History of English Literature: Part-7

the new learning of the Renaissance had not as yet taken much hold in England upon the whole the productions of Caxton’s press were mostly of a kind that may be described as medieval and the most important of them if we accept his addition of Chaucer was that noble and joyous book as Caxton called it l’amour tor written by Sir Thomas Malory in 1469 and printed by Caxton in 1485 this was a compilation from French Arthur romances and was by far the best English prose that had yet been written it may be doubted indeed whether for purposes of simple storytelling the picturesque charm of Malory style has been improved upon the episode which lends its name to the whole romance the death of Arthur is most impressively told and Tennyson has followed Mallory’s narrative closely even to such details of the scene as the little chapel by the sea the moonlight and the answer which sir bed we’re made the wounded king when bidden to throw Excalibur into the water what saw though there said the king sir he said I saw nothing but the waters whop and the waves one I heard the ripple washing in the reeds and the wild water laughing on the crag and very touching and beautiful is the oft-quoted lament of Sir Ector over Lancelot in Mallory’s final chapter Lancelot he said thou were head of all Christian Knights and now I dare say said Sir Ector thou Sir Lancelot there thou liest that thou were never matched of earthly Knights hand and thou were the corniest night that ever bear shield and thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever best rode horse and thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman and thou were the kindest man that ever strike was sword and now were the goodliest person ever came among press of knights and that were the meekest man and the gentlest that ever a tin Hall among ladies and thou were the sternest Knight thy mortal foe that ever puts fear in the rest equally good as an example of English prose narrative with the translation made by John bore sheer Lord burners of that most brilliant of the French chroniclers Chaucer’s contemporary Sir John foie sir Lord burners was the English governor of Calais and his version of Faust Tsar’s chronicles was made in 1523 225 at the request of Henry the eighth’s amis two books English chivalry spoke its last genuine word in Sir Philip Sidney the character of the night was merged into that of the modern gentleman and although tournaments were still held in the reign of Elizabeth and Spencer cast is very clean into the form of a chivalry romance these were but a ceremonial survival and literary tradition from an order of things that had passed away how antagonistic the new classical culture was to the vanished ideal of the middle age may be read in toxsa Phyllis a treatise on archery published in 1545 by Roger Ascham a Greek lecturer in Cambridge and the tutor of the Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey in our forefathers time when Pappas tree as a standing pool covered and overflowed All England view books were read in our tongues saving certain books of chivalry as they said for pastime and pleasure which as some say were made in monasteries by idle monks or wanton canons as one for example more tart or the whole pleasure of which books stand within two special points in open manslaughter and bold Badri this is good stuff for wise men to laugh at or honest men to take pleasure add yet I know when God’s Bible was banished the court and more tour received into the princes chamber the fashionable school of courtly allegory first introduced into England by the translation of the row man of the rose reached its extremity in Stephen Hawes pastime of pleasure printed by Caxton successor Lincoln de worde in 1517 this was a dreary and pedantic poem in which it is told how grand them more after a long series of adventures and instructions among such shadowy personages as Verret a observance fall should and good operation finally won the love of labelled Pooh sell pause was the last English poet of note whose culture was exclusively medieval his contemporary john skelton mingled the old fashions with the new classical learning in his pouch of court court entertainment or dull and in others of his earlier pieces he used like Hawes Chaucer 7 line stanza but his later poems were mostly written in a verse of his own invention called after him scalp Hanukkah this was a sort of glorified doggerel in short swift ragged lines with occasional intermixture of French and Latin her beauty to augment Dame Nature has her lent a wart upon her cheek whose solace to seek in her village a scar that seemeth from afar like to the radiant star always favored fret so properly it is set she is the violet the daisies electable the columbine commendable Vaghela fur amiable for this most goodly flower this blossom of fresh color so Jupiter me sucker she flourishes new and new in beauty and virtue Clara Tata Jimena Oh glorious FM ena etc Skelton was a rude railing rhymer and a singular mixture of a true and original poet with a buffoon courses rabble a whimsical obscure but always vivacious he was the rector of dis in Norfolk but his profane and scurrilous wit seems rather out of keeping with his clerical character his cunning of Eleanor rubbing is a study of very low life reminding one slightly of Burns’s Jolly beggars his Philip sparrow is a sportive pretty fantastic elegy on the death of a pet bird belonging to mistress Joanna’s group of Cairo and has been compared to the Latin poet Katella says elegy on Lesbia Sparrow in speak parrot and why come you not to court he assailed the powerful cardinal wolsey with the most ferocious satire and was in consequence obliged to take sanctuary at Westminster where he died in 1529 Skelton was a classical scholar and at one time tutor to Henry the eighth the great humanist Erasmus spoke of him as the one light and ornament of British letters Caxton asserts that he had read Virgil Ovid and Tully and quaintly adds I suppose yet drunken of Ellison’s well in refreshing contrast with the artificial court poetry of the 15th and the first three quarters of the 16th century the folk poetry the popular ballad literature which was handed down by oral tradition the English and Scotch ballads were narrative songs written in a variety of meters but chiefly in what is known as the ballad stanza in summer when the Shaw’s be Shayne and leaves be large and long it is full merry and fair forest to hear the phallus song to see the deer draw to the Dale and leave the hilly sea and shadow them in the leaves green under the Greenwood tree it is not possible