Outlines of English and American Literature
William J. Long

Part 1 out of 10

Produced by Charles Franks, Bill Keir
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team





This is the wey to al good aventure.--CHAUCER



After the Chandos Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London, which
is attributed to Richard Burbage or John Taylor. In the catalogue of the
National Portrait Gallery the following description is given:

"The Chandos Shakespeare was the property of John Taylor,
the player, by whom or by Richard Burbage it was painted.
The picture was left by the former in his will to Sir
William Davenant. After his death it was bought by
Betterton, the actor, upon whose decease Mr. Keck of the
Temple purchased it for 40 guineas, from whom it was
inherited by Mr. Nicoll of Michenden House, Southgate,
Middlesex, whose only daughter married James, Marquess of
Caernarvon, afterwards Duke of Chandos, father to Ann
Eliza, Duchess of Buckingham."

The above is written on paper attached to the back of the canvas.
Its authenticity, however, has been doubted in some quarters.

Purchased at the Stowe Sale, September 1848, by the Earl of
Ellesmere, and presented by him to the nation, March 1856.

Dimensions: 22 in. by 16-3/4 in.

This reproduction of the portrait was made from a miniature copy on ivory
by Caroline King Phillips.]


The last thing we find in making a book is to know what to put

When an author has finished his history, after months or years of happy
work, there comes a dismal hour when he must explain its purpose and
apologize for its shortcomings.

The explanation in this case is very simple and goes back to a personal
experience. When the author first studied the history of our literature
there was put into his hands as a textbook a most dreary catalogue of dead
authors, dead masterpieces, dead criticisms, dead ages; and a boy who knew
chiefly that he was alive was supposed to become interested in this
literary sepulchre or else have it said that there was something hopeless
about him. Later he learned that the great writers of England and America
were concerned with life alone, as the most familiar, the most mysterious,
the most fascinating thing in the world, and that the only valuable or
interesting feature of any work of literature is its vitality.

To introduce these writers not as dead worthies but as companionable men
and women, and to present their living subject as a living thing, winsome
as a smile on a human face,--such was the author's purpose in writing this

The apology is harder to frame, as anyone knows who has attempted to gather
the writers of a thousand years into a single volume that shall have the
three virtues of brevity, readableness and accuracy. That this record is
brief in view of the immensity of the subject is plainly apparent. That it
may prove pleasantly readable is a hope inspired chiefly by the fact that
it was a pleasure to write it, and that pleasure is contagious. As for
accuracy, every historian who fears God or regards man strives hard enough
for that virtue; but after all his striving, remembering the difficulty of
criticism and the perversity of names and dates that tend to error as the
sparks fly upward, he must still trust heaven and send forth his work with
something of Chaucer's feeling when he wrote:

O littel booke, thou art so unconning,
How darst thou put thy-self in prees for drede?

Which _may_ mean, to one who appreciates Chaucer's wisdom and humor,
that having written a little book in what seemed to him an unskilled or
"unconning" way, he hesitated to give it to the world for dread of the
"prees" or crowd of critics who, even in that early day, were wont to look
upon each new book as a camel that must be put through the needle's eye of
their tender mercies.

In the selection and arrangement of his material the author has aimed to
make a usable book that may appeal to pupils and teachers alike. Because
history and literature are closely related (one being the record of man's
deed, the other of his thought and feeling) there is a brief historical
introduction to every literary period. There is also a review of the
general literary tendencies of each age, of the fashions, humors and ideals
that influenced writers in forming their style or selecting their subject.
Then there is a biography of every important author, written not to offer
another subject for hero-worship but to present the man exactly as he was;
a review of his chief works, which is intended chiefly as a guide to the
best reading; and a critical estimate or appreciation of his writings based
partly upon first-hand impressions, partly upon the assumption that an
author must deal honestly with life as he finds it and that the business of
criticism is, as Emerson said, "not to legislate but to raise the dead."
This detailed study of the greater writers of a period is followed by an
examination of some of the minor writers and their memorable works.
Finally, each chapter concludes with a concise summary of the period under
consideration, a list of selections for reading and a bibliography of works
that will be found most useful in acquiring a larger knowledge of the

In its general plan this little volume is modeled on the author's more
advanced _English Literature_ and _American Literature_; but the
material, the viewpoint, the presentation of individual writers,--all the
details of the work are entirely new. Such a book is like a second journey
through ample and beautiful regions filled with historic associations, a
journey that one undertakes with new companions, with renewed pleasure and,
it is to be hoped, with increased wisdom. It is hardly necessary to add
that our subject has still its unvoiced charms, that it cannot be exhausted
or even adequately presented in any number of histories. For literature
deals with life; and life, with its endlessly surprising variety in unity,
has happily some suggestion of infinity.






What is Literature? The Tree and the Book. Books of Knowledge and Books of
Power. The Art of Literature. A Definition and Some Objections.


Tributaries of Early Literature. The Anglo-Saxon or Old-English Period.
Specimens of the Language. The Epic of Beowulf. Anglo-Saxon Songs. Types of
Earliest Poetry. Christian Literature of the Anglo-Saxon Period. The
Northumbrian School. Bede. Cadmon. Cynewulf. The West-Saxon School. Alfred
the Great. _The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle._

The Anglo-Norman or Early Middle-English Period. Specimens of the Language.
The Norman Conquest. Typical Norman Literature. Geoffrey of Monmouth. First
Appearance of the Legends of Arthur. Types of Middle-English Literature.
Metrical Romances. Some Old Songs. Summary of the Period. Selections for
Reading. Bibliography.


Specimens of the Language. History of the Period. Geoffrey Chaucer.
Contemporaries and Successors of Chaucer. Langland and his _Piers
Plowman_. Malory and his _Morte d' Arthur_. Caxton and the First
Printing Press. The King's English as the Language of England. Popular
Ballads. Summary of the Period. Selections for Reading. Bibliography.


Historical Background. Literary Characteristics of the Period. Foreign
Influence. Outburst of Lyric Poetry. Lyrics of Love. Music and Poetry.
Edmund Spenser. The Rise of the Drama. The Religious Drama. Miracle Plays,
Moralities and Interludes. The Secular Drama. Pageants and Masques. Popular
Comedies. Classical and English Drama. Predecessors of Shakespeare.
Marlowe. Shakespeare. Elizabethan Dramatists after Shakespeare. Ben Jonson.
The Prose Writers. The Fashion of Euphuism. The Authorized Version of the
Scriptures. Francis Bacon. Summary of the Period. Selections for Reading.


Historical Outline. Three Typical Writers. Milton. Bunyan. Dryden. Puritan
and Cavalier Poets. George Herbert. Butler's _Hudibras_. The Prose
Writers. Thomas Browne. Isaac Walton. Summary of the Period. Selections for
Reading. Bibliography.


History of the Period. Eighteenth-Century Classicism. The Meaning of
Classicism in Literature. Alexander Pope. Swift. Addison. Steele. Johnson.
Boswell. Burke. Historical Writing in the Eighteenth Century. Gibbon.

The Revival of Romantic Poetry. Collins and Gray. Goldsmith. Burns. Minor
Poets of Romanticism. Cowper. Macpherson and the Ossian Poems. Chatterton.
Percy's _Reliques of Ancient English Poetry_. William Blake.

The Early English Novel. The Old Romance and the New Novel. Defoe.
Richardson. Fielding. Influence of the Early Novelists. Summary of the
Period. Selections for Reading. Bibliography.


Historical Outline. The French Revolution and English Literature.
Wordsworth. Coleridge. Southey. The Revolutionary Poets. Byron and Shelley.
Keats. The Minor Poets. Campbell, Moore, Keble, Hood, Felicia Hemans, Leigh
Hunt and Thomas Beddoes. The Fiction Writers. Walter Scott. Jane Austen.
The Critics and Essayists. Charles Lamb. De Quincey. Summary of the Period.
Selections for Reading. Bibliography.


Historical Outline. The Victorian Poets. Tennyson. Browning. Elizabeth
Barrett Browning. Matthew Arnold. The Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti. Morris.
Swinburne. Minor Poets and Songs in Many Keys.

The Greater Victorian Novelists. Dickens. Thackeray. George Eliot. Other
Writers of Notable Novels. The Bronte Sisters. Mrs. Gaskell. Charles Reade.
Anthony Trollope. Blackmore. Kingsley. Later Victorian Novelists. Meredith.
Hardy. Stevenson.

Victorian Essayists and Historians. Typical Writers. Macaulay. Carlyle.
Ruskin. Variety of Victorian Literature. Summary of the Period. Selections
for Reading. Bibliography.




Unique Quality of Early American Literature. Two Views of the Pioneers. The
Colonial Period. Annalists and Historians. Bradford and Byrd. Puritan and
Cavalier Influences. Colonial Poetry. Wiggles-worth. Anne Bradstreet.
Godfrey. Nature and Human Nature in Colonial Records. The Indian in
Literature. Religious Writers. Cotton Mather and Edwards.

The Revolutionary Period. Party Literature. Benjamin Franklin.
Revolutionary Poetry. The Hartford Wits. Trumbull's _M'Fingal_.
Freneau. Orators and Statesmen of the Revolution. Citizen Literature. James
Otis and Patrick Henry. Hamilton and Jefferson. Miscellaneous Writers.
Thomas Paine. Crevecoeur. Woolman. Beginning of American Fiction. Charles
Brockden Brown. Summary of the Period. Selections for Reading.


