Billeder på siden

supersede it, it is yet too early to say. The Authorised Version did not establish itself in public favour till it had encountered much severe opposition.

We have been led beyond our chronological limits, and must now retrace our steps. Attention in recent times has been much drawn to the “Morte d'Arthur” of Sir Thomas Malory, who flourished about 1470, by the fact that Mr. Tennyson has used it as the groundwork for much of his "Idylls of the King." The work, which is a condensation of the numerous floating legends about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, was published by Caxton, the first English printer, in 1485. It is said that Mr. Tennyson first chanced upon a copy of it when little more than a boy : the story kindled his enthusiasm, and the vision of a great poem rose before him. Caxton (1420-1492) himself cannot be passed over in a history of literature. It is needless to enlarge on the results which followed the introduction of the printing press : how books have increased and multiplied till in our own day many are inclined to cry “Hold, enough ; how it has made literature accessible to all and attractive to all, how it has swept away thick mists of ignorance and prejudice; and how, by its means, journalism, “the Fourth Estate," has become more powerful for good or for evil than the other three Estates put together. Caxton was no vulgar tradesman; he had a keen interest in literature; was an industrious translator; and delighted to issue fine editions of the old English poets.

Sir Thomas More is a great figure both in political and in literary history. He was born in 1480, the son of a judge of the Court of King's Bench. At Oxford he made the acquaintance of Erasmus, an acquaintance which soon deepened into great mutual friendship. With a keen love of literature, and filled with enthusiasm for those classical studies, the interest in which was then beginning to revive in England, More concealed under a gay and cheerful exterior an almost ascetic piety, and at one time thought of becoming a monk. Instead of doing so, however, he began the study Sir Thomas More.


of law, and in 1529 was appointed by Henry VIII. successor to Wolsey in the Lord Chancellorship. A man of versatile

A genius, of gentle disposition, and of impregnable integrity, More may justly be reckoned one of the most lovable men of his time. It has been well remarked that one of his most striking characteristics was his infinite variety. “He could write epigrams in a hair shirt at the Carthusian convent; and pass from translating Lucian to lecturing on Augustine in the church of St. Lawrence. Devout almost to superstition, he was light-hearted almost to buffoonery. One hour we see him encouraging Erasmus in his love of Greek and the new learning, or charming with his ready wit the supper tables of the Court, or turning a debate in Parliament; the next at home, surrounded by friends and familiar servants, by wife and children, and children's children, dwelling among them in an atmosphere of love and music, prayer and irony-throwing the rein, as it were, on the neck of his most careless fancies, and condescending to follow out the humours of his monkey and the fool. His fortune was almost as various. From his utter indifference to show and money he must have been a strange successor to Wolsey. He had thought as little about fame as Shakespeare, yet in the next generation it was an honour to an Englishman throughout Europe to be his countryman."

In advance of his age in many respects, More yet shared its persecuting tendencies. A staunch Romanist, “this most upright and merciful man became a persecutor of men as innocent, though not of such great minds as himself.” To the Reformers he showed no mercy; and mercy was in turn denied him when he came to need it. He was beheaded in 1535, because he would not take the oath affirming the validity of the King's marriage with Anne Boleyn. The innocent mirth,” says Addison in a passage which has been universally admired, “which had been so conspicuous in his life, did not forsake him to the last. His death was of a piece with his life; there was nothing in it new, forced, or affected. He did not look upon the severing of his head from his body as a circumstance which ought to produce any change in the disposition of his mind, and as he died in a fixed and settled hope of immortality, he thought any unusual degree of sorrow and concern improper."

