« AnteriorContinuar »
lower class, that he knew all their feelings, and had shared their life. He does not flatter them, and tells them in plain terms of their laziness and extravagance, and want of foresight in good times. Yet he sees the dignity of labour ; he complains of the rich and selfish prelates who care nothing for their flocks; he upbraids the haughty knights who do not defend the poor, but plunder them. He would have the clergy learned and hardworking; the knights true to king and country, and ready to defend the down-trodden; the labourer is ready to till the ground for them, but let those who will do nought but idle be put to death. Langland is earnest and energetic, and his descriptions are so lifelike that we cannot help feeling their truth. But he has not the grace and poetry of Chaucer. It was Chaucer's object, as one of his followers tells us, “out of our tongue to avoiden (to expel) 'all rudeness.” But Langland attempted nothing of the sort. His language has more of the dialectical English of the transition period in it than Chaucer's has; he keeps to the old alliteration (or rhyme by means of words beginning with the same letter), as used in the Old English, rather than the similar endings of lines in which Chaucer's rhyme consists. He is not poetical, except sometimes by his very earnestness ; but he is forcible and vigorous, and his Vision of Piers the Ploughman' is the best illustration we have of the feelings prevailing in the middle classes during the reign of Richard II.
2. Another contemporary of Chaucer was John
Gower. He was a quiet country gentleman, who, though he saw the corruptions of the Church and wrote against them, was yet far more alarmed by the movements amongst the people which those corruptions provoked. He seems to have been a timid man, set in
difficult time. He saw three languages in use around him, the French, the Latin, and the new English ; he felt that the English language was that to be encouraged, and yet he was not sure enough of this to trust to it, so he wrote a long poem in each of those languages. Of these the Latin and the English poems only remain. His English poem is very prolix, and indeed very dull. He was learned; but he makes so confessio much parade of learning, and that with so little judgment, that he falls into mere pedantry. He evidently writes as a labour, not naturally. He saw faults on both sides in the disputes of his time, but he was not earnest enough to side with either party. He began his poem at Richard II.'s order, but he dedicated it to Henry IV., who, before it was finished, had deposed Richard.
3. Amongst Chaucer's contemporaries we have writers of English prose as well as of English poetry. The first prose writer was Sir John Mandeville, who Sir John followed up his Latin and French accounts of his 1300–1372. travels by an English translation of them. English is easily intelligible to us, so much is it affected by the changes that had already come over the language. So it is also with the translation of the
Wiclif. Bible in which Wielif had at least the largest share. 1321–1384
Occleve. 1370-1454. Lydgate. 1375-1460.
The translation had the effect of making that mixed language, which must at first have been confined to an audience of the higher ranks, more popular with the mass of the nation. Although superseded, of course, by the later and authorized version, which is a model of classic English, yet in its own day the influence of this translation of Wiclif can hardly have been inferior to the influence of Chaucer and his poetry.
4. The decay of this early outburst of literary activity was not long in making its appearance. Two poets, who were about thirty years old at the death of Chaucer, kept the poetry of England alive, though rather feebly, down to the middle of the fifteenth century. These were Thomas Occleve and John Lydgate. The first was a gay spendthrift, whose salary as clerk of the council was not sufficient to meet his expenses, and who takes us into his confidence, and tells us of his follies and distresses in verse that is not without liveliness and touches of fun. The second –Lydgate-was a monk, and of a graver cast, whose longer poems were written at the command of his patron, the Duke of Gloucester, and consisted of long tragedies, in woful tales of wrecked fortunes, sad falls of princes, and the sack of cities. But he found time, too, for what was a profitable employment for the poet, celebrating city pageants, or writing verses to recount the miracles of some saint whose monastery would repay him for the advertisement. Literature in a fierce and warlike time (during the wars of the Roses) was compelled to have recourse to any shifts to gain
a livelihood. Occleve and Lydgate were themselves greatly inferior to Chaucer, and they had no successors who could carry on even their song, Until near the end of the century our literature was a blank. Sir Fortescue. John Fortescue, an able lawyer of the Lancastrian party, and the author of Latin books, wrote also an English one. On the Difference between Absolute and Limited Monarchy.' But it is interesting rather for its matter, which is worthy of the chief lawyer of a free country, than for anything which it added to our literature.
Towards the close of the century, however, matters Printing again looked more hopeful. First of all the Printing into England press was brought into England by William Caxton, and, through its agency, copies of all that was worth reading in the language were multiplied. The wealthy nobles began to show a graceful patronage to literature. A still stronger impulse came when the movement which is called the New Birth, or the Renaissance, Renaissance passed from southern Europe into England. Greek had begun to be studied ; Greek scholars from fallen Fall of Con
stantinople Constantinople were spreading over Europe, and men's 1462 minds awoke to a new freshness, and felt themselves, as it were, born again. The old gloom and depression which had enthralled men's minds in earlier times, and from which only a few were able to escape, now seemed to clear off in the dawn of a new day. And when this bright ray of sunlight spread to England, it called into action all the slumbering energy of her genius. Our literature passes into a new age.
IV. English after the Renaissance.
FROM 1500 TO 1600.
1. First of all there was formed a small circle of men who shared in the new stimulus which the study of Greek awakened. Through that study the greatest literature that the world had ever seen lay open to them. The feeling with which it inspired them was not merely admiration and a desire to imitate, but a boundless hope for the future. Old causes of enmity and separation, old bonds that had enchained men's minds would, they hoped, pale away before energies so keen as those which were stirred by the New Learning. This was the name which they gave to that spirit with which their new studies inspired them. They did not merely read or imitate; they applied the new ideas to all that interested men, to the government of their country, to the arrangements of society,
to the affairs and the doctrines of the Church. The Hore, Colet, chief of these men were Sir Thomas More, Dean
Colet (who founded St. Paul's School), Linacre and Grocyn; their friend was Erasmus; their chief patron was the wise and good Archbishop Warham. Some of them had been abroad in Italy and attended the lectures of the great professors there; they introduced the new study of Greek into our universities, and, in hope of realising their great aims, they spent labour and money in providing for the education of the young. Sir Thomas More, especially, has left a book