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l

rtt,

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tlt Li

/ t,

rrt / rrrt

We sti1l have these three ancient divisions, but two of them are no

Jonge r-except \re ry occasionally pre sented in the iorm of poetrv. The
cpic has become the novel, wrirten in prose . (Sometimes people still write

novels in verse, but thev are not l'erv popular.) The dramatic poem has
become the film or the play (only rarely in verse nowaciays). Lyrical
l)()ety iS the only kind of poetry left. In other wrlrds, there is verv little
room for the epic poet or the clramatic poet nowedays: the poet, as
opposed to the playwright or the novelist, writes short lyrical poems,
pr,rblishcs them in magazines, and cloes not expect to make much money
out of them. There is no living poet who can make a living out of his
p()ety. This is a bad sign and perhaps meens that there is no future for
p()ctry. But this is something we can discuss later.
The re are othe r branches of l.iterature and 'near-lite rature ' which we
shall consider in this book, particularly the essav, which is whar a man
write s when he has no gift for poetry o the novel. But I should like
1'6q
to l<eep those three main forms in mind the nove1, the drama,the poem
f<rr they are the forms which havc attracted our greatest names during
thc last few centuries. In our own age it seems likely that only the novel
will survive as a literary form. There are few reaclers of poetry, and most
pcople prefer to enjoy drama in the form of the f,lm (a visual form, not a
litcrary, form). But before we come to the problems of the present we
har.c a good cleal to learn about the pasr, and the past of English Literature is the subject of the pages that follow.

2. Vhat

is Eruglish Literature?

English literature is literature written in English. It is not merely the

litereture of Englancl or of the British Isles, but a vast and growing body
of writings made up of the work of authors who use the English language
as a natural medium of communication. In other words, the 'English' of
'English literature'refers not to a nation but to a language. Th.is seems
to me to be an important point. There is a tenclency among some people
to regard, for instance, American 1iterature as a SeParate entity, body of
writings distinct from that of the British Isies, and the same attitude is
beginning to prevail with regard to the growing 1te ratures of Africa and

ustralia' Joseph Conraci was a Po1e, Demetrios I(apetanakis was

Greek, Ernest Hcmingwalr'v/as an American, J-in Yutang was a Chinese,


but English is the medium thev have in.common, and they al1 belongwith Chaucer ancl Shakespeare ancl Dickens to English literature. On
the other hand, a good deal of the work of Sir Thomas More and Sir

Iirancis Bacon both Englishmen-is written not in English but in


Latin, and \ /iliiam Beckford and T. S. Eliot have written in French. Such
writings are outside the scope of our survey. I'iterature is an art which
exploits language, English literature is an art which exploits the English
language. But it is not iust an English art. It is international, and Chinese,

Nlalavs, fricans, Indians reading this book may well one day themselves
contribute to English literature .
But in this brief history we must confine ourseh'es to the literature pro
duced in the prtis]-r Isles, chie{ly because the'internapional'concept of
English literature belongs to the present and the future, and our main
concern is with the past. In the pages that follow we shall hardly move
out of England, and the term'English'will refer as much to the race
as to the language. Let us therefore begin by considering very brieflv
both the race and the country, for, though the subject matter of the writer
is humanitv, ancl humanity is above race and nation, yet he is bound to
take humanity as he finds it in his own country and, to a lesser extent, in
his own age. But, to the writer, geographv seems to be more important
9

England and the


Eng/i.rh

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js Eng/ish Ljleraura/ t t

th:rn history, ancl it is the geographJ, of Englan(l that is pcfPctullv fectecl in its lite rature, far more than the pattern of evcnts which we call
the historv of a nation. England is an island, and the sea washcs its literature as much as its shores. lt is a colcl, stormv sea, cluite unlike the placid
fle

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-\

U
t.\
l',

Nlcditcrrancan or thc warm watcrs of the tropics. lts voice is nevcr far
awav from the music of E,nglish poetry, ancl it cen be hearcl clearll' enough
er.en in the novcls of a 'town' writer like Dickens. The landscape of
l')nglancl is variecl m()untains and lakes and rivers but the.uniform
effcct is one of grccn gentlcncs-s downs and farms and woods. The
I,,nglish lanc1scape made !(/ordswoth; troPical jung1es cou1d never have
proclucecl a poet like him, ancl, often, when we reacl him in the tropics,
we fincl it harcl to accept his belief in a kincllv, gentle power brooding over
naturc it docs not fit in with snakcs and clephants and tigers ancl torential ein' !e have to kntlw something about the l,i,nglish landscape
before we can begin to eppreciate thc Fn"glish nature poets.
Ruling sea ancl land is the English climate. In the tropics the re ate ncr
se2rsons cxcept the rainy and the clr1,, but in trnglancl one is awarc of the
eath appfoaching anc1 reteating fr<lm the sun - spring' SUmme'
autumn, winter, ancl the fcstivals associated with the se seasons. The long
ing for spring is a common theme with English poets, ancl Christmas, the
winter festival, is the verv essence of Charles Dlc-ke r..s. Thc (lhtistian year
in Englanc1 is verY much the q11tural vez the resurrection of thc earth
at Easter, the hope ofnew life expressed in joy at the birth ofChrist at the
clead time of the vear. liour clistinct scasons, but all comparativelv gentle
the summcr neve r too hot ancl the winter neYe afctic. But it is the colcl
of F.ngland that is hardest for the dweller in the tropics to unclcrstand:
\X/hcn icicles hang bv the wall,

And Dick the shephercl blows his nail.

