« AnteriorContinuar »
to drama, and from epic to song, while others were stammering their exercises, mostly learnt from her. The exact and just proportions of the share due to Southern and Northern France respectively none can now determine, and scholarship oscillates between extremes as usual. What is certain (perhaps it is the only thing that is certain) is that to Provençal belongs the credit of establishing for the first time a modern prosody of such a kind as to turn out verse of perfect form. Whether, if Pallas in her warlike capacity had been kinder to the Provençals, she could or would have inspired them with more varied kinds of literature than the exquisite lyric which as a fact is almost their sole title to fame, we cannot say. As a matter of fact, the kinds other than lyric, and some of the lyrical kinds themselves —the short tale, the epic, the romance, the play, the history, the sermon — all find their early home, if not their actual birthplace, north, not south, of the Limousin line. It was from Normandy and Poitou, from Anjou and the Orleannais, from the Isle of France and Champagne, that in language at least the patterns which were used by all Europe, the specifications, so to speak, which all Europe adapted and filled up, went forth, sometimes not to return. Yet it is not in the actual literature of France itself, except in those contributions to the Arthurian story which, as it has been pointed out, were importations, not indigenous growths, and in some touches of the Rose, that the spirit of Romance is most evident—the spirit which, to those who have come thoroughly to appreciate it, makes classical grace and finish seem thin and tame, Oriental exuberance tasteless and vulgar, modern scientific precision inexpressibly charmless and jejune. Different sides of this spirit display themselves, of course, in different productions of the time. There is the spirit of combat, in which the Chansons de geste show the way, anticipating in time, if not quite equalling in intensity, the Sagas and the Nibelungenlied. There is sometimes faintly mingled with this (as in the gabz of the Voyage & Constantinoble, and the exploits of Rainoart with the tinel) the spirit, half rough, half sly, of jesting, which by-and-by takes shape in the fabliaua. There is the immense and restless spirit of curiosity, which explores and refashions, to its own guise and fancy, the relics of the old world, the treasures of the East, the lessons of Scripture itself. Side by side with these there is that singular form of the religious spirit which has been so constantly misunderstood, and which, except in a very few persons, seems so rare nowadays—the faith which is implicit without being imbecile, childlike without being childish, devout with a fearless familiarity, the spirit to which the Dies Ira, and the Sermons of St Francis were equally natural expressions, and which, if it could sometimes exasperate itself into the practices of the Inquisition, found a far commoner and more genuine expression in the kindly humanities of the Ancren Riwle. There is no lack of knowledge and none of inquiry; though in embarking on the enormous ocean of ignorance, it is inquiry not cabined and cribbed by our limits. In particular, there is an almost unparalleled, a certainly unsurpassed, activity in metaphysical speculation, a fence-play of thought astonishing in its accuracy and style. As Poetry slowly disintegrates and exfoliates itself into Prose, literary gifts for which verse was unsuited develop themselves in the vernaculars; and the chronicle—itself so lately an epic — becomes a history, or at least a memoir; the orator, sacred or profane, quits the school rhetoric and its familiar Latin vehicle for more direct means of persuasion; the jurist gives these vernaculars precision by adopting them. But with and through and above all these various spirits there is most of all that abstract spirit of poetry, which, though not possessed by the Middle Ages or by Romance alone, seems somehow to be a more inseparable and pervading familiar of Romance and of the Middle Ages than of any other time and any other kind of literature. The sense of mystery, which had rarely troubled the keen intellect of the Greek and the sturdy common-sense of the Roman, which was even a little degraded and impoverished (except in the Jewish prophets and in a few other places) by the busy activity of Oriental imagination, which we ourselves have banished, or think we have banished, to a few “poets' scrolls,” was always present to the mediaeval mind. In its broadest and coarsest jests, in its most laborious and (as we are pleased to call them) dullest expansions of stories, in its most wire - drawn and most lifeless allegory, in its most irritating admixture of science and fable, there is always hard by, always ready to break in, the sense of the great and wonderful things of Life, and Love, and Death, of the half-known God and the unknown Hereafter. It is this which gives to Romance, and to mediaeval work generally, that “high seriousness,” the want of which was so strangely cast at it in reproach by a critic who, I cannot but think, was less intimately acquainted with its literature than with that either of classical or of modern times. Constantly in mediaeval poetry, very commonly in mediaeval prose, the great things appear greatly. There is in English verse romance perhaps no less felicitous sample of the kind as it stands, none which has received greater vituperation for dulness and commonplace, than Sir Amadas. Yet who could much better the two simple lines, when the hero is holding revel after his ghastly meeting with the unburied corse in the roadside chapel?—
“But the dead corse that lay on bier
In Homer's Greek or Dante's Italian such a couplet (which, be it observed, is as good in rhythm and vowel contrast as in simple presentation of thought) could hardly lack general admiration. In the English poetry of the Middle Ages it is dismissed as a commonplace.
Yet such things, and far better things, are to be met everywhere in the literature which, during the period We have had under review, took definite form and shape. It produced, indeed, none of the greatest men of letters—no Chaucer nor Dante, no Froissart even, at best for certainties a Villehardouin and a William of Lorris, a Wolfram and a Walther, with shadowy creatures of speculation like the authors of the great romances. But it produced some of the greatest matter, and some of not the least delightful handlings of matter, in book-history. And it is everywhere distinguished, first, by the adventurous fecundity of its experiments in form and kind, secondly, by the presence of that spirit which has been adumbrated in the last paragraph. In this last, we must own, the pupil countries far outdid their master or mistress. France was stronger relatively in the spirit of poetry during the Middle Ages than she has been since; but she was still weaker than others. She gave them expression, patterns, form: they found passion and spirit, with not seldom positive story-subject as well. When we come upon some nueva maestria, as the old Spanish poet called it, some cunning trick of form, Some craftsmanlike adjustment of style and kind to literary purposes, we shall generally find that it was invented in France. But we know that no Frenchman. could have written the Dies Irae ; and though we recognise French as at home in the Rose-Garden, and not out of place in the fatal meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere, it sounds but