Juliet Sutherland, Sjaani and PG Distributed Proofreaders
Chautauqua Reading Circle Literature
CHAUCER TO TENNYSON
WITH TWENTY-NINE PORTRAITS
SELECTIONS FROM THIRTY AUTHORS.
HENRY A. BEERS
_Professor of English Literature in Yale University_.
In so brief a history of so rich a literature, the problem is how to get room enough to give, not an adequate impression–that is impossible–but any impression at all of the subject. To do this I have crowded out every thing but _belles lettres_. Books in philosophy, history, science, etc., however important in the history of English thought, receive the merest incidental mention, or even no mention at all. Again, I have omitted the literature of the Anglo-Saxon period, which is written in a language nearly as hard for a modern Englishman to read as German is, or Dutch. Caedmon and Cynewulf are no more a part of English literature than Vergil and Horace are of Italian. I have also left out the vernacular literature of the Scotch before the time of Burns. Up to the date of the union Scotland was a separate kingdom, and its literature had a development independent of the English, though parallel with it.
In dividing the history into periods, I have followed, with some modifications, the divisions made by Mr. Stopford Brooke in his excellent little _Primer of English Literature_. A short reading course is appended to each chapter.
HENRY A. BEERS.
FROM THE CONQUEST TO CHAUCER, 1066-1400
FROM CHAUCER TO SPENSER, 1400-1599
THE AGE OF SHAKSPERE, 1564-1616
THE AGE OF MILTON, 1608-1674
FROM THE RESTORATION TO THE DEATH OF POPE, 1660-1744
FROM THE DEATH OF POPE TO THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, 1744-1789
FROM THE FRENCH REVOLUTION TO THE DEATH OF SCOTT, 1789-1832
FROM THE DEATH OF SCOTT TO THE PRESENT TIME, 1832-1893
LIST OF PORTRAITS.
GEOFFREY CHAUCER, EDMUND SPENSER, FRANCIS BACON, JOHN MILTON
JOHN DRYDEN, JOSEPH ADDISON, ALEXANDER POPE, JONATHAN SWIFT
SAMUEL JOHNSON, OLIVER GOLDSMITH, WILLIAM COWPER, ROBERT BURNS
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, GEORGE GORDON BYRON, PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, JOHN KEATS
ROBERT SOUTHEY, SIR WALTER SCOTT, SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY
THOMAS CARLYLE, JOHN RUSKIN, WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY, CHARLES DICKENS
GEORGE ELIOT (MARY ANN EVANS), JAMES ANTHONY FROUDE, ROBERT BROWNING, ALFRED TENNYSON
_The required books of the C.L.S.C. are recommended by a Council of six. It must, however, be understood that recommendation does not involve an approval by the Council, or by any member of it, of every principle or doctrine contained in the book recommended._
FROM THE CONQUEST TO CHAUCER.
The Norman conquest of England, in the 11th century, made a break in the natural growth of the English language and literature. The Old English or Anglo-Saxon had been a purely Germanic speech, with a complicated grammar and a full set of inflections. For three hundred years following the battle of Hastings this native tongue was driven from the king’s court and the courts of law, from Parliament, school, and university. During all this time there were two languages spoken in England. Norman French was the birth-tongue of the upper classes and English of the lower. When the latter got the better of the struggle, and became, about the middle of the 14th century, the national speech of all England, it was no longer the English of King Alfred. It was a new language, a grammarless tongue, almost wholly stripped of its inflections. It had lost half of its old words, and had filled their places with French equivalents. The Norman lawyers had introduced legal terms; the ladies and courtiers words of dress and courtesy. The knight had imported the vocabulary of war and of the chase. The master-builders of the Norman castles and cathedrals contributed technical expressions proper to the architect and the mason. The art of cooking was French. The naming of the living animals, _ox, swine, sheep, deer_, was left to the Saxon churl who had the herding of them, while the dressed meats, _beef, pork, mutton, venison_, received their baptism from the table-talk of his Norman master. The four orders of begging friars, and especially the Franciscans or Gray Friars, introduced into England in 1224, became intermediaries between the high and the low. They went about preaching to the poor, and in their sermons they intermingled French with English. In their hands, too, was almost all the science of the day; their _medicine, botany_, and _astronomy_ displaced the old nomenclature of _leechdom, wort-cunning_ and _star-craft._ And, finally, the translators of French poems often found it easier to transfer a foreign word bodily than to seek out a native synonym, particularly when the former supplied them with a rhyme. But the innovation reached even to the commonest words in every-day use, so that _voice_ drove out _steven, poor_ drove out _earm_, and _color, use_, and _place_ made good their footing beside _hue, wont_, and _stead_. A great part of the English words that were left were so changed in spelling and pronunciation as to be practically new. Chaucer stands, in date, midway between King Alfred and Alfred Tennyson, but his English differs vastly more from the former’s than from the latter’s. To Chaucer, Anglo-Saxon was as much a dead language as it is to us.
The classical Anglo-Saxon, moreover, had been the Wessex dialect, spoken and written at Alfred’s capital, Winchester. When the French had displaced this as the language of culture, there was no longer a “king’s English” or any literary standard. The sources of modern standard English are to be found in the East Midland, spoken in Lincoln, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridge, and neighboring shires. Here the old Anglian had been corrupted by the Danish settlers, and rapidly threw off its inflections when it became a spoken and no longer a written language, after the Conquest. The West Saxon, clinging more tenaciously to ancient forms, sank into the position of a local dialect; while the East Midland, spreading to London, Oxford, and Cambridge, became the literary English in which Chaucer wrote.
The Normans brought in also new intellectual influences and new forms of literature. They were a cosmopolitan people, and they connected England with the Continent. Lanfranc and Anselm, the first two Norman archbishops of Canterbury, were learned and splendid prelates of a type quite unknown to the Anglo-Saxons. They introduced the scholastic philosophy taught at the University of Paris, and the reformed discipline of the Norman abbeys. They bound the English Church more closely to Rome, and officered it with Normans. English bishops were deprived of their sees for illiteracy, and French abbots were set over monasteries of Saxon monks. Down to the middle of the 14th century the learned literature of England was mostly in Latin, and the polite literature in French. English did not at any time altogether cease to be a written language, but the extant remains of the period from 1066 to 1200 are few and, with one exception, unimportant. After 1200 English came more and more into written use, but mainly in translations, paraphrases, and imitations of French works. The native genius was at school, and followed awkwardly the copy set by its master.
The Anglo-Saxon poetry, for example, had been rhythmical and alliterative. It was commonly written in lines containing four rhythmical accents and with three of the accented syllables alliterating.
_R_este hine tha _r_um-heort; _r_eced hlifade _G_eap and _g_old-fah, _g_aest inne swaef.
Rested him then the great-hearted; the hall towered Roomy and gold-bright, the guest slept within.
This rude, energetic verse the Saxon _scop_ had sung to his harp or _glee-beam_, dwelling on the emphatic syllables, passing swiftly over the others, which were of undetermined number and position in the line. It was now displaced by the smooth metrical verse with rhymed endings, which the French introduced and which our modern poets use, a verse fitted to be recited rather than sung. The old English alliterative verse continued, indeed, in occasional use to the 16th century. But it was linked to a forgotten literature and an obsolete dialect, and was doomed to give way. Chaucer lent his great authority to the more modern verse system, and his own literary models and inspirers were all foreign, French or Italian. Literature in England began to be once more English and truly national in the hands of Chaucer and his contemporaries, but it was the literature of a nation cut off from its own past by three centuries of foreign rule.
The most noteworthy English document of the 11th and 12th centuries was the continuation of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. Copies of these annals, differing somewhat among themselves, had been kept at the monasteries in Winchester, Abingdon, Worcester, and elsewhere. The yearly entries are mostly brief, dry records of passing events, though occasionally they become full and animated. The fen country of Cambridge and Lincolnshire was a region of monasteries. Here were the great abbeys of Peterborough and Croyland and Ely minster. One of the earliest English songs tells how the savage heart of the Danish king Cnut was softened by the singing of the monks in Ely.
Merie sungen muneches binnen Ely
Tha Cnut chyning reu ther by;
Roweth, cnihtes, noer the land.
And here we thes muneches sang.
Merrily sung the monks in Ely
When King Canute rowed by.
‘Row boys, nearer the land,
And let us hear these monks’ song.’
It was among the dikes and marshes of this fen country that the bold outlaw Hereward, “the last of the English,” held out for some years against the conqueror. And it was here, in the rich abbey of Burgh or Peterborough, the ancient Medeshamstede (meadow-homestead), that the chronicle was continued nearly a century after the Conquest, breaking off abruptly in 1154, the date of King Stephen’s death. Peterborough had received a new Norman abbot, Turold, “a very stern man,” and the entry in the chronicle for 1070 tells how Hereward and his gang, with his Danish backers, thereupon plundered the abbey of its treasures, which were first removed to Ely, and then carried off by the Danish fleet and sunk, lost, or squandered. The English in the later portions of this Peterborough chronicle becomes gradually more modern, and falls away more and more from the strict grammatical standards of the classical Anglo-Saxon. It is a most valuable historical monument, and some passages of it are written with great vividness, notably the sketch of William the Conquerer put down in the year of his death (1086) by one who had “looked upon him and at another time dwelt in his court.” “He who was before a rich king, and lord of many a land, he had not then of all his land but a piece of seven feet….Likewise he was a very stark man and a terrible, so that one durst do nothing against his will…. Among other things is not to be forgotten the good peace that he made in this land, so that a man might fare over his kingdom with his bosom full of gold unhurt. He set up a great deer preserve, and he laid laws therewith that whoso should slay hart or hind, he should be blinded. As greatly did he love the tall deer as if he were their father.”
With the discontinuance of the Peterborough annals, English history written in English prose ceased for three hundred years. The thread of the nation’s story was kept up in Latin chronicles, compiled by writers partly of English and partly of Norman descent. The earliest of these, such as Ordericus Vitalis, Simeon of Durham, Henry of Huntingdon, and William of Malmesbury, were contemporary with the later entries of the Saxon chronicle. The last of them, Matthew of Westminster, finished his work in 1273. About 1300, Robert, a monk of Gloucester, composed a chronicle in English verse, following in the main the authority of the Latin chronicles, and he was succeeded by other rhyming chroniclers in the 14th century. In the hands of these the true history of the Saxon times was overlaid with an ever-increasing mass of fable and legend. All real knowledge of the period dwindled away until in Capgraves’s _Chronicle of England_, written in prose in 1463-1464, hardly any thing of it is left. In history as in literature the English had forgotten their past, and had turned to foreign sources. It is noteworthy that Shakspere, who borrowed his subjects and his heroes sometimes from authentic English history, sometimes from the legendary history of ancient Britain, Denmark, and Scotland–as in Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth, respectively–ignores the Saxon period altogether. And Spenser, who gives in the second book of his _Faerie Queene_ a _resume_ of the reigns of fabulous British kings–the supposed ancestors of Queen Elizabeth, his royal patron–has nothing to say of the real kings of early England. So completely had the true record faded away that it made no appeal to the imaginations of our most patriotic poets. The Saxon Alfred had been dethroned by the British Arthur, and the conquered Welsh had imposed their fictitious genealogies upon the dynasty of the conquerors.
In the _Roman de Rou_, a verse chronicle of the dukes of Normandy, written by the Norman Wace, it is related that at the battle of Hastings the French _jongleur_, Taillefer, spurred out before the van of William’s army, tossing his lance in the air and chanting of “Charlemagne and of Roland, of Oliver and the peers who died at Roncesvals.” This incident is prophetic of the victory which Norman song, no less than Norman arms, was to win over England. The lines which Taillefer sang were from the _Chanson de Roland_, the oldest and best of the French hero sagas. The heathen Northmen, who had ravaged the coasts of France in the 10th century, had become in the course of one hundred and fifty years completely identified with the French. They had accepted Christianity, intermarried with the native women, and forgotten their own Norse tongue. The race thus formed was the most brilliant in Europe. The warlike, adventurous spirit of the vikings mingled in its blood with the French nimbleness of wit and fondness for display. The Normans were a nation of knights-errant, with a passion for prowess and for courtesy. Their architecture was at once strong and graceful. Their women were skilled in embroidery, a splendid sample of which is preserved in the famous Bayeux tapestry, in which the conqueror’s wife, Matilda, and the ladies of her court wrought the history of the Conquest.
