Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

the expression, the diction, the music, the structure of the verse-all we mean by style and art in execution--were as much the creation of our greatest poets, as were their fictions, thoughts, and images. The one was without prototype, the other without model. The rich, swelling, linked-sweetness of Spenser's stanza, and the majestic flow of Milton's blank verse, are the very echo of their thoughtsboth peculiar-both original. The thunders of the

one

Bellow through the vast and boundless deep ;

the romantic and varied music of the “ lovely lay” chanted by the other, with all its magic turns, and breaks, and languishing cadences, blends in one harmonie,” in which Birds, voices, instruments, winds, waters, all agree.

The music to which these great poets have chosen to set their thoughts and feelings, their magic numbers, and their “ winged words,” are as wonderful as their genius, and as true to it as the echo to the voice. While the language of the ordinary poets and rhymists of the most polished times does but coldly and tamely, though smoothly, repeat the inward sentiment, it is by their skill romantically echoed back and re-echoed, till the ear, trained to listen, drinks in a redoubled pleasure from the delicious ravishment of sounds which sink at once into the soul and the sense. Thus, the triumph of art in the first poets

if this be art—equals their powers of creative genius. They acknowledged no ordinary rule ;—they pleaded to no known tribunal of criticism ;-yesterday is the same with them as to-day ;-their thoughts were not fashioned like other men's—but they were such as did

Voluntary move harmonious numbers.

This was the secret of their Art of poetry :-unhappily it is incommunicable.

Though it is not wonderful that no great poet arose, it is surprising that the powerful impulse given by Chaucer, and the many favouring circumstances of the reign of Edward III., not merely failed in floating the national genius rapidly onward, but that through the whole of the fifteenth century it should apparently have made a dead pause. But it will be found, that the growth, diffusion, and refinement of national literature depend on causes very different from those which operate on great individual genius, and that the number of cultivated men possessed of a competent share of liberal knowledge and graceful talents for poetry, depends almost exclusively on the condition of the society in which they move. Now, the state of society in England in the fifteenth century was peculiarly unfavourable to the nurture and development of poetical genius. The wars of the houses of York and Lancaster involved the nation in continual distraction. The spirit of religious persecution, then first let loose, fastened on the noblest victims; and a vindictive crusade was preached against the free exercise of the human understand. ing. Wit and poetry, which in the former age had given deep offence to all orders of ecclesiastics, by the reckless levity and ridicule with which they exposed the rapacity and craft, the luxury and corruptions of churchmen, began to be dreaded as dan. gerous, as well as to be hated from being insulting ; and both were virtually “bound over to keep the peace" under penalties which, if they could not stop their occasional eccentric flights, effectually prevented their steady progress.

In the subsequent reigns many spirit-stirring scenes were witnessed by Englishmen at home and abroad, but no poet rose to record them; and the few worthless names which remain in poetical history at this time rather serve to cumber the memory than to add to the stores of knowledge or pleasure.

The settlement of the government by Henry VII. is the date in English history on which the philosopher, the legislator, and the poet fix, as the commencement of a better era ; but the dawn of poetry may be referred to the reign of his successor, Henry VIII. It would, however, be unpardonable to neglect our first female writer and poet, though we must return to the fifteenth century to do homage to this paragon.

The worthy lady, Dame Juliana Berners, prior. ess of Sopewell, is no bright instance of either the genius or delicacy of her sex in the fifteenth century. In the age of love and romance, of virelais, rondeaus, balades, and bargarets, when the Court OF LOVE and the FLORAL GAMES could scarcely have been forgotten, and love-stories were the only polite literature, the Prioress composed a treatise on hunting, hawking, and heraldry, in prose and verse. It was published in 1481 at the neighbouring monastery of St Albans, where the art of printing was now practised ; and again by Wynkyn de Worde in 1496. The gross and indelicate manners of the times can easily be guessed at from her Ladyship's pages ; for even in assuming to teach the mystery of “gentle wood-craft,” she could not so far have laid aside the decencies of her sex and profession, had there been any thing to wonder at in her broad speech and free allusions. Warton conjectures that these treatises are translations from the French or Latin, but brings nothing to support this supposition. The verses are as rugged as it is possible for rhymes to be; but. Elis has given the epilogue to the treatise, which is at once quaint and sagacious, and much smoother in language. It appears, indeed, to me to be of later date than the Dame Juliana's works ; but on the authority of Ellis a stanza is here subjoined :

TO HAVE A FAITHFUL PRIEND.
As I ride with gold so red,
And have to do with landes law,
Men for my money will make me speed,
And for my goods they will me knowe:
More and less to me will draw;
Both the better and the worse :
But in this matter I say in sawe
Ever gra-mercy mine own purse.

It befell me upon a time,
As it hath done by many a one mo,
My horse, my neat, my sheep, my swine,
And all my goods, were gone me fro:
I went to my friends and told them so;
And home again they bade me truss :
I said again, when I was wo,
Ever gra-mercy mine own purse.

The only valuable poetical relique which we possess between the death of Chaucer and the time of Surrey is the dramatic ballad of the Nut. BROWN MAID. Its date is the end of the fifteenth, or the beginning of the sixteenth century, its author is unknown. This lovely and unclaimed story possesses a refinement and tenderness of sentiment, and a simplicity and touching beauty of expression, which render cold and flat the courtly strains of even Surrey and Wyatt. The unhappy paraphrase of this ballad, attempted by Prior in his poem of Henry and Emma, is the best illustration that could be desired of the difference between the natural and the artificial in poetry. It is mortifying to find, that one who could in any degree feel the delicacy of this old ballad, durst profane its intrinsic beauty. All attempts to modernize the elder poets have ever failed more or less. Dryden has often smoothed the lines of Chaucer, while he lopped or distorted his ideas; but here the failure is complete, and the contrast between native genius and sensibility, and merely happy talents, aided by the nicest polish of art, is marked in a way that ought to be of useful example. Besides, by tricking out

« ForrigeFortsæt »