Immagini della pagina
PDF
ePub

time. The following letter from Henry Prince of Wales (afterwards Henry V) to his father, is one of those pieces which enable us to trace the progress of the English language at its centre, and the exactness of the copy may be relied on as it is one of the pieces given in the photozincographed National Manuscripts of the Ordnance Survey.

Henry Prince of Wales to his father Henry IV,
A.D. I.4O2.

My soverain lord and fader, I Recomande me to yowr good and gracieux lordship, as humbly as I can, desiring to heere as good tydingges of yow and yowr hye estat, as ever did liege man of his soverain lord. And, Sir, I trust to God that ye shal have now a companie comyng with my brother of Bedford that ye shal like wel, in good feith, as hit is do me wite. Neverthelatter my brothers mainy [company] have I seyn, which is right a tal meyny. And so schal ye se of thaym that be of yowr other Captaines leding, of which I sende yow al the names in a rolle, be [by] the berer of this. Also so, Sir, blessid be God of the good and gracieux tydingges that ye have liked to send me word of be [by] Herford your messager, which were the gladdist that ever I myst here, next yowr wel fare, be my trouth: and Sir with Goddes grace I shal sende al thise ladies as ye have comandid me, in al hast beseching yow of yowr lordship that I myst wite how that ye wolde that my cosine of York shuld reule her, whether she shuld be barbid or not, as I have wreten to yow my soverain lord afore this tyme. And, Sir, as touching Tiptot, he shal be delivered in al hast, for ther lakkith no thing but shipping which with Goddes grace shal be so ordeined for that he shal not tary. Also Sir, blessid be God, yowr gret ship the Grace Dieu is even as redy, and is the fairest that ever man saugh, I trowe in good feith ; and this same day th’ Erle of Devenshir my cosin maad his moustre [muster] in her, and al others have her [their] moustre the same tyme that shal go to be see. And Sir I trowe ye have on [one] comyng toward yow as glad as any man can be, as far as he shewith, that is the King of Scotts: for he thanketh God that he shal mowe shewe be experience th' entente of his goodwill be the suffrance of your good lordship. My soverain lord more can I not write to yowr hynesse at this time; but pt ever I beseche yow of your good and gracieux lordship as, be my trouth, my witting willingly I shal never deserve the contrary, that woot God, to whom I pray to send yow al boyowr hert desireth to his plaisance. Writen in yowr town of Hampton, the xiiijth day of May.—Yowr trewe and humble liege man and sone, H. G.

Between these two pieces, namely, that of A.D. 1258 and that of A.D. 1402, a period of 140 years had elapsed; but even this period, which represents four generations of men, would not suffice to allow for the transition of the one into the other in the way of lineal descent. In fact they are not on the same track. The one is a fossilised sample of confused provincialisms, the other a living and breathing utterance of ‘King's English.’ And this King's English must have been long in preparation before it made its public appearance, and still longer before the date of any extant record of such appearance. The Romance of King Alexander, which appeared in the latter part of the thirteenth century, has already been noticed as perhaps the earliest literary indication. The following piece has something of the Court English about it, but perhaps it is not in a very good state of preservation. It is taken from Warton's History of English Poetry (ed. Price).

Selections from an Elegy on the Death of King Edward I, who died A.D. 1307.

[ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

X.
Nou is Edward of Carnaruan
King of Englelond al aply.ht;
God lete him ner be worse man
Then is fader, ne lasse of myht,
To holden is pore men to ryht,
Ant vnderstonde good cousal;
Al Engel ind forte wisse ant diht;
Of gode knyhtes darh him nout fail.

XI.
Thah mi tonge were mad of stel
Ant min herte ygote of bras
The godnesse myht y neuer telle
That with kyng Edward was.

TRANSLATION.

All ye that be true of heart, bearken ye a while to my song, of grief that death bath lately done us, which maketh me sigb and sorrow as I sing: of a knight who was so strong, that God bath accomplished His purpose by his bands; methinks that Death has done us wrong, that be so soon must lie still.

All England ought for to know of whom the song is that I sing—of Edward the king that lieth so low, over all this world his name did spring : truest man in all business, and in war cautious and wise; for him we ought to wring our bands; he bore the palm of Christendom.

Now is Edward of Caernarvon king of England assuredly. God grant be be never a worse man than his father, nor less in might, to support his poor men to (obtain their) rights, and to understand good counsel; for to guide and direct all England—of good knights shall not bim fail.

Though my tongue were made of steel, and my heart cast in brass, I should never be able to tell the goodness that was about king Edward.

But it is in the writings of Chaucer and Gower that we have for the first time the full display of King's English. These two names have been coupled together all through the whole course of English literature. Skelton, the poet laureate of Henry VII, joins the two names together. So does our literary king, James I. So have all writers who have had occasion to speak of the fourteenth century, down to the present day. Indeed, Chaucer himself may be almost said to have associated Gower's name permanently with his own literary and poetical fame, in the terms with which he addressed his Troylus and Creseide to Gower and Strode, and asked their revision of his book:

“O moral Gower, this boke I directe

To the, and to the philosophical Strode,

To vouchen sauf, ther nede is, to correcte,

Of youre benignites and zeles good.’ Thus these two names have grown together, and their connection is soldered by habit and tradition. One is apt to imagine, previous to a study of their works, that they were a par nobile fratrum, brothers and equals in poetry and genius, and that they had contributed equally, or nearly so, towards the making of English literature. But this is very far from being the case. That which united them at first, and which continues to be the sole ground of coupling their names together, is just this, that they wrote in the same general strain and in the same language. By this is meant, first, that they were both versed in the learning then most prized, and both delivered what they had to say in the terms then most admired; and secondly, that both wrote the English of the court. If affinity of genius had been the basis of classification, the author of Piers Plowman had more right to rank with Chaucer than the prosaic Gower. But in this Chaucer and Gower are united in that they both wrote the particular form of English which was henceforward to be established as the standard form of the national language, and their books were the leading English classics of the best society down to the opening of a new era under Elizabeth.

And now the question naturally rises, What was this new

language what was it that distinguished the King's English from the various forms of provincial English of which examples have been given in the group of writers noticed above, or from Piers Plowman and other provincial contemporaries of Chaucer? In answer to this it may be said, that it is no more possible to convey the idea of a language by description than of a piece of music. The writings must be looked into by all who desire to realise the distinctions here to be pointed out. A moderate course of reading, such as that laid out in Mr. Morris's Specimens of Early English would enable a student to follow our description. The leading characteristics of the King's English—the characteristics by which it is distinguished from the provincial dialects—are only to be understood by a consideration of the vast amount of French which it had absorbed. It is a familiar sound to hear Chaucer called the well of English undefiled. But this expression never had any other meaning than that Chaucer's language was free from those foreign materials which got into the English of some centuries later. Compare Chaucer with the provincial English writers of his own day, and he will be found highly Frenchified in comparison with them. Words which are so thoroughly naturalised that they now pass muster as ‘English undefiled,’ will often turn out to be French of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Who would suspect such a word as blemish of being French P and yet it is so. It is from the old French adjective blesme, which meant sallow, wan, discoloured, and its old verb blesmir, which meant as much as the modern French verbs tacher and salir, to spot and to soil. Then there is the very Saxon-looking word with its w initial, to warish, meaning to recover from sickness. Richardson, in his Dictionary, has provided this word with a Saxon derivation, by connecting it with being ware or wary, and so taking care of oneself. But it is simply the French verb guesir. These are only two of a whole class of French verbs which have put on the English termination -ish ; such as to banish,

« IndietroContinua »