Immagini della pagina

from its northern neighbours it should have furnished a geographical parallel to the adoption of the name of 'English' by the West Saxons.

27. Wessex had not been entirely destitute of Christian learning during the period of Northumbrian pre-eminence. Aldhelm is the first great name in southern literature. He died in A.d. 709. He translated the Psalms of David into his native tongue, and composed popular hymns to drive out the old pagan songs. 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 of that kingdom before Alfred's time. Wessex had been distinguished for its military rather than for its literary successes. Learning had resided northward. But in the ninth century a great revolution occurred. Northumbria and Mercia fell into the hands of the heathen Danes, and culture was obliterated in those parts which had hitherto been most enlightened. It was Alfred's first care, after he had won the security of his kingdom, to plant learning. We have it in his own words, that at his accession there were few south of Humber who could understand their ritual, or translate a letter from Latin into Englisc; 'and,' he adds, 'I ween there were not many beyond Humber either'—pointing to the heathen darkness in which the north was then shrouded.

This famous passage occurs in a circular preface, addressed to the several bishops, and serving as an introduction to Alfred's version of Gregory's Cura Pastoralis. I quote it in the original, with Mr. Henry Sweet's translation :—


Alfredkyninghate^S gretanWaerferS King Alfred bids greet bishop

biscep his wordum luflice and freond- Warferthwith kis words lovingly and

lice; and Se cyiSan hate ftaet me com with friendship; and I let it be known

swiSe oft on gemynd, hwelce wiotan to thee that it has very often come into

[ocr errors]

my mind, what wise men there formerly were throughout England, both of sacred and secular orders; and how happy times there were then throughout England; and how the kings who had power over the nation in those days obeyed God and his ministers; and they preserved peace, morality, and order at home, and at the same time enlarged their territory abroad; and how they prospered both with war and with wisdom; and also the sacred orders how zealous they were both in teaching and learning, and'; in all the services they owed to God; and how foreigners came to this land in search of wisdom and instruction, and how we should now have to get them from abroad if we were to have them. So general was its decay in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their rituals in English, or translate a letter from Latin into English; and I believe that there were not many beyond the Humber. There were so few of them that I cannot remember a single one south of the Thames when I came to the throne. Thanks be to God Almighty that we have any teachers among us now.

28. Alfred inaugurated a new era for his country. 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 almost as 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 that language was called Latin.

'29. Of this literary Englisc the Lord's Prayer offers the readiest illustration.


Matt. vi.

Feeder ure, bu J?e eart on heofenum
Father our, thou that art in heaven

Si bin nama gehalgod
Be thy name hallowed

Tobecume thin rice
Come thy kingdom

Geweorjje )>in willa on eorban, swa swa on heofenum
Be-done thy will on earth, so-as in heaven

Urne djeghwamlican hlaf syle us to daeg
Our daily loaf give us to day
And forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgifafi urum gyltendum
And forgive us our debts, so-as we forgive our debtors

And ne gelsede ]m us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfle
And not lead thou us into temptation, but loose us of evil

Soothly (Amen).

The period of West-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 close of Saxon literature would be A.d. I I 54, the year of King Stephen's death, the last year that is chronicled in Saxon.

§ 4. Characteristics of Anglo-Saxon.

30. 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 so much by means of small secondary and auxiliary words, but rather by means of changes made in the main words themselves. If we look at a page of modern English, we see not only substantives, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, the great words of conspicuous importance, but also a sprinkling of little interpreters among the greater words; and the relations of the great words to one another are expressed by the little ones that fill the spaces between them. Such are the pronouns, articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. In more general terms it may be said that the essence of an inflected language is, to express by modifications of form that which an uninflected language expresses by arrangement of words. So that in the inflected language more is expressed by single words than in the noninflected. Take as an example these words of the Preacher, and see how differently they are constructed in English and in Latin:—

Eccles. iii.

Tempus nascendi, et tempus mo- A time to be born, and a time to riendi; tempus plantandi, et tempus die; a time to plant, and a time to evellendi quod plantatum est. pluck up that which is planted.

Tempus occidendi, -et tempus sa- A time to kill, and a time to heal; nandi; tempus destruendi, et tempus a time to break down, and a time to

[editiamdi. build up.

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 tern- A time to cast away stones, and pus colligendi. a time to gather stones together.

There are no words in the Latin answering to the words which are italicised in the English version—a, to, be, up, that, away, together—-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 symbols, 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 form are called Inflections.

31. The following piece may serve to illustrate the Saxon inflections:—

Upahafenam eagum on pa heah- With uplifted eyes to the height

nysse and apenedwm earmum ongan and with outstretched arms she be

gebiddon mid baera welera styrung- gan to pray with stirrings of the lips

v.m on stilncsse. in stillness.

« IndietroContinua »