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with wondrous rapidity, equally favourable to the diffusion of either purity or corruption of speech, but, certainly, calculated to break down narrow and false provincialisms of speech. In the culture and preservation of a language, there are two principles, deep-seated in the philosophy of language, which should be borne in mind. One is, that every living language has a power of growth, of expansion, of development; in other words, its life—that which makes it a living language, having within itself a power to supply the growing wants and improvements of a living people that uses it. If by any system of rules restraint is put on this genuine and healthful freedom, on this genial movement, the native vigour of the language is weakened. It may be asked whether, by this principle of the life of a language, it is meant that the language has no law. Very far from it. The other principle (and with which the first is in perfect harmony) is, that every language, living or dead, has its laws. Indeed it has been wisely said that, “whatever be the object of our study, be it language, or history, or whatsoever province of the material or spiritual world, we ought, in the first instance, to be strongly impressed with the conviction that every thing in it is subject to the operation of certain principles, to the dominion of certain laws; that there is nothing lawless in it, nothing unprincipled, nothing insulated or capricious, though, from the fragmentary nature of our knowledge, many things may possibly appear so.” Now this willing, dutiful belief in the existence of the laws of a language, however concealed they may be under apparent anomalies, will not unfrequently evolve 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.
LECTURE IV. (§arly &nglish oiterature,
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 Fame— Chaucer 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 W. 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.”f And Coleridge said: “I take increasing delight in
* Hallam's Literature of Europe, vol. i. p. 232. f Essay on Pope, p. 154.