This national taste for decoration expressed itself not only in the ceremonious pomp of feast and chase and tourney, but likewise in literature. The most characteristic contribution of the Normans to English poetry were the metrical romances or chivalry tales. These were sung or recited by the minstrels, who were among the retainers of every great feudal baron, or by the _jongleurs_, who wandered from court to castle. There is a whole literature of these _romans d’aventure_ in the Anglo-Norman dialect of French. Many of them are very long–often thirty, forty, or fifty thousand lines–written sometimes in a strophic form, sometimes in long Alexandrines, but commonly in the short, eight-syllabled rhyming couplet. Numbers of them were turned into English verse in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. The translations were usually inferior to the originals. The French _trouvere_ (finder or poet) told his story in a straightforward, prosaic fashion, omitting no details in the action and unrolling endless descriptions of dresses, trappings, gardens, etc. He invented plots and situations full of fine possibilities by which later poets have profited, but his own handling of them was feeble and prolix. Yet there was a simplicity about the old French language and a certain elegance and delicacy in the diction of the _trouveres_ which the rude, unformed English failed to catch.
The heroes of these romances were of various climes: Guy of Warwick, and Richard the Lion Heart of England, Havelok the Dane, Sir Troilus of Troy, Charlemagne, and Alexander. But, strangely enough, the favorite hero of English romance was that mythical Arthur of Britain, whom Welsh legend had celebrated as the most formidable enemy of the Sassenach invaders and their victor in twelve great battles. The language and literature of the ancient Cymry or Welsh had made no impression on their Anglo-Saxon conquerors. There are a few Welsh borrowings in the English speech, such as _bard_ and _druid_; but in the old Anglo-Saxon literature there are no more traces of British song and story than if the two races had been sundered by the ocean instead of being borderers for over six hundred years. But the Welsh had their own national traditions, and after the Norman Conquest these were set free from the isolation of their Celtic tongue and, in an indirect form, entered into the general literature of Europe. The French came into contact with the old British literature in two places: in the Welsh marches in England and in the province of Brittany in France, where the population is of Cymric race, and spoke, and still to some extent speaks, a Cymric dialect akin to the Welsh.
About 1140 Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk, seemingly of Welsh descent, who lived at the court of Henry the First and became afterward bishop of St. Asaph, produced in Latin a so-called _Historia Britonum_, in which it was told how Brutus, the great grandson of AEneas, came to Britain, and founded there his kingdom called after him, and his city of New Troy (Troynovant) on the site of the later London. An air of historic gravity was given to this tissue of Welsh legends by an exact chronology and the genealogy of the British kings, and the author referred, as his authority, to an imaginary Welsh book given him, as he said, by a certain Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. Here appeared that line of fabulous British princes which has become so familiar to modern readers in the plays of Shakspere and the poems of Tennyson: Lear and his three daughters; Cymbeline; Gorboduc, the subject of the earliest regular English tragedy, composed by Sackville and acted in 1562; Locrine and his Queen Gwendolen and his daughter Sabrina, who gave her name to the river Severn, was made immortal by an exquisite song in Milton’s _Comus_ and became the heroine of the tragedy of _Locrine_, once attributed to Shakspere; and above all, Arthur, the son of Uther Pendragon, and the founder of the Table Round. In 1155 Wace, the author of the _Roman de Rou_, turned Geoffrey’s work into a French poem entitled _Brut d’Angleterre_, “brut” being a Welsh word meaning chronicle. About the year 1200 Wace’s poem was Englished by Layamon, a priest of Arley Regis, on the border stream of Severn. Layamon’s _Brut_ is in thirty thousand lines, partly alliterative and partly rhymed, but written in pure Saxon English with hardly any French words. The style is rude but vigorous, and, at times, highly imaginative. Wace had amplified Geoffrey’s chronicle somewhat, but Layamon made much larger additions, derived, no doubt, from legends current on the Welsh border. In particular, the story of Arthur grew in his hands into something like fullness. He tells of the enchantments of Merlin, the wizard; of the unfaithfulness of Arthur’s queen, Guenever, and the treachery of his nephew, Modred. His narration of the last great battle between Arthur and Modred; of the wounding of the king–“fifteen fiendly wounds he had, one might in the least three gloves thrust”–; and of the little boat with “two women therein, wonderly dight,” which came to bear him away to Avalun and the Queen Argante, “sheenest of all elves,” whence he shall come again, according to Merlin’s prophecy, to rule the Britons; all this left little, in essentials, for Tennyson to add in his _Passing of Arthur._
This new material for fiction was eagerly seized upon by the Norman romancers. The story of Arthur drew to itself other stories which were afloat. Walter Map, a gentleman of the court of Henry II., in two French prose romances connected with it the church legend of the Sangreal, or holy cup, from which Christ had drunk at his last supper, and which Joseph of Arimathea had afterward brought to England. Then it miraculously disappeared and became thenceforth the occasion of knightly quest, the mystic symbol of the object of the soul’s desire, an adventure only to be achieved by the maiden knight, Galahad, the son of that Launcelot who in the romances had taken the place of Modred in Geoffrey’s history as the paramour of Queen Guenever. In like manner the love-story of Tristan and Isolde, which came probably from Brittany or Cornwall, was joined by other romancers to the Arthur-saga.
Thus there grew up a great epic cycle of Arthurian romance, with a fixed shape and a unity and vitality which have prolonged it to our own day and rendered it capable of a deeper and more spiritual treatment and a more artistic handling by such modern English poets as Tennyson in his _Idyls of the King_, Matthew Arnold, Swinburne, and many others. There were innumerable Arthur romances in prose and verse, in Anglo-Norman and continental French dialects, in English, in German, and in other tongues. But the final form which the saga took in mediaeval England was the prose _Morte Dartur_ of Sir Thomas Malory, composed at the close of the 15th century. This was a digest of the earlier romances, and is Tennyson’s main authority.
Beside the literature of the knight was the literature of the cloister. There is a considerable body of religious writing in early English, consisting of homilies in prose and verse, books of devotion, like the _Ancren Riwle_ (Rule of Anchoresses), 1225, and the _Ayenbite of Inwyt_ (Remorse of Conscience), 1340, in prose; the _Handlyng Sinne_, 1303, the _Cursor Mundi_, 1320, and the _Pricke of Conscience_, 1340, in verse; metrical renderings of the Psalter, the Pater Noster, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments; the Gospels for the Day, such as the _Ormulum_, or Book of Orm, 1205; legends and miracles of saints; poems in praise of virginity, on the contempt of the world, on the five joys of the Virgin, the five wounds of Christ, the eleven pains of hell, the seven deadly sins, the fifteen tokens of the coming judgment; and dialogues between the soul and the body. These were the work not only of the monks, but also of the begging friars, and in smaller part of the secular or parish clergy. They are full of the ascetic piety and superstition of the Middle Age, the childish belief in the marvelous, the allegorical interpretation of Scripture texts, the grotesque material horrors of hell with its grisly fiends, the vileness of the human body and the loathsome details of its corruption after death. Now and then a single poem rises above the tedious and hideous barbarism of the general level of this monkish literature, either from a more intensely personal feeling in the poet, or from an occasional grace or beauty in his verse. A poem so distinguished is, for example, _A Luve Ron_ (A Love Counsel), by the Minorite friar, Thomas de Hales, one stanza of which recalls the French poet Villon’s _Balade of Dead Ladies_, with its refrain–
Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?
“Where are the snows of yester year?”
Where is Paris and Heleyne
That weren so bright and fair of blee Amadas, Tristan, and Ideyne
Yseude and alle the,
Hector with his sharpe main,
And Caesar rich in worldes fee?
They beth ygliden out of the reign As the shaft is of the clee.
A few early English poems on secular subjects are also worthy of mention, among others, _The Owl and the Nightingale_, generally assigned to the reign of Henry III. (1216-1272), an _estrif_, or dispute, in which the owl represents the ascetic and the nightingale the aesthetic view of life. The debate is conducted with much animation and a spirited use of proverbial wisdom. _The Land of Cokaygne_ is an amusing little poem of some two hundred lines, belonging to the class of _fabliaux_, short humorous tales or satirical pieces in verse. It describes a lubber-land, or fool’s paradise, where the geese fly down all roasted on the spit, bringing garlic in their bills for their dressing, and where there is a nunnery upon a river of sweet milk, and an abbey of white monks and gray, whose walls, like the hall of little King Pepin, are “of pie-crust and pastry crust,” with flouren cakes for the shingles and fat puddings for the pins.
There are a few songs dating from about 1300, and mostly found in a single collection (Harl. MS., 2253), which are almost the only English verse before Chaucer that has any sweetness to a modern ear. They are written in French strophic forms in the southern dialect, and sometimes have an intermixture of French and Latin lines. They are musical, fresh, simple, and many of them very pretty. They celebrate the gladness of spring with its cuckoos and throstle-cocks, its daisies and woodruff.
[Footnote 1: Hue.]
[Footnote 2: Those.]
[Footnote 3: Realm.]
[Footnote 4: Bowstring.]
When the nightingale sings the woodes waxen green; Leaf and grass and blossom spring in Averil, I ween, And love is to my herte gone with a spear so keen, Night and day my blood it drinks, my herte doth me tene.
Others are love plaints to “Alysoun” or some other lady whose “name is in a note of the nightingale;” whose eyes are as gray as glass, and her skin as “red as rose on ris.”  Some employ a burden or refrain.
Blow, northern wind,
Blow thou me my sweeting,
Blow, northern wind, blow, blow, blow!
Others are touched with a light melancholy at the coming of winter.
Winter wakeneth all my care
Now these leaves waxeth bare,
Oft I sigh and mourne sare
When it cometh in my thought
Of this worldes joy, how it goeth all to nought.
Some of these poems are love songs to Christ or the Virgin, composed in the warm language of earthly passion. The sentiment of chivalry united with the ecstatic reveries of the cloister had produced Mariolatry, and the imagery of the Song of Solomon, in which Christ wooes the soul, had made this feeling of divine love familiar. Toward the end of the 13th century a collection of lives of saints, a sort of English _Golden Legend_, was prepared at the great abbey of Gloucester for use on saints’ days. The legends were chosen partly from the hagiology of the Church Catholic, as the lives of Margaret, Christopher, and Michael; partly from the calendar of the English Church, as the lives of St. Thomas of Canterbury, and of the Anglo-Saxons, Dunstan, Swithin–who is mentioned by Shakspere–and Kenelm, whose life is quoted by Chaucer in the _Nonne Preste’s Tale_. The verse was clumsy and the style monotonous, but an imaginative touch here and there has furnished a hint to later poets. Thus the legend of St. Brandan’s search for the earthly paradise has been treated by Matthew Arnold and William Morris.
[Footnote 5: Pain.]
[Footnote 6: Branch.]
About the middle of the 14th century there was a revival of the Old English alliterative verse in romances like _William and the Werewolf_, and _Sir Gawayne_, and in religious pieces such as _Clannesse_ (purity), _Patience_, and _The Perle_, the last named a mystical poem of much beauty, in which a bereaved father sees a vision of his daughter among the glorified. Some of these employed rhyme as well as alliteration. They are in the West Midland dialect, although Chaucer implies that alliteration was most common in the north. “I am a sotherne man,” says the parson in the _Canterbury Tales_. “I cannot geste rom, ram, ruf, by my letter.” But the most important of the alliterative poems was the _Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman_.
