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OK ELLIS'S* SPECIMEN OF THE EARLY ENGLISH POETS. THIRD EDITION. 3 VOLS. 1803.
It is obvious to every one who has studied our language, whether in prose or poetry, that a luminous history of its rise and progress must necessarily involve more curious topics of discussion than a similar work upon any other European language. This opinion has not its source in national partiality, but is dictated by the very peculiar circumstances under which the English language was formed. The other European tongues, such at least as have been adapted to the purposes of literature, may be divided into two grand classes—those which are derived from the Teutonic, and those which are formed upon the Latin. In the former class, we find the German, the Norse, the Swedish, the Danish, and the Low Dutch, all of which, in words and construction, are dialects of the Teutonic, and preserve the general character of their common source, although enriched and improved by terms of art or of science adopted from the learned languages, or from those of other kingdoms of civilized Europe. The second class comprehends the Italian, the Spanish, and the French fn all its branches. It is true, the last of these has, in modern times, owing to the number of French writers in every class and upon every subject, departed farther from its original than the two others; but still the ground-work is the Latin; and the more nearly any specimen approaches to it, it may be safely concluded to be the more ancient; for, in truth, we know no other rule for ascertaining the antiquity of any particular piece in the Romanz language, than by its greater or slighter resemblance to the speech of the ancient Romans, from which it derives its name. Thus every language of civilized Europe is formed of a uniform pattern and texture, either upon the Teutonic, or upon the Latin. But the same chance which has peopled Britain with such a variety of tribes and nations, that we are at a loss to conceive how they should have met upon the same spot—and that, com
* George Ellis, Esq., to whom the 5th Canto of Marmion is inscribed, was the condjutorofME8SRs Canning and Frebe, in the Anti-Jacobin, and the author of various separate works, distinguished by extensive antiquarian knowledge, and elegant critical taste. He died in 1815, at the age of 70. The following passages are from an Article in the Edinburgh Review for 1804.
paratively a small one—has decreed that the language of Locke and of Shakspeare should claim no peculiar affinity to either of these grand sources of European speech; and that if, on the one hand, its conformation and construction be founded on a dialect of the Teutonic, the greater number of its vocables should, on the other, be derived from the Romanz, or corrupted Latin of the Normans. It is interesting to observe how long these languages, uncongenial in themselves, and derived from sources widely different, continued to exist separately, and to be spoken respectively by the Anglo-Norman conquerors and the vanquished Anglo-Saxons. It is still more interesting to observe how, after having long flowed each in its separate channel, they at length united and formed a middle dialect, which, though employed at first for the mere purpose of convenience and mutual intercourse betwixt the two nations, at length superseded the individual speech of both, and became the apt record of poetry and of philosophy.
The history of poetry is intimately connected with that of language. Authors in the infancy of composition, like Pope in that of life, may be said to "lisp in numbers." History, religion, morality, whatever tends to agitate or to soothe the passions, is, during the earlier stages of society, celebrated in verse. This may be partly owing to the ease with which poetry is retained upon the memory, in those ruder ages, when written monuments, if they at all exist, are not calculated to promote general information; and it may be partly owing to that innate love of song, and sensibility to the charms of flowing numbers, which is distinguishable even among the most savage people. But, whatever be the cause, the effect is most certain; the early works of all nations have been written in verse, and the history of their poetry is the history of the language itsolf. It therefore seems surprising, that, where the subject is interesting in a peculiar as well as in a general point of view, a distinct and connected history of our poetry, and of the language in which it is written, should so long have been a desideratum in English literature; and the wonder becomes greater when we recollect, that an attempt to supply the deficiency was long since made by a person who seemed to unite every quality necessary for the task.
The late Mr Warton, with a poetical enthusiasm which converted toil into pleasure, and gilded, to himself and his readers, the dreary subjects of antiquarian lore, and with a capacity of labour apparently inconsistent with his more brilliant powers, has produced a work of great size, and, partially speaking, of great interest, from the perusal of which we rise, our fancy delighted with beautiful imagery, and with the happy analysis of ancient tale and song, but certainly with very vague ideas of the history of English poetry. The error seems to lie in a total neglect of a plan and systern; for, delighted with every interesting topic which occurred, the historical poet pursued it to its utmost verge, without considering that these digressions, however beautiful and interesting in themselves, abstracted alike his own attention, and that of the reader, from the professed purpose of the book. Accordingly, Warton's History of English Poetry has remained, and will always remain, an immense commonplace-book of memoirs to serve for such an history. No antiquary can open it, without drawing information from a mine which, though dark, is inexhaustible in its treasures; nor will he who reads merely for amusement ever shut it for lack of attaining his end; while both may probably regret the desultory excursions of an author, who wanted only system, and a more rigid attention to minute accuracy, to have perfected the great task he has left incomplete.
It is therefore with no little pleasure that we see a man of taste and talents advance to supply the deficiency in so interesting a branch of our learning,—a task to which Johnson was unequal, through ignorance of our poetical antiquities, and in which Warton failed, perhaps, because he was too deeply enamoured of them.
The elemental part of the English language, that from which it derives, not indeed the greater proportion of its words, but the rules of its grammar and construction, is the Anglo-Saxon; and Mr Ellis has dedicated his first chapter to make the English reader, acquainted with it. The example of their poetry, which he has chosen to exhibit, is the famous war-song in praise of Athelstane's victory in the battle of Brunenburgh,—an engagement which checked for ever the victorious progress of the Picts and Scots, and limited their reign to the northern part of Britain. We canqft from this poem, nor indeed from any other remnant of Anglo-Saxon poetry, determine what were the rules of their verse. Rhyme they had none; their rhythm seems to have been uncertain; and perhaps their whole poetry consisted in the adaptation of the words to some simple tune; although Mr Ellis seems inclined to think, with Mr Tyrwhitt, that the verse of the Saxons was only distinguished from their prose by "a greater pomp of diction, and a more stately kind of march." To this specimen of Saxon poetry Mr Ellis has subjoined a translation of it into the English of the age of Chaucer, w hich we recommend to our readers as one of the best executed imitations that we have ever met with. It was written by a friend of Mr Ellis (Mr Frere, if we mistake not) while at Eton School.
"The Merciaua fought I understood,
"In Dacie of that gaming
Mony wemen hir hond is wring.