Snow and frozen ponds ancl bare trees are common images in English
literature, but it is only bv a llreat effort of the imagination that the inhabitant of a.pcrpctuallv watm land can bring himself to appreciate their
significance for the l.lnglish poet ancl his English reacier. It has been saicl
that the English climate is responsible for the English character: the
English are colc] athethan hot-blooded, temperate rather than fiery,
actir.c bccause of the necd to keep warm, philosophical under difficulties
be cause-so an unkincl person said if you can stand the English climate
\ ou can stand anything.
The English are also saicl to be conservative, disliking change (this is
generally true of island-dwellers), but also, because the sea makes them a
nation of sailors, aclventurous and great travellers. The English have, for
nearly a thousand vears, been free of domination by foreign powers (an
island is not easy to invade), and this has made them inclependent, jealous
of their freedom, but also a little suspicious of foreigners. The F,nglish

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:rrc, in fact, a CLtfioLlS mxture, and their liteature reflects thc contra
clictir.lns in their. chf2cte. The English rebels and eccentrics people
]ilic Shel]cy and Bvron ancl Blake-arc as tvpical eS the athef dull die'
h:rrcls whtl sit at home and never change their opinions in fiftv yeaS: the
vcry lact of a conserr,.ative society-*social stability, no foreign domina

tion

cxplains the rebcls and eccentrics, for on11, in a country where


tradition is respected will vou rnc] men whtl say that tradition shou1d not
bc respe ctecl. In other words, to have rebels you must have something to
rcl;cl against.
The English are sometimcs sald to be macl: this js certainly a traclition
in some Europcan countries. It is hard tci say what this means, but pos
sibl1, it refers to impatience with restrictions, dislike of anything which
intcrferes wlth personal liberty. 'F)nglishmen never will be slaves,' saicl
(icorgc Bernard Shaw.'They'are frec to do whater.e the Go\.efnment
end public opinion a11ow them to do.' But both these can restrict so far
run<l no farther: the Englishman has alwavs becn able to change his
(.lovernment ancl what an Englishman calls 'public opinion' is usuallv
what he himself thinks. The English love justicc but hate laws, and it is
this hattccl of laws which makes so much linglish litcrature seem'macl'.
A I;tench writer obeys thc cademv ru1es which goYern the cmplovment
of the lrrench language, but a tlrpically English writer Iike Shakcspearc
is :rlw:rvs reaclv to make language clo 'mad' things, to invent new words
()r usc metaphors which take the breath awav with their daring. And it
firllows that much English litcrature is'formlcss'.rS,hakespearc brcaks al1
rhc clramatic rules,,Dickens's nor.els proceed, seeminglv without rhymc
() fe2lson' not like a controllccl and organiscc1 wtlrk tlf art, but like a rive r
in full spatc. The French and Italians havc always liked traditional verse-

forms

the sonnr'r, t he r,,nrlt l, rhc line wir h a

fi

xr..l number of sr llabl.

but thc English havc usually preferred to invent their own forms and,
cventuallv, to have as meny stllables as they wished in a line of verse.
I l'rnglish literature, in short, has a frceclom, a
willingncss to experiment,
a hatrccl of rules which has no parallcl in any other literature.i
So much, briefly, f<rr the countr\. and the peoplc. !(/e must now consicle r the English language itself ancl ask: rrVhat clo we mean by'Flnglish'l
'['his is not en eaSV c]uestion to answe. !e use terms like 'Chinese',
'i\Ialav', 'French', ancl'Russian'very loosely when talking about lan
gualle, alwavs assuming that each of these names refers to a single fixed
thing, Jike a house or a tree. But language is not a thing of dcad bricks
:tn.] woocl ]ike a hciuse, nor a simp1e rlrganism like a tee . A housc can
rlccay and a trcc can clie, but whcn a language seems to die (as Latin may
llc saicl trl have died) it has really onlv undergone geet change . Change
irnplies time, and time suggcsts history, and so the rerm'language '
should reallv mean: a system of sounds made by the vocal organs of a
prLrticular group of pe ople, posse ssing meaning for that group of pcople ,

