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Warton's History, is a subject of more immediate moment, as it is intimately connected with a question which must be previously adjusted, before we can hope to see any advances towards a history of the English language. The most zealous friend of his fame will readily admit, that his extracts from our early poetry have not been made with that attention to the orthography of his manuscripts, which the example and authority of Mr. Ritson bave since established as an indispensable law. There are occasional instances also, where inadvertency has produced some confusion of the sense, by erroneous readings of his text; and a few errors involving the same results, from indistinctness in the manuscript, or the difficulty of decyphering correctly some unusual or obsolete term. For the last of these deficiencies no further justification will be offered, than that they are of a kind which every publisher of early poetry must be more or less exposed to; that they are neither so important nor so numerous as they are usually considered ; and that some allowance is due to the lax opinions entertained upon the subject when Warton's History made its appearance. The former will require a more minute investigation, both from the obloquy cast upon his reputation for omitting to observe it, and the importance it has been made to assume in the labours of every subsequent antiquary. The golden rule of Mr. Ritson, enforced by the precept and example of twenty years, and scrupulously adhered to by his disciples, is “integrity to the original text.” The genius of the language, the qualifications of the transcriber, and the power of oral delivery upon the original writer, have been considered so subsidiary to this primary and elemental point, that they are scarcely noticed, or wholly omitted, in the discussion of the question. Every thing written has had conferred upon it the authority of an explicit statute, and fidelity to the letter of a manuscript is only to be infringed under certain ob
vious limitations. There might have been something to colour the rigid course thus prescribed, if it had been either proved or found that there was a general consistency observed in any single manuscript with itself, or that the various modes of writing the same word in one document were countenanced by a systematic mode of deviation in another. But so far is this from being the case, that a single line often exhibits a change in the component letters of the same word (and which may have been written in the previous pages with every variety it is capable of); and no diligence or ingenuity can establish a rule, which will reconcile the orthography of one manuscript to that of its fellow, upon any principle of order or grammatical analogy. There is, however, nothing singular in this state of our early English texts, or of a nature not to admit of a comparatively easy solution. By far the greater number of these discrepancies may be fairly ascribed to the inattention of transcribers, a class of men whose heedless blunders have cast a proverbial stigma upon their labours, and who, to pass over the charges left against them by the ancient world, have been successively exposed to the anathemas of Orm and the censures of Chaucer. For the rest, we must refer to the circumstances under which the original documents were written, or the autographs as they were dismissed from the hands of their respective authors.
At whatever age we assume the subject, subsequent to the Norman conquest, and previous to the invention of printing, the very absence of this most important of human arts might of itself assure us, that the forms of orthography would be more or less fluctuating, from the total want of any considerable number of copies following one general principle in the composition of their words. There never could have been, as at the present day, any multiplied exemplars of the same work, the literal fac-similes of each other,-and consequently
the reciprocal guarantees of their respective integrity and fidelity to the original text; nor any acknowledged standard of appeal which was to direct the mind in cases of dubious issue. Hence every writer would of course adopt the general style acquired during his school instruction; and where this chanced to be defective, he would naturally fly to analogy as the best arbitrator of his doubts. Now, though nothing is more certain than that the existing laws of our language are the consequences of some antecedent ones, and that all are governed by an analogy systematic in its constitution; yet nothing also is more clear, than that unless we pursue this analogy according to its governing principle, it will lead us to the most erroneous and indefensible conclusions. Let any one for example assume some particular letters, as the unvarying representatives of any determinate sound; and having applied them in conjunction with the remaining symbols making up the different words in which this sound recurs, compare his novel mode of association, with that generally received: The result will give him a language strongly resembling the written compositions of all our early manuscripts, with one grand distinction,—that though this kind of analogy has been chiefly followed, it was never systematically adhered to; and that the exceptions to the rule have been hardly less numerous, than the cases in which it has been applied. This we may readily conceive to have arisen from the influence of the style acquired enforcing one kind of analogy, and the unbiassed judgement of the writer,-unbiassed except by the natural power of oral delivery,-giving direction to another. The latter indeed must have been the universal guide in all cases of uncertainty; and, for the reason before given, both a varying and unsatisfactory one. In addition to these difficulties, there was another co-operating cause, which will of itself explain a large body of minor variations. The study of the English
