Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

A History of English Literature by Robert Huntington Fletcher

Part 1 out of 7

Adobe PDF icon
Download A History of English Literature pdf
File size: 0.9 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

Produced by Branko Collin, David Moynihan, Charles Franks
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.

A History of English Literature

by Robert Huntington Fletcher



This book aims to provide a general manual of English Literature for
students in colleges and universities and others beyond the high-school
age. The first purposes of every such book must be to outline the
development of the literature with due regard to national life, and to give
appreciative interpretation of the work of the most important authors. I
have written the present volume because I have found no other that, to my
mind, combines satisfactory accomplishment of these ends with a selection
of authors sufficiently limited for clearness and with adequate accuracy
and fulness of details, biographical and other. A manual, it seems to me,
should supply a systematic statement of the important facts, so that the
greater part of the student's time, in class and without, may be left free
for the study of the literature itself.

I hope that the book may prove adaptable to various methods and conditions
of work. Experience has suggested the brief introductory statement of main
literary principles, too often taken for granted by teachers, with much
resulting haziness in the student's mind. The list of assignments and
questions at the end is intended, of course, to be freely treated. I hope
that the list of available inexpensive editions of the chief authors may
suggest a practical method of providing the material, especially for
colleges which can provide enough copies for class use. Poets, of course,
may be satisfactorily read in volumes of, selections; but to me, at least,
a book of brief extracts from twenty or a hundred prose authors is an
absurdity. Perhaps I may venture to add that personally I find it advisable
to pass hastily over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and so gain
as much time as possible for the nineteenth.

R. H. F.

_August, 1916._





TO A.D. 1066

A.D. 1066 TO ABOUT 1350

ABOUT 1350 TO ABOUT 1500








1830 TO 1901





TWO ASPECTS OF LITERARY STUDY. Such a study of Literature as that for which
the present book is designed includes two purposes, contributing to a
common end. In the first place (I), the student must gain some general
knowledge of the conditions out of which English literature has come into
being, as a whole and during its successive periods, that is of the
external facts of one sort or another without which it cannot be
understood. This means chiefly (1) tracing in a general way, from period to
period, the social life of the nation, and (2) getting some acquaintance
with the lives of the more important authors. The principal thing, however
(II), is the direct study of the literature itself. This study in turn
should aim first at an _understanding_ of the literature as an
expression of the authors' views of life and of their personalities and
especially as a portrayal and interpretation of the life of their periods
and of all life as they have seen it; it should aim further at an
_appreciation_ of each literary work as a product of Fine Art,
appealing with peculiar power both to our minds and to our emotions, not
least to the sense of Beauty and the whole higher nature. In the present
book, it should perhaps be added, the word Literature is generally
interpreted in the strict sense, as including only writing of permanent
significance and beauty.

The outline discussion of literary qualities which follows is intended to
help in the formation of intelligent and appreciative judgments.

SUBSTANCE AND FORM. The most thoroughgoing of all distinctions in
literature, as in the other Fine Arts, is that between (1) Substance, the
essential content and meaning of the work, and (2) Form, the manner in
which it is expressed (including narrative structure, external style, in
poetry verse-form, and many related matters). This distinction should be
kept in mind, but in what follows it will not be to our purpose to
emphasize it.

GENERAL MATTERS. 1. First and always in considering any piece of literature
a student should ask himself the question already implied: Does it present
a true portrayal of life--of the permanent elements in all life and in
human nature, of the life or thought of its own particular period, and (in
most sorts of books) of the persons, real or imaginary, with whom it deals?
If it properly accomplishes this main purpose, when the reader finishes it
he should feel that his understanding of life and of people has been
increased and broadened. But it should always be remembered that truth is
quite as much a matter of general spirit and impression as of literal
accuracy in details of fact. The essential question is not, Is the
presentation of life and character perfect in a photographic fashion? but
Does it convey the _underlying_ realities? 2. Other things being
equal, the value of a book, and especially of an author's whole work, is
proportional to its range, that is to the breadth and variety of the life
and characters which it presents. 3. A student should not form his
judgments merely from what is technically called the _dogmatic_ point
of view, but should try rather to adopt that of _historical_
criticism. This means that he should take into account the limitations
imposed on every author by the age in which he lived. If you find that the
poets of the Anglo-Saxon 'Beowulf' have given a clear and interesting
picture of the life of our barbarous ancestors of the sixth or seventh
century A. D., you should not blame them for a lack of the finer elements
of feeling and expression which after a thousand years of civilization
distinguish such delicate spirits as Keats and Tennyson. 4. It is often
important to consider also whether the author's personal method is
_objective_, which means that he presents life and character without
bias; or _subjective_, coloring his work with his personal tastes,
feelings and impressions. Subjectivity may be a falsifying influence, but
it may also be an important virtue, adding intimacy, charm, or force. 5.
Further, one may ask whether the author has a deliberately formed theory of
life; and if so how it shows itself, and, of course, how sound it is.

question in judging any book concerns the union which it shows: (1) of the
Intellectual faculty, that which enables the author to understand and
control his material and present it with directness and clearness; and (2)
of the Emotion, which gives warmth, enthusiasm, and appealing human power.
The relative proportions of these two faculties vary greatly in books of
different sorts. Exposition (as in most essays) cannot as a rule be
permeated with so much emotion as narration or, certainly, as lyric poetry.
In a great book the relation of the two faculties will of course properly
correspond to form and spirit. Largely a matter of Emotion is the Personal
Sympathy of the author for his characters, while Intellect has a large
share in Dramatic Sympathy, whereby the author enters truly into the
situations and feelings of any character, whether he personally likes him
or not. Largely made up of Emotion are: (1) true Sentiment, which is fine
feeling of any sort, and which should not degenerate into Sentimentalism
(exaggerated tender feeling); (2) Humor, the instinctive sense for that
which is amusing; and (3) the sense for Pathos. Pathos differs from Tragedy
in that Tragedy (whether in a drama or elsewhere) is the suffering of
persons who are able to struggle against it, Pathos the suffering of those
persons (children, for instance) who are merely helpless victims. Wit, the
brilliant perception of incongruities, is a matter of Intellect and the
complement of Humor.

IMAGINATION AND FANCY. Related to Emotion also and one of the most
necessary elements in the higher forms of literature is Imagination, the
faculty of making what is absent or unreal seem present and real, and
revealing the hidden or more subtile forces of life. Its main operations
may be classified under three heads: (1) Pictorial and Presentative. It
presents to the author's mind, and through him to the minds of his readers,
all the elements of human experience and life (drawing from his actual
experience or his reading). 2. Selective, Associative, and Constructive.
From the unorganized material thus brought clearly to the author's
consciousness Imagination next selects the details which can be turned to
present use, and proceeds to combine them, uniting scattered traits and
incidents, perhaps from widely different sources, into new characters,
stories, scenes, and ideas. The characters of 'Silas Marner,' for example,
never had an actual existence, and the precise incidents of the story never
took place in just that order and fashion, but they were all constructed by
the author's imagination out of what she had observed of many real persons
and events, and so make, in the most significant sense, a true picture of
life. 3. Penetrative and Interpretative. In its subtlest operations,
further, Imagination penetrates below the surface and comprehends and
brings to light the deeper forces and facts--the real controlling instincts
of characters, the real motives for actions, and the relations of material
things to those of the spiritual world and of Man to Nature and God.

Fancy may for convenience be considered as a distinct faculty, though it is
really the lighter, partly superficial, aspect of Imagination. It deals
with things not essentially or significantly true, amusing us with striking
or pleasing suggestions, such as seeing faces in the clouds, which vanish
almost as soon as they are discerned. Both Imagination and Fancy naturally
express themselves, often and effectively, through the use of metaphors,
similes, and suggestive condensed language. In painful contrast to them
stands commonplaceness, always a fatal fault.

IDEALISM, ROMANCE, AND REALISM. Among the most important literary qualities
also are Idealism, Romance, and Realism. Realism, in the broad sense, means
simply the presentation of the actual, depicting life as one sees it,
objectively, without such selection as aims deliberately to emphasize some
particular aspects, such as the pleasant or attractive ones. (Of course all
literature is necessarily based on the ordinary facts of life, which we may
call by the more general name of Reality.) Carried to the extreme, Realism
may become ignoble, dealing too frankly or in unworthy spirit with the
baser side of reality, and in almost all ages this sort of Realism has
actually attempted to assert itself in literature. Idealism, the tendency
opposite to Realism, seeks to emphasize the spiritual and other higher
elements, often to bring out the spiritual values which lie beneath the
surface. It is an optimistic interpretation of life, looking for what is
good and permanent beneath all the surface confusion. Romance may be called
Idealism in the realm of sentiment. It aims largely to interest and
delight, to throw over life a pleasing glamor; it generally deals with love
or heroic adventure; and it generally locates its scenes and characters in
distant times and places, where it can work unhampered by our consciousness
of the humdrum actualities of our daily experience. It may always be asked
whether a writer of Romance makes his world seem convincingly real as we
read or whether he frankly abandons all plausibility. The presence or
absence of a supernatural element generally makes an important difference.
Entitled to special mention, also, is spiritual Romance, where attention is
centered not on external events, which may here be treated in somewhat
shadowy fashion, but on the deeper questions of life. Spiritual Romance,
therefore, is essentially idealistic.