Historical Background. Literary Environment. The National Spirit in Prose
and Verse. The Knickerbocker School. Halleck, Drake, Willis and Paulding.
Southern Writers. Simms, Kennedy, Wilde and Wirt. Various New England
Writers. First Literature of the West. Major Writers of the Period. Irving.
Bryant. Cooper. Poe. Summary of the Period. Selections for Reading.


Political History. Social and Intellectual Changes. Brook Farm and Other
Reform Societies. The Transcendental Movement. Literary Characteristics of
the Period. The Elder Poets. Longfellow. Whittier. Lowell. Holmes, Lanier.
Whitman. The Greater Prose Writers. Emerson. Hawthorne. Some Minor Poets.
Timrod, Hayne, Ryan, Stoddard and Bayard Taylor. Secondary Writers of
Fiction. Mrs. Stowe, Dana, Herman Melville, Cooke, Eggleston and Winthrop.
Juvenile Literature. Louisa M. Alcott. Trowbridge. Miscellaneous Prose.
Thoreau. The Historians. Motley, Prescott and Parkman. Summary of the
Period. Selections for Reading. Bibliography.


The New Spirit of Nationality. Contemporary History. The Short Story and
its Development. Bret Harte. The Local-Color Story and Some Typical
Writers. The Novel since 1876. Realism in Recent Fiction. Howells. Mark
Twain. Various Types of Realism. Dialect Stories. Joel Chandler Harris.
Recent Romances. Historical Novels. Poetry since 1876. Stedman and Aldrich.
The New Spirit in Poetry. Joaquin Miller. Dialect Poems. The Poetry of
Common Life. Carleton and Riley. Other Typical Poets. Miscellaneous Prose.
The Nature Writers. History and Biography. John Fiske. Literary History and
Reminiscence. Bibliography.



William Shakespeare

Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain

Cadmon Cross at Whitby Abbey

Domesday Book

The Norman Stair, Canterbury Cathedral


Pilgrims setting out from the "Tabard"

A Street in Caerleon on Usk

The Almonry, Westminster

Michael Drayton

Edmund Spenser

Raleigh's Birthplace, Budleigh Salterton

The Library, Stratford Grammar School, attended by Shakespeare

Anne Hathaway's Cottage

The Main Room, Anne Hathaway's Cottage

Cawdor Castle, Scotland, associated with Macbeth

Francis Beaumont

John Fletcher

Ben Jonson

Sir Philip Sidney

Francis Bacon

John Milton

Cottage at Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire

Ludlow Castle

John Bunyan

Bunyan Meetinghouse, Southwark

John Dryden

George Herbert

Sir Thomas Browne

Isaac Walton

Old Fishing House, on River Dove, used by Walton

Alexander Pope

Twickenham Parish Church, where Pope was buried

Jonathan Swift

Trinity College, Dublin

Joseph Addison

Magdalen College, Oxford

Sir Richard Steele

Dr. Samuel Johnson

Dr. Johnson's House (Bolt Court, Fleet St.)

James Boswell

Edmund Burke

Edward Gibbon

Thomas Gray

Stoke Poges Churchyard, showing Part of the Church and Gray's Tomb

Oliver Goldsmith

"The Cheshire Cheese," London, showing Dr. Johnson's Favorite Seat

Canonbury Tower (London)

Robert Burns

"Ellisland," the Burns Farm, Dumfries

The Village of Tarbolton, near which Burns Lived

Auld Alloway Kirk

Burns's Mausoleum

William Cowper

Daniel Defoe

Cupola House

William Wordsworth

Wordsworth's Desk in Hawkshead School

St. Oswald's Church, Grasmere

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Coleridge Cottage, Nether Stowey, Somersetshire

Robert Southey

Greta Hall, in the Lake Region

Lord Byron

Newstead Abbey and Byron Oak

The Castle of Chillon

Percy Bysshe Shelley

John Keats

Leigh Hunt

Walter Scott


The Great Window, Melrose Abbey

Scott's Tomb in Dryburgh Abbey

Mrs. Hannah More

Charles Lamb

East India House, London

Mary Lamb

The Lamb Building, Inner Temple, London

Thomas De Quincey

Dove Cottage, Grasmere

Tennyson's Birthplace, Somersby Rectory, Lincolnshire

Alfred Tennyson

Summerhouse at Farringford

Robert Browning

Mrs. Browning's Tomb, at Florence

The Palazzo Rezzonico, Browning's Home in Venice

Piazza of San Lorenzo, Florence

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Matthew Arnold

The Manor House of William Morris

William Morris

Charles Dickens

Gadshill Place, near Rochester

Dickens's Birthplace, Landport, Portsea

Yard of Reindeer Inn, Danbury

The Gatehouse at Rochester, near Dickens's Home

William Makepeace Thackeray

Charterhouse School

George Eliot

Griff House, George Eliot's Early Home in Warwickshire

Charlotte Bronte

Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell

Richard Doddridge Blackmore

Robert Louis Stevenson

Thomas Babington Macaulay

Thomas Carlyle

Carlyle's House, Cheyne Row, Chelsea, London

Arch Home, Ecclefechan

John Ruskin

Entrance to "Westover," Home of William Byrd

Plymouth in 1662. Bradford's House on Right

William Byrd

New Amsterdam (New York) in 1663

Cotton Mather

Jonathan Edwards

Benjamin Franklin

Franklin's Shop

Philip Freneau

Thomas Jefferson

Alexander Hamilton

Monticello, the Home of Jefferson in Virginia

Charles Brockden Brown

William Gilmore Simms

John Pendleton Kennedy

Washington Irving

"Sunnyside," Home of Irving

Rip Van Winkle

Old Dutch Church, Sleepy Hollow

William Cullen Bryant

Bryant's Home, at Cummington

James Fenimore Cooper

Otsego Hall, Home of Cooper

Cooper's Cave

Edgar Allan Poe

West Range, University of Virginia

The Building of the _Southern Literary Messenger_

"The Man" (Abraham Lincoln)

Birthplace of Longfellow at Falmouth (now Portland) Maine

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Taproom, Wayside Inn, Sudbury

Longfellow's Library in Craigie House, Cambridge

John Greenleaf Whittier

Oak Knoll, Whittier's Home, Danvers, Massachusetts

Street in Old Marblehead

James Russell Lowell

Lowell's House, Cambridge, in Winter

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Old Colonial Doorway

Sidney Lanier

The Village of McGaheysville, Virginia

Whitman's Birthplace, West Hills, Long Island

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson's Home, Concord

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Old Customhouse, Boston

"The House of the Seven Gables," Salem (built in 1669)

Hawthorne's Birthplace, Salem, Massachusetts

Henry Timrod

Paul Hamilton Hayne

Harriet Beecher Stowe

John Esten Cooke

Louisa M Alcott

Henry D Thoreau

Francis Parkman

Bret Harte

George W. Cable

Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman

William Dean Howells

Mark Twain

Joel Chandler Harris

Edmund Clarence Stedman

Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Joaquin Miller

John Fiske

Edward Everett Hale




(_Not a Lesson, but an Invitation_)

I sleep, yet I love to be wakened, and love to see
The fresh young faces bending over me;
And the faces of them that are old, I love them too,
For these, as well, in the days of their youth I knew.

"Song of the Well"

WHAT IS LITERATURE? In an old English book, written before Columbus dreamed
of a westward journey to find the East, is the story of a traveler who set
out to search the world for wisdom. Through Palestine and India he passed,
traveling by sea or land through many seasons, till he came to a wonderful
island where he saw a man plowing in the fields. And the wonder was, that
the man was calling familiar words to his oxen, "such wordes as men speken
to bestes in his owne lond." Startled by the sound of his mother tongue he
turned back on his course "in gret mervayle, for he knewe not how it myghte
be." But if he had passed on a little, says the old record, "he would have
founden his contree and his owne knouleche."

Facing a new study of literature our impulse is to search in strange places
for a definition; but though we compass a world of books, we must return at
last, like the worthy man of _Mandeville's Travels_, to our own
knowledge. Since childhood we have been familiar with this noble subject of
literature. We have entered into the heritage of the ancient Greeks, who
thought that Homer was a good teacher for the nursery; we have made
acquaintance with Psalm and Prophecy and Parable, with the knightly tales
of Malory, with the fairy stories of Grimm or Andersen, with the poetry of
Shakespeare, with the novels of Scott or Dickens,--in short, with some of
the best books that the world has ever produced. We know, therefore, what
literature is, and that it is an excellent thing which ministers to the joy
of living; but when we are asked to define the subject, we are in the
position of St. Augustine, who said of time, "If you ask me what time is, I
know not; but if you ask me not, then I know." For literature is like
happiness, or love, or life itself, in that it can be understood or
appreciated but can never be exactly described. It has certain describable
qualities, however, and the best place to discover these is our own


Here on a shelf are a Dictionary, a History of America, a text on
Chemistry, which we read or study for information; on a higher shelf are
_As You Like It_, _Hiawatha_, _Lorna Doone_, _The Oregon
Trail_, and other works to which we go for pleasure when the day's work
is done. In one sense all these and all other books are literature; for the
root meaning of the word is "letters," and a letter means a character
inscribed or rubbed upon a prepared surface. A series of letters
intelligently arranged forms a book, and for the root meaning of "book" you
must go to a tree; because the Latin word for book, _liber_, means the
inner layer of bark that covers a tree bole, and "book" or "boc" is the old
English name for the beech, on whose silvery surface our ancestors carved
their first runic letters.

