MARLOWE. The best of these early playwrights, each of whom contributed some element of value, was Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), who is sometimes called the father of the Elizabethan drama. He appeared in London sometime before 1587, when his first drama _Tamburlaine_ took the city by storm. The prologue of this drama is at once a criticism and a promise:
From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits, And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay, We’ll lead you to the stately tent of war, Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine Threatening the world with high-astounding terms, And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.
The “jigging” refers to the doggerel verse of the earlier drama, and “clownage” to the crude horseplay intended to amuse the crowd. For the doggerel is substituted blank verse, “Marlowe’s mighty line” as it has ever since been called, since he was the first to use it with power; and for the “clownage” he promises a play of human interest revolving around a man whose sole ambition is for world power,–such ambition as stirred the English nation when it called halt to the encroachments of Spain, and announced that henceforth it must be reckoned with in the councils of the Continent. Though _Tamburlaine_ is largely rant and bombast, there is something in it which fascinates us like the sight of a wild bull on a rampage; for such was Timur, the hero of the first play to which we confidently give the name Elizabethan. In the latter part of the play the action grows more intense; there is a sense of tragedy, of impending doom, in the vain attempt of the hero to oppose fate. He can conquer a world but not his own griefs; he ends his triumphant career with a pathetic admission of failure: “And Tamburlaine, the Scourge of God, must die.”
[Sidenote: MARLOWE’S DRAMAS]
The succeeding plays of Marlowe are all built on the same model; that is, they are one-man plays, and the man is dominated by a passion for power. _Doctor Faustus_, the most poetical of Marlowe’s works, is a play representing a scholar who hungers for more knowledge, especially the knowledge of magic. In order to obtain it he makes a bargain with the devil, selling his soul for twenty-four years of unlimited power and pleasure. [Footnote: The story is the same as that of Goethe’s _Faust_. It was a favorite story, or rather collection of stories, of the Middle Ages, and was first printed as the _History of Johann Faust_ in Frankfort, in 1587. Marlowe’s play was written, probably, in the same year.] _The Jew of Malta_ deals with the lust for such power as wealth gives, and the hero is the money-lender Barabas, a monster of avarice and hate, who probably suggested to Shakespeare the character of Shylock in _The Merchant of Venice_. The last play written by Marlowe was _Edward II_, which dealt with a man who might have been powerful, since he was a king, but who furnished a terrible example of weakness and petty tyranny that ended miserably in a dungeon.
After writing these four plays with their extraordinary promise, Marlowe, who led a wretched life, was stabbed in a tavern brawl. The splendid work which he only began (for he died under thirty years of age) was immediately taken up by the greatest of all dramatists, Shakespeare.
* * * * *
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616)
“The name of Shakespeare is the greatest in all literature. No man ever came near to him in the creative power of the mind; no man ever had such strength and such variety of imagination.” (Hallam)
“Shakespeare’s mind is the horizon beyond which, at present, we do not see.” (Emerson)
“I do not believe that any book or person or event in my life ever made so great an impression on me as the plays of Shakespeare. They appear to be the work of some heavenly genius.” (Goethe)
Shakespeare’s name has become a signal for enthusiasm. The tributes quoted above are doubtless extravagant, but they were written by men of mark in three different countries, and they serve to indicate the tremendous impression which Shakespeare has left upon the world. He wrote in his day some thirty-seven plays and a few poems; since then as many hundred volumes have been written in praise of his accomplishment. He died three centuries ago, without caring enough for his own work to print it. At the present time unnumbered critics, historians, scholars, are still explaining the mind and the art displayed in that same neglected work. Most of these eulogists begin or end their volumes with the remark that Shakespeare is so great as to be above praise or criticism. As Taine writes, before plunging into his own analysis, “Lofty words, eulogies are all used in vain; Shakespeare needs not praise but comprehension merely.”
LIFE. It is probably because so very little is known about Shakespeare that so many bulky biographies have been written of him. Not a solitary letter of his is known to exist; not a play comes down to us as he wrote it. A few documents written by other men, and sometimes ending in a sprawling signature by Shakespeare, which looks as if made by a hand accustomed to almost any labor except that of the pen,–these are all we have to build upon. One record, in dribbling Latin, relates to the christening of “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere”; a second, unreliable as a village gossip, tells an anecdote of the same person’s boyhood; a third refers to Shakespeare as “one of his Majesty’s poor players”; a fourth records the burial of the poet’s son Hamnet; a fifth speaks of “Willi. Shakspere, gentleman”; a sixth is a bit of wretched doggerel inscribed on the poet’s tombstone; a seventh tells us that in 1622, only six years after the poet’s death, the public had so little regard for his art that the council of his native Stratford bribed his old company of players to go away from the town without giving a performance.
It is from such dry and doubtful records that we must construct a biography, supplementing the meager facts by liberal use of our imagination.
[Sidenote: EARLY DAYS]
In the beautiful Warwickshire village of Stratford our poet was born, probably in the month of April, in 1564. His mother, Mary Arden, was a farmer’s daughter; his father was a butcher and small tradesman, who at one time held the office of high bailiff of the village. There was a small grammar school in Stratford, and Shakespeare may have attended it for a few years. When he was about fourteen years old his father, who was often in lawsuits, was imprisoned for debt, and the boy probably left school and went to work. At eighteen he married Anne Hathaway, a peasant’s daughter eight years older than himself; at twenty-three, with his father still in debt and his own family of three children to provide for, Shakespeare took the footpath that led to the world beyond his native village. [Footnote: Such is the prevalent opinion of Shakespeare’s early days; but we are dealing here with surmises, not with established facts. There are scholars who allege that Shakespeare’s poverty is a myth; that his father was prosperous to the end of his days; that he probably took the full course in Latin and Greek at the Stratford school. Almost everything connected with the poet’s youth is still a matter of dispute.]
[Sidenote: IN LONDON]
From Stratford he went to London, from solitude to crowds, from beautiful rural scenes to dirty streets, from natural country people to seekers after the bubble of fame or fortune. Why he went is largely a matter of speculation. That he was looking for work; that he followed a company of actors, as a boy follows a circus; that he was driven out of Stratford after poaching on the game preserves of Sir Thomas Lucy, whom he ridiculed in the plays of _Henry VI_ and _Merry Wives_,–these and other theories are still debated. The most probable explanation of his departure is that the stage lured him away, as the printing press called the young Franklin from whatever else he undertook; for he seems to have headed straight for the theater, and to have found his place not by chance or calculation but by unerring instinct. England was then, as we have noted, in danger of going stage mad, and Shakespeare appeared to put method into the madness.
[Sidenote: ACTOR AND PLAYWRIGHT]
Beginning, undoubtedly, as an actor of small parts, he soon learned the tricks of the stage and the humors of his audience. His first dramatic work was to revise old plays, giving them some new twist or setting to please the fickle public. Then he worked with other playwrights, with Lyly and Peele perhaps, and the horrors of his _Titus Andronicus_ are sufficient evidence of his collaboration with Marlowe. Finally he walked alone, having learned his steps, and _Romeo and Juliet_ and _Midsummer Nights Dream_ announced that a great poet and dramatist had suddenly appeared in England.
[Illustration: THE LIBRARY, STRATFORD GRAMMAR SCHOOL ATTENDED BY SHAKESPEARE]
[Sidenote: PERIOD OF GLOOM]
This experimental period of Shakespeare’s life in London was apparently a time of health, of joyousness, of enthusiasm which comes with the successful use of one’s powers. It was followed by a period of gloom and sorrow, to which something of bitterness was added. What occasioned the change is again a matter of speculation. The first conjecture is that Shakespeare was a man to whom the low ideals of the Elizabethan stage were intolerable, and this opinion is strengthened after reading certain of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which reflect a loathing for the theaters and the mannerless crowds that filled them. Another conjectural cause of his gloom was the fate of certain noblemen with whom he was apparently on terms of friendship, to whom he dedicated his poems, and from whom he received substantial gifts of money. Of these powerful friends, the Earl of Essex was beheaded for treason, Pembroke was banished, and Southampton had gone to that grave of so many high hopes, the Tower of London. Shakespeare may have shared the sorrow of these men, as once he had shared their joy, and there are critics who assume that he was personally implicated in the crazy attempt of Essex at rebellion.
Whatever the cause of his grief, Shakespeare shows in his works that he no longer looks on the world with the clear eyes of youth. The great tragedies of this period, _Lear_, _Macbeth_, _Hamlet_, _Othello_ and _Casar_, all portray man not as a being of purpose and high destiny, but as the sport of chance, the helpless victim who cries out, as in _Henry IV_, for a sight of the Book of Fate, wherein is shown
how chances mock,
And changes fill the cup of alteration With divers liquors! O, if this were seen, The happiest youth, viewing his progress through, What perils past, what crosses to ensue, Would shut the book, and sit him down and die.
[Sidenote: RETURN TO STRATFORD]
For such a terrible mood London offered no remedy. For a time Shakespeare seems to have gloried in the city; then he wearied of it, grew disgusted with the stage, and finally, after some twenty-four years (_cir_. 1587-1611), sold his interest in the theaters, shook the dust of London from his feet, and followed his heart back to Stratford. There he adopted the ways of a country gentleman, and there peace and serenity returned to him. He wrote comparatively little after his retirement; but the few plays of this last period, such as _Cymbeline_, _Winter’s Tale_ and _The Tempest_, are the mellowest of all his works.
[Sidenote: SHAKESPEARE THE MAN]
After a brief period of leisure, Shakespeare died at his prime in 1616, and was buried in the parish church of Stratford. Of his great works, now the admiration of the world, he thought so little that he never collected or printed them. From these works many attempts are made to determine the poet’s character, beliefs, philosophy,–a difficult matter, since the works portray many types of character and philosophy equally well. The testimony of a few contemporaries is more to the point, and from these we hear that our poet was “very good company,” “of such civil demeanor,” “of such happy industry,” “of such excellent fancy and brave notions,” that he won in a somewhat brutal age the characteristic title of “the gentle Shakespeare.”
THE DRAMAS OF SHAKESPEARE. In Shakespeare’s day playwrights were producing various types of drama: the chronicle play, representing the glories of English history; the domestic drama, portraying homely scenes and common people; the court comedy (called also Lylian comedy, after the dramatist who developed it), abounding in wit and repartee for the delight of the upper classes; the melodrama, made up of sensational elements thrown together without much plot; the tragedy of blood, centering in one character who struggles amidst woes and horrors; romantic comedy and romantic tragedy, in which men and women were more or less idealized, and in which the elements of love, poetry, romance, youthful imagination and enthusiasm predominated.
