The Early Literary Tradition : An Exploration

December 20, 1995
E 332

Despite its name and the implications of a middle or stagnant period, art and literature flourished during the old english period (Norton 1). Much of the history during this period is rooted in the Anglo-saxon invasion ad religious conversion in the 4th century A.D. (Norton 2). Oral in transmittance, the first poetry was indicative of the “Christian culture that preserved, transmitted, and transformed [the] classical tradition” (Norton 1,3). Literacy was “restricted to servants of the church” and because of this most of the Old English manuscripts centered around religious subjects while written down in Latin (Norton 3).

Most of the thematic content of the poems indicative of this period deals with the legends or “historical figures who lived before the anglo-saxon conquest” (Norton 3). Stylistically, the poetry was chaotic in nature and always changing. This chaos, also reflected the way in which they viewed the world as a hostile and constantly changing place to live. The poetry was also cast in a heroic mode which caused Christian values to be modified to fit the pattern (Norton 3). One such poem was “The Dream of the Rood” in which the speaker laments on humility and punishment at the hands of God. Romantic love is hardly dealt with during this period. Poetic lyrics during this period were said to not “portray the playfulness of animals in spring’s return” (Norton 4).

Overall, the general voice that characterizes “Old English poetry seems to be uttered by a single aristocratic voice, grave, decorous, and speaking in terms of high communal aspirations” (Norton 5). The vocabulary of poetry also was expanded on during the Old English period. In order to accommodate for the male-ness of the poetic content ananyms had to be made up for “warrior” words (Norton 4). The creation of new words also helped to formalize and elevate speech (Norton 4).

The overall representative of this period was “The Wanderer” written anonymously in 975 A.D (Norton 68). The bulk of the poem is a lament directed towards one man’s examination of himself and the world about him. Several passages discuss man’s position in life and what virtues are imperative for man to have, beginning with the notion that it’s wrong for men to expose their emotions. The narrator also comments on the different positions that man has and attributes more commonalities and virtues important to that profession. For example on page 69, he cites that a wise man must “be patient, must never be too hot-hearted, nor too hasty of speech, nor too fearful. ..”. These descriptions are interdispersed with the speaker’s desire to be reunited with his lord and countrymen.

This poem is indicative of the times because it exemplifies the attitudes and beliefs during the Old English period. “The Wanderer” deals with the changing time and conversion from pagan beliefs to Christianity. It incorporates the traditional sense of heroic duty to one’s country with the virtues that compose the “ideal man” of the time. It also incorporates the new Christian values into a new economy and world view. The speaker’s tone of a high aristocratic and community values is also represented in this passage:

Thus I, wretched with care, removed from my homeland, far from dear kinsmen, have had to fasten with fetters the thoughts of my heart- ever since the time, many years ago, that I covered my gold-friend in the darkness of the earth; and from there I crossed the woven waves, winter-sad, downcast for want of a hall, sought a giver of treasure- a place, far or near, where I might find one in mead-hall who should know of my people, or would comfort me friendless, receive me with gladness. (Norton 69)

The Middle English period occurred next, beginning circa 1200 A.D (Norton 1). During this period the general values of the people are beginning to be place on a money centered economy rather than an economy associated with trade of one’s service or personal gain (class notes 9/25). “Rhyme, composed in couplets and different stanzaic patterns, becomes the dominate poetic form” (Norton 5) and the voice of the poems’ speaker “utters [poetry] by a medley of different voices addressing themselves to different audiences- learned and unlearned, aristocratic and middle class, male and female, an frequently to several of these at the same time” (Norton 5). Humor is also more abundant in this period,this is especially seen in Chaucer who satorizes the norms and values of the english culture (Norton 5).

During the Middle English phase, English becomes a more acceptable form of writing next to Latin (Norton 6). English gave the poets more freedom to express themselves informally and it was also seen as more down-to-earth due to the fact that more people could speak and understand it (Norton 6). Romance, also became more acceptable during this period because of the courtly love influence in the Arthurian tales. But, even this is still warrior like in content, despite its composing the “large fraction of secular Middle English literature” (Norton 6,7). Another popular literary form were vernacular manuals, teaching the proper virtues and behavior of the time (Norton 7).

