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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.

XIII. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: I

§ 5. Matter and Form

But there were exceptions. One finds ambition at work in English poets even in days when French literature might have appeared so strong and so exalted as to dishearten any mere English competitor. The English Sir Tristrem is a specimen of literary vanity; the English author is determined to improve upon his original, and turns the simple verse of his French book into rather elaborate lyrical stanzas. And, again, it was sometimes possible for an Englishman to write gracefully enough without conceit or emphasis; as in Ywain and Gawain, already quoted. And the alliterative romances are in a class by themselves.

Chaucer and Gower disturb the progress of the popular romance, yet not so much as one might expect. Chaucer and Gower, each in his own way, had challenged the French on their own ground; they had written English verse which might be approved by French standards; they had given to English verse the peculiar French qualities of ease and grace and urbanity. A reader to whom the fifteenth century was unknown would, naturally, look for some such consequences as followed in the reign of Charles II from the work of Dryden and his contemporaries–a disabling of the older schools, and a complete revolution in taste. But, for whatever reason, this was not what actually followed the age of Chaucer. The fifteenth century, except for the fact that the anarchy of dialects is reduced to some order, is as far from any literary good government as the age before Chaucer. It is rather worse, indeed, on account of the weaker brethren in the Chaucerian school who only add to the confusion. And the popular romances go on very much as before, down to the sixteenth century, and even further. The lay of the last minstrel is described by Sir Walter Scott, in prose, in a note to Sir Tristrem:

  • Some traces of this custom remained in Scotland till of late years. A satire on the Marquis of Argyle, published about the time of his death, is said to be composed to the tune of Graysteel, a noted romance reprinted at Aberdeen so late as the beginning of the last century. Within the memory of man, an old person used to perambulate the streets of Edinburgh singing, in a monotonous cadence, the tale of Rosewal and Lilian, which is, in all the forms, a metrical romance of chivalry.
  • It is possible to classify the romances according to their sources and their subjects, though, as has been already remarked, the difference of scenery does not always make much difference in the character of the stories. The English varieties depend so closely on the French that one must go to French literary history for guidance. The whole subject has been so clearly summarised and explained in the French Medieval Literature of Gaston Paris that it is scarcely necessary here to repeat even the general facts. But of course, although the subjects are the same, the English point of view is different; especially in the following respects: