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THE ELIZABETHAN ERA.
Ascham ; Wyatt and Surrey ; Spenser ; Sidney, Hooker, Raleigh, Lyly; 7'he
Elizabethan Dramatists: Lyly, Marlow?, Greene, Peele, Shakespeare,
N this chapter we have to deal with what is, upon the
whole, the greatest period in our literature. In it flourished Sidney and Hooker, Spenser and Shake
speare, and a crowd of writers, inferior, indeed, to these great names, but possessed of so much fertility and spontaneity of genius, of so much vehement energy and native talent, that in any other era they would have won for themselves a foremost place. Under the rule of the Maiden Queen, the pulse of the nation beat high; all human energies were cultivated to the utmost; the seas were scoured by daring buccaneers; enterprising travellers penetrated to distant places, bringing back accounts of the wonderful things they had seen and heard; English commerce increased to an unexampled extent; and the comparative isolation in which Protestant England stood apart from the Catholic nations of the Continent, made her proudly defiant and confident in her own resources. The love of gorgeous apparel and of splendid pageants which then prevailed is an apt symbol of the unpruned luxuriance, the wealth of high-coloured phrases and extravagant expressions which pervaded the literature. Men lived intensely, thought intensely, and wrote intensely.
Between the Elizabethan literature proper and the writers of the preceding age, there are two or three authors who form as it were connecting links. Great poets and great prosewriters are always preceded by others, by far their inferiors in genius it may be, but in whose works we can trace the beginnings of the literary tendency which pervades their successors. We shall begin with a prose-writer, who might with equal propriety have been included among the authors mentioned in the preceding chapter, were it not for his close connection with Queen Elizabeth. Roger Ascham (1515-1568) lived in the reign of Henry, of Edward, of Mary, and of Elizabeth, and, more fortunate than many of his contemporaries, held comfortable offices under all those sovereigns. A cautious, conciliatory man, of no very pronounced religious opinions, he took care never to give offence; while his polished manners and cultivated mind made him a very attractive companion to his royal patrons. His first work, “Toxophilus,” published in 1545, is a dialogue on archery, praising the national weapon, the bow, and advocating its use with the enthusiasm of one who was himself a proficient in the art.1 No one is likely to find fault with Ascham for being fond of archery, but his love of cockfighting, which, we are told, was his pastime in old age, was certainly reprehensible. Ascham's most famous work, the “Schoolmaster," was published in 1570, two years after his death. It is a very sensible, meritorious performance, abounding in digressions, but containing much advice, which is worth attending to, even in this era of universal education. The numerous anecdotes and reminiscences with which he diversifies his work, add greatly to its attractiveness. “Old Ascham,” wrote Carlyle, “is one of the freshest, truest spirits I have met with ; a scholar and writer, yet a genuine man." 2
In the preceding chapter we have seen that the old Scottish poets derived their main impulse from Chaucer, whom they reverenced as their master. The same was the case with Chaucer's English successors. But a new epoch in the history
1 Fuller qurintly describes Ascham as an honest man and a good shooter."
Correspondence of Macvey Napier, p. 77.
Wyatt and Surrey.
