Part 2 out of 10
or renneth to playe." ...
Alle this route of ratones
to this reson thei assented;
Ac tho the belle was y-bought
and on the beighe hanged,
Ther ne was ratoun in alle the route,
for alle the rewme of Fraunce,
That dorst have y-bounden the belle
aboute the cattis nekke.
"I have seen creatures" (dogs), quoth he,
"in the city of London
Bearing collars full bright
around their necks....
Were there a bell on those collars,
assuredly, in my opinion,
One might know where the dogs go,
and run away from them!
And right so," quoth this rat,
"reason suggests to me
To buy a bell of brass
or of bright silver,
And tie it on a collar
for our common profit,
And hang it on the cat's neck;
in order that we may hear
Where he rides or rests
or runneth to play." ...
All this rout (crowd) of rats
to this reasoning assented;
But when the bell was bought
and hanged on the collar,
There was not a rat in the crowd
that, for all the realm of France
Would have dared to bind the bell
about the cat's neck.
The second selection is from Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" (_cir_.
1375). It was written "in the French manner" with rime and meter, for the
upper classes, and shows the difference between literary English and the
speech of the common people:
In th' olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene with hir joly companye
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede;
This was the olde opinion, as I rede.
I speke of manye hundred yeres ago;
But now kan no man see none elves mo.
The next two selections (written _cir_. 1450) show how rapidly the
language was approaching modern English. The prose, from Malory's _Morte
d' Arthur_, is the selection that Tennyson closely followed in his
"Passing of Arthur." The poetry, from the ballad of "Robin Hood and the
Monk," is probably a fifteenth-century version of a much older English
"'Therefore,' sayd Arthur unto Syr Bedwere, 'take thou Excalybur my
good swerde, and goo with it, to yonder water syde, and whan thou
comest there I charge the throwe my swerde in that water, and come
ageyn and telle me what thou there seest.'
"'My lord,' sayd Bedwere, 'your commaundement shal be doon, and
lyghtly brynge you worde ageyn.'
"So Syr Bedwere departed; and by the waye he behelde that noble
swerde, that the pomel and the hafte was al of precyous stones; and
thenne he sayd to hym self, 'Yf I throwe this ryche swerde in the
water, thereof shal never come good, but harme and losse.' And
thenne Syr Bedwere hydde Excalybur under a tree."
In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
And leves be large and long,
Hit is full mery in feyr foreste
To here the foulys song:
To se the dere draw to the dale,
And leve the hilles hee,
And shadow hem in the leves grene,
Under the grene-wode tre.
HISTORICAL OUTLINE. The history of England during this period is
largely a record of strife and confusion. The struggle of the House
of Commons against the despotism of kings; the Hundred Years War
with France, in which those whose fathers had been Celts, Danes,
Saxons, Normans, were now fighting shoulder to shoulder as
Englishmen all; the suffering of the common people, resulting in
the Peasant Rebellion; the barbarity of the nobles, who were
destroying one another in the Wars of the Roses; the beginning of
commerce and manufacturing, following the lead of Holland, and the
rise of a powerful middle class; the belated appearance of the
Renaissance, welcomed by a few scholars but unnoticed by the masses
of people, who remained in dense ignorance,--even such a brief
catalogue suggests that many books must be read before we can enter
into the spirit of fourteenth-century England. We shall note here
only two circumstances, which may help us to understand Chaucer and
the age in which he lived.
[Sidenote: MODERN PROBLEMS]
The first is that the age of Chaucer, if examined carefully, shows
many striking resemblances to our own. It was, for example, an age
of warfare; and, as in our own age of hideous inventions, military
methods were all upset by the discovery that the foot soldier with
his blunderbuss was more potent than the panoplied knight on
horseback. While war raged abroad, there was no end of labor
troubles at home, strikes, "lockouts," assaults on imported workmen
(the Flemish weavers brought in by Edward III), and no end of
experimental laws to remedy the evil. The Turk came into Europe,
introducing the Eastern and the Balkan questions, which have ever
since troubled us. Imperialism was rampant, in Edward's claim to
France, for example, or in John of Gaunt's attempt to annex
Castile. Even "feminism" was in the air, and its merits were
shrewdly debated by Chaucer's Wife of Bath and his Clerk of
Oxenford. A dozen other "modern" examples might be given, but the
sum of the matter is this: that there is hardly a social or
political or economic problem of the past fifty years that was not
violently agitated in the latter half of the fourteenth century.
[Footnote: See Kittredge, _Chaucer and his Poetry_ (1915), pp.
[Sidenote: REALISTIC POETRY]
A second interesting circumstance is that this medieval age
produced two poets, Langland and Chaucer, who were more realistic
even than present-day writers in their portrayal of life, and who
together gave us such a picture of English society as no other
poets have ever equaled. Langland wrote his _Piers Plowman_ in
the familiar Anglo-Saxon style for the common people, and pictured
their life to the letter; while Chaucer wrote his _Canterbury
Tales_, a poem shaped after Italian and French models,
portraying the holiday side of the middle and upper classes.
Langland drew a terrible picture of a degraded land, desperately in
need of justice, of education, of reform in church and state;
Chaucer showed a gay company of pilgrims riding through a
prosperous country which he called his "Merrie England." Perhaps
the one thing in common with these two poets, the early types of
Puritan and Cavalier, was their attitude towards democracy.
Langland preached the gospel of labor, far more powerfully than
Carlyle ever preached it, and exalted honest work as the patent of
nobility. Chaucer, writing for the court, mingled his characters in
the most democratic kind of fellowship and, though a knight rode at
the head of his procession, put into the mouth of the Wife of Bath
his definition of a gentleman:
Loke who that is most vertuous alway,
Privee and apert,  and most entendeth aye
To do the gentle dedes that he can,
And take him for the grettest gentilman.
[Footnote : Secretly and openly.]
* * * * *
GEOFFREY CHAUCER (_cir_. 1340-1400)
"Of Chaucer truly I know not whether to marvel more, either that he in
that misty time could see so clearly, or that we in this clear age walk
so stumblingly after him."
(Philip Sidney, _cir_. 1581)
It was the habit of Old-English chieftains to take their scops with them
into battle, to the end that the scop's poem might be true to the outer
world of fact as well as to the inner world of ideals. The search for
"local color" is, therefore, not the newest thing in fiction but the oldest
thing in poetry. Chaucer, the first in time of our great English poets, was
true to this old tradition. He was page, squire, soldier, statesman,
diplomat, traveler; and then he was a poet, who portrayed in verse the
many-colored life which he knew intimately at first hand.
For example, Chaucer had to describe a tournament, in the Knight's Tale;
but instead of using his imagination, as other romancers had always done,
he drew a vivid picture of one of those gorgeous pageants of decaying
chivalry with which London diverted the French king, who had been brought
prisoner to the city after the victory of the Black Prince at Poitiers. So
with his Tabard Inn, which is a real English inn, and with his Pilgrims,
who are real pilgrims; and so with every other scene or character he
described. His specialty was human nature, his strong point observation,
his method essentially modern. And by "modern" we mean that he portrayed
the men and women of his own day so well, with such sympathy and humor and
wisdom, that we recognize and welcome them as friends or neighbors, who are
the same in all ages. From this viewpoint Chaucer is more modern than
Tennyson or Longfellow.
LIFE. Chaucer's boyhood was spent in London, near Westminster,
where the brilliant court of Edward was visible to the favored
ones; and near the Thames, where the world's commerce, then
beginning to ebb and flow with the tides, might be seen of every
man. His father was a vintner, or wine merchant, who had enough
influence at court to obtain for his son a place in the house of
the Princess Elizabeth. Behold then our future poet beginning his
knightly training as page to a highborn lady. Presently he
accompanied the Black Prince to the French wars, was taken prisoner
and ransomed, and on his return entered the second stage of
knighthood as esquire or personal attendant to the king. He married
a maid of honor related to John of Gaunt, the famous Duke of
Lancaster, and at thirty had passed from the rank of merchant into
official and aristocratic circles.
[Sidenote: PERIODS OF WORK]
The literary work of Chaucer is conveniently, but not accurately,
arranged in three different periods. While attached to the court,
one of his duties was to entertain the king and his visitors in
their leisure. French poems of love and chivalry were then in
demand, and of these Chaucer had great store; but English had
recently replaced French even at court, and King Edward and Queen
Philippa, both patrons of art and letters, encouraged Chaucer to
write in his native language. So he made translations of favorite
poems into English, and wrote others in imitation of French models.
These early works, the least interesting of all, belong to what is
called the period of French influence.
Then Chaucer, who had learned the art of silence as well as of
speech, was sent abroad on a series of diplomatic missions. In
Italy he probably met the poet Petrarch (as we infer from the
Prologue to the Clerk's Tale) and became familiar with the works of
Dante and Boccaccio. His subsequent poetry shows a decided advance
in range and originality, partly because of his own growth, no
doubt, and partly because of his better models. This second period,
of about fifteen years, is called the time of Italian influence.
In the third or English period Chaucer returned to London and was a
busy man of affairs; for at the English court, unlike those of
France and Italy, a poet was expected to earn his pension by some
useful work, literature being regarded as a recreation. He was in
turn comptroller of customs and superintendent of public works;
also he was at times well supplied with money, and again, as the
political fortunes of his patron John of Gaunt waned, in sore need
of the comforts of life. Witness his "Complaint to His Empty
Purse," the humor of which evidently touched the king and brought
Chaucer another pension.
Two poems of this period are supposed to contain autobiographical
material. In the _Legend of Good Women_ he says:
And as for me, though that my wit be lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte.
Again, in _The House of Fame_ he speaks of finding his real
life in books after his daily work in the customhouse is ended.
Some of the "rekeninges" (itemized accounts of goods and duties) to
which he refers are still preserved in Chaucer's handwriting:
For whan thy labour doon al is,
And hast y-maad thy rekeninges,
In stede of reste and newe thinges
Thou gost hoom to thy hous anoon,
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another boke
Til fully dawsed is thy loke,
And livest thus as an hermyte,
Although thine abstinence is lyte.
Such are the scanty facts concerning England's first great poet,
the more elaborate biographies being made up chiefly of guesses or
doubtful inferences. He died in the year 1400, and was buried in
St. Benet's chapel in Westminster Abbey, a place now revered by all
lovers of literature as the Poets' Corner.
ON READING CHAUCER. Said Caxton, who was the first to print
Chaucer's poetry, "He writeth no void words, but all his matter is
full of high and quick sentence." Caxton was right, and the modern
reader's first aim should be to get the sense of Chaucer rather
than his pronunciation. To understand him is not so difficult as
appears at first sight, for most of the words that look strange
because of their spelling will reveal their meaning to the ear if
spoken aloud. Thus the word "leefful" becomes "leveful" or
"leaveful" or "permissible."
