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Lecture the First .
THE CELTIC LANGUAGE-THE ORIGIN AND FORMATION OF THE ANGLO-SAXON-08
SIAN, THE CELTIC POET-GILDAS—NENNIUS-ST. COLUMBANUS--CÆDMON-JOHN OF BEVERLY-BEDE-KING ALFRED-ALFRIC, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURYNORMAN FRENCH WRITERS-MAISTRE WACE-THE ORIGIN OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE-RHYMING CHRONICLES-LAYAMON-ROBERT OF GLOUCESTER-METRICAL ROMANCES-MINSTRELS OR JONGLEURS-RICHARD THE FIRST-ROGER BACON.
\HE English language, now so rich in its literature, is essentially based
upon the Teutonic, a dialect spoken by the inhabitants of Central Europe at the dawn of history, and which also constitutes the basis of the language of Germany, of Holland, and of Denmark. It was introduced from the continent by the Anglo-Saxons in the latter part of the fifth century of the Christian era, and gradually spread with the people who spoke it, over nearly the whole of Southern Britain ; the Celtic, the language of the Aborigines of the country, soon shrinking before it into Caledonia, Wales, Cornwall, and other remote parts of the island.
During the first five centuries after its introduction into the country now called England, the Anglo-Saxon language underwent little change farther than that which resulted from the occasional introduction of Latin words by Christian missionaries from the continent; and its literature, meantime, was cultivated, chiefly, by members of the different religious orders, some of whom were evidently men of more than ordinary genius. This early age presents us with many valuable historical chronicles, and theological treatises, together with occasional poetical effusions that well deserve to be carefully preserved.
But before we proceed to speak of these writers more particularly, we can not forbear to pause for a moment on the Celtic age, and briefly notice Ossian, its brightest, and perhaps its only ornament. Without concerning ourselves with those perplexing questions which respect Ossian's identity, we shall assume, according to Dr. Blair and Lord Kames, that he really lived, and actually composed the poems attributed to him by Macpherson.
The era assigned to Ossian is the beginning of the fourth Christian century, which places him two centuries at least anterior to any Southern British writer. He was the son of Fingal, a Caledonian chief, and having survived all the companions of his youth, under the influence of the " Joy of Grief”—his own luminous expression, looked back upon the scenes of his
early life, and breathed forth in strains of melancholy tenderness, and deep pathos, all those chastening recollections which now burthened his memory.
The principal poems of Ossian are Fingal, and Temora, both of which are regular epics, though they are comparatively limited in extent. Of these poems, as well as of the minor productions of his muse, the principal characteristics are sublimity and tenderness. They breathe nothing of the gay and cheerful kind, but an air of solemnity and seriousness is diffused over the whole. Ossian is, perhaps, the only poet who never relaxes, or lets himself down into the light or amusing strain : he moves perpetually in the high region of the grand and the pathetic. One key-note is struck at the beginning, and supported to the end; nor is any ornament introduced that is not perfectly concordant with the general tone of the melody. The events recorded are all serious and grave, and the scenery throughout is wild and romantic. The extended heath by the sea-shore; the mountains shaded with mist; the torrent rushing through a silent valley; the scattered oaks, and the tombs of warriors overgrown with moss; all produce a solemn attention in the mind, and prepare it for great and extraordinary events.
We find not in Ossian an imagination that supports itself, and dresses out gay trifles to please the fancy. His poetry, to a greater extent, perhaps, than that of any other writer, deserves to be styled the poetry of the heart -a heart penetrated with noble sentiments, and with sublime and tender passions; a heart that glows and kindles the fancy; a heart that is full to overflowing, and pours its gushing feelings forth unrestrained.
Ossian, like Homer, did not write as modern poets write, to please readers and critics : he
His delight was to think of the heroes among whom he had flourished; to recall the affecting incidents of his life; to dwell upon his past wars, and loves, and friendships ; till, as he himself expresses it,
There comes a voice to Ossian, and awakes his soul. It is the voice of years that are gone; they roll before me with all their deeds;
and under this true poetic inspiration, giving vent to genius, it is no wonder that we should so often hear and acknowledge, in his strains, the powerful and ever-pleasing voice of humanity.
