Chief Middle English Poets

Chief Middle English Poets

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Chief Middle English Poets

Chief Middle English Poets

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Excerpt

The selection of texts to be included in this volume has been a matter of much careful consideration. I already possessed a list of works of the period, drawn up for my guidance by Professor Schofield; a questionnaire, circulated by Messrs. Houghton Mifflin Company among the leading professors of English literature in America, brought forth numerous valuable additional suggestions; finally, I referred the list of translations, then practically completed, to Professor W. P. Ker, who, on his part, suggested other additions. The collection may thus claim to be fairly representative of the best American and English opinion, and as such will, it is hoped, meet the requirements of the majority of students of our common literature.

But if I have been guided by others in the choice of the texts, for the manner in which they are presented I am myself responsible. It has seemed to me desirable to give the poems as much as possible in their entirety, or, that being impracticable, in complete and representative episodes. I am, and always have been, strongly of opinion that to compile such a manual as the present on the lines of short extracts only results in inflicting injustice alike on the student and on the author. I have at present before me a work designed for the use of students of English literature, where Amis and Amiloun and Sir Tristrem are represented by five and a half stanzas allotted to each, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl by three and a few lines, breaking off in the midst of a section; in one case not even at a full stop! Is it possible for any student to form an opinion of the style and merits of an author from such a collection of "shreds and patches"? Or is it fair to such poets as, for example, Layamon, or the author of Pearl, to present them in such a mutilated form? On the other hand, the continued utility of such compilations as those of Ritson and Weber, which, in spite of their age (both have been published for more than a century) and many critical imperfections, are still consulted by scholars, seems to me an argument in favor of printing the complete texts.

So far as possible the collection has been arranged to include all the principal branches of English mediæval literature; in the "Chronicles" section special attention has been given to Layamon, both on account of the real poetical merit of his work, and also for its critical interest. As is well known, his account of the founding of the Round Table is unique, and of extreme value as throwing light upon the character of Arthurian tradition before it came under the influence of the ideals of chivalric romance. Again, Arthur's dream as related here should be compared with the version of the Thornton Morte Arthure, given in my volume entitledRomance, Vision, and Satire (Boston, 1912). Layamon's version is distinctly the more vigorous and dramatic. It is interesting, too, to compare his account of the closing scenes of Arthur's life, and his testimony to the persistent belief of the folk in the hero's return, with the more polished version of the same themes given in the Harleian M. A.; both are fine, but there is a note of poignant reality and regret in Layamon's lines which seem to place the writer in a closer and more intimate relation . . .

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