Next, the reader should remember that Chaucer was a master of
versification, and that every stanza of his is musical. At the
beginning of a poem, therefore, read a few lines aloud, emphasizing
the accented syllables until the rhythm is fixed; then make every
line conform to it, and every word keep step to the music. To do
this it is necessary to slur certain words and run others together;
also, since the mistakes of Chaucer's copyists are repeated in
modern editions, it is often necessary to add a helpful word or
syllable to a line, or to omit others that are plainly superfluous.
This way of reading Chaucer musically, as one would read any other
poet, has three advantages: it is easy, it is pleasant, and it is
far more effective than the learning of a hundred specifications
laid down by the grammarians.
[Sidenote: RULES FOR READING]
As for Chaucer's pronunciation, you will not get that accurately
without much study, which were better spent on more important
matters; so be content with a few rules, which aim simply to help
you enjoy the reading. As a general principle, the root vowel of a
word was broadly sounded, and the rest slurred over. The
characteristic sound of _a_ was as in "far"; _e_ was
sounded like _a_, _i_ like _e_, and all diphthongs
as broadly as possible,--in "floures" (flowers), for example, which
should be pronounced "floores."
Another rule relates to final syllables, and these will appear more
interesting if we remember that they represent the dying
inflections of nouns and adjectives, which were then declined as in
modern German. Final _ed_ and _es_ are variable, but the
rhythm will always tell us whether they should be given an extra
syllable or not. So also with final _e_, which is often
sounded, but not if the following word begins with a vowel or with
_h_. In the latter case the two words may be run together, as
in reading Virgil. If a final _e_ occurs at the end of a line,
it may be lightly pronounced, like _a_ in "China," to give
added melody to the verse.
Applying these rules, and using our liberty as freely as Chaucer
used his, [Footnote: The language was changing rapidly in Chaucer's
day, and there were no printed books to fix a standard. Sometimes
Chaucer's grammar and spelling are according to rule, and again as
heaven pleases.] the opening lines of _The Canterbury Tales_
would read something like this:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
_Whan that Apreele with 'is shoores sohte_
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
_The drooth of March hath paarced to the rohte_
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
_And bahthed ev'ree vyne in swech lecoor,_
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
_Of whech varetu engendred is the floor;_
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
_Whan Zephirus aik with 'is swaite braith_
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
_Inspeered hath in ev'ree holt and haith_
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
_The tendre croopes, and th' yoonge sonne_
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
_Hath in the Ram 'is hawfe coors ironne,_
And smale fowles maken melodye,
_And smawle fooles mahken malyodiee,_
That slepen al the night with open ye
_That slaipen awl the nicht with open ee_
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages)
_(So priketh 'eem nahtur in hir coorahges)_
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
_Than longen folk to goon on peelgrimahges._
EARLY WORKS OF CHAUCER. In his first period, which was dominated by French
influence, Chaucer probably translated parts of the _Roman de la
Rose_, a dreary allegorical poem in which love is represented as a
queen-rose in a garden, surrounded by her court and ministers. In
endeavoring to pluck this rose the lover learns the "commandments" and
"sacraments" of love, and meets with various adventures at the hands of
Virtue, Constancy, and other shadowy personages of less repute. Such
allegories were the delight of the Middle Ages; now they are as dust and
ashes. Other and better works of this period are _The Book of the
Duchess_, an elegy written on the death of Blanche, wife of Chaucer's
patron, and various minor poems, such as "Compleynte unto Pitee," the
dainty love song "To Rosemunde," and "Truth" or the "Ballad of Good
Characteristic works of the second or Italian period are _The House of
Fame_, _The Legend of Good Women_, and especially _Troilus and
Criseyde_. The last-named, though little known to modern readers, is one
of the most remarkable narrative poems in our literature. It began as a
retelling of a familiar romance; it ended in an original poem, which might
easily be made into a drama or a "modern" novel.
[Sidenote: STORY OF TROILUS]
The scene opens in Troy, during the siege of the city by the
Greeks. The hero Troilus is a son of Priam, and is second only to
the mighty Hector in warlike deeds. Devoted as he is to glory, he
scoffs at lovers until the moment when his eye lights on Cressida.
She is a beautiful young widow, and is free to do as she pleases
for the moment, her father Calchas having gone over to the Greeks
to escape the doom which he sees impending on Troy. Troilus falls
desperately in love with Cressida, but she does not know or care,
and he is ashamed to speak his mind after scoffing so long at love.
Then appears Pandarus, friend of Troilus and uncle to Cressida, who
soon learns the secret and brings the young people together. After
a long courtship with interminable speeches (as in the old
romances) Troilus wins the lady, and all goes happily until Calchas
arranges to have his daughter brought to him in exchange for a
captured Trojan warrior. The lovers are separated with many tears,
but Cressida comforts the despairing Troilus by promising to
hoodwink her doting father and return in a few days. Calchas,
however, loves his daughter too well to trust her in a city that
must soon be given over to plunder, and keeps her safe in the Greek
camp. There the handsome young Diomede wins her, and presently
Troilus is killed in battle by Achilles.
Such is the old romance of feminine fickleness, which had been written a
hundred times before Chaucer took it bodily from Boccaccio. Moreover he
humored the old romantic delusion which required that a lover should fall
sick in the absence of his mistress, and turn pale or swoon at the sight of
her; but he added to the tale many elements not found in the old romances,
such as real men and women, humor, pathos, analysis of human motives, and a
sense of impending tragedy which comes not from the loss of wealth or
happiness but of character. Cressida's final thought of her first lover is
intensely pathetic, and a whole chapter of psychology is summed up in the
line in which she promises herself to be true to Diomede at the very moment
when she is false to Troilus:
"Allas! of me unto the worldes ende
Shal neyther ben ywriten nor y-songe
No good word; for these bookes wol me shende.
O, rolled shal I ben on many a tonge!
Thurghout the world my belle shal be ronge,
And wommen moste wol haten me of alle.
Allas, that swich a cas me sholde falle!
They wol seyn, in-as-much as in me is,
I have hem doon dishonour, weylawey!
Al be I not the firste that dide amis,
What helpeth that to doon my blame awey?
But since I see ther is no betre wey,
And that too late is now for me to rewe,
To Diomede, algate, I wol be trewe."
THE CANTERBURY TALES. The plan of gathering a company of people and letting
each tell his favorite story has been used by so many poets, ancient and
modern, that it is idle to seek the origin of it. Like Topsy, it wasn't
born; it just grew up. Chaucer's plan, however, is more comprehensive than
any other in that it includes all classes of society; it is also more
original in that it does not invent heroic characters but takes such men
and women as one might meet in any assembly, and shows how typical they are
of humanity in all ages. As Lowell says, Chaucer made use in his
_Canterbury Tales_ of two things that are everywhere regarded as
symbols of human life; namely, the short journey and the inn. We might add,
as an indication of Chaucer's philosophy, that his inn is a comfortable
one, and that the journey is made in pleasant company and in fair weather.
An outline of Chaucer's great work is as follows. On an evening in
springtime the poet comes to Tabard Inn, in Southwark, and finds it
filled with a merry company of men and women bent on a pilgrimage
to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury.
After supper appears the jovial host, Harry Bailey, who finds the
company so attractive that he must join it on its pilgrimage. He
proposes that, as they shall be long on the way, they shall furnish
their own entertainment by telling stories, the best tale to be
rewarded by the best of suppers when the pilgrims return from
Canterbury. They assent joyfully, and on the morrow begin their
journey, cheered by the Knight's Tale as they ride forth under the
sunrise. The light of morning and of springtime is upon this work,
which is commonly placed at the beginning of modern English
As the journey proceeds we note two distinct parts to Chaucer's record. One
part, made up of prologues and interludes, portrays the characters and
action of the present comedy; the other part, consisting of stories,
reflects the comedies and tragedies of long ago. The one shows the
perishable side of the men and women of Chaucer's day, their habits, dress,
conversation; the other reveals an imperishable world of thought, feeling,
ideals, in which these same men and women discover their kinship to
humanity. It is possible, since some of the stories are related to each
other, that Chaucer meant to arrange the _Canterbury Tales_ in
dramatic unity, so as to make a huge comedy of human society; but the work
as it comes down to us is fragmentary, and no one has discovered the order
in which the fragments should be fitted together.
[Illustration: PILGRIMS SETTING OUT FROM THE "TABARD"]
[Sidenote: THE PROLOGUE]
The Prologue is perhaps the best single fragment of the _Canterbury
Tales_. In it Chaucer introduces us to the characters of his drama: to
the grave Knight and the gay Squire, the one a model of Chivalry at its
best, "a verray parfit gentil knight," the other a young man so full of
life and love that "he slept namore than dooth a nightingale"; to the
modest Prioress, also, with her pretty clothes, her exquisite manners, her
And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frensh of Paris was to hir unknowe.
In contrast to this dainty figure is the coarse Wife of Bath, as garrulous
as the nurse in _Romeo and Juliet_. So one character stands to another
as shade to light, as they appear in a typical novel of Dickens. The
Church, the greatest factor in medieval life, is misrepresented by the
hunting Monk and the begging Friar, and is well represented by the Parson,
who practiced true religion before he preached it:
But Christes lore and his apostles twelve
He taughte, and first he folwed it himselve.
Trade is represented by the Merchant, scholarship by the poor Clerk of
Oxenford, the professions by the Doctor and the Man-of-law, common folk by
the Yeoman, Frankelyn (farmer), Miller and many others of low degree.
Prominent among the latter was the Shipman:
Hardy he was, and wys to undertake;
With many a tempest hadde his berd been shake.
From this character, whom Stevenson might have borrowed for his _Treasure
Island_, we infer the barbarity that prevailed when commerce was new,
when the English sailor was by turns smuggler or pirate, equally ready to
sail or scuttle a ship, and to silence any tongue that might tell tales by
making its wretched owner "walk the plank." Chaucer's description of the
latter process is a masterpiece of piratical humor:
If that he faught and hadde the hyer hond,
By water he sente hem hoom to every lond.
[Sidenote: VARIETY OF TALES]
Some thirty pilgrims appear in the famous Prologue, and as each was to tell
two stories on the way to Canterbury, and two more on the return, it is
probable that Chaucer contemplated a work of more than a hundred tales.
Only four-and-twenty were completed, but these are enough to cover the
field of light literature in that day, from the romance of love to the
humorous animal fable. Between these are wonder-stories of giants and
fairies, satires on the monks, parodies on literature, and some examples of
coarse horseplay for which Chaucer offers an apology, saying that he must
let each pilgrim tell his tale in his own way.
A round dozen of these tales may still be read with pleasure; but, as a
suggestion of Chaucer's variety, we name only three: the Knight's romance
of "Palamon and Arcite," the Nun's Priest's fable of "Chanticleer," and the
Clerk's old ballad of "Patient Griselda." The last-named will be more
interesting if we remember that the subject of woman's rights had been
hurled at the heads of the pilgrims by the Wife of Bath, and that the Clerk
told his story to illustrate his different ideal of womanhood.
