly belong to the West Saxon period.

For literature, indeed, the West-Saxon period has very little permanent significance. Plenty of its other writing remains in the shape of religious prose--sermons, lives and legends of saints, biblical paraphrases, and similar work in which the monastic and priestly spirit took delight, but which is generally dull with the dulness of medieval commonplace didacticism and fantastic symbolism. The country, too, was still distracted with wars. Within fifty years after Alfred's death, to be sure, his descendants had won back the whole of England from 'Danish' rule (though the 'Danes,' then constituting half the population of the north and east, have remained to the present day a large element in the English race). But near the end of the tenth century new swarms of 'Danes' reappeared from the Baltic lands, once more slaughtering and devastating, until at last in the eleventh century the 'Danish' though Christian Canute ruled for twenty years over all England. In such a time there could be little intellectual or literary life. But the decline of the Anglo-Saxon literature speaks also partly of stagnation in the race itself. The people, though still sturdy, seem to have become somewhat dull from inbreeding and to have required an infusion of altogether different blood from without. This necessary renovation was to be violently forced upon them, for in 1066 Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey with his army of adventurers and his ill-founded claim to the crown, and before him at Hastings fell the gallant Harold and his nobles. By the fortune of this single fight, followed only by stern suppression of spasmodic outbreaks, William established himself and his vassals as masters of the land. England ceased to be Anglo-Saxon and became, altogether politically, and partly in race, Norman-French, a change more radical and far-reaching than any which it has since undergone.


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