Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

32 LIVES OF EMINENT SCOTSMEN .
about 1338, he thus records his admiration of the
romance of Sir Tristrem:

Sir Tristrem
Over Gestes* it has the 'steemt
Over all that is, or was. -

The romance itself, however, was generally supposed to be lost, till a copy of it was recently discovered in a large and valuable collection of metrical romances, belonging to the library of the Faculty of Advocates, called from its donor the AwhinUck MSS. from which it was transcribed and given to the world, accompanied with a critical introduction and notes by Mr. Walter Scott.

The recovery of this poem is of the more consequence, that it presents us, in its original simplicity, with a story of great celebrity, which was subsequently altered and perverted into a thousand degenerate forms by the diseurs of Normandy. Sir Tristrem was one of the antient heroes of Wales, or British Kingdom of Strathclwyd; and, if we may trust the Welch authorities, acted a distinguished part in the history of the renowned King Arthur, and the chivalry of the Round Table. Thomas Rymour, from his residence at Ercildoune, which lay on the borders of the kingdom of Strathclwyd, became familiar with its legends, and chose the gallant Sir Tristrem as the hero to whose achievements his muse should give immortality. Gottfried of Strasburgh, the German minstrel to whom we have before alluded, says, that many of his profession told the tale of Sir Tristrem imperfectly

Romances. t Esteem.

and incorrectly, but that he derived his authority from "Thomas of Britannia, master of the art of romance, who had read the history in British books, and knew the lives of all the lords of the land, and made them known to us." It is equally certain, that the romance of Sir Tristrem, as composed by Thomas of Ercildoune, was also known and referred to by the French minstrels, as the most authentic mode of telling the story.

The poem is written in what Robert de Brunne calls,

— so quainte Inglis

That many one wate not what it is; and Mr. Scott has drawn from this circumstance, combined with the originality of the romance, a conclusion of so much importance to the literary fame of our country, that no excuse can be necessary for the length of extract into which it leads me.

"It will follow," says Mr. Scott, "that the 6rst classical English romance was written in part of what is now called Scotland ; ana1 the attentive reader will find some reason to believe that our language received the first rudiments of improvement in the very corner where it now exists, in its most debased state.

"In England it is now generally admitted, that after the Norman conquest, while the Saxon language was abandoned to the lowest of the people, and while the conquerors only deigned to employ their native French, the mixed language, now called English, only existed as a kind of lingua franca to conduct the necessary intercourse between the victors and the vanquished. It was not till the reign of Henry III. that this dialect had assumed a shape fit for the purposes of the poet;" and even then "the indolence or taste of the minstrels of that period induced them to prefef translating the Anglo Norman and French romances which had stood the test of years, to the more precarious and laborious task of original composition. It is the united opinion of Wharton, Tyrwhitt, and Ritson, that there exists no English romance* prior to the days of Chaucer, which is not a translation of some earlier French one."

While the kings and nobles of England were amused by tales of chivalry, composed in the French language—by the lais of Marie, the romances of Chretien de Foyes, or the fableaux of the trouveurs; the legends chaunted in Scotland, which could happily boast of having as yet owned no victor's sway, were written in that Anglo-Saxo-Pictish mixture, known by the name of Inglis or English. Although the French was doubtless understood at the court of Scotland, it seems never to have been spoken by her kings and nobles; the Inglis remaining the standard language of both high and low among the people. It was not till the year 1300, that the English began to translate into their native language the French poems of their conquerors; nor until near a century later, that they attempted to compose original romances in the English tongue. But ages before this, Thomas of Ercildoune, and probably many other Scottish poets, whose names and works have now perished, had been famed over Europe for romances written in their native language, and derived from the traditions

*i. e. no romance in English written by an Englishman, for the English was at that time common to both England and Scotland. 'A. s."

of their own country, or of countries immediately adjacent.

"Whoever," says Mr. Scott, "will be tempted to pursue this curious subject, will find, that this system, if confirmed upon more minute investigation, may account for many anomalous peculiarities in the history of English romance and minstrelsy. In particular, it will shew why the Northumbrians cultivated a species of music not known to the rest of England, and why the harpers and minstrels of the "North countree" are universally celebrated by our antient ballads as of unrivalled excellence. If English, or a mixture of Saxon, Pictish, and Norman, became early the language of the Scottish court, to which great part of Northumberland was subjected, the minstrels, who crowded their camps, must have used it in their songs. Thus, when the language began to gain ground in England, the northern minstrels, by whom it had been already long cultivated, were the best rehearsers of the poems already written, and the most apt and ready composers of new tales and songs, It is probably owing to this circumstance, that almost all the ancient English minstrel ballads bear marks of a northern origin, and are, in general, common to the Borderers of both kingdoms. By this system, we may also account for the superiority of the early Scottish over the early English poets, excepting the unrivalled Chaucer. And, finally, to this we may ascribe the flow of romantic and poetic tradition, which has distinguished the Borders of Scotland almost down to the present day,"

What a commentary does this contrast, between the ancient poetic history uf the two countries, furnish to an observation of Mr. Tyrwhitt, in his Life of Chaucer, that " Chaucer's reputation was as well established in Scotland as in England," and " that he was as much the father of poetry in that country as in this!" Admired he was, indeed, by the Scotch; who were prepared, by long familiarity with the English language in its purest state, to entertain a degree of admiration for so great a master of its beauties, which even his own countrymen, just recovering from the corruptions of a foreign tongue, could scarcely be able to conceive ; but for the father of their poetry, the Scotch are entitled to go back, at least an hundred and fifty years before the time when Chaucer flourished. It is, beyond all controversy, from Thomas of Erceldoune that our poetic mantle, the texture and colour of which are so much the admiration of theworld, has descended to the Ramsays, the Burns's, and Scotts, of more recent times.

Thomas, like the early poets of most countries, had also the reputation of being a marvellous prophet; and to his prophecies, either real or reputed, he happens to owe more of the fame which he has never ceased to enjoy in Scotland, than to his poetry. Every one knows something, more or less, of the "Prophecies of Thomas the Rhymer;" while Sir Tristrem is as great a stranger amongst us, as either Sir Gawain, Sir Greidiol, Sir Gwgon, or any other knight of black-letter romance. In 1286, while he was yet alive, he is spoken of by the Scottish historians as known by common fame to be " ane prophet;" and, during the reigns of James V., Queen Mary, and James the Sixth, a collection of metrical prophecies, ascribed to Thomas of Erceldoune, appear to

« ForrigeFortsett »