« FöregåendeFortsätt »
some beautiful principle of speech, some admirable adaptation of words to the thoughts and feelings, in what otherwise is, too often, carelessly and ignorantly dismissed as an irregularity. Permit me to illustrate briefly my meaning, by an example. In expression of the future time, there is employed that curious mixture of the two verbs “shall” and “will,” which is so perplexing to foreigners, and inexplicable, though familiar, to all who are to the language born. Upon this subject it has been observed, there is in human nature generally an inclination to avoid speaking presumptuously of the future, in consequence of its awful, irrepressible, and almost instinctive uncertainty, and of our own powerlessness over it, which, in all cultivated languages, has silently and imperceptibly modified the modes of expression with regard to it. Further, there is an instinct of good breeding which leads a man to veil the manifestation of his own will, so as to express himself with becoming modesty. Hence, in the use of those words, “shall” and “will," (the former associated with compulsion, the latter with free volition,) we apply, not lawlessly or at random, but so as to speak submissively in the first person, and courteously when we speak to or of another. This has been a development, but not without a principle in it; for, in our older writers, for instance, in our version of the Bible, “shall” is applied to all three persons. We had not then reached that stage of politeness which shrinks from even the appearance of speaking compulsorily of another. On the other hand, the Scotch, it is said, use "will” in the first person ; that is, as a nation, they have not acquired that particular
shade of good-breeding which shrinks from thrusting itself forward.
I have cited this theory of the English future tenses, to show how that which is often dismissed as a caprice-a freak in language—may have a law, a philosophy, a truth of its own, if we will but thoughtfully and dutifully look for it.
In conclusion, let me say that he will gain the best knowledge of our language who will seek it, not so much in mere systems of grammar, as in communion with the great masters of the language, in prose and verse. He will best appreciate and admire this English language of ours—our mother-speech—who learns that the genius of it is as far removed from mere lawlessness, on the one hand, as from any narrow set of rules which would cramp it to what has been called “grammar-monger's language.” In the variety of our idioms, the free movement of the language, there is, as in the race that speaks it, Saxon freedom-freedom that is not license, but law.
Early English Literature.
Early English prose and poetry—Sir John Mandeville-Sir Thomas
More’s Life of Edward the Fifth-Chaucer's Tales-Attempted paraphrases—Chaucer Modernized-Conflict of Norman and Saxon elements—Gower-Reign of Edward the Third-Continental wars -Petrarch-Boccacio—Froissart-The church-Wyclif-Arts and Architecture-Statutes in English-Chaucer resumed-His humour and pathos-Sense of natural beauty-The Temple of FameChaucer and Mr. Babbage-The flower and the leaf-Canterbury Tales-Chaucer's high moral tone-Wordsworth's stanza-Poet's corner and Chaucer's tomb— The death of a Language-English minstrelsy-Percy's Reliques—Sir Walter Scott-Wilson-Christian hymns and chaunts-Conversion of King Edwin-Martial ballads-Lockhart-Spanish ballads-Ticknor's great work—Edom of Gordon-Dramatic power of the ballad—The Two Brothers-Contrast of early and late English poetry.
I PROCEED now to some general considerations of the chief eras into which my subject may be, without difficulty, divided. The whole period of our literature may be determined with more precision than might at first be expected, considering the gradual development of the language out of its Anglo-Saxon original. It is a literature covering the last five hundred years; for, while
* Thursday, Jan. 24, 1850. Prefixed to this lecture, in manuscript, are some desultory hints as to authorities to be consulted by students of English literature. As they were but hints, though very interesting as illustrative of Mr. Reed's views on this subject, and formed no part of the regular course, I have thought it best to print them in the appendix. W. B. R.
Sir John Mandeville, whose book of travels has gained for him the reputation of the first English prose-writer, flourished in the first part of the fourteenth century, the first great English poet died in the year 1400. The early English prose possesses, however, little, if any, purely literary interest; its value is antiquarian, and chiefly as showing the formation of the language. It is worthy of remark, that the prose power of a language, and, consequently, that division of literature, are more slowly and laboriously disclosed than the poetic resources. Though the history of English prose begins about 1350, with what is considered the first English book—Sir John Mandeville's Travels—a century and a half more were required to achieve any thing like the excellence of later English prose. It is not until about 1509, that Mr. Hallam finds in Sir Thomas More's Life of Edward V. what he pronounces “the first example of good English language ; pure and perspicuous, well chosen, without vulgarisms or pedantry."* There is, therefore, a period, and that of considerable length, during which, for all that makes up the essential and high value of literature, the prose of the period has very little claim upon us. It is not so, however, with the poetry of early English literature; for, as Mr. De Quincy has remarked, “At this hour, five hundred years since their creation, the tales of Chaucer, never equalled on this earth for tenderness and for life of picturesqueness, are read familiarly by many in the charming language of their natal day.”+ And Coleridge said : “I take increasing delight in
* Hallam's Literature of Europe, vol. i. p. 232. + Essay on Pope, p. 154.
Chaucer. His manly cheerfulness is especially delicious to me in my old age. How exquisitely tender he is, and yet how perfectly free from the least touch of sickly melancholy or morbid drooping! The sympathy of the poet with the subjects of his poetry, is particularly remarkable in Shakspeare and Chaucer ; but what the first effects by a strong act of imagination and mental metamorphosis, the last does without any effort, merely by the inborn kindly joyousness of his nature.”*
The present poet-laureate of England has said, “So great is my admiration of Chaucer's genius, and so profound my reverence for him as an instrument in the hands of Providence for spreading the light of literature through his native land, that I am glad of the effort for making many acquainted with his poetry who would otherwise be ignorant of every thing about him but his name”p Another eminent living man of letters has expressed his admiration of the old poet, by saying that he rather objected to any attempts to remove the difficulties of the antique text, inasmuch as he wished “ to keep Chaucer for himself and a few friends.”
Unfortunately, the obsolete dialect in which Chaucer wrote is such an obstacle, that it is far easier to keep him for oneself than to recover for him now the hearing of his fellow-men, which he once commanded, and which can never cease to be the due of his genius. I know of nothing in literary history like the fate of Chaucer in this
* Table Talk, vol. ii. p. 297.
+ This is an extract from a letter from Wordsworth to Mr. Reed, dated January 13, 1841, sending a copy of a little volume published in London, called “ The Poems of Geoffrey Chaucer Modernized.” The work is by different hands. W. B. R.