[Illustration: ANNE HATHAWAY’S COTTAGE]
It is interesting to note that Shakespeare essayed all these types–the chronicle play in _Henry IV_, the domestic drama in _Merry Wives_, the court comedy in _Loves Labor’s Lost_, the melodrama in _Richard III_, the tragedy of blood in _King Lear_, romantic tragedy in _Romeo and Juliet_, romantic comedy in _As You Like It_–and that in each he showed such a mastery as to raise him far above all his contemporaries.
[Sidenote: EARLY DRAMAS]
In his experimental period of work (_cir_. 1590-1595) Shakespeare began by revising old plays in conjunction with other actors. _Henry VI_ is supposed to be an example of such tinkering work. The first part of this play (performed by Shakespeare’s company in 1592) was in all probability an older work made over by Shakespeare and some unknown dramatist. From the fact that Joan of Arc appears in the play in two entirely different characters, and is even made to do battle at Rouen several years after her death, it is almost certain that _Henry VI_ in its present form was composed at different times and by different authors.
[Illustration: THE MAIN ROOM, ANNE HATHAWAY’S COTTAGE]
_Love’s Labor’s Lost_ is an example of the poet’s first independent work. In this play such characters as Holofernes the schoolmaster, Costard the clown and Adriano the fantastic Spaniard are all plainly of the “stock” variety; various rimes and meters are used experimentally; blank verse is not mastered; and some of the songs, such as “On a Day,” are more or less artificial. Other plays of this early experimental period are _Two Gentlemen of Verona_ and _Richard III_, the latter of which shows the influence and, possibly, the collaboration of Marlowe.
[Sidenote: SECOND PERIOD]
In the second period (_cir_. 1595-1600) Shakespeare constructed his plots with better skill, showed a greater mastery of blank verse, created some original characters, and especially did he give free rein to his romantic imagination. All doubt and experiment vanished in the confident enthusiasm of this period, as if Shakespeare felt within himself the coming of the sunrise in _Romeo and Juliet_:
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
Though some of his later plays are more carefully finished, in none of them are we so completely under the sway of poetry and romance as in these early works, written when Shakespeare first felt the thrill of mastery in his art.
In _Midsummer Nights Dream_, for example, the practical affairs of life seem to smother its poetic dreams; but note how the dream abides with us after the play is over. The spell of the enchanted forest is broken when the crowd invades its solitude; the witchery of moonlight fades into the light of common day; and then comes Theseus with his dogs to drive not the foxes but the fairies out of the landscape. As Chesterton points out, this masterful man, who has seen no fairies, proceeds to arrange matters in a practical way, with a wedding, a feast and a pantomime, as if these were the chief things of life. So, he thinks, the drama is ended; but after he and his noisy followers have departed to slumber, lo! enter once more Puck, Oberon, Titania and the whole train of fairies, to repeople the ancient world and dance to the music of Mendelssohn:
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
While we sing, and bless this place.
So in _The Merchant of Venice_ with its tragic figure of Shylock, who is hurried off the stage to make place for a final scene of love, moonlight and music; so in every other play of this period, the poetic dream of life triumphs over its practical realities.
[Sidenote: THIRD PERIOD]
During the third period, of maturity of power (_cir._ 1600-1610), Shakespeare was overshadowed by some personal grief or disappointment. He wrote his “farewell to mirth” in _Twelfth Night_, and seems to have reflected his own perturbed state in the lines which he attributes to Achilles in _Troilus and Cressida_:
My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirr’d, And I myself see not the bottom of it.
His great tragedies belong to this period, tragedies which reveal increased dramatic power in Shakespeare, but also his loss of hope, his horrible conviction that man is not a free being but a puppet blown about by every wind of fate or circumstance. In _Hamlet_ great purposes wait upon a feeble will, and the strongest purpose may be either wrecked or consummated by a trifle. The whole conception of humanity in this play suggests a clock, of which, if but one small wheel is touched, all the rest are thrown into confusion. In _Macbeth_ a man of courage and vaulting ambition turns coward or traitor at the appearance of a ghost, at the gibber of witches, at the whisper of conscience, at the taunts of his wife. In _King Lear_ a monarch of high disposition drags himself and others down to destruction, not at the stern command of fate, but at the mere suggestion of foolishness. In _Othello_ love, faith, duty, the fidelity of a brave man, the loyalty of a pure woman,–all are blasted, wrecked, dishonored by a mere breath of suspicion blown by a villain.
[Sidenote: LAST DRAMAS]
In his final period, of leisurely experiment (_cir._ 1610-1616), Shakespeare seems to have recovered in Stratford the cheerfulness that he had lost in London. He did little work during this period, but that little is of rare charm and sweetness. He no longer portrayed human life as a comedy of errors or a tragedy of weakness but as a glowing romance, as if the mellow autumn of his own life had tinged all the world with its own golden hues. With the exception of _As You Like It_ (written in the second period), in which brotherhood is pictured as the end of life, and love as its unfailing guide, it is doubtful if any of the earlier plays leaves such a wholesome impression as _The Winter’s Tale_ or _The Tempest_, which were probably the last of the poet’s works.
Following is a list of Shakespeare’s thirty-four plays (or thirty-seven, counting the different parts of _Henry IV_ and _Henry VI_) arranged according to the periods in which they were probably written. The dates are approximate, not exact, and the chronological order is open to question:
FIRST PERIOD, EARLY EXPERIMENT (1590-1595). _Titus Andronicus_, _Henry VI_, _Love’s Labor’s Lost_, _Comedy of Errors_, _Two Gentlemen of Verona_, _Richard III_, _Richard II_, _King John._
SECOND PERIOD, DEVELOPMENT (1595-1600). _Romeo and Juliet_, _Midsummer Night’s Dream_, _Merchant of Venice_, _Henry IV_, _Henry V_, _Merry Wives of Windsor_, _Much Ado About Nothing_, _As You Like It._
THIRD PERIOD, MATURITY AND TROUBLE (1600-1610). _Twelfth Night_, _Taming of the Shrew_, _Julius Caesar_, _Hamlet_, _Troilus and Cressida_, _All’s Well that Ends Well_, _Measure for Measure_, _Othello_, _King Lear_, _Macbeth_, _Antony and Cleopatra_, _Timon of Athens._
FOURTH PERIOD, LATER EXPERIMENT (1610-1616). _Coriolanus_, _Pericles_, _Cymbeline_, _The Winter’s Tale_, _The Tempest_, _Henry VIII_ (left unfinished, completed probably by Fletcher).
[Sidenote: TRAGEDY AND COMEDY]
The most convenient arrangement of these plays appears in the First Folio (1623) [Footnote: This was the first edition of Shakespeare’s plays. It was prepared seven years after the poet’s death by two of his fellow actors, Heminge and Condell. It contained all the plays now attributed to Shakespeare with the exception of _Pericles_.] where they are grouped in three classes called tragedies, comedies and historical plays. The tragedy is a drama in which the characters are the victims of unhappy passions, or are involved in desperate circumstances. The style is grave and dignified, the movement stately; the ending is disastrous to individuals, but illustrates the triumph of a moral principle. These rules of true tragedy are repeatedly set aside by Shakespeare, who introduces elements of buffoonery, and who contrives an ending that may stand for the triumph of a principle but that is quite likely to be the result of accident or madness. His best tragedies are _Macbeth_, _Romeo and Juliet_, _Hamlet_, _King Lear_ and _Othello_.
Comedy is a type of drama in which the elements of fun and humor predominate. The style is gay; the action abounds in unexpected incidents; the ending brings ridicule or punishment to the villains in the plot, and satisfaction to all worthy characters. Among the best of Shakespeare’s comedies, in which he is apt to introduce serious or tragic elements, are _As You Like It_, _Merchant of Venice_, _Midsummer Night’s Dream_, _The Winter’s Tale_, and _The Tempest_.
[Illustration: CAWDOR CASTLE, SCOTLAND, ASSOCIATED WITH MACBETH]
Strictly speaking there are only two dramatic types, all others, such as farce, melodrama, tragi-comedy, lyric drama, or opera, and chronicle play, being modifications of comedy or tragedy. The historical play, to which Elizabethans were devoted, aimed to present great scenes or characters from a past age, and were generally made up of both tragic and comic elements. The best of Shakespeare’s historical plays are _Julius Casar_, _Henry IV_, _Henry V_, _Richard III_ and _Coriolanus_.
[Sidenote: WHAT TO READ]
There is no better way to feel the power of Shakespeare than to read in succession three different types of plays, such as the comedy of _As You Like It_, the tragedy of _Macbeth_ and the historical play of _Julius Casar_. Another excellent trio is _The Merchant of Venice_, _Romeo and Juliet_ and _Henry IV_; and the reading of these typical plays might well be concluded with _The Tempest_, which was probably Shakespeare’s last word to his Elizabethan audience.
THE QUALITY OF SHAKESPEARE. As the thousand details of a Gothic cathedral receive character and meaning from its towering spire, so all the works of Shakespeare are dominated by his imagination. That imagination of his was both sympathetic and creative. It was sympathetic in that it understood without conscious effort all kinds of men, from clowns to kings, and all human emotions that lie between the extremes of joy and sorrow; it was creative in that, from any given emotion or motive, it could form a human character who should be completely governed by that motive. Ambition in Macbeth, pride in Coriolanus, wit in Mercutio, broad humor in Falstaff, indecision in Hamlet, pure fancy in Ariel, brutality in Richard, a passionate love in Juliet, a merry love in Rosalind, an ideal love in Perdita,–such characters reveal Shakespeare’s power to create living men and women from a single motive or emotion.
Or take a single play, _Othello_, and disregarding all minor characters, fix attention on the pure devotion of Desdemona, the jealousy of Othello, the villainy of Iago. The genius that in a single hour can make us understand these contrasting characters as if we had met them in the flesh, and make our hearts ache as we enter into their joy, their anguish, their dishonor, is beyond all ordinary standards of measurement. And _Othello_ must be multiplied many times before we reach the limit of Shakespeare’s creative imagination. He is like the genii of the _Arabian Nights_, who produce new marvels while we wonder at the old.
Such an overpowering imagination must have created wildly, fancifully, had it not been guided by other qualities: by an observation almost as keen as that of Chaucer, and by the saving grace of humor. We need only mention the latter qualities, for if the reader will examine any great play of Shakespeare, he will surely find them in evidence: the observation keeping the characters of the poet’s imagination true to the world of men and women, and the humor preventing some scene of terror or despair from overwhelming us by its terrible reality.
[Sidenote: HIS FAULTS]
In view of these and other qualities it has become almost a fashion to speak of the “perfection” of Shakespeare’s art; but in truth no word could be more out of place in such a connection. As Ben Jonson wrote in his _Timber_:
“I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand.'”
Even in his best work Shakespeare has more faults than any other poet of England. He is in turn careless, extravagant, profuse, tedious, sensational; his wit grows stale or coarse; his patriotism turns to bombast; he mars even such pathetic scenes as the burial of Ophelia by buffoonery and brawling; and all to please a public that was given to bull-baiting.
