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things should be as changeful as the moon which lights it, such utterance is changed, and at length wholly lost from the living tongue. Its sound becomes an uncertain and disputed thing, for it is only seen on the pages of books, or it may be only in dim and dubious inscriptions on the broken column, the ruined arch, or the empty monument. I know of nothing which so teaches the transitoriness of things as that phrase of mournful significance, "a dead language.” How does it startle ūs in our pride, the bare apprehension of our English speech changing into a lifeless and mouldy record-something dark for scholars and antiquaries vainly to attempt to enlighten—something of a degenerate dialect, in which might be faintly traced the shadows of a mighty language. The curse of the confusion of tongues is an unending curse, like the sentence of labour, on rebellious man.
From the time when the ambition of men brought down this penalty, and the whole earth ceased to be “ of one language and one speech,” nations have been scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth, no longer understanding one another's speech-one generation, too, becoming unintelligible to another. So must it ever be as long as a cloud of divine displeasure travels onward with the earth, casting down upon it a dark shadow; and hence no language, no matter how lofty its literature may be, can boast a privilege from decay :
The Pyramids, mysterious in their unnumbered centuries, are standing almost as imperishable as the Nile, and yet not one word survives that was spoken by the tens of thousands who toiled in building them :
“ Egyptian Thebes, Tyre by the margin of the sounding waves,
Palmyra, central in the desert, fell;" and all their dialects are silent as the desert sands. That noble language, too, of antiquity, with which Athens sent forth her philosophy and poetry to the islands of the Ægean and the shores of Asia, and “ fulmined over Greece with her resistless eloquence”—the language that Corinth, from her famous isthmus, spake over the eastern and western waves, has, for many ages, known no other existence than that which it holds on the pages of books. The speech of the Roman—the language of empire and of law, spread by consul and emperor till it was stayed by the ocean and the barbarian—how has it ceased to hold companionship with the voice, and learned men of modern times can only conjecture respecting its accent!
If I have been thus led into a digression on the changes which are the destiny of all languages, let me say,
that I could scarce check the train of thought, being forced to feel most painfully the perishable nature of speech by the reflection that it is that cause which has dimmed the glory of the earliest and one of the greatest of England's poets.
The student of early English literature must not omit that miscellaneous poetry, obscure in its origin, and indefinite in its period—the ancient Minstrelsy. It is poetry of native growth, and having the savour of the soil. Existing for a long time in a traditional state, it has suffered the waste which mere oral tradition is never safe from ; and it is only within the last fifty years that pains have been taken to gather the rude strains of those half-civilized
ages, and to place them on record at this long distance of time after they existed as a living poetry. This has been done chiefly in Percy's Reliques of Ancient Eng. lish Poetry, and in Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. It was a fine trait in Scott's literary career, the affectionate earnestness with which he laboured for the recovery of the ancient lays of his native land, and the preservation of them in some safer form than what they had in the memory of aged persons, in times when every year, perhaps, was casting them more into neglect. When Scott travelled over the country, highland and lowland, seeking in its secluded glens for such remains of the poetry of the olden times as might not yet be lost out of the recollections of an illiterate peasantry—snatches of song remembered by the aged, as having been chaunted by the old folks of an earlier generation-he was not only gathering materials to illustrate the literature of his country, but he was storing his own mind with those large resources which bis genius afterward poured forth with a copiousness which was the world's wonder. When the authorship of Waverley was a secret vexing public curiosity, Professor Wilson exclaimed, “I wonder what all these people are perplexing themselves with : have they forgotten the prose of the Minstrelsy?"**
Of the minstrel poetry now extant, much belongs to a period later than the age of Chaucer; but there is also reason to believe that it had a traditional connection with a still earlier and ruder minstrelsy that has perished. A more distant influence is to be traced back to the hymns
* Lockhart's Scott, vol. ii. p. 132.
and spiritual songs of the Church which accompanied Christianity, as it made its spiritual inroads on the fierce idolatries of the races of the North. For, although the sacred services chaunted by the early Christians and those grand hymns of the Middle Ages were in the Latin language, still they accustomed the popular ear to metrical sounds, and opened the hearts of the people to the uses of poetry. While the ancient classical poetry was sleeping its long sleep, to waken in later ages, the sacred songs of the early Christians were never silenced, even in years of persecution; and it is to them, that the poetry of Christendom owes its first impulse.
At a remote age of Britain's history, religious houses were built there, and as the holy men who dwelt in them, amid aboriginal ferocities and the turmoil of successive invasions—the Saxon and the Dane-uttered their songs of adoration, those harmonies went forth over river and plain, soothing the fierce elements they touched, and charming the evil spirit of war which vexed the hearts of barbaric kings. The music of a good man's chaunted devotions could not float on the air, turbid and tumultuous though it be with wicked passions, without awakening some pure and gentle emotions. A single stanza of ancient Saxon song survives as a memorial of such influence. When that remarkable personage, the Danish King Canute, had overthrown the Saxon dynasty in England, and was making a progress through his newly-conquered realm, as with his queen and knights he approached by water the Abbey of Ely, there arose upon the air the voices of the monks, chaunting their stated services; and when the music fell upon the conqueror's ear with such a sweet solemnity, chiming both with the river's flow and his own placid emotions, the sword of his bloody conquest sheathed, the active sympathy of his imagination found utterance in a simple strain of Saxon song, of which but one stanza has been spared by time:
“Sweetly sang the monks in Ely
That the monks' song we may hear.'"* " This accordant rhyme” was the response of one of the mightiest of those Scandinavian monarchs, the “Sea-kings," who struck terror into central Europe; he, before whom the ancient Saxon dynasty quailed, and whose barbarian flatterers told him that his word had power to stay the surges of the Atlantic; but, in a happy moment of tranquillity, the saintly music passed through the turbulent passions of pride and power into the depths of his human heart.
The same influences doubtless touched the nation's heart, and like that rude royal strain, the popular song echoed the music of hallowed verse.
An carlier instance of the power of the imagination to impart truth, may be remembered in that beautiful image of the mystery of human life which led to the conversion of King Edwin. A Christian entered the hall of the unconverted Saxon, but the tidings he brought were strange to the pagan heart, and the king summons his chiefs and priests; at that moment a bird flitted through the council-hall, to call from the wise imagination of one
* Lectures on the History of England: by a Lady; p. 439. Wordsworth’s Sonnet. Works, p. 295.