So also when we turn the "leaves" of a book, our mind goes back over a long
trail: through rattling printing-shop, and peaceful monk's cell, and gloomy
cave with walls covered with picture writing, till the trail ends beside a
shadowy forest, where primitive man takes a smooth leaf and inscribes his
thought upon it by means of a pointed stick. A tree is the Adam of all
books, and everything that the hand of man has written upon the tree or its
products or its substitutes is literature. But that is too broad a
definition; we must limit it by excluding what does not here concern us.


Our first exclusion is of that immense class of writings--books of science,
history, philosophy, and the rest--to which we go for information. These
aim to preserve or to systematize the discoveries of men; they appeal
chiefly to the intellect and they are known as the literature of knowledge.
There remains another large class of writings, sometimes called the
literature of power, consisting of poems, plays, essays, stories of every
kind, to which we go treasure-hunting for happiness or counsel, for noble
thoughts or fine feelings, for rest of body or exercise of spirit,--for
almost everything, in fine, except information. As Chaucer said, long ago,
such writings are:

For pleasaunce high, and for noon other end.

They aim to give us pleasure; they appeal chiefly to our imagination and
our emotions; they awaken in us a feeling of sympathy or admiration for
whatever is beautiful in nature or society or the soul of man.


The author who would attempt books of such high purpose must be careful of
both the matter and the manner of his writing, must give one thought to
what he shall say and another thought to how he shall say it. He selects
the best or most melodious words, the finest figures, and aims to make his
story or poem beautiful in itself, as a painter strives to reflect a face
or a landscape in a beautiful way. Any photographer can in a few minutes
reproduce a human face, but only an artist can by care and labor bring
forth a beautiful portrait. So any historian can write the facts of the
Battle of Gettysburg; but only a Lincoln can in noble words reveal the
beauty and immortal meaning of that mighty conflict.

To all such written works, which quicken our sense of the beautiful, and
which are as a Jacob's ladder on which we mount for higher views of nature
or humanity, we confidently give the name "literature," meaning the art of
literature in distinction from the mere craft of writing.


Such a definition, though it cuts out the greater part of human records, is
still too broad for our purpose, and again we must limit it by a process of
exclusion. For to study almost any period of English letters is to discover
that it produced hundreds of books which served the purpose of literature,
if only for a season, by affording pleasure to readers. No sooner were they
written than Time began to winnow them over and over, giving them to all
the winds of opinion, one generation after another, till the hosts of
ephemeral works were swept aside, and only a remnant was left in the hands
of the winnower. To this remnant, books of abiding interest, on which the
years have no effect save to mellow or flavor them, we give the name of
great or enduring literature; and with these chiefly we deal in our present


To the inevitable question, What are the marks of great literature? no
positive answer can be returned. As a tree is judged by its fruits, so is
literature judged not by theory but by the effect which it produces on
human life; and the judgment is first personal, then general. If a book has
power to awaken in you a lively sense of pleasure or a profound emotion of
sympathy; if it quickens your love of beauty or truth or goodness; if it
moves you to generous thought or noble action, then that book is, for you
and for the time, a great book. If after ten or fifty years it still has
power to quicken you, then for you at least it is a great book forever. And
if it affects many other men and women as it affects you, and if it lives
with power from one generation to another, gladdening the children as it
gladdened the fathers, then surely it is great literature, without further
qualification or need of definition. From this viewpoint the greatest poem
in the world--greatest in that it abides in most human hearts as a loved
and honored guest--is not a mighty _Iliad_ or _Paradise Lost_ or
_Divine Comedy_; it is a familiar little poem of a dozen lines,
beginning "The Lord is my Shepherd."

It is obvious that great literature, which appeals to all classes of men
and to all times, cannot go far afield for rare subjects, or follow new
inventions, or concern itself with fashions that are here to-day and gone
to-morrow. Its only subjects are nature and human nature; it deals with
common experiences of joy or sorrow, pain or pleasure, that all men
understand; it cherishes the unchanging ideals of love, faith, duty,
freedom, reverence, courtesy, which were old to the men who kept their
flocks on the plains of Shinar, and which will be young as the morning to
our children's children.

Such ideals tend to ennoble a writer, and therefore are great books
characterized by lofty thought, by fine feeling and, as a rule, by a
beautiful simplicity of expression. They have another quality, hard to
define but easy to understand, a quality which leaves upon us the
impression of eternal youth, as if they had been dipped in the fountain
which Ponce de Leon sought for in vain through the New World. If a great
book could speak, it would use the words of the Cobzar (poet) in his "Last

The merry Spring, he is my brother,
And when he comes this way
Each year again, he always asks me:
"Art thou not yet grown gray?"
But I. I keep my youth forever,
Even as the Spring his May.

A DEFINITION. Literature, then, if one must formulate a definition, is the
written record of man's best thought and feeling, and English literature is
the part of that record which belongs to the English people. In its
broadest sense literature includes all writing, but as we commonly define
the term it excludes works which aim at instruction, and includes only the
works which aim to give pleasure, and which are artistic in that they
reflect nature or human life in a way to arouse our sense of beauty. In a
still narrower sense, when we study the history of literature we deal
chiefly with the great, the enduring books, which may have been written in
an elder or a latter day, but which have in them the magic of all time.

One may easily challenge such a definition, which, like most others, is far
from faultless. It is difficult, for example, to draw the line sharply
between instructive and pleasure-giving works; for many an instructive book
of history gives us pleasure, and there may be more instruction on
important matters in a pleasurable poem than in a treatise on ethics.
Again, there are historians who allege that English literature must include
not simply the works of Britain but everything written in the English
language. There are other objections; but to straighten them all out is to
be long in starting, and there is a pleasant journey ahead of us. Chaucer
had literature in mind when he wrote:

Through me men goon into that blisful place
Of hertes hele and dedly woundes cure;
Through me men goon unto the wells of grace,
Ther grene and lusty May shal ever endure:
This is the wey to al good aventure.



Then the warrior, battle-tried, touched the sounding glee-wood:
Straight awoke the harp's sweet note; straight a song uprose,
Sooth and sad its music. Then from hero's lips there fell
A wonder-tale, well told.

_Beowulf_, line 2017 (a free rendering)

In its beginnings English literature is like a river, which proceeds not
from a single wellhead but from many springs, each sending forth its
rivulet of sweet or bitter water. As there is a place where the river
assumes a character of its own, distinct from all its tributaries, so in
English literature there is a time when it becomes national rather than
tribal, and English rather than Saxon or Celtic or Norman. That time was in
the fifteenth century, when the poems of Chaucer and the printing press of
Caxton exalted the Midland above all other dialects and established it as
the literary language of England.


Before that time, if you study the records of Britain, you meet several
different tribes and races of men: the native Celt, the law-giving Roman,
the colonizing Saxon, the sea-roving Dane, the feudal baron of Normandy,
each with his own language and literature reflecting the traditions of his
own people. Here in these old records is a strange medley of folk heroes,
Arthur and Beowulf, Cnut and Brutus, Finn and Cuchulain, Roland and Robin
Hood. Older than the tales of such folk-heroes are ancient riddles, charms,
invocations to earth and sky:

Hal wes thu, Folde, fira moder!
Hail to thee, Earth, thou mother of men!

With these pagan spells are found the historical writings of the Venerable
Bede, the devout hymns of Cadmon, Welsh legends, Irish and Scottish fairy
stories, Scandinavian myths, Hebrew and Christian traditions, romances from
distant Italy which had traveled far before the Italians welcomed them. All
these and more, whether originating on British soil or brought in by
missionaries or invaders, held each to its own course for a time, then met
and mingled in the swelling stream which became English literature.

Probably the ruins of a temple of the native Britons]

To trace all these tributaries to their obscure and lonely sources would
require the labor of a lifetime. We shall here examine only the two main
branches of our early literature, to the end that we may better appreciate
the vigor and variety of modern English. The first is the Anglo-Saxon,
which came into England in the middle of the fifth century with the
colonizing Angles, Jutes and Saxons from the shores of the North Sea and
the Baltic; the second is the Norman-French, which arrived six centuries
later at the time of the Norman invasion. Except in their emphasis on
personal courage, there is a marked contrast between these two branches,
the former being stern and somber, the latter gay and fanciful. In
Anglo-Saxon poetry we meet a strong man who cherishes his own ideals of
honor, in Norman-French poetry a youth eagerly interested in romantic tales
gathered from all the world. One represents life as a profound mystery, the
other as a happy adventure.

* * * * *


SPECIMENS OF THE LANGUAGE. Our English speech has changed so much in the
course of centuries that it is now impossible to read our earliest records
without special study; but that Anglo-Saxon is our own and not a foreign
tongue may appear from the following examples. The first is a stanza from
"Widsith," the chant of a wandering gleeman or minstrel; and for comparison
we place beside it Andrew Lang's modern version. Nobody knows how old
"Widsith" is; it may have been sung to the accompaniment of a harp that was
broken fourteen hundred years ago. The second, much easier to read, is from
the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was prepared by King Alfred from an older
record in the ninth century:

Swa scrithende
gesceapum hweorfath,
Gleomen gumena
geond grunda fela;
Thearfe secgath,
thonc-word sprecath,
Simle, suth oththe north
sumne gemetath,
Gydda gleawne
geofam unhneawne.

So wandering on
the world about,
Gleemen do roam
through many lands;
They say their needs,
they speak their thanks,
Sure, south or north
someone to meet,
Of songs to judge
and gifts not grudge.

