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Londom Macmillan & Co.

OF

EARLY ENGLISH LITERATURE

BEING THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH POETRY FROM

ITS BEGINNINGS TO THE ACCESSION

OF KING ALFRED

BY

STOPFORD A. BROOKE

Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn,
And to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.

Isaiah, li. 1

New York
MACMILLAN AND CO.

AND LONDON

1892

All rights reserved

COPYRIGHT, 1892,

BY MACMILLAN AND CO.

HARVARD
UNIVERSITY

LIBRARY

TYPOGRAPHY BY J. S. CUSHING & Co., Boston, U.S.A.

PRESSWORK BY BERWICK & SMITH, BOSTON, U.S.A.

PREFACE

This book is the history of the beginnings of English Poetry. It is the beginning also of a history of that poetry which, I hope, with perhaps too bold an ambition, to finish in the years to come. Life gives too short a time now for a long work, but it is a pleasure to have at least brought to an end this tale of the origins of English verse.

It begins in the older England over the sea. It ends with the accession of Ælfred. When he came to the throne in 871, literature, both Latin and English, had perished, after a career of two hundred years. The final home of both had been Northumbria. A few years after his accession the last unplundered seats of learning were destroyed. All the Muses were now silent. But before Ælfred died a new English literature had begun, and in a new land, and the King was himself its origin. What had been was poetry; this was prose. The country of English poetry had been Northumbria; the country of English prose was Wessex. At this date, then, the curtain naturally falls on the first act of this history. At this date, in the intervals of Ælfred's wars, it will naturally rise on the beginning of the second act.

The English literature of this period is entirely poetry, and this book is mainly dedicated to that poetry. I have not put aside the life of the people, the Latin literature, or the political history of England; but I have only spoken of them so far as they bore upon the poetry or illustrated it. That poetry is certainly not of a very fine quality, but it is frequently remarkable. It has its own special qualities, and with the exception of perhaps a few Welsh and Irish poems, it is the only vernacular poetry in Europe, outside of the classic tongues, which belongs to so early a time as the seventh and eighth centuries. The Welsh and Irish poems are few, problematical, and their range is limited; but the English poems are numerous, well authenticated, and of a wide and varied range. In these two centuries our forefathers produced examples, and good examples for the time, of religious, narrative, elegiac, descriptive, and even, in some sort, of epic poetry. This is a fact of singular interest. There is nothing like it - at this early period - elsewhere in Europe. But the interest is even greater when we consider this poetry in connection with the whole of English song. It will be seen that a great number of the main branches of the tree of English poetry had already opened out at this time from the stem, and that the ideal and sentimental elements of the earliest poetry have continued, with natural changes, up to the present day. Here, then, in the two hundred years between 670 and 870, the roots of English poetry, the roots of that vast over-shadowing tree, were set; and here its first branches clothed themselves with leaves. Here, like the oaks of Dodona, it began to discourse its music; and there is not a murmur now of song in all its immemorial boughs which does not echo from time to time with the themes and the passion of its first melodies. Here, too, we can best discern, and here isolate most easily, those elements in English character which, existing before the race was mixed, have been, not the cause of our poetry, but the cause why the poetry has been of so high an excellence, — that steady consistency of national character, that clinging through all difficulty to the aim in view, that unrelenting curiosity, that desire to better what has been done, which, though not art themselves, are the effectual powers which enable art to strive, to seek, and at last to reach its goal.

Moreover, no national art is good which is not plainly that nation's own. In this Anglo-Saxon poetry of which I write we grasp most clearly the dominant English essence. The

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