English Poetry (1170-1892)


THE POEMA MORALE (p. 1) is the first important English poem after the Norman Conquest. It consists of a large number (about 400 lines) of moral and religious precepts embodying the author's philosophy of life, and was evidently written for the purpose of inculcating right living in all who read or heard it. As the short specimen given here shows, the questions of life, present and future, are treated in a spirit of selfish prudence, and the sentiment most frequently and powerfully appealed to is that of self-preservation. The spirit of the author is a sincere but hard and narrow Christianity, untouched by the tenderness of personal affection for Jesus or of concern for one's friends and fellow-men notable in the best work of Richard Rolle, Thomas de Hales, or even the dull but lovable Orrm. The author has, however, much skill in language and versification, and at times the vigor and vividness of his work is undeniable. The poem must have been very popular in its day, as all peoples in the early stages of development are fond of proverbial sayings and similar forms of practical wisdom. Several copies of it, made in various parts of England, have come down to us.

THE ORMULUM (P. 2) is interesting almost solely because the author was a theorist about English spelling. He devised a system of his own for representing the pronunciation as exactly as possible and carried it out with much skill and consistency throughout his long poem of 20,000 lines. As scholars are now greatly interested in learning how English was pronounced in early ages, Orrm's work is of the very highest value. As literature, it hardly deserves consideration. It was not intended to be a poem in the modern sense. It was written in verse because verse then seemed the proper form for anything that aspired to be literature. The author merely wished to present to his countrymen an English version of the Gospels read in the services of the church throughout the year, accompanied by explanations which should make clear their whole meaning, figurative as well as literal. Unfortunately, either he was very dull himself or he suspected his audience of almost impenetrable dullness, for he is not content to say a thing once with absolute simplicity and clearness, but must say it over and over again, and, in his anxiety that there shall be no mistake as to what he is talking about, is not satisfied to use pronouns for referring to matters already mentioned, but at each recurrence of them repeats all that be has previously said about them. His poem seems not to have been altogether unprovoked, for it was written at the request of his brother Walter; but there is no evidence that it met with any appreciation, as the single copy that has been preserved seems to be that written by the author himself. In spite of his dullness, however, the gentleness and amiability of Orrm and his real love of God and his fellow-men is manifest in all his work.

LAYAMON, the author of The Brut (p. 2), is a man of much greater ability. His work is a versified chronicle or history of Britain from the destruction of Troy to 689 A.D. It is based mainly upon a similar French poem, the Roman de Brut by Wace, but Layamon added much from oral traditions known to him, especially about King Arthur. The merits of the poem at its best are those of a lively and picturesque narrative, rapid, simple, and vigorous, with much of the spirit of the older English epic. The versification also, though not precisely that of the older epic, is thoroughly national.

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • Boston
Publication year:
  • 1907


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