DRAMATIC POWER. Dramatic power, in general, means the presentation of life
with the vivid active reality of life and character which especially
distinguishes the acted drama. It is, of course, one of the main things to
be desired in most narrative; though sometimes the effect sought may be
something different, as, for instance, in romance and poetry, an atmosphere
of dreamy beauty. In a drama, and to some extent in other forms of
narrative, dramatic power culminates in the ability to bring out the great
crises with supreme effectiveness.

CHARACTERS. There is, generally speaking, no greater test of an author's
skill than his knowledge and presentation of characters. We should consider
whether he makes them (1) merely caricatures, or (2) type characters,
standing for certain general traits of human nature but not convincingly
real or especially significant persons, or (3) genuine individuals with all
the inconsistencies and half-revealed tendencies that in actual life belong
to real personality. Of course in the case of important characters, the
greater the genuine individuality the greater the success. But with
secondary characters the principles of emphasis and proportion generally
forbid very distinct individualization; and sometimes, especially in comedy
(drama), truth of character is properly sacrificed to other objects, such
as the main effect. It may also be asked whether the characters are simple,
as some people are in actual life, or complex, like most interesting
persons; whether they develop, as all real people must under the action of
significant experience, or whether the author merely presents them in brief
situations or lacks the power to make them anything but stationary. If
there are several of them it is a further question whether the author
properly contrasts them in such a way as to secure interest. And a main
requisite is that he shall properly motivate their actions, that is make
their actions result naturally from their characters, either their
controlling traits or their temporary impulses.

STRUCTURE. In any work of literature there should be definite structure.
This requires, (1) Unity, (2) Variety, (3) Order, (4) Proportion, and (5)
due Emphasis of parts. Unity means that everything included in the work
ought to contribute directly or indirectly to the main effect. Very often a
definite theme may be found about which the whole work centers, as for
instance in 'Macbeth,' The Ruin of a Man through Yielding to Evil.
Sometimes, however, as in a lyric poem, the effect intended may be the
rendering or creation of a mood, such as that of happy content, and in that
case the poem may not have an easily expressible concrete theme.

Order implies a proper beginning, arrangement, progress, and a definite
ending. In narrative, including all stories whether in prose or verse and
also the drama, there should be traceable a Line of Action, comprising
generally: (1) an Introduction, stating the necessary preliminaries; (2)
the Initial Impulse, the event which really sets in motion this particular
story; (3) a Rising Action; (4) a Main Climax. Sometimes (generally, in
Comedy) the Main Climax is identical with the Outcome; sometimes (regularly
in Tragedy) the Main Climax is a turning point and comes near the middle of
the story. In that case it really marks the beginning of the success of the
side which is to be victorious at the end (in Tragedy the side opposed to
the hero) and it initiates (5) a Falling Action, corresponding to the
Rising Action, and sometimes of much the same length, wherein the losing
side struggles to maintain itself. After (6) the Outcome, may come (7) a
brief tranquilizing Conclusion. The Antecedent Action is that part of the
characters' experiences which precedes the events of the story. If it has a
bearing, information about it must be given either in the Introduction or
incidentally later on. Sometimes, however, the structure just indicated may
not be followed; a story may begin in the middle, and the earlier part may
be told later on in retrospect, or incidentally indicated, like the
Antecedent Action.

If in any narrative there is one or more Secondary Action, a story which
might be separated from the Main Action and viewed as complete in itself,
criticism should always ask whether the Main and Secondary Actions are
properly unified. In the strictest theory there should be an essential
connection between them; for instance, they may illustrate different and
perhaps contrasting aspects of the general theme. Often, however, an author
introduces a Secondary Action merely for the sake of variety or to increase
the breadth of his picture--in order to present a whole section of society
instead of one narrow stratum or group. In such cases, he must generally be
judged to have succeeded if he has established an apparent unity, say by
mingling the same characters in the two actions, so that readers are not
readily conscious of the lack of real structural unity.

Other things to be considered in narrative are: Movement, which, unless for
special reasons, should be rapid, at least not slow and broken; Suspense;
general Interest; and the questions whether or not there are good
situations and good minor climaxes, contributing to the interest; and
whether or not motivation is good, apart from that which results from
character, that is whether events are properly represented as happening in
accordance with the law of cause and effect which inexorably governs actual
life. But it must always be remembered that in such writing as Comedy and
Romance the strict rules of motivation must be relaxed, and indeed in all
literature, even in Tragedy, the idealization, condensation, and
heightening which are the proper methods of Art require them to be slightly

DESCRIPTIVE POWER. Usually secondary in appearance but of vital artistic
importance, is the author's power of description, of picturing both the
appearance of his characters and the scenes which make his background and
help to give the tone of his work. Perhaps four subjects of description may
be distinguished: 1. External Nature. Here such questions as the following
are of varying importance, according to the character and purpose of the
work: Does the author know and care for Nature and frequently introduce
descriptions? Are the descriptions concrete and accurate, or on the other
hand purposely general (impressionistic) or carelessly superficial? Do they
give fine variations of appearance and impression, such as delicate
shiftings of light and shade and delicate tones of color? Are they
powerfully sensuous, that is do they appeal strongly to the physical
senses, of sight (color, light, and movement), sound (including music),
smell, taste, touch, and general physical sensation? How great is their
variety? Do they deal with many parts of Nature, for example the sea,
mountains, plains, forests, and clouds? Is the love of external beauty a
passion with the author? What is the author's attitude toward Nature--(1)
does he view Nature in a purely objective way, as a mass of material
things, a series of material phenomena or a mere embodiment of sensuous
beauty; or (2) is there symbolism or mysticism in his attitude, that
is--does he view Nature with awe as a spiritual power; or (3) is he
thoroughly subjective, reading his own moods into Nature or using Nature
chiefly for the expression of his moods? Or again, does the author describe
with merely expository purpose, to make the background of his work clear?
2. Individual Persons and Human Life: Is the author skilful in descriptions
of personal appearance and dress? Does he produce his impressions by full
enumeration of details, or by emphasis on prominent or characteristic
details? How often and how fully does he describe scenes of human activity
(such as a street scene, a social gathering, a procession on the march)? 3.
How frequent and how vivid are his descriptions of the inanimate background
of human life--buildings, interiors of rooms, and the rest? 4. Does the
author skilfully use description to create the general atmosphere in which
he wishes to invest his work--an atmosphere of cheerfulness, of mystery, of
activity, or any of a hundred other moods?

STYLE. Style in general means 'manner of writing.' In the broad sense it
includes everything pertaining to the author's spirit and point of
view--almost everything which is here being discussed. More narrowly
considered, as 'external style,' it designates the author's use of
language. Questions to be asked in regard to external style are such as
these: Is it good or bad, careful or careless, clear and easy or confused
and difficult; simple or complex; terse and forceful (perhaps colloquial)
or involved and stately; eloquent, balanced, rhythmical; vigorous, or
musical, languid, delicate and decorative; varied or monotonous; plain or
figurative; poor or rich in connotation and poetic suggestiveness;
beautiful, or only clear and strong? Are the sentences mostly long or
short; periodic or loose; mostly of one type, such as the declarative, or
with frequent introduction of such other forms as the question and the

POETRY. Most of what has thus far been said applies to both Prose and
Poetry. But in Poetry, as the literature especially characterized in
general by high Emotion, Imagination, and Beauty, finer and more delicate
effects are to be sought than in Prose. Poetry, generally speaking, is the
expression of the deeper nature; it belongs peculiarly to the realm of the
spirit. On the side of poetical expression such imaginative figures of
speech as metaphors and similes, and such devices as alliteration, prove
especially helpful. It may be asked further of poetry, whether the meter
and stanza structure are appropriate to the mood and thought and so handled
as to bring out the emotion effectively; and whether the sound is adapted
to the sense (for example, musical where the idea is of peace or quiet
beauty). If the sound of the words actually imitates the sound of the thing
indicated, the effect is called Onomatopoeia. Among kinds of poetry,
according to form, the most important are: (1) Narrative, which includes
many subordinate forms, such as the Epic. (2) Lyric. Lyric poems are
expressions of spontaneous emotion and are necessarily short. (3) Dramatic,
including not merely the drama but all poetry of vigorous action. (4)
Descriptive, like Goldsmith's 'Deserted Village' and Tennyson's 'Dream of
Fair Women.' Minor kinds are: (5) Satiric; and (6) Didactic.

Highly important in poetry is Rhythm, but the word means merely 'flow,' so
that rhythm belongs to prose as well as to poetry. Good rhythm is merely a
pleasing succession of sounds. Meter, the distinguishing formal mark of
poetry and all verse, is merely rhythm which is regular in certain
fundamental respects, roughly speaking is rhythm in which the recurrence of
stressed syllables or of feet with definite time-values is regular. There
is no proper connection either in spelling or in meaning between rhythm and
rime (which is generally misspelled 'rhyme'). The adjective derived from
'rhythm' is 'rhythmical'; there is no adjective from 'rime' except 'rimed.'
The word 'verse' in its general sense includes all writing in meter. Poetry
is that verse which has real literary merit. In a very different and
narrower sense 'verse' means 'line' (never properly 'stanza').