In the second half of the 14th century French had ceased to be the mother-tongue of any considerable part of the population of England. By a statute of Edward III., in 1362, it was displaced from the law courts. By 1386 English had taken its place in the schools. The Anglo-Norman dialect had grown corrupt, and Chaucer contrasts the French of Paris with the provincial French spoken by his prioress, “after the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe.” The native English genius was also beginning to assert itself, roused in part, perhaps, by the English victories in the wars of Edward III. against the French. It was the bows of the English yeomanry that won the fight at Crecy, fully as much as the prowess of the Norman baronage. But at home the times were bad. Heavy taxes and the repeated visitations of the pestilence, or Black Death, pressed upon the poor and wasted the land. The Church was corrupt; the mendicant orders had grown enormously wealthy, and the country was eaten up by a swarm of begging friars, pardoners, and apparitors. That social discontent was fermenting among the lower classes which finally issued in the communistic uprising of the peasantry under Wat Tyler and Jack Straw.
This state of things is reflected in the _Vision of Piers Plowman_, written as early as 1362, by William Langland, a tonsured clerk of the west country. It is in form an allegory, and bears some resemblance to the later and more famous allegory of the _Pilgrim’s Progress_. The poet falls asleep on the Malvern Hills, in Worcestershire, and has a vision of a “fair field full of folk,” representing the world with its various conditions of men. There were pilgrims and palmers; hermits with hooked staves, who went to Walsingham–and their wenches after them–great lubbers and long that were loth to work; friars glossing the Gospel for their own profit; pardoners cheating the people with relics and indulgences; parish priests who forsook their parishes–that had been poor since the pestilence time–and went to London to sing there for simony; bishops, archbishops, and deacons, who got themselves fat clerkships in the Exchequer, or King’s Bench; in short, all manner of lazy and corrupt ecclesiastics. A lady, who represents holy Church, then appears to the dreamer, explains to him the meaning of his vision, and reads him a sermon the text of which is, “When all treasure is tried, truth is the best.” A number of other allegorical figures are next introduced, Conscience, Reason, Meed, Simony, Falsehood, etc., and after a series of speeches and adventures, a second vision begins in which the seven deadly sins pass before the poet in a succession of graphic impersonations; and finally all the characters set out on a pilgrimage in search of St. Truth, finding no guide to direct them save Piers the Plowman, who stands for the simple, pious laboring man, the sound heart of the English common folk. The poem was originally in eight divisions or “passus,” to which was added a continuation in three parts, _Vita Do Wel, Do Bet, and Do Best_. About 1377 the whole was greatly enlarged by the author.
_Piers Plowman_ was the first extended literary work after the Conquest which was purely English in character. It owed nothing to France but the allegorical cast which the _Roman de la Rose_ had made fashionable in both countries. But even here such personified abstractions as Langland’s Fair-speech and Work-when-time-is, remind us less of the Fraunchise, Bel-amour, and Fals-semblaunt of the French courtly allegories than of Bunyan’s Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and even of such Puritan names as Praise-God Barebones, and Zeal-of-the-land Busy. The poem is full of English moral seriousness, of shrewd humor, the hatred of a lie, the homely English love for reality. It has little unity of plan, but is rather a series of episodes, discourses, parables, and scenes. It is all astir with the actual life of the time. We see the gossips gathered in the ale-house of Betun the brewster, and the pastry cooks in the London streets crying “Hote pies, hote! Good gees and grys. Go we dine, go we!” Had Langland not linked his literary fortunes with an uncouth and obsolescent verse, and had he possessed a finer artistic sense and a higher poetic imagination, his book might have been, like Chaucer’s, among the lasting glories of our tongue. As it is, it is forgotten by all but professional students of literature and history. Its popularity in its own day is shown by the number of MSS. which are extant, and by imitations, such as _Piers the Plowman’s Crede_ (1394), and the _Plowman’s Tale_, for a long time wrongly inserted in the _Canterbury Tales_. Piers became a kind of typical figure, like the French peasant, _Jacques Bonhomme_, and was appealed to as such by the Protestant reformers of the 16th century.
The attack upon the growing corruptions of the Church was made more systematically, and from the stand-point of a theologian rather than of a popular moralist and satirist, by John Wiclif, the rector of Lutterworth and professor of divinity in Baliol College, Oxford. In a series of Latin and English tracts he made war against indulgences, pilgrimages, images, oblations, the friars, the pope, and the doctrine of transubstantiation. But his greatest service to England was his translation of the Bible, the first complete version in the mother-tongue. This he made about 1380, with the help of Nicholas Hereford, and a revision of it was made by another disciple, Purvey, some ten years later. There was no knowledge of Hebrew or Greek in England at that time, and the Wiclifite versions were made not from the original tongues but from the Latin Vulgate. In his anxiety to make his rendering close, and mindful, perhaps, of the warning in the Apocalypse, “If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life,” Wiclif followed the Latin order of construction so literally as to make rather awkward English, translating, for example, _Quib sibi vult hoc somnium?_ by _What to itself wole this sweven?_ Purvey’s revision was somewhat freer and more idiomatic. In the reigns of Henry IV. and V. it was forbidden to read or to have any of Wiclif’s writings. Such of them as could be seized were publicly burned. In spite of this, copies of his Bible circulated secretly in great numbers. Forshall and Madden, in their great edition (1850), enumerate one hundred and fifty MSS. which had been consulted by them. Later translators, like Tyndale and the makers of the Authorized Version, or “King James’s Bible” (1611), followed Wiclif’s language in many instances; so that he was, in truth, the first author of our biblical dialect and the founder of that great monument of noble English which has been the main conservative influence in the mother-tongue, holding it fast to many strong, pithy words and idioms that would else have been lost. In 1415, some thirty years after Wiclif’s death, by decree of the Council of Constance, his bones were dug up from the soil of Lutterworth chancel and burned, and the ashes cast into the Swift. “The brook,” says Thomas Fuller, in his _Church History_, “did convey his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wiclif are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over.”
[Footnote 7: Pigs.]
[Footnote 8: Will.]
[Footnote 9: Dream.]
Although the writings thus far mentioned are of very high interest to the student of the English language and the historian of English manners and culture, they cannot be said to have much importance as mere literature. But in Geoffrey Chaucer (died 1400) we meet with a poet of the first rank, whose works are increasingly read and will always continue to be a source of delight and refreshment to the general reader as well as a “well of English undefiled” to the professional man of letters. With the exception of Dante, Chaucer was the greatest of the poets of mediaeval Europe, and he remains one of the greatest of English poets, and certainly the foremost of English story tellers in verse. He was the son of a London vintner, and was in his youth in the service of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, one of the sons of Edward III. He made a campaign in France in 1359-60, when he was taken prisoner. Afterward he was attached to the court and received numerous favors and appointments. He was sent on several diplomatic missions by the king, three of them to Italy, where, in all probability, he made the acquaintance of the new Italian literature, the writings of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. He was appointed at different times comptroller of the wool customs, comptroller of petty customs, and clerk of the works. He sat for Kent in Parliament, and he received pensions from three successive kings. He was a man of business as well as books, and he loved men and nature no less than study. He knew his world; he “saw life steadily and saw it whole.” Living at the center of English social and political life, and resorting to the court of Edward III., then the most brilliant in Europe, Chaucer was an eye-witness of those feudal pomps which fill the high-colored pages of his contemporary, the French chronicler, Froissart. His description of a tournament in the _Knight’s Tale_ is unexcelled for spirit and detail. He was familiar with dances, feasts, state ceremonies, and all the life of the baronial castle, in bower and hall: the “trompes with the loude minstralcie,” the heralds, the ladies, and the squires. He knew–
What hawkes sitten on the perch above, What houndes liggen on the floor adown.
But his sympathy reached no less the life of the lowly; the poor widow in her narrow cottage, and that “trewe swynkere and a good,” the plowman whom Langland had made the hero of his vision. He is, more than all English poets, the poet of the lusty spring, of “Aprille with her showres sweet” and the “foules song;” of “May with all her floures and her green;” of the new leaves in the wood, and the meadows new powdered with the daisy, the mystic Marguerite of his _Legend of Good Women_. A fresh vernal air blows through all his pages.
[Footnote 10: Lie.]
[Footnote 11: Laborer.]
In Chaucer’s earlier works, such as the translation of the _Romaunt of the Rose_ (if that be his), the _Boke of the Duchesse_, the _Parlament of Foules_, the _Hous of Fame_, as well as in the _Legend of Good Women_, which was later, the inspiration of the French court poetry of the 13th and 14th centuries is manifest. He retains in them the mediaeval machinery of allegories and dreams, the elaborate descriptions of palaces, temples, portraitures, etc., which had been made fashionable in France by such poems as Guillaume de Lorris’s _Roman de la Rose_, and Jean Machault’s _La Fontaine Amoureuse_. In some of these the influence of Italian poetry is also perceptible. There are suggestions from Dante, for example, in the _Parlament of Foules_ and the _Hous of Fame_, and _Troilus and Cresseide_ is a free handling rather than a translation of Boccaccio’s _Filostrato_. In all of these there are passages of great beauty and force. Had Chaucer written nothing else, he would still have been remembered as the most accomplished English poet of his time, but he would not have risen to the rank which he now occupies, as one of the greatest English poets of all time. This position he owes to his masterpiece, the _Canterbury Tales_. Here he abandoned the imitation of foreign models and the artificial literary fashions of his age, and wrote of real life from his own ripe knowledge of men and things.
The _Canterbury Tales_ are a collection of stories written at different times, but put together, probably, toward the close of his life. The frame-work into which they are fitted is one of the happiest ever devised. A number of pilgrims who are going on horseback to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket, at Canterbury, meet at the Tabard Inn, in Southwark, a suburb of London. The jolly host of the Tabard, Harry Bailey, proposes that on their way to Canterbury, each of the company shall tell two tales, and two more on their way back, and that the one who tells the best shall have a supper at the cost of the rest when they return to the inn. He himself accompanies them as judge and “reporter.” In the setting of the stories there is thus a constant feeling of movement and the air of all outdoors. The little “head-links” and “end-links” which bind them together give incidents of the journey and glimpses of the talk of the pilgrims, sometimes amounting, as in the prologue of the _Wife of Bath_, to full and almost dramatic character-sketches. The stories, too, are dramatically suited to the narrators. The general prologue is a series of such character-sketches, the most perfect in English poetry. The portraits of the pilgrims are illuminated with the soft brilliancy and the minute loving fidelity of the miniatures in the old missals, and with the same quaint precision in traits of expression and in costume. The pilgrims are not all such as one would meet nowadays at an English inn. The presence of a knight, a squire, a yeoman archer, and especially of so many kinds of ecclesiastics, a nun, a friar, a monk, a pardoner, and a sompnour or apparitor, reminds us that the England of that day must have been less like Protestant England, as we know it, than like the Italy of some fifty years ago. But however the outward face of society may have changed, the Canterbury pilgrims remain, in Chaucer’s descriptions, living and universal types of human nature. The _Canterbury Tales_ are twenty-four in number. There were thirty-two pilgrims, so that if finished as designed the whole collection would have numbered one hundred and twenty-eight stories.
Chaucer is the bright consummate flower of the English Middle Age. Like many another great poet he put the final touch to the various literary forms that he found in cultivation. Thus his _Knight’s Tale_, based upon Boccaccio’s _Teseide_, is the best of English mediaeval romances. And yet the _Rime of Sir Thopas_, who goes seeking an elf queen for his mate, and is encountered by the giant Sir Olifaunt, burlesques these same romances with their impossible adventures and their tedious rambling descriptions. The tales of the prioress and the second nun are saints’ legends. The _Monk’s Tale_ is a set of dry, moral apologues in the manner of his contemporary, the “moral Gower.” The stories told by the reeve, miller, friar, sompnour, shipman, and merchant belong to the class of _fabliaux_, a few of which existed in English, such as _Dame Siriz_, the _Lay of the Ash_, and the _Land of Cokaygne_, already mentioned. The _Nonne Preste’s Tale_, likewise, which Dryden modernized with admirable humor, was of the class of _fabliaux_, and was suggested by a little poem in forty lines, _Dou Coc et Werpil_, by Marie de France, a Norman poetess of the 13th century. It belonged, like the early English poem of _The Fox and the Wolf_, to the popular animal saga of _Reynard the Fox_. The _Franklin’s Tale_, whose scene is Brittany, and the _Wife of Bath’s Tale_ which is laid in the time of the British Arthur, belong to the class of French _lais_, serious metrical tales shorter than the romance and of Breton origin, the best representatives of which are the elegant and graceful _lais_ of Marie de France.
