Imagens das páginas

of literature, French in language, are English in nationality, the vernacular should for long have been a little scanty and a little undistinguished in its yield. Periods of moulting, of putting on new skins, and the like, are never periods of extreme physical vigour. And besides, this Anglo-Saxon itself had (as has been said) been distinctly on the wane as a literary language for more than a century, while (as has not yet been said) it had never been very fertile in varieties of profane literature. This infertility is not surprising. Except at rare periods literature without literary competition and comparison is impossible; and the Anglo-Saxons had absolutely no modern literature to compare and compete with. If any existed, their own was far ahead of it. On the other hand, though the supposed ignorance of Latin and even Greek in the “dark” ages has long been known to be a figment of ignorance itself, circumstances connected with, though not confined to, the concentration of learning and teaching in the clergy brought about a disproportionate attention to theology. The result was that the completest Anglo-Saxon library of which we can form any well-based conception would have contained about ten cases of religious to one of non-religious books, and would have held in that eleventh but little poetry, and hardly any prose with an object other than information or practical use. It could not be expected that the slowly changing scantines of its language should at once change its habits * in this respect. And so, as the century immediately before the Conquest had seen little but chronicles and homilies, leechdoms and laws, that which came immediately afterwards gave at first no very different products, except that the laws Were Wanting, for obvious reasons. Nay, the first, the largest, and almost the sole work of belles lettres during the first three-fourths of our period, the Brut of Layamon, is a work of belles lettres without knowing it, and imagines itself to be a sober history, while its most considerable Contemporaries, the Ormulum and the Andren Riwle, the former in verse, the latter in prose, ** Purely religious. At the extreme end of the period the most important and most certain work, Robert of Gloucester's, is, again, a history in verse. About the same time we have, indeed, the romances of Hopelok and Horn; but they are, like most of the other Work of the time, translations from the French. The interesting Poema Morale, or “Moral Ode,” which we have in two forms—one of the meeting-point of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, one fifty years later —is almost certainly older than its earliest extant version, and was very likely pure Saxon. Only in Nicholas of Guilford's Owl and Nightingale, about 1250, and perhaps some of the charming Specimens of Lyric Poetry, printed more than fifty years ago by Mr Wright, with a very few other things, do we find pure literature—not the literature of education or edification, but the literature of art and form. Yet the whole is, for the true student of literature, full enough of interest, while the best things are not in need of praising by allowance. Of Layamon mention has already been made in the


chapter on the Arthurian Legend. But his work covers very much more than the Arthurian matter, and has interests entirely separate from it. Layamon, as he tells us,” derived his information from Bede, Wace, and a certain Albinus who has not been clearly identified. But he must have added a great deal of his own, and if it could be decided exactly how he added it, the most difficult problem of mediaeval literature would be solved. Thus in the Arthurian part, just as we find additions in Wace to Geoffrey, so we find additions to Wace in Layamon. Where did he get these additions 2 Was it from the uncertain “Albinus” ” Was it, as Celtic enthusiasts hold, that, living as he did on Severn bank, he was a neighbour of Wales, and gathered Welsh tradition ? Or was it from deliberate invention ? We cannot tell.

Again, we have two distinct versions of his Brut, the later of which is fifty years or thereabouts younger than the earlier. It may be said that almost all mediaeval work is in similar case. But then the great body of mediaeval work is anonymous; and even the most scrupulous ages have not been Squeamish in taking liberties with the text of Mr Anon. But the author is named in both these versions, and named differently. In the elder he is Layamon the son of Leovenath, in the younger Laweman the son of Leuca; and though Laweman is a mere variant or translation of Layamon, as much can hardly be said of Leovenath and Leuca. Further, the later version, besides the changes of language which were in the circumstances inevitable, omits many passages, besides those in which it is injured or mutilated, and alters proper names entirely at discretion. The only explanation of this, though it is an explanation which leaves a good deal unexplained, is, of course, that the sense both of historical criticism and of the duty of one writer to another was hardly born. The curiosity of the Middle Ages was great; their literary faculty, though somewhat incult and infantine, was great likewise: and there were such enormous gaps in their positive knowledge that the sharp sense of division between the certain, the uncertain, and the demonstrably false, which has grown up later, could hardly exist. It seems to have been every man's desire to leave each tale a little richer, fuller, handsomer, than he found it: and in doing this he hesitated neither at the accumulation of separate and sometimes incongruous stories, nor at the insertion of bits and scraps from various sources, nor, it would appear, at the addition of what seemed to him possible or desirable, without troubling himself to examine whether there was any ground for considering it actual. Secondly, Layamon has no small interest of form. The language in which the Brut is written has an exThe form of ceedingly small admixture of French words; ** but it has made a step, and a long one, from Anglo-Saxon towards English. The verse is still alliterative, still destitute of any fixed number of syllables or syllabic equivalents. But the alliteration is weak and sometimes not present at all, the lines are of less extreme lawlessness in point of length than their older Saxon representatives, and, above all, there is a creeping in of rhyme. It is feeble, tentative, and obvious, confined to ostentatious pairs like “brother” and “other,” “might” and “right,” “fare” and “care.” But it is a beginning: and we know that it will spread. In the last comparison, that of matter, Layamon will not come out ill even if he be tried high. The most obvious trial is with the work of Chrestien de Troyes, his earlier, though not much earlier, contemporary. Here the Frenchman has enormous advantages—the advantage of an infinitely more accomplished scheme of language and metre, that of some two centuries of finished poetical work before him, that of an evidently wider knowledge of literature generally, and perhaps that of a more distinctly poetical genius. And yet Layamon can survive the test. He is less, not more, subject to the cliché, the stereotyped and stock poetical form, than Chrestien. If he is far less smooth, he has not the monotony which accompanies and, so to speak, dogs the “skipping octosyllable”; and if he cannot, as Chrestien can, frame a set passage or show-piece, he manages to keep up a diffused interest, and in certain instances—the story of Rouwênne (Rowena), the Tintagel passage, the speech of Walwain to the Emperor of Rome—has a directness and simple appeal which cannot be slighted. We feel that he is at the beginning, while the other in respect of his own division is nearly at the end: that he has future, capabilities, opportunities of de

* Ed. Madden, i. 2. N

Its substance.

« AnteriorContinuar »