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ELIZABETH, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, succeeded to the throne of England upon the death of her sister, Mary, November 17, 1558. The curiosity of historians has esploited her weaknesses. She was to the end of her life inordinately vain, drinking in without qualms the most fulsome flattery; she was at times as undignified as the lowest peasant in her realm, as when she flaunted her flirtations before the court or cursed like a fishwife in the council chamber; she was without religious feeling; she was the past-master of diplomatic duplicity; she was devoid of a sense of gratitude, as was shown, for example, when she allowed Walsingham, who had sacrificed his whole fortune for her sake, to spend his last days in abject poverty. These are but a few of the charges an able chronicler of her time can bring against Elizabeth. To offset these, however, her virtues and successes redeemed England from a state of degradation and raised it to the highest pinnacle of fame throughout Europe. She was masculine in her undaunted courage and tenacity of purpose; she had rare intuitive skill in selecting her councilors, so that those who sat about Elizabeth's council board represented the ablest men in the kingdom; her personal religious indifference gave England peace when in the great rival countries persecution was the order of the day; her conscienceless mendacity enabled her to outwit the shrewdest diplomatists of Europe at a period when intrigue and duplicity were synonymous with statecraft; her love of splendor and parade actually raised her in the love and esteem of her loyal subjects; her wide range of intellectual interests and her directness of vision and finesse of conversation, made her the center of the most brilliant court of the time in the world. She wholly dominated her environment. Her long reign, from 1558 to 1603, is rightly designated as the Elizabethan age, whether we write of economic progress, political progress, or literary progress.
In Elizabethan England literature flourished. The thrill of a new renaissance inspired the poets. The growth of the nation in power and wealth fostered the increase of a keenly intelligent leisure class able to appreciate and willing to support literature of all kinds. Prose, poetry, and drama of a kind unexcelled in our history abounded. The Elizabethan is really the golden age of English letters. Foremost among the poets of the period was Edmund Spenser. He was acknowledged in his own lifetime to be first among the English poets, and in common literary judgment to-day, he ranks with Chaucer, Milton, and Wordsworth as among the greatest in our history.
In a discussion of the facts of Spenser's life we are confronted with a condition very like that met in the discussion of Chaucer: — we can gather from official records a number of dry dates and we can supplement these by a few autobiographical references in his poetry, but in the end the intimate nature of the man eludes us. We cannot place his birth-date or birthplace exactly; we face a disagreement in the exact date of his death; we have never learned the name or character of the northern lass the love of whom had for a long time a marked influence on bis work; and we know only the most sensational events of his long sojourn in Ireland.
Edmund Spenser was born in London about the year 1552, six years before the accession of Elizabeth to the English throne. He was thus of about the same age as Raleigh (b. 1552), Hooker and Sidney (b. 1554), and Bacon (b. 1561). His father, John Spenser, was apparently a clothmaker or tailor and a member of the great and influential London Guild of Merchant Tailors. His father's membership in the Guild enabled Edmund to be admitted to the excellent Merchant Tailor's School in the city. It is certain that his family was not wealthy, for the records of the expenditures of a certain Robert Nowell, a rich and charitable London citizen, are extant, containing items advanced to “Edmund Spensore, scholler of the m'chante tayler scholl.”
In 1569 he entered Pembroke College, Cambridge. Little is known of his college career, but from what we understand to have been the character of the curriculum at that time we can realize how little it fostered the genius of the poet. The college was a hotbed of religious controversy, Calvinism being taught as the only acceptable Protestant doctrine in defiance of the ritual of the established Anglican Church. Roman Catholic emissaries were abroad in the land, attacking the rights of the queen and fomenting rebellion against her in favor of Mary Stuart. The university seethed with factional quarrels. Spenser himself seems to have been out of sympathy with the extremes of Puritanism preached by one group at the college and to have accepted a kind of modified Puritanism which allowed him without scruple to enjoy the gayety and gallantry of the social life of the time.
In 1576 he left Cambridge with his master's degree. He seems then to have gone to the north of England for a visit, perhaps to some of the more influential relatives of his family in that part of England. His poetry bears witness to the fact that while he was on this visit he fell passionately in love with one “Rosalind," whose identity has never been disclosed. His suit was rejected, but his love for this unknown “Rosalind” had a great influence upon him and upon his work for many years thereafter.