Chaucer was our first great master of laughter and of tears. His serious poetry is full of the tenderest pathos. His loosest tales are delightfully humorous and life-like. He is the kindliest of satirists. The knavery, greed, and hypocrisy of the begging friars and the sellers of indulgences are exposed by him as pitilessly as by Langland and Wiclif, though his mood is not, like theirs, one of stern, moral indignation, but rather the good-natured scorn of a man of the world. His charity is broad enough to cover even the corrupt sompnour, of whom he says,
And yet in sooth he was a good felawe.
Whether he shared Wiclif’s opinions is unknown, but John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and father of Henry IV., who was Chaucer’s life-long patron, was likewise Wiclif’s great upholder against the persecution of the bishops. It is, perhaps, not without significance that the poor parson in the _Canterbury Tales_, the only one of his ecclesiastical pilgrims whom Chaucer treats with respect, is suspected by the host of the Tabard to be a “loller,” that is, a Lollard, or disciple of Wiclif, and that, because he objects to the jovial innkeeper’s swearing “by Goddes bones.”
Chaucer’s English is nearly as easy for a modern reader as Shakspere’s, and few of his words have become obsolete. His verse, when rightly read, is correct and melodious. The early English was, in some respects, “more sweet upon the tongue” than the modern language. The vowels had their broad Italian sounds, and the speech was full of soft gutterals and vocalic syllables, like the endings en, es, e, which made feminine rhymes and kept the consonants from coming harshly together.
Great poet as Chaucer was, he was not quite free from the literary weakness of his time. He relapses sometimes into the babbling style of the old chroniclers and legend writers; cites “auctours” and gives long catalogues of names and objects with a _naive_ display of learning; and introduces vulgar details in his most exquisite passages. There is something childish about almost all the thought and art of the Middle Ages–at least outside of Italy, where classical models and traditions never quite lost their hold. But Chaucer’s artlessness is half the secret of his wonderful ease in story-telling, and is so engaging that, like a child’s sweet unconsciousness, one would not wish it otherwise.
The _Canterbury Tales_ had shown of what high uses the English language was capable, but the curiously trilingual condition of literature still continued. French was spoken in the proceedings of Parliament as late as the reign of Henry VI. (1422-1471). Chaucer’s contemporary, John Gower, wrote his _Vox Clamantis_ in Latin, his _Speculum Meditantis_ (a lost poem), and a number of _ballades_ in Parisian French, and his _Confessio Amantis_ (1393) in English. The last named is a dreary, pedantic work, in some fifteen thousand smooth, monotonous, eight-syllabled couplets, in which Grande Amour instructs the lover how to get the love of Bel Pucel.
* * * * *
1. Early English Literature. Bernhard ten Brink. Translated from the German by H.M. Kennedy. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1883.
2. Morris and Skeat’s Specimens of Early English. (Clarendon Press Series.) Oxford.
3. The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman. Edited by W.W. Skeat. Oxford, 1886.
4. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Tyrwhitt’s Edition. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1883.
5. The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Edited by Richard Morris. London: Bell & Daldy (6 volumes.)
FROM CHAUCER TO SPENSER.
The 15th century was a barren period in English literary history. It was nearly two hundred years after Chaucer’s death before any poet came whose name can be written in the same line with his. He was followed at once by a number of imitators who caught the trick of his language and verse, but lacked the genius to make any fine use of them. The _manner_ of a true poet may be learned, but his style, in the high sense of the word, remains his own secret. Some of the poems which have been attributed to Chaucer and printed in editions of his works, as the _Court of Love_, the _Flower and the Leaf_, the _Cuckow and the Nightingale_, are now regarded by many scholars as the work of later writers. If not Chaucer’s, they are of Chaucer’s school, and the first two, at least, are very pretty poems after the fashion of his minor pieces, such as the _Boke of the Duchesse_ and the _Parlament of Foules_.
Among his professed disciples was Thomas Occleve, a dull rhymer, who, in his _Governail of Princes_, a didactic poem translated from the Latin about 1413, drew, or caused to be drawn, on the margin of his MS. a colored portrait of his “maister dere and fader reverent.”
This londes verray tresour and richesse Dethe by thy dethe hath harm irreparable Unto us done; hir vengeable duresse
Dispoiled hath this londe of the swetnesse Of Rhetoryk.
Another versifier of this same generation was John Lydgate, a Benedictine monk of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, in Suffolk, a very prolix writer, who composed, among other things, the _Story of Thebes_, as an addition to the _Canterbury Tales_. His ballad of _London Lyckpenny_, recounting the adventures of a countryman who goes to the law courts at Westminster in search of justice–
But for lack of mony I could not spede–
is of interest for the glimpse that it gives us of London street life.
Chaucer’s influence wrought more fruitfully in Scotland, whither it was carried by James I., who had been captured by the English when a boy of eleven, and brought up at Windsor as a prisoner of state. There he wrote during the reign of Henry V. (1413-1422) a poem in six cantos, entitled the _King’s Quhair_ (King’s Book), in Chaucer’s seven-lined stanza, which had been employed by Lydgate in his _Falls of Princes_ (from Boccaccio), and which was afterward called the “rime royal,” from its use by King James. The _King’s Quhair_ tells how the poet, on a May morning, looks from the window of his prison chamber into the castle garden full of alleys, hawthorn hedges, and fair arbors set with
The sharpe, greene, sweete juniper.
He was listening to “the little sweete nightingale,” when suddenly casting down his eyes he saw a lady walking in the garden, and at once his “heart became her thrall.” The incident is precisely like Palamon’s first sight of Emily in Chaucer’s _Knight’s Tale_, and almost in the very words of Palamon the poet addresses his lady:
Ah, sweet, are ye a worldly creature Or heavenly thing in likeness of nature? Or are ye very Nature, the goddess,
That have depainted with your heavenly hand This garden full of flowres as they stand?
Then, after a vision in the taste of the age, in which the royal prisoner is transported in turn to the courts of _Venus_, _Minerva_, and _Fortune_, and receives their instruction in the duties belonging to Love’s service, he wakes from sleep and a white turtle-dove brings to his window a spray of red gilly flowers, whose leaves are inscribed, in golden letters, with a message of encouragement.
James I. may be reckoned among the English poets. He mentions Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate as his masters. His education was English, and so was the dialect of his poem, although the unique MS. of it is in the Scotch spelling. The _King’s Quhair_ is somewhat overladen with ornament and with the fashionable allegorical devices, but it is, upon the whole, a rich and tender love song, the best specimen of court poetry between the time of Chaucer and the time of Spenser. The lady who walked in the garden on that May morning was Jane Beaufort, niece to Henry IV. She was married to her poet after his release from captivity and became queen of Scotland in 1424. Twelve years later James was murdered by Sir Robert Graham and his Highlanders, and his wife, who strove to defend him, was wounded by the assassins. The story of the murder has been told of late by D.G. Rossetti, in his ballad, _The King’s Tragedy_. The whole life of this princely singer was, like his poem, in the very spirit of romance.
The effect of all this imitation of Chaucer was to fix a standard of literary style, and to confirm the authority of the East-Midland English in which he had written. Though the poets of the 15th century were not overburdened with genius, they had, at least, a definite model to follow. As in the 14th century, metrical romances continued to be translated from the French, homilies and saints’ legends and rhyming chronicles were still manufactured. But the poems of Occleve and Lydgate and James I. had helped to polish and refine the tongue and to prolong the Chaucerian tradition. The literary English never again slipped back into the chaos of dialects which had prevailed before Chaucer.
In the history of every literature the development of prose is later than that of verse. The latter being, by its very form, artificial, is cultivated as a fine art, and its records preserved in an early stage of society, when prose is simply the talk of men, and not thought worthy of being written and kept. English prose labored under the added disadvantage of competing with Latin, which was the cosmopolitan tongue and the medium of communication between scholars of all countries. Latin was the language of the Church, and in the Middle Ages churchman and scholar were convertible terms. The word _clerk_ meant either priest or scholar. Two of the _Canterbury Tales_ are in prose, as is also the _Testament of Love_, formerly ascribed to Chaucer, and the style of all these is so feeble, wandering, and unformed that it is hard to believe that they were written by the same man who wrote the _Knight’s Tale_ and the story of Griselda. _The Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville_–the forerunner of that great library of oriental travel which has enriched our modern literature–was written, according to its author, first in Latin, then in French, and, lastly, in the year 1356, translated into English for the behoof of “lordes and knyghtes and othere noble and worthi men, that conne not Latyn but litylle.” The author professed to have spent over thirty years in Eastern travel, to have penetrated as far as Farther India and the “iles that ben abouten Indi,” to have been in the service of the Sultan of Babylon in his wars against the Bedouins, and, at another time, in the employ of the Great Khan of Tartary. But there is no copy of the Latin version of his travels extant; the French seems to be much later than 1356, and the English MS. to belong to the early years of the 15th century, and to have been made by another hand. Recent investigations make it probable that Maundeville borrowed his descriptions of the remoter East from many sources, and particularly from the narrative of Odoric, a Minorite friar of Lombardy, who wrote about 1330. Some doubt is even cast upon the existence of any such person as Maundeville. Whoever wrote the book that passes under his name, however, would seem to have visited the Holy Land, and the part of the “voiage” that describes Palestine and the Levant is fairly close to the truth. The rest of the work, so far as it is not taken from the tales of other travelers, is a diverting tissue of fables about gryfouns that fly away with yokes of oxen, tribes of one-legged Ethiopians who shelter themselves from the sun by using their monstrous feet as umbrellas, etc.
[Footnote 12: Know.]
During the 15th century English prose was gradually being brought into a shape fitting it for more serious uses. In the controversy between the Church and the Lollards Latin was still mainly employed, but Wiclif had written some of his tracts in English, and, in 1449, Reginald Peacock, Bishop of St. Asaph, contributed, in English, to the same controversy, _The Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of the Clergy_. Sir John Fortescue, who was chief-justice of the King’s Bench from 1442-1460, wrote during the reign of Edward IV. a book on the _Difference between Absolute and Limited Monarchy_, which may be regarded as the first treatise on political philosophy and constitutional law in the language. But these works hardly belong to pure literature, and are remarkable only as early, though not very good, examples of English prose in a barren time. The 15th century was an era of decay and change. The Middle Age was dying, Church and State were slowly disintegrating under the new intellectual influences that were working secretly under ground. In England the civil wars of the Red and White Roses were breaking up the old feudal society by decimating and impoverishing the baronage, thus preparing the way for the centralized monarchy of the Tudors. Toward the close of that century, and early in the next, happened the four great events, or series of events, which freed and widened men’s minds, and, in a succession of shocks, overthrew the mediaeval system of life and thought. These were the invention of printing, the Renaissance, or revival of classical learning, the discovery of America, and the Protestant Reformation.
