صور الصفحة

vival of Learning :" the multiplication, by printing, of books, and especially of the Greek and Roman classics, enriched the intellect of Europe, and in the poets of this age we find a strong infusion of words adopted from the Latin. Hence, though poetic genius was at a low ebb in England, the language had begun to assume a form approximating to that of the present time. This fact is displayed in the prose as well as in the verse of the period ; it is visible in the work of Sir John Fortescue,' on the “ Difference between an absolute and a limited monarchy ;” and that this im. provement had descended into the speech of the country is shown in the Paston letters. A century after Chaucer's death, the better day, as has been remarked, begins to appear. In Henry VII.'s reign, Hawes, the first writer, according to Warton, who dared to abandon the dull taste of the age for the brilliancy of Chaucer's imagination, whose“ House of Fame” he imitates in his “ House of Glass,” and the learned and daring satirist Skelton, who bequeathed his name to the short doggerel style of his versification, precede the Earl of Surrey, and his brother in verse, Sir Thomas Wyatt, the ornaments of the first half of the sixteenth century. The language had now made an immense stride ; that of Surrey is pure and melodious English ; the language of Sir Thomas More, the celebrated chancellor of Henry VIII., is admired for its excellence ; and the letter of Queen Anne Boleyn to the king before her execution is given by Hume, with the remark how little its phraseology differs from that of our own day. The cessation of domestic war, and the peaceful and regular government established by the high prerogative of the Tudor princes, enabled literature to effloresce unmolested. Hence the continental scholarship flowed liberally into our country. The sixteenth century abounds in classical translations, and in those of Italian writers which produced their fruit in the conclusion of the period. All national movements have the effect of stirring from its depths the heart and intellect of the people ; and the English Reformation in the middle of the sixteenth century was just the event most likely to awaken the depths of a nation's feeling. The struggle was a severe one, and it was not until the vigour and wisdom of Elizabeth's sway had again restored internal tranquillity, that unrepressed genius, in all the luxury of new freedom and increased vigour, burst forth in unshackled enjoyment. It is difficult, perhaps, to fix the connection of cause and effect in the sequence of the phenomena of literature and political circumstances. Suffice it to say that the sixteenth century was an era that changed by its events the face of the world. The feudal system was in ruins ; the dominion of the Roman church over one half of Europe was gone ; chivalry had become a past thing, and hence

1 He was Chief Justice of the King's Bench in the reign of Henry VI.

2 The “ Paston Letters" form a collection of correspondence between the members of the family of Paston in Norfolk, during the wars of York and Lancaster, Incidental notices of the political circumstances of the times are mingled with the more immediate subjects of the letters. Written without the most distant idea of publication, these epistles furnish a very good criterion from which to estimate the language of the upper classes in the fifteenth century. The Paston Letters were first published by Sir John Fenn in 1787 and 1789: a cheaper edition was issued several years ago by Mr Ramsay.-See Penny Magazine, 1812.

[merged small][ocr errors]

we find that its associations and subjects assume a more picturesque form for poetry in Elizabeth's reign than they possessed in the prolix and tedious heraldic details of preceding poets; they wore somewhat of the antique splendour in which they appear to us in the Marmion and novels of Scott. The scholastic philosophy, with its mind-repressing influences, had passed away, and the more genial and nurturing philosophy of Plato was watering all the schools. The English mind was enriched from a thousand sources, especially from the literature of Italy, which has acted as literary nurse to all the modern nations of the north. This reign, accordingly, produced a body of poetry far exceeding in extent, and in variety of complexion and of subject, any that preceded it.

It is an interesting speculation to evolve from the literature of any period a leading complexion of mind, or prevalent bias of idea, or phase of society that may be embodied in it. Shaw thus speaks of the “ four great evangelists of the human mind, Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton.”—“ Homer is a short expression for the heroic or mythic epoch, taken in its sublimer and more lovely manifestation ; Virgil is the incarnation of the power, grandeur, and development of the nationality of empire ; Dante was no less the literary embodiment of Mediæval Christianity-that wild and wondrous phase of humanity which is found petrified, as it were, and presented to us in a tangible form, in the great triumphs of Gothic art ; and our great countryman will seem no inapt or imperfect type of the Christianity of the Reformation, --that is, of Christianity combined with freedom of opinion and the right of private judgment carried to its extremest consequences.” In like manner we might conceive Shakspeare in the sixteenth century as embodying the inquiring spirit which was then abroad in the English mind. He is the - abstract and brief chronicle of the time” which was guaging the depth of every principle in politics, religion, and morals, even under the sternness of a Tudor despotism. It was the age when Bacon's vast intellect (and he also may be called a poet in the wealth and pregnancy of his imagery) was beginning to map out the geography of all science ; when Jonson was anatomizing the surface “ humours" of society, and reconstructing on a Gothic stage the principles of the ancient drama ; when Spencer was weaving faith, and morals, and history, and intrigue, into his endless web of romance ; when Sidney was impersonating in a nobler shape the departed spirit of chivalry ; and when language itself was running riot in novelty in the Euphuism of Lilly. The“ myriad-minded” poet is a fit type of this variegated age: his apothegms would construct a moral philosophy ; his maxims, a system of enlightened policy ; his observations, a treatise on natural history ; his characters, a psychological discourse on human nature. Nor is what Shakspeare dreamed less wonderful ; the world of " faery” was not the only land over which the fine phrenzy of his imagination's eye rolled ; not only could he give flesh and blood to the shadowy images of chronicle history, or the filamental outlines of Italian romances, but art, in a perfection which his vi

| The influence of the Platonic philosophy was, however, somewhat later in its furl devclopinent.

