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That opportunity offered itself under the reign of Alfred, who cleared his part of the country of the Danish scourge, and was the first to renew the arts of peace. With the 'mention of Alfred's name, we seem to enter upon a comparatively modern era, and to quit the obscurity of the pre-Danish period. Wessex, or the country of the West Saxons, becomes the arena of our narrative henceforth, and we have no occasion to notice Anglian literature again, until the fifteenth century, when that dialect had shaped itself into a new and distinct national language for the kingdom of Scotland. The poet in whose works the Scottish language first displays its definite form, is Dunbar, a younger contemporary of Chaucer. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries there was a thriving national literature in the Anglian dialect, and the best known specimens of it to us on the south of the Tweed are the works of Robert Burns, and the dialogues in ‘brad Scots,' which so charmingly diversify the novels of Sir Walter Scott. It is odd that this language, which is in fact the genuine Anglian, should have received the Keltic name of Scotch' from the Gaelic dynasty which mounted the Anglian throne, and that in taking its modern name from its northern neighbours it should have furnished a parallel to the adoption of the name 'English' by the West Saxons.
Wessex had not been entirely destitute of men of learning during the period in which the focus of civilisation was in Northumbria. Aldhelm is the first name of eminence in southern literature. He died in A.D. 709. He translated the Psalms of David into his native tongue, and it has been supposed that his work may in some measure be represented by an exuberant Saxon version of the Psalter which is preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris, and which was printed in the year 1835 at the Clarendon Press, under the
editorship of Mr. Thorpe. But though we can point to Aldhelm, and one or two other names of cultivated men in Wessex, they are exceptions to the general rudeness and uncultured state of that kingdom before Alfred's time. It was distinguished for its military rather than for its literary successes. Learning resided northward. Alfred is reported to have said that there was not to be found a priest south of the Thames who knew his Office in Latin. But with him, that is to say, in the last quarter of the ninth century, Saxon literature starts up almost full-grown. It seems as if it grew up suddenly, and reached perfection at a bound without preparation or antecedents. It has been too much the habit to suppose that this phenomenon is sufficiently accounted for by the introduction of scholars from other countries who helped to translate the most esteemed books into Saxon. So the reign of Alfred is apt to get paralleled with those rude tribes among whom our missionaries introduce a translated literature at the same time with the arts of reading and writing. It has not been sufficiently considered that such translations are dependent on the previous exercise of the native tongue, and that foreign help can only bring up a wild language to eloquence by very slow degrees. There is a vague idea among us that our language was then in its infancy, and that its compass was
narrow as the few necessary ideas of savage life. A modern Italian turning over a Latin book might think it looked very barbarous; and perhaps even some moderate scholars have never appreciated to how great a power the Latin tongue had attained long before the Augustan era. Great languages are not built in a day. The fact is that Wessex inherited a cultivated language from the north, and that when they called their translations Englisc and not Seaxisc, they acknowledged that debt. The cultivated
Anglian dialect became the literary medium of hitherto uncultured Wessex; just as the dialect of the Latian cities set the form of the imperial language of Rome, and was called Latin; and the dialect of Castile was the foundation of the literary Spanish.
Of the Saxon language as it was used in Scripture versions and Church services, the Lord's Prayer forms the readiest illustration.
THE LORD'S PRAYER.
From ALFRED'S VERSION of the GOSPELS.
Fæder ure, þu þe eart on heofenum
Si þin nama gehalgod
To becume thin rice
Come thy kingdom
debtors And ne gelæde bu
costnunge, ac alys us of yfle
The period of Saxon leadership extends from Alfred to the Conquest, about A.D. 880 to A.D. 1066. These figures represent also the interval at which Saxon literature was strongest; but its duration exceeds these limits at either end.
We have poetry, laws, and annals before 880, and we have large and important continuations of Saxon Chronicles after 1066. Perhaps the most natural date to adopt as the term of Saxon literature would be A.D. 1154, the year of King Stephen's death, the last year that is chronicled in Saxon.
The Saxon differed from modern English most conspicuously in being what is called an inflected language. An inflected language is one that joins words together, and makes them into sentences, not by means of a set of small secondary and auxiliary words, but by means of changes made in the main words themselves. If we look at a page of modern English, we see not only nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, these words of primary necessity, but a sprinkling of little interpreters among the greater words, and that the relations of the great words to one another are expressed by the little ones that fill the spaces between them. Such are mainly articles, prepositions, and pronouns. In more general terms it may be said that the essence of an inflected language is, to express by composition of words that which an uninflected language expresses by syntax or arrangement of words. So that in the inflected language more is expressed by single words than in the noninflected. Take as an example those words of the Preacher, and see how differently they are expressed in English and in Latin :
A time to be born, and a time to die ; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
Tempus nascendi, et tempus moriendi ; tempus plantandi, et tempus evellendi quod plantatum est.
Tempus occidendi, et tempus sanandi ; tempus destruendi, et tempus ædificandi,
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to
Tempus flendi, et tempus ridendi ; A time to weep, and a time to tempus plangendi, et tempus saltandi. laugh; a time to mourn, and a time
to dance. Tempus spargendi lapides, et tem A time to cast away stones, and pus colligendi.
a time to gather stones together. There are no words in the Latin answering to these little words which are italicised in the English version-a, the, to, of, be-yet the very sense of the passage depends upon them in English, often to such a degree that if one of these were to be changed, the sense would be completely overturned. The Latin has no words corresponding to these little words, but it has an equivalent of another kind. The terminations of the Latin words undergo changes which are expressive of all these modifications of sense; and these changes of the ends of words are called Inflections.
Languages which make use of these inflections, instead of using distinct words for this purpose, are called inflectional languages. Such were in a high degree the ancient Latin and Greek; and such, in a less degree, was the AngloSaxon before the Conquest.
The following piece may serve to illustrate the Saxon inflections :
Upahafenum eagum on þa heah With uplifted eyes to the height nysse and a penedum earmum ongan and with outstretched arms she begebiddan mid þæra welera styrung gan to pray with stirrings of the lips um on stilnesse.
Here we observe in the first place, that terminations in the elder speech are replaced by prepositions in the younger. Upahafenum eagum' is 'with uplifted eyes,' and 'aþenedum earmum' is 'with outstretched arms'; and the infinitive termination of the verb 'gebiddan' is in English represented by the preposition to.
But then we observe further in the second place, that there are phrases with prepositions as well as inflections,