These certainly are imperfections; yet the astonishing thing is that they pass almost unnoticed in Shakespeare. He reflected his age, the evil and the good of it, just as it appeared to him; and the splendor of his representation is such that even his faults have their proper place, like shadows in a sunlit landscape.
[Sidenote: HIS VIEW OF LIFE]
Of Shakespeare’s philosophy we may say that it reflected equally well the views of his hearers and of the hundred characters whom he created for their pleasure. Of his personal views it is impossible to say more than this, with truth: that he seems to have been in full sympathy with the older writers whose stories he used as the sources of his drama. [Footnote: The chief sources of Shakespeare’s plays are: (1) Older plays, from which he made half of his dramas, such as _Richard III_, _Hamlet_, _King John_. (2) Holinshed’s _Chronicles_, from which he obtained material for his English historical plays. (3) Plutarch’s _Lives_, translated by North, which furnished him material for _Caesar_, _Coriolanus_, _Antony and Cleopatra_. (4) French, Italian and Spanish romances, in translations, from which he obtained the stories of _The Merchant of Venice_, _Othello_, _Twelfth Night_ and _As You Like It_.] Now these stories commonly reflected three things besides the main narrative: a problem, its solution, and the consequent moral or lesson. The problem was a form of evil; its solution depended on goodness in some form; the moral was that goodness triumphs finally and inevitably over evil.
Many such stories were cherished by the Elizabethans, the old tale of “Gammelyn” for example (from which came _As You Like It_); and just as in our own day popular novels are dramatized, so three centuries ago audiences demanded to see familiar stories in vigorous action. That is why Shakespeare held to the old tales, and pleased his audience, instead of inventing new plots. But however much he changed the characters or the action of the story, he remained always true to the old moral:
That goodness is the rule of life,
And its glory and its triumph.
Shakespeare’s women are his finest characters, and he often portrays the love of a noble woman as triumphing over the sin or weakness of men. He has little regard for abnormal or degenerate types, such as appear in the later Elizabethan drama; he prefers vigorous men and pure women, precisely as the old story-tellers did; and if Richard or some other villain overruns his stage for an hour, such men are finally overwhelmed by the very evil which they had planned for others. If they drag the innocent down to a common destruction, these pure characters never seem to us to perish; they live forever in our thought as the true emblems of humanity.
[Sidenote: MORAL EMPHASIS]
It was Charles Lamb who referred to a copy of Shakespeare’s plays as “this manly book.” The expression is a good one, and epitomizes the judgment of a world which has found that, though Shakespeare introduces evil or vulgar elements into his plays, his emphasis is always upon the right man and the right action. This may seem a trite thing to say in praise of a great genius; but when you reflect that Shakespeare is read throughout the civilized world, the simple fact that the splendor of his poetry is balanced by the rightness of his message becomes significant and impressive. It speaks not only for Shakespeare but for the moral quality of the multitudes who acknowledge his mastery. Wherever his plays are read, on land or sea, in the crowded cities of men or the far silent places of the earth, there the solitary man finds himself face to face with the unchanging ideals of his race, with honor, duty, courtesy, and the moral imperative,
This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.
* * * * *
THE ELIZABETHAN DRAMA AFTER SHAKESPEARE
The drama began to decline during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Even before his retirement to Stratford other popular dramatists appeared who catered to a vulgar taste by introducing more sensational elements into the stage spectacle. In consequence the drama degenerated so rapidly that in 1642, only twenty-six years after the master dramatist had passed away, Parliament closed the theaters as evil and degrading places. This closing is charged to the zeal of the Puritans, who were rapidly rising into power, and the charge is probably well founded. So also was the Puritan zeal. One who was compelled to read the plays of the period, to say nothing of witnessing them, must thank these stern old Roundheads for their insistence on public decency and morality. In the drama of all ages there seems to be a terrible fatality which turns the stage first to levity, then to wickedness, and which sooner or later calls for reformation.
[Illustration: FRANCIS BEAUMONT]
Among those who played their parts in the rise and fall of the drama, the chief names are Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Middleton, Webster, Heywood, Dekker, Massinger, Ford and Shirley. Concerning the work of these dramatists there is wide diversity of opinion. Lamb regards them, Beaumont and Fletcher especially, as “an inferior sort of Sidneys and Shakespeares.” Landor writes of them poetically:
They stood around
The throne of Shakespeare, sturdy but unclean.
Lowell finds some small things to praise in a large collection of their plays. Hazlitt regards them as “a race of giants, a common and noble brood, of whom Shakespeare was simply the tallest.” Dyce, who had an extraordinary knowledge of all these dramatists, regards such praise as absurd, saying that “Shakespeare is not only immeasurably superior to the dramatists of his time, but is utterly unlike them in almost every respect.”
[Illustration: JOHN FLETCHER
From the engraving by Philip Oudinet published 1811]
We shall not attempt to decide where such doctors disagree. It may not be amiss, however, to record this personal opinion: that these playwrights added little to the drama and still less to literature, and that it is hardly worth while to search out their good passages amid a welter of repulsive details. If they are to be read at all, the student will find enough of their work for comparison with the Shakespearean drama in a book of selections, such as Lamb’s _Specimens of English Dramatic Poetry_ or Thayer’s _The Best Elizabethan Plays_.
BEN JONSON (1573?-1637). The greatest figure among these dramatists was Jonson,–“O rare Ben Jonson” as his epitaph describes him, “O rough Ben Jonson” as he was known to the playwrights with whom he waged literary warfare. His first notable play, _Every Man in His Humour_, satirizing the fads or humors of London, was acted by Shakespeare’s company, and Shakespeare played one of the parts. Then Jonson fell out with his fellow actors, and wrote _The Poetaster_ (acted by a rival company) to ridicule them and their work. Shakespeare was silent, but the cudgels were taken up by Marston and Dekker, the latter of whom wrote, among other and better plays, _Satiromastix_, which was played by Shakespeare’s company as a counter attack on Jonson.
[Illustration: BEN JONSON]
The value of Jonson’s plays is that they give us vivid pictures of Elizabethan society, its speech, fashions, amusements, such as no other dramatist has drawn. Shakespeare pictures men and women as they might be in any age; but Jonson is content to picture the men and women of London as they appeared superficially in the year 1600. His chief comedies, which satirize the shams of his age, are: _Volpone, or the Fox_, a merciless exposure of greed and avarice; _The Alchemist_, a study of quackery as it was practiced in Elizabethan days; _Bartholomew Fair_, a riot of folly; and _Epicoene, or the Silent Woman_, which would now be called a roaring farce. His chief tragedies are _Sejanus_ and _Catiline_.
In later life Jonson was appointed poet laureate, and wrote many masques, such as the _Masque of Beauty_ and the unfinished _Sad Shepherd_. These and a few lyrics, such as the “Triumph of Charis” and the song beginning, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” are the pleasantest of Jonson’s works. At the end he abandoned the drama, as Shakespeare had done, and lashed it as severely as any Puritan in the ode beginning, “Come leave the loathed stage.”
* * * * *
THE PROSE WRITERS
Unless one have antiquarian tastes, there is little in Elizabethan prose to reward the reader. Strange to say, the most tedious part of it was written by literary men in what was supposed to be a very fine style; while the small part that still attracts us (such as Bacon’s _Essays_ or Hakluyt’s _Voyages_) was mostly written by practical men with no thought for literary effect.
This curious result came about in the following way. In the sixteenth century poetry was old, but English prose was new; for in the two centuries that had elapsed since Mandeville wrote his _Travels_, Malory’s _Morte d’ Arthur_ (1475) and Ascham’s _Scholemaster_ (1563) are about the only two books that can be said to have a prose style. Then, just as the Elizabethans were turning to literature, John Lyly appeared with his _Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit_ (1578), an alleged novel made up of rambling conversations upon love, education, fashion,–everything that came into the author’s head. The style was involved, artificial, tortured; it was loaded with conceits, antitheses and decorations:
“I perceive, Camilla, that be your cloth never so bad it will take some colour, and your cause never so false it will bear some show of probability; wherein you manifest the right nature of a woman, who, having no way to win, thinketh to overcome with words…. Take heed, Camilla, that seeking all the wood for a straight stick you choose not at the last a crooked staff, or prescribing a good counsel to others thou thyself follow the worst much like to Chius, who selling the best wine to others drank himself of the lees.”
[Sidenote: THE FAD OF EUPHUISM]
This “high fantastical” style, ever since called euphuistic, created a sensation. The age was given over to extravagance and the artificial elegance of _Euphues_ seemed to match the other fashions. Just as Elizabethan men and women began to wear grotesque ruffs about their necks as soon as they learned the art of starching from the Dutch, so now they began to decorate their writing with the conceits of Lyly. [Footnote: Lyly did not invent the fashion; he carried to an extreme a tendency towards artificial writing which was prevalent in England and on the Continent. As is often the case, it was the extreme of fashion that became fashionable.] Only a year after _Euphues_ appeared, Spenser published _The Shepherd’s Calendar_, and his prose notes show how quickly the style, like a bad habit, had taken possession of the literary world. Shakespeare ridicules the fashion in the character of Holofernes, in _Love’s Labor’s Lost_, yet he follows it as slavishly as the rest. He could write good prose when he would, as is shown by a part of Hamlet’s speech; but as a rule he makes his characters speak as if the art of prose were like walking a tight rope, which must be done with a balancing pole and some contortions. The scholars who produced the translation of the Scriptures known as the Authorized Version could certainly write well; yet if you examine their Dedication, in which, uninfluenced by the noble sincerity of the Bible’s style, they were free to follow the fashion, you may find there the two faults of Elizabethan prose; namely, the habit of servile flattery and the sham of euphuism.
Among prose writers of the period the name that appears most frequently is that of Philip Sidney (1554-1586). He wrote one of our first critical essays, _An Apologie for Poetrie_ (cir. 1581), the spirit of which may be judged from the following:
“Nowe therein of all sciences … is our poet the monarch. For he dooth not only show the way but giveth so sweete a prospect into the way as will intice any man to enter into it. Nay, he dooth, as if your journey should be through a faire vineyard, at the first give you a cluster of grapes, that, full of that taste, you may long to passe further. He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulnesse; but hee cometh to you with words set in delightfull proportion, either accompanied with or prepared for the well enchaunting skill of musicke; and with a tale, forsooth, he cometh unto you,–with a tale which holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner.”
