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XI. Early Transition English

§ 2. Poema Morale

By far the most important and interesting work of this period, however, is the Poema Morale. It is interesting in itself, interesting also in the influence it exercised upon later writers, and its popularity is fairly established by the seven MSS. which survive, though it might also be added that the most recently discovered of these copies, being, apparently, due to a different original from that of the others, affords additional proof that the work was widely known. The writer opens his sermon-poem in a subjective vein. He laments his years, his ill-spent life, and exhorts his readers to pass their days wisely. He alludes to the terrors of the last judgment. Hell is depicted in all the colours of the medieval fancy, and the joys of Heaven are touched with corresponding charm. And so the reader is alternately intimidated and allured into keeping the narrow way. All this, of course, is well-worn material. The Old English work Be Domes Daege had handled a similar theme. The terrors and glories of the hereafter had inspired many earlier English pens, and the poet, in fact, specifically states that part of his descriptions were drawn from books (cf. 1. 224). But his treatment of the subject has much that is new. It shows real feeling, though there are also the usual conventionalities; the poem contains ripe wisdom and sage advice. If the description of Hell is characteristically material, Heaven, on the other hand, is spiritually conceived. The verse-form is also interesting. Here, for the first time in English, is found the fourteener line, the catalectic tetrameter of Latin poets. The iambic movement of that line is adapted with wonderful facility to the native word-form, accent-displacement is not abnormally frequent and the lines run in couplets linked by end-rime. The old heroic utterance is exchanged for the paler abstractions of the Latin schools, and the loss of colour is heightened by the absence of metaphor with its suggestion of energy. A corresponding gain is, however, derived from the more natural order of words; and, in general, the merits of the poem are perhaps best recognised by comparing its workmanship with that of the songs of Godric and by nothing the advances made upon Old English forms in the direction of later verse.

Mention has already been made of the presence of foreign influences in certain of the twelfth century Homilies. Correspondences with the homiletic work of Radulfus Ardens of Acquitaine quitaine (c. 1100) and of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) point to the employment of late Latin originals. Certain quotations in these Homilies are also taken from Horace and Ovid—an exceptional proceeding in Old English works, though common in writings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries; and thus the inference is clear that here Aelfric is not the sole or even the main influence, but that this is rather supplied by those French writers whose religious works became known in England after the Conquest. The influence of the same Norman school of theology is, moreover, visible in the Old Kentish Sermons (1150–1200). They are, in reality, translations of French texts, and signs of this origin are preserved in the diction employed, in the use of such words as apierede, cuuenable and others.

The latter half of the twelfth century was a period of experiment and of conflicting elements. It was a stage necessarily unproductive, but of great importance notwithstanding, in the work of development. Older native traditions lived on; but access had been obtained to continental learning, and, while themes were being borrowed form Norman writers, as a consequence of study of other French works, the riming couplet and the septenarius had by this time been adopted, and an alien system of versification based on the regular recurrence of accent seemed in a fair way of being assimilated. With the attainment of a certain amount of proficiency in the technique of the new style, the embargo on literary effort was, is some degree, removed, and the literature for the first half of the thirteenth century forthwith responded to contemporary influences. The age became once more articulate, and the four chief works of the time are eloquent witnesses of the impulses which were abroad. The Ormulum is representative of purely religious tradition, while the Ancren Riwle points to an increased interest in the religious life of women, and also, in part, to new mystical tendencies. Layamon’s Brut with its hoard of legendary fancy, is clearly the outcome of an impules fresh to English soil; while The Owl and Nightingale is the herald of the lovetheme in England.

It must be conceded, in the first place, that the general literary tone of the first half of the thirteenth century was determined mined by the prevailing power of the church and the monastery. The intellectual atmosphere of England was mainly cleric, as opposed to the laic independence which existed across the Channel; and this difference is suggested by the respective traits of contemporary Gothic architecture in England and in France. From the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries the power of the pope, so far as western Europe was concerned, was at its height. National enthusiasms aroused by the crusades played unconsciously into the papal hands, and, during this time, more than one pope deposed a ruling monarch and then disposed of his dominions. Theology was the main study at the newly founded universities of Paris and Oxford; it dominated all learning. And, whereas the church, generally, had attained the zenith of its power, its influence in England was visible in the strong personalities of Lanfranc and Anselme, while the religious revival under Henry I and the coming of the frairs at a later date were ample evidence of the spirit of devotion which was abroad.