Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
The Earlier History of English Prose by W. P. Ker
THE ATTRACTION of medieval literature comes perhaps more strongly from some other countries than from England. In France and Provence, in Germany and Iceland, there were literary adventurers more daring and achievements more distinguished. It was not in England that the most wonderful things were produced; there is nothing in old English that takes hold of the mind with that masterful and subduing power which still belongs to the lyrical stanzas of the troubadours and minnesingers, to Welsh romance, or to the epic prose of the Iceland histories.  1
  The Norman Conquest degraded the English language from its literary rank, and brought in a new language for the politer literature. It did not destroy, in one sense it did not absolutely interrupt, English literature; but it took away the English literary standard, and threw the country back into the condition of Italy before Dante—an anarchy of dialects. When a new literary language was established in the time of Chaucer, the Middle Ages were nearly over: and so it happened that for the greatest of the medieval centuries, the twelfth and thirteenth, the centuries of the Crusades, of the Hohenstaufen Emperors, of St. Francis, St. Dominic, and St. Louis, there is in English no great representative work in prose or rhyme. There are better things, it is true, than the staggering rhythms of Layamon, or the wooden precision of Orm: the Ancren Riwle is better. But there is no one who can be taken, as some of the writers in other countries can—Crestien de Troies, for instance, or Walther von der Vogelweide, or Villehardouin—there is no one in England who can be taken for a representative poet or orator, giving out what can be recognised at once, and is recognised instinctively, as the best possible literary work of its own day and its own kind. The beauty of medieval poetry and prose is not to be found in England, or only in a faint reflected way. England did not possess the heart of the mystery. To spend much time with the worthy clerks who promoted Christian and useful knowledge in the thirteenth and fourteenth century dialects of Lincoln or Yorkshire, Kent or Dorset, is to acquire an invincible appetite for the glory of other countries not quite so tame, for the pride of life of the castles and gardens of Languedoc or Swabia, for the winds of the forest of Broceliande. Not in the English tongue were the great stories told. Almost everything in the literature of the Middle Ages that is out of the common, that is in any sense magical or inspired, comes from beyond the English borders.  2
  For all this want of distinction there is some compensation. The early English literature, if not representative of what is keenest and strongest, or most exalted, in the intellect of Europe in these times, is admirably fitted to convey to after generations both the common sense and the commonplaces of Western civilisation, from the ninth century onward. A study of English literature alone would give a very false and insufficient idea of the heights attained in the progress of European literature as a whole: for there were worlds of imagination and poetical art which were open to some of the other nations, and not at all or very imperfectly to the English. But English literature contains and preserves, in a better and completer form than elsewhere, the common ideas, the intellectual and educational ground-work of the Middle Ages; and that is something. The average mind at any rate is well represented. Prose and its development can be observed very fully and satisfactorily from a very early date. One of the chief interests of the early literature is that it reflects the process by which the native Teutonic civilisation of the English became metamorphosed by the intrusion of alien ideas, either Latin or transmitted through Latin; by the struggles of the English mind to overcome and assimilate the civilisation of the Roman Empire. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes not so easy, to distinguish the two kinds of thinking, native and foreign. The alliterative heroic poetry of the Anglo-Saxons is inherited, not imported; it is the product of centuries during which the German tribes were educating themselves, and making experiments in poetry (among other things) till they gradually formed the established epic type, which in essentials, in style and phrasing, and even in subject matter, is common to Continental Germany and Scandinavia, in early times, along with England. It may be compared, even by temperate critics, to the Homeric poetry of Greece, and the comparison need not be misleading. The Anglo-Saxon prose, on the other hand, much of which is contemporaneous with the heroic poetry, is generally derivative and Latin in spirit, repeating and adapting ideas that are very far removed from simplicity. While on the one hand there are analogies with the Homeric age and the Homeric poems in Anglo-Saxon society and poetry, on the other hand there are many things in the work of the Anglo-Saxon writers which make one think of the way European ideas are now being taken up, without preparation, in the East—of the wholesale modern progress of Japan, and its un-Hellenic confusion. The spectacle is sometimes painful; it cannot be called dull. The same sort of thing, the conflict of the two realms of ideas, German and Latin, went on in all modern nations, beginning in the first encounter of the Northern tribes with the intellectual and spiritual powers of Rome. This conflict is really the whole matter of early modern history. In England its character is brought out more plainly than elsewhere, and, in spite of the Norman Conquest and other interfering circumstances, the process or progress is continuous. For which reason, if for nothing else, it is convenient to begin at the beginning in dealing with the history of English poetry or prose.  3
  The work for which prose was needed first of all was mainly that of instruction; and of the early didactic prose a great part is translation or adaptation. From the time of Ulfilas to the time of Wycliffe and the time of Caxton, and since, there has been ceaseless activity of the workers who have had to quarry into, and break up, and make portable and useful, the great mass left by the older civilisations for the Goths and their successors to do their best with.  4
  The early English literature is strong in translations. Translations were the books most necessary for people who wanted to know about things, and who knew that the most important questions had already been answered by the Latin authors, so that it was a waste of time for the English or other simple folk to try to find out things for themselves. The quarry of Latin learning was worked zealously, and the evidences left by that activity are more than respectable. The Anglo-Saxon Bible versions, and Alfred’s library of text-books—Orosius, Boetius, Gregory, and the translation of Bede’s history—are works which in point of style have attained the virtues of plain narration or exposition, and even something more; and the matter of them is such as was not antiquated for many centuries after Alfred. It was long before the other nations were as well provided in their own languages with useful hand-books of instruction. Besides the translations, there were other didactic works in different departments. There is a considerable stock of sermons—some of them imaginative and strong in narrative, like the one on the Harrowing of Hell in the Blickling Homilies, and others, like the Sermones Catholici of Ælfric, more soft and gentle in their tone, more finished in their rhetoric. These may not appeal to every reader; but the same might be said of the works of many later divines than Ælfric.  5
  The old English educational literature—hand-books and homilies—had merits that were of lasting importance. The history of English prose cannot afford to ignore the books which, whatever may have been their shortcomings, established good habits of composition, made it fairly easy, for those who would, to put English words together into sentences, and gave more than one good pattern of sentence for students to copy. The rhetorical value of the didactic prose will be rated high by any one who values a sound convention or tradition of ordinary prose style for ordinary useful purposes. There are higher kinds of literature than the useful; but it is something to have different kinds of useful prose at one’s command, and this in the tenth century was singular and exceptional among the vernacular tongues of the North and West. In so far as the intellectual problem for the early English prose writers was the reproduction of Latin learning, they took the right way to solve it, and were more than fortunate in the machinery they invented and used to adapt and work up the old Latin materials.  6
  The difficulty of the problem may easily be underestimated. There were many things to hinder the adoption of a decent prose convention. There was on the one hand the danger of a close and slavish imitation of the foreign models. One is reminded by a clumsy participle absolute here and there that the temptation which was too much for Ulfilas also beset the Anglo-Saxons, who for the most part resisted successfully the temptations of foreign grammatical constructions, comparing well in this respect not only with the Grecisms of Ulfilas, but with the distracted participles of the Wycliffite Bible. The Latinism of the Anglo-Saxon prose is to be found mainly in the use of conditional clauses and a closer bracing of the parts of the sentence than comes naturally in primitive essays.  7
  There was another danger besides that of helpless and slavish admiration of Latin syntax, a danger perhaps greater, which was not so well evaded, the tendency, namely, to get beyond the tones of prose altogether into something half poetical. Prose is more difficult than verse in some stages of literature, and where a good deal of prose was made to be read or recited, where the homilist was the rival of the poet or the story-teller, there is small wonder that often the sermons fell into a chanting tone, and took over from the poets their alliteration and other ornaments. This propensity to recitative of different sorts is common to the whole of medieval prose, and is worth considering later. Meantime there is matter for congratulation in the fact that so much of the Anglo-Saxon didactic literature should have escaped the two perils of concessions to Latin syntax on the one hand and to the popular taste for poetical decoration on the other.  8
