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ON ENGLISH POETRY.
THE influence of the Norman conquest upon the language of England was like that of a great inundation, which at first buries the face of the landscape under its waters, but which at last subsiding, leaves behind it the elements of new beauty and fertility. Its first effect was to degrade the Anglo-Saxon tongue to the exclusive use of the inferior orders; and by the transference of estates, ecclesiastical benefices, and civil dignities, to Norman possessors, to give the French language, which had begun to prevail at court from the time of Edward the Confessor, a more complete predominance among the higher classes of society. The native gentry of England were either driven into exile, or depressed into a state of dependance on their conqueror, which habituated them to speak his language. On the other hand, we received from the Normans the first germs of romantic poetry; and our language was ultimately indebted to them for a wealth and compass of expression which it probably would not have otherwise possessed.
The Anglo-Saxon, however, was not lost, though it was superseded by French, and disappeared as the language of superior life and of public business. It is found written in prose, at the end of Stephen's reign, nearly a century after the Conquest; and the Saxon Chronicle, which thus exhibits it *, contains even a fragment of verse, professed to have been com
[* As the Saxon Chronicle relates the death of Stephen, it must have been written after that event. ELLIS, Early Eng. Poets, vol. i. p. 60, and vol. iii. p. 404, Ed. 1801.
What is commonly called the Saxon Chronicle is continued to the death of Stephen, in 1154, and in the same language, though with some loss of its purity. Besides the neglect of several grammatical rules, French words now and then obtrude themselves, but not very frequently, in the latter pages of this Chronicle.-HALLAM, Lit. Hist. vol. i. p. 59.]
posed by an individual who had the Conqueror. To fix upon any when the national speech can be ceased to be Saxon, and begun to is pronounced by Dr. Johnson sible t. It is undoubtedly diffi possible, from the gradually progi of language, as well as from the regard to dates, which hangs ov number of specimens of the early we possess. Mr. Ellis fixes upo about forty years, preceding the Henry III., from 1180 to 1216, he conceives modern English formed. The opinions of Mr. are always delivered with candou always founded on intelligent v to be lightly treated; and I hop appear to be either captious or in disputing them. But it seem he rather arbitrarily defines th years which he supposes to ha the formation of our language, wh
+ Introduction to Johnson's Dictionarexpected, from the nature of things gra that any time can be assigned when Sa to cease, and the English to commenc sudden transformations of a language sel
About the year 1150, the Saxon began which the beginning of the present Englis discovered: this change seems not to have the Norman conquest, for very few Frenc. to have been introduced in the first hund: the language must therefore have been like those which, notwithstanding the ca societies instituted to obviate them, are making innovations in every living langu
[ It is only justice to Mr. Ellis to give h 1185. "We may fairly infer," Mr. Ellis Saxon language and literature began to h Norman about 1185; and that in 1216 th considered as complete."]
forty years for that formation. He afterwards speaks of the vulgar English having suddenly superseded the pure and legitimate Saxon *. Now, if the supposed period could be fixed with any degree of accuracy to thirty or forty years, one might waive the question whether a transmutation occupying so much time could, with propriety or otherwise, be called a sudden one; but when we find that there are no sufficient data for fixing its boundaries even to fifty years, the idea of a sudden transition in the language becomes inadmissible.
opinion, was necessary to change the old into the new native tongue, and to produce an exact resemblance between the Saxon of the twelfth century, and the English of the thirteenth ; early in which century, according to Mr. Ellis, the new language was fully formed, or, as he afterwards more cautiously expresses himself, was "in its far advanced state." The reader will please to recollect, that the two main circumstances in the change of Anglo-Saxon into English, are the adoption of French words, and the suppression of the inflections of the Saxon noun and verb. Now, if Layamon's style exhibits a language needing only a few French words to be convertible into English, the Anglo-Saxon must have made some progress before Layamon's time to an English form. Whether that progress was made rapidly, or suddenly, we have not sufficient specimens of the language, anterior to Layamon, to determine. But that the change was not sudden but gradual, I conceive, is much more probably to be presumed §.
The mixture of our literature and language with the Norman, or, in other words, the formation of English, commenced, according to Mr. Ellis, in 1180 . At that period, he calculates that Layamon, the first translator from French into the native tongue, finished his version of Wace's "Brut." This translation, however, he pronounces to be still unmixed, though barbarous Saxon +. It is certainly not very easy to conceive how the sudden and distinct formation of English can be said to have commenced with unmixed Saxon; but Mr. Ellis, possibly, meant the period of Laya-Saxon or English, certainly exhibits a dawn of mon's work to be the date after, and not at English. And when did this dawn appear? which the change may be understood to have begun. Yet, while he pronounces Layamon's language unmixed Saxon, he considers it to be such a sort of Saxon as required but the substitution of a few French for Saxon words to become English ‡. Nothing more, in Mr. Ellis's
Layamon, however, whether we call him
* «The most striking peculiarity," says Mr. Ellis, “in the establishment of our vulgar English is, that it seems to have very suddenly superseded the pure and legitimate Saxon, from which its elements were principally derived, instead of becoming its successor, as generally has been supposed, by a slow and imperceptible process." Specimens of Early English Poetry, vol. iii. p. 404. Conclusion.
[t Mr. Ellis (p. 73) says, "very barbarous Saxon." "So little," says Sir Walter Scott in his Review of Mr. Ellis's Specimens, "were the Saxon and Norman languages calculated to amalgamate, that though Layamon wrote in the reign of Henry II., his language is almost pure Saxon; and hence it is probable, that if the mixed language now called English at all existed, it was deemed as yet unfit for composition, and only used as a piebald jargon for carrying on the indispensable intercourse betwixt the Anglo-Saxons and Normans. In process of time, however, the dialect so much despised made its way into the service of the poets, and seems to have superseded the use of the Saxon, although the French, being the court language, continued to maintain its ground till a later period." Misc. Pr. Works, vol. xvii. p. 8.]
