The second part of Campbell's essay covers the era from the death of Chaucer to the death of Queen Elizabeth. While much is made of the Reformation and the spirit of English liberty (not "British") this era does not correspond to what is now described as the renaissance — it is pre-modern in the sense that is verse is more or less obsolete. The second part concludes with a thinly veiled expression of contempt for the antiquaries who had been foisting bad Elizabethan verse on a credulous public. Spenser is given high praise as a descriptive poet but is faulted for his design, allegory, and excessive copiousness. Campbell only discusses the Faerie Queene.
Literary Gazette: "Upon Spenser, Mr. Campbell gives us an able and honourable eulogy. He styles him the Rubens of English Poetry" (27 February 1819) 134.
Lord Byron: "Came home — read. Corrected Tom Campbell's slips of the pen. A good work, though — style affected — but his defence of Pope is glorious. To be sure, it is his own cause too, — but no matter, it is very good, and does him great credit" Journal entry, 10 January 1821; Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (1898-1901) 5:164.
Following the era of Chaucer, English poetry suffered badly from tyranny and the civil wars, for unlike Italy, the arts had no place to look for refuge in troubled times: "To these causes may be ascribed the backwardness of our poetry between the dates of Chaucer and Spenser. I speak of the chasm extending to, or nearly to Spenser; for, without undervaluing the elegant talents of Lord Surrey, I think we cannot consider the national genius as completely emancipated from oppressive circumstances, till the time of Elizabeth" (1841) xlvii. During this period flourished Thomas Occleve (of whom Campbell has a low opinion) and John Lydgate; "Verbose and diffuse as Dan John of Bury must be allowed to have been, he is not without occasional touches of pathos." The Mirror for Magistrates influenced Elizabethan writers.
Campbell does not think much of the golden age of Scottish verse: "the Scottish poets, after all that has been said of them, form nothing like a brilliant revival of poetry. They are on the whole superior, indeed, in spirit and originality to their English cotemporaries, which is not saying much; but their style is, for the most part, cast, if possible, in a worse taste" p. xlviii. Stephen Hawes and John Barclay are dismissed with some distaste (the latter displaying no ability for landscape description in his eclogues). John Skelton had talent but was a buffoon; "Upon the whole, we might regard the poetical feeling and genius of England as almost extinct at the end of the fifteenth century, if the beautiful ballad of the 'Nut-brown Maid' were not to be referred to that period" p. l.
English poetry began to come into its own in the sixteenth century, under the influences of Italian literature, Plato, and the Reformation. While Surrey's importance has been exaggerated, he helped to refine the language and measures of poetry. Sternhold and Hopkins "mistaking vulgarity for simplicity, turned into bathos what they found sublime." If Thomas Sackville's narratives reflect dark and uncertain times, the dawn breaks with the accession of Elizabeth: "A poetical spirit infused itself into the practical heroism of the age; and some of the worthies of that period seem less like ordinary men, than like beings called forth out of fiction, and arrayed in the brightness of her dreams" p. liv.
Spenser is the "Rubens of poetry": "The clouds of his allegory may seem to spread into shapeless forms, but they are still the clouds of a glowing atmosphere. Though his story grows desultory, the sweetness and grace of his manner still abide by him. He is like a speaker whose tones continue to be pleasing, though he may speak too long; or like a painter who makes us forget the defect of his design, by the magic of his colouring" p. lv. If Spenser is difficult to read, it is less for his archaic diction than from his tedious allegory and irregular design. Spenser has erred in mingling moral and political allegory. Still, "Succeeding generations have acknowledged the pathos and richness of his strains, and the new contour and enlarged dimensions of grace which he gave to English poetry. He is the poetical father of a Milton and a Thomson. Gray habitually read him when he wished to frame his thoughts for composition; and there are few eminent poets in the language who have not been essentially indebted to him" p. lvii.
Campbell rehearses the history of drama prior to Shakespeare, praising George Peele. Christopher Marlowe receives faint praise, being put on a par with Kyd, Lodge, and Greene: "Among these precursors of Shakspeare we may trace, in Peele and Marlowe, a pleasing dawn of the drama, though it was by no means a dawn corresponding to so bright a sunrise as the appearance of his mighty genius" p. lx. Shakespeare "is the poet of the world. The magnitude of his genius puts it beyond all private opinion to set defined limits to the admiration which is due to it." Shakespeare triumphed over the rules of drama, enlarging the possibilities of the drama.
Ben Jonson is given a long critical discussion; the disrepute into which he had fallen a century earlier was now being redressed. A classicist himself, Campbell is predisposed to admire Jonson's virtues: "The art of Jonson was not confined to the cold observation of the unities of place and time, but appears in the whole adaptation of his incidents and characters to the support of each other. Beneath his learning and art he moves with an activity which may be compared to the strength of a man who can leap and bound under the heaviest armour" p. lxv.
The Elizabethan sonneteers and satirists are named and assigned qualities: "Giles and Phineas Fletcher possessed harmony and fancy. The simple Warner has left, in his 'Argentile and Curan,' perhaps the finest pastoral episode in our language. Browne was an elegant describer of rural scenes, though incompetent to fill them with life and manners" p. lxvi. John Chalkhill, having been omitted from the specimens by an oversight, is given extended treatment and long quotations. The translators are next enumerated: "Phaer is the most faithful and simple, Golding the most musical, and Chapman the most spirited." Joshua Sylvester is given particular attention as a poet admired by Milton. The survey of minor poets concludes with Sir John Davies.
Campbell concludes the second part by censuring his contemporaries' indiscriminate taste for Elizabethan verse: "Men like to make the most of the slightest beauty which they can discover in an obsolete versifier; and they quote perhaps the solitary good thought which is to be found in such a writer, omitting any mention of the dreary passages which surround it. Of course it becomes a lamentable reflection, that so valuable an old poet should have been forgotten. When the reader however repairs to him, he finds that there are only one or two grains of gold in all the sands of this imaginary Pactolus. But the display of neglected authors has not been even confined to glimmering beauties; it has been extended to the reprinting of large and heavy masses of dulness" p. lxxi.
Warton, with great beauty and justice, compares the appearance of Chaucer in our language to a premature day in an English spring; after which the gloom of winter returns, and the buds and blossoms, which have been called forth by a transient sunshine, are nipped by frosts and scattered by storms. The causes of the relapse of our Poetry, after Chaucer, seem but too apparent in the annals of English history, which during five reigns of the fifteenth century continue to display but a tissue of conspiracies, proscriptions, and bloodshed. Inferior even to France in literary progress, England displays in the fifteenth century a still more mortifying contrast with Italy. Italy too had her religious schisms and public distractions; but her arts and literature had always a sheltering place. They were even cherished by the rivalship of independent communities, and received encouragement from the opposite sources of commercial and ecclesiastical wealth. But we had no Nicholas the Fifth, nor house of Medicis. In England, the evils of civil war agitated society as one mass. There was no refuge from them — no inclosure to fence in the field of improvement — no mound to stem the torrent of public troubles. Before the death of Henry VI., it is said that one half of the nobility and gentry in the kingdom had perished in the field, or on the scaffold. Whilst in England the public spirit was thus brutalised, whilst the value and security of life were abridged, whilst the wealth of the rich was employed only in war, and the chance of patronage taken from the scholar; in Italy, princes and magistrates vied with each other in calling men of genius around them, as the brightest ornaments of their states and courts. The art of printing came to Italy to record the treasures of its literary attainments; but when it came to England, with a very few exceptions, it could not be said, for the purpose of diffusing native literature, to be a necessary art. A circumstance, additionally hostile to the national genius, may certainly be traced in the executions for religion, which sprung up as a horrible novelty in our country in the fifteenth century. The clergy were determined to indemnify themselves for the exposures which they had met with in the preceding age, and the unhallowed compromise which Henry IV. made with them, in return for supporting his accession, armed them, in an evil hour, with the torch of persecution. In one point of improvement, namely, in the boldness of religious inquiry, the North of Europe might already boast of being superior to the South, with all its learning, wealth, and elegant acquirements. The Scriptures had been opened by Wickliff, but they were again to become "a fountain sealed, and a spring shut up." Amidst the progress of letters in Italy, the fine arts threw enchantment around superstition; and the warm imagination of the South was congenial with the nature of Catholic institutions. But the English mind had already shown, even amidst its comparative barbarism, a stern independent spirit of religion; and from this single proud and elevated point of its character, it was now to be crushed and beaten down. Sometimes a baffled struggle against oppression is more depressing to the human faculties than continued submission.
Our natural hatred of tyranny, and we may safely add, the general test of history and experience, would dispose us to believe religious persecution to be necessarily and essentially baneful to the elegant arts, no less than to the intellectual pursuits of mankind. It is natural to think, that when punishments are let loose upon men's opinions, they will spread a contagious alarm from the understanding to the imagination. They will make the heart grow close and insensible to generous feelings, where it is unaccustomed to express them freely; and the graces and gaiety of fancy will be dejected and appalled. In an age of persecution, even the living study of his own species must be comparatively darkened to the poet. He looks round on the characters and countenances of his fellow-creatures; and instead of the naturally cheerful and eccentric variety of their humours, he reads only a sullen and oppressed uniformity. To the spirit of poetry we should conceive such a period to be an impassable Avernus, where she would drop her wings and expire. Undoubtedly this inference will be found warranted by a general survey of the history of Genius. It is, at the same time, impossible to deny, that wit and poetry have in some instances flourished coeval with ferocious bigotry, on the same spot, and under the same government. The literary glory of Spain was posterior to the establishment of the Inquisition. The fancy of Cervantes sported in its neighbourhood, though he declared that he could have made his writings still more entertaining, if he had not dreaded the Holy Office. But the growth of Spanish genius, in spite of the co-existence of religious tyranny, was fostered by uncommon and glorious advantages in the circumstances of the nation. Spain (for we are comparing Spain in the sixteenth with England in the fifteenth century) was, at the period alluded to, great and proud in an empire, on which it was boasted that the sun never set. Her language was widely diffused. The wealth of America for a while animated all her arts. Robertson says, that the Spaniards discovered at that time an extent of political knowledge, which the English themselves did not attain for more than a century afterwards. Religious persecutions began in England, at a time when she was comparatively poor and barbarous; yet after she had been awakened to so much intelligence on the subject of religion, as to make one half of the people indignantly impatient of priestly tyranny. If we add to the political troubles of the age, the circumstance of religious opinions being silenced and stifled by penal horrors, it will seem more wonderful that the spark of literature was kept alive, than that it did not spread more widely. Yet the fifteenth century had its redeeming traits of refinement, the more wonderful for appearing in the midst of such unfavourable circumstances. It had a Fortescue, although he wandered in exile, unprotected by the constitution which be explained and extolled in his writings. It had a noble patron and lover of letters in Tiptoft, although be died by the bands of the executioner. It witnessed the founding of many colleges, in both of the universities, although they were still the haunts of scholastic quibbling; and it produced, in the venerable Pecock, one conscientious dignitary of the church, who wished to have converted the protestants by appeals to reason, though for so doing he had his books, and, if he had not recanted in good time, would have had his body also, committed to the flames. To these causes may be ascribed the backwardness of our poetry between the dates of Chaucer and Spenser. I speak of the chasm extending to, or nearly to Spenser; for, without undervaluing the elegant talents of Lord Surrey, I think we cannot consider the national genius as completely emancipated from oppressive circumstances, till the time of Elizabeth. There was indeed a commencement of our poetry under Henry VIII. It was a fine, but a feeble one. English genius seems then to have come forth, but half assured that her day of emancipation was at hand. There is something melancholy even in Lord Surrey's strains of gallantry. The succession of Henry VIII. gave stability to the government, and some degree of magnificence to the state of society. But tyranny was not yet at an end; and to judge, not by the gross buffoons, but by the few minds entitled to be called poetical, which appear in the earlier part of the sixteenth century, we may say that the English Muse had still a diffident aspect and a faltering tone.