  The edifying and educational derivative prose is what bulks largest, but it is not the only prose written in Anglo-Saxon times. There is another sort, and a higher, though the amount of it is woefully small.  9
  If one is justified in discriminating what may be called the primitive or native element from the Latin or adventitious element in the old literature and the old civilisation, then one may put certain Anglo-Saxon prose works along with the remains of the heroic poetry, along with the lays of Finnesburh and Maldon, as showing what could be done without the aid of Southern learning in dealing with lively matters of experience, and the lives and adventures of kings and chieftains. If there were nothing to take account of except the translations and the sermons, there would still be room for satisfaction at the literary skill and promise shown in them; but it would be impossible to claim for the Anglo-Saxon prose more than the merit of being a vehicle for the common ideas of Christendom. But there is more than that; there are, besides the borrowed views and ideas, a set of notes taken at first hand from the living world, which have a different value from the homilies. The best of Ælfric’s homilies are as good as the best of their kind anywhere. But that kind is the expository literature which sets forth ideas, not the author’s own, for the benefit of listeners on a lower level than the author—his sheep, his pupils. That is not the highest kind, and there is a higher to be found in the Chronicles, and in the narratives of the northern voyages brought in by King Alfred as an original contribution to his Orosius. The record of the Danish Wars, the voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, are literature of a more difficult kind than Ælfric’s homilies, and literature in a sense that could never be applicable to any translation.  10
  Of no old English prose can it be said that it is wholly free from Latin influence; but in some of the varying styles employed in the Chronicles, and in the narratives of the voyages, one comes as near as one may in early English to natural prose—prose of the sort that might have been written by men who had nothing but natural English syntax, no Latin models of composition, to guide them. Prose such as one gets there is of the rarest near the beginnings of a literature. The last thing people think of is to put down in writing the sort of things they talk about, and in a talking style. These particular passages, and the navigators’ stories especially, are good talk about interesting things, and, what is more, about new things. They are full of life, and strong; there is nothing in them to suggest the school or the pulpit; the people who composed them were, for the time, emancipated from the Latin authority, out of sight of land, the old land of traditional ideas and inherited learning. Here is to be seen what they could do when left to themselves; here is the true beginning of independent explorations and discoveries in literature. There is one sense in which it might be no paradox to say that these passages, as compared with Ælfric for instance, are modern literature; being plain and clear accounts of real things, in which there are no great corrections to be made on account of any disturbing prejudices. The region of Ælfric’s homilies is distant and unfamiliar, but no one feels any sense of strangeness in listening to Ohthere. There is a clear northern light on his reindeer and walruses, and the northern moors and lakes; the air is free from all the Idols of the Forum and the Theatre. It was a happy inspiration that gave Ohthere and Wulfstan their place in Hakluyt’s collection; and indeed many of Hakluyt’s men are more old-fashioned in their style, and carry more rhetorical top-hamper than Ohthere.  11
  There were great opportunities for prose of this sort—prose written in the tone of the speaking voice, and describing the visible world and the things going on in it. It is idle to inquire why there is so little of such writing. One might have expected more, perhaps; for the literary talent of the Teutonic nations, as far as one may judge from their poetry, was all in the direction of clear and realistic narrative, with no more superstitious accidents than were convenient in the lives of epic heroes, and no Celtic vagueness or airiness, but a sense of solidity and matter of fact about the very witches and warlocks, as well as the hero and champion, their enemy. It may have been that in England, where the old epic style survived with wonderfully little modification to a late date, there was the less need felt for any epic prose. The poem on the Battle of Maldon (A.D. 991) has all the strong virtues of a dramatic prose history, and its poetic graces are consistent with prose sobriety. Perhaps if this close-knit and masterly style, this old simple epic tradition had not maintained itself, if the English war poetry had been dissolved, like its kindred in Norway and Iceland, into pure formalism and periphrasis, then perhaps the history of the Battle of Maldon and the fall of Byrhtnoth might have survived as a prose history, with all its epic details and all its various individual personages. Byrhtnoth’s adversary and conqueror, Olaf Tryggvason, had his life written in that way, and the prose story of his