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What perfect tranquillity and sense of resignation there is in these purely simple English words and their gentle flow. Turn from them to that other poem of the same author, “ The Bridge of Sighs,”_2 poet's feeling rebuke of the vice and inhumanity of a great metropolis, and of sympathy with its poor, degraded victims, driven to suicide in the midnight waters of the city's river. The tranquil, soul-subduing music of the former piece is changed to a short and abrupt measure, in which the passions of pity, bitter anger, and grief are stirring for utterance.
It is thus in a nation's poetry (that is, of course, when it is really poetry of a high and worthy kind) that the language will be found in its highest perfection, in its truest cultivation ; for a poet can never suffer his style to fall short of a well-sustained purity. It is therefore, in the poetry that a language may best be studied, even for prose uses ; that is, when any one would know to what state of excellence the lariguage may be carried, he must look to that chiefly, but, of course, not exclusively, in the poetical literature.
We are living at a period when the language has attained a high degree of excellence, both in prose and verse,—when it has developed largely, for all the uses of language, its power and its beauty. It is one of the noblest languages that the earth has ever sounded with; it is our endowment, our inheritance, our trust. It associates us with the wise and good of olden times, and it couples us with the kindred peoples of many distant regions. It is our duty, therefore, to cultivate, to cherish, and to keep it from corruption. Especially is this a duty for Us, who are spreading that language over such vast territory; and not only that, but having such growing facilities of intercommunication, that the language is perpetually speeding from one portion of the land to another with wondrous rapidity, equally favourable to the diffusion of either purity or corruption of speech, but, certainly, calculated to break down narrow and false provincialisms of speech.
In the culture and preservation of a language, there are two principles, deep-seated in the philosophy of language, which should be borne in mind. One is, that every living language has a power of growth, of exqansion, of development; in other words, its life that which makes it a living language, having within itself a power to supply the growing wants and improvements of a living people that uses it. If by any system of rules restraint is put on this genuine and healthful freedom, on this genial movement, the native vigour of the language is weakened.
It may be asked whether, by this principle of the life of a language, it is meant that the language has no law. Very far from it. The other
principle (and with which the first is in perfect harmony) is, that every language, living or dead, has its laws. Indeed it has been wisely said that, “ whatever be the object of our study, be it language, or history, or whatsoever province of the material or spiritual world, we ought, in the first instance, to be strongly impressed with the conviction that every thing in it is subject to the operation of certain principles, to the dominion of certain laws; that there is nothing lawless in it, nothing unprincipled, nothing insulated or capricious, though, from the fragmentary nature of our knowledge, many things may possibly appear so."
Now this willing, dutiful belief in the existence of the laws of a language, however concealed they may be under apparent anomalies, will not unfrequently evolve some beautiful principle of speech, some admirable adaptation of words to the thoughts and feelings, in what otherwise is, too often, careiessiy ana ignorantly dismissed as an irregularity. Permit me to illustrate briefly my meaning, by an example. In expression of the future time, there is employed that curious mixture of the two verbs “shall” and “ will,” which is so perplexing to foreigners, and inexplicable, though familiar, to all who are to the language born. Upon this subject it has been observed, there is in human nature generally an inclination to avoid speaking presumptuously of the future, in consequence of its awful, impressible, and almost instinctive uncertainty, and of our own powerlessness over it, which, in all cultivated languages, has silently and imperceptibly modified the modes of expression with regard to it. Further, there is an instinct of good-breeding which leads a man to veil the manifestation of his own will, so as to express himself with becoming modesty. Hence, in the use of those words, “shall” and “ will” (the former associated with compulsion, the latter with free volition), we apply, not lawlessly or at random, but so as to speak submissively in the first person, and courteously when we speak to or of another. This has been a development, but not without a principle in it; for, in our older writers, for instance, in our version of the Bible, “ shall” is applied to all three persons. We had not then reached that stage of politeness which shrinks from even the appearance of speaking compulsorily of another. On the other hand, the Scotch, it is said, use “ will” in the first person ; that is, as a nation, they have not acquired that particular shade of good-breeding which shrinks from thrusting itself forward.
I have cited this theory of the English future tenses, to show how that which is often dismissed as a caprice-a freak in language-may have a law, a philosophy, a truth of its own, if we will but thoughtfully and dutifully look for it.
In conclusion, let me say that he will gain the best knowledge or our language who will seek it, not so much in mere systems of grammar, as in communion with the great masters of the language, in prose and verse. He will best appreciate and admire this English language of ours-our mother-speech-who learns that the genius of it is as far removed from mere lawlessness, on the one hand, as from any narrow set of rules which would cramp it to what has been called “ grammarmonger's language.” In the variety of our idioms, the free movement of the language, there is, as in the race that speaks it, Saxon freedom freedom that is not license, but law.