More's “Utopia” (1516), the picture of an imaginary commonwealth, in describing which he finds an opportunity for giving his views upon various social and political problems, such as education, the punishment of criminals, &c., was written in Latin and does not concern us here. It was translated into English by Ralph Robinson in 1551, and by Bishop Burnet in 1684. His chief English work is his “Life and Reign of Edward V.," which gives him a title to be considered the first Englishman who wrote the history of his country in its present language. It is believed to have been written in 1513, but was not printed till 1557. “The historical fragment," says Sir James Mackintosh, “commands belief by simplicity, and by abstinence from too confident affirmation. It betrays some negligence about minute particulars, which is not displeasing as a symptom of the absence of eagerness to enforce a narrative. The coniposition has an ease and a rotundity which gratify the ear without awakening the suspicion of art, of which there was no model in any preceding writer of English prose.”

A man as admirable as More, though of very different temperament, was Hugh Latimer, the great Reformer. He was born about 1491 at Thurcaston in Leicestershire. His father was a yeoman in comfortable circumstances. Seeing the “ready, prompt, and sharp wit” of his son, he wisely determined, says Foxe, “to train him up in erudition and knowledge of good literature, wherein he so profited in his youth, at the common schools of his own country, that at the age of fourteen years he was sent to the University of Cambridge." In due time he obtained a fellowship there, and having been led to embrace Protestantism by the arguments of a certain “Maister Bylney," began, with characteristic impetuosity, to utter his protest against the doctrines of the Church of Rome. The University authorities brought his “heresies" under the

[blocks in formation]

notice of Cardinal Wolsey, but he was triumphantly acquitted. In 1530, he says, "I was called to preach before the King, which was the first sermon that I made before his Majesty, and it was done at Windsor, where his Majesty, after the sermon was done, did. most familiarly talk with me in the gallery." The King seems to have liked the fearless outspoken spirit of the man, who never hesitated to speak out his mind either to prince or to peasant. In 1535 Latimer was appointed Bishop of Worcester, an office he did not long retain, being deprived of it in 1539, because he refused to sign the "Act of the Six Articles." For some time he su fered imprisonment in the Tower, and during the rest of Henry's reign was "commanded to silence." On the accession of Edward VI., in 1546, he again had an opportunity, of which he took full advantage, of exercising his gifts as a preacher. When Mary came to the throne in 1553, the tide again turned. Soon after her accession, Latimer was thrown into the Tower. In 1555 he was burned at the stake at Oxford."Be of good cheer, Master Ridley," he said to his fellow-martyr, "and play the man we shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England, as (I trust) shall never be put out."

Latimer's sermons, of which that on "The Ploughers," delivered at St. Paul's in 1549, is the most famous, show that he possessed in an extraordinary degree the highest gift of the preacher that of arousing men's consciences, and of impressing them with the belief that what he says is really true. He is not a seeker after fine phrases: the homeliest illustrations and the homeliest expressions are welcomed by him provided they clearly express the meaning he wishes to convey. A scorner of conventionality, he talked to his hearers as one plain man might talk to another, never mincing matters, and always anxious to set forth his subject in the most lucid way. He did not hesitate to address his remarks to individual hearers when he thought himself called upon to do so, careless if his remarks gave offence or not, so long as he did his duty. Latimer was no sour ascetic: he loved a racy anecdote or a humorous saying, and was ready to make use of them even when dealing

with the most serious subject. A true Englishman, somewhat of the " John Bull" type, frank, manly, honest, courageous, he exerted a wonderful influence over the minds of his contemporaries, and his sermons, though their diction is occasionally rather startling, are still well worth reading as the utterances of a brave, thoroughly sincere man.

The story of Latimer's martyrdom, and of the other persecutions suffered by Protestants, was touchingly related by John Foxe (1517-1587) in his “Book of Martyrs” as it is commonly called, a title better expressing the nature of the work than its original one, “History of the Acts and Monuments of the Church.” Foxe himself had to flee to the Continent to escape persecution during Mary's reign, and his “Book of Martyrs” was written on his return. It has great literary merit, but is often inaccurate and prejudiced. He lived too near the time with which he deals to write with impartiality.

We now quit the regions of the dawn, to enter on the broad effulgence of the Elizabethan period.

« ForrigeFortsæt »