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Minor Elizabethan Poets.
ART. II.-On the Elizabethan Age, and some of its less-known
THE history of each great nation, whether in ancient or modern times, has been distinguished by some period of extraordinary magnificence, to which all who claim affinity with it have been accustomed to point with triumph, feeling themselves great in the greatness of their people. What the age of Augustus was to Rome, what that of Leo X. was to modern Italy, what that of Ferdinand and Isabella was to Spain, or that of Louis XIV. to monarchical France, the Elizabethan era has been, and is still, to the majority of Englishmen,—a time, the thought of which makes their hearts glow and their pulses leap with the enthusiasm of national exultation and pride. Other nations besides ourselves have admired the glories of this reign, which was, perhaps, illuminated by a richer galaxy of statesmen, warriors, divines, poets, and philosophers, than any other era in the annals of Great Britain. Many foreigners have been prejudiced against Elizabeth. And yet Bayle writes of her, 'Son règne est le plus beau morceau et le plus bel endroit de l'histoire d'Angleterre.' And still to speak of the British lioness with a mixture of pride and fondness, to do her a supposed homage by alluding to her under the affectionate soubriquet of 'Good Queen Bess,'-to transform her name into an adjective, by annexing it to the epoch of her reign, and styling it the 'Elizabethan Age,'-is to act in conformity with the instinct of the English mind. In spite of the many mistakes and errors of her government, the memory of this great Queen is still held in veneration, and is dear to the hearts of her people.
We can all of us quote with enthusiasm the names of Raleigh, Drake, Hooker, Coke, Shakespeare, Spenser, Bacon, and Jonson. It is the fashion to render homage to these grand old names, and to talk of the genius of the past; as if, like the Chinese, the custom of our nation had entailed upon us the reverence of our ancestors, according to the rites of a servile superstition; but, after all, when we come to look into the meaning of our words, and to analyse our high-sounding phrases,
with many of us they represent only a cold sentiment, or are nothing but meaningless formulæ.
If we wish to realise the genius and greatness of the past, our hearts must speak to us while we read the old chronicles, and we must interpret the old poetry by our own experience, and in a spirit of true sympathy and loving candour.
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
There is no need to exalt old poets at the expense of new, or to invent a new hero-worship with its mysteries, oblations, and ceremonial; but, on the other hand, it is absurd to inspect an old writer as we would comment on a petrified reptile dug out of the bowels of the earth. We must remember that he was a man like ourselves, notwithstanding he was living without railroads, gas, and telegraphs; that he wore a brighter costume, and inhabited a more picturesque house. We must examine his writings without prejudice, estimating them as they show their author to have been true, clear-sighted, skilful, and strong, or to have lacked such qualities as these. We must disregard the cant of the so-called antiquarian, who makes an idol of every book which is faded or worm-eaten, and who imagines that of all men the most ancient must, cæteris paribus, be the best, and have been instructed by the ripest experience; not perceiving that the men of the sixteenth century may, in one sense, be considered but as raw striplings, when compared with the whiteheaded ancients of our days, who should have profited by the accumulated wisdom of their forefathers, and who are 'heirs of all the ages.'
Particular tendencies and various stages of feeling seem to be indissolubly incorporated in humanity. Phariseeism and Sadduceeism, the Puritanical and Papistical characters, are nothing new, nor will they ever be old. If, on the one hand, the cold formalism of Sardis seems to be bound up in human nature, so that each generation appears to need almost a second Reformation to save it from the curse of staking its religion on
Opposite Tendencies of the Age.
mere dogmas and barren creeds, it may be said, with truth, that there is an equally strong tendency in society to that fanaticism which mistakes feeling for principle, and which is ready to rush to the most Utopian extremes,-an enthusiasm which is never doing good, but always agitating, exclaiming, and protesting. Never were these opposite tendencies more remarkable than in the Elizabethan era. Never were the epidemics of taste, the predilections for special branches of learning to the depreciation of others, with the stern precision which ever follows a period of licence and vice, more decidedly apparent. As Niebuhr truly says, 'In the rooting up of old prejudices it is hard to keep from excess; one is led into it by the contemptible aspect which everything connected with the old error wears, and moderation comes only when the victory is achieved.'
It is the abuse of symbolism which nurtures the iconoclasts. And just as in ancient Greece, when symbolism was carried to a debasing excess, Plato discerned the rottenness of the system, and was desirous to banish from his republic all that ministered to the degradation of the people, so in the fury of a revulsion, which was grand even in its blindness, the Puritans deliberately blotted out for ever some of the finest thoughts which the finger of human genius had written in stone; and their severity was but the simple and earnest expression of one form of Protestantism, the sturdy determination to spare nothing which was of evil influence, however ravishing might be its beauty.