[Illustration: SIR PHILIP SIDNEY]
Sidney wrote also the pastoral romance _Arcadia_ which was famous in its day, and in which the curious reader may find an occasional good passage, such as the prayer to a heathen god, “O All-seeing Light,”–a prayer that became historic and deeply pathetic when King Charles repeated it, facing death on the scaffold. That was in 1649, more than half a century after _Arcadia_ was written:
“O all-seeing Light, and eternal Life of all things, to whom nothing is either so great that it may resist or so small that it is contemned, look upon my miserie with thine eye of mercie, and let thine infinite power vouchsafe to limite out some proportion of deliverance unto me, as to thee shall seem most convenient. Let not injurie, O Lord, triumphe over me, and let my faults by thy hands be corrected, and make not mine unjuste enemie the minister of thy justice. But yet, my God, if in thy wisdome this be the aptest chastisement for my inexcusable follie; if this low bondage be fittest for my over-hie desires; if the pride of my not-inough humble hearte be thus to be broken, O Lord, I yeeld unto thy will, and joyfully embrace what sorrow thou wilt have me suffer.”
[Sidenote: THE KING JAMES BIBLE]
The finest example of the prose of the period is the King James or Authorized Version of the Bible, which appeared in 1611. This translation was so much influenced by the earlier work of Wyclif, Tyndale, and many others, that its style cannot properly be called Elizabethan or Jacobean; it is rather an epitome of English at its best in the two centuries between Chaucer and Shakespeare. The forty-seven scholars who prepared this translation aimed at a faithful rendering of the Book which, aside from its spiritual teaching, contains some of the noblest examples of style in the whole range of human literature: the elemental simplicity of the Books of Moses, the glowing poetry of Job and the Psalms, the sublime imagery of Isaiah, the exquisite tenderness of the Parables, the forged and tempered argument of the Epistles, the gorgeous coloring of the Apocalypse. All these elements entered in some degree into the translation of 1611, and the result was a work of such beauty, strength and simplicity that it remained a standard of English prose for more than three centuries. It has not only been a model for our best writers; it has pervaded all the minor literature of the nation, and profoundly influenced the thought and the expression of the whole English-speaking world.
* * * * *
FRANCIS BACON (1561-1626)
“My name and memory I leave to foreign nations, and to mine own country _after some time is passed over_,” said Bacon in his will. That reference to the future meant, not that England might learn to forget and forgive (for Bacon was not greatly troubled by his disgrace), but that she might learn to appreciate his _Instauratio Magna_. In the same document the philosopher left magnificent bequests for various purposes, but when these were claimed by the beneficiaries it was learned that the debts of the estate were three times the assets. This high-sounding will is an epitome of Bacon’s life and work.
LIFE. Bacon belongs with Sidney and Raleigh in that group of Elizabethans who aimed to be men of affairs, politicians, reformers, explorers, rather than writers of prose or poetry. He was of noble birth, and from an early age was attached to Elizabeth’s court. There he expected rapid advancement, but the queen and his uncle (Lord Burghley) were both a little suspicious of the young man who, as he said, had “taken all knowledge for his province.”
Failing to advance by favor, Bacon studied law and entered Parliament, where he rose rapidly to leadership. Ben Jonson writes of him, in that not very reliable collection of opinions called _Timber_:
“There happened in my time one noble speaker who was full of gravity in his speaking…. No man ever spake more neatly, more pressly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in what he uttered…. The fear of every man that heard him was lest he should make an end.”
[Illustration: FRANCIS BACON]
[Sidenote: HIS TRIUMPH]
When Elizabeth died, Bacon saw his way open. He offered his services to the royal favorite, Buckingham, and was soon in the good graces of King James. He was made Baron Verulam and Viscount St. Albans; he married a rich wife; he rose rapidly from one political honor to another, until at sixty he was Lord High Chancellor of England. So his threefold ambition for position, wealth and power was realized. It was while he held the highest state office that he published his _Novum Organum_, which established his reputation as “the first philosopher in Europe.” That was in 1620, the year when a handful of Pilgrims sailed away unnoticed on one of the world’s momentous voyages.
[Sidenote: HIS DISGRACE]
After four years of power Bacon, who had been engaged with Buckingham in selling monopolies, and in other schemes to be rich at the public expense, was brought to task by Parliament. He was accused of receiving bribes, confessed his guilt (it is said to shield the king and Buckingham, who had shared the booty), was fined, imprisoned, banished from court, and forbidden to hold public office again. All these punishments except the last were remitted by King James, to whom Bacon had been a useful tool. His last few years were spent in scientific study at Gorhambury, where he lived proudly, keeping up the appearance of his former grandeur, until his death in 1626.
Such a sketch seems a cold thing, but there is little of divine fire or human warmth in Bacon to kindle one’s enthusiasm. His obituary might well be the final word of his essay “Of Wisdom for a Man’s Self”:
“Whereas they have all their time sacrificed to themselves, they become in the end sacrifices to the inconstancy of fortune, whose wings they thought by their self-wisdom to have pinioned.”
Ben Jonson had a different and, possibly, a more just opinion. In the work from which we have quoted he says:
“My conceit of his person was never increased towards him by his place or honours; but I have and do reverence him for his greatness that was only proper to himself, in that he seemed to me ever by his work one of the greatest men, and most worthy of admiration, that had been in many ages. In his adversity I ever prayed that God would give him strength; for greatness he could not want.”
WORKS OF BACON. The _Essays_ of Bacon are so highly esteemed that the critic Hallam declares it would be “derogatory to a man of the slightest claim to polite letters” to be unacquainted with them. His first venture was a tiny volume called _Essays, Religious Meditations, Places of Persuasion and Dissuasion_ (1597). This was modeled upon a French work by Montaigne (_Essais_, 1580) and was considered of small consequence by the author. As time went on, and his ambitious works were overlooked in favor of his sketches, he paid more attention to the latter, revising and enlarging his work until the final edition of fifty-eight essays appeared in 1625. Then it was that Bacon wrote, “I do now publish my Essays, which of all my works have been most current; for that, as it seems, they come home to men’s business and bosoms.”
[Sidenote: QUALITY OF THE ESSAYS]
The spirit of these works may be judged by the essay “Of Friendship.” This promises well, for near the beginning we read, “A crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talking is but a tinkling cymbal where there is no love.” Excellent! As we read on, however, we find nothing of the love that beareth all things for a friend’s sake. We are not even encouraged to be friendly, but rather to cultivate the friendship of other men for the following advantages: that a friend is useful in saving us from solitude; that he may increase our joy or diminish our trouble; that he gives us good counsel; that he can finish our work or take care of our children, if need be; and finally, that he can spare our modesty while trumpeting our virtues:
“How many things are there which a man cannot, with any face or comeliness, say or do himself! A man can scarce allege his own merits with modesty, much less extol them; a man cannot sometimes brook to supplicate or beg; and a number of the like. But all these things are graceful in a friend’s mouth, which are blushing in a man’s own.”
In old Arabic manuscripts one frequently finds a record having the appearance of truth; but at the very end, in parenthesis, one reads, “This is all a lie,” or “This was my thought when I was sick,” or some other enlightening climax. Bacon’s essay “Of Friendship” might be more in accord with the verities if it had a final note to the effect that the man who cultivates friendship in the Baconian way will never have or deserve a friend in the world.
So with many other Baconian essays: with “Love” for example, in which we are told that it is impossible for a man to love and be wise; or with “Negotiations,” which informs us that, unless a man intends to use his letter to justify himself (lo! the politician), it is better to deal by speech than by writing; for a man can “disavow or expound” his speech, but his written word may be used against him.
[Sidenote: BACON’S VIEW OF LIFE]
To some men, to most men, life offers a problem to be solved by standards that are eternally right; to others life is a game, the object is to win, and the rules may be manipulated to one’s own advantage. Bacon’s moral philosophy was that of the gamester; his leading motive was self-interest; so when he wrote of love or friendship or any other noble sentiment he was dealing with matters of which he had no knowledge. The best he could offer was a “counsel of prudence,” and many will sympathize with John Wesley, who declared that worldly prudence is a quality from which an honest man should pray God to be delivered.
[Sidenote: WHAT TO READ]
It is only when Bacon deals with practical matters, leaving the high places of life, where he is a stranger, to write of “Discourse” or “Gardens” or “Seeming Wise” that his essays begin to strike home by their vigor and vitality. Though seldom profound or sympathetic, they are notable for their keen observation and shrewd judgment of the ambitious world in which the author himself lived. Among those that are best worth reading are “Studies,” “Wisdom for a Man’s Self,” “Riches,” “Great Place,” “Atheism,” and “Travel.”
The style of these essays is in refreshing contrast to most Elizabethan prose, to the sonorous periods of Hooker, to the ramblings of Sidney, to the conceits of Lyly and Shakespeare. The sentences are mostly short, clear, simple; and so much meaning is crystallized in them that they overshadow even the “Poor Richard” maxims of Franklin, the man who had a genius for packing worldly wisdom into a convenient nutshell.
[Sidenote: AMBITIOUS WORKS]
Other works of Bacon are seldom read, and may be passed over lightly. We mention only, as indicative of his wide range, his _History of Henry VII_, his Utopian romance _The New Atlantis_, his Advancement of Learning and his _Novum Organum_. The last two works, one in English, the other in Latin, were parts of the _Instauratio Magna_, or _The Great Institution of True Philosophy_, a colossal work which Bacon did not finish, which he never even outlined very clearly.
The aim of the _Instauratio_ was, first, to sweep away ancient philosophy and the classic education of the universities; and second, to substitute a scheme of scientific study to the end of discovering and utilizing the powers of nature. It gave Bacon his reputation (in Germany especially) of a great philosopher and scientist, and it is true that his vision of vast discoveries has influenced the thought of the world; but to read any part of his great work is to meet a mind that seems ingenious rather than philosophical, and fanciful rather than scientific. He had what his learned contemporary Peter Heylyn termed “a chymical brain,” a brain that was forever busy with new theories; and the leading theory was that some lucky man would discover a key or philosopher’s stone or magic _sesame_ that must straightway unlock all the secrets of nature.
Meanwhile the real scientists of his age were discovering secrets in the only sure way, of hard, self-denying work. Gilbert was studying magnetism, Harvey discovering the circulation of the blood, Kepler determining the laws that govern the planets’ motions, Napier inventing logarithms, and Galileo standing in ecstasy beneath the first telescope ever pointed at the stars of heaven.
[Sidenote: HIS VAST PLANS]
Of the work of these scientific heroes Bacon had little knowledge, and for their plodding methods he had no sympathy. He was Viscount, Lord Chancellor, “high-browed Verulam,” and his heaven-scaling _Instauratio_ which, as he said, was “for the glory of the Creator and for the relief of man’s estate” must have something stupendous, Elizabethan, about it, like the victory over the Armada. In his plans there was always an impression of vastness; his miscellaneous works were like the strange maps that geographers made when the wonders of a new world opened upon their vision. Though he never made an important discovery, his conviction that knowledge is power and that there are no metes or bounds to knowledge, his belief that the mighty forces of nature are waiting to do man’s bidding, his thought of ships that navigate the air as easily as the sea,–all this Baconian dream of mental empire inspired the scientific world for three centuries. It was as thoroughly Elizabethan in its way as the voyage of Drake or the plays of Shakespeare.