Her Hengest and Aesc, his sunu, gefuhton wid Bryttas on thaere
stowe the is gecweden Creccanford, and thaer ofslogon feower
thusenda wera. And tha Bryttas tha forleton Cent-lond, and mid
myclum ege flugon to Lundenbyrig.

At this time Hengist and Esk, his son, fought with the Britons at
the place that is called Crayford, and there slew four thousand
men. And the Britons then forsook Kentland, and with much fear fled
to London town.

BEOWULF. The old epic poem, called after its hero Beowulf, is more than
myth or legend, more even than history; it is a picture of a life and a
world that once had real existence. Of that vanished life, that world of
ancient Englishmen, only a few material fragments remain: a bit of linked
armor, a rusted sword with runic inscriptions, the oaken ribs of a war
galley buried with the Viking who had sailed it on stormy seas, and who was
entombed in it because he loved it. All these are silent witnesses; they
have no speech or language. But this old poem is a living voice, speaking
with truth and sincerity of the daily habit of the fathers of modern
England, of their adventures by sea or land, their stern courage and grave
courtesy, their ideals of manly honor, their thoughts of life and death.

Let us hear, then, the story of _Beowulf_, picturing in our
imagination the story-teller and his audience. The scene opens in a great
hall, where a fire blazes on the hearth and flashes upon polished shields
against the timbered walls. Down the long room stretches a table where men
are feasting or passing a beaker from hand to hand, and anon crying _Hal!
hal!_ in answer to song or in greeting to a guest. At the head of the
hall sits the chief with his chosen ealdormen. At a sign from the chief a
gleeman rises and strikes a single clear note from his harp. Silence falls
on the benches; the story begins:

Hail! we of the Spear Danes in days of old
Have heard the glory of warriors sung;
Have cheered the deeds that our chieftains wrought,
And the brave Scyld's triumph o'er his foes.

Then because there are Scyldings present, and because brave men
revere their ancestors, the gleeman tells a beautiful legend of how
King Scyld came and went: how he arrived as a little child, in a
war-galley that no man sailed, asleep amid jewels and weapons; and
how, when his life ended at the call of Wyrd or Fate, they placed
him against the mast of a ship, with treasures heaped around him
and a golden banner above his head, gave ship and cargo to the
winds, and sent their chief nobly back to the deep whence he came.

So with picturesque words the gleeman thrills his hearers with a
vivid picture of a Viking's sea-burial. It thrills us now, when the
Vikings are no more, and when no other picture can be drawn by an
eyewitness of that splendid pagan rite.


One of Scyld's descendants was King Hrothgar (Roger) who built the
hall Heorot, where the king and his men used to gather nightly to
feast, and to listen to the songs of scop or gleeman. [Footnote:
Like Agamemnon and the Greek chieftains, every Saxon leader had his
gleeman or minstrel, and had also his own poet, his scop or
"shaper," whose duty it was to shape a glorious deed into more
glorious verse. So did our pagan ancestors build their monuments
out of songs that should live in the hearts of men when granite or
earth mound had crumbled away.] "There was joy of heroes," but in
one night the joy was changed to mourning. Out on the lonely fens
dwelt the jotun (giant or monster) Grendel, who heard the sound of
men's mirth and quickly made an end of it. One night, as the thanes
slept in the hall, he burst in the door and carried off thirty
warriors to devour them in his lair under the sea. Another and
another horrible raid followed, till Heorot was deserted and the
fear of Grendel reigned among the Spear Danes. There were brave men
among them, but of what use was courage when their weapons were
powerless against the monster? "Their swords would not bite on his

For twelve years this terror continued; then the rumor of Grendel
reached the land of the Geats, where Beowulf lived at the court of
his uncle, King Hygelac. No sooner did Beowulf hear of a dragon to
be slain, of a friendly king "in need of a man," than he selected
fourteen companions and launched his war-galley in search of


At this point the old epic becomes a remarkable portrayal of daily
life. In its picturesque lines we see the galley set sail, foam
flying from her prow; we catch the first sight of the southern
headlands, approach land, hear the challenge of the "warder of the
cliffs" and Beowulf's courteous answer. We follow the march to
Heorot in war-gear, spears flashing, swords and byrnies clanking,
and witness the exchange of greetings between Hrothgar and the
young hero. Again is the feast spread in Heorot; once more is heard
the song of gleemen, the joyous sound of warriors in comradeship.
There is also a significant picture of Hrothgar's wife, "mindful of
courtesies," honoring her guests by passing the mead-cup with her
own hands. She is received by these stern men with profound

When the feast draws to an end the fear of Grendel returns.
Hrothgar warns his guests that no weapon can harm the monster, that
it is death to sleep in the hall; then the Spear Danes retire,
leaving Beowulf and his companions to keep watch and ward. With the
careless confidence of brave men, forthwith they all fall asleep:

Forth from the fens, from the misty moorlands,
Grendel came gliding--God's wrath he bore--
Came under clouds until he saw clearly,
Glittering with gold plates, the mead-hall of men.
Down fell the door, though hardened with fire-bands,
Open it sprang at the stroke of his paw.
Swollen with rage burst in the bale-bringer,
Flamed in his eyes a fierce light, likest fire.


Throwing himself upon the nearest sleeper Grendel crushes and
swallows him; then he stretches out a paw towards Beowulf, only to
find it "seized in such a grip as the fiend had never felt before."
A desperate conflict begins, and a mighty uproar,--crashing of
benches, shoutings of men, the "war-song" of Grendel, who is trying
to break the grip of his foe. As the monster struggles toward the
door, dragging the hero with him, a wide wound opens on his
shoulder; the sinews snap, and with a mighty wrench Beowulf tears
off the whole limb. While Grendel rushes howling across the fens,
Beowulf hangs the grisly arm with its iron claws, "the whole
grapple of Grendel," over the door where all may see it.

Once more there is joy in Heorot, songs, speeches, the liberal
giving of gifts. Thinking all danger past, the Danes sleep in the
hall; but at midnight comes the mother of Grendel, raging to avenge
her son. Seizing the king's bravest companion she carries him away,
and he is never seen again.

Here is another adventure for Beowulf. To old Hrothgar, lamenting
his lost earl, the hero says simply:

Wise chief, sorrow not. For a man it is meet
His friend to avenge, not to mourn for his loss;
For death comes to all, but honor endures:
Let him win it who will, ere Wyrd to him calls,
And fame be the fee of a warrior dead!

Following the trail of the _Brimwylf_ or _Merewif_
(sea-wolf or sea-woman) Beowulf and his companions pass through
desolate regions to a wild cliff on the shore. There a friend
offers his good sword Hrunting for the combat, and Beowulf accepts
the weapon, saying:

ic me mid Hruntinge
Dom gewyrce, oththe mec death nimeth.
I with Hrunting
Honor will win, or death shall me take.


Then he plunges into the black water, is attacked on all sides by
the _Grundwrygen_ or bottom monsters, and as he stops to fight
them is seized by the _Merewif_ and dragged into a cave, a
mighty "sea-hall" free from water and filled with a strange light.
On its floor are vast treasures; its walls are adorned with
weapons; in a corner huddles the wounded Grendel. All this Beowulf
sees in a glance as he turns to fight his new foe.

Follows then another terrific combat, in which the brand Hrunting
proves useless. Though it rings out its "clanging war-song" on the
monster's scales, it will not "bite" on the charmed body. Beowulf
is down, and at the point of death, when his eye lights on a huge
sword forged by the jotuns of old. Struggling to his feet he seizes
the weapon, whirls it around his head for a mighty blow, and the
fight is won. Another blow cuts off the head of Grendel, but at the
touch of the poisonous blood the steel blade melts like ice before
the fire.

Leaving all the treasures, Beowulf takes only the golden hilt of
the magic sword and the head of Grendel, reenters the sea and
mounts up to his companions. They welcome him as one returned from
the dead. They relieve him of helmet and byrnie, and swing away in
a triumphal procession to Heorot. The hero towers among them, a
conspicuous figure, and next to him comes the enormous head of
Grendel carried on a spear-shaft by four of the stoutest thanes.


More feasting, gifts, noble speeches follow before the hero returns
to his own land, laden with treasures. So ends the first part of
the epic. In the second part Beowulf succeeds Hygelac as chief of
the Geats, and rules them well for fifty years. Then a "firedrake,"
guarding an immense hoard of treasure (as in most of the old dragon
stories), begins to ravage the land. Once more the aged Beowulf
goes forth to champion his people; but he feels that "Wyrd is close
to hand," and the fatalism which pervades all the poem is finely
expressed in his speech to his companions. In his last fight he
kills the dragon, winning the dragon's treasure for his people; but
as he battles amid flame and smoke the fire enters his lungs, and
he dies "as dies a man," paying for victory with his life. Among
his last words is a command which reminds us again of the old
Greeks, and of the word of Elpenor to Odysseus:

"Bid my brave men raise a barrow for me on the headland,
broad, high, to be seen far out at sea: that hereafter
sea-farers, driving their foamy keels through ocean's mist,
may behold and say, ''Tis Beowulf's mound!'"

The hero's last words and the closing scenes of the epic, including
the funeral pyre, the "bale-fire" and another Viking burial to the
chant of armed men riding their war steeds, are among the noblest
that have come down to us from beyond the dawn of history.