Thematically, the Arthurian legends became more popularized and replaced the classical figures as the “heroic standards” (Norton 6). Religious literature and themes also composed a large portion of the literature produced during this period (Norton 7). Preaching was also regarded as a form of art and was taught in universities along with Latin (Norton 7).

During the later half of the period, around the 14th century, Chaucer emerged on the literary scene and is the representative poet of the Middle English period (Norton 8). Chaucer was the “son of a prosperous wine merchant [who] became a page in 1357 and during 1366 to 13 was a diplomat to King Edward” (Norton 76). Chaucer is most famous for his poem, “The Canterbury Tales” written in 1386 (Norton 76).Originally planned to include over 120 stories, Chaucer only completed 72 of them, and two more exist in fragments (Norton 78). These tales incorporate Chaucer’s taste for satorizing the english society and hierarch of the church and economic [and social] positions (Norton 5). This satorism was seen as good natured humor rather than destructive to the society.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature describes Chaucer’s variety of tales as being matched by the diversity of the character’s telling their tales (79). Each character’s different perspective on life brings out the contrasts in genre, style, tone and values of the time. Retold orally to his audiences only a few copies of it were printed (Norton 79). It was only until the end of the 15th century when “printing made the production of literature a business” (Norton 10). At a first glance the “General Prologue” is a standard introduction to the characters, a general overview of the situation that brought all these pilgrims together and in Chaucer’s case, a general disclaimer allowing him the freedom to speak about reality without fear of imprisonment. Each of the characters are described to the fullest extent first by profession and social standings then, by physical appearance and then the narrator describes them as reality would see them, their glorified or corrupt persona. however, careful examination of the poem’s structure reveals the truth behind Chaucer’s opinion of the english hierarchy of the time. Only two of the pilgrims are glorified according to Medieval standards: the Knight and the Parson. The Knight embodies all virtues of chivalry (a strong belief held by the peoples at this time) while the parson presented Chaucer’s listeners with a simple man living by good virtue alone. Everyone else, to some extent, is then described as having some corrupt nature.

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from “The Canterbury Tales” is indicative of Middle English poetry. Although much of the material being said is commonplace to her listeners [the material taken from a common Arthurian legend], her voice and personality dissects it in a very convincing manner. She believes in the woman’s power of sex and its control over men. All the things she says about her late husbands and of her life seem to point to this.

The indicative passage, is also taken from “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, and is lines 1256 to 1270:
And whan the knight sawgh verraily al this,
That she so fair was and so yong therto,
For joy he hente hire in his armes two;
His hertte bathed in a bath of blisse;
A thousand time arewe he gan hire kisse,
And she obeyed him in every thing
That mighte do him plesance or liking.
And thus they live unto hir lives ende
In parfit joy. And Jesu Crist us sende
Housbondes meeke, yonge, and fresshe abedde-
And grace t’overbide hem that we wedde.
And eek I praye Jesu shorte hir lives
That nought wol be governed of dispence-
God sende hem soone a verray pestilence! (Norton 144)
This passage is indicative because through the verse and the reader can identify several typical traits of the Middle English period. These include the use of an Arthurian legend to convey a theme, the passage contains humor and satorizes the relationship between the sexes and through the Wife of Bath’s personalty and extremist way of storytelling does the reader glimpse the speaking style representative of the period.

The Sixteenth Century saw England moving away from the agricultural world and more toward the production of trade and manufactured goods (Norton 395). The Sixteenth Century was also the period of the English renaissance which began in Italy. This era saw the rebirth of literature through the development of new aesthetic norms based on classical motifs, that included new ideas and cultural patterns (Norton 396). Among these aesthetic forms was humanism, which was mostly concerned with Christianity and classical learning (Norton 397). This branch spurred the great debate of whether or not English or Latin was the better literary language (Norton 397). Other poets went in the direction of the Reformation, or “the return to [a] pure Christianity” or a way to cleanse the church “of all the corruption and idoltry” (Norton 398). This branch spurred the division of the Christian religion int othe Lutherian and Protestant churches.

