Main A History of English Literature

A History of English Literature

Jonathan Swift, another unique figure of very mixed traits, is like Defoe in that he connects the reign of William III with that of his successors and that, in accordance with the spirit of his age, he wrote for the most part not for literary but for practical purposes; in many other respects the two are widely different. Swift is one of the best representatives in English literature of sheer intellectual power, but his character, his aims, his environment, and the circumstances of his life denied to him also literary achievement of the greatest permanent significance.
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A History of English Literature
Robert Huntington Fletcher

A History of English Literature

Table of Contents
A History of English Literature.........................................................................................................................1
Robert Huntington Fletcher.....................................................................................................................1
PRELIMINARY. HOW TO STUDY AND JUDGE LITERATURE.....................................................2
A TABULAR VIEW OF ENGLISH LITERATURE.............................................................................6
REFERENCE BOOKS..........................................................................................................................10
CHAPTER IV. THE MEDIEVAL DRAMA.........................................................................................36
REIGN OF ELIZABETH.....................................................................................................................40
CHAPTER VI. THE DRAMA FROM ABOUT 1550 TO 1642...........................................................54
CHAPTER VIII. PERIOD VI. THE RESTORATION, 1660−1700.....................................................79
THE BEGINNINGS OF MODERN ROMANTICISM.......................................................................85
CHAPTER X. PERIOD VIII. THE ROMANTIC TRIUMPH, 1798 TO ABOUT 1830....................121
CHAPTER XI. PERIOD IX. THE VICTORIAN PERIOD, ABOUT 1830 TO 1901........................137
ASSIGNMENTS FOR STUDY..........................................................................................................169


A History of English Literature
Robert Huntington Fletcher
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This book aims to provide a general manual of English Literature for students in colleges and universities and
others beyond the high−school age. The first purposes of every such book must be to outline the development
of the literature with due regard to national life, and to give appreciative interpretation of the work of the most
important authors. I have written the present volume because I have found no other that, to my mind,
combines satisfactory accomplishment of these ends with a selection of authors sufficiently limited for
clearness and with adequate accuracy and fulness of details, biographical and other. A manual, it seems to me,
should supply a systematic statement of the important facts, so that the greater part of the student's time, in
class and without, may be left free for the study of the literature itself.

A History of English Literature


A History of English Literature
I hope that the book may prove adaptable to various methods and conditions of work. Experience has
suggested the brief introductory statement of main literary principles, too often taken for granted by teachers,
with much resulting haziness in the student's mind. The list of assignments and questions at the end is
intended, of course, to be freely treated. I hope that the list of available inexpensive editions of the chief
authors may suggest a practical method of providing the material, especially for colleges which can provide
enough copies for class use. Poets, of course, may be satisfactorily read in volumes of, selections; but to me,
at least, a book of brief extracts from twenty or a hundred prose authors is an absurdity. Perhaps I may venture
to add that personally I find it advisable to pass hastily over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and so
gain as much time as possible for the nineteenth.
R. H. F.
August, 1916.

TWO ASPECTS OF LITERARY STUDY. Such a study of Literature as that for which the present book is
designed includes two purposes, contributing to a common end. In the first place (I), the student must gain
some general knowledge of the conditions out of which English literature has come into being, as a whole and
during its successive periods, that is of the external facts of one sort or another without which it cannot be
understood. This means chiefly (1) tracing in a general way, from period to period, the social life of the
nation, and (2) getting some acquaintance with the lives of the more important authors. The principal thing,
however (II), is the direct study of the literature itself. This study in turn should aim first at an understanding
of the literature as an expression of the authors' views of life and of their personalities and especially as a
portrayal and interpretation of the life of their periods and of all life as they have seen it; it should aim further
at an appreciation of each literary work as a product of Fine Art, appealing with peculiar power both to our
minds and to our emotions, not least to the sense of Beauty and the whole higher nature. In the present book,
it should perhaps be added, the word Literature is generally interpreted in the strict sense, as including only
writing of permanent significance and beauty.
The outline discussion of literary qualities which follows is intended to help in the formation of intelligent and
appreciative judgments.
SUBSTANCE AND FORM. The most thoroughgoing of all distinctions in literature, as in the other Fine Arts,
is that between (1) Substance, the essential content and meaning of the work, and (2) Form, the manner in
which it is expressed (including narrative structure, external style, in poetry verse−form, and many related
matters). This distinction should be kept in mind, but in what follows it will not be to our purpose to
emphasize it.
GENERAL MATTERS. 1. First and always in considering any piece of literature a student should ask himself
the question already implied: Does it present a true portrayal of life—of the permanent elements in all life and
in human nature, of the life or thought of its own particular period, and (in most sorts of books) of the persons,
real or imaginary, with whom it deals? If it properly accomplishes this main purpose, when the reader finishes
it he should feel that his understanding of life and of people has been increased and broadened. But it should
always be remembered that truth is quite as much a matter of general spirit and impression as of literal
accuracy in details of fact. The essential question is not, Is the presentation of life and character perfect in a
photographic fashion? but Does it convey the underlying realities? 2. Other things being equal, the value of a
book, and especially of an author's whole work, is proportional to its range, that is to the breadth and variety
of the life and characters which it presents. 3. A student should not form his judgments merely from what is
technically called the dogmatic point of view, but should try rather to adopt that of historical criticism. This
means that he should take into account the limitations imposed on every author by the age in which he lived.


A History of English Literature
If you find that the poets of the Anglo−Saxon 'Beowulf' have given a clear and interesting picture of the life of
our barbarous ancestors of the sixth or seventh century A. D., you should not blame them for a lack of the
finer elements of feeling and expression which after a thousand years of civilization distinguish such delicate
spirits as Keats and Tennyson. 4. It is often important to consider also whether the author's personal method is
objective, which means that he presents life and character without bias; or subjective, coloring his work with
his personal tastes, feelings and impressions. Subjectivity may be a falsifying influence, but it may also be an
important virtue, adding intimacy, charm, or force. 5. Further, one may ask whether the author has a
deliberately formed theory of life; and if so how it shows itself, and, of course, how sound it is.
judging any book concerns the union which it shows: (1) of the Intellectual faculty, that which enables the
author to understand and control his material and present it with directness and clearness; and (2) of the
Emotion, which gives warmth, enthusiasm, and appealing human power. The relative proportions of these two
faculties vary greatly in books of different sorts. Exposition (as in most essays) cannot as a rule be permeated
with so much emotion as narration or, certainly, as lyric poetry. In a great book the relation of the two
faculties will of course properly correspond to form and spirit. Largely a matter of Emotion is the Personal
Sympathy of the author for his characters, while Intellect has a large share in Dramatic Sympathy, whereby
the author enters truly into the situations and feelings of any character, whether he personally likes him or not.
Largely made up of Emotion are: (1) true Sentiment, which is fine feeling of any sort, and which should not
degenerate into Sentimentalism (exaggerated tender feeling); (2) Humor, the instinctive sense for that which is
amusing; and (3) the sense for Pathos. Pathos differs from Tragedy in that Tragedy (whether in a drama or
elsewhere) is the suffering of persons who are able to struggle against it, Pathos the suffering of those persons
(children, for instance) who are merely helpless victims. Wit, the brilliant perception of incongruities, is a
matter of Intellect and the complement of Humor.
IMAGINATION AND FANCY. Related to Emotion also and one of the most necessary elements in the
higher forms of literature is Imagination, the faculty of making what is absent or unreal seem present and real,
and revealing the hidden or more subtile forces of life. Its main operations may be classified under three
heads: (1) Pictorial and Presentative. It presents to the author's mind, and through him to the minds of his
readers, all the elements of human experience and life (drawing from his actual experience or his reading). 2.
Selective, Associative, and Constructive. From the unorganized material thus brought clearly to the author's
consciousness Imagination next selects the details which can be turned to present use, and proceeds to
combine them, uniting scattered traits and incidents, perhaps from widely different sources, into new
characters, stories, scenes, and ideas. The characters of 'Silas Marner,' for example, never had an actual
existence, and the precise incidents of the story never took place in just that order and fashion, but they were
all constructed by the author's imagination out of what she had observed of many real persons and events, and
so make, in the most significant sense, a true picture of life. 3. Penetrative and Interpretative. In its subtlest
operations, further, Imagination penetrates below the surface and comprehends and brings to light the deeper
forces and facts—the real controlling instincts of characters, the real motives for actions, and the relations of
material things to those of the spiritual world and of Man to Nature and God.
Fancy may for convenience be considered as a distinct faculty, though it is really the lighter, partly superficial,
aspect of Imagination. It deals with things not essentially or significantly true, amusing us with striking or
pleasing suggestions, such as seeing faces in the clouds, which vanish almost as soon as they are discerned.
Both Imagination and Fancy naturally express themselves, often and effectively, through the use of
metaphors, similes, and suggestive condensed language. In painful contrast to them stands commonplaceness,
always a fatal fault.
IDEALISM, ROMANCE, AND REALISM. Among the most important literary qualities also are Idealism,
Romance, and Realism. Realism, in the broad sense, means simply the presentation of the actual, depicting
life as one sees it, objectively, without such selection as aims deliberately to emphasize some particular


