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The Elizabethan age proper closed with the death of the queen, and the accession of James I., in 1603, but the literature of the fifty years following was quite as rich as that of the half-century that had passed since she came to the throne, in 1557. The same qualities of thought and style which had marked the writers of her reign prolonged themselves in their successors, through the reigns of the first two Stuart kings and the Commonwealth. Yet there was a change in spirit. Literature is only one of the many forms in which the national mind expresses itself. In periods of political revolution, literature, leaving the serene air of fine art, partakes the violent agitation of the times. There were seeds of civil and religious discord in Elizabethan England. As between the two parties in the Church there was a compromise and a truce rather than a final settlement. The Anglican doctrine was partly Calvinistic and partly Arminian. The form of government was Episcopal, but there was a large body of Presbyterians in the Church who desired a change. In the ritual and ceremonies many "rags of popery" had been retained, which the extreme reformers wished to tear away. But Elizabeth was a worldly-minded woman, impatient of theological disputes. Though circumstances had made her the champion of Protestantism in Europe she kept many Catholic notions; disapproved, for example, of the marriage of priests, and hated sermons. She was jealous of her prerogative in the State, and in the Church she enforced uniformity. The authors of the Martin Marprelate pamphlets against the bishops were punished by death or imprisonment. While the queen lived things were kept well together and England was at one in face of the common foe. Admiral Howard, who commanded the English naval forces against the Armada, was a Catholic.
But during the reign of James I. (1603-1625) and Charles I. (1625-1649) Puritanism grew stronger through repression. "England," says the historian Green, "became the people of a book, and that book the Bible." The power of the king was used to impose the power of the bishops upon the English and Scotch Churches until religious discontent became also political discontent, and finally overthrew the throne. The writers of this period divided more and more into two hostile camps. On the side of Church and king was the bulk of the learning and genius of the time. But on the side of free religion and the Parliament were the stern conviction, the fiery zeal, the exalted imagination of English Puritanism. The spokesman of this movement was Milton, whose great figure dominates the literary history of his generation, as Shakespeare does of the generation preceding.
The drama went on in the course marked out for it by Shakespeare's example until the theaters were closed by Parliament, in 1642. Of the Stuart dramatists the most important were Beaumont and Fletcher, all of whose plays were produced during the reign of James I. These were fifty-three in number, but only thirteen of them were joint productions. Francis Beaumont was twenty years younger than Shakespeare, and died a few years before him. He was the son of a judge of the Common Pleas. His collaborator, John Fletcher, a son of the bishop of London, was five years older than Beaumont, and survived him nine years. He was much the more prolific of the two and wrote alone some forty plays. Although the life of one of these partners was conterminous with Shakespeare's, their works exhibit a later phase of the dramatic art. The Stuart dramatists followed the lead of Shakespeare rather than of Ben Jonson. Their plays, like the former's, belong to the romantic drama. They present a poetic and idealized version of life, deal with the highest passions and the wildest buffoonery, and introduce a great variety of those daring situations and incidents which we agree to call romantic. But, while Shakespeare seldom or never overstepped the modesty of nature, his successors ran into every license. They sought to stimulate the jaded appetite of their audience by exhibiting monstrosities of character, unnatural lusts, subtleties of crime, virtues and vices both in excess.
Beaumont and Fletcher's plays are much easier and more agreeable reading than Ben Jonson's. Though often loose in their plots and without that consistency in the development of their characters which distinguished Jonson's more conscientious workmanship, they are full of graceful dialogue and beautiful poetry. Dryden said that after the Restoration two of their plays were acted for one of Shakespeare's or Jonson's throughout the year, and he added that they "understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better, whose wild debaucheries and quickness of wit in repartees no poet can ever paint as they have done." Wild debauchery was certainly not the mark of a gentleman in Shakespeare, nor was it altogether so in Beaumont and Fletcher. Their gentlemen are gallant and passionate lovers, gay cavaliers, generous, courageous, courteous—according to the fashion of their times—and sensitive on the point of honor. They are far superior to the cold-blooded rakes of Dryden and the Restoration comedy. Still the manners and language in Beaumont and Fletcher's plays are extremely licentious, and it is not hard to sympathize with the objections to the theater expressed by the Puritan writer, William Prynne, who, after denouncing the long hair of the cavaliers in his tract, The Unloveliness of Lovelocks, attacked the stage, in 1633, with Histrio-mastix: the Player's Scourge; an offense for which he was fined, imprisoned, pilloried, and had his ears cropped. Coleridge said that Shakespeare was coarse, but never gross. He had the healthy coarseness of nature herself. But Beaumont and Fletcher's pages are corrupt. Even their chaste women are immodest in language and thought. They use not merely that frankness of speech which was a fashion of the times, but a profusion of obscene imagery which could not proceed from a pure mind. Chastity with them is rather a bodily accident than a virtue of the heart, says Coleridge.