CLASSICISM AND ROMANTICISM. Two of the most important contrasting
tendencies of style in the general sense are Classicism and Romanticism.
Classicism means those qualities which are most characteristic of the best
literature of Greece and Rome. It is in fact partly identical with
Idealism. It aims to express the inner truth or central principles of
things, without anxiety for minor details, and it is by nature largely
intellectual in quality, though not by any means to the exclusion of
emotion. In outward form, therefore, it insists on correct structure,
restraint, careful finish and avoidance of all excess. 'Paradise Lost,'
Arnold's 'Sohrab and Rustum,' and Addison's essays are modern examples.
Romanticism, which in general prevails in modern literature, lays most
emphasis on independence and fulness of expression and on strong emotion,
and it may be comparatively careless of form. The Classical style has well
been called sculpturesque, the Romantic picturesque. The virtues of the
Classical are exquisiteness and incisive significance; of the Romantic,
richness and splendor. The dangers of the Classical are coldness and
formality; of the Romantic, over-luxuriance, formlessness and excess of
emotion. [Footnote: All these matters, here merely suggested, are fully
discussed in the present author's 'Principles of Composition and
Literature.' (The A. S. Barnes Co.)]


I. The Britons and the Anglo-Saxon Period, from the
beginning to the Norman Conquest in 1066 A. D.
A. The Britons, before and during the Roman occupation,
to the fifth century.
B. Anglo-Saxon Poetry, on the Continent in prehistoric
times before the migration to England, and in England
especially during the Northumbrian Period, seventh and
eighth centuries A. D. Ballads, 'Beowulf,' Caedmon,
Bede (Latin prose), Cynewulf.
C. Anglo-Saxon Prose, of the West Saxon Period, tenth
and eleventh centuries, beginning with King Alfred,
871-901. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
II. The Norman-French, Period, 1066 to about 1350.
Literature in Latin, French, and English. Many different
forms, both religious and secular, including the
religious drama. The Metrical Romances, including the
Arthurian Cycle. Geoffrey of Monmouth, 'Historia
Regum Britanniae' (Latin), about 1136. Wace, 'Brut'
(French), about 1155. Laghamon, 'Brut' (English),
about 1200.
III. The End of the Middle Ages, about 1350 to about 1500.
The Hundred Years' War. 'Sir John Mandeyille's'
'Voyage.' Chaucer, 1338-1400. John Gower. 'The
Vision Concerning Piers the Plowman.' Wiclif and
the Lollard Bible, about 1380. Popular Ballads. The
War of the Roses. Malory's 'Morte Darthur,' finished
1467. Caxton and the printing press, 1476. Morality
Plays and Interludes.
IV. The Renaissance and the Elizabethan Period, about 1500
to 1603.
Great discoveries and activity, both intellectual and
physical. Influence of Italy. The Reformation.
Henry VIII, 1509-47. Edward VI, to 1553. Mary, to 1558.
Elizabeth, 1558-1603. Defeat of the Armada, 1588.
Sir Thomas More, 'Utopia.' Tyndale's New Testament
and other translations of the Bible.
Wyatt and Surrey, about 1540.
Prose Fiction. Lyly's 'Euphues,' 1578. Sidney's
Spenser, 1552-1599. 'The Shepherd's Calendar,' 1579.
'The Faerie Queene,' 1590 and later.
Lyric poetry, including sonnet sequences. John Donne.
The Drama. Classical and native influences. Lyly,
Peele, Greene, Marlowe. Shakspere, 1564-1616. Ben
Jonson and other dramatists.
V. The Seventeenth Century, 1603-1660.
The First Stuart Kings, James I (to 1625) and Charles I.
Cavaliers and Puritans. The Civil War and the Commonwealth.
The Drama, to 1642.
Francis Bacon.
The King James Bible, 1611.
Lyric Poets. Herrick. The 'Metaphysical' religious
poets--Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan. Cavalier and
Puritan poets.
Milton, 1608-1674.
John Bunyan, 'Pilgrim's Progress.' 1678.

VI. The Restoration Period, from the Restoration of Charles II
in 1660 to the death of Dryden in 1700.
Charles II, 1660-1685. James II, 1685 to the Revolution
in 1688. William and Mary, 1688-1702.
Butler's 'Hudibras.' Pepys' 'Diary.' The Restoration
Drama. Dryden, 1631-1700.

VII. The Eighteenth Century.
Queen Anne, 1702-1715. The four Georges, 1715-1830.

Swift, 1667-1745.
Addison, 1672-1719.
Steele, 1672-1729.
Pope, 1688-1744.
Johnson, 1709-1784.

Burke, 1729-1797.
Gibbon, 'Decline and
Fall,' 1776-1788.
Boswell, 'Life of
Johnson,' 1791.

'Sir Roger de Coverly,'
Defoe, 1661-1731.
'Robinson Crusoe,'
Richardson, 1689-1761.
'Clarissa Harlowe,'
Fielding, 1707-1754.
Goldsmith, 'Vicar of
Wakefield,' 1766.
Historical and 'Gothic'
Miss Burney, 'Evelina,'
Revolutionary Novels
of Purpose. Godwin,
'Caleb Williams.'
Miss Edgeworth.
Miss Austen.

Thomson, 'The Seasons,'
Collins, 'Odes,' 1747.
Gray, 1716-71.
Percy's 'Reliques,'
Goldsmith, 'The Deserted
Macpherson, Ossianic
Burns, 1759-96.

Pseudo-Classical Tragedy,
'Cato,' 1713.
Sentimental Comedy.
Domestic Tragedy.
Revival of genuine
Comedy of
Manners. Goldsmith,
'She Stoops to
Conquer,' 1773.

VIII. The Romantic Triumph, 1798 to about 1830.
Coleridge, 1772-1834. Wordsworth, 1770-1850. Southey,
1774-1843. Scott, 1771-1832.
Byron, 1788-1824. Shelley, 1792-1822. Keats, 1759-1821.

IX. The Victorian Period, about 1830-1901.
Victoria Queen, 1837-1901.


Macaulay, 1800-1859. Mrs. Browning, 1806- Charlotte Bronte,
Carlyle, 1795-1881. 1861. 1816-1855.
Ruskin, 1819-1900. Tennyson, 1809-1892. Dickens, 1812-1870.
Browning, 1812-1889. Thackeray, 1811-1863.
Matthew Arnold, Kingsley, 1819-1875.
poems, 1848-58. George Eliot, 1819-
Rossetti, 1828-82. 1880.
Matthew Arnold, Morris, 1834-96. Reade, 1814-1884.
essays, 1861-82. Swinburne, 1837-1909. Trollope, 1815-1882.
Blackmore, 'Lorna
Doone,' 1869.
Shorthouse,' John
Inglesant,' 1881.
Meredith, 1828-1910.
Thomas Hardy, 1840-
Stevenson, 1850-1894.
Kipling, 1865- Kipling, 1865-


It is not a part of the plan of this book to present any extended
bibliography, but there are certain reference books to which the student's
attention should be called. 'Chambers' Cyclopedia of English Literature,'
edition of 1910, published in the United States by the J. B. Lippincott Co.
in three large volumes at $15.00 (generally sold at about half that price)
is in most parts very satisfactory. Garnett and Gosse's 'Illustrated
History of English Literature, four volumes, published by the Macmillan Co.
at $20.00 and in somewhat simpler form by Grosset and Dunlap at $12.00
(sold for less) is especially valuable for its illustrations. Jusserand's
'Literary History of the English People' (to 1642, G. P. Putnam's Sons,
three volumes, $3.50 a volume) should be mentioned. Courthope's 'History of
English Poetry' (Macmillan, six volumes, $3.25 a volume), is full and after
the first volume good. 'The Cambridge History of English Literature,' now
nearing completion in fourteen volumes (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $2.50 a
volume) is the largest and in most parts the most scholarly general work in
the field, but is generally too technical except for special students. The
short biographies of many of the chief English authors in the English Men
of Letters Series (Macmillan, 30 and 75 cents a volume) are generally
admirable. For appreciative criticism of some of the great poets the essays
of Lowell and of Matthew Arnold are among the best. Frederick Byland's
'Chronological Outlines of English Literature' (Macmillan, $1.00) is very
useful for reference though now much in need of revision. It is much to be
desired that students should have at hand for consultation some good short
history of England, such as that of S. E. Gardiner (Longmans, Green, and
Co.) or that of J. R. Green.



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

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 Shakspere 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.

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.

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.

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. [Footnote: It may be found in Garnett
and Gosse, I, 19-20.] 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.
[Footnote: Vivid though inaccurate pictures of life and events at the time
of the Norman Conquest are given in Bulwer-Lytton's 'Harold' and Charles
Kingsley's 'Hereward the Wake.' Tennyson's tragedy 'Harold' is much better
than either, though more limited in scope.]


