English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History eBook

Henry Coppée
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 540 pages of information about English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History.

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
   John Mandevil.

SEMI-SAXON LITERATURE.

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    Whose glimpses are again withdrawn,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[15] 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: 

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