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The 15th century was a barren period in English literary history. It was nearly two hundred years after Chaucer's death before any poet came whose name can be written in the same line with his. He was followed at once by a number of imitators who caught the trick of his language and verse, but lacked the genius to make any fine use of them. The manner of a true poet may be learned, but his style, in the high sense of the word, remains his own secret. Some of the poems which have been attributed to Chaucer and printed in editions of his works, as the Court of Love, the Flower and the Leaf, the Cuckow and the Nightingale, are now regarded by many scholars as the work of later writers. If not Chaucer's, they are of Chaucer's school, and the first two, at least, are very pretty poems after the fashion of his minor pieces, such as the Boke of the Duchesse and the Parlament of Foules.
Among his professed disciples was Thomas Occleve, a dull rhymer, who, in his Governail of Princes, a didactic poem translated from the Latin about 1413, drew, or caused to be drawn, on the margin of his MS. a colored portrait of his "maister dere and fader reverent."
Another versifier of this same generation was John Lydgate, a Benedictine monk of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, in Suffolk, a very prolix writer, who composed, among other things, the Story of Thebes, as an addition to the Canterbury Tales. His ballad of London Lyckpenny, recounting the adventures of a countryman who goes to the law courts at Westminster in search of justice—But for lack of mony I could not spede—
is of interest for the glimpse that it gives us of London street life.
Chaucer's influence wrought more fruitfully in Scotland, whither it was carried by James I., who had been captured by the English when a boy of eleven, and brought up at Windsor as a prisoner of state. There he wrote during the reign of Henry V. (1413-1422) a poem in six cantos, entitled the King's Quhair (King's Book), in Chaucer's seven-lined stanza, which had been employed by Lydgate in his Falls of Princes (from Boccaccio), and which was afterward called the "rime royal," from its use by King James. The King's Quhair tells how the poet, on a May morning, looks from the window of his prison chamber into the castle garden full of alleys, hawthorn hedges, and fair arbors set withThe sharpë, greenë, sweetë juniper.
He was listening to "the little sweetë nightingale," when suddenly casting down his eyes he saw a lady walking in the garden, and at once his "heart became her thrall." The incident is precisely like Palamon's first sight of Emily in Chaucer's Knight's Tale, and almost in the very words of Palamon the poet addresses his lady:Ah, sweet, are ye a worldly crëatúre
Then, after a vision in the taste of the age, in which the royal prisoner is transported in turn to the courts of Venus, Minerva, and Fortune, and receives their instruction in the duties belonging to Love's service, he wakes from sleep and a white turtle-dove brings to his window a spray of red gilly flowers, whose leaves are inscribed, in golden letters, with a message of encouragement.
James I. may be reckoned among the English poets. He mentions Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate as his masters. His education was English, and so was the dialect of his poem, although the unique MS. of it is in the Scotch spelling. The King's Quhair is somewhat overladen with ornament and with the fashionable allegorical devices, but it is, upon the whole, a rich and tender love song, the best specimen of court poetry between the time of Chaucer and the time of Spenser. The lady who walked in the garden on that May morning was Jane Beaufort, niece to Henry IV. She was married to her poet after his release from captivity and became queen of Scotland in 1424. Twelve years later James was murdered by Sir Robert Graham and his Highlanders, and his wife, who strove to defend him, was wounded by the assassins. The story of the murder has been told of late by D.G. Rossetti, in his ballad, The King's Tragedy. The whole life of this princely singer was, like his poem, in the very spirit of romance.
The effect of all this imitation of Chaucer was to fix a standard of literary style, and to confirm the authority of the East-Midland English in which he had written. Though the poets of the 15th century were not overburdened with genius, they had, at least, a definite model to follow. As in the 14th century, metrical romances continued to be translated from the French, homilies and saints' legends and rhyming chronicles were still manufactured. But the poems of Occleve and Lydgate and James I. had helped to polish and refine the tongue and to prolong the Chaucerian tradition. The literary English never again slipped back into the chaos of dialects which had prevailed before Chaucer.
