English Literature: Modern
G. H. Mair

Part 1 out of 4

Produced by Cera Kruger and PG Distributed Proofreaders




First Printed, October, 1911 Revised & Printed February, 1914


The intention of this book is to lay stress on ideas and tendencies that
have to be understood and appreciated, rather than on facts that have to
be learned by heart. Many authors are not mentioned and others receive
scanty treatment, because of the necessities of this method of approach.
The book aims at dealing with the matter of authors more than with their
lives; consequently it contains few dates. All that the reader need
require to help him have been included in a short chronological table at
the end.

To have attempted a severely ordered and analytic treatment of the
subject would have been, for the author at least, impossible within the
limits imposed, and, in any case, would have been foreign to the purpose
indicated by the editors of the Home University Library. The book
pretends no more than to be a general introduction to a very great
subject, and it will have fulfilled all that is intended for it if it
stimulates those who read it to set about reading for themselves the
books of which it treats.

Its debts are many, its chief creditors two teachers, Professor
Grierson at Aberdeen University and Sir Walter Raleigh at Oxford, to the
stimulation of whose books and teaching my pleasure in English
literature and any understanding I have of it are due. To them and to
the other writers (chief of them Professor Herford) whose ideas I have
wittingly or unwittingly incorporated in it, as well as to the kindness
and patience of Professor Gilbert Murray, I wish here to express my

_August_, 1911.





















There are times in every man's experience when some sudden widening of
the boundaries of his knowledge, some vision of hitherto untried and
unrealized possibilities, has come and seemed to bring with it new life
and the inspiration of fresh and splendid endeavour. It may be some
great book read for the first time not as a book, but as a revelation;
it may be the first realization of the extent and moment of what
physical science has to teach us; it may be, like Carlyle's "Everlasting
Yea," an ethical illumination, or spiritual like Augustine's or John
Wesley's. But whatever it is, it brings with it new eyes, new powers of
comprehension, and seems to reveal a treasury of latent and unsuspected
talents in the mind and heart. The history of mankind has its parallels
to these moments of illumination in the life of the individual. There
are times when the boundaries of human experience, always narrow, and
fluctuating but little between age and age, suddenly widen themselves,
and the spirit of man leaps forward to possess and explore its new
domain. These are the great ages of the world. They could be counted,
perhaps, on one hand. The age of Pericles in Athens; the less defined
age, when Europe passed, spiritually and artistically, from what we call
the Dark, to what we call the Middle Ages; the Renaissance; the period
of the French Revolution. Two of them, so far as English literature is
concerned, fall within the compass of this book, and it is with one of
them--the Renaissance--that it begins.

It is as difficult to find a comprehensive formula for what the
Renaissance meant as to tie it down to a date. The year 1453 A.D., when
the Eastern Empire--the last relic of the continuous spirit of
Rome--fell before the Turks, used to be given as the date, and perhaps
the word "Renaissance" itself--"a new birth"--is as much as can be
accomplished shortly by way of definition. Michelet's resonant
"discovery by mankind of himself and of the world" rather expresses what
a man of the Renaissance himself must have thought it, than what we in
this age can declare it to be. But both endeavours to date and to define
are alike impossible. One cannot fix a term to day or night, and the
theory of the Renaissance as a kind of tropical dawn--a sudden passage
to light from darkness--is not to be considered. The Renaissance was,
and was the result of, a numerous and various series of events which
followed and accompanied one another from the fourteenth to the
beginning of the sixteenth centuries. First and most immediate in its
influence on art and literature and thought, was the rediscovery of the
ancient literatures. In the Middle Ages knowledge of Greek and Latin
literatures had withdrawn itself into monasteries, and there narrowed
till of secular Latin writing scarcely any knowledge remained save of
Vergil (because of his supposed Messianic prophecy) and Statius, and of
Greek, except Aristotle, none at all. What had been lost in the Western
Empire, however, subsisted in the East, and the continual advance of the
Turk on the territories of the Emperors of Constantinople drove westward
to the shelter of Italy and the Church, and to the patronage of the
Medicis, a crowd of scholars who brought with them their manuscripts of
Homer and the dramatists, of Thucydides and Herodotus, and most
momentous perhaps for the age to come, of Plato and Demosthenes and of
the New Testament in its original Greek. The quick and vivid intellect
of Italy, which had been torpid in the decadence of mediaevalism and its
mysticism and piety, seized with avidity the revelation of the classical
world which the scholars and their manuscripts brought. Human life,
which the mediaeval Church had taught them to regard but as a threshold
and stepping-stone to eternity, acquired suddenly a new momentousness
and value; the promises of the Church paled like its lamps at sunrise;
and a new paganism, which had Plato for its high priest, and Demosthenes
and Pericles for its archetypes and examples, ran like wild-fire through
Italy. The Greek spirit seized on art, and produced Raphael, Leonardo,
and Michel Angelo; on literature and philosophy and gave us Pico della
Mirandula, on life and gave us the Medicis and Castiglione and
Machiavelli. Then--the invention not of Italy but of Germany--came the
art of printing, and made this revival of Greek literature quickly
portable into other lands.

Even more momentous was the new knowledge the age brought of the
physical world. The brilliant conjectures of Copernicus paved the way
for Galileo, and the warped and narrow cosmology which conceived the
earth as the centre of the universe, suffered a blow that in shaking it
shook also religion. And while the conjectures of the men of science
were adding regions undreamt of to the physical universe, the
discoverers were enlarging the territories of the earth itself. The
Portuguese, with the aid of sailors trained in the great Mediterranean
ports of Genoa and Venice, pushed the track of exploration down the
western coast of Africa; the Cape was circumnavigated by Vasco da Gama,
and India reached for the first time by Western men by way of the sea.
Columbus reached Trinidad and discovered the "New" World; his successors
pushed past him and touched the Continent. Spanish colonies grew up
along the coasts of North and Central America and in Peru, and the
Portuguese reached Brazil. Cabot and the English voyagers reached
Newfoundland and Labrador; the French made their way up the St.
Lawrence. The discovery of the gold mines brought new and unimagined
possibilities of wealth to the Old World, while the imagination of
Europe, bounded since the beginning of recorded time by the Western
ocean, and with the Mediterranean as its centre, shot out to the romance
and mystery of untried seas.

It is difficult for us in these later days to conceive the profound and
stirring influence of such an alteration on thought and literature. To
the men at the end of the fifteenth century scarcely a year but brought
another bit of received and recognized thinking to the scrap-heap;
scarcely a year but some new discovery found itself surpassed and in its
turn discarded, or lessened in significance by something still more new.
Columbus sailed westward to find a new sea route, and as he imagined, a
more expeditious one to "the Indies"; the name West Indies still
survives to show the theory on which the early discoverers worked. The
rapidity with which knowledge widened can be gathered by a comparison of
the maps of the day. In the earlier of them the mythical Brazil, a relic
perhaps of the lost Atlantis, lay a regularly and mystically blue island
off the west coast of Ireland; then the Azores were discovered and the
name fastened on to one of the islands of that archipelago. Then Amerigo
reached South America and the name became finally fixed to the country
that we know. There is nothing nowadays that can give us a parallel to
the stirring and exaltation of the imagination which intoxicated the men
of the Renaissance, and gave a new birth to thought and art. The great
scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century came to men more
prepared for the shock of new surprises, and they carried evidence less
tangible and indisputable to the senses. Perhaps if the strivings of
science should succeed in proving as evident and comprehensible the
existences which spiritualist and psychical research is striving to
establish, we should know the thrill that the great twin discoverers,
Copernicus and Columbus, brought to Europe.


This rough sketch of the Renaissance has been set down because it is
only by realizing the period in its largest and broadest sense that we
can understand the beginnings of our own modern literature. The
Renaissance reached England late. By the time that the impulse was at
its height with Spenser and Shakespeare, it had died out in Italy, and
in France to which in its turn Italy had passed the torch, it was
already a waning fire. When it came to England it came in a special form
shaped by political and social conditions, and by the accidents of
temperament and inclination in the men who began the movement. But the
essence of the inspiration remained the same as it had been on the
Continent, and the twin threads of its two main impulses, the impulse
from the study of the classics, and the impulse given to men's minds by
the voyages of discovery, runs through all the texture of our
Renaissance literature.

Literature as it developed in the reign of Elizabeth ran counter to the
hopes and desires of the men who began the movement; the common usage
which extends the term Elizabethan backwards outside the limits of the
reign itself, has nothing but its carelessness to recommend it. The men
of the early renaissance in the reigns of Edward VI. and Mary, belonged
to a graver school than their successors. They were no splendid
courtiers, nor daring and hardy adventurers, still less swashbucklers,
exquisites, or literary dandies. Their names--Sir John Cheke, Roger
Ascham, Nicholas Udall, Thomas Wilson, Walter Haddon, belong rather to
the universities and to the coteries of learning, than to the court. To
the nobility, from whose essays and _belles lettres_ Elizabethan poetry
was to develop, they stood in the relation of tutors rather than of
companions, suspecting the extravagances of their pupils rather than
sympathising with their ideals. They were a band of serious and
dignified scholars, men preoccupied with morality and good-citizenship,
and holding those as worth more than the lighter interests of learning
and style. It is perhaps characteristic of the English temper that the
revival of the classical tongues, which in Italy made for paganism, and
the pursuit of pleasure in life and art, in England brought with it in
the first place a new seriousness and gravity of life, and in religion
the Reformation. But in a way the scholars fought against tendencies in
their age, which were both too fast and too strong for them. At a time
when young men were writing poetry modelled on the delicate and
extravagant verse of Italy, were reading Italian novels, and affecting
Italian fashions in speech and dress, they were fighting for sound
education, for good classical scholarship, for the purity of native
English, and behind all these for the native strength and worth of the
English character, which they felt to be endangered by orgies of
reckless assimilation from abroad. The revival of the classics at Oxford
and Cambridge could not produce an Erasmus or a Scaliger; we have no
fine critical scholarship of this age to put beside that of Holland or
France. Sir John Cheke and his followers felt they had a public and
national duty to perform, and their knowledge of the classics only
served them for examples of high living and morality, on which
education, in its sense of the formation of character, could be based.

The literary influence of the revival of letters in England, apart from
its moral influence, took two contradictory and opposing forms. In the
curricula of schools, logic, which in the Middle Ages had been the
groundwork of thought and letters, gave place to rhetoric. The reading
of the ancients awakened new delight in the melody and beauty of
language: men became intoxicated with words. The practice of rhetoric
was universal and it quickly coloured all literature. It was the habit
of the rhetoricians to choose some subject for declamation and round it
to encourage their pupils to set embellishments and decorations, which
commonly proceeded rather from a delight in language for language's
sake, than from any effect in enforcing an argument. Their models for
these exercises can be traced in their influence on later writers. One
of the most popular of them, Erasmus's "Discourse Persuading a Young Man
to Marriage," which was translated in an English text-book of rhetoric,
reminds one of the first part of Shakespeare's sonnets. The literary
affectation called euphuism was directly based on the precepts of the
handbooks on rhetoric; its author, John Lyly, only elaborated and made
more precise tricks of phrase and writing, which had been used as
exercises in the schools of his youth. The prose of his school, with its
fantastic delight in exuberance of figure and sound, owed its
inspiration, in its form ultimately to Cicero, and in the decorations
with which it was embellished, to the elder Pliny and later writers of
his kind. The long declamatory speeches and the sententiousness of the
early drama were directly modelled on Seneca, through whom was faintly
reflected the tragedy of Greece, unknown directly or almost unknown to
English readers. Latinism, like every new craze, became a passion, and
ran through the less intelligent kinds of writing in a wild excess. Not
much of the literature of this time remains in common knowledge, and for
examples of these affectations one must turn over the black letter pages
of forgotten books. There high-sounding and familiar words are handled
and bandied about with delight, and you can see in volume after volume
these minor and forgotten authors gloating over the new found treasure
which placed them in their time in the van of literary success. That
they are obsolete now, and indeed were obsolete before they were dead,
is a warning to authors who intend similar extravagances. Strangeness
and exoticism are not lasting wares. By the time of "Love's Labour Lost"
they had become nothing more than matter for laughter, and it is only
through their reflection and distortion in Shakespeare's pages that we
know them now.

