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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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