Such, in brief outline, is the story of _Beowulf_. It is recorded on a
fire-marked manuscript, preserved as by a miracle from the torch of the
Danes, which is now one of the priceless treasures of the British Museum.
The handwriting indicates that the manuscript was copied about the year
1100, but the language points to the eighth or ninth century, when the poem
in its present form was probably composed on English soil. [Footnote:
Materials used in _Beowulf_ are very old, and may have been brought to
England during the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Parts of the material, such as the
dragon-fights, are purely mythical. They relate to Beowa, a superman, of
whom many legends were told by Scandinavian minstrels. The Grendel legend,
for example, appears in the Icelandic saga of Gretti, who slays the dragon
Glam. Other parts of _Beowulf_ are old battle songs; and still others,
relating to King Hygelac and his nephew, have some historical foundation.
So little is known about the epic that one cannot safely make any positive
statement as to its origin. It was written in crude, uneven lines; but a
rhythmic, martial effect, as of marching men, was produced by strong accent
and alliteration, and the effect was strengthened by the harp with which
the gleeman always accompanied his recital.]

ANGLO-SAXON SONGS. Beside the epic of _Beowulf_ a few mutilated poems
have been preserved, and these are as fragments of a plate or film upon
which the life of long ago left its impression. One of the oldest of these
poems is "Widsith," the "wide-goer," which describes the wanderings and
rewards of the ancient gleeman. It begins:

Widsith spake, his word-hoard unlocked,
He who farthest had fared among earth-folk and tribe-folk.

Then follows a recital of the places he had visited, and the gifts he had
received for his singing. Some of the personages named are real, others
mythical; and as the list covers half a world and several centuries of
time, it is certain that Widsith's recital cannot be taken literally.


Two explanations offer themselves: the first, that the poem contains the
work of many scops, each of whom added his travels to those of his
predecessor; the second, that Widsith, like other gleemen, was both
historian and poet, a keeper of tribal legends as well as a shaper of
songs, and that he was ever ready to entertain his audience with things new
or old. Thus, he mentioned Hrothgar as one whom he had visited; and if a
hearer called for a tale at this point, the scop would recite that part of
_Beowulf_ which tells of the monster Grendel. Again, he named Sigard
the Volsung (the Siegfrid of the _Niebelungenlied_ and of Wagner's
opera), and this would recall the slaying of the dragon Fafnir, or some
other story of the old Norse saga. So every name or place which Widsith
mentioned was an invitation. When he came to a hall and "unlocked his
word-hoard," he offered his hearers a variety of poems and legends from
which they made their own selection. Looked at in this way, the old poem
becomes an epitome of Anglo-Saxon literature.


Other fragments of the period are valuable as indicating that the
Anglo-Saxons were familiar with various types of poetry. "Deor's Lament,"
describing the sorrows of a scop who had lost his place beside his chief,
is a true lyric; that is, a poem which reflects the author's feeling rather
than the deed of another man. In his grief the scop comforts himself by
recalling the afflictions of various heroes, and he ends each stanza with
the refrain:

That sorrow he endured; this also may I.

Among the best of the early poems are: "The Ruined City," reflecting the
feeling of one who looks on crumbling walls that were once the abode of
human ambition; "The Seafarer," a chantey of the deep, which ends with an
allegory comparing life to a sea voyage; "The Wanderer," which is the
plaint of one who has lost home, patron, ambition, and as the easiest way
out of his difficulty turns _eardstappa_, an "earth-hitter" or tramp;
"The Husband's Message," which is the oldest love song in our literature;
and a few ballads and battle songs, such as "The Battle of Brunanburh"
(familiar to us in Tennyson's translation) and "The Fight at Finnsburgh,"
which was mentioned by the gleemen in _Beowulf_, and which was then
probably as well known as "The Charge of the Light Brigade" is to modern

Another early war song, "The Battle of Maldon" or "Byrhtnoth's Death," has
seldom been rivaled in savage vigor or in the expression of deathless
loyalty to a chosen leader. The climax of the poem is reached when the few
survivors of an uneven battle make a ring of spears about their fallen
chief, shake their weapons in the face of an overwhelming horde of Danes,
while Byrhtwold, "the old comrade," chants their defiance:

The sterner shall thought be, the bolder our hearts,
The greater the mood as lessens our might.

We know not when or by whom this stirring battle cry was written. It was
copied under date of 991 in the _Anglo-Saxon Chronicle_, and is
commonly called the swan song of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The lion song would be
a better name for it.

LATER PROSE AND POETRY. The works we have just considered were wholly pagan
in spirit, but all reference to Thor or other gods was excluded by the
monks who first wrote down the scop's poetry.

With the coming of these monks a reform swept over pagan England, and
literature reflected the change in a variety of ways. For example, early
Anglo-Saxon poetry was mostly warlike, for the reason that the various
earldoms were in constant strife; but now the peace of good will was
preached, and moral courage, the triumph of self-control, was exalted above
mere physical hardihood. In the new literature the adventures of Columb or
Aidan or Brendan were quite as thrilling as any legends of Beowulf or
Sigard, but the climax of the adventure was spiritual, and the emphasis was
always on moral heroism.

Another result of the changed condition was that the unlettered scop, who
carried his whole stock of poetry in his head, was replaced by the literary
monk, who had behind him the immense culture of the Latin language, and who
was interested in world history or Christian doctrine rather than in tribal
fights or pagan mythology. These monks were capable men; they understood
the appeal of pagan poetry, and their motto was, "Let nothing good be
wasted." So they made careful copy of the scop's best songs (else had not a
shred of early poetry survived), and so the pagan's respect for womanhood,
his courage, his loyalty to a chief,--all his virtues were recognized and
turned to religious account in the new literature. Even the beautiful pagan
scrolls, or "dragon knots," once etched on a warrior's sword, were
reproduced in glowing colors in the initial letters of the monk's
illuminated Gospel.

A third result of the peaceful conquest of the missionaries was that many
monasteries were established in Britain, each a center of learning and of
writing. So arose the famous Northumbrian School of literature, to which we
owe the writings of Bede, Cadmon, Cynewulf and others associated with
certain old monasteries, such as Peterborough, Jarrow, York and Whitby, all
north of the river Humber.

BEDE. The good work of the monks is finely exemplified in the life of the
Venerable Bede, or Bada (_cir_. 673-735), who is well called the
father of English learning. As a boy he entered the Benedictine monastery
at Jarrow; the temper of his manhood may be judged from a single sentence
of his own record:

"While attentive to the discipline of mine order and the daily care
of singing in the church, my constant delight was in learning or
teaching or writing."

It is hardly too much to say that this gentle scholar was for half a
century the teacher of Europe. He collected a large library of manuscripts;
he was the author of some forty works, covering the whole field of human
knowledge in his day; and to his school at Jarrow came hundreds of pupils
from all parts of the British Isles, and hundreds more from the Continent.
Of all his works the most notable is the so-called "Ecclesiastical History"
(_Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum_) which should be named the
"History of the Race of Angles." This book marks the beginning of our
literature of knowledge, and to it we are largely indebted for what we know
of English history from the time of Casar's invasion to the early part of
the eighth century.

All the extant works of Bede are in Latin, but we are told by his pupil
Cuthbert that he was "skilled in our English songs," that he made poems and
translated the Gospel of John into English. These works, which would now be
of priceless value, were all destroyed by the plundering Danes.

As an example of Bede's style, we translate a typical passage from his
History. The scene is the Saxon _Witenagemot_, or council of wise men,
called by King Edward (625) to consider the doctrine of Paulinus, who had
been sent from Rome by Pope Gregory. The first speaker is Coifi, a priest
of the old religion:

"Consider well, O king, this new doctrine which is preached to us;
for I now declare, what I have learned for certain, that the old
religion has no virtue in it. For none of your people has been more
diligent than I in the worship of our gods; yet many receive more
favors from you, and are preferred above me, and are more
prosperous in their affairs. If the old gods had any discernment,
they would surely favor me, since I have been most diligent in
their service. It is expedient, therefore, if this new faith that
is preached is any more profitable than the old, that we accept it
without delay."

Whereupon Coifi, who as a priest has hitherto been obliged to ride upon an
ass with wagging ears, calls loudly for a horse, a prancing horse, a
stallion, and cavorts off, a crowd running at his heels, to hurl a spear
into the shrine where he lately worshiped. He is a good type of the
political demagogue, who clamors for progress when he wants an office, and
whose spear is more likely to be hurled at the back of a friend than at the
breast of an enemy.

Then a pagan chief rises to speak, and we bow to a nobler motive. His
allegory of the mystery of life is like a strain of Anglo-Saxon poetry; it
moves us deeply, as it moved his hearers ten centuries ago:

"This present life of man, O king, in comparison with the time that
is hidden from us, is as the flight of a sparrow through the room
where you sit at supper, with companions around you and a good fire
on the hearth. Outside are the storms of wintry rain and snow. The
sparrow flies in at one opening, and instantly out at another:
whilst he is within he is sheltered from the winter storms, but
after a moment of pleasant weather he speeds from winter back to
winter again, and vanishes from your sight into the darkness whence
he came. Even so the life of man appears for a little time; but of
what went before and of what comes after we are wholly ignorant. If
this new religion can teach us anything of greater certainty, it
surely deserves to be followed." [Footnote: Bede, _Historia_,
Book II, chap xiii, a free translation]

CADMON (SEVENTH CENTURY). In a beautiful chapter of Bede's History we may
read how Cadmon (d. 680) discovered his gift of poetry. He was, says the
record, a poor unlettered servant of the Abbess Hilda, in her monastery at
Whitby. At that time (and here is an interesting commentary on monastic
culture) singing and poetry were so familiar that, whenever a feast was
given, a harp would be brought in, and each monk or guest would in turn
entertain the company with a song or poem to his own musical accompaniment.
But Cadmon could not sing, and when he saw the harp coming down the table
he would slip away ashamed, to perform his humble duties in the monastery:

"Now it happened once that he did this thing at a certain
festivity, and went out to the stable to care for the horses, this
duty being assigned him for that night. As he slept at the usual
time one stood by him, saying, 'Cadmon, sing me something.' He
answered, 'I cannot sing, and that is why I came hither from the
feast.' But he who spake unto him said again, 'Cadmon, sing to me.'
And he said, 'What shall I sing?' And that one said, 'Sing the
beginning of created things.' Thereupon Cadmon began to sing verses
that he had never heard before, of this import:

Nu scylun hergan hefaenriches ward ...
Now shall we hallow the warden of heaven,
He the Creator, he the Allfather,
Deeds of his might and thoughts of his mind...."