* * * * *
SUMMARY. The most remarkable feature of the Elizabethan age was its patriotic enthusiasm. This enthusiasm found its best expression on the stage, in the portrayal of life in vigorous action; and dramas were produced in such number and of such quality that the whole period is sometimes called the age of the play. It was a time of poetry rather than of prose, and nearly all of the poetry is characterized by its emotional quality, by youthful freshness of feeling, by quickened imagination, and by an extravagance of language which overflows, even in Shakespeare, in a kind of glorious bombast.
Our study of the literature of the age includes: (1) The outburst of lyric poetry. (2) The life and works of Spenser, second in time of the great English poets. (3) A review of the long history of the drama, from the earliest church spectacle, through miracle, morality, interlude, pageant and masque to the Elizabethan drama. (4) The immediate forerunners of Shakespeare, of whom the most notable was Marlowe. (5) The life and work of Shakespeare. (6) Ben Jonson, the successors of Shakespeare, and the rapid decline of the drama. (7) Elizabethan prose; the appearance of euphuism; Sidney’s _Apologie for Poetrie_; the Authorized Version of the Scriptures; and the life and work of Francis Bacon.
SELECTIONS FOR READING. Selected lyrics in Manly, English Poetry; Newcomer, Twelve Centuries of English Poetry and Prose; Palgrave, Golden Treasury; Schilling, Elizabethan Lyrics; Ward, English Poets.
_Spenser_. Selected poems in Temple Classics, Cambridge Poets Series. Selections from The Faery Queen in Standard English Classics and other school editions. (See Texts, in General Bibliography.)
_Early Drama_. A miracle play, such as Noah, may be read in Manly, Specimens of Pre-Shakespearean Drama (Ginn and Company). Marlowe’s plays in Everyman’s Library; his Edward II in Holt’s English Readings; his Faustus in Temple Dramatists, and in Mermaid Series.
_Shakespeare_. Several editions of Shakespeare’s plays, such as the revised Hudson (Ginn and Company) and the Neilson (Scott) are available. Single plays, such as Julius Caesar, Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, As You Like It, are edited for class use in Standard English Classics, Lake Classics, and various other school series. The Sonnets in Athenaum Press Series.
_Ben Jonson_. The Alchemist in Cambridge Poets Series; also in Thayer, Best Elizabethan Plays (Ginn and Company), which includes in one volume plays by Marlowe, Jonson, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher.
_Prose Writers_. Selections from Bacon’s Essays in Riverside Literature, or Maynard’s English Classkcs. The Essays complete in Everyman’s Library. Selections from Hooker, Sidney and Lyly in Manly, English Prose, or Craik, English Prose. Ampler selections in Garnett, English Prose from Elizabeth to Victoria (Ginn and Company), which contains in one volume typical works of 33 prose writers from Lyly to Carlyle. Hakluyt’s Voyages in Everyman’s Library.
_HISTORY_. Creighton, The Age of Elizabeth; Winter, Shakespeare’s England; Goadby, The England of Shakespeare; Harrison, Elizabethan England; Spedding, Francis Bacon and his Times; Lee, Great Englishmen of the Sixteenth Century; Payne, Voyages of Elizabethan Seamen.
_LITERATURE_. Saintsbury, Short History of Elizabethan Literature; Seccombe and Allen, The Age of Shakespeare; Whipple, Literature of the Age of Elizabeth; Schilling, Elizabethan Lyrics; Lee, Elizabethan Sonnets; Sheavyn, Literary Profession in the Elizabethan Age.
_Spenser_. Life, by Church (English Men of Letters Series). Carpenter, Outline Guide to the Study of Spenser; Craik, Spenser and his Times. Essays, by Lowell, in Among My Books; by Dowden, in Transcripts and Studies; by Hazlitt, in Lectures on the English Poets; by Leigh Hunt, in Imagination and Fancy.
_The Drama_. Gayley, Plays of Our Forefathers (a study of the early drama); Evans, English Masques; Bates, The English Religious Drama; Schilling, The Elizabethan Drama; Symonds, Shakespeare’s Predecessors in the English Drama; Boas, Shakespeare and his Predecessors; Collier, History of English Dramatic Poetry; Ward, English Dramatic Literature; Chambers, The Medieval Stage; Pollard, English Miracle Plays, Moralities and Interludes.
_Shakespeare_. Life, by Raleigh (E. M. of L.), by Lee, by Halliwell-Phillipps, by Brandes. Dowden, A Shakespeare Primer; Dowden, Shakespeare: a Critical Study of his Mind and Art; Baker, Development of Shakespeare as a Dramatist.
_Other Dramatists_. Lowell, Old English Dramatists; Lamb, Specimens of English Dramatic Poets; Fleay, Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama; Ingram, Christopher Marlowe.
_Prose Writers_. Church, Life of Bacon (E. M. of L.); Nicol, Bacon’s Life and Philosophy; Macaulay, Essay on Bacon. Symonds, Life of Sidney (E. M. of L.); Bourne, Life of Sidney (Heroes of the Nations Series). Stebbing, Life of Raleigh.
_FICTION AND POETRY_. Kingsley, Westward Ho; Black, Judith Shakespeare; Scott, Kenilworth; Schiller, Maria Stuart; Alfred Noyes, Drake; Bates and Coman, English History Told by English Poets.
THE PURITAN AGE AND THE RESTORATION (1625-1700)
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour. England hath need of thee: she is a fen Of stagnant waters; altar, sword, and pen, Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower, Have forfeited their ancient English dower Of inward happiness. We are selfish men; Oh! raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Wordsworth, “Sonnet on Milton”
HISTORICAL OUTLINE. The period from the accession of Charles I in 1625 to the Revolution of 1688 was filled with a mighty struggle over the question whether king or Commons should be supreme in England. On this question the English people were divided into two main parties. On one side were the Royalists, or Cavaliers, who upheld the monarch with his theory of the divine right of kings; on the other were the Puritans, or Independents, who stood for the rights of the individual man and for the liberties of Parliament and people. The latter party was at first very small; it had appeared in the days of Langland and Wyclif, and had been persecuted by Elizabeth; but persecution served only to increase its numbers and determination. Though the Puritans were never a majority in England, they soon ruled the land with a firmness it had not known since the days of William the Conqueror. They were primarily men of conscience, and no institution can stand before strong men whose conscience says the institution is wrong. That is why the degenerate theaters were not reformed but abolished; that is why the theory of the divine right of kings was shattered as by a thunderbolt when King Charles was sent to the block for treason against his country.
The struggle reached a climax in the Civil War of 1642, which ended in a Puritan victory. As a result of that war, England was for a brief period a commonwealth, disciplined at home and respected abroad, through the genius and vigor and tyranny of Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell died (1658) there was no man in England strong enough to take his place, and two years later “Prince Charlie,” who had long been an exile, was recalled to the throne as Charles II of England. He had learned nothing from his father’s fate or his own experience, and proceeded by all evil ways to warrant this “Epitaph,” which his favorite, Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, pinned on the door of his bedchamber:
Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King, Whose word no man relies on,
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.
The next twenty years are of such disgrace and national weakness that the historian hesitates to write about them. It was called the period of the Restoration, which meant, in effect, the restoration of all that was objectionable in monarchy. Another crisis came in the Revolution of 1688, when the country, aroused by the attempt of James II to establish another despotism in Church and state, invited Prince William of Orange (husband of the king’s daughter Mary) to the English throne. That revolution meant three things: the supremacy of Parliament, the beginning of modern England, and the final triumph of the principle of political liberty for which the Puritan had fought and suffered hardship for a hundred years.
TYPICAL WRITERS. Among the writers of the period three men stand out prominently, and such was the confusion of the times that in the whole range of our literature it would be difficult to find three others who differ more widely in spirit or method. Milton represents the scholarship, the culture of the Renaissance, combined with the moral earnestness of the Puritan. Bunyan, a poor tinker and lay preacher, reflects the tremendous spiritual ferment among the common people. And Dryden, the cool, calculating author who made a business of writing, regards the Renaissance and Puritanism as both things of the past. He lives in the present, aims to give readers what they like, follows the French critics of the period who advocate writing by rule, and popularizes that cold, formal, precise style which, under the assumed name of classicism, is to dominate English poetry during the following century.
* * * * *
JOHN MILTON (1608-1674)
Yet some there be that by due steps aspire To lay their just hands on that golden key That opes the palace of eternity:
To such my errand is.
In these words of the Attendant Spirit in _Comus_ we seem to hear Milton speaking to his readers. To such as regard poetry as the means of an hour’s pleasant recreation he brings no message; his “errand” is to those who, like Sidney, regard poetry as the handmaiden of virtue, or, like Aristotle, as the highest form of human history.
LIFE. Milton was born in London (1608) at a time when Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists were in their glory. He grew up in a home where the delights of poetry and music were added to the moral discipline of the Puritan. Before he was twelve years old he had formed the habit of studying far into the night; and his field included not only Greek, Latin, Hebrew and modern European literatures, but mathematics also, and science and theology and music. His parents had devoted him in infancy to noble ends, and he joyously accepted their dedication, saying, “He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well … ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honorablest things.”
[Sidenote: MILTON AT HORTON]
From St. Paul’s school Milton went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, took his master’s degree, wrote a few poems in Latin, Italian and English, and formed a plan for a great epic, “a poem that England would not willingly let die.” Then he retired to his father’s country-place at Horton, and for six years gave himself up to music, to untutored study, and to that formal pleasure in nature which is reflected in his work. Five short poems were the only literary result of this retirement, but these were the most perfect of their kind that England had thus far produced.
Milton’s next step, intended like all others to cultivate his talent, took him to the Continent. For fifteen months he traveled through France and Italy, and was about to visit Greece when, hearing of the struggle between king and Parliament, he set his face towards England again. “For I thought it base,” he said, “to be traveling at my ease for culture when my countrymen at home were fighting for liberty.”
[Sidenote: HOME LIFE]
To find himself, or to find the service to which he could devote his great learning, seems to have been Milton’s object after his return to London (1639). While he waited he began to educate his nephews, and enlarged this work until he had a small private school, in which he tested some of the theories that appeared later in his _Tractate on Education_. Also he married, in haste it seems, and with deplorable consequences. His wife, Mary Powell, the daughter of a Cavalier, was a pleasure-loving young woman, and after a brief experience of Puritan discipline she wearied of it and went home. She has been amply criticized for her desertion, but Milton’s house must have been rather chilly for any ordinary human being to find comfort in. To him woman seemed to have been made for obedience, and man for rebellion; his toplofty doctrine of masculine superiority found expression in a line regarding Adam and Eve, “He for God only, she for God in him,”–an old delusion, which had been seriously disturbed by the first woman.