In the history of every literature the development of prose is later than that of verse. The latter being, by its very form, artificial, is cultivated as a fine art, and its records preserved in an early stage of society, when prose is simply the talk of men, and not thought worthy of being written and kept. English prose labored under the added disadvantage of competing with Latin, which was the cosmopolitan tongue and the medium of communication between scholars of all countries. Latin was the language of the Church, and in the Middle Ages churchman and scholar were convertible terms. The word clerk meant either priest or scholar. Two of the Canterbury Tales are in prose, as is also the Testament of Love, formerly ascribed to Chaucer, and the style of all these is so feeble, wandering, and unformed that it is hard to believe that they were written by the same man who wrote the Knight's Tale and the story of Griselda. The Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville—the forerunner of that great library of oriental travel which has enriched our modern literature—was written, according to its author, first in Latin, then in French, and, lastly, in the year 1356, translated into English for the behoof of "lordes and knyghtes and othere noble and worthi men, that conne not Latyn but litylle." The author professed to have spent over thirty years in Eastern travel, to have penetrated as far as Farther India and the "iles that ben abouten Indi," to have been in the service of the Sultan of Babylon in his wars against the Bedouins, and, at another time, in the employ of the Great Khan of Tartary. But there is no copy of the Latin version of his travels extant; the French seems to be much later than 1356, and the English MS. to belong to the early years of the 15th century, and to have been made by another hand. Recent investigations make it probable that Maundeville borrowed his descriptions of the remoter East from many sources, and particularly from the narrative of Odoric, a Minorite friar of Lombardy, who wrote about 1330. Some doubt is even cast upon the existence of any such person as Maundeville. Whoever wrote the book that passes under his name, however, would seem to have visited the Holy Land, and the part of the "voiage" that describes Palestine and the Levant is fairly close to the truth. The rest of the work, so far as it is not taken from the tales of other travelers, is a diverting tissue of fables about gryfouns that fly away with yokes of oxen, tribes of one-legged Ethiopians who shelter themselves from the sun by using their monstrous feet as umbrellas, etc.
During the 15th century English prose was gradually being brought into a shape fitting it for more serious uses. In the controversy between the Church and the Lollards Latin was still mainly employed, but Wiclif had written some of his tracts in English, and, in 1449, Reginald Peacock, Bishop of St. Asaph, contributed, in English, to the same controversy, The Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of the Clergy. Sir John Fortescue, who was chief-justice of the King's Bench from 1442-1460, wrote during the reign of Edward IV. a book on the Difference between Absolute and Limited Monarchy, which may be regarded as the first treatise on political philosophy and constitutional law in the language. But these works hardly belong to pure literature, and are remarkable only as early, though not very good, examples of English prose in a barren time. The 15th century was an era of decay and change. The Middle Age was dying, Church and State were slowly disintegrating under the new intellectual influences that were working secretly under ground. In England the civil wars of the Red and White Roses were breaking up the old feudal society by decimating and impoverishing the baronage, thus preparing the way for the centralized monarchy of the Tudors. Toward the close of that century, and early in the next, happened the four great events, or series of events, which freed and widened men's minds, and, in a succession of shocks, overthrew the mediæval system of life and thought. These were the invention of printing, the Renaissance, or revival of classical learning, the discovery of America, and the Protestant Reformation.
William Caxton, the first English printer, learned the art in Cologne. In 1476 he set up his press and sign, a red pole, in the Almonry at Westminster. Just before the introduction of printing the demand for MS. copies had grown very active, stimulated, perhaps, by the coming into general use of linen paper instead of the more costly parchment. The scriptoria of the monasteries were the places where the transcribing and illuminating of MSS. went on, professional copyists resorting to Westminster Abbey, for example, to make their copies of books belonging to the monastic library. Caxton's choice of a spot was, therefore, significant. His new art for multiplying copies began to supersede the old method of transcription at the very head-quarters of the MS. makers. The first book that bears his Westminster imprint was the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, translated from the French by Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, a brother-in-law of Edward IV. The list of books printed by Caxton is interesting, as showing the taste of the time, since he naturally selected what was most in demand. The list shows that manuals of devotion and chivalry were still in chief request, books like the Order of Chivalry, Faits of Arms, and the Golden Legend, which last Caxton translated himself, as well as Reynard the Fox, and a French version of the Aeneid. He also printed, with continuations of his own, revisions of several early chronicles, and editions of Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate. A translation of Cicero on Friendship, made directly from the Latin, by Thomas Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, was printed by Caxton, but no edition of a classical author in the original. The new learning of the Renaissance had not, as yet, taken much hold in England. Upon the whole the productions of Caxton's press were mostly of a kind that may be described as mediæval, and the most important of them, if we except his edition of Chaucer, was that "noble and joyous book," as Caxton called it, Le Morte Dartur, written by Sir Thomas Malory in 1469, and printed by Caxton in 1485. This was a compilation from French Arthur romances, and was by far the best English prose that had yet been written. It may be doubted, indeed, whether, for purposes of simple story telling, the picturesque charm of Malory's style has been improved upon. The episode which lends its name to the whole romance, the death of Arthur, is most impressively told, and Tennyson has followed Malory's narrative closely, even to such details of the scene as the little chapel by the sea, the moonlight, and the answer which Sir Bedwere made the wounded king, when bidden to throw Excalibur into the water, "'What saw thou there?' said the king. 'Sir,' he said, 'I saw nothing but the waters wap and the waves wan.'"I heard the ripple washing in the reeds
And very touching and beautiful is the oft-quoted lament of Sir Ector over Launcelot, in Malory's final chapter: "'Ah, Launcelot,' he said, 'thou were head of all Christian knights; and now I dare say,' said Sir Ector, 'thou, Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly knight's hand; and thou were the courtiest knight that ever bare shield; and thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrode horse; and thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman; and thou were the kindest man that ever strake with sword; and thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights; and thou were the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.'"
Equally good, as an example of English prose narrative, was the translation made by John Bourchier, Lord Berners, of that most brilliant of the French chroniclers, Chaucer's contemporary, Sir John Froissart. Lord Berners was the English governor of Calais, and his version of Froissart's Chronicles was made in 1523-1525, at the request of Henry VIII. In these two books English chivalry spoke its last genuine word. In Sir Philip Sidney the character of the knight was merged into that of the modern gentleman. And although tournaments were still held in the reign of Elizabeth, and Spenser cast his Faerie Queene into the form of a chivalry romance, these were but a ceremonial survival and literary tradition from an order of things that had passed away. How antagonistic the new classical culture was to the vanished ideal of the Middle Age may be read in Toxophilus, a treatise on archery published in 1545, by Roger Ascham, a Greek lecturer in Cambridge, and the tutor of the Princess Elizabeth and of Lady Jane Grey: "In our forefathers' time, when papistry as a standing pool covered and overflowed all England, few books were read in our tongue saving certain books of chivalry, as they said, for pastime and pleasure, which, as some say, were made in monasteries by idle monks or wanton canons: as one, for example, Morte Arthure, the whole pleasure of which book standeth in two special points, in open manslaughter and bold bawdry. This is good stuff for wise men to laugh at or honest men to take pleasure at. Yet I know when God's Bible was banished the court, and Morte Arthure received into the prince's chamber."
The fashionable school of courtly allegory, first introduced into England by the translation of the Romaunt of the Rose, reached its extremity in Stephen Hawes's Passetyme of Pleasure, printed by Caxton's successor, Wynkyn de Worde, in 1517. This was a dreary and pedantic poem, in which it is told how Graunde Amoure, after a long series of adventures and instructions among such shadowy personages as Verite, Observaunce, Falshed, and Good Operacion, finally won the love of La Belle Pucel. Hawes was the last English poet of note whose culture was exclusively mediæval. His contemporary, John Skelton, mingled the old fashions with the new classical learning. In his Bowge of Courte (Court Entertainment or Dole), and in others of his earlier pieces, he used, like Hawes, Chaucer's seven-lined stanza. But his later poems were mostly written in a verse of his own invention, called after him Skeltonical. This was a sort of glorified doggerel, in short, swift, ragged lines, with occasional intermixture of French and Latin.Her beautye to augment.
Skelton was a rude railing rhymer, a singular mixture of a true and original poet with a buffoon; coarse as Rabelais, whimsical, obscure, but always vivacious. He was the rector of Diss, in Norfolk, but his profane and scurrilous wit seems rather out of keeping with his clerical character. His Tunnyng of Elynoure Rummyng is a study of very low life, reminding one slightly of Burns's Jolly Beggars. His Phyllyp Sparrowe is a sportive, pretty, fantastic elegy on the death of a pet bird belonging to Mistress Joanna Scroupe, of Carowe, and has been compared to the Latin poet Catullus's elegy on Lesbia's sparrow. In Spake, Parrot, and Why Come ye not to Courte? he assailed the powerful Cardinal Wolsey with the most ferocious satire, and was, in consequence, obliged to take sanctuary at Westminster, where he died in 1529. Skelton was a classical scholar, and at one time tutor to Henry VIII. The great humanist, Erasmus, spoke of him as the "one light and ornament of British letters." Caxton asserts that he had read Vergil, Ovid, and Tully, and quaintly adds, "I suppose he hath dronken of Elycon's well."