As Queen Elizabeth I came into power, nationalism and a sense of peide for one’s country became mainstream (Norton 398). However, this was mostly seen in “travel literature, propaganda for colonization, and reports on the New World and its inhabitants” (Norton 400). Literary patronage was a social institution which gave “grants, offices, and honors [to poets and authors] exchanged for service and praise” (Norton 401). This was also the first century of the printed book.

The poetic aesthetic was mostly about the relationship between art and nature (Norton 404), where nature serves as the basis for art. Satirical poetry, once regarded as the high poetic form in the Middle English period, was then placed in the lowest art category (Norton 406). Pastoral poetry, with themes of the “joys of shepard’s life or disappointment in love” (Norton 407), were highly enjoyed and written about. Lyric poems were also highly read during the Sixteenth century, although these poems were more concerned with praise (Norton 407). However, the most important poetic form was the sonnet (Norton 407). Two forms were developed during this era, the first by Petrarch whose themes centered around women, and then William Shakespeare whose sonnet form ranged in a variety of themes (Norton 407). Heroic poetry was still popular although most poetry dealt with mixed genres and modes (Norton 408).

Several poets made great contributions to the poetic tradition. Among these were Sir Phillip Sidney whose sonnets “imitated Petrach and the French” and who also “saw himself more as a patron than an artist” (Norton 459), Christopher Marlow, whose poetry was written in the rhetorical blank verse a form of poetry practically unheard of before (Norton 749), Sir Walter Ralegh’s best poetry is said to have been his shorter poems (Norton 1022), and Mary (Sidney) Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke whose poem “A Dialogue between two Shepherds, Thenot and Piers” prompted the idea that poetry can be and is a discussion between ideas, persons and concepts.

The main poet of the Sixteenth Century was Edmound Spenser, whose poem “The Faerie Queen” is likened to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in that it draws “constantly on literary and pictorial traditions” (Norton 516). Born in London in 1552, Spenser was a scholar of Cambridge (Norton 502). The Norton Anthology describes Spenser’s influence in writing as being in Renaissance neoplatonism, rooted in “earthy and practical” (503). Spenser’s style and approach to writing poetry had a fondness for writing in the antiquated English and often wrote his words so they made “rhymes to the eye, or to suggest etymologies (often incorrect ones)” and apparently was another standard practice of the time (Norton 503).

The indicative passage of the Sixteenth Century is taken from Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” and is from book 1. canto 12. passage 23 :
The blazing brightnesse of her beauties became,
And glourious light of her sunshyny face
To tell, were as to strive against the streme.
My ragged rimes are all too rude and bace,
Her heavenly lineaments for to enchance.
Ne wonder; for her owne deare lov’d knight.
All ere she dayly with himselfe in place,
Did wonder much at her celestiall sight :
Oft had he seene her faire, but never so faire delight. (Norton 647)
This passage exemplifies the sixteenth century because it shows the asthetic tradition of the beauty of Nature to the art of man. It also shows the development of theme as moving away from battle and devotion to other topics. As stated above, it shows the elevation of language as trying to get away from the uncultivated and finally it continues the allegory of using the Arthurian legends to represent ideals of the society.

The early Seventeenth Century begins with teh death of Elizabeth Tudor in 1603 (Norton 1069). Interestingly this period produced a lot of minor poets, most of who were writing epitaphs for others while “hitting on distinctive themes, develop[ing] further established forms, and point[ed] the way to styles that will” become more established in the later periods (Norton 1652). These poets, in turn, are divided into the metaphysical and cavalier styles, drawing off their subject matter from John Donne and Ben Johnson. The metaphysicals wanted to “reinforce the traditional lyric forms of love and devotion by stretching them to comprehend new and extreme intellectual energies” (Norton 1074) whereas the cavalier poets “tried to compress and limit their poems, giving them a high polish and a sense of easy domination at the expense of… their intellectual content” (Norton 1074).