Among the best of their light comedies are The Chances, The Scornful Lady, The Spanish Curate, and Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. But far superior to these are their tragedies and tragi-comedies, The Maid's Tragedy, Philaster, A King and No King—all written jointly—and Valentinian and Thierry and Theodoret, written by Fletcher alone, but perhaps, in part, sketched out by Beaumont. The tragic masterpiece of Beaumont and Fletcher is The Maid's Tragedy, a powerful but repulsive play, which sheds a singular light not only upon its authors' dramatic methods, but also upon the attitude toward royalty favored by the doctrine of the divine right of kings, which grew up under the Stuarts. The heroine, Evadne, has been in secret a mistress of the king, who marries her to Amintor, a gentleman of his court, because, as she explains to her bridegroom, on the wedding night,I must have one
This scene is, perhaps, the most affecting and impressive in the whole range of Beaumont and Fletcher's drama. Yet when Evadne names the king as her paramour, Amintor exclaims:O thou hast named a word that wipes away
And the play ends with the wordsOn lustful kings,
Aspatia, in this tragedy, is a good instance of Beaumont and Fletcher's pathetic characters. She is troth-plight wife to Amintor, and after he, by the king's command, has forsaken her for Evadne, she disguises herself as a man, provokes her unfaithful lover to a duel, and dies under his sword, blessing the hand that killed her. This is a common type in Beaumont and Fletcher, and was drawn originally from Shakespeare's Ophelia. All their good women have the instinctive fidelity of a dog, and a superhuman patience and devotion, a "gentle forlornness" under wrongs, which is painted with an almost feminine tenderness. In Philaster, or Love Lies Bleeding, Euphrasia, conceiving a hopeless passion for Philaster—who is in love with Arethusa—puts on the dress of a page and enters his service. He employs her to carry messages to his lady-love, just as Viola, in Twelfth Night, is sent by the duke to Olivia. Philaster is persuaded by slanderers that his page and his lady have been unfaithful to him, and in his jealous fury he wounds Euphrasia with his sword. Afterward, convinced of the boy's fidelity, he asks forgiveness, whereto Euphrasia replies,Alas, my lord, my life is not a thing
Beaumont and Fletcher's love-lorn maids wear the willow very sweetly, but in all their piteous passages there is nothing equal to the natural pathos—the pathos which arises from the deep springs of character—of that one brief question and answer in King Lear.Lear. So young and so untender?
The disguise of a woman in man's apparel is a common incident in the romantic drama; and the fact that on the Elizabethan stage the female parts were taken by boys made the deception easier. Viola's situation in Twelfth Night is precisely similiar to Euphrasia's, but there is a difference in the handling of the device which is characteristic of a distinction between Shakespeare's art and that of his contemporaries. The audience in Twelfth Night is taken into confidence and made aware of Viola's real nature from the start, while Euphrasia's incognito is preserved till the fifth act, and then disclosed by an accident. This kind of mystification and surprise was a trick below Shakespeare. In this instance, moreover, it involved a departure from dramatic probability. Euphrasia could, at any moment, by revealing her identity, have averted the greatest sufferings and dangers from Philaster, Arethusa, and herself, and the only motive for her keeping silence is represented to have been a feeling of maidenly shame at her position. Such strained and fantastic motives are too often made the pivot of the action in Beaumont and Fletcher's tragi-comedies. Their characters have not the depth and truth of Shakespeare's, nor are they drawn so sharply. One reads their plays with pleasure, and remembers here and there a passage of fine poetry, or a noble or lovely trait, but their characters, as wholes, leave a fading impression. Who, even after a single reading or representation, ever forgets Falstaff, or Shylock, or King Lear?
The moral inferiority of Beaumont and Fletcher is well seen in such a play as A King and No King. Here Arbaces falls in love with his sister, and, after a furious conflict in his own mind, finally succumbs to his guilty passion. He is rescued from the consequences of his weakness by the discovery that Panthea is not, in fact, his sister. But this is to cut the knot and not to untie it. It leaves the denouement to chance, and not to those moral forces through which Shakespeare always wrought his conclusions. Arbaces has failed, and the piece of luck which keeps his failure innocent is rejected by every right-feeling spectator. In one of John Ford's tragedies the situation which in A King and No King is only apparent becomes real, and incest is boldly made the subject of the play. Ford pushed the morbid and unnatural in character and passion into even wilder extremes than Beaumont and Fletcher. His best play, the Broken Heart, is a prolonged and unrelieved torture of the feelings.
Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess is the best English pastoral drama with the exception of Jonson's fragment, the Sad Shepherd. Its choral songs are richly and sweetly modulated, and the influence of the whole poem upon Milton is very apparent in his Comus. The Knight of the Burning Pestle, written by Beaumont and Fletcher jointly, was the first burlesque comedy in the language, and is excellent fooling. Beaumont and Fletcher's blank verse is musical, but less masculine than Marlowe's or Shakespeare's, by reason of their excessive use of extra syllables and feminine endings.