A History of English Literature
aspects, such as the pleasant or attractive ones. (Of course all literature is necessarily based on the ordinary
facts of life, which we may call by the more general name of Reality.) Carried to the extreme, Realism may
become ignoble, dealing too frankly or in unworthy spirit with the baser side of reality, and in almost all ages
this sort of Realism has actually attempted to assert itself in literature. Idealism, the tendency opposite to
Realism, seeks to emphasize the spiritual and other higher elements, often to bring out the spiritual values
which lie beneath the surface. It is an optimistic interpretation of life, looking for what is good and permanent
beneath all the surface confusion. Romance may be called Idealism in the realm of sentiment. It aims largely
to interest and delight, to throw over life a pleasing glamor; it generally deals with love or heroic adventure;
and it generally locates its scenes and characters in distant times and places, where it can work unhampered by
our consciousness of the humdrum actualities of our daily experience. It may always be asked whether a
writer of Romance makes his world seem convincingly real as we read or whether he frankly abandons all
plausibility. The presence or absence of a supernatural element generally makes an important difference.
Entitled to special mention, also, is spiritual Romance, where attention is centered not on external events,
which may here be treated in somewhat shadowy fashion, but on the deeper questions of life. Spiritual
Romance, therefore, is essentially idealistic.
DRAMATIC POWER. Dramatic power, in general, means the presentation of life with the vivid active reality
of life and character which especially distinguishes the acted drama. It is, of course, one of the main things to
be desired in most narrative; though sometimes the effect sought may be something different, as, for instance,
in romance and poetry, an atmosphere of dreamy beauty. In a drama, and to some extent in other forms of
narrative, dramatic power culminates in the ability to bring out the great crises with supreme effectiveness.
CHARACTERS. There is, generally speaking, no greater test of an author's skill than his knowledge and
presentation of characters. We should consider whether he makes them (1) merely caricatures, or (2) type
characters, standing for certain general traits of human nature but not convincingly real or especially
significant persons, or (3) genuine individuals with all the inconsistencies and half−revealed tendencies that in
actual life belong to real personality. Of course in the case of important characters, the greater the genuine
individuality the greater the success. But with secondary characters the principles of emphasis and proportion
generally forbid very distinct individualization; and sometimes, especially in comedy (drama), truth of
character is properly sacrificed to other objects, such as the main effect. It may also be asked whether the
characters are simple, as some people are in actual life, or complex, like most interesting persons; whether
they develop, as all real people must under the action of significant experience, or whether the author merely
presents them in brief situations or lacks the power to make them anything but stationary. If there are several
of them it is a further question whether the author properly contrasts them in such a way as to secure interest.
And a main requisite is that he shall properly motivate their actions, that is make their actions result naturally
from their characters, either their controlling traits or their temporary impulses.
STRUCTURE. In any work of literature there should be definite structure. This requires, (1) Unity, (2)
Variety, (3) Order, (4) Proportion, and (5) due Emphasis of parts. Unity means that everything included in the
work ought to contribute directly or indirectly to the main effect. Very often a definite theme may be found
about which the whole work centers, as for instance in 'Macbeth,' The Ruin of a Man through Yielding to
Evil. Sometimes, however, as in a lyric poem, the effect intended may be the rendering or creation of a mood,
such as that of happy content, and in that case the poem may not have an easily expressible concrete theme.
Order implies a proper beginning, arrangement, progress, and a definite ending. In narrative, including all
stories whether in prose or verse and also the drama, there should be traceable a Line of Action, comprising
generally: (1) an Introduction, stating the necessary preliminaries; (2) the Initial Impulse, the event which
really sets in motion this particular story; (3) a Rising Action; (4) a Main Climax. Sometimes (generally, in
Comedy) the Main Climax is identical with the Outcome; sometimes (regularly in Tragedy) the Main Climax
is a turning point and comes near the middle of the story. In that case it really marks the beginning of the
success of the side which is to be victorious at the end (in Tragedy the side opposed to the hero) and it initiates


A History of English Literature
(5) a Falling Action, corresponding to the Rising Action, and sometimes of much the same length, wherein the
losing side struggles to maintain itself. After (6) the Outcome, may come (7) a brief tranquilizing Conclusion.
The Antecedent Action is that part of the characters' experiences which precedes the events of the story. If it
has a bearing, information about it must be given either in the Introduction or incidentally later on.
Sometimes, however, the structure just indicated may not be followed; a story may begin in the middle, and
the earlier part may be told later on in retrospect, or incidentally indicated, like the Antecedent Action.
If in any narrative there is one or more Secondary Action, a story which might be separated from the Main
Action and viewed as complete in itself, criticism should always ask whether the Main and Secondary Actions
are properly unified. In the strictest theory there should be an essential connection between them; for instance,
they may illustrate different and perhaps contrasting aspects of the general theme. Often, however, an author
introduces a Secondary Action merely for the sake of variety or to increase the breadth of his picture—in
order to present a whole section of society instead of one narrow stratum or group. In such cases, he must
generally be judged to have succeeded if he has established an apparent unity, say by mingling the same
characters in the two actions, so that readers are not readily conscious of the lack of real structural unity.
Other things to be considered in narrative are: Movement, which, unless for special reasons, should be rapid,
at least not slow and broken; Suspense; general Interest; and the questions whether or not there are good
situations and good minor climaxes, contributing to the interest; and whether or not motivation is good, apart
from that which results from character, that is whether events are properly represented as happening in
accordance with the law of cause and effect which inexorably governs actual life. But it must always be
remembered that in such writing as Comedy and Romance the strict rules of motivation must be relaxed, and
indeed in all literature, even in Tragedy, the idealization, condensation, and heightening which are the proper
methods of Art require them to be slightly modified.
DESCRIPTIVE POWER. Usually secondary in appearance but of vital artistic importance, is the author's
power of description, of picturing both the appearance of his characters and the scenes which make his
background and help to give the tone of his work. Perhaps four subjects of description may be distinguished:
1. External Nature. Here such questions as the following are of varying importance, according to the character
and purpose of the work: Does the author know and care for Nature and frequently introduce descriptions?
Are the descriptions concrete and accurate, or on the other hand purposely general (impressionistic) or
carelessly superficial? Do they give fine variations of appearance and impression, such as delicate shiftings of
light and shade and delicate tones of color? Are they powerfully sensuous, that is do they appeal strongly to
the physical senses, of sight (color, light, and movement), sound (including music), smell, taste, touch, and
general physical sensation? How great is their variety? Do they deal with many parts of Nature, for example
the sea, mountains, plains, forests, and clouds? Is the love of external beauty a passion with the author? What
is the author's attitude toward Nature—(1) does he view Nature in a purely objective way, as a mass of
material things, a series of material phenomena or a mere embodiment of sensuous beauty; or (2) is there
symbolism or mysticism in his attitude, that is—does he view Nature with awe as a spiritual power; or (3) is
he thoroughly subjective, reading his own moods into Nature or using Nature chiefly for the expression of his
moods? Or again, does the author describe with merely expository purpose, to make the background of his
work clear? 2. Individual Persons and Human Life: Is the author skilful in descriptions of personal appearance
and dress? Does he produce his impressions by full enumeration of details, or by emphasis on prominent or
characteristic details? How often and how fully does he describe scenes of human activity (such as a street
scene, a social gathering, a procession on the march)? 3. How frequent and how vivid are his descriptions of
the inanimate background of human life—buildings, interiors of rooms, and the rest? 4. Does the author
skilfully use description to create the general atmosphere in which he wishes to invest his work—an
atmosphere of cheerfulness, of mystery, of activity, or any of a hundred other moods?
STYLE. Style in general means 'manner of writing.' In the broad sense it includes everything pertaining to the
author's spirit and point of view—almost everything which is here being discussed. More narrowly


A History of English Literature
considered, as 'external style,' it designates the author's use of language. Questions to be asked in regard to
external style are such as these: Is it good or bad, careful or careless, clear and easy or confused and difficult;
simple or complex; terse and forceful (perhaps colloquial) or involved and stately; eloquent, balanced,
rhythmical; vigorous, or musical, languid, delicate and decorative; varied or monotonous; plain or figurative;
poor or rich in connotation and poetic suggestiveness; beautiful, or only clear and strong? Are the sentences
mostly long or short; periodic or loose; mostly of one type, such as the declarative, or with frequent
introduction of such other forms as the question and the exclamation?
POETRY. Most of what has thus far been said applies to both Prose and Poetry. But in Poetry, as the literature
especially characterized in general by high Emotion, Imagination, and Beauty, finer and more delicate effects
are to be sought than in Prose. Poetry, generally speaking, is the expression of the deeper nature; it belongs
peculiarly to the realm of the spirit. On the side of poetical expression such imaginative figures of speech as
metaphors and similes, and such devices as alliteration, prove especially helpful. It may be asked further of
poetry, whether the meter and stanza structure are appropriate to the mood and thought and so handled as to
bring out the emotion effectively; and whether the sound is adapted to the sense (for example, musical where
the idea is of peace or quiet beauty). If the sound of the words actually imitates the sound of the thing
indicated, the effect is called Onomatopoeia. Among kinds of poetry, according to form, the most important
are: (1) Narrative, which includes many subordinate forms, such as the Epic. (2) Lyric. Lyric poems are
expressions of spontaneous emotion and are necessarily short. (3) Dramatic, including not merely the drama
but all poetry of vigorous action. (4) Descriptive, like Goldsmith's 'Deserted Village' and Tennyson's 'Dream
of Fair Women.' Minor kinds are: (5) Satiric; and (6) Didactic.
Highly important in poetry is Rhythm, but the word means merely 'flow,' so that rhythm belongs to prose as
well as to poetry. Good rhythm is merely a pleasing succession of sounds. Meter, the distinguishing formal
mark of poetry and all verse, is merely rhythm which is regular in certain fundamental respects, roughly
speaking is rhythm in which the recurrence of stressed syllables or of feet with definite time−values is regular.
There is no proper connection either in spelling or in meaning between rhythm and rime (which is generally
misspelled 'rhyme'). The adjective derived from 'rhythm' is 'rhythmical'; there is no adjective from 'rime'
except 'rimed.' The word 'verse' in its general sense includes all writing in meter. Poetry is that verse which
has real literary merit. In a very different and narrower sense 'verse' means 'line' (never properly 'stanza').
CLASSICISM AND ROMANTICISM. Two of the most important contrasting tendencies of style in the
general sense are Classicism and Romanticism. Classicism means those qualities which are most characteristic
of the best literature of Greece and Rome. It is in fact partly identical with Idealism. It aims to express the
inner truth or central principles of things, without anxiety for minor details, and it is by nature largely
intellectual in quality, though not by any means to the exclusion of emotion. In outward form, therefore, it
insists on correct structure, restraint, careful finish and avoidance of all excess. 'Paradise Lost,' Arnold's
'Sohrab and Rustum,' and Addison's essays are modern examples. Romanticism, which in general prevails in
modern literature, lays most emphasis on independence and fulness of expression and on strong emotion, and
it may be comparatively careless of form. The Classical style has well been called sculpturesque, the
Romantic picturesque. The virtues of the Classical are exquisiteness and incisive significance; of the
Romantic, richness and splendor. The dangers of the Classical are coldness and formality; of the Romantic,
over−luxuriance, formlessness and excess of emotion. [Footnote: All these matters, here merely suggested, are
fully discussed in the present author's 'Principles of Composition and Literature.' (The A. S. Barnes Co.)]