[Illustration: JOHN MILTON]
[Sidenote: PERIOD OF CONTROVERSY]
For a period of near twenty years Milton wrote but little poetry, his time being occupied with controversies that were then waged even more fiercely in the press than in the field. It was after the execution of King Charles (1649), when England was stunned and all Europe aghast at the Puritans’ daring, that he published his _Tenure of Kings and Magistrates_, the argument of which was, that magistrates and people are equally subject to the law, and that the divine right of kings to rule is as nothing beside the divine right of the people to defend their liberties. That argument established Milton’s position as the literary champion of democracy. He was chosen Secretary of the Commonwealth, his duties being to prepare the Latin correspondence with foreign countries, and to confound all arguments of the Royalists. During the next decade Milton’s pen and Cromwell’s sword were the two outward bulwarks of Puritanism, and one was quite as ready and almost as potent as the other.
[Sidenote: HIS BLINDNESS]
It was while Milton was thus occupied that he lost his eyesight, “his last sacrifice on the altar of English liberty.” His famous “Sonnet on his Blindness” is a lament not for his lost sight but for his lost talent; for while serving the Commonwealth he must abandon the dream of a great poem that he had cherished all his life:
When I consider how my light is spent Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, And that one talent, which is death to hide, Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest he returning chide; “Doth God exact day labour, light denied?” I fondly ask; but Patience, to prevent That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed, And post o’er land and ocean without rest; They also serve who only stand and wait.”
With the Restoration (1660) came disaster to the blind Puritan poet, who had written too harshly against Charles I to be forgiven by Charles II. He was forced to hide; his property was confiscated; his works were burned in public by the hangman; had not his fame as a writer raised up powerful friends, he would have gone to the scaffold when Cromwell’s bones were taken from the grave and hanged in impotent revenge. He was finally allowed to settle in a modest house, and to be in peace so long as he remained in obscurity. So the pen was silenced that had long been a scourge to the enemies of England.
[Sidenote: HIS LONELINESS]
His home life for the remainder of his years impresses us by its loneliness and grandeur. He who had delighted as a poet in the English country, and more delighted as a Puritan in the fierce struggle for liberty, was now confined to a small house, going from study to porch, and finding both in equal darkness. He who had roamed as a master through the wide fields of literature was now dependent on a chance reader. His soul also was afflicted by the apparent loss of all that Puritanism had so hardly won, by the degradation of his country, by family troubles; for his daughters often rebelled at the task of taking his dictation, and left him helpless. Saddest of all, there was no love in the house, for with all his genius Milton could not inspire affection in his own people; nor does he ever reach the heart of his readers.
[Sidenote: HIS MASTERPIECE]
In the midst of such scenes, denied the pleasure of hope, Milton seems to have lived largely in his memories. He took up his early dream of an immortal epic, lived with it seven years in seclusion, and the result was _Paradise Lost_. This epic is generally considered the finest fruit of Milton’s genius, but there are two other poems that have a more personal and human significance. In the morning of his life he had written _Comus_, and the poem is a reflection of a noble youth whose way lies open and smiling before him. Almost forty years later, or just before his death in 1674, he wrote _Samson Agonistes_, and in this tragedy of a blind giant, bound, captive, but unconquerable, we have a picture of the agony and moral grandeur of the poet who takes leave of life:
I feel my genial spirits droop, … My race of glory run, and race of shame; And I shall shortly be with them that rest. 
[Footnote : From Milton’s _Samson_. For the comparison we are indebted to Henry Reed, _Lectures on English Literature_ (1863), p. 223.]
[Illustration: COTTAGE AT CHALFONT, ST. GILES, BUCKINGHAMSHIRE Where Milton lived during the Plague, and where _Paradise Lost_ was written]
THE EARLY POEMS. Milton’s first notable poem, written in college days, was the “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” a chant of victory and praise such as Pindar might have written had he known the meaning of Christmas. In this boyish work one may find the dominant characteristic of all Milton’s poetry; namely, a blending of learning with piety, a devotion of all the treasures of classic culture to the service of religion.
Among the earliest of the Horton poems (so-called because they were written in the country-place of that name) are “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” two of the most widely quoted works in our literature. They should be read in order to understand what people have admired for nearly three hundred years, if not for their own beauty. “L’Allegro” (from the Italian, meaning “the cheerful man”) is the poetic expression of a happy state of mind, and “Il Penseroso” [Footnote: The name is generally translated into “melancholy,” but the latter term is now commonly associated with sorrow or disease. To Milton “melancholy” meant “pensiveness.” In writing “Il Penseroso” he was probably influenced by a famous book, Burton’s _Anatomy of Melancholy_, which appeared in 1621 and was very widely read.] of a quiet, thoughtful mood that verges upon sadness, like the mood that follows good music. Both poems are largely inspired by nature, and seem to have been composed out of doors, one in the morning and the other in the evening twilight.
[Sidenote: THE MASQUE OF COMUS]
_Comus_ (1634), another of the Horton poems, is to many readers the most interesting of Milton’s works. In form it is a masque, that is, a dramatic poem intended to be staged to the accompaniment of music; in execution it is the most perfect of all such poems inspired by the Elizabethan love of pageants. We may regard it, therefore, as a late echo of the Elizabethan drama, which, like many another echo, is sweeter though fainter than the original. It was performed at Ludlow Castle, before the Earl of Bridgewater, and was suggested by an accident to the Earl’s children, a simple accident, in which Milton saw the possibility of “turning the common dust of opportunity to gold.”
The story is that of a girl who becomes separated from her brothers in a wood, and is soon lost. The magician Comus [Footnote: In mythology Comus, the god of revelry, was represented as the son of Dionysus (Bacchus, god of wine), and the witch Circe. In Greek poetry Comus is the leader of any gay band of satyrs or dancers. Milton’s masque of _Comus_ was influenced by a similar story in Peele’s _Old Wives’ Tale_, by Spenser’s “Palace of Pleasure” in _The Faery Queen_ (see above “Sir Guyon” in Chapter IV), and by Homer’s story of the witch Circe in the _Odyssey_.] appears with his band of revelers, and tries to bewitch the girl, to make her like one of his own brutish followers. She is protected by her own purity, is watched over by the Attendant Spirit, and finally rescued by her brothers. The story is somewhat like that of the old ballad of “The Children in the Wood,” but it is here transformed into a kind of morality play.
[Sidenote: COMUS AND THE TEMPEST]
In this masque may everywhere be seen the influence of Milton’s predecessors and the stamp of his own independence; his Puritan spirit also, which must add a moral to the old pagan tales. Thus, Miranda wandering about the enchanted isle (in Shakespeare’s _The Tempest_) hears strange, harmonious echoes, to which Caliban gives expression:
The isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices, That, if I then had waked after long sleep, Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming, The clouds methought would open and show riches Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked I cried to dream again.
The bewildered girl in _Comus_ also hears mysterious voices, and has glimpses of a world not her own; but, like Sir Guyon of _The Faery Queen_, she is on moral guard against all such deceptions:
A thousand phantasies
Begin to throng into my memory,
Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire, And airy tongues that syllable men’s names On sands and shores and desert wildernesses. These thoughts may startle well but not astound The virtuous mind, that ever walks attended By a strong-siding champion, Conscience.
Again, in _The Tempest_ we meet “the frisky spirit” Ariel, who sings of his coming freedom from Prospero’s service:
Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On a bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily:
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
[Illustration: LUDLOW CASTLE]
The Attendant Spirit in _Comus_ has something of Ariel’s gayety, but his joy is deeper-seated; he serves not the magician Prospero but the Almighty, and comes gladly to earth in fulfilment of the divine promise, “He shall give His angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways.” When his work is done he vanishes, like Ariel, but with a song which shows the difference between the Elizabethan, or Renaissance, conception of sensuous beauty (that is, beauty which appeals to the physical senses) and the Puritan’s idea of moral beauty, which appeals to the soul:
Now my task is smoothly done,
I can fly or I can run
Quickly to the green earth’s end,
Where the bowed welkin slow doth bend, And from thence can soar as soon
To the corners of the moon.
Mortals, that would follow me,
Love Virtue; she alone is free:
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the sphery chime;
Or if Virtue feeble were,
Heaven itself would stoop to her.
_Lycidas_ (1637), last of the Horton poems, is an elegy occasioned by the death of one who had been Milton’s fellow student at Cambridge. It was an old college custom to celebrate important events by publishing a collection of Latin or English poems, and _Lycidas_ may be regarded as Milton’s wreath, which he offered to the memory of his classmate and to his university. The poem is beautifully fashioned, and is greatly admired for its classic form; but it is cold as any monument, without a touch of human grief or sympathy. Probably few modern readers will care for it as they care for Tennyson’s _In Memoriam_, a less perfect elegy, but one into which love enters as well as art. Other notable English elegies are the _Thyrsis_ of Matthew Arnold and the _Adonais_ of Shelley.
MILTON’S LEFT HAND. This expression was used by Milton to designate certain prose works written in the middle period of his life, at a time of turmoil and danger. These works have magnificent passages which show the power and the harmony of our English speech, but they are marred by other passages of bitter raillery and invective. The most famous of all these works is the noble plea called _Areopagitica:_ [Footnote: From the Areopagus or forum of Athens, the place of public appeal. This was the “Mars Hill” from which St. Paul addressed the Athenians, as recorded in the Book of Acts.] _a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing_ (1644).
There was a law in Milton’s day forbidding the printing of any work until it had been approved by the official Licenser of Books. Such a law may have been beneficial at times, but during the seventeenth century it was another instrument of tyranny, since no Licenser would allow anything to be printed against his particular church or government. When _Areopagitica_ was written the Puritans of the Long Parliament were virtually rulers of England, and Milton pleaded with his own party for the free expression of every honest opinion, for liberty in all wholesome pleasures, and for tolerance in religious matters. His stern confidence in truth, that she will not be weakened but strengthened by attack, is summarized in the famous sentence, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.”
Two interesting matters concerning _Areopagitica_ are: first, that this eloquent plea for the freedom of printing had to be issued in defiance of law, without a license; and second, that Milton was himself, a few years later, under Cromwell’s iron government, a censor of the press.
[Sidenote: THE SONNETS]
Milton’s rare sonnets seem to belong to this middle period of strife, though some of them were written earlier. Since Wyatt and Surrey had brought the Italian sonnet to England this form of verse had been employed to sing of love; but with Milton it became a heroic utterance, a trumpet Wordsworth calls it, summoning men to virtue, to patriotism, to stern action. The most personal of these sonnets are “On Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-three,” “On his Blindness” and “To Cyriack Skinner”; the most romantic is “To the Nightingale”; others that are especially noteworthy are “On the Late Massacre,” “On his Deceased Wife” [Footnote: This beautiful sonnet was written to his second wife, not to Mary Powell.] and “To Cromwell.” The spirit of these sonnets, in contrast with those of Elizabethan times, is finely expressed by Landor in the lines:
Few his words, but strong,
And sounding through all ages and all climes; He caught the sonnet from the dainty hand Of Love, who cried to lose it, and he gave the notes To Glory.