In John Webster the fondness for abnormal and sensational themes, which beset the Stuart stage, showed itself in the exaggeration of the terrible into the horrible. Fear, in Shakespeare—as in the great murder scene in Macbeth—is a pure passion; but in Webster it is mingled with something physically repulsive. Thus his Duchess of Malfi is presented in the dark with a dead man's hand, and is told that it is the hand of her murdered husband. She is shown a dance of mad-men and, "behind a traverse, the artificial figures of her children, appearing as if dead." Treated in this elaborate fashion, that "terror," which Aristotle said it was one of the objects of tragedy to move, loses half its dignity. Webster's images have the smell of the charnel house about them:She would not after the report keep fresh
Webster had an intense and somber genius. In diction he was the most Shaksperian of the Elizabethan dramatists, and there are sudden gleams of beauty among his dark horrors which light up a whole scene with some abrupt touch of feeling.Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle: she died young,
says the brother of the Duchess, when he has procured her murder and stands before the corpse. Vittoria Corombona is described in the old editions as "a night-piece," and it should, indeed, be acted by the shuddering light of torches, and with the cry of the screech-owl to punctuate the speeches. The scene of Webster's two best tragedies was laid, like many of Ford's, Cyril Tourneur's, and Beaumont and Fletcher's, in Italy—the wicked and splendid Italy of the Renaissance, which had such a fascination for the Elizabethan imagination. It was to them the land of the Borgias and the Cenci; of families of proud nobles, luxurious, cultivated, but full of revenge and ferocious cunning; subtle poisoners, who killed with a perfumed glove or fan; parricides, atheists, committers of unnamable crimes, and inventors of strange and delicate varieties of sin.
But a very few have here been mentioned of the great host of dramatists who kept the theaters busy through the reigns of Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I. The last of the race was James Shirley, who died in 1666, and whose thirty-eight plays were written during the reign of Charles I. and the Commonwealth.
In the miscellaneous prose and poetry of this period there is lacking the free, exulting, creative impulse of the elder generation, but there are a soberer feeling and a certain scholarly choiceness which commend themselves to readers of bookish tastes. Even that quaintness of thought which is a mark of the Commonwealth writers is not without its attraction for a nice literary palate. Prose became now of greater relative importance than ever before. Almost every distinguished writer lent his pen to one or the other party in the great theological and political controversy of the time. There were famous theologians, like Hales, Chillingworth, and Baxter; historians and antiquaries, like Selden, Knolles, and Cotton; philosophers, such as Hobbes, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and More, the Platonist; and writers in natural science—which now entered upon its modern, experimental phase, under the stimulus of Bacon's writings—among whom may be mentioned Wallis, the mathematician; Boyle, the chemist; and Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood. These are outside of our subject, but in the strictly literary prose of the time, the same spirit of roused inquiry is manifest, and the same disposition to a thorough and exhaustive treatment of a subject, which is proper to the scientific attitude of mind. The line between true and false science, however, had not yet been drawn. The age was pedantic, and appealed too much to the authority of antiquity. Hence we have such monuments of perverse and curious erudition as Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621; and Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Inquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors, 1646. The former of these was the work of an Oxford scholar, an astrologer, who cast his own horoscope, and a victim himself of the atrabilious humor, from which he sought relief in listening to the ribaldry of bargemen, and in compiling this Anatomy, in which the causes, symptoms, prognostics, and cures of melancholy are considered in numerous partitions, sections, members, and subsections. The work is a mosaic of quotations. All literature is ransacked for anecdotes and instances, and the book has thus become a mine of out-of-the-way learning in which later writers have dug. Lawrence Sterne helped himself freely to Burton's treasures, and Dr. Johnson said that the Anatomy was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.
The vulgar and common errors which Sir Thomas Browne set himself to refute were such as these: That dolphins are crooked, that Jews stink, that a man hath one rib less than a woman, that Xerxes's army drank up rivers, that cicades are bred out of cuckoo-spittle, that Hannibal split Alps with vinegar, together with many similar fallacies touching Pope Joan, the Wandering Jew, the decuman or tenth wave, the blackness of negroes, Friar Bacon's brazen head, etc. Another book in which great learning and ingenuity were applied to trifling ends was the same author's Garden of Cyrus; or, the Quincuncial Lozenge or Network Plantations of the Ancients, in which a mystical meaning is sought in the occurrence throughout nature and art of the figure of the quincunx or lozenge. Browne was a physician of Norwich, where his library, museum, aviary, and botanic garden were thought worthy of a special visit by the Royal Society. He was an antiquary and a naturalist, and deeply read in the school-men and the Christian Fathers. He was a mystic, and a writer of a rich and peculiar imagination, whose thoughts have impressed themselves upon many kindred minds, like Coleridge, De Quincey, and Emerson. Two of his books belong to literature, Religio Medici, published in 1642, and Hydriotaphia; or, Urn Burial, 1658, a discourse upon rites of burial and incremation, suggested by some Roman funeral urns dug up in Norfolk. Browne's style, though too highly latinized, is a good example of Commonwealth prose; that stately, cumbrous, brocaded prose which had something of the flow and measure of verse, rather than the quicker, colloquial movement of modern writing. Browne stood aloof from the disputes of his time, and in his very subjects there is a calm and meditative remoteness from the daily interests of men. His Religio Medici is full of a wise tolerance and a singular elevation of feeling. "At the sight of a cross, or crucifix, I can dispense with my hat, but scarce with the thought or memory of my Saviour." "They only had the advantage of a bold and noble faith who lived before his coming." "They go the fairest way to heaven that would serve God without a hell." "All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God." The last chapter of the Urn Burial is an almost rhythmical descant on mortality and oblivion. The style kindles slowly into a somber eloquence. It is the most impressive and extraordinary passage in the prose literature of the time. Browne, like Hamlet, loved to "consider too curiously." His subtlety led him to "pose his apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity—with incarnation and resurrection;" and to start odd inquiries: "what song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women;" or whether, after Lazarus was raised from the dead, "his heir might lawfully detain his inheritance." The quaintness of his phrase appears at every turn. "Charles the Fifth can never hope to live within two Methuselahs of Hector." "Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families survive not three oaks." "Mummy is become merchandise; Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams."