In refreshing contrast with the artificial court poetry of the 15th and first three quarters of the 16th century, was the folk poetry, the popular ballad literature which was handed down by oral tradition. The English and Scotch ballads were narrative songs, written in a variety of meters, but chiefly in what is known as the ballad stanza.In somer, when the shawes be shene,
It is not possible to assign a definite date to these ballads. They lived on the lips of the people, and were seldom reduced to writing till many years after they were first composed and sung. Meanwhile they underwent repeated changes, so that we have numerous versions of the same story. They belonged to no particular author, but, like all folk-lore, were handled freely by the unknown poets, minstrels, and ballad reciters, who modernized their language, added to them, or corrupted them, and passed them along. Coming out of an uncertain past, based on some dark legend of heart-break or bloodshed, they bear no poet's name, but are ferae naturae, and have the flavor of wild game. In the form in which they are preserved, few of them are older than the 17th or the latter part of the 16th century, though many, in their original shape, are doubtless much older. A very few of the Robin Hood ballads go back to the 15th century, and to the same period is assigned the charming ballad of the Nut Brown Maid and the famous border ballad of Chevy Chase, which describes a battle between the retainers of the two great houses of Douglas and Percy. It was this song of which Sir Philip Sidney wrote, "I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas but I found myself more moved than by a trumpet; and yet it is sung but by some blind crouder, with no rougher voice than rude style." But the style of the ballads was not always rude. In their compressed energy of expression, in the impassioned way in which they tell their tale of grief and horror, there reside often a tragic power and art superior to any thing in English poetry between Chaucer and Spenser; superior to any thing in Chaucer and Spenser themselves, in the quality of intensity. The true home of the ballad literature was "the north country," and especially the Scotch border, where the constant forays of moss-troopers and the raids and private warfare of the lords of the marches supplied many traditions of heroism, like those celebrated in the old poem of the Battle of Otterbourne, and in the Hunting of the Cheviot, or Chevy Chase, already mentioned. Some of these are Scotch and others English; the dialect of Lowland Scotland did not, in effect, differ much from that of Northumberland and Yorkshire, both descended alike from the old Northumbrian of Anglo-Saxon times. Other ballads were shortened, popular versions of the chivalry romances, which were passing out of fashion among educated readers in the 16th century and now fell into the hands of the ballad makers. Others preserved the memory of local country-side tales, family feuds, and tragic incidents, partly historical and partly legendary, associated often with particular spots. Such are, for example, The Dowie Dens of Yarrow, Fair Helen of Kirkconnell, The Forsaken Bride, and The Twa Corbies. Others, again, have a coloring of popular superstition, like the beautiful ballad concerning Thomas of Ersyldoune, who goes in at Eildon Hill with an elf queen and spends seven years in fairy land.
But the most popular of all the ballads were those which cluster about the name of that good outlaw, Robin Hood, who, with his merry men, hunted the forest of Sherwood, where he killed the king's deer and waylaid rich travelers, but was kind to poor knights and honest workmen. Robin Hood is the true ballad hero, the darling of the common people as Arthur was of the nobles. The names of his confessor, Friar Tuck; his mistress, Maid Marian; his companions, Little John, Scathelock, and Much, the miller's son, were as familiar as household words. Langland in the 14th century mentions "rimes of Robin Hood," and efforts have been made to identify him with some actual personage, as with one of the dispossessed barons who had been adherents of Simon de Montfort in his war against Henry III. But there seems to be nothing historical about Robin Hood. He was a creation of the popular fancy. The game laws under the Norman kings were very oppressive, and there were, doubtless, dim memories still cherished among the Saxon masses of Hereward and Edric the Wild, who had defied the power of the Conqueror, as well as of later freebooters, who had taken to the woods and lived by plunder. Robin Hood was a thoroughly national character. He had the English love of fair play, the English readiness to shake hands and make up, and keep no malice when worsted in a square fight. He beat and plundered the fat bishops and abbots, who had more than their share of wealth, but he was generous and hospitable to the distressed, and lived a free and careless life in the good green wood. He was a mighty archer with those national weapons, the long-bow and the cloth-yard shaft. He tricked and baffled legal authority in the person of the proud sheriff of Nottingham, thereby appealing to that secret sympathy with lawless adventure which marked the free-born, vigorous yeomanry of England. And, finally, the scenery of the forest gives a poetic background and a never-failing charm to the exploits of "the old Robin Hood of England" and his merry men.
The ballads came, in time, to have certain tricks of style, such as are apt to characterize a body of anonymous folk-poetry. Such is their use of conventional epithets; "the red, red gold," "the good green wood," "the gray goose wing." Such are certain recurring terms of phrase like,But out and spak their stepmother.
Such is, finally, a kind of sing-song repetition, which doubtless helped the ballad singer to memorize his stock, as, for example,She had'na pu'd a double rose,
Copies of some of these old ballads were hawked about in the 16th century, printed in black letter, "broadsides," or single sheets. Wynkyn de Worde printed in 1489 A Lytell Geste of Robin Hood, which is a sort of digest of earlier ballads on the subject. In the 17th century a few of the English popular ballads were collected in miscellanies called Garlands. Early in the 18th century the Scotch poet, Allan Ramsay, published a number of Scotch ballads in the Evergreen and Tea-Table Miscellany. But no large and important collection was put forth until Percy's Reliques (1765), a book which had a powerful influence upon Wordsworth and Walter Scott. In Scotland some excellent ballads in the ancient manner were written in the 18th century, such as Jane Elliott's Lament for Flodden, and the fine ballad of Sir Patrick Spence. Walter Scott's Proud Maisie is in the Wood, is a perfect reproduction of the pregnant, indirect method of the old ballad makers.
