| English Literature for Boys and Girls|
|by H. E. Marshall|
|Delightful introduction to the writers of English literature whose works hold the greatest appeal for the youthful reader. The life and personality of each author is given in outline, with enough material quoted from his works to give an idea of what he wrote. For most authors suggestions for further reading are included. The outline of historical background enables the young reader to grasp the connection between the literature and the life of the time. Excellent as a companion to a chronological study of English literature. Ages 12-15 |
THE BEGINNINGS OF A STRUGGLE
 WHILE Chaucer was making for us pictures of English life, in the
sister kingdom across the rugged Cheviots another poet was
singing to a ruder people. This poet was John Barbour,
Archdeacon of Aberdeen. An older man than Chaucer, born perhaps
twenty years before the English poet, he died only five years
earlier. So that for many years these two lived and wrote at the
But the book by which Barbour is remembered best is very
different from that by which we remember Chaucer. Barbour's
best-known book is called The Bruce, and in it, instead of the
quiet tales of middle-class people, we hear throughout the clash
and clang of battle. Here once again we have the hero of
romance. Here once again history and story are mingled, and
Robert the Bruce swings his battle-ax and wings his faultless
arrow, saving his people from the English yoke.
The music of The Bruce cannot compare with the music of the
Tales, but the spirit throughout is one of manliness, of delight
in noble deeds and noble thoughts. Barbour's way of telling his
stories is simple and straightforward. It is full of stern
battle, yet there are lines of tender beauty, but nowhere do we
find anything like the quiet laughter and humor of Chaucer. And
that is not wonderful, for those were stern times in Scotland,
and The Bruce is as much an outcome of those times as were the
 Tales or Piers Ploughman an outcome of the times in England.
But if to Chaucer belongs the title of "Father of English
Poetry," to Barbour belongs that of "Father of Scottish Poetry
and Scottish History." He, indeed, calls the language he wrote
in "Inglis," but it is a different English from that of Chaucer.
They were both founded on Anglo-Saxon, but instead of growing
into modern English, Barbour's tongue grew into what was known
later as "braid Scots." All the quotations that I am going to
give you from the poem I have turned into modern English, for,
although they lose a great deal in beauty, it makes them easier
for every one to understand. For even to the Scots boys and
girls who read this book there are many words in the original
that would need translating, although they are words still used
by every one who speaks Scots to this day. In one page of
twenty-seven lines taken at random we find sixteen such words.
They are, micht, nicht, lickt, weel, gane, ane, nane, stane,
rowit, mirk, nocht, brocht, mair, sperit at, sair, hert. For
those who are Scots it is interesting to know how little the
language of the people has changed in five hundred years.
As of many another of our early poets, we know little of
Barbour's life. He was Archdeacon of Aberdeen, as already said,
and in 1357 he received a safe-conduct from Edward III to allow
him to travel to Oxford with three companions. In those days
there was not as yet any university in Scotland. The monasteries
still held their place as centers of learning. But already the
fame of Oxford had reached the northern kingdom, and Barbour was
anxious to share in the treasures of learning to be found there.
At the moment there was peace between the two countries, but hate
was not dead, it only slumbered. So a safe-conduct or passport
was necessary for any Scotsman who would travel through England
 "Edward the King unto his lieges greeting," it ran.
"Know ye that we have taken under our protection (at the request
of David de Bruce) John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, with the
scholars in his company, in coming into our kingdom of England,
in order to study in the university of Oxford, and perform his
scholastic exercises, and in remaining there and in returning to
his own country of Scotland. And we hereby grant him our safe-
conduct, which is to continue in force for one year."
Barbour was given two other safe-conducts, one to allow him again
to visit Oxford, and another to allow him to pass through England
on his way to France. Besides this, we know that Barbour
received a pension from the King of Scotland, and that he held
his archdeaconry until his death; and that is almost all that we
know certainly of his life.
The Bruce is the great national poem, Robert the Bruce the great
national hero of Scotland. But although The Bruce concerns
Scotland in the first place, it is of interest to every one, for
it is full of thrilling stories of knightly deeds, many of which
are true. "The fine poem deserves to be better known," says one
of its editors. "It is a proud thing for a country to have
given a subject for such an Odyssey, and to have had so early in
its literature a poet worthy to celebrate it." And it is little
wonder that Barbour wrote so stirringly of his hero, for he lived
not many years after the events took place, and when he was a
schoolboy Robert the Bruce was still reigning over Scotland.
In the beginning of his book Barbour says:—
"Stories to read are delightful,
Supposing even they be naught but fable;
Then should stories that true were,
And that were said in good manner,
Have double pleasantness in hearing.
The first pleasantness is the telling
And the other is the truthfulness
That shows the thing right as it was.
And such things that are likand
To man's hearing are pleasant;
Therefore I would fain set my will,
If my wit may suffice thereto,
To put in writ a truthful story,
That it last aye forth in memory,
So that no time of length it let,
Nor gar it wholly be forgot."
So he will, he says, tell the tale of "stalwart folk that lived
erst while," of "King Robert of Scotland that hardy was of heart
and hand," and of "Sir James of Douglas that in his time so
worthy was," that his fame reached into far lands. Then he ends
this preface with a prayer that God will give him grace, "so that
I say naught but soothfast thing."
The story begins with describing the state of Scotland after the
death of Alexander III, when Edward I ruled in England.
Alexander had been a good king, but at his death the heir to the
throne was a little girl, the Maid of Norway. She was not even
in Scotland, but was far across the sea. And as this child-queen
came sailing to her kingdom she died on board ship, and so never
saw the land over which she ruled.
Then came a sad time for Scotland. "The land six year and more
i-faith lay desolate," for there was no other near heir to the
throne, and thirteen nobles claimed it. At last, as they could
not agree which had the best right, they asked King Edward of
England to decide for them.
As you know, it had been the dream of every King of England to be
King of Scotland too. And now Edward I saw his chance to make
that dream come true. He chose as King the man who had, perhaps,
the greatest right to
 the throne, John Balliol. But he made him
promise to hold the crown as a vassal to the King of England.
This, however, the Scots would not suffer. Freedom they had ever
loved, and freedom they would have. No man, they said, whether
he were chosen King or no, had power to make them thralls of
"Oh! Freedom is a noble thing!
Freedom makes a man to have liking,
Freedom all solace to man gives,
He lives at ease that freely lives.
A noble heart may have no ease,
Nor nothing else that may him please,
If freedom faileth; for free delight
Is desired before all other thing.
Nor he that aye has livéd free
May not know well the quality,
The anger, nor the wretched doom
That joinéd is to foul thraldom."
So sang Barbour, and so the passionate hearts of the Scots cried
through all the wretched years that followed the crowning of John
Balliol. And when at last they had greatest need, a leader arose
to show them the way to freedom. Robert the Bruce, throwing off
his sloth and forgetfulness of his country, became their King and
hero. He was crowned and received the homage of his barons, but
well he knew that was but the beginning.
"To maintain what he had begun
He wist, ere all the land was won,
He should find full hard bargaining
With him that was of England King,
For there was none in life so fell,
So stubborn, nor so cruel."
Then began a long struggle between two gallant men, Robert of
Scotland and Edward of England. At first things went ill with
the Bruce. He lost many men in
 battle, others forsook him, and
for a time he lived a hunted outlaw among the hills.
"He durst not to the plains y-go
For all the commons went him fro,
That for their lives were full fain
To pass to the English peace again."
But in all his struggles Bruce kept a good heart and comforted
" 'For discomfort,' as then said he,
'Is the worst thing that may be;
For through mickle discomforting
Men fall oft into despairing.
And if a man despairing be,
Then truly vanquished is he.' "
Yet even while Bruce comforted his men he bade them be brave, and
"And if that them were set a choice,
To die, or to live cowardly,
They should ever die chivalrously."
He told them stories, too, of the heroes of olden times who,
after much suffering, had in the end won the victory over their
enemies. Thus the days passed, and winter settled down on the
bleak mountains. Then the case of Robert and his men grew worse
and worse, and they almost lost hope. But at length, with many
adventures, the winter came to an end. Spring returned again,
and with spring hope.
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