Had not a restraining influence, anxiously and even acrimoniously urged,
broken in on their endeavours the English language to-day might have
been almost as completely latinized as Spanish or Italian. That the
essential Saxon purity of our tongue has been preserved is to the credit
not of sensible unlettered people eschewing new fashions they could not
comprehend, but to the scholars themselves. The chief service that Cheke
and Ascham and their fellows rendered to English literature was their
crusade against the exaggerated latinity that they had themselves helped
to make possible, the crusade against what they called "inkhorn terms."
"I am of this opinion," said Cheke in a prefatory letter to a book
translated by a friend of his, "that our own tongue should be written
clean and pure, unmixed and unmangled with the borrowing of other
tongues, wherein if we take not heed by time, ever borrowing and never
paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt." Writings in
the Saxon vernacular like the sermons of Latimer, who was careful to use
nothing not familiar to the common people, did much to help the scholars
to save our prose from the extravagances which they dreaded. Their
attack was directed no less against the revival of really obsolete
words. It is a paradox worth noting for its strangeness that the first
revival of mediaevalism in modern English literature was in the
Renaissance itself. Talking in studious archaism seems to have been a
fashionable practice in society and court circles. "The fine courtier,"
says Thomas Wilson in his _Art of Rhetoric_, "will talk nothing but
Chaucer." The scholars of the English Renaissance fought not only
against the ignorant adoption of their importations, but against the
renewal of forgotten habits of speech.

Their efforts failed, and their ideals had to wait for their acceptance
till the age of Dryden, when Shakespeare and Spenser and Milton, all of
them authors who consistently violated the standards of Cheke, had done
their work. The fine courtier who would talk nothing but Chaucer was in
Elizabeth's reign the saving of English verse. The beauty and richness
of Spenser is based directly on words he got from _Troilus and Cressida_
and the _Canterbury Tales_. Some of the most sonorous and beautiful
lines in Shakespeare break every canon laid down by the humanists.

"Th' extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine"

is a line, three of the chief words of which are Latin importations that
come unfamiliarly, bearing their original interpretation with them.
Milton is packed with similar things: he will talk of a crowded meeting
as "frequent" and use constructions which are unintelligible to anyone
who does not possess a knowledge--and a good knowledge--of Latin syntax.
Yet the effect is a good poetic effect. In attacking latinisms in the
language borrowed from older poets Cheke and his companions were
attacking the two chief sources of Elizabethan poetic vocabulary. All
the sonorousness, beauty and dignity of the poetry and the drama which
followed them would have been lost had they succeeded in their object,
and their verse would have been constrained into the warped and ugly
forms of Sternhold and Hopkins, and those with them who composed the
first and worst metrical version of the Psalms. When their idea
reappeared for its fulfilment phantasy and imagery had temporarily worn
themselves out, and the richer language made simplicity possible and
adequate for poetry.

There are other directions in which the classical revival influenced
writing that need not detain us here. The attempt to transplant
classical metres into English verse which was the concern of a little
group of authors who called themselves the Areopagus came to no more
success than a similar and contemporary attempt did in France. An
earlier and more lasting result of the influence of the classics on new
ways of thinking is the _Utopia_ of Sir Thomas More, based on Plato's
_Republic_, and followed by similar attempts on the part of other
authors, of which the most notable are Harrington's _Oceana_ and Bacon's
_New Atlantis_. In one way or another the rediscovery of Plato proved
the most valuable part of the Renaissance's gift from Greece. The
doctrines of the Symposium coloured in Italy the writings of Castiglione
and Mirandula. In England they gave us Spenser's "Hymn to Intellectual
Beauty," and they affected, each in his own way, Sir Philip Sidney, and
others of the circle of court writers of his time. More's book was
written in Latin, though there is an English translation almost
contemporary. He combines in himself the two strains that we found
working in the Renaissance, for besides its origin in Plato, _Utopia_
owes not a little to the influence of the voyages of discovery. In 1507
there was published a little book called an _Introduction to
Cosmography_, which gave an account of the four voyages of Amerigo. In
the story of the fourth voyage it is narrated that twenty-four men were
left in a fort near Cape Bahia. More used this detail as a
starting-point, and one of the men whom Amerigo left tells the story of
this "Nowhere," a republic partly resembling England but most of all the
ideal world of Plato. Partly resembling England, because no man can
escape from the influences of his own time, whatever road he takes,
whether the road of imagination or any other. His imagination can only
build out of the materials afforded him by his own experience: he can
alter, he can rearrange, but he cannot in the strictest sense of the
word create, and every city of dreams is only the scheme of things as
they are remoulded nearer to the desire of a man's heart. In a way More
has less invention than some of his subtler followers, but his book is
interesting because it is the first example of a kind of writing which
has been attractive to many men since his time, and particularly to
writers of our own day.

There remains one circumstance in the revival of the classics which had
a marked and continuous influence on the literary age that followed. To
get the classics English scholars had as we have seen to go to Italy.
Cheke went there and so did Wilson, and the path of travel across France
and through Lombardy to Florence and Rome was worn hard by the feet of
their followers for over a hundred years after. On the heels of the men
of learning went the men of fashion, eager to learn and copy the new
manners of a society whose moral teacher was Machiavelli, and whose
patterns of splendour were the courts of Florence and Ferrara, and to
learn the trick of verse that in the hands of Petrarch and his followers
had fashioned the sonnet and other new lyric forms. This could not be
without its influence on the manners of the nation, and the scholars who
had been the first to show the way were the first to deplore the
pell-mell assimilation of Italian manners and vices, which was the
unintended result of the inroad on insularity which had already begun.
They saw the danger ahead, and they laboured to meet it as it came.
Ascham in his _Schoolmaster_ railed against the translation of Italian
books, and the corrupt manners of living and false ideas which they
seemed to him to breed. The Italianate Englishman became the chief part
of the stock-in-trade of the satirists and moralists of the day. Stubbs,
a Puritan chronicler, whose book _The Anatomy of Abuses_ is a valuable
aid to the study of Tudor social history, and Harrison, whose
description of England prefaces Holinshed's Chronicles, both deal in
detail with the Italian menace, and condemn in good set terms the
costliness in dress and the looseness in morals which they laid to its
charge. Indeed, the effect on England was profound, and it lasted for
more than two generations. The romantic traveller, Coryat, writing well
within the seventeenth century in praise of the luxuries of Italy (among
which he numbers forks for table use), is as enthusiastic as the authors
who began the imitation of Italian metres in Tottel's _Miscellany_, and
Donne and Hall in their satires written under James wield the rod of
censure as sternly as had Ascham a good half century before. No doubt
there was something in the danger they dreaded, but the evil was not
unmixed with good, for insularity will always be an enemy of good
literature. The Elizabethans learned much more than their plots from
Italian models, and the worst effects dreaded by the patriots never
reached our shores. Italian vice stopped short of real life; poisoning
and hired ruffianism flourished only on the stage.


The influence of the spirit of discovery and adventure, though it is
less quickly marked, more pervasive, and less easy to define, is perhaps
more universal than that of the classics or of the Italian fashions
which came in their train. It runs right through the literature of
Elizabeth's age and after it, affecting, each in their special way, all
the dramatists, authors who were also adventurers like Raleigh, scholars
like Milton, and philosophers like Hobbes and Locke. It reappears in the
Romantic revival with Coleridge, whose "Ancient Mariner" owes much to
reminiscences of his favourite reading--_Purchas, his Pilgrimes_, and
other old books of voyages. The matter of this too-little noticed strain
in English literature would suffice to fill a whole book; only a few of
the main lines of its influence can be noted here.

For the English Renaissance--for Elizabeth's England, action and
imagination went hand in hand; the dramatists and poets held up the
mirror to the voyagers. In a sense, the cult of the sea is the oldest
note in English literature. There is not a poem in Anglo-Saxon but
breathes the saltness and the bitterness of the sea-air. To the old
English the sea was something inexpressibly melancholy and desolate,
mist-shrouded, and lonely, terrible in its grey and shivering spaces;
and their tone about it is always elegiac and plaintive, as a place of
dreary spiritless wandering and unmarked graves. When the English
settled they lost the sense of the sea; they became a little parochial
people, tilling fields and tending cattle, wool-gathering and
wool-bartering, their shipping confined to cross-Channel merchandise,
and coastwise sailing from port to port. Chaucer's shipman, almost the
sole representative of the sea in mediaeval English literature, plied a
coastwise trade. But with the Cabots and their followers, Frobisher and
Gilbert and Drake and Hawkins, all this was changed; once more the ocean
became the highway of our national progress and adventure, and by virtue
of our shipping we became competitors for the dominion of the earth. The
rising tide of national enthusiasm and exaltation that this occasioned
flooded popular literature. The voyagers themselves wrote down the
stories of their adventures; and collections of these--Hakluyt's and
Purchas's--were among the most popular books of the age. To them,
indeed, we must look for the first beginnings of our modern English
prose, and some of its noblest passages. The writers, as often as not,
were otherwise utterly unknown--ship's pursers, super-cargoes, and the
like--men without much literary craft or training, whose style is great
because of the greatness of their subject, because they had no literary
artifices to stand between them and the plain and direct telling of a
stirring tale. But the ferment worked outside the actual doings of the
voyagers themselves, and it can be traced beyond definite allusions to
them. Allusions, indeed, are surprisingly few; Drake is scarcely as much
as mentioned among the greater writers of the age. None the less there
is not one of them that is not deeply touched by his spirit and that of
the movement which he led. New lands had been discovered, new
territories opened up, wonders exposed which were perhaps only the first
fruits of greater wonders to come. Spenser makes the voyagers his
warrant for his excursion into fairyland. Some, he says, have condemned
his fairy world as an idle fiction,

"But let that man with better sense advise;
That of the world least part to us is red;
And daily how through hardy enterprise
Many great regions are discovered,
Which to late age were never mentioned.
Who ever heard of the 'Indian Peru'?
Or who in venturous vessel measured
The Amazon, huge river, now found true?
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did ever view?

"Yet all these were, when no man did them know,
Yet have from wiser ages hidden been;
And later times things more unknown shall show."

It is in the drama that this spirit of adventure caught from the
voyagers gets its full play. "Without the voyagers," says Professor
Walter Raleigh,[1] "Marlowe is inconceivable." His imagination in every
one of his plays is preoccupied with the lust of adventure, and the
wealth and power adventure brings. Tamburlaine, Eastern conqueror though
he is, is at heart an Englishman of the school of Hawkins and Drake.
Indeed the comparison must have occurred to his own age, for a historian
of the day, the antiquary Stow, declares Drake to have been "as famous
in Europe and America as Tamburlaine was in Asia and Africa." The
high-sounding names and quests which seem to us to give the play an air
of unreality and romance were to the Elizabethans real and actual;
things as strange and foreign were to be heard any day amongst the
motley crowd in the Bankside outside the theatre door. Tamburlaine's
last speech, when he calls for a map and points the way to unrealised
conquests, is the very epitome of the age of discovery.

"Lo, here my sons, are all the golden mines,
Inestimable wares and precious stones,
More worth than Asia and all the world beside;
And from the Antarctic Pole eastward behold
As much more land, which never was descried.
Wherein are rocks of pearl that shine as bright
As all the lamps that beautify the sky."

[Footnote 1: To whose terminal essay in "Hakluyt's Voyages" (Maclehose)
I am indebted for much of the matter in this section.]

It is the same in his other plays. Dr. Faustus assigns to his
serviceable spirits tasks that might have been studied from the books of

"I'll have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new round world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates."