I. The Britons and the Anglo−Saxon Period, from the
beginning to the Norman Conquest in 1066 A. D.
A. The Britons, before and during the Roman occupation,
to the fifth century.


A History of English Literature
B. Anglo−Saxon Poetry, on the Continent in prehistoric
times before the migration to England, and in England
especially during the Northumbrian Period, seventh and
eighth centuries A. D. Ballads, 'Beowulf,' Caedmon,
Bede (Latin prose), Cynewulf.
C. Anglo−Saxon Prose, of the West Saxon Period, tenth
and eleventh centuries, beginning with King Alfred,
871−901. The Anglo−Saxon Chronicle. II. The Norman−French, Period, 1066 to about 1350.
Literature in Latin, French, and English. Many different
forms, both religious and secular, including the
religious drama. The Metrical Romances, including the
Arthurian Cycle. Geoffrey of Monmouth, 'Historia
Regum Britanniae' (Latin), about 1136. Wace, 'Brut'
(French), about 1155. Laghamon, 'Brut' (English),
about 1200. III. The End of the Middle Ages, about 1350 to about 1500.
The Hundred Years' War. 'Sir John Mandeyille's'
'Voyage.' Chaucer, 1338−1400. John Gower. 'The
Vision Concerning Piers the Plowman.' Wiclif and
the Lollard Bible, about 1380. Popular Ballads. The
War of the Roses. Malory's 'Morte Darthur,' finished
1467. Caxton and the printing press, 1476. Morality
Plays and Interludes. IV. The Renaissance and the Elizabethan Period, about 1500
to 1603.
Great discoveries and activity, both intellectual and
physical. Influence of Italy. The Reformation.
Henry VIII, 1509−47. Edward VI, to 1553. Mary, to 1558.
Elizabeth, 1558−1603. Defeat of the Armada, 1588.
Sir Thomas More, 'Utopia.' Tyndale's New Testament
and other translations of the Bible.
Wyatt and Surrey, about 1540.
Prose Fiction. Lyly's 'Euphues,' 1578. Sidney's
Spenser, 1552−1599. 'The Shepherd's Calendar,' 1579.
'The Faerie Queene,' 1590 and later.
Lyric poetry, including sonnet sequences. John Donne.
The Drama. Classical and native influences. Lyly,
Peele, Greene, Marlowe. Shakspere, 1564−1616. Ben
Jonson and other dramatists. V. The Seventeenth Century, 1603−1660.
The First Stuart Kings, James I (to 1625) and Charles I.
Cavaliers and Puritans. The Civil War and the Commonwealth.
The Drama, to 1642.
Francis Bacon.
The King James Bible, 1611.
Lyric Poets. Herrick. The 'Metaphysical' religious
poets—Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan. Cavalier and
Puritan poets.
Milton, 1608−1674.
John Bunyan, 'Pilgrim's Progress.' 1678.



A History of English Literature
VI. The Restoration Period, from the Restoration of Charles II
in 1660 to the death of Dryden in 1700.
Charles II, 1660−1685. James II, 1685 to the Revolution
in 1688. William and Mary, 1688−1702.
Butler's 'Hudibras.' Pepys' 'Diary.' The Restoration
Drama. Dryden, 1631−1700.
VII. The Eighteenth Century.
Queen Anne, 1702−1715. The four Georges, 1715−1830.
Swift, 1667−1745.
Addison, 1672−1719.
Steele, 1672−1729.
Pope, 1688−1744.
Johnson, 1709−1784.
Burke, 1729−1797.
Gibbon, 'Decline and
Fall,' 1776−1788.
Boswell, 'Life of
Johnson,' 1791.
'Sir Roger de Coverly,'
Defoe, 1661−1731.
'Robinson Crusoe,'
Richardson, 1689−1761.
'Clarissa Harlowe,'
Fielding, 1707−1754.
Goldsmith, 'Vicar of
Wakefield,' 1766.
Historical and 'Gothic'
Miss Burney, 'Evelina,'
Revolutionary Novels
of Purpose. Godwin,
'Caleb Williams.'
Miss Edgeworth.
Miss Austen.


A History of English Literature
Thomson, 'The Seasons,'
Collins, 'Odes,' 1747.
Gray, 1716−71.
Percy's 'Reliques,'
Goldsmith, 'The Deserted
Macpherson, Ossianic
Burns, 1759−96.
Pseudo−Classical Tragedy,
'Cato,' 1713.
Sentimental Comedy.
Domestic Tragedy.
Revival of genuine
Comedy of
Manners. Goldsmith,
'She Stoops to
Conquer,' 1773.
VIII. The Romantic Triumph, 1798 to about 1830.
Coleridge, 1772−1834. Wordsworth, 1770−1850. Southey,
1774−1843. Scott, 1771−1832.
Byron, 1788−1824. Shelley, 1792−1822. Keats, 1759−1821.
IX. The Victorian Period, about 1830−1901.
Victoria Queen, 1837−1901.
Macaulay, 1800−1859. Mrs. Browning, 1806− Charlotte Bronte,
Carlyle, 1795−1881. 1861. 1816−1855.
Ruskin, 1819−1900. Tennyson, 1809−1892. Dickens, 1812−1870.
Browning, 1812−1889. Thackeray, 1811−1863.
Matthew Arnold, Kingsley, 1819−1875.
poems, 1848−58. George Eliot, 1819−
Rossetti, 1828−82. 1880.
Matthew Arnold, Morris, 1834−96. Reade, 1814−1884.
essays, 1861−82. Swinburne, 1837−1909. Trollope, 1815−1882.
Blackmore, 'Lorna
Doone,' 1869.
Shorthouse,' John


A History of English Literature
Inglesant,' 1881.
Meredith, 1828−1910.
Thomas Hardy, 1840−
Stevenson, 1850−1894.
Kipling, 1865− Kipling, 1865−

It is not a part of the plan of this book to present any extended bibliography, but there are certain reference
books to which the student's attention should be called. 'Chambers' Cyclopedia of English Literature,' edition
of 1910, published in the United States by the J. B. Lippincott Co. in three large volumes at $15.00 (generally
sold at about half that price) is in most parts very satisfactory. Garnett and Gosse's 'Illustrated History of
English Literature, four volumes, published by the Macmillan Co. at $20.00 and in somewhat simpler form by
Grosset and Dunlap at $12.00 (sold for less) is especially valuable for its illustrations. Jusserand's 'Literary
History of the English People' (to 1642, G. P. Putnam's Sons, three volumes, $3.50 a volume) should be
mentioned. Courthope's 'History of English Poetry' (Macmillan, six volumes, $3.25 a volume), is full and after
the first volume good. 'The Cambridge History of English Literature,' now nearing completion in fourteen
volumes (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $2.50 a volume) is the largest and in most parts the most scholarly general
work in the field, but is generally too technical except for special students. The short biographies of many of
the chief English authors in the English Men of Letters Series (Macmillan, 30 and 75 cents a volume) are
generally admirable. For appreciative criticism of some of the great poets the essays of Lowell and of
Matthew Arnold are among the best. Frederick Byland's 'Chronological Outlines of English Literature'
(Macmillan, $1.00) is very useful for reference though now much in need of revision. It is much to be desired
that students should have at hand for consultation some good short history of England, such as that of S. E.
Gardiner (Longmans, Green, and Co.) or that of J. R. Green.

FOREWORD. The two earliest of the nine main divisions of English Literature are by far the longest—taken
together are longer than all the others combined—but we shall pass rather rapidly over them. This is partly
because the amount of thoroughly great literature which they produced is small, and partly because for
present−day readers it is in effect a foreign literature, written in early forms of English or in foreign
languages, so that to−day it is intelligible only through special study or in translation.
THE BRITONS. The present English race has gradually shaped itself out of several distinct peoples which
successively occupied or conquered the island of Great Britain. The earliest one of these peoples which need
here be mentioned belonged to the Celtic family and was itself divided into two branches. The Goidels or
Gaels were settled in the northern part of the island, which is now Scotland, and were the ancestors of the
present Highland Scots. On English literature they exerted little or no influence until a late period. The
Britons, from whom the present Welsh are descended, inhabited what is now England and Wales; and they
were still further subdivided, like most barbarous peoples, into many tribes which were often at war with one
another. Though the Britons were conquered and chiefly supplanted later on by the Anglo−Saxons, enough of
them, as we shall see, were spared and intermarried with the victors to transmit something of their racial
qualities to the English nation and literature.
The characteristics of the Britons, which are those of the Celtic family as a whole, appear in their history and
in the scanty late remains of their literature. Two main traits include or suggest all the others: first, a vigorous
but fitful emotionalism which rendered them vivacious, lovers of novelty, and brave, but ineffective in
practical affairs; second, a somewhat fantastic but sincere and delicate sensitiveness to beauty. Into impetuous