to assign a definite date to these ballads they live in the lips of the people and were seldom reduced to writing until many years after they were first composed and sung meanwhile they underwent repeated changes so that we have numerous versions of the same story they belong to no particular author but like all silk lore were handed freely by the unknown poets minstrels and ballad reciters who modernized their language added to them or corrupted them and passed them along coming out of an uncertain past based on some dark legend of heartbreak or bloodshed they bear no poets name but are ferony to RA and have the flavor of wild game in the forms in which they are preserved few of them are older than the 17th century or the latter part of the 16th century though many in their original shape are doubtless much older a very few of the Robin Hood ballads go back to the 15th century and to the same period is assigned the charming ballad of the nut-brown maid and the famous border ballad of Chevy Chase which describes a battle between the retainers of the two Great Houses of Douglas and Percy it was this song of which Sir Philip Sidney wrote I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas but I found myself more moved than by a trumpet and yet it is sung but by some blind Crowder with no rougher than rude style but the style of the ballads was not always rude in their compressed energy of expression in the impassioned abrupt yet indirect way in which they tell their tale of grief and horror there reside often a tragic power and art superior to any English poetry that had been written since Chaucer superior even to Chaucer in the quality of intensity the true home of the ballad literature was the country and especially the Scotch border where the constant forays of moss troopers and the raids and private warfare of the Lords of the marches supplied many traditions of heroism like those celebrated in the old poem the Battle of otter borne and in the hunting of the Cheviot or Chevy Chase already mentioned some of these are Scotch and others English the dialect of lowland Scotland did not in effect differ much from that of Northumberland and Yorkshire both descended alike from the old Northumbrian of anglo-saxon times other ballads were shortened popular versions of the chivalry romances which were passing out of fashion among educated readers in the sixteenth century and now fell into the hands of the Ballad makers others preserved the memory of local countryside tales family feud’s and tragic incidents partly historical and partly legendary associated often with particular spots such are for example the Dowie dens of yarrow Sarah Helen of Kirk Connell the forsaken bride and the tois Corby’s others again have a coloring of popular superstition like the beautiful ballad concerning Thomas of air saloon who goes in at Elden Hill with an elf queen and spends seven years in fairyland but the most popular of all the ballads were those which cluster about the name of that good outlaw Robin Hood who with his Merry Men hunted the forest of Mary Sherwood where he killed the Kings deer and waylaid rich travelers but was kind to poor knights and honest workmen Robin Hood is the true ballad hero the darling of the common people as Arthur was of the nobles the names of his confessor Friar Tuck his mistress Maid Marian his companions Little John scathed Locke and much the Millers son we’re as familiar as household words langland in the 14th century mentions rhymes of Robin Hood and efforts have been made to identify him with some actual personage as with one of the dispossessed barons who had been adherents of Simon de Montfort in his war against Henry the third but there seems to be nothing historical about Robin Hood he was a creation of the popular fancy the game laws under the Norman kings were very oppressive and there were doubtless dim memories still cherished among the Saxon masses of hair award and edrick the wild who had defied the power of the Conqueror as well as of later freebooters who had taken to the woods and lived by plunder Robin Hood was a thoroughly national character he had the English love of fair play the English readiness to shake hands and make up and keep no malice when were stood in a square fight he beat and plundered the rich bishops and Abbot’s who had more than their fair share of wealth but he was generous and hospitable to the distressed and lived a free and careless life in the good Greenwood he was a mighty Archer with those national weapons the longbow and the cloth yard shaft he tricked and baffled legal authority in the person of the proud Sheriff of Nottingham thereby appealing to that secret sympathy with lawlessness and adventure which marked the Freeborn vigorous yeoman ray of England and finally the scenery of the forest gives a poetic background and a never-failing charm to the exploits of the old Robin Hood of England and his Merry Men the ballads came in time to have a certain tricks of style such as our apt to characterize a body of anonymous folk poetry such as their use of conventional epithets the red red gold the good Greenwood the gray goose wing such are certain recurring terms of phrase like butt out and spake their stepmother such as finally a kind of singsong repetition which doubtless helped the ballad singer to memorize his stock as for example she hadn’t to put a double rose a rose but only tray or again and many one sings old grass o grass and many one sings a corn and many one sings a Robin Hood ken’s little where he was born it was not in the hahaha nor in the painted bower but it was in the good Greenwood among the lily flower copies of some of these old ballads were talked about in the 16th century printed in black letter broad size or single sheets linking the word printed in 1489 a little jest of Robin Hood which is a sort of digest of earlier ballads on the subject in the 17th century a few of the English popular ballads were collected in miscellanies called Garland’s early in the 18th century the Scotch poet Allan Ramsay published an Scotch ballads in the Evergreen and the tea-table miscellany but no large and important collection was put forth until Percy’s relics 1765 a book which had a powerful influence upon Wordsworth and Walter Scott in Scotland some excellent ballads in the ancient manor were written in the 18th century such as Jane Eliot’s lament for Flodden and the fine Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence Walter Scott’s proud Maisie’s in the woods is a perfect reproduction of the pregnant indirect method of old ballad makers

 

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