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ESSAY 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 ase 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The Anglo-Saxon, however, was not lost, though it was superseded by French, and disappeared as the language of superior life and of public business.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. iií. 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 seen William the Conqueror. To fix upon any precise time when the national speech can be said to have ceased to be Saxon, and begun to be English, is pronounced by Dr. Johnson to be impossible +. It is undoubtedly difficult, if it be possible, from the gradually progressive nature of language, as well as from the doubt, with regard to dates, which hangs over the small number of specimens of the early tongue which we possess. Mr. Ellis fixes upon a period of about forty years, preceding the accession of Henry III., from 1180 to 1216, during which he conceives modern English to have been formed. The opinions of Mr. Ellis, which are always delivered with candour, and almost always founded on intelligent views, are not to be lightly treated; and I hope I shall not appear to be either captious or inconsiderate in disputing them. But it seems to me, that he rather arbitrarily defines the number of years which he supposes to have elapsed in the formation of our language, when he assigns + Introduction to Johnson's Dictionary. [Nor can it be expected, from the nature of things gradually changing, that any time can be assigned when Saxon may be said to cease, and the English to commence... Total and sudden transformations of a language seldom happen.
About the year 1150, the Saxon began to take a form in which the beginning of the present English may be plainly discovered: this change seems not to have been the effect of the Norman conquest, for very few French words are found to have been introduced in the first hundred years after it; the language must therefore have been altered by causes like those which, notwithstanding the care of writers and societies instituted to obviate them, are even now daily making innovations in every living language.-JOHNSON.] [It is only justice to Mr. Ellis to give his date correctly, "We may fairly infer," Mr. Ellis writes, "that the Saxon language and literature began to be mixed with the Norman about 1185; and that in 1216 the change may be 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 Saxont. 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 Layamon, however, whether we call him 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 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
"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.
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, or perhaps to an earlier date. I own that, to me, this theorizing by conjecture seems like stepping in quicksand. Robert of Gloucester wrote in 1280 §; and surely his rhyming with facility then, does not prove the English language to have been fully formed in 1216. But we have pieces, it seems, which are supposed to have been written early in the thirteenth century. To give any support to Mr. Ellis's theory, such pieces must be proved to have been produced very early in the thirteenth century. Their coming towards the middle of it, and showing facility of rhyming at that late date, will prove little or nothing.
But of these poetical fragments supposed to commence either with or early in the thirteenth century, our antiquaries afford us dates which, though often confidently pronounced, are really only conjectural; and in fixing those conjectural dates, they are by no means agreed. Warton speaks of this and that article being certainly not later than the reign of Richard I.; but he takes no pains to authenticate what he affirms. He pronounces the lovesong, "Blow, northern wind, blow, blow, blow!" to be as old as the year 1200. Mr. Ellis puts it off only to about half a century later. Hickes "the earliest date that can be assigned to it." Specimens of places the "Land of Cokayne" just after the
[ 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,
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."
Lat. Hist. vol. i. p. 59.]
[+ 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
Conquest. Mr. Warton would place it before the Conquest, if he were not deterred by the appearance of a few Norman words, and by the learned authority of Hickes ¶. Layamon would thus be superseded, as quite a modern. The truth is, respecting the "Land of Cokayne," that we are left in total astonishment at the circumstance of men, so well informed as Hickes and Warton, placing it either before mediate diction, neither Saxon nor English; in his work, therefore, we see the transition exhibited.-JOHNSON.]
[§'As Robert of Gloucester alludes to the canonisation of St. Louis in 1297, it is obvious, however much he wrote before, he was writing after that event. See Sir F. Madden's Havelok, p. liii.]
[ Warton says, "before or about," which is lax enough. Price's Warton, vol. i. p. 28. Ed. 1824.]
[It is not of the "Land of Cokayne" that Warton says this, but of a religious or moral ode, consisting of one hundred and ninety-one stanzas. Price's Warton, vol. i. p. 7. Of the "Land of Cokayne" he has said that it is a satire, which clearly exemplifies the Saxon adulterated by the Norman, and was evidently written soon after the Conquest, at least soon after the reign of Henry II., p. 9. Mr. Price (p. 7) follows Mr. Campbell in the age he would attach to the verse quoted in the first section of Warton, which is, he says, very arbitrary and uncertain.] e 2