There is a species of talent, however, which may continue to endite what is called poetry, without having its sensibilities deeply affected by the circumstances of society; and of luminaries of this description our fifteenth century was not destitute. Ritson has enumerated about seventy of them. Of these, Occleve and Lydgate were the nearest successors to Chaucer. Occleve speaks of himself as Chaucer's scholar. He has, at least, the merit of expressing thin sincerest enthusiasm for his master. But it is difficult to controvert the character which has been generally assigned to him, that of a flat and feeble writer. Excepting the adoption of his story of Fortunatus, by William Browne, in his pastorals, and the modern republication of a few of his pieces, I know not of any public compliment which has ever been paid to his poetical memory.
Lydgate is altogether the most respectable versifier of the fifteenth century. A list of 250 of the productions ascribed to him (which is given in Ritson's Bibliographia Poetica) at tests, at least, the fluency of his pen; and he seems to have ranged with the same facility through the gravest and the lightest subjects of composition. Ballads, hymns, ludicrous stories, legends, romances, and allegories, were equally at his command. Verbose and diffuse as Dan John of Bury must be allowed to have been, he is not without occasional touches of pathos. The poet Gray was the first in modern times who did him the justice to observe them.
His "Fall of Princes" may also deserve notice, in tracing back the thread of our national poetry, as it is more likely than any other English production to have suggested to Lord Sackville the idea of his "Mirror for Magistrates." The "Mirror for Magistrates" again gave hints to Spenser in allegory, and may also have possibly suggested to Shakspeare the idea of his historical plays.
I know not if Hardynge, who belonged to the reign of Edward IV., be worth mentioning, as one of the obscure luminaries of this benighted age. He left a Chronicle of the History of England, which possesses an incidental interest from his having been himself a witness to some of the scenes which he records; for he lived in the family of the Percys, and fought under the banners of Hotspur; but from the style of his versified Chronicle, his head would appear to have been much better furnished for sustaining the blows of the battle, than for contriving its poetical celebration.
END OF THE FIFTEENTH AND BEGINNING OF THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY.
The Scottish poets of the fifteenth, and of a part of the sixteenth century, would also justly demand a place in any history of our poetry that meant to be copious and minute; as the northern "makers," notwithstanding the difference of dialect, generally denominate their language "Inglis." Scotland produced an entire poetical version of the Aeneid, before Lord Surrey had translated a single book of it; indeed before there was an English version of any classic, excepting Boethius, if he can be called a classic. Virgil was only known in the English language through a romance on the Siege of Troy, published by Caxton, which, as Bishop Douglas observes, in the prologue to his Scottish Aeneid, is no more like Virgil, than the devil is like St. Austin. Perhaps the resemblance may not even be so great. But the Scottish poets, after all that has been said of them, form nothing like a brilliant revival of poetry. They are on the whole superior, indeed, in spirit and originality to their English cotemporaries, which is not saying much; but their style is, for the most part, cast, if possible, in a worse taste. The prevailing fault of English diction, in the fifteenth century, is redundant ornament, and an affectation of anglicising Latin words. In this pedantry and use of "aureate terms," the Scottish versifiers went even beyond their brethren of the south. Some exceptions to the remark, I am aware, may be found in Donbar, who sometimes exhibits simplicity and lyrical terseness; but even his style has frequent deformities of quaintness, false ornament, and alliteration. The rest of them, when they meant to be most eloquent, tore up words from the Latin, which never took root in the language, like children making a mock garden with flowers and branches stock in the ground, which speedily wither.
From Lydgate down to Wyat and Surrey, there seem to be no southern writers deserving attention, unless for the purposes of the antiquary, excepting Hawes, Barklay, and Skelton; and even their names might perhaps be omitted without treason to the cause of taste.
Stephen Hawes, who was groom of the chamber to Henry VII., is said to have been accomplished in the literature of France and Italy, and to have travelled into those countries. His most important production is the "Pastyme of Pleasure," an allegorical romance, the hero of which is Grandamour or Gallantry, and the heroine La Belle Pucelle, or Perfect Beauty. In this work the personified characters have all the capriciousness and vague moral meaning of the old French allegorical romance but the puerility of the school remains, while the zest of its novelty is gone. There is also in his foolish personage of Godfrey Gobelive, something of the burlesque of the worst taste of Italian poetry. It is certainly very tiresome to follow Hawes's hero, Grandamour, through all his adventures, studying grammar, rhetoric, and arithmetic, in the tower of Doctrine; afterwards slaughtering giants, who have each two or three emblematic heads; sacrificing to heathen gods; then marrying according to the Catholic rites; and, finally, relating his own death and burial, to which be is so obliging as to add his epitaph. Yet, as the story seems to be of Hawes's invention, it ranks him above the mere chroniclers and translators of the age. Warton praises him for improving on the style of Lydgate. His language may be somewhat more modern, but in vigour or harmony, I am at a loss to perceive in it any superiority. The indulgent historian of our poetry has, however, quoted one fine line from him, describing the fiery breath of a dragon, which guarded the island of beauty:
The fire was great it made the island light.
Every romantic poem in his own language is likely to have interested Spenser; and if there were many such glimpses of magnificence in Hawes, we might suppose the author of "The Fairy Queen" to have cherished his youthful genius by contemplating them; but his beauties are too few and faint to have afforded any inspiring example to Spenser.
Alexander Barklay was a priest of St. Mary Otterburne, in Devonshire, and died at a great age at Croydon, in the year 1552. His principal work was a free translation of Sebastian Brandt's "Navis Stultifera," enlarged with some satirical strictures of his own upon the manners of his English cotemporaries. His "Ship of Fools" has been as often quoted as most obsolete English poems; but if it were net obsolete it would not be quoted. He also wrote Eclogues, which are curious as the earliest pieces of that kind in our language. From their title we might be led to expect some interesting delineations of English rural customs at that period. But Barklay intended to be a moralist, and not a painter of nature; and the chief; though insipid, moral which he inculcates is, that it is better to be a clown than a courtier. The few scenes of country life which he exhibits for that purpose are singularly ill fitted to illustrate his doctrine, and present rustic existence under a miserable aspect, more resembling the caricature of Scotland in Churchill's "Prophecy of Famine," than anything which we can imagine to have ever been the general condition of English peasants. The speakers, in one of his eclogues, lie littered among straw, for want of a fire to keep themselves warm; and one of them expresses a wish that the milk for dinner may be curdled, to save them the consumption of bread. As the writer's object was not to make us pity but esteem the rustic lot, this picture of English poverty can only be accounted for by supposing it to have been drawn from partial observation, or the result of a bad taste, that naturally delighted in squalid subjects of description. Barklay, indeed, though he has some stanzas which might be quoted for their strength of thought and felicity of expression, is, upon the whole, the least ambitions of all writers to adorn his conceptions of familiar life with either dignity or beauty. An amusing instance of this occurs in one of his moral apologues Adam, he tells us in verse, was one day abroad at his work — Eve was at the door of the house, with her children playing about her; some of them she was "kembing," says the poet, prefixing another participle not of the most delicate kind, to describe the usefulness of the comb. Her Maker having deigned to pay her a visit, site was ashamed to be found with so many ill-dressed children about her, and hastened to stow a number of them out of sight; some of them she concealed under hay and straw, others she put up the chimney, and one or two into a "tub of draff." Having produced, however, the best looking and best dressed of them, she was delighted to hear their Divine Visitor bless them, and destine some of them to be kings and emperors, some dukes and barons, and others sheriffs, mayors, and aldermen. Unwilling that any of her family should forfeit blessings whilst they were going, she immediately drew out the remainder from their concealment; but when they came forth they were so covered with dust and cobwebs, and had so many bits of chaff and straw sticking to their hair, that instead of receiving benedictions and promotion, they were doomed to vocations of toil and poverty, suitable to their dirty appearance.
John Shelton, who was the rival and contemporary of Barklay, was laureate to the University of Oxford, and tutor to the prince, afterwards Henry VIII. Erasmus must have been a bad judge of English poetry, or must have alluded only to the learning of Skelton, when in one of his letters he pronounces him "Britannicarum literarum lumen et decus." There is certainly a vehemence and vivacity in Skelton, which was worthy of being guided by a better taste; and the objects of his satire bespeak some degree of public spirit. But his eccentricity in attempts at humour is at once vulgar and flippant; and his style is almost a texture of slang phrases, patched with shreds of French and Latin. We are told, indeed, in a periodical work of the present day, that his manner is to be excused, because it was assumed for "the nonce," and was suited to the taste of his contemporaries. But it is surely a poor apology for the satirist of any age, to say that he stooped to humour its vilest taste, and could not ridicule vice and folly without degrading himself to buffoonery. Upon the whole, we might regard the poetical feeling and genius of England as almost extinct at the end of the fifteenth century, if the beautiful ballad of the "Nut-brown Maid" were not to be referred to that period. It is said to have been translated from the German; but even considered as a translation, it meets us as a surprising flower amidst the winter-solstice of our poetry.