One of the pleasantest of old English humorists is Thomas Fuller, who was a chaplain in the royal army during the civil war, and wrote, among other things, a Church History of Britain; a book of religious meditations, Good Thoughts in Bad Times; and a "character" book, The Holy and Profane State. His most important work, the Worthies of England, was published in 1662, the year after his death. This was a description of every English county; its natural commodities, manufactures, wonders, proverbs, etc., with brief biographies of its memorable persons. Fuller had a well-stored memory, sound piety, and excellent common sense. Wit was his leading intellectual trait, and the quaintness which he shared with his contemporaries appears in his writings in a fondness for puns, droll turns of expression and bits of eccentric suggestion. His prose, unlike Browne's, Milton's, and Jeremy Taylor's, is brief, simple, and pithy. His dry vein of humor was imitated by the American Cotton Mather, in his Magnolia, and by many of the English and New England divines of the 17th century.
Jeremy Taylor was also a chaplain in the king's army, was several times imprisoned for his opinions, and was afterward made, by Charles II., bishop of Down and Connor. He is a devotional rather than a theological writer, and his Holy Living and Holy Dying are religious classics. Taylor, like Sidney was a "warbler of poetic prose." He has been called the prose Spenser, and his English has the opulence, the gentle elaboration, the "linked sweetness long drawn out" of the poet of the Faerie Queene. In fullness and resonance Taylor's diction resembles that of the great orators, though it lacks their nervous energy. His pathos is exquisitely tender, and his numerous similes have Spenser's pictorial amplitude. Some of them have become commonplaces for admiration, notably his description of the flight of the skylark, and the sentence in which he compares the gradual awakening of the human faculties to the sunrise, which "first opens a little eye of heaven, and sends away the spirits of darkness, and gives light to a cock, and calls up the lark to matins, and by and by gilds the fringes of a cloud, and peeps over the eastern hills." Perhaps the most impressive single passage of Taylor's is the opening chapter in Holy Dying. From the midst of the sickening paraphernalia of death which he there accumulates rises that delicate image of the fading rose, one of the most perfect things in its wording in all our prose literature. "But so have I seen a rose newly springing from the clefts of its hood, and at first it was as fair as the morning, and full with the dew of heaven as a lamb's fleece; but when a ruder breath had forced open its virgin modesty, and dismantled its too youthful and unripe retirements, it began to put on darkness and to decline to softness and the symptoms of a sickly age; it bowed the head and broke its stock; and at night, having lost some of its leaves and all its beauty, it fell into the portion of weeds and outworn faces."
With the progress of knowledge and discussion many kinds of prose literature, which were not absolutely new, now began to receive wider extension. Of this sort are the Letters from Italy, and other miscellanies included in the Reliquiæ Wottonianæ, or remains of Sir Henry Wotton, English embassador at Venice in the reign of James I., and subsequently Provost of Eton College. Also the Table Talk—full of incisive remarks—left by John Selden, whom Milton pronounced the first scholar of his age, and who was a distinguished authority in legal antiquities and international law, furnished notes to Drayton's Polyolbion, and wrote upon Eastern religions, and upon the Arundel marbles. Literary biography was represented by the charming little Lives of good old Izaak Walton, the first edition of whose Compleat Angler was printed in 1653. The lives were five in number; of Hooker, Wotton, Donne, Herbert, and Sanderson. Several of these were personal friends of the author, and Sir Henry Wotton was a brother of the angle. The Compleat Angler, though not the first piece of sporting literature in English, is unquestionably the most popular, and still remains a favorite with "all that are lovers of virtue, and dare trust in Providence, and be quiet, and go a-angling." As in Ascham's Toxophilus, the instruction is conveyed in dialogue form, but the technical part of the book is relieved by many delightful digressions. Piscator and his friend Venator pursue their talk under a honeysuckle hedge or a sycamore-tree during a passing shower. They repair, after the day's fishing, to some honest ale-house, with lavender in the window and a score of ballads stuck about the wall, where they sing catches—"old-fashioned poetry but choicely good"—composed by the author or his friends, drink barley wine, and eat their trout or chub. They encounter milkmaids, who sing to them and give them a draft of the red cow's milk and they never cease their praises of the angler's life, of rural contentment among the cowslip meadows, and the quiet streams of Thames, or Lea, or Shawford Brook.
The decay of a great literary school is usually signalized by the exaggeration of its characteristic traits. The manner of the Elizabethan poets was pushed into mannerism by their successors. That manner, at its best, was hardly a simple one, but in the Stuart and Commonwealth writers it became mere extravagance. Thus Phineas Fletcher—a cousin of the dramatist—composed a long Spenserian allegory, the Purple Island, descriptive of the human body. George Herbert and others made anagrams, and verses shaped like an altar, a cross, or a pair of Easter wings. This group of poets was named, by Dr. Johnson, in his life of Cowley, the metaphysical school. Other critics have preferred to call them the fantastic or conceited school, the later Euphuists or the English Marinists and Gongorists, after the poets Marino and Gongora, who brought this fashion to its extreme in Italy and in Spain. The English conceptistas were mainly clergymen of the established church: Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Quarles, and Herrick. But Crashaw was a Roman Catholic, and Cowley—the latest of them—a layman.
The one who set the fashion was Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's, whom Dryden pronounced a great wit, but not a great poet, and whom Ben Jonson esteemed the best poet in the world for some things, but likely to be forgotten for want of being understood. Besides satires and epistles in verse, he composed amatory poems in his youth, and divine poems in his age, both kinds distinguished by such subtle obscurity, and far-fetched ingenuities, that they read like a series of puzzles. When this poet has occasion to write a valediction to his mistress upon going into France, he compares their temporary separation to that of a pair of compasses:Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
If he would persuade her to marriage he calls her attention to a flea—Me it sucked first and now sucks thee,
He says that the flea is their marriage-temple, and bids her forbear to kill it lest she thereby commit murder, suicide and sacrilege all in one. Donne's figures are scholastic and smell of the lamp. He ransacked cosmography, astrology, alchemy, optics, the canon law, and the divinity of the school-men for ink-horn terms and similes. He was in verse what Browne was in prose. He loved to play with distinctions, hyperboles, parodoxes, the very casuistry and dialectics of love or devotion.Thou canst not every day give me my heart:
Donne's verse is usually as uncouth as his thought. But there is a real passion slumbering under these ashy heaps of conceit, and occasionally a pure flame darts up, as in the justly admired lines:Her pure and eloquent blood
This description of Donne is true, with modifications, of all the metaphysical poets. They had the same forced and unnatural style. The ordinary laws of the association of ideas were reversed with them. It was not the nearest, but the remotest, association that was called up. "Their attempts," said Johnson, "were always analytic: they broke every image into fragments." The finest spirit among them was "holy George Herbert," whose Temple was published in 1633. The titles in this volume were such as the following: Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, Holy Baptism, The Cross, The Church Porch, Church Music, The Holy Scriptures, Redemption, Faith, Doomsday. Never since, except, perhaps, in Keble's Christian Year, have the ecclesiastic ideals of the Anglican Church—the "beauty of holiness"—found such sweet expression in poetry. The verses entitled Virtue—Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
are known to most readers, as well as the line,Who sweeps a room as for thy laws makes that and the action fine.
The quaintly named pieces, the Elixir, the Collar, and the Pulley, are full of deep thought and spiritual feeling. But Herbert's poetry is constantly disfigured by bad taste. Take this passage from Whitsunday,Listen, sweet dove, unto my song,
which is almost as ludicrous as the epitaph written by his contemporary, Carew, on the daughter of Sir Thomas Wentworth, whose soul... grew so fast within
Another of these church poets was Henry Vaughan, "the Silurist," or Welshman, whose fine piece, the Retreat, has been often compared with Wordsworth's Ode on the Intimations of Immortality. Frances Quarles's Divine Emblems long remained a favorite book with religious readers both in old and New England. Emblem books, in which engravings of a figurative design were accompanied with explanatory letterpress in verse, were a popular class of literature in the 17th century. The most famous of them all were Jacob Catt's Dutch emblems.
One of the most delightful of the English lyric poets is Robert Herrick, whose Hesperides, 1648, has lately received such sympathetic illustration from the pencil of an American artist, Mr. E.A. Abbey. Herrick was a clergyman of the English Church and was expelled by the Puritans from his living, the vicarage of Dean Prior, in Devonshire. The most quoted of his religious poems is, How to Keep a True Lent. But it may be doubted whether his tastes were prevailingly clerical; his poetry certainly was not. He was a disciple of Ben Jonson, and his boon companion at...those lyric feasts
Herrick's Noble Numbers seldom rises above the expression of a cheerful gratitude and contentment. He had not the subtlety and elevation of Herbert, but he surpassed him in the grace, melody, sensuous beauty, and fresh lyrical impulse of his verse. The conceits of the metaphysical school appear in Herrick only in the form of an occasional pretty quaintness. He is the poet of English parish festivals and of English flowers, the primrose, the whitethorn, the daffodil. He sang the praises of the country life, love songs to "Julia," and hymns of thanksgiving for simple blessings. He has been called the English Catullus, but he strikes rather the Horatian note of Carpe diem and regret at the shortness of life and youth in many of his best-known poems, such as Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may, and To Corinna, To Go a Maying.
Richard Crashaw was a Cambridge scholar who was turned out of his fellowship at Peterhouse by the Puritans in 1644, for refusing to subscribe the Solemn League and Covenant; became a Roman Catholic, and died in 1650 as a canon of the Virgin's Chapel at Loretto. He is best known to the general reader by his Wishes for his Unknown Mistress,That not impossible she
which is included in most of the anthologies. His religious poetry expresses a rapt and mystical piety, fed on the ecstatic visions of St. Theresa, "undaunted daughter of desires," who is the subject of a splendid apostrophe in his poem, The Flaming Heart. Crashaw is, in fact, a poet of passages and of single lines, his work being exceedingly uneven and disfigured by tasteless conceits. In one of his Latin epigrams occurs the celebrated line upon the miracle at Cana:Vidit et erubuit nympha pudica Deum:
as englished by Dryden,The conscious water saw its Lord and blushed.
Abraham Cowley is now less remembered for his poetry than for his pleasant volume of essays, published after the Restoration; but he was thought in his own time a better poet than Milton. His collection of love songs—the Mistress—is a mass of cold conceits, in the metaphysical manner; but his elegies on Crashaw and Harvey have much dignity and natural feeling. He introduced the Pindaric ode into English, and wrote an epic poem on a biblical subject—the Davideis—now quite unreadable. Cowley was a royalist, and followed the exiled court to France.
Side by side with the church poets were the cavaliers—Carew, Waller, Lovelace, Suckling, L'Estrange, and others—gallant courtiers and officers in the royal army, who mingled love and loyalty in their strains. Colonel Richard Lovelace, who lost every thing in the king's service, and was several times imprisoned, wrote two famous songs—To Lucasta on going to the Wars—in which occur the lines,I could not love thee, dear, so much,
and to Althæa from Prison, in which he sings "the sweetness, mercy, majesty, and glories" of his king, and declares that "stone-walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage." Another of the cavaliers was Sir John Suckling, who formed a plot to rescue the Earl of Strafford, raised a troop of horse for Charles I., was impeached by the Parliament and fled to France. He was a man of wit and pleasure, who penned a number of gay trifles, but has been saved from oblivion chiefly by his exquisite Ballad upon a Wedding. Thomas Carew and Edmund Waller were poets of the same stamp—graceful and easy, but shallow in feeling. Carew, however, showed a nicer sense of form than most of the fantastic school. Some of his love songs are written with delicate art. There are noble lines in his elegy on Donne and in one passage of his masque Coelum Britannicum. In his poem entitled The Rapture great splendor of language and imagery is devoted to the service of an unbridled sensuality. Waller, who followed the court to Paris, was the author of two songs, which are still favorites, Go, Lovely Rose, and On a Girdle, and he first introduced the smooth, correct manner of writing in couplets, which Dryden and Pope carried to perfection. Gallantly rather than love was the inspiration of these courtly singers. In such verses as Carew's Encouragements to a Lover, and George Wither's The Manly Heart,If she be not so to me,
we see the revolt against the high, passionate, Sidneian love of the Elizabethan sonneteers, and the note of persiflage that was to mark the lyrical verse of the Restoration. But the poetry of the cavaliers reached its high-water mark in one fiery-hearted song by the noble and unfortunate James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, who invaded Scotland in the interest of Charles II., and was taken prisoner and put to death at Edinburgh in 1650.My dear and only love, I pray
In language borrowed from the politics of the time, he cautions his mistress against synods or committees in her heart; swears to make her glorious by his pen and famous by his sword; and, with that fine recklessness which distinguished the dashing troopers of Prince Rupert, he adds, in words that have been often quoted,He either fears his fate too much,
John Milton, the greatest English poet except Shakespeare, was born in London in 1608. His father was a scrivener, an educated man, and a musical composer of some merit. At his home Milton was surrounded with all the inflences of a refined and well-ordered Puritan household of the better class. He inherited his father's musical tastes, and during the latter part of his life he spent a part of every afternoon in playing the organ. No poet has written more beautifully of music than Milton. One of his sonnets was addressed to Henry Lawes, the composer, who wrote the airs to the songs in Comus. Milton's education was most careful and thorough. He spent seven years at Cambridge, where, from his personal beauty and fastidious habits, he was called "The lady of Christ's." At Horton, in Buckinghamshire, where his father had a country seat, he passed five years more, perfecting himself in his studies, and then traveled for fifteen months, mainly in Italy, visiting Naples and Rome, but residing at Florence. Here he saw Galileo, a prisoner of the Inquisition "for thinking otherwise in astronomy than his Dominican and Franciscan licensers thought." Milton was the most scholarly and the most truly classical of English poets. His Latin verse, for elegance and correctness, ranks with Addison's; and his Italian poems were the admiration of the Tuscan scholars. But his learning appears in his poetry only in the form of a fine and chastened result, and not in laborious allusion and pedantic citation, as too often in Ben Jonson, for instance. "My father," he wrote, "destined me, while yet a little child, for the study of humane letters." He was also destined for the ministry, but, "coming to some maturity of years and perceiving what tyrany had invaded the Church, ... I thought it better to prefer a blameless silence, before the sacred office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing." Other hands than a bishop's were laid upon his head. "He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter," he says, "ought himself to be a true poem." And he adds that his "natural haughtiness" saved him from all impurity of living. Milton had a sublime self-respect. The dignity and earnestness of the Puritan gentleman blended in his training with the culture of the Renaissance. Born into an age of spiritual conflict, he dedicated his gift to the service of Heaven, and he became, like Heine, a valiant soldier in the war for liberation. He was the poet of a cause, and his song was keyed tothe Dorian mood
On comparing Milton with Shakespeare, with his universal sympathies and receptive imagination, one perceives a loss in breadth, but a gain in intense personal conviction. He introduced a new note into English poetry: the passion for truth and the feeling of religious sublimity. Milton's was an heroic age, and its song must be lyric rather than dramatic; its singer must be in the fight and of it.