In 1453 Constantinople was taken by the Turks, and many Greek scholars, with their manuscripts, fled into Italy, where they began teaching their language and literature, and especially the philosophy of Plato. There had been little or no knowledge of Greek in western Europe during the Middle Ages, and only a very imperfect knowledge of the Latin classics. Ovid and Statius were widely read, and so was the late Latin poet, Boethius, whose De Consolatione Philosophiæ had been translated into English by King Alfred and by Chaucer. Little was known of Vergil at first hand, and he was popularly supposed to have been a mighty wizard, who made sundry works of enchantment at Rome, such as a magic mirror and statue. Caxton's so-called translation of the Aeneid was in reality nothing but a version of a French romance based on Vergil's epic. Of the Roman historians, orators, and moralists, such as Livy, Tacitus, Cæsar, Cicero, and Seneca, there was almost entire ignorance, as also of poets like Horace, Lucretius, Juvenal, and Catullus. The gradual rediscovery of the remains of ancient art and literature which took place in the 15th century, and largely in Italy, worked an immense revolution in the mind of Europe. Manuscripts were brought out of their hiding places, edited by scholars, and spread abroad by means of the printing-press. Statues were dug up and placed in museums, and men became acquainted with a civilization far more mature than that of the Middle Age, and with models of perfect workmanship in letters and the fine arts.
In the latter years of the 15th century a number of Englishmen learned Greek in Italy and brought it back with them to England. William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre, who had studied at Florence under the refugee, Demetrius Chalcondylas, began teaching Greek at Oxford, the former as early as 1491. A little later John Colet, Dean of St. Paul's and the founder of St. Paul's School, and his friend, William Lily, the grammarian, and first master of St. Paul's (1500), also studied Greek abroad; Colet in Italy, and Lily at Rhodes and in the city of Rome. Thomas More, afterward the famous chancellor of Henry VIII., was among the pupils of Grocyn and Linacre at Oxford. Thither also, in 1497, came, in search of the new knowledge, the Dutchman, Erasmus, who became the foremost scholar of his time. From Oxford the study spread to the sister university, where the first English Grecian of his day, Sir John Cheke, who "taught Cambridge and King Edward Greek," became the incumbent of the new professorship founded about 1540. Among his pupils was Roger Ascham, already mentioned, in whose time St. John's College, Cambridge, was the chief seat of the new learning, of which Thomas Nashe testifies that it "was an universitie within itself; having more candles light in it, every winter morning before four of the clock, than the four of clock bell gave strokes." Greek was not introduced at the universities without violent opposition from the conservative element, who were nicknamed Trojans. The opposition came in part from the priests, who feared that that new study would sow seeds of heresy. Yet many of the most devout churchmen were friends of a more liberal culture, among them Thomas More, whose Catholicism was undoubted and who went to the block for his religion. Cardinal Wolsey, whom More succeeded as chancellor, was also a munificent patron of learning, and founded Christ Church College at Oxford. Popular education at once felt the impulse of the new studies, and over twenty endowed grammar schools were established in England in the first twenty years of the 16th century. Greek became a passion even with English ladies. Ascham in his Schoolmaster, a treatise on education, published in 1570, says that Queen Elizabeth "readeth here now at Windsor more Greek every day, than some prebendarie of this Church doth read Latin in a whole week." And in the same book he tells how, calling once on Lady Jane Grey, at Brodegate, in Leicestershire, he "found her in her chamber reading Phædon Platonis in Greek, and that with as much delite as some gentlemen would read a merry tale in Bocase," and when he asked her why she had not gone hunting with the rest, she answered, "I wisse, all their sport in the park is but a shadow to that pleasure that I find in Plato." Ascham's Schoolmaster, as well as his earlier book, Toxophilus, a Platonic dialogue on archery, bristles with quotations from the Greek and Latin classics, and with that perpetual reference to the authority of antiquity on every topic that he touches, which remained the fashion in all serious prose down to the time of Dryden.
One speedy result of the new learning was fresh translations of the Scriptures into English out of the original tongues. In 1525 William Tyndal printed at Cologne and Worms his version of the New Testament from the Greek.
 Surely; a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon gewis.