The literary character of England was not established till near the end of the sixteenth century. At the beginning of that century, immediately anterior to Lord Surrey, we find Barklay and Skelton popular candidates for the foremost honours of English poetry. They are but poor names. Yet slowly as the improvement of our poetry seems to proceed in the early part of the sixteenth century, the circumstances which subsequently fostered the national genius to its maturity and magnitude, begin to be distinctly visible even before the year 1500. The accession of Henry VII., by fixing the monarchy and the prospect of its regular succession, forms a great era of commencing civilisation. The art of printing, which had been introduced in a former period of discord, promised to diffuse its light in a steadier and calmer atmosphere. The great discoveries of navigation, by quickening the intercourse of European nations, extended their influence to England. In the short portion of the fifteenth century during which printing was known in this country, the press exhibits our literature at a lower ebb than even that of France; but before that century was concluded, the tide of classical learning had fairly set in. England had received Erasmus, and had produced Sir Thomas More. The English poetry of the last of these great men is indeed of trifling consequence, in comparison with the general impulse which his other writings must have given to the age in which he lived. But everything that excites the dormant intellect of a nation must be regarded as contributing to its future poetry. It is possible, that in thus adverting to the diffusion of knowledge (especially classical knowledge) which preceded our golden age of originality, we may be challenged by the question, how much the greatest of all our poets was indebted to learning. We are apt to compare such geniuses as Shakspeare to comets in the moral universe, which baffle all calculations as to the causes which accelerate or retard their appearance, or from which we can predict their return. But those phenomena of poetical inspiration are, in fact, still dependent on the laws and light of the system which they visit. Poets maybe indebted to the learning and philosophy of their age, without being themselves men of erudition, or philosophers. When the fine spirit of truth has gone abroad, it passes insensibly from mind to mind, independent of its direct transmission from books; and it comes home in a more welcome shape to the poet, when caught from his social intercourse with his species, than from solitary study. Shakspeare's genius was certainly indebted to the intelligence and moral principles which existed in his age, and to that intelligence and to these moral principles, the revival of classical literature undoubtedly contributed. So also did the revival of pulpit eloquence, and the restoration of the Scriptures to the people in their native tongue. The dethronement of scholastic philosophy, and of the supposed infallibility of Aristotle's authority, an authority at one time almost paramount to that of the Scriptures themselves, was another good connected with the Reformation; for though the logic of Aristotle long continued to be formally taught, scholastic theology was no longer sheltered beneath his name. Bible divinity superseded the glosses of the schoolmen, and the writings of Duns Scotus were consigned at Oxford to proclaimed contempt. The reign of true philosophy was not indeed arrived, and the Reformation itself produced events tending to retard that progress of literature and intelligence, which had sprung up under its first auspices. Still, with partial interruptions, the culture of classical literature proceeded in the sixteenth century; and, amidst that culture, it is difficult to conceive that a system of Greek philosophy more poetical than Aristotle's, was without its influence on the English spirit — namely, that of Plato. That England possessed a distinct school of Platonic philosophy in the sixteenth century, cannot, I believe, be affirmed, but we hear of the Platonic studies of Sir Philip Sydney; and traits of Platonism are sometimes beautifully visible in the poetry of Surrey and of Spenser. The Italian Muse communicated a tinge of that spirit to our poetry, which must have been farther excited in the minds of poetical scholars by the influence of Grecian literature. Hurd indeed observes, that the Platonic doctrines had a deep influence on the sentiments and character of Spenser's age. They certainly form a very poetical creed of philosophy. The Aristotelian system was a vast mechanical labyrinth, which the human faculties were chilled, fatigued, and darkened by exploring. Plato, at least, expands the imagination, for he was a great poet; and if he had put in practice the law respecting poets, which he prescribed to his ideal republic, he must have begun by banishing himself.
The Reformation, though ultimately beneficial to literature, like all abrupt changes in society brought its evil with its good. Its establishment under Edward VI. made the English too fanatical and polemical to attend to the finer objects of taste. Its commencement under Henry VIII., however promising at first, was too soon rendered frightful, by bearing the stamp of a tyrant's character, who, instead of opening the temple of religious peace, established a Janus-faced persecution against both the old and new opinions. On the other hand, Henry's power, opulence, and ostentation, gave some encouragement to the arts. He himself, monster as he was, affected to be a poet. His masques and pageants assembled the beauty and nobility of the land, and prompted a gallant spirit of courtesy. The cultivation of musical talents among his courtiers fostered our early lyrical poetry. Our intercourse with Italy was renewed from more enlightened motives than superstition; and under the influence of Lord Surrey, Italian poetry became once more, as it had been in the days of Chaucer, a source of refinement and regeneration to our own. I am not indeed disposed to consider the influence of Lord Surrey's works upon our language in the very extensive and important light in which it is viewed by Dr. Nott. I am doubtful if that learned editor has converted many readers to his opinion, that Lord Surrey was the first who gave us metrical instead of rhythmical versification; for, with just allowance for ancient pronunciation, the heroic measure of Chaucer will be found in general not only to be metrically correct, but to possess considerable harmony. Surrey was not the inventor of our metrical versification; nor had his genius the potent voice and the magic spell which rouse all the dormant energies of a language. In certain walks of composition, though not in the highest, viz. in the ode, elegy, and epitaph, he set a chaste and delicate example; but he was cut off too early in life, and cultivated poetry too slightly, to carry the pure stream of his style into the broad and bold channels of inventive fiction. Much undoubtedly he did, in giving sweetness to our numbers, and in substituting for the rude tautology of a former age a style of soft and brilliant ornament, of selected expression, and of verbal arrangement, which often winds into graceful novelties; though sometimes a little objectionable from its involution. Our language was also indebted to him for the introduction of blank verse. It may be noticed at the same time that blank verse, if it had continued to be written as Surrey wrote it, would have had a cadence too uniform and cautious to be a happy vehicle for the dramatic expression of the passions. Grimoald, the second poet who used it after Lord Surrey, gave it a little more variety of pauses; but it was not till it had been tried as a measure by several composers, that it acquired a bold and flexible modulation.
The genius of Sir Thomas Wyat was refined and elevated like that of his noble friend and contemporary; but his poetry is more sententious and sombrous, and in his lyrical effusions ho studied terseness rather than suavity. Besides these two interesting men, Sir Francis Bryan, the friend of Wyat, George Viscount Rochford, the brother of Anna Boloyne, and Thomas Lord Vaux, were poetical courtiers of Henry VIII. To the second of these Ritson assigns, though but by conjecture, one of the most beautiful and plaintive strains of our elder poetry, "O Death, rock me on sleep." In Totell's Collection, the earliest poetical miscellany in our language, two pieces have been ascribed to the same nobleman, the one entitled "The Assault of Cupid," the other beginning, "I loath that I did love," which have been frequently reprinted in modern times.
A poem of uncommon merit in the same collection, which is entitled "The restless state of a Lover," and which commences with those lines,
The Sun, when he hath spread his rays,
And shew'd his fare ten thousand ways,
has been ascribed by Dr. Nott to Lord Surrey, but not on decisive evidence.
In the reign of Edward VI. the effects of the Reformation became visible in our poetry, by blending religious with poetical enthusiasm, or rather by substituting the one for the other. The national muse became puritanical, and was not improved by the change. Then flourished Sternhold and Hopkins, who, with the best intentions and the worst taste, degraded the spirit of Hebrew psalmody by flat and homely phraseology; and mistaking vulgarity for simplicity, turned into bathos what they found sublime. Such was the love of versifying holy writ at that period, that the Acts of the Apostles were rhymed, and set to music by Christopher Tye.
Lord Sackville's name is the next of any importance in our poetry that occurs after Lord Surrey's. The opinion of Sir Egerton Brydges, with respect to the date of the first appearance of Lord Sackville's "Induction to the Mirror for Magistrates," would place that production, in strictness of chronology, at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign. As an edition of the "Mirror," however, appeared in 1559, supposing Lord Sackville not to have assisted in that edition, the first shape of the work must have been cast and composed in the reign of Mary. From the date of Lord Sackville's birth, it is also apparent, that although he flourished under Elizabeth, and lived oven to direct the councils of James, his prime of life must have been spent, and his poetical character formed, in the most disastrous period of the sixteenth century, a period when we may suppose the cloud that was passing over the public mind to have cast a gloom on the complexion of its literary taste. During five years of his life, from twenty-five to thirty, the time when sensibility and reflection meet most strongly, Lord Sackville witnessed the horrors of Queen Mary's reign; and I conceive that it is not fanciful to trace in his poetry the tone of an unhappy age. His plan for "The Mirror of Magistrates" is a mass of darkness and despondency. He proposed to make the figure of Sorrow introduce us in Hell to every unfortunate great character of English history. The poet, like Dante, takes us to the gates of Hell; but he does not, like the Italian poet, bring us back again. It is true that those doleful legends were long continued, during a brighter period; but this was only done by an inferior order of poets, and was owing to their admiration of Sackville. Dismal as his allegories may be, his genius certainly displays in them considerable power. But better times were at hand. In the reign of Elizabeth, the English mind put forth its energies in every direction, exalted by a purer religion, and enlarged by new views of truth. This was an age of loyalty, adventure, and generous emulation. The chivalrous character was softened by intellectual pursuits, while the genius of chivalry itself still lingered, as if unwilling to depart, and paid his last homage to a warlike and female reign. A degree of romantic fancy remained in the manners and superstitions of the people; and allegory might be said to parade the streets in their public pageants and festivities. Quaint and pedantic as those allegorical exhibitions might often be, they were nevertheless more expressive of erudition, ingenuity, and moral moaning, than they had been in former times. The philosophy of the highest minds still partook of a visionary character. A poetical spirit infused itself into the practical heroism of the age; and some of the worthies of that period seem less like ordinary men, than like beings called forth out of fiction, and arrayed in the brightness of her dreams. They had "High thoughts seated in a heart of courtesy." The life of Sir Philip Sydney was poetry put into action.