Of the verses which he wrote at Cambridge the most important was his splendid ode On the Morning of Christ's Nativity. At Horton he wrote, among other things, the companion pieces, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, of a kind quite new in English, giving to the landscape an expression in harmony with the two contrasted moods. Comus, which belongs to the same period, was the perfection of the Elizabethan court masque, and was presented at Ludlow Castle in 1634, on the occasion of the installation of the Earl of Bridgewater as Lord President of Wales. Under the guise of a skillful addition to the Homeric allegory of Circe, with her cup of enchantment, it was a Puritan song in praise of chastity and temperance. Lycidas, in like manner, was the perfection of the Elizabethan pastoral elegy. It was contributed to a volume of memorial verses on the death of Edward King, a Cambridge friend of Milton's, who was drowned in the Irish Channel in 1637. In one stern strain, which is put into the mouth of St. Peter, the author "foretells the ruin of our corrupted clergy, then at their height."But that two-handed engine at the door
This was Milton's last utterance in English verse before the outbreak of the civil war, and it sounds the alarm of the impending struggle. In technical quality Lycidas is the most wonderful of all Milton's poems. The cunningly intricate harmony of the verse, the pressed and packed language, with its fullness of meaning and allusion, make it worthy of the minutest study. In these early poems, Milton, merely as a poet, is at his best. Something of the Elizabethan style still clings to them; but their grave sweetness, their choice wording, their originality in epithet, name, and phrase, were novelties of Milton's own. His English masters were Spenser, Fletcher, and Sylvester, the translator of Du Bartas's La Semaine, but nothing of Spenser's prolixity, or Fletcher's effeminacy, or Sylvester's quaintness is found in Milton's pure, energetic diction. He inherited their beauties, but his taste had been tempered to a finer edge by his studies in Greek and Hebrew poetry. He was the last of the Elizabethans, and his style was at once the crown of the old and a departure into the new. In masque, elegy, and sonnet he set the seal to the Elizabethan poetry, said the last word, and closed one great literary era.
In 1639 the breach between Charles I. and his Parliament brought Milton back from Italy. "I thought it base to be traveling at my ease for amusement, while my fellow-countrymen at home were fighting for liberty." For the next twenty years he threw himself into the contest, and poured forth a succession of tracts, in English and Latin, upon the various public questions at issue. As a political thinker, Milton had what Bacon calls "the humor of a scholar." In a country of endowed grammar schools and universities hardly emerged from a mediæval discipline and curriculum, he wanted to set up Greek gymnasia and philosophical schools, after the fashion of the Porch and the Academy. He would have imposed an Athenian democracy upon a people trained in the traditions of monarchy and episcopacy. At the very moment when England had grown tired of the Protectorate and was preparing to welcome back the Stuarts, he was writing An Easy and Ready Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. Milton acknowledged that in prose he had the use of his left hand only. There are passages of fervid eloquence, where the style swells into a kind of lofty chant, with a rhythmical rise and fall to it, as in parts of the English Book of Common Prayer. But in general his sentences are long and involved, full of inversions and latinized constructions. Controversy at that day was conducted on scholastic lines. Each disputant, instead of appealing at once to the arguments of expediency and common sense, began with a formidable display of learning, ransacking Greek and Latin authors and the Fathers of the Church for opinions in support of his own position. These authorities he deployed at tedious length, and followed them up with heavy scurrilities and "excusations," by way of attack and defense. The dispute between Milton and Salmasius over the execution of Charles I. was like a duel between two knights in full armor striking at each other with ponderous maces. The very titles of these pamphlets are enough to frighten off a modern reader: A Confutation of the Animadversions upon a Defense of a Humble Remonstrance against a Treatise, entitled Of Reformation. The most interesting of Milton's prose tracts is his Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, 1644. The arguments in this are of permanent force; but if the reader will compare it, or Jeremy Taylor's Liberty of Prophesying, with Locke's Letters on Toleration, he will see how much clearer and more convincing is the modern method of discussion, introduced by writers like Hobbes and Locke and Dryden. Under the Protectorate Milton was appointed Latin Secretary to the Council of State. In the diplomatic correspondence which was his official duty, and in the composition of his tract, Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, he overtaxed his eyes, and in 1654 became totally blind. The only poetry of Milton's belonging to the years 1640-1660 are a few sonnets of the pure Italian form, mainly called forth by public occasions. By the Elizabethans the sonnets had been used mainly in love poetry. In Milton's hands, said Wordsworth, "the thing became a trumpet." Some of his were addressed to political leaders, like Fairfax, Cromwell, and Sir Henry Vane; and of these the best is, perhaps, the sonnet written on the massacre of the Vaudois Protestants—"a collect in verse," it has been called—which has the fire of a Hebrew prophet invoking the divine wrath upon the oppressors of Israel. Two were on his own blindness, and in these there is not one selfish repining, but only a regret that the value of his service is impaired—Will God exact day labor, light denied?
After the restoration of the Stuarts, in 1660, Milton was for a while in peril, by reason of the part that he had taken against the king. ButOn evil days though fallen, and evil tongues,
he bated no jot of heart or hope. Henceforth he becomes the most heroic and affecting figure in English literary history. Years before he had planned an epic poem on the subject of King Arthur, and again a sacred tragedy on man's fall and redemption. These experiments finally took shape in Paradise Lost, which was given to the world in 1667. This is the epic of English Puritanism and of Protestant Christianity. It was Milton's purpose toassert eternal Providence
or, in other words, to embody his theological system in verse. This gives a doctrinal rigidity and even dryness to parts of the Paradise Lost, which injure its effect as a poem. His "God the father turns a school divine:" his Christ, as has been wittily said, is "God's good boy:" the discourses of Raphael to Adam are scholastic lectures: Adam himself is too sophisticated for the state of innocence, and Eve is somewhat insipid. The real protagonist of the poem is Satan, upon whose mighty figure Milton unconsciously bestowed something of his own nature, and whose words of defiance might almost have come from some Republican leader when the Good Old Cause went down.What though the field be lost?
