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THE POEMA MORALE (p. Iis the first important English poem after the Norman Conquest. It consists of a large number (about 400 lines) of moral and religious precepts embodying the author's philosophy of life, and was evidently written for the purpose of inculcating right living in all who read or heard it. As the short specimen given here shows, the questions of life, present and future, are treated in a spirit of selfish prudence, and the sentiment most frequently and powerfully appealed to is that of self-preservation. The spirit of the author is a sincere but hard and narrow Christianity, untouched by the tenderness of personal affection for Jesus or of concern for one's friends and fellow-men notable in the best work of Richard Rolle, Thomas de Hales, or even the dull but lovable Orrm. The author has, however, much skill in language and versification, and at times the vigor and vividness of his work is undeniable. The poem must have been very popular in its day, as all peoples in the early stages of development are fond of proverbial sayings and similar forms of practical wisdom. Several copies of it, made in various parts of England, have come down to us.
THE ORMULUM (p. 2) is interesting almost solely because the author was a theorist about English spelling. He devised a system of his own for representing the pronunciation as exactly as possible and carried it out with much skill and consistency throughout his long poem of 20,000 lines. As scholars are now greatly interested in learning how English was pronounced in early ages, Orrm's work is of the very highest value. As literature, it hardly deserves consideration. It was not intended to be a poem in the modern sense. It was written in verse because verse then seemed the proper form for anything that aspired to be literature. The author merely wished to present to his countrymen an English version of the Gospels read in the services of the church throughout the year, accompanied by explanations which should make clear their whole meaning, figurative as well as literal. Unfortunately, either he was very dull himself or he suspected his audience of almost impenetrable dullness, for he is not content to say a thing once with absolute simplicity and clearness, but must say it over and over again, and, in his anxiety that there shall be no mistake as to what he is talking about, is not satisfied to use pronouns for referring to matters already mentioned, but at each recurrence of them repeats all that he has previously said about them. His poem seems not to have been altogether unprovoked, for it was written at the request of his brother Walter ; but there is no evidence that it met with any appreciation, as the single copy that has been preserved seems to be that written by the author himself. In spite of his dullness, however, the gentleness and amiability of Orrm and his real love of God and his fellow-men is manifest in all his work.
LAYAMON, the author of The Brut (p. 2), is a man of much greater ability. His work is a versified chronicle or history of Britain from the destruction of Troy to 689 A.D. It is based mainly upon a similar French poem, the Roman de Brut by Wace, but Layamon added much from oral traditions known to him, especially about King Arthur. The merits of the poem at its best are those of a lively and picturesque narrative, rapid, simple, and vigorous, with much of the spirit of the older English epic. The versification also, though not precisely that of the older epic, is thoroughly national.
To us of the present day the most interesting parts of Layamon are those which deal with the story of King Lear, the coming of Hengist and Horsa, and, above all, the wars and death of King Arthur. The Brut contains about 30,000 lines and exists in two versions, one of about 1200 A.D., from which our selection is taken, and another of fifty years later, a sort of modernization made necessary by the rapid change of the language in those days.
KING HORN (p. 4) is one of the earliest and best of the metrical romances, kind of literature which then filled the place now occupied by the novel. Ancient romances, like early novels, usually begin at the beginning. In our first selection, this part of his subject has been treated with artistic brevity by the author and made essential to the story itself. The second selection gives a part of the love story of the exiled Horn, whose royal descent is kept concealed, and the Princess. Another incident of the same story, slightly modified, is given in the ballad of Hind Horn (p. 77). The narrative is full of incident, is well constructed, thoroughly motived, and told with rapidity and directness. The poem contains 1568 lines and, judging from the number of versions, was very popular.