51 of English poetry dawned in the reign of Henry VIII. Foreign travel was becoming common among the higher classes, and the nobility, headed by a king who valued his learning not the least among his accomplishments, began to pride themselves as much upon their literary taste as upon their proficiency in manly exercises. It was from Italy, then the queen of the intellectual world, that the new school of poets obtained their inspiration-from Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, and Petrarch. Two courtly gentlemen who "had travelled into Italy and thus tasted the sweet and stately measures and style of the Italian poesy," introduced into England an entirely new fashion of writing, which took root and flourished. These were Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, whose names are generally linked together. Their poems appeared in the collection known as “Tottel's Miscellany," which was published in 1557, and which contained poems by other versifiers. Wyatt (1503–1541), the elder of the two, was a man of grave and sombre genius, prone to look upon the dark side of things. His love-sonnets and songs have none of that lightness and gaiety which we are apt to associate with such verses, but they contain much subtle thought, and bear the appearance of expressing a genuine passion. Surrey (1516–1547) was a personage of different character. Impetuous and headstrong, he led a stirring and adventurous life, holding commands in Scotland and France, and being one of the most prominent figures at Court. He was executed for high treason in 1547. “Compared with Wyatt, Surrey strikes one as having much greater affluence of words--the language is more plastic in his hands. When his mind is full of an idea he pours it forth with soft voluble eloquence; he commands such abundance of words that he preserves with ease a uniform measure. Uniformity, indeed, is almost indispensable to such abundance: we read him with the feeling that in a 'tumbling metre ' his fluency would run away with him. Such impetuous affluent natures as his need to be held in with the bit and bridle of uniformity. A calm composed man like Wyatt, with a fine ear for varied melodies, may be trusted to elaborate tranquilly irregular and
subtle rhythms; to men like Surrey there is a danger in any medium between correctness' and Skeltonian license.” 1 Surrey was a much more lively and gay-hearted singer than Wyatt; we have in his works, instead of the dolorous strains of a lover, the cruelty of whose mistress has really sunk deep in his heart, rather the affected passion of a poet who makes it his business to write love-verses. One of Surrey's best titles to remembrance is his introduction of blank verse. In this metre he translated the second and fourth books of Vergil's “Æneid.” His blank verse is neither harmonious nor metrically correct; but the first user of an instrument cannot be expected to employ it with the same facility and precision as those who come after him.
We now come to the second of England's great poetsEdmund Spenser. A greater contrast to Chaucer it would be difficult to imagine. Spenser “dwelt in a world ideal;” the visionary sights and beings which fill the land of Faerie floated round him continually; his imagination rose above the rough practical world in which he lived to take refuge with the allegorical beings who occupied his thoughts. Chaucer, on the other hand, as we have seen, was very well satisfied with this world, enjoying heartily the frolics, the eccentricities, the virtues, nay even the vices of its inhabitants, ready always to laugh with those who laughed, and to weep with those who wept. There is, as will be admitted even by his warmest admirers, a want of human interest about Spenser's works; it is just their deep human interest which makes Chaucer's works so constantly attractive in spite of their antique dialect, and the fact that they refer to a condition of society which can now be conceived only by an effort of the imagination. Like Wyatt and Surrey, Spenser derived his chief impulse from Italy. He knew and admired Chaucer and the other old English poets, but his real masters were Ariosto and Tasso.
Spenser was born in London about 1552. He was distantly
1 Minto's English Poets, p. 163.
Spenser's “ Shepherd's Calendar."
connected with the noble family of the Spensers, a fact in which he took not a little pride, and which is referred to by Gibbon, when he says, “The nobility of the Spensers has been illustrated and enriched by the trophies of Marlborough; but I exhort them to consider the ‘Faery Queen'as the most precious jewel in their coronet.” Spenser was educated at Cambridge, where he graduated M.A. in 1576. After leaving the University he seems to have resided for some time as a tutor in Lancashire. On the advice of his college friend Gabriel Harvey, he returned to London in 1578, and was introduced by Harvey to Sir Philip Sidney and the Earl of Leicester, who took the poet under their patronage. Next year appeared Spenser's first publication, “The Shepherd's Calendar,” a collection of twelve pastorals, one for each month of the year. The work is not very easy to criticise. It indubitably proved that Spenser was the greatest English poet then living; but would his name now have been more familiar to readers in general than that of Wyatt or of Surrey if he had written nothing else? We are inclined to think not. There is a certain artificiality about all pastoral poetry which prevents it from ever being popular, except among cultured readers. “ The shepherds of Spenser's Calendar,'” says Campbell in his “Specimens of the British Poets,” a work containing much sound and excellent criticism, “are parsons in disguise, who converse about heathen divinities and points of Christian theology." The antique language of the pastorals, which was adopted by Spenser of set purpose, was condemned by his patron Sidney, and Ben Jonson went so far as to say that the author in affecting the ancients had written no language at all. The mysterious commentator on the "Shepherds' Calendar," who is generally believed to have been the poet himself, and who, at any rate, certainly was inspired by Spenser, thus refers to the antique phraseology. “And first," he says, “ of the words to speak, I grant they be something hard, and of most men unused, yet both English, and also used of most excellent authors and most famous poets. In whom whereas this our poet hath been much travelled and thoroughly read,