When there is no actual expression of the spirit of adventure, the air
of the sea which it carried with it still blows. Shakespeare, save for
his scenes in _The Tempest_ and in _Pericles_, which seize in all its
dramatic poignancy the terror of storm and shipwreck, has nothing
dealing directly with the sea or with travel; but it comes out, none the
less, in figure and metaphor, and plays like the _Merchant of Venice_
and _Othello_ testify to his accessibility to its spirit. Milton, a
scholar whose mind was occupied by other and more ultimate matters, is
full of allusions to it. Satan's journey through Chaos in _Paradise
Lost_ is the occasion for a whole series of metaphors drawn from
seafaring. In _Samson Agonistes_ Dalila comes in,

"Like a stately ship ...
With all her bravery on and tackle trim
Sails frilled and streamers waving
Courted by all the winds that hold them play."

and Samson speaks of himself as one who,

"Like a foolish pilot have shipwracked
My vessel trusted to me from above
Gloriously rigged."

The influence of the voyages of discovery persisted long after the first
bloom of the Renaissance had flowered and withered. On the reports
brought home by the voyagers were founded in part those conceptions of
the condition of the "natural" man which form such a large part of the
philosophic discussions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
Hobbes's description of the life of nature as "nasty, solitary, brutish,
and short," Locke's theories of civil government, and eighteenth century
speculators like Monboddo all took as the basis of their theory the
observations of the men of travel. Abroad this connection of travellers
and philosophers was no less intimate. Both Montesquieu and Rousseau
owed much to the tales of the Iroquois, the North American Indian allies
of France. Locke himself is the best example of the closeness of this
alliance. He was a diligent student of the texts of the voyagers, and
himself edited out of Hakluyt and Purchas the best collection of them
current in his day. The purely literary influence of the age of
discovery persisted down to _Robinson Crusoe_; in that book by a
refinement of satire a return to travel itself (it must be remembered
Defoe posed not as a novelist but as an actual traveller) is used to
make play with the deductions founded on it. Crusoe's conversation with
the man Friday will be found to be a satire of Locke's famous
controversy with the Bishop of Worcester. With _Robinson Crusoe_ the
influence of the age of discovery finally perishes. An inspiration
hardens into the mere subject matter of books of adventure. We need not
follow it further.




To understand Elizabethan literature it is necessary to remember that
the social status it enjoyed was far different from that of literature
in our own day. The splendours of the Medicis in Italy had set up an
ideal of courtliness, in which letters formed an integral and
indispensable part. For the Renaissance, the man of letters was only one
aspect of the gentleman, and the true gentleman, as books so early and
late respectively as Castiglione's _Courtier_ and Peacham's _Complete
Gentleman_ show, numbered poetry as a necessary part of his
accomplishments. In England special circumstances intensified this
tendency of the time. The queen was unmarried: she was the first single
woman to wear the English crown, and her vanity made her value the
devotion of the men about her as something more intimate than mere
loyalty or patriotism. She loved personal homage, particularly the
homage of half-amatory eulogy in prose and verse. It followed that the
ambition of every courtier was to be an author, and of every author to
be a courtier; in fact, outside the drama, which was almost the only
popular writing at the time, every author was in a greater or less
degree attached to the court. If they were not enjoying its favours they
were pleading for them, mingling high and fantastic compliment with
bitter reproaches and a tale of misery. And consequently both the poetry
and the prose of the time are restricted in their scope and temper to
the artificial and romantic, to high-flown eloquence, to the celebration
of love and devotion, or to the inculcation of those courtly virtues and
accomplishments which composed the perfect pattern of a gentleman. Not
that there was not both poetry and prose written outside this charmed
circle. The pamphleteers and chroniclers, Dekker and Nash, Holinshed and
Harrison and Stow, were setting down their histories and descriptions,
and penning those detailed and realistic indictments of the follies and
extravagances of fashion, which together with the comedies have enabled
us to picture accurately the England and especially the London of
Elizabeth's reign. There was fine poetry written by Marlowe and Chapman
as well as by Sidney and Spenser, but the court was still the main
centre of literary endeavour, and the main incitement to literary fame
and success.

But whether an author was a courtier or a Londoner living by his wits,
writing was never the main business of his life: all the writers of the
time were in one way or another men of action and affairs. As late as
Milton it is probably true to say that writing was in the case even of
the greatest an avocation, something indulged in at leisure outside a
man's main business. All the Elizabethan authors had crowded and various
careers. Of Sir Philip Sidney his earliest biographer says, "The truth
is his end was not writing, even while he wrote, but both his wit and
understanding bent upon his heart to make himself and others not in
words or opinion but in life and action good and great." Ben Jonson was
in turn a soldier, a poet, a bricklayer, an actor, and ultimately the
first poet laureate. Lodge, after leaving Oxford, passed through the
various professions of soldiering, medicine, playwriting, and fiction,
and he wrote his novel _Rosalind_, on which Shakespeare based _As You
Like It_ while he was sailing on a piratical venture on the Spanish
Main. This connection between life and action affected as we have seen
the tone and quality of Elizabethan writing. "All the distinguished
writers of the period," says Thoreau, "possess a greater vigour and
naturalness than the more modern ... you have constantly the warrant of
life and experience in what you read. The little that is said is eked
out by implication of the much that was done." In another passage the
same writer explains the strength and fineness of the writings of Sir
Walter Raleigh by this very test of action, "The word which is best said
came nearest to not being spoken at all, for it is cousin to a deed
which the speaker could have better done. Nay almost it must have taken
the place of a deed by some urgent necessity, even by some misfortune,
so that the truest writer will be some captive knight after all." This
bond between literature and action explains more than the writings of
the voyagers or the pamphlets of men who lived in London by what they
could make of their fellows. Literature has always a two-fold relation
to life as it is lived. It is both a mirror and an escape: in our own
day the stirring romances of Stevenson, the full-blooded and vigorous
life which beats through the pages of Mr. Kipling, the conscious
brutalism of such writers as Mr. Conrad and Mr. Hewlett, the plays of
J.M. Synge, occupied with the vigorous and coarse-grained life of
tinkers and peasants, are all in their separate ways a reaction against
an age in which the overwhelming majority of men and women have
sedentary pursuits. Just in the same way the Elizabethan who passed his
commonly short and crowded life in an atmosphere of throat-cutting and
powder and shot, and in a time when affairs of state were more momentous
for the future of the nation than they have ever been since, needed his
escape from the things which pressed in upon him every day. So grew the
vogue and popularity of pastoral poetry and of pastoral romance.


It is with two courtiers that modern English poetry begins. The lives of
Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey both ended early and unhappily,
and it was not until ten years after the death of the second of them
that their poems appeared in print. The book that contained them,
Tottel's _Miscellany of Songs and Sonnets_, is one of the landmarks of
English literature. It begins lyrical love poetry in our language. It
begins, too, the imitation and adaptation of foreign and chiefly Italian
metrical forms, many of which have since become characteristic forms of
English verse: so characteristic, that we scarcely think of them as
other than native in origin. To Wyatt belongs the honour of introducing
the sonnet, and to Surrey the more momentous credit of writing, for the
first time in English, blank verse. Wyatt fills the most important place
in the _Miscellany_, and his work, experimental in tone and quality,
formed the example which Surrey and minor writers in the same volume and
all the later poets of the age copied. He tries his hand at
everything--songs, madrigals, elegies, complaints, and sonnets--and he
takes his models from both ancient Rome and modern Italy. Indeed there
is scarcely anything in the volume for which with some trouble and
research one might not find an original in Petrarch, or in the poets of
Italy who followed him. But imitation, universal though it is in his
work, does not altogether crowd out originality of feeling and poetic
temper. At times, he sounds a personal note, his joy on leaving Spain
for England, his feelings in the Tower, his life at the Court amongst
his books, and as a country gentleman enjoying hunting and other outdoor

"This maketh me at home to hunt and hawk,
And in foul weather at my book to sit,
In frost and snow, then with my bow to stalk,
No man does mark whereas I ride or go:
In lusty leas at liberty I walk."

It is easy to see that poetry as a melodious and enriched expression of
a man's own feelings is in its infancy here. The new poets had to find
their own language, to enrich with borrowings from other tongues the
stock of words suitable for poetry which the dropping of inflection had
left to English. Wyatt was at the beginning of the process, and apart
from a gracious and courtly temper, his work has, it must be confessed,
hardly more than an antiquarian interest. Surrey, it is possible to say
on reading his work, went one step further. He allows himself oftener
the luxury of a reference to personal feelings, and his poetry contains
from place to place a fairly full record of the vicissitudes of his
life. A prisoner at Windsor, he recalls his childhood there

"The large green courts where we were wont to hove,
The palme-play, where, despoiled for the game.
With dazzled eyes oft we by gleams of love
Have missed the ball, and got sight of our dame."

Like Wyatt's, his verses are poor stuff, but a sympathetic ear can catch
in them something of the accent that distinguishes the verse of Sidney
and Spenser. He is greater than Wyatt, not so much for greater skill as
for more boldness in experiment. Wyatt in his sonnets had used the
Petrarchan or Italian form, the form used later in England by Milton and
in the nineteenth century by Rossetti. He built up each poem, that is,
in two parts, the octave, a two-rhymed section of eight lines at the
beginning, followed by the sestet, a six line close with three rhymes.
The form fits itself very well to the double mood which commonly
inspires a poet using the sonnet form; the second section as it were
both echoing and answering the first, following doubt with hope, or
sadness with resignation, or resolving a problem set itself by the
heart. Surrey tried another manner, the manner which by its use in
Shakespeare's sonnets has come to be regarded as the English form of
this kind of lyric. His sonnets are virtually three-stanza poems with a
couplet for close, and he allows himself as many rhymes as he chooses.
The structure is obviously easier, and it gives a better chance to an
inferior workman, but in the hands of a master its harmonies are no less
delicate, and its capacity to represent changing modes of thought no
less complete than those of the true form of Petrarch. Blank verse,
which was Surrey's other gift to English poetry, was in a way a
compromise between the two sources from which the English Renaissance
drew its inspiration. Latin and Greek verse is quantitative and
rhymeless; Italian verse, built up on the metres of the troubadours and
the degeneration of Latin which gave the world the Romance languages,
used many elaborate forms of rhyme. Blank verse took from Latin its
rhymelessness, but it retained accent instead of quantity as the basis
of its line. The line Surrey used is the five-foot or ten-syllable line
of what is called "heroic verse"--the line used by Chaucer in his
Prologue and most of his tales. Like Milton he deplored rhyme as the
invention of a barbarous age, and no doubt he would have rejoiced to go
further and banish accent as well as rhymed endings. That, however, was
not to be, though in the best blank verse of later time accent and
quantity both have their share in the effect. The instrument he forged
passed into the hands of the dramatists: Marlowe perfected its rhythm,
Shakespeare broke its monotony and varied its cadences by altering the
spacing of the accents, and occasionally by adding an extra unaccented
syllable. It came back from the drama to poetry with Milton. His
blindness and the necessity under which it laid him of keeping in his
head long stretches of verse at one time, because he could not look back
to see what he had written, probably helped his naturally quick and
delicate sense of cadence to vary the pauses, so that a variety of
accent and interval might replace the valuable aid to memory which he
put aside in putting aside rhyme. Perhaps it is to two accidents, the
accident by which blank verse as the medium of the actor had to be
retained easily in the memory, and the accident of Milton's blindness,
that must be laid the credit of more than a little of the richness of
rhythm of this, the chief and greatest instrument of English verse.