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action they were easily hurried; but their momentary ardor easily cooled into fatalistic despondency. To the
mysterious charm of Nature—of hills and forests and pleasant breezes; to the loveliness and grace of
meadow−flowers or of a young man or a girl; to the varied sheen of rich colors—to all attractive objects of
sight and sound and motion their fancy responded keenly and joyfully; but they preferred chiefly to weave
these things into stories and verse of supernatural romance or vague suggestiveness; for substantial work of
solider structure either in life or in literature they possessed comparatively little faculty. Here is a description
(exceptionally beautiful, to be sure) from the story 'Kilhwch and Olwen':
'The maid was clothed in a robe of flame−colored silk, and about her neck was a collar of ruddy gold, on
which were precious emeralds and rubies. More yellow was her head than the flowers of the broom, and her
skin was whiter than the foam of the wave, and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the
wood anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountain. The eye of the trained hawk, the glance of the
three−mewed falcon, was not brighter than hers. Her bosom was more snowy than the breast of the white
swan, her cheeks were redder than the reddest roses. Who beheld her was filled with her love. Pour white
trefoils sprang up wherever she trod. And therefore was she called Olwen.'
This charming fancifulness and delicacy of feeling is apparently the great contribution of the Britons to
English literature; from it may perhaps be descended the fairy scenes of Shakspere and possibly to some
extent the lyrical music of Tennyson.
THE ROMAN OCCUPATION. Of the Roman conquest and occupation of Britain (England and Wales) we
need only make brief mention, since it produced virtually no effect on English literature. The fact should not
be forgotten that for over three hundred years, from the first century A. D. to the beginning of the fifth, the
island was a Roman province, with Latin as the language of the ruling class of Roman immigrants, who
introduced Roman civilization and later on Christianity, to the Britons of the towns and plains. But the interest
of the Romans in the island was centered on other things than writing, and the great bulk of the Britons
themselves seem to have been only superficially affected by the Roman supremacy. At the end of the Roman
rule, as at its beginning, they appear divided into mutually jealous tribes, still largely barbarous and primitive.
The Anglo−Saxons. Meanwhile across the North Sea the three Germanic tribes which were destined to form
the main element in the English race were multiplying and unconsciously preparing to swarm to their new
home. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes occupied territories in the region which includes parts of the present
Holland, of Germany about the mouth of the Elbe, and of Denmark. They were barbarians, living partly from
piratical expeditions against the northern and eastern coasts of Europe, partly from their flocks and herds, and
partly from a rude sort of agriculture. At home they seem to have sheltered themselves chiefly in unsubstantial
wooden villages, easily destroyed and easily abandoned; For the able−bodied freemen among them the chief
occupation, as a matter of course, was war. Strength, courage, and loyalty to king and comrades were the chief
virtues that they admired; ferocity and cruelty, especially to other peoples, were necessarily among their
prominent traits when their blood was up; though among themselves there was no doubt plenty of rough and
ready companionable good−humor. Their bleak country, where the foggy and unhealthy marshes of the coast
gave way further inland to vast and somber forests, developed in them during their long inactive winters a
sluggish and gloomy mood, in which, however, the alternating spirit of aggressive enterprise was never
quenched. In religion they had reached a moderately advanced state of heathenism, worshipping especially, it
seems, Woden, a 'furious' god as well as a wise and crafty one; the warrior Tiu; and the strong−armed Thunor
(the Scandinavian Thor); but together with these some milder deities like the goddess of spring, Eostre, from
whom our Easter is named. For the people on whom they fell these barbarians were a pitiless and terrible
scourge; yet they possessed in undeveloped form the intelligence, the energy, the strength—most of the
qualities of head and heart and body—which were to make of them one of the great world−races.
THE ANGLO−SAXON CONQUEST AND SETTLEMENT. The process by which Britain became England
was a part of the long agony which transformed the Roman Empire into modern Europe. In the fourth century


A History of English Literature
A. D. the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began to harry the southern and eastern shores of Britain, where the
Romans were obliged to maintain a special military establishment against them. But early in the fifth century
the Romans, hard−pressed even in Italy by other barbarian invaders, withdrew all their troops and completely
abandoned Britain. Not long thereafter, and probably before the traditional date of 449, the Jutes, Angles, and
Saxons began to come in large bands with the deliberate purpose of permanent settlement. Their conquest,
very different in its methods and results from that of the Romans, may roughly be said to have occupied a
hundred and fifty or two hundred years. The earlier invading hordes fixed themselves at various points on the
eastern and southern shore and gradually fought their way inland, and they were constantly augmented by new
arrivals. In general the Angles settled in the east and north and the Saxons in the south, while the less
numerous Jutes, the first to come, in Kent, soon ceased to count in the movement. In this way there naturally
came into existence a group of separate and rival kingdoms, which when they were not busy with the Britons
were often at war with each other. Their number varied somewhat from time to time as they were united or
divided; but on the whole, seven figured most prominently, whence comes the traditional name 'The Saxon
Heptarchy' (Seven Kingdoms). The resistance of the Britons to the Anglo−Saxon advance was often brave and
sometimes temporarily successful. Early in the sixth century, for example, they won at Mount Badon in the
south a great victory, later connected in tradition with the legendary name of King Arthur, which for many
years gave them security from further aggressions. But in the long run their racial defects proved fatal; they
were unable to combine in permanent and steady union, and tribe by tribe the newcomers drove them slowly
back; until early in the seventh century the Anglo−Saxons were in possession of nearly all of what is now
England, the exceptions being the regions all along the west coast, including what has ever since been, known
as Wales.
Of the Roman and British civilization the Anglo−Saxons were ruthless destroyers, exulting, like other
barbarians, in the wanton annihilation of things which they did not understand. Every city, or nearly every
one, which they took, they burned, slaughtering the inhabitants. They themselves occupied the land chiefly as
masters of scattered farms, each warrior established in a large rude house surrounded by its various
outbuildings and the huts of the British slaves and the Saxon and British bondmen. Just how largely the
Britons were exterminated and how largely they were kept alive as slaves and wives, is uncertain; but it is
evident that at least a considerable number were spared; to this the British names of many of our objects of
humble use, for example mattoc and basket, testify.
In the natural course of events, however, no sooner had the Anglo−Saxons destroyed the (imperfect and
partial) civilization of their predecessors than they began to rebuild one for themselves; possessors of a fertile
land, they settled down to develop it, and from tribes of lawless fighters were before long transformed into a
race of farmer−citizens. Gradually trade with the Continent, also, was reestablished and grew; but perhaps the
most important humanizing influence was the reintroduction of Christianity. The story is famous of how Pope
Gregory the Great, struck by the beauty of certain Angle slave−boys at Rome, declared that they ought to be
called not Angli but Angeli (angels) and forthwith, in 597, sent to Britain St. Augustine (not the famous
African saint of that name), who landed in Kent and converted that kingdom. Within the next two generations,
and after much fierce fighting between the adherents of the two religions, all the other kingdoms as well had
been christianized. It was only the southern half of the island, however, that was won by the Roman
missionaries; in the north the work was done independently by preachers from Ireland, where, in spite of
much anarchy, a certain degree of civilization had been preserved. These two types of Christianity, those of
Ireland and of Rome, were largely different in spirit. The Irish missionaries were simple and loving men and
won converts by the beauty of their lives; the Romans brought with them the architecture, music, and learning
of their imperial city and the aggressive energy which in the following centuries was to make their Church
supreme throughout the Western world. When the inevitable clash for supremacy came, the king of the
then−dominant Anglian kingdom, Northumbria, made choice of the Roman as against the Irish Church, a
choice which proved decisive for the entire island. And though our personal sympathies may well go to the
finer−spirited Irish, this outcome was on the whole fortunate; for only through religious union with Rome
during the slow centuries of medieval rebirth could England be bound to the rest of Europe as one of the


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family of cooperating Christian states; and outside that family she would have been isolated and spiritually
One of the greatest gifts of Christianity, it should be observed, and one of the most important influences in
medieval civilization, was the network of monasteries which were now gradually established and became
centers of active hospitality and the chief homes of such learning as was possible to the time.
doubtless brought with them from the Continent the rude beginnings of poetry, such as come first in the
literature of every people and consist largely of brief magical charms and of rough 'popular ballads' (ballads of
the people). The charms explain themselves as an inevitable product of primitive superstition; the ballads
probably first sprang up and developed, among all races, in much the following way. At the very beginning of
human society, long before the commencement of history, the primitive groups of savages who then
constituted mankind were instinctively led to express their emotions together, communally, in rhythmical
fashion. Perhaps after an achievement in hunting or war the village−group would mechanically fall into a
dance, sometimes, it might be, about their village fire. Suddenly from among the inarticulate cries of the
crowd some one excited individual would shout out a fairly distinct rhythmical expression. This expression,
which may be called a line, was taken up and repeated by the crowd; others might be added to it, and thus
gradually, in the course of generations, arose the regular habit of communal composition, composition of
something like complete ballads by the throng as a whole. This procedure ceased to be important everywhere
long before the literary period, but it led to the frequent composition by humble versifiers of more deliberate
poems which were still 'popular' because they circulated by word of mouth, only, from generation to
generation, among the common people, and formed one of the best expressions of their feeling. At an early
period also professional minstrels, called by the Anglo−Saxons scops or gleemen, disengaged themselves
from the crowd and began to gain their living by wandering from village to village or tribe to tribe chanting to
the harp either the popular ballads or more formal poetry of their own composition. Among all races when a
certain stage of social development is reached at least one such minstrel is to be found as a regular retainer at
the court of every barbarous chief or king, ready to entertain the warriors at their feasts, with chants of heroes
and battles and of the exploits of their present lord. All the earliest products of these processes of 'popular' and
minstrel composition are everywhere lost long before recorded literature begins, but the processes themselves
in their less formal stages continue among uneducated people (whose mental life always remains more or less
primitive) even down to the present time.
Out of the popular ballads, or, chiefly, of the minstrel poetry which is partly based on them, regularly
develops epic poetry. Perhaps a minstrel finds a number of ballads which deal with the exploits of a single
hero or with a single event. He combines them as best he can into a unified story and recites this on important
and stately occasions. As his work passes into general circulation other minstrels add other ballads, until at
last, very likely after many generations, a complete epic is formed, outwardly continuous and whole, but
generally more or less clearly separable on analysis into its original parts. Or, on the other hand, the
combination may be mostly performed all at once at a comparatively late period by a single great poet, who
with conscious art weaves together a great mass of separate materials into the nearly finished epic.
Not much Anglo−Saxon poetry of the pagan period has come down to us. By far the most important
remaining example is the epic 'Beowulf,' of about three thousand lines. This poem seems to have originated on
the Continent, but when and where are not now to be known. It may have been carried to England in the form
of ballads by the Anglo−Saxons; or it may be Scandinavian material, later brought in by Danish or Norwegian
pirates. At any rate it seems to have taken on its present form in England during the seventh and eighth
centuries. It relates, with the usual terse and unadorned power of really primitive poetry, how the hero
Beowulf, coming over the sea to the relief of King Hrothgar, delivers him from a monster, Grendel, and then
from the vengeance of Grendel's only less formidable mother. Returned home in triumph, Beowulf much later
receives the due reward of his valor by being made king of his own tribe, and meets his death while killing a


