A History of English Literature
by Robert Huntington Fletcher
Preface | How to Study | Tabular View | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | Assignments
Chapter V. Period IV. The Sixteenth Century. The Renaissance And The Reign Of Elizabeth
PERIOD IV. THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY. THE RENAISSANCE AND THE REIGN OF ELIZABETH
The Renaissance | The Reformation | Sir Thomas More and His 'Utopia' | The English Bible and Books of Devotion | Wyatt and Surrey and the New Poetry | The Elizabethan Period | Prose Fiction | Edmund Spenser | Elizabethan Lyric Poetry | The Sonnets | John Donne and the Beginnings of Metaphysical Poetry |
The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are the period of the European Renaissance or New Birth, one of the three or four great transforming movements of European history. This impulse by which the medieval society of scholasticism, feudalism, and chivalry was to be made over into what we call the modern world came first from Italy. Italy, like the rest of the Roman Empire, had been overrun and conquered in the fifth century by the barbarian Teutonic tribes, but the devastation had been less complete there than in the more northern lands, and there, even more, perhaps, than in France, the bulk of the people remained Latin in blood and in character. Hence it resulted that though the Middle Ages were in Italy a period of terrible political anarchy, yet Italian culture recovered far more rapidly than that of the northern nations, whom the Italians continued down to the modern period to regard contemptuously as still mere barbarians. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, further, the Italians had become intellectually one of the keenest races whom the world has ever known, though in morals they were sinking to almost incredible corruption. Already in fourteenth century Italy, therefore, the movement for a much fuller and freer intellectual life had begun, and we have seen that by Petrarch and Boccaccio something of this spirit was transmitted to Chaucer. In England Chaucer was followed by the medievalizing fifteenth century, but in Italy there was no such interruption.
The Renaissance movement first received definite direction from the rediscovery and study of Greek literature, which clearly revealed the unbounded possibilities of life to men who had been groping dissatisfied within the now narrow limits of medieval thought. Before Chaucer was dead the study of Greek, almost forgotten in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, had been renewed in Italy, and it received a still further impulse when at the taking of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 Greek scholars and manuscripts were scattered to the West. It is hard for us to-day to realize the meaning for the men of the fifteenth century of this revived knowledge of the life and thought of the Greek race. The medieval Church, at first merely from the brutal necessities of a period of anarchy, had for the most part frowned on the joy and beauty of life, permitting pleasure, indeed, to the laity, but as a thing half dangerous, and declaring that there was perfect safety only within the walls of the nominally ascetic Church itself. The intellectual life, also, nearly restricted to priests and monks, had been formalized and conventionalized, until in spite of the keenness of its methods and the brilliancy of many of its scholars, it had become largely barren and unprofitable. The whole sphere of knowledge had been subjected to the mere authority of the Bible and of a few great minds of the past, such as Aristotle. All questions were argued and decided on the basis of their assertions, which had often become wholly inadequate and were often warped into grotesquely impossible interpretations and applications. Scientific investigation was almost entirely stifled, and progress was impossible. The whole field of religion and knowledge had become largely stagnant under an arbitrary despotism.
To the minds which were being paralyzed under this system, Greek literature brought the inspiration for which they longed. For it was the literature of a great and brilliant people who, far from attempting to make a divorce within man's nature, had aimed to 'see life steadily and see it whole,' who, giving free play to all their powers, had found in pleasure and beauty some of the most essential constructive forces, and had embodied beauty in works of literature and art where the significance of the whole spiritual life was more splendidly suggested than in the achievements of any, or almost any, other period. The enthusiasm, therefore, with which the Italians turned to the study of Greek literature and Greek life was boundless, and it constantly found fresh nourishment. Every year restored from forgotten recesses of libraries or from the ruins of Roman villas another Greek author or volume or work of art, and those which had never been lost were reinterpreted with much deeper insight. Aristotle was again vitalized, and Plato's noble idealistic philosophy was once more appreciatively studied and understood. In the light of this new revelation Latin literature, also, which had never ceased to be almost superstitiously studied, took on a far greater human significance. Vergil and Cicero were regarded no longer as mysterious prophets from a dimly imagined past, but as real men of flesh and blood, speaking out of experiences remote in time from the present but no less humanly real. The word 'human,' indeed, became the chosen motto of the Renaissance scholars; 'humanists' was the title which they applied to themselves as to men for whom 'nothing human was without appeal.' New creative enthusiasm, also, and magnificent actual new creation, followed the discovery of the old treasures, creation in literature and all the arts; culminating particularly in the early sixteenth century in the greatest group of painters whom any country has ever seen, Lionardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. In Italy, to be sure, the light of the Renaissance had its palpable shadow; in breaking away from the medieval bondage into the unhesitating enjoyment of all pleasure, the humanists too often overleaped all restraints and plunged into wild excess, often into mere sensuality. Hence the Italian Renaissance is commonly called Pagan, and hence when young English nobles began to travel to Italy to drink at the fountain head of the new inspiration moralists at home protested with much reason against the ideas and habits which many of them brought back with their new clothes and flaunted as evidences of intellectual emancipation. History, however, shows no great progressive movement unaccompanied by exaggerations and extravagances.
The Renaissance, penetrating northward, past first from Italy to France, but as early as the middle of the fifteenth century English students were frequenting the Italian universities. Soon the study of Greek was introduced into England, also, first at Oxford; and it was cultivated with such good results that when, early in the sixteenth century, the great Dutch student and reformer, Erasmus, unable through poverty to reach Italy, came to Oxford instead, he found there a group of accomplished scholars and gentlemen whose instruction and hospitable companionship aroused his unbounded delight. One member of this group was the fine-spirited John Colet, later Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, who was to bring new life into the secondary education of English boys by the establishment of St. Paul's Grammar School, based on the principle of kindness in place of the merciless severity of the traditional English system.
Great as was the stimulus of literary culture, it was only one of several influences that made up the Renaissance. While Greek was speaking so powerfully to the cultivated class, other forces were contributing to revolutionize life as a whole and all men's outlook upon it. The invention of printing, multiplying books in unlimited quantities where before there had been only a few manuscripts laboriously copied page by page, absolutely transformed all the processes of knowledge and almost of thought. Not much later began the vast expansion of the physical world through geographical exploration. Toward the end of the fifteenth century the Portuguese sailor, Vasco da Gama, finishing the work of Diaz, discovered the sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope. A few years earlier Columbus had revealed the New World and virtually proved that the earth is round, a proof scientifically completed a generation after him when Magellan's ship actually circled the globe. Following close after Columbus, the Cabots, Italian-born, but naturalized Englishmen, discovered North America, and for a hundred years the rival ships of Spain, England, and Portugal filled the waters of the new West and the new East. In America handfuls of Spanish adventurers conquered great empires and despatched home annual treasure fleets of gold and silver, which the audacious English sea-captains, half explorers and half pirates, soon learned to intercept and plunder. The marvels which were constantly being revealed as actual facts seemed no less wonderful than the extravagances of medieval romance; and it was scarcely more than a matter of course that men should search in the new strange lands for the fountain of perpetual youth and the philosopher's stone. The supernatural beings and events of Spenser's 'Faerie Queene' could scarcely seem incredible to an age where incredulity was almost unknown because it was impossible to set a bound how far any one might reasonably believe. But the horizon of man's expanded knowledge was not to be limited even to his own earth. About the year 1540, the Polish Copernicus opened a still grander realm of speculation (not to be adequately possessed for several centuries) by the announcement that our world is not the center of the universe, but merely one of the satellites of its far-superior sun.
The whole of England was profoundly stirred by the Renaissance to a new and most energetic life, but not least was this true of the Court, where for a time literature was very largely to center. Since the old nobility had mostly perished in the wars, both Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor line, and his son, Henry VIII, adopted the policy of replacing it with able and wealthy men of the middle class, who would be strongly devoted to themselves. The court therefore became a brilliant and crowded circle of unscrupulous but unusually adroit statesmen, and a center of lavish entertainments and display. Under this new aristocracy the rigidity of the feudal system was relaxed, and life became somewhat easier for all the dependent classes. Modern comforts, too, were largely introduced, and with them the Italian arts; Tudor architecture, in particular, exhibited the originality and splendor of an energetic and self-confident age. Further, both Henries, though perhaps as essentially selfish and tyrannical as almost any of their predecessors, were politic and far-sighted, and they took a genuine pride in the prosperity of their kingdom. They encouraged trade; and in the peace which was their best gift the well-being of the nation as a whole increased by leaps and bounds.
Lastly, the literature of the sixteenth century and later was profoundly influenced by that religious result of the Renaissance which we know as the Reformation. While in Italy the new impulses were chiefly turned into secular and often corrupt channels, in the Teutonic lands they deeply stirred the Teutonic conscience. In 1517 Martin Luther, protesting against the unprincipled and flippant practices that were disgracing religion, began the breach between Catholicism, with its insistence on the supremacy of the Church, and Protestantism, asserting the independence of the individual judgment. In England Luther's action revived the spirit of Lollardism, which had nearly been crushed out, and in spite of a minority devoted to the older system, the nation as a whole began to move rapidly toward change. Advocates of radical revolution thrust themselves forward in large numbers, while cultured and thoughtful men, including the Oxford group, indulged the too ideal hope of a gradual and peaceful reform.
The actual course of the religious movement was determined largely by the personal and political projects of Henry VIII. Conservative at the outset, Henry even attacked Luther in a pamphlet, which won from the Pope for himself and his successors the title 'Defender of the Faith.' But when the Pope finally refused Henry's demand for the divorce from Katharine of Spain, which would make possible a marriage with Anne Boleyn, Henry angrily threw off the papal authority and declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus establishing the separate English (Anglican, Episcopal) church. In the brief reign of Henry's son, Edward VI, the separation was made more decisive; under Edward's sister, Mary, Catholicism was restored; but the last of Henry's children, Elizabeth, coming to the throne in 1558, gave the final victory to the English communion. Under all these sovereigns (to complete our summary of the movement) the more radical Protestants, Puritans as they came to be called, were active in agitation, undeterred by frequent cruel persecution and largely influenced by the corresponding sects in Germany and by the Presbyterianism established by Calvin in Geneva and later by John Knox in Scotland. Elizabeth's skilful management long kept the majority of the Puritans within the English Church, where they formed an important element, working for simpler practices and introducing them in congregations which they controlled. But toward the end of the century and of Elizabeth's reign, feeling grew tenser, and groups of the Puritans, sometimes under persecution, definitely separated themselves from the State Church and established various sectarian bodies. Shortly after 1600, in particular, the Independents, or Congregationalists, founded in Holland the church which was soon to colonize New England. At home, under James I, the breach widened, until the nation was divided into two hostile camps, with results most radically decisive for literature. But for the present we must return to the early part of the sixteenth century.
SIR THOMAS MORE AND HIS 'UTOPIA.'
Out of the confused and bitter strife of churches and parties, while the outcome was still uncertain, issued a great mass of controversial writing which does not belong to literature. A few works, however, more or less directly connected with the religious agitation, cannot be passed by.
One of the most attractive and finest spirits of the reign of Henry VIII was Sir Thomas More. A member of the Oxford group in its second generation, a close friend of Erasmus, his house a center of humanism, he became even more conspicuous in public life. A highly successful lawyer, he was rapidly advanced by Henry VIII in court and in national affairs, until on the fall of Cardinal Wolsey in 1529 he was appointed, much against his will, to the highest office open to a subject, that of Lord Chancellor (head of the judicial system). A devoted Catholic, he took a part which must have been revolting to himself in the torturing and burning of Protestants; but his absolute loyalty to conscience showed itself to better purpose when in the almost inevitable reverse of fortune he chose harsh imprisonment and death rather than to take the formal oath of allegiance to the king in opposition to the Pope. His quiet jests on the scaffold suggest the never-failing sense of humor which was one sign of the completeness and perfect poise of his character; while the hair-shirt which he wore throughout his life and the severe penances to which he subjected himself reveal strikingly how the expression of the deepest convictions of the best natures may be determined by inherited and outworn modes of thought.
More's most important work was his 'Utopia,' published in 1516. The name, which is Greek, means No-Place, and the book is one of the most famous of that series of attempts to outline an imaginary ideal condition of society which begins with Plato's 'Republic' and has continued to our own time.
'Utopia,' broadly considered, deals primarily with the question which is common to most of these books and in which both ancient Greece and Europe of the Renaissance took a special interest, namely the question of the relation of the State and the individual. It consists of two parts. In the first there is a vivid picture of the terrible evils which England was suffering through war, lawlessness, the wholesale and foolish application of the death penalty, the misery of the peasants, the absorption of the land by the rich, and the other distressing corruptions in Church and State. In the second part, in contrast to all this, a certain imaginary Raphael Hythlodaye describes the customs of Utopia, a remote island in the New World, to which chance has carried him. To some of the ideals thus set forth More can scarcely have expected the world ever to attain; and some of them will hardly appeal to the majority of readers of any period; but in the main he lays down an admirable program for human progress, no small part of which has been actually realized in the four centuries which have since elapsed.