The imitation of Italian and French forms which Wyatt and Surrey began,
was continued by a host of younger amateurs of poetry. Laborious
research has indeed found a Continental original for almost every great
poem of the time, and for very many forgotten ones as well. It is easy
for the student engaged in this kind of literary exploration to
exaggerate the importance of what he finds, and of late years criticism,
written mainly by these explorers, has tended to assume that since it
can be found that Sidney, and Daniel, and Watson, and all the other
writers of mythological poetry and sonnet sequences took their ideas and
their phrases from foreign poetry, their work is therefore to be classed
merely as imitative literary exercise, that it is frigid, that it
contains or conveys no real feeling, and that except in the secondary
and derived sense, it is not really lyrical at all. Petrarch, they will
tell you, may have felt deeply and sincerely about Laura, but when
Sidney uses Petrarch's imagery and even translates his words in order to
express his feelings for Stella, he is only a plagiarist and not a
lover, and the passion for Lady Rich which is supposed to have inspired
his sonnets, nothing more than a not too seriously intended trick to add
the excitement of a transcript of real emotion to what was really an
academic exercise. If that were indeed so, then Elizabethan poetry is a
very much lesser and meaner thing than later ages have thought it. But
is it so? Let us look into the matter a little more closely. The unit of
all ordinary kinds of writing is the word, and one is not commonly
quarrelled with for using words that have belonged to other people. But
the unit of the lyric, like the unit of spoken conversation, is not the
word but the phrase. Now in daily human intercourse the use, which is
universal and habitual, of set forms and phrases of talk is not commonly
supposed to detract from, or destroy sincerity. In the crises indeed of
emotion it must be most people's experience that the natural speech that
rises unbidden and easiest to the lips is something quite familiar and
commonplace, some form which the accumulated experience of many
generations of separate people has found best for such circumstances or
such an occasion. The lyric is just in the position of conversation, at
such a heightened and emotional moment. It is the speech of deep
feeling, that must be articulate or choke, and it falls naturally and
inevitably into some form which accumulated passionate moments have
created and fixed. The course of emotional experiences differs very
little from age to age, and from individual to individual, and so the
same phrases may be used quite sincerely and naturally as the direct
expression of feeling at its highest point by men apart in country,
circumstances, or time. This is not to say that there is no such thing
as originality; a poet is a poet first and most of all because he
discovers truths that have been known for ages, as things that are fresh
and new and vital for himself. He must speak of them in language that
has been used by other men just because they are known truths, but he
will use that language in a new way, and with a new significance, and
it is just in proportion to the freshness, and the air of personal
conviction and sincerity which he imparts to it, that he is great.

The point at issue bears very directly on the work of Sir Philip Sidney.
In the course of the history of English letters certain authors
disengage themselves who have more than a merely literary position: they
are symbolic of the whole age in which they live, its life and action,
its thoughts and ideals, as well as its mere modes of writing. There are
not many of them and they could be easily numbered; Addison, perhaps,
certainly Dr. Johnson, certainly Byron, and in the later age probably
Tennyson. But the greatest of them all is Sir Philip Sidney: his
symbolical relation to the time in which he lived was realized by his
contemporaries, and it has been a commonplace of history and criticism
ever since. Elizabeth called him one of the jewels of her crown, and at
the age of twenty-three, so fast did genius ripen in that summer time of
the Renaissance, William the Silent could speak of him as "one of the
ripest statesmen of the age." He travelled widely in Europe, knew many
languages, and dreamed of adventure in America and on the high seas. In
a court of brilliant figures, his was the most dazzling, and his death
at Zutphen only served to intensify the halo of romance which had
gathered round his name. His literary exercises were various: in prose
he wrote the _Arcadia_ and the _Apology for Poetry_, the one the
beginning of a new kind of imaginative writing, and the other the first
of the series of those rare and precious commentaries on their own art
which some of our English poets have left us. To the _Arcadia_ we shall
have to return later in this chapter. It is his other great work, the
sequence of sonnets entitled _Astrophel and Stella_, which concerns us
here. They celebrate the history of his love for Penelope Devereux,
sister of the Earl of Essex, a love brought to disaster by the
intervention of Queen Elizabeth with whom he had quarrelled. As poetry
they mark an epoch. They are the first direct expression of an intimate
and personal experience in English literature, struck off in the white
heat of passion, and though they are coloured at times with that
over-fantastic imagery which is at once a characteristic fault and
excellence of the writing of the time, they never lose the one merit
above all others of lyric poetry, the merit of sincerity. The note is
struck with certainty and power in the first sonnet of the series:--

"Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,--
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,--
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,--
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain;
Oft turning others' leaves to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful flower upon my sunburned brain.
But words came halting forth ...
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
'Fool,' said my muse to me, 'look in thy heart and write.'"

And though he turned others' leaves it was quite literally looking in
his heart that he wrote. He analyses the sequence of his feelings with a
vividness and minuteness which assure us of their truth. All that he
tells is the fruit of experience, dearly bought:

"Desire! desire! I have too dearly bought
With price of mangled mind thy worthless ware.
Too long, too long! asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare."

and earlier in the sequence--

"I now have learned love right and learned even so
As those that being poisoned poison know."

In the last two sonnets, with crowning truth and pathos he renounces
earthly love which reaches but to dust, and which because it fades
brings but fading pleasure:

"Then farewell, world! Thy uttermost I see.
Eternal love, maintain thy life in me."

The sonnets were published after Sidney's death, and it is certain that
like Shakespeare's they were never intended for publication at all. The
point is important because it helps to vindicate Sidney's sincerity, but
were any vindication needed another more certain might be found. The
_Arcadia_ is strewn with love songs and sonnets, the exercises solely of
the literary imagination. Let any one who wishes to gauge the sincerity
of the impulse of the Stella sequence compare any of the poems in it
with those in the romance.

With Sir Philip Sidney literature was an avocation, constantly indulged
in, but outside the main business of his life; with Edmund Spenser
public life and affairs were subservient to an overmastering poetic
impulse. He did his best to carve out a career for himself like other
young men of his time, followed the fortunes of the Earl of Leicester,
sought desperately and unavailingly the favour of the Queen, and
ultimately accepted a place in her service in Ireland, which meant
banishment as virtually as a place in India would to-day. Henceforward
his visits to London and the Court were few; sometimes a lover of travel
would visit him in his house in Ireland as Raleigh did, but for the most
he was left alone. It was in this atmosphere of loneliness and
separation, hostile tribes pinning him in on every side, murder lurking
in the woods and marshes round him, that he composed his greatest work.
In it at last he died, on the heels of a sudden rising in which his
house was burnt and his lands over-run by the wild Irish whom the
tyranny of the English planters had driven to vengeance. Spenser was not
without interest in his public duties; his _View of the State of
Ireland_ shows that. But it shows, too, that he brought to them
singularly little sympathy or imagination. Throughout his tone is that
of the worst kind of English officialdom; rigid subjection and in the
last resort massacre are the remedies he would apply to Irish
discontent. He would be a fine text--which might be enforced by modern
examples--for a discourse on the evil effects of immersion in the
government of a subject race upon men of letters. No man of action can
be so consistently and cynically an advocate of brutalism as your man of
letters, Spenser, of course, had his excuses; the problem of Ireland
was new and it was something remote and difficult; in all but the mere
distance for travel, Dublin was as far from London as Bombay is to-day.
But to him and his like we must lay down partly the fact that to-day we
have still an Irish problem.

But though fate and the necessity of a livelihood drove him to Ireland
and the life of a colonist, poetry was his main business. He had been
the centre of a brilliant set at Cambridge, one of those coteries whose
fame, if they are brilliant and vivacious enough and have enough
self-confidence, penetrates to the outer world before they leave the
University. The thing happens in our own day, as the case of Oscar Wilde
is witness; it happened in the case of Spenser; and when he and his
friends Gabriel Harvey and Edward Kirke came "down" it was to immediate
fame amongst amateurs of the arts. They corresponded with each other
about literary matters, and Harvey published his part of the
correspondence; they played like Du Bellay in France, with the idea of
writing English verse in the quantitative measures of classical poetry;
Spenser had a love affair in Yorkshire and wrote poetry about it,
letting just enough be known to stimulate the imagination of the public.
They tried their hands at everything, imitated everything, and in all
were brilliant, sparkling, and decorative; they got a kind of entrance
to the circle of the Court. Then Spenser published his _Shepherd's
Calendar_, a series of pastoral eclogues for every month of the year,
after a manner taken from French and Italian pastoral writers, but
coming ultimately from Vergil, and Edward Kirke furnished it with an
elaborate prose commentary. Spenser took the same liberties with the
pastoral form as did Vergil himself; that is to say he used it as a
vehicle for satire and allegory, made it carry political and social
allusions, and planted in it references to his friends. By its
publication Spenser became the first poet of the day. It was followed by
some of his finest and most beautiful things--by the Platonic hymns, by
the _Amoretti_, a series of sonnets inspired by his love for his wife;
by the _Epithalamium_, on the occasion of his marriage to her; by
_Mother Hubbard's Tale_, a satire written when despair at the coldness
of the Queen and the enmity of Burleigh was beginning to take hold on
the poet and endowed with a plainness and vigour foreign to most of his
other work--and then by _The Fairy Queen_.

The poets of the Renaissance were not afraid of big things; every one of
them had in his mind as the goal of poetic endeavour the idea of the
heroic poem, aimed at doing for his own country what Vergil had intended
to do for Rome in the _Aeneid_, to celebrate it--its origin, its
prowess, its greatness, and the causes of it, in epic verse. Milton,
three-quarters of a century later, turned over in his mind the plan of
an English epic on the wars of Arthur, and when he left it was only to
forsake the singing of English origins for the more ultimate theme of
the origins of mankind. Spenser designed to celebrate the character, the
qualities and the training of the English gentleman. And because poetry,
unlike philosophy, cannot deal with abstractions but must be vivid and
concrete, he was forced to embody his virtues and foes to virtue and to
use the way of allegory. His outward plan, with its knights and dragons
and desperate adventures, he procured from Ariosto. As for the use of
allegory, it was one of the discoveries of the Middle Ages which the
Renaissance condescended to retain. Spenser elaborated it beyond the
wildest dreams of those students of Holy Writ who had first conceived
it. His stories were to be interesting in themselves as tales of
adventure, but within them they were to conceal an intricate treatment
of the conflict of truth and falsehood in morals and religion. A
character might typify at once Protestantism and England and Elizabeth
and chastity and half the cardinal virtues, and it would have all the
while the objective interest attaching to it as part of a story of
adventure. All this must have made the poem difficult enough. Spenser's
manner of writing it made it worse still. One is familiar with the type
of novel which only explains itself when the last chapter is
reached--Stevenson's _Wrecker_ is an example. _The Fairy Queen_ was
designed on somewhat the same plan. The last section was to relate and
explain the unrelated and unexplained books which made up the poem, and
at the court to which the separate knights of the separate books--the
Red Cross Knight and the rest--were to bring the fruit of their
adventures, everything was to be made clear. Spenser did not live to
finish his work; _The Fairy Queen_, like the _Aeneid_, is an uncompleted
poem, and it is only from a prefatory letter to Sir Walter Raleigh
issued with the second published section that we know what the poem was
intended to be. Had Spenser not published this explanation, it is
impossible that anybody, even the acutest minded German professor, could
have guessed.

The poem, as we have seen, was composed in Ireland, in the solitude of a
colonists' plantation, and the author was shut off from his fellows
while he wrote. The influence of his surroundings is visible in the
writing. The elaboration of the theme would have been impossible or at
least very unlikely if its author had not been thrown in on himself
during its composition. Its intricacy and involution is the product of
an over-concentration born of empty surroundings. It lacks vigour and
rapidity; it winds itself into itself. The influence of Ireland, too, is
visible in its landscapes, in its description of bogs and desolation, of
dark forests in which lurk savages ready to spring out on those who are
rash enough to wander within their confines. All the scenery in it which
is not imaginary is Irish and not English scenery.

Its reception in England and at the Court was enthusiastic. Men and
women read it eagerly and longed for the next section as our
grandfathers longed for the next section of _Pickwick_. They really
liked it, really loved the intricacy and luxuriousness of it, the heavy
exotic language, the thickly painted descriptions, the languorous melody
of the verse. Mainly, perhaps, that was so because they were all either
in wish or in deed poets themselves. Spenser has always been "the
poets' poet." Milton loved him; so did Dryden, who said that Milton
confessed to him that Spenser was "his original," a statement which has
been pronounced incredible, but is, in truth, perfectly comprehensible,
and most likely true. Pope admired him; Keats learned from him the best
part of his music. You can trace echoes of him in Mr. Yeats. What is it
that gives him this hold on his peers? Well, in the first place his
defects do not detract from his purely poetic qualities. The story is
impossibly told, but that will only worry those who are looking for a
story. The allegory is hopelessly difficult; but as Hazlitt said "the
allegory will not bite you"; you can let it alone. The crudeness and
bigotry of Spenser's dealings with Catholicism, which are ridiculous
when he pictures the monster Error vomiting books and pamphlets, and
disgusting when he draws Mary Queen of Scots, do not hinder the pleasure
of those who read him for his language and his art. He is great for
other reasons than these. First because of the extraordinary smoothness
and melody of his verse and the richness of his language--a golden
diction that he drew from every source--new words, old words, obsolete
words--such a mixture that the purist Ben Jonson remarked acidly that he
wrote no language at all. Secondly because of the profusion of his
imagery, and the extraordinarily keen sense for beauty and sweetness
that went to its making. In an age of golden language and gallant
imagery his was the most golden and the most gallant. And the language
of poetry in England is richer and more varied than that in any other
country in Europe to-day, because of what he did.