A History of English Literature
fire−breathing dragon which has become a scourge to his people. As he appears in the poem, Beowulf is an
idealized Anglo−Saxon hero, but in origin he may have been any one of several other different things. Perhaps
he was the old Germanic god Beowa, and his exploits originally allegories, like some of those in the Greek
mythology, of his services to man; he may, for instance, first have been the sun, driving away the mists and
cold of winter and of the swamps, hostile forces personified in Grendel and his mother. Or, Beowulf may
really have been a great human fighter who actually killed some especially formidable wild beasts, and whose
superhuman strength in the poem results, through the similarity of names, from his being confused with
Beowa. This is the more likely because there is in the poem a slight trace of authentic history. (See below,
under the assignments for study.)
'Beowulf' presents an interesting though very incomplete picture of the life of the upper, warrior, caste among
the northern Germanic tribes during their later period of barbarism on the Continent and in England, a life
more highly developed than that of the Anglo−Saxons before their conquest of the island. About King
Hrothgar are grouped his immediate retainers, the warriors, with whom he shares his wealth; it is a part of the
character, of a good king to be generous in the distribution of gifts of gold and weapons. Somewhere in the
background there must be a village, where the bondmen and slaves provide the daily necessaries of life and
where some of the warriors may have houses and families; but all this is beneath the notice of the courtly poet.
The center of the warriors' life is the great hall of the king, built chiefly of timber. Inside, there are benches
and tables for feasting, and the walls are perhaps adorned with tapestries. Near the center is the hearth,
whence the smoke must escape, if it escapes at all, through a hole in the roof. In the hall the warriors banquet,
sometimes in the company of their wives, but the women retire before the later revelry which often leaves the
men drunk on the floor. Sometimes, it seems, there are sleeping−rooms or niches about the sides of the hall,
but in 'Beowulf' Hrothgar and his followers retire to other quarters. War, feasting, and hunting are the only
occupations in which the warriors care to be thought to take an interest.
The spirit of the poem is somber and grim. There is no unqualified happiness of mood, and only brief hints of
delight in the beauty and joy of the world. Rather, there is stern satisfaction in the performance of the warrior's
and the sea−king's task, the determination of a strong−willed race to assert itself, and do, with much barbarian
boasting, what its hand finds to do in the midst of a difficult life and a hostile nature. For the ultimate force in
the universe of these fighters and their poets (in spite of certain Christian touches inserted by later poetic
editors before the poem crystallized into its present form) is Wyrd, the Fate of the Germanic peoples, cold as
their own winters and the bleak northern sea, irresistible, despotic, and unmoved by sympathy for man. Great
as the differences are, very much of this Anglo−Saxon pagan spirit persists centuries later in the English
For the finer artistic graces, also, and the structural subtilties of a more developed literary period, we must not,
of course, look in 'Beowulf.' The narrative is often more dramatic than clear, and there is no thought of any
minuteness of characterization. A few typical characters stand out clearly, and they were all that the poet's
turbulent and not very attentive audience could understand. But the barbaric vividness and power of the poem
give it much more than a merely historical interest; and the careful reader cannot fail to realize that it is after
all the product of a long period of poetic development.
THE ANGLO−SAXON VERSE−FORM. The poetic form of 'Beowulf' is that of virtually all Anglo−Saxon
poetry down to the tenth century, or indeed to the end, a form which is roughly represented in the present
book in a passage of imitative translation two pages below. The verse is unrimed, not arranged in stanzas, and
with lines more commonly end−stopped (with distinct pauses at the ends) than is true in good modern poetry.
Each line is divided into halves and each half contains two stressed syllables, generally long in quantity. The
number of unstressed syllables appears to a modern eye or ear irregular and actually is very unequal, but they
are really combined with the stressed ones into 'feet' in accordance with certain definite principles. At least
one of the stressed syllables in each half−line must be in alliteration with one in the other half−line; and most
often the alliteration includes both stressed syllables in the first halfline and the first stressed syllable in the


A History of English Literature
second, occasionally all four stressed syllables. (All vowels are held to alliterate with each other.) It will be
seen therefore that (1) emphatic stress and (2) alliteration are the basal principles of the system. To a
present−day reader the verse sounds crude, the more so because of the harshly consonantal character of the
Anglo−Saxon language; and in comparison with modern poetry it is undoubtedly unmelodious. But it was
worked out on conscious artistic principles, carefully followed; and when chanted, as it was meant to be, to
the harp it possessed much power and even beauty of a vigorous sort, to which the pictorial and metaphorical
wealth of the Anglo−Saxon poetic vocabulary largely contributed.
This last−named quality, the use of metaphors, is perhaps the most conspicuous one in the style, of the
Anglo−Saxon poetry. The language, compared to that of our own vastly more complex time, was
undeveloped; but for use in poetry, especially, there were a great number of periphrastic but vividly
picturesque metaphorical synonyms (technically called kennings). Thus the spear becomes 'the
slaughter−shaft'; fighting 'hand−play'; the sword 'the leavings of the hammer' (or 'of the anvil'); and a ship 'the
foamy−necked floater.' These kennings add much imaginative suggestiveness to the otherwise over−terse
style, and often contribute to the grim irony which is another outstanding trait.
ANGLO−SAXON POETRY. THE NORTHUMBRIAN PERIOD. The Anglo−Saxons were for a long time
fully occupied with the work of conquest and settlement, and their first literature of any importance, aside
from 'Beowulf,' appears at about the time when 'Beowulf' was being put into its present form, namely in the
seventh century. This was in the Northern, Anglian, kingdom of Northumbria (Yorkshire and Southern
Scotland), which, as we have already said, had then won the political supremacy, and whose monasteries and
capital city, York, thanks to the Irish missionaries, had become the chief centers of learning and culture in
Western Christian Europe. Still pagan in spirit are certain obscure but, ingenious and skillfully developed
riddles in verse, representatives of one form of popular literature only less early than the ballads and charms.
There remain also a few pagan lyric poems, which are all not only somber like 'Beowulf' but distinctly
elegiac, that is pensively melancholy. They deal with the hard and tragic things in life, the terrible power of
ocean and storm, or the inexorableness and dreariness of death, banishment, and the separation of friends. In
their frequent tender notes of pathos there may be some influence from the Celtic spirit. The greater part of the
literature of the period, however, was Christian, produced in the monasteries or under their influence. The first
Christian writer was Caedmon (pronounced Kadmon), who toward the end of the seventh century paraphrased
in Anglo−Saxon verse some portions of the Bible. The legend of his divine call is famous. [Footnote: It may
be found in Garnett and Gosse, I, 19−20.] The following is a modern rendering of the hymn which is said to
have been his first work:
Now must we worship the heaven−realm's Warder,
The Maker's might and his mind's thought,
The glory−father's work as he every wonder,
Lord everlasting, of old established.
He first fashioned the firmament for mortals,
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.
Then the midearth mankind's Warder,
Lord everlasting, afterwards wrought,
For men a garden, God almighty.
After Caedmon comes Bede, not a poet but a monk of strong and beautiful character, a profound scholar who
in nearly forty Latin prose works summarized most of the knowledge of his time. The other name to be
remembered is that of Cynewulf (pronounced Kinnywulf), the author of some noble religious poetry (in
Anglo−Saxon), especially narratives dealing with Christ and Christian Apostles and heroes. There is still other
Anglo−Saxon Christian poetry, generally akin in subjects to Cynewulf's, but in most of the poetry of the
whole period the excellence results chiefly from the survival of the old pagan spirit which distinguishes
'Beowulf'. Where the poet writes for edification he is likely to be dull, but when his story provides him with