THE CHARM OF CHAUCER. The first of Chaucer's qualities is that he is an
excellent story-teller; which means that he has a tale to tell, a good
method of telling it, and a philosophy of life which gives us something to
think about aside from the narrative. He had a profound insight of human
nature, and in telling the simplest story was sure to slip in some nugget
of wisdom or humor: "What wol nat be mote need be left," "For three may
keep counsel if twain be away," "The lyf so short, the craft so long to
lerne," "Ful wys is he that can himselven knowe,"
The firste vertue, sone, if thou wilt lere,
Is to restreine and kepen wel thy tonge.
There are literally hundreds of such "good things" which make Chaucer a
constant delight to those who, by a very little practice, can understand
him almost as easily as Shakespeare. Moreover he was a careful artist; he
knew the principles of poetry and of story-telling, and before he wrote a
song or a tale he considered both his subject and his audience, repeating
to himself his own rule:
Ther nis no werkman, whatsoever he be,
That may bothe werke wel and hastily:
This wol be doon at leysur, parfitly.
A second quality of Chaucer is his power of observation, a power so
extraordinary that, unlike other poets, he did not need to invent scenes or
characters but only to describe what he had seen and heard in this
wonderful world. As he makes one of his characters say:
For certeynly, he that me made
To comen hider seyde me:
I shoulde bothe hear et see
In this place wonder thinges.
In the _Canterbury Tales_ alone he employs more than a score of
characters, and hardly a romantic hero among them; rather does he delight
in plain men and women, who reveal their quality not so much in their
action as in their dress, manner, or tricks of speech. For Chaucer has the
glance of an Indian, which passes over all obvious matters to light upon
one significant detail; and that detail furnishes the name or the adjective
of the object. Sometimes his descriptions of men or nature are microscopic
in their accuracy, and again in a single line he awakens the reader's
imagination,--as when Pandarus (in _Troilus_), in order to make
himself unobtrusive in a room where he is not wanted, picks up a manuscript
and "makes a face," that is, he pretends to be absorbed in a story,
and fand his countenance
As for to loke upon an old romance.
A dozen striking examples might be given, but we shall note only one. In
the _Book of the Duchess_ the poet is in a forest, when a chase sweeps
by with whoop of huntsman and clamor of hounds. After the hunt, when the
woods are all still, comes a little lost dog:
Hit com and creep to me as lowe
Right as hit hadde me y-knowe,
Hild down his heed and jiyned his eres,
And leyde al smouthe doun his heres.
I wolde han caught hit, and anoon
Hit fledde and was fro me goon.
[Sidenote: CHAUCER'S HUMOR]
Next to his power of description, Chaucer's best quality is his humor, a
humor which is hard to phrase, since it runs from the keenest wit to the
broadest farce, yet is always kindly and human. A mendicant friar comes in
out of the cold, glances about the snug kitchen for the best seat:
And fro the bench he droof awey the cat.
Sometimes his humor is delicate, as in touching up the foibles of the
Doctor or the Man-of-law, or in the Priest's translation of Chanticleer's
evil remark about women:
_Mulier est hominis confusio._
Madame, the sentence of this Latin is:
Woman is mannes joye and al his blis.
The humor broadens in the Wife of Bath, who tells how she managed several
husbands by making their lives miserable; and occasionally it grows a
little grim, as when the Maunciple tells the difference between a big and a
little rascal. The former does evil on a large scale, and,
Lo! therfor is he cleped a Capitain;
But for the outlawe hath but small meynee,
And may not doon so gret an harm as he,
Ne bring a countree to so gret mischeef,
Men clepen him an outlawe or a theef.
[Sidenote: FREEDOM FROM BIAS]
A fourth quality of Chaucer is his broad tolerance, his absolute
disinterestedness. He leaves reforms to Wyclif and Langland, and can laugh
with the Shipman who turns smuggler, or with the worldly Monk whose
"jingling" bridle keeps others as well as himself from hearing the chapel
bell. He will not even criticize the fickle Cressida for deserting Troilus,
saying that men tell tales about her, which is punishment enough for any
woman. In fine, Chaucer is content to picture a world in which the rain
falleth alike upon the just and the unjust, and in which the latter seem to
have a liberal share of the umbrellas. He enjoys it all, and describes its
inhabitants as they are, not as he thinks they ought to be. The reader may
think that this or that character deserves to come to a bad end; but not so
Chaucer, who regards them all as kindly, as impersonally as Nature herself.
So the Canterbury pilgrims are not simply fourteenth-century Englishmen;
they are human types whom Chaucer met at the Tabard Inn, and whom later
English writers discover on all of earth's highways. One appears unchanged
in Shakespeare's drama, another in a novel of Jane Austen, a third lives
over the way or down the street. From century to century they change not,
save in name or dress. The poet who described or created such enduring
characters stands among the few who are called universal writers.
* * * * *
CHAUCER'S CONTEMPORARIES AND SUCCESSORS
Someone has compared a literary period to a wood in which a few giant oaks
lift head and shoulders above many other trees, all nourished by the same
soil and air. If we follow this figure, Langland and Wyclif are the only
growths that tower beside Chaucer, and Wyclif was a reformer who belongs to
English history rather than to literature.
LANGLAND. William Langland (_cir_. 1332--1400) is a great figure in
obscurity. We are not certain even of his name, and we must search his work
to discover that he was, probably, a poor lay-priest whose life was
governed by two motives: a passion for the poor, which led him to plead
their cause in poetry, and a longing for all knowledge:
All the sciences under sonne, and all the sotyle craftes,
I wolde I knew and couthe, kyndely in myne herte.
His chief poem, _Piers Plowman_ (_cir_. 1362), is a series of
visions in which are portrayed the shams and impostures of the age and the
misery of the common people. The poem is, therefore, as the heavy shadow
which throws into relief the bright picture of the _Canterbury Tales_.
For example, while Chaucer portrays the Tabard Inn with its good cheer and
merry company, Langland goes to another inn on the next street; there he
looks with pure eyes upon sad or evil-faced men and women, drinking,
gaming, quarreling, and pictures a scene of physical and moral degradation.
One must look on both pictures to know what an English inn was like in the
Because of its crude form and dialect _Piers Plowman_ is hard to
follow; but to the few who have read it and entered into Langland's
vision--shared his passion for the poor, his hatred of shams, his belief in
the gospel of honest work, his humor and satire and philosophy--it is one
of the most powerful and original poems in English literature. [Footnote:
The working classes were beginning to assert themselves in this age, and to
proclaim "the rights of man." Witness the followers of John Ball, and his
influence over the crowd when he chanted the lines:
When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
Langland's poem, written in the midst of the labor agitation, was the first
glorification of labor to appear in English literature. Those who read it
may make an interesting comparison between "Piers Plowman" and a modern
labor poem, such as Hood's "Song of the Shirt" or Markham's "The Man with
MALORY. Judged by its influence, the greatest prose work of the fifteenth
century was the _Morte d'Arthur_ of Thomas Malory (d. 1471). Of the
English knight who compiled this work very little is known beyond this,
that he sought to preserve in literature the spirit of medieval knighthood
and religion. He tells us nothing of this purpose; but Caxton, who received
the only known copy of Malory's manuscript and published it in 1485, seems
to have reflected the author's spirit in these words:
"I according to my copy have set it in imprint, to the intent that
noble men may see and learn the noble acts of chivalry, the gentle
and virtuous deeds that some knyghts used in those days, by which
they came to honour, and how they that were vicious were punished
and put oft to shame and rebuke.... For herein may be seen noble
chivalry, courtesy, humanity, hardness, love, friendship,
cowardice, murder, hate, virtue and sin. Do after the good, and
leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renommee."
[Illustration: A STREET IN CAERLEON ON USK
The traditional home of King Arthur]
Malory's spirit is further indicated by the fact that he passed over all
extravagant tales of foreign heroes and used only the best of the Arthurian
romances. [Footnote: For the origin of the Arthurian stories see above,
"Geoffrey and the Legends of Arthur" in Chapter II. An example of the way
these stories were enlarged is given by Lewis, _Beginnings of English
Literature_, pp 73-76, who records the story of Arthur's death as told,
first, by Geoffrey, then by Layamon, and finally by Malory, who copied the
tale from French sources. If we add Tennyson's "Passing of Arthur," we
shall have the story as told from the twelfth to the nineteenth century.]
These had been left in a chaotic state by poets, and Malory brought order
out of the chaos by omitting tedious fables and arranging his material in
something like dramatic unity under three heads: the Coming of Arthur with
its glorious promise, the Round Table, and the Search for the Holy Grail:
"And thenne the kynge and al estates wente home unto Camelot, and
soo wente to evensonge to the grete mynster, and soo after upon
that to souper; and every knyght sette in his owne place as they
were to forehand. Thenne anone they herd crakynge and cryenge of
thonder, that hem thought the place shold alle to dryve. In the
myddes of this blast entred a sonne beaume more clerer by seven
tymes than ever they sawe daye, and al they were alyghted of the
grace of the Holy Ghoost. Then beganne every knyghte to behold
other, and eyther sawe other by theire semynge fayrer than ever
they sawe afore. Not for thenne there was no knyght myghte speke
one word a grete whyle, and soo they loked every man on other, as
they had ben domb. Thenne ther entred into the halle the Holy
Graile, covered with whyte samyte, but ther was none myghte see
hit, nor who bare hit. And there was al the halle fulfylled with
good odoures, and every knyght had suche metes and drynkes as he
best loved in this world. And when the Holy Grayle had be borne
thurgh the halle, thenne the holy vessel departed sodenly, that
they wyste not where hit becam....
"'Now,' said Sir Gawayne, 'we have ben served this daye of what
metes and drynkes we thoughte on, but one thynge begyled us; we
myght not see the Holy Grayle, it was soo precyously coverd.
Therfor I wil mak here avowe, that to morne, withoute lenger
abydyng, I shall laboure in the quest of the Sancgreal; that I
shalle hold me oute a twelve moneth and a day, or more yf nede be,
and never shalle I retorne ageyne unto the courte tyl I have sene
hit more openly than hit hath ben sene here.'... Whan they of the
Table Round herde Syr Gawayne saye so, they arose up the most party
and maade suche avowes as Sire Gawayne had made."
Into this holy quest sin enters like a serpent; then in quick succession
tragedy, rebellion, the passing of Arthur, the penitence of guilty
Launcelot and Guinevere. The figures fade away at last, as Shelley says of
the figures of the Iliad, "in tenderness and inexpiable sorrow."
As the best of Malory's work is now easily accessible, we forbear further
quotation. These old Arthurian legends, the common inheritance of all
English-speaking people, should be known to every reader. As they appear in
_Morte d'Arthur_ they are notable as an example of fine old English
prose, as a reflection of the enduring ideals of chivalry, and finally as a
storehouse in which Spenser, Tennyson and many others have found material
for some of their noblest poems.
CAXTON. William Caxton (d. 1491) is famous for having brought the printing
press to England, but he has other claims to literary renown. He was editor
as well as printer; he translated more than a score of the books which came
from his press; and, finally, it was he who did more than any other man to
fix a standard of English speech.
In Caxton's day several dialects were in use, and, as we infer from one of
his prefaces, he was doubtful which was most suitable for literature or
most likely to become the common speech of England. His doubt was dissolved
by the time he had printed the _Canterbury Tales_ and the _Morte
d'Arthur_. Many other works followed in the same "King's English"; his
successor at the printing press, Wynkyn de Worde, continued in the same
line; and when, less than sixty years after the first English book was
printed, Tyndale's translation of the New Testament had found its way to
every shire in England, there was no longer room for doubt that the
East-Midland dialect had become the standard of the English nation. We have
been speaking and writing that dialect ever since.
[Illustration: THE ALMONRY, WESTMINSTER
Caxton's printing office From an old print]
[Sidenote: STORY OF THE PRINTING PRESS]
The story of how printing came to England, not as a literary but as a
business venture, is a very interesting one. Caxton was an English merchant
who had established himself at Bruges, then one of the trading centers of
Europe. There his business prospered, and he became governor of the
_Domus Angliae_, or House of the English Guild of Merchant
Adventurers. There is romance in the very name. With moderate wealth came
leisure to Caxton, and he indulged his literary taste by writing his own
version of some popular romances concerning the siege of Troy, being
encouraged by the English princess Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, into
whose service he had entered.
Copies of his work being in demand, Caxton consulted the professional
copyists, whose beautiful work we read about in a remarkable novel called
_The Cloister and the Hearth_. Then suddenly came to Bruges the rumor
of Gutenberg's discovery of printing from movable types, and Caxton
hastened to Germany to investigate the matter, led by the desire to get
copies of his own work as cheaply as possible. The discovery fascinated
him; instead of a few copies of his manuscript he brought back to Bruges a
press, from which he issued his _Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy_
(1474), which was probably the first book to appear in English print. Quick
to see the commercial advantages of the new invention, Caxton moved his
printing press to London, near Westminster Abbey, where he brought out in
1477 his _Dictes and Sayinges of the Philosophers_, the first book
ever printed on English soil. [Footnote: Another book of Caxton's, _The
Game and Playe of the Chesse_ (1475) was long accorded this honor, but
it is fairly certain that the book on chess-playing was printed in Bruges.]
[Sidenote: THE FIRST PRINTED BOOKS]
From the very outset Caxton's venture was successful, and he was soon busy
in supplying books that were most in demand. He has been criticized for not
printing the classics and other books of the New Learning; but he evidently
knew his business and his audience, and aimed to give people what they
wanted, not what he thought they ought to have. Chaucer's _Canterbury
Tales_, Malory's _Morte d'Arthur_, Mandeville's _Travels_,
Asop's _Fables_, parts of the _Aneid_, translations of French
romances, lives of the saints (The Golden Legend), cookbooks, prayer books,
books of etiquette,--the list of Caxton's eighty-odd publications becomes
significant when we remember that he printed only popular books, and that
the titles indicate the taste of the age which first looked upon the marvel
POPULAR BALLADS. If it be asked, "What is a ballad?" any positive answer
will lead to disputation. Originally the ballad was probably a chant to
accompany a dance, and so it represents the earliest form of poetry. In
theory, as various definitions indicate, it is a short poem telling a story
of some exploit, usually of a valorous kind. In common practice, from
Chaucer to Tennyson, the ballad is almost any kind of short poem treating
of any event, grave or gay, in any descriptive or dramatic way that appeals
to the poet.
For the origin of the ballad one must search far back among the social
customs of primitive times. That the Anglo-Saxons were familiar with it
appears from the record of Tacitus, who speaks of their _carmina_ or
narrative songs; but, with the exception of "The Fight at Finnsburgh" and a
few other fragments, all these have disappeared.
During the Middle Ages ballads were constantly appearing among the common
people, [Footnote: Thus, when Sidney says, "I never heard the old song of
Percy and Douglass that I found not my heart moved more than with a
trumpet," and when Shakespeare shows Autolycus at a country fair offering
"songs for men and women of all sizes," both poets are referring to popular
ballads. Even later, as late as the American Revolution, history was first
written for the people in the form of ballads.] but they were seldom
written, and found no standing in polite literature. In the eighteenth
century, however, certain men who had grown weary of the formal poetry of
Pope and his school turned for relief to the old vigorous ballads of the
people, and rescued them from oblivion. The one book to which, more than
any other, we owe the revival of interest in balladry is _Percy's
Reliques of Ancient English Poetry_ (1765).
[Sidenote: THE MARKS OF A BALLAD]
The best of our ballads date in their present form from the fifteenth or
sixteenth century; but the originals were much older, and had been
transmitted orally for years before they were recorded on manuscript. As we
study them we note, as their first characteristic, that they spring from
the unlettered common people, that they are by unknown authors, and that
they appear in different versions because they were changed by each
minstrel to suit his own taste or that of his audience.
A second characteristic is the objective quality of the ballad, which deals
not with a poet's thought or feeling (such subjective emotions give rise to
the lyric) but with a man or a deed. See in the ballad of "Sir Patrick
Spence" (or Spens) how the unknown author goes straight to his story:
The king sits in Dumferling towne,
Drinking the blude-red wine:
"O whar will I get guid sailor
To sail this schip of mine?"
Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the king's richt kne:
"Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor
That sails upon the se."
There is a brief pause to tell us of Sir Patrick's dismay when word comes
that the king expects him to take out a ship at a time when she should be
riding to anchor, then on goes the narrative:
"Mak hast, mak haste, my mirry men all,
Our guid schip sails the morne."
"O say na sae, my master deir,
For I feir a deadlie storme:
"Late, late yestreen I saw the new moone
Wi the auld moone in hir arme,
And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
That we will cum to harme."
At the end there is no wailing, no moral, no display of the poet's feeling,
but just a picture:
O lang, lang may the ladies stand,
Wi thair gold kems in their hair,
Waiting for thair ain deir lords,
For they'll se thame na mair.
Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
It's fiftie fadom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence,
Wi the Scots lords at his feit.
Directness, vigor, dramatic action, an ending that appeals to the
imagination,--most of the good qualities of story-telling are found in this
old Scottish ballad. If we compare it with Longfellow's "Wreck of the
Hesperus," we may discover that the two poets, though far apart in time and
space, have followed almost identical methods.
Other good ballads, which take us out under the open sky among vigorous
men, are certain parts of "The Gest of Robin Hood," "Mary Hamilton," "The
Wife of Usher's Well," "The Wee Wee Man," "Fair Helen," "Hind Horn,"
"Bonnie George Campbell," "Johnnie O'Cockley's Well," "Catharine Jaffray"
(from which Scott borrowed his "Lochinvar"), and especially "The Nutbrown
Mayde," sweetest and most artistic of all the ballads, which gives a
popular and happy version of the tale that Chaucer told in his "Patient
* * * * *
SUMMARY. The period included in the Age of Chaucer and the Revival
of Learning covers two centuries, from 1350 to 1550. The chief
literary figure of the period, and one of the greatest of English
poets, is Geoffrey Chaucer, who died in the year 1400. He was
greatly influenced by French and Italian models; he wrote for the
middle and upper classes; his greatest work was _The Canterbury
Langland, another poet contemporary with Chaucer, is famous for his
_Piers Plowman_, a powerful poem aiming at social reform, and
vividly portraying the life of the common people. It is written in
the old Saxon manner, with accent and alliteration, and is
difficult to read in its original form.
After the death of Chaucer a century and a half passed before
another great writer appeared in England. The time was one of
general decline in literature, and the most obvious causes were:
the Wars of the Roses, which destroyed many of the patrons of
literature; the Reformation, which occupied the nation with
religious controversy; and the Renaissance or Revival of Learning,
which turned scholars to the literature of Greece and Rome rather
than to English works.
In our study of the latter part of the period we reviewed: (1) the
rise of the popular ballad, which was almost the only type of
literature known to the common people. (2) The work of Malory, who
arranged the best of the Arthurian legends in his _Morte
d'Arthur._ (3) The work of Caxton, who brought the first
printing press to London, and who was instrumental in establishing
the East-Midland dialect as the literary language of England.
SELECTIONS FOR READING. Typical selections from all authors of the
period are given in Manly, English Poetry, and English Prose;
Newcomer and Andrews, Twelve Centuries of English Poetry and Prose;
Ward, English Poets; Morris and Skeat, Specimens of Early English.
Chaucer's Prologue, Knight's Tale, and other selections in
Riverside Literature, King's Classics, and several other school
series. A good single-volume edition of Chaucer's poetry is Skeat,
The Student's Chaucer (Clarendon Press). A good, but expensive,
modernized version is Tatlock and MacKaye, Modern Reader's Chaucer
Metrical version of Piers Plowman, by Skeat, in King's Classics;
modernized prose version by Kate Warren, in Treasury of English
Selections from Malory's Morte d'Arthur in Athenaum Press Series
(Ginn and Company); also in Camelot Series. An elaborate edition of
Malory with introduction by Sommer and an essay by Andrew Lang (3
vols., London, 1889); another with modernized text, introduction by
Rhys, illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley (London, 1893).
The best of the old ballads are published in Pocket Classics, and
in Maynard's English Classics; a volume of ancient and modern
English ballads in Ginn and Company's Classics for Children;
Percy's Reliques, in Everyman's Library. Allingham, The Ballad
Book; Hazlitt, Popular Poetry of England; Gummere, Old English
Ballads; Gayley and Flaherty, Poetry of the People; Child, English
and Scottish Popular Poetry (5 vols.); the last-named work, edited
and abridged by Kittredge, in one volume.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. The following works have been sifted from a much
larger number dealing with the age of Chaucer and the Revival of
Learning. More extended works, covering the entire field of English
history and literature, are listed in the General Bibliography.
_HISTORY_. Snell, the Age of Chaucer; Jusserand, Wayfaring
Life in the Fourteenth Century; Jenks, In the Days of Chaucer;
Trevelyan, In the Age of Wyclif; Coulton, Chaucer and His England;
Denton, England in the Fifteenth Century; Green, Town Life in the
Fifteenth Century; Einstein, The Italian Renaissance in England;
Froissart, Chronicles; Lanier, The Boy's Froissart.
_LITERATURE_. Ward, Life of Chaucer (English Men of Letters
Series); Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry (Harvard University
Press); Pollard, Chaucer Primer; Lounsbury, Studies in Chaucer;
Lowell's essay in My Study Windows; essay by Hazlitt, in Lectures
on the English Poets; Jusserand, Piers Plowman; Roper, Life of Sir
_FICTION AND POETRY_. Lytton, Last of the Barons; Yonge,
Lances of Lynwood; Scott, Marmion; Shakespeare, Richard II, Henry
IV, Richard III; Bates and Coman, English History Told by English
THE ELIZABETHAN AGE (1550-1620)
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea, ...
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England!
Shakespeare, _King Richard II_
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND. In such triumphant lines, falling from the
lips of that old imperialist John of Gaunt, did Shakespeare
reflect, not the rebellious spirit of the age of Richard II, but
the boundless enthusiasm of his own times, when the defeat of
Spain's mighty Armada had left England "in splendid isolation,"
unchallenged mistress of her own realm and of the encircling sea.
For it was in the latter part of Elizabeth's reign that England
found herself as a nation, and became conscious of her destiny as a
There is another and darker side to the political shield, but the
student of literature is not concerned with it. We are to remember
the patriotic enthusiasm of the age, overlooking the frequent
despotism of "good Queen Bess" and entering into the spirit of
national pride and power that thrilled all classes of Englishmen
during her reign, if we are to understand the outburst of
Elizabethan literature. Nearly two centuries of trouble and danger
had passed since Chaucer died, and no national poet had appeared in
England. The Renaissance came, and the Reformation, but they
brought no great writers with them. During the first thirty years
of Elizabeth's reign not a single important literary work was
produced; then suddenly appeared the poetry of Spenser and Chapman,
the prose of Hooker, Sidney and Bacon, the dramas of Marlowe,
Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and a score of others,--all voicing the
national feeling after the defeat of the Armada, and growing silent
as soon as the enthusiasm began to wane.
LITERARY CHARACTERISTICS. Next to the patriotic spirit of Elizabethan
literature, its most notable qualities are its youthful freshness and
vigor, its romantic spirit, its absorption in the theme of love, its
extravagance of speech, its lively sense of the wonder of heaven and earth.
The ideal beauty of Spenser's poetry, the bombast of Marlowe, the boundless
zest of Shakespeare's historical plays, the romantic love celebrated in
unnumbered lyrics,--all these speak of youth, of springtime, of the joy and
the heroic adventure of human living.
This romantic enthusiasm of Elizabethan poetry and prose may be explained
by the fact that, besides the national impulse, three other inspiring
influences were at work. The first in point of time was the rediscovery of
the classics of Greece and Rome,--beautiful old poems, which were as new to
the Elizabethans as to Keats when he wrote his immortal sonnet, beginning:
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold.
The second awakening factor was the widespread interest in nature and the
physical sciences, which spurred many another Elizabethan besides Bacon to
"take all knowledge for his province." This new interest was generally
romantic rather than scientific, was more concerned with marvels, like the
philosopher's stone that would transmute all things to gold, than with the
simple facts of nature. Bacon's chemical changes, which follow the
"instincts" of metals, are almost on a par with those other changes
described in Shakespeare's song of Ariel:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
The third factor which stimulated the Elizabethan imagination was the
discovery of the world beyond the Atlantic, a world of wealth, of beauty,
of unmeasured opportunity for brave spirits, in regions long supposed to be
possessed of demons, monsters, Othello's impossible
cannibals that each other eat,
The anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.
[Sidenote: THE NEW WORLD]
When Drake returned from his voyage around the world he brought to England
two things: a tale of vast regions just over the world's rim that awaited
English explorers, and a ship loaded to the hatches with gold and jewels.
That the latter treasure was little better than a pirate's booty; that it
was stolen from the Spaniards, who had taken it from poor savages at the
price of blood and torture,--all this was not mentioned. The queen and her
favorites shared the treasure with Drake's buccaneers, and the New World
seemed to them a place of barbaric splendor, where the savage's wattled hut
was roofed with silver, his garments beaded with all precious jewels. As a
popular play of the period declares:
"Why, man, all their dripping pans are pure gold! The prisoners
they take are fettered in gold; and as for rubies and diamonds,
they goe forth on holydayes and gather 'hem by the seashore to hang
on their children's coates."
Before the American settlements opened England's eyes to the stern reality
of things, it was the romance of the New World that appealed most
powerfully to the imagination, and that influenced Elizabethan literature
to an extent which we have not yet begun to measure.
FOREIGN INFLUENCE. We shall understand the imitative quality of early
Elizabethan poetry if we read it in the light of these facts: that in the
sixteenth century England was far behind other European nations in culture;
that the Renaissance had influenced Italy and Holland for a century before
it crossed the Channel; that, at a time when every Dutch peasant read his
Bible, the masses of English people remained in dense ignorance, and the
majority of the official classes were like Shakespeare's father and
daughter in that they could neither read nor write. So, when the new
national spirit began to express itself in literature, Englishmen turned to
the more cultured nations and began to imitate them in poetry, as in dress
and manners. Shakespeare gives us a hint of the matter when he makes Portia
ridicule the apishness of the English. In _The Merchant of Venice_
(Act I, scene 2) the maid Nerissa is speaking of various princely suitors
for Portia's hand. She names them over, Frenchman, Italian, Scotsman,
German; but Portia makes fun of them all. The maid tries again:
_Nerissa_. What say you, then, to Falconbridge, the young baron of
_Portia_. You know I say nothing to him, for he understands not me,
nor I him: he hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian; and you will
come into the court and swear that I have a poor pennyworth in the
English. He is a proper man's picture, but, alas, who can converse
with a dumb show? How oddly he is suited! I think he bought his
doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany
and his behaviour every where.
When Wyatt and Surrey brought the sonnet to England, they brought also the
habit of imitating the Italian poets; and this habit influenced Spenser and
other Elizabethans even more than Chaucer had been influenced by Dante and
Petrarch. It was the fashion at that time for Italian gentlemen to write
poetry; they practiced the art as they practiced riding or fencing; and
presently scores of Englishmen followed Sidney's example in taking up this
phase of foreign education. It was also an Italian custom to publish the
works of amateur poets in the form of anthologies, and soon there appeared
in England _The Paradise of Dainty Devices, A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant
Inventions_ and other such collections, the best of which was
_England's Helicon_ (1600). Still another foreign fashion was that of
writing a series of sonnets to some real or imaginary mistress; and that
the fashion was followed in England is evident from Spenser's
_Amoretti_, Sidney's _Astrophel and Stella_, Shakespeare's
_Sonnets_, and other less-famous effusions.
* * * * *
SPENSER AND THE LYRIC POETS
[Illustration: MICHAEL DRAYTON]
LYRICS OF LOVE. Love was the subject of a very large part of the minor
poems of the period, the monotony being relieved by an occasional ballad,
such as Drayton's "Battle of Agincourt" and his "Ode to the Virginian
Voyage," the latter being one of the first poems inspired by the New World.
Since love was still subject to literary rules, as in the metrical
romances, it is not strange that most Elizabethan lyrics seem to the modern
reader artificial. They deal largely with goddesses and airy shepherd folk;
they contain many references to classic characters and scenes, to Venus,
Olympus and the rest; they are nearly all characterized by extravagance of
language. A single selection, "Apelles' Song" by Lyly, may serve as typical
of the more fantastic love lyrics:
Cupid and my Campaspe played
At cards for kisses; Cupid paid.
He stakes his quiver, bow and arrows,
His mother's doves and team of sparrows:
Loses them too; then down he throws
The coral of his lip, the rose
Growing on's cheek (but none knows how);
With these the crystal of his brow,
And then the dimple of his chin.
All these did my Campaspe win.
At last he set her both his eyes;
She won, and Cupid blind did rise.
O Love, has she done this to thee?
What shall, alas! become of me?
MUSIC AND POETRY. Another reason for the outburst of lyric poetry in
Elizabethan times was that choral music began to be studied, and there was
great demand for new songs. Then appeared a theory of the close relation
between poetry and music, which was followed by the American poet Lanier
more than two centuries later. [Footnote: Much of Lanier's verse seems more
like a musical improvisation than like an ordinary poem. His theory that
music and poetry are subject to the same laws is developed in his
_Science of English Verse._ It is interesting to note that Lanier's
ancestors were musical directors at the courts of Elizabeth and of James
I.] This interesting theory is foreshadowed in several minor works of the
period; for example, in Barnfield's sonnet "To R. L.," beginning:
If music and sweet poetry agree,
As they must needs, the sister and the brother,
Then must the love be great 'twixt thee and me,
Because thou lov'st the one, and I the other.
The stage caught up the new fashion, and hundreds of lyrics appeared in the
Elizabethan drama, such as Dekker's "Content" (from the play of _Patient
Grissell), which almost sets itself to music as we read it:
Art thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
O sweet content!
Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplexed?
Dost laugh to see how fools are vexed
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?
O sweet content, O sweet, O sweet content!
_Work apace, apace, apace, apace!
Honest labour bears a lovely face.
Then hey noney, noney; hey noney, noney!_
Canst drink the waters of the crisped spring?
O sweet content!
Swim'st thou in wealth, yet sink'st in thine own tears?
Then he that patiently want's burden bears
No burden bears, but is a king, a king.
O sweet content, O sweet, O sweet content!
So many lyric poets appeared during this period that we cannot here
classify them; and it would be idle to list their names. The best place to
make acquaintance with theo is not in a dry history of literature, but in
such a pleasant little book as Palgrave's _Golden Treasury_, where
their best work is accessible to every reader.
* * * * *
EDMUND SPENSER (1552-1599)
Spenser was the second of the great English poets, and it is but natural to
compare him with Chaucer, who was the first. In respect of time nearly two
centuries separate these elder poets; in all other respects, in aims,
ideals, methods, they are as far apart as two men of the same race can well
LIFE. Very little is known of Spenser; he appears in the light,
then vanishes into the shadow, like his Arthur of _The Faery
Queen_. We see him for a moment in the midst of rebellion in
Ireland, or engaged in the scramble for preferment among the
queen's favorites; he disappears, and from his obscurity comes a
poem that is like the distant ringing of a chapel bell, faintly
heard in the clatter of the city streets. We shall try here to
understand this poet by dissolving some of the mystery that
He was born in London, and spent his youth amid the political and
religious dissensions of the times of Mary and Elizabeth. For all
this turmoil Spenser had no stomach; he was a man of peace, of
books, of romantic dreams. He was of noble family, but poor; his
only talent was to write poetry, and as poetry would not buy much
bread in those days, his pride of birth was humbled in seeking the
patronage of nobles:
Full little knowest thou, that hast not tried,
What hell it is in suing long to bide: ...
To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.
To the liberality of a patron he owed his education at Cambridge.
It was then the heyday of Renaissance studies, and Spenser steeped
himself in Greek, Latin and Italian literatures. Everything that
was antique was then in favor at the universities; there was a
revival of interest in Old-English poetry, which accounts largely
for Spenser's use of obsolete words and his imitation of Chaucer's
After graduation he spent some time in the north of England,
probably as a tutor, and had an unhappy love affair, which he
celebrated in his poems to Rosalind. Then he returned to London,
lived by favor in the houses of Sidney and Leicester, and through
these powerful patrons was appointed secretary to Lord Grey de
Wilton, the queen's deputy in Ireland.
