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EARLY ENGLISH POETRY.
THERE is little in the history of English poetry, previous to the age of CHAUCER, which can either interest the general reader, or gratify a liberal curiosity. His genius rose at once on his native land, like the morning-star after a long night of obscurity ; and on his death the splendour of this illus. trious dawn suffered an eclipse of nearly two centuries, when the Reformation ushered in the most poetical period of the English annals, the reign of Elizabeth.
Even on the true fountain-head of our national poetry, antiquaries, in a question which is interesting to themselves alone, are widely divided. Some would trace it to a Celtic origin-to the bards of Armorica or Brittany; others to a Gothic source, or
to the Scalds of Scandinavia ; and a third party to the Saracens or Arabians, who founded the Moorish empire in Spain. If the subject were worth investigation or dispute, it would probably be found that truth lies broken and scattered among these contending theories. All that can be positively affirmed is, that the genius of our early poetry is essentially romantic, blending the brilliant extravagancies and fantastic imagery of oriental fiction with the wilder spells and incantations of the north ; and that it may have been largely indebted to every known source, save the classic poetry of Greece and Rome, to which, till a comparatively late period of our history, it owed no direct obligation.
It is, however, labour lost to investigate the ori. gin of what has no longer an existence; for much more is now known of the poetry of every contemporary race than of that of our Saxon ancestors.
The most brilliant period of Anglo-Saxon literature appears to have been about the reign of Alfred, the patron and cherisher of letters and of every li. beral art. This prince, it is said, could repeat many Saxon poems or songs before he could write ; but though he enriched his native language with translations from the Latin, which are still preserved, he made no collection of Saxon poetry.
The Runic Odes, translated with so much of the true Bardic fire by Gray, and the fine specimens of poetry which remain of the Welsh bards, would lead us to form a higher estimate of the poetry of the kindred and neighbouring race of England,
than any thing in the early annals of the country can warrant. (a)
(a) of the ancient northern poetry, finer specimens cannot be given than Gray's Translations, which are already familiar to every reader. Many battle-songs, love-verses, and drinking-songs of the Welsh bards are preserved; and as these are little known, save to antiquarians and scholars, a specimen of them may be acceptable as a literary curi. osity.
SONG BY TALIESSEN, A WELSH BARD OF THE SIXTH CENTURY, ON A BATTLE FOUGHT WITH THE SAXONS NEAR CATTRAETH, IN WHICH ALL THE BRITONS (OR Welzh) WERE CUT OFF, SAVE THE BARD AND OTHER TWO WARRIORS.
« The men, whose drink was mead, comely in shape, hastened to Cattraeth. These impetuous warriors in ranks, armed with red spears long and bending, began the battle. Might I speak my revenge against the people of the Deiri, I would overwhelm them, like a deluge, in one slaughter; for, unheeding, I have lost a friend, who was brave in resisting his enemies. I drank of the wine and metheglin of Mordai, whose spear was of huge size. In the shock of battle he prepared for the eagle. When Cydwal hastened forward, a shout arose before the yellow morning, -when he gave the signal, he broke the shield into small splinters. The men hastened to Cattraeth noble in birth : their drink was of wine and mead out of golden cups. There were three hundred and sixty-three adorned with chains of gold ;-but of those who, filled with wine, rushed on to the fight, only three escaped, who hewed their way with the sword; the warrior of Acna, Conan Dacarwd, and I, the bard,” &c. &c.
The bard then proceeds to give the most distinguished of the fallen warriors the meed of praise. Such was a bulletin or despatch after a skirmish in the sixth century. The following is a softer strain. It is evidently the original of Mr Southey's beautiful drinking-song in Madoc :
“Fetch the drinking-horn, whose gloss is like the waves of
The conversion of the Saxons to Christianity in the sixth century must have produced a strong effect on their poetry. The character of the bard or scald soon merged in that of the priest; and devotional invocations, versified legends, and histories of saints, displaced the heroic ballads and battlehymns of their northern ancestors, though the ancient Gothic imagery long continued to mingle with the tamer style,-saints and heroes, Paradise and Valhalla, Purgatory and the Eddic hell, grotesquely enough blending together in these rude effusions.
A feeble period in Saxon history succeeded the brilliant reign of Alfred ; and though the scalds and rhymers, who must in all probability have at
the sea. Tudor is like a wolf rushing on his prey. They were all covered with blood when they returned, and the hills and the dales enjoyed the sun* equally. O thou virgin that shinest like the snow on the brows of Arun, like the fine spiders' webs on the grass on a summer's day! The army at Offa's dyke panted for glory; the soldiers of Venedolia were as the alternate motion of the waves on the sea-shore where the seamew screams. The hovering crows were numberless. The ravens croaked; they were ready to suck the prostrate carcasses. The enemies are scattered as leaves on the side of the hills driven by hurri. canes. He is a warrior, like the surge on the beach that covers the wild salmons. Her eye was piercing like that of the hawk; her face shone like the pearly dew on Evyri. Llewelyn is a hero that setteth castles on fire. I have watched all night on the beach where the seagulls, whose plumes glitter, sport on the bed of billows, and where herb. age growing in a solitary place is of a deep green,
That is, it was the hour of noon.
tended the Danes in their subsequent invasion of England, might have renovated the national poetry, the long distractions of the country which followed, and the change of the language from what is called the British, or original Saxon, to the Danish Saxon introduced by the invaders, must have mar. red its progress.
Literature of all kinds was thus at a very low ebb in England, when, at the period of the Nor. man invasion, in the early part of the eleventh century, that little seed was received into her bosom, which has since grown into a great tree overshadowing the earth with its boughs. .
But for generations this fruitful seed lay dormant; for, though the Conqueror and the first princes of the Norman dynasty patronized literature, and cultivated liberal as well as warlike arts, they jealously depressed every indication of national spirit, every thing which could make the Saxons remember they had ever been a people, or other than the bondsmen of their Norman lords. The Saxon tongue and manners, which were falling into contempt among the noble and polite even before the Norman accession—the English even then send. ing their youth to France for education-were now consigned to the lowest vulgar. The Norman language was not only that of the court and the camp, but of the national seminaries, whence the Saxon tongue was banished. The name of Englishman became a mark of opprobrium ; every office in the state and in the church was filled by Normans ;