Scott's 'Ivanhoe,' the best-known work of fiction dealing with any part of
this period, is interesting, but as a picture of life at the end of the
twelfth century is very misleading. The date assigned to his 'Betrothed,'
one of his less important, novels, is about the same.]

THE NORMANS. The Normans who conquered England were originally members of
the same stock as the 'Danes' who had harried and conquered it in the
preceding centuries--the ancestors of both were bands of Baltic and North
Sea pirates who merely happened to emigrate in different directions; and a
little farther back the Normans were close cousins, in the general Germanic
family, of the Anglo-Saxons themselves. The exploits of this whole race of
Norse sea-kings make one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of
medieval Europe. In the ninth and tenth centuries they mercilessly ravaged
all the coasts not only of the West but of all Europe from the Rhine to the
Adriatic. 'From the fury of the Norsemen, good Lord, deliver us!' was a
regular part of the litany of the unhappy French. They settled Iceland and
Greenland and prematurely discovered America; they established themselves
as the ruling aristocracy in Russia, and as the imperial body-guard and
chief bulwark of the Byzantine empire at Constantinople; and in the
eleventh century they conquered southern Italy and Sicily, whence in the
first crusade they pressed on with unabated vigor to Asia Minor. Those
bands of them with whom we are here concerned, and who became known
distinctively as Normans, fastened themselves as settlers, early in the
eleventh century, on the northern shore of France, and in return for their
acceptance of Christianity and acknowledgment of the nominal feudal
sovereignty of the French king were recognized as rightful possessors of
the large province which thus came to bear the name of Normandy. Here by
intermarriage with the native women they rapidly developed into a race
which while retaining all their original courage and enterprise took on
also, together with the French language, the French intellectual brilliancy
and flexibility and in manners became the chief exponent of medieval

The different elements contributed to the modern English character by the
latest stocks which have been united in it have been indicated by Matthew
Arnold in a famous passage ('On the Study of Celtic Literature'): 'The
Germanic [Anglo-Saxon and 'Danish'] genius has steadiness as its main
basis, with commonness and humdrum for its defect, fidelity to nature for
its excellence. The Norman genius, talent for affairs as its main basis,
with strenuousness and clear rapidity for its excellence, hardness and
insolence for its defect.' The Germanic (Anglo-Saxon and 'Danish') element
explains, then, why uneducated Englishmen of all times have been
thick-headed, unpleasantly self-assertive, and unimaginative, but sturdy
fighters; and the Norman strain why upper-class Englishmen have been
self-contained, inclined to snobbishness, but vigorously aggressive and
persevering, among the best conquerors, organizers, and administrators in
the history of the world.

SOCIAL RESULTS OF THE CONQUEST. In most respects, or all, the Norman
conquest accomplished precisely that racial rejuvenation of which, as we
have seen, Anglo-Saxon England stood in need. For the Normans brought with
them from France the zest for joy and beauty and dignified and stately
ceremony in which the Anglo-Saxon temperament was poor--they brought the
love of light-hearted song and chivalrous sports, of rich clothing, of
finely-painted manuscripts, of noble architecture in cathedrals and
palaces, of formal religious ritual, and of the pomp and display of all
elaborate pageantry. In the outcome they largely reshaped the heavy mass of
Anglo-Saxon life into forms of grace and beauty and brightened its duller
surface with varied and brilliant colors. For the Anglo-Saxons themselves,
however, the Conquest meant at first little else than that bitterest and
most complete of all national disasters, hopeless subjection to a
tyrannical and contemptuous foe. The Normans were not heathen, as the
'Danes' had been, and they were too few in number to wish to supplant the
conquered people; but they imposed themselves, both politically and
socially, as stern and absolute masters. King William confirmed in their
possessions the few Saxon nobles and lesser land-owners who accepted his
rule and did not later revolt; but both pledges and interest compelled him
to bestow most of the estates of the kingdom, together with the widows of
their former holders, on his own nobles and the great motley throng of
turbulent fighters who had made up his invading army. In the lordships and
manors, therefore, and likewise in the great places of the Church, were
established knights and nobles, the secular ones holding in feudal tenure
from the king or his immediate great vassals, and each supported in turn by
Norman men-at-arms; and to them were subjected as serfs, workers bound to
the land, the greater part of the Saxon population. As visible signs of the
changed order appeared here and there throughout the country massive and
gloomy castles of stone, and in the larger cities, in place of the simple
Anglo-Saxon churches, cathedrals lofty and magnificent beyond all
Anglo-Saxon dreams. What sufferings, at the worst, the Normans inflicted on
the Saxons is indicated in a famous passage of the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,'
an entry seventy years subsequent to the Conquest, of which the least
distressing part may be thus paraphrased:

'They filled the land full of castles. [Footnote: This was only during a
period of anarchy. For the most part the nobles lived in manor-houses, very
rude according to our ideas. See Train's 'Social England,' I, 536 ff.] They
compelled the wretched men of the land to build their castles and wore them
out with hard labor. When the castles were made they filled them with
devils and evil men. Then they took all those whom they thought to have any
property, both by night and by day, both men and women, and put them in
prison for gold and silver, and tormented them with tortures that cannot be
told; for never were any martyrs so tormented as these were.'

their own race and identity were destined to be absorbed in those of the
Anglo-Saxons could never have occurred to any of the Normans who stood with
William at Hastings, and scarcely to any of their children. Yet this result
was predetermined by the stubborn tenacity and numerical superiority of the
conquered people and by the easy adaptability of the Norman temperament.
Racially, and to a less extent socially, intermarriage did its work, and
that within a very few generations. Little by little, also, Norman contempt
and Saxon hatred were softened into tolerance, and at last even into a
sentiment of national unity. This sentiment was finally to be confirmed by
the loss of Normandy and other French possessions of the Norman-English
kings in the thirteenth century, a loss which transformed England from a
province of the Norman Continental empire and of a foreign nobility into an
independent country, and further by the wars ('The Hundred Years' War')
which England-Norman nobility and Saxon yeomen fighting together--carried
on in France in the fourteenth century.

In language and literature the most general immediate result of the
Conquest was to make of England a trilingual country, where Latin, French,
and Anglo-Saxon were spoken separately side by side. With Latin, the tongue
of the Church and of scholars, the Norman clergy were much more thoroughly
familiar than the Saxon priests had been; and the introduction of the
richer Latin culture resulted, in the latter half of the twelfth century,
at the court of Henry II, in a brilliant outburst of Latin literature. In
England, as well as in the rest of Western Europe, Latin long continued to
be the language of religious and learned writing--down to the sixteenth
century or even later. French, that dialect of it which was spoken by the
Normans--Anglo-French (English-French) it has naturally come to be
called--was of course introduced by the Conquest as the language of the
governing and upper social class, and in it also during the next three or
four centuries a considerable body of literature was produced. Anglo-Saxon,
which we may now term English, remained inevitably as the language of the
subject race, but their literature was at first crushed down into
insignificance. Ballads celebrating the resistance of scattered Saxons to
their oppressors no doubt circulated widely on the lips of the people, but
English writing of the more formal sorts, almost absolutely ceased for more
than a century, to make a new beginning about the year 1200. In the
interval the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' is the only important document, and
even this, continued at the monastery of Peterboro, comes to an end in
1154, in the midst of the terrible anarchy of Stephen's reign.

It must not be supposed, notwithstanding, that the Normans, however much
they despised the English language and literature, made any effort to
destroy it. On the other hand, gradual union of the two languages was no
less inevitable than that of the races themselves. From, the very first the
need of communication, with their subjects must have rendered it necessary
for the Normans to acquire some knowledge of the English language; and the
children of mixed parentage of course learned it from their mothers. The
use of French continued in the upper strata of society, in the few
children's schools that existed, and in the law courts, for something like
three centuries, maintaining itself so long partly because French was then
the polite language of Western Europe. But the dead pressure of English was
increasingly strong, and by the end of the fourteenth century and of
Chaucer's life French had chiefly given way to it even at Court. [Footnote:
For details see O. F. Emerson's 'History of the English Language,' chapter
4; and T. B. Lounsbury's 'History of the English Language.'] As we have
already implied, however, the English which triumphed was in fact
English-French--English was enabled to triumph partly because it had now
largely absorbed the French. For the first one hundred or one hundred and
fifty years, it seems, the two languages remained for the most part pretty
clearly distinct, but in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries English,
abandoning its first aloofness, rapidly took into itself a large part of
the French (originally Latin) vocabulary; and under the influence of the
French it carried much farther the process of dropping its own
comparatively complicated grammatical inflections--a process which had
already gained much momentum even before the Conquest. This absorption of
the French was most fortunate for English. To the Anglo-Saxon
vocabulary--vigorous, but harsh, limited in extent, and lacking in fine
discriminations and power of abstract expression, was now added nearly the
whole wealth of French, with its fullness, flexibility, and grace. As a
direct consequence the resulting language, modern English, is the richest
and most varied instrument of expression ever developed at any time by any

THE RESULT FOR POETRY. For poetry the fusion meant even more than for
prose. The metrical system, which begins to appear in the thirteenth
century and comes to perfection a century and a half later in Chaucer's
poems combined what may fairly be called the better features of both the
systems from which it was compounded. We have seen that Anglo-Saxon verse
depended on regular stress of a definite number of quantitatively long
syllables in each line and on alliteration; that it allowed much variation
in the number of unstressed syllables; and that it was without rime. French
verse, on the other hand, had rime (or assonance) and carefully preserved
identity in the total number of syllables in corresponding lines, but it
was uncertain as regarded the number of clearly stressed ones. The derived
English system adopted from the French (1) rime and (2) identical
line-length, and retained from the Anglo-Saxon (3) regularity of stress.
(4) It largely abandoned the Anglo-Saxon regard for quantity and (5) it
retained alliteration not as a basic principle but as an (extremely useful)
subordinate device. This metrical system, thus shaped, has provided the
indispensable formal basis for making English poetry admittedly the
greatest in the modern world.