[Illustration: EDMUND SPENSER]
[Sidenote: SPENSER'S EXILE]
From this time on our poet is represented as a melancholy Spenser's
"exile," but that is a poetic fiction. At that time Ireland, having
refused to follow the Reformation, was engaged in a desperate
struggle for civil and religious liberty. Every English army that
sailed to crush this rebellion was accompanied by a swarm of
parasites, each inspired by the hope of getting one of the rich
estates that were confiscated from Irish owners. Spenser seems to
have been one of these expectant adventurers who accompanied Lord
Grey in his campaign of brutality. To the horrors of that campaign
the poet was blind; [Footnote: The barbarism of Spenser's view, a
common one at that time, is reflected in his _View of the Present
State of Ireland._ Honorable warfare on land or sea was unknown
in Elizabeth's day. Scores of pirate ships of all nations were then
openly preying on commerce. Drake, Frobisher and many other
Elizabethan "heroes" were at times mere buccaneers who shared their
plunder with the queen. In putting down the Irish rebellion Lords
Grey and Essex used some of the same horrible methods employed by
the notorious Duke of Alva in the Netherlands.] his sympathies were
all for his patron Grey, who appears in The Faery Queen as Sir
Artegall, "the model of true justice."
For his services Spenser was awarded the castle of Kilcolman and
3000 acres of land, which had been taken from the Earl of Desmond.
In the same way Raleigh became an Irish landlord, with 40,000 acres
to his credit; and so these two famous Elizabethans were thrown
together in exile, as they termed it. Both longed to return to
England, to enjoy London society and the revenues of Irish land at
the same time, but unfortunately one condition of their immense
grants was that they should occupy the land and keep the rightful
owners from possessing it.
[Sidenote: WORK IN IRELAND]
In Ireland Spenser began to write his masterpiece _The Faery
Queen_. Raleigh, to whom the first three books were read, was so
impressed by the beauty of the work that he hurried the poet off to
London, and gained for him the royal favor. In the poem "Colin
Clout's Come Home Again" we may read Spenser's account of how the
court impressed him after his sojourn in Ireland.
[Illustration: RALEIGH'S BIRTHPLACE, BUDLEIGH SALTERTON.
The publication of the first parts of _The Faery Queen_ (1590)
raised Spenser to the foremost place in English letters. He was
made poet-laureate, and used every influence of patrons and of
literary success to the end that he be allowed to remain in London,
but the queen was flint-hearted, insisting that he must give up his
estate or occupy it. So he returned sorrowfully to "exile," and
wrote three more books of _The Faery Queen_. To his other
offices was added that of sheriff of County Cork, an adventurous
office for any man even in times of peace, and for a poet, in a
time of turmoil, an invitation to disaster. Presently another
rebellion broke out, Kilcolman castle was burned, and the poet's
family barely escaped with their lives. It was said by Ben Jonson
that one of Spenser's children and some parts of _The Faery
Queen_ perished in the fire, but the truth of the saying has not
Soon after this experience, which crushed the poet's spirit, he was
ordered on official business to London, and died on the journey in
1599. As he was buried beside Chaucer, in Westminster Abbey, poets
were seen casting memorial verses and the pens that had written
them into his tomb.
In character Spenser was unfitted either for the intrigues among
Elizabeth's favorites or for the more desperate scenes amid which
his Lot was cast. Unlike his friend Raleigh, who was a man of
action, Spenser was essentially a dreamer, and except in Cambridge
he seems never to have felt at home. His criticism of the age as
barren and hopeless, and the melancholy of the greater part of his
work, indicate that for him, at least, the great Elizabethan times
were "out of joint." The world, which thinks of Spenser as a great
poet, has forgotten that he thought of himself as a disappointed
WORKS OF SPENSER. The poems of Spenser may be conveniently grouped in three
classes. In the first are the pastorals of _The Shepherd's Calendar_,
in which he reflects some of the poetical fashions of his age. In the
second are the allegories of _The Faery Queen_, in which he pictures
the state of England as a struggle between good and evil. In the third
class are his occasional poems of friendship and love, such as the
_Amoretti_. All his works are alike musical, and all remote from
ordinary life, like the eerie music of a wind harp.
[Sidenote: SHEPHERD'S CALENDAR]
_The Shepherd's Calendar_ (1579) is famous as the poem which announced
that a successor to Chaucer had at last appeared in England. It is an
amateurish work in which Spenser tried various meters; and to analyze it is
to discover two discordant elements, which we may call fashionable poetry
and puritanic preaching. Let us understand these elements clearly, for
apart from them the _Calendar_ is a meaningless work.
It was a fashion among Italian poets to make eclogues or pastoral poems
about shepherds, their dancing, piping, love-making,--everything except a
shepherd's proper business. Spenser followed this artificial fashion in his
_Calendar_ by making twelve pastorals, one for each month of the year.
These all take the form of conversations, accompanied by music and dancing,
and the personages are Cuddie, Diggon, Hobbinoll, and other fantastic
shepherds. According to poetic custom these should sing only of love; but
in Spenser's day religious controversy was rampant, and flattery might not
be overlooked by a poet who aspired to royal favor. So while the January
pastoral tells of the unhappy love of Colin Clout (Spenser) for Rosalind,
the springtime of April calls for a song in praise of Elizabeth:
Lo, how finely the Graces can it foot
To the instrument!
They dancen deffly and singen soote,
In their merriment.
Wants not a fourth Grace to make the dance even?
Let that room to my Lady be yeven.
She shall be a Grace,
To fill the fourth place,
And reign with the rest in heaven.
In May the shepherds are rival pastors of the Reformation, who end their
sermons with an animal fable; in summer they discourse of Puritan theology;
October brings them to contemplate the trials and disappointments of a
poet, and the series ends with a parable comparing life to the four seasons
of the year.
The moralizing of _The Shepherd's Calendar_ and the uncouth spelling
which Spenser affected detract from the interest of the poem; but one who
has patience to read it finds on almost every page some fine poetic line,
and occasionally a good song, like the following (from the August pastoral)
in which two shepherds alternately supply the lines of a roundelay:
Sitting upon a hill so high,
Hey, ho, the high hill!
The while my flock did feed thereby,
The while the shepherd's self did spill,
I saw the bouncing Bellibone,
Hey, ho, Bonnibell!
Tripping over the dale alone;
She can trip it very well.
Well decked in a frock of gray,
Hey, ho, gray is greet!
And in a kirtle of green say;
The green is for maidens meet.
A chaplet on her head she wore,
Hey, ho, chapelet!
Of sweet violets therein was store,
She sweeter than the violet.
THE FAERY QUEEN. Let us hear one of the stories of this celebrated poem,
and after the tale is told we may discover Spenser's purpose in writing all
[Sidenote: SIR GUYON]
From the court of Gloriana, Queen of Faery, the gallant Sir Guyon
sets out on adventure bent, and with him is a holy Palmer, or
pilgrim, to protect him from the evil that lurks by every wayside.
Hardly have the two entered the first wood when they fall into the
hands of the wicked Archimago, who spends his time in devising
spells or enchantments for the purpose of leading honest folk
For all he did was to deceive good knights,
And draw them from pursuit of praise and fame.
Escaping from the snare, Guyon hears a lamentation, and turns aside
to find a beautiful woman dying beside a dead knight. Her story is,
that her man has been led astray by the Lady Acrasia, who leads
many knights to her Bower of Bliss, and there makes them forget
honor and knightly duty. Guyon vows to right this wrong, and
proceeds on the adventure.
With the Palmer and a boatman he embarks in a skiff and crosses the
Gulf of Greediness, deadly whirlpools on one side, and on the other
the Magnet Mountain with wrecks of ships strewed about its foot.
Sighting the fair Wandering Isles, he attempts to land, attracted
here by a beautiful damsel, there by a woman in distress; but the
Palmer tells him that these seeming women are evil shadows placed
there to lead men astray. Next he meets the monsters of the deep,
"sea-shouldering whales," "scolopendras," "grisly wassermans,"
"mighty monoceroses with unmeasured tails." Escaping these, he
meets a greater peril in the mermaids, who sing to him alluringly:
This is port of rest from troublous toil,
The world's sweet inn from pain and wearisome turmoil.
Many other sea-dangers are passed before Guyon comes to land, where
he is immediately charged by a bellowing herd of savage beasts.
Only the power of the Palmer's holy staff saves the knight from
This is the last physical danger which Guyon encounters. As he goes
forward the country becomes an earthly paradise, where pleasures
call to him from every side. It is his soul, not his body, which is
now in peril. Here is the Palace of Pleasure, its wondrous gates
carved with images representing Jason's search for the Golden
Fleece. Beyond it are parks, gardens, fountains, and the beautiful
Lady Excess, who squeezes grapes into a golden cup and offers it to
Guyon as an invitation to linger. The scene grows ever more
entrancing as he rejects the cup of Excess and pushes onward:
Eftsoones they heard a most melodious sound
Of all that mote delight a dainty ear,
Such as at once might not on living ground,
Save in this paradise, be heard elsewhere:
Right hard it was for wight which did it hear
To read what manner music that mote be;
For all that pleasing is to living ear
Was there consorted in one harmony;
Birds, voices, instruments, winds, waters, all agree.
Amid such allurements Guyon comes at last to where beautiful
Acrasia lives, with knights who forget their knighthood. From the
open portal comes a melody, the voice of an unseen singer lifting
up the old song of Epicurus and of Omar:
Gather the rose of love whilst yet is time.
The following scenes in the Bower of Bliss were plainly suggested
by the Palace of Circe, in the _Odyssey_; but where Homer is
direct, simple, forceful, Spenser revels in luxuriant details. He
charms all Guyon's senses with color, perfume, beauty, harmony;
then he remembers that he is writing a moral poem, and suddenly his
delighted knight turns reformer. He catches Acrasia in a net woven
by the Palmer, and proceeds to smash her exquisite abode with
But all those pleasaunt bowers and palace brave
Guyon brake down with rigour pitilesse.
As they fare forth after the destruction, the herd of horrible
beasts is again encountered, and lo! all these creatures are men
whom Acrasia has transformed into brutal shapes. The Palmer
"strooks" them all with his holy staff, and they resume their human
semblance. Some are glad, others wroth at the change; and one named
Grylle, who had been a hog, reviles his rescuers for disturbing
him; which gives the Palmer a final chance to moralize:
Let Grylle be Grylle and have his hoggish mind;
But let us hence depart while weather serves and wind.