The result of activity and curiosity in the public mind was to complete the revival of classical literature, to increase the importation of foreign books, and to multiply translations, from which poetry supplied herself with abundant subjects and materials, and in the use of which she showed a frank and fearless energy, that criticism and satire had not yet acquired power to overawe. Romance came back to us from the southern languages, clothed in new luxury by the warm imagination of the south. The growth of poetry under such circumstances might indeed be expected to be as irregular as it was profuse. The field was open to daring absurdity, as well as to genuine inspiration; and accordingly there is no period in which the extremes of good and bad writing are so abundant. Stanihurst, for instance, carried the violence of nonsense to a pitch of which there is no preceding example. Even late in the reign of Elizabeth, Gabriel Harvey was aided and abetted by several men of genius in his conspiracy to subvert the versification of the language; and Lyly gained over the court, for a time, to employ his corrupt jargon called Euphuism. Even Puttenham, a grave and candid critic, leaves an indication of crude and puerile taste, when, in a laborious treatise on poetry, he directs the composer how to make verses beautiful to the eye, by writing them "in the shapes of eggs, turbots, fuzees, and lozenges."
Among the numerous poets belonging exclusively to Elizabeth's reign, Spenser stands without a class and without a rival. To proceed from the poets already mentioned to Spenser, is certainly to pass ever a considerable number of years, which are important, especially from their including the dates of those early attempts in the regular drama which preceded the appearance of Shakspeare. I shall, therefore turn back again to that period, after having done homage to the name of Spenser.
He brought to the subject of "The Fairy Queen," a new and enlarged structure of stanza, elaborate and intricate, but well contrived for sustaining the attention of the ear, and concluding with a majestic cadence. In the other poets of Sponsor's age we chiefly admire their language, when it seems casually to advance into modern polish and succinctness. But the antiquity of Spenser's style has a peculiar charm. The mistaken opinion that Ben Jonson censured the antiquity of the diction in "The Fairy Queen," has been corrected by Mr. Malone, who pronounces it to be exactly that of his contemporaries. His authority is weighty; still, however, without reviving the exploded error respecting Jonson's censure, one might imagine the difference of Spenser's style from that of Shakspeare's, whom he so shortly preceded, to indicate that his gothic subject and story made him lean towards words of the elder time. At all events, much of his expression is now become antiquated; though it is beautiful in its antiquity, and like the moss and ivy on some majestic building, covers the fabric of his language with romantic and venerable associations.
His command of imagery is wide, easy, and luxuriant. He throw the soul of harmony into our verse, and made it more warmly, tenderly, and magnificently descriptive than it ever was before, or, with a few exceptions, than it has ever been since. It must certainly be owned that in description he exhibits nothing of the brief strokes and robust power which characterise the very greatest poets; but we shall nowhere find more airy and expansive images of visionary things, a sweeter tone of sentiment, or a finer flush in the colours of language, than in this Rubens of English poetry. His fancy teems exuberantly in minuteness of circumstance, like a fertile soil sending bloom and verdure through the utmost extremities of the foliage which it nourishes. On a comprehensive view of the whole work, we certainly miss the charm of strength, symmetry, and rapid or interesting progress; for, though the plan which the poet designed is not completed, it is easy to see that no additional cantos could have rendered it less perplexed. But still there is a richness in his materials, oven where their coherence is loose, and their disposition confused. The clouds of his allegory may seem to spread into shapeless forms, but they are still the clouds of a glowing atmosphere. Though his story grows desultory, the sweetness and grace of his manner still abide by him. He is like a speaker whose tones continue to be pleasing, though he may speak too long; or like a painter who makes us forget the defect of his design, by the magic of his colouring. We always rise from perusing him with melody in the mind's ear, and with pictures of romantic beauty impressed on the imagination. For those attractions "The Fairy Queen" will ever continue to be resorted to by the poetical student. It is not, however, very popularly read, and seldom perhaps from beginning to end, even by those who can fully appreciate its beauties. This cannot be ascribed merely to its presenting a few words which are now obsolete; nor can it be owing, as has been sometimes alleged, to the tedium inseparable from protracted allegory. Allegorical fable maybe made entertaining. With every disadvantage of dress and language, the humble John Bunyan has made this species of writing very amusing.
The reader may possibly smile at the names of Spenser and Bunyan being brought forward for a moment in comparison; but it is chiefly because the humbler allegorist is so poor in language, that his power of interesting the curiosity is entitled to admiration. We are told by critics that the passions may be allegorised, but that Holiness, Justice, and other such thin abstractions of the mind, are too unsubstantial machinery for a poet; — yet we all know how well the author of the Pilgrim's Progress (and he was a poet though he wrote in prose) has managed such abstractions as Mercy and Fortitude. In his artless hands, those attributes cease to be abstractions, and become our most intimate friends. Had Spenser, with all the wealth and graces of his fancy, given his story a more implicit and animated form, I cannot believe that there was anything in the nature of his machinery to set bounds to his power of enchantment. Yet, delicious as his poetry is, his story, considered as a romance, is obscure, intricate, and monotonous. He translated entire cantos from Tasso, but adopted the wild and irregular manner of Ariosto. The difference is, that Spenser appears, like a civilised being, slow and sometimes half forlorn, in exploring an uninhabited country, while Ariosto traverses the regions of romance like a hardy native of its pathless wilds. Hurd and others, who forbid us to judge of "The Fairy Queen" by the test of classical unity, and who compare it to a gothic church, or a gothic garden, tell us what is little to the purpose. They cannot persuade us that the story is not too intricate and too diffuse. The thread of the narrative is so entangled, that the poet saw the necessity for explaining the design of his poem in prose, in a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh; and the perspicuity of a poetical design which requires such an explanation may, with no great severity, be pronounced a contradiction in terms. It is degrading to poetry, we shall perhaps be told, to attach importance to the mere story which it relates. Certainly the poet is not a great one whose only charm is the management of his fable; but where there is a fable, it should be perspicuous.
There is one peculiarity in "The Fairy Queen" which, though not a deeply pervading defect, I cannot help considering as an incidental blemish; namely, that the allegory is doubled and crossed with complimentary allusions to living or recent personages, and that the agents are partly historical and partly allegorical. In some instances the characters have a threefold allusion. Gloriana is at once an emblem of true glory, an empress of fairyland, and her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Envy is a personified passion, and also a witch, and, with no very charitable insinuation, a type of the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots. The knight in dangerous distress is Henry IV. of France; and the knight of magnificence, Prince Arthur, the son of Uther Pendragon, an ancient British hero, is the bulwark of the Protestant cause in the Netherlands. Such distraction of allegory cannot well be said to make a fair experiment of its power. The poet may cover his moral meaning under a single and transparent veil of fiction; but he has no right to muffle it up in foldings which bide the form and symmetry of truth.
Upon the whole, if I may presume to measure the imperfections of so great and venerable a genius, I think we may say that, if his popularity be less than universal and complete, it is not so much owing to his obsolete language, nor to degeneracy of modern taste, nor to his choice of allegory as a subject, as to the want of that consolidating and crowning strength, which alone can establish works of fiction in the favour of all readers and of all ages. This want of strength, it is but justice to say, is either solely or chiefly apparent when we examine the entire structure of his poem, or so large a portion of it as to feel that it does not impel or sustain our curiosity in proportion to its length. To the beauty of insulated passages who can be blind? The sublime description of "Him who with the Night durst ride," "The House of Riches," "The Canto of Jealousy," "The Masque of Cupid," and other parts, too many to enumerate, are so splendid, that after reading them, we feel it for the moment invidious to ask if they are symmetrically united into a whole. Succeeding generations have acknowledged the pathos and richness of his strains, and the new contour and enlarged dimensions of grace which he gave to English poetry. He is the poetical father of a Milton and a Thomson. Gray habitually read him when he wished to frame his thoughts for composition; and there are few eminent poets in the language who have not been essentially indebted to him.
Hither, as to their fountain, ether stars
Repair, and in their urns draw golden light.
The publication of "The Fairy Queen," and the commencement of Shakspeare's dramatic career, may be noticed as contemporary events; for by no supposition call Shakspeare's appearance as a dramatist be traced higher than 1589, and that of Spenser's great poem was in the year 1590. I turn back from that date to an earlier period, when the first lineaments of our regular drama began to show themselves.
Before Elizabeth's reign we had no dramatic authors more important than Bale and Hey-wood the Epigrammatist. Bale, before the titles of tragedy and comedy were well distinguished, had written comedies on such subjects as the Resurrection of Lazarus, and the Passion and Sepulture of our Lord. He was, in fact, the last of the race of mystery-writers. Both Bale and Heywood died about the middle of the sixteenth century, but flourished (if such a word can be applied to theme) as early as the reign of Henry VIII. Until the time of Elizabeth, the public was contented with mysteries, moralities, or interludes, toe humble to deserve the name of comedy. The first of these, the mysteries, originated almost as early as the Conquest, in shows given by the church to the people. The moralities, which were chiefly allegorical, probably arose about the middle of the fifteenth century, and the interludes became prevalent during the reign of Henry VIII.
Lord Sackville's Gorboduc, first represented in 1561-2, and Still's Gammer Gurton's Needle, about 1566, were the earliest, though faint, draughts of our regular tragedy and comedy. They did not, however, immediately supersede the taste for the allegorical moralities. Sackville even introduced dumb show in his tragedy to explain the piece, and he was not the last of the old dramatists who did so. One might conceive the explanation of allegory by real personages to be a natural complaisance to an audience; but there is something peculiarly ingenious in making allegory explain reality, and the dumb interpret for those who could speak. In reviewing the rise of the drama, Gammar Gurtun's Needle, and Sackville's Gorboduc, form convenient resting-places for the memory; but it may be doubted if their superiority over the mysteries and moralities be half so great as their real distance from an affecting tragedy, or an exhilarating comedy. The main incident in Gammer Gurtou's Needle is the loss of a needle in a man's small-clothes.
