Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

the trammels of grammatical forms; let him watch it, as it bounds through the Norman times, throwing off in its progress first one incumbrance and then another, till gaining power by the very oppression it has endured at the hands of its Norman tyrants, it bursts forth in the literature of the Early English period, giving promise of its future greatness; let him track it for a hundred years, as it changes its course, now tending to the Northern now to the Southern dialect, till, at length, in Middle English, it is powerful enough to express the highest flights of the genius of Chaucer ; let him still follow it, as, impatient of restraint, it carries away in its progress the remaining imperfections which hide its true strength, until finally it shows its majestic power in the works of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton ; then the student will have gained a correct notion not only of the gradually increasing power of the language, in its passage from a synthetic to an analytic structure, he will, further, have gained a view of the gradual unfolding of the mind of the English nation as reflected in the ever increasing brilliancy of the national literature, that can never be attained by one whose reading is restricted by a knowledge of modern English only.

CHAPTER II.

The Life and Times of Cædmon and Sketch

of the Junian Manuscript.

THE

HE earliest specimen which has come down to

us of the English metrical Romance or Epic, carries us back, like the earliest specimen of the English prose Romance or Novel, to the very dawn of English life and history.

In tracing to its source the story of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, (and it is with this tale that English prose Romance begins), we have to retrace our steps and explore the dim past of bardic times when the Cambrian poets sang of the warlike deeds of kings and heroes in the death struggle then being waged between the Kelt and the Saxon.

And this, cæteris paribus, is equally true of the metrical Romance, whether secular or sacred; whether it be the Christianised-pagan romance of the Beowulf or the Scriptural romance of Cadmon's "Fall of Man.” Both of these, take us back in thought to early Anglo-Saxon times, when England was dense

with forests, when the woods were filled with the wolf, the elk, and the bear, and when only here and there a solitary dwelling in the field or feld, i. e. the clearing, marked the habitation of human beings.

The little that we know of the life of Cædmon, and the strange story of the sudden revelation of high poetic powers possessed by this hitherto unknown ceorl, would be unintelligible should we fail to understand the social and ecclesiastical conditions of the times in which he lived.

It is difficult, no doubt, to reproduce in imagination, even approximately, the everyday life of an age long gone by and enter into the spirit of its daily thought; and yet this must be attempted if we would study intelligently the literature of any past epoch. The history, the religion, the language, and the social customs of any given age are mutually explanatory, and one and all, must be made subsidiary if the literature of the past is to stand out before the mind as a living picture.

In the short account of the life of Cædmon which has been handed down to us by the Venerable Beda in his Historia Ecclesiastica, and which unfortunately is the only one that we possess, there are references to certain phases of Anglo-Saxon life that we must glance at before going farther, in order to render intelligible Beda's narrative of this remarkable man.

The Anglo-Saxon scop or gleeman,-a profession corresponding to that of the bard of the Keltic era and to that of the minstrel in the Norman era,— was a kind of protean character. At times, he was the companion of king and courtiers, holding the rank of thane or nobleman; an accomplished poet, entitled to a high seat in the king's hall and the proprietor of estates, whose presence was required at battles when the prizes of valour were to be awarded, and at court festivities to chant the heroic deeds of his patron or of his patron's guests. The king's scop or earl's gleeman, was the favourite of the court; the one indispensable guest at every banquet and every courtly gathering; whose skill with the glee-beam or harp spread joy throughout the festive hall, and whose memory was stored with soul-stirring tales of great deeds, the recital of which could not fail to fire the hearts and quicken the pulses of young and old alike. It was the duty of the court gleeman to know the genealogy of his patron, the traditions of his house, the past history of his race, and every fact or legend that could enhance his dignity or flatter his pride. After dinner, when there was "song and music together, and the glee-beam was touched," he was the chief centre of attraction. If the board was honoured by the presence of a distinguished guest it was his duty to be ready with

verses in his praise. This point is brought out very clearly in the story of Beowulf. On this hero's return to Hrothgár's court, after the conquest of the Grendel, the bard, “the King's thane, a man laden with lofty themes, thoughtful of song, he who a great multitude of old traditions remembered, who invented new ones fitly composed, this man now began Beowulf's adventure skilfully to relate." This function of the gleeman was styled “the right of bestowing praise," and earned for the scop a wide influence among a warlike and illiterate class of nobles.

But the gleeman was not always fortunate enough to be the retainer at a king's court, or the noble guest of the Mead-hall. At times, he appears as a wandering narrator of verse and tale, straying from ton to hamlet, from hall and monastery to cottage and ale-house ; he was passionately beloved by the laity, high and low, rich and poor, and even by the lower orders of the clergy. These gleemen, were the story-tellers, the news gatherers, the scandalmongers, and gossip-bearers, in times when there were neither newspapers nor post offices; the chief medium, from their vagrant mode of life, of hearing, bearing, and retailing the latest “domestic and foreign intelligence." Their profession procured them easy access to the camp, the ale house, and, occa

« AnteriorContinuar »