Also, during this time the masque and madrigal forms of literature perished (Norton 1077). The Norton Anthology suggests that “very little literature during this period from the work of Puritans or their sympathizers” (1074). No literature except for the poetry that came from Marvell and John Milton, that is. John Donne’s poetry was mostly devotional and it was “his metaphorical style, bold erudition, and dramatic wit that established him as a great preacher in an age of great preachers” (Norton 1081). Ben Johnson’s poetry is mostly centered around five different styles and they deal with a broad variety of themes (Norton 1127). Then came Robert Herrick whose poetry was mostly written in the lyric forms and “quiet poetic touch” (Norton 1355). George Herbert’s poetry was probably the most inventative out of all the lesser poets studied, for it was most of his poems that took on a more concrete appearance, in that some of his poems looked like the object of idea that was the subject of the poem. Finally, there was Andrew Marvell whose poetry and recognition mostly came after his death (Norton 1415), where his wit and seriousness almost places him next to the great early Seventeenth Century poet John Miltin.

John Milton was born in 1608 and the Norton anthology states that “his life conveniently into three periods” (1433) each defining a sense of literary style and tradition for Milton. The first period of schooling and apprenticeships ended with Milton’s lyric poem “Lycidads” (Norton 1433) and the second period filled with Milton’s travels helped to expand his perspective on the world. The final period of poetic and prose experimentation and controversy ended with the great epic “Paradise Lost.”

Milton’s poem “Paradise Lost” is probably one of the best poems to come out of the English literary tradition. The poems structure and thematic composition, although drawing on the allegory of genesis, details many subtleties and history that the original biblical book doesn’t mention. “Milton himself defined his moral purpose as being to justify the ways of God to men'” and while writing “Paradise Lost” that is exactly what he accomplished (Norton 1475).

It was hard to pick just one small passage from “Paradise Lost” to use as an representative passage for the entire early Seventeenth Century literary tradition. The overall poem itself accumulates all that the early Seventeenth Century offers to the poetic tradition. However, lines 50 through 75 from Book 1, do represent some of the overall qualities that define it as being a part of the early Seventeenth Century.

Nine times the space that measure day and night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf
Confounded through immortal. But his doom
Reserved him to more wrath; for now he thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes,
That witnessed huge affliction and dismay,
Mixed with obd’rate pride and steadfast hate.
At once, as far as angels ken, he views
The dismal situation waste and wild :
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As once great furnance flamed; yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visable
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and to a fiery deluge, fed
With ever burning sulphur unconsumed :
Such place Eternal Justice had prepaired
For those rebellious; here their prison ordained
In utter darkness and their portion set
As far removed from God and the light of Heaven
As far from the center thrice to th’ upmost pole.
O how unlike the place from whence they fell! (Norton 1477- 1478)

This passage once again exemplifies the English poetic tradition to draw allegories to other texts. However, where the Sixteenth Century drew these allegories form the Arthurian Legends, the early Seventeenth Century saw a revitalization of religious ideal in that most of the literature had a religious or devotional bent. Here, in “Paradise Lost” Milton pushes this allegory to the extreme by suggesting what else went on to cause man’s creation and the fall from paradise. This passage is also indicative in the language moves away from the more simplistic and straight-forward of past poetry. Here in this passage we can see the complexities and parallels that Milton draws between Satan’s and man’s fall from God’s grace. Also within the text we can see many paradoxes being constructed where Hell is depicted with fires of no light. Milton’s poem is also indicative in that he bases the structure of “Paradise Lost” from the classical epic poem. But like the other poets who extrapolate a form from the classical periods, Milton takes the form one step further in that the thoughts and introspect of the characters are more in the spotlight rather than their actions. It isn’t until the early Sixteenth Century when this introspect is seen, within the dialogue poetry of Mary Herbert and Spenser.