Page images

And the vernycle before,
For men sholde knowe
And se bi hise signes
Whom he sought hadde.

[ocr errors]

But this pilgrim, notwithstanding his experience as a traveler, does not know the way to Truth-indeed, he has never heard of her. Then suddenly Piers the Plowman, the type of the meek and pure-hearted to whom God has promised the kingdom, appears for the first time. He says that he knows the way as well as a clerk knows his books; and the wanderers at once put themselves under his direction. He gives them employment, plowing and sowing a half-acre by the roadside; but at length, becoming dissatisfied with this practical mode of searching for Truth, they rebel, and are subdued only by the aid of Hunger.

The visions which follow are similar in character, introducing new personifications of vices and virtues, and satirizing at every turn the abuses and corruptions so prevalent in that age. Finally, the humble plowman is identified with Christ, who came as one meek and lowly to guide an erring world. The poet then describes Christ's passion, his descent into hell, the foundation of the church, the opposition of the world, and the coming of Anti-Christ. At the end, the stronghold of the church is attacked by an army of priests and monks, and Conscience, deserted and almost despairing, cries out for help. But no one hearing, he takes a pilgrim's staff in his hand, and sets out to wander over the world, resolved that he will not cease or falter "till he have Piers the Plowman."

I will give but one more quotation from this poem, a passage which has been regarded by some as a prophecy of the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.:

And there shall come a king,

and confess your religions,

[ocr errors]

And bete you as the bible telleth,

for breking of your rule: And amende moniales

monks and chanoines. And then friers in her freytor

shall fynd a key Of Constantyne's coffers,

in which is the catal
That Gregories godchyldren

had it dispended.
And than shall the abot of Abingdon,

and al his issue for evere,
Have a knocke of a kyng,

And incurable the wound.

In this remarkable poem, wherein are sketched with a master's hand the dangers which beset the commonwealth, and the rank sores which festered in the body social and politic, the author no doubt expressed the opinions which thousands had already felt. And his book, by reason of thus touching a sympathetic chord in the minds of his contemporaries, proved to be the greatest “literary success" that had yet appeared in English literature. Numerous copies of the work were made, and a considerable number of manuscripts of different dates still exist, attesting the popularity of the poem.

Prof. Corson says: “ The reader who does not throw it aside at first will hardly do so afterwards; and so it must ever be with the works of a true poet when once the mind is attuned to his thoughts and feelings. The extreme earnestness of the author and the obvious truthfulness and blunt honesty of his character are in themselves attractive and lend a value to all he utters, even when he is evolving a theory or wanders into abstract questions of theological speculation. But we are the more pleased when we perceive, as we very soon do, that he is evidently of a practical turn of mind, and loves best to exercise his shrewd English common sense upon topics of every-day interest.”

Of the other poetical productions of the Transition Period, we shall here but mention the names of a few of the most important. Among the numerous romances the most notable are those relating to King Arthur and his mythical knights, the story of Richard Cuer de Lyon, the Geste of King Horn, Havelok the Dane, and others, which will be treated of more fully in the chapter on poetical romances. The Owl and the Nightingale is the title of an allegory in which the two birds are represented as disputing about their respective powers of song. The Body and the Soul is a dialogue in verse, supposed to have been written by Walter Map. Besides these, there were numerous ballads popular among the common people, and preserved mainly by oral tradition and by the bards or minstrels, who recited them to the accompaniment of the harp. These, with some war lyrics written by Lawrence Minot, will be duly noticed hereafter.

In the same year in which Langland wrote Piers Plowman, the English language was authorized to be used in the courts of law, and the Transition Period, it may be said, came to an end. From that time we may date the beginning of the English language as we now know it. Of course, it did not suddenly assume the form and the perfection which it now possesses, nor did it do away entirely with the provincial dialects or with the French influences at court. But it stood forth henceforward as the literary language of England, to a measure fixed in character, and yet constantly progressive.



Knight's, Hume's, Lingard's, or any other standard history of Eng. land, 1000 to 1400.

Thierry's Norman Conquest.
Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest.
Hallan's l'iew of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages.

[ocr errors]

The later volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Procter's History of the Crusades.
Cox's History of the Crusades.
James's History of Chivalry.
Chronicles of the Crusaders. Bohn's Antiquarian Library.
Froissart's Chronicles of England, France, Spain, etc. (London, 1812.)


Warton's History of English Poetry.
Ellis's Specimens of the Early English Poets.
Ellis's Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances.
Madden. Layamon's Brut. (London, 1847.)
Wright's Biographia Poetica.
Ritson's Bibliographia Poetica (1802).
Morley's Early English Writers.
Skeat's Specimens of English Literature.

The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman. Edited by W. W. Skeat.

Six Old English Chronicles. Bohn's Antiquarian Library.

Coleridge. A Glossarial Inde.r to the printed English Literature of the Thirteenth Century. (London, 1859.)

The Ormulum. Edited from the original manuscript, by R. M. White. (2 vols., Oxford, 1852.)

The Oul and the Nightingale. Edited by T. Wright for the Percy Society. (London, 1813.)

Reliquæ Antique. Scraps from Ancient Manuscripts, by T. Wright and J. 0. Halliwell. (2 vols., London, 1841.)

Robert Manning's Chronicle. Edited by Thomas Hearne. (Oxford, 1725.)

Robert of Gloucester's Chronicle. (2 vols., London, 1810.)

Weber's Metrical Romances of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Centuries. (Edinburgh, 1810.)

G. P. Marsh. Lectures on the Origin and IIistory of the English Language (1872).

Corson's Iland-Book of Anglo-Saxon and Early English (1875).


Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott.



The Romance Language—Troubadours and Trouvères-Geste of King

Horne-Havelok the Dane-Romances of Richard Cæur de LionRomance of Alexander-The Legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table-Walter Map—The Romance of Arthur-Numerous Early Versions—Arthur in Spenser's Faerie Queene-Milton, Dryden, Blackmore, Lord Lytton-Tennyson's Idylls of the King—The Literary Revolution of the Eighteenth Century-Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel-Marmion—The Lady of the Lake_The Lord of the IslesLord Byron—The Giaour-The Corsair—The Bride of Abydos—The Siege of Corinth-Lalla Rookh, by Thomas Moore—The Loves of the Angels-Morris's Sigurd the Volsung.

ROMANCES are so called from the fact that the earliest specimens of their kind were written in the Romance language-a language resulting from the union of the Latin with the Teutonic and Celtic dialects of France and Spain. From the middle of the tenth to the middle of the thirteenth century an extensive and unique literature flourished in France. In the southern provinces this literature assumed the lyric form, and the writers of its poetry were called Troubadours. In the north, as might have been expected from the character of the people, the poetical productions were usually of a narrative character. The writers of these metrical stories were called Trouvères; and the name Romance or Romans was early applied to their stories. The word Trouvère as well as the word Troubadour means a finder or inventor, as the word poet means a maker, and skald a polisher. The influence which the Trouyères and Troubadours have had upon the development and the character of English literature is not generally well understood. It was their works, doubtless, which gave an impulse to the literary movement of the Transition Period

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »