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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XVII. Later Transition English

§ 10. Political verses

Other Latin collections of cognate kind, the work of English compilers, have been referred to in a preceding chapter, and all are of importance in the light they throw on the manners of the time. One, the Summa Praedicantium of John de Bromyarde, a Dominican friar, scholar of Oxford and antagonist of Wyclif, devotes a thousand pages to subjects likely to be acceptable to congregations, and deserves more attention than has hitherto been paid it. In the legendaries and poems compiled and written by the monks for homiletic purposes, there are many germs of the tale-telling faculty, and much folk-lore. Things charming and grotesque are inextricably mixed. In the legends of the Childhood of Jesus, for instance, there is a delightful account of the reverence paid by the animal creation and by inanimate nature to the Infant during the journey to Egypt; and then the poem is marred by the addition of crude miraculous deeds recorded as afterwards wrought by Him. Many of our tales have originally come from the east; but, in spite of the proverb, they have gathered much moss in rolling westward, and flints from the same quarry that have travelled a fairly direct course look strangely different from others that have zigzagged hither.

Of Middle English political verses, the earliest preserved are, probably, those on the battle of Lewes, which was fought in 1264. The battle was celebrated by a follower of the fortunes of Simon de Montfort, in a poem which is of considerable philological and metrical importance. The number of French words it contains reveals the process of amalgamation that was going on between the two languages, and lets us into the workshop where the new speech was being fashioned. The interest of the poem is also considerable from the evidence it furnishes that the free-spoken Englishman was beginning to make the vernacular the vehicle of satire against his superiors in the realm of politics, following the example of the writers of the Latin satirical poems then current. The educated part of the race was beginning to show signs of the insular prejudice against foreigners which is not even absent from it to-day—though it could loyally support “foreigners” when they espoused the national cause—and it was, more happily, showing signs of the political genius which has ever been a quality of our people. Metrically, these political lyrics in the vernacular are of importance because of the forms of verse experimented in and naturalised. The ministrel who sang or recited political ballads had to appeal to more critical audiences than had the composer of sacred lyrics; he had to endeavour to import into a vernacular in transition something of the easy flow of comic Latin verse. The Song against the King of Almaigne, above referred to, is in mono-rimed four-lined stanzas, followed by a “bob,” or shorter fifth line, “maugre Wyndesore,” “to helpe Wyndesore,” etc., and a constant, mocking, two-lined refrain, with a kind of internal rime:

  • Richard, thah thou be ever trichard,
  • trichen shalt thou never more.
  • The recurrence of lines consisting of perfect anapæsts, and showing but little tendency towards alliteration, indicates the direction in which popular rimes were looking.