« AnteriorContinuar »
called the Utopia,' which we might translate the More's Land of Nowhere, in which he gives us the description of an imaginary state, and from the description we can tell of what sort he would have the government and customs of his own country to be. No one was to be persecuted for religion, each was to be allowed to persuade others to his views; but if any one was loud, or noisy, or troublesome in pushing his own opinions, he was to be banished. The poor were to be better cared for; the good were to have more influence in the State. And all this was to be brought about by better education; and so to education these disciples of the New Learning devoted all their care. From the young King Henry VIII., whose mind was intelligent and well trained, they hoped for much.
Their hopes were ardent; but, though they did much, they were also doomed to much disappointment. Henry entered on expensive and harassing foreign wars. He became more and more tyrannical. It grew dangerous to preach new doctrines that might be offensive to the king. More died on the scaffold, and the little circle of his companions was broken up. They had done much to help on our literature, but when we come to seek for what they actually wrote themselves, we find it small. They were too practical in their aims, and were too much absorbed in schemes for improvement to have time for writing, but they greatly helped those who came after them to write.
2. It was not so dangerous to write poetry as to Italian inbroach new opinions. Italy, which had given
so our poetry.
much to England in the new learning, also helped her by giving a model for her poetry. The two principal names of the reign of Henry VIII. in poetry are those of Lord Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt. Both fell into disgrace with the court; but it was not for their poetry, in which they imitate the delicate and graceful style of Italy. From Italy they drew that form of verse which is called the Sonnet. Through it they added new grace and polish to the language; and pervading their poetry we feel the influence of the fresh buoyant spirit which marked the time.
3. The reigns of Edward VI. and Mary were evil times for literature. In them religious intolerance on one side or the other rose to its height. Men who were selfish, arrogant, and insolent, held sway in England; and especially during the reign of the boy Edward VI. learning was under a cloud. The libraries in the universities were scattered; opinion was fettered; men's worst passions were aroused, and civil war was spread over England. Under Mary poetry was not dead; but it was not encouraged. With Elizabeth's accession all the former hopes revived, and this time they were not turned in the way of new schemes and new theories of government, but rather towards all that might make life gay, and graceful, and polished. England was very prosperous; Elizabeth was beloved by her people; her court was gay and lively; the nation had shaken off all foreign ties, and was glad with its own freedom, and ready to exercise the powers which it felt itself to possess.
Before this, English literature had owed very much to imitation of foreign models. This imitation was not now at an end; but our literature was no longer limited to it. Men began to create for themselves. With the Elizabethan age England began distinctly to add to the treasure of genius which belongs to all the world.
1. First came the poetical outburst in Edmund Edmund Spenser. He took for his model, in style and language, 1552-1599. Chaucer; but added to him all the grace of his own time. His great poem, the 'Faerie Queene,' is an Faerie allegory which shadows forth the events of his own time, but throws them into a shape so fanciful and picturesque that it makes us wonder how any one could be so thoroughly a poet as to see the events of the day, which to most men are so clouded in details and vulgarities, in so purely poetical a light. Spenser's imagination is so fine, indeed, and his allegory is so subtle, that he has never found very many readers, and has been called rather "the poet's poet;" but how exquisite and refined his poetry is may be seen even from the short specimens of it in this book.
2. The same rich fancy and grace we find in the verse of Sir Philip Sidney, who forms the pattern courtier of Sir Philip his time; brave, tender, chivalrous, and accomplished; 1554-1586, so that his life is itself like that of some hero in a poem. In his prose romance, called the 'Arcadia,' that fancy is carried even to extravagance. It was a fancy
John Lyly. 1553-1601.
so exuberant that it was certain to be exaggerated ;
and so, in the end, it was.
3. Literature then turned the more strongly into a channel which it was already wearing out for itself. Allegory and fanciful conceits were discarded for the more real representation of action and emotion.
it was thus that it reached the heart of the people. In the rough theatres, with the rude scenery of the day, to a turbulent audience, the drama began to open the new interest of human action. Dramatic representation in England, as in other countries, may be traced back to the mystery plays acted by the monks in church, upon a Scriptural topic, or illustrating the life of some saint for the religious edification of the audience; but the drama of the Elizabethan age was very different from its original, and its power was owing entirely to the vigour and force with which it represented human passions to a passionate and vigorous age. It began with the minor dramatists, such as Greene, Nash, and their superior, Marlowe, men whose lives reflected their work, impetuous, brawling, fierce; Marlowe died in a tavern riot, and was pursued by the rancour of enemies as an atheist. The rules which classic times had set up
for the conduct of a drama (rules which a later age revived), were set at nought by these vigorous, but lawless writers. Their dramas were bold; the representation of fierce passion was carried to an excess of extravagance.
4. Then there came to rule the rough and lawless powers of this drama, without limiting their range, he whose name stands first in all our literature, William Shakespeare. To him alone was it given to Shakespeare. reign supreme over such fierce elements. No dramatic rules of time and place fettered him; only the breadth and universal range of his vision saved him from being carried away by the fierceness of one absorbing passion. He throws himself into all his characters, and yet he does so without introducing the least sameness into them; not even the least important fails to show some trait that is all its own. His language is often involved and difficult, but it is with the intricacy of rapid and impetuous utterance that strives to anticipate a thought, and not with the intricacy of artificiality and euphuism (as the strained language of the day was nicknamed, after Lyly's book). In him the creative age of English literature reached its crowning point.
After him the drama drooped. New feelings were arising, out of which grew a literature of altogether a different character. These new feelings began to tell on the drama itself. Ben Jonson was Ben Jonson. Shakespeare's younger and surviving contemporary. He has plenty of strength and vigour, but his fancy is