But when all has been said that can be said in disparagement or qualification, Paradise Lost remains the foremost of English poems and the sublimest of all epics. Even in those parts where theology encroaches most upon poetry, the diction, though often heavy, is never languid. Milton's blank verse in itself is enough to bear up the most prosaic theme, and so is his epic English, a style more massive and splendid than Shakespeare's, and comparable, like Tertullian's Latin, to a river of molten gold. Of the countless single beauties that sow his pageThick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks
there is no room to speak, nor of the astonishing fullness of substance and multitude of thoughts which have caused the Paradise Lost to be called the book of universal knowledge. "The heat of Milton's mind," said Dr. Johnson, "might be said to sublimate his learning and throw off into his work the spirit of science, unmingled with its grosser parts." The truth of this remark is clearly seen upon a comparison of Milton's description of the creation, for example, with corresponding passages in Sylvester's Divine Weeks and Works (translated from the Huguenot poet, Du Bartas), which was, in some sense, his original. But the most heroic thing in Milton's heroic poem is Milton. There are no strains in Paradise Lost so absorbing as those in which the poet breaks the strict epic bounds and speaks directly of himself, as in the majestic lament over his own blindness, and in the invocation to Urania, which open the third and seventh books. Every-where, too, one reads between the lines. We think of the dissolute cavaliers, as Milton himself undoubtedly was thinking of them, when we read of "the sons of Belial flown with insolence and wine," or when the Puritan turns among the sweet landscapes of Eden, to denouncecourt amours
And we think of Milton among the triumphant royalists when we read of the Seraph Abdiel "faithful found among the faithless."Nor number nor example with him wrought
Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes were published in 1671. The first of these treated in four books Christ's temptation in the wilderness, a subject that had already been handled in the Spenserian allegorical manner by Giles Fletcher, a brother of the Purple Islander, in his Christ's Victory and Triumph, 1610. The superiority of Paradise Lost to its sequel is not without significance. The Puritans were Old Testament men. Their God was the Hebrew Jehovah, whose single divinity the Catholic mythology had overlaid with the figures of the Son, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. They identified themselves in thought with his chosen people, with the militant theocracy of the Jews. Their sword was the sword of the Lord and of Gideon. "To your tents, O Israel," was the cry of the London mob when the bishops were committed to the Tower. And when the fog lifted, on the morning of the battle of Dunbar, Cromwell exclaimed, "Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered: like as the sun riseth, so shalt thou drive them away."
Samson Agonistes, though Hebrew in theme and spirit, was in form a Greek tragedy. It has chorus and semi-chorus, and preserved the so-called dramatic unities; that is, the scene was unchanged, and there were no intervals of time between the acts. In accordance with the rules of the Greek theater, but two speakers appeared upon the stage at once, and there was no violent action. The death of Samson is related by a messenger. Milton's reason for the choice of this subject is obvious. He himself was Samson, shorn of his strength, blind, and alone among enemies; given overto the unjust tribunals, under change of times,
As Milton grew older he discarded more and more the graces of poetry, and relied purely upon the structure and the thought. In Paradise Lost, although there is little resemblance to Elizabethan work—such as one notices in Comus and the Christmas hymn—yet the style is rich, especially in the earlier books. But in Paradise Regained it is severe to bareness, and in Samson, even to ruggedness. Like Michelangelo, with whose genius he had much in common, Milton became impatient of finish or of mere beauty. He blocked out his work in masses, left rough places and surfaces not filled in, and inclined to express his meaning by a symbol, rather than work it out in detail. It was a part of his austerity, his increasing preference for structural over decorative methods, to give up rime for blank verse. His latest poem, Samson Agonistes, is a metrical study of the highest interest.
Milton was not quite alone among the poets of his time in espousing the popular cause. Andrew Marvell, who was his assistant in the Latin secretaryship and sat in Parliament for Hull, after the Restoration, was a good Republican, and wrote a fine Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland. There is also a rare imaginative quality in his Song of the Exiles in Bermuda, Thoughts in a Garden, and The Girl Describes her Fawn. George Wither, who was imprisoned for his satires, also took the side of the Parliament, but there is little that is distinctively Puritan in his poetry.
1. Milton's Poetical Works. Edited by David Masson. London: Macmillan & Co., 1882. 3 vols.
2. Selections from Milton's Prose. Edited by F.D. Myers. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1883. (Parchment Series.)
3. England's Antiphon. By George Macdonald. London: Macmillan & Co., 1868.
4. Robert Herrick's Hesperides. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1885. (Morley's Universal Library).
5. Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici and Hydriotaphia. Edited by Willis Bund. Sampson Low & Co., 1873.
6. Thomas Fuller's Good Thoughts in Bad Times. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1863.
7. Walton's Complete Angler. Edited by Sir Harris Nicolas. London: Chatto & Windus, 1875.
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