« PreviousContinue »
Rhyme of 1602 gave the coup de grâce to the academic theory that English verse ought to be built upon classical lines. The books of lasting value and interest which emerged from these early debates upon the first principles of the literary art were two in number, Sidney's Apologie for Poetrie (or, as a rival printer had it, Defense of Poesie), 1595, and Jonson's oddly named Timber, or Discoveries, first printed in 1641. Sidney's theory of poetry (classification of genres, and vindication of the superiority of poetry over its two chief rivals, history and philosophy) may be termed an epitome of the criticism of the Italian Renaissance