Ten years later Miles Coverdale made, at Zurich, a translation of the whole Bible from the German and Latin. These were the basis of numerous later translations, and the strong beautiful English of Tyndal's Testament is preserved for the most part in our Authorized Version (1611). At first it was not safe to make or distribute these early translations in England. Numbers of copies were brought into the country, however, and did much to promote the cause of the Reformation. After Henry VIII. had broken with the pope the new English Bible circulated freely among the people. Tyndal and Sir Thomas More carried on a vigorous controversy in English upon some of the questions at issue between the Church and the Protestants. Other important contributions to the literature of the Reformation were the homely sermons preached at Westminster and at Paul's Cross by Bishop Hugh Latimer, who was burned at Oxford in the reign of Bloody Mary. The English Book of Common Prayer was compiled in 1549-1552. More was, perhaps, the best representative of a group of scholars who wished to enlighten and reform the Church from the inside, but who refused to follow Henry VIII. in his breach with Rome. Dean Colet and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, belonged to the same company, and Fisher was beheaded in the same year (1535) with More, and for the same offense, namely, refusing to take the oath to maintain the act confirming the king's divorce from Catharine of Arragon and his marriage with Anne Boleyn. More's philosophy is best reflected in his Utopia, the description of an ideal commonwealth, modeled on Plato's Republic, and printed in 1516. The name signifies "no place" [Greek: oy thopst], and has furnished an adjective to the language. The Utopia was in Latin, but More's History of Edward V. and Richard III. written 1513, though not printed till 1557, was in English. It is the first example in the tongue of a history as distinguished from a chronicle; that is, it is a reasoned and artistic presentation of an historic period, and not a mere chronological narrative of events.
The first three quarters of the 16th century produced no great original work of literature in England. It was a season of preparation, of education. The storms of the Reformation interrupted and delayed the literary renascence through the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., and Queen Mary. When Elizabeth came to the throne, in 1558, a more settled order of things began, and a period of great national prosperity and glory. Meanwhile the English mind had been slowly assimilating the new classical culture, which was extended to all classes of readers by the numerous translations of Greek and Latin authors. A fresh poetic impulse came from Italy. In 1557 appeared Tottel's Miscellany, containing songs and sonnets by a "new company of courtly makers." Most of the pieces in the volume had been written years before by gentlemen of Henry VIII.'s court, and circulated in manuscript. The two chief contributors were Sir Thomas Wiat, at one time English embassador to Spain, and that brilliant noble, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, who was beheaded in 1547 for quartering the king's arms with his own. Both of them were dead long before their work was printed. The verses in Tottel's Miscellany show very clearly the influence of Italian poetry. We have seen that Chaucer took subjects and something more from Boccaccio and Petrarch. But the sonnet, which Petrarch had brought to perfection, was first introduced into England by Wiat. There was a great revival of sonneteering in Italy in the 16th century, and a number of Wiat's poems were adaptations of the sonnets and canzoni of Petrarch and later poets. Others were imitations of Horace's satires and epistles. Surrey introduced the Italian blank verse into English in his translation of two books of the Aeneid. The love poetry of Tottel's Miscellany is polished and artificial, like the models which it followed. Dante's Beatrice was a child, and so was Petrarch's Laura. Following their example, Surrey addressed his love complaints, by way of compliment, to a little girl of the noble Irish family of Geraldine. The Amourists, or love sonneteers, dwelt on the metaphysics of the passion with a tedious minuteness, and the conventional nature of their sighs and complaints may often be guessed by an experienced reader from the titles of their poems: "Description of the restless state of a lover, with suit to his lady to rue on his dying heart;" "Hell tormenteth not the damned ghosts so sore as unkindness the lover;" "The lover prayeth not to be disdained, refused, mistrusted nor forsaken," etc. The most genuine utterance of Surrey was his poem written while imprisoned in Windsor—a cage where so many a song-bird has grown vocal. And Wiat's little piece of eight lines, "Of his Return from Spain," is worth reams of his amatory affectations. Nevertheless the writers in Tottel's Miscellany were real reformers of English poetry. They introduced new models of style and new metrical forms, and they broke away from the mediæval traditions which had hitherto obtained. The language had undergone some changes since Chaucer's time, which made his scansion obsolete. The accent of many words of French origin, like natúre, couráge, virtúe, matére, had shifted to the first syllable, and the e of the final syllables ës, ën, ëd, and ë, had largely disappeared. But the language of poetry tends to keep up archaisms of this kind, and in Stephen Hawes, who wrote a century after Chaucer, we still find such lines as these:But he my strokës might right well endure,
Hawes's practice is variable in this respect, and so is his contemporary, Skelton's. But in Wiat and Surrey, who wrote only a few years later, the reader first feels sure that he is reading verse pronounced quite in the modern fashion.
 Trisyllable—like crëatúre neighëboúr, etc., in Chaucer.
