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English Literature

The Interdependence of Literature
English Literature
by Curtis, Georgina Pell


No country in the beginning owed so much to the language and literature of other nations as the English.

Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Norman-French, Cymric and Gaelic have all been moulded into its literature.

Three periods stand out in its history--the first beginning with the end of the Roman occupation, to the Norman conquest--this includes the literature of the Celtic, Latin and Anglo-Saxon tongues. The second from the Norman conquest to the time of Henry VIII, embracing the literature of the Norman-French, the Latin and Anglo-Saxon; the gradual evolution of the Anglo-Saxon into English; and the literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The third period includes the Reformation, and the golden age of Elizabethan literature; followed by the Restoration, Revolution, and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Another division is called the Old English, Early English, and Middle English. The latter was used by Chaucer, and with a little care in reading can readily be understood by any educated person at the present day, though it contains many words nationalized from the French. It is a curious fact that the Anglo-Saxons, who in the present day, through their descendants, the English, have the strongest national life and literature, cannot boast of such a treasure house of ancient literature as is possessed by the Irish and Welsh.

Ireland has its bardic songs and historical legends older than the ninth century, at which time appeared the "Psalter of Cashel," which has come down to the present day.

There are also prose chronicles, said to be the outcome of others of a still earlier period, and which give a contemporary history of the country in the Gaelic language of the fifth century. There is no other modern nation in Europe that can point to such a literary past. The Scotch Celts had early metrical verse, of which the Ossian, wherein is related the heroic deeds of Fingal, was supposed to have been sung by all the ancient Celtic bards. In the eighteenth century, Macpherson, a Scotchman, found some of these poems sung in the Highlands of Scotland; and, making a careful study of them, he translated all he could find from the Gaelic into English, and gave them to the world. At the time of publication, in 1762, their authenticity was questioned, and even at the present day scholars are divided in their opinion as to their genuineness. The literature of the Cymric Celts, the early inhabitants of Britain, has given us the glorious legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. All the bardic songs refer to this mighty prince, who resisted the Saxon invaders, and whose deeds were sung by all the Welsh Britons. Some of these people took refuge in France, and gradually the fame of their legends spread all over Europe, and were eagerly seized upon and rendered into song, by the chivalric poets of all countries. From these tales Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century compiled a Latin historical work of Britain, while in later times Tennyson in England, and Richard Wagner in Germany, have made the deeds of Arthur and his Knights the theme of some of their most magnificent creations.

Other ancient Welsh writings are still extant, among them the Triads, which is a work that has come down from primitive times. It comprises a collection of historical and mythological maxims, traditions, theological doctrines, and rules for constructing verse.

The Mabinogi, or "Tales of Youth," are old Welsh romances similar to the Norse Sagas, which are supposed by critics to date from a very rude and early age.

The Anglo-Saxon is very different from these ancient literatures. It has no legends or romances, no national themes, and its early prose and verse were written more in the style of religious narrative, and to give practical information, than to amuse.

The poems of Beowulf, a thorough Norse Saga, embodies the doings of the Anglo-Saxons before they emigrated to England, and must have been written long before they set foot on English soil. Older than Beowulf is the lyric poem of Widsith, which has some historical interest as depicting the doings of kings, princes and warriors. It contains traces of the epic, which in Beowulf, whose English poem is next in point of time, is more markedly developed.

During the fifth and sixth centuries the Germanic tribes who emigrated to Britain brought with them a heathen literature. The oldest fragment now extant are the Hexenspruche and the Charms. They have elements of Christian teaching in them, which would seem to imply that the Church tried to give them a Christian setting. In some respects they resemble the old Sanskrit, and are supposed to be among the earliest examples of lyric poetry in England.

