Besides the fact that the lyric chiefly will rouse the devotional feeling, there is another reason why I should principally use it: I wish to make my book valuable in its parts as in itself. The value of a thing depends in large measure upon its unity, its wholeness. In a work of these limits, that form of verse alone can be available for its unity which is like the song of the bird—a warble and then a stillness. However valuable an extract may be—and I shall not quite eschew such—an entire lyric, I had almost said however inferior, if worthy of a place at all, is of greater value, especially if regarded in relation to the form of setting with which I hope to surround it.
There is a sense in which I may, without presumption, adopt the name of Choragus, or leader of the chorus, in relation to these singers: I must take upon me to order who shall sing, when he shall sing, and which of his songs he shall sing. But I would rather assume the office of master of the hearing, for my aim shall be to cause the song to be truly heard; to set forth worthy points in form, in matter, and in relation; to say with regard to the singer himself, his time, its modes, its beliefs, such things as may help to set the song in its true light—its relation, namely, to the source whence it sprung, which alone can secure its right reception by the heart of the hearer. For my chief aim will be the heart; seeing that, although there is no dividing of the one from the other, the heart can do far more for the intellect than the intellect can do for the heart.
We must not now attempt to hear the singers of times so old that their language is unintelligible without labour. For this there is not room, even if otherwise it were desirable that such should divide the volume. We must leave Anglo-Saxon behind us. In Early English, I shall give a few valuable lyrics, but they shall not be so far removed from our present speech but that, with a reasonable amount of assistance, the nature and degree of which I shall set forth, they shall not only present themselves to the reader’s understanding, but commend themselves to his imagination and judgment.
Sacred lyrics of the thirteenth century.
In the midst of wars and rumours of wars, the strife of king and barons, and persistent efforts to subdue neighbouring countries, the mere effervescence of the life of the nation, let us think for a moment of that to which the poems I am about to present bear good witness—the true life of the people, growing quietly, slowly, unperceived—the leaven hid in the meal. For what is the true life of a nation? That, I answer, in its modes of thought, its manners and habits, which favours the growth within the individual of that kingdom of heaven for the sake only of which the kingdoms of earth exist. The true life of the people, as distinguished from the nation, is simply the growth in its individuals of those eternal principles of truth, in proportion to whose power in them they take rank in the kingdom of heaven, the only kingdom that can endure, all others being but as the mimicries of children playing at government.