William Caxton, the first English printer, learned the art in Cologne. In 1476 he set up his press and sign, a red pole, in the Almonry at Westminster. Just before the introduction of printing the demand for MS. copies had grown very active, stimulated, perhaps, by the coming into general use of linen paper instead of the more costly parchment. The scriptoria of the monasteries were the places where the transcribing and illuminating of MSS. went on, professional copyists resorting to Westminster Abbey, for example, to make their copies of books belonging to the monastic library. Caxton’s choice of a spot was, therefore, significant. His new art for multiplying copies began to supersede the old method of transcription at the very head-quarters of the MS. makers. The first book that bears his Westminster imprint was the _Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers_, translated from the French by Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, a brother-in-law of Edward IV. The list of books printed by Caxton is interesting, as showing the taste of the time, since he naturally selected what was most in demand. The list shows that manuals of devotion and chivalry were still in chief request, books like the _Order of Chivalry_, _Faits of Arms_, and the _Golden Legend_, which last Caxton translated himself, as well as _Reynard the Fox_, and a French version of the _Aeneid_. He also printed, with continuations of his own, revisions of several early chronicles, and editions of Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate. A translation of _Cicero on Friendship_, made directly from the Latin, by Thomas Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, was printed by Caxton, but no edition of a classical author in the original. The new learning of the Renaissance had not, as yet, taken much hold in England. Upon the whole the productions of Caxton’s press were mostly of a kind that may be described as mediaeval, and the most important of them, if we except his edition of Chaucer, was that “noble and joyous book,” as Caxton called it, _Le Morte Dartur_, written by Sir Thomas Malory in 1469, and printed by Caxton in 1485. This was a compilation from French Arthur romances, and was by far the best English prose that had yet been written. It may be doubted, indeed, whether, for purposes of simple story telling, the picturesque charm of Malory’s style has been improved upon. The episode which lends its name to the whole romance, the death of Arthur, is most impressively told, and Tennyson has followed Malory’s narrative closely, even to such details of the scene as the little chapel by the sea, the moonlight, and the answer which Sir Bedwere made the wounded king, when bidden to throw Excalibur into the water, “‘What saw thou there?’ said the king. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I saw nothing but the waters wap and the waves wan.'”
I heard the ripple washing in the reeds And the wild water lapping on the crag.
And very touching and beautiful is the oft-quoted lament of Sir Ector over Launcelot, in Malory’s final chapter: “‘Ah, Launcelot,’ he said, ‘thou were head of all Christian knights; and now I dare say,’ said Sir Ector, ‘thou, Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly knight’s hand; and thou were the courtiest knight that ever bare shield; and thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse; and thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman; and thou were the kindest man that ever strake with sword; and thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights; and thou were the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.'”
Equally good, as an example of English prose narrative, was the translation made by John Bourchier, Lord Berners, of that most brilliant of the French chroniclers, Chaucer’s contemporary, Sir John Froissart. Lord Berners was the English governor of Calais, and his version of Froissart’s _Chronicles_ was made in 1523-1525, at the request of Henry VIII. In these two books English chivalry spoke its last genuine word. In Sir Philip Sidney the character of the knight was merged into that of the modern gentleman. And although tournaments were still held in the reign of Elizabeth, and Spenser cast his _Faerie Queene_ into the form of a chivalry romance, these were but a ceremonial survival and literary tradition from an order of things that had passed away. How antagonistic the new classical culture was to the vanished ideal of the Middle Age may be read in _Toxophilus_, a treatise on archery published in 1545, by Roger Ascham, a Greek lecturer in Cambridge, and the tutor of the Princess Elizabeth and of Lady Jane Grey: “In our forefathers’ time, when papistry as a standing pool covered and overflowed all England, few books were read in our tongue saving certain books of chivalry, as they said, for pastime and pleasure, which, as some say, were made in monasteries by idle monks or wanton canons: as one, for example, _Morte Arthure_, the whole pleasure of which book standeth in two special points, in open manslaughter and bold bawdry. This is good stuff for wise men to laugh at or honest men to take pleasure at. Yet I know when God’s Bible was banished the court, and _Morte Arthure_ received into the prince’s chamber.”
The fashionable school of courtly allegory, first introduced into England by the translation of the _Romaunt of the Rose_, reached its extremity in Stephen Hawes’s _Passetyme of Pleasure_, printed by Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde, in 1517. This was a dreary and pedantic poem, in which it is told how Graunde Amoure, after a long series of adventures and instructions among such shadowy personages as Verite, Observaunce, Falshed, and Good Operacion, finally won the love of La Belle Pucel. Hawes was the last English poet of note whose culture was exclusively mediaeval. His contemporary, John Skelton, mingled the old fashions with the new classical learning. In his _Bowge of Courte_ (Court Entertainment or Dole), and in others of his earlier pieces, he used, like Hawes, Chaucer’s seven-lined stanza. But his later poems were mostly written in a verse of his own invention, called after him _Skeltonical_. This was a sort of glorified doggerel, in short, swift, ragged lines, with occasional intermixture of French and Latin.
Her beautye to augment.
Dame Nature hath her lent
A warte upon her cheke,
Who so lyst to seke
In her vysage a skar
That semyth from afar
Lyke to the radiant star,
All with favour fret,
So properly it is set.
She is the vyolet,
The daysy delectable,
The columbine commendable,
The jelofer amyable;
For this most goodly floure,
This blossom of fressh colour,
So Jupiter me succour,
She flourysheth new and new
In beaute and vertew;
_Hac claritate gemina,
O gloriosa femina_, etc.
[Footnote 13: Gilliflower.]
Skelton was a rude railing rhymer, a singular mixture of a true and original poet with a buffoon; coarse as Rabelais, whimsical, obscure, but always vivacious. He was the rector of Diss, in Norfolk, but his profane and scurrilous wit seems rather out of keeping with his clerical character. His _Tunnyng of Elynoure Rummyng_ is a study of very low life, reminding one slightly of Burns’s _Jolly Beggars_. His _Phyllyp Sparrowe_ is a sportive, pretty, fantastic elegy on the death of a pet bird belonging to Mistress Joanna Scroupe, of Carowe, and has been compared to the Latin poet Catullus’s elegy on Lesbia’s sparrow. In _Spake, Parrot_, and _Why Come ye not to Courte?_ he assailed the powerful Cardinal Wolsey with the most ferocious satire, and was, in consequence, obliged to take sanctuary at Westminster, where he died in 1529. Skelton was a classical scholar, and at one time tutor to Henry VIII. The great humanist, Erasmus, spoke of him as the “one light and ornament of British letters.” Caxton asserts that he had read Vergil, Ovid, and Tully, and quaintly adds, “I suppose he hath dronken of Elycon’s well.”
In refreshing contrast with the artificial court poetry of the 15th and first three quarters of the 16th century, was the folk poetry, the popular ballad literature which was handed down by oral tradition. The English and Scotch ballads were narrative songs, written in a variety of meters, but chiefly in what is known as the ballad stanza.
In somer, when the shawes be shene, And leves be large and longe,
Hit is full merry in feyre forest, To here the foulys song.
To se the dere draw to the dale,
And leve the hilles hee,
And shadow them in the leves grene, Under the grene-wode tree.
[Footnote 14: Woods.]
[Footnote 15: Bright.]
[Footnote 16: High.]
It is not possible to assign a definite date to these ballads. They lived on the lips of the people, and were seldom reduced to writing till many years after they were first composed and sung. Meanwhile they underwent repeated changes, so that we have numerous versions of the same story. They belonged to no particular author, but, like all folk-lore, were handled freely by the unknown poets, minstrels, and ballad reciters, who modernized their language, added to them, or corrupted them, and passed them along. Coming out of an uncertain past, based on some dark legend of heart-break or bloodshed, they bear no poet’s name, but are _ferae naturae_, and have the flavor of wild game. In the form in which they are preserved, few of them are older than the 17th or the latter part of the 16th century, though many, in their original shape, are doubtless much older. A very few of the Robin Hood ballads go back to the 15th century, and to the same period is assigned the charming ballad of the _Nut Brown Maid_ and the famous border ballad of _Chevy Chase_, which describes a battle between the retainers of the two great houses of Douglas and Percy. It was this song of which Sir Philip Sidney wrote, “I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas but I found myself more moved than by a trumpet; and yet it is sung but by some blind crouder, with no rougher voice than rude style.” But the style of the ballads was not always rude. In their compressed energy of expression, in the impassioned way in which they tell their tale of grief and horror, there reside often a tragic power and art superior to any thing in English poetry between Chaucer and Spenser; superior to any thing in Chaucer and Spenser themselves, in the quality of intensity. The true home of the ballad literature was “the north country,” and especially the Scotch border, where the constant forays of moss-troopers and the raids and private warfare of the lords of the marches supplied many traditions of heroism, like those celebrated in the old poem of the _Battle of Otterbourne_, and in the _Hunting of the Cheviot_, or _Chevy Chase_, already mentioned. Some of these are Scotch and others English; the dialect of Lowland Scotland did not, in effect, differ much from that of Northumberland and Yorkshire, both descended alike from the old Northumbrian of Anglo-Saxon times. Other ballads were shortened, popular versions of the chivalry romances, which were passing out of fashion among educated readers in the 16th century and now fell into the hands of the ballad makers. Others preserved the memory of local country-side tales, family feuds, and tragic incidents, partly historical and partly legendary, associated often with particular spots. Such are, for example, _The Dowie Dens of Yarrow_, _Fair Helen of Kirkconnell_, _The Forsaken Bride_, and _The Twa Corbies_. Others, again, have a coloring of popular superstition, like the beautiful ballad concerning _Thomas of Ersyldoune_, who goes in at Eildon Hill with an elf queen and spends seven years in fairy land.
[Footnote 17: Fiddler.]
But the most popular of all the ballads were those which cluster about the name of that good outlaw, Robin Hood, who, with his merry men, hunted the forest of Sherwood, where he killed the king’s deer and waylaid rich travelers, but was kind to poor knights and honest workmen. Robin Hood is the true ballad hero, the darling of the common people as Arthur was of the nobles. The names of his confessor, Friar Tuck; his mistress, Maid Marian; his companions, Little John, Scathelock, and Much, the miller’s son, were as familiar as household words. Langland in the 14th century mentions “rimes of Robin Hood,” and efforts have been made to identify him with some actual personage, as with one of the dispossessed barons who had been adherents of Simon de Montfort in his war against Henry III. But there seems to be nothing historical about Robin Hood. He was a creation of the popular fancy. The game laws under the Norman kings were very oppressive, and there were, doubtless, dim memories still cherished among the Saxon masses of Hereward and Edric the Wild, who had defied the power of the Conqueror, as well as of later freebooters, who had taken to the woods and lived by plunder. Robin Hood was a thoroughly national character. He had the English love of fair play, the English readiness to shake hands and make up, and keep no malice when worsted in a square fight. He beat and plundered the fat bishops and abbots, who had more than their share of wealth, but he was generous and hospitable to the distressed, and lived a free and careless life in the good green wood. He was a mighty archer with those national weapons, the long-bow and the cloth-yard shaft. He tricked and baffled legal authority in the person of the proud sheriff of Nottingham, thereby appealing to that secret sympathy with lawless adventure which marked the free-born, vigorous yeomanry of England. And, finally, the scenery of the forest gives a poetic background and a never-failing charm to the exploits of “the old Robin Hood of England” and his merry men.
The ballads came, in time, to have certain tricks of style, such as are apt to characterize a body of anonymous folk-poetry. Such is their use of conventional epithets; “the red, red gold,” “the good green wood,” “the gray goose wing.” Such are certain recurring terms of phrase like,
But out and spak their stepmother.
Such is, finally, a kind of sing-song repetition, which doubtless helped the ballad singer to memorize his stock, as, for example,
She had’na pu’d a double rose,
A rose but only twae.
And mony ane sings o’ grass, o’ grass, And mony ane sings o’ corn;
An mony ane sings o’ Robin Hood,
Kens little whare he was born.
It was na in the ha’, the ha’,
Nor in the painted bower;
But it was in the gude green wood, Amang the lily flower.
Copies of some of these old ballads were hawked about in the 16th century, printed in black letter, “broadsides,” or single sheets. Wynkyn de Worde printed in 1489 _A Lytell Geste of Robin Hood_, which is a sort of digest of earlier ballads on the subject. In the 17th century a few of the English popular ballads were collected in miscellanies called _Garlands_. Early in the 18th century the Scotch poet, Allan Ramsay, published a number of Scotch ballads in the _Evergreen_ and _Tea-Table Miscellany_. But no large and important collection was put forth until Percy’s _Reliques_ (1765), a book which had a powerful influence upon Wordsworth and Walter Scott. In Scotland some excellent ballads in the ancient manner were written in the 18th century, such as Jane Elliott’s _Lament for Flodden_, and the fine ballad of _Sir Patrick Spence_. Walter Scott’s _Proud Maisie is in the Wood_, is a perfect reproduction of the pregnant, indirect method of the old ballad makers.