Elizabethan prose brings us face to face with a difficulty which has to
be met by every student of literature. Does the word "literature" cover
every kind of writing? Ought we to include in it writing that aims
merely at instruction or is merely journey-work, as well as writing that
has an artistic intention, or writing that, whether its author knew it
or no, is artistic in its result? Of course such a question causes us no
sort of difficulty when it concerns itself only with what is being
published to-day. We know very well that some things are literature and
some merely journalism; that of novels, for instance, some deliberately
intend to be works of art and others only to meet a passing desire for
amusement or mental occupation. We know that most books serve or attempt
to serve only a useful and not a literary purpose. But in reading the
books of three centuries ago, unconsciously one's point of view shifts.
Antiquity gilds journey-work; remoteness and quaintness of phrasing lend
a kind of distinction to what are simply pamphlets or text-books that
have been preserved by accident from the ephemeralness which was the
common lot of hundreds of their fellows. One comes to regard as
literature things that had no kind of literary value for their first
audiences; to apply the same seriousness of judgment and the same tests
to the pamphlets of Nash and Dekker as to the prose of Sidney and
Bacon. One loses, in fact, that power to distinguish the important from
the trivial which is one of the functions of a sound literary taste.
Now, a study of the minor writing of the past is, of course, well worth
a reader's pains. Pamphlets, chronicle histories, text-books and the
like have an historical importance; they give us glimpses of the manners
and habits and modes of thought of the day. They tell us more about the
outward show of life than do the greater books. If you are interested in
social history, they are the very thing. But the student of literature
ought to beware of them, nor ought he to touch them till he is familiar
with the big and lasting things. A man does not possess English
literature if he knows what Dekker tells of the seven deadly sins of
London and does not know the _Fairy Queen_. Though the wide and curious
interest of the Romantic critics of the nineteenth century found and
illumined the byways of Elizabethan writing, the safest method of
approach is the method of their predecessors--to keep hold on common
sense, to look at literature, not historically as through the wrong end
of a telescope, but closely and without a sense of intervening time, to
know the best--the "classic"--and study it before the minor things.

In Elizabeth's reign, prose became for the first time, with cheapened
printing, the common vehicle of amusement and information, and the books
that remain to us cover many departments of writing. There are the
historians who set down for us for the first time what they knew of the
earlier history of England. There are the writers, like Harrison and
Stubbs, who described the England of their own day, and there are many
authors, mainly anonymous, who wrote down the accounts of the voyages of
the discoverers in the Western Seas. There are the novelists who
translated stories mainly from Italian sources. But of authors as
conscious of a literary intention as the poets were, there are only two,
Sidney and Lyly, and of authors who, though their first aim was hardly
an artistic one, achieved an artistic result, only Hooker and the
translators of the Bible. The Authorized Version of the Bible belongs
strictly not to the reign of Elizabeth but to that of James, and we
shall have to look at it when we come to discuss the seventeenth
century. Hooker, in his book on Ecclesiastical Polity (an endeavour to
set forth the grounds of orthodox Anglicanism) employed a generous,
flowing, melodious style which has influenced many writers since and is
familiar to us to-day in the copy of it used by Ruskin in his earlier
works. Lyly and Sidney are worth looking at more closely.

The age was intoxicated with language. It went mad of a mere delight in
words. Its writers were using a new tongue, for English was enriched
beyond all recognition with borrowings from the ancient authors; and
like all artists who become possessed of a new medium, they used it to
excess. The early Elizabethans' use of the new prose was very like the
use that educated Indians make of English to-day. It is not that these
write it incorrectly, but only that they write too richly. And just as
fuller use and knowledge teaches them spareness and economy and gives
their writing simplicity and vigour, so seventeenth century practice
taught Englishmen to write a more direct and undecorated style and gave
us the smooth, simple, and vigorous writing of Dryden--the first really
modern English prose. But the Elizabethans loved gaudier methods; they
liked highly decorative modes of expression, in prose no less than in
verse. The first author to give them these things was John Lyly, whose
book _Euphues_ was for the five or six years following its publication a
fashionable craze that infected all society and gave its name to a
peculiar and highly artificial style of writing that coloured the work
of hosts of obscure and forgotten followers. Lyly wrote other things;
his comedies may have taught Shakespeare the trick of _Love's Labour
Lost_; he attempted a sequel of his most famous work with better success
than commonly attends sequels, but for us and for his own generation he
is the author of one book. Everybody read it, everybody copied it. The
maxims and sentences of advice for gentlemen which it contained were
quoted and admired in the Court, where the author, though he never
attained the lucrative position he hoped for, did what flattery could do
to make a name for himself. The name "Euphuism" became a current
description of an artificial way of using words that overflowed out of
writing into speech and was in the mouths, while the vogue lasted, of
everybody who was anybody in the circle that fluttered round the Queen.

The style of _Euphues_ was parodied by Shakespeare and many attempts
have been made to imitate it since. Most of them are inaccurate--Sir
Walter Scott's wild attempt the most inaccurate of all. They fail
because their authors have imagined that "Euphuism" is simply a highly
artificial and "flowery" way of talking. As a matter of fact it is made
up of a very exact and very definite series of parts. The writing is
done on a plan which has three main characteristics as follows. First,
the structure of the sentence is based on antithesis and alliteration;
that is to say, it falls into equal parts similar in sound but with a
different sense; for example, Euphues is described as a young gallant
"of more wit than wealth, yet of more wealth than wisdom." All the
characters in the book, which is roughly in the form of a novel, speak
in this way, sometimes in sentences long drawn out which are
oppressively monotonous and tedious, and sometimes shortly with a
certain approach to epigram. The second characteristic of the style is
the reference of every stated fact to some classical authority, that is
to say, the author cannot mention friendship without quoting David and
Jonathan, nor can lovers in his book accuse each other of faithlessness
without quoting the instance of Cressida or Aeneas. This appeal to
classical authority and wealth of classical allusion is used to decorate
pages which deal with matters of every-day experience. Seneca, for
instance, is quoted as reporting "that too much bending breaketh the
bow," a fact which might reasonably have been supposed to be known to
the author himself. This particular form of writing perhaps influenced
those who copied Lyly more than anything else in his book. It is a
fashion of the more artificial kind of Elizabethan writing in all
schools to employ a wealth of classical allusion. Even the simple
narratives in _Hakluyt's Voyages_ are not free from it, and one may
hardly hope to read an account of a voyage to the Indies without
stumbling on a preliminary reference to the opinions of Aristotle and
Plato. Lastly, _Euphues_ is characterised by an extraordinary wealth of
allusion to natural history, mostly of a fabulous kind. "I have read
that the bull being tied to the fig tree loseth his tail; that the whole
herd of deer stand at gaze if they smell a sweet apple; that the dolphin
after the sound of music is brought to the shore," and so on. His book
is full of these things, and the style weakens and loses its force
because of them.

Of course there is much more in his book than this outward decoration.
He wrote with the avowed purpose of instructing courtiers and gentlemen
how to live. _Euphues_ is full of grave reflections and weighty morals,
and is indeed a collection of essays on education, on friendship, on
religion and philosophy, and on the favourite occupation and curriculum
of Elizabethan youth--foreign travel. The fashions and customs of his
countrymen which he condemns in the course of his teaching are the same
as those inveighed against by Stubbs and other contemporaries. He
disliked manners and fashions copied from Italy; particularly he
disliked the extravagant fashions of women. One woman only escapes his
censure, and she, of course, is the Queen, whom Euphues and his
companion in the book come to England to see. In the main the teaching
of Euphues inculcates a humane and liberal, if not very profound creed,
and the book shares with _The Fairy Queen_ the honour of the earlier
Puritanism--the Puritanism that besides the New Testament had the

But Euphues, though he was in his time the popular idol, was not long in
finding a successful rival. Seven years before his death Sir Philip
Sidney, in a period of retirement from the Court wrote "_The Countess of
Pembroke's Arcadia_"; it was published ten years after it had been
composed. The _Arcadia_ is the first English example of the prose
pastoral romance, as the _Shepherd's Calendar_ is of our pastoral verse.
Imitative essays in its style kept appearing for two hundred years after
it, till Wordsworth and other poets who knew the country drove its
unrealities out of literature. The aim of it and of the school to which
it belonged abroad was to find a setting for a story which should leave
the author perfectly free to plant in it any improbability he liked, and
to do what he liked with the relations of his characters. In the shade
of beech trees, the coils of elaborated and intricate love-making wind
and unravel themselves through an endless afternoon. In that art nothing
is too far-fetched, nothing too sentimental, no sorrow too unreal. The
pastoral romance was used, too, to cover other things besides a
sentimental and decorative treatment of love. Authors wrapped up as
shepherds their political friends and enemies, and the pastoral eclogues
in verse which Spenser and others composed are full of personal and
political allusion. Sidney's story carries no politics and he depends
for its interest solely on the wealth of differing episodes and the
stories and arguments of love which it contains. The story would furnish
plot enough for twenty ordinary novels, but probably those who read it
when it was published were attracted by other things than the march of
its incidents. Certainly no one could read it for the plot now. Its
attraction is mainly one of style. It goes, you feel, one degree beyond
_Euphues_ in the direction of freedom and poetry. And just because of
this greater freedom, its characteristics are much less easy to fix than
those of _Euphues_. Perhaps its chief quality is best described as that
of exhaustiveness. Sidney will take a word and toss it to and fro in a
page till its meaning is sucked dry and more than sucked dry. On page
after page the same trick is employed, often in some new and charming
way, but with the inevitable effect of wearying the reader, who tries to
do the unwisest of all things with a book of this kind--to read on. This
trick of bandying words is, of course, common in Shakespeare. Other
marks of Sidney's style belong similarly to poetry rather than to prose.
Chief of them is what Ruskin christened the "pathetic fallacy"--the
assumption (not common in his day) which connects the appearance of
nature with the moods of the artist who looks at it, or demands such a
connection. In its day the _Arcadia_ was hailed as a reformation by men
nauseated by the rhythmical patterns of Lyly. A modern reader finds
himself confronting it in something of the spirit that he would confront
the prose romances, say, of William Morris, finding it charming as a
poet's essay in prose but no more: not to be ranked with the highest.




Biologists tell us that the hybrid--the product of a variety of
ancestral stocks--is more fertile than an organism with a direct and
unmixed ancestry; perhaps the analogy is not too fanciful as the
starting-point of a study of Elizabethan drama, which owed its strength
and vitality, more than to anything else, to the variety of the
discordant and contradictory elements of which it was made up. The drama
was the form into which were moulded the thoughts and desires of the
best spirits of the time. It was the flower of the age. To appreciate
its many-sided significances and achievements it is necessary to
disentangle carefully its roots, in religion, in the revival of the
classics, in popular entertainments, in imports from abroad, in the air
of enterprise and adventure which belonged to the time.