But Chaucer's example still continued potent. Spenser revived many of his obsolete words, both in his pastorals and in his Faerie Queene, thereby imparting an antique remoteness to his diction, but incurring Ben Jonson's censure, that he "writ no language." A poem that stands midway between Spenser and the late mediæval work of Chaucer's school—such as Hawes's Passetyme of Pleasure—was the induction contributed by Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, in 1563 to a collection of narrative poems called the Mirrour for Magistrates. The whole series was the work of many hands, modeled upon Lydgate's Falls of Princes (taken from Boccaccio), and was designed as a warning to great men of the fickleness of fortune. The Induction is the only noteworthy part of it. It was an allegory, written in Chaucer's seven-lined stanza, and described, with a somber imaginative power, the figure of Sorrow, her abode in the "griesly lake" of Avernus, and her attendants, Remorse, Dread, Old Age, etc. Sackville was the author of the first regular English tragedy Gorboduc; and it was at his request that Ascham wrote the Schoolmaster.
Italian poetry also fed the genius of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). While a student at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, he had translated some of the Visions of Petrarch, and the Visions of Bellay, a French poet, but it was only in 1579 that the publication of his Shepheard's Calendar announced the coming of a great original poet, the first since Chaucer. The Shepheard's Calendar was a pastoral in twelve eclogues—one for each month in the year. There had been a revival of pastoral poetry in Italy and France, but, with one or two insignificant exceptions, Spenser's were the first bucolics in English. Two of his eclogues were paraphrases from Clement Marot, a French Protestant poet, whose psalms were greatly in fashion at the court of Francis I. The pastoral machinery had been used by Vergil and by his modern imitators, not merely to portray the loves of Strephon and Chloe, or the idyllic charms of rustic life; but also as a vehicle of compliment, elegy, satire, and personal allusion of many kinds. Spenser, accordingly, alluded to his friends, Sidney and Harvey, as the shepherds Astrophel and Hobbinol; paid court to Queen Elizabeth as Cynthia; and introduced, in the form of anagrams, names of the High-Church Bishop of London, Aylmer, and the Low-Church Archbishop Grindal. The conventional pastoral is a somewhat delicate exotic in English poetry, and represents a very unreal Arcadia. Before the end of the 17th century the squeak of the oaten pipe had become a burden, and the only poem of the kind which it is easy to read without some impatience is Milton's wonderful Lycidas. The Shepheard's Calendar, however, though it belonged to an artificial order of literature, had the unmistakable stamp of genius in its style. There was a broad, easy mastery of the resources of language, a grace, fluency, and music which were new to English poetry. It was written while Spenser was in service with the Earl of Leicester, and enjoying the friendship of his nephew, the all-accomplished Sidney and it was, perhaps, composed at the latter's country seat of Penshurst. In the following year Spenser went to Ireland as private secretary to Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton, who had just been appointed Lord Deputy of that kingdom. After filling several clerkships in the Irish government, Spenser received a grant of the castle and estate of Kilcolman, a part of the forfeited lands of the rebel Earl of Desmond. Here, among landscapes richly wooded, like the scenery of his own fairy land, "under the cooly shades of the green alders by the Mulla's shore," Sir Walter Raleigh found him, in 1589, busy upon his Faerie Queene. In his poem, Colin Clout's Come Home Again, Spenser tells, in pastoral language, how "the shepherd of the ocean" persuaded him to go to London, where he presented him to the queen, under whose patronage the first three books of his great poem were printed, in 1590. A volume of minor poems, entitled Complaints, followed in 1591, and the three remaining books of the Faerie Queene in 1596. In 1595-1596 he published also his Daphnaida, Prothalamion, and the four hymns on Love and Beauty, and on Heavenly Love and Heavenly Beauty. In 1598, in Tyrone's rebellion, Kilcolman Castle was sacked and burned, and Spenser, with his family, fled to London, where he died in January, 1599.
The Faerie Queene reflects, perhaps, more fully than any other English work, the many-sided literary influences of the Renascence. It was the blossom of a richly composite culture. Its immediate models were Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, the first forty cantos of which were published in 1515, and Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, printed in 1581. Both of these were, in subject, romances of chivalry, the first based upon the old Charlemagne epos—Orlando being identical with the hero of the French Chanson de Roland: the second upon the history of the first crusade, and the recovery of the Holy City from the Saracen. But in both of them there was a splendor of diction and a wealth of coloring quite unknown to the rude mediæval romances. Ariosto and Tasso wrote with the great epics of Homer and Vergil constantly in mind, and all about them was the brilliant light of Italian art, in its early freshness and power. The Faerie Queene, too, was a tale of knight-errantry. Its hero was King Arthur, and its pages swarm with the familiar adventures and figures of Gothic romance: distressed ladies and their champions, combats with dragons and giants, enchanted castles, magic rings, charmed wells, forest hermitages, etc. But side by side with these appear the fictions of Greek mythology and the personified abstractions of fashionable allegory. Knights, squires, wizards, hamadryads, satyrs, and river gods, Idleness, Gluttony, and Superstition jostle each other in Spenser's fairy land. Descents to the infernal shades, in the manner of Homer and Vergil, alternate with descriptions of the Palace of Pride in the manner of the Romaunt of the Rose. But Spenser's imagination was a powerful spirit, and held all these diverse elements in solution. He removed them to an ideal sphere "apart from place, withholding time," where they seem all alike equally real, the dateless conceptions of the poet's dream.