language, in common with that of every vernacular dialect in Europe, was the offspring of comparatively recent ages; and of the component parts which fill the measure of this study, orthography was nearly the last to occupy public attention. That it would have followed in the order of time, without the invention of printing, is clear from the attention bestowed upon it by the ancient world 175. But it never could have demanded any share of serious notice, until the literature of the country had been to a certain degree matured; until grammar as a science had become sedulously pursued; and the labours of grammarians had established certain rules of orthoëpy, which every writer would have willingly followed. From a combination of these causes, therefore, the unsettled state of early orthography is easily deducible. The confusion it has originated will be evident on the perusal of a single page in Mr. Ritson's Romances: but the corollary which has been drawn from it,that the manuscripts exhibit a text whose integrity ought invariably to be preserved,can only be admitted under a presumption that the enunciation of those who wrote them was as fluctuating as their graphic forms. The latter proposition is an inevitable consequence of the previous inference; and is a position in itself so unwarrantable and incredible, that it needs only to be considered with reference to its practicability, to receive the condemnation it merits.
It is true, a great deal of traditionary opinion might be cited in favour of such an hypothesis, and several distinguished writers of our own day have been found to lend it the countenance of their names. Mr. Mitford has declared, that the Brut of Layamon displays “all the appearance of a language thrown into confusion by the circumstances of those who spoke it 176 ;" and Mr. Sharon Turner has observed of our lan
175 The state of our Anglo-Saxon ma 176 See Mr. Mitford's Harmony of nuscripts and the labours of Ælfric alone Language. The expressions in the might be cited in proof of these pos ns, text have been taken from Mr. Camp
guage, in a still earlier stage: “the Saxon anomalies of grammar seem to have been so capricious, and so confused, that their meaning must have been often rather conjectured, than understood; and hence it is, that their poetry, especially in Beowulf, is often so unintelligible to us. There is no settled grammar to guarantee the meaning; we cannot guess so well nor so rapidly as they, who, talking every day in the same phrases, were familiar with their own absurdities. Or perhaps when the harper recited, they often caught his meaning from his gesticulation, felt it when they did not understand it, and thought obscurity to be the result of superior ability. It will be no disparagement to the talents of these distinguished historians, that a subject unconnected with the general tenor of their studies, and only incidentally brought before them, should have eluded their penetration; or that a plausible theory, rather extensively accredited, should have surprised them into an acquiescence in its doctrines. But when it is asserted, under the authority of a name so deservedly
bell's citation, in his Essay on English who conceive the human race to have Poetry, p. 33: where the reader will grown out of the earth like so many also find an able refutation of Mr. Ellis's cabbages. Bring forward your proof opinions upon the progress of the En- that this phenomenon had a real existglish language. It is impossible that ence, and your reasons for its discontiMr. Campbell should not at all times nuance. Both propositions are equally be awake to the spirit of genuine poetry, defensible, and entitled to the same however disguised by the rust of anti- degree of credence. It is a common quity. And if some of the criticisms in piece of address with the favourers of this genial Essay prove rather startling this theory, to refer us to the language to the zealous admirer of our early of some savage Indian tribe, of whom literature, he will rather attribute them we know as much as the traveller has to the same cause which during an age been pleased to inform us. of romantic poetry makes the effusions sonal qualifications of the latter to of Mr. Campbell's muse appear an echo speak upon the question we have no of the chaste simplicity and measured means of deciding. In a parallel case, energy of Attic song.
Dr. Johnson justly charged Montes177 History of England, vol. i. p. 564. quieu with want of fairness, for deduAll opinions of this kind are evidently cing a general principle from some obfounded upon the belief, that language servance obtaining in Mexico or Japan, is the product of man's invention; and it might be, for which he could adduce that the succession of time alone has no better authority than the vague acperfected the first crude conceptions of count of some traveller whom accident his mind. To such a belief we may had taken there.' apply the argument opposed to those,