sual eye never witnessed, and his hand was utterly incapable of outlining, lived in his imagination in the perfection of exquisite forms. The pure Italian character of Shakspeare's artistic taste is visible in his thousand references to statuary whose exalted beauty he could only have conceived ; “ Niobe all tears;" " A feathered Mercury new lighted on a heaven-kissing hill ;" *Patience on a monument smiling at grief ;" “ O'erpicturing that Venus where we see the fancy outwork nature ;"—these sketches are but a few instances of his perfectness of conception of this art, whose specimens he conld have so little opportunity of actually witnessing. Shakspeare's universality, therefore, may be reckoned as the reflex of that of his age. The conclusion of the sixteenth century was a period of the marshalling of all ideas and all literatures on the field of England ; and, although the Elizabethan literature was overswept by a wave of French taste and French mannerism, yet its principles and the freshness of its nature have germinated again after a lapse of two hundred years. Of course there mingled in the product an abundant crop of weeds, more perhaps than a legitimate growth : the vestiges of the semi-barbarous preceding age still were visible in the pollution which mingled deeply in the stream, and which renders a great portion of the literature of Elizabeth's period unpresentable to modern ears or eyes. But it is singular that coarseness of thought affected even our Protestant ancestors, apparently with little notion of a moral stain: Lyndsay, an apostle of the Reformation in Scotland, full of serious and devout thinking, is yet one of the coarsest of the writers of the century, and his most licentious wit amused the ears of an elegant court, and delighted the fancies of highborn dames and “gentle knights."

The most distinguished feature of the poetic character of Elizabeth's reign is the development of the dramatic art. The rudeness of preceding centuries had been amused by the “ Miracle Plays," which ripened into the improved shape of Mysteries or Moralities ; and by the pantomimic exhibition of the Masque, on which was ultimately engrafted a spoken literature, which raised it in the sixteenth century to a respectable literary rank. The Miracles and Mysteries were adaptations of Scripture stories, such as the Creation, the Deluge, &c., in which the devil in a ridiculous guise was the leading personage ; the Divine Persons form characters in these dramas ; and, in their improved form, personifications of virtues, vices, and other abstract ideas, are introduced. Very strangely, this literature, if it may be so termed, was the invention of the Church, and was used as a means of popular OF ENGLISH POETRY.

1 We have taken two hundred years to begin to understand Shakspeare, for the principies of his criticism promulgated by Schlegel and Coleridge have but opened the mine, whose surface-ground the pickaxes of former critics had in general merely scratched.

2 For some beautiful observations on the differences of development in the French and English intellect, see Shaw's Outlines of English Literature, p. 156.

3 The coincidence of circumstances in the origin of the Greek drama, and that of the mediæval tirnes, has been frequently noticed. "Both," says Mr Shaw (Outlines of English Literature, p. 401), “were performed in a sacred spot; the subjects of both were drawn from what was considered most holy and venerable ; both were placed before the spectator with the greatest magnificence attainable; and the spirit of mingled patriotism and religion, which it was the object of the Greek theatre to excite, was certainly little inferior in intensity to the credulous and simple awe with which the rude audiences of Catholic times must have witnessed the great mysteries of their religion represented before the altar of a cathedral." The hymns of the Dionysia, the originated the Choruses which form so conspicuous a feature of the Greek drama.-See Brumoy's Greek Theatre. In both cases the earliest development of the drama took the direction of comedy.-See Cumberland's Essays. The word Tragedy is derived from tragos, a goat, the animal sacred to Bacchus ; another etymology is try.r, new wine ; Comedy, from kome, a village, and ode, a song, denotes the scenes of the earliest dramatic representations.


instruction in an age when reading was a scarce commodity. These were acted on stated occasions, often by churchmen. The first English comedy that may properly deserve the appellation is the “ Ralph Royster Doyster" (1551 ?) of Nicholas Udall, Master of Westminster School. The earliest tragedy is the “ Gorboduc," or, as it was afterwards named, “ Ferrex and Porrex," of Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, founded on a British legend similar to that of Eteocles and Polynices (see notice of Sackville, p. 49).

A crowd of writers followed Sackville : dramatic entertainments became extravagantly popular, and theatrical property extremely valuable. The subjects were drawn from classical and mythological sources, and from Greek, Roman, and English history. The taste for poetized history was extremely prevalent. Examples are found in the series of Shakspeare's historical plays, and, in general poetry, in Daniel's Civil Wars.

