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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

§ 11. Songs of the Soil

In the civil struggles of the barons’ wars, and in the years that followed, the poetry of the people rose to the surface. The Robin Hood ballads, to which we shall recur in a later volume, and a few rude verses here and there, give voice, not only to the free, open life of the outlaw in the greenwood, but, also, to the cry of the down-trodden at the callous luxury of the rich. The real condition of the poor is but rarely reflected in the literature of a nation; the unfree in feudal times were voiceless, and the labouring free of later times have been but little better. Patient beyond belief, the children of the soil do not, as a rule, make literature of their wrongs: we can only learn what is at work by conscious or unconscious revelations in other writings. The ploughman in the eleventh century dialogue of Ælfric had said with truth, “I work hard.… Be it never so stark winter I dare not linger at home for awe of my lord.… I have a boy driving the oxen with a goad-iron, who is hoarse with cold and shouting.… Mighty hard work it is, for I am not free.” The “bitter cry” of the oppressed people was echoed in the Old English Chronicle of the sad days of Stephen and, ignored by court historians and writers of romance, centuries had to elapse before it could find adequate expression in the alliterative lines of Piers Plowman, and in the preaching of the “mad priest of Kent”—one of the earliest among Englishmen, whose words are known to us, to declare for the common and inalienable rights of man.