Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 1. Limited Influence of the Middle Ages upon Modern Literature

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

X. The Literary Influence of the Middle Ages

§ 1. Limited Influence of the Middle Ages upon Modern Literature

IT is scarcely a paradox to say that the Middle Ages have influenced modern literature more strongly through their architecture than through their poems. Gothic churches and old castles have exerted a medieval literary influence on many authors who have had no close acquaintance with old French and German poets, and not much curiosity about their ideals or their style. Even in writers better qualified by study of medieval literature, like Southey and Scott, it is generally the historical substance of the Middle Ages rather than anything in the imaginative form of old poetry or romance that attracts them. Even William Morris, who is much more affected by the manner of old poetry than Scott, is curiously unmedieval in much of his poetry; there is nothing of the old fashion in the poem The Defence of Guenevere, and the old English rhythm of the song in Sir Peter Harpdon’s End is in striking contrast, almost a discord, with the dramatic blank verse of the piece. Medieval verse has seldom been imitated or revived without the motive of parody, as, for instance, in Swinburne’s Masque of Queen Bersabe; the great exception is in the adoption of the old ballad measures, from which English poetry was abundantly refreshed through Wordsworth, Scott and Coleridge. And here, also, though the ballad measures live and thrive all through the nineteenth century so naturally that few people think of their debt to Percy’s Reliques, yet, at the beginning, there is parody in the greatest of all that race, The Ancient Mariner—not quite so obvious in the established version as in the first editions (in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 and 1800), but still clear enough.