History of English Literature is a comprehensive, eight-volume survey of English literature from the Middle Ages to the early twenty-first century. This reference work provides insightful and often revisionary readings of core texts in the English literary canon. Richly informative analyses are framed by the biographical, historical and intellectual context for each author.
Volume 1 begins by discussing Anglo-Saxon literature before focusing on the three major Middle English poets of the late fourteenth century: Gower, Langland and Chaucer. It then engages with the sixteenth-century prose romances of Sidney, the epic and lyrical poetry of Spenser, and Donne’s love and religious poems. Full coverage is devoted to the legendary fifty-year blossoming of the Elizabethan theatre (excluding Shakespeare, the object of Volume 2), from Kyd and Marlowe up to Jonson, Webster, Middleton, Ford and Shirley. The final part addresses the sixteenth-century prose works of Lyly, Greene and Nashe, homiletics by Hooker and others, and Elizabethan travel literature and historiography.
Table Of Contents
- About the author(s)/editor(s)
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- § 1. The initial and terminal dates of this volume
- Part I: The Formation of a National Literature
- § 2. Placing Old English literature in the canon
- § 3. English history to 1066
- § 4. Bede
- § 5. Old English poetry
- § 6. ‘Beowulf
- Part II: The Middle English Period
- § 7. English history from 1066 to 1485
- § 8. Genres and ‘matters’
- § 9. The Arthurian romances: Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Layamon
- § 10. Ricardian literature
- § 11. The influence of the ‘Roman de la Rose’
- § 12. ‘Pearl’ and ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’
- § 13. Gower
- § 14. Langland
- § 15. Chaucer I: Stereotypes of courtly love and symptoms of modernity
- § 16. Chaucer II: Biography
- § 17. Chaucer III: Dream-vision poems
- § 18. Chaucer IV: ‘Troilus and Criseyde’
- § 19. Chaucer V: ‘The Canterbury Tales’ I. The poem as a field of contrary vectors
- § 20. Chaucer VI: ‘The Canterbury Tales’ II. The internal texture
- § 21. The English Chaucerians: Hoccleve, Lydgate, Hawes
- § 22. Barclay
- § 23. Skelton
- § 24. Fifteenth-century Scottish literature
- § 25. The Scottish Chaucerians: Douglas, Henryson, Dunbar
- § 26. Lyndsay
- § 27. Popular ballads and lyrics
- § 28. Medieval drama
- § 29. Fifteenth-century prose
- § 30. The ‘Paston Letters’
- § 31. Caxton
- § 32. Malory I: ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ I. Authorship, publication and popularity
- § 33. Malory II: ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ II. The stark kaleidoscope
- Part III: The Sixteenth Century
- § 34. England under the Tudors
- § 35. The English Reformation
- § 36. English humanism and the Renaissance I: The continental trail
- § 37. English humanism and the Renaissance II: Forms, reception and genetic and historical theories
- § 38. English humanism and the Renaissance III: The arts
- § 39. More
- § 40. Conduct books
- § 41. The ‘Miscellanies’
- § 42. Wyatt
- § 43. Surrey
- § 44. The ‘Mirror for Magistrates’
- § 45. Gascoigne
- § 46. Other minor poets
- § 47. Elizabethan Catholic poets
- § 48. Sidney I: The diagnostician and healer of infected man
- § 49. Sidney II: ‘The Lady of May’ and other youthful lyrics
- § 50. Sidney III: ‘Astrophel and Stella'
- § 51. Sidney IV: The ‘Old Arcadia’ I. The neoclassical polish and the oblivion of reality
- § 52. Sidney V: The ‘Old Arcadia’ II. Malice, humour and political allegory in the pastoral canvas
- § 53. Sidney VI: The ‘New Arcadia’. The toning down of the pastoral and the emphasis on the heroic
- § 54. Sidney VII: ‘The Defence of Poesy’
- § 55. Greville
- § 56. Spenser I: The most poetic of English poets
- § 57. Spenser II: ‘The Shepheardes Calender’. 1579: The fateful year
- § 58. Spenser III: Aesopian and pastoral fables and elegies
- § 59. Spenser IV: ‘The Faerie Queene’ I. The poem’s ‘dark conceit’
- § 60. Spenser V: ‘The Faerie Queene’ II. Upright knights against felons, monsters and enchantresses
- § 61. Spenser VI: ‘The Faerie Queene’ III. Man vs beast
- § 62. Spenser VII: ‘The Faerie Queene’ IV. The ‘Mutability Cantos’
- § 63. Spenser VIII: ‘Amoretti’
- § 64. Spenser IX: ‘Epithalamion’ and ‘Prothalamion’
- § 65. Spenser X: The four hymns to heavenly love
- § 66. Ralegh, Wotton
- § 67. Thomas Campion
- § 68. Drayton
- § 69. Daniel
- § 70. Other sonneteers and pastoral poets
- § 71. Davies and Davies of Hereford
- § 72. Hall
- § 73. Donne I: The holy sinner and the ‘querelle’ on concettism
- § 74. Donne II: Biography
- § 75. Donne III: ‘Songs and Sonnets’ I. The obsolescence of Petrarchism
- § 76. Donne IV: ‘Songs and Sonnets’ II. Love, rescued from, and a slave to, time
- § 77. Donne V: Elegies and epithalamia
- § 78. Donne VI: The satires
- § 79. Donne VII: The ‘Verse Letters
- § 80. Donne VIII: The ‘Anniversaries’
- § 81. Donne IX: Divine poems I. ‘La Corona’ and ‘Holy Sonnets’
- § 82. Donne X: Divine poems II. The hymns
- § 83. Donne XI: Treatises, libels and sermons
- § 84. Puttenham
- Part IV: The Elizabethan Theatre
- § 85. Tudor masques and interludes
- § 86. Elizabethan drama: An overview
- § 87. The incunabula
- § 88. Udall
- § 89. Bale
- § 90. ‘Gorboduc’
- § 91. ‘Cambyses’
- § 92. ‘Arden of Feversham’
- § 93. Kyd
- § 94. Peele
- § 95. Marlowe I: The apotheosis and its nemesis
- § 96. Marlowe II: ‘Dido, Queen of Carthage’