A History of English Literature
sea−voyages, with battles, chances for dramatic dialogue, or any incidents of vigorous action or of passion,
the zest for adventure and war rekindles, and we have descriptions and narratives of picturesque color and
stern force. Sometimes there is real religious yearning, and indeed the heroes of these poems are partly
medieval hermits and ascetics as well as quick−striking fighters; but for the most part the Christian
Providence is really only the heathen Wyrd under another name, and God and Christ are viewed in much the
same way as the Anglo−Saxon kings, the objects of feudal allegiance which is sincere but rather self−assertive
and worldly than humble or consecrated.
On the whole, then, Anglo−Saxon poetry exhibits the limitations of a culturally early age, but it manifests also
a degree of power which gives to Anglo−Saxon literature unquestionable superiority over that of any other
European country of the same period.
THE WEST−SAXON, PROSE, PERIOD. The horrors which the Anglo−Saxons had inflicted on the Britons
they themselves were now to suffer from their still heathen and piratical kinsmen the 'Danes' or Northmen,
inhabitants or the Scandinavian peninsula and the neighboring coasts. For a hundred years, throughout the
ninth century, the Danes, appearing with unwearied persistence, repeatedly ravaged and plundered England,
and they finally made complete conquest of Northumbria, destroyed all the churches and monasteries, and
almost completely extinguished learning. It is a familiar story how Alfred, king from 871 to 901 of the
southern kingdom of Wessex (the land of the West Saxons), which had now taken first place among the
Anglo−Saxon states, stemmed the tide of invasion and by ceding to the 'Danes' the whole northeastern half of
the island obtained for the remainder the peace which was the first essential for the reestablishment of
civilization. Peace secured, Alfred, who was one of the greatest of all English kings, labored unremittingly for
learning, as for everything else that was useful, and he himself translated from Latin into Anglo−Saxon half a
dozen of the best informational manuals of his time, manuals of history, philosophy, and religion. His most
enduring literary work, however, was the inspiration and possibly partial authorship of the 'Anglo−Saxon
Chronicle,' a series of annals beginning with the Christian era, kept at various monasteries, and recording year
by year (down to two centuries and a half after Alfred's own death), the most important events of history,
chiefly that of England. Most of the entries in the 'Chronicle' are bare and brief, but sometimes, especially in
the accounts of Alfred's own splendid exploits, a writer is roused to spirited narrative, occasionally in verse;
and in the tenth century two great battles against invading Northmen, at Brunanburh and Maldon, produced
the only important extant pieces of Anglo−Saxon poetry which certainly belong to the West Saxon period.
For literature, indeed, the West−Saxon period has very little permanent significance. Plenty of its other
writing remains in the shape of religious prose—sermons, lives and legends of saints, biblical paraphrases,
and similar work in which the monastic and priestly spirit took delight, but which is generally dull with the
dulness of medieval commonplace didacticism and fantastic symbolism. The country, too, was still distracted
with wars. Within fifty years after Alfred's death, to be sure, his descendants had won back the whole of
England from 'Danish' rule (though the 'Danes,' then constituting half the population of the north and east,
have remained to the present day a large element in the English race). But near the end of the tenth century
new swarms of 'Danes' reappeared from the Baltic lands, once more slaughtering and devastating, until at last
in the eleventh century the 'Danish' though Christian Canute ruled for twenty years over all England. In such a
time there could be little intellectual or literary life. But the decline of the Anglo−Saxon literature speaks also
partly of stagnation in the race itself. The people, though still sturdy, seem to have become somewhat dull
from inbreeding and to have required an infusion of altogether different blood from without. This necessary
renovation was to be violently forced upon them, for in 1066 Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey
with his army of adventurers and his ill−founded claim to the crown, and before him at Hastings fell the
gallant Harold and his nobles. By the fortune of this single fight, followed only by stern suppression of
spasmodic outbreaks, William established himself and his vassals as masters of the land. England ceased to be
Anglo−Saxon and became, altogether politically, and partly in race, Norman−French, a change more radical
and far−reaching than any which it has since undergone. [Footnote: Vivid though inaccurate pictures of life
and events at the time of the Norman Conquest are given in Bulwer−Lytton's 'Harold' and Charles Kingsley's


A History of English Literature
'Hereward the Wake.' Tennyson's tragedy 'Harold' is much better than either, though more limited in scope.]

ABOUT 1350
[Footnote: Scott's 'Ivanhoe,' the best−known work of fiction dealing with any part of this period, is
interesting, but as a picture of life at the end of the twelfth century is very misleading. The date assigned to his
'Betrothed,' one of his less important, novels, is about the same.]
THE NORMANS. The Normans who conquered England were originally members of the same stock as the
'Danes' who had harried and conquered it in the preceding centuries—the ancestors of both were bands of
Baltic and North Sea pirates who merely happened to emigrate in different directions; and a little farther back
the Normans were close cousins, in the general Germanic family, of the Anglo−Saxons themselves. The
exploits of this whole race of Norse sea−kings make one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of
medieval Europe. In the ninth and tenth centuries they mercilessly ravaged all the coasts not only of the West
but of all Europe from the Rhine to the Adriatic. 'From the fury of the Norsemen, good Lord, deliver us!' was
a regular part of the litany of the unhappy French. They settled Iceland and Greenland and prematurely
discovered America; they established themselves as the ruling aristocracy in Russia, and as the imperial
body−guard and chief bulwark of the Byzantine empire at Constantinople; and in the eleventh century they
conquered southern Italy and Sicily, whence in the first crusade they pressed on with unabated vigor to Asia
Minor. Those bands of them with whom we are here concerned, and who became known distinctively as
Normans, fastened themselves as settlers, early in the eleventh century, on the northern shore of France, and
in return for their acceptance of Christianity and acknowledgment of the nominal feudal sovereignty of the
French king were recognized as rightful possessors of the large province which thus came to bear the name of
Normandy. Here by intermarriage with the native women they rapidly developed into a race which while
retaining all their original courage and enterprise took on also, together with the French language, the French
intellectual brilliancy and flexibility and in manners became the chief exponent of medieval chivalry.
The different elements contributed to the modern English character by the latest stocks which have been
united in it have been indicated by Matthew Arnold in a famous passage ('On the Study of Celtic Literature'):
'The Germanic [Anglo−Saxon and 'Danish'] genius has steadiness as its main basis, with commonness and
humdrum for its defect, fidelity to nature for its excellence. The Norman genius, talent for affairs as its main
basis, with strenuousness and clear rapidity for its excellence, hardness and insolence for its defect.' The
Germanic (Anglo−Saxon and 'Danish') element explains, then, why uneducated Englishmen of all times have
been thick−headed, unpleasantly self−assertive, and unimaginative, but sturdy fighters; and the Norman strain
why upper−class Englishmen have been self−contained, inclined to snobbishness, but vigorously aggressive
and persevering, among the best conquerors, organizers, and administrators in the history of the world.
SOCIAL RESULTS OF THE CONQUEST. In most respects, or all, the Norman conquest accomplished
precisely that racial rejuvenation of which, as we have seen, Anglo−Saxon England stood in need. For the
Normans brought with them from France the zest for joy and beauty and dignified and stately ceremony in
which the Anglo−Saxon temperament was poor—they brought the love of light−hearted song and chivalrous
sports, of rich clothing, of finely−painted manuscripts, of noble architecture in cathedrals and palaces, of
formal religious ritual, and of the pomp and display of all elaborate pageantry. In the outcome they largely
reshaped the heavy mass of Anglo−Saxon life into forms of grace and beauty and brightened its duller surface
with varied and brilliant colors. For the Anglo−Saxons themselves, however, the Conquest meant at first little
else than that bitterest and most complete of all national disasters, hopeless subjection to a tyrannical and
contemptuous foe. The Normans were not heathen, as the 'Danes' had been, and they were too few in number
to wish to supplant the conquered people; but they imposed themselves, both politically and socially, as stern
and absolute masters. King William confirmed in their possessions the few Saxon nobles and lesser


A History of English Literature
land−owners who accepted his rule and did not later revolt; but both pledges and interest compelled him to
bestow most of the estates of the kingdom, together with the widows of their former holders, on his own
nobles and the great motley throng of turbulent fighters who had made up his invading army. In the lordships
and manors, therefore, and likewise in the great places of the Church, were established knights and nobles, the
secular ones holding in feudal tenure from the king or his immediate great vassals, and each supported in turn
by Norman men−at−arms; and to them were subjected as serfs, workers bound to the land, the greater part of
the Saxon population. As visible signs of the changed order appeared here and there throughout the country
massive and gloomy castles of stone, and in the larger cities, in place of the simple Anglo−Saxon churches,
cathedrals lofty and magnificent beyond all Anglo−Saxon dreams. What sufferings, at the worst, the Normans
inflicted on the Saxons is indicated in a famous passage of the 'Anglo−Saxon Chronicle,' an entry seventy
years subsequent to the Conquest, of which the least distressing part may be thus paraphrased:
'They filled the land full of castles. [Footnote: This was only during a period of anarchy. For the most part the
nobles lived in manor−houses, very rude according to our ideas. See Train's 'Social England,' I, 536 ff.] They
compelled the wretched men of the land to build their castles and wore them out with hard labor. When the
castles were made they filled them with devils and evil men. Then they took all those whom they thought to
have any property, both by night and by day, both men and women, and put them in prison for gold and silver,
and tormented them with tortures that cannot be told; for never were any martyrs so tormented as these were.'
race and identity were destined to be absorbed in those of the Anglo−Saxons could never have occurred to any
of the Normans who stood with William at Hastings, and scarcely to any of their children. Yet this result was
predetermined by the stubborn tenacity and numerical superiority of the conquered people and by the easy
adaptability of the Norman temperament. Racially, and to a less extent socially, intermarriage did its work,
and that within a very few generations. Little by little, also, Norman contempt and Saxon hatred were softened
into tolerance, and at last even into a sentiment of national unity. This sentiment was finally to be confirmed
by the loss of Normandy and other French possessions of the Norman−English kings in the thirteenth century,
a loss which transformed England from a province of the Norman Continental empire and of a foreign nobility
into an independent country, and further by the wars ('The Hundred Years' War') which England−Norman
nobility and Saxon yeomen fighting together—carried on in France in the fourteenth century.
In language and literature the most general immediate result of the Conquest was to make of England a
trilingual country, where Latin, French, and Anglo−Saxon were spoken separately side by side. With Latin,
the tongue of the Church and of scholars, the Norman clergy were much more thoroughly familiar than the
Saxon priests had been; and the introduction of the richer Latin culture resulted, in the latter half of the twelfth
century, at the court of Henry II, in a brilliant outburst of Latin literature. In England, as well as in the rest of
Western Europe, Latin long continued to be the language of religious and learned writing—down to the
sixteenth century or even later. French, that dialect of it which was spoken by the Normans—Anglo−French
(English−French) it has naturally come to be called—was of course introduced by the Conquest as the
language of the governing and upper social class, and in it also during the next three or four centuries a
considerable body of literature was produced. Anglo−Saxon, which we may now term English, remained
inevitably as the language of the subject race, but their literature was at first crushed down into insignificance.
Ballads celebrating the resistance of scattered Saxons to their oppressors no doubt circulated widely on the
lips of the people, but English writing of the more formal sorts, almost absolutely ceased for more than a
century, to make a new beginning about the year 1200. In the interval the 'Anglo−Saxon Chronicle' is the only
important document, and even this, continued at the monastery of Peterboro, comes to an end in 1154, in the
midst of the terrible anarchy of Stephen's reign.
It must not be supposed, notwithstanding, that the Normans, however much they despised the English
language and literature, made any effort to destroy it. On the other hand, gradual union of the two languages
was no less inevitable than that of the races themselves. From, the very first the need of communication, with


