BLTC Press Titles

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The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. DuBois

The Pictorial Key to the Tarot

Arthur Edward Waite

The Haunted Bookshop

Christopher Morely

The Bhagavad Gita


A short history of England's literature

by Eva March Tappan



1. Poetry
Dear's Lament.

2. Prose


Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Lives of saints and homilies.

1. Poetry

Our English ancestors lived in Jutland and the northern part of what is now Germany. They were savage warriors, but loved song and poetry. After their feasts the scop, or poet, sang of the adventures of some hero. Little by little these songs were welded together and became an epic. One epic, Beowulf, has been preserved, though much changed by the teachings of the missionaries who came to England in 597. Anglo-Saxon verse was marked by alliteration instead of rhyme.

Besides Beowulf, little remains of the Anglo-Saxon poetry except what is contained in the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book.

The first poet whom we know by name was the monk Caedmon (seventh century), whose chief work was a paraphrase of the Scriptures. The greatest of the early poets was Cynewulf (eighth century).

2. Prose

One of the most famous pieces of English prose, a translation of the Gospel according to St. John, was written by the monk Bede (seventh and eighth centuries). He wrote on many subjects, but his most valuable work is his Ecclesiastical History.

Alcuin (eighth century) carried on English scholarship in France. England was harassed by the Danes, but after King Alfred (ninth century) had brought about peace, Alcuin's pupils became teachers of the English.

King Alfred made several valuable translations. The preface of one of them is the earliest piece of English prose that we still possess. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was formally begun in his reign.

The death of Alfred and the renewed attacks of the Danes retarded the literary progress of England. The preaching of Dunstan and the near approach of the year 1000 called out lives of saints, and homilies written by ^Elfric and others. Old poems were rewritten, and rude ballads were composed. The influence of the Celts for beauty, fancy, and wit may be seen in both poetry and prose. English literature had made a good beginning, but needed better models.




16. Advantages of the conquest. Nothing better could have happened to England than this Norman conquest. The Englishmen of the eleventh century were courageous and persistent, but the spark of inspiration that gives a people the mastery of itself and the leadership of other nations was wanting. England was like a great vessel rolling in the trough of the sea, turning broadside to every wave. The country must fall into the hands of either the barbaric north or the civilized south. Happily for England, the victor was of the south.

The Normans were Teutons, who had fallen upon France as their kinsmen had fallen upon England ; but the invaders of France had been thrown among Tho a race superior to them in manners, language, Normans. and literature. These northern pirates gave a look about them, and straightway they began to follow the customs of the people whom they had conquered. They embraced the Christian religion and built churches and monasteries as if they had been to the manner born. They forgot their own language and adopted that of France. They intermarried with the French ; and in a century and a half a new race had arisen with the bravery and energy of the Northmen and an aptitude for even more courtly manners and even wider literary culture than the French themselves.

17. The struggle between the French and English languages. Such were the Norman conquerors of England. How would their coming affect the language and the literature of the subject country ? It was three hundred years before the question was fully answered. At first the Norman spoke French, the Englishman spoke English, and both nations used Latin in the church service. Little by little, the Norman found it convenient to know something of the language spoken by the masses of the people around him. Little by little, the Englishman acquired some knowledge of the language of his rulers. Words that were nearly alike in both tongues were confused in pronunciation, and as for spelling,—a man's mode of spelling was his private property, and he did with his own as he would. It is hard to trace the history of the two languages in England until we reach the fourteenth century, and then there are some few landmarks. In 1300, Oxford allowed people who had suits at law to plead in "any language generally understood." Fifty years later, English was taught to some extent in the schools. In 1362, it became the official language of the courts. In 1385, John of Trevisa wrote, " In all the grammar schools of England children give up French and construe and learn in English, and have thereby advantage on one side and disadvantage on another. Their advantage is that they learn their grammar in less time than children were wont to do; the disadvantage is that now grammar-school children know no more French than their left heel knows." In 1400, the Earl of March offered his aid to the king and wrote his letter in English, making no further apology for using his native tongue than the somewhat independent one, " It is more clear to my understanding than Latin or French."

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