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LECTURE

ON

ENGLISH POETRY,

BEFORE THE

TIME OF MILTON.

The review of literature in its early ages is an occupation probably as useful as it is interesting. We may thence gather considerable information of the manners and intelligence of the times, and obtain an insight into those domestic habits and popular pursuits which escape the eye or do not enter into the design of the historian. It is only when the feelings and observations of our ancestors are known, when we see the models by which their opinions were formed, or the objects that excited their admiration, that we can properly appreciate their actions; and thus, while we obtain from history an account of public events and public characters, it is from the more

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diffuse but popular records of contemporary literature that we discern those many circumstances of society that are wanting to give a proper tone and color to the picture of the period, and finish that bold sketch of which history is the grand outline.

There are perhaps few branches of literature more calculated to supply part of this information than poetry. While we occasionally meet with subjects furnished and adorned wholly by the imagination, we more often see poetic genius dwelling on realities, discoursing of the ambitions, or heightening the affections of mankind; painting in glowing colors whatever prominently excites our hopes or fears, our desire or our hatred, yet still affording an index of common opinion, and presenting us with images of those motives and passions by which human nature is impelled. In proportion as the author is confined to subjects that fall under his actual observation, the manners and usages of real life are interwoven with, and become the principal of his theme, and the persons of his fictions are endued with the same views that influence the common mass around him; they have the same superstitions, the same prejudices, and there is an impress of reality in the design that even the least reflective must appreciate.

It was in poetry, rude as the times in which it arose, that the early traditions of most nations were preserved. Nay, even, in the primitive world, the precepts of the

legislator were moulded into metre. The measure of verse makes it easy of remembrance, and long before either reading or writing were general accomplishments, and man was dependant on his memory, the convenience of retaining verse in the recollection rendered it popular. Neither was its influence forgotten. As it has more nerve and power than

prose, so was it more calculated to make an impression on the mass of mankind; and hence we find in the fabulous religions of the world, the language of poetry was used in their ceremonies, and their deities communicated with mortals in verse.

In the dark superstition of the Britons, the bards formed one division of the priesthood, and celebrated their gods and heroes to the music of their rude harps. * The Goths who overrun Europe had their scalds or bards, who invoked the warlike Odin, and in lofty lyrics sang their wild and terrible legends and spirit stirring battle songs. The first poetry of an uncivilized race is always nervous and empassioned, abounding in grand but simple metaphor, and preserving a tempestuous harmony through its irregular and unequal lines. The impressions of the uneducated are strong, and their feelings soon excited by the gloomy and sublime. Familiar with the rough accidents of life, their imagination seizes upon whatever

* Such is the power that has been ascribed to the British bards that we are told by Diodorus Siculus that “sometimes when two armies are standing in order of battle, with their swords drawn and lances extended, upon the point of engaging in a most furious conflict, the poets have stepped in between them, and by their soft and fascinating songs calmed the fury of the warriors, and prevented the bloodshed. Thus even among barbarians (he adds) rage gave way to wisdom, and Mars submitted to the Muses."

is marked, bold, and real, and their superstition assumes a stern and substantial character; they crowd the heavens and the earth with beings who still retain the violent passions of men, while their divinities speak in the tempest or hover round the field of carnage.

Images of rugged grandeur and awe first fill the mind, long before it awakens to appreciate whatever is calm lovely and unexciting

The Saxons in the fifth century brought with them into England the Runic letters and language, and it was not until after their conversion to Christianity* that they neglected those symbols, which thenceforward they esteemed necromantic. With their old gloomy superstition they lost much of their poetic character, their minstrels sang moral rhapsodies or scriptural histories instead of their former wild and warlike fictions, and their allusions to the Scaldic fables and heroes became few and occasional. Their bards degenerated in influence and character, and were afterwards known by the name of gleemen.

The minstrels or gleemen were a peculiar class, whose province it was to wander from place to place, singing legends and receiving money and hospitality in return for their songs and tales, and for the exhibition of those feats of activity which formed part of their performance. They were at once poets, vocalists, and jugglers; and however

* Which took place before the seventh century.

primitive their rhymes, or ordinary their feats, they afforded a welcome amusement in an age that offered little variety of pursuit, when the mind was little instructed, and the rude fiction or ruder jest excited the attention or aroused the ready mirth of a crowd of listeners..

The

progress of literature among the Saxons was tardy and gradual. For some time after their invasion, when their power was established, they directed their attention to the arts of peace, but they were eventually exposed to a series of internal divisions, and to the hostile incursions of the Danes. Arms and the warlike amusements appear to have been their pleasure: the enemy was at their doors, and the sword and spear were within their hands. The spirit of minstrelsy however was not quelled, it had charms for the rude soldier, and were other evidence of its power wanting, the entrance of Alfred into the Danish camp, disguised as a harper or gleeman, would shew the influence of poetry and the popularity of its professors.

The Norman army that invaded England came accompanied by its minstrels, and amongst them the celebrated Taillefer, who encouraged the soldiers with songs of Charlemagne and Roland, and rushed, sword in hand, amidst the Saxon ranks, where he perished.

The Norman minstrels are supposed to have been descendants of the scalds, and to have been celebrated in the north of France long before the troubadours of

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