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HISTORY OF ENGLISH POETRY.
Young persons at all instructed in modern history know, that the English language is formed from several more ancient languages. The Romans carried the Latin into Britain half a century before the birth of Christ. About four hundred years after, the Saxons, a warlike people from Germany, succeeded the Romans as masters of England, and, with their dominion, introduced and established their speech. The language of England for several centuries was what is called the Anglo-Saxon, but this was superseded, in great measure, by the Norman French.
In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, in France, conquered England, and established his power in the country. He brought with him a multitude of followers whom he distributed over the kingdom, and caused the ministration of religion and the laws to be announced in the Norman French. This language gradually combined itself with the previous dialect of England, and our English language, by slow degrees, has been drawn from these sources.
The Anglo-Saxons were not wholly without literature; they had wandering minstrels who sung verses, and in their convents some of the priests composed in rhyme. The Normans brought to England their own poetry, which consisted chiefly of songs, satires, morality, and rhyming chronicles. But in the twelfth century, the Crusades, or religious wars, carried on by the Europeans in Palestine, furnished romantic adventures which the poets rehearsed in verse ; and at the same time, narrative poems from scripture, and classical subjects began to appear in England. In the thirteenth century it became customary for the minstrels to "sing devotional strains to the harp on Sundays, for the edification of the people, instead of the verses on gayer subjects which were sung at public entertainments."
The first original poem of any extent in the English language is ascribed to Robert Langlande, a priest. It describes the Christian life, and the abuses of religion under the authority of the Pope.
It is to the honour of poetry that among the first efforts of her power over a partially civilized people she should fearlessly utter the dictates of truth, undismayed by arbitrary princes, and selfish priests." The mind," says Mr. Campbell, speaking of Langlande, is struck with his rude voice, proclaiming independent and popular sentiments, from an age of slavery and superstition, and thundering a prediction in the ear of papacy; which was doomed to be literally fulfilled at the distance of nearly two hundred years. His allusions to contemporary life afford some amusing glimpses of its manners."
The earliest English poet whose remains are still preserved to popular readers is Geoffrey Chaucer. He died in 1400. It would not be suitable to the design of this little sketch to descant upon a poet whose works few young persons would have the patience to read. But, with a little pains, matured readers may make the obsolete language of Chaucer intelligible. The very lively pictures which his writings afford of the manners and sentiments peculiar to his time, are interesting to those that love to look far back into the dim region of the past, and behold there stars of mind which shine for ever and ever.
During almost two centuries after the death of Chaucer civil wars and religious persecutions silenced the muse in England. Some obscure names of this period attached to poetry may be drawn from oblivion by the antiquaries, but the poetical feeling and genius of England are regarded by Mr. Campbell to have been at that time almost extinct.
In the fifteenth century printing was introduced into Britain. The desire of knowledge is excited in the public mind by the means of obtaining it, and it would seem that Divine Providence has adjusted the productiveness of genius to the estimation in which it is held. Whenever the people become eager for instruction, or for entertainment, Wisdom is heard crying in the streets, and the sweet strains of Poetry seem to mingle in the cominon air that we breathe. the sixteenth century the Scriptures were given to the people of England, learning was cultivated, and poetry revived ; and as society was improved genius was developed and honoured. Of this influence of society upon poetic genius, Mr. Campbell says:
“ Poets may be indebted to the learning and philosophy of their age, without being themselves men of erudition or philosophers. When the fine spirit of truth has gone abroad, it passes insensibly from mind to mind, independent of its direct transmissions from books ; and it comes home in a more welcome shape to the poet, when caught from his social intercourse with his species, than from solitary study."
Lord Surrey lived in the reign of Henry VIII, and was the inventor of blank verse. In the reign of queen Elizabeth, and of her successors, James I, lived Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, and Spenser. Spenser, the author of the Fairy Queen, is now very much praised, and very little read. His subjects are partly allegorical, and partly in representation of persons of his own
age ; and on account of this confusion and obscurity in his poetry, it may be, that Spenser is more studied by poets than by general readers. Jonson is hardly more popular, but "every body's Shakspeare" now in universal estimation, wears, and will wear in the eyes of all posterity, his laurels fresh and green
Shakspeare's appearance as a dramatist can be traced back to 1589, and the Fairy Queen was published in 1590.
