Page images

as much in two of its stages as if it were two languages. We have a conspicuous example of this in our own English. We may be said to have the language before us in complete continuity from the seventh century; but the English of the earliest portion of this long space of time, or what is commonly called Anglo-Saxon, is no more intelligible to an Englishman of the present day who has not made it a special study than is German or Dutch.

The case is even a great deal worse than that. Dutch and German and other foreign tongues are living; our earliest English has been dead and buried for centuries. Nay, for a long time even the fact that it had once existed was all but universally forgotten. And even since it has come to be once more studied we know it only as a fossil—as the dust and dry bones of a language. Of the literature written in it we may indeed acquire such a conception as we might of a living human being from a skeleton; but nothing more.

Of that nocturnal portion of our literature, as it may be called, no critical survey is attempted in the present work. Only the principal compositions of which it consists, and the names of their authors, are rapidly enumerated by way of Introduction, along with the leading particulars of the same kind belonging to the histories of the Latin, the Welsh, and the Irish literatures of the same early period.

The history of any national literature, in fact, naturally divides itself into three portions, all very distinct from one another, and demanding each a treatment of its own. First, there is the portion which, as has just been said, may be named after the night, not perhaps altogether as being the product of a period of darkness, but as lying now, from distance and change of circumstances, in the dark to us; secondly, there is so much of that produced after what seems to us to have been the rising of the sun as we can look back upon; thirdly, there is what belongs to our own day, and lies not behind us but

rather before us or around us. Of the three subjects thus presented, the first offers a field chiefly for philological and antiquarian erudition; even the third, not being yet past, does not come properly within the domain of history; the only one that perfectly admits of being treated historically is the daylight or middle division. But that is always both by far the most extensive and also in every other respect the most important.

The survey which is taken in the present work of so much of our English literature as is thus properly historical is no doubt far from complete. Still it will be found to include not only, of course, all our writers of the first class, but also, I believe, all those, without exception, who can be regarded as of any considerable distinction. If that be so, it will, whatever its defects of execution, present a view of the whole subject of which it professes to treat; for it is only great names and great works that make a literature. An account of the writings of Chaucer, of Spenser, of Shakespeare, of Bacon, of Milton, of Dryden, of Pope, of Swift, of Burke, of Burns, of Cowper, would sufficiently unfold the course and revolutions of our English literature from its commencement down to the beginning of the present century. Many names, however, have also been noticed in these volumes which have no pretensions to be considered as even of second-rate importance, but yet some information in regard to which, if it were no more than the date to which each of them belongs, might, it was thought, add to the serviceableness of the work as a book of reference.

Such brief notices are rather for being turned to by means of the Index than for straightforward perusal. The history of our literature, in so far as it is of universal interest, is all contained in the longer and fuller accounts ;--the space allotted to which, however, it will be obvious, is not in all cases proportioned to the eminence of the writers. On the contrary, several writers of the first class whose works are in the hands of everybody, as, for example, Shakespeare and Milton, are disposed of without the critical remarks on them being illustrated by any specimens; of others, again, who are less read in the present day, such as Chaucer and Spenser of earlier, Swift and Burke of later, date, the poetry and eloquence are amply exemplified from what they have left us that is most characteristic and remarkable. Any one who will take the trouble to ascertain the fact will find how completely even our great poets and other writers of the last generation have already faded from the view of the present with the most numerous class of the educated and reading public. Scarcely anything is generally read except the publications of the day. Yet nothing is more certain than that no true cultivation can be so acquired. This is the extreme case of that entire ignorance of history, or of what had been done in the world before we ourselves came into it, which has been affirmed, not with more point than truth, to leave a person always a child.

Having already gone over the greater part of the present subject in a work entitled Sketches of the History of Literature and Learning in England, which was published in 1844-5, I have only revised and retouched here, and not sought to rewrite, whatever as it there stood still sufficiently expressed what I had to say. The present work, therefore, it will be understood, comprehends and incorporates all of the former one (now out of print) which it has been considered desirable to preserve. It is, in truth, in the main a republication of that, though with many alterations and some curtailments, as well as considerable additions and enlargements. I have even retained, though hardly coming under the new title, the summaries of the progress of Scientific Discovery in successive periods, as not taking up very much room, and supplying a good many dates and other facts which even in following the history of Literature it is sometimes convenient to have at hand.

The present work, on the other hand, professes to combine the history of the Literature with the history of the Language. The scheme of the course and revolutions of the Language which is followed here, and also in the later editions of my Sketches of the History of the English Language, was first announced by me in an article published in the Dublin University Magazine for July, 1857. It is extremely simple, and, resting not upon arbitrary but upon natural or real distinctions, gives us the only view of the subject that can claim to be regarded as of a scientific character. In the earliest state in which it is known to us the English is both a homogeneous and a synthetic language-homogeneous in its vocabulary, synthetic in its grammatical structure. It has since, though, of course, always operated upon, like everything human, by the law of gradual change, undergone only two decided revolutions; the first of which destroyed its synthetic, the second its homogeneous, character. Thus, in its second form it is still a homogeneous, but no longer a synthetic language; in its third it is neither synthetic nor homogeneous, but has become both analytic in its grammar and composite in its vocabulary. The three forms may be conveniently designated :—the First, that of Pure or Simple English ; the Second, that of Broken or Semi-English; the Third, that of Mixed, or Compound, or Composite English. The first of the three stages through which the language has thus passed may be con. sidered to have come to an end in the eleventh century; the second, in the thirteenth century; the third is that in which it still is.

In another paper, published in the Dublin University Magazine for October, 1857, I applied this view to the explanation of the action upon the language of the Norman Conquest; the immediate effect of which was to produce the first of the two revolutions, its ultimate effect to produce the second. I there, also, gave an account of the examination of the vocabulary of our existing English instituted by Dr. J. P. Thommerel, in his Recherches sur la Fusion du Franco-Normand et de l’AngloSaxon, published at Paris in 1841, in which he showed, in oppo

sition to all previous estimates, that, of the words collected in our common dictionaries, instead of two-thirds being of native origin, as usually assumed, and only one-third of Latin or French extraction, the fact is just the other way ;-two-thirds are foreign and only one-third native. I proceeded to remark, however, that, of the words in common use both in speaking and in writing, which may be taken as about 10,000 in number, probably full a half are pure English; and that of those in common colloquial use, which may be about 5,000 in all, probably fourfifths are of native stock. “And the 4,000 or 5,000 non-Roman words," I added, “that are in general use (4,000 in our common speech, 5,000 in literary composition) compose all the fundamental framework of the language, all that may be called its skeleton or bony structure, and also perhaps the better part of its muscular tissue.”

The portion of our literature to which the present work is properly speaking devoted is that of the Third Form of the Language, and may be regarded as commencing with the poetry of Chaucer in the middle of the fourteenth century.

G. L. C.

P.S. Upon more careful consideration, I find that the simile in the 6th Iliad is not fairly represented in the translation given vol. ii. p. 520. Nothing turns upon it; but I ought not to havo supposed it possible that Homer could have been in anything inconsistent with truth and nature.

Queen's College, Belfast,

September, 1861.

« PreviousContinue »