A History of English Literature
their subjects must have rendered it necessary for the Normans to acquire some knowledge of the English
language; and the children of mixed parentage of course learned it from their mothers. The use of French
continued in the upper strata of society, in the few children's schools that existed, and in the law courts, for
something like three centuries, maintaining itself so long partly because French was then the polite language
of Western Europe. But the dead pressure of English was increasingly strong, and by the end of the fourteenth
century and of Chaucer's life French had chiefly given way to it even at Court. [Footnote: For details see O. F.
Emerson's 'History of the English Language,' chapter 4; and T. B. Lounsbury's 'History of the English
Language.'] As we have already implied, however, the English which triumphed was in fact
English−French—English was enabled to triumph partly because it had now largely absorbed the French. For
the first one hundred or one hundred and fifty years, it seems, the two languages remained for the most part
pretty clearly distinct, but in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries English, abandoning its first aloofness,
rapidly took into itself a large part of the French (originally Latin) vocabulary; and under the influence of the
French it carried much farther the process of dropping its own comparatively complicated grammatical
inflections—a process which had already gained much momentum even before the Conquest. This absorption
of the French was most fortunate for English. To the Anglo−Saxon vocabulary—vigorous, but harsh, limited
in extent, and lacking in fine discriminations and power of abstract expression, was now added nearly the
whole wealth of French, with its fullness, flexibility, and grace. As a direct consequence the resulting
language, modern English, is the richest and most varied instrument of expression ever developed at any time
by any race.
THE RESULT FOR POETRY. For poetry the fusion meant even more than for prose. The metrical system,
which begins to appear in the thirteenth century and comes to perfection a century and a half later in Chaucer's
poems combined what may fairly be called the better features of both the systems from which it was
compounded. We have seen that Anglo−Saxon verse depended on regular stress of a definite number of
quantitatively long syllables in each line and on alliteration; that it allowed much variation in the number of
unstressed syllables; and that it was without rime. French verse, on the other hand, had rime (or assonance)
and carefully preserved identity in the total number of syllables in corresponding lines, but it was uncertain as
regarded the number of clearly stressed ones. The derived English system adopted from the French (1) rime
and (2) identical line−length, and retained from the Anglo−Saxon (3) regularity of stress. (4) It largely
abandoned the Anglo−Saxon regard for quantity and (5) it retained alliteration not as a basic principle but as
an (extremely useful) subordinate device. This metrical system, thus shaped, has provided the indispensable
formal basis for making English poetry admittedly the greatest in the modern world.
THE ENGLISH DIALECTS. The study of the literature of the period is further complicated by the division of
English into dialects. The Norman Conquest put a stop to the progress of the West−Saxon dialect toward
complete supremacy, restoring the dialects of the other parts of the island to their former positions of equal
authority. The actual result was the development of three groups of dialects, the Southern, Midland (divided
into East and West) and Northern, all differing among themselves in forms and even in vocabulary. Literary
activity when it recommenced was about equally distributed among the three, and for three centuries it was
doubtful which of them would finally win the first place. In the outcome success fell to the East Midland
dialect, partly through the influence of London, which under the Norman kings replaced Winchester as the
capital city and seat of the Court and Parliament, and partly through the influence of the two Universities,
Oxford and Cambridge, which gradually grew up during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and attracted
students from all parts of the country. This victory of the East Midland form was marked by, though it was not
in any large degree due to, the appearance in the fourteenth century of the first great modern English poet,
Chaucer. To the present day, however, the three dialects, and subdivisions of them, are easily distinguishable
in colloquial use; the common idiom of such regions as Yorkshire and Cornwall is decidedly different from
that of London or indeed any other part of the country.
One of the most striking general facts in the later Middle Ages is the uniformity of life in many of its aspects


A History of English Literature
throughout all Western Europe. [Footnote: Differences are clearly presented in Charles Reade's novel, 'The
Cloister and the Hearth,' though this deals with the period following that with which we are here concerned.]
It was only during this period that the modern nations, acquiring national consciousness, began definitely to
shape themselves out of the chaos which had followed the fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Church,
firmly established in every corner of every land, was the actual inheritor of much of the unifying power of the
Roman government, and the feudal system everywhere gave to society the same political organization and
ideals. In a truer sense, perhaps, than at any later time, Western Europe was one great brotherhood, thinking
much the same thoughts, speaking in part the same speech, and actuated by the same beliefs. At least, the
literature of the period, largely composed and copied by the great army of monks, exhibits everywhere a
thorough uniformity in types and ideas.
We of the twentieth century should not allow ourselves to think vaguely of the Middle Ages as a benighted or
shadowy period when life and the people who constituted it had scarcely anything in common with ourselves.
In reality the men of the Middle Ages were moved by the same emotions and impulses as our own, and their
lives presented the same incongruous mixture of nobility and baseness. Yet it is true that the externals of their
existence were strikingly different from those of more recent times. In society the feudal system—lords with
their serfs, towns struggling for municipal independence, kings and nobles doing, peaceably or with violence,
very much what they pleased; a constant condition of public or private war; cities walled as a matter of course
for protection against bands of robbers or hostile armies; the country still largely covered with forests,
wildernesses, and fens; roads infested with brigands and so bad that travel was scarcely possible except on
horseback; in private life, most of the modern comforts unknown, and the houses, even of the wealthy, so
filthy and uncomfortable that all classes regularly, almost necessarily, spent most of the daylight hours in the
open air; in industry no coal, factories, or large machinery, but in the towns guilds of workmen each turning
out by hand his slow product of single articles; almost no education except for priests and monks, almost no
conceptions of genuine science or history, but instead the abstract system of scholastic logic and philosophy,
highly ingenious but highly fantastic; in religion no outward freedom of thought except for a few courageous
spirits, but the arbitrary dictates of a despotic hierarchy, insisting on an ironbound creed which the
remorseless process of time was steadily rendering more and more inadequate—this offers some slight
suggestion of the conditions of life for several centuries, ending with the period with which we are now
In medieval literature likewise the modern student encounters much which seems at first sight grotesque. One
of the most conspicuous examples is the pervasive use of allegory. The men of the Middle Ages often wrote,
as we do, in direct terms and of simple things, but when they wished to rise above the commonplace they
turned with a frequency which to−day appears astonishing to the devices of abstract personification and veiled
meanings. No doubt this tendency was due in part to an idealizing dissatisfaction with the crudeness of their
actual life (as well as to frequent inability to enter into the realm of deeper and finer thought without the aid of
somewhat mechanical imagery); and no doubt it was greatly furthered also by the medieval passion for
translating into elaborate and fantastic symbolism all the details of the Bible narratives. But from whatever
cause, the tendency hardened into a ruling convention; thousands upon thousands of medieval manuscripts
seem to declare that the world is a mirage of shadowy forms, or that it exists merely to body forth remote and
highly surprising ideas.
Of all these countless allegories none was reiterated with more unwearied persistence than that of the Seven
Deadly Sins (those sins which in the doctrine of the Church lead to spiritual death because they are wilfully
committed). These sins are: Covetousness, Unchastity, Anger, Gluttony, Envy, Sloth, and, chief of all, Pride,
the earliest of all, through which Lucifer was moved to his fatal rebellion against God, whence spring all
human ills. Each of the seven, however, was interpreted as including so many related offences that among
them they embraced nearly the whole range of possible wickedness. Personified, the Seven Sins in themselves
almost dominate medieval literature, a sort of shadowy evil pantheon. Moral and religious questions could
scarcely be discussed without regard to them; and they maintain their commanding place even as late as in


A History of English Literature
Spenser's 'Faerie Queene,' at the very end of the sixteenth century. To the Seven Sins were commonly
opposed, but with much less emphasis, the Seven Cardinal Virtues, Faith, Hope, Charity (Love), Prudence,
Temperance, Chastity, and Fortitude. Again, almost as prominent as the Seven Sins was the figure of Fortune
with her revolving wheel, a goddess whom the violent vicissitudes and tragedies of life led the men of the
Middle Ages, in spite of their Christianity, to bring over from classical literature and virtually to accept as a
real divinity, with almost absolute control in human affairs. In the seventeenth century Shakspere's plays are
full of allusions to her, but so for that matter is the everyday talk of all of us in the twentieth century.
LITERATURE IN THE THREE LANGUAGES. It is not to the purpose in a study like the present to give
special attention to the literature written in England in Latin and French; we can speak only briefly of that
composed in English. But in fact when the English had made its new beginning, about the year 1200, the same
general forms flourished in all three languages, so that what is said in general of the English applies almost as
much to the other two as well.
RELIGIOUS LITERATURE. We may virtually divide all the literature of the period, roughly, into (1)
Religious and (2) Secular. But it must be observed that religious writings were far more important as literature
during the Middle Ages than in more recent times, and the separation between religious and secular less
distinct than at present. The forms of the religious literature were largely the same as in the previous period.
There were songs, many of them addressed to the Virgin, some not only beautiful in their sincere and tender
devotion, speaking for the finer spirits in an age of crudeness and violence, but occasionally beautiful as
poetry. There were paraphrases of many parts of the Bible, lives of saints, in both verse and prose, and various
other miscellaneous work. Perhaps worthy of special mention among single productions is the 'Cursor Mundi'
(Surveyor of the World), an early fourteenth century poem of twenty−four thousand lines ('Paradise Lost' has
less than eleven thousand), relating universal history from the beginning, on the basis of the Biblical narrative.
Most important of all for their promise of the future, there were the germs of the modern drama in the form of
the Church plays; but to these we shall give special attention in a later chapter.
SECULAR LITERATURE. In secular literature the variety was greater than in religious. We may begin by
transcribing one or two of the songs, which, though not as numerous then as in some later periods, show that
the great tradition of English secular lyric poetry reaches back from our own time to that of the Anglo−Saxons
without a break. The best known of all is the 'Cuckoo Song,' of the thirteenth century, intended to be sung in
harmony by four voices:
Sumer is icumen in;
Lhude sing, cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springth the wde nu.
Sing, cuccu!
Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu.
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth;
Murie sing, cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu,
Wel singes thu, cuccu;
Ne swik thu never nu.
Summer is come in; loud sing, cuckoo! Grows the seed and blooms the mead [meadow] and buds the wood
anew. Sing, cuckoo! The ewe bleats for the lamb, lows for the calf the cow. The bullock gambols, the buck
leaps; merrily sing, cuckoo! Cuckoo, cuckoo, well singest thou, cuckoo; cease thou never now.
The next is the first stanza of 'Alysoun' ('Fair Alice'):