As in Greece, drama in England was in its beginning a religious thing.
Its oldest continuous tradition was from the mediaeval Church. Early in
the Middle Ages the clergy and their parishioners began the habit, at
Christmas, Easter and other holy days, of playing some part of the story
of Christ's life suitable to the festival of the day. These plays were
liturgical, and originally, no doubt, overshadowed by a choral element.
But gradually the inherent human capacity for mimicry and drama took the
upper hand; from ceremonies they developed into performances; they
passed from the stage in the church porch to the stage in the street. A
waggon, the natural human platform for mimicry or oratory, became in
England as it was in Greece, the cradle of the drama. This momentous
change in the history of the miracle play, which made it in all but its
occasion and its subject a secular thing, took place about the end of
the twelfth century. The rise of the town guilds gave the plays a new
character; the friendly rivalry of leagued craftsmen elaborated their
production; and at length elaborate cycles were founded which were
performed at Whitsuntide, beginning at sunrise and lasting all through
the day right on to dusk. Each town had its own cycle, and of these the
cycles of York, Wakefield, Chester and Coventry still remain. So too,
does an eye-witness's account of a Chester performance where the plays
took place yearly on three days, beginning with Whit Monday. "The
manner of these plays were, every company had his pageant or part, a
high scaffold with two rooms, a higher and a lower, upon four wheels. In
the lower they apparelled themselves and in the higher room they played,
being all open on the top that all beholders might hear and see them.
They began first at the abbey gates, and when the first pageant was
played, it was wheeled to the high cross before the mayor and so to
every street. So every street had a pageant playing upon it at one time,
till all the pageants for the day appointed were played." The
"companies" were the town guilds and the several "pageants" different
scenes in Old or New Testament story. As far as was possible each
company took for its pageant some Bible story fitting to its trade; in
York the goldsmiths played the three Kings of the East bringing precious
gifts, the fishmongers the flood, and the shipwrights the building of
Noah's ark. The tone of these plays was not reverent; reverence after
all implies near at hand its opposite in unbelief. But they were
realistic and they contained within them the seeds of later drama in the
aptitude with which they grafted into the sacred story pastoral and city
manners taken straight from life. The shepherds who watched by night at
Bethlehem were real English shepherds furnished with boisterous and
realistic comic relief. Noah was a real shipwright.

"It shall be clinched each ilk and deal.
With nails that are both noble and new
Thus shall I fix it to the keel,
Take here a rivet and there a screw,
With there bow there now, work I well,
This work, I warrant, both good and true."

Cain and Abel were English farmers just as truly as Bottom and his
fellows were English craftsmen. But then Julius Caesar has a doublet and
in Dutch pictures the apostles wear broad-brimmed hats. Squeamishness
about historical accuracy is of a later date, and when it came we gained
in correctness less than we lost in art.

The miracle plays, then, are the oldest antecedent of Elizabethan drama,
but it must not be supposed they were over and done with before the
great age began. The description of the Chester performances, part of
which has been quoted, was written in 1594. Shakespeare must, one would
think, have seen the Coventry cycle; at any rate he was familiar, as
every one of the time must have been, with the performances;
"Out-heroding Herod" bears witness to that. One must conceive the
development of the Elizabethan age as something so rapid in its
accessibility to new impressions and new manners and learning and modes
of thought that for years the old and new subsisted side by side. Think
of modern Japan, a welter of old faiths and crafts and ideals and
inrushing Western civilization all mixed up and side by side in the
strangest contrasts and you will understand what it was. The miracle
plays stayed on beside Marlowe and Shakespeare till Puritanism frowned
upon them. But when the end came it came quickly. The last recorded
performance took place in London when King James entertained Gondomar,
the Spanish ambassador. And perhaps we should regard that as a "command"
performance, reviving as command performances commonly do, something
dead for a generation--in this case, purely out of compliment to the
faith and inclination of a distinguished guest.

Next in order of development after the miracle or mystery plays, though
contemporary in their popularity, came what we called "moralities" or
"moral interludes"--pieces designed to enforce a religious or ethical
lesson and perhaps to get back into drama something of the edification
which realism had ousted from the miracles. They dealt in allegorical
and figurative personages, expounded wise saws and moral lessons, and
squared rather with the careful self-concern of the newly established
Protestantism than with the frank and joyous jest in life which was more
characteristic of the time. _Everyman_, the oftenest revived and best
known of them, if not the best, is very typical of the class. They had
their influences, less profound than that of the miracles, on the full
drama. It is said the "Vice"--unregeneracy commonly degenerated into
comic relief--is the ancestor of the fool in Shakespeare, but more
likely both are successive creations of a dynasty of actors who
practised the unchanging and immemorial art of the clown. The general
structure of _Everyman_ and some of its fellows, heightened and made
more dramatic, gave us Marlowe's _Faustus_. There perhaps the influence

The rise of a professional class of actors brought one step nearer the
full growth of drama. Companies of strolling players formed themselves
and passed from town to town, seeking like the industrious amateurs of
the guilds, civic patronage, and performing in town-halls, market-place
booths, or inn yards, whichever served them best. The structure of the
Elizabethan inn yard (you may see some survivals still, and there are
the pictures in _Pickwick_) was very favourable for their purpose. The
galleries round it made seats like our boxes and circle for the more
privileged spectators; in the centre on the floor of the yard stood the
crowd or sat, if they had stools with them. The stage was a platform set
on this floor space with its back against one side of the yard, where
perhaps one of the inn-rooms served as a dressing room. So suitable was
this "fit-up" as actors call it, that when theatres came to be built in
London they were built on the inn-yard pattern. All the playhouses of
the Bankside from the "Curtain" to the "Globe" were square or circular
places with galleries rising above one another three parts round, a
floor space of beaten earth open to the sky in the middle, and jutting
out on to it a platform stage with a tiring room capped by a gallery
behind it.

The entertainment given by these companies of players (who usually got
the patronage and took the title of some lord) was various. They played
moralities and interludes, they played formless chronicle history plays
like the _Troublesome Reign of King John_, on which Shakespeare worked
for his _King John_; but above and before all they were each a company
of specialists, every one of whom had his own talent and performance for
which he was admired. The Elizabethan stage was the ancestor of our
music-hall, and to the modern music-hall rather than to the theatre it
bears its affinity. If you wish to realize the aspect of the Globe or
the Blackfriars it is to a lower class music-hall you must go. The
quality of the audience is a point of agreement. The Globe was
frequented by young "bloods" and by the more disreputable portions of
the community, racing men (or their equivalents of that day) "coney
catchers" and the like; commonly the only women present were women of
the town. The similarity extends from the auditorium to the stage. The
Elizabethan playgoer delighted in virtuosity; in exhibitions of strength
or skill from his actors; the broad sword combat in _Macbeth_, and the
wrestling in _As You Like It_, were real trials of skill. The bear in
the _Winter's Tale_ was no doubt a real bear got from a bear pit, near
by in the Bankside. The comic actors especially were the very
grandfathers of our music-hall stars; Tarleton and Kemp and Cowley, the
chief of them, were as much popular favourites and esteemed as separate
from the plays they played in as is Harry Lauder. Their songs and tunes
were printed and sold in hundreds as broadsheets, just as pirated
music-hall songs are sold to-day. This is to be noted because it
explains a great deal in the subsequent evolution of the drama. It
explains the delight in having everything represented actually on the
stage, all murders, battles, duels. It explains the magnificent largesse
given by Shakespeare to the professional fool. Work had to be found for
him, and Shakespeare, whose difficulties were stepping-stones to his
triumphs, gave him Touchstone and Feste, the Porter in _Macbeth_ and the
Fool in _Lear_. Others met the problem in an attitude of frank despair.
Not all great tragic writers can easily or gracefully wield the pen of
comedy, and Marlowe in _Dr. Faustus_ took the course of leaving the low
comedy which the audience loved and a high salaried actor demanded, to
an inferior collaborator.

Alongside this drama of street platforms and inn-yards and public
theatres, there grew another which, blending with it, produced the
Elizabethan drama which we know. The public theatres were not the only
places at which plays were produced. At the University, at the Inns of
Court (which then more than now, were besides centres of study rather
exclusive and expensive clubs), and at the Court they were an important
part of almost every festival. At these places were produced academic
compositions, either allegorical like the masques, copies of which we
find in Shakespeare and by Ben Jonson, or comedies modelled on Plautus
or Terence, or tragedies modelled on Seneca. The last were incomparably
the most important. The Elizabethan age, which always thought of
literature as a guide or handmaid to life, was naturally attracted to a
poet who dealt in maxims and "sentences"; his rhetoric appealed to men
for whom words and great passages of verse were an intoxication that
only a few to-day can understand or sympathize with; his
bloodthirstiness and gloom to an age so full-blooded as not to shrink
from horrors. Tragedies early began to be written on the strictly
Senecan model, and generally, like Seneca's, with some ulterior
intention. Sackville's _Gorboduc_, the first tragedy in English,
produced at a great festival at the Inner Temple, aimed at inducing
Elizabeth to marry and save the miseries of a disputed succession. To be
put to such a use argues the importance and dignity of this classical
tragedy of the learned societies and the court. None of the pieces
composed in this style were written for the popular theatre, and indeed
they could not have been a success on it. The Elizabethan audience, as
we have seen, loved action, and in these Senecan tragedies the action
took place "off." But they had a strong and abiding influence on the
popular stage; they gave it its ghosts, its supernatural warnings, its
conception of nemesis and revenge, they gave it its love of
introspection and the long passages in which introspection, description
or reflection, either in soliloquy or dialogue, holds up the action;
contradictorily enough they gave it something at least of its melodrama.
Perhaps they helped to enforce the lesson of the miracle plays that a
dramatist's proper business was elaboration rather than invention. None
of the Elizabethan dramatists except Ben Jonson habitually constructed
their own plots. Their method was to take something ready at their hands
and overlay it with realism or poetry or romance. The stories of their
plays, like that of Hamlet's Mousetrap, were "extant and writ in choice
Italian," and very often their methods of preparation were very like

Something of the way in which the spirit of adventure of the time
affected and finished the drama we have already seen. It is time now to
turn to the dramatists themselves.


Of Marlowe, Kyd, Greene, and Peele, the "University Wits" who fused the
academic and the popular drama, and by giving the latter a sense of
literature and learning to mould it to finer issues, gave us
Shakespeare, only Marlowe can be treated here. Greene and Peele, the
former by his comedies, the latter by his historical plays, and Kyd by
his tragedies, have their places in the text-books, but they belong to a
secondary order of dramatic talent. Marlowe ranks amongst the greatest.
It is not merely that historically he is the head and fount of the whole
movement, that he changed blank verse, which had been a lumbering
instrument before him, into something rich and ringing and rapid and
made it the vehicle for the greatest English poetry after him.
Historical relations apart, he is great in himself. More than any other
English writer of any age, except Byron, he symbolizes the youth of his
time; its hot-bloodedness, its lust after knowledge and power and life
inspires all his pages. The teaching of Machiavelli, misunderstood for
their own purposes by would-be imitators, furnished the reign of
Elizabeth with the only political ideals it possessed. The simple
brutalism of the creed, with means justified by ends and the unbridled
self-regarding pursuit of power, attracted men for whom the Spanish
monarchy and the struggle to overthrow it were the main factors and
politics. Marlowe took it and turned it to his own uses. There is in his
writings a lust of power, "a hunger and thirst after unrighteousness," a
glow of the imagination unhallowed by anything but its own energy which
is in the spirit of the time. In _Tamburlaine_ it is the power of
conquest, stirred by and reflecting, as we have seen, the great deeds of
his day. In _Dr. Faustus_ it is the pride of will and eagerness of
curiosity. Faustus is devoured by a tormenting desire to enlarge his
knowledge to the utmost bounds of nature and art and to extend his power
with his knowledge. His is the spirit of Renaissance scholarship
heightened to a passionate excess. The play gleams with the pride of
learning and a knowledge which learning brings, and with the nemesis
that comes after it. "Oh! gentlemen! hear me with patience and tremble
not at my speeches. Though my heart pant and quiver to remember that I
have been a student here these thirty years; oh! I would I had never
seen Wittemburg, never read book!" And after the agonizing struggle in
which Faustus's soul is torn from him to hell, learning comes in at the
quiet close.

"Yet, for he was a scholar once admired,
For wondrous knowledge in our German Schools;
We'll give his mangled limbs due burial;
And all the students, clothed in mourning black
Shall wait upon his heavy funeral."

