A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
CHAUCER, GOWER, AND LANGLAND

THE fourteenth century saw England become an English-speaking, English-minded nation from King to commoner. In 1340 the law of Englishry was abolished. In 1356 English became the language of the Sheriff's courts of London, in 1362 of the King's law courts and of Parliament. In 1885 Trevisa complains that boys "know no more French than their left heel." The juridical system was national: the Roman Law was "outlandish": our land laws were fixed in many principles which for centuries remained unquestioned. Learning and art had ceased to be monastic. The Oxford scholars were secular clergy. A University training was less definitely ecclesiastical: its culture extended to laymen like Chaucer and Gower. The anticlerical spirit was felt in legislation as in literature. Our naval predominance began with the victory at Sluys in 1340; our power was felt abroad as never before or since. Over against this one has to set the Great Pestilence of 1349, and Wat Wyler's rebellion in 1381.

In poetry too the period of experiment was passing. England had learned from France a new code of manners, with new ideals of courtesy and romantic love. She was learning a new art of verse, in which the native stress prosody was wedded to the French syllabic system by making the rhetorical accent coincide with the metrical ictus; and this was achieved in the best verse without sacrificing the possibility of trisyllabic effect which our less level stress allowed. The rude and poverty-stricken vocabulary of Layamon had been enriched with words fit for courtly poetry. Moreover the East Midland dialect, which had become in the main the standard for the country, had its phonetic decay temporarily arrested at a point where the general reduction of inflections to the final -e gave it a more level, liquid, French-like flow.

But if English had established itself as the national tongue, French was still spoken and understood at court and in court circles, not the French of Stratford-atte-Bow only but the Parisian French

-23-

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