Specimens with Memoirs of the Less-known British Poets, Complete

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SPECIMENS WITH MEMOIRS OF THE LESS-KNOWN BRITISH POETS.

With an Introductory Essay,

BY THE REV. GEORGE GILFILLAN.

COMPLETE

VOL. I.

M.DCCC.LX.

INTRODUCTORY ESSAY

We propose to introduce our ‘Specimens’ by a short Essay on the Origin
and Progress of English Poetry on to the days of Chaucer and of Gower.
Having called, in conjunction with many other critics, Chaucer ‘the
Father of English Poetry,’ to seek to go back further may seem like
pursuing antenatal researches. But while Chaucer was the sun, a certain
glimmering dawn had gone before him, and to reflect that, is the object
of the following pages.

Britain, when the Romans invaded it, was a barbarous country; and although
subjugated and long held by that people, they seem to have left it nearly
as uncultivated and illiterate as they found it. ‘No magnificent remains,’
says Macaulay, ‘of Latian porches and aqueducts are to be found in Britain.
No writer of British birth is to be reckoned among the masters of Latin
poetry and eloquence. It is not probable that the islanders were, at any
time, generally familiar with the tongue of their Italian rulers. From
the Atlantic to the vicinity of the Rhine the Latin has, during many
centuries, been predominant. It drove out the Celtic—it was not driven
out by the Teutonic—and it is at this day the basis of the French,
Spanish, and Portuguese languages. In our island the Latin appears never
to have superseded the old Gaelic speech, and could not stand its ground
before the German.’ It was in the fifth century that that modification
of the German or Teutonic speech called the Anglo-Saxon was introduced
into this country. It soon asserted its superiority over the British
tongue, which seemed to retreat before it, reluctantly and proudly, like
a lion, into the mountain-fastnesses of Wales or to the rocky sea-beach
of Cornwall. The triumph was not completed all at once, but from the
beginning it was secure. The bards of Wales continued to sing, but their
strains resembled the mutterings of thunder among their own hills, only
half heard in the distant valleys, and exciting neither curiosity nor awe.
For five centuries, with the exception of some Latin words added by the
preachers of Christianity, the Anglo-Saxon language continued much as it
was when first introduced. Barbarous as the manners of the people were,
literature was by no means left without a witness. Its chief cultivators
were the monks and other religious persons, who spent their leisure in
multiplying books, either by original composition or by transcription,
including treatises on theology, historical chronicles, and a great
abundance and variety of poetical productions. These were written at first
exclusively in Latin, but occasionally, in process of time, in the Anglo-
Saxon tongue. The theology taught in them was, no doubt, crude and
corrupted, the history was stuffed with fables, and the poetry was rough
and bald in the extreme; but still they furnished a food fitted for the
awakening mind of the age. When the Christian religion reached Great
Britain, it brought necessarily with it an impulse to intellect as well
as to morality. So startling are the facts it relates, so broad and deep
the principles it lays down, so humane the spirit it inculcates, and so
ravishing the hopes it awakens, that, however disguised in superstition
and clouded by imperfect representation, it never fails to produce, in all
countries to which it comes, a resurrection of the nation’s virtue, and a
revival, for a time at least, of the nation’s political and intellectual
energy and genius. Hence we find the very earliest literary names in our
early annals are those of Christian missionaries. Such is said to have
been Gildas, a Briton, who lived in the first part of the sixth century,
and is the reputed author of a short history of Britain in Latin. Such was
the still more apocryphal Nennius, also called, till of late, the writer
of a small Latin historical work. Such was St Columbanus, who was born
in Ireland in 560; became a monk in the Irish monastery of Benchor; and
afterwards, at the head of twelve disciples, preached Christianity, in its
most ascetic form, in England and in France; founded in the latter country
various monasteries; and, when banished by Queen Brunehaut on account of
his stern inflexibility of character, went to Switzerland, and then to
Lombardy, proselytising the heathen, and defending, by his letters and
other writings, the peculiar tenets of the Irish Church in reference to
the time of the celebration of Easter and to the popular heresies of the
day. He died October 2, 615, in the monastery of Bobbio; and his religious
treatises and Latin poetry gave an undoubted impulse to the age’s progress
in letters.

About this period the better sort of Saxons, both clergy and laity, got
into the habit of visiting Rome; while Rome, in her turn, sent emissaries
to England. Thus, while the one insensibly imbibed new knowledge as well
as devotion from the great centre, the other brought with them to our
shores importations of books, including copies of such religious classics
as Josephus and Chrysostom, and of such literary classics as Homer. About
680, died Caedmon, a monk of Whitby, one of the first who composed in
Anglo-Saxon, and some of whose compositions are preserved. Strange and
myth-like stories are told by Bede about this remarkable natural genius.
He was originally a cow-herd. Partly from want of training, and partly
from bashfulness, when the harp was given him in the hall, and he was
asked, as all others were, to raise the voice of song, Caedmon had often
to abscond in confusion. On one occasion he had retired to the stable,
where he fell into a sound sleep. He dreamed that a stranger appeared to
him, and said, ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’ Caedmon replied that it was
his incapacity to sing which had brought him to take refuge in the stable.
‘Nay,’ said the stranger, ‘but thou hast something to sing.’ ‘What shall I
sing?’ rejoined Caedmon. ‘Sing the Creation,’ and thereupon he began to
pour out verses, which, when he awoke, he remembered, repeated, and to
which he added others as good. The first lines are, as translated into
English, the following:—

  Now let us praise

  The Guardian of heaven,

  The might of the Creator

  And his counsel—

  The Glory!—Father of men!

  He first created,

  For the children of men,

  Heaven as a roof—

  The holy Creator!

  Then the world—

  The Guardian of mankind!

  The Eternal Lord!

  Produced afterwards

  The Earth for men—

  The Almighty Master!’

Our readers all remember the well-known story of Coleridge falling asleep
over Purchas’s ‘Pilgrims’; how the poem of ‘Kubla Khan’ came rushing
from dreamland upon his soul; and how, when awakened, he wrote it down,
and found it to be, if not sense, something better—a glorious piece
of fantastic imagination. We knew a gentleman who, slumbering while in
a state of bad health, produced, in the course of a few hours, one or
two thousand rhymed lines, some of which he repeated in our hearing
afterwards, and which were full of point and poetry. We cannot see that
Caedmon’s lines betray any weird inspiration; but when rehearsed the next
day to the Abbess Hilda, to whom the town-bailiff of Whitby conducted him,
she and a circle of learned men pronounced that he had received the gift
of song direct from heaven! They, after one or two other trials of his
powers, persuaded him to become a monk in the house of the Abbess, who
commanded him to transfer to verse the whole of the Scripture history. It
is said that he was constantly employed in repeating to himself what he
had heard; or, as one of his old biographers has it, ‘like a clean animal
ruminating it, he turned it into most sweet verse.’ In this way he wrote
or rather improvised a vast quantity of poetry, chiefly on religious
subjects. Thorpe, in his edition of this author, has preserved a speech
of Satan, bearing a striking resemblance to some parts of Milton:—

 ’Boiled within him

  His thought about his heart,

  Hot was without him,

  His due punishment.

  ”This narrow place is most unlike

  That other that we formerly knew

  High in heaven’s kingdom,

  Which my master bestowed on me,

  Though we it, for the All-Powerful,

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