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Outlines of English and American Literature|
Summary of Beginnings
by Long, William J.
|The two main branches of our literature are
the Anglo-Saxon and the Norman-French, both of which received some
additions from Celtic, Danish and Roman sources. The Anglo-Saxon
literature came to England with the invasion of Teutonic tribes,
the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (cir. 449). The Norman-French
literature appeared after the Norman conquest of England, which
began with the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The Anglo-Saxon literature is classified under two heads, pagan and
Christian. The extant fragments of pagan literature include one
epic or heroic poem, Beowulf, and several lyrics and battle
songs, such as "Widsith," "Deor's Lament," "The Seafarer," "The
Battle of Brunanburh" and "The Battle of Maldon." All these were
written at an unknown date, and by unknown poets.
The best Christian literature of the period was written in the
Northumbrian and the West-Saxon schools. The greatest names of the
Northumbrian school are Bede, Cędmon and Cynewulf. The most famous
of the Wessex writers is Alfred the Great, who is called "the
father of English prose."
The Normans were originally Northmen, or sea rovers from
Scandinavia, who settled in northern France and adopted the
Franco-Latin language and civilization. With their conquest of
England, in the eleventh century, they brought nationality into
English life, and the spirit of romance into English literature.
Their stories in prose or verse were extremely fanciful, in marked
contrast with the stern, somber poetry of the Anglo-Saxons.
The most notable works of the Norman-French period are: Geoffrey's
History of the Kings of Britain, which preserved in Latin
prose the native legends of King Arthur; Layamon's Brut, a
riming chronicle or verse history in the native tongue; many
metrical romances, or stories of love, chivalry, magic and
religion; and various popular songs and ballads. The greatest poet
of the period is the unknown author of "Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight" (a metrical romance) and probably also of "The Pearl," a
beautiful elegy, which is our earliest In Memoriam.
Selections for Reading
Without special study of Old English it is
impossible to read our earliest literature. The beginner may,
however, enter into the spirit of that literature by means of
various modern versions, such as the following:
Beowulf. Garnett's Beowulf (Ginn and Company), a literal
translation, is useful to those who study Anglo-Saxon, but is not
very readable. The same may be said of Gummere's The Oldest English
Epic, which follows the verse form of the original. Two of the best
versions for the beginner are Child's Beowulf, in Riverside
Literature Series (Houghton), and Earle's The Deeds of Beowulf
Anglo-Saxon Poetry. The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The
Husband's Message (or Love Letter), Deor's Lament, Riddles, Battle
of Brunanburh, selections from The Christ, Andreas, Elene, Vision
of the Rood, and The Phoenix,--all these are found in an excellent
little volume, Cook and Tinker, Translations from Old English
Poetry (Ginn and Company).
Anglo-Saxon Prose. Good selections in Cook and Tinker,
Translations from Old English Prose (Ginn and Company). Bede's
History, translated in Everyman's Library (Dutton) and in the Bohn
Library (Macmillan). In the same volume of the Bohn Library is a
translation of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Alfred's Orosius (with
stories of early exploration) translated in Pauli's Life of Alfred.
Norman-French Period. Selections in Manly, English Poetry,
and English Prose (Ginn and Company); also in Morris and Skeat,
Specimens of Early English (Clarendon Press). The Song of Roland in
Riverside Literature Series, and in King's Classics. Selected
metrical romances in Ellis, Specimens of Early English Metrical
Romances (Bohn Library); also in Morley, Early English Prose
Romances, and in Carisbrooke Library Series. Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight, modernized by Weston, in Arthurian Romances Series.
Andrew Lang, Aucassin and Nicolette (Crowell). The Pearl,
translated by Jewett (Crowell), and by Weir Mitchell (Century).
Selections from Layamon's Brut in Morley, English Writers, Vol.
III. Geoffrey's History in Everyman's Library, and in King's
Classics. The Arthurian legends in The Mabinogion (Everyman's
Library); also in Sidney Lanier's The Boy's King Arthur and The
Boy's Mabinogion (Scribner). A good single volume containing the
best of Middle-English literature, with notes, is Cook, A Literary
Middle-English Reader (Ginn and Company).