1837 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Ellis

Henry Hallam, in Introduction to the Literature of Europe of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries (1837-39; 1882) 2:228-29.



It was said by Ellis, that nearly one hundred names of poets belonging to the reign of Elizabeth might be enumerated, besides many that have left no memorial except their songs. This, however, was but a moderate computation. Drake has made a list of more than two hundred, some few of whom, perhaps, do not strictly belong to the Elizabethan period. But many of these are only known by short pieces in such miscellaneous collections as have been mentioned. Yet, in the entire bulk of poetry, England could not perhaps bear comparison with Spain or France, to say nothing of Italy. She had come, in fact, much later to cultivate poetry as a general accomplishment. And, consequently, we find much less of the mechanism of style, than in the contemporaneous verse of other languages. The English sonneteers deal less in customary epithets and conventional modes of expression. Every thought was to be worked out in new terms, since the scanty precedents of early versifiers did not supply them. This was evidently the cause of many blemishes in the Elizabethan poetry; of much that was false in taste, much that was either too harsh and extravagant or too humble, and of more that was so obscure as to defy all interpretation. But it saved also that monotonous equability that often wearies us in more polished poetry. There is more pleasure, more sense of sympathy with another mind, in the perusal even of Gascoyne or Edwards, than in that of many French and Italian versifiers whom their contemporaries extolled. This is all that we can justly say in their favor; for any comparison of the Elizabethan poetry, save Spenser's alone, with that of the nineteenth century, would show an extravagant predilection for the mere name or dress of antiquity.