(from Legouis and Cazamian's History of English Literature; London: Dent, 1937)
Origins. (12. Anglo-Saxon Prose. Alfred, Aelfric, Wulfstan). (1)
The breach between Anglo-Saxon and English poetry is everywhere apparent, and to pass from Cynewulf to Chaucer is to bridge a deep gulf. The poetry of the Anglo-Saxons is deliberately archaic. In order to produce a desired emotional state in its hearers, it reverts to traditional turns of expression, to words almost consecrated, as religion works its effects by the constantly recurring use of an ancient liturgy. This poetry is modelled on an earlier age of which the remoteness cannot now be determined. It retains many periphrases and locutions already obsolete, imitates and systematizes the disorder of primitive lyrical construction. The poetic form tends towards the past.
On the other hand, the tendency of the prose is towards observance of the rules of ordinary speech, unless it copies the Latin prose of the clerks. Its object is to instruct and inform, not to move, and since it thus educates the understanding, it necessarily turns to the future. There is therefore nothing surprising in the fact that the prose writings of the Anglo-Saxons, which are much less curious than their poetry, are also much nearer ourselves. No revolution seems to separate Alfred's pages from those of Caxton, Aelfric's from Wyclif's. There is a change but no break. National and linguistic continuity is felt to exist; there almost seems to be a continuity in the thought as it is framed in much the same mould as now. While and Englishman has to make a quite considerable effort in order to read the verse of the Anglo-Saxons, he finds it comparatively easy to understand their prose.
If such facility be not marked in the oldest prose literature, this is because it is either of earlier compilation than any of the poetry extant—like the laws of Ina, king of the West Saxos, which were promulgated at the end of the seventh century, although our transcription dates only from the time of Alfred—or because some of this prose is more than half poetry and seems to be fragments of old epic tales.
(1) Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Prosa, edited by C. W. M. Grein, R. P. Wülker, and H. Hecht, Leipzig and Hamburg, 1872 et seq. The Whole Works of King Alfred the Great, edited by J. A. Giles, 3 vols. (Oxford and Cambridge, 1858); Stopford Brooke, King Alfred as Educator of his People and Man of Letters (1901); H. Sweet, Selections from Aelfric's Homilies (Oxford, 1896); A. Napier, Wulfstan's Homilies (Berlin, 1883); B. Thorpe, Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church, vols. (Aelfric Society, 1844-6); C. L. White, Aelfric, a New Study of his Life and Writings (Yale Studies in English, 1898).