THE ENGLISH DIALECTS. The study of the literature of the period is further
complicated by the division of English into dialects. The Norman Conquest
put a stop to the progress of the West-Saxon dialect toward complete
supremacy, restoring the dialects of the other parts of the island to their
former positions of equal authority. The actual result was the development
of three groups of dialects, the Southern, Midland (divided into East and
West) and Northern, all differing among themselves in forms and even in
vocabulary. Literary activity when it recommenced was about equally
distributed among the three, and for three centuries it was doubtful which
of them would finally win the first place. In the outcome success fell to
the East Midland dialect, partly through the influence of London, which
under the Norman kings replaced Winchester as the capital city and seat of
the Court and Parliament, and partly through the influence of the two
Universities, Oxford and Cambridge, which gradually grew up during the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries and attracted students from all parts of
the country. This victory of the East Midland form was marked by, though it
was not in any large degree due to, the appearance in the fourteenth
century of the first great modern English poet, Chaucer. To the present
day, however, the three dialects, and subdivisions of them, are easily
distinguishable in colloquial use; the common idiom of such regions as
Yorkshire and Cornwall is decidedly different from that of London or indeed
any other part of the country.

One of the most striking general facts in the later Middle Ages is the
uniformity of life in many of its aspects throughout all Western Europe.
[Footnote: Differences are clearly presented in Charles Reade's novel, 'The
Cloister and the Hearth,' though this deals with the period following that
with which we are here concerned.] It was only during this period that the
modern nations, acquiring national consciousness, began definitely to shape
themselves out of the chaos which had followed the fall of the Roman
Empire. The Roman Church, firmly established in every corner of every land,
was the actual inheritor of much of the unifying power of the Roman
government, and the feudal system everywhere gave to society the same
political organization and ideals. In a truer sense, perhaps, than at any
later time, Western Europe was one great brotherhood, thinking much the
same thoughts, speaking in part the same speech, and actuated by the same
beliefs. At least, the literature of the period, largely composed and
copied by the great army of monks, exhibits everywhere a thorough
uniformity in types and ideas.

We of the twentieth century should not allow ourselves to think vaguely of
the Middle Ages as a benighted or shadowy period when life and the people
who constituted it had scarcely anything in common with ourselves. In
reality the men of the Middle Ages were moved by the same emotions and
impulses as our own, and their lives presented the same incongruous mixture
of nobility and baseness. Yet it is true that the externals of their
existence were strikingly different from those of more recent times. In
society the feudal system--lords with their serfs, towns struggling for
municipal independence, kings and nobles doing, peaceably or with violence,
very much what they pleased; a constant condition of public or private war;
cities walled as a matter of course for protection against bands of robbers
or hostile armies; the country still largely covered with forests,
wildernesses, and fens; roads infested with brigands and so bad that travel
was scarcely possible except on horseback; in private life, most of the
modern comforts unknown, and the houses, even of the wealthy, so filthy and
uncomfortable that all classes regularly, almost necessarily, spent most of
the daylight hours in the open air; in industry no coal, factories, or
large machinery, but in the towns guilds of workmen each turning out by
hand his slow product of single articles; almost no education except for
priests and monks, almost no conceptions of genuine science or history, but
instead the abstract system of scholastic logic and philosophy, highly
ingenious but highly fantastic; in religion no outward freedom of thought
except for a few courageous spirits, but the arbitrary dictates of a
despotic hierarchy, insisting on an ironbound creed which the remorseless
process of time was steadily rendering more and more inadequate--this
offers some slight suggestion of the conditions of life for several
centuries, ending with the period with which we are now concerned.

In medieval literature likewise the modern student encounters much which
seems at first sight grotesque. One of the most conspicuous examples is the
pervasive use of allegory. The men of the Middle Ages often wrote, as we
do, in direct terms and of simple things, but when they wished to rise
above the commonplace they turned with a frequency which to-day appears
astonishing to the devices of abstract personification and veiled meanings.
No doubt this tendency was due in part to an idealizing dissatisfaction
with the crudeness of their actual life (as well as to frequent inability
to enter into the realm of deeper and finer thought without the aid of
somewhat mechanical imagery); and no doubt it was greatly furthered also by
the medieval passion for translating into elaborate and fantastic symbolism
all the details of the Bible narratives. But from whatever cause, the
tendency hardened into a ruling convention; thousands upon thousands of
medieval manuscripts seem to declare that the world is a mirage of shadowy
forms, or that it exists merely to body forth remote and highly surprising

Of all these countless allegories none was reiterated with more unwearied
persistence than that of the Seven Deadly Sins (those sins which in the
doctrine of the Church lead to spiritual death because they are wilfully
committed). These sins are: Covetousness, Unchastity, Anger, Gluttony,
Envy, Sloth, and, chief of all, Pride, the earliest of all, through which
Lucifer was moved to his fatal rebellion against God, whence spring all
human ills. Each of the seven, however, was interpreted as including so
many related offences that among them they embraced nearly the whole range
of possible wickedness. Personified, the Seven Sins in themselves almost
dominate medieval literature, a sort of shadowy evil pantheon. Moral and
religious questions could scarcely be discussed without regard to them; and
they maintain their commanding place even as late as in Spenser's 'Faerie
Queene,' at the very end of the sixteenth century. To the Seven Sins were
commonly opposed, but with much less emphasis, the Seven Cardinal Virtues,
Faith, Hope, Charity (Love), Prudence, Temperance, Chastity, and Fortitude.
Again, almost as prominent as the Seven Sins was the figure of Fortune with
her revolving wheel, a goddess whom the violent vicissitudes and tragedies
of life led the men of the Middle Ages, in spite of their Christianity, to
bring over from classical literature and virtually to accept as a real
divinity, with almost absolute control in human affairs. In the seventeenth
century Shakspere's plays are full of allusions to her, but so for that
matter is the everyday talk of all of us in the twentieth century.

LITERATURE IN THE THREE LANGUAGES. It is not to the purpose in a study like
the present to give special attention to the literature written in England
in Latin and French; we can speak only briefly of that composed in English.
But in fact when the English had made its new beginning, about the year
1200, the same general forms flourished in all three languages, so that
what is said in general of the English applies almost as much to the other
two as well.

RELIGIOUS LITERATURE. We may virtually divide all the literature of the
period, roughly, into (1) Religious and (2) Secular. But it must be
observed that religious writings were far more important as literature
during the Middle Ages than in more recent times, and the separation
between religious and secular less distinct than at present. The forms of
the religious literature were largely the same as in the previous period.
There were songs, many of them addressed to the Virgin, some not only
beautiful in their sincere and tender devotion, speaking for the finer
spirits in an age of crudeness and violence, but occasionally beautiful as
poetry. There were paraphrases of many parts of the Bible, lives of saints,
in both verse and prose, and various other miscellaneous work. Perhaps
worthy of special mention among single productions is the 'Cursor Mundi'
(Surveyor of the World), an early fourteenth century poem of twenty-four
thousand lines ('Paradise Lost' has less than eleven thousand), relating
universal history from the beginning, on the basis of the Biblical
narrative. Most important of all for their promise of the future, there
were the germs of the modern drama in the form of the Church plays; but to
these we shall give special attention in a later chapter.

SECULAR LITERATURE. In secular literature the variety was greater than in
religious. We may begin by transcribing one or two of the songs, which,
though not as numerous then as in some later periods, show that the great
tradition of English secular lyric poetry reaches back from our own time to
that of the Anglo-Saxons without a break. The best known of all is the
'Cuckoo Song,' of the thirteenth century, intended to be sung in harmony by
four voices:

Sumer is icumen in;
Lhude sing, cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wde nu.
Sing, cuccu!
Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu.
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth;
Murie sing, cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu,
Wel singes thu, cuccu;
Ne swik thu never nu.