English Poetry comprehends the Drama. Mysteries, Moralities, and Interludes, are names of the dramatic representations : known in England previous to Shakspeare's time. The Myste-, ries were religious shows exhibited to the people under the sanction of the ministers of religion. The Resurrection of Lazarus, and the Sepulture of our Lord, were among these representations. They were in fashion in England during four hundred years, and went out of vogue in the middle of the sixteenth century.
The Moralists dramatized moral subjects, and sometimes represented discoveries in science. An Interlude on the nature of the four elements, and The Tracts of America lately discovered, and the manners of the natives, is recorded among the last of these entertainments. It is obvious that when men could not read, generally, these representations might have been very instructive.
Greek and Latin tragedies were translated into English as early as 1566. During the last twenty years of the sixteenth century, play-writers by profession were common, but their names and works have now, for the most part, become insignificant. Ben Jonson's plays exhibit much learning and wit—they are still read, but are not exhibited upon the stage. Among his works are specimens of that poetic and tasteful drama, the Masque. Milton's Comus is a masque, and Percy's Masque, by Mr. Hillhouse, which was written about 1820 in America, is a masque.
Poetic translation commenced in England about 1560. The poetry of Virgil, Ovid, and soon afterwards of Homer, was translated into English verse near this time. Dr. Johnson commences his Lives of the Poets with the life of Cowley, and classes him with Donne, Waller, and some other poets who had lived during the preceding century : these were the metaphysical poets. Their works exist in old books, but they are only known to curious readers.
Shakspeare stands at the head of English poets, and next in eminence is the divine Milton : Milton died in 1674, at the age of 62. In his early life Milton felt that he was born for posterity and alltime, and in the consciousness of his endowments his elevated mind was little disturbed by the neglect of his contemporaries. For almost a century after the publication of his minor works they were little known ; and Paradise Lost, which appeared in print in 1669, after its author had become blind to external things, attracted little of the admiration which it has since called forth.
Among British poets next to Milton in the order of time comes Dryden. Gray describes Milton and Dryden in these lines :
* * * “ He, that rode sublime
He passed the flaming bounds of Place and Time,
Hark, his hands the lyre explore !
Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn." Dryden's plays and poems are not much read, though Alexander's Feast still retains its popularity, and almost every schoolboy can repeat it. Dryden died in 1690.
Pope died in 1744. For a whole century Mr. Pope was perhaps the most popular of English poets; and though his moral and religious sentiments were censured by the rigidly righteous, still they have passed into the principles and common talk of most readers. “ As Pope says," is a phrase which is often prefixed in conversation to a multitude of pointed remarks that are found in Mr. Pope's writings, and readily applied by almost every mind to the practical wisdom of daily life.
" Whate'er by nature is in worth denied
“ Man, like the generous vine, supported, lives—
Lie in three words, Health, Peace, and Competence." Such are a few of those couplets which are become almost common-place, but which express important principles with admirable simplicity and plainness.
Among the contemporaries of Pope were several poets much in fashion during their lives, and of whose works some are yet popular. Of these Addison, Swift, Gay, and Parnell deserve to be mentioned. The respective characters of these writers, and their works, may be learned from sources more ample than this brief notice of English poetry and poets.
After the death of Pope - Thomson, Collins, Shenstone, Akenside, Gray, and Goldsmith, were much and deservedly admired as English poets. Goldsmith, the last in the order in which they are mentioned, died in 1774. The genius of each, differing, as they do, from one another in glory, is "essentially immortal," still exerts its sweet influence, and gathers increase of honours from successive years.
Cowper died in 1800. His poetry is in every house. It is without spot or blemish—inspired by the genius of Christianity— full of humanity and piety – tender and holy as the writer's heart, and beautiful as the rural sights and sounds which delighted his pure nature. Since Cowper—Rogers, Walter Scott, Southey, Crabbe, Campbell, Byron, Wordsworth and Moore have appeared in the world. In no period since the existence of our language
has such extended homage been paid to living poets as in the present century. The legends of Scotland are made familiar and inexpressibly interesting, all over the world, by the minstrelsy of Scott—the valleys of America are brought out of obscurity by the genius of Campbell -- the "gorgeous east" glitters in the pictured pages of Moore
“ Woods that wave o'er Delphi's steep,
Fields that cool Illysus laves," have again breathed their inspiration, and the British name of Byron is now associated with the birth place of all the muses. The talent of Southey has celebrated the chivalry of Spain ; and the rural life of England, in all its forms of good and evil, has been recorded for ever by the masterly hands of Crabbe and Wordsworth.