THE OWL AND THE NIGHTINGALE (p. 7) is a work of very different character from any of the preceding. It is poetry in the modern sense of the term and deserves a very high rank when tested by the best standards of modern taste. The strife between the Owl and the Nightingale is in itself such a theme as existed by the hundred in mediæval literature. Strifes and debates, indeed, formed a special literary type, found in every language cultivated in Western Europe. There were strifes between Summer and Winter, between Youth and Age, between Water and Wine ; debates as to whether a soldier or a scholar is the better lover, as to whether women are an evil or a good, as to any subject having, or seeming to have, two sides. Only a few of them rise to any considerable dignity or beauty or force. One, The Debate between the Body and the Soul, is among the most powerful religious poems of that age and is almost as impressive to-day as when it was first written, though some of its themes have since been worn thread bare. What especially distinguishes The Owl and the Nightingale is the astonishing dramatic sympathy of the author. The grief and indignation of the Owl at the failure of the world to recognize the beauty of his song are set forth with the same imaginative simplicity and candor as is the Nightingale's confidence in her own superiority. Such sympathetic imaginative power, such psychological subtlety, and such humor as are shown in this poem, in Chaucer, and in Robert Henryson are rare even in these days when machinemade sympathy and subtlety have been put within the reach of the least endowed. The author's name is unknown; it has been supposed to be Nicholas de Guildford, because towards the end of the poem the birds agree to leave the decision of the strife between them to Master Nicholas of Guildford, who is described as very skillful in music. But obviously Master Nicholas is more probably not the author, but some friend of his. The poem contains 1794 lines.
CURSOR MUNDI (p. 9) is a versified account of biblical history from the Creation to the time of Solomon and from the birth of the Virgin Mary to her Assumption, ending with the Final Judgment. In subject matter and in the organization of it, Cursor Mundi resembles the great dramatic cycles of the Middle Ages; so much so, indeed, that it has been supposed to be the source of some of these plays. The poem is very long, about 25,000 lines, and seems to have been very widely read. The specimen given here exhibits its merits fairly and may serve to show us one of the most agreeable forms in which our ancestors received their knowledge of Bible history. The story here related is, of course, not from any of the canonical books of the Bible, but from the apocryphal pseudogospel of Matthew.
THOMAS DE HALES (p. 10) was a Franciscan friar, known to us by an affectionate message to him in a letter from the famous Adam de Marisco. It is therefore probable that the date ascribed to his poem should have been about 1250. It is certain that he lived before the order of friars had been corrupted by the intrusion of designing and unscrupulous men, and while it still retained the purity and enthusiasm of its great founder. Thomas was a man of great learning, but the sweetness and passionate simplicity of this little poem are not unworthy of the fine spirit of St. Francis himself. The subject of the poem and the circumstances of its composition as given in the first stanza, it may be noted, indicate the nearness of the friars to the people, – that familiar and homely interest in all the affairs of old and young which gave them their tremendous opportunities for good and for evil in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In lines 67-68 Dr. Morris's text is followed. It would have been better to keep the reading of the manuscript:
Amadas and Dideyne (= Idoyne)
Tristram, Yseude and alle theo.
The four little LYRICS (p. 12) brought together here are among the best of the multitudinous lyrics of the age. Many of them have been preserved for us in manuscripts, many others are alluded to or quoted in snatches by chroniclers or writers of narrative poems, and many many more must have perished entirely, either through loss of the manuscripts or because they were never written down. Enough remain to prove that the ancient fame of “Merrie England” for song was well deserved and to show that the poetical gifts of mediæval Englishmen are to be studied not in dull didactic poem or prosy rhymed chronicle, but in poems written in the spirit of free and joyous artistry. Better known than any of those given here is the charming Cuckoo-song, composed about 1250, of which the music as well as the words has come down to us. Of our selections the first and second are songs of springtime and love, and hardly require any comment, though it may be interesting to compare the second with the Earl of Surrey's treatment of the same theme on page 82. The fourth is an extract from a longer poem, but is a unit in itself and is one of the best lyrical expressions of a theme made famous to the Middle Ages by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and to all ages by François Villon (see Rossetti's translation of Villon's ballade, p. 532). Humorous songs are not rare in Middle English, but it is unusual to find one so thoroughly artistic in conception and execution as our third selection. The poem is uncommonly difficult, partly because of the language, but mainly because the speaker is dramatic and expects you to follow every shifting change of his thought, every fleeting suggestion that comes into his mind to explain the mysterious “man ” in the moon. The three first stanzas are a sort of wondering soliloquy about the “man"; the fourth is a direct address; the fifth, an expression of disappointment that the “man" will not accept the author's friendly suggestion. In line 8 the hedge is said to be the only one who knows what clothes the man wears, either because the thorns have retained bits of his rags or because like Autolycus (see Winter's Tale, IV, iii, 5, 24) he is conceived as a “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.” Lines 13–14 are, of course, a suggestion as to the reason why the man has a bundle of thorns on his back. Lines 15-16, I take it, explain why he was out late : the man, says the author, felt, as dark came on, that he must cut another truss; without it to complete his pile, all that he had cut would practically count for nothing. The allusion in lines 23-24 is to the fact that it was the duty of the hayward to see that no one trespassed in any of the fields under his charge and to arrest every such offender or take of him a pledge for appearance at the manor court. The friendly proposition in stanza 4 is entirely in keeping with the administration of justice in the Middle Ages, when a little judicious bribery of the officers of the law was recognized as a part of the regular course of business. No one who reads the poem often enough to surmount the initial difficulties of language can fail to recognize in it, not a mere happy accident of composition, but a bit of the work of a genuine artist in comedy floated down to us in the wreckage of time.