Gorboduc has no interesting plot or impassioned dialogue; but at dignified the stage with moral reflection and stately measure. It first introduced black verse instead of ballad rhymes in the drama. Gascoigne gave a farther popularity to blank verse by his paraphrase of Jocasta, from Euripides, which appeared in 1566. The same author's "Supposes," translated from Ariosto, was our earliest prose comedy. Its dialogue is easy and spirited. Edward's Palamon and Arcite was acted in the same year, to the great admiration of Queen Elizabeth, who called the author into her presence, and complimented him on having justly drawn the character of a genuine lover.
Ten tragedies of Seneca were translated into English verse at different times, and by different authors, before the year 1581. One of these translators was Alexander Neyvile, afterwards secretary to Archbishop Parker, whose Oedipus came out as early as 1563; and though he was but a youth of nineteen, his style has considerable beauty. The following lines, which open the first act, may serve as a specimen.
The night is gone, and dreadful day begins at length appear,
And Phoebus, all bedimm'd with clouds, himself aloft doth rear;
And, gliding forth, with deadly hue and doleful blaze in skies,
Doth bear great terror and dismay to the beholder's eyes.
Now shall the houses void be seen, with plague devoured quite,
And slaughter which the night hath made shall day bring forth to light.
Doth any man in princely thrones rejoice? O brittle joy!
How many ills, how fair a face, and yet bow much annoy
In thee doth lurk, and hidden lies what heaps of endless strife!
They judge amiss, that deem the Prince to have the happy life.
In 1568 was produced the tragedy of "Tancred and Sigismunda," by Robert Wilmot, and four other students of the Inner Temple. It is reprinted in Reed's plays; but that reprint as taken not from the first edition, but from one greatly polished and amended in 1592. Considered as a piece coming within the verge of Shakspeare's age, it ceases to be wonderful. Immediately subsequent to these writers we meet with several obscure and uninteresting dramatic names, among which is that of Whetstone, the author of "Promos and Cassandra," , in which piece there is a partial anticipation of the plot of Shakspeare's Measure for Measure. Another is that of Preston, whose tragedy of Cambyses is alluded to by Shakspeare, when Falstaff calls for a cup of sack, that he may weep "in King Cambyses' vein." There is, indeed, matter for weeping in this tragedy; for, in the course of it, an elderly gentleman is flayed alive. To make the skinning more pathetic, his own son is witness to it, and exclaims,
What child is he of Nature's mould could bide the same to see,
His father fleaed in this wise? O how it grieveth me!
It may comfort the reader to know that this theatric decortication was meant to be allegorical; and we may believe that it was performed with no degree of stage illusion that could deeply affect the spectator.
In the last twenty years of the sixteenth century, we come to a period when the increasing demand for theatrical entertainments produced play-writers by profession. The earliest of these appears to have been George Peele, who was the city poet and conductor of the civil pageants. His "Arraignment of Paris" came out in 1584. Nash calls him an Atlas in poetry. Unless we make allowance for his antiquity, the expression will appear hyperbolical; but, with that allowance, we may justly cherish the memory of Peele as the eldest genuine dramatic poet of our language. His "David and Bethsabe" is the earliest fountain of pathos and harmony that can be traced in our dramatic poetry. His fancy is rich and his feeling tender, and his conceptions of dramatic character have no inconsiderable mixture of solid veracity and ideal beauty. There is no such sweetness of versification and imagery to be found in our blank verse anterior to Shakspeare. David's character — the traits both of his guilt and sensibility — his passion for Bethsabe — his art in inflaming the military ambition of Urias, and his grief for Absalom, are delineated with no vulgar skill. The luxuriant image of Bethsabe is introduced by these lines;
Come, gentle Zephyr, trick'd with those perfumes
That erst in Eden sweeten'd Adam's love,
And stroke my bosom with thy gentle fan:
This shade, sun-proof, to yet no proof for thee.
Thy body, smoother than this waveless spring,
And purer than the substance of the same,
Can creep through that his lances cannot pierce,
Then and thy sister, soft and sacred Air,
Goddess of life, and governess of health,
Keeps every fountain fresh, and arbour sweet.
No brazen gate her passage can refuse,
Nor bushy thicket bar thy subtle breath:
Then deck thee with thy loose delightsome robes,
And on thy wings bring delicate perfumes,
To play the wanton with us through the leaves.
David. What tunes, what words, what looks, whit wonders pierce
My soul, incensed with a sudden fire?
What tree, what shade, what spring, what paradise,
Enjoys the beauty of so fair a dame?
Fair Eva, placed in perfect happiness,
Lending her praise-notes to the liberal heavens,
Strook with the accents of archangels' tunes,
Wrought not more pleasure to her husband's thoughts,
Than this fair woman's words and notes to mine.
May that sweet plain, that bears her pleasant weight,
Be still enamell'd with discolour'd flowers!
That precious fount bear sand of purest gold;
And, for the pebble, let the silver streams
Play upon rubies, sapphires, chrysolites;
The brims let be embraced with golden curls
Of moss, that sleeps with sound the waters make;
For joy to food the fount with their recourse
Let all the grass that beautifies her bower
Bear manna every morn instead of dew.
Joab thus describes the glory of David:—
Beauteous and bright is he among the tribes;
As when the sun, attired in glistering robe,
Comes dancing from his oriental gate,
And, bridegroom-like, hurls through the gloomy air
His radiant beams: such doth King David show,
Crown'd with the honour of his enemies' town,
Shining in riches like the firmament,
The starry vault that overhangs the earth;
So looketh David, King of Israel.
At the conclusion of the tragedy, when David gives way to his grief for Absalom, he is roused with great dignity and energy by the speech of Joab. When informed by Joab of the death of his son, David exclaims;
David. Thou man of blood! thom, sepulchre of death
Whose marble breast entombs my bowels quick,
Did I not charge thee, nay, entreat thy hand,
Even for my sake, to spare my Absalom?
And hast thou now, in spite of David's health,
And scorn to do my heart some happiness,
Given him the sword, and spilt his purple soul?
Joab. What! irks it David, that he victor breathes,
That Juda, and the fields of Israel
Should cleanse their faces from their children's blood?
What! art thou weary of thy royal rule?
Is Israel's throne a serpent in thine eyes,
And he that set thee there, so far from thanks,
That thou must curse his servant for his sake?
Hast thou not said, that, as the morning light,
The cloudless morning, so should be thins house,
And not as flowers, by the brightest rain,
Which grow up quickly, and as quickly fade?
Hast thou not said, the wicked are so thorns,
That cannot be preserved with the hand:
And that the man shall touch them must he arm'd
With coats of iron, and garments made of steel,
Or with the shaft of a defenced spear?
And art thou angry he is now rut off,
That led the guiltless swarming to their deaths,
And was more wicked than an host of men?
Advance thee from thy melancholy den,
And deck thy body with thy blissful robes,
Or, by the Lord that sways the Heaven, I swear,
I'll load thine armies to another king,
Shall cheer them for their princely chivalry;
And not sit daunted, frowning in the dark,
When his fair looks, with oil and wino refresh'd,
Should dart into their bosoms gladsome beams,
And fill their stomachs with triumphant feasts;
That, when elsewhere stern War shall sound his trump,
And call another battle to the field,
Fame still may bring thy valiant soldiers home,
And for their service happily confess
She wanted worthy trumps to sound their prowess;
Take thou this course, and live; — Refuse, and die.
Lyly, Peele, Greene, Kyd, Nash, Lodge, and Marlowe, were the other writers for our early stage, a part of whose career preceded that of Shakspeare. Lyly, whose dramatic language is prose, has traits of genius which we should not expect from his generally depraved taste, and he has several graceful interspersions of "sweet lyric song." But his manner, on the whole, is stilted. "Brave Marlowe, bathed in the Thespian springs," of whose "mighty muse" Ben Jonson himself speaks reverentially, had powers of no ordinary class, and even ventured a few steps into the pathless sublime. But his pathos is dreary, and the terrors of his Muse remind us more of Minerva's gorgon than her countenance. The first sober and cold school of tragedy, which began with Lord Sackville's Gorboduc, was succeeded by one of headlong extravagance. Kyd's bombast was proverbial in his own day. With him the genius of tragedy might be said to have run mad; and, if we may judge of one work, the joint production of Greene and Lodge, to have hardly recovered her wits in the company of those authors. The piece to which I allude is entitled "A Looking-glass for London" . There, the Tamburlane of Kyd is fairly rivalled in rant and blasphemy by the hero Rasni, King of Nineveh, who boasts
Great Jewry's God, that foil'd stout Benhadab,
Could not rebate the strength that Rasni brought;
For be he God in Heaven, yet viceroys know
Rasni is God on earth, and none but he.
In the course of the play, the imperial swaggerer marries his own sister, who is quite as consequential a character as himself; but finding her struck dead by lightning, he deigns to espouse her lady-in-waiting, and is finally converted after his wedding, by Jonah, who soon afterwards arrives at Nineveh. It would be perhaps unfair, however, to assume this tragedy as a fair test of the dramatic talents of either Greene or Lodge. Ritson recommended the dramas of Greene as well worthy of being collected. The taste of that antiquary was not exquisite, but his knowledge may entitle his opinion to consideration.
Among these precursors of Shakspeare we may trace, in Peele and Marlowe, a pleasing dawn of the drama, though it was by no means a dawn corresponding to so bright a sunrise as the appearance of his mighty genius, he created our romantic drama, or if the assertion is to be qualified, it requires but a small qualification. There were, undoubtedly, prior occupants of the dramatic ground in our language; but they appear only like unprosperous settlers on the patches and skirts of a wilderness, which he converted into a garden. He is, therefore, never compared with his native predecessors. Criticism goes back for names worthy of being put in competition with his, to the first great masters of dramatic invention; and even in the points of dissimilarity between them and him, discovers some of the highest indications of his genius. Compared with the classical composers of antiquity, he is to our conceptions nearer the character of a universal poet; more acquainted with man in the real world, and more terrific and bewitching in the preternatural. He expanded the magic circle of the drama beyond the limits that belonged to it in antiquity; made it embrace more time and locality; filled it with larger business and action-with vicissitudes of gay and serious emotion, which classical taste had kept divided — with characters which developed humanity in stronger lights and subtler movements — and with a language more wildly, more playfully diversified by fancy and passion, than was ever spoken on any stage. Like Nature herself, he presents alternations of the gay and the tragic; and his mutability, like the suspense and precariousness of real existence, often deepens the force of our impressions. He converted imitation into illusion. To say that, magician as he was, he was not faultless, is only to recal the flat and stale truism, that everything human is imperfect. But how to estimate his imperfections! To praise him is easy — "In facili causa cuivis licet esse diserto" — But to make a special, full, and accurate estimate of his imperfections would require a delicate and comprehensive discrimination, and an authority which are almost as seldom united in one man as the powers of Shakspeare himself. He is the poet of the world. The magnitude of his genius puts it beyond all private opinion to set defined limits to the admiration which is due to it. We know, upon the whole, that the sum of blemishes to be deducted from his merits is not great, and we should scarcely be thankful to one who should be anxious to make it. No other poet triumphs so anomalously over eccentricities and peculiarities in composition which would appear blemishes in others; so that his blemishes and beauties have an affinity which we are jealous of trusting any hand with the task of separating. We dread the interference of criticism with a fascination so often inexplicable by critical laws, and justly apprehend that any man in standing between us and Shakspeare may show for pretended spots upon his disk only the shadows of his own opacity.
Still it is not a part even of that enthusiastic creed, to believe that he has no excessive mixture of the tragic and comic, no blemishes of language in the elliptical throng and impatient pressure of his images, no irregularities of plot and action, which another Shakspeare would avoid, if "nature bad not broken the mould in which she made him," or if he should come back into the world to blend experience with inspiration.
The bare name of the dramatic unities is apt to excite revolting ideas of pedantry, arts of poetry, and French criticism. With none of these do I wish to annoy the reader. I conceive that it may be said of those unities as of fire and water, that they are good servants but bad masters. In perfect rigour they were never imposed by the Greeks, and they would be still heavier shackles if they were closely riveted on our own drama. It would he worse than useless to confine dramatic action literally and immoveably to one spot, or its imaginary time to the time in which it is represented. On the other hand, dramatic time and place cannot surely admit of indefinite expansion. It would be better, for the sake of illusion and probability, to change the scene from Windsor to London, than from London to Pekin; it would look more like reality if a messenger, who went and returned in the course of the play, told us of having performed a journey of ten or twenty, rather than of a thousand miles; and if the spectator had neither that nor any other circumstance to make him ask how so much could be performed in so short a time.
In an abstract view of dramatic art, its principles must appear to lie nearer to unity than to the opposite extreme of disunion, in our conceptions of time and place. Giving up the law of unity in its literal rigour, there is still a latitude of its application which may preserve proportion and harmony in the drama.
The brilliant and able Schlegel has traced the principles of what he denominates the romantic, in opposition to the classical drama and conceives that Shakspeare's theatre, when tried by those principles, will he found not to have violated any of the unities, if they are largely and liberally understood. I have no doubt that Mr. Schlegel's criticism will be found to have proved this point in a considerable number of the works of our mighty poet. There are traits, however, in Shakspeare, which, I must own, appear to my humble judgment incapable of being illustrated by any system or principles of art. I do not allude to his historical plays, which, expressly from being historical, may be called a privileged class. But in those of purer fiction, it strikes me that there are licences conceded indeed to imagination's "chartered libertine," but anomalous with regard to anything which can be recognised as principles in dramatic art. When Perdita, for instance, grows from the cradle to the marriage altar in the course of the play, I can perceive no unity in the design of the piece, and take refuge in the supposition of Shakspeare's genius triumphing and trampling over art. Yet Mr. Schlegel, as far as I have observed, makes no exception to this breach of temporal unity; nor, in proving Shakspeare a regular artist on a mighty scale, does he deign to notice this circumstance, even as the ultima Thale of his licence. If a man contends that dramatic laws are all idle restrictions, I can understand him; or if he says that Perdita's growth on the stage is a trespass on art, but that Shakspeare's fascination over and over again redeems it, I can both understand and agree with him. But when I am left to infer that all this is right on romantic principles, I confess that those principles become too romantic for my conception. If Perdita may be born and married on the stage, why may not Webster's Duchess of Malfi lie-in between the acts, and produce a fine family of tragic children? Her Grace actually does so in Webster's drama, and he is a poet of some genius, though it is not quite so sufficient as Shakspeare's, to give a "sweet oblivious antidote" to such "perilous stuff." It is not, however, either in favour of Shakspeare's or of Webster's genius that we shall be called on to make allowance, if we justify in the drama the lapse of such a number of years as may change the apparent identity of an individual. If romantic unity is to be so largely interpreted, the old Spanish dramas, where youths grow greybeards upon the stage, the mysteries and moralities, and productions teeming with the wildest anachronism, might all come in with their grave or laughable claims to romantic legitimacy.
Et Laberi mimos ut pulchra poemata mirer. — HOR.
On a general view, I conceive it may be said, that Shakspeare nobly and legitimately enlarged the boundaries of time and place in the drama; but in extreme cases, I would rather agree with Cumberland, to waive all mention of his name in speaking of dramatic laws, than accept of those licences for art which are not art, and designate irregularity by the name of order. There were other poets who started nearly coeval with Ben Jonson in the attempt to give a classical form to our drama. Daniel, for instance, brought out his tragedy of Cleopatra in 1594; but his elegant genius wanted the strength requisite for great dramatic efforts. Still more unequal to the task was the Earl of Sterline, who published his cold "monarchic tragedies," in 1604. The triumph of founding English classical comedy belonged exclusively to Jonson. In his tragedies it is remarkable that he freely dispenses with the unities, though in those tragedies he brings classical antiquity In the most distinct and learnedly authenticated traits before our eyes. The vindication of his great poetic memory forms an agreeable contrast in modern criticism with the bold bad things which used to be said of him in a former period; as when Young compared him to a blind Samson, who pulled down the ruins of antiquity on his head and buried his genius beneath them. Hurd, though he inveighed against the too abstract conception of his characters, pronouncing them rather personified humours than natural beings, did him, nevertheless, the justice to quote one short and lovely passage from one of his masques, and the beauty of that passage probably turned the attention of many readers to his then neglected compositions. It is indeed but one of the many beauties which justify all that has been said of Jonson's lyrical powers. In that fanciful region of the drama (the Masque) he stands as pre-eminent as in comedy; or if he can be said to be rivalled, it is only by Milton. And our surprise at the wildness and sweetness of his fancy in one walk of composition is increased by the stern and rigid (sometimes rugged) air of truth which he preserves in the other. In the regular drama he certainly holds up no romantic mirror to nature. His object was to exhibit human characters at once strongly comic and severely and instructively true; to nourish the understanding, while he feasted the sense of ridicule. He is more anxious for verisimilitude than even for comic effect. He understood the humours and peculiarities of his species scientifically, and brought them forward in their greatest contrasts and subtlest modifications. If Shakspeare carelessly scattered illusion, Jonson skilfully prepared it. This is speaking of Jonson in his happiest manner. There is a great deal of harsh and sour fruit in his miscellaneous poetry. It is acknowledged that in the drama he frequently overlabours his delineation of character, and wastes it tediously upon uninteresting humours and peculiarities. He is a moral painter, who delights over much to show his knowledge of moral anatomy. Beyond the pale of his three great dramas, "The Fox," "The Epicene, or Silent Woman," and "The Alchemist," it would not be difficult to find many striking exceptions to that love of truth and probability, which, in a general view, may be regarded as one of his best characteristics. Even within that pale, namely, in his masterly character of Volpone, one is struck with what, if it be not an absolute breach, is at least a very bold stretch, of probability. It is true that Volpone is altogether a being daringly conceived; and those who think that art spoiled the originality of Jonson, may well rectify their opinion by considering the force of imagination which it required to concentrate the traits of such a character as "The Fox;" not to speak of his Mosca, who is the phoenix of all parasites. Volpone himself is netlike the common misers of comedy, a mere money-loving dotard — a hard shrivelled old mummy, with no ether spice than his avarice to preserve him; he is a happy villain, a jolly misanthrope — a little god in his own selfishness, and Mosca is his priest and prophet. Vigorous and healthy, though past the prime of life, he hugs himself in his arch humour, his successful knavery and imposture, his sensuality and his wealth, with an unhallowed relish of selfish existence. His passion for wealth seems not to be so great as his delight in gulling the human "vultures and gorecrows" who flock round him at the imagined approach of his dissolution; the speculators who put their geld, as they conceive, into his dying gripe, to be returned to them a thousand-fold in his will. Yet still, after this exquisite rogue has stood his trial in a sweat of agony at the scrutineum, and blest his stars at having narrowly escaped being put to the torture, there is something (one would think) a little too strong for probability, in that mischievous mirth and love of tormenting his own dupes, which bring him, by his own folly, a second time within the fangs of justice. "The Fox" and "The Alchemist" seem to have divided Jonson's admirers as to which of them may be considered his masterpiece. In confessing my partiality to the prose comedy of "The Silent Woman," considered merely as a comedy, I am by no means forgetful of the rich eloquence which poetry imparts to the two others. But "The Epicene," in my humble apprehension, exhibits Jonson's humour in the most exhilarating perfection. With due admiration for "The Alchemist," I cannot help thinking the jargon of the chemical jugglers, though it displays the learning of the author, to be tediously profuse. "The Fox" rises to something higher than comic effect. It is morally impressive. It detains us at particular points in serious terror and suspense. But "The Epicene" is purely facetious. I knew not, indeed, why we should laugh more at the sufferings of Morose than at those of the sensualist Sir Epicure Mammon, who deserves his miseries much better than the rueful and pitiable Morose. Yet so it is, that, though the feelings of pathos and ridicule seem so widely different, a certain tincture of the pitiable makes comic distress more irresistible. Poor Morose suffers what the fancy of Dante could not have surpassed in description, if he had sketched out a ludicrous Purgatory. A lover of quiet — a man exquisitely impatient of rude sounds and loquacity, who lived in a retired street — who barricadoed his doors with mattresses to prevent disturbance to his ears, and who married a wife because he could with difficulty prevail upon her to speak to him — has hardly tied the fatal knot when his house is tempested by female eloquence, and the marriage of him who had pensioned the city-wakes to keep away from his neighbourhood, is celebrated by a concert of trumpets. He repairs to a court of justice to get his marriage if possible dissolved, but is driven back in despair by the intolerable noise of the court. For this marriage how exquisitely we are prepared by the scene of courtship! When Morose questions his intended bride about her likings and habits of life, she plays her part so hypocritically, that he seems for a moment impatient of her reserve, and with the most ludicrous cross feelings wishes her to speak more loudly, that he may have a proof of her taciturnity from her own lips; but, recollecting himself, he gives way to the rapturous satisfaction of having found a silent woman, and exclaims to Cutbeard, "Go thy ways and get me a clergyman presently, with a soft low voice, to marry us, and pray him he will not be impertinent, but brief as he can."
The art of Jonson was not confined to the cold observation of the unities of place and time, but appears in the whole adaptation of his incidents and characters to the support of each other. Beneath his learning and art he moves with an activity which may be compared to the strength of a man who can leap and bound under the heaviest armour.
The works of Jonson bring us into the seventeenth century; and early in that century, our language, besides the great names already mentioned, contains many other poets whose works may be read with a pleasure independent of the interest which we take in their antiquity.
Drayton and Daniel, though the most opposite in the cast of their genius, are pre-eminent in the second poetical class of their age, for their common merit of clear and harmonious diction. Drayton is prone to Ovidian conceits, but he plays with them so gaily, that they almost seem to become him as if natural. His feeling is neither deep, nor is the happiness of his fancy of long continuance, but its short April gleams are very beautiful. His Legend of the Duke of Buckingham opens with a fine description. Unfortunately, his descriptions in long poems are, like many fine mornings, succeeded by a cloudy day.
The lark, that holds observance to the sun,
Quaver'd her near notes in the quiet air,
And on the river's murmuring base did run,
Whilst the pleased heavens her fairest livery wear
The place such pleasure gently did prepare,
The flowers my smell, the flood my taste to steep,
And the much softness lulled me asleep.
When, in a vision, as it seem'd to me,
Triumphal music from the flood arose.
Of the grand beauties of poetry be has none; but of the sparkling lightness of his best manner an example may be given in the following stanzas, from his sketch of the Poet's Elysium.
A Paradise on earth is found,
Though far from vulgar sight,
Which with those pleasures doth abound,
That it Elysium hight.
The winter here a summer is,
No waste is made by time;
Nor doth the autumn over miss
The blossoms of the prime.
Those cliffs whose craggy sides are clad
With trees of sundry suits,
Which make continual summer glad,
E'en bending with their fruits—
Some ripening, ready some to fill,
Some bloosom'd, some to bloom,
Like gorgeous hangings on the wall
Of some rich princely room.
There, in perpetual summer shade,
Apollo's prophets sit,
Among the flowers that never fade,
But flourish, like their wit
To whom the nymphs, upon their lyres,
Time many a curious lay,
And, with their most melodious quires,
Make short the longest day.
Daniel is "somewhat a-flat," as one of his contemporaries said of him, but he had more sensibility than Drayton, and his moral reflection rises to higher dignity. The lyrical poetry of Elizabeth's age runs often into pastoral insipidity and fantastic carelessness, though there may be found in some of the pieces of Sir Philip Sydney, Lodge, Marlowe, and Breton, not only a sweet wild spirit but an exquisite finish of expression. Of these combined beauties Marlowe's song, "Come live with me, and be my love," is an example. The "Soul's Errand," by whomsoever it was written, is a burst of genuine poetry. I know not how that short production has ever affected other readers, but it carries to my imagination an appeal which I cannot easily account for from a few simple rhymes. It places the last and inexpressibly awful hour of existence before my view, and sounds like a sentence of vanity on the things of this world, pronounced by a dying man, whose eye glares on eternity, and whose voice is raised by strength from another world. Raleigh, also (according to Puttenham), had a "lofty and passionate" vein. It is difficult, however, to authenticate his poetical relics. Of the numerous sonnetteers of that time (keeping Shakspeare and Spenser apart), Drummond and Daniel are certainly the best. Hall was the master satirist of the age; obscure and quaint at times, but full of nerve and picturesque illustration. No contemporary satirist has given equal grace and dignity to moral censure. Very unequal to him in style, though often as original in thought, and as graphic in exhibiting manners, is Donne, some of whose satires have been modernized by Pope. Corbet has left some humorous pieces of raillery on the Puritans. Wither, all fierce and fanatic on the opposite side, has nothing more to recommend him in invective, than the sincerity of that zeal for God's house, which ate him up. Marston, better known in the drama than in satire, was characterised by his contemporaries for his ruffian style. He has more will than skill in invective. "He puts in his blows with love," as the pugilists say of a hard but artless fighter; a degrading image, but on that account not the less applicable to a coarse satirist.
Donne was the "best good-natured man, with the worst-natured Muse." A romantic and uxorious lover, he addresses the object of his real tenderness with ideas that outrage decorum. He begins his own epithalamium with a most indelicate invocation to his bride. His ruggedness and whim are almost proverbially known. Yet there is a beauty of thought which at intervals rises from his chaotic imagination, like the form of Venus smiling on the waters. Giles and Phineas Fletcher possessed harmony and fancy. The simple Warner has left, in his "Argentile and Curan," perhaps the finest pastoral episode in our language. Browne was an elegant describer of rural scenes, though incompetent to fill them with life and manners. Chalkhill is a writer of pastoral romance, from whose work of Thealma and Clearchus a specimen should have been given in the body of these Selections, but was omitted by an accidental oversight. Chalkhill's numbers are as musical as those of any of his contemporaries, who employ the same form of versification. It was common with the writers of the heroic couplet of that age to bring the sense to a full and frequent pause in the middle of the line. This break, by relieving the uniformity of the couplet measure, sometimes produces a graceful effect and a varied harmony which we miss in the exact and unbroken tune of our later rhyme; a beauty of which the reader will probably be sensible, in perusing such lines of Chalkhill's as these:—
And ever and anon he might well hear
A sound of music steal in at his ear,
As the wind gave it being. So sweet an air
Would strike a siren mute—.
This relief, however, is used rather too liberally by the elder rhymists, and is perhaps as often the result of their carelessness as of their good taste. Nor is it at all times obtained by them without the sacrifice of one of the most important uses of rhyme; namely, the distinctness of its effect in marking the measure. The chief source of the gratification which the ear finds in rhyme is our perceiving the emphasis of sound coincide with that of sense. In other words, the rhyme is best placed on the most emphatic word in the sentence. But it is nothing unusual with the ancient couplet writers, by laying the rhyme on unimportant words, to disappoint the ear of this pleasure, and to exhibit the restraint of rhyme without its emphasis.
As a poetical narrator of fiction, Chalkhill is rather tedious; but he atones for the slow progress of his narrative by many touches of rich and romantic description.
FROM "THEALMA AND CLEARCHUS."
DESCRIPTION OF THE PRIESTESS OF DIANA.
Within a little silent grove hard by,
Upon a small ascent, he might espy
A stately chapel, richly gilt without,
Beset with shady sycamores about;
And ever and anon he might well hear
A sound of music steal in at his ear,
As the wind gave it being. So sweet an air
Would strike a siren mute, and ravish her.
He sees no creature that might canoe the same,
But he was sure that from the grove it came,
And to the grove he goes to satisfy
The curiosity of ear and eye.
Thorough the thick-leaved boughs he makes a way,
Nor could the scratching brambles make him stay,
But on he rushes, and climbs up a hill,
Thorough a glade. He saw and heard his fill—
A hundred virgins there he might espy,
Prostrate before a marble deity,
Which, by its portraiture, appear'd to be
The image of Diana. On their knee
They tended their devotions with sweet airs,
Offering the incense of their praise and prayers,
Their garments all alike.
And cross their snowy silken robes they wore
An azure scarf, with stars emhroider'd o'er;
Their hair in curious tresses was knot up,
Crown'd with a silver crescent on the top;
A silver bow their left hand held, their right,
For their defence, hold a sharp-headed flight
Under their vestments, something short before,
While buskins, laced with ribbanding, they wore;
It was a catching sight to a young eye,
That Love had fix'd before. He might espy
One whom the root had, sphere-like, circled round,
Whose head was with a golden chaplet crown'd:
Be could not see her face, only his ear
Was blest with the sweet words that came from her.
THE IMAGE OF JEALOUSY IN THE CHAPEL OF DIANA.
—A curious eye
Might see some relics of a piece of art
That Psyche made, when Love first fired her heart;
It was the story of her thoughts, that she
Curiously wrought in lively imagery;
Among the rest she thought of Jealousy,
Time left untouch'd to grace antiquity,
She was decypher'd by a tim'rous dame,
Wrapt in a yellow mantle lined with flame;
Her looks were pale, contracted with a frown,
Her eyes suspicious, wandering up and down;
Behind her Fear attended, big with child,
Able to fright Presumption if she smiled;
After her flew a sigh between two springs
Of briny waters. On her dove-like wings
She bore a letter seal'd with a half moon,
And superscribed — this from Suspicion.
ABODE OF THE WITCH CHANDRA.
Her cell was hewn out in the marble reek
By more than human art. She need not knock—
The door stood always open, large and wide,
Grown o'er with woolly moss on either side,
And interwove with ivy's flattering twines,
Through which the carbuncle and diamond shines;
Not set by art, but there by Nature sown
At the world's birth; so starlike bright they shone,
They served instead of tapers, to give light
To the dark entry.
—In they went:
The ground was strewn with flowers, whose sweet scent,
Mixt with the choice perfumes from India brought,
Intoxicates his brains, and quickly caught
His credulous sense. The walls were gilt, and set
With precious stones, and all the roof was fret
With a gold vine, whose straggling branches spread
O'er all the arch — the swelling grapes were red;
This art had made of rubies, cluster'd so,
To the quickest eye they more than seem'd to grow.
About the wails lascivious pictures hung,
Such as whereof loose Ovid sometimes sung;
On either side a crew of dwarfish elves
Held waxen tapers taller than themselves,
Yet so well shaped unto their little stature,
So angel-like in face, ass sweet in feature,
Their rich attire so differing, yet so well
Becoming her that wore it, none could tell
Which was the fairest.
After a low salute they all 'gan sing,
And circle in the stranger in a ring;
Orandra to her charms was slept aside,
Leaving her guest half won, and wanton eyed:
He had forgot his herb-cunning delight
Had so bewitch'd his ears, and blear'd his sight,
That he was not himself.