- § 97. Marlowe III: ‘Tamburlaine the Great’
- § 98. Marlowe IV: ‘The Jew of Malta’
- § 99. Marlowe V: History plays
- § 100. Marlowe VI: ‘Doctor Faustus’ I. A short history of Faustism
- § 101. Marlowe VII: ‘Doctor Faustus’ II. The drama of irresolution
- § 102. Marlowe VIII: ‘Hero and Leander’
- § 103. Marston I: The satires
- § 104. Marston II: His theatrical career and his early retirement
- § 105. Marston III: Plays of disguise and revenge
- § 106. Marston IV: ‘The Malcontent’
- § 107. Marston V: The two city comedies
- § 108. Marston VI: ‘Sophonisba’
- § 109. Marston VII: ‘The Insatiate Countess’
- § 110. Chapman I: ‘Homeri metaphrastes’
- § 111. Chapman II: Orphic and mythological poems
- § 112. Chapman III: The comedies on the trial of chastity
- § 113. Chapman IV: ‘Bussy D’Ambois’ and the surrendering hero
- § 114. Chapman V: The stoic hero
- § 115. Jonson I: Construction and deconstruction of Jonson’s classicism
- § 116. Jonson II: The comedies of ‘humours’
- § 117. Jonson III: The Roman tragedies
- § 118. Jonson IV: The tetralogy of tricksters I. ‘Volpone’ and ‘The Alchemist’
- § 119. Jonson V: The tetralogy of tricksters II. ‘Epicoene’ and ‘Bartholomew Fair’
- § 120. Jonson VI: Last Jacobean and Caroline plays
- § 121. Jonson VII: The masques
- § 122. Jonson VIII: The poems
- § 123. Tourneur
- § 124. Webster I: Nihilism and possibilism in the Italian trilogy
- § 125. Webster II: ‘The White Devil’
- § 126. Webster III: ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. The blood taboo
- § 127. Webster IV: ‘The Devil’s Law Case’
- § 128. Dekker I: The brothel syndrome
- § 129. Dekker II: The prose
- § 130. Middleton I: A journeyman in Olympus
- § 131. Middleton II: Comedies set in the London gutter
- § 132. Middleton III: The romantic comedies
- § 133. Middleton IV: ‘Women Beware Women’. Conjugal fidelity checkmated
- § 134. Middleton V: ‘The Changeling’. Woman is voluble, and so is man
- § 135. Middleton VI: Other tragedies and tragicomedies
- § 136. Middleton VII: ‘A Game at Chess’
- § 137. Beaumont and Fletcher I: The pliable centaur
- § 138. Beaumont and Fletcher II: Independent plays
- § 139. Beaumont and Fletcher III: Co-authored plays
- § 140. Beaumont and Fletcher IV: Plays by Fletcher alone
- § 141. Massinger I: Necessity and apology of self-sacrifice
- § 142. Massinger II: Satires of pretentiousness
- § 143. Massinger III: Caroline compromises
- § 144. Ford I: The focus on incest
- § 145. Ford II: Heroines of firmness
- § 146. Ford III: ‘Unity is no sin’
- § 147. Thomas Heywood I: ‘A Woman Killed with Kindness’
- § 148. Thomas Heywood II: Other plays
- § 149. Shirley I: Elegant ‘causeries’
- § 150. Shirley II: The demise of Elizabethan tragedy
- Part V: The Beginnings of Narrative Prose
- § 151. The first eclectic writers
- § 152. Lyly I: The Euphues romances
- § 153. Lyly II: The comedies
- § 154. Lodge
- § 155. Greene I: From the Arcadian euphuist to the Defoe-like realist
- § 156. Greene II: The dramatist
- § 157. Nashe
- § 158. Deloney
- § 159. The ‘Marprelate Tracts’
- § 160. Hooker
- § 161. Travel literature and historical compilations
- Index of names
- Thematic index
BAL G. Baldini, Storia della letteratura inglese. La tradizione letteraria dell’Inghilterra medioevale, Torino 1958.
BAUGH A Literary History of England, ed. A. C. Baugh, 4 vols, London 1967.
BEL B. Bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century 1600–1660, vol. V of The Oxford History of English Literature, ed. F. P. Wilson and B. Dobrée, Oxford 1973 (1st edn 1945).
BRP J. A. Burrow, Ricardian Poetry: Chaucer, Gower, Langland and the ‘Gawain’ Poet, Harmondsworth 1992 (1st edn London 1971).
CEL E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Eng. trans., New York 1953 (1st German edn 1948).
CHI The Cambridge History of English Literature, 14 vols, Cambridge 1934 (1st edn 1907–1916).
CLA M. Praz, Cronache letterarie anglosassoni, 4 vols, Roma 1951, 1966.
CRHE The Critical Heritage of individual authors, London, with editors and publication years indicated in the Bibliographies.
EETS Early English Text Society, with editors, volume numbers and dates as specified.
ELS C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, vol. III of The Oxford History of English Literature, ed. F. P. Wilson and B. Dobrée, Oxford 1965 (1st edn 1954).
ESE T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, London 1963 (1st edn 1932).
GSM H. J. C. Grierson and J. C. Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry, London 1956.
HWP B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, London 1964 (1st edn 1946).
LEW C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, Oxford 1938 (1st edn 1936).
MAR Storia della civiltà letteraria inglese, ed. F. Marenco, 4 vols, Torino 1996.
OCE George Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, ed. S. Orwell and I. Angus, 4 vols, Harmondsworth 1970.
PGU The Pelican Guide to English Literature, ed. B. Ford, 7 vols, Harmondsworth 1966 (1st edn 1954).
PLE M. Pagnini, Letteratura e ermeneutica, Firenze 2002.
PMI M. Praz, Machiavelli in Inghilterra e altri saggi sui rapporti letterari anglo-italiani, Firenze 1962.
PRA M. Praz, The Romantic Agony, Eng. trans., London 1956 (1st Italian edn La carne la morte e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica, Firenze 1930).
PSL M. Praz, Storia della letteratura inglese, Firenze 1968.
RIN Il Rinascimento, ed. C. Corti, Bologna 1994.