last battle has more likeness to the methods of epic poetry than to such unimaginative history as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. But not much is to be gained by theorising in this direction, and the unrealised possibilities may be left to dispose of themselves. Only, in illustration of the prose genius latent in the old English poetry, one passage of the Chronicle may be remembered—the episode of Cyneheard and Cynewulf given under the date 755. It is rude and harsh in its phrasing, but dramatic, with its dialogue admirably calculated and its sequence of events well managed: this passage is probably a prose rendering of some ballad. The situation is one that occurs again and again in heroic poetry and prose; it is the story of kings fighting for their lives against their beleaguering enemies, the story that never fails of an audience, whether the hero be named Cynewulf, Cyneheard, Byrhtnoth, or Roland. There is a great resemblance in general outline to the history of Maldon; there is the same loyalty and self-devotion of the companions after their lord is killed. What is remarkable about this entry in the Chronicle, if it is really based on a poem, is that it has got rid of every vestige of poetical style which would have been discordant, and has kept only those poetical qualities, qualities of passion or sentiment, which are as well fitted for prose as for verse, or better.  12
  There is little enough of such prose as this, but there is enough to take hold of. Together with such poetry as the poem of Maldon it forms the strongest part of the pre-Norman literature—“the stalk of carl-hemp” in it, compared with which the rhetorical excellences of Ælfric are light and unsubstantial. Contumely sometimes falls on the unreason the vapidity, the garrulity of medieval discourses, and it is sometimes merited. At least it is difficult to refute the critic who says that he is bored by the conventional homilies and saints’ lives. But for some things a strong defence may be made; for all the old literature that “shows the thing right as it was,” and gives adventures like those of Alfred and his men in the great match played against Hæsten, or natural history like that of the Finns and Esthonians. Medieval literature is not all monotonous recitative of traditional phrases; some of it is fresh, strong, natural, and sane, and speaks in a tone of plain good sense.  13
  This has sometimes been forgotten or ignored, both by those who have an affection for medieval literature, and by others. So many things in the Middle Ages are quaint and exaggerated and overstrained, and therefore interesting, that the sober reason and plain sense of those same times are in a fair way to be forgotten. There is more fascination at first in medieval romance than in medieval rationality; the romance is beyond question, the rationality is sometimes doubtful. It is worth while to look out for places, like those already cited, where there is no trace of what is usually associated with the term medieval, no strained or feverish sentiment, no effusive and tautologous phrasing. And strong protest should be made against all attempts to overlay, in translations or criticisms or otherwise, any of the colours of romance upon the simple fabric of plain stories. There is enough and to spare of romance; true histories are not so common in the Middle Ages. They ought, whether in translations or merely in the reader’s impression of them as he reads, to be purged of all unnecessary quaintness, where such quaintness as they possess is due merely to the old language, and not, as in much of medieval literature, to a real element of fancifulness in the author.  14
  The two classes of early English prose, the derivative educational and the original narrative literature, are alike in this, that at their best they keep clear of all unnatural intonations, and at less than their best fall into chanting or recitative of one kind or other. In the edifying literature there are, as examples of the false style, the alliterative Saints’ Lives of Ælfric; in the other kind of prose the Chronicles themselves give a striking example of the change of tone. They come to an end with the lamentation of the Peterborough monk over the miseries of the reign of Stephen. It is simple and sincere, and in its way good literature, though it is another way of writing history from that of the voyage of Ohthere. Some of it may perhaps be quoted again, well known as it is.  15
  “Was never yet more wretchedness in the land, nor ever did the heathen men worse than these men did. For never anywhere did they spare either church or churchyard, but took all the wealth that was therein, and afterwards burned the church and all together. Nor did they forbear from bishop’s lands, or abbot’s, or priest’s, but plundered monks and clerks, and every man another, wherever he might. If two men or three came riding to a township, all fled before them and took them for robbers. The bishops and priests cursed them continually, but they took no heed of that, for they were all accursed utterly, and forsworn, and cast away  16
  “Wheresoever there was tillage, the earth would bear no corn, for the land was wasted with such deeds; and they said openly that Christ slept and his saints. Such and more than we can say we endured nineteen years for our sins.”  17