MILTON’S LATER POETRY. [Footnote: The three poems of Milton’s later life are _Paradise Lost_, _Paradise Regained_ and _Samson Agonistes_. The last-named has been referred to above under “His Masterpiece”. _Paradise Regained_ contains some noble passages, but is inferior to _Paradise Lost_, on which the poet’s fame chiefly rests.] It was in 1658, the year of Cromwell’s death, when the political power of Puritanism was tottering, that Milton in his blindness began to write _Paradise Lost_. After stating his theme he begins his epic, as Virgil began the _Aneid_, in the midst of the action; so that in reading his first book it is well to have in mind an outline of the whole story, which is as follows:
[Sidenote: PLAN OF PARADISE LOST]
The scene opens in Heaven, and the time is before the creation of the world. The archangel Lucifer rebels against the Almighty, and gathers to his banner an immense company of the heavenly hosts, of angels and flaming cherubim. A stupendous three days’ battle follows between rebel and loyal legions, the issue being in doubt until the Son goes forth in his chariot of victory. Lucifer and his rebels are defeated, and are hurled over the ramparts of Heaven. Down, down through Chaos they fall “nine times the space that measures day and night,” until they reach the hollow vaults of Hell.
In the second act (for _Paradise Lost_ has some dramatic as well as epic construction) we follow the creation of the earth in the midst of the universe; and herein we have an echo of the old belief that the earth was the center of the solar system. Adam and Eve are formed to take in the Almighty’s affection the place of the fallen angels. They live happily in Paradise, watched over by celestial guardians. Meanwhile Lucifer and his followers are plotting revenge in Hell. They first boast valiantly, and talk of mighty war; but the revenge finally degenerates into a base plan to tempt Adam and Eve and win them over to the fallen hosts.
The third act shows Lucifer, now called Satan or the Adversary, with his infernal peers in Pandemonium, plotting the ruin of the world. He makes an astounding journey through Chaos, disguises himself in various forms of bird or beast in order to watch Adam and Eve, is detected by Ithuriel and the guardian angels, and is driven away. Thereupon he haunts vast space, hiding in the shadow of the earth until his chance comes, when he creeps back into Eden by means of an underground river. Disguising himself as a serpent, he meets Eve and tempts her with the fruit of a certain “tree of knowledge,” which she has been forbidden to touch. She eats the fruit and shares it with Adam; then the pair are discovered in their disobedience, and are banished from Paradise. [Footnote: In the above outline we have arranged the events in the order in which they are supposed to have occurred. Milton tells the story in a somewhat confused way. The order of the twelve books of _Paradise Lost_ is not the natural or dramatic order of the story.]
[Sidenote: MILTON’S MATERIALS]
It is evident from this outline that Milton uses material from two different sources, one an ancient legend which Cadmon employed in his Paraphrase, the other the Bible narrative of Creation. Though the latter is but a small part of the epic, it is as a fixed center about which all other interests are supposed to revolve. In reading _Paradise Lost_, therefore, with its vast scenes and colossal figures, one should keep in mind that every detail was planned by Milton to be closely related to his central theme, which is the fall of man.
In using such diverse materials Milton met with difficulties, some of which (the character of Lucifer, for example) were too great for his limited dramatic powers. In Books I and II Lucifer is a magnificent figure, the proudest in all literature, a rebel with something of celestial grandeur about him:
“Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,” Said then the lost Archangel, “this the seat That we must change for Heaven? this mournful gloom For that celestial light? Be it so, since he Who now is sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: farthest from him is best, Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme Above his equals. Farewell, happy fields, Where joy forever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail, Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell, Receive thy new possessor, one who brings A mind not to be changed by place or time. The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. What matter where, if I be still the same, And what I should be, all but less than he Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built Here for his envy, will not drive us hence; Here we may reign secure; and in my choice To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
In other books of _Paradise Lost_ the same character appears not as the heroic rebel but as the sneaking “father of lies,” all his grandeur gone, creeping as a snake into Paradise or sitting in the form of an ugly toad “squat at Eve’s ear,” whispering petty deceits to a woman while she sleeps. It is probable that Milton meant to show here the moral results of rebellion, but there is little in his poem to explain the sudden degeneracy from Lucifer to Satan.
[Sidenote: MATTER AND MANNER]
The reader will note, also, the strong contrast between Milton’s matter and his manner. His matter is largely mythical, and the myth is not beautiful or even interesting, but childish for the most part and frequently grotesque, as when cannon are used in the battle of the angels, or when the Almighty makes plans,
Lest unawares we lose
This our high place, our sanctuary, our hill.
Indeed, all Milton’s celestial figures, with the exception of the original Lucifer, are as banal as those of the old miracle plays; and his Adam and Eve are dull, wooden figures that serve merely to voice the poet’s theology or moral sentiments.
In contrast with this unattractive matter, Milton’s manner is always and unmistakably “the grand manner.” His imagination is lofty, his diction noble, and the epic of _Paradise Lost_ is so filled with memorable lines, with gorgeous descriptions, with passages of unexampled majesty or harmony or eloquence, that the crude material which he injects into the Bible narrative is lost sight of in our wonder at his superb style.
THE QUALITY OF MILTON. If it be asked, What is Milton’s adjective? the word “sublime” rises to the lips as the best expression of his style. This word (from the Latin _sublimis_, meaning “exalted above the ordinary”) is hard to define, but may be illustrated from one’s familiar experience.
You stand on a hilltop overlooking a mighty landscape on which the new snow has just fallen: the forest bending beneath its soft burden, the fields all white and still, the air scintillating with light and color, the whole world so clean and pure that it seems as if God had blotted out its imperfections and adorned it for his own pleasure. That is a sublime spectacle, and the soul of man is exalted as he looks upon it. Or here in your own village you see a woman who enters a room where a child is stricken with a deadly and contagious disease. She immolates herself for the suffering one, cares for him and saves him, then lays down her own life. That is a sublime act. Or you hear of a young patriot captured and hanged by the enemy, and as they lead him forth to death he says, “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country.” That is a sublime expression, and the feeling in your heart as you hear it is one of moral sublimity.
The writer who lifts our thought and feeling above their ordinary level, who gives us an impression of outward grandeur or of moral exaltation, is a sublime writer, has a sublime style; and Milton more than any other poet deserves the adjective. His scenes are immeasurable; mountain, sea and forest are but his playthings; his imagination hesitates not to paint Chaos, Heaven, Hell, the widespread Universe in which our world hangs like a pendant star and across which stretches the Milky Way:
A broad and ample road, whose dust is gold, And pavement stars.
No other poet could find suitable words for such vast themes, but Milton never falters. Read the assembly of the fallen hosts before Lucifer in Book I of _Paradise Lost_, or the opening of Hellgates in Book II, or the invocation to light in Book III, or Satan’s invocation to the sun in Book IV, or the morning hymn of Adam and Eve in Book V; or open _Paradise Lost_ anywhere, and you shall soon find some passage which, by the grandeur of its scene or by the exalted feeling of the poet as he describes it, awakens in you the feeling of sublimity.
The harmony of Milton’s verse is its second notable quality. Many of our poets use blank verse, as many other people walk, as if they had no sense of rhythm within them; but Milton, by reason of his long study and practice of music, seems to be always writing to melody. In consequence it is easy to read his most prolix passages, as it is easy to walk over almost any kind of ground if one but keeps step to outward or inward music. Not only is Milton’s verse stately and melodious, but he is a perfect master of words, choosing them for their sound as well as for their sense, as a musician chooses different instruments to express different emotions. Note these contrasting descriptions of so simple a matter as the opening of gates:
Heaven opened wide
Her ever-during gates, harmonious sound, On golden hinges moving. On a sudden open fly With impetuous recoil and jarring sound Th’ infernal doors, and on their hinges grate Harsh thunder.
In dealing with a poet of such magnificent qualities one should be wary of criticism. That Milton’s poetry has little human interest, no humor, and plenty of faults, may be granted. His _Paradise Lost_ especially is overcrowded with mere learning or pedantry in one place and with pompous commonplaces in another. But such faults appear trivial, unworthy of mention in the presence of a poem that is as a storehouse from which the authors and statesmen of three hundred years have drawn their choicest images and expressions. It stands forever as our supreme example of sublimity and harmony,–that sublimity which reflects the human spirit standing awed and reverent before the grandeur of the universe; that harmony of expression at which every great poet aims and which Milton attained in such measure that he is called the organ-voice of England.
* * * * *
JOHN BUNYAN (1628-1688)
There is a striking contrast between the poet and the prose writer of the Puritan age. Milton the poet is a man of culture, familiar with the best literature of all ages; Bunyan the prose writer is a poor, self-taught laborer who reads his Bible with difficulty, stumbling over the hard passages. Milton writes for the cultivated classes, in harmonious verse adorned with classic figures; Bunyan speaks for common men in sinewy prose, and makes his meaning clear by homely illustrations drawn from daily life. Milton is a solitary and austere figure, admirable but not lovable; Bunyan is like a familiar acquaintance, ruddy-faced, clear-eyed, who wins us by his sympathy, his friendliness, his good sense and good humor. He is known as the author of one book, _The Pilgrim’s Progress_, but that book has probably had more readers than any other that England has ever produced.
LIFE. During Bunyan’s lifetime England was in a state of religious ferment or revival, and his experience of it is vividly portrayed in a remarkable autobiography called _Grace Abounding to the Chief of inners_. In reading this book we find that his life is naturally separated into two periods. His youth was a time of struggle with doubts and temptations; his later years were characterized by inward peace and tireless labor. His peace meant that he was saved, his labor that he must save others. Here, in a word, is the secret of all his works.
[Illustration: JOHN BUNYAN]
He was born (1628) in the village of Elstow, Bedfordshire, and was the son of a poor tinker. He was sent to school long enough to learn elementary reading and writing; then he followed the tinker’s trade; but at the age of sixteen, being offended at his father’s second marriage, he ran away and joined the army.
As a boy Bunyan had a vivid but morbid imagination, which led him to terrible doubts, fears, fits of despondency, hallucinations. On such a nature the emotional religious revivals of the age made a tremendous impression. He followed them for years, living in a state of torment, until he felt himself converted; whereupon he turned preacher and began to call other sinners to repentance. Such were his native power and rude eloquence that, wherever he went, the common people thronged to hear him.
[Sidenote: IN BEDFORD JAIL]
After the Restoration all this was changed. Public meetings were forbidden unless authorized by bishops of the Established Church, and Bunyan was one of the first to be called to account. When ordered to hold no more meetings he refused to obey, saying that when the Lord called him to preach salvation he would listen only to the Lord’s voice. Then he was thrown into Bedford jail. During his imprisonment he supported his family by making shoe laces, and wrote _Grace Abounding_ and _The Pilgrim’s Progress_.