In 1453 Constantinople was taken by the Turks, and many Greek scholars, with their manuscripts, fled into Italy, where they began teaching their language and literature, and especially the philosophy of Plato. There had been little or no knowledge of Greek in western Europe during the Middle Ages, and only a very imperfect knowledge of the Latin classics. Ovid and Statius were widely read, and so was the late Latin poet, Boethius, whose _De Consolatione Philosophiae_ had been translated into English by King Alfred and by Chaucer. Little was known of Vergil at first hand, and he was popularly supposed to have been a mighty wizard, who made sundry works of enchantment at Rome, such as a magic mirror and statue. Caxton’s so-called translation of the _Aeneid_ was in reality nothing but a version of a French romance based on Vergil’s epic. Of the Roman historians, orators, and moralists, such as Livy, Tacitus, Caesar, Cicero, and Seneca, there was almost entire ignorance, as also of poets like Horace, Lucretius, Juvenal, and Catullus. The gradual rediscovery of the remains of ancient art and literature which took place in the 15th century, and largely in Italy, worked an immense revolution in the mind of Europe. Manuscripts were brought out of their hiding places, edited by scholars, and spread abroad by means of the printing-press. Statues were dug up and placed in museums, and men became acquainted with a civilization far more mature than that of the Middle Age, and with models of perfect workmanship in letters and the fine arts.
In the latter years of the 15th century a number of Englishmen learned Greek in Italy and brought it back with them to England. William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre, who had studied at Florence under the refugee, Demetrius Chalcondylas, began teaching Greek at Oxford, the former as early as 1491. A little later John Colet, Dean of St. Paul’s and the founder of St. Paul’s School, and his friend, William Lily, the grammarian, and first master of St. Paul’s (1500), also studied Greek abroad; Colet in Italy, and Lily at Rhodes and in the city of Rome. Thomas More, afterward the famous chancellor of Henry VIII., was among the pupils of Grocyn and Linacre at Oxford. Thither also, in 1497, came, in search of the new knowledge, the Dutchman, Erasmus, who became the foremost scholar of his time. From Oxford the study spread to the sister university, where the first English Grecian of his day, Sir John Cheke, who “taught Cambridge and King Edward Greek,” became the incumbent of the new professorship founded about 1540. Among his pupils was Roger Ascham, already mentioned, in whose time St. John’s College, Cambridge, was the chief seat of the new learning, of which Thomas Nashe testifies that it “was an universitie within itself; having more candles light in it, every winter morning before four of the clock, than the four of clock bell gave strokes.” Greek was not introduced at the universities without violent opposition from the conservative element, who were nicknamed Trojans. The opposition came in part from the priests, who feared that that new study would sow seeds of heresy. Yet many of the most devout churchmen were friends of a more liberal culture, among them Thomas More, whose Catholicism was undoubted and who went to the block for his religion. Cardinal Wolsey, whom More succeeded as chancellor, was also a munificent patron of learning, and founded Christ Church College at Oxford. Popular education at once felt the impulse of the new studies, and over twenty endowed grammar schools were established in England in the first twenty years of the 16th century. Greek became a passion even with English ladies. Ascham in his _Schoolmaster_, a treatise on education, published in 1570, says that Queen Elizabeth “readeth here now at Windsor more Greek every day, than some prebendarie of this Church doth read Latin in a whole week.” And in the same book he tells how, calling once on Lady Jane Grey, at Brodegate, in Leicestershire, he “found her in her chamber reading _Phaedon Platonis_ in Greek, and that with as much delite as some gentlemen would read a merry tale in _Bocase_,” and when he asked her why she had not gone hunting with the rest, she answered, “I wisse, all their sport in the park is but a shadow to that pleasure that I find in Plato.” Ascham’s _Schoolmaster_, as well as his earlier book, _Toxophilus_, a Platonic dialogue on archery, bristles with quotations from the Greek and Latin classics, and with that perpetual reference to the authority of antiquity on every topic that he touches, which remained the fashion in all serious prose down to the time of Dryden.
One speedy result of the new learning was fresh translations of the Scriptures into English out of the original tongues. In 1525 William Tyndal printed at Cologne and Worms his version of the New Testament from the Greek.
[Footnote 18: Surely; a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon _gewis_.]
Ten years later Miles Coverdale made, at Zurich, a translation of the whole Bible from the German and Latin. These were the basis of numerous later translations, and the strong beautiful English of Tyndal’s Testament is preserved for the most part in our Authorized Version (1611). At first it was not safe to make or distribute these early translations in England. Numbers of copies were brought into the country, however, and did much to promote the cause of the Reformation. After Henry VIII. had broken with the pope the new English Bible circulated freely among the people. Tyndal and Sir Thomas More carried on a vigorous controversy in English upon some of the questions at issue between the Church and the Protestants. Other important contributions to the literature of the Reformation were the homely sermons preached at Westminster and at Paul’s Cross by Bishop Hugh Latimer, who was burned at Oxford in the reign of Bloody Mary. The English Book of Common Prayer was compiled in 1549-1552. More was, perhaps, the best representative of a group of scholars who wished to enlighten and reform the Church from the inside, but who refused to follow Henry VIII. in his breach with Rome. Dean Colet and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, belonged to the same company, and Fisher was beheaded in the same year (1535) with More, and for the same offense, namely, refusing to take the oath to maintain the act confirming the king’s divorce from Catharine of Arragon and his marriage with Anne Boleyn. More’s philosophy is best reflected in his _Utopia_, the description of an ideal commonwealth, modeled on Plato’s _Republic_, and printed in 1516. The name signifies “no place” [Greek: oy thopst], and has furnished an adjective to the language. The _Utopia_ was in Latin, but More’s _History of Edward V. and Richard III._ written 1513, though not printed till 1557, was in English. It is the first example in the tongue of a history as distinguished from a chronicle; that is, it is a reasoned and artistic presentation of an historic period, and not a mere chronological narrative of events.
The first three quarters of the 16th century produced no great original work of literature in England. It was a season of preparation, of education. The storms of the Reformation interrupted and delayed the literary renascence through the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., and Queen Mary. When Elizabeth came to the throne, in 1558, a more settled order of things began, and a period of great national prosperity and glory. Meanwhile the English mind had been slowly assimilating the new classical culture, which was extended to all classes of readers by the numerous translations of Greek and Latin authors. A fresh poetic impulse came from Italy. In 1557 appeared _Tottel’s Miscellany_, containing songs and sonnets by a “new company of courtly makers.” Most of the pieces in the volume had been written years before by gentlemen of Henry VIII.’s court, and circulated in manuscript. The two chief contributors were Sir Thomas Wiat, at one time English embassador to Spain, and that brilliant noble, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, who was beheaded in 1547 for quartering the king’s arms with his own. Both of them were dead long before their work was printed. The verses in _Tottel’s Miscellany_ show very clearly the influence of Italian poetry. We have seen that Chaucer took subjects and something more from Boccaccio and Petrarch. But the sonnet, which Petrarch had brought to perfection, was first introduced into England by Wiat. There was a great revival of sonneteering in Italy in the 16th century, and a number of Wiat’s poems were adaptations of the sonnets and _canzoni_ of Petrarch and later poets. Others were imitations of Horace’s satires and epistles. Surrey introduced the Italian blank verse into English in his translation of two books of the _Aeneid_. The love poetry of _Tottel’s Miscellany_ is polished and artificial, like the models which it followed. Dante’s Beatrice was a child, and so was Petrarch’s Laura. Following their example, Surrey addressed his love complaints, by way of compliment, to a little girl of the noble Irish family of Geraldine. The Amourists, or love sonneteers, dwelt on the metaphysics of the passion with a tedious minuteness, and the conventional nature of their sighs and complaints may often be guessed by an experienced reader from the titles of their poems: “Description of the restless state of a lover, with suit to his lady to rue on his dying heart;” “Hell tormenteth not the damned ghosts so sore as unkindness the lover;” “The lover prayeth not to be disdained, refused, mistrusted nor forsaken,” etc. The most genuine utterance of Surrey was his poem written while imprisoned in Windsor–a cage where so many a song-bird has grown vocal. And Wiat’s little piece of eight lines, “Of his Return from Spain,” is worth reams of his amatory affectations. Nevertheless the writers in _Tottel’s Miscellany_ were real reformers of English poetry. They introduced new models of style and new metrical forms, and they broke away from the mediaeval traditions which had hitherto obtained. The language had undergone some changes since Chaucer’s time, which made his scansion obsolete. The accent of many words of French origin, like _nature_, _courage_, _virtue_, _matere_, had shifted to the first syllable, and the _e_ of the final syllables _es_, _en_, _ed_, and _e_, had largely disappeared. But the language of poetry tends to keep up archaisms of this kind, and in Stephen Hawes, who wrote a century after Chaucer, we still find such lines as these:
But he my strokes might right well endure, He was so great and huge of puissance.
Hawes’s practice is variable in this respect, and so is his contemporary, Skelton’s. But in Wiat and Surrey, who wrote only a few years later, the reader first feels sure that he is reading verse pronounced quite in the modern fashion.
[Footnote 19: Trisyllable–like creature neighebour, etc., in Chaucer.]
But Chaucer’s example still continued potent. Spenser revived many of his obsolete words, both in his pastorals and in his _Faerie Queene_, thereby imparting an antique remoteness to his diction, but incurring Ben Jonson’s censure, that he “writ no language.” A poem that stands midway between Spenser and the late mediaeval work of Chaucer’s school–such as Hawes’s _Passetyme of Pleasure_–was the induction contributed by Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, in 1563 to a collection of narrative poems called the _Mirrour for Magistrates_. The whole series was the work of many hands, modeled upon Lydgate’s _Falls of Princes_ (taken from Boccaccio), and was designed as a warning to great men of the fickleness of fortune. The _Induction_ is the only noteworthy part of it. It was an allegory, written in Chaucer’s seven-lined stanza, and described, with a somber imaginative power, the figure of Sorrow, her abode in the “griesly lake” of Avernus, and her attendants, Remorse, Dread, Old Age, etc. Sackville was the author of the first regular English tragedy _Gorboduc_; and it was at his request that Ascham wrote the _Schoolmaster_.