Summer is come in; loud sing, cuckoo! Grows the seed and blooms the mead
[meadow] and buds the wood anew. Sing, cuckoo! The ewe bleats for the lamb,
lows for the calf the cow. The bullock gambols, the buck leaps; merrily
sing, cuckoo! Cuckoo, cuckoo, well singest thou, cuckoo; cease thou never

The next is the first stanza of 'Alysoun' ('Fair Alice'):

Bytuene Mersh ant Averil,
When spray beginnth to springe,
The lutel foul hath hire wyl
On hyre lud to synge.
Ieh libbe in love-longinge
For semlokest of alle thinge;
He may me blisse bringe;
Icham in hire baundoun.
An hendy hap ichabbe ybent;
Iehot from hevene it is me sent;
From alle wymmen mi love is lent
Ant lyht on Alysoun.

Between March and April, When the sprout begins to spring, The little bird
has her desire In her tongue to sing. I live in love-longing For the
fairest of all things; She may bring me bliss; I am at her mercy. A lucky
lot I have secured; I think from heaven it is sent me; From all women my
love is turned And is lighted on Alysoun.

There were also political and satirical songs and miscellaneous poems of
various sorts, among them certain 'Bestiaries,' accounts of the supposed
habits of animals, generally drawn originally from classical tradition, and
most of them highly fantastic and allegorized in the interests of morality
and religion. There was an abundance of extremely realistic coarse tales,
hardly belonging to literature, in both prose and verse. The popular
ballads of the fourteenth century we must reserve for later consideration.
Most numerous of all the prose works, perhaps, were the Chronicles, which
were produced generally in the monasteries and chiefly in the twelfth and
thirteenth centuries, the greater part in Latin, some in French, and a few
in rude English verse. Many of them were mere annals like the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle, but some were the lifelong works of men with genuine historical
vision. Some dealt merely with the history of England, or a part of it,
others with that of the entire world as it was known to medieval Europe.
The majority will never be withdrawn from the obscurity of the manuscripts
on which the patient care of their authors inscribed them; others have been
printed in full and serve as the main basis for our knowledge of the events
of the period.

THE ROMANCES. But the chief form of secular literature during the period,
beginning in the middle of the twelfth century, was the romance, especially
the metrical (verse) romance. The typical romances were the literary
expression of chivalry. They were composed by the professional minstrels,
some of whom, as in Anglo-Saxon times, were richly supported and rewarded
by kings and nobles, while others still wandered about the country, always
welcome in the manor-houses. There, like Scott's Last Minstrel, they
recited their sometimes almost endless works from memory, in the great
halls or in the ladies' bowers, to the accompaniment of occasional strains
on their harps. For two or three centuries the romances were to the lords
and ladies, and to the wealthier citizens of the towns, much what novels
are to the reading public of our own day. By far the greater part of the
romances current in England were written in French, whether by Normans or
by French natives of the English provinces in France, and the English ones
which have been preserved are mostly translations or imitations of French
originals. The romances are extreme representatives of the whole class of
literature of all times to which they have given the name. Frankly
abandoning in the main the world of reality, they carry into that of
idealized and glamorous fancy the chief interests of the medieval lords and
ladies, namely, knightly exploits in war, and lovemaking. Love in the
romances, also, retains all its courtly affectations, together with that
worship of woman by man which in the twelfth century was exalted into a
sentimental art by the poets of wealthy and luxurious Provence in Southern
France. Side by side, again, with war and love, appears in the romances
medieval religion, likewise conventionalized and childishly superstitious,
but in some inadequate degree a mitigator of cruelty and a restrainer of
lawless passion. Artistically, in some respects or all, the greater part of
the romances are crude and immature. Their usual main or only purpose is to
hold attention by successions of marvellous adventures, natural or
supernatural; of structure, therefore, they are often destitute; the
characters are ordinarily mere types; and motivation is little considered.
There were, however, exceptional authors, genuine artists, masters of meter
and narrative, possessed by a true feeling for beauty; and in some of the
romances the psychological analysis of love, in particular, is subtile and
powerful, the direct precursor of one of the main developments in modern

The romances may very roughly be grouped into four great classes. First in
time, perhaps, come those which are derived from the earlier French epics
and in which love, if it appears at all, is subordinated to the military
exploits of Charlemagne and his twelve peers in their wars against the
Saracens. Second are the romances which, battered salvage from a greater
past, retell in strangely altered romantic fashion the great stories of
classical antiquity, mainly the achievements of Alexander the Great and the
tragic fortunes of Troy. Third come the Arthurian romances, and fourth
those scattering miscellaneous ones which do not belong to the other
classes, dealing, most of them, with native English heroes. Of these, two,
'King Horn' and 'Havelok,' spring direct from the common people and in both
substance and expression reflect the hard reality of their lives, while
'Guy of Warwick' and 'Bevis of Hampton,' which are among the best known but
most tedious of all the list, belong, in their original form, to the upper

Of all the romances the Arthurian are by far the most important. They
belong peculiarly to English literature, because they are based on
traditions of British history, but they have assumed a very prominent place
in the literature of the whole western world. Rich in varied characters and
incidents to which a universal significance could be attached, in their own
time they were the most popular works of their class; and living on
vigorously after the others were forgotten, they have continued to form one
of the chief quarries of literary material and one of the chief sources of
inspiration for modern poets and romancers. It seems well worth while,
therefore, to outline briefly their literary history.

The period in which their scene is nominally laid is that of the
Anglo-Saxon conquest of Great Britain. Of the actual historical events of
this period extremely little is known, and even the capital question
whether such a person as Arthur ever really existed can never receive a
definite answer. The only contemporary writer of the least importance is
the Briton (priest or monk), Gildas, who in a violent Latin pamphlet of
about the year 550 ('The Destruction and Conquest of Britain') denounces
his countrymen for their sins and urges them to unite against the Saxons;
and Gildas gives only the slightest sketch of what had actually happened.
He tells how a British king (to whom later tradition assigns the name
Vortigern) invited in the Anglo-Saxons as allies against the troublesome
northern Scots and Picts, and how the Anglo-Saxons, victorious against
these tribes, soon turned in furious conquest against the Britons
themselves, until, under a certain Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man 'of Roman
race,' the Britons successfully defended themselves and at last in the
battle of Mount Badon checked the Saxon advance.

Next in order after Gildas, but not until about the year 800, appears a
strangely jumbled document, last edited by a certain Nennius, and entitled
'Historia Britonum' (The History of the Britons), which adds to Gildas'
outline traditions, natural and supernatural, which had meanwhile been
growing up among the Britons (Welsh). It supplies the names of the earliest
Saxon leaders, Hengist and Horsa (who also figure in the 'Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle'), and narrates at length their treacherous dealings with
Vortigern. Among other stories we find that of Vortigern's tower, where
Gildas' Ambrosius appears as a boy of supernatural nature, destined to
develop in the romances into the great magician Merlin. In Nennius' book
occurs also the earliest mention of Arthur, who, in a comparatively sober
passage, is said, some time after the days of Vortigern, to have 'fought
against the Saxons, together with the kings of the Britons, but he himself
was leader in the battles.' A list, also, is given of his twelve victories,
ending with Mount Badon. It is impossible to decide whether there is really
any truth in this account of Nennius, or whether it springs wholly from the
imagination of the Britons, attempting to solace themselves for their
national overthrow; but it allows us to believe if we choose that sometime
in the early sixth century there was a British leader of the name of
Arthur, who by military genius rose to high command and for a while beat
back the Saxon hordes. At most, however, it should be clearly realized,
Arthur was probably only a local leader in some limited region, and, far
from filling the splendid place which he occupies in the later romances,
was but the hard-pressed captain of a few thousand barbarous and half-armed

For three hundred years longer the traditions about Arthur continued to
develop among the Welsh people. The most important change which took place
was Arthur's elevation to the position of chief hero of the British (Welsh)
race and the subordination to him, as his followers, of all the other
native heroes, most of whom had originally been gods. To Arthur himself
certain divine attributes were added, such as his possession of magic
weapons, among them the sword Excalibur. It also came to be passionately
believed among the Welsh that he was not really dead but would some day
return from the mysterious Other World to which he had withdrawn and
reconquer the island for his people. It was not until the twelfth century
that these Arthurian traditions, the cherished heritage of the Welsh and
their cousins, the Bretons across the English Channel in France, were
suddenly adopted as the property of all Western Europe, so that Arthur
became a universal Christian hero. This remarkable transformation, no doubt
in some degree inevitable, was actually brought about chiefly through the
instrumentality of a single man, a certain English archdeacon of Welsh
descent, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey, a literary and ecclesiastical
adventurer looking about for a means of making himself famous, put forth
about the year 1136, in Latin, a 'History of the Britons' from the earliest
times to the seventh century, in which, imitating the form of the serious
chronicles, he combined in cleverly impudent fashion all the adaptable
miscellaneous material, fictitious, legendary, or traditional, which he
found at hand. In dealing with Arthur, Geoffrey greatly enlarges on Gildas
and Nennius; in part, no doubt, from his own invention, in part, perhaps,
from Welsh tradition. He provides Arthur with a father, King Uther, makes
of Arthur's wars against the Saxons only his youthful exploits, relates at
length how Arthur conquered almost all of Western Europe, and adds to the
earlier story the figures of Merlin, Guenevere, Modred, Gawain, Kay, and
Bedivere. What is not least important, he gives to Arthur's reign much of
the atmosphere of feudal chivalry which was that of the ruling class of his
own age.