It is necessary to remark, however, that the beauties of the poems of Ossian can not be felt by those who give them only a single or hasty perusal. They require to be taken up at intervals, and to be frequently reviewed ; and then it is impossible that his beauties should not develop themselves to every reader who is capable of sensibility. Those indeed who have the highest degree of it, will relish him the most. In the absence of religion, and religious sentiment of every kind, Ossian has created a machinery for himself out of the departed spirits of heroes and friends; and these properly constitute his mythology. The aspect of these spirits, and their breathing tones, are frequently wrought up to a height of sublimity wonderfully
passages therefore as the following abound in every part of his poems :
A dark red stream of fire comes down from the hill. Crugal sat upon the beam; he that lately fell by the hand of Suaran, striving in the battle of heroes. His face is like the beam of the setting moon. His robes are of the cloud of the hill. His eyes are like two decaying flames. Dark is the wound of his breast. The stars dim twinkle through his form; and his voice was like the sound of a distant stream. The attitude in which the spirit of Crugal is afterward placed, and the speech which he utters, are full of that solemn and awful sublimity, which is so peculiarly suited to the subject.
Dim, and in tears he stood, and he outstretched his pale hand over the hero. Faintly he raised his feeble voice, like the gale of the reedy Sego. My ghost, Oh Conal! is on my native hills; but my course is on the sands of Ulla. Thou shalt never talk with Crugal, or find his lonely steps in the heath. I am light as the blast of Cromla; and I move like the shadow of mist. Conal, son of Colga! I see the dark cloud of death; it hovers over the plains of Lena. The sons of green Erin shall fall. Remove from the field of ghosts Like the darkened moon, he retired in the midst of the whistling blast.
With scenes of exquisite painting also Ossian abounds. Such is the scenery with which Temora opens, and the attitude in which Caibar is there presented; the description of the young prince Cormac in the same book, and the ruins of Balclutha in Cartho.
I have seen the walls of Balclutha, but they were desolate. The fire had resounded in the halls; and the voice of the people is heard no more. The stream of Clutha was removed from its place by the fall of the walls. The thistle shook there its lonely head; the moss whistled to the wind. The fox looked out from the windows; the rank grass of the wall waved round his head. Desolate is the dwelling of Moina, silence is in the house of her fathers. But Ossian's genius, though chiefly turned toward the sublime and the pathetic, was by no means confined to it. In subjects also of grace and delicacy, he discovers the hand of a master. As an instance of this, we may notice the following exquisite description of Agandecca, the tenderness of which is perhaps, unsurpassed.
The daughter of the snow overheard, and left the hall of her secret sigh. She came in all her beauty; like the moon from the cloud of the east. Loveliness was around her as light. Her steps were like the music of songs. She saw the youth and loved him. He was the stolen sigh of her soul. Her blue eyes rolled on him in secret; and she blessed the chief of Morven.
The metaphors of Ossian, such as, In peace thou art the gale of spring-in war, the mountain of storm, and his similes, such as,
The music of Carol was like the memory of joys that are past,-pleasant, and mournful to the soul, are of the most delicate kind, and adorn almost every page of his poetry; but we are constrained here to close our notice of this venerable poet, and
we shall do so with that noble • Address to the Sun,' found in Carthon, and his · Last Song,' at the close of his poems.
Oh thou that rollest above, round as the shield of my fathers. Whence are thy beams, Oh sun! thy everlasting light! Thou comest forth in thy awful beauty; the stars hide themselves in the sky; the moon, cold and pale, sinks in the western way; but thou thyself movest alone. Who can be a companion of thy course? The oaks of the mountains fall; the mountains themselves decay with years; the ocean shrinks and grows again; the moon herself is lost in heaven: but thou art forever the same, rejoicing in the brightness of thy course. When the world is dark with tempests, when thunder rolls and lightning flies, thou lookest in thy beauty from, the clouds, and laughest at the storm. But to Ossian thou lookest in vain, for he beholds thy beams no more: whether thy yellow hair flows on the eastern clouds, or thou tremblest at the gates of the west. But thou art, perhaps, like me, for a season; thy years will have an end. Thou shalt sleep in thy clouds, careless of the voice of the morning. Exult, then, oh Sun, in the strength of thy youth! Age is dark and unlovely; it is like the glimmering light of the moon when it shines through broken clouds, and the mist is on the hills: the blast of the north is on the plain, the traveler shrinks in the midst of his journey.
The tenderness and pathos of the close of the Last Song strikingly remind us of a similar passage in the Roman poet Ovid.