Some one character is a centre of over-mastering pride and ambition in
every play. In the _Jew of Malta_ it is the hero Barabbas. In _Edward
II_. it is Piers Gaveston. In _Edward II_. indeed, two elements are
mixed--the element of Machiavelli and Tamburlaine in Gaveston, and the
purely tragic element which evolves from within itself the style in
which it shall be treated, in the King. "The reluctant pangs of
abdicating Royalty," wrote Charles Lamb in a famous passage, "furnished
hints which Shakespeare scarcely improved in his _Richard II_; and the
death scene of Marlowe's King moves pity and terror beyond any scene,
ancient or modern, with which I am acquainted." Perhaps the play gives
the hint of what Marlowe might have become had not the dagger of a groom
in a tavern cut short at thirty his burning career.

Even in that time of romance and daring speculation he went further than
his fellows. He was said to have been tainted with atheism, to have
denied God and the Trinity; had he lived he might have had trouble with
the Star Chamber. The free-voyaging intellect of the age found this one
way of outlet, but if literary evidences are to be trusted sixteenth and
seventeenth century atheism was a very crude business. The _Atheist's
Tragedy_ of Tourneur (a dramatist who need not otherwise detain us)
gives some measure of its intelligence and depth. Says the villain to
the heroine,

"No? Then invoke
Your great supposed Protector. I will do't."

to which she:

"Supposed Protector! Are you an atheist, then
I know my fears and prayers are spent in vain."

Marlowe's very faults and extravagances, and they are many, are only the
obverse of his greatness. Magnitude and splendour of language when the
thought is too shrunken to fill it out, becomes mere inflation. He was a
butt of the parodists of the day. And Shakespeare, though he honoured
him "on this side idolatry," did his share of ridicule. Ancient Pistol
is fed and stuffed with relic and rags of Marlowesque affectation--

"Holla! ye pampered jades of Asia,
Can ye not draw but twenty miles a day."

is a quotation taken straight from _Tamburlaine_.


A study of Shakespeare, who refuses to be crushed within the limits of a
general essay is no part of the plan of this book. We must take up the
story of the drama with the reign of James and with the contemporaries
of his later period, though of course, a treatment which is conditioned
by the order of development is not strictly chronological, and some of
the plays we shall have to refer to belong to the close of the sixteenth
century. We are apt to forget that alongside Shakespeare and at his
heels other dramatists were supplying material for the theatre. The
influence of Marlowe and particularly of Kyd, whose _Spanish Tragedy_
with its crude mechanism of ghosts and madness and revenge caught the
popular taste, worked itself out in a score of journeymen dramatists,
mere hack writers, who turned their hand to plays as the hacks of to-day
turn their hand to novels, and with no more literary merit than that
caught as an echo from better men than themselves. One of the worst of
these--he is also one of the most typical--was John Marston, a purveyor
of tragic gloom and sardonic satire, and an impostor in both, whose
tragedy _Antonio and Mellida_ was published in the same year as
Shakespeare's _Hamlet_. Both plays owed their style and plot to the same
tradition--the tradition created by Kyd's _Spanish Tragedy_--in which
ghostly promptings to revenge, terrible crime, and a feigned madman
waiting his opportunity are the elements of tragedy. Nothing could be
more fruitful in an understanding of the relations of Shakespeare to his
age than a comparison of the two. The style of _Antonio and Mellida_ is
the style of _The Murder of Gonzago_. There is no subtlety nor
introspection, the pale cast of thought falls with no shadow over its
scenes. And it is typical of a score of plays of the kind we have and
beyond doubt of hundreds that have perished. Shakespeare stands alone.

Beside this journey-work tragedy of revenge and murder which had its
root through Kyd and Marlowe in Seneca and in Italian romance, there was
a journey-work comedy of low life made up of loosely constructed strings
of incidents, buffoonery and romance, that had its roots in a joyous and
fantastic study of the common people. These plays are happy and
high-spirited and, compared with the ordinary run of the tragedies, of
better workmanship. They deal in the familiar situations of low
comedy--the clown, the thrifty citizen and his frivolous wife, the
gallant, the bawd, the good apprentice and the bad portrayed vigorously
and tersely and with a careless kindly gaiety that still charms in the
reading. The best writers in this kind were Middleton and Dekker--and
the best play to read as a sample of it _Eastward Ho!_ in which Marston
put off his affectation of sardonical melancholy and joined with Jonson
and Dekker to produce what is the masterpiece of the non-Shakespearean
comedy of the time.

For all our habit of grouping their works together it is a far cry in
spirit and temperament from the dramatists whose heyday was under
Elizabeth and those who reached their prime under her successor. Quickly
though insensibly the temper of the nation suffered eclipse. The high
hopes and the ardency of the reign of Elizabeth saddened into a profound
pessimism and gloom in that of James. This apparition of unsought
melancholy has been widely noted and generally assumed to be
inexplicable. In broad outline its causes are clear enough, "To travel
hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." The Elizabethans were, if
ever any were, hopeful travellers. The winds blew them to the four
quarters of the world; they navigated all seas; they sacked rich cities.
They beat off the great Armada, and harried the very coasts of Spain.
They pushed discovery to the ends of the world and amassed great wealth.
Under James all these things were over. Peace was made with Spain:
national pride was wounded by the solicitous anxiety of the King for a
Spanish marriage for the heir to the throne. Sir Walter Raleigh, a
romantic adventurer lingering beyond his time, was beheaded out of hand
by the ungenerous timidity of the monarch to whom had been transferred
devotion and loyalty he was unfitted to receive. The Court which had
been a centre of flashing and gleaming brilliance degenerated into a
knot of sycophants humouring the pragmatic and self-important folly of a
king in whom had implanted themselves all the vices of the Scots and
none of their virtues. Nothing seemed left remarkable beneath the
visiting moon. The bright day was done and they were for the dark. The
uprising of Puritanism and the shadow of impending religious strife
darkened the temper of the time.

The change affected all literature and particularly the drama, which
because it appeals to what all men have in common, commonly reflects
soonest a change in the outlook or spirits of a people. The onslaughts
of the dramatists on the Puritans, always implacable enemies of the
theatre, became more virulent and envenomed. What a difference between
the sunny satire of Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the dark animosity of _The
Atheists' Tragedy_ with its Languebeau Snuffe ready to carry out any
villainy proposed to him! "I speak sir," says a lady in the same play to
a courtier who played with her in an attempt to carry on a quick witted,
"conceited" love passage in the vein of _Much Ado_, "I speak, sir, as
the fashion now: is, in earnest." The quick-witted, light-hearted age
was gone. It is natural that tragedy reflected this melancholy in its
deepest form. Gloom deepened and had no light to relieve it, men supped
full of horrors--there was no slackening of the tension, no concession
to overwrought nerves, no resting-place for the overwrought soul. It is
in the dramatist John Webster that this new spirit has its most powerful

The influence of Machiavelli, which had given Marlowe tragic figures
that were bright and splendid and burning, smouldered in Webster into a
duskier and intenser heat. His fame rests on two tragedies, _The White
Devil_ and _The Duchess of Malf_. Both are stories of lust and crime,
full of hate and hideous vengeances, and through each runs a vein of
bitter and ironical comment on men and women. In them chance plays the
part of fate. "Blind accident and blundering mishap--'such a mistake,'
says one of the criminals, 'as I have often seen in a play' are the
steersmen of their fortunes and the doomsmen of their deeds." His
characters are gloomy; meditative and philosophic murderers, cynical
informers, sad and loving women, and they are all themselves in every
phrase that they utter. But they are studied in earnestness and
sincerity. Unquestionably he is the greatest of Shakespeare's successors
in the romantic drama, perhaps his only direct imitator. He has single
lines worthy to set beside those in _Othello_ or _King Lear_. His dirge
in the _Duchess of Malfi_, Charles Lamb thought worthy to be set beside
the ditty in _The Tempest_, which reminds Ferdinand of his drowned
father. "As that is of the water, watery, so this is of the earth,
earthy." He has earned his place among the greatest of our dramatists by
his two plays, the theme of which matched his sombre genius and the
sombreness of the season in which it flowered.

But the drama could not survive long the altered times, and the
voluminous plays of Beaumont and Fletcher mark the beginning of the end.
They are the decadence of Elizabethan drama. Decadence is a term often
used loosely and therefore hard to define, but we may say broadly that
an art is decadent when any particular one of the elements which go to
its making occurs in excess and disturbs the balance of forces which
keeps the work a coherent and intact whole. Poetry is decadent when the
sound is allowed to outrun the sense or when the suggestions, say, of
colour, which it contains are allowed to crowd out its deeper
implications. Thus we can call such a poem as this one well-known of

"We are the music-makers,
We are the dreamers of dreams,"

decadent because it conveys nothing but the mere delight in an obvious
rhythm of words, or such a poem as Morris's "Two red roses across the
moon;" because a meaningless refrain, merely pleasing in its word
texture, breaks in at intervals on the reader. The drama of Beaumont and
Fletcher is decadent in two ways. In the first place those variations
and licences with which Shakespeare in his later plays diversified the
blank verse handed on to him by Marlowe, they use without any restraint
or measure. "Weak" endings and "double" endings, _i.e._ lines which end
either on a conjunction or proposition or some other unstressed word, or
lines in which there is a syllable too many--abound in their plays. They
destroyed blank verse as a musical and resonant poetic instrument by
letting this element of variety outrun the sparing and skilful use which
alone could justify it. But they were decadent in other and deeper ways
than that. Sentiment in their plays usurps the place of character.
Eloquent and moving speeches and fine figures are no longer subservient
to the presentation of character in action, but are set down for their
own sake, "What strange self-trumpeters and tongue-bullies all the brave
soldiers of Beaumont and Fletcher are," said Coleridge. When they die
they die to the music of their own virtue. When dreadful deeds are done
they are described not with that authentic and lurid vividness which
throws light on the working of the human heart in Shakespeare or Webster
but in tedious rhetoric. Resignation, not fortitude, is the authors'
forte and they play upon it amazingly. The sterner tones of their
predecessors melt into the long drawn broken accent of pathos and woe.
This delight not in action or in emotion arising from action but in
passivity of suffering is only one aspect of a certain mental flaccidity
in grain. Shakespeare may be free and even coarse. Beaumont and Fletcher
cultivate indecency. They made their subject not their master but their
plaything, or an occasion for the convenient exercise of their own
powers of figure and rhetoric.

Of their followers, Massinger, Ford and Shirley, no more need be said
than they carried one step further the faults of their masters. Emotion
and tragic passion give way to wire-drawn sentiment. Tragedy takes on
the air of a masquerade. With them romantic drama died a natural death
and the Puritans' closing of the theatre only gave it a _coup de grace_.
In England it has had no second birth.


Outside the direct romantic succession there worked another author whose
lack of sympathy with it, as well as his close connection with the age
which followed, justifies his separate treatment. Ben Jonson shows a
marked contrast to Shakespeare in his character, his accomplishments,
and his attitude to letters, while his career was more varied than
Shakespeare's own. The first "classic" in English writing, he was a
"romantic" in action. In his adventurous youth he was by turns scholar,
soldier, bricklayer, actor. He trailed a pike with Leicester in the Low
Countries; on his return to England fought a duel and killed his man,
only escaping hanging by benefit of clergy; at the end of his life he
was Poet Laureate. Such a career is sufficiently diversified, and it
forms a striking contrast to the plainness and severity of his work. But
it must not lead us to forget or under-estimate his learning and
knowledge. Not Gray nor Tennyson, nor Swinburne--perhaps not even
Milton--was a better scholar. He is one of the earliest of English
writers to hold and express different theories about literature. He
consciously appointed himself a teacher; was a missionary of literature
with a definite creed.