  The pathetic and appealing tone of this marks it at once as different in kind from the firmer and more impersonal history of the times of Alfred and his sons, and brings it into relation with all the medieval literature in which the prevailing mood is elegiac. So widely diffused is this melancholy, that one is inclined often to take it for the dominant and almost universal character of the Middle Ages, as expressed in books. It belongs to devotional works and to romances, to the Quest of the Holy Grail, to the Romance of the Rose; and even the strongest and manliest writers, writers like Villehardouin and Joinville, are often apt to lose their self-possession, and let their voices break and tremble. Pathos was a strong solvent in the Middle Ages. It belongs especially, though not exclusively, to the later Middle Ages, to the romantic, not the epic age; not to the matter of fact and stubborn people who fought on foot with swords and battle-axes, but to the showy knights of the Crusades, and the times when the world was full of ideals and fantasies.  18
  In England there is one curious instance of the way in which pathos might be multiplied upon pathos. The Ancren Riwle (thirteenth century) is a practical book of instruction and advice addressed to a small household of nuns. It is not at all monotonous; a good deal of it is kindly, humorous and homely; some of it is merely technical, dealing with the order of religious services; some of it is moralising; some of it is devotional. One part of it, the Wooing of the Soul, is beyond all praise for its pathetic grace and beauty. It was not left alone in its seriousness and its reserve. The theme was taken up again and treated with a dissolute ostentation of sentiment, with tears and outcries. The Wooing of Our Lord, as compared with the passage in the Ancren Riwle, may stand as one indication of the sensibility and its accompanying rhetoric that corrupted late medieval literature in many ways.  19
  There is so much good prose in Europe between the time of Alfred and the time of Elizabeth that one may easily forget the enormous difficulties that stood in the way of it. Long after Alfred there still remained, as a disturbing force, the natural antipathy of the natural man to listen to any continuous story except in verse. The dismal multitude of versified encyclopedias, the rhyming text-books of science, history, and morality, are there to witness of the reluctance with which prose was accepted to do the ordinary prose drudgery. The half-poetical prose of Ælfric’s Lives of Saints is to be explained as a concession to the sort of popular taste which, later, gave a hearing to prodigies like the Cursor Mundi, or, to take the last of the rhyming encyclopedias, written by a man who ought to have known better, the Monarchy of Sir David Lyndesay. The audience expected something finer than spoken language, and the taste that accepted the alliterative homilies may be compared with that which preserves the gaudy poetical patches in the Celtic traditional fairy stories, or that which requires from Welsh preachers that half of each sermon should be sung.  20
  Besides the popular disrelish for plain prose, there were other distracting and degrading influences. The Latin models were not always as good as Boetius or Bede. Even Orosius, guiltless as he is of any brilliant extravagance, has his tirades of complaint, helping to spread the sentimental contagion; and even Boetius, by providing pieces of verse for King Alfred to turn into prose, encouraged an over-poetical manner of phrasing. The Latin Bible also, by its prose versions of poetical books, its parallelism of construction, its solemn rhythms, its profusion of metaphor, did much, unfortunately, to embolden the rhetoricians of the Church. The secular Latin literature, though it showed marvellous powers of recovering its decorum, yet was always prone to fall back into the wantonness that attacked it after the close of the Augustan age, when the poetical treasury was profaned and ransacked by magnificent prodigals like Apuleius. Even the later Greek Euphuism of the Greek romances found its way to England, through the Latin romance of Apollonius of Tyre, and ensnared an Anglo-Saxon man of letters, just as Heliodorus attracted the novelists of France, England, and Spain five hundred years later. The wonder is that any simplicity remained at all.  21
  It is a long way from the tenth or thirteenth century to the sixteenth, yet in the age of Elizabeth the general conditions determining the growth of prose were not greatly different from those that obtained at the beginning. Latin literature was still the model, and still, in some cases, the too-absorbing model, of prose. Still there remained the old temptation to excess of ornament, to poetical gaudiness; and though the Elizabethan rhetoric is different from Ælfric’s, there is more than a chance likeness between the Anglo-Saxon Apollonius and the sugared descriptions of the Euphuists. And it was still possible for a strong-minded original man like Latimer to discard the conventions of bookish tradition and write the spoken language.  22