i.r Eng/i.rh

and existing continuouslv for a givcn pcriod ofhistotv. But, iflanguage


changes, is it not likely that it v'ill change, as we say,'bevond all recognition'? Thcre mav well be so llreat a cliffcrcnce between the Chinese of
Iooo 'I). ancl the Chinese of l98o .t).' that the two kincls of Chinese afe
reellv two completelv different languages. That is certainlv thc casc with
ltnglish. trnglish has been spoken continuously in England frrr ovcr
fifteen hunclred years, but the English spoken in r ooo ,,r.o. is a language
that the Englishman of todav cannot undetstand. ncl yet it is the same
languagc, it is still English. This scems absurd. If a modern Englishman
cannot understanc] a paticula language he calls it a foreign language.
But how can it bc a foreign language when it is the languagc of his own
countrv and his own ancestos? We solve the difficulty bv talking about
thc'historical phases'of a language and using the terms'()1d English'
;ntl ' \l,,de rn English'.
Old llnglish has to be treated like any'rea1 'foreign language. It has
to be learnt -- with grammar books and dictionaries. lf we want first-hand

Literanrc ?

O/d English

knowlcdge of the first English literature we have to get down to the


learning of Old E,nglish first. But this is not a thing I expect you to clo,
at least not ye t. For the moment you will har.c to be content with knowing
roughly what ()ld English literature is about, roughly what kind of
poetry was written by thc encestoS tlf the l.,nglish and what kinc1 of
prose' \)e har'e to know something about these things, we cannot just
ignore them, becausc thev have hacl, ancl still have, a
the literature of N{odern English.

ce

rtain influence on

That is the concern of this book the literature of N'{odern English.


But again \/e ae faced with a questiofl: when does N'{odern E'nglish

staft ? .^S tar as we are conce rnecl, it starts as soon as we ind an old poem
o prosc'wofk which we can unclerstancl without gctting out x grammxrbook or a dictionarl,. Be tween ()lc1 English and Nloclcrn l:,nglish there is
a'pb_4S-c-ef !{4n.sjtign'when what is virtually a foreign language is becoming like the language we use toda1,. This phase is known as Middle
F,nglish' Some ]\Iiddle tr,ng1ish b<loks we can reacl without much dilr
culty; others are just as'foreign'as ()lcl English. There is a reason for

this. Timc, as we have seen, is one of the 'climensions' of language;


anothe dimensirln is spacg''English'means all the c]ifferent kjnds of
English spoken from the vcry mome nt the first speake rs of the language
scttlcd in England up to the present clav. But it also rneans all the varying
kinds of English spoken in different places, at anr givcn moment in tj mc.
Today, for instance, in England itself a local dialect of English can be
hcarcl in l-,a_nclsfrire, another in _I{ent, anothcr in Nortl'rumbcr!.and,
anothcr in F,sse-x, and so on. But thelr 2ll har.e a souncl claim to be regarded as'true English', though we fincl it convenient to call them
Eug/ish dia/e .r.It usually happens in anv civilisecl countrv that onc dialcct establishe s itsclf as the most important. Thus l{uo yii is the dialect

Middle Englisb

D ja/tlc.r

terrsht in (lhinese schools, and..f ohore Malay the clialect taught in i\{alar.

The dialcct chosen is usually the onc which is spokcn in the


clrpital city, in the royal ctlurt, clr n'thc universities. The English c]ialect
sc--hools.

,.

The

First English Literatare

which has established itself as the most important is that now known as
Stenclard trnglish or I{ing's, (j}_Q""gllil English, historically speakrng
e miltqrq of th-e- 91{ Ir*191NIidia1{
SJl"lS,.,t (north of the Thames) ancl the
old Kentish c1j1f9ct (south of the Thames). This is the dialect that I am
writing now; this is the dialect that all foreigners who wanr to know
ljnelish Stat to learn. Having been for a long time the clialect most
favt>urecl by royaltv, by learne cl men ancl statesmen, it tencls to have more

lrx.r than any other, anci inc1eed some clf the othcr c1ialects hat'e ncl
Nloclern English tcxts at all. It is chiefly the literature of Stanclarcl I,lnglish
that wc are concerne(l with.
ln the N{iddle Iinglish phase-, the 'phase of transition' all the dialccts of England sccmecl to be as good as cach other, and all of thcm hacl
litcraturcs. 'Ihere was, as vet, no thought of a supreme dialect v'ith a
monopoly of English literature . This cxplains some of our ciil1iculties.
( lhaucer wrote in the English of J,ondon ancl we find him comparativclv
citsv to understand, for this Ii)nglish became the language we oursclvcs
write ancl speak. But there were other poets writing in \r)<lrcestershjre
linglish and Lancashire F,nglish ancl Kcntish Flnglish, hard for us tcr
r,rnclerstancl, ancl so we become frustratecl. But by aboutl-i_+o..ilthe con
fusion is clcarecl up, a1d the historv of English litcrature becomes the
histrlry of thc litcratur of rlne dialect.
. ()t very nearly so. Bven in the Nlclern pcritlcl, a number of writ.rs
have preferrecl to write in their own county dialects. Robert I3ur-ns was
onc, clinging to the clialect of Avrshire rn Scotl-4nd, although hc knew
Standard E'nglish perfectlv wel1. \)illiam Ba1n-gs, a brilliant language
scholar of the nincteenth centurv, liked to'write jn the porsgl s.*i3,leg_r.
And toclav English literature contains works in the many E,ngiish dia,
lccts of Ame rica, and even in the c]iale ct rlf the \'X/e st lnclian negro. \i/c
shoulcl rejoicc in this richncss ancl varietv.
Ir,nglish literature, then, is vest, cxtending long ih time and wiclc in
space . ( )ur task now is to e xamine its beginnings in the temperate, mist\.,
raitrv islancl where the English nation came into being.