But though in a general way his dramatic principles are opposed to the
romantic tendencies of his age, he is by no means blindly classical. He
never consented to be bound by the "Unities"--that conception of
dramatic construction evolved out of Aristotle and Horace and elaborated
in the Renaissance till, in its strictest form, it laid down that the
whole scene of a play should be in one place, its whole action deal with
one single series of events, and the time it represented as elapsing be
no greater than the time it took in playing. He was always pre-eminently
an Englishman of his own day with a scholar's rather than a poet's
temper, hating extravagance, hating bombast and cant, and only limited
because in ruling out these things he ruled out much else that was
essential to the spirit of the time. As a craftsman he was
uncompromising; he never bowed to the tastes of the public and never
veiled his scorn of those--Shakespeare among them--whom he conceived to
do so; but he knew and valued his own work, as his famous last word to
an audience who might be unsympathetic stands to witness,

"By God 'tis good, and if you like it you may."

Compare the temper it reveals with the titles of the two contemporary
comedies of his gentler and greater brother, the one _As You Like It_,
the other _What You Will_. Of the two attitudes towards the public, and
they might stand as typical of two kinds of artists, neither perhaps can
claim complete sincerity. A truculent and noisy disclaimer of their
favours is not a bad tone to assume towards an audience; in the end it
is apt to succeed as well as the sub-ironical compliance which is its

Jonson's theory of comedy and the consciousness with which he set it
against the practice of his contemporaries and particularly of
Shakespeare receive explicit statement in the prologue to _Every Man Out
of His Humour_--one of his earlier plays. "I travail with another
objection, Signor, which I fear will be enforced against the author ere
I can be delivered of it," says Mitis. "What's that, sir?" replies
Cordatus. Mitis:--"That the argument of his comedy might have been of
some other nature, as of a duke to be in love with a countess, and that
countess to be in love with the duke's son, and the son to love the
lady's waiting maid; some such cross-wooing, better than to be thus near
and familiarly allied to the times." Cordatus: "You say well, but I
would fain hear one of these autumn-judgments define _Quin sit
comoedia_? If he cannot, let him concern himself with Cicero's
definition, till he have strength to propose to himself a better, who
would have a comedy to be _invitatio vitae, speculum consuetudinis,
imago veritatis_; a thing throughout pleasant and ridiculous and
accommodated to the correction of manners." That was what he meant his
comedy to be, and so he conceived the popular comedy of the day,
_Twelfth Night_ and _Much Ado_. Shakespeare might play with dukes and
countesses, serving-women and pages, clowns and disguises; he would come
down more near and ally himself familiarly with the times. So comedy was
to be medicinal, to purge contemporary London of its follies and its
sins; and it was to be constructed with regularity and elaboration,
respectful to the Unities if not ruled by them, and built up of
characters each the embodiment of some "humour" or eccentricity, and
each when his eccentricity is displaying itself at its fullest,
outwitted and exposed. This conception of "humours," based on a
physiology which was already obsolescent, takes heavily from the realism
of Jonson's methods, nor does his use of a careful vocabulary of
contemporary colloquialism and slang save him from a certain dryness and
tediousness to modern readers. The truth is he was less a satirist of
contemporary manners than a satirist in the abstract who followed the
models of classical writers in this style, and he found the vices and
follies of his own day hardly adequate to the intricacy and
elaborateness of the plots which he constructed for their exposure. At
the first glance his people are contemporary types, at the second they
betray themselves for what they are really--cock-shies set up by the new
comedy of Greece that every "classical" satirist in Rome or France or
England has had his shot at since. One wonders whether Ben Jonson, for
all his satirical intention, had as much observation--as much of an eye
for contemporary types--as Shakespeare's rustics and roysterers prove
him to have had. It follows that all but one or two of his plays, when
they are put on the stage to-day are apt to come to one with a sense of
remoteness and other-worldliness which we hardly feel with Shakespeare
or Moliere. His muse moves along the high-road of comedy which is the
Roman road, and she carries in her train types that have done service to
many since the ancients fashioned them years ago. Jealous husbands,
foolish pragmatic fathers, a dissolute son, a boastful soldier, a
cunning slave--they all are merely counters by which the game of comedy
used to be played. In England, since Shakespeare took his hold on the
stage, that road has been stopped for us, that game has ceased to amuse.

Ben Jonson, then, in a certain degree failed in his intention. Had he
kept closer to contemporary life, instead of merely grafting on to it
types he had learned from books, he might have made himself an English
Moliere--without Moliere's breadth and clarity--but with a corresponding
vigour and strength which would have kept his work sweet. And he might
have founded a school of comedy that would have got its roots deeper
into our national life than the trivial and licentious Restoration
comedy ever succeeded in doing. As it is, his importance is mostly
historical. One must credit him with being the first of the English
classics--of the age which gave us Dryden and Swift and Pope. Perhaps
that is enough in his praise.




With the seventeenth century the great school of imaginative writers
that made glorious the last years of Elizabeth's reign, had passed away.
Spenser was dead before 1600, Sir Philip Sidney a dozen years earlier,
and though Shakespeare and Drayton and many other men whom we class
roughly as Elizabethan lived on to work under James, their temper and
their ideals belong to the earlier day. The seventeenth century, not in
England only but in Europe, brought a new way of thinking with it, and
gave a new direction to human interest and to human affairs. It is not
perhaps easy to define nor is it visible in the greater writers of the
time. Milton, for instance, and Sir Thomas Browne are both of them too
big, and in their genius too far separated from their fellows to give us
much clue to altered conditions. It is commonly in the work of lesser
and forgotten writers that the spirit of an age has its fullest
expression. Genius is a law to itself; it moves in another dimension; it
is out of time. To define this seventeenth century spirit, then, one
must look at the literature of the age as a whole. What is there that
one finds in it which marks a change in temperament and outlook from the
Renaissance, and the time which immediately followed it?

Putting it very broadly one may say that literature in the seventeenth
century becomes for the first time essentially modern in spirit. We
began our survey of modern English literature at the Renaissance because
the discovery of the New World, and the widening of human experience and
knowledge, which that and the revival of classical learning implied,
mark a definite break from a way of thought which had been continuous
since the break up of the Roman Empire. The men of the Renaissance felt
themselves to be modern. They started afresh, owing nothing to their
immediate forbears, and when they talked, say, of Chaucer, they did so
in very much the same accent as we do to-day. He was mediaeval and
obsolete; the interest which he possessed was a purely literary
interest; his readers did not meet him easily on the same plane of
thought, or forget the lapse of time which separated him from them. And
in another way too, the Renaissance began modern writing. Inflections
had been dropped. The revival of the classics had enriched our
vocabulary, and the English language, after a gradual impoverishment
which followed the obsolescence one after another of the local dialects,
attained a fairly fixed form. There is more difference between the
language of the English writings of Sir Thomas More and that of the
prose of Chaucer than there is between that of More and of Ruskin. But
it is not till the seventeenth century that the modern spirit, in the
fullest sense of the word, comes into being. Defined it means a spirit
of observation, of preoccupation with detail, of stress laid on matter
of fact, of analysis of feelings and mental processes, of free argument
upon institutions and government. In relation to knowledge, it is the
spirit of science, and the study of science, which is the essential
intellectual fact in modern history, dates from just this time, from
Bacon and Newton and Descartes. In relation to literature, it is the
spirit of criticism, and criticism in England is the creation of the
seventeenth century. The positive temper, the attitude of realism, is
everywhere in the ascendant. The sixteenth century made voyages of
discovery; the seventeenth sat down to take stock of the riches it had
gathered. For the first time in English literature writing becomes a
vehicle for storing and conveying facts.

It would be easy to give instances: one must suffice here. Biography,
which is one of the most characteristic kinds of English writing, was
unknown to the moderns as late as the sixteenth century. Partly the
awakened interest in the careers of the ancient statesmen and soldiers
which the study of Plutarch had excited, and partly the general interest
in, and craving for, facts set men writing down the lives of their
fellows. The earliest English biographies date from this time. In the
beginning they were concerned, like Plutarch, with men of action, and
when Sir Fulke Greville wrote a brief account of his friend Sir Philip
Sidney it was the courtier and the soldier, and not the author, that he
designed to celebrate. But soon men of letters came within their scope,
and though the interest in the lives of authors came too late to give us
the contemporary life of Shakespeare we so much long for, it was early
enough to make possible those masterpieces of condensed biography in
which Isaak Walton celebrates Herbert and Donne. Fuller and Aubrey, to
name only two authors, spent lives of laborious industry in hunting down
and chronicling the smallest facts about the worthies of their day and
the time immediately before them. Autobiography followed where biography
led. Lord Herbert of Cherbury and Margaret Duchess of Newcastle, as well
as less reputable persons, followed the new mode. By the time of the
Restoration Pepys and Evelyn were keeping their diaries, and Fox his
journal. Just as in poetry the lyric, that is the expression of personal
feeling, became more widely practised, more subtle and more sincere, in
prose the letter, the journal, and the autobiography formed themselves
to meet the new and growing demand for analysis of the feelings and the
intimate thoughts and sensations of real men and women. A minor form of
literature which had a brief but popular vogue ministered less directly
to the same need. The "Character," a brief descriptive essay on a
contemporary type--a tobacco seller, an old college butler or the
like--was popular because in its own way it matched the newly awakened
taste for realism and fact. The drama which in the hands of Ben Jonson
had attacked folly and wickedness proper to no place or time, descended
to the drawing-rooms of the day, and Congreve occupied himself with the
portrayal of the social frauds and foolishnesses perpetrated by actual
living men and women of fashion in contemporary London. Satire ceased
to be a mere expression of a vague discontent, and became a weapon
against opposing men and policies. The new generation of readers were
nothing if not critical. They were for testing directly institutions
whether they were literary, social, or political. They wanted facts, and
they wanted to take a side.

In the distinct and separate realm of poetry a revolution no less
remarkable took place. Spenser had been both a poet and a Puritan: he
had designed to show by his great poem the training and fashioning of a
Puritan English gentleman. But the alliance between poetry and
Puritanism which he typified failed to survive his death. The
essentially pagan spirit of the Renaissance which caused him no doubts
nor difficulties proved too strong for his readers and his followers,
and the emancipated artistic enthusiasm in which it worked alienated
from secular poetry men with deep and strong religious convictions.
Religion and morality and poetry, which in Sidney and Spenser had gone
hand in hand, separated from each other. Poems like _Venus and Adonis_
or like Shakespeare's sonnets could hardly be squared with the sterner
temper which persecution began to breed. Even within orthodox
Anglicanism poetry and religion began to be deemed no fit company for
each other. When George Herbert left off courtier and took orders he
burnt his earlier love poetry, and only the persuasion of his friends
prevented Donne from following the same course. Pure poetry became more
and more an exotic. All Milton's belongs to his earlier youth; his
middle age was occupied with controversy and propaganda in prose; when
he returned to poetry in blindness and old age it was "to justify the
ways of God to man"--to use poetry, that is, for a spiritual and moral
rather than an artistic end.

Though the age was curious and inquiring, though poetry and prose tended
more and more to be enlisted in the service of non-artistic enthusiasms
and to be made the vehicle of deeper emotions and interests than perhaps
a northern people could ever find in art, pure and simple, it was not
like the time that followed it, a "prosaic" age. Enthusiasm burned
fierce and clear, displaying itself in the passionate polemic of Milton,
in the fanaticism of Bunyan and Fox, hardly more than in the gentle,
steadfast search for knowledge in Burton, and the wide and vigilant
curiousness of Bacon. Its eager experimentalism tried the impossible;
wrote poems and then gave them a weight of meaning they could not carry,
as when Fletcher in _The Purple Island_ designed to allegorize all that
the physiology of his day knew of the human body, or Donne sought to
convey abstruse scientific fact in a lyric. It gave men a passion for
pure learning, set Jonson to turn himself from a bricklayer into the
best equipped scholar of his day, and Fuller and Camden grubbing among
English records and gathering for the first time materials of scientific
value for English history. Enthusiasm gave us poetry that was at once
full of learning and of imagination, poetry that was harsh and brutal
in its roughness and at the same time impassioned. And it set up a
school of prose that combined colloquial readiness and fluency,
pregnancy and high sentiment with a cumbrous pedantry of learning which
was the fruit of its own excess.

The form in which enthusiasm manifested itself most fiercely was as we


Back to Full Books