SAI G. Saintsbury, A Short History of English Literature, London 1948 (1st edn 1898).
SAS A. C. Swinburne, The Age of Shakespeare, London 1908.
SES J. L. Styan, The English Stage: A History of Drama and Performance, Cambridge 1996.
SSI M. Praz, Studi e svaghi inglesi, 2 vols, Milano 1983 (1st edn 1937).
TAI H. A. Taine, History of English Literature, Eng. trans., 4 vols, London 1920 (1st French edn 1864).
TCR V. Woolf, The Common Reader, First Series, Harmondsworth 1938 (1st edn London 1925), and Second Series, London 1935 (1st edn London 1932).
TLS The Times Literary Supplement.
Volume 2 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 2, Oxford 2018.
Volume 3 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 3, Oxford 2018.
Volume 4 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 4, Oxford 2018.
Volume 5 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 5, Oxford 2018.
Volume 6 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 6, Oxford 2018.
Volume 7 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 7, Oxford 2018.
Volume 8 F. Marucci, History of English Literature, vol. 8, Oxford 2018.
Note. Except for the above abbreviations, full publication information of cited works will be found in the bibliography for each author.
The ‘year zero’ of English literature, as I shall argue below, cannot be pinpointed with any degree of certainty, and indeed various theories exist as to when it all began. I believe that, rather than identify this elusive beginning, it is important to concentrate on subsequent fractures and demarcations, which should not be arbitrary, but as objective as possible. The terminus ad quem of this volume is a subject of controversy: in general I shall consider as Elizabethan not only those authors who, by 1603, had already written and published at least one of their major works, and who therefore were over the age of twenty. The reason this volume breaks off in 1625 lies in the fact that many playwrights straddle the dividing line of 1603, and are both Elizabethan and Jacobean. I have preferred not to split their careers and deal with them in two separate volumes, as will be done with the first- and second-generation Victorians, or Victorians and Edwardians. Indeed, there is a continuity that lasts for half a century, and more, if we include those playwrights who lived long enough to be Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline. The socio-political history of the reigns of James I and Charles I will be presented together, as will the literature and culture of the age, at the beginning of the third volume. For the use of ‘Elizabethan’ as conventionally inclusive of ‘Jacobean’ and a period considered as a whole, irrespective of historical watersheds, one can cite (at least Italians can) a panoramic essay surveying drama by Mario Praz.1 Another loophole was proposed and used by George Saintsbury, who determined the properness of the label ‘Elizabethan’ on the basis of the date of birth of the writer under question. The second caveat concerns the titles of works from the origins up to the period of linguistic stability: these have usually been given following inconsistent and erratic norms, even by British and American authors. So too with quotations, which will appear either in the old spelling or in a modernized form. The justification often given, that some texts must be read and cited in old spelling while others may be presented in modern form, is far from convincing. I have in general chosen to respect general consensus and the criterion of frequency. Sidney’s two Arcadias, ← 1 | 2 → for example, are usually read and quoted from in modern English, which is absolutely not the case for Spenser, his contemporary. Shakespeare too is presented in modern spelling. In this regard it must never be forgotten that the normalization of spelling took a very long time, and can be said to have been completed towards the end of the seventeenth century, saving here and there residual archaic forms. In any case, normalization was gradual and not evenly spread, bearing in mind regional and local usage, so that a text which is later than another will not necessarily have a more ‘modern’ spelling. This remark of C. S. Lewis on methodology is worth repeating and remembering: ‘A poetic translation is always to some extent a new work of art’.2 In other words, I will not make a priority of looking for sources at any cost. Lastly, the reader will be aware of a glaring omission in this volume: Shakespeare, who will, however, be the subject of my second volume. In studying the dramatists I also warn that the two dates, separated by a dash, given to the individual works, indicate the first performance and the first publication; where neither one or the other is certain, I only note in passing its composition date. It is superfluous to mention, concerning the dating, that the English legal calendar until 1750 began the year on 25 March; to avoid confusion between O.S. and N.S. (‘Old Style’ and ‘New Style’) the dates are not given in the dual form but only refer to the modern calendar.
1 ‘La fortuna del dramma elisabettiano’, in SSI, vol. I, 133–52, in particular the opening remarks.
2 ELS, 492.
The literature written in England in Latin, in Old English or Anglo-Saxon and then Middle English, dazzlingly proves the validity of E. R. Curtius’ theory expounded in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, as to the particular and different meaning of the word auctor in the Middle Ages as compared to today’s. The author was not expected to be original; on the contrary he was and was supposed to remain hidden; he did not experience the drama and the anxiety of literary authorship. This is the reason why a great deal of the documentation relative to this long period, is either anonymous or attributed to an undefined or doubtful author, and why we have to wait until Gower, Langland and Chaucer before we get anywhere near our modern concept of authorship.1 As a further proof, the editors of the works in this canon do not classify them by author, even when they are fairly certain, but by genres,2 so that each individual work is almost exclusively identified by its title. The absence of the principle of auctoritas tallies with another fact, that is, that literature, from its beginnings to a watershed which I shall identify later on, is mainly a form of historiography. We therefore rely on these written documents to reconstruct history, and the word ‘document’ is by no means a haphazard choice. One section of this canon consists of archival material, title deeds, the census;3 another repertory is that of religious material, chants, hymns, and graces; a third comprises early romances. The historical calendar consists ← 5 | 6 → of a list of important dates and begins with the invasion of the island by Julius Caesar and early Roman colonization, and closes with the Romans abandoning this distant, unmanageable, fairly unprofitable and, for them, unappetising fringe. The Empire was disintegrating, attacked as it was by barbarians. Some of the mainland tribes then invaded the island which the Romans had left. One is irresistibly reminded of the paradox with which Marlow’s narration opens on the deck of the Nellie lying at anchor in the Thames in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: this island, which would move the epicentre of Europe to the North, and from being a periphery, would become central, was, 2,000 years earlier, a conquered, looted, and substantially undefended land. Relationships would be gradually reversed, and from being colonized it would become the colonizer.
