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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 (Clarendon Press).

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).

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