RICHARD ROLLE (p. 14) is one of the most interesting figures in English religious history. His mystical experiences of the love of God entitle him to a place beside St. Catharine of Sienna. As a poet, his technical skill is rather unusual for his time; but curiously enough none of his poetry, though he wrote much, rises to the heights of passionate beauty reached by the best of his Latin prose. His longest and best known poem is The Pricke of Conscience (9544 lines) dealing, in seven parts, with the wretchedness of human nature, the transitoriness of the world, the death of the body, purgatory, doomsday, the pains of hell, and the joys of heaven. Our selection is from the first part, and is a good specimen of his manner when untouched by strong emotion.
The author of Pearl (p. 15) and Syr GAWAYN AND THE GRENE KNYGHT (p. 18)— if they are really by the same author, as is usually supposed — was not merely a writer of great natural powers but a careful and conscious artist. It is supposed that Gawayn was written while the author was still occupied with worldly thoughts and interests and that Pearl and two or three) other religious poems were composed after his conversion to a serious religious life, and this is doubtless true if the poems be all the work of one man. Gawayn belongs, of course, to the number of metrical romances dealing with the knights of the Round Table and their adventures, but in one important respect it is very different from most of them. They are as a rule the work of authors who had little qualification for their task beyond a certain ease in narration and versification and a retentive memory. The author of Gawayn, however, does not merely repeat a story which he has heard or read; he uses the materials of tradition as freely as Tennyson or Arnold or Swinburne or any other modern artist, and displays a power of construction, a skill in climax, a sense of pictorial effects, fairly comparable with theirs. All this can be seen in the brief episode here given, which we have chosen not because it is better than many others but because it is self-explanatory. The interest of the reader is maintained unflaggingly throughout the 2550 lines of the poem. Pearl (12 12 lines), though entirely different in subject and tone and manner, is equally admirable. It seems to give the experience of a father who has lost a beloved little daughter, his “ Pearl," and who, a few years later, falling asleep in his arbor, sees her in a vision, not as the helpless child he has lost, but as a radiant and beautiful young maiden, the Bride of the Lamb, and talks with her about the joys of her heavenly abode. Recently it has been argued with great learning and ingenuity that the poet is a cleric and can have had no child, and that he is merely a man who, being interested in the theological doctrine of grace, not works, as the basis of rewards in heaven, attempted to illustrate and enforce the doctrine by an imaginary case of a baptised child dying in infancy and receiving in heaven rewards equal to those given the greater saints. There can be no doubt that, whether cleric or not, the poet was deeply versed in theology and believed ardently in the doctrine of grace, but no sufficient reason has been adduced for refusing to recognize the genuine personal tone of the poet's grief and love. That the child was not his own is reasonably clear from his remark that she was nearer to him than aunt or niece (line 233), and from the absence of the terms father and daughter in their conversation. But many a man has loved with great devotion a child not his own; Mr. Swinburne's charming poems (see pp. 561 and 562, and the whole series entitled A Dark Month, written when the beloved child was away on a visit) may serve as a notable instance. That the bereaved heart of a lonely man here found consolation in the new and blessed doctrine of grace seems