2. In the Old English canon, Widsith is normally held to be the most ancient literary document, The Battle of Maldon the latest. This canon, covering four centuries, may be contained in a book of scarcely 400 pages, and it seems thus to possess a relaxed productive rhythm, or even to move on slowly and sparely, but only because it has come down to us greatly incomplete. The Danish raids brought about the destruction of the monasteries, where many of the manuscripts were kept. Initially, the sagas from the far north, which dealt with happenings in Denmark, Sweden, Frisia and other territories of that latitude, were rewritten in England. At the same time hagiography and sermon literature acted as links to Anglo-Norman literature. The celebration of the heroic age develops according to concepts similar to all heroic canons, and the behavioural customs of the Germanic court foreshadow those of Arthur’s Camelot, where the king is at the centre of the ‘Table’ of his faithful band, and rewards them after a victorious battle with song, music and libations – even if a traitorous Judas may be amongst them. Blood feuds were intrinsic to the Germanic world, and filled with wonder the people who listened to the minstrels singing about them. The accepted chronology is as follows: literature in Old English4 up to 1150, in Middle English up to 1500, in Early Modern English afterwards. In macrohistorical ← 6 | 7 → terms the watershed between the second and the third phase is represented by the Reformation and the Renaissance (though the conventional date usually chosen is 1485, i.e. that of Henry VII’s accession to the throne); but the Reformation is a northern event that most closely affects England, while the absorption of the Renaissance is not synchronic but later, with the medieval period being prolonged, one could say, until the Romantic period.5 After all, one may easily find or posit an opposition (and a very clear-cut one, as does Yuri Lotman’s typology of culture) between the two cultural types, medieval and Renaissance, as well as some form of continuity. We owe the notion of a Renaissance flowering in the Middle Ages, before its official inception and definition in France and in Italy, to the English, or at least to some of them, like Pater and Ruskin. The pertinence of Old English literature to the English literary canon is, in effect, anything but taken for granted, and even today two theories confront each other, one of which can be defined as atomistic, the second as organic. According to the first, Old English literature must be kept separate from the study of both English language and literature; for the second, it is a part of an integral whole, inasmuch as it is a moment of its development – not unlike texts in poetry and prose, historical and religious, written in Latin or in Anglo-Norman before the advent of Chaucer. The one differentiation, the sine qua non condition of belonging to English literature, is, according to those who uphold the second theory, that texts should have been written by English authors and on English soil. As regards Old English literature, there are histories of English literature, like the earliest editions of the Pelican Guide, which exclude it, while others include it but only as ← 7 | 8 → a well-circumscribed prologue.6 In B. Ifor Evans’s brief History the author discovers and analyses a mysterious symmetry between what came after Chaucer and what was written before.7 Whoever establishes the beginning of English literature in Chaucer’s writings, Evans says, assigns only six centuries of life to it, but it had had just as many before Chaucer. England was conquered and colonized repeatedly, as Evans rightly reminds us using a German word that evokes the same kind of shudder that the recurring thought of invasion was to arouse 1,500 years later, when England actually had to defend itself against the German bombs.8 Those very Angles, Saxons and Jutes were already trying to find Lebensraum in England in the fifth century. It is thus legitimate to consider the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and the successive conversion of those peoples from paganism (AD 597), as much as the Norman Conquest, as a series of milestones. The discovery of pre-Conquest manuscripts took place after the Reformation, when the idea of a true and proper national literature dating back far earlier than the fifteenth century started to emerge. The historic reason for the celebration of this heritage was the English rivalry with the Germans and the French. The study of the roots of this literature was carried out by Coleridge, De Quincey and Carlyle in the Romantic period. The transition was from a separatist vision to one of an organic, uninterrupted development triggered by historical developments: Latin, succeeded by Germanic dialects, by Old English, then by Middle English, and finally by English. The Romantics were later aided by the philologists. But Legouis and Cazamian were against the total merging of literatures, which dangerously obscured distinctions: ‘There is no other literature which has lived and developed in as much ignorance of its indigenous past as English literature’,9 they said, above all because Old English literature had been for centuries largely unknown, and, when known, could not be understood. ← 8 | 9 →
3. No ready scientific criteria exist to separate Old English literature from English literature, and those who include it, do so, admitting perplexities and stretching a point or two. Undoubtedly, the arguments against are neither few nor slight: one can invoke the case of Latin and Italian literature, which, it is true, are themselves kept unanimously apart, although written in languages that present fewer differences, and where Latin is the undeniable forebear of Italian, while Old English is further apart from English, though ‘English’ was what the Anglo-Saxon language spoken by the peoples settled on the island was called. The criteria of place and people also fail us, that is, those of an ‘English’ literature originating in a unified land, the land that gave birth to English literature ‘proper’, written by one people, rather than by that ethnic mixture that in fact authored it. Yet the fact remains, that what little remains of Old English literature would be stateless, and one would not know which linguistic-literary category one should attribute it to: it could, perhaps, be classed among the writings included in Germanic Philology studies, but its subject matter has been found extraneous to the content and spirit that informs Icelandic and Old German sagas. Everything however changes radically if we substitute for ‘History of English Literature’ ‘History of Literature in England’, even if Old English literature was not written synchronically in different languages – like the literature of linguistic minorities today in Italy, Spain or America – but diachronically. Similarly no Scot or Irishman would dream of excluding Gaelic literature from the history of his national literary heritage, but would today discover and draw on it for elements of most intrinsic continuity. Nineteenth-century historians posed the problem and found a somewhat more scientific criterion: that of the foundational character of Old English literature. On the one hand they had to reply to another substantial objection: that this literature could not be foundational because it had been discovered too late, and was therefore unknown, wherefore it could not interact with the writers of the successive centuries, until the 1800s10 (and yet we find that Milton’s Satan echoes various Old English poems on Genesis and was perhaps inspired by them). On the other hand Taine and his followers ← 9 | 10 → began to point out genes and traits that would have remained as identifiable marks for later generations of writers. Mario Praz follows the same kind of guidelines, stating that ‘throughout the whole course of literature’ one witnesses a ‘curious clash’ between paganism and Christianity. Other enduring traits, alluded to by Praz, are the sense of Ossianic melancholy, of the ‘tempestuous’ sea (which we will find in Swinburne), of the heath, of the gloomy forest and of the menacing mountains. One can prove this continuity in early, Ossianic Romanticism, in Coleridge’s ballads and in Matthew Arnold’s essays on the Celtic element. Later a fanatical fascination with this poetic repertoire and world view was to be shared by the twentieth-century English Catholics headed by Tolkien, addicted to fantasy and apologetics. On a purely formal level, the accented syllabic alliterative measure was inherited by Hopkins with his own rhythm, ‘sprung’ exactly like that in the Old English epics (and Hopkins, seldom mentioned in these discussions, esteemed the role of the poet as the scop, and for him poetry was supposed, above all, to be declaimed).11 Many surviving Old English lyrics are embryonic dramatic monologues and constitute a precedent most dear to Browning, and through Browning to Pound, and, perhaps, even to T. S. Eliot. This foundational nature, or mere continuity, is also proved by the far from extravagant and impressionistic quantity of echoes and foreshadowings disseminated in the works of many poets of later generations, the sea evoking for instance Kipling and Byron, the wind Shelley, the bestiaries Ted Hughes.