[ It seems reasonable to infer that Layamon's work was composed at or very near the period when the Saxons and Normans in this country began to unite into one nation, and to adopt a common language. Ellis, vol. i. p. 75.]
§ If Layamon's work was finished in 1180 , the verses in the Saxon Chronicle, on the death of William the Conqueror, said to be written by one who had seen that monarch, cannot be considered as a specimen of the language immediately anterior to Layamon. But St. Godric is said to have died in 1170, and the verses ascribed to him
might have been written at a time nearly preceding Layamon's work. Of St. Godric's verses a very few may be compared with a few of Layamon's.
Sainté Marie Christie's bur!
In English. Saint Mary, Christ's bower - Maiden's purity, Motherhood's flower-Destroy my sin, reign in my mood or mind-Bring me to dwell with the very God.
And of alle than folke
The wuneden ther on folde,
In English. And of all the folk that dwelt on earth was this land's folk the handsomest, (people told ;) and also the women handsome of hue.
Here are four lines of St. Godric, in all probability earlier than Layamon's; and yet does the English reader find Layamon at all more intelligible, or does he seem to make anything like a sudden transition to English as the poetical successor of St. Godric?
Mr. Ellis computes that it was in 1180 , placing it thus late, because Wace took a great many years to translate his "Brut" from Geoffrey of Monmouth; and because Layamon, who translated that "Brut," was probably twenty-five years engaged in the task. But this is attempting to be precise in dates, where there is no ground for precision. It is quite as easy to suppose that the English translator finished his work in ten as in twenty years; so that the change from Saxon to English would commence in 1265 [1165 ?], and thus the forty years' Exodus of our language, supposing it bounded to 1216, would extend to half a century. So difficult is it to fix any definite period for the commencing formation of English. It is easy to speak of a child being born at an express time; but the birth-epochs of languages are not to be registered with the same precision and facility+. Again, as to the end of Mr. Ellis's period: it is inferred by him, that the formation of the language was either completed or far advanced in 1216, from the facility of rhyming displayed in Robert of Gloucester, and in pieces belonging to the
| middle of the thirteenth century, an earlier date. I own that, to m rizing by conjecture seems like quicksand. Robert of Gloucest 1280 §; and surely his rhyming then, does not prove the English have been fully formed in 1216. pieces, it seems, which are supp been written early in the thirtee To give any support to Mr. Ellis's pieces must be proved to have be very early in the thirteenth cen coming towards the middle of it, facility of rhyming at that late da little or nothing.
But of these poetical fragment commence either with or early teenth century, our antiquaries af which, though often confidently are really only conjectural; a those conjectural dates, they are agreed. Warton speaks of this an being certainly not later than Richard I.; but he takes no pains cate what he affirms. He pronoun song, "Blow, northern wind, blow. to be as old as the year 1200 ||. Mr off only to about half a century la places the "Land of Cokayne" Conquest. Mr. Warton would F the Conquest, if he were not de
[ Wace finished his translation in 1155, after, Mr. Ellis supposes, thirty years' labour: Layamon, he assumes, was the same period, finishing it in 1185; " perhaps," he says, "the earliest date that can be assigned to it." Specimens of Early English Poetry, vol. i. pp. 75-6. "Layamon's age," says Mr. Hallam," is uncertain; it must have been after 1155, when the original poem was completed, and can hardly be placed below 1200. His language is accounted rather Anglo-Saxon than English." appearance of a few Norman w Lit. Hist. vol. i. p. 59.]
the learned authority of Hickes would thus be superseded, as qui The truth is, respecting the "Land that we are left in total astonis circumstance of men, so well Hickes and Warton, placing it
[ Nothing can be more difficult, except by an arbitrary line, than to determine the commencement of the English language. When we compare the earliest English of the thirteenth century with the Anglo-Saxon of the twelfth, it seems hard to pronounce why it should pass for a separate language, rather than a modification or simplification of the former. We must conform, however, to usage, and say that the Anglo-Saxon was converted into English-1st, by contracting or otherwise modifying the pronunciation and orthography of words; 2ndly, by omitting many inflections, especially of the nouns, and consequently making more use of articles and auxiliaries; 3rdly, by the introduction of French derivatives; 4thly, by using less inversion and ellipsis, especially in poetry. Of these, the second alone I think can be considered as sufficient to describe a new form of language; and this was brought about so gradually, that we are not relieved from much of our difficulty--whether some compositions shall pass for the latest offspring of the mother, or the earliest fruits of the daughter's fertility. It is a proof of this difficulty, that the best masters of our ancient language have lately introduced the word Semi-Saxon, which is to cover everything from 1150 to 1250.—HALLAM, Lit. Hist. vol. i. p. 57.] [Robert of Gloucester, who is placed by the critics in the thirteenth century, seems to have used a kind of inter
mediate diction, neither Saxon nor Engli therefore, we see the transition exhibited [§'As Robert of Gloucester alludes to of St. Louis in 1297, it is obvious, howeve before, he was writing after that event. den's Havelok, p. liii.]
[ Warton says, "before or about," whi Price's Warton, vol. i. p. 28. Ed. 1824.] [It is not of the "Land of Cokayne" this, but of a religious or moral ode, consi dred and ninety-one stanzas. Price's W Of the "Land of Cokayne" he has said t which clearly exemplifies the Saxon ad Norman, and was evidently written soo quest, at least soon after the reign of Hen Price (p. 7) follows Mr. Campbell in th attach to the verse quoted in the first sea which is, he says, very arbitrary and unce