EARLY ENGLISH PROSE AND POETRY-SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE-SIR THOMAS MORE'S LIFB
OF EDWARD THE FIFTH-CHAUCER'S TALES-ATTEMPTED PARAPHRASES CHAUCER MODERNIZED-CONFLICT OF NORMAN AND SAXON ELEMENTS-GOWER-REIGN OP EDWARD THE THIRD CONTINENTAL WARS-PETRARCH-BOCCACIO-FROISSART-TAB CHURCH - WYCLIFF — ARTS AND ARCHITECTURE — STATUTES IN ENGLISH –CHAUCER RESUMED—HIS HUMOUR AND PATHOSSENSE OF NATURAL BEAUTY—THE TEMPLE OF FAME-CHAUCER AND MR. BABBAGE-THE FLOWER AND THE LEAF CANTERBURY TALES-CHAUCER'S HIGH MORAL TONE-WORDSWORTH'S STANZA — POET'S CORNER AND CHAUCER'S TOMB—THE DEATH OF A LANGUAGE-ENGLISH MINSTRELSY-PERCY'S RELIQUES — SIR WALTER SCOTT—WILSON-CHRISTIAN HYMNS AND CHAUNTS –CONVERSION OF KING EDWIN — MARTIAL BALLADS — LOCKHART - SPANISH BALLADS TICKNOR'S GREAT WORK - EDOM OF GORDON-DRAMATIC POWER OF THE BALLAD The Two BROTHERS-CONTRAST OF EARLY AND LATE ENGLISH POETRY.
I PROCEED now to some general considerations of the chief eras into which my subject may be, without difficulty, divided. The whole period of our literature may be determined with more precision than might at first be expected, considering the gradual development of the language out of its Anglo-Saxon original. It is a literature covering the last five hundred years; for, while Sir John Mandeville, whose book of travels has gained for him the reputation of the first English prosewriter, flourished in the first part of the fourteenth century, the first great English poet died in the year 1400. The early English prose possesses, however, little, if any, purely literary interest; its value is antiquarian, and chiefly as showing the formation of the language. It is worthy of remark, that the prose power of a language, and, conse quently, that division of literature, are more slowly and laboriously disclosed than the poetic resources. Though the history of Englisk prose begin about 1350, with what is considered the first English book
-Sir John Mandeville's Travels—a century and a half more were required to achieve any thing like the excellence of later English prose. It is not until about 1509, that Mr. Hallam finds in Sir Thomas More's Life of Edward V. what he pronounces “ the first example of good English language; pure and perspicuous, well chosen, without vulgarisms or pedantry.” There is, therefore, a period, and that of considerable length, during which, for all that makes up the essential and high value of literature, the prose of the period has very little claim upon us. It is not so, however, with the poetry of early English literature; for, as Mr. De Quincy has remarked, “At this hour, five hundred years since their creation, the tales of Chaucer, never equalled on this earth for tenderness and for life of picturesqueness, are read familiarly by many in the charming language of their natal day.” And Coleridge said: “I take increasing delight in Chaucer. His manly cheerfulness is especially delicious to me in my old age. How exquisitely tender he is, and yet how perfectly free from the least touch of sickly melancholy or morbid drooping! The sympathy of the poet with the subjects of his poetry, is particularly remarkable in Shakspeare and Chaucer ; but what the first effects by a strong act of imagination and mental metamorphosis, the last does without any effort, merely by the inborn kindly joyousness of his nature.”
The present poet-laureate of England has said, “ So great is my adıniration of Chaucer's genius, and so profound my reverence for hina as an instrument in the hands of Providence for spreading the light of literature through his native land, that I am glad of the effort for making many acquainted with his poetry who would otherwise be ignorant of every thing about him but his name.” Another eminent living man of letters has expressed his admiration of the old poet, by saying that he rather objected to any attempts to remove the difficulties of the antique text, inasmuch as he wished “to keep Chaucer for himself and a few friends.”
Unfortunately, the obsolete dialect in which Chaucer wrote is such an obstacle, that it is far easier to keep him for oneself than to recover for him now the hearing of his fellow-men, which he once commanded, and which can never cease to be the due of his genius. I know of nothing in literary history like the fate of Chaucer in this respect. His poems are not in a dead language; they cannot be said to be in a living language. They are not in a foreign tongue, and yet they are hardly in our own. There is much that is the English still in use, and there is much that is very different. A reader not accustomed to English so antiquated, opens a volume of Chaucer, and he meets words that are familiar and words that are uncouth to him. In this, there is something repulsive to the eye and the ear, especially in finding words strangly syllabled and accented. He is not prepared to apply himself to it as he might to a poem in a foreign or dead language, to be toilsomely translated; and yet he cannot approach it as the literature of his own living speech. The use of glossaries and explanatory vocabularies cannot be dispensed with; but, to most readers, this is a wearisome