The first l:,)nglishmen were foreigncrs. In other worcls, they came tcr
Iingland from abroacl whcn Englancl was alreadv inhabited by a long

scttled race ancl blessed b1. a fairly advanced cilrlisrtjon. That l,;ng
settled race was thc British race, and the beginnings of its settlement
cennot bc tracecl: thev belong tr> pre history. That ace stil] exists, to be
found mainly in \ /ales, ro rhe we st of Enghncl, speaking a language quite
unlike E'nglish, cliffrent in temPefemeni an,l ..,lt,rr. "- i'. "gl.t''
invader, still cultivating a literaturc which has never jnflusn6sd nor
bcen much inlluenced bv the literature wc are studying. lt is ironical
that this people shoulcl now be called the \Velsh (from the ()lcl lrnglish
word fcrr'fnreigner') when thcv are much less foreigners thzrn the
English. The ancicnt Romans callecl them 'Britanni' and their counrrv
'I)ritannia' . !(/c can call them 'Britons..
These Britons 'wce ru]cd [,lr a few ccnturies bv the R'qm.ans, and
Brjtannia or Britain \ /as the most we sterl\r and northerll, province of
the Roman Empire. The Romans brought their Ja.nguage (of which
taccs Still survive in the name s of the
of England) ancl their archi_
-t_ow-ns
tects ancl enginecrs as well as their garrisons and governors. Britain was
givcn towns, villas with central heating, public baths, thcatres, and a
svstcm of roads which is still more or less in existence. But, as we know,
the Roman Empire eventuallv fe1l, the Roman legions withdrew, and a
pcople softened by civilisation and colonial rulc was left to itself and to
any tough invader who cared to cross from Europe . The time of thc fal1
ETp!t., is also the time of the migrations of peoples from
"f $g*tsg.Tit
the East of Europe such peoples as the Goths and Vandals, who them
sclves broke the power of Rome. Disturbed by these movements westward by barbarous and ruthless hordes, certain peoples from the northwest of E'urrlpe crossed thc

se

rs and settle d_--or.r a n.,mber of

vears-in

Britain, driving the British west ancl claiming rhe counrry for themseh,es.
These peoples included the ]\neles and $,a-{_,oAs, who still give their
names to what is sometimes called the An'g19_;!_4+*Q!t acc. Their language ,

rJ

Romaa Britaia

Angla

.\'axon

En,q/and

The

First

o grollP of dialects, is sometimes callecl Anglo .Saxo{,' but, in

interests of unity, we shall kcep to the name t llEngiish.

En,g/ish

Lieralare I /

the

!e have few historical details of these lgyryrogs a1d''sett1eme_nts,_


which vou can think of as being completecl b)' the end of the seventh
cenrury. Thc legends ol'King Arthur and his Knighrs of the Round
T.ab-]e tell of the defenders of the old Roman civilisation ighting a brave

fftt':

rearguard action against the new barbarians. The Angles and Saxons anc1,
along with them, the J_uLe s were barbarians perhaps only in the sense that
they welg_ not
Roman Empire had ended as a Christian
-Cb1.!.1l_+S,flhe
limpire ancl Chrjst!4nitv had been well-established as the religion of
Britarn.But the Angles and Saxons worshipped the old--Qgp.anicgods
who still give their names to the days of the week-Thg-r and !(pde-n
and the rest. Yet thev had some civilisation. Thel' were f-ry4lers and _s_e,4..
men, they knew something of law and the art of government, and it
seems that they brought a !!t91a11119 with them from urope trl England,
S the country must now be ca1led.
By the sn-d:f'-:b:.]:1h"::::gE' the new masteS of Englancl had be
come a Qb**t*.*p_-.p.ele, chiefly because of the energv of the Christjan
evangelists from lrelancl, who came over to convert them. And al1 the
.."i's oFth-e.arlv liteiature othe Anglo Sa.'ons belong to a Christian
England, lg-rj$-ej_r_b,c_lerks in _qlonast_e,rie.q,- kept lloredjn monas*r-er1es,
a-qd*gp"b_cp$gC1,9_J1gfu31 the tjmg 9{"1h9*R9{-o_t-+3.9gt' y-h-e_t:Jl-e_I,l*ry
VIII dissolvecl the monlq.ted.p"S-.-We must think of this literature as being
jf}lssed down by_wgra "ytr. from generation ro gencrari,',n, ii.
9i
cfe2tors for the most pat uf'&reyL gd_9n11, b.ejr-rggiven-a'written.form

long

af19r jts'p]'mB.o_sj'tj.on.