  A great deal of prose was written between the Ancren Riwle and the Repressour, between the Repressour and the Ecclesiastical Polity, but the general conditions do not greatly alter. There was always Latin literature at the back of everything, with Boetius coming clear through the Middle Ages, to be translated by Queen Elizabeth in her turn, after Chaucer and King Alfred. There was always French literature to control and give direction to the English.  23
  This volume of selections, beginning in the fourteenth century with Wycliffe, Chaucer, and the book called Mandeville, does not begin with any early improvisings of a style. The style of these writers is fully formed—a common pattern of style, common over all the countries of Europe. The reason for beginning here and not earlier is a reason not of style, but of vocabulary. The fourteenth century is not in prose what it is in poetry. There is no great revolution, like that which through the agency of Chaucer brought English poetry out of its corners and bye-ways, and made it fit to be presented at the King’s court. English prose, which had been decent and respectable hundreds of years before Chaucer, continued to be respectable after him. Prose was not affected in Chaucer’s time by the revival of classical taste in Italy. The lessons of artistic construction which Chaucer learned from the poems of Boccaccio were not paralleled by any imitations in his prose of the classical elegances of the Decameron. The styles of the earliest authors in this book are to be taken as specimens of that general level of composition which was the property of medieval Christendom, and one of the outward signs of the uniformity of its culture.  24
  In the fourteenth century one need not be surprised to find that a good deal of the prose of all the countries of Europe is a little monotonous and jaded. For the general character of progress had been a levelling down of national distinctions, and a distribution over the whole field of the same commonplaces, so that one finds the same books current everywhere, the same stories: the popular learning in the vernacular tongues became almost as clear of any national or local character as the philosophy of the schools. Naturally there was some loss of vigour in the process, and the later medieval writers are exhausting sometimes with their want of distinctive peculiarities, their contented rehearsals of old matter in a hackneyed phraseology. Prose literature taught and preached so much that it lost all spring and freshness; it suffered from an absorbing interest in the weaker brethren, and became too condescendingly simple. The childlike simplicity of medieval prose is sometimes a little hypocritical and fawning. Prose had been too long accustomed to talk down to its audiences.  25
  In the fifteenth century there is something more than repetition of old forms. There are two argumentative books which are fresh and new—Bishop Pecock’s Repressour and Sir John Fortescue on the Governance of England. It is a relief to come to these books which require thinking, after all the homilies and moral treatises which require merely to be listened to. The great prose achievement of the fifteenth century, and indeed of the whole time before the Advancement of Learning, is a book in many ways less original than those of Pecock and Fortescue. But Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, antique though its matter be, is singular in its qualities of style; and if the books of the Bishop and the Judge are remarkable for the modern good sense of their arguments, the Morte D’Arthur has its own place apart from them in a region of high imaginative prose.  26
  Many things about the Morte D’Arthur are perplexing and even irritating. It is a free version of some of the finest stories ever made, and is based on versions of the multiform Arthurian romance, which in some respects are beyond comparison the best. Yet Malory has rejected some of the best things in the “French book” which he followed. There is nothing in Malory corresponding to the truth and the dramatic sincerity of the first interview between Lancelot and the Queen—the passage which Dante could not forget. Malory never rises, as his original here does, out of romance into drama. His refusal to finish the story of Tristram is as hard to understand as to forgive, and as hard to forgive as the Last Tournament. But when all is said that the Devil’s advocate can say, it all goes for nothing compared with what remains in Malory untouched and unblemished by any hint of dispraise.  27
  Malory accomplished one of the hardest things in literature. He had to rewrite in English some of the finest of medieval French prose, full of romance, and of the strangest harmonies between the spirit of romance and the spirit of confessors, saints, and pilgrims. What could be done in those days by adapters and abridgers one knows well enough. Caxton himself tried his hand on some others of the Nine Worthies; they did not fare as Arthur did. To know what Malory really is, it is enough to turn to Caxton’s Lyf of Charles the Grete or Recuyell of the Histories of Troy. Malory kept in English all the beauty of the Queste del St. Graal, that strange confusion of Celtic myth with Christian dreams, the most representative among all the books of the thirteenth century. The story suffers no wrong in the English version; there as well as in the French may be heard the melancholy voices of the adventurers who follow the radiance