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Outlines of English and American Literature
Types of Middle-English Literature
by Long, William J.


It has long been customary to begin the study of English literature with Chaucer; but that does not mean that he invented any new form of poetry or prose. To examine any collection of our early literature, such as Cook's Middle-English Reader, is to discover that many literary types were flourishing in Chaucer's day, and that some of these had grown old-fashioned before he began to use them.

Metrical Romances

In the thirteenth century, for example, the favorite type of literature in England was the metrical romance, which was introduced by the French poets, and written at first in the French language. The typical romance was a rambling story dealing with the three subjects of love, chivalry and religion; it was filled with adventures among giants, dragons, enchanted castles; and in that day romance was not romance unless liberally supplied with magic and miracle. There were hundreds of such wonder-stories, arranged loosely in three main groups: the so-called "matter of Rome" dealt with the fall of Troy in one part, and with the marvelous adventures of Alexander in the other; the "matter of France" celebrated the heroism of Charlemagne and his Paladins; and the "matter of Britain" wove the magic web of romance around Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.

One of the best of the metrical romances is "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," which may be read as a measure of all the rest. If, as is commonly believed, the unknown author of "Sir Gawain" wrote also "The Pearl" (a beautiful old elegy, or poem of grief, which immortalizes a father's love for his little girl), he was the greatest poet of the early Middle-English period. Unfortunately for us, he wrote not in the king's English or speech of London (which became modern English) but in a different dialect, and his poems should be read in a present-day version; else will the beauty of his work be lost in our effort to understand his language.

Other types of early literature are the riming chronicles or verse histories (such as Layamon's Brut, a famous poem, in which the Arthurian legends appear as part of English history), stories of travel, translations, religious poems, books of devotion, miracle plays, fables, satires, ballads, hymns, lullabies, lyrics of love and nature,--an astonishing collection for so ancient a time, indicative at once of our changing standards of poetry and of our unchanging human nature. For the feelings which inspired or gave welcome to these poems, some five or six hundred years ago, are precisely the same feelings which warm the heart of a poet and his readers to-day. There is nothing ancient but the spelling in this exquisite Lullaby, for instance, which was sung on Christmas eve:

  He cam also stylle
    Ther his moder was
  As dew in Aprylle
    That fallyt on the gras;
  He cam also stylle
    To his moderes bowr
  As dew in Aprylle
    That fallyt on the flour;
  He cam also stylle
    Ther his moder lay
  As dew in Aprylle
    That fallyt on the spray.


[Footnote: In reading this beautiful old lullaby the e in "stylle" and "Aprylle" should be lightly sounded, like a in "China."]

Or witness this other fragment from an old love song, which reflects the feeling of one who "would fain make some mirth" but who finds his heart sad within him:

  Now wold I fayne som myrthis make
  All oneli for my ladys sake,
    When I hir se;
  But now I am so ferre from hir
    Hit will nat be.

  Thogh I be long out of hir sight,
  I am hir man both day and night,
    And so will be;
  Wherfor, wold God as I love hir
    That she lovd me!

  When she is mery, then I am glad;
  When she is sory, then am I sad,
    And causė whi:
  For he livith nat that lovith hir
    So well as I.

  She sayth that she hath seen hit wreten
  That 'seldyn seen is soon foryeten.'
    Hit is nat so;
  For in good feith, save oneli hir,
    I love no moo.

  Wherfor I pray, both night and day,
  That she may cast al care away,
    And leve in rest
  That evermo, where'er she be,
    I love hir best;

  And I to hir for to be trew,
  And never chaunge her for noon new
    Unto myne ende;
  And that I may in hir servise
    For evyr amend.


[Footnote: The two poems quoted above hardly belong to the Norman-French period proper, but rather to a time when the Anglo-Saxon had assimilated the French element, with its language and verse forms. They were written, probably, in the age of Chaucer, or in what is now called the Late Middle-English period.]

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