My harp hangs on a blasted branch. The sound of its strings is mournful. Does the wind touch thee, Oh harp, or is it some passing ghost? It is the hand of Malvina! Bring me the harp, son of Alpin. Another song shall rise. My soul shall depart in the sound. My fathers shall hear it in their airy hall. Their dim faces shall hang, with joy, from their clouds; and their hands receive their son. The aged oak bends over the stream. It sighs with all its moss. The withered fern whistles near, and mixes, as it waves, with Ossian's hair.
Strike the harp, and raise the song; be near, with all your wings, ye winds. Bear the mournful sound away to Fingal's airy hall. Bear it to Fingal’s hall, that he may hear the voice of his son; the voice of him that praised the mighty.
The blast of the north opens thy gates, Oh king! I behold thee sitting on mists dimly gleaming in all thine arms. Thy form now is not the terror of the valiant. It is like the watery cloud when we see the stars behind it with their weeping eyes. Thy shield is the aged moon: thy sword, a vapor half kindled with fire. Dim and feeble is the chief who travelled in brightness before! But thy steps are on the winds of the desert. Thy storms are darkening in thy hand. Thou takest the sun in thy wrath, and hidest him in thy clouds. The sons of little men are afraid. A thousand showers descend. But when thou comest forth in thy mildness, the gate of the morning is near thy course. The sun laughs in his blue fields. The gray stream winds in its vale. The bushes shake their green heads in the wind. The roes bound toward the desert.
There is a murmur in the heath! The stormy winds abate! I hear the voice of Fingal. Long has it been absent from mine ear! Come, Ossian, come away,' he says. Fingal has received his fame. We passed away like fames that shone for a
Our departure was in renown. Though the plains of our battles are dark and silent, our fame is in the four gray stones. The voice of Ossian has been heard. The harp has been strung in Selma! Come, Ossian, come away,' he says; 'come, fly with thy fathers on clouds.' I come, I come, thou king of men! The life of Ossian fails. I begin to vanish on Cona. My steps are not seen in Selma. Beside the stone of Mora I shall fall asleep. The winds whistling in my gray hair, shall not awaken me. Depart on thy wings, O wind, thou canst not disturb the rest of
the bard. The night is long, but his eyes are heavy. Depart, thou rustling blast.
But why art thou sad, son of Fingal ? Why glows the cloud of thy soul? The chiefs of other times are departed. They have gone without their fame. The sons of future years shall pass away. Another race shall arise. The people are like the waves of the ocean; like the leaves of woody Morven they pass away in the rustling blast, and other leaves lift their green heads on high.
Did thy beauty last, O Ryno ? Stood the strength of car-borne Oscar! Fingal himself departed! The halls of his fathers forgot his steps. Shalt thou then remain, thou aged bard, when the mighty have failed ? But my fame shall remain, and grow like the oak of Morven; which lifts its broad head to the storm, and rejoices in the course of the wind !
From this brief notice of the poetic genius of Ossian, we return to those early Anglo-Saxon writers to whom we have already referred.
Gildas, the first of these, in the order of time, was a native of the north of England, and his residence was in the vicinity of the wall of Severus; but at what precise period he lived, is uncertain. His calling seems to have been that of a Christian missionary, but of his life nothing farther is known. As a writer, Gildas is to be gratefully remembered for being the author of an Historical Epistle, containing an account of all the important events in the history of his native country, from the earliest period of that history down to the year 560. This epistle, though inelegantly written in the Latin language, is of the utmost importance, as it is the only reliable source whence our knowledge of the period of which it treats is to be drawn. This important work remained for many centuries comparatively neglected, but during the reign of Charles the Second it was translated into English, and has since been more generally known.
NENNIUS, a contemporary of Gildas, was the reputed author of some comparatively unimportant tracts; but with regard to this writer himself, and also of the productions of his pen, so much uncertainty prevails that no farther notice of him is deemed necessary.
ST. COLUMBANUS, another writer of the same period, and also a man of much greater genius and wider celebrity than either of his contemporaries, was a native of Ireland, and his name is still embalmed in that country in the sweetest recollections, for his vigorous and continuous efforts toward the advancement of Christianity throughout his native island. also a devoted patron of learning, and was the author of various religious tracts, and some Latin poems, the merit of which was very unusual when we consider the period at which the author wrote. Neither of the three writers just mentioned, can, however, justly be considered as Anglo-Saxon authors, for they all wrote in the Latin language.
Cadmon, the next author to be noticed, may, therefore, properly be considered the first writer who distinguished himself among the British Anglo-Saxons.