of Heaven across the land of Morgan le Fay. The time in which Malory wrote was not favourable to pure imaginative literature—poetry was all but extinguished—yet Malory was able to revive, by some wonderful gift, the aspirations and the visionary ardour of the youth of Christendom—little in agreement, one might fancy, with the positive and selfish world described in the Paston letters. He did more than this also, as may be seen by a comparison of the French book, or books, with his own writing. The style of his original has the graces of early art; the pathos, the simplicity of the early French prose at its best, and always that haunting elegiac tone or undertone which never fails in romance or homily to bring its sad suggestions of the vanity and transience of all things, of the passing away of pomp and splendour, of the falls of princes. In Malory, while this tone is kept, there is a more decided and more artistic command of rhythm than in the Lancelot or the Tristan. They are even throughout, one page very much like another in general character: Malory has splendid passages to which he rises, and from which he falls back into the even tenour of his discourse. In the less distinguished parts of his book, besides, there cannot fail to be noted a more careful choice of words and testing of sounds than in the uncalculating spontaneous eloquence of his original.  28
  Malory has been compared to Herodotus, and in this the resemblance may be made out; while, in both authors, the groundwork of their style is the natural simple story-teller’s loose fabric of easy-going clauses, in both there is a further process of rhetoric embroidering the plain stuff. Neither Herodotus nor Malory can be taken for the earliest sort of prose artist. Both of them are already some way from the beginning of their art, and though in both of them the primitive rhetoric may be found by analysis, they are not novices. Though they have preserved many of the beauties of the uncritical childhood of literature, they are both of them sophisticated; it is their craft, or their good genius, that makes one overlook the critical and testing processes, the conscious rhetoric, without which they could not have written as they did. Malory’s prose, and not Chaucer’s, is the prose analogue of Chaucer’s poetry; summing up as it does some of the great attainments of the earlier Middle Ages, and presenting them in colours more brilliant, with a more conscious style, than they had possessed in their first rendering. The superiority of Chaucer’s Troilus over the early version of the Norman trouvère is derived through Boccaccio from a school that had begun to be critical and reflective. Malory, in a similar way, rewrites his “French book” with an ear for new varieties of cadence, and makes the book his own, in virtue of this art of his. Much of the “French book” has the common fault of medieval literature, the want of personal character in the style; like so many medieval books, it is thought of as belonging to a class rather than a personal author, as if it were one of many similar things turned out by a company with common trade methods. This is the case with some, not with the whole, of Malory’s original; it is not the case with Malory. He is an author and an artist, and his style is his own.  29
  Malory, in much the same way as Chaucer, is one of the moderns. He is not antiquated; he is old fashioned, perhaps—a different thing, for so are Bacon and Jeremy Taylor old fashioned, and Addison, and Fielding. The modern and intelligible and generally acceptable nature of Malory’s book may serve to prove, if that were necessary, how very far from true or adequate is the belief that the beginning of the modern world was a revolt against the Middle Ages. The progress out of the Middle Ages had its revolutionary aspects, as when Duns Scotus was torn up in the New College quadrangle, and Florismarte of Hyrcania delivered to the secular arm in Don Quixote’s backyard. But in literature, as a general rule, progress was made in a direct and continuous line, by taking up what was old and carrying it on. This at least was the method of Ariosto and Spenser, of Shakespeare and Cervantes, and their predecessors in this were Chaucer and Malory. It is impossible to draw any dividing line. There was no Protestant schism in literature. One cannot separate the Morte D’Arthur from the old romances on the one hand, nor from the Elizabethans on the other. Malory is succeeded by Lord Berners with his Froissart and his Huon of Bordeaux, and Lord Berners is a link with Thomas North, Euphues, and Sir Philip Sidney. Innumerable classical and foreign influences went to make the new world, but among them all the old currents from the old well-springs kept on flowing.  30