Geoffrey may or may not have intended his astonishing story to be seriously
accepted, but in fact it was received with almost universal credence. For
centuries it was incorporated in outline or in excerpts into almost all the
sober chronicles, and what is of much more importance for literature, it
was taken up and rehandled in various fashions by very numerous romancers.
About twenty years after Geoffrey wrote, the French poet Wace, an English
subject, paraphrased his entire 'History' in vivid, fluent, and diffuse
verse. Wace imparts to the whole, in a thorough-going way, the manners of
chivalry, and adds, among other things, a mention of the Round Table, which
Geoffrey, somewhat chary of the supernatural, had chosen to omit, though it
was one of the early elements of the Welsh tradition. Other poets followed,
chief among them the delightful Chretien of Troyes, all writing mostly of
the exploits of single knights at Arthur's court, which they made over,
probably, from scattering tales of Welsh and Breton mythology. To declare
that most romantic heroes had been knights of Arthur's circle now became
almost a matter of course. Prose romances also appeared, vast formless
compilations, which gathered up into themselves story after story,
according to the fancy of each successive editor. Greatest of the additions
to the substance of the cycle was the story of the Holy Grail, originally
an altogether independent legend. Important changes necessarily developed.
Arthur himself, in many of the romances, was degraded from his position of
the bravest knight to be the inactive figurehead of a brilliant court; and
the only really historical element in the story, his struggle against the
Saxons, was thrust far into the background, while all the emphasis was laid
on the romantic achievements of the single knights.

LAGHAMON'S 'BRUT.' Thus it had come about that Arthur, originally the
national hero of the Welsh, and the deadly foe of the English, was adopted,
as a Christian champion, not only for one of the medieval Nine Worthies of
all history, but for the special glory of the English race itself. In that
light he figures in the first important work in which native English
reemerges after the Norman Conquest, the 'Brut' (Chronicle) wherein, about
the year 1200, Laghamon paraphrased Wace's paraphrase of Geoffrey.
[Footnote: Laghamon's name is generally written 'Layamon,' but this is
incorrect. The word 'Brut' comes from the name 'Brutus,' according to
Geoffrey a Trojan hero and eponymous founder of the British race. Standing
at the beginning of British (and English) history, his name came to be
applied to the whole of it, just as the first two Greek letters, alpha and
beta, have given the name to the alphabet.] Laghamon was a humble parish
priest in Worcestershire, and his thirty-two thousand half-lines, in which
he imperfectly follows the Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter, are rather
crude; though they are by no means dull, rather are often strong with the
old-time Anglo-Saxon fighting spirit. In language also the poem is almost
purely Saxon; occasionally it admits the French device of rime, but it is
said to exhibit, all told, fewer than a hundred words of French origin.
Expanding throughout on Wace's version, Laghamon adds some minor features;
but English was not yet ready to take a place beside French and Latin with
the reading class, and the poem exercised no influence on the development
of the Arthurian story or on English literature.

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT. We can make special mention of only one
other romance, which all students should read in modern translation,
namely, 'Sir Gawain (pronounced Gaw'-wain) and the Green Knight.' This is
the brief and carefully constructed work of an unknown but very real poetic
artist, who lived a century and more later than Laghamon and probably a
little earlier than Chaucer. The story consists of two old folk-tales, here
finely united in the form of an Arthurian romance and so treated as to
bring out all the better side of knightly feeling, with which the author is
in charming sympathy. Like many other medieval writings, this one is
preserved by mere chance in a single manuscript, which contains also three
slightly shorter religious poems (of a thousand or two lines apiece), all
possibly by the same author as the romance. One of them in particular, 'The
Pearl,' is a narrative of much fine feeling, which may well have come from
so true a gentleman as he. The dialect is that of the Northwest Midland,
scarcely more intelligible to modern readers than Anglo-Saxon, but it
indicates that the author belonged to the same border region between
England and Wales from which came also Geoffrey of Monmouth and Laghamon, a
region where Saxon and Norman elements were mingled with Celtic fancy and
delicacy of temperament. The meter, also, is interesting--the Anglo-Saxon
unrimed alliterative verse, but divided into long stanzas of irregular
length, each ending in a 'bob' of five short riming lines.

'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' may very fittingly bring to a close our
hasty survey of the entire Norman-French period, a period mainly of
formation, which has left no literary work of great and permanent fame, but
in which, after all, there were some sincere and talented writers, who have
fallen into forgetfulness rather through the untoward accidents of time
than from lack of genuine merit in themselves.



a half, from 1350 to 1500, which forms our third period, the most important
part for literature was the first fifty years, which constitutes the age of

The middle of the fourteenth century was also the middle of the externally
brilliant fifty years' reign of Edward III. In 1337 Edward had begun the
terrible though often-interrupted series of campaigns in France which
historians group together as the Hundred Tears' War, and having won the
battle of Crecy against amazing odds, he had inaugurated at his court a
period of splendor and luxury. The country as a whole was really increasing
in prosperity; Edward was fostering trade, and the towns and some of the
town-merchants were becoming wealthy; but the oppressiveness of the feudal
system, now becoming outgrown, was apparent, abuses in society and state
and church were almost intolerable, and the spirit which was to create our
modern age, beginning already in Italy to move toward the Renaissance, was
felt in faint stirrings even so far to the North as England.

The towns, indeed, were achieving their freedom. Thanks to compact
organization, they were loosening the bonds of their dependence on the
lords or bishops to whom most of them paid taxes; and the alliance of their
representatives with the knights of the shire (country gentlemen) in the
House of Commons, now a separate division of Parliament, was laying the
foundation of the political power of the whole middle class. But the feudal
system continued to rest cruelly on the peasants. Still bound, most of
them, to the soil, as serfs of the land or tenants with definite and heavy
obligations of service, living in dark and filthy hovels under
indescribably unhealthy conditions, earning a wretched subsistence by
ceaseless labor, and almost altogether at the mercy of masters who regarded
them as scarcely better than beasts, their lot was indeed pitiable.
Nevertheless their spirit was not broken nor their state so hopeless as it
seemed. It was by the archers of the class of yeomen (small free-holders),
men akin in origin and interests to the peasants, that the victories in the
French wars were won, and the knowledge that this was so created in the
peasants an increased self-respect and an increased dissatisfaction. Their
groping efforts to better their condition received strong stimulus also
from the ravages of the terrible Black Death, a pestilence which, sweeping
off at its first visitation, in 1348, at least half the population, and on
two later recurrences only smaller proportions, led to a scarcity of
laborers and added strength to their demand for commutation of personal
services by money-payments and for higher wages. This demand was met by the
ruling classes with sternly repressive measures, and the socialistic
Peasants' Revolt of John Ball and Wat Tyler in 1381 was violently crushed
out in blood, but it expressed a great human cry for justice which could
not permanently be denied.

Hand in hand with the State and its institutions, in this period as before,
stood the Church. Holding in the theoretical belief of almost every one the
absolute power of all men's salvation or spiritual death, monopolizing
almost all learning and education, the Church exercised in the spiritual
sphere, and to no small extent in the temporal, a despotic tyranny, a
tyranny employed sometimes for good, sometimes for evil. As the only even
partially democratic institution of the age it attracted to itself the most
ambitious and able men of all classes. Though social and personal influence
were powerful within its doors, as always in all human organizations,
nevertheless the son of a serf for whom there was no other means of escape
from his servitude might steal to the nearest monastery and there, gaining
his freedom by a few months of concealment, might hope, if he proved his
ability, to rise to the highest position, to become abbot, bishop or
perhaps even Pope. Within the Church were many sincere and able men
unselfishly devoting their lives to the service of their fellows; but the
moral tone of the organization as a whole had suffered from its worldly
prosperity and power. In its numerous secular lordships and monastic orders
it had become possessor of more than half the land in England, a proportion
constantly increased through the legacies left by religious-minded persons
for their souls' salvation; but from its vast income, several times greater
than that of the Crown, it paid no taxes, and owing allegiance only to the
Pope it was in effect a foreign power, sometimes openly hostile to the
national government. The monasteries, though still performing important
public functions as centers of education, charity, and hospitality, had
relaxed their discipline, and the lives of the monks were often scandalous.
The Dominican and Franciscan friars, also, who had come to England in the
thirteenth century, soon after the foundation of their orders in Italy, and
who had been full at first of passionate zeal for the spiritual and
physical welfare of the poor, had now departed widely from their early
character and become selfish, luxurious, ignorant, and unprincipled. Much
the same was true of the 'secular' clergy (those not members of monastic
orders, corresponding to the entire clergy of Protestant churches). Then
there were such unworthy charlatans as the pardoners and professional
pilgrims, traveling everywhere under special privileges and fleecing the
credulous of their money with fraudulent relics and preposterous stories of
edifying adventure. All this corruption was clear enough to every
intelligent person, and we shall find it an object of constant satire by
the authors of the age, but it was too firmly established to be easily or
quickly rooted out.