After his release Bunyan became the most popular writer and preacher in England. He wrote a large number of works, and went cheerfully up and down the land, preaching the gospel to the poor, helping the afflicted, doing an immense amount of good. He died (1688) as the result of exposure while on an errand of mercy. His works were then known only to humble readers, and not until long years had passed did critics awaken to the fact that one of England’s most powerful and original writers had passed away with the poor tinker of Elstow.
WORKS OF BUNYAN. From the pen of this uneducated preacher came nearly sixty works, great and small, the most notable of which are: _Grace Abounding_ (1666), a kind of spiritual autobiography; _The Holy War_ (1665), a prose allegory with a theme similar to that of Milton’s epic; and _The Life and Death of Mr. Badman_ (1682), a character study which was a forerunner of the English novel. These works are seldom read, and Bunyan is known to most readers as the author of _The Pilgrim’s Progress_ (1678). This is the famous allegory [Footnote: Allegory is figurative writing, in which some outward object or event is described in such a way that we apply the description to humanity, to our mental or spiritual experiences. The object of allegory, as a rule, is to teach moral lessons, and in this it is like a drawn-out fable and like a parable. The two greatest allegories in our literature are Spenser’s _Faery Queen_ and Bunyan’s _Pilgrim’s Progress_.] in which, under guise of telling the story of a pilgrim in search of a city, Bunyan portrays the experiences of humanity in its journey from this world to the next. Here is an outline of the story:
[Sidenote: STORY OF PILGRIM’S PROGRESS]
In the City of Destruction lives a poor sinner called Christian. When he learns that the city is doomed, he is terrified and flees out of it, carrying a great burden on his back. He is followed by the jeers of his neighbors, who have no fear. He seeks a safe and abiding city to dwell in, but is ignorant how to find it until Evangelist shows him the road.
As he goes on his journey Mr. Worldly Wiseman meets him and urges him to return; but he hastens on, only to plunge into the Slough of Despond. His companion Pliable is here discouraged and turns back. Christian struggles on through the mud and reaches the Wicket Gate, where Interpreter shows him the way to the Celestial City. As he passes a cross beside the path, the heavy burden which he carries (his load of sins) falls off of itself. Then with many adventures he climbs the steep hill Difficulty, where his eyes behold the Castle Beautiful. To reach this he must pass some fearful lions in the way, but he adventures on, finds that the lions are chained, is welcomed by the porter Watchful, and is entertained in the castle overnight.
Dangers thicken and difficulties multiply as he resumes his journey. His road is barred by the demon Apollyon, whom he fights to the death. The way now dips downward into the awful Valley of the Shadow. Passing through this, he enters the town of Vanity, goes to Vanity Fair, where he is abused and beaten, and where his companion Faithful is condemned to death. As he escapes from Vanity, the giant Despair seizes him and hurls him into the gloomy dungeon of Doubt. Again he escapes, struggles onward, and reaches the Delectable Mountains. There for the first time he sees the Celestial City, but between him and his refuge is a river, deep and terrible, without bridge or ford. He crosses it, and the journey ends as angels come singing down the streets to welcome Christian into the city. [Footnote: This is the story of the first part of _Pilgrim’s Progress_, which was written in Bedford jail, but not published till some years later. In 1684 Bunyan published the second part of his story, describing the adventures of Christiana and her children on their journey to the Celestial City. This sequel, like most others, is of minor importance.]
[Illustration: BUNYAN MEETINGHOUSE, SOUTHWARK]
Such an outline gives but a faint idea of Bunyan’s great work, of its realistic figures, its living and speaking characters, its knowledge of humanity, its portrayal of the temptations and doubts that beset the ordinary man, its picturesque style, which of itself would make the book stand out above ten thousand ordinary stories. _Pilgrim’s Progress_ is still one of our best examples of clear, forceful, idiomatic English; and our wonder increases when we remember that it was written by a man ignorant of literary models. But he had read his Bible daily until its style and imagery had taken possession of him; also he had a vivid imagination, a sincere purpose to help his fellows, and his simple rule of rhetoric was to forget himself and deliver his message. In one of his poems he gives us his rule of expression, which is an excellent one for writers and speakers:
Thine only way,
Before them all, is to say out thy say In thine own native language.
* * * * *
JOHN DRYDEN (1631-1700)
For fifty years Dryden lived in the city of Milton, in the country of John Bunyan; but his works might indicate that he inhabited a different planet. Unlike his two great contemporaries, his first object was to win favor; he sold his talent to the highest bidder, won the leading place among second-rate Restoration writers, and was content to reflect a generation which had neither the hearty enthusiasm of Elizabethan times nor the moral earnestness of Puritanism.
LIFE. Knowledge of Dryden’s life is rather meager, and as his motives are open to question we shall state here only a few facts. He was born of a Puritan and aristocratic family, at Aldwinkle, in 1631. After an excellent education, which included seven years at Trinity College, Cambridge, he turned to literature as a means of earning a livelihood, taking a worldly view of his profession and holding his pen ready to serve the winning side. Thus, he wrote his “Heroic Stanzas,” which have a hearty Puritan ring, on the death of Cromwell; but he turned Royalist and wrote the more flattering “Astraa Redux” to welcome Charles II back to power.
[Sidenote: HIS VERSATILITY]
In literature Dryden proved himself a man of remarkable versatility. Because plays were in demand, he produced many that catered to the evil tastes of the Restoration stage,–plays that he afterwards condemned unsparingly. He was equally ready to write prose or verse, songs, criticisms, political satires. In 1670 he was made poet laureate under Charles II; his affairs prospered; he became a literary dictator in London, holding forth nightly in Will’s Coffeehouse to an admiring circle of listeners. After the Revolution of 1688 he lost his offices, and with them most of his income.
[Illustration: JOHN DRYDEN
From a picture by Hudson in the Hall of Trinity College, Cambridge]
In his old age, being reduced to hackwork, he wrote obituaries, epitaphs, paraphrases of the tales of Chaucer, translations of Latin poets,–anything to earn an honest living. He died in 1700, and was buried beside Chaucer in Westminster Abbey.
Such facts are not interesting; nor do they give us a true idea of the man Dryden. To understand him we should have to read his works (no easy or pleasant task) and compare his prose prefaces, in which he is at his best, with the comedies in which he is abominable. When not engaged with the degenerate stage, or with political or literary or religious controversies, he appears sane, well-balanced, good-tempered, manly; but the impression is not a lasting one. He seems to have catered to the vicious element of his own age, to have regretted the misuse of his talent, and to have recorded his own judgment in two lines from his ode “To the Memory of Mrs. Killigrew”:
O gracious God, how far have we
Profaned thy heavenly grace of poesy!
WORKS OF DRYDEN. The occasional poems written by Dryden may be left in the obscurity into which they fell after they had been applauded. The same may be said of his typical poem “Annus Mirabilis,” which describes the wonderful events of the year 1666, a year which witnessed the taking of New Amsterdam from the Dutch and the great fire of London. Both events were celebrated in a way to contribute to the glory of King Charles and to Dryden’s political fortune. Of all his poetical works, only the odes written in honor of St. Cecilia are now remembered. The second ode, “Alexander’s Feast,” is one of our best poems on the power of music.
[Sidenote: HIS PLAYS]
Dryden’s numerous plays show considerable dramatic power, and every one of them contains some memorable line or passage; but they are spoiled by the author’s insincerity in trying to satisfy the depraved taste of the Restoration stage. He wrote one play, _All for Love_, to please himself, he said, and it is noticeable that this play is written in blank verse and shows the influence of Shakespeare, who was then out of fashion. If any of the plays are to be read, _All for Love_ should be selected, though it is exceptional, not typical, and gives but a faint idea of Dryden’s ordinary dramatic methods.
In the field of political satire Dryden was a master, and his work here is interesting as showing that unfortunate alliance between literature and politics which led many of the best English writers of the next century to sell their services to the Whigs or Tories. Dryden sided with the later party and, in a kind of allegory of the Bible story of Absalom’s revolt against David, wrote “Absalom and Achitophel” to glorify the Tories and to castigate the Whigs. This powerful political satire was followed by others in the same vein, and by “MacFlecknoe,” which satirized certain poets with whom Dryden was at loggerheads. As a rule, such works are for a day, having no enduring interest because they have no human kindness, but occasionally Dryden portrays a man of his own time so well that his picture applies to the vulgar politician of all ages, as in this characterization of Burnet:
Prompt to assail and careless of defence, Invulnerable in his impudence,
He dares the world, and eager of a name He thrusts about and justles into fame; So fond of loud report that, not to miss. Of being known (his last and utmost bliss), He rather would be known for what he is.
These satires of Dryden were largely influential in establishing the heroic couplet, [Footnote: The heroic couplet consists of two iambic pentameter lines that rime. By “pentameter” is meant that the line has five feet or measures; by “iambic,” that each foot contains two syllables, the first short or unaccented, the second long or accented.] which dominated the fashion of English poetry for the next century. The couplet had been used by earlier poets, Chaucer for example; but in his hands it was musical and unobtrusive, a minor part of a complete work. With Dryden, and with his contemporary Waller, the making of couplets was the main thing; in their hands the couplet became “closed,” that is, it often contained a complete thought, a criticism, a nugget of common sense, a poem in itself, as in this aphorism from “MacFlecknoe”:
All human things are subject to decay, And when Fate summons, monarchs must obey.
[Sidenote: PROSE WORKS]
In his prose works Dryden proved himself the ablest critic of his time, and the inventor of a neat, serviceable style which, with flattery to ourselves, we are wont to call modern. Among his numerous critical works we note especially “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” “Of Heroic Plays,” “Discourse on Satire,” and the Preface to his _Fables_. These have not the vigor or picturesqueness of Bunyan’s prose, but they are written clearly, in short sentences, with the chief aim of being understood. If we compare them with the sonorous periods of Milton, or with the pretty involutions of Sidney, we shall see why Dryden is called “the father of modern prose.” His sensible style appears in this criticism of Chaucer:
“He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his _Canterbury Tales_ the various manners and humours (as we now call them) of the whole English nation in his age. Not a single character has escaped him…. We have our fathers and great-grand-dames all before us as they were in Chaucer’s days: their general characters are still remaining in mankind, and even in England, though they are called by other names than those of monks and friars and canons and lady abbesses and nuns; for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature though everything is altered.”
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PURITAN AND CAVALIER VERSE. The numerous minor poets of this period are often arranged in groups, but any true classification is impossible since there was no unity among them. Each was a law unto himself, and the result was to emphasize personal oddity or eccentricity. It would seem that in writing of love, the common theme of poets, Puritan and Cavalier must alike speak the common language of the heart; but that is precisely what they did not do. With them love was no longer a passion, or even a fashion, but any