The poem was to have been "a continued allegory or dark conceit," in twelve books, the hero of each book representing one of the twelve moral virtues. Only six books and the fragment of a seventh were written. By way of complimenting his patrons and securing contemporary interest, Spenser undertook to make his allegory a double one, personal and historical, as well as moral or abstract. Thus Gloriana, the Queen of Faery, stands not only for Glory but for Elizabeth, to whom the poem was dedicated. Prince Arthur is Leicester, as well as Magnificence. Duessa is Falsehood, but also Mary Queen of Scots. Grantorto is Philip II. of Spain. Sir Artegal is Justice, but likewise he is Arthur Grey de Wilton. Other characters shadow forth Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Philip Sidney, Henry IV. of France, etc.; and such public events as the revolt of the Spanish Netherlands, the Irish rebellion, the execution of Mary Stuart, and the rising of the northern Catholic houses against Elizabeth are told in parable. In this way the poem reflects the spiritual struggle of the time, the warfare of young England against popery and Spain.
The allegory is not always easy to follow. It is kept up most carefully in the first two books, but it sat rather lightly on Spenser's conscience, and is not of the essence of the poem. It is an ornament put on from the outside and detachable at pleasure. The "Spenserian stanza," in which the Faerie Queene was written, was adapted from the ottava rima of Ariosto. Spenser changed somewhat the order of the rimes in the first eight lines and added a ninth line of twelve syllables, thus affording more space to the copious luxuriance of his style and the long-drawn sweetness of his verse. It was his instinct to dilate and elaborate every image to the utmost, and his similies, especially—each of which usually fills a whole stanza—have the pictorial amplitude of Homer's. Spenser was, in fact, a great painter. His poetry is almost purely sensuous. The personages in the Faerie Queene are not characters, but richly colored figures, moving to the accompaniment of delicious music, in an atmosphere of serene remoteness from the earth. Charles Lamb said that he was the poet's poet, that is, he appealed wholly to the artistic sense and to the love of beauty. Not until Keats did another English poet appear so filled with the passion for outward shapes of beauty, so exquisitively alive to all impressions of the senses. Spenser was, in some respects, more an Italian than an English poet. It is said that the Venetian gondoliers still sing the stanzas of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata. It is not easy to imagine the Thames bargees chanting passages from the Faerie Queene. Those English poets who have taken strongest hold upon their public have done so by their profound interpretation of our common life. But Spenser escaped altogether from reality into a region of pure imagination. His aerial creations resemble the blossoms of the epiphytic orchids, which have no root in the soil, but draw their nourishment from the moisture of the air.Their birth was of the womb of morning dew,
Among the minor poems of Spenser the most delightful were his Prothalamion and Epithalamion. The first was a "spousal verse," made for the double wedding of the Ladies Catherine and Elizabeth Somerset, whom the poet figures as two white swans that come swimming down the Thames, the surface of which the nymphs strew with lilies, till it appears "like a bride's chamber-floor."Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
is the burden of each stanza. The Epithalamion was Spenser's own marriage song, written to crown his series of Amoretti or love sonnets, and is the most splendid hymn of triumphant love in the language. Hardly less beautiful than these was Muiopotmos; or, the Fate of the Butterfly, an addition to the classical myth of Arachne, the spider. The four hymns in praise of Love and Beauty, Heavenly Love and Heavenly Beauty, are also stately and noble poems, but by reason of their abstractness and the Platonic mysticism which they express, are less generally pleasing than the others mentioned. Allegory and mysticism had no natural affiliation with Spenser's genius. He was a seer of visions, of images full, brilliant, and distinct; and not, like Bunyan, Dante, or Hawthorne, a projector into bodily shapes of ideas, typical and emblematic; the shadows which haunt the conscience and the mind.
1. English Writers. Henry Morley. Cassell & Co., 1887. 4 vols.
2. Skeat's Specimens of English Literature, 1394-1579 (Clarendon Press Series.) Oxford.
3. Morte Darthur. London: Macmillan & Co., 1868. (Globe Edition.)
4. English and Scottish Ballads. Edited by Francis J. Child. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1859. 8 vols.
5. Spenser's Poetical Works. Edited by Richard Morris. London: Macmillan & Co., 1877. (Globe Edition.)
6. "A Royal Poet." In Washington Irving's Sketch Book. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1864.
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