This literature is almost eIc]gsjr"'|y n _"-"lls-.

l'].-.ggT.Thcrc is p1o55. bur this is not strictll lirerarurc--1[5rory. rheology, letters. biograp[y-and the nrmes ol'the wrirers of much of thi:

prose are known. There is a lot of anonymous poerry in the world, but
ver1, little anonymous prose.l_Sound is the essence of verse, ancl hence
verse is chiefly a matter of outh and ear'But prose is a matte for the pen
and it has to be composed on paper. \h_en a man composes on paper he
usually signs his name. fA poem is recitecl, remembered, passed on, and
its origin is forgotten iat least as far as early literatures are concerned.l

Th."s]dggl

Ang/a 5'axan i/hninationfron tlLe Lindetfarne Cosptls.

9p:'

in the English language

is

@;.I.lr-". o,_.o

posed in England, but on tbs-scl-ti|'s-+Lgf"F-g:"-p.: the new''ttlers


brought it over along with their wives, goods, and chattels. It was not
written down tili the -end."of ,tl1.9 .qi"4t-h.Selt"U-fy-. It is a;stirring, warhke,
r tolent poemof ove three thousand lines. and it is p&iaps difficult Lo
think of it Being set down by a monk, a man of peace, in the quiet of a
monastery. These Anglp Saxon monks, however, hacl the biood of war
riors in them, they we ie the sons ancl grandsons of Vikings. Beouu/f is
essentially a Y*?-r;1-o*t]s-q|_Q'J.[t tells of the hero who gives his name to the
poem and his struggle with a fgu_l,mon-ster half-devil, half-man called

Beouulf

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'l'fu Fir.rt En,qli.rh Lilt,ra/rrrt t


I

ttrt

(ircnclcl, wbo has for a long time been raiding the banclueting-hall of
King Hrothgar of Jutland (land of the .f utes) and carrving off antl dc
v()Lrringi l-Irothgar's warriors. Beowulf sails from Sweclen and comes to
thc hclp of Hrothgar. His fights with Gtendei and (lrendel's equallv

,ir,/t,/,

horrific 1161[61-216 the subject of the poem, a poem whosc grim music
is thc snapping of fangs, tbe crunching of bones, and whose colour is the
srcy of the northern winter, shot b,v the red of blood. It is strong meat,
no work for the squeamish, but it is in no wav a crucle ancl primitive com
position. It shows great ski1l in its construction, its imagery and langua5Se
2c sOphiSticated. It is not a Christian poe m.-despite the Christian flav our
siven to it bv the monastery scribe (e.g. Grendel is of the accursed race
of the first murclerer, Cain)-but the product of an ach.anced pagan
cir ilisation.
N{ uch of the strength and violence r>f Beau,a/f <leriv e from the nature of
()lcl English itself. That was a language rich in consonants, foncl of
cluSteing its cons<lnants togethgr, so thzt the mouth Seems to perform a
swift act of violence. The following Modern English words are to be
f<runcl in ()1d E nglish, and are tvpical of that langua ge'. .rtrength ('in which
scvcn muscular consonants strangle a single vowe l'),1 hreatlt, que//, drenclt,
crash. Compzred with the softer languages of the East and South, ()lcl
Iinglish seems to be a seties of loud noises. And the violence of the laneuage is emphasised in the techniquc that the ( )ld English poet emplovs.
{ere is a linc frtlm Beou,l/:
Steap stanlitho st:ige nearwe
(Stcep stone slopes, paths narrow)

The line is divided into two halves, ancl each half has two heavv ,stresses.
'fhree (sometimes four, occasionally two) of the strcsses of the whole
line are made even more emphatic by the te of :hea.d rh1n-e'.'11ead-rhvmc
means making words begin with the same sound (this is sometimcs callecl

allitcration, but alliteration rea11y refers to words beginning with the


same letter, which is not alwavs the same thing as beginning with thc
same sound). Although, slpc_g. th"9" \9_1n.q! 9,9.1"9.\1est, most English

vcrse has traclitionallv used end-rh1mi-(or ordinary rhymc, as we may call


it) this old heacl rh1,me has always had some influence on English write rs.
ln the twentieth centurv some poets have abancloned orclinarv rhyme ancl
reverted to the ()ld English practice. Certainly, the use of head-rhvme
seems natural to English verse and it even plalrs a largc part in everydav
I')nglish speech: )h.a/e and he arj ; fat and;l'arj ; time and tide ; ft as a fidd/e ,'
a pig in a pokt, etc., etc. This modern rer.ival was perhaps started by ETra
P9u1d, 3l4qgfiSel, who ttrnslaterl the Olr'l F,nglish prtem'1-he .feaf arer
]

'1 History o;f L:'ngli.rb ]'iteratare, Rook


lrvinc. J. l\{. l)ent, r917.