In the morning he remembered the words, and came humbly to the monks to
recite the first recorded Christian hymn in our language. And a very noble
hymn it is. The monks heard him in wonder, and took him to the Abbess
Hilda, who gave order that Cadmon should receive instruction and enter the
monastery as one of the brethren. Then the monks expounded to him the
Scriptures. He in turn, reflecting on what he had heard, echoed it back to
the monks "in such melodious words that his teachers became his pupils."
So, says the record, the whole course of Bible history was turned into
excellent poetry.

About a thousand years later, in the days of Milton, an Anglo-Saxon
manuscript was discovered containing a metrical paraphrase of the books of
Genesis, Exodus and Daniel, and these were supposed to be some of the poems
mentioned in Bede's narrative. A study of the poems (now known as the
Cadmonian Cycle) leads to the conclusion that they were probably the work
of two or three writers, and it has not been determined what part Cadmon
had in their composition. The nobility of style in the Genesis poem and the
picturesque account of the fallen angels (which reappears in _Paradise
Lost_) have won for Cadmon his designation as the Milton of the
Anglo-Saxon period. [Footnote: A friend of Milton, calling himself
Franciscus Junius, first printed the Cadmon poems in Antwerp (_cir_.
1655) during Milton's lifetime. The Puritan poet was blind at the time, and
it is not certain that he ever saw or heard the poems; yet there are many
parallelisms in the earlier and later works which warrant the conclusion
that Milton was influenced by Cadmon's work.]

CYNEWULF (EIGHTH CENTURY). There is a variety of poems belonging to the
Cynewulf Cycle, and of some of these Cynewulf (born _cir_. 750) was
certainly the author, since he wove his name into the verses in the manner
of an acrostic. Of Cynewulf's life we know nothing with certainty; but from
various poems which are attributed to him, and which undoubtedly reflect
some personal experience, scholars have constructed the following
biography,--which may or may not be true.

In his early life Cynewulf was probably a wandering scop of the old pagan
kind, delighting in wild nature, in adventure, in the clamor of fighting
men. To this period belong his "Riddles" [Footnote: These riddles are
ancient conundrums, in which some familiar object, such as a bow, a ship, a
storm lashing the shore, the moon riding the clouds like a Viking's boat,
is described in poetic language, and the last line usually calls on the
hearer to name the object described. See Cook and Tinker, _Translations
from Old English Poetry_.] and his vigorous descriptions of the sea and
of battle, which show hardly a trace of Christian influence. Then came
trouble to Cynewulf, perhaps in the ravages of the Danes, and some deep
spiritual experience of which he writes in a way to remind us of the
Puritan age:

"In the prison of the night I pondered with myself. I was stained
with my own deeds, bound fast in my sins, hard smitten with
sorrows, walled in by miseries."

A wondrous vision of the cross, "brightest of beacons," shone suddenly
through his darkness, and led him forth into light and joy. Then he wrote
his "Vision of the Rood" and probably also _Juliana_ and _The
Christ_. In the last period of his life, a time of great serenity, he
wrote _Andreas_, a story of St. Andrew combining religious instruction
with extraordinary adventure; _Elene_, which describes the search for
the cross on which Christ died, and which is a prototype of the search for
the Holy Grail; and other poems of the same general kind. [Footnote: There
is little agreement among scholars as to who wrote most of these poems. The
only works to which Cynewulf signs his name are _The Christ_,
_Elene_, _Juliana_ and _Fates of the Apostles_. All others
are doubtful, and our biography of Cynewulf is largely a matter of pleasant
speculation.] Aside from the value of these works as a reflection of
Anglo-Saxon ideals, they are our best picture of Christianity as it
appeared in England during the eighth and ninth centuries.

ALFRED THE GREAT (848-901). We shall understand the importance of Alfred's
work if we remember how his country fared when he became king of the West
Saxons, in 871. At that time England lay at the mercy of the Danish
sea-rovers. Soon after Bede's death they fell upon Northumbria, hewed out
with their swords a place of settlement, and were soon lords of the whole
north country. Being pagans ("Thor's men" they called themselves) they
sacked the monasteries, burned the libraries, made a lurid end of the
civilization which men like Columb and Bede had built up in
North-Humberland. Then they pushed southward, and were in process of
paganizing all England when they were turned back by the heroism of Alfred.
How he accomplished his task, and how from his capital at Winchester he
established law and order in England, is recorded in the histories. We are
dealing here with literature, and in this field Alfred is distinguished in
two ways: first, by his preservation of early English poetry; and second,
by his own writing, which earned for him the title of father of English
prose. Finding that some fragments of poetry had escaped the fire of the
Danes, he caused search to be made for old manuscripts, and had copies made
of all that were legible. [Footnote: These copies were made in Alfred's
dialect (West Saxon) not in the Northumbrian dialect in which they were
first written.] But what gave Alfred deepest concern was that in all his
kingdom there were few priests and no laymen who could read or write their
own language. As he wrote sadly:

"King Alfred sends greeting to Bishop Werfrith in words of love and
friendship. Let it be known to thee that it often comes to my mind
what wise men and what happy times were formerly in England, ... I
remember what I saw before England had been ravaged and burned, how
churches throughout the whole land were filled with treasures of
books. And there was also a multitude of God's servants, but these
had no knowledge of the books: they could not understand them
because they were not written in their own language. It was as if
the books said, 'Our fathers who once occupied these places loved
wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and left it to us. We
see here their footprints, but we cannot follow them, and therefore
have we lost both their wealth and their wisdom, because we would
not incline our hearts to their example.' When I remember this, I
marvel that good and wise men who were formerly in England, and who
had learned these books, did not translate them into their own
language. Then I answered myself and said, 'They never thought that
their children would be so careless, or that learning would so
decay.'" [Footnote: A free version of part of Alfred's preface to
his translation of Pope Gregory's _Cura Pastoralis_, which
appeared in English as the Hirdeboc or Shepherd's Book.]

To remedy the evil, Alfred ordered that every freeborn Englishman should
learn to read and write his own language; but before he announced the order
he followed it himself. Rather late in his boyhood he had learned to spell
out an English book; now with immense difficulty he took up Latin, and
translated the best works for the benefit of his people. His last notable
work was the famous _Anglo-Saxon Chronicle_.


At that time it was customary in monasteries to keep a record of events
which seemed to the monks of special importance, such as the coming of a
bishop, the death of a king, an eclipse of the moon, a battle with the
Danes. Alfred found such a record at Winchester, rewrote it (or else caused
it to be rewritten) with numerous additions from Bede's History and other
sources, and so made a fairly complete chronicle of England. This was sent
to other monasteries, where it was copied and enlarged, so that several
different versions have come down to us. The work thus begun was continued
after Alfred's death, until 1154, and is the oldest contemporary history
possessed by any modern nation in its own language.

* * * * *


SPECIMENS OF THE LANGUAGE. A glance at the following selections will show
how Anglo-Saxon was slowly approaching our English speech of to-day. The
first is from a religious book called _Ancren Riwle_ (Rule of the
Anchoresses, _cir_. 1225). The second, written about a century later,
is from the riming chronicle, or verse history, of Robert Manning or Robert
of Brunne. In it we note the appearance of rime, a new thing in English
poetry, borrowed from the French, and also a few words, such as "solace,"
which are of foreign origin:

"Hwoso hevide iseid to Eve, theo heo werp hire eien therone, 'A!
wend te awei; thu worpest eien o thi death!' hwat heved heo
ionswered? 'Me leove sire, ther havest wouh. Hwarof kalenges tu me?
The eppel that ich loke on is forbode me to etene, and nout forto

"Whoso had said (or, if anyone had said) to Eve when she cast her
eye theron (i.e. on the apple) 'Ah! turn thou away; thou castest
eyes on thy death!' what would she have answered? 'My dear sir,
thou art wrong. Of what blamest thou me? The apple which I look
upon is forbidden me to eat, not to behold.'"

Lordynges that be now here,
If ye wille listene and lere [1]
All the story of Inglande,
Als Robert Mannyng wryten it fand,
And on Inglysch has it schewed,
Not for the lered [2] but for the lewed, [3]
For tho that on this land wonn [4]
That ne Latin ne Frankys conn, [5]
For to hauf solace and gamen
In felauschip when they sitt samen; [6]
And it is wisdom for to wytten [7]
The state of the land, and haf it wryten.