Alfred the Great improved the Anglo-Saxon prose and soon after his time a translation of the Bible in that language was made, forming the second known copy in a national language, the first being the Moeso-Gothic of Bishop Ulphilus. The Saxon Chronicles, dating from the time of Alfred to 1154 were copies of the Latin Chronicles kept in the monasteries.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw the age of the Crusades, which added a new impulse to learning through the co-mingling of different races. French poetry was translated into English, which, in the thirteenth century, in its evolution from the Anglo-Saxon became a fixed language. Classical learning in this age was generally diffused through the schoolmen, of whom Lanfranc, Anselm, John of Salisbury, Duns Scotius, William of Malmesbury, and other great names of this period, mentioned elsewhere, are instances.

In the thirteenth century appeared also the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of fables, traditions, and various pictures of society, changing with the different countries that the stories dealt with. The romance of Apollonius in this collection gave Chaucer the plots for two or three of his tales, and furnished Cowers with the theme for most of his celebrated poem, the Confessio Amantis. This poem, in its turn, suggested to Shakespeare the outlines for his characters of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and the Merchant of Venice. Other and less celebrated works are also taken from the Gesta Romanorum.

After the accession of the Norman kings of England, the chief literary works in England for two centuries are those of the Norman poets. Wace in the twelfth century wrote in French his "Brut d'Angleterre." Brutus was the mythical son of Aeneas, and the founder of Britain. The Britons were settled in Cornwall, Wales and Bretagne, and were distinguished for traditionary legends, which had been collected by Godfrey of Monmouth in 1138. They formed the groundwork for Wace's poem, which was written in 1160, and from that time proved to be an inexhaustible treasury from which romantic writers of fiction drew their materials.

From this source Shakespeare obtained King Lear; Sackville found his Ferrex and Porrex; and Milton and other poets are also indebted to these legends. They furnished, also, the romances of chivalry for the English Court, and have had an effect on English poetry that can be seen even in the present day. The six romances of the British cycle, celebrating Arthur, his Knights, and the Round Table, were written in the last part of the twelfth century, at the instigation of Henry II. They were the work of Englishmen; but were composed in French, and from them the poets of France fashioned a number of metrical romances.

Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century borrowed freely from French, Latin and Italian works. The comic Fabliaux and the allegorical poetry of the Trouveres and Troubadours furnished him with many of his incidents and characters. The Romance of the Rose was taken from a French poem of the thirteenth century.

Troilus and Cressida is regarded as a translation from Boccaccio, and Chaucer's Legend of Good Women is founded on Ovid's Epistles. John Lydgate, a Benedictine monk in the fifteenth century, wrote poetry in imitation of Chaucer, taking his ideas from the Gesta Romanorum, while Thomas Mallory, a priest in the time of Edward IV, has given us one of the best specimens of old English in the romantic prose fiction of Morte d'Arthur, in which the author has told in one tale the whole history of the Round Table.

The "Bruce" of the Scotch John Barbour in the same century, gives the adventures of King Robert, from which Sir Walter Scott has drawn largely for his "Lord of the Isles."

The close of the fifteenth century saw a passion develop for Scotch poetry, which speedily became the fashion. Henry the Minstrel, or Blind Harry, wrote his "Wallace," which is full of picturesque incident and passionate fervor.

Robert Henryson wrote his Robin and Makyne, a charming pastoral, which has come down to us in Percy's Reliques.

Gavin Douglas, Scotch Bishop of Dunkeld in the beginning of the sixteenth century, translated the Aeneid into English. This is the earliest known attempt in the British Isles to render classical poetry into the national language.

In the sixteenth century Erasmus gave a new impulse in England to the study of Latin and Greek, and Sir Thomas More in his "Utopia" (wherein he imagines an ideal commonwealth with community of property), unconsciously gave birth to a word (utopia), which has ever since been used to designate the ideally impossible.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in the same century made a translation of the Aeneid and wrote sonnets and lyrical poems. The sonnet he borrowed from Petrarch, giving it the amatory tone common to the Italians. He also took from the Italian poets the blank verse of his Aeneid, a style in which the best poetry of England has since been written.