4. What Old English literature has come down to us, we owe to monks of the seventh to the eleventh centuries. Only edifying and morally sound literature was accepted and transmitted through their filter, and sagas and myths were in many cases manipulated and Christianized. On the other hand the invading peoples were already civilized and socially organized, thanks to their contacts with the Celts. So this literature cannot be compared to the primitive German literature of the same time, such as the Nibelungenlied and the Edda. The Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England took place in 597, the year in which the monk Augustine came ← 10 | 11 → from Rome to convert the Jutes and founded the Abbey of Canterbury. At the same time Ireland, already Christianized, was sending missionaries to the Angles and also the Saxons came under their influence. The Roman alphabet was imported along with Christianity, replacing the Germanic runes and the Celtic Ogham script. All Old English literature was therefore strongly influenced by Latin literature. At the same time, however, the monk scribes were the sons of Viking warriors, so that Old English poetry also presents hybrid pagan traits. Together with early literary forms in Old English one finds inscriptions in runes and others in the Roman alphabet. It is an exemplary form of crossing over from paganism to Christianity, or from magic to Christian ritual. The alphabet of the first Old English writings is substantially the Latin one of the Irish monks, but joined to it are some phonetic runes that represent Old English sounds. Here two consequences are discernible: the scribes copied, even two centuries after their composition, poems that had previously circulated in oral form; and alongside the popular Anglo-Saxon heroic literature, scholarly writings in Latin also survived. The scribes also translated homiletic and spiritual works into the vernacular.
5. Runes were the ancient alphabet of the Germanic languages held to be of obscure origin (for Sweet they were a Nordic modification of a Greek alphabet; according to Carlyle, in the first lecture of Heroes and Hero Worship, the Scandinavian alphabet was invented by Odin; according to recent scholars, runes are the Phoenician Etruscan alphabet that reached Iceland and Greenland as a by-product of trade and plunder). They were employed for inscriptions and epigraphy, and therefore their use was not for writing on parchment or paper, but for incisions on stone, metal or even wood bark, the so-called ‘bóc’, the ancestor of the word ‘book’. Runes, therefore, had a phonetic, as well as an iconic and even an ideogrammatic value, and represented not only a sound, but also were associated with objects, with an animal or a plant, while some runes survived to represent sounds which were not in the Roman alphabet. The word itself had a shamanic or mysterious value, and the word ‘rún’ recurs in subsequent English expressions. Runes were mystic signs that held magic power, and hid treasures of wisdom, incised often on swords. The advent of the Latin alphabet was also used for exorcising purposes, as runes were thought of as devilish. ← 11 | 12 →
6. By common consensus Old English was a transformation and re-elaboration of the language spoken by the first invaders of 450. It was therefore akin to German and Dutch with injections of runic symbols, such as those which stood for the ‘th’ sound. In linguistic terms around 80 per cent of Old English is Germanic, the rest neo-Latin. North and South had remarkable dialectal differences but these merged with a progressive reduction on stress, which gradually led to the creation of Middle English. This is confirmed by Edward the Confessor’s removal of his court and of his capital to London, thus putting an end to the predominance of the Wessex dialect. Baugh12 vigorously stresses the formation and acquisition of a common language as the ‘King’s English’ unifying the other dialects, as a result of the transition from a tribal and fragmentary, to a centralized, statutory and organized nation. In the year 1000 there was, in fact, no single kingdom having such consciousness of its own unity as the English realm. Of the four dialects mostly spoken – northern in Northumbria, central in Mercia, the Kentish and the western Saxon – the latter became hegemonic, while, in the course of time, it underwent flexional and even grammatical simplification and the loss of final unstressed vowels. Baugh13 also adds that Old English was linguistically more refined than the rough language introduced by the Normans, who supplanted and suppressed it, both as a spoken and a literary language, and that the Conquest was a linguistic impoverishment and a violent break in an ongoing process. The characteristics of Old English and particularly of its poetic language are the predominance of consonants, the stress given to the root syllable, the division of the line into two hemistichs, with two accents in the first part and two in the second; alliteration; the ‘Latin’ spirit of synthesis, with conjugations and declinations; the non-logical but poetic order of the phrase. Other features include the compounds, which look ahead to the imitations and parodies by Carlyle and Joyce; the accumulation of circumlocutions, almost an end to themselves; the chains of synonyms, and the syntagmatic and paradigmatic links; the metaphoric designations and finally the well-known artifice of the ‘kenning’ (a euphemism or expression serving to ← 12 | 13 → identify a person or a thing, consisting of a word and a genitive), which leads to the riddle. Old English poetry belongs to the period between the eighth and the tenth centuries, and was edited by transcribers who, as I have said, were already Christian and conversant with Greek and Latin models. The greater part of Old English poetry comes to us in four manuscripts from the eleventh century: the Junius, which contains Cædmon’s poems; the Codex Exoniensis, a curious medley of different poems; a manuscript in the British Library which unites Beowulf and Judith; and the Vercelli manuscript, discovered in the Vercelli Chapter Library in 1822,14 which contains lives of the saints and religious poetry. Other brief fragments complete the canon.
