Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Early Transition English > The Proverbs of Alfred
   Poema Morale  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XI. Early Transition English.

§ 1. The Proverbs of Alfred.


THE description which suggests itself for the century from 1150 to 1250, so far as native literature is concerned, is that of the Early Transition period. It marks the first great advance from the old to the new, though another period of progress was necessary to bring about in its fulness the dawn of literary English. The changes of the period were many and far-reaching. In politics and social affairs we see a gradual welding together of the various elements of the nation, accompanied by a slow evolution of the idea of individual liberty. In linguistic matters we find not only profit and loss in details of the vocabulary, together with the innovation in the direction of a simpler syntax, but also a modification of actual pronunciation—the effect of the work of two centuries on Old English speech-sounds. In scribal methods, again, a transition is visible. Manuscripts were no longer written in the Celtic characters of pre-Conquest times, but in the modification of the Latin alphabet practised by French scribes. And these changes find their counterpart in literary history, in changes of material, changes of form, changes of literary temper. Anselm and his school had displayed to English writers a new realm of theological writings; Anglo-Norman secular littérateurs had further enlarged the field for literary adventurers; and, since the tentative efforts resulting from these innovations took, for the most part, the form of their models, radical changes in verse-form soon became palpable. The literary temper began to betray signs of a desire for freedom. Earlier limitations were no longer capable of satisfying the new impulses. Legend and romance led on the imagination; the motives of love and mysticism began lightly touching the literary work of the time to finer issues; and such was the advance in artistic ideals, especially during the latter part of the period, that it may fairly be regarded as a fresh illustration of the saying of Ruskin that “the root of all art is struck in the thirteenth century.”   1
  The first half of the period (1150–1200) may be roughly described as a stage of timid experiment, the second half (1200–1250) as one of experiment still, but of a bolder and less uncertain kind. But, before dealing with such literary material as survives, a word may be said as to the submerged section of popular poetry. It is true that little can be said definitely concerning this popular verse, though Layamon refers to the making of folk-songs, and both William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon mention some with which their age was familar. The ancient epic material must certainly, however, have lived on. Such things as the legends of Weland and Offa, the story of Wade and his boat Guingelot, must long have been cherished by the people at large. This period was also the seed-time of some of the later Middle English sagas. The stories of Horn and Havelok were silently changing their Danish colouring and drawing new life from English soil. The traditions of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton were becoming something more than local; the ancient figure of Woden was being slowly metamorphosed into the attractive Robin Hood. It was, in short, the rough-hewing stage of later monuments.   2
  With regard to the actual literary remains of the earlier period, a rough division may be made on the basis of the main influences, native and foreign, visible in those works. The Here Prophecy 1  (c. 1190) scarcely falls within the range of a literary survey, though it is interesting from both linguistic and historical standpoints. Among those works primarily reminiscent of earlier times the Old English Homilies are naturally prominent. Some of them are merely twelfth century transcriptions of the work of Aelfric; 2  in others foreign influences are seen. But even then the mould into which the material is run is the same. The earlier method of conveying religious instruction to English parishioners by means of the homily is still retained. The Proverbs of Alfred are also strongly reminiscent of earlier native tradition embodied, not only in the Old English Gnomic Verses, but also in the proverb dialogues of Salomon and Marcolf, Adrianus and Ritheus, and in the sententious utterances in which Old English writers so frequently indulged. This Middle English collection of proverbs is preserved in three MSS. of the thirteenth century; but these versions are obviously recensions of an earlier form, dating from the second half of the preceding century. The actual connection of the proverbs with Alfred himself must be accepted with some reserve. His fame as a proverb-maker is implied in the later Owl and Nightingale and is even more explicitly maintained elsewhere; Eluredus in proverbiis ita enituit ut nemo post illum amplius. 3  But no collection of Alfredian proverbs is known to have existed in Old English; and, since some of the sayings occur in the later collection known by the name of Hendyng, it may well have been that the use of the West Saxon king’s name in this collection was nothing more than a patriotic device for adding to popular sayings the authority of a great name. It is noteworthy that the matter of the proverbs is curiously mixed. There is, first, the shrewd philosophy of popular origin. Then there are religious elements: Christ’s will is to be followed; the soldier must fight that the church may have rest; while monastic scorn possibly lurks in the sectionswhich deal with woman and marriage. And, thirdly, there are utterances similar to those in Old English didactic works like A Father’s Instruction, where definite precepts as to conduct are laid down. 4  The metrical form of the Proverbs is no less interesting. The verse is of the earlier alliterative type, but it shows precisely the same symptoms of change as that of certain tenth and eleventh century poems. 5  The caesura is preserved, but the long line is broken in two. The laws of purely alliterative verse were no longer followed; an attempt is rather made to place words in the order of thought. There are occasional appearances of the leonine rime and assonance, characteristic of tenth and eleventh century work; but, at best, the structure is irregular. In section xxii. an attempt has apparently been made—possibly by a later scribe—to smooth out irregularities and to approximate the short couplet in rime and rhythm. The reforming hand of the adapter, as in other Middle English poems, is also seen elsewhere; but, these details apart, the work belongs entirely in both form and spirit to the earlier period.   3
  Alongside these survivals of an earlier day there were not wanting signs of a new régime. In the Canute Song (c. 1167), for instance, can be seen the popular verse striving in the direction of foreign style. The song is of rude workmanship, but the effect aimed at is not an alliterative one. Rime and assonance are present, and the line, as compared with earlier examples, will be seen to reveal definite attempts at hammering out a regular rhythm. In the Cantus Beati Godrici (before 1170) is visible a similar groping after the new style. The matterdealt with is interesting as anticipating, in some sort, the Virgin cult of the early thirteenth century. The writer, Godric, was an Englishman who, first a merchant, became subsequently a recluse connected with Carlisle, and latterly with Durham. Three small fragmentary poems have been handed down connected with his name, one of them, it is alleged, having been committed to him by the Virgin Mary as he knelt before the altar. The fragment beginning Sainte Marie Virgine is the best of the three. The rhythm, the rimes and, also, the strophic form were clearly suggested by Latin verse, but the diction is almost entirely of native origin. In Paternoster, a work which appeared about the same date, or later, in the south, may be seen a definite advance in carrying out the new artistic notions. It is a poem of some 300 lines, embodying a lengthy paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, each sentence of the prayer affording a text for homiletic treatment. The work is notable as being the earliest example of the consistent use of the short riming couplet in English. The underlying influence is clearly that of some French or Latin model. The diction is native, but it is used with Latin simplicity; the lack of verbal ornament marks a striking departure from the earlier English manner.   4
  By far the most important and interesting work of this period, however, is the Poema Morale. It is interesting in

Note 1. See Hales, Folia Litteraria, pp. 55–61; H. Morley, English Writers, III, 200–I. [ back ]
Note 2. See Morris, Old English Homilies (preface passim) for statements regarding the origin of De Initio Creaturœ, the homily for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, and the homily for the 5th Sunday in Lent. [ back ]
Note 3Ann. Min. Winton, Anglia Sacra, 1, 289. [ back ]
Note 4e.g. “If thou dost harbour sorrow, let not thine arrow know it; whisper it but to thy saddle-bow, and ride abroad with song.” [ back ]
Note 5. Cf. O. E. Chronicle, 975, 1036. [ back ]

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