  If any apology is needed for concerning oneself with the older English literature it must be this, that the older literature has never been cut off by any partition wall from the newer. Even the writers least in sympathy with Goths and monks and superstitions had at one time or other made excursions into the enchanted ground. One finds evidence enough of the favour shown to old books and old styles of literature in days when there was no want of brilliant new books. The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia kept its place in rooms to which the Spectator found his way, and Dr. Johnson himself (who accomplished the adventure of the Loingtaines Isles) could be heartily interested in Amadis or Palmerin. Perhaps the historians of literature have paid too little attention to the effect on the upper literary currents of this underflow of popular romance. At any rate this popular appreciation of old books will explain in part the success which attended the labours of Gray, Warton, and Percy, and go far to prove that the taste for medieval scholarship is not an imported fashion, and not anything to be ashamed of. Scholars like Gray, Warton, and Percy, like Scott and Ellis, had not to create the taste, for every one who read at all had passed through the stage of the Seven Champions and the Seven Wise Masters; all they had to do was to clear up people’s views of the importance of such like childish books, and display more and more fully the rich world to which they properly belonged, and from which they had come down. If any one objects now to the very early beginning of English literature, he may lay the blame on the nature of things; for it is no capricious choice, no antiquarian perversity, that prevents these selections from beginning comfortably with the Elizabethans.  31
  There are good enough reasons, too, for not giving any pieces out of older authors than Chaucer. They are not reasons which affect the history of prose, or of English literature generally; for the literature does not begin, any more than the constitution, in the reign of Edward III. It is convenient to begin where the language has come into something like its modern form, so as to get rid of the need for any large apparatus of glossary or notes. But the pedigree of English prose goes back beyond Wycliffe and Chaucer. It is not quite as long as that of the royal family of England; it stops short of Noah and Woden and Cerdic; but at any rate it goes back to Ælfred Æthelwulfing. That great king has been frequently threatened with ostracism, yet neither the political nor the literary history can do without him, and the literary like the political history of England is continuous.  32
  In a book like this, which might be compared to a sculptured procession in bas-relief of orators and sages, one is forced to take a historical view, to consider the writers in their general relations to one another and to the whole of English history. Elsewhere and at other times they may be studied more minutely, each for his own individual sake. There are many dangers attendant on both kinds of criticism, and the critic who deals in generalities has not always the easiest time of it. These volumes, and their companion selections from the poets, ought to clear away some of the difficulties. The characters of the several authors, and of the schools or fashions of thinking and phrasing to which they belong, are here set out in such a way that they illustrate one another, and represent, page after page, the changing moods of the national life. These books do the historian’s work for him better than he can do it himself. There are sceptics and nominalists who say that it is an abstract futility to talk of the “progress of poesy,” or the history of English thought; that the real existences are not poesy, or thought, but poets and thinkers; that the historian, when he tries to be philosophical and bring in his cunning apparatus, his “evolution” and his “environment,” is merely setting his petards to an open door. If those sceptics are wrong and to be confuted, they will be confuted, not by argument from the philosophical historian (to which they will not listen), but by the gradual and tentative creation, in the minds of readers, of a picture of literary succession, such a picture as is sketched out in these volumes, where one author is set off against his fellow, and where groups of authors compare themselves with other groups.  33
  It is not perhaps of much importance to have a theory of literary history stated in fine terms, but it is a poor thing to lose appreciation of the different tracts and levels over which literature has passed, to be without the perspective of literature.  34
  It is in the earlier periods especially that a truer perspective is wanted. The earlier stages have been left too much to themselves and to the specialists, with the natural result that the value of the later stages has been wrongly judged, most of all in the case of Tudor literature, bordering as it does immediately on the terra incognita. The revolutions and innovations, the glory and the rapture and the daring of the Elizabethans, these things have been recognised; not so fully their indebtedness to the poetry, the rhetoric, the literary skill of the Middle Ages. The Elizabethans are praised at the expense of older writers: they were not the first to whom beauty seemed beautiful; the humanities were not brought into the island of Britain first of all in the Tudor times, nor are the humanities exclusively Greek or Italian. The Elizabethans lose nothing, but gain, on the contrary, by rendering their due to their ancestors; to the older practical writers who kept their senses unclouded by mists of allegory or superstition, and described the real world clearly; to the visionaries who went before Sidney or Spenser.  35

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