Italian poetry also fed the genius of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). While a student at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, he had translated some of the _Visions of Petrarch_, and the _Visions of Bellay_, a French poet, but it was only in 1579 that the publication of his _Shepheard’s Calendar_ announced the coming of a great original poet, the first since Chaucer. The _Shepheard’s Calendar_ was a pastoral in twelve eclogues–one for each month in the year. There had been a revival of pastoral poetry in Italy and France, but, with one or two insignificant exceptions, Spenser’s were the first bucolics in English. Two of his eclogues were paraphrases from Clement Marot, a French Protestant poet, whose psalms were greatly in fashion at the court of Francis I. The pastoral machinery had been used by Vergil and by his modern imitators, not merely to portray the loves of Strephon and Chloe, or the idyllic charms of rustic life; but also as a vehicle of compliment, elegy, satire, and personal allusion of many kinds. Spenser, accordingly, alluded to his friends, Sidney and Harvey, as the shepherds Astrophel and Hobbinol; paid court to Queen Elizabeth as Cynthia; and introduced, in the form of anagrams, names of the High-Church Bishop of London, Aylmer, and the Low-Church Archbishop Grindal. The conventional pastoral is a somewhat delicate exotic in English poetry, and represents a very unreal Arcadia. Before the end of the 17th century the squeak of the oaten pipe had become a burden, and the only poem of the kind which it is easy to read without some impatience is Milton’s wonderful _Lycidas_. The _Shepheard’s Calendar_, however, though it belonged to an artificial order of literature, had the unmistakable stamp of genius in its style. There was a broad, easy mastery of the resources of language, a grace, fluency, and music which were new to English poetry. It was written while Spenser was in service with the Earl of Leicester, and enjoying the friendship of his nephew, the all-accomplished Sidney and it was, perhaps, composed at the latter’s country seat of Penshurst. In the following year Spenser went to Ireland as private secretary to Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton, who had just been appointed Lord Deputy of that kingdom. After filling several clerkships in the Irish government, Spenser received a grant of the castle and estate of Kilcolman, a part of the forfeited lands of the rebel Earl of Desmond. Here, among landscapes richly wooded, like the scenery of his own fairy land, “under the cooly shades of the green alders by the Mulla’s shore,” Sir Walter Raleigh found him, in 1589, busy upon his _Faerie Queene_. In his poem, _Colin Clout’s Come Home Again_, Spenser tells, in pastoral language, how “the shepherd of the ocean” persuaded him to go to London, where he presented him to the queen, under whose patronage the first three books of his great poem were printed, in 1590. A volume of minor poems, entitled _Complaints_, followed in 1591, and the three remaining books of the _Faerie Queene_ in 1596. In 1595-1596 he published also his _Daphnaida, Prothalamion,_ and the four hymns on _Love_ and _Beauty_, and on _Heavenly Love_ and _Heavenly Beauty_. In 1598, in Tyrone’s rebellion, Kilcolman Castle was sacked and burned, and Spenser, with his family, fled to London, where he died in January, 1599.
The _Faerie Queene_ reflects, perhaps, more fully than any other English work, the many-sided literary influences of the Renascence. It was the blossom of a richly composite culture. Its immediate models were Ariosto’s _Orlando Furioso_, the first forty cantos of which were published in 1515, and Tasso’s _Gerusalemme Liberata_, printed in 1581. Both of these were, in subject, romances of chivalry, the first based upon the old Charlemagne epos–Orlando being identical with the hero of the French _Chanson de Roland_: the second upon the history of the first crusade, and the recovery of the Holy City from the Saracen. But in both of them there was a splendor of diction and a wealth of coloring quite unknown to the rude mediaeval romances. Ariosto and Tasso wrote with the great epics of Homer and Vergil constantly in mind, and all about them was the brilliant light of Italian art, in its early freshness and power. The _Faerie Queene_, too, was a tale of knight-errantry. Its hero was King Arthur, and its pages swarm with the familiar adventures and figures of Gothic romance: distressed ladies and their champions, combats with dragons and giants, enchanted castles, magic rings, charmed wells, forest hermitages, etc. But side by side with these appear the fictions of Greek mythology and the personified abstractions of fashionable allegory. Knights, squires, wizards, hamadryads, satyrs, and river gods, Idleness, Gluttony, and Superstition jostle each other in Spenser’s fairy land. Descents to the infernal shades, in the manner of Homer and Vergil, alternate with descriptions of the Palace of Pride in the manner of the _Romaunt of the Rose_. But Spenser’s imagination was a powerful spirit, and held all these diverse elements in solution. He removed them to an ideal sphere “apart from place, withholding time,” where they seem all alike equally real, the dateless conceptions of the poet’s dream.
The poem was to have been “a continued allegory or dark conceit,” in twelve books, the hero of each book representing one of the twelve moral virtues. Only six books and the fragment of a seventh were written. By way of complimenting his patrons and securing contemporary interest, Spenser undertook to make his allegory a double one, personal and historical, as well as moral or abstract. Thus Gloriana, the Queen of Faery, stands not only for Glory but for Elizabeth, to whom the poem was dedicated. Prince Arthur is Leicester, as well as Magnificence. Duessa is Falsehood, but also Mary Queen of Scots. Grantorto is Philip II. of Spain. Sir Artegal is Justice, but likewise he is Arthur Grey de Wilton. Other characters shadow forth Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Philip Sidney, Henry IV. of France, etc.; and such public events as the revolt of the Spanish Netherlands, the Irish rebellion, the execution of Mary Stuart, and the rising of the northern Catholic houses against Elizabeth are told in parable. In this way the poem reflects the spiritual struggle of the time, the warfare of young England against popery and Spain.
The allegory is not always easy to follow. It is kept up most carefully in the first two books, but it sat rather lightly on Spenser’s conscience, and is not of the essence of the poem. It is an ornament put on from the outside and detachable at pleasure. The “Spenserian stanza,” in which the _Faerie Queene_ was written, was adapted from the _ottava rima_ of Ariosto. Spenser changed somewhat the order of the rimes in the first eight lines and added a ninth line of twelve syllables, thus affording more space to the copious luxuriance of his style and the long-drawn sweetness of his verse. It was his instinct to dilate and elaborate every image to the utmost, and his similies, especially–each of which usually fills a whole stanza–have the pictorial amplitude of Homer’s. Spenser was, in fact, a great painter. His poetry is almost purely sensuous. The personages in the _Faerie Queene_ are not characters, but richly colored figures, moving to the accompaniment of delicious music, in an atmosphere of serene remoteness from the earth. Charles Lamb said that he was the poet’s poet, that is, he appealed wholly to the artistic sense and to the love of beauty. Not until Keats did another English poet appear so filled with the passion for outward shapes of beauty, so exquisitively alive to all impressions of the senses. Spenser was, in some respects, more an Italian than an English poet. It is said that the Venetian gondoliers still sing the stanzas of Tasso’s _Gerusalemme Liberata_. It is not easy to imagine the Thames bargees chanting passages from the _Faerie Queene_. Those English poets who have taken strongest hold upon their public have done so by their profound interpretation of our common life. But Spenser escaped altogether from reality into a region of pure imagination. His aerial creations resemble the blossoms of the epiphytic orchids, which have no root in the soil, but draw their nourishment from the moisture of the air.
_Their_ birth was of the womb of morning dew, And _their_ conception of the glorious prime.
Among the minor poems of Spenser the most delightful were his _Prothalamion_ and _Epithalamion_. The first was a “spousal verse,” made for the double wedding of the Ladies Catherine and Elizabeth Somerset, whom the poet figures as two white swans that come swimming down the Thames, the surface of which the nymphs strew with lilies, till it appears “like a bride’s chamber-floor.”
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
is the burden of each stanza. The _Epithalamion_ was Spenser’s own marriage song, written to crown his series of _Amoretti_ or love sonnets, and is the most splendid hymn of triumphant love in the language. Hardly less beautiful than these was _Muiopotmos; or, the Fate of the Butterfly_, an addition to the classical myth of Arachne, the spider. The four hymns in praise of _Love_ and _Beauty_, _Heavenly Love_ and _Heavenly Beauty_, are also stately and noble poems, but by reason of their abstractness and the Platonic mysticism which they express, are less generally pleasing than the others mentioned. Allegory and mysticism had no natural affiliation with Spenser’s genius. He was a seer of visions, of _images_ full, brilliant, and distinct; and not, like Bunyan, Dante, or Hawthorne, a projector into bodily shapes of _ideas_, typical and emblematic; the shadows which haunt the conscience and the mind.
* * * * *
1. English Writers. Henry Morley. Cassell & Co., 1887. 4 vols.
2. Skeat’s Specimens of English Literature, 1394-1579 (Clarendon Press Series.) Oxford.
3. Morte Darthur. London: Macmillan & Co., 1868. (Globe Edition.)
4. English and Scottish Ballads. Edited by Francis J. Child. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1859. 8 vols.
5. Spenser’s Poetical Works. Edited by Richard Morris. London: Macmillan & Co., 1877. (Globe Edition.)
6. “A Royal Poet.” In Washington Irving’s Sketch Book. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1864.
THE AGE OF SHAKSPERE.
The great age of English poetry opened with the publication of Spenser’s _Shepheard’s Calendar_, in 1579, and closed with the printing of Milton’s _Samson Agonistes_, in 1671. Within this period of little less than a century English thought passed through many changes, and there were several successive phases of style in our imaginative literature. Milton, who acknowledged Spenser as his master, and who was a boy of eight years at Shakspere’s death, lived long enough to witness the establishment of an entirely new school of poets, in the persons of Dryden and his contemporaries. But, roughly speaking, the dates above given mark the limits of one literary epoch, which may not improperly be called the Elizabethan. In strictness the Elizabethan age ended with the queen’s death, in 1603. But the poets of the succeeding reigns inherited much of the glow and splendor which marked the diction of their forerunners; and “the spacious times of great Elizabeth” have been, by courtesy, prolonged to the year of the Restoration (1660). There is a certain likeness in the intellectual products of the whole period, a largeness of utterance and a high imaginative cast of thought which stamp them all alike with the queen’s seal.
Nor is it by any undue stretch of the royal prerogative that the name of the monarch has attached itself to the literature of her reign and of the reigns succeeding hers. The expression “Victorian poetry” has a rather absurd sound when one considers how little Victoria counts for in the literature of her time. But in Elizabethan poetry the maiden queen is really the central figure. She is Cynthia, she is Thetis, great queen of shepherds and of the sea; she is Spenser’s Gloriana, and even Shakspere, the most impersonal of poets, paid tribute to her in _Henry VIII._, and, in a more delicate and indirect way, in the little allegory introduced into _Midsummer Night’s Dream_.
That very time I saw–but thou could’st not– Flying between the cold moon and the earth, Cupid all armed. A certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west, And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts. But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft Quenched in the chaste beams of the watery moon, And the imperial votaress passed on
In maiden meditation, fancy free–
an allusion to Leicester’s unsuccessful suit for Elizabeth’s hand.
The praises of the queen, which sound through all the poetry of her time, seem somewhat overdone to a modern reader. But they were not merely the insipid language of courtly compliment. England had never before had a female sovereign, except in the instance of the gloomy and bigoted Mary. When she was succeeded by her more brilliant sister the gallantry of a gallant and fantastic age was poured at the latter’s feet, the sentiment of chivalry mingling itself with loyalty to the crown. The poets idealized Elizabeth. She was to Spenser, to Sidney, and to Raleigh, not merely a woman and a virgin queen, but the champion of Protestantism, the lady of young England, the heroine of the conflict against popery and Spain. Moreover Elizabeth was a great woman. In spite of the vanity, caprice, and ingratitude which disfigured her character, and the vacillating, tortuous policy which often distinguished her government, she was at bottom a sovereign of large views, strong will, and dauntless courage. Like her father, she “loved a _man_,” and she had the magnificent tastes of the Tudors. She was a patron of the arts, passionately fond of shows and spectacles, and sensible to poetic flattery. In her royal progresses through the kingdom, the universities, the nobles, and the cities vied with one another in receiving her with plays, revels, masques, and triumphs, in the mythological taste of the day. “When the queen paraded through a country town,” says Warton, the historian of English poetry, “almost every pageant was a pantheon. When she paid a visit at the house of any of her nobility, at entering the hall she was saluted by the _penates_. In the afternoon, when she condescended to walk in the garden, the lake was covered with tritons and nereids; the pages of the family were converted into wood-nymphs, who peeped from every bower; and the footmen gamboled over the lawns in the figure of satyrs. When her majesty hunted in the park she was met by Diana, who, pronouncing our royal prude to be the brightest paragon of unspotted chastity, invited her to groves free from the intrusions of Acteon.” The most elaborate of these entertainments of which we have any notice were, perhaps, the games celebrated in her honor by the Earl of Leicester, when she visited him at Kenilworth, in 1575. An account of these was published by a contemporary poet, George Gascoigne, _The Princely Pleasures at the Court of Kenilworth_, and Walter Scott has made them familiar to modern readers in his novel of _Kenilworth_. Sidney was present on this occasion, and, perhaps, Shakspere, then a boy of eleven, and living at Stratford, not far off, may have been taken to see the spectacle; may have seen Neptune riding on the back of a huge dolphin in the castle lake, speaking the copy of verses in which he offered his trident to the empress of the sea; and may have
heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath That the rude sea grew civil at her song.