His career as a man of letters had in a small way begun before this. Even when he was in college he had published verse of unusual polish and fluency. In 1578 he left the north of England for London in the hope of preferment at court. His hope was not entirely unreasonable: he had made a success in Cambridge, he had already published verse of great promise, and his family connections in the country insured him an entrance into the court life. We find him successful in gaining the patronage of the Earl of Leicester, the favorite with the queen, and in making the acquaintance of such gentlemen as Sir Philip Sidney and Lord Strange of court circles. In 1579 The Shepheard's Calendar appeared and showed a fulfillment of the promise of Spenser's youth.
It may safely be said that The Shepheard's Calendar was the most notable single contribution to English poetry since Chaucer. Framed after the classical models of Theocritus and Virgil, the Calendar contains twelve eclogues, one for each month. Of the twelve, three treat of his own futile love, three are upon general subjects, -as old age, the perfect pattern of a poet, and the like, — three are upon religious questions, one celebrates the queen, one is a love poem, and one is an elegy. In his rustic simplicity of diction and style Spenser imitated Chaucer, from whom indeed he professes to have learned his art, but in his models he reflects the great influence of the revival of learning in Europe. This collection of pastoral poems shows a variety and melody of verse and language which set it at once above the works of his contemporaries. It was produced at a time when an example of great poetry was most needed, for the two centuries that had elapsed since Chaucer had been barren. Its effect upon subsequent poetry was marked by the production of many pastorals of a similar style. The influence of Spenser's Shepheard's Calendar can be distinctly traced in Milton's Lycidas.
Spenser's prospects upon the publication of The Shepheard's Calendar must have seemed bright. His patron was a favorite with the queen, his poem had immediately won the favor of the foremost circles of the day, and he had actually made enough money by his publication to render him comfortable for the time. Some strong influence, however, seems to have blocked him. It has been a tradition that Lord Burghley, the treasurer under Elizabeth, opposed his preferment because of his friendship with the Earl of Leicester. All that Spenser procured was the office of private secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton when the latter was appointed Lord Deputy to Ireland in 1580.
To a man of Spenser's tastes, especially when these tastes had been whetted by two years in the polished society of London, continued residence in Ireland was the equivalent of dreary exile from all that was most congenial. He was separated from inspiring contact with the greatest minds of all English literature and set down amid a sullen, rebellious people animated by the bitterest hostility toward the English. Although Spenser seems to have prospered materially in Ireland — was Clerk of Degrees and Recognizances in the Irish Court of Chancery, 1581-88; Clerk to the Council of Munster, 1588 to about 1592; Sheriff of Cork, 1598; received a grant of Kilcolman Castle and three thousand acres about 1588 on which he resided for many years, — we have indisputable evidence that he did not consider himself happy. He made repeated trips to London, ostensibly to arrange for the publication of the separate parts of The Faerie Queene, but equally for the purpose of seeking preferment in London, and in a poem written near the close of his life we find him referring to himself as one
whom sullein care,
Spenser's greatest work, The Faerie Queene, was begun about 1580. By 1589 three books were completed and Spenser made a protracted visit to London to present them to the publisher and to have them brought to the queen's attention. We can imagine what an oasis this must have been in Spenser's life. Again he was in the midst of the society of London, a more brilliant society than ever before; again his poetry gained immediate favor; again his hopes for preferment must have risen high. It is not too much to suppose that on this trip Spenser made the acquaintance of the young but popular Shakespeare. Spenser had in Ireland cultivated the friendship of Sir Walter Raleigh and may have met Shakespeare through Raleigh's influence, or, Spenser being under the patronage at this time of the Earl of Essex and Shakespeare under that of the Earl of Southampton, their respective patrons may have brought them together. It is interesting to think of these two poets, one immortal in all literature and the other recognized as of the highest rank in English literature, meeting in those great days of England.
Spenser's stay in London lasted about two years. In 1591 we find him back again at his post in Ireland. A few years later begins the love recorded in more than eighty amoretti, or sonnets. In June of 1594 his love was crowned by marriage with Elizabeth Boyle, and his joy at his success was expressed in the glorious Epithalamion. A year later he again journeyed to London, probably with his wife, to arrange for the publication of another section of The Faerie Queen and to seek preferment. This visit lasted less than a year and, so far as preferment was concerned, was as futile as his former attempts. He returned to his estate in Ireland in 1596.
The closing days of his life were peculiarly terrible. In 1598 one of the rebellious mobs attacked Kilcolman Castle and burned it to the ground. It was rumored in London that in the fire one of Spenser's children was burned alive. Spenser fled, ruined financially and broken in spirit by his loss. Again he went to London, where, either at the end of 1598 or in the early days of 1599, he died in poor lodgings. Ben Jonson is reported by Drummond to have said: “That the Irish having rob'd Spenser's goods, and burnt his house and a little child new born, he and his wyfe escaped: and after, he died for lake of bread in King Street, and refused 20 pieces sent to him by my Lord of Essex, and said, He was sorrie he had no time to spend them.”
The original inscription on the tomb in Westminister Abbey read as follows: “Heare lyes (expecting the second comminge of our Saviour Jesus) the body of Edmond Spenser, the prince of poets in his tyme, whose divine spirit needs noe other witnesse than the works which he left behinde him, he was borne in London in the year 1552, and died in the yeare
In a dramatic age, Spenser stands out as the one great non-dramatic poet. Removed by fortune from the influences of the English court life to the cold and uninviting environment of Ireland, he there wove the figures of his imagination into poetry. He claimed Chaucer as his father in poetry, as was the fashion with many poets of the fifteenth century, but he is radically different from Chaucer. Chaucer's poetry is of the open air, fresh, bright, clear, direct, active; Spenser's is of the drawing-room, polished, refined, dreamy, imaginative. Chaucer was master of the story-teller's art, contrived his situations with dramatic foresight and carried on his plot with vigor and speed; Spenser often lost himself in the succession of rich images that floated before his mind; his story lapsed while he dreamed. Spenser is truly the poet who appeals to poets more than to the general reader. To the latter, accustomed to rapidity of plot and interesting complication of incident, the poem soon becomes tedious: the reader reads so much and goes such a little way on his journey. But to the poet, the exquisite harmony of the language and the richness of the pictures sustains the interest to the end. No English poet has been gifted with a more fertile imagination or with a more delicate ear. “He bas had more idolatry and imitation from his brethren," says Leigh Hunt, “than all the rest put together. The old undramatic poets, Drayton, Browne, Drummond, Giles and Phineas Fletcher, were as full of him as the dramatic were of Shakespeare. Milton studied and used him, calling him the ‘sage and serious Spenser'; and adding, that he ‘dared be known to think him a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.' Cowley said that he became a poet by reading him. Dryden claimed him for a master. Pope said he read him with as much pleasure when he was old, as young; Collins and Gray loved him; Thomson, Shenstone, and a host of inferior writers, expressly imitated him; Burns, Byron, Shelley, and Keats made use of his stanza; Coleridge eulogized him; and he is as dear to the best living poets as he was to their predecessors. Spenser has stood all the changes in critical opinion; all the logical and formal conclusions of the understanding, as opposed to imagination and lasting sympathy."
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE ENGLAND has the honor of contributing one name to the trio of world poets, Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. In depth of vision, fullness of sympathy, perfection of art, and universality of appeal, in short, in all the characteristics of a true poet, these three stand foremost.
William Shakespeare was baptized in the little church of his birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon, April 26, 1564. He was probably two or three days old at the time, so that the date of his birth can be placed with considerable certainty as April 23, 1564. His father, John Shakespeare, at the time of Shakespeare's birth seems to have been a well-to-do trader in farm produce of Stratford, a man of considerable importance in the little town, being High Bailiff in 1568; his mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a landowner in the neighboring village of Wilmcote.
Of Shakespeare's youth and education, we know very little. He would naturally attend the schools of the town and receive the usual drill in Latin grammar and literature, studying Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Seneca, etc. We have evidence from the records of the town to show that when Shakespeare was about ten years old his father's good fortune ceased and John Shakespeare began to sink into hopeless financial difficulties. It is fair to presume that under these circumstances the boy was taken from school to help the family fortunes. This presumption coincides with the statement of a contemporary (Aubrey, d. 1697): “I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbors that when he was a boy he exercised his father's trade."
Our next certain knowledge of Shakespeare is of his marriage in the autumn of 1582 to Anne Hathaway, a woman about eight years older than he. She was the daughter of a farmer of Shottery, a near-by village. May 26, 1583, Shakespeare's first child, Susanna, was baptized in Stratford, and February 2, 1585, his twin children, Hamnet and Judith.
Some time between 1585 and 1587 Shakespeare left Stratford for London and was temporarily swallowed up in the maelstrom of the city life. When he emerged in 1592, it was as a rising young dramatist.
The reasons for his leaving Stratford cannot be known with any certainty. A credible tradition states that he was prosecuted for deer-stealing in the park of the great landowner of the district, Sir Thomas Lucy, and retorted by lampooning the knight. The prosecution being thereupon pressed with extra rigor, Shakespeare was forced to flee from Stratford. There is nothing inherently improbable in this tradition, and yet we have no evidence to prove it a fact. It first appeared in full in Rowe's account of Shakespeare's life in 1709, almost a century after Shakespeare had died. If we disregard this legend, we can find logical reasons for Shakespeare leaving Stratford in the love for play-acting inspired by seeing in Stratford during his young manhood, the King's Company, the Earl of Worcester's Company, and other companies of actors, and in a natural desire to try his fortunes in the great London world when his father's failures made a prospect of success in his little village doubtful.
London could not at first have looked kindly on a boy in his early twenties coming from a small country village. Such a boy would be left to starve or to fight his way as best he could. Tradition relates that his first work was as holder of horses at the theater entrances. Goldsmith alludes to an early existence among the Axe Lane beggars, but no other foundation for this statement is known.
By 1592 Shakespeare had become a member of an acting company of recognized reputation and was actually engaged in writing plays or patching up old plays for his fellow actors. We have a contemporary record to prove that his success thus early had inspired jealousy among his fellow playwrights. Robert Greene (d. September, 1592) refers to “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his conceit the only Shakescene in a countrie ..." The expression “Tygers heart," etc., occurs in The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke and in 3 Henry VI. The point of the attack on Shakespeare (alluded to in Johannes Factotum and Shakescene) lies in the reference to his being used to work over old plays for his company. · From this period his progress was rapid. In 1594 he and his company played before the queen; the dedication of his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece shows that he had come under the patronage of the Earl of Southampton; bis acting company became in 1594 the Lord Chamberlain's Company, and later, in 1603, His Majesty's Company; and from 1595 on a steady stream of pirated editions of his plays and poems, and in some cases of plays or poems never written by him, testifies to his popularity. Numerous contemporary references support the evidence just mentioned. For example, Francis Meres in his Wit's Treasury (Palladis Tamia, 1598) wrote:“... the sweete wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare; witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private friends, etc. As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latines, so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage. ..."
It is probable that in the years of Shakespeare's success his thoughts often turned back to his boyhood home. His father's affairs had become more and more involved. The records show that John Shakespeare was deeply in debt and was sued in the courts on various occasions. Even before Shakespeare had left Stratford for London, his father had lost by the foreclosure of mortgages certain farms in the near-by villages of Snitterfield and Ashbies, and by the beginning of 1586 he had no property which could be attached for debt. Suddenly, in 1596, the lawsuits stopped, so that we are led to believe that the successful son in London went to his father's aid. This deduction is further supported by the known fact that in the same year the father applied to the College of Heralds for the grant of a coat of arms. Three years later, 1599, an application for an "exemplification” of the Shakespeare coat of arms was successful, and John Shakespeare became John Shakespeare, Gent., bestowing, of course, the same distinction on his son.
The researches of Professor Charles William Wallace have unearthed from the documents in the Public Record Office of London a number of papers bearing on a lawsuit in which Christopher Mountjoy, Shakespeare's landlord in London, was defendant and Shakespeare himself a witness. From these papers we learn that Shakespeare boarded with the Mountjoys within five minutes' walk of St. Paul's Cathedral in a highly respectable neighborhood during the years (about 1598 to 1604) when he wrote his greatest plays.
Evidence of Shakespeare's prosperity during this period, in fact during his whole life from 1594 on, is not lacking. Besides his income as an actor and a playwright, he was, from about 1599, a shareholder in the Blackfriars Theater and in the Globe Theater. These investments were very profitable, probably amounting to as much as five hundred pounds a year. The
1 Cf. Shakespeare Allusion Book. J. Munro, Editor. London, 1909.