Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

though it may be possible to understand the one fairly well without the other, a history of Western Christendom in the Dark Ages requires both Teutonic and Celtic literature.

The Dark Ages are really and not merely conventionally separate from what came after, in literature. Poets of the twelfth or thirteenth century in French or German, Chrestien de Troyes, Walther von der Vogelweide, are really part of modern literature: their vocabulary may be difficult, but their poetical forms and devices, if they trouble the beginner at all, surprise him oftener by their familiar look than by their strangeness. To go back to the ninth or the tenth century is to find a different world. Not only are the languages of a more ancient type: the ways of imagination are different, the tunes of poetry are different; and there are still older things than those of the ninth century with which the traveller has to be acquainted. It is not wonderful that the times should have been judged severely by scholarly persons who found themselves astray there. The literary taste of Heorot, the Danish hall where Beowulf listened to poetry, or of the House of the Eed Branch, where Conchobar, king of Ulster, was at home, is far more difficult to appreciate than that of the later Middle Ages, and almost as remote from the prevailing fashions of the twelfth, or the fourteenth, as from the eighteenth century. Dr Johnson is hardly farther from Beowulf than Chaucer is.

The earlier literature, it is true, had some share in the great romantic movement. Gray, though he ad

B

mired Froissart and Gawain Douglas, went farther back in his researches, and his contributions to the cause of the romantic schools came from old Icelandic and Welsh, not from the more familiar and generally more profitable times of chivalry. Some time before him Dr Hickes had broken new ground: his translations from Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic were not left to their learned dignity in the great philological Thesaurus. By some happy fortune he had chosen for translation one of the Icelandic poems about the value of which there is least chance of disagreement: the story of Hervor was noticed, and read, and copied out of the folio volume of Hickes to be included in a popular anthology. Percy's "Eunic Poetry," about the same time as Gray's Descent of Odin, helped in the same way to revive some interest in an order of poetry more ancient than his Eeliques. The success of Macpherson proved that the Dark Ages were not in themselves enough to alarm the reader. Balclutha really had some of the work of the Dark Ages in it, besides the eighteenth-century restorations and plasterings.

But it is not necessary to apologise for the things touched upon in this essay, however much the writer may find himself at fault in his treatment of them. They need interpretation, as all literature does when its own day is over. Many of them are difficult and strange. Literature is in some respects the most conventional of all the arts; Poetry, for all that it may boast of a universal dominion, changes its character with every province and dialect, one thing in Warwickshire, another in Glamorgan: it is not wonderful that the poetry of a thousand years ago in a number of old languages should be unfamiliar and repellent at the first sight of it. The essential thing is to find out whether and in what sense it has any present value. As a preliminary, with regard to the common learned prejudice against the barbarians, there is nothing better nor more auspicious than Daniel's memorable protest and noble defence:—

"Me thinks we should not so soon yield our consents captive to the authority of Antiquity, unless we saw more reason; all our understandings are not to be built by the square of Greece and Italy. We are the children of nature as well as they; we are not so placed out of the way of judgement, but that the same sun of discretion shineth upon us. . . . Time and the turn of things bring about these faculties according to the present estimation; and Res temporibus non tempora rebus servire oportet. . . . It is not books but only that great book of the world and the all-overspreading grace of heaven that makes men truly judicial. Nor can it but touch of arrogant ignorance to hold this or that nation barbarous, these or those times gross, considering how this manifold creature man, wheresoever he stand in the world, hath always some disposition of worth, entertains the order of society, affects that which is most in use, and is eminent in some one thing or other, that fits his humour and the times. . . . The Goths, Vandals, and Longobards, whose coming down like an inundation overwhelmed, as they say, all the glory of learning in Europe, have yet left us still their laws and customs, as the originals of most of the provincial constitutions of Christendom, which being well considered with their other courses of government, may seem to clear them from this imputation of ignorance. And though the vanquished never speak well of the conqueror, yet even through the unsound coverings of maledictions appear those monuments of truth as argue well their worth, and proves them not without judgment, though without Greek and Latin."1

To subdivide the literature of the Dark Ages, historically, is not easy, for in the vernacular tongues the dates of authorship are seldom certain, often not to be fixed within a century or two: while in Latin, where some of the ordinary classification is possible, it is not remarkably useful. The great fact in Latin of these days is the decline and revival between the time of Gregory the Great and Charlemagne, after which there is a fairly continuous succession of learned men and, with many eccentricities, no such general decay as happened in the sixth and seventh centuries. The history of Latin is the history of education, and follows the great schools. There is a line from Ireland and Iona to Jarrow and York, and from there to the Court of Charles. Alcuin's school at Tours is the parent of the school at Pulda where Hraban carried on the same work. Different lines of descent are united at Eeichenau and St Gall, which are in relation with the newer school at Fulda on the one hand, and with the Irish on the other. Bede (Jarrow) taught Egbert (York), who taught Alcuin (Tours), who taught Hraban (Fulda), who taught Walafrid Strabo (Reichenau): that pedigree roughly indicates one of the chief lines along which literary studies were carried. But the stages do not mean the same thing as the literary generations in later history, where definite fashions change through all sorts of ambitious experiments and new inventions, Ben Jonson giving place to Dry den, Eonsard to Malherbe, and so on. Here the life is of a different sort. In Latin there was no opportunity for such triumphs and glories as came later in the new languages. Here success meant obedience to the old models; or if rebellion took its chance and tried to make something new, it was always something exceptional, and often turned out to be exceptional in a hackneyed way after all. Even in the Latin hymns, the greatest achievement of the language in those times, there is an uncertainty and intermittent character about their production, unlike the energy with which new types of poetry are taken up, and exhausted, where the conditions are more favourable. There was no "town," in the pleasant literary sense of the word, to make an audience for literary adventurers, to give them the illusion of fame which counts for so much towards the reality of literary success. Even where there was something like a court and an Augustan patronage, under Charles the Great, it brought out nothing new—only repetitions of the sort of thing that had been done better two hundred years before by Venantius Fortunatus. Latin, it is true, is capable

1 Daniel, A Defence of fiyme, 1607.

« AnteriorContinuar »