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dewyn of Bretan,' which is here printed for the first ti.ne.
HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH METRICAL ROMANCE.
Although, however, it thus appears that a very considerable body of our early romantic poetry has now been made generally accessible, it is to be observed that only a small proportion of what has been printed is derived from manuscripts of even so early a date as the fourteenth century, and that many of the volumes which have just been enumerated are merely re-impressions of compositions which cannot be traced, at least in the form in which we have them, beyond the sixteenth. Of the undoubted produce of the thirteenth century in this kind of writing we have very little, except the romances of Kyng Horn, Sir Tristrem, Haveloc, and Sir Gawaine, with perhaps two or three others in Ritson and Weber. It is probable, indeed, that many of the manuscripts of later date are substantially transcripts from earlier ones; but in such cases, even when we have the general forin of the poems as first written tolerably well preserved, the language is almost always more or less modernized. The history of the English metrical romance appears shortly to be, that at least the first examples of it were translations from the French ;--that, if any such were produced so early as before the close of the twelfth century (of which we have no evidence), they were probably designed for the entertainment of the mere commonalty, to whom alone the French language was unknown; —that in the thirteenth century were composed the earliest of those we now possess in their original form ;--that in the fourteenth the English took the place of the
French metrical romance with all classes, and that this was the era alike of its highest ascendancy and of its most abundant and felicitous production ;--that in the fifteenth it was supplanted by another species of poetry among the more educated classes, and had also to contend with another rival in the prose romance, but that, nevertheless, it still continued to be produced, although in less quantity and of an inferior fabric,—mostly, indeed, if not exclusively, by the mere modernization of older compositions--for the use of the common people ;—— and that it did not altogether cease to be read and written till after the commencement of the sixteenth. From that time the taste for this earliest form of our poetical literature lay asleep in the national heart till it was reawakened in our own day by Scott, after the lapse of three hundred years. But the metrical romance was then become quite another sort of thing than it had been in its proper era, throughout the whole extent of which, while the story was generally laid in a past age, the manners and state of society described were, notwithstanding, in most respects those of the poet's and of his readers' and hearers' own time. This was strictly the case with the poems of this description which were produced in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries; and even in those which were accommodated to the popular taste of a later day much more than the language had to be partially modernized to preserve them in favour. When this could no longer be done without too much violence to the composition, or an entire destruction of its original character, the metrical romance lost its hold of the public mind, and was allowed to drop into oblivion. There had been very little of mere anti
quarianism in the interest it had inspired for three centuries. It had pleased principally as a picture or reflection of manners, usages, and a general spirit of society still existing, or supposed to exist. And this is perhaps the condition upon which any poetry must expect to be extensively and permanently popular. We need not say that the temporary success of the metrical romance, as revived by Scott, was in great part owing to his appeal to quite a different, almost an opposite, state of feeling.
We give no specimens of our carly English metrical romances, because no extracts such as we could afford room for from one or two of them could do much, or almost anything, to convey a notion of the general character of these compositions. Although written in verse, they are essentially not so much poems as histories, or narrative works. At least, what poetry is in them lies almost always in the story rather than in anything else. The form of verse is manifestly adopted chiefly as an aid to the memory in their recitation. Even the musical character which the romance poetry is supposed originally to have had, if it ever was attempted to be maintained in long compositions of this description (which it is difficult to believe), appears very early to have been abandoned. Hence, when reading became a more common accomplishment, and recitation fell into comparative disuse, the verse came to be regarded as merely an impediment to the free and easy flow of the story, and was, by general consent, laid aside. Such being the case, it is easy to understand that an old metrical romance is hardly to be better represented by extracts than an architectural structure would be by a bit of one of the walls. Even the more ornamented or animated passages derive
most of their effect from the place they occupy, or the connexion in which they stand with the rest. The only way, therefore, of exhibiting any of these compositions intelligibly or fairly is to print the whole, or at the least, if only portions of the story are produced in the words of the original, to give the rest of it—somewhat abridged, it may be-in modern language. This latter method has been very successfully followed by Ellis in his 'Specimens,' which work will be found to take a general survey of nearly the whole field of fiction with which our early English metrical romances are conversant.
Another thing to be observed of these compositions is, that they are in very few cases ascribed to any particular writer. Nor have they, in general, any such peculiarity of style as might mark and distinguish their authorship. A few only may be accounted exceptions-among them the romance of Tristrem,—and, if so, we may understand what Robert de Brunne means when he appears to speak of its English as strange and quaint; but usually their style is merely that of the age in which they were written. They differ from one another, in short, rather in the merit of the story itself than by anything in the manner of telling it. The expression and the rhyme are both, for the most part, whatever comes first to hand. The verse, irregular and rugged enough withal, is kept in such shape and order as it has by a crowd of tautologies, expletives, and other blank phrases serviceable only for filling up a gap; and is altogether such verse as might apparently be almost improvised or chaunted extempore. These productions, therefore, are scarcely to be considered as forming any part of our literature, properly so called, interesting as they are on many accounts,—for
the warm and vigorous imagination that often revels in them, for their vivid expression of the feelings and modes of thought of a remote age, for the light they throw upon the history of the national manners and mind, and even of the language in its first rude but bold essays to mimic the solemnities of literary composition.
METRICAL CHRONICLE OF ROBERT OF GLOUCESTER.
It may be doubted, however, if any of these metrical romances be really earlier than the versified Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, a narrative of British and English affairs from the time of Brutus to the end of the reign of Henry III., which, from events to which it alludes, must have been written after 1278. All that is known of the author is that he was a monk of the abbey of Gloucester. His Chronicle was printed-" faithfully, I dare say," says Tyrwhitt, "but from incorrect manuscripts" by Hearne, in 2 vols. 8vo., at Oxford, in 1724; and a re-impression of this edition was produced at London in 1810. The work in the earlier part of it may be considered as a free translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin History; but it is altogether a very rude and lifeless composition. "This rhyming Chronicle," says Warton, "is totally destitute of art or imagination. The author has clothed the fables of Geoffrey of Monmouth in rhyme, which have often a more poetical air in Geoffrey's prose." Tyrwhitt refers to Robert of Gloucester in proof of the fact that the English language had already acquired a strong tincture of French; Warion observes that the language of this writer is full of Saxonisms, and not more easy or intelligible than that of what he calls "the Norman Saxon poems" of Kyng