[Sidenote: OTHER STORIES]
Such is Spenser's story of Sir Guyon, or Temperance. It is a long story,
drifting through eighty-seven stanzas, but it is only a final chapter or
canto of the second book of _The Faery Queen_. Preceding it are eleven
other cantos which serve as an introduction. So leisurely is Spenser in
telling a tale! One canto deals with the wiles of Archimago and of the
"false witch" Duessa; in another the varlet Braggadocchio steals Guyon's
horse and impersonates a knight, until he is put to shame by the fair
huntress Belphoebe, who is Queen Elizabeth in disguise. Now Elizabeth had a
hawk face which was far from comely, but behold how it appeared to a poet:
Her face so fair, as flesh it seemed not,
But heavenly portrait of bright angel's hue,
Clear as the sky, withouten blame or blot,
Through goodly mixture of complexions due;
And in her cheek the vermeil red did shew
Like roses in a bed of lilies shed,
The which ambrosial odours from them threw
And gazers' sense with double pleasure fed,
Able to heal the sick and to revive the dead.
There are a dozen more stanzas devoted to her voice, her eyes, her hair,
her more than mortal beauty. Other cantos of the same book are devoted to
Guyon's temptations; to his victories over Furor and Mammon; to his rescue
of the Lady Alma, besieged by a horde of villains in her fair Castle of
Temperance. In this castle was an aged man, blind but forever doting over
old records; and this gives Spenser the inspiration for another long canto
devoted to the ancient kings of Britain. So all is fish that comes to this
poet's net; but as one who is angling for trout is vexed by the nibbling of
chubs, the reader grows weary of Spenser's story before his story really
[Sidenote: THE FIRST BOOK]
Other books of _The Faery Queen_ are so similar in character to the
one just described that a canto from any one of them may be placed without
change in any other. In the first book, for example, the Redcross Knight
(Holiness) fares forth accompanied by the Lady Una (Religion). Straightway
they meet the enchanter Archimago, who separates them by fraud and magic.
The Redcross Knight, led to believe that his Una is false, comes, after
many adventures, to Queen Lucifera in the House of Pride; meanwhile Una
wanders alone amidst perils, and by her beauty subdues the lion and the
satyrs of the wood. The rest of the book recounts their adventures with
paynims, giants and monsters, with Error, Avarice, Falsehood and other
It is impossible to outline such a poem, for the simple reason that it has
no outlines. It is a phantasmagoria of beautiful and grotesque shapes, of
romance, morality and magic. Reading it is like watching cloud masses,
aloft and remote, in which the imagination pictures men, monsters,
landscapes, which change as we view them without cause or consequence.
Though _The Faery Queen_ is overfilled with adventure, it has no
action, as we ordinarily understand the term. Its continual motion is
without force or direction, like the vague motions of a dream.
[Sidenote: PLAN OF THE FAERY QUEEN]
What, then, was Spenser's object in writing _The Faery Queen_? His
professed object was to use poetry in the service of morality by portraying
the political and religious affairs of England as emblematic of a worldwide
conflict between good and evil. According to his philosophy (which, he
tells us, he borrowed from Aristotle) there were twelve chief virtues, and
he planned twelve books to celebrate them. [Footnote: Only six of these
books are extant, treating of the Redcross Knight or Holiness, Sir Guyon or
Temperance, Britomartis or Chastity, Cambel and Triamond or Friendship, Sir
Artegall or Justice, and Sir Calidore or Courtesy. The rest of the
allegory, if written, may have been destroyed in the fire of Kilcolman.] In
each book a knight or a lady representing a single virtue goes forth into
the world to conquer evil. In all the books Arthur, or Magnificence (the
sum of all virtue), is apt to appear in any crisis; Lady Una represents
religion; Archimago is another name for heresy, and Duessa for falsehood;
and in order to give point to Spenser's allegory the courtiers and
statesmen of the age are all flattered as glorious virtues or condemned as
[Sidenote: THE ALLEGORY]
Those who are fond of puzzles may delight in giving names and dates to
these allegorical personages, in recognizing Elizabeth in Belphoebe or
Britomart or Marcella, Sidney in the Redcross Knight, Leicester in Arthur,
Raleigh in Timias, Mary Stuart in Duessa, and so on through the list of
characters good or evil. The beginner will wisely ignore all such
interpretation, and for two reasons: first, because Spenser's allegories
are too shadowy to be taken seriously; and second, because as a chronicler
of the times he is outrageously partisan and untrustworthy. In short, to
search for any reality in _The Faery Queen_ is to spoil the poem as a
work of the imagination. "If you do not meddle with the allegory," said
Hazlitt, "the allegory will not meddle with you."
MINOR POEMS. The minor poems of Spenser are more interesting, because more
human, than the famous work which we have just considered. Prominent among
these poems are the _Amoretti_, a collection of sonnets written in
honor of the Irish girl Elizabeth, who became the poet's wife. They are
artificial, to be sure, but no more so than other love poems of the period.
In connection with a few of these sonnets may be read Spenser's four
"Hymns" (in honor of Love, Beauty, Heavenly Love and Heavenly Beauty) and
especially his "Epithalamium," a marriage hymn which Brooke calls, with
pardonable enthusiasm, "the most glorious love song in the English
A CRITICISM OF SPENSER. In reading _The Faery Queen_ one must note the
contrast between Spenser's matter and his manner. His matter is: religion,
chivalry, mythology, Italian romance, Arthurian legends, the struggles of
Spain and England on the Continent, the Reformation, the turmoil of
political parties, the appeal of the New World,--a summary of all stirring
matters that interested his own tumultuous age. His manner is the reverse
of what one might expect under the circumstances. He writes no stirring
epic of victory or defeat, and never a downright word of a downright man,
but a dreamy, shadowy narrative as soothing as the abode of Morpheus:
And, more to lulle him in his slumber soft,
A trickling stream from high rock tumbling downe,
And ever-drizzling rain upon the loft,
Mixt with a murmuring winde, much like the sowne
Of swarming bees, did cast him in a swowne.
No other noyse, nor people's troublous cryes,
As still are wont t' annoy the walled towne,
Might there be heard; but careless Quiet lyes
Wrapt in eternal silence far from enemyes.
Such stanzas (and they abound in every book of _The Faery Queen_) are
poems in themselves; but unfortunately they distract attention from the
story, which soon loses all progression and becomes as the rocking of an
idle boat on the swell of a placid sea. The invention of this melodious
stanza, ever since called "Spenserian," was in itself a notable achievement
which influenced all subsequent English poetry. [Footnote: The Spenserian
was an improvement on the _ottava-rima_, or eight-line stanza, of the
Italians. It has been used by Burns in "The Cotter's Saturday Night," by
Shelley in "The Revolt of Islam," by Byron in "Childe Harold," by Keats in
"The Eve of St. Agnes," and by many other poets.]
[Sidenote: SPENSER'S FAULTS]
As Spenser's faults cannot be ignored, let us be rid of them as quickly as
possible. We record, then: the unreality of his great work; its lack of
human interest, which causes most of us to drop the poem after a single
canto; its affected antique spelling; its use of _fone_ (foes),
_dan_ (master), _teene_ (trouble), _swink_ (labor), and of
many more obsolete words; its frequent torturing of the king's English to
make a rime; its utter lack of humor, appearing in such absurd lines as,
Astond he stood, and up his hair did hove.
[Sidenote: MORAL IDEAL]
Such defects are more than offset by Spenser's poetic virtues. We note,
first, the moral purpose which allies him with the medieval poets in aim,
but not in method. By most medieval romancers virtue was regarded as a
means to an end, as in the _Morte d' Arthur_, where a knight made a
vow of purity in order to obtain a sight of the Holy Grail. With Spenser
virtue is not a means but an end, beautiful and desirable for its own sake;
while sin is so pictured that men avoid it because of its intrinsic
ugliness. This is the moral secret of _The Faery Queen_, in which
virtues are personified as noble knights or winsome women, while the vices
appear in the repulsive guise of hags, monsters and "loathy beasts."
[Sidenote: SENSE OF BEAUTY]
Spenser's sense of ideal beauty or, as Lanier expressed it, "the beauty of
holiness and the holiness of beauty," is perhaps his greatest poetic
quality. He is the poet-painter of the Renaissance; he fills his pages with
descriptions of airy loveliness, as Italian artists covered the high
ceilings of Venice with the reflected splendor of earth and heaven.
Moreover, his sense of beauty found expression in such harmonious lines
that one critic describes him as having set beautiful figures moving to
In consequence of this beauty and melody, Spenser has been the inspiration
of nearly all later English singers. Milton was one of the first to call
him master, and then in a long succession such diverse poets as Dryden,
Burns, Wordsworth, Scott, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Tennyson and Swinburne.
The poet of "Faery" has influenced all these and more so deeply that he has
won the distinctive title of "the poets' poet."
* * * * *
"Few events in our literary history are so startling as this sudden rise of
the Elizabethan drama," says Green in his _History of the English
People_, and his judgment is echoed by other writers who speak of the
"marvelous efflorescence" of the English drama as a matter beyond
explanation. Startling it may be, with its frank expression of a nation's
life, the glory and the shame of it; but there is nothing sudden or
inexplicable about it, as we may see by reviewing the history of
playwriting in England.
THE RELIGIOUS DRAMA. In its simplicity the drama is a familiar story retold
to the eye by actors who "make believe" that they are the heroes of the
action. In this elemental form the play is almost as old as humanity.
Indeed, it seems to be a natural impulse of children to act a story which
has given them pleasure; of primitive men also, who from time immemorial
have kept alive the memory of tribal heroes by representing their deeds in
play or pantomime. Thus, certain parts of _Hiawatha_ are survivals of
dramatic myths that were once acted at the spring assembly of the Algonquin
Indians. An interesting fact concerning these primitive dramas, whether in
India or Greece or Persia, is that they were invariably associated with
some religious belief or festival.
[Sidenote: THE FIRST MIRACLES]
A later example of this is found in the Church, which at an early age began
to make its holy-day services more impressive by means of Miracle plays and
Mysteries. [Footnote: In France any play representing the life of a saint
was called _miracle_, and a play dealing with the life of Christ was
called _mystere_. In England no such distinction was made, the name
"Miracle" being given to any drama dealing with Bible history or with the
lives of the saints.] At Christmas time, for example, the beautiful story
of Bethlehem would be made more vivid by placing in a corner of the parish
church an image of a babe in a manger, with shepherds and the Magi at hand,
and the choir in white garments chanting the _Gloria in excelsis_.
Other festivals were celebrated in a similar way until a cycle of simple
dramas had been prepared, clustering around four cardinal points of
Christian teaching; namely, Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and Doomsday or
the Last Judgment.
[Sidenote: GROWTH OF THE MIRACLES]
At first such plays were given in the church, and were deeply religious in
spirit. They made a profound impression in England especially, where people
flocked in such numbers to see them that presently they overflowed to the
churchyard, and from there to the city squares or the town common. Once
outside the church, they were taken up by the guilds or trades-unions, in
whose hands they lost much of their religious character. Actors were
trained for the stage rather than for the church, and to please the crowds
elements of comedy and buffoonery were introduced, [Footnote: In the
"Shepherd's Play" or "Play of the Nativity," for example, the adoration of
the Magi is interrupted by Mak, who steals a sheep and carries it to his
wife. She hides the carcass in a cradle, and sings a lullaby to it while
the indignant shepherds are searching the house.] until the sacred drama
degenerated into a farce. Here and there, however, a true Miracle survived
and kept its character unspotted even to our own day, as in the famous
Passion Play at Oberammergau.