It has also been objected that the Puritans attached a dangerous importance to the right and rule of independent belief and action, which the Divine influence was thought to impose upon each elect and individual soul. Some of their excesses were, doubtless, to be deplored, and we do unwisely to leave prejudiced historians to remove the halos from the brows of our saints, because we have forgotten to tone their portraits down to the natural flesh-tints of humanity. But, on the other hand, we cannot value too highly the importance of the freedom of choice and earnest thought which began at this period to be exercised on religious subjects. Faith in the truth of God developes, elevates, and fortifies the mind of a man who accepts it as the fruit of earnest conviction; whilst a dogmatic belief, adopted merely as an official yoke, emanating from an exterior authority, is only calculated to crush the faculties of those who
receive it. Nothing is so dangerous as falseness to our own convictions, and nothing is so likely to enfeeble the moral being as the anxiety to be true to a certain principle, rather than to ascertain whether that principle be true.
Before we can form a fair estimate of the mighty 'phalanx of kindred spirits,' who clustered around Shakespeare at this epoch, and before we can pass a clear judgment on the verses of those minor poets, many of whom had sprung from the ranks of the middle classes, we must endeavour to conceive a true picture of the faults and excellencies, the strength and weakness, the passions and prejudices, the fashions and humours, of the society of this epoch. Never were the children of Great Britain more unsophisticated and independent in their thoughts, and never more thoroughly English. But in all epochs of transition and reform we must expect to meet with much that is inconsistent. There is usually a mixture of folly and evil in great movements, however beneficial in principle and on the whole, which is too often an offence to feeble minds, who demand that human actions and characters be exactly in accordance with their preconceived ideas. If we examine this historical period through a microscope, we may discover many defects and blemishes which escaped us on a more distant and favourable view. Macaulay has painted in vivid colours the dark side of the picture, the tumultuous conflict of sects' drunk with unwonted freedom,'the tyrannical yoke of the Queen, and the inveterate persecutions which could not be excused under the plea of fanaticism. Haweis, in his Sketches of the Reformation, dwells with some spitefulness on the hypocrisy dominant in religion, on the atheism which was boldly apparent, on the injustice of governors and judges, on the superstitious belief in witchcraft and divination, on the duels and murders which stained the streets with blood, on the dicing-houses, which were hells of vice and profanity, and on the districts of licentiousness, on whose houses might have been inscribed the words of Dante,
'Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate!'
But in all such periods, human nature will manifest itself in its brightest and darkest contrasts; and the same sudden withdrawal of control which developes the virtues of the hero, may also stimulate the vices of the libertine. No disease can be
Effects of the Reformation.
cured without suffering, and no renovation can be effected without pain. The effects of the Reformation, in various countries, have been compared by some writers to those of the French Revolution, exciting the passions of the ignorant people, filling their minds with wild confusions of thought, and overwhelming all the past with the floods of a tumultuous and universal frenzy. There is much untruth and much exaggeration in such a comparison. Yet it cannot be doubted that the poor and uninformed were, in some cases, so stunned by the catastrophe, that they gazed with bewilderment on the altered appearance of society; and when Latimer complained of the irreligion and profanity which abounded in his days, the cause was probably the ignorance of large masses of the people, who were not as yet imbued with the spirit of Protestantism.
In such a chaos, which was destined to be the cradle of modern society, and in such a period of civil and moral warfare, when many a man's hand was forced to be against his brother's, the benefits of Elizabeth's government, with all its affectations and defects, were doubtless inestimable. Even calm and peace
loving men, not apt to be affected by controversial strifes, or by party passions, now felt themselves stirred in the inmost depths of their souls by the new and startling questions which were discussed around them. The past was as wonderful as the present, and each earnest thinker remembered from what perils and terrors he had recently emerged. The grandfathers of the present generation had been witnesses of the Civil War. The despotisms of Henry VIII. and the martyrdoms of Queen Mary were within the recollection of many then living, reconciling them to the rigour and inflexibleness with which the royal prerogative was still occasionally enforced. Nor is it difficult to determine other causes of the intellectual and moral pre-eminence, the vivid force, and prolific genius of this epoch.
Let it be remembered that at the beginning of the sixteenth century Europe had been devastated by war and decimated by the plague. The discovery of the New World, the dreams of Hesperian islands, and the voyages of Columbus, had intoxicated the minds of many with the love of novelty and adventure. The dissolution of the monasteries had spread before the eager minds of men those treasures of science and philosophy which