[Footnote 1: learn]
[Footnote 2: learned]
[Footnote 3: simple or ignorant]
[Footnote 4: those that dwell]
[Footnote 5: That neither Latin nor French know]
[Footnote 6: together]
[Footnote 7: know]

THE NORMAN CONQUEST. For a century after the Norman conquest native poetry
disappeared from England, as a river may sink into the earth to reappear
elsewhere with added volume and new characteristics. During all this time
French was the language not only of literature but of society and business;
and if anyone had declared at the beginning of the twelfth century, when
Norman institutions were firmly established in England, that the time was
approaching when the conquerors would forget their fatherland and their
mother tongue, he would surely have been called dreamer or madman. Yet the
unexpected was precisely what happened, and the Norman conquest is
remarkable alike for what it did and for what it failed to do.

[Illustration: DOMESDAY BOOK
From a facsimile edition published in 1862.
The volumes, two in number, were kept in the chest here shown]

It accomplished, first, the nationalization of England, uniting the petty
Saxon earldoms into one powerful kingdom; and second, it brought into
English life, grown sad and stern, like a man without hope, the spirit of
youth, of enthusiasm, of eager adventure after the unknown,--in a word, the
spirit of romance, which is but another name for that quest of some Holy
Grail in which youth is forever engaged.

NORMAN LITERATURE. One who reads the literature that the conquerors brought
to England must be struck by the contrast between the Anglo-Saxon and the
Norman-French spirit. For example, here is the death of a national hero as
portrayed in _The Song of Roland_, an old French epic, which the
Normans first put into polished verse:

Li quens Rollans se jut desuz un pin,
Envers Espaigne en ad turnet son vis,
De plusurs choscs a remembrer le prist....

"Then Roland placed himself beneath a pine tree. Towards Spain he
turned his face. Of many things took he remembrance: of various
lands where he had made conquests; of sweet France and his kindred;
of Charlemagne, his feudal lord, who had nurtured him. He could not
refrain from sighs and tears; neither could he forget himself in
need. He confessed his sins and besought the Lord's mercy. He
raised his right glove and offered it to God; Saint Gabriel from
his hand received the offering. Then upon his breast he bowed his
head; he joined his hands and went to his end. God sent down his
cherubim, and Saint Michael who delivers from peril. Together with
Saint Gabriel they departed, bearing the Count's soul to Paradise."

We have not put Roland's ceremonious exit into rime and meter; neither do
we offer any criticism of a scene in which the death of a national hero
stirs no interest or emotion, not even with the help of Gabriel and the
cherubim. One is reminded by contrast of Scyld, who fares forth alone in
his Viking ship to meet the mystery of death; or of that last scene of
human grief and grandeur in _Beowulf_ where a few thanes bury their
dead chief on a headland by the gray sea, riding their war steeds around
the memorial mound with a chant of sorrow and victory.

The contrast is even more marked in the mass of Norman literature: in
romances of the maidens that sink underground in autumn, to reappear as
flowers in spring; of Alexander's journey to the bottom of the sea in a
crystal barrel, to view the mermaids and monsters; of Guy of Warwick, who
slew the giant Colbrant and overthrew all the knights of Europe, just to
win a smile from his Felice; of that other hero who had offended his lady
by forgetting one of the commandments of love, and who vowed to fill a
barrel with his tears, and did it. The Saxons were as serious in speech as
in action, and their poetry is a true reflection of their daily life; but
the Normans, brave and resourceful as they were in war and statesmanship,
turned to literature for amusement, and indulged their lively fancy in
fables, satires, garrulous romances, like children reveling in the lore of
elves and fairies. As the prattle of a child was the power that awakened
Silas Marner from his stupor of despair, so this Norman element of gayety,
of exuberant romanticism, was precisely what was needed to rouse the
sterner Saxon mind from its gloom and lethargy.


THE NEW NATION. So much, then, the Normans accomplished: they brought
nationality into English life, and romance into English literature. Without
essentially changing the Saxon spirit they enlarged its thought, aroused
its hope, gave it wider horizons. They bound England with their laws,
covered it with their feudal institutions, filled it with their ideas and
their language; then, as an anticlimax, they disappeared from English
history, and their institutions were modified to suit the Saxon
temperament. The race conquered in war became in peace the conquerors. The
Normans speedily forgot France, and even warred against it. They began to
speak English, dropping its cumbersome Teutonic inflections, and adding to
it the wealth of their own fine language. They ended by adopting England as
their country, and glorifying it above all others. "There is no land in the
world," writes a poet of the thirteenth century, "where so many good kings
and saints have lived as in the isle of the English. Some were holy martyrs
who died cheerfully for God; others had strength or courage like to that of
Arthur, Edmund and Cnut."

This poet, who was a Norman monk at Westminster Abbey, wrote about the
glories of England in the French language, and celebrated as the national
heroes a Celt, a Saxon and a Dane. [Footnote: The significance of this old
poem was pointed out by Jusserand, _Literary History of the English
People_, Vol. I, p. 112.]

So in the space of two centuries a new nation had arisen, combining the
best elements of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French people, with a
considerable mixture of Celtic and Danish elements. Out of the union of
these races and tongues came modern English life and letters.

GEOFFREY AND THE LEGENDS OF ARTHUR. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a Welshman,
familiar from his youth with Celtic legends; also he was a monk who knew
how to write Latin; and the combination was a fortunate one, as we shall

Long before Geoffrey produced his celebrated History (_cir._ 1150),
many stories of the Welsh hero Arthur [Footnote: Who Arthur was has never
been determined. There was probably a chieftain of that name who was active
in opposing the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain, about the year 500; but
Gildas, who wrote a Chronicle of Britain only half a century later, does
not mention him; neither does Bede, who made study of all available records
before writing his History. William of Malmesbury, a chronicler of the
twelfth century, refers to "the warlike Arthur of whom the Britons tell so
many extravagant fables, a man to be celebrated not in idle tales but in
true history." He adds that there were two Arthurs, one a Welsh war-chief
(not a king), and the other a myth or fairy creation. This, then, may be
the truth of the matter, that a real Arthur, who made a deep impression on
the Celtic imagination, was soon hidden in a mass of spurious legends. That
Bede had heard these legends is almost certain; that he did not mention
them is probably due to the fact that he considered Arthur to be wholly
mythical.] were current in Britain and on the Continent; but they were
never written because of a custom of the Middle Ages which required that,
before a legend could be recorded, it must have the authority of some Latin
manuscript. Geoffrey undertook to supply such authority in his _Historia
regum britanniae_, or History of the Kings of Britain, in which he
proved Arthur's descent from Roman ancestors. [Footnote: After the landing
of the Romans in Britain a curious mingling of traditions took place, and
in Geoffrey's time native Britons considered themselves as children of
Brutus of Rome, and therefore as grandchildren of Aneas of Troy.] He quoted
liberally from an ancient manuscript which, he alleged, established
Arthur's lineage, but which he did not show to others. A storm instantly
arose among the writers of that day, most of whom denounced Geoffrey's
Latin manuscript as a myth, and his History as a shameless invention. But
he had shrewdly anticipated such criticism, and issued this warning to the
historians, which is solemn or humorous according to your point of view:

"I forbid William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon to speak of
the kings of Britain, since they have not seen the book which
Walter Archdeacon of Oxford [who was dead, of course] brought out
of Brittany."

It is commonly believed that Geoffrey was an impostor, but in such matters
one should be wary of passing judgment. Many records of men, cities,
empires, have suddenly arisen from the tombs to put to shame the scientists
who had denied their existence; and it is possible that Geoffrey had seen
one of the legion of lost manuscripts. The one thing certain is, that if he
had any authority for his History he embellished the same freely from
popular legends or from his own imagination, as was customary at that time.


His work made a sensation. A score of French poets seized upon his
Arthurian legends and wove them into romances, each adding freely to
Geoffrey's narrative. The poet Wace added the tale of the Round Table, and
another poet (Walter Map, perhaps) began a cycle of stories concerning
Galahad and the quest of the Holy Grail. [Footnote: The Holy Grail, or San
Graal, or Sancgreal, was represented as the cup from which Christ drank
with his disciples at the Last Supper. Legend said that the sacred cup had
been brought to England, and Arthur's knights undertook, as the most
compelling of all duties, to search until they found it.]

The origin of these Arthurian romances, which reappear so often in English
poetry, is forever shrouded in mystery. The point to remember is, that we
owe them all to the genius of the native Celts; that it was Geoffrey of
Monmouth who first wrote them in Latin prose, and so preserved a treasure
which else had been lost; and that it was the French _trouveres,_ or
poets, who completed the various cycles of romances which were later
collected in Malory's _Morte d' Arthur._

TYPES OF MIDDLE-ENGLISH LITERATURE. It has long been customary to begin the
study of English literature with Chaucer; but that does not mean that he
invented any new form of poetry or prose. To examine any collection of our
early literature, such as Cook's _Middle-English Reader_, is to
discover that many literary types were flourishing in Chaucer's day, and
that some of these had grown old-fashioned before he began to use them.


In the thirteenth century, for example, the favorite type of literature in
England was the metrical romance, which was introduced by the French poets,
and written at first in the French language. The typical romance was a
rambling story dealing with the three subjects of love, chivalry and
religion; it was filled with adventures among giants, dragons, enchanted
castles; and in that day romance was not romance unless liberally supplied
with magic and miracle. There were hundreds of such wonder-stories,
arranged loosely in three main groups: the so-called "matter of Rome" dealt
with the fall of Troy in one part, and with the marvelous adventures of
Alexander in the other; the "matter of France" celebrated the heroism of
Charlemagne and his Paladins; and the "matter of Britain" wove the magic
web of romance around Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.