'MANDEVILLE'S VOYAGE.' One of the earliest literary works of the period,
however, was uninfluenced by these social and moral problems, being rather
a very complete expression of the naive medieval delight in romantic
marvels. This is the highly entertaining 'Voyage and Travels of Sir John
Mandeville.' This clever book was actually written at Liege, in what is now
Belgium, sometime before the year 1370, and in the French language; from
which, attaining enormous popularity, it was several times translated into
Latin and English, and later into various other languages. Five centuries
had to pass before scholars succeeded in demonstrating that the asserted
author, 'Sir John Mandeville,' never existed, that the real author is
undiscoverable, and that this pretended account of his journeyings over all
the known and imagined world is a compilation from a large number of
previous works. Yet the book (the English version along with the others)
really deserved its long-continued reputation. Its tales of the Ethiopian
Prester John, of diamonds that by proper care can be made to grow, of trees
whose fruit is an odd sort of lambs, and a hundred other equally remarkable
phenomena, are narrated with skilful verisimilitude and still strongly hold
the reader's interest, even if they no longer command belief. With all his
credulity, too, the author has some odd ends of genuine science, among
others the conviction that the earth is not flat but round. In style the
English versions reflect the almost universal medieval uncertainty of
sentence structure; nevertheless they are straightforward and clear; and
the book is notable as the first example in English after the Norman
Conquest of prose used not for religious edification but for amusement
(though with the purpose also of giving instruction). 'Mandeville,'
however, is a very minor figure when compared with his great
contemporaries, especially with the chief of them, Geoffrey Chaucer.

GEOFFREY CHAUCER, 1338-1400. Chaucer (the name is French and seems to have
meant originally 'shoemaker') came into the world probably in 1338, the
first important author who was born and lived in London, which with him
becomes the center of English literature. About his life, as about those of
many of our earlier writers, there remains only very fragmentary
information, which in his case is largely pieced together from scattering
entries of various kinds in such documents as court account books and
public records of state matters and of lawsuits. His father, a wine
merchant, may have helped supply the cellars of the king (Edward III) and
so have been able to bring his son to royal notice; at any rate, while
still in his teens Geoffrey became a page in the service of one of the
king's daughters-in-law. In this position his duty would be partly to
perform various humble work in the household, partly also to help amuse the
leisure of the inmates, and it is easy to suppose that he soon won favor as
a fluent story-teller. He early became acquainted with the seamy as well as
the brilliant side of courtly life; for in 1359 he was in the campaign in
France and was taken prisoner. That he was already valued appears from the
king's subscription of the equivalent of a thousand dollars of present-day
money toward his ransom; and after his release he was transferred to the
king's own service, where about 1368 he was promoted to the rank of
esquire. He was probably already married to one of the queen's
ladies-in-waiting. Chaucer was now thirty years of age, and his practical
sagacity and knowledge of men had been recognized; for from this time on he
held important public positions. He was often sent to the Continent--to
France, Flanders, and Italy--on diplomatic missions; and for eleven years
he was in charge of the London customs, where the uncongenial drudgery
occupied almost all his time until through the intercession of the queen he
was allowed to perform it by deputy. In 1386 he was a member of Parliament,
knight of the shire for Kent; but in that year his fortune turned--he lost
all his offices at the overthrow of the faction of his patron, Duke John of
Gaunt (uncle of the young king, Richard II, who had succeeded his
grandfather, Edward III, some years before). Chaucer's party and himself
were soon restored to power, but although during the remaining dozen years
of his life he received from the Court various temporary appointments and
rewards, he appears often to have been poor and in need. When Duke Henry of
Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, deposed the king and himself assumed the
throne as Henry IV, Chaucer's prosperity seemed assured, but he lived after
this for less than a year, dying suddenly in 1400. He was buried in
Westminster Abbey, the first of the men of letters to be laid in the nook
which has since become the Poets' Corner.

Chaucer's poetry falls into three rather clearly marked periods. First is
that of French influence, when, though writing in English, he drew
inspiration from the rich French poetry of the period, which was produced
partly in France, partly in England. Chaucer experimented with the numerous
lyric forms which the French poets had brought to perfection; he also
translated, in whole or in part, the most important of medieval French
narrative poems, the thirteenth century 'Romance of the Rose' of Guillaume
de Lorris and Jean de Meung, a very clever satirical allegory, in many
thousand lines, of medieval love and medieval religion. This poem, with its
Gallic brilliancy and audacity, long exercised over Chaucer's mind the same
dominant influence which it possessed over most secular poets of the age.
Chaucer's second period, that of Italian influence, dates from his first
visit to Italy in 1372-3, where at Padua he may perhaps have met the fluent
Italian poet Petrarch, and where at any rate the revelation of Italian life
and literature must have aroused his intense enthusiasm. From this time,
and especially after his other visit to Italy, five years later, he made
much direct use of the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio and to a less degree
of those of their greater predecessor, Dante, whose severe spirit was too
unlike Chaucer's for his thorough appreciation. The longest and finest of
Chaucer's poems of this period, 'Troilus and Criseyde' is based on a work
of Boccaccio; here Chaucer details with compelling power the sentiment and
tragedy of love, and the psychology of the heroine who had become for the
Middle Ages a central figure in the tale of Troy. Chaucer's third period,
covering his last fifteen years, is called his English period, because now
at last his genius, mature and self-sufficient, worked in essential
independence. First in time among his poems of these years stands 'The
Legend of Good Women,' a series of romantic biographies of famous ladies of
classical legend and history, whom it pleases Chaucer to designate as
martyrs of love; but more important than the stories themselves is the
Prolog, where he chats with delightful frankness about his own ideas and

The great work of the period, however, and the crowning achievement of
Chaucer's life, is 'The Canterbury Tales.' Every one is familiar with the
plan of the story (which may well have had some basis in fact): how Chaucer
finds himself one April evening with thirty other men and women, all
gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark (a suburb of London and just across
the Thames from the city proper), ready to start next morning, as thousands
of Englishmen did every year, on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas a
Becket at Canterbury. The travelers readily accept the proposal of Harry
Bailey, their jovial and domineering host, that he go with them as leader
and that they enliven the journey with a story-telling contest (two stories
from each pilgrim during each half of the journey) for the prize of a
dinner at his inn on their return. Next morning, therefore, the Knight
begins the series of tales and the others follow in order. This literary
form--a collection of disconnected stories bound together in a fictitious
framework--goes back almost to the beginning of literature itself; but
Chaucer may well have been directly influenced by Boccaccio's famous book
of prose tales, 'The Decameron' (Ten Days of Story-Telling). Between the
two works, however, there is a striking contrast, which has often been
pointed out. While the Italian author represents his gentlemen and ladies
as selfishly fleeing from the misery of a frightful plague in Florence to a
charming villa and a holiday of unreflecting pleasure, the gaiety of
Chaucer's pilgrims rests on a basis of serious purpose, however
conventional it may be.

Perhaps the easiest way to make clear the sources of Chaucer's power will
be by means of a rather formal summary.

1. _His Personality_. Chaucer's personality stands out in his writings
plainly and most delightfully. It must be borne in mind that, like some
others of the greatest poets, he was not a poet merely, but also a man of
practical affairs, in the eyes of his associates first and mainly a
courtier, diplomat, and government official. His wide experience of men and
things is manifest in the life-likeness and mature power of his poetry, and
it accounts in part for the broad truth of all but his earliest work, which
makes it essentially poetry not of an age but for all time. Something of
conventional medievalism still clings to Chaucer in externals, as we shall
see, but in alertness, independence of thought, and a certain directness of
utterance, he speaks for universal humanity. His practical experience helps
to explain as well why, unlike most great poets, he does not belong
primarily with the idealists. Fine feeling he did not lack; he loved
external beauty--some of his most pleasing passages voice his enthusiasm
for Nature; and down to the end of his life he never lost the zest for
fanciful romance. His mind and eye were keen, besides, for moral qualities;
he penetrated directly through all the pretenses of falsehood and
hypocrisy; while how thoroughly he understood and respected honest worth
appears in the picture of the Poor Parson in the Prolog to 'The Canterbury
Tales.' Himself quiet and self-contained, moreover, Chaucer was genial and
sympathetic toward all mankind. But all this does not declare him a
positive idealist, and in fact, rather, he was willing to accept the world
as he found it--he had no reformer's dream of 'shattering it to bits and
remoulding it nearer to the heart's desire.' His moral nature, indeed, was
easy-going; he was the appropriate poet of the Court circle, with very much
of the better courtier's point of view. At the day's tasks he worked long
and faithfully, but he also loved comfort, and he had nothing of the
martyr's instinct. To him human life was a vast procession, of boundless
interest, to be observed keenly and reproduced for the reader's enjoyment
in works of objective literary art. The countless tragedies of life he
noted with kindly pity, but he felt no impulse to dash himself against the
existing barriers of the world in the effort to assure a better future for

Facebook Google Reddit Twitter Pinterest