7. As to the purely literary value of Old English literature, the general consensus is, to repeat, lukewarm if not unfavourable. And after all, the whole of this canon is the domain of philologists and textual, and only rarely literary, critics; and the issues that hold the stage are those of dating, ordering and attributing the texts. The highest praise, on the other hand, is attributed to Old English as an expressive instrument: it is a flowing, refined and flexible language, able to express a spectrum of registers and spheres of intellectual activity. It is often claimed that the Normans had an inferior literary culture and artistic taste compared with the English, and that they brought to a halt, rather than promoting, England’s literary progress. It is true that before the Danish invasions, England was a cultural beacon, from which shone the light of Christianity and of the religious life. Her monasteries, abbeys, bishops and numerous episodes of devotion were legendary and sensational, so that Europe, having first evangelized pagan England, and now in need of re-sanctification, came to be re-Christianized by the nation it had Christianized. A similar symbolism can be perceived in Charlemagne’s appointment of Alcuin, Bishop of York, to organize his schola.15 Such a distorted perspective has enjoyed uncommon favour with Protestants and Puritans, as the coming of the Normans seemed to them as an earlier instance of Catholicization, Romanization or even ‘Vaticanization’ of the island. According to this version, the Normans were seen to have devastated, if not degraded and paralysed a land that promised to become in a short while the highest European pinnacle of poetry and prose.16
1 One must note that several anonymous poems were re-written by monks and that they are the fruit of controlled empathy, and celebrations of what stemmed from earlier sources but from a far later viewpoint, say around the ninth or tenth century: a primitivism that is thus coloured by Christian spirituality rather than found in its pure state.
2 Or even usefully by manuscript, the four chief manuscripts of which I will speak below.
3 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, originally commissioned by Alfred the Great, is the most significant amongst Old English prose works, and one of the first modern, continuous narrative in the vernacular, consisting mostly of a list of historical facts, though interspersed by fine poetic compositions. After Alfred, this Chronicle benefitted from his ideas and organizational gifts. It was developed in various cultural centres, corresponding to abbeys, until 1154. It comes to us in seven manuscripts.
4 ‘Old English’ is synonymous with ‘Anglo-Saxon’, but is the more extensive term, including all the various dialects spoken on the island until the advent of Middle English.
5 Curtius (CEL, ‘Appendix’, 585–96) reduces his manual by fifty to one in these ten pages, summing up his theses and salient points. He emphasizes the compactness of the European cultural system of the early Middle Ages, noting above all the cultural, national and political unity of northern France with England. Exchanges in both directions took place: poets emigrated to the English courts and men of the Church became bishops in France. Curtius insists that the boundaries of the Middle Ages must be shifted forward to a much later date, that of the Industrial Revolution, around 1750.
6 Also BAL, 31–3, removes this canon because it is ‘autonomous’, and too much separated for various reasons from Middle English, this last being more recognizably the progenitor of English. But he does study it summarily.
7 B. Ifor Evans, A Short History of English Literature, Harmondsworth 1940, 9.
8 On the threat of imminent war and on anti-German sentiment in the late nineteenth century, see Volume 7, § 59.
9 E. Legouis and E. Cazamian, A History of English Literature, London 1967, 5–6.
10 The Old English canon became part of the academic syllabus with Henry Sweet’s primer (1st edn 1876).
11 Seamus Heaney, in the preface to his translation of Beowulf (see § 6 Bibl.) claims Hopkins as the heir of the Old English tradition.
12 BAUGH, vol. I, 5.
13 BAUGH, vol. I, 10.
14 See PSL, 11, for some curious conjectures regarding the circumstances whereby this manuscript ended up in this Italian city.
15 Alcuin came from Northumbria and spent much time among the Franks, but only after he was sixty. He wrote personal and elegiac poetry in Latin and also manuals and pedagogic works.
16 On Ralph Waldo Emerson’s theory about the Normans as ‘twenty thousand thieves’, see BAUGH, vol. I, 105 n. 45.
English history in the first millennium is a still wide open field of study, on which the ongoing archaeological excavations – one of these in 2009, in ancient Mercia – can shed essential light and furnish valuable updates. The fact from which to begin, in the years preceding 1000, is that the Saxon emigrants of northern Europe, who were periodically invading England, became Christian, unlike other peoples and clans of the surrounding areas. These immigrants rapidly acquired a national consciousness, feeling themselves a different people compared with the race into which they had been born. The next odd aspect is that they were soon spoken of as English, though formerly Danes or Vikings, and that they had, as such, to fight against members of their own race, during the numerous invasions of the Vikings proper. One can therefore speak of internal feuds and intestine wars amongst the Nordic races. A precocious nationalistic feeling and consciousness, which distinguished these settlers, even on a linguistic level, from their inherited origins, thus ensued.
2. To the Celts, organized in tribes, who had come from Gaul in the fifth century BC, the Romans had transmitted their civilization, commerce and law and, when Rome became the seat of Christianity, their religion. They traded with the clan chiefs, acquiring luxury items which served to maintain a high standard of living in Rome, in exchange for basically necessary merchandise: according to Strabo the island was fertile with grain and animals, gold, silver and iron, exported to Rome, while the Celts discovered wine. Caesar had invaded the island, Claudius conquered it. The Emperor proceeded with a pervasive colonization, Romanizing the land as far as urbanization, uses and customs were concerned, and with fortifications (the two walls, or ditches, of Hadrian and Antoninus); and ← 14 | 15 → he imposed the educational model of Roman citizenship. Four centuries of Roman rule provoked occasional mutinies, repressed with bloodshed, when the luminous example of heroes, like Caractacus or Queen Boadicea shone forth, to be sung much later by Tennyson and, in music, by Elgar. In practice, the Romans instituted and favoured the role of client rulers, as an instrument for subjugating families and hostile peoples. London became the capital of the colony, operating centre and headquarters, replacing Colchester. In the first years of the fifth century (AD 410) the Roman legions started to withdraw, in order to protect Rome from the barbaric invasions, and the island was gradually abandoned. Roman Britain had by then fallen into neglect and decay, and the Britons, a weaker civilization, became absorbed and almost obliterated (‘Briton’ meant ‘slave’ for the Saxons). But not altogether. One can surmise that, though there is a lack of written records, the British or Celtic language became mixed with that of the incoming Anglo-Saxons. The Celtic element, gentle, elegiac and lyrical, would have been a counterweight to that of the more masculine Anglo-Saxon.
