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two centuries have elapsed, during which the progress of literature and the improvement of our language have been constant and uninterrupted.
The literary splendour of this reign may be justly attributed to the effects of the Reformation. “ When the corruptions and impostures of popery “ were abolished,” says Mr Warton, “ the laity, “ who had now been taught to assert their natural “ privileges, became impatient of the old monopoly “ of knowledge, and demanded admittance to the “ usurpations of the clergy. The general curiosity “ for new discoveries, heightened either by just or “ imaginary ideas of the treasures contained in the « Greek and Roman writers, excited all persons
of “ leisure and fortune to study the classics. The “ pedantry of the present age was the politeness “ of the last.” Of this pedantry he adduces a curious instance in the occupations of Queen Elizabeth, whose marvellous progress in the Greek nouns is recorded with rapture by her preceptor Roger Ascham; and he might have found many similar examples in Anne Boleyn, and other distinguished characters. But these efforts of patience and industry in the great, were perhaps necessary to'encourage and preserve the general emulation of the learned. In a short time, all the treasures of Greek, Latin, and Italian literature were laid open
to the public, through the medium of translation. The former supplied our poetry with an inexhaustible fund of new and beautiful allusions : the latter afforded numberless stories taken from common life, in which variety of incident and ingenuity of contrivance were happily united. The genius which was destined to combine this mass of materials could not fail to be called forth by the patronage of the court, by the incentive of general applause, and by the hopes of raising the literary glory of our nation to a level with that which was the result of its political and military triumphs.
It must also be remembered, that the English language was, at this time, much more copious, and consequently better adapted to poetry, than at any prior or subsequent period. Our vocabulary was enriched, during the first half of the sixteenth century, by almost daily adoptions from the learned languages; and though they were often admitted without necessity, and only in consequence of a blind veneration for the dignity of polysyllables, they must have added something to the expression, as well as to the harmony and variety, of our language. These exotics, however, did not occasion the expulsion of the natives. Our vulgar tongue, having become the vehicle of religion, was regarded not only with national partiality,
but with pious reverence. Chaucer, who was supposed to have greatly assisted the doctrines of his contemporary, Wickliffe, by ridiculing the absurdities and exposing the impostures of the monks, was not only respected as the father of English poetry, but revered as a champion of reformation: and a familiar knowledge of his phraseology was considered, at least in the reign of Edward VI., as essential to the politeness of a courtier. “ I know “ them,” says Wilson in his “ Rhetorique,” “ that 6 think rhetorick to stand wholly upon dark words: “ and he that can catch an ink-horn term by the « tail, him they count to be a fine Englishman and
a good rhetorician.--He that cometh lately out “ of France will talk French-English, and never “ blush at the matter. Another chops in with Eng. “ lish Italianated. The fine courtier will talk no" thing but Chaucer.” This, by the way, may serve to explain the cause of Spenser's predilection for a phraseology which, though antiquated, was not either obsolete or unfashionable.
The whole world of words, therefore (to borrow an expression of one of our glossarists), was operi to Shakspeare and his contemporaries, and the mode of employing its treasures was left
much to their discretion. Criticism was in its infancy: this was the age of adventure and experiment,
undertaken for the instruction of posterity. Mr Warton thinks he sees in the writers of this reign “ a certain dignity of inattention to niceties,” anul to this he attributes the “flowing modulation which
now marked the measures of our poets :" but there seems to be neither dignity nor inattention in deviating from rules which had never been laid down; and the modulation which he ascribes to this cause is not less likely to have resulted from the musical studies which now formed a part of general education. The lyrical compositions of this time are so far from being usually marked with a faulty negligence, that excess of ornament, and laboured affectation, are their characteristic blemishes. Such as are free from conceit and antithesis are, in general, exquisitely polished, and may safely be compared with the most elegant and finished specimens of modern poetry,
“I find pode example so well maintaining this figure in
“ English metre, (of the Gorgeous) [Exargasia] as that “ ditty of her Majesty's own making, passing sweet and “ harmopical. And this was the action : our sovereign “ lady, perceiving how by the Scotish queen’s residence « within this realm, at so great liberty and ease as were
scarce worthy of so great and dangerous a prisoner, “ bred secret factions among her people, and made many “ of her nobility incline to favour her party :-to declare “ that she was nothing ignorant in those secret favours, « though she had long with great wisdom and patiencie “ dissembled it, writeth this ditty, most sweet and senten^ tious,” &c. Puttenham, “ Arte of English Poesie,”
The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy, And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten
For falsehood now doth flow, and subject faith
doth ebb; Which would not be if Reason ruld, or Wisdom
weav'd the web.