Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 11. The Ballads and Poems in The Chronicle

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

VII. From Alfred to the Conquest

§ 11. The Ballads and Poems in The Chronicle

The decline of Old English poetry cannot be so directly attributed to the Norman conquest. During the course of the tenth and eleventh centuries the classical rhetorical metre had already begun to deteriorate, and was being gradually replaced by the sung metre of the popular ballad. For the whole of our period we have only two great poems, the fragment of Judith in the Beowulf MS. and the East Anglian poem of Byrhtnoth’s death at Maldon. Both poems deal with the struggle against the same foe and both are in the alliterative rhetorical metre. Judith contains a fair number of lines which are undoubtedly clear types of sung verse, such as is found in the thirteenth century in Layamon’s Brut. The Battle of Maldon also contains two much alike. The adoption of this metre, which, although ancient, here exhibits what are practically its first known traces in Old English literature, is carried to much greater lengths in the poems embedded in the Chronicle; and some observations upon this new metre called the “sung” or four-beat verse, as opposed to the declamatory or two-beat metre of the older poems, will be found in an appendix at the end of the volume.

The first poem in the Chronicle occurs under the year 937, and celebrates the glorious victory won by Aethelstan at Brunanburh. It is a markedly patriotic poem and shows deep feeling; its brilliant lyrical power, and the national enthusiasm evident throughout, have made it familiar, in one form or another, to all lovers of English verse. Great care was taken with the metre, which is the ancient rhetorical line.

Under the year 942 another poem in alliterative rhetorical metre occurs. It consists only of a few lines, and its subject is the liberation of the five boroughs, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Stam fordand Derby, “which were formerly Danish, constrained by need in the captive bonds of the heathen,” by Edmund, son of Edward the Elder. It has little poetic value; but it is distinguished by the same intense patriotism as is the verse on the battle of Brunanburh.

The first poem in sung verse contained in the Chronicle is that for 959, on the accession of King Edgar. It contains fortynine half lines, making twenty-four and a half full lines, connected, of which only about eight show alliteration. The lines are connected in the earlier form of rimeless rhythm, not strictly alliterative, though assonance is sometimes found. Metrically, it is our best preserved example. The theme is the prosperity of Edgar; how his wise rule was honoured far and wide, how he established peace in the land and how he was rewarded by God with the willing submission of kings and earls. Of one fault, however, says the chronicler, he was too often guilty, namely that he loved foreign ways and enticed outlanders into his dominions. The poem ends with a prayer that God may be more mindful of the king’s virtues than of his evil deeds, and that they may shield his soul from harm on its long journey hence.

The delight of the English in the peaceful rule of Edgar is still further shown by a poem in the old rhetorical metre which is variously given in the different recensions of the Chronicle under the years 972, 973 and 974, and relates the coronation of Edgar. The Peterborough chronicle has some lines which have been written as verse, but scansion seems to raise insurmountable difficulties. It can only be scanned on the assumption that we have an attempt to combine two-stress lines with four-stress rhythm, or an attempt to put a ballad into the form of the “higher” poetry. They tell how kings came from afar to do homage to Edgar, and how there was no fleet so daring as to threaten his dominions, or host so strong as to ravage the land while he ruled over it.

Another interesting ballad poem, on the troubles caused by Aelfhere and other rebels in the reign of Edgar’s son Edward, is found in the MS. known as Cott. Tib. B. IV. It is of nineteen half lines, or nine and one-half full lines. The linking system seems to be mostly alliteration, but rime and assonance show themselves most clearly where alliteration becomes absent or weak, as in

  • Godes wipersãecan
  • Godes lage bräecon
  • and
  • mynstra tostaencton,
  • and
  • munecas todraefdon.
  • The verse is sung ballad-verse, and the alliteration what would be called irregular in rhetorical verse. It is uncertain whether what seems an opening verse really belongs to the song.

    The murder of Edward, son of Edgar, at Corfesgeat, is related in a peculiarly distinctive poem, which is quite clearly in sung verse, and shows traces of strophic arrangement. A later hand has tampered greatly with the original poem; some lines have, obviously, been lengthened, and the last six printed as verse do not scan as such, being, possibly, only rhythmic prose added afterwards. They are exactly like the irregular lines on Edgar’s death. Probably the chronicler took a popular ballad or ballads, broke it up, and attempted to destroy its sing-song character by the addition of end verses. This, and the strophic character of the original or originals, would account for its metrical variety and uncertainty. In several places we meet with half line tags, generally trimetric, once certainly in full tetrameter. The poem declares that no worse deed than the murder of Edward had ever been committed among the English since the invasion of Britain; men murdered him, but God glorified him; and he who was before an earthly king is now, after death, a heavenly saint. His earthly kinsmen would not avenge him, but his heavenly Father has avenged him amply, and they who would not bow to him living now bend humbly on their knees to his dead bones. Thus, we may perceive that men’s plans are as naught before God’s. The words “Men murdered him, but God glorified him,” are alliterative, and seem like a refrain; and the whole poem is, metrically, one of the most interesting of the series.