I, bv

Rmile l-cgouis, tznslated bv Helen l)ougJas

into Modern lrnglish but rctained the technique of the original

Bitter breast carcs have t abided,

Known on my keel many

a care's hold,
ncl dire sea Suge' and thcrc I rlft spcnt
Narrow nightwatch nrgh the ship's heacl
Whi]e she tclssecl close to cliffs. Coldly a11rcteci,
Mv feet were bv frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; challng sighs
Hew my heart rouncl and hunger begot
NIere weary mood. . .
.

This usc of

heacl rhyme in ()1d English verse, while it produces an


ofvio]encc, iS also fesponsib1e for a certain inabilitv to'cal] a spade
a spacle '. The necd to find \ /ords beginning with the same sound means
often that a poet hes to call some quite common thing bv an uncommon
name' usu2llY a nane that he himself invents for his immediate purpose.
Thus the sea becomes the swan's way or the whale's foad o the sail-path.
[''og becomcs the air,he]met, darkness the night-he lmet. The Old Iinglish
language was well fitted for playing this sort of game, because its normal
way of making new words was to take two old words ancl join them to
gcther. Thus, as there was no word for crartfl,, the form rod fasten hacl tct
bc made, meanjng'trl ]r to a tree'. The worcl uertehrd had not yet come
into F,nglish, so ban hring(bone ring) had to be usecl instead. A lot of ()ld
-trnglish words thus have the qualit,v of 1!dd-l_e_s 'guess what this is'-,
ancl it is n()t surprising that riddling was a favourite Old Flnglish pursuit.
Indccd, some of the loveliest of the shorter poems are called riclclles.
Thcrc is one on a bull's horn. The horn itself speaks, telling how it once
was the wcapon of an armecl v/arri()r (the bull) but soon afterwards was
transformed into a cup, its bosom being filled bv a maiden 'adorned with
rings'. Finallv jt is borne on horseback, and it swlls with the air fr<ln-r
someone else 's bosom. It has become a trumpet. The actual guessing
essencc of a ricldle-is lcss important than the fanciful clescription of the
object whose name, of couSe' is never disclosccl.
eIcct

It js time we examined a piece of ()lc1 Ir,nglish ve rse , and we cannot do

better than take a poem composecl ny C_C_dgg". This poem is perhaps


the first piece of Christian lite raturq to appear in Anglo-Saxon F,ngland,
and it is especially notable because, according ro rhe Venerable Bede, it
was .dir.inely inspired. Caedmon, a humble and unlearned man, tencled
the cattle of an abbev on the Yorkshire coast. One night, at a feast, when
songs were called for, he stole out quietly, ashamed that he cou]d contibute nothing to the amateu enteftainment. He lay down in the cow she d
and slept. In his sleep he hearcl a voice asking him to sing. 'I cannot sing,'

he said,'anc1 that's why I left the feast and came here."Nevertheless,'


said the mysterious voice,'vou shall sing to me."$hat shall 1sing?'

f"

l'.r r,,

/i :/ t

Li

Tlle Fir.r Flngli.rl) l 'i/t t-,t/ttt', '!

nr tr.trr

esked Caec1mon.'Sing me the Song of Creation,'v/as the answe. Then


(]ircc]mon sang the follclwing vefses'.verses he hacl neve heafcl bcfore
:

heri:rn heoftlnrices wearcl,


mihte ancl his modgethonc;

Nu wc sculan
il{etocles

$etltc wuldotfaeclet, swa he wunclras gehwaes,

Ece

clryhten,

lltt.y./i.rlt /,r,,,,

N,rr'(lrumbria, thc long thick neck of the countr,v; Nfcrcia, thc fat bod,v;
stretching from the Thames to Lancl's End. ()f these
t lrr t t, N.rthumbria
was thc centrc of learning, with its rich m.nastcries
\\ , sscx, the Foot,

orcl onsteurlcle.

'fhosc are the first four lines, ancl they can be translate d as follows: 'Now
wc must praise the (luarclian of the kingclom of heaven, the might of the
Creator ancl the thought of His mind; the work of the Fathcr of men, as
Hc, the Eternal Lorcl, formed the beginning of er.erv wonder.' If vou
look carefull,v at these lines you will see that Old F,nglish is not a com
plctely foreign language . Certain wotcls we still possess ancl,lti.r,lte,a,e
whjle other words have merelv changed their form a little. Thus, zzz has
become now (stIII nu in Scodancl), rtihte has becomc ruiybt, utorc has bccotll'e work, sya has become so, Jaeder has become -faller. tsIeofonrit
(hear.cnlv kingdom) suggests bishoprit, which wc stil1 use to clesctibc thc
'kingclom' of a bishop. ()ther words, of course, have died completelv.
Note the form of the poe m: the clivision of the line into two halves, thc:
four stresses, the use of head-rhvme. You cen think of this poem as
having been composecl about'67o, a key year fctr English literature
There is a gorld cleal of Old English vese' Some dealing with war, 1ike
Th Battlt: oJ'hIa/don, whose heroic note stil1 rings ove the ccnturies:
.