The genius of John Milton has been greatly hampered by the self-inflicted laws under which he labored, conditions which did not affect Dante and Tasso, who were his models; for Milton denied in a great measure the use of history, tradition and symbolism. Of this defect he was sensible, so he tried to make amends for it by borrowing fables and allegories out of the Koran and Talmud. English poetry has inclined more to the style of Milton than to that of Spenser, who was thoroughly embued with the romantic spirit of the Teutons and the Troubadours, though, like Milton, he was influenced by Tasso; and unlike him, by Ariosto. His Faerie Queene, Gloriana, is supposed to be the beloved of the courtly Arthur of the British legends.

The English poets of the Elizabethan age were under deep obligations to the Italian poets, especially Tasso; and this is particularly true of Spenser, many critics think his eighty-first sonnet is almost a literal translation of Tasso. Be that as it may, the obligations of many English poets of the age to the Italians, is unmistakable.

After the Puritan period the English language and literature was strongly influenced by the French, and in both Pope and Addison there is a marked leaning toward French poetry. Pope's translation of Homer while it lacks the simple majesty and naturalness of the original (a trait which Bryant in the nineteenth century happily caught), nevertheless gave to the English world the opportunity to become somewhat acquainted with the incomparable poet of antiquity.

Thomson's descriptive poetry of nature found many imitators in Germany and France, and a taste for outdoor life and simplicity became the rage, so that some years after the author of the "Castle of Indolence" had passed away, Marie Antoinette in her rustic bower, "Little Trianon," pretended to like to keep sheep and pose as a shepherdess, as has been said elsewhere.

Percy's Reliques of ancient English poetry, in 1765 opened a storehouse of the fine old English ballads, which speedily became popular through the patronage of Scott, who made them his textbook for a variety of subjects. These poems, with Macpherson's "Fingal" introduced a new school of poetry into England. The originals of Scott were these romances of chivalry, and even Byron has not disdained to follow the same trend in the pilgrimage of his "Childe Harold." The nineteenth century poets and novelists do not seem to have borrowed especially from any foreign element; but in history Niebuhr's researches in Germany have greatly influenced Arnold in his "Roman History." The close of the nineteenth century and opening of the twentieth is chiefly remarkable for the interdependence of literature through the magazines and reviews. Translations of any striking or brilliant articles are immediately made, and appear in the magazines of different countries almost as soon as the originals, so that the literature of the future bids fair to become more cosmopolitan, and perhaps less strongly directed by racial and social influence than in the past.

And yet--in studying the literature of ancient and modern times--we are struck by the unity in diversity of its history, just as a world-wide traveller comes to see the similarity of nature everywhere. In literature strange analogies occur in ages and races remote from each other, as, when the mother in the old North country Scotch ballad sings to her child, and says:

"The wild wind is ravin,' thy minnies heart's sair, The wild wind is ravin,' but ye dinna care."

And we find nearly the same verse in the song of Danae to the infant Perseus:

"The salt spume that is blown o'er thy locks, Thou heedst not, nor the roar of the gale; Sleep babe, sleep the sea, And sleep my sea of trouble."

There is also the story of the Greek child who in ancient times sang nearly the same invocation for fair weather that we used in our nursery days, when, with noses flattened against the window pane, we uttered our sing-song:

"Rain, rain, go to Spain."

And in blindman's buff, perhaps the most ancient of games, we have words that have come down from remote times. The blindfolded one says:

"I go a-hunting a brassy fly."

To which the others answer:

"A-hunting thou goest; but shalt not come nigh."

And there are the marvellous stories of the Giant Killer, and the wonders of Puss in Boots and Cinderella, which have descended to us from that vast cloud-country of bygone ages; that dreamland of fairy imagery, which is as real to the little maid in the twentieth century as it was to her young sisters in the shadow of the Pyramids, on the banks of the Tiber and the Ganges, in the neighborhood of solemn Druid Temples, or among the fjords and floes of the far-off Icelandic country, in centuries long since gone by.

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Personae

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