But in considering the literature of Elizabeth’s reign it will be convenient to speak first of the prose. While following up Spenser’s career to its close (1599) we have, for the sake of unity of treatment, anticipated somewhat the literary history of the twenty years preceding. In 1579 appeared a book which had a remarkable influence on English prose. This was John Lyly’s _Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit_. It was in form a romance, the history of a young Athenian who went to Naples to see the world and get an education; but it is in substance nothing but a series of dialogues on love, friendship, religion, etc., written in language which, from the title of the book, has received the name of _Euphuism_. This new English became very fashionable among the ladies, and “that beauty in court which could not parley Euphuism,” says a writer of 1632, “was as little regarded as she which now there speaks not French.”
Walter Scott introduced a Euphuist into his novel the _Monastery_, but the peculiar jargon which Sir Piercie Shaft on is made to talk is not at all like the real Euphuism. That consisted of antithesis, alliteration, and the profuse illustration of every thought by metaphors borrowed from a kind of fabulous natural history. “Descend into thine own conscience and consider with thyself the great difference between staring and stark-blind, wit and wisdom, love and lust; be merry, but with modesty; be sober, but not too sullen; be valiant, but not too venturous.” “I see now that, as the fish _Scolopidus_ in the flood _Araxes_ at the waxing of the moon is as white as the driven snow, and at the waning as black as the burnt coal; so Euphues, which at the first increasing of our familiarity was very zealous, is now at the last cast become most faithless.” Besides the fish _Scolopidus_, the favorite animals of Lyly’s menagerie are such as the chameleon, “which though he have most guts draweth least breath;” the bird _Piralis_, “which sitting upon white cloth is white, upon green, green;” and the serpent _Porphirius_, “which, though he be full of poison, yet having no teeth, hurteth none but himself.”
Lyly’s style was pithy and sententious, and his sentences have the air of proverbs or epigrams. The vice of Euphuism was its monotony. On every page of the book there was something pungent, something quotable; but many pages of such writing became tiresome. Yet it did much to form the hitherto loose structure of English prose, by lending it point and polish. His carefully balanced periods were valuable lessons in rhetoric, and his book became a manual of polite conversation and introduced that fashion of witty repartee, which is evident enough in Shakspere’s comic dialogue. In 1580 appeared the second part, _Euphues and his England,_ and six editions of the whole work were printed before 1598. Lyly had many imitators. In Stephen Gosson’s _School of Abuse_, a tract directed against the stage and published about four months later than the first part of _Euphues_, the language is directly Euphuistic. The dramatist, Robert Greene, published, in 1587, his _Menaphon; Camilla’s Alarum to Slumbering Euphues_, and his _Euphues’s Censure to Philautus_. His brother dramatist, Thomas Lodge, published, in 1590, _Rosalynde: Euphues’s Golden Legacy_, from which Shakspere took the plot of _As You Like It_. Shakspere and Ben Jonson both quote from _Euphues_ in their plays, and Shakspere was really writing Euphuism when he wrote such a sentence as “‘Tis true, ’tis pity; pity ’tis ’tis true.”
[Illustration: Chaucer, Spenser, Bacon, Milton.]
That knightly gentleman, Philip Sidney, was a true type of the lofty aspiration and manifold activity of Elizabethan England. He was scholar, poet, courtier, diplomatist, soldier, all in one. Educated at Oxford and then introduced at court by his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, he had been sent to France when a lad of eighteen, with the embassy which went to treat of the queen’s proposed marriage to the Duke of Alencon, and was in Paris at the time of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, in 1572. Afterward he had traveled through Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, had gone as embassador to the emperor’s court, and every-where won golden opinions. In 1580, while visiting his sister Mary, Countess of Pembroke, at Wilton, he wrote, for her pleasure, the _Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia_, which remained in manuscript till 1590. This was a pastoral romance, after the manner of the Italian _Arcadia_ of Sanazzaro, and the _Diana Enamorada_ of Montemayor, a Portuguese author. It was in prose, but intermixed with songs and sonnets, and Sidney finished only two books and a portion of the third. It describes the adventures of two cousins, Musidorus and Pyrocles, who were wrecked on the coast of Sparta. The plot is very involved and is full of the stock episodes of romance: disguises, surprises, love intrigues, battles, jousts and single combats. Although the insurrection of the Helots against the Spartans forms a part of the story, the Arcadia is not the real Arcadia of the Hellenic Peloponnesus, but the fanciful country of pastoral romance, an unreal clime, like the fairy land of Spenser.
Sidney was our first writer of poetic prose. The poet Drayton says that he
did first reduce
Our tongue from Lyly’s writing, then in use, Talking of stones, stars, plants, of fishes, flies, Playing with words and idle similes.
Sidney was certainly no Euphuist, but his style was as “Italianated” as Lyly’s, though in a different way. His English was too pretty for prose. His “Sidneian showers of sweet discourse” sowed every page of the _Arcadia_ with those flowers of conceit, those sugared fancies which his contemporaries loved, but which the taste of a severer age finds insipid. This splendid vice of the Elizabethan writers appears in Sidney, chiefly in the form of an excessive personification. If he describes a field full of roses, he makes “the roses add such a ruddy show unto it, as though the field were bashful at his own beauty.” If he describes ladies bathing in the stream, he makes the water break into twenty bubbles, as “not content to have the picture of their face in large upon him, but he would in each of those bubbles set forth a miniature of them.” And even a passage which should be tragic, such as the death of his heroine, Parthenia, he embroiders with conceits like these: “For her exceeding fair eyes having with continued weeping got a little redness about them, her round sweetly swelling lips a little trembling, as though they kissed their neighbor Death; in her cheeks the whiteness striving by little and little to get upon the rosiness of them; her neck, a neck of alabaster, displaying the wound which with most dainty blood labored to drown his own beauties; so as here was a river of purest red, there an island of perfectest white,” etc.
The _Arcadia_, like _Euphues_, was a lady’s book. It was the favorite court romance of its day, but it surfeits a modern reader with its sweetness, and confuses him with its tangle of adventures. The lady for whom it was written was the mother of that William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, to whom Shakspere’s sonnets are thought to have been dedicated. And she was the subject of Ben Jonson’s famous epitaph.
Underneath this sable herse
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother; Death, ere thou hast slain another
Learn’d and fair and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.
Sidney’s _Defense of Poesy_ composed in 1581, but not printed till 1595, was written in manlier English than the _Arcadia_, and is one of the very few books of criticism belonging to a creative and uncritical time. He was also the author of a series of love sonnets, _Astrophel and Stella_, in which he paid Platonic court to the Lady Penelope Rich (with whom he was not in love), according to the conventional usage of the amourists.
Sidney died in 1586, from a wound received in a cavalry charge at Zutphen, where he was an officer in the English contingent sent to help the Dutch against Spain. The story has often been told of his giving his cup of water to a wounded soldier with the words, “Thy necessity is yet greater than mine.” Sidney was England’s darling, and there was hardly a poet in the land from whom his death did not obtain “the meed of some melodious tear.” Spenser’s _Ruins of Time_ were among the number of these funeral songs; but the best of them all was by one Matthew Royden, concerning whom little is known.
Another typical Englishman of Elizabeth’s reign was Walter Raleigh, who was even more versatile than Sidney, and more representative of the restless spirit of romantic adventure, mixed with cool, practical enterprise that marked, the times. He fought against the queen’s enemies by land and sea in many quarters of the globe; in the Netherlands and in Ireland against Spain, with the Huguenot army against the League in France. Raleigh was from Devonshire, the great nursery of English seamen. He was half-brother to the famous navigator, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and cousin to another great captain, Sir Richard Grenville. He sailed with Gilbert on one of his voyages against the Spanish treasure fleet, and in 1591 he published a report of the fight, near the Azores, between Grenville’s ship, the _Revenge_, and fifteen great ships of Spain, an action, said Francis Bacon, “memorable even beyond credit, and to the height of some heroical fable.” Raleigh was active in raising a fleet against the Spanish Armada of 1588. He was present in 1596 at the brilliant action in which the Earl of Essex “singed the Spanish king’s beard,” in the harbor of Cadiz. The year before he had sailed to Guiana, in search of the fabled El Dorado, destroying on the way the Spanish town of San Jose, in the West Indies; and on his return he published his _Discovery of the Empire of Guiana_. In 1597 he captured the town of Fayal, in the Azores. He took a prominent part in colonizing Virginia, and he introduced tobacco and the potato plant into Europe.
America was still a land of wonder and romance, full of rumors, nightmares, and enchantments. In 1580, when Francis Drake, “the Devonshire Skipper,” had dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor, after his voyage around the world, the enthusiasm of England had been mightily stirred. These narratives of Raleigh, and the similar accounts of the exploits of the bold sailors, Davis, Hawkins, Frobisher, Gilbert, and Drake; but especially the great cyclopedia of nautical travel, published by Richard Hakluyt in 1589, _The Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries made by the English Nation_, worked powerfully on the imaginations of the poets. We see the influence of this literature of travel in the _Tempest_, written undoubtedly after Shakspere had been reading the narrative of Sir George Somers’s shipwreck on the Bermudas or “Isles of Devils.”
Raleigh was not in favor with Elizabeth’s successor, James I. He was sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of high treason. The sentence hung over him until 1618, when it was revived against him and he was beheaded. Meanwhile, during his twelve years’ imprisonment in the Tower, he had written his _magnum opus_, the _History of the World_. This is not a history, in the modern sense, but a series of learned dissertations on law, government, theology, magic, war, etc. A chapter with such a caption as the following would hardly be found in a universal history nowadays: “Of their opinion which make Paradise as high as the moon; and of others which make it higher than the middle regions of the air.” The preface and conclusion are noble examples of Elizabethan prose, and the book ends with an oft-quoted apostrophe to Death. “O eloquent, just and mighty Death! Whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared, thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised; thou hast drawn together all the far-fetched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words, _hic jacet_.”
Although so busy a man, Raleigh found time to be a poet. Spenser calls him “the summer’s nightingale,” and George Puttenham, in his _Art of English Poesy_ (1589), finds his “vein most lofty, insolent, and passionate.” Puttenham used _insolent_ in its old sense, _uncommon_; but this description is hardly less true, if we accept the word in its modern meaning. Raleigh’s most notable verses, _The Lie_, are a challenge to the world, inspired by indignant pride and the weariness of life–the _saeva indignatio_ of Swift. The same grave and caustic melancholy, the same disillusion marks his quaint poem, _The Pilgrimage_. It is remarkable how many of the verses among his few poetical remains are asserted in the manuscripts or by tradition to have been “made by Sir Walter Raleigh the night before he was beheaded.” Of one such poem the assertion is probably true–namely, the lines “found in his Bible in the gate-house at Westminster.”
Even such is Time, that takes in trust, Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust; Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways, Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust, My God shall raise me up, I trust!
The strictly _literary_ prose of the Elizabethan period bore a small proportion to the verse. Many entire departments of prose literature were as yet undeveloped. Fiction was represented–outside of the _Arcadia_ and _Euphues_ already mentioned–chiefly by tales translated or imitated from Italian _novelle_. George Turberville’s _Tragical Tales_ (1566) was a collection of such stories, and William Paynter’s _Palace of Pleasure_ (1576-1577) a similar collection from Boccaccio’s _Decameron_ and the novels of Bandello. These translations are mainly of interest as having furnished plots to the English dramatists. Lodge’s _Rosalind_ and Robert Greene’s _Pandosto_, the sources respectively of Shakspere’s _As You Like It_ and _Winter’s Tale_, are short pastoral romances, not without prettiness in their artificial way. The satirical pamphlets of Thomas Nash and his fellows, against “Martin Marprelate,” an anonymous writer, or company of writers, who attacked the bishops, are not wanting in wit, but are so cumbered with fantastic whimsicalities, and so bound up with personal quarrels, that oblivion