'hought sha]l be btal.cr, the heart boldcr'


N{ightier the moocl, as out might lcssens.
'There is a larger bociy of verse on Christian themcs, sometimes beautiful,
but generallv cluller than the pagan, warrior poems. There are two grcat
poe ms The SeaJarey and The IYaltdgrer_- whose resigne d melancholy (the
lame nts of men without fixed abocle) ancl powe rful de scription of natr-rrc

still speak strongly through the strange worcls and the

lr rttrrains to say somcthing of Olcl English prose. Before we can clo ()kl
wc lllust rmincl ourselves of the fact of dialect' the fact that ()1d
l,rrllish was not a single languagc but is as with ,\loclern English
rrrclt lv the name we give to a group of dialects. Think of llngland, about
tlrl't'ltt] rlf the ninth centuy' as clivided into three main kingc1rlms
tIrIs

heavv-f<rotccl

thvthms. Resignecl melancholv is a characteristic of much ()1d llnqlish


veSe : evcn when a poem is at it( m)st vigorous c1ealing with war,

storm, sea, the drinking-hall, thc creation of the world we alwavs sccm
to be aware of a certain unde rcurrent of sadness., Pe thaps this is a rc1cction of the English climate the grey skies ancl the mjst or pethaps it is
something to clo with the me re souncl of English in its first phase he av tt

footecl, harsh, lacking in the tripping, gay quality of a languagc like


Irrench or ltalian. ()r perhaps it is a quality aclclecl, in odd lines or cven
worcls, by the scribes in thejr monasteies monks aware thzt this wtlrlcl
is vanit1,, that life is short, that things pass eway and nnh'(]od is real. Ilut
the sense of melanchoiv is there all the time, part of the strange haunting
music o Old E'nglish poety.

rilrlr)CCl with manuscript books bouncl in golcl ancl ornamcnted with

|'ti'r'irlus Stones. Up to the miclcl]c of the njnth centu,v, alI the prletrv <lf
L r rq l:r rr cl was re corclecl in thc \.rthumbrian diale ct. But in those clavs, as
'rtt\' ttttlnl< w.rlulc] tel] us, nothing was pefmanent, anC] the ninth centLlV
'', r tlr. t nri .f N'rrhumlrri:r as the h,rfirc .f lr';rrning rrrd rlri lrbran ol'
l rl1'Ii1111]. The "Danes inr'adecl tr'nglancl (The Bat/e aJ' L\,Ia/tlon tel]s <li a
l
tt'r ]ght against the Dane s) and sackecl Northumbria as thc Goths hacl
'rt
'', l't', l R,'me. The m('ntsteris wefc lorrted. tht.precioU5 |'oo|<s u.e re
rr1'pctl ro picces for their rich ornements, the monks llecl or were

'l'rLrghtr:recl. Now !essex, the kingclom of A]fred tlrc Great, became


l lla|'Ln,l's culrural cntr(..
\\ lren \l|'red Came l(r hc thr, lnc rlf \X csst r he was nrrt happr ahrlut

rlr. statc of le:rrning hc found there._ (There is a r.erv intc:r:esttng lctter he


lote rbout this to one of his bisl-rops.) But rhen w-as no time lbr im
r ,lv itlg it: the Danes wcre savaging the countV and Alfre
c]'s task v'as to
1'
.r'1'1111iss armies ancl beat back the inr.acler. In 8;8, whcn it lookccl as
tlrorrsh thc Danes woulcl bccome masters of England, {lircd defceted
tlrt'lrl in a series of de cisive batt]es and thcn macle 2 teatv which conline cl
r lrcir rulc to the north.[iov', in a pcaceful kingdom,
hc began to improvc
l)(' State <lf education, ftlunding colleges, importing teachers irtlm
Lrrrope, translating Latin books into VTest Saron (or \ii/essex) I,)nglish,
I'r cserving the wcalth of vcrse which had le l.t its olcl home in Northum
I'ri:r. So now the dialcct of F)nglish culture became e southern one.
r\lfrccl is en importent figurc in the historv of L,nglish literature. He
\\ is not an artist (that is, he wrote no poclTls, clrama, or stories), but he
l.ncw how to writc_good clcar prose. A1so, rvith helpers, he translzrtecl
rrrrr,'lr l.arin int,r English tincluding the |-.rr/,:iar/ir,t/ Hi.rtat-y,,f rht.Vcncrrlrlc Becie), ancl sr> showecl writers of English how ro hanclie foreign
r,ltrrs. English hacl been mostly concernccl with shccr d,:scription: now it
l r'rtl trl learn how to express ahstracions. And also, becausc
cifhis concern
l, )r.(iclucation ancl books,rAlfred ma1, be saicl to har.'e established the c<>nl]ltl()us cultural tradition of Englan_d, despite the |tlreign invasiclns
u lrich were still to comc.
lior much of the later history of r\nglo-Saxon timcs we zrte indebtecl tr>
rvlr:rt is known as the A4g/r2 f.qxp-ry-Qllrqnick a rccord of the main hap
l)( !rings of the country, k_ep_t b1. mgnks i4 sgrlcn successive monasteries,
r,i