The controlling purpose in the life of the Utopians is to secure both the welfare of the State and the full development of the individual under the ascendancy of his higher faculties. The State is democratic, socialistic, and communistic, and the will of the individual is subordinated to the advantage of all, but the real interests of each and all are recognized as identical. Every one is obliged to work, but not to overwork; six hours a day make the allotted period; and the rest of the time is free, but with plentiful provision of lectures and other aids for the education of mind and spirit. All the citizens are taught the fundamental art, that of agriculture, and in addition each has a particular trade or profession of his own. There is no surfeit, excess, or ostentation. Clothing is made for durability, and every one's garments are precisely like those of every one else, except that there is a difference between those of men and women and those of married and unmarried persons. The sick are carefully tended, but the victims of hopeless or painful disease are mercifully put to death if they so desire. Crime is naturally at a minimum, but those who persist in it are made slaves (not executed, for why should the State be deprived of their services?). Detesting war, the Utopians make a practice of hiring certain barbarians who, conveniently, are their neighbors, to do whatever fighting is necessary for their defense, and they win if possible, not by the revolting slaughter of pitched battles, but by the assassination of their enemies' generals. In especial, there is complete religious toleration, except for atheism, and except for those who urge their opinions with offensive violence. 'Utopia' was written and published in Latin; among the multitude of translations into many languages the earliest in English, in which it is often reprinted, is that of Ralph Robinson, made in 1551.
THE ENGLISH BIBLE AND BOOKS OF DEVOTION.
To this century of religious change belongs the greater part of the literary history of the English Bible and of the ritual books of the English Church. Since the suppression of the Wiclifite movement the circulation of the Bible in English had been forbidden, but growing Protestantism insistently revived the demand for it. The attitude of Henry VIII and his ministers was inconsistent and uncertain, reflecting their own changing points of view. In 1526 William Tyndale, a zealous Protestant controversialist then in exile in Germany, published an excellent English translation of the New Testament. Based on the proper authority, the Greek original, though with influence from Wiclif and from the Latin and German (Luther's) version, this has been directly or indirectly the starting-point for all subsequent English translations except those of the Catholics.
Ten years later Tyndale suffered martyrdom, but in 1535 Miles Coverdale, later bishop of Exeter, issued in Germany a translation of the whole Bible in a more gracious style than Tyndale's, and to this the king and the established clergy were now ready to give license and favor. Still two years later appeared a version compounded of those of Tyndale and Coverdale and called, from the fictitious name of its editor, the 'Matthew' Bible. In 1539, under the direction of Archbishop Cranmer, Coverdale issued a revised edition, officially authorized for use in churches; its version of the Psalms still stands as the Psalter of the English Church. In 1560 English Puritan refugees at Geneva put forth the 'Geneva Bible,' especially accurate as a translation, which long continued the accepted version for private use among all parties and for all purposes among the Puritans, in both Old and New England. Eight years later, under Archbishop Parker, there was issued in large volume form and for use in churches the 'Bishops' Bible,' so named because the majority of its thirteen editors were bishops. This completes the list of important translations down to those of 1611 and 1881, of which we shall speak in the proper place. The Book of Common Prayer, now used in the English Church coordinately with Bible and Psalter, took shape out of previous primers of private devotion, litanies, and hymns, mainly as the work of Archbishop Cranmer during the reign of Edward VI.
Of the influence of these translations of the Bible on English literature it is impossible to speak too strongly. They rendered the whole nation familiar for centuries with one of the grandest and most varied of all collections of books, which was adopted with ardent patriotic enthusiasm as one of the chief national possessions, and which has served as an unfailing storehouse of poetic and dramatic allusions for all later writers. Modern English literature as a whole is permeated and enriched to an incalculable degree with the substance and spirit of the English Bible.
WYATT AND SURREY AND THE NEW POETRY.
In the literature of fine art also the new beginning was made during the reign of Henry VIII. This was through the introduction by Sir Thomas Wyatt of the Italian fashion of lyric poetry. Wyatt, a man of gentle birth, entered Cambridge at the age of twelve and received his degree of M. A. seven years later. His mature life was that of a courtier to whom the king's favor brought high appointments, with such vicissitudes of fortune, including occasional imprisonments, as formed at that time a common part of the courtier's lot. Wyatt, however, was not a merely worldly person, but a Protestant seemingly of high and somewhat severe moral character. He died in 1542 at the age of thirty-nine of a fever caught as he was hastening, at the king's command, to meet and welcome the Spanish ambassador.
On one of his missions to the Continent, Wyatt, like Chaucer, had visited Italy. Impressed with the beauty of Italian verse and the contrasting rudeness of that of contemporary England, he determined to remodel the latter in the style of the former. Here a brief historical retrospect is necessary. The Italian poetry of the sixteenth century had itself been originally an imitation, namely of the poetry of Provence in Southern France. There, in the twelfth century, under a delightful climate and in a region of enchanting beauty, had arisen a luxurious civilization whose poets, the troubadours, many of them men of noble birth, had carried to the furthest extreme the woman-worship of medieval chivalry and had enshrined it in lyric poetry of superb and varied sweetness and beauty. In this highly conventionalized poetry the lover is forever sighing for his lady, a correspondingly obdurate being whose favor is to be won only by years of the most unqualified and unreasoning devotion. From Provence, Italy had taken up the style, and among the other forms for its expression, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, had devised the poem of a single fourteen-line stanza which we call the sonnet. The whole movement had found its great master in Petrarch, who, in hundreds of poems, mostly sonnets, of perfect beauty, had sung the praises and cruelty of his nearly imaginary Laura.
It was this highly artificial but very beautiful poetic fashion which Wyatt deliberately set about to introduce into England. The nature and success of his innovation can be summarized in a few definite statements.
- Imitating Petrarch, Wyatt nearly limits himself as regards substance to the treatment of the artificial love-theme, lamenting the unkindness of ladies who very probably never existed and whose favor in any case he probably regarded very lightly; yet even so, he often strikes a manly English note of independence, declaring that if the lady continues obstinate he will not die for her love.
- Historically much the most important feature of Wyatt's experiment was the introduction of the sonnet, a very substantial service indeed; for not only did this form, like the love-theme, become by far the most popular one among English lyric poets of the next two generations, setting a fashion which was carried to an astonishing excess; but it is the only artificial form of foreign origin which has ever been really adopted and naturalized in English, and it still remains the best instrument for the terse expression of a single poetic thought. Wyatt, it should be observed, generally departs from the Petrarchan rime-scheme, on the whole unfortunately, by substituting a third quatrain for the first four lines of the sestet. That is, while Petrarch's rime-arrangement is either a b b a a b b a c d c d c d or a b b a a b b a c d e c d e Wyatt's is usually a b b a a b b a c d d c e e.
- In his attempted reformation of English metrical irregularity Wyatt, in his sonnets, shows only the uncertain hand of a beginner. He generally secures an equal number of syllables in each line, but he often merely counts them off on his fingers, wrenching the accents all awry, and often violently forcing the rimes as well. In his songs, however, which are much more numerous than the sonnets, he attains delightful fluency and melody. His 'My Lute, Awake,' and 'Forget Not Yet' are still counted among the notable English lyrics.
- A particular and characteristic part of the conventional Italian lyric apparatus which Wyatt transplanted was the 'conceit.' A conceit may be defined as an exaggerated figure of speech or play on words in which intellectual cleverness figures at least as largely as real emotion and which is often dragged out to extremely complicated lengths of literal application. An example is Wyatt's declaration (after Petrarch) that his love, living in his heart, advances to his face and there encamps, displaying his banner (which merely means that the lover blushes with his emotion). In introducing the conceit Wyatt fathered the most conspicuous of the superficial general features which were to dominate English poetry for a century to come.
- Still another, minor, innovation of Wyatt was the introduction into English verse of the Horatian 'satire' (moral poem, reflecting on current follies) in the form of three metrical letters to friends. In these the meter is the terza rima of Dante.
Wyatt's work was continued by his poetical disciple and successor, Henry Howard, who, as son of the Duke of Norfolk, held the courtesy title of Earl of Surrey. A brilliant though wilful representative of Tudor chivalry, and distinguished in war, Surrey seems to have occupied at Court almost the same commanding position as Sir Philip Sidney in the following generation. His career was cut short in tragically ironical fashion at the age of thirty by the plots of his enemies and the dying bloodthirstiness of King Henry, which together led to his execution on a trumped-up charge of treason. It was only one of countless brutal court crimes, but it seems the more hateful because if the king had died a single day earlier Surrey could have been saved.
Surrey's services to poetry were two:
- He improved on the versification of Wyatt's sonnets, securing fluency and smoothness.
- In a translation of two books of Vergil's 'Aneid' he introduced, from the Italian, pentameter blank verse, which was destined thenceforth to be the meter of English poetic drama and of much of the greatest English non-dramatic poetry. Further, though his poems are less numerous than those of Wyatt, his range of subjects is somewhat broader, including some appreciative treatment of external Nature. He seems, however, somewhat less sincere than his teacher. In his sonnets he abandoned the form followed by Wyatt and adopted (still from the Italian) the one which was subsequently used by Shakespeare, consisting of three independent quatrains followed, as with Wyatt, by a couplet which sums up the thought with epigrammatic force, thus: a b a b c d c d e f e f g g.
Wyatt and Surrey set a fashion at Court; for some years it seems to have been an almost necessary accomplishment for every young noble to turn off love poems after Italian and French models; for France too had now taken up the fashion. These poems were generally and naturally regarded as the property of the Court and of the gentry, and circulated at first only in manuscript among the author's friends; but the general public became curious about them, and in 1557 one of the publishers of the day, Richard Tottel, securing a number of those of Wyatt, Surrey, and a few other noble or gentle authors, published them in a little volume, which is known as
'Tottel's Miscellany.' Coming as it does in the year before the accession of Queen Elizabeth, at the end of the comparatively barren reigns of Edward and Mary, this book is taken by common consent as marking the beginning of the literature of the Elizabethan period. It was the premature predecessor, also, of a number of such anthologies which were published during the latter half of Elizabeth's reign.
THE ELIZABETHAN PERIOD.
The earlier half of Elizabeth's reign, also, though not lacking in literary effort, produced no work of permanent importance. After the religious convulsions of half a century time was required for the development of the internal quiet and confidence from which a great literature could spring. At length, however, the hour grew ripe and there came the greatest outburst of creative energy in the whole history of English literature. Under Elizabeth's wise guidance the prosperity and enthusiasm of the nation had risen to the highest pitch, and London in particular was overflowing with vigorous life. A special stimulus of the most intense kind came from the struggle with Spain. After a generation of half-piratical depredations by the English seadogs against the Spanish treasure fleets and the Spanish settlements in America, King Philip, exasperated beyond all patience and urged on by a bigot's zeal for the Catholic Church, began deliberately to prepare the Great Armada, which was to crush at one blow the insolence, the independence, and the religion of England. There followed several long years of breathless suspense; then in 1588 the Armada sailed and was utterly overwhelmed in one of the most complete disasters of the world's history. Thereupon the released energy of England broke out exultantly into still more impetuous achievement in almost every line of activity. The great literary period is taken by common consent to begin with the publication of Spenser's 'Shepherd's Calendar' in 1579, and to end in some sense at the death of Elizabeth in 1603, though in the drama, at least, it really continues many years longer.
Several general characteristics of Elizabethan literature and writers should be indicated at the outset.
- The period has the great variety of almost unlimited creative force; it includes works of many kinds in both verse and prose, and ranges in spirit from the loftiest Platonic idealism or the most delightful romance to the level of very repulsive realism.
- It was mainly dominated, however, by the spirit of romance.
- It was full also of the spirit of dramatic action, as befitted an age whose restless enterprise was eagerly extending itself to every quarter of the globe.
- In style it often exhibits romantic luxuriance, which sometimes takes the form of elaborate affectations of which the favorite 'conceit' is only the most apparent.
- It was in part a period of experimentation, when the proper material and limits of literary forms were being determined, oftentimes by means of false starts and grandiose failures. In particular, many efforts were made to give prolonged poetical treatment to many subjects essentially prosaic, for example to systems of theological or scientific thought, or to the geography of all England.
- It continued to be largely influenced by the literature of Italy, and to a less degree by those of France and Spain.
- The literary spirit was all-pervasive, and the authors were men (not yet women) of almost every class, from distinguished courtiers, like Ralegh and Sidney, to the company of hack writers, who starved in garrets and hung about the outskirts of the bustling taverns.
The period saw the beginning, among other things, of English prose fiction of something like the later modern type. First appeared a series of collections of short tales chiefly translated from Italian authors, to which tales the Italian name 'novella' (novel) was applied. Most of the separate tales are crude or amateurish and have only historical interest, though as a class they furnished the plots for many Elizabethan dramas, including several of Shakespeare's. The most important collection was Painter's 'Palace of Pleasure,' in 1566. The earliest original, or partly original, English prose fictions to appear were handbooks of morals and manners in story form, and here the beginning was made by John Lyly, who is also of some importance in the history of the Elizabethan drama. In 1578 Lyly, at the age of twenty-five, came from Oxford to London, full of the enthusiasm of Renaissance learning, and evidently determined to fix himself as a new and dazzling star in the literary sky. In this ambition he achieved a remarkable and immediate success, by the publication of a little book entitled 'Euphues and His Anatomie of Wit.' 'Euphues' means 'the well-bred man,' and though there is a slight action, the work is mainly a series of moralizing disquisitions (mostly rearranged from Sir Thomas North's translation of 'The Dial of Princes' of the Spaniard Guevara) on love, religion, and conduct. Most influential, however, for the time-being, was Lyly's style, which is the most conspicuous English example of the later Renaissance craze, then rampant throughout Western Europe, for refining and beautifying the art of prose expression in a mincingly affected fashion. Witty, clever, and sparkling at all costs, Lyly takes especial pains to balance his sentences and clauses antithetically, phrase against phrase and often word against word, sometimes emphasizing the balance also by an exaggerated use of alliteration and assonance. A representative sentence is this: 'Although there be none so ignorant that doth not know, neither any so impudent that will not confesse, friendship to be the jewell of humaine joye; yet whosoever shall see this amitie grounded upon a little affection, will soone conjecture that it shall be dissolved upon a light occasion.' Others of Lyly's affectations are rhetorical questions, hosts of allusions to classical history, and literature, and an unfailing succession of similes from all the recondite knowledge that he can command, especially from the fantastic collection of fables which, coming down through the Middle Ages from the Roman writer Pliny, went at that time by the name of natural history and which we have already encountered in the medieval Bestiaries. Preposterous by any reasonable standard, Lyly's style, 'Euphuism,' precisely hit the Court taste of his age and became for a decade its most approved conversational dialect.
In literature the imitations of 'Euphues' which flourished for a while gave way to a series of romances inaugurated by the 'Arcadia' of Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney's brilliant position for a few years as the noblest representative of chivalrous ideals in the intriguing Court of Elizabeth is a matter of common fame, as is his death in 1586 at the age of thirty-two during the siege of Zutphen in Holland. He wrote 'Arcadia' for the amusement of his sister, the Countess of Pembroke, during a period of enforced retirement beginning in 1580, but the book was not published until ten years later. It is a pastoral romance, in the general style of Italian and Spanish romances of the earlier part of the century. The pastoral is the most artificial literary form in modern fiction. It may be said to have begun in the third century B. C. with the perfectly sincere poems of the Greek Theocritus, who gives genuine expression to the life of actual Sicilian shepherds. But with successive Latin, Medieval, and Renaissance writers in verse and prose the country characters and setting had become mere disguises, sometimes allegorical, for the expression of the very far from simple sentiments of the upper classes, and sometimes for their partly genuine longing, the outgrowth of sophisticated weariness and ennui, for rural naturalness. Sidney's very complicated tale of adventures in love and war, much longer than any of its successors, is by no means free from artificiality, but it finely mirrors his own knightly spirit and remains a permanent English classic. Among his followers were some of the better hack-writers of the time, who were also among the minor dramatists and poets, especially Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge. Lodge's 'Rosalynde,' also much influenced by Lyly, is in itself a pretty story and is noteworthy as the original of Shakespeare's 'As You Like It.'
Lastly, in the concluding decade of the sixteenth century, came a series of realistic stories depicting chiefly, in more or less farcical spirit, the life of the poorer classes. They belonged mostly to that class of realistic fiction which is called picaresque, from the Spanish word 'picaro,' a rogue, because it began in Spain with the 'Lazarillo de Tormes' of Diego de Mendoza, in 1553, and because its heroes are knavish serving-boys or similar characters whose unprincipled tricks and exploits formed the substance of the stories. In Elizabethan England it produced nothing of individual note.
EDMUND SPENSER, 1552-1599.
The first really commanding figure in the Elizabethan period, and one of the chief of all English poets, is Edmund Spenser. [Footnote: His name should never be spelled with a c. ] Born in London in 1552, the son of a clothmaker, Spenser past from the newly established Merchant Taylors' school to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, as a sizar, or poor student, and during the customary seven years of residence took the degrees of B. A. and, in 1576, of M. A. At Cambridge he assimilated two of the controlling forces of his life, the moderate Puritanism of his college and Platonic idealism. Next, after a year or two with his kinspeople in Lancashire, in the North of England, he came to London, hoping through literature to win high political place, and attached himself to the household of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth's worthless favorite. Together with Sidney, who was Leicester's nephew, he was for a while a member of a little group of students who called themselves 'The Areopagus' and who, like occasional other experimenters of the later Renaissance period, attempted to make over English versification by substituting for rime and accentual meter the Greek and Latin system based on exact quantity of syllables. Spenser, however, soon outgrew this folly and in 1579 published the collection of poems which, as we have already said, is commonly taken as marking the beginning of the great Elizabethan literary period, namely 'The Shepherd's Calendar.' This is a series of pastoral pieces (eclogues, Spenser calls them, by the classical name) twelve in number, artificially assigned one to each month in the year. The subjects are various--the conventionalized love of the poet for a certain Rosalind; current religious controversies in allegory; moral questions; the state of poetry in England; and the praises of Queen Elizabeth, whose almost incredible vanity exacted the most fulsome flattery from every writer who hoped to win a name at her court. The significance of 'The Shepherd's Calendar' lies partly in its genuine feeling for external Nature, which contrasts strongly with the hollow conventional phrases of the poetry of the previous decade, and especially in the vigor, the originality, and, in some of the eclogues, the beauty, of the language and of the varied verse. It was at once evident that here a real poet had appeared. An interesting innovation, diversely judged at the time and since, was Spenser's deliberate employment of rustic and archaic words, especially of the Northern dialect, which he introduced partly because of their appropriateness to the imaginary characters, partly for the sake of freshness of expression. They, like other features of the work, point forward to 'The Faerie Queene.'
In the uncertainties of court intrigue literary success did not gain for Spenser the political rewards which he was seeking, and he was obliged to content himself, the next year, with an appointment, which he viewed as substantially a sentence of exile, as secretary to Lord Grey, the governor of Ireland. In Ireland, therefore, the remaining twenty years of Spenser's short life were for the most part spent, amid distressing scenes of English oppression and chronic insurrection among the native Irish. After various activities during several years Spenser secured a permanent home in Kilcolman, a fortified tower and estate in the southern part of the island, where the romantic scenery furnished fit environment for a poet's imagination. And Spenser, able all his life to take refuge in his art from the crass realities of life, now produced many poems, some of them short, but among the others the immortal 'Faerie Queene.' The first three books of this, his crowning achievement, Spenser, under enthusiastic encouragement from Ralegh, brought to London and published in 1590. The dedication is to Queen Elizabeth, to whom, indeed, as its heroine, the poem pays perhaps the most splendid compliment ever offered to any human being in verse. She responded with an uncertain pension of L50 (equivalent to perhaps $1500 at the present time), but not with the gift of political preferment which was still Spenser's hope; and in some bitterness of spirit he retired to Ireland, where in satirical poems he proceeded to attack the vanity of the world and the fickleness of men. His courtship and, in 1594, his marriage produced his sonnet sequence, called 'Amoretti' (Italian for 'Love-poems'), and his 'Epithalamium,' the most magnificent of marriage hymns in English and probably in world-literature; though his 'Prothalamium,' in honor of the marriage of two noble sisters, is a near rival to it.