3. In 449, the first invasion or migration of the Angles,1 Saxons and Jutes drove the Britons, or Celts, to the west, to the north and to the south. Many centuries later the abandonment of the island on the part of the Romans would be forgiven and thought to be less grave: the Romans left the country to confront and block the ‘German threat’, which was to be recurring for the English over the centuries. In reality the Romans were thinking of their own, German threat, and the first example of this occurred when the barbarians were left free, the Romans gone, to invade the defenceless island. But it was soon rumoured that a reckless British king, Vortigern, had himself invited the Germans to protect him from the Picts of Caledonia and from the Scots from Ireland.2 Bede speaks of four areas peacefully ← 15 | 16 → divided between the Picts, the Britons, the English, and the Scots, and of seven distinct kingdoms at the end of the sixth century. In 597 Pope Gregory I had sent the monk Augustine with forty followers to Christianize the island, and Ethelbert was the first English king to convert. In Ireland, the Irish had been previously Christianized by St Patrick3 and others. The heart of England was thus clenched in a pincer grip: from the north-west, the evangelization by the Irish Christians who came from Iona, and, from Rome, Augustine with his monks. Pope Gregory adopted the wise policy of not wiping out the pagan traditions at a single stroke, but promoted a gradual transition to Christianity, proved by the surviving repertoire of magical formulae and exorcisms, of spells and charms derived from the ancient rites used for propitiating fertility.4 Another major date is 664, that of the Synod of Whitby, when the two English churches (the Irish of travelling missionaries, and the Roman, more systematically organized) were unified under Rome. In reality, paganism continued to exist in a fluctuating state and was not wiped out (as proved, in Bede, with the episode of pagan Penda who killed Edwin, the Christian King of Northumbria, in 632). The Anglo-Saxons were described by Taine, following Tacitus with somewhat exaggerated emphasis, as drunkards and ‘butchers’, that is, ready to hunt, kill, and horribly dismember even human beings. But they also had a code of ← 16 | 17 → honour, and were determinedly monogamous, therefore precociously ‘sane’.5 Taine sought, and thought he had found the traces of, a Scandinavian gene which, according to Carlyle and others, would be fixed and embedded in the Englishman’s imagination of the following centuries. Nonetheless, the fundamental, basic seriousness, morality and inclination towards the sublime of the Anglo-Saxon could be absorbed without attrition by Christianity’s Gospel. Carlyle noted proudly that, above the Humber, there still were, in his time, Scandinavian linguistic residues, that Danish elements emerged in the language, and signs of Icelandic mythology survived.
4. England, towards 800 AD, was vaguely like Italy 1,000 years later. It was a racially homogenous area (except for the Britons), and this also applied to the practices, customs, history, provenance and, loosely, to the language as well; it was a self-sufficient civilization, even if broken up into monarchies that made war on – or, from time to time, made peace with – each other. Politically it was a federation, or even a precursor of the feudal system. There were indeed defined monarchies, each king swearing faith to an overlord from whom they were dependent; or it could be described as a system of connected provinces. In this context, if this analogy is correct, the Kingdom of Wessex functioned like that of the house of Savoy in Italy, and its representative sovereign in that century, Alfred the Great, placed himself at the head of a movement of unification from which a united kingdom emerged. But the analogy ends here, because, 200 years later, there was a new invasion. And yet England actually remained a united kingdom, only its reigning dynasty changed and the language changed as well in a revolutionary way. At the end of the eighth century, a second wave of Vikings and Danes invaded an England already taken over by the preceding invaders; in 871 this new population had already managed to conquer the whole island area north of the Thames, and the so-called Danelaw was consolidated, despite Alfred’s resistance. Having temporarily checked the Danes, Alfred dedicated himself to the moral, spiritual and cultural construction ← 17 | 18 → of the country and to the founding of schools. Following Charlemagne’s example, he was also the father of Old English prose with his two translations of Boethius’ Consolation and of Gregory the Great’s Cura pastoralis, in which he taught the clergy the duties and tasks for the care of souls.6 When he died in 8997 Wessex fell back into illiteracy and above all into religious apathy, until the bishops Dunstan and Æthelwold’s reform of the Benedictine monasteries. The vast mass of Old English prose lies outside the literary domain even more than its poetry, because of its prevalently practical, didactic, and pastoral nature. The huge corpus of sermons and lives of the saints by the Benedictine monk Ælfric (955–1010 or 1020, or 1025) was prompted by the need to seize the attention of the hearer with a plain, direct style and in a language stripped of obscurity, even though it used the rhythmic style it owes to Latin poetry, which became clear during the twentieth-century revival of his writings.8 Wulfstan of York (who died in 1023), though a bishop, was a fiery preacher in his Sermo Lupi ad Anglos which echoes the thunderous, apocalyptic tone of coeval religious poetry. The son of Alfred the Great defeated the Danes and reunited England under a single sceptre. In 980, however, the island was subjected to further incursions by Danish invaders, which were not entirely successful and were eventually re-absorbed. With the Normans it was very much the reverse. When, in 1066, William the Conqueror defeated the English led by Harold, successor to Edward the Confessor, England was a country with few large cities, but having many independent cultural centres.
1 First mentioned in Tacitus, Germania, chapter 40, as ‘Anglii’. For reasons that are not very clear the term that was applied to the mixed population which came to be on English soil was ‘Saxon’; but the term ‘Angli’ prevailed amongst writers from the time when Gregory the Great (who died in 604) used it for the entire population of Germanic immigrants mixed with the indigenous Celts. Later a compromise was reached with the label ‘Anglo-Saxon’.
2 Bede I.14 and 15; but the episode is also narrated by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace, the latter spinning an intriguing account of Vortigern’s trickery in pitting the Germanic Hengist and Horsa against the Picts.