One of the best of the metrical romances is "Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight," which may be read as a measure of all the rest. If, as is commonly
believed, the unknown author of "Sir Gawain" wrote also "The Pearl" (a
beautiful old elegy, or poem of grief, which immortalizes a father's love
for his little girl), he was the greatest poet of the early Middle-English
period. Unfortunately for us, he wrote not in the king's English or speech
of London (which became modern English) but in a different dialect, and his
poems should be read in a present-day version; else will the beauty of his
work be lost in our effort to understand his language.

Other types of early literature are the riming chronicles or verse
histories (such as Layamon's _Brut_, a famous poem, in which the
Arthurian legends appear as part of English history), stories of travel,
translations, religious poems, books of devotion, miracle plays, fables,
satires, ballads, hymns, lullabies, lyrics of love and nature,--an
astonishing collection for so ancient a time, indicative at once of our
changing standards of poetry and of our unchanging human nature. For the
feelings which inspired or gave welcome to these poems, some five or six
hundred years ago, are precisely the same feelings which warm the heart of
a poet and his readers to-day. There is nothing ancient but the spelling in
this exquisite Lullaby, for instance, which was sung on Christmas eve:

He cam also stylle
Ther his moder was
As dew in Aprylle
That fallyt on the gras;
He cam also stylle
To his moderes bowr
As dew in Aprylle
That fallyt on the flour;
He cam also stylle
Ther his moder lay
As dew in Aprylle
That fallyt on the spray.

[Footnote: In reading this beautiful old lullaby the _e_ in "stylle"
and "Aprylle" should be lightly sounded, like _a_ in "China."]

Or witness this other fragment from an old love song, which reflects the
feeling of one who "would fain make some mirth" but who finds his heart sad
within him:

Now wold I fayne som myrthis make
All oneli for my ladys sake,
When I hir se;
But now I am so ferre from hir
Hit will nat be.

Thogh I be long out of hir sight,
I am hir man both day and night,
And so will be;
Wherfor, wold God as I love hir
That she lovd me!

When she is mery, then I am glad;
When she is sory, then am I sad,
And cause whi:
For he livith nat that lovith hir
So well as I.

She sayth that she hath seen hit wreten
That 'seldyn seen is soon foryeten.'
Hit is nat so;
For in good feith, save oneli hir,
I love no moo.

Wherfor I pray, both night and day,
That she may cast al care away,
And leve in rest
That evermo, where'er she be,
I love hir best;

And I to hir for to be trew,
And never chaunge her for noon new
Unto myne ende;
And that I may in hir servise
For evyr amend.

[Footnote: The two poems quoted above hardly belong to the Norman-French
period proper, but rather to a time when the Anglo-Saxon had assimilated
the French element, with its language and verse forms. They were written,
probably, in the age of Chaucer, or in what is now called the Late
Middle-English period.]

* * * * *

SUMMARY OF BEGINNINGS. The two main branches of our literature are
the Anglo-Saxon and the Norman-French, both of which received some
additions from Celtic, Danish and Roman sources. The Anglo-Saxon
literature came to England with the invasion of Teutonic tribes,
the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (_cir._ 449). The Norman-French
literature appeared after the Norman conquest of England, which
began with the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The Anglo-Saxon literature is classified under two heads, pagan and
Christian. The extant fragments of pagan literature include one
epic or heroic poem, _Beowulf_, and several lyrics and battle
songs, such as "Widsith," "Deor's Lament," "The Seafarer," "The
Battle of Brunanburh" and "The Battle of Maldon." All these were
written at an unknown date, and by unknown poets.

The best Christian literature of the period was written in the
Northumbrian and the West-Saxon schools. The greatest names of the
Northumbrian school are Bede, Cadmon and Cynewulf. The most famous
of the Wessex writers is Alfred the Great, who is called "the
father of English prose."

The Normans were originally Northmen, or sea rovers from
Scandinavia, who settled in northern France and adopted the
Franco-Latin language and civilization. With their conquest of
England, in the eleventh century, they brought nationality into
English life, and the spirit of romance into English literature.
Their stories in prose or verse were extremely fanciful, in marked
contrast with the stern, somber poetry of the Anglo-Saxons.

The most notable works of the Norman-French period are: Geoffrey's
_History of the Kings of Britain_, which preserved in Latin
prose the native legends of King Arthur; Layamon's _Brut_, a
riming chronicle or verse history in the native tongue; many
metrical romances, or stories of love, chivalry, magic and
religion; and various popular songs and ballads. The greatest poet
of the period is the unknown author of "Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight" (a metrical romance) and probably also of "The Pearl," a
beautiful elegy, which is our earliest _In Memoriam_.

SELECTIONS FOR READING. Without special study of Old English it is
impossible to read our earliest literature. The beginner may,
however, enter into the spirit of that literature by means of
various modern versions, such as the following:

_Beowulf_. Garnett's Beowulf (Ginn and Company), a literal
translation, is useful to those who study Anglo-Saxon, but is not
very readable. The same may be said of Gummere's The Oldest English
Epic, which follows the verse form of the original. Two of the best
versions for the beginner are Child's Beowulf, in Riverside
Literature Series (Houghton), and Earle's The Deeds of Beowulf
(Clarendon Press).

_Anglo-Saxon Poetry_. The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The
Husband's Message (or Love Letter), Deor's Lament, Riddles, Battle
of Brunanburh, selections from The Christ, Andreas, Elene, Vision
of the Rood, and The Phoenix,--all these are found in an excellent
little volume, Cook and Tinker, Translations from Old English
Poetry (Ginn and Company).

_Anglo-Saxon Prose_. Good selections in Cook and Tinker,
Translations from Old English Prose (Ginn and Company). Bede's
History, translated in Everyman's Library (Dutton) and in the Bohn
Library (Macmillan). In the same volume of the Bohn Library is a
translation of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Alfred's Orosius (with
stories of early exploration) translated in Pauli's Life of Alfred.

_Norman-French Period_. Selections in Manly, English Poetry,
and English Prose (Ginn and Company); also in Morris and Skeat,
Specimens of Early English (Clarendon Press). The Song of Roland in
Riverside Literature Series, and in King's Classics. Selected
metrical romances in Ellis, Specimens of Early English Metrical
Romances (Bohn Library); also in Morley, Early English Prose
Romances, and in Carisbrooke Library Series. Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight, modernized by Weston, in Arthurian Romances Series.
Andrew Lang, Aucassin and Nicolette (Crowell). The Pearl,
translated by Jewett (Crowell), and by Weir Mitchell (Century).
Selections from Layamon's Brut in Morley, English Writers, Vol.
III. Geoffrey's History in Everyman's Library, and in King's
Classics. The Arthurian legends in The Mabinogion (Everyman's
Library); also in Sidney Lanier's The Boy's King Arthur and The
Boy's Mabinogion (Scribner). A good single volume containing the
best of Middle-English literature, with notes, is Cook, A Literary
Middle-English Reader (Ginn and Company).

BIBLIOGRAPHY. For extended works covering the entire field of
English history and literature, and for a list of the best
anthologies, school texts, etc., see the General Bibliography. The
following works are of special interest in studying early English

_HISTORY_. Allen, Anglo-Saxon Britain; Turner, History of the
Anglo-Saxons; Ramsay, The Foundations of England; Freeman, Old
English History; Cook, Life of Alfred; Freeman, Short History of
the Norman Conquest; Jewett, Story of the Normans, in Stories of
the Nations.

_LITERATURE_. Brooke, History of Early English Literature;
Jusserand, Literary History of the English People, Vol. I; Ten
Brink, English Literature, Vol. I; Lewis, Beginnings of English
Literature; Schofield, English Literature from the Norman Conquest
to Chaucer; Brother Azarias, Development of Old-English Thought;
Mitchell, From Celt to Tudor; Newell, King Arthur and the Round
Table. A more advanced work on Arthur is Rhys, Studies in the
Arthurian Legends.

_FICTION AND POETRY_. Kingsley, Hereward the Wake; Lytton,
Harold Last of the Saxon Kings; Scott, Ivanhoe; Kipling, Puck of
Pook's Hill; Jane Porter, Scottish Chiefs; Shakespeare, King John;
Tennyson, Becket, and The Idylls of the King; Gray, The Bard; Bates
and Coman, English History Told by English Poets.



For out of olde feldes, as men seith,
Cometh al this newe corn fro yeer te yere;
And out of olde bokes, in good feith,
Cometh all this newe science that men lere.

Chaucer, "Parliament of Foules"

SPECIMENS OF THE LANGUAGE. Our first selection, from _Piers Plowman_
(_cir._ 1362), is the satire of Belling the Cat. The language is that
of the common people, and the verse is in the old Saxon manner, with accent
and alliteration. The scene is a council of rats and mice (common people)
called to consider how best to deal with the cat (court), and it satirizes
the popular agitators who declaim against the government. The speaker is a
rat, "a raton of renon, most renable of tonge":

"I have y-seen segges," quod he,
"in the cite of London
Beren beighes ful brighte
abouten here nekkes....
Were there a belle on here beighe,
certes, as me thynketh,
Men myghte wite where thei went,
and awei renne!
And right so," quod this raton,
"reson me sheweth
To bugge a belle of brasse
or of brighte sylver,
And knitten on a colere
for owre comune profit,
And hangen it upon the cattes hals;
than hear we mowen
Where he ritt or rest


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