Spenser, a zealous Protestant as well as a fine-spirited idealist, was in entire sympathy with Lord Grey's policy of stern repression of the Catholic Irish, to whom, therefore, he must have appeared merely as one of the hated crew of their pitiless tyrants. In 1598 he was appointed sheriff of the county of Cork; but a rebellion which broke out proved too strong for him, and he and his family barely escaped from the sack and destruction of his tower. He was sent with despatches to the English Court and died in London in January, 1599, no doubt in part as a result of the hardships that he had suffered. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Spenser's 'Faerie Queene' is not only one of the longest but one of the greatest of English poems; it is also very characteristically Elizabethan. To deal with so delicate a thing by the method of mechanical analysis seems scarcely less than profanation, but accurate criticism can proceed in no other way.
1. Sources and Plan. Few poems more clearly illustrate the variety of influences from which most great literary works result. In many respects the most direct source was the body of Italian romances of chivalry, especially the 'Orlando Furioso' of Ariosto, which was written in the early part of the sixteenth century. These romances, in turn, combine the personages of the medieval French epics of Charlemagne with something of the spirit of Arthurian romance and with a Renaissance atmosphere of magic and of rich fantastic beauty. Spenser borrows and absorbs all these things and moreover he imitates Ariosto closely, often merely translating whole passages from his work. But this use of the Italian romances, further, carries with it a large employment of characters, incidents, and imagery from classical mythology and literature, among other things the elaborated similes of the classical epics. Spenser himself is directly influenced, also, by the medieval romances. Most important of all, all these elements are shaped to the purpose of the poem by Spenser's high moral aim, which in turn springs largely from his Platonic idealism.
What the plan of the poem is Spenser explains in a prefatory letter to Sir Walter Ralegh. The whole is a vast epic allegory, aiming, in the first place, to portray the virtues which make up the character of a perfect knight; an ideal embodiment, seen through Renaissance conceptions, of the best in the chivalrous system which in Spenser's time had passed away, but to which some choice spirits still looked back with regretful admiration. As Spenser intended, twelve moral virtues of the individual character, such as Holiness and Temperance, were to be presented, each personified in the hero of one of twelve Books; and the crowning virtue, which Spenser, in Renaissance terms, called Magnificence, and which may be interpreted as Magnanimity, was to figure as Prince (King) Arthur, nominally the central hero of the whole poem, appearing and disappearing at frequent intervals. Spenser states in his prefatory letter that if he shall carry this first projected labor to a successful end he may continue it in still twelve other Books, similarly allegorizing twelve political virtues. The allegorical form, we should hardly need to be reminded, is another heritage from medieval literature, but the effort to shape a perfect character, completely equipped to serve the State, was characteristically of the Platonizing Renaissance. That the reader may never be in danger of forgetting his moral aim, Spenser fills the poem with moral observations, frequently setting them as guides at the beginning of the cantos.
2. The Allegory. Lack of Unity. So complex and vast a plan could scarcely have been worked out by any human genius in a perfect and clear unity, and besides this, Spenser, with all his high endowments, was decidedly weak in constructive skill. The allegory, at the outset, even in Spenser's own statement, is confused and hazy. For beyond the primary moral interpretation, Spenser applies it in various secondary or parallel ways. In the widest sense, the entire struggle between the good and evil characters is to be taken as figuring forth the warfare both in the individual soul and in the world at large between Righteousness and Sin; and in somewhat narrower senses, between Protestantism and Catholicism, and between England and Spain. In some places, also, it represents other events and aspects of European politics. Many of the single persons of the story, entering into each of these overlapping interpretations, bear double or triple roles. Gloriana, the Fairy Queen, is abstractly Glory, but humanly she is Queen Elizabeth; and from other points of view Elizabeth is identified with several of the lesser heroines. So likewise the witch Duessa is both Papal Falsehood and Mary Queen of Scots; Prince Arthur both Magnificence and (with sorry inappropriateness) the Earl of Leicester; and others of the characters stand with more or less consistency for such actual persons as Philip II of Spain, Henry IV of France, and Spenser's chief, Lord Grey. In fact, in Renaissance spirit, and following Sidney's 'Defense of Poesie,' Spenser attempts to harmonize history, philosophy, ethics, and politics, subordinating them all to the art of poetry. The plan is grand but impracticable, and except for the original moral interpretation, to which in the earlier books the incidents are skilfully adapted, it is fruitless as one reads to undertake to follow the allegories. Many readers are able, no doubt, merely to disregard them, but there are others, like Lowell, to whom the moral, 'when they come suddenly upon it, gives a shock of unpleasant surprise, as when in eating strawberries one's teeth encounter grit.'
The same lack of unity pervades the external story. The first Book begins abruptly, in the middle; and for clearness' sake Spenser had been obliged to explain in his prefatory letter that the real commencement must be supposed to be a scene like those of Arthurian romance, at the court and annual feast of the Fairy Queen, where twelve adventures had been assigned to as many knights. Spenser strangely planned to narrate this beginning of the whole in his final Book, but even if it had been properly placed at the outset it would have served only as a loose enveloping action for a series of stories essentially as distinct as those in Malory. More serious, perhaps, is the lack of unity within the single books. Spenser's genius was never for strongly condensed narrative, and following his Italian originals, though with less firmness, he wove his story as a tangled web of intermingled adventures, with almost endless elaboration and digression. Incident after incident is broken off and later resumed and episode after episode is introduced, until the reader almost abandons any effort to trace the main design. A part of the confusion is due to the mechanical plan. Each Book consists of twelve cantos (of from forty to ninety stanzas each) and oftentimes Spenser has difficulty in filling out the scheme. No one, certainly, can regret that he actually completed only a quarter of his projected work. In the six existing Books he has given almost exhaustive expression to a richly creative imagination, and additional prolongation would have done little but to repeat.
Still further, the characteristic Renaissance lack of certainty as to the proper materials for poetry is sometimes responsible for a rudely inharmonious element in the otherwise delightful romantic atmosphere. For a single illustration, the description of the House of Alma in Book II, Canto Nine, is a tediously literal medieval allegory of the Soul and Body; and occasional realistic details here and there in the poem at large are merely repellent to more modern taste.
3. The Lack of Dramatic Reality. A romantic allegory like 'The Faerie Queene' does not aim at intense lifelikeness--a certain remoteness from the actual is one of its chief attractions. But sometimes in Spenser's poem the reader feels too wide a divorce from reality. Part of this fault is ascribable to the use of magic, to which there is repeated but inconsistent resort, especially, as in the medieval romances, for the protection of the good characters. Oftentimes, indeed, by the persistent loading of the dice against the villains and scapegoats, the reader's sympathy is half aroused in their behalf. Thus in the fight of the Red Cross Knight with his special enemy, the dragon, where, of course, the Knight must be victorious, it is evident that without the author's help the dragon is incomparably the stronger. Once, swooping down on the Knight, he seizes him in his talons (whose least touch was elsewhere said to be fatal) and bears him aloft into the air. The valor of the Knight compels him to relax his hold, but instead of merely dropping the Knight to certain death, he carefully flies back to earth and sets him down in safety. More definite regard to the actual laws of life would have given the poem greater firmness without the sacrifice of any of its charm.
4. The Romantic Beauty. General Atmosphere and Description. Critical sincerity has required us to dwell thus long on the defects of the poem; but once recognized we should dismiss them altogether from mind and turn attention to the far more important beauties. The great qualities of 'The Faerie Queene' are suggested by the title, 'The Poets' Poet,' which Charles Lamb, with happy inspiration, applied to Spenser. Most of all are we indebted to Spenser's high idealism. No poem in the world is nobler than 'The Faerie Queene' in atmosphere and entire effect. Spenser himself is always the perfect gentleman of his own imagination, and in his company we are secure from the intrusion of anything morally base or mean. But in him, also, moral beauty is in full harmony with the beauty of art and the senses. Spenser was a Puritan, but a Puritan of the earlier English Renaissance, to whom the foes of righteousness were also the foes of external loveliness. Of the three fierce Saracen brother-knights who repeatedly appear in the service of Evil, two are Sansloy, the enemy of law, and Sansfoy, the enemy of religion, but the third is Sansjoy, enemy of pleasure. And of external beauty there has never been a more gifted lover than Spenser. We often feel, with Lowell, that 'he is the pure sense of the beautiful incarnated.' The poem is a romantically luxuriant wilderness of dreamily or languorously delightful visions, often rich with all the harmonies of form and motion and color and sound. As Lowell says, 'The true use of Spenser is as a gallery of pictures which we visit as the mood takes us, and where we spend an hour or two, long enough to sweeten our perceptions, not so long as to cloy them.' His landscapes, to speak of one particular feature, are usually of a rather vague, often of a vast nature, as suits the unreality of his poetic world, and usually, since Spenser was not a minute observer, follow the conventions of Renaissance literature. They are commonly great plains, wide and gloomy forests (where the trees of many climates often grow together in impossible harmony), cool caves--in general, lonely, quiet, or soothing scenes, but all unquestionable portions of a delightful fairyland. To him, it should be added, as to most men before modern Science had subdued the world to human uses, the sublime aspects of Nature were mainly dreadful; the ocean, for example, seemed to him a raging 'waste of waters, wide and deep,' a mysterious and insatiate devourer of the lives of men.
To the beauty of Spenser's imagination, ideal and sensuous, corresponds his magnificent command of rhythm and of sound. As a verbal melodist, especially a melodist of sweetness and of stately grace, and as a harmonist of prolonged and complex cadences, he is unsurpassable. But he has full command of his rhythm according to the subject, and can range from the most delicate suggestion of airy beauty to the roar of the tempest or the strident energy of battle. In vocabulary and phraseology his fluency appears inexhaustible. Here, as in 'The Shepherd's Calendar,' he deliberately introduces, especially from Chaucer, obsolete words and forms, such as the inflectional ending in -en which distinctly contribute to his romantic effect. His constant use of alliteration is very skilful; the frequency of the alliteration on w is conspicuous but apparently accidental.
5. The Spenserian Stanza. For the external medium of all this beauty Spenser, modifying the ottava rima of Ariosto (a stanza which rimes abababcc), invented the stanza which bears his own name and which is the only artificial stanza of English origin that has ever passed into currency. [Footnote: Note that this is not inconsistent with what is said above, of the sonnet.] The rime-scheme is ababbcbcc and in the last line the iambic pentameter gives place to an Alexandrine (an iambic hexameter). Whether or not any stanza form is as well adapted as blank verse or the rimed couplet for prolonged narrative is an interesting question, but there can be no doubt that Spenser's stanza, firmly unified, in spite of its length, by its central couplet and by the finality of the last line, is a discovery of genius, and that the Alexandrine, 'forever feeling for the next stanza,' does much to bind the stanzas together. It has been adopted in no small number of the greatest subsequent English poems, including such various ones as Burns' 'Cotter's Saturday Night,' Byron's 'Childe Harold,' Keats' 'Eve of St. Agnes,' and Shelley's 'Adonais.'
In general style and spirit, it should be added, Spenser has been one of the most powerful influences on all succeeding English romantic poetry. Two further sentences of Lowell well summarize his whole general achievement:
'His great merit is in the ideal treatment with which he glorified common things and gilded them with a ray of enthusiasm. He is a standing protest against the tyranny of the Commonplace, and sows the seeds of a noble discontent with prosaic views of life and the dull uses to which it may be put.'
ELIZABETHAN LYRIC POETRY. 'The Faerie Queene' is the only long Elizabethan poem of the very highest rank, but Spenser, as we have seen, is almost equally conspicuous as a lyric poet. In that respect he was one among a throng of melodists who made the Elizabethan age in many respects the greatest lyric period in the history of English or perhaps of any literature. Still grander, to be sure, by the nature of the two forms, was the Elizabethan achievement in the drama, which we shall consider in the next chapter; but the lyrics have the advantage in sheer delightfulness and, of course, in rapid and direct appeal.
The zest for lyric poetry somewhat artificially inaugurated at Court by Wyatt and Surrey seems to have largely subsided, like any other fad, after some years, but it vigorously revived, in much more genuine fashion, with the taste for other imaginative forms of literature, in the last two decades of Elizabeth's reign. It revived, too, not only among the courtiers but among all classes; in no other form of literature was the diversity of authors so marked; almost every writer of the period who was not purely a man of prose seems to have been gifted with the lyric power.
The qualities which especially distinguish the Elizabethan lyrics are fluency, sweetness, melody, and an enthusiastic joy in life, all spontaneous, direct, and exquisite. Uniting the genuineness of the popular ballad with the finer sense of conscious artistic poetry, these poems possess a charm different, though in an only half definable way, from that of any other lyrics. In subjects they display the usual lyric variety. There are songs of delight in Nature; a multitude of love poems of all moods; many pastorals, in which, generally, the pastoral conventions sit lightly on the genuine poetical feeling; occasional patriotic outbursts; and some reflective and religious poems. In stanza structure the number of forms is unusually great, but in most cases stanzas are internally varied and have a large admixture of short, ringing or musing, lines. The lyrics were published sometimes in collections by single authors, sometimes in the series of anthologies which succeeded to Tottel's 'Miscellany.' Some of these anthologies were books of songs with the accompanying music; for music, brought with all the other cultural influences from Italy and France, was now enthusiastically cultivated, and the soft melody of many of the best Elizabethan lyrics is that of accomplished composers. Many of the lyrics, again, are included as songs in the dramas of the time; and Shakespeare's comedies show him nearly as preeminent among the lyric poets as among the playwrights.
Some of the finest of the lyrics are anonymous. Among the best of the known poets are these: George Gascoigne (about 1530-1577), a courtier and soldier, who bridges the gap between Surrey and Sidney; Sir Edward Dyer (about 1545-1607), a scholar and statesman, author of one perfect lyric, 'My mind to me a kingdom is'; John Lyly (1553-1606), the Euphuist and dramatist; Nicholas Breton (about 1545 to about 1626), a prolific writer in verse and prose and one of the most successful poets of the pastoral style; Robert Southwell (about 1562-1595), a Jesuit intriguer of ardent piety, finally imprisoned, tortured, and executed as a traitor; George Peele (1558 to about 1598), the dramatist; Thomas Lodge (about 1558-1625), poet, novelist, and physician; Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), the dramatist; Thomas Nash (1567-1601), one of the most prolific Elizabethan hack writers; Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), scholar and critic, member in his later years of the royal household of James I; Barnabe Barnes (about 1569-1609); Richard Barnfield (1574-1627); Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618), courtier, statesman, explorer, and scholar; Joshua Sylvester (1563-1618), linguist and merchant, known for his translation of the long religious poems of the Frenchman Du Bartas, through which he exercised an influence on Milton; Francis Davison (about 1575 to about 1619), son of a counsellor of Queen Elizabeth, a lawyer; and Thomas Dekker (about 1570 to about 1640), a ne'er-do-weel dramatist and hack-writer of irrepressible and delightful good spirits.
In the last decade, especially, of the century, no other lyric form compared in popularity with the sonnet. Here England was still following in the footsteps of Italy and France; it has been estimated that in the course of the century over three hundred thousand sonnets were written in Western Europe. In England as elsewhere most of these poems were inevitably of mediocre quality and imitative in substance, ringing the changes with wearisome iteration on a minimum of ideas, often with the most extravagant use of conceits. Petrarch's example was still commonly followed; the sonnets were generally composed in sequences (cycles) of a hundred or more, addressed to the poet's more or less imaginary cruel lady, though the note of manly independence introduced by Wyatt is frequent. First of the important English sequences is the 'Astrophel and Stella' of Sir Philip Sidney, written about 1580, published in 1591. 'Astrophel' is a fanciful half-Greek anagram for the poet's own name, and Stella (Star) designates Lady Penelope Devereux, who at about this time married Lord Rich. The sequence may very reasonably be interpreted as an expression of Platonic idealism, though it is sometimes taken in a sense less consistent with Sidney's high reputation. Of Spenser's 'Amoretti' we have already spoken. By far the finest of all the sonnets are the best ones (a considerable part) of Shakespeare's one hundred and fifty-four, which were not published until 1609 but may have been mostly written before 1600. Their interpretation has long been hotly debated. It is certain, however, that they do not form a connected sequence. Some of them are occupied with urging a youth of high rank, Shakespeare's patron, who may have been either the Earl of Southampton or William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, to marry and perpetuate his race; others hint the story, real or imaginary, of Shakespeare's infatuation for a 'dark lady,' leading to bitter disillusion; and still others seem to be occasional expressions of devotion to other friends of one or the other sex. Here as elsewhere Shakespeare's genius, at its best, is supreme over all rivals; the first recorded criticism speaks of the 'sugared sweetness' of his sonnets; but his genius is not always at its best.
JOHN DONNE AND THE BEGINNING OF THE 'METAPHYSICAL' POETRY.
The last decade of the sixteenth century presents also, in the poems of John Donne, a new and very strange style of verse. Donne, born in 1573, possessed one of the keenest and most powerful intellects of the time, but his early manhood was largely wasted in dissipation, though he studied theology and law and seems to have seen military service. It was during this period that he wrote his love poems. Then, while living with his wife and children in uncertain dependence on noble patrons, he turned to religious poetry. At last he entered the Church, became famous as one of the most eloquent preachers of the time, and through the favor of King James was rapidly promoted until he was made Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. He died in 1631 after having furnished a striking instance of the fantastic morbidness of the period (post-Elizabethan) by having his picture painted as he stood wrapped in his shroud on a funeral urn.
The distinguishing general characteristic of Donne's poetry is the remarkable combination of an aggressive intellectuality with the lyric form and spirit. Whether true poetry or mere intellectual cleverness is the predominant element may reasonably be questioned; but on many readers Donne's verse exercises a unique attraction. Its definite peculiarities are outstanding: 1. By a process of extreme exaggeration and minute elaboration Donne carries the Elizabethan conceits almost to the farthest possible limit, achieving what Samuel Johnson two centuries later described as 'enormous and disgusting hyperboles.' 2. In so doing he makes relentless use of the intellect and of verbally precise but actually preposterous logic, striking out astonishingly brilliant but utterly fantastic flashes of wit. 3. He draws the material of his figures of speech from highly unpoetical sources--partly from the activities of every-day life, but especially from all the sciences and school-knowledge of the time. The material is abstract, but Donne gives it full poetic concrete picturesqueness. Thus he speaks of one spirit overtaking another at death as one bullet shot out of a gun may overtake another which has lesser velocity but was earlier discharged. It was because of these last two characteristics that Dr. Johnson applied to Donne and his followers the rather clumsy name of 'Metaphysical' (Philosophical) poets. 'Fantastic' would have been a better word. 4. In vigorous reaction against the sometimes nerveless melody of most contemporary poets Donne often makes his verse as ruggedly condensed (often as obscure) and as harsh as possible. Its wrenched accents and slurred syllables sometimes appear absolutely unmetrical, but it seems that Donne generally followed subtle rhythmical ideas of his own. He adds to the appearance of irregularity by experimenting with a large number of lyric stanza forms--a different form, in fact, for nearly every poem. 5. In his love poems, while his sentiment is often Petrarchan, he often emphasizes also the English note of independence, taking as a favorite theme the incredible fickleness of woman.
In spirit Donne belongs much less to Elizabethan poetry than to the following period, in which nearly half his life fell. Of his great influence on the poetry of that period we shall speak in the proper place.
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