3 Joyce would only have confirmed, or more exactly polemically and emphatically stated, that Ireland from its origins was heretical, or at least independent in its orthodoxy, thus almost heterodox. St Patrick was English – as Bertrand Russell (HWP, 396) noted, defining this as an ‘extremely painful fact’ (naturally for the Irish) – but what is more important is that, before his coming the island was already converted by none other than the Copts and Gauls, already pushed onto the island by the barbarian invasions. They were the custodians and importers of continental learning, and perhaps they knew Greek. Joyce was to celebrate this heritage. But Russell adds that Irish missionaries were monks, even bishops, but cut off from Roman contacts and sympathizing with the Pelagian heresy (according to Russell Pelagius was a Welshman whose real name, Morgan, signifies ‘man of the sea’ [HWP, 361], being in other words rather heretical). An Irish Neo-Platonist of the ninth century was Scotus Eriugena.
4 Some of these spells, such as the ‘nine herbs charm’, remind one of the scene of the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth.
5 Tacitus stresses the freezing cold of the polar climes and emphasizes the unfailing and inviolable sense of hospitality of its peoples. His chapter 21 helps one to understand the description of Heorot in Beowulf, while chapter 27 confirms the use of cremation on funerary pyres of the bodies of victorious warriors who died in combat.
6 In these translations he often consulted a team of scholars from the surrounding kingdoms. During his reign, Bede’s Historia was also translated from Latin. See CEL, 177, for King Alfred as an example of the changing of the role of the heroic king, and as a synthesis of fortitude and wisdom in the late Middle Ages.
7 The modern fame of Alfred reached its highest point in 1901 at the death of Queen Victoria, when, to underscore the historic link, the date of Alfred’s death was held to be 901, as erroneously reported even now in various manuals.
8 As a consequence of a new EETS edition, ed. W. W. Skeat, London 1881 and 1885.
The idea of English history put to the test and to verification in the Venerable Bede’s (672–735) Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum1 is that even in the eighth century AD England was subdivided into many small regional monarchies, often even called provinces, and lacked the charismatic figure of a ruler who could unite them into one strong kingdom. Owing to historical vicissitudes, throughout more than seven centuries, the individual populations were of different races and had their own uses and customs. Above all, until well into the seventh century there were on the island, according to Bede, five main German languages that were not immediately understood – in some cases not understood at all – by the various local populations. The lingua franca was Latin, and the national binding force was the Christian religion, which was gaining ground but which might also lose it. Bede’s history is, above all, the history of a permanent evangelization, and it is so because, at its close, the historian has to admit that, although England had been Christianized even before Augustine, its paganism had not been definitely expunged, and its dying embers could always be rekindled. One must repeat that Bede’s is an ‘ecclesiastical’ history, which begins and proceeds against the background of Roman history and thus of the history of its emperors and, above all, of its popes. A pre-Dantesque similitude he uses is that the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons were the Elected People of God, who, like Israel, were punished with invasions when they went astray, and to whom prophets were sent in the guise of bishops and martyrs. As in the biblical Books of Kings, there had been a succession of kings who were either devout or pagan and idolatrous, and whom it was the duty of the bishops, abbots, and men of faith to convert and guide. In Bede’s view, the Christianization of the island had not taken place in a linear way, and a pious king could easily have a pagan, murderous, degenerate and desecrating son. The pace of Bede’s history is therefore not particularly diachronic; rather it is somewhat synchronic, because it often turns back from the facts of one reign to those of a previous one. ← 19 | 20 → The Roman popes were most careful not to permit any loosening of the fetters linking the English faith to the fulcrum of universal Christianity, lest it should deviate from orthodoxy. The missions sent by popes were supposed to evangelize regions and peoples that were still pagan, or had relapsed into paganism, as well as maintaining and assuring discipline and uniformity; and this entailed a battle against heresies born in England, such as Pelagianism. Bede’s text reproduces verbatim the various letters which the popes wrote incessantly to the English clergy to block deviations, dissidence and divergence, or to resolve diatribes, such as the dating of Easter or the correct form of tonsure.2 The second book opens by recalling Pope Gregory the Great and his famous pun of ‘Non Angli, sed Angeli’, as he was supposed to have defined some fair-haired Anglo-Saxon youths being sold as slaves in a market place in Rome. Bede confirms, citing two other calembours, that the great pope was also a player with words, able to find a providential key, and thus an omen, in nomina.3 Bede shows that the English were ‘angels’ – though they could also be occasionally tempted by the devil – by dedicating much space to documenting the precocious, early medieval saintliness of the English. The Historia becomes hagiography, or a listing of repetitive and somewhat boring acts of devotion, sacrifices and miracles derived from lives dedicated only to faith and to the denial of the world and its temptations. One might say that the foundation of an English medievalism can, to a certain degree, be found in Bede, resurfacing in some nineteenth-century poets like Hopkins, whose odes on the English martyrs (St Thecla, St Winifred) are foreshadowed in Bede’s work.4 Daily miracles seem to have been freely in circulation in Bede’s time. In the fifth book, he recounts countless miracles performed by or attributed to various bishops and hermits; and the story of the man who returns from the realm of the dead to tell of his otherworld visions is not only a mini-Divine Comedy, but a connection to the anguished search for answers as regards the otherworld, so often observed in the Victorian world and alluded to in the frequent re-enactions of the resurrection of Lazarus which occurred in the nineteenth century.
2. Among the other Latin prose writers, Aldhelm (639–709) is distinguished by a style full of violent, shocking metaphors, somewhat proto-mannerist in his warnings to nuns as to the commandment of virginity. This oppressive and menacing weight of sin is a sort of foretaste of Protestant and Puritan attitudes. Curtius5 attributes to him the old theory of Isidore and of other Fathers of the Church, that the artes are needed to understand the Bible, but that the auctores should not be studied for themselves alone. For this reason Aldhelm checks and rejects the vagaries of the Irish Church and represents a vein of ecclesiastical rigour and a chapter in the process of conciliation between the pagan and the biblical cultures. The epistle of the monk and saint Gildas (494–570) on the English corruption is also rife with biblical and apocalyptic invectives.6
1 On the basis of a treatise by Bede on tropes, Curtius (CEL, 47) demonstrates how the Bible came to be taken by him as a poetic text and a repertory of rhetorical figures, like a classical work.
- VIII, 358
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- Elizabethan English Literature Medieval
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. VIII, 358pp.