Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

had ever before been known. To the ladies, indeed, as is observed by Warton, Henry's politeness would have remained unimpeached had he not murdered his wives ! Many accomplished foreigners were also attracted to his court. The intercourse with France became frequent and close; and, low and gross as were his individual tastes, Henry possessed in abundance that valorous ostentation which determines not to be outshone in outward show, and had a noble ambition to match or outvie in splendour those sovereigns whom he could not equal in policy or in elegance. The frequency of great and stirring events in the sovereign's family must have kept imagination alive. No year passed without a royal progress, a marriage, the murder of one wife, and the coronation of another. Nor was his revengeful and brutal selfishness of that indolent and sordid kind which, if not quite so detestable in the individual, is even more corrupting and debasing in its influence. The frightful crimes and furious passions of Henry shocked and disgusted his courtiers. Many of them were high-minded men ; and if some were base, subservient villains, few were parasites. His brutality was unlike the easy careless profligacy of Charles II., which enervated and seduced those around him.

But other favourable circumstances were at work. The art of printing, now generally practised, and the revival of classical learning, began about this time to form the great states of Europe in many leading points into one grand commonwealth of let

ters.

The increase of wealth, and the diffusion of education among the inferior orders, the extension of commerce, and the growth of peaceful enterprise, were silently working out mighty effects. The intercourse of young Englishmen of the higher ranks with Italy, and their cultivation of Italian literature—which, under the fostering patronage of the family of Medici, had flourished, while that of France and England stood still, if it did not retrograde-were important circumstances ; and, lastly, came the Reformation to rouse the dormant energies of national genius, and to excite in the mass of the nation that intellectual struggle which produced effects as glorious in literature as in the civil and religious condition of the people.

Besides Surrey, whose fine natural genius, and “ noble, courtly, and lustrous English”—as it is styled by an ancient critic_did so much to widen the verge, and refine and harmonize the national poetry, England boasted at this time of several elegant versifiers, who, if they have left few poeti. cal trophies, assisted powerfully in giving scope and variety to the language, and in diffusing a taste for polite learning. Of these was Sir Thomas Wyatt, differing in the character of his genius, but not much inferior to his friend Surrey. Another of this early constellation was Lord Thomas Vaux, whose few remaining productions possess an energy of thought, and a high though severe tone of reflection, which more than atone for their sombrous character and occasional harshness

*

Harsh, 'tis true;
Picked from the thorns and briers of reproof,
But wholesome, well-digested.

To Lord Rochford, the unfortunate brother of Anne Boleyn, the universal favourite, and the grace and ornament of the court during his sister's shortlived elevation, some remaining verses are attribut. ed, which, with a high degree of elegance, possess a pathos more heart-reaching than the most pas. sionate strains of the gallant Surrey.

If poets are to be reckoned by the extent of their productions, Stephen Hawes, the valet of Henry VII., and John Skelton, the tutor of Henry VIII., must not be forgotten. The master was in this latter case in all respects worthy of the pupil. Skelton, though in the church, lived in a state of perpetual and envenomed hostility with his fellow-men. His rhymes are as coarse and rugged as his compositions were vulgar and scurrilous. A modern critic has said, “Oaths and nicknames are a species of rhetoric and poetry” which please the vulgar. If so, Skel. ton the laureate and royal tutor was in this style the most eminent poet and rhetorician England had yet seen. Rude satirists, and humorous exposers of follies and vices, had frequently arisen, but Skelton is the great prototype of those who carry personal scurrility and an ungenerous and vindictive hostility into their writings.

Personal hatred of Wolsey, not untinctured with envy of the domineering and haughty prelate, and with the la. tent rancour of the man's nature, came to be the go. verning passion of Skelton. His turbulence and scurrility, which kept him embroiled through life, drove him at last to claim the protection of the sanctuary of Westminster ; in which the first English libeller died in merited contempt and obscurity. It is not easy to find a tolerable specimen of Skelton, whose vein was wholly satiric. Ellis and Campbell have wholly neglected the royal tutor, “ Laureate Skelton;" and a very few lines may be enough of him. It is thus he celebrates Mistress Margery Wentworth :

With Margerain gentill,
The flower of goodly head,
Embroidered the mantyll
Is of your maidenhood.
Plainly I cannot gloze
Ye be as I divine,
The pretty primerose,
The goodly Columbyne.
With Margerain gentill, &c. &c.

With Earl Surrey the SPECIMENS of our LYRICAL, DESCRIPTIVE, and NARRATIVE Poets, may with propriety commence, and proceed thence in chronological order. From this date the continuous stream of English poetry flows down free and uninterrupted. It rose at once a lake-fed mighty river. Disdaining the augmentation of the scanty rills and tributary streams, which fell into its channels in its lengthened course, it burst away in impetuous grandeur. In following its track, we must soon indeed lose sight of the bold, broad, rushing wave which swept forward on its swell the bark of Shakspeare through all the quick-changing and luxuriant scenes of nature and enchantment and of those sylvan glades and magic islets, in which wander the bravest knights and fairest damsels of romance, where the Nymphs and Fauns, the “Hours and Elves,” held their revels; and among which floated over golden sands, wafted on by spicy gales, the “shallow ship" of Spenser. But much delight is still to be gained in following the downward course of this noble stream through many a lovely and unexplored region. Even when confined within circumscribed limits, the exquisite neatness, grace, and finish of its verdant embankments and archi. tectural decorations, yield a high and pure pleasure, till in its later course we hail it, as it again bursts forth, amidst scenes of mingled rich cultivation and wild luxuriance, with much of the majestic grandeur of its early upland flow.

« ForrigeFortsæt »