    There is a long interval before the next verses, which tell of the siege of Canterbury, and the capture of archbishop Aelfhëah (Alphege) in 1011. They consist of twelve half lines of sung verse, and are, evidently, a quotation from some ballad commemorating these disasters. They lament the imprisonment of him who was erstwhile head of Christendom and England, and the misery that men might now behold in the unhappy city whence first came the joys of Christianity. There are some difficulties in scansion, and the variant readings in certain MSS., though they can be restored to something like proper metrical harmony, show what mishandling these songs underwent when written down by the scribes.

    The metre of the next poem is much better preserved. It is of the same Layamon sung verse type, but shows a regular union of each two half lines by rime and assononce. Where this fails, we can at once suspect that the scribe has tampered with the original version. The assonance is wholly southeastern. Its subject is the capture and cruel fate of the aetheling Alfred, and it shows a strong spirit of partisanship against Godwin. This is led up to by the prose account telling how Alfred came to Winchester to see his mother, but was hindered and captured by Godwin. The poem relates how Godwin scattered Alfred’s followers, killing some and imprisoning others, and how the aetheling was led bound to Ely, blinded aboard ship and given over to the monks. It gives us the important architectural statement (since the old minster long has perished) that he was buried at the west end in the south porch “close to the steeple.” The story is told in twenty couplets of sung half lines (40 half lines). The few lines that do not rime can easily be restored.

    Many of the features of this poem are paralleled in another on a like theme, the arrival of Edward Aetheling, son of Edmund Ironside, in England in 1057, his illness and his death, without seeing his kinsman the king. The story is that of the death of the last of the kingly line. The poem is in sung verse, the half lines being mainly arranged in pairs of one short and one fuller half line, a combination which is the great feature of this poem, whose strophic connection depends absolutely neither on rime or assonance, but rather on rhythm. The poem is in four uneven tirades. The first two are ended by a single half line as a tag (no. 1, of 3 full lines + tag; no. 2, of 5 full lines + half line tag). The last two tirades (no. 3, of 3 full lines; no. 4, of 4 full lines) are without half line tags. The tags may here have been lost in copying.

    It is noticeable that all these poems in sung verse, which seem to be based on popular ballads, are characterised by deep patriotic feeling. This, however, is wanting in the alliterative rhetorical lines on the death of Edward the Confessor, which merely tell how he had reigned for twenty-four years and had governed illustriously Welsh, Scots, Britons, Angles and Saxons.

    Another passage in sung verse dealing with the marriage of Margaret, the sister of Edward Aetheling, to Malcolm of Scotland, and recording her distaste for marriage and her desire for convent life, seems to be in ten sung half lines, of which the first four have been completely wrecked. The last four are perfect and of great interest. Less obscure are the fragments on the marriage of earl Ralph of Norwich, the first couplet of which [char]aer waes [char]aet bryd ealo [char]aet waes manegra manna bealo. shows, unmistakeably, its ballad origin.

    The last verses of this class are those on the reign of William the Conqueror. Earle arranged some twelve lines as poetry, but the whole passage claims similar treatment, since, in the portion which he has printed as prose, there occur examples of full rime and also of full assonance, connecting the half lines in the passages he has not so written. The whole passage seems to be derived from at least two ballads against the Norman conqueror. The first begins “He rìxade ófer Ènglaeláand” and tells of the king’s intimate acquaintance with his dominions, so that he knew the owner of every hide of land and how much it was worth; then, how he conquered Wales and Scotland and, if he had lived two years longer, would have won Ireland, also, without weapon strife. This, which is unrimed, is followed by the passage “Càstelas hé lët w&ygrave;rcén,” which is invaluable because of its strong Kentish assonances. These lines tell, in bitter words, of the king’s oppression, of his heavy taxation, and of the terrible game laws, drawn up to preserve those “tall deer” which he loved as greatly as though he were their father. This last part is 38 lines long, divided into 19 couplets linked by rime or assonance, the nineteenth being either marred in transcription or a monastic addition in rime. The spelling often hides the dialectical completeness of the assonance. After this sung ballad follows a passage of rhythmical prose, in which the compiler states that he has written these things about the king, both good and evil, that men may imitate the goodness and wholly flee from the evil. It would seem that the chronicler had to be original in telling of the Conqueror’s virtues; but, for the vices, he had plenty of popular material at hand. The unhappy people were in no mood to exalt his virtues, and, for the description of these, the chronicler was forced to rely on his own literary resources.