—Unto his view
She represents a banquet, usher'd in
By such a shape as she was sure would win
His appetite to taste — so like she was
To his Clarinda both in shape and face,
So voiced, so habited — of the same gait
And comely gesture.
—Hardly did he refrain
From sucking in destruction at her lip;
Sin's cup will poison at the smallest sip.
She weeps and woos again with subtleness,
And with a frown she chides his backwardness:
Have you (said she( sweet prince, so soon forgot
Your own beloved Clarinda? Are you not
The sauce you were, that you so slightly set
By her that once you made the cabinet
Of your choice counsel? Hath some worthier love
Stole your affections? What is it should move
You to dislike so soon? Must still taste
No ether dish but sorrow? When we last
Emptied our souls into each other's breast,
It was not so,
—With that she wept afresh—
—She seem'd to fall into a swound;
And stooping down to raise her from the ground,
He puts his herb into his mouth, whose taste
Soon changed his mind: he lifts her — but in vain,
His hands fell off, and she fell down again:
With that she lent him such a frown as would
Have kill'd a common lover, and made cold
Even lust itself.
—The lights went out,
And darkness hung the chamber round about:
A yelling, hellish noise was each where heard.
In classical translation Phaer and Golding were the earliest successors of Lord Surrey. Phaer published his "Virgil" in 1562, and Golding his "Ovid" three years later. Both of these translators, considering the state of the language, have considerable merit. Like them, Chapman, who came later, employed in his version of the "Iliad" the fourteen-syllable rhyme, which was then in favourite use. Of the three translators, Phaer is the most faithful and simple, Golding the most musical, and Chapman the most spirited; though Chapman is prone to the turgid, and often false to the sense of Homer. Phaer's Aeneid has been praised by a modern writer, in the "Lives of the Nephews of Milton," with absurd exaggeration. I have no wish to disparage the fair value of the old translator; but when the biographer of Milton's nephews declares, "that nothing in language or conception can exceed the style in which Phaer treats of the last day of the existence of Troy," I know of no answer to this assertion but to give the reader the very passage which is pronounced so inimitable — although, to save myself farther impediment in the text, I must subjoin it in a note.
The harmony of Fairfax is justly celebrated. Joshua Sylvester's version of the "Divine Weeks and Works" of the French poet Dubartas was among the most popular of our early translations; and the obligations which Milton is alleged to have owed to it, have revived Sylvester's name with some interest in modern criticism. Sylvester was a puritan, and so was the publisher of his work, Humphrey Lownes, who lived in the same street with Milton's father; and from the congeniality of their opinions, it is not improbable that they might be acquainted. It is easily to be conceived that Milton often repaired to the shop of Lownes, and there first met with the pious didactic poem. Lauder was the earliest to trace Milton's particular thoughts and expressions to Sylvester; and, as might be expected, maliciously exaggerated them. Later writers took up the subject with a very different spirit. Mr. Todd, the learned editor of Spenser, noticed in a number of the Gentleman's Magazine [author's note: For November, 1796], the probability of Milton's early acquaintance with the translation of Dubartas's poem; and Mr. Dunster has since, in his "Essay on Milton's early reading," supported the opinion, that the same work contains the Prima stamina of Paradise Lost, and laid the first foundation of that "monumentum aera perennius." Thoughts and expressions there certainly are in Milton, which leave his acquaintance with Sylvester hardly questionable; although some of the expressions quoted by Mr. Dunster, which are common to them both, may be traced back to other poets elder than Sylvester. The entire amount of his obligations, as Mr. Dunster justly admits, cannot detract from our opinion of Milton. If Sylvester ever stood high in his favour, it must have been when he was very young. The beauties which occur so strangely intermixed with bathos and flatness in Sylvester's poem, might have caught the youthful discernment, and long dwelt in the memory, of the great poet. But he must have perused it with disgust at Sylvester's general manner. Many of his epithets and happy phrases were really worthy of Milton; but by far the greater proportion of his thoughts and expressions have a quaintness and flatness more worthy of Quarles and Wither.
The following lines may serve as no favourable specimens of his translation of Dubartas's poem.
PROBABILITY OF THE CELESTIAL ORBS BRING INHABITED.
I not believe that the great architect
With all these fires the heavenly arches deck'd
Only for show, and with these glistering shields
T' amaze poor shepherds, watching in the fields;
I not believe that the least flower which pranks
Our garden borders, or our common banks,
And the least stone, that in her warming lap
Our mother earth doth covetously wrap,
Hath some peculiar virtue of its own,
And that the glorious stars of Heaven have none.
THE SERPENT'S ADDRESS TO EVE WHEN HE TEMPTED HER IN EDEN.
As a false lover, that thick snares hath laid
T' entrap the honour of a fair young maid,
If she (though little( list'ning ear affords
To his sweet-courting, deep-affecting words,
Feels some assuaging of his ardent flame,
And sooths himself with hopes to win his game,
While, wrapt with joy, he on his point persists,
That parleying city never long resists—
Even so the serpent. * * *
Perceiving Eve his flattering gloze digest,
He prosecutes, and jocund doth not rest.
No, Fair (quoth he), believe not that the care
God hath from spoiling Death mankind to spare
Makes him forbid you, on such strict condition,
His purest, rarest, fairest fruit's fruition.
Begin thy bliss, and do not fear the threat
Of an uncertain Godhead, only great
Through self-awed zeal — put on the glist'ning pall
Arise betimes, while th' opal-colour'd morn
In golden pomp doth May-day's door adorn.
The "opal-colour'd morn" is a beautiful expression, that I do not remember any other poet to have ever used.
The school of poets which is commonly called the metaphysical, began in the reign of Elizabeth with Donne; but the term of metaphysical poetry would apply with much more justice to the quatrains of Sir John Davies, and those of Sir Fulke Greville, writers who, at a later period, found imitators in Sir Thomas Overbury and Sir William Davenant. Davies's poem on the Immortality of the Soul, entitled "Nosce teipsum," will convey a much more favourable idea of metaphysical poetry than the wittiest effusions of Donne and his followers. Davies carried abstract reasoning into verse with an acuteness and felicity which have seldom been equalled. He reasons, undoubtedly, with too much labour, formality, and subtlety, to afford uniform poetical pleasure. The generality of his stanzas exhibit hard arguments interwoven with the pliant materials of fancy so closely, that we may compare them to a texture of cloth and metallic threads, which is cold and stiff, while it is splendidly curious. There is this difference, however, between Davies and the commonly styled metaphysical poets, that he argues like a hard thinker, and they, for the most part, like madmen. If we conquer the drier parts of Davies's poem, and bestow a little attention on thoughts which were meant, not to gratify the indolence, but to challenge the activity of the mind, we shall find in the entire essay fresh beauties at every perusal: for in the happier parts we come to logical truths so well illustrated by ingenious similes, that we know not whether to call the thoughts more poetically or philosophically just. The judgment and fancy are reconciled, and the imagery of the poem seems to start more vividly from the surrounding shades of abstraction.
Such were some of the first and inferior luminaries of that brilliant era of our poetry, which, perhaps, in general terms, may be said to cover about the last quarter of the sixteenth, and the first quarter of the seventeenth century; and which, though commonly called the age of Elizabeth, comprehends many writers belonging to the reign of her successor. The romantic spirit, the generally unshackled style, and the fresh and fertile genius of that period, are not to be called in question. On the other hand, there are defects in the poetical character of the age, which, though they may disappear or be of little account amidst the excellencies of its greatest writers, are glaringly conspicuous in the works of their minor contemporaries. In prolonged narrative and description the writers of that age are peculiarly deficient in that charm, which is analogous to "keeping" in pictures. Their warm and cold colours are generally without the gradations which should make them harmonize. They fall precipitately from good to bad thoughts, from strength to imbecility. Certainly they are profuse in the detail of natural circumstances, and in the utterance of natural feelings. For this we love them, and we should love them still more if they knew where to stop in description and sentiment. But they give out the dregs of their mind without reserve, till their fairest conceptions are overwhelmed by a rabble of mean associations. At no period is the mass of vulgar mediocrity in poetry marked by more formal gallantry, by grosser adulation, or by coarser satire. Our amatory strains in the time of Charles the Second may be more dissolute, but those of Elizabeth's age often abound in studious and prolix licentiousness. Nor are examples of this solemn and sedate impurity to be found only in the minor poets: our reverence for Shakspeare himself need not make it necessary to disguise that he willingly adopted that style in his youth, when he wrote his Venus and Adonis.
The fashion of the present day is to solicit public esteem not only for the best and better, but for the humblest and meanest writers of the age of Elizabeth. It is a bad book which has not something good in it; and even some of the worst writers of that period have their twinkling beauties. In one point of view, the research among such obscure authors is undoubtedly useful. It tends to throw incidental lights on the great old poets, and on the manners, biography, and language of the country. So far all is well — but as a matter of taste, it is apt to produce illusion and disappointment. Men like to make the most of the slightest beauty which they can discover in an obsolete versifier; and they quote perhaps the solitary good thought which is to be found in such a writer, omitting any mention of the dreary passages which surround it. Of course it becomes a lamentable reflection, that so valuable an old poet should have been forgotten. When the reader however repairs to him, he finds that there are only one or two grains of gold in all the sands of this imaginary Pactolus. But the display of neglected authors has not been even confined to glimmering beauties; it has been extended to the reprinting of large and heavy masses of dulness. Most wretched works have been praised in this enthusiasm for the obsolete; even the dullest works of the meanest contributors to the "Mirror for Magistrates." It seems to be taken for granted, that the inspiration of the good old times descended to the very lowest dregs of its versifiers; whereas the bad writers of Elizabeth's age are only more stiff and artificial than those of the preceding, and more prolix than those of the succeeding period.
Yet there are men, who, to all appearance, would wish to revive such authors — not for the mere use of the antiquary, to whom every volume may be useful, but as standards of manner, and objects of general admiration. Books, it is said, take up little room. In the library this may be the case; but it is not so in the minds and time of those who peruse them. Happily indeed, the task of pressing indifferent authors on the public attention is a fruitless one. They may be dug up from oblivion, but life cannot be put into their reputations. "Can these bones live?" Nature will have her course, and dull books will be forgotten, in spite of bibliographers.