The accession of James did not check the impulse which literature had received. Many of the great writers of Elizabeth's era were still living. The king, though with little true taste, was himself an author, and the partiality of his queen, Anne of Denmark, for elegant amusement, nursed among the nobility the passion for masques. This entertainment, originally a mere mumming show, had gradually, as above noticed, a literature engrafted on it, which Ben Jonson may be said to have raised to perfection ; there are few masques after his death. It is singular how, in these days, without the pomp of modern theatres,' without the dazzle of artificial light, with rude scenery, whose locality was indicated by a placard, the dramatic literature could have produced the powerful effect on the interest of the audience which we know it to have done. The dramatic art seems to have declined with the progressive improvement of the facilities for giving it more effective scope in representation. The line of dramatic writers of the period of Elizabeth, James, and Charles, is accounted to have expired in Shirley, who flourished about the middle of the seventeenth century. After the overthrow of the monarchy in the civil wars, the stern puritanism of the Commonwealth extinguished the drama, and almost silenced the lyre. Milton had unstrung his harp at the commencement of the struggle, and, when its note again rung, it was in the midst of a new phase of literature. The two parties bad each their poets, but none of any conspicuous eminence; the mighty principles which it required such a struggle to work out could not spare the thoughts of great minds to merely ornamental literature. The poetical literature of the Restoration unhappily took too much of its tone in morals from the Court, and its fashion from France : if the progress of elegance in expression was the result, so also was a departure from the unadorned earnestness of former days. Few can now endure the inane sweetness or the epigrammatic smartness of Waller. Denham’ is a vigorous and elegant writer, and may be called the inventor of local descriptive poetry. But in general the poetry of the latter half of the seventeenth century is artificial, limited in aim, and overspread with the conceits of the “ metaphysical" followers of Donne, but very pretty Florilegia may be collected from it. It was fortunate that this school found an artist in Dryden, who, like Raphael in painting, bursting its feeble, absurd, or noxious mannerism, dignified it with Roman nobility of subject and expression, and placed the language on a rock whence it has never been shaken. He wanted only the natural and earnest feeling of Donne, the founder of the school, to have united all the qualities of the greatest poets in any nation. The metaphysical school is counted to close with Corlev. Sir William D'Avenant revived the drama after the Restoration, but the rant of the Frenchified "rhyming plays” exhibits a sad contrast with the earnest passion of the earlier dramatic period. Dryden, the father of literary criticism, felt the difference, but his genius lacked the internal spirit which he strove to evoke in his later dramatic efforts. The French aspect which the Restoration had communicated to poetical literature continued in the age of Anne and the Georges, after the English revolution, and mellowed into more regular elegance. Pope's " velvet lawn, shaven with the scythe, and levelled with the roller,” succeeded Dryden's “ natural field, rising into inequalities, and diversified by the varied exuberance of abundant vegeta

1 “The stage of the miracle plays) was divided into three platforms; the upper being reserved for God, angels, and glorified spirits; the next below it for the human personages of the Drama; and the lowest was devoted to the devils, being a representation of the yawning mouth of hell."-" The much agitated question, of the meaning of the singular title given by Dante to his great work, could hardly have been raised, had the critics remembered that the Comedia of the Gran Padre Alighier' is nothing else but a mystery in a narrative form, and that the three divisions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise correspond exactly with the three stages of the religious drama."-Shaw, p. 101.

A great portion of the verse, however, of the seventeenth century, is sacred, and, independently of that of Milton, is of no mean merit : most of the passages from the period in the following selections are examples of this. For the sacred poetry of this century, see an interesting article on the subject in Blackwood's Magazine, No. 241. Writers even who wear the licentious livery of the times furnish specimens of beautiful devotion; see Dryden's "Veni Creator," in the Selections, p. 259. It has been remarked that great eras in our poetry hare corresponded with great religious movements : Chaucer and Wycliffe ;-the Elizabethan literature and the completion of the English Reformation ;Milton and the Puritan Revolution :--are respectively contemporary. Anne's "Augustan age" succeeds the religious struggle of the Revolution of 1688; and a revival of the reli. gious spirit, both in England and Scotland, accompanied the revivification of poetry in the beginning of the present century.

2 " Cooper's Hill" was initated in Pope's "Windsor Forest," Dyer's "Grongar Hill," &c.

3 Butler, like Swift in the riext age, is to be viewed, with respect to the poets of his time, as "among them but not of them."

4 We have omitted mention of the results of Milton's poetry, because his influence is not so historically distinct and palpable as that of Dryden. Johnson labours to depreciate the progress of Milton's reputation, but succeeding critics, from examination of the number of his editions, have tried to show that his poetry must have been working its way rapidly, if not ostentatiously, into the minds of his countrymen.

•The reign of Fdward VI. exhibits a perfect mania for religious poetry, that vents itself in poetical travesties of the sacred writings.-See Warton, vol. iii. p. 167.

« السابقةمتابعة »