.lllt,tl

l'.ry/r,/r l

.//t t,////1,

:ttttl ctlve ring the period- fromhe.middle of the ninth centuty to r r


5.ul,\
wlr.'rr l lt'nry_l l crmt'to thr'thronc' This is the first hi5to\ a Germln-ic

'f
|t.l'rlr', in some wa)s rhe firsr newTiiaper, cerrainlr rhe most sr,lid antl
intcrcsting piece of ()1c1 English pose we possesyAncl in it we see ()1c]
Iinglish moving steaclily r.wards Middle Engtisir, that transitionar ran
guage which is slowly t. develop into the rongue of our own age.
( )ur bricf story ends at the clc-rse of the-firsr
thousand reers ,l the
(lhristian era. Ir ends with the impassioned prose of an Archbishop
of
!(/ulf9la:l cying out thatLthe end of the wor1d is coming, the
|<lr]<,'
Anti (lhrist is here*:-!Repent, for the day of the Lord is at hanci.iAnd
indeccl it wasqlhe end, not of the world but of Angio,saxon EnglanfuThe

P3ne; o.yer-"ran the u/hole country and, after only a brief morn",rt ot i".1.pcndcnce' the Anglo-Sa\ons were to know an even greate servituc]e . ln
i to"(li 1]]e!srnans came ovef to make E'ngland theirs' to change the o]d
u a\',' lile and also the langu:rgc.1 Heav1'-footed { )ld English rias ro be-

c,)me through its mingling wTih a lighrer, brighter rongue

From

sunnier lands-the richest ancl most various literarl. me dium in ihe whole
r;f history-.-\

4.

The Coning of the

ormdns

Norman'means'North-man'. Thc Normans werc, in fact, of the same


lrloocl as the Danes, but thc,v had thoroughly absorbed the culture of the
l;rtr' l{oman Empire, had been long C-hristianised, ancl spoke that offshoot
, rl' l,atin we call Norman French. Thus their kingdom in France had a
r cry clifferent set of traditions from those of the country they conquered.
You ma1. sum it up b,v sa,ving that the Norman wav of 1ifu lookedgouth
r1)warcls the Medite rranean, towarcls the sun, towarcls wine and laught95l
r,hile the Anglo Saxon way cif life looked towards thelgre,v northern
s( 1ls grim, heavy, melancholy, humourles-s;
Not that the conquering Normans were irresponsible or ineffrcient
(<1u:rlitics which, wrongly, people often associate with the southern
rrrccs). \X/illiap. -t!9_ po"lggetor made a thorough job of taking over the
down to the number
r or.rntrf, and,!-rad er.'er).t!$"*3:1y;-t1gg|q_rlSd
,rl'tleer in the forests, so it was said and this inventorv carried the

Book

Doruesda1,

Irrshtening name of pqngs-d-+y'_P.,o^-o--k-.r Solt-he first piece of Norman


u,riting in England is a,cat41,o-gue of tl,rg -k!ng's Propgrty, for \X/illiam saw
lr irnsclf as the owner of the countrv. He owne d the land and eve rything
n it, but 9.4419{ land to the nobles who had helpe d him achieve his con
,1rrcst, and so set up that feudal-sy-s-te-m-which was to transform English
lili'. Feudalism may be thought of as a sort of pyramid, with the king at
tlrc apex and societv ranged below him in lower and lower degrees of
i

r',rnk jtill at the base yo,, have the humblest order of men, tied to r orking ,./,
,
,,rr the land, men with few rights. Few rights, but yet rights, for one
t rc characteristics of feudalism was- r-egppnsibility: working tvro,\ /ays
rrlr rrnd d_ory4., The barons were responsible to the king, but the king had

of

lris responsibilities towards them, and so on down to the base of the


lrr ramid.
With the coming of the Normans, thei 1aws, their castles, their know'
l,,l{re of the art

of

rar,-the Ang-lo Salons q4-!k.ta 4p,,99it194--ql3!-ks*tLe-s9,,/1

i ''' j

rvhich killed their culture and qa{9 their language a despisecl thing. Old ; t,,
lirlglish liteiature dies 1though in the monari..i., ih' Anglo-'Saxon

2J

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