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Mr. Ellis has given us “Specimens of the Early English Metrical Romances,” and Ritson and Weber have printed two collections of them entire, valued by the poetical antiquary. Learned inquirers have traced the origin of romantic fiction to various sources.[117] From Scandinavia issued forth the giants, dragons, witches, and enchanters. The curious reader will be gratified by “Illustrations of Northern Antiquities,” a volume in quarto; where he will find extracts from “The Book of Heroes” and “The Nibelungen Lay,”[118] with many other metrical tales from the old German, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic languages. In the East, Arabian fancy bent her iris of many softened hues over a delightful land of fiction: while the Welsh, in their emigration to Britanny, are believed to have brought with them their national fables. That subsequent race of minstrels, known by the name of Troubadours in the South of France, composed their erotic or sentimental poems; and those romancers called Troveurs, or finders, in the North of France, culled and compiled their domestic tales or Fabliaux, Dits, Conte, or Lai. Millot, Sainte Palaye, and Le Grand, have preserved, in their “Histories of the Troubadours,” their literary compositions. They were a romantic race of ambulatory poets, military and religious subjects their favourite themes, yet bold and satirical on princes, and even on priests; severe moralisers, though libertines in their verse; so refined and chaste in their manners, that few husbands were alarmed at the enthusiastic language they addressed to their wives. The most romantic incidents are told of their loves. But love and its grosser passion were clearly distinguished from each other in their singular intercourse with their “Dames.” The object of their mind was separated from the object of their senses; the virtuous lady to whom they vowed their hearts was in their language styled “la dame de ses pensees,” a very distinct being from their other mistress! Such was the Platonic chimera that charmed in the age of chivalry; the Laura of Petrarch might have been no other than “the lady of his thoughts.”

From such productions in their improved state poets of all nations have drawn their richest inventions. The agreeable wildness of that fancy which characterised the Eastern nations was often caught by the crusaders. When they returned home, they mingled in their own the customs of each country. The Saracens, being of another religion, brave, desperate, and fighting for their fatherland, were enlarged to their fears, under the tremendous form of Paynim Giants, while the reader of that day followed with trembling sympathy the Redcross Knight. Thus fiction embellished religion, and religion invigorated fiction; and such incidents have enlivened the cantos of Ariosto, and adorned the epic of Tasso. Spenser is the child of their creation; and it is certain that we are indebted to them for some of the bold and strong touches of Milton. Our great poet marks his affection for “these lofty Fables and Romances, among which his young feet wandered.” Collins was bewildered among their magical seductions; and Dr. Johnson was enthusiastically delighted by the old Spanish folio romance of “Felixmarte of Hircania,” and similar works. The most ancient romances were originally composed in verse before they were converted into prose: no wonder that the lacerated members of the poet have been cherished by the sympathy of poetical souls. Don Quixote’s was a very agreeable insanity.

The most voluminous of these ancient romances is “Le Roman de Perceforest.” I have seen an edition in six small folio volumes, and its author has been called the French Homer by the writers of his age. In the class of romances of chivalry, we have several translations in the black letter. These books are very rare, and their price is as voluminous. It is extraordinary that these writers were so unconscious of their future fame, that not one of their names has travelled down to us. There were eager readers in their days, but not a solitary bibliographer! All these romances now require some indulgence for their prolixity, and their Platonic amours; but they have not been surpassed in the wildness of their inventions, the ingenuity of their incidents, the simplicity of their style, and their curious manners. Many a Homer lies hid among them; but a celebrated Italian critic suggested to me that many of the fables of Homer are only disguised and degraded in the romances of chivalry. Those who vilify them as only barbarous imitations of classical fancy condemn them as some do Gothic architecture, as mere corruptions of a purer style: such critics form their decision by preconceived notions; they are but indifferent philosophers, and to us seem to be deficient in imagination.