A History of English Literature
Bytuene Mersh ant Averil,
When spray beginnth to springe,
The lutel foul hath hire wyl
On hyre lud to synge.
Ieh libbe in love−longinge
For semlokest of alle thinge;
He may me blisse bringe;
Icham in hire baundoun.
An hendy hap ichabbe ybent;
Iehot from hevene it is me sent;
From alle wymmen mi love is lent
Ant lyht on Alysoun.
Between March and April, When the sprout begins to spring, The little bird has her desire In her tongue to
sing. I live in love−longing For the fairest of all things; She may bring me bliss; I am at her mercy. A lucky lot
I have secured; I think from heaven it is sent me; From all women my love is turned And is lighted on
There were also political and satirical songs and miscellaneous poems of various sorts, among them certain
'Bestiaries,' accounts of the supposed habits of animals, generally drawn originally from classical tradition,
and most of them highly fantastic and allegorized in the interests of morality and religion. There was an
abundance of extremely realistic coarse tales, hardly belonging to literature, in both prose and verse. The
popular ballads of the fourteenth century we must reserve for later consideration. Most numerous of all the
prose works, perhaps, were the Chronicles, which were produced generally in the monasteries and chiefly in
the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the greater part in Latin, some in French, and a few in rude English verse.
Many of them were mere annals like the Anglo−Saxon Chronicle, but some were the lifelong works of men
with genuine historical vision. Some dealt merely with the history of England, or a part of it, others with that
of the entire world as it was known to medieval Europe. The majority will never be withdrawn from the
obscurity of the manuscripts on which the patient care of their authors inscribed them; others have been
printed in full and serve as the main basis for our knowledge of the events of the period.
THE ROMANCES. But the chief form of secular literature during the period, beginning in the middle of the
twelfth century, was the romance, especially the metrical (verse) romance. The typical romances were the
literary expression of chivalry. They were composed by the professional minstrels, some of whom, as in
Anglo−Saxon times, were richly supported and rewarded by kings and nobles, while others still wandered
about the country, always welcome in the manor−houses. There, like Scott's Last Minstrel, they recited their
sometimes almost endless works from memory, in the great halls or in the ladies' bowers, to the
accompaniment of occasional strains on their harps. For two or three centuries the romances were to the lords
and ladies, and to the wealthier citizens of the towns, much what novels are to the reading public of our own
day. By far the greater part of the romances current in England were written in French, whether by Normans
or by French natives of the English provinces in France, and the English ones which have been preserved are
mostly translations or imitations of French originals. The romances are extreme representatives of the whole
class of literature of all times to which they have given the name. Frankly abandoning in the main the world of
reality, they carry into that of idealized and glamorous fancy the chief interests of the medieval lords and
ladies, namely, knightly exploits in war, and lovemaking. Love in the romances, also, retains all its courtly
affectations, together with that worship of woman by man which in the twelfth century was exalted into a
sentimental art by the poets of wealthy and luxurious Provence in Southern France. Side by side, again, with
war and love, appears in the romances medieval religion, likewise conventionalized and childishly
superstitious, but in some inadequate degree a mitigator of cruelty and a restrainer of lawless passion.
Artistically, in some respects or all, the greater part of the romances are crude and immature. Their usual main
or only purpose is to hold attention by successions of marvellous adventures, natural or supernatural; of


A History of English Literature
structure, therefore, they are often destitute; the characters are ordinarily mere types; and motivation is little
considered. There were, however, exceptional authors, genuine artists, masters of meter and narrative,
possessed by a true feeling for beauty; and in some of the romances the psychological analysis of love, in
particular, is subtile and powerful, the direct precursor of one of the main developments in modern fiction.
The romances may very roughly be grouped into four great classes. First in time, perhaps, come those which
are derived from the earlier French epics and in which love, if it appears at all, is subordinated to the military
exploits of Charlemagne and his twelve peers in their wars against the Saracens. Second are the romances
which, battered salvage from a greater past, retell in strangely altered romantic fashion the great stories of
classical antiquity, mainly the achievements of Alexander the Great and the tragic fortunes of Troy. Third
come the Arthurian romances, and fourth those scattering miscellaneous ones which do not belong to the other
classes, dealing, most of them, with native English heroes. Of these, two, 'King Horn' and 'Havelok,' spring
direct from the common people and in both substance and expression reflect the hard reality of their lives,
while 'Guy of Warwick' and 'Bevis of Hampton,' which are among the best known but most tedious of all the
list, belong, in their original form, to the upper classes.
Of all the romances the Arthurian are by far the most important. They belong peculiarly to English literature,
because they are based on traditions of British history, but they have assumed a very prominent place in the
literature of the whole western world. Rich in varied characters and incidents to which a universal significance
could be attached, in their own time they were the most popular works of their class; and living on vigorously
after the others were forgotten, they have continued to form one of the chief quarries of literary material and
one of the chief sources of inspiration for modern poets and romancers. It seems well worth while, therefore,
to outline briefly their literary history.
The period in which their scene is nominally laid is that of the Anglo−Saxon conquest of Great Britain. Of the
actual historical events of this period extremely little is known, and even the capital question whether such a
person as Arthur ever really existed can never receive a definite answer. The only contemporary writer of the
least importance is the Briton (priest or monk), Gildas, who in a violent Latin pamphlet of about the year 550
('The Destruction and Conquest of Britain') denounces his countrymen for their sins and urges them to unite
against the Saxons; and Gildas gives only the slightest sketch of what had actually happened. He tells how a
British king (to whom later tradition assigns the name Vortigern) invited in the Anglo−Saxons as allies
against the troublesome northern Scots and Picts, and how the Anglo−Saxons, victorious against these tribes,
soon turned in furious conquest against the Britons themselves, until, under a certain Ambrosius Aurelianus, a
man 'of Roman race,' the Britons successfully defended themselves and at last in the battle of Mount Badon
checked the Saxon advance.
Next in order after Gildas, but not until about the year 800, appears a strangely jumbled document, last edited
by a certain Nennius, and entitled 'Historia Britonum' (The History of the Britons), which adds to Gildas'
outline traditions, natural and supernatural, which had meanwhile been growing up among the Britons
(Welsh). It supplies the names of the earliest Saxon leaders, Hengist and Horsa (who also figure in the
'Anglo−Saxon Chronicle'), and narrates at length their treacherous dealings with Vortigern. Among other
stories we find that of Vortigern's tower, where Gildas' Ambrosius appears as a boy of supernatural nature,
destined to develop in the romances into the great magician Merlin. In Nennius' book occurs also the earliest
mention of Arthur, who, in a comparatively sober passage, is said, some time after the days of Vortigern, to
have 'fought against the Saxons, together with the kings of the Britons, but he himself was leader in the
battles.' A list, also, is given of his twelve victories, ending with Mount Badon. It is impossible to decide
whether there is really any truth in this account of Nennius, or whether it springs wholly from the imagination
of the Britons, attempting to solace themselves for their national overthrow; but it allows us to believe if we
choose that sometime in the early sixth century there was a British leader of the name of Arthur, who by
military genius rose to high command and for a while beat back the Saxon hordes. At most, however, it
should be clearly realized, Arthur was probably only a local leader in some limited region, and, far from


A History of English Literature
filling the splendid place which he occupies in the later romances, was but the hard−pressed captain of a few
thousand barbarous and half−armed warriors.
For three hundred years longer the traditions about Arthur continued to develop among the Welsh people. The
most important change which took place was Arthur's elevation to the position of chief hero of the British
(Welsh) race and the subordination to him, as his followers, of all the other native heroes, most of whom had
originally been gods. To Arthur himself certain divine attributes were added, such as his possession of magic
weapons, among them the sword Excalibur. It also came to be passionately believed among the Welsh that he
was not really dead but would some day return from the mysterious Other World to which he had withdrawn
and reconquer the island for his people. It was not until the twelfth century that these Arthurian traditions, the
cherished heritage of the Welsh and their cousins, the Bretons across the English Channel in France, were
suddenly adopted as the property of all Western Europe, so that Arthur became a universal Christian hero.
This remarkable transformation, no doubt in some degree inevitable, was actually brought about chiefly
through the instrumentality of a single man, a certain English archdeacon of Welsh descent, Geoffrey of
Monmouth. Geoffrey, a literary and ecclesiastical adventurer looking about for a means of making himself
famous, put forth about the year 1136, in Latin, a 'History of the Britons' from the earliest times to the seventh
century, in which, imitating the form of the serious chronicles, he combined in cleverly impudent fashion all
the adaptable miscellaneous material, fictitious, legendary, or traditional, which he found at hand. In dealing
with Arthur, Geoffrey greatly enlarges on Gildas and Nennius; in part, no doubt, from his own invention, in
part, perhaps, from Welsh tradition. He provides Arthur with a father, King Uther, makes of Arthur's wars
against the Saxons only his youthful exploits, relates at length how Arthur conquered almost all of Western
Europe, and adds to the earlier story the figures of Merlin, Guenevere, Modred, Gawain, Kay, and Bedivere.
What is not least important, he gives to Arthur's reign much of the atmosphere of feudal chivalry which was
that of the ruling class of his own age.
Geoffrey may or may not have intended his astonishing story to be seriously accepted, but in fact it was
received with almost universal credence. For centuries it was incorporated in outline or in excerpts into almost
all the sober chronicles, and what is of much more importance for literature, it was taken up and rehandled in
various fashions by very numerous romancers. About twenty years after Geoffrey wrote, the French poet
Wace, an English s