[Sidenote: CYCLES OF PLAYS]
When and how these plays came to England is unknown. By the year 1300 they
were extremely popular, and continued so until they were replaced by the
Elizabethan drama. Most of the important towns of England had each its own
cycle of plays [Footnote: At present only four good cycles of Miracles are
known to exist; namely, the Chester, York, Townley (or Wakefield) and
Coventry plays. The number of plays varies, from twenty-five in the Chester
to forty-eight in the York cycle.] which were given once a year, the
performance lasting from three to eight days in a prolonged festival. Every
guild responsible for a play had its own stage, which was set on wheels and
drawn about the town to appointed open places, where a crowd was waiting
for it. When it passed on, to repeat the play to a different audience,
another stage took its place. The play of "Creation" would be succeeded by
the "Temptation of Adam and Eve," and so on until the whole cycle of
Miracles from "Creation" to "Doomsday" had been performed. It was the play
not the audience that moved, and in this trundling about of the stage van
we are reminded of Thespis, the alleged founder of Greek tragedy, who went
about with his cart and his play from one festival to another.
Two other dramatic types, the Morality and the Interlude, probably grew out
of the religious drama. In one of the old Miracles we find two characters
named Truth and Righteousness, who are severe in their denunciation of
Adam, while Mercy and Peace plead for his life. Other virtues appear in
other Miracles, then Death and the Seven Deadly Sins, until we have a play
in which all the characters are personified virtues or vices. Such a play
was called a Morality, and it aimed to teach right conduct, as the Miracles
had at first aimed to teach right doctrine.
The Interlude was at first a crude sketch, a kind of ancient side show,
introduced into the Miracle plays after the latter had been taken up by the
guilds. A boy with a trained pig, a quarrel between husband and wife,--any
farce was welcome so long as it amused the crowd or enlivened the Miracle.
In time, however, the writing of Interludes became a profession; they
improved rapidly in character, were separated from the Miracles, and were
performed at entertainments or "revels" by trade guilds, by choir boys and
by companies of strolling actors or "minstrels." At the close of such
entertainments the minstrels would add a prayer for the king (an
inheritance from the religious drama), and this impressive English custom
still survives in the singing of "God Save the King" at the end of a public
THE SECULAR DRAMA. When the Normans came to England they brought with them
a love of pageants, or spectacles, that was destined to have an important
influence on the drama. These pageants, representing scenes from history or
mythology (such as the bout between Richard and Saladin, or the combat
between St. George and the Dragon), were staged to celebrate feasts, royal
weddings, treaties or any other event that seemed of special importance.
From Norman times they increased steadily in favor until Elizabeth began
her "progresses" through England, when every castle or town must prepare a
play or pageant to entertain the royal visitor.
[Sidenote: THE MASQUE]
From simple pantomime the pageant developed into a masque; that is, a
dramatic entertainment accompanied by poetry and music. Hundreds of such
masques were written and acted before Shakespeare's day; the taste for them
survived long after the Elizabethan drama had decayed; and a few of them,
such as _The Sad Shepherd_ of Ben Jonson and the _Comus_ of
Milton, may still be read with pleasure.
[Sidenote: POPULAR COMEDY]
While the nobles were thus occupied with pageants and masques, the common
people were developing a crude drama in which comedy predominated. Such
were the Christmas plays or "mummings," introducing the characters of Merry
Andrew and Old King Cole, which began in England before the Conquest, and
which survived in country places down to our own times. [Footnote: In
Hardy's novel _The Return of the Native_ may be found a description of
these mummings (from "mum," a mask) in the nineteenth century. In Scott's
novel _The Abbot_ we have a glimpse of other mummings, such as were
given to celebrate feast days of the Church.] More widespread than the
mummings were crude spectacles prepared in celebration of secular
holidays,--the May Day plays, for example, which represented the adventures
of Robin Hood and his merry men. To these popular comedies the Church
contributed liberally, though unwillingly; its holy days became holidays to
the crowd, and its solemn fasts were given over to merriment, to the
_festa fatuorum_, or play of fools, in which such characters as Boy
Bishop, Lord of Misrule and various clowns or jesters made a scandalous
caricature of things ecclesiastical. Such plays, prepared largely by clerks
and choir boys, were repeatedly denounced by priest or bishop, but they
increased rapidly from the twelfth to the sixteenth century.
[Sidenote: SPREAD OF THE DRAMA]
By the latter date England seemed in danger of going spectacle-mad; and we
may understand the symptoms if we remember that the play was then almost
the only form of popular amusement; that it took the place of the modern
newspaper, novel, political election and ball game, all combined. The trade
guilds, having trained actors for the springtime Miracles, continued to
give other plays throughout the year. The servants of a nobleman, having
given a pageant to welcome the queen, went out through the country in
search of money or adventure, and presented the same spectacle wherever
they could find an audience. When the Renaissance came, reviving interest
in the classics, Latin plays were taken up eagerly and presented in
modified form by every important school or university in England. In this
way our first regular comedy, _Ralph Royster Doyster_ (written by
Nicholas Udall, Master of Eton, and acted by his schoolboys _cir_.
1552), was adapted from an old Latin comedy, the _Miles Gloriosus_ of
[Sidenote: BOY ACTORS]
The awakened interest in music had also its influences on the English
drama. The choir boys of a church were frequently called upon to furnish
music at a play, and from this it was but a step to furnish both the play
and the music. So great was the demand to hear these boys that certain
choir masters (those of St. Paul's and the Chapel Royal) obtained the right
to take any poor boy with a good voice and train him, ostensibly for the
service of the Church, but in reality to make a profitable actor out of
him. This dangerous practice was stimulated by the fact that the feminine
parts in all plays had to be taken by boys, the stage being then deemed an
unfit place for a woman. And it certainly was. If a boy "took to his
lines," his services were sold from one company to another, much as the
popular ball player is now sold, but with this difference, that the poor
boy had no voice or profit in the transaction. Some of these lads were
cruelly treated; all were in danger of moral degradation. The abuse was
finally suppressed by Parliament, but not until the choir-boy players were
rivals of the regular companies, in which Shakespeare and Ben Jonson played
CLASSICAL AND ENGLISH DRAMA. At the time of Shakespeare's birth two types
of plays were represented in England. The classic drama, modeled upon Greek
or Roman plays, was constructed according to the dramatic "unities," which
Aristotle foreshadowed in his _Treatise on Poetry_. According to this
authority, every play must be concerned with a "single, important and
complete event"; in other words, it must have "unity of action." A second
rule, relating to "unity of time," required that the events represented in
a play must all occur within a single day. A third provided that the action
should take place in the same locality, and this was known as the "unity of
place." [Footnote: The Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca (d. 65 A.D.)
is supposed to have established this rule. The influence of Aristotle on
the "unities" is a matter of dispute.] Other rules of classic drama
required that tragedy and comedy should not occur in the same play, and
that battles, murders and all such violent affairs should never be
represented on the stage but be announced at the proper time by a
[Sidenote: THE NATIVE DRAMA]
The native plays ignored these classic unities. The public demanded
chronicle plays, for example, in which the action must cover years of time,
and jump from court to battlefield in following the hero. Tragedy and
comedy, instead of being separated, were represented as meeting at every
crossroad or entering the church door side by side. So the most solemn
Miracles were scandalized by humorous Interludes, and into the most tragic
of Shakespeare's scenes entered the fool and the jester. A Greek playwright
might object to brutalizing scenes before a cultured audience, but the
crowds who came to an Elizabethan play were of a temper to enjoy a Mohawk
scalp dance. They were accustomed to violent scenes and sensations; they
had witnessed the rack and gibbet in constant operation; they were familiar
with the sight of human heads decorating the posts of London Bridge or
carried about on the pikes of soldiers. After witnessing such horrors free
of cost, they would follow their queen and pay their money to see a chained
bear torn to pieces by ferocious bulldogs. Then they would go to a play,
and throw stones or dead cats at the actors if their tastes were not
To please such crowds no stage action could possibly be too rough; hence
the riotousness of the early theaters, which for safety were placed outside
the city limits; hence also the blood and thunder of Shakespeare's
_Adronicus_ and the atrocities represented in the plays of Kyd and
[Sidenote: THE TWO SCHOOLS]
Following such different ideals, two schools of playwrights appeared in
England. One school, the University Wits, to whom we owe our first real
tragedy, _Gorboduc_, [Footnote: This play, called also _Ferrex and
Porrex_, was written by Sackville and Norton, and played in 1562, only
two years before Shakespeare's birth. It related how Gorboduc divided his
British kingdom between his two sons, who quarreled and threw the whole
country into rebellion--a story much like that used by Shakespeare in
_King Lear_. The violent parts of this first tragedy were not
represented on the stage but were announced by a messenger. At the end of
each act a "chorus" summed up the situation, as in classic tragedy.
_Gorboduc_ differed from all earlier plays in that it was divided into
acts and scenes, and was written in blank verse. It is generally regarded
as the first in time of the Elizabethan dramas. A few comedies divided into
acts and scenes were written before _Gorboduc_, but not in the blank
verse with which we associate an Elizabethan play.] aimed to make the
English drama like that of Greece and Rome. The other, or native, school
aimed at a play which should represent life, or please the crowd, without
regard to any rules ancient or modern. The best Elizabethan drama was a
combination of classic and native elements, with the latter predominating.
SHAKESPEARE'S PREDECESSORS. In a general way, all unknown men who for three
centuries had been producing miracle plays, moralities, interludes, masques
and pageants were Shakespeare's predecessors; but we refer here to a small
group of playwrights who rapidly developed what is now called the
Elizabethan drama. The time was the last quarter of the sixteenth century.
By that time England was as excited over the stage as a modern community
over the "movies." Plays were given on every important occasion by choir
boys, by noblemen's servants, by court players governed by the Master of
Revels, by grammar schools and universities, by trade guilds in every shire
of England. Actors were everywhere in training, and audiences gathered as
to a bull-baiting whenever a new spectacle was presented. Then came the
awakening of the national consciousness, the sense of English pride and
power after the defeat of the Armada, and this new national spirit found
expression in hundreds of chronicle plays representing the past glories of
Britain. [Footnote: Over two hundred chronicle plays, representing almost
every important character in English history, appeared within a few years.
Shakespeare wrote thirteen plays founded on English history, and three on
the history of other countries.]
It was at this "psychological moment," when English patriotism was aroused
and London was as the heart of England, that a group of young
actors--Greene, Lyly, Peele, Dekker, Nash, Kyd, Marlowe, and others of less
degree--seized upon the crude popular drama, enlarged it to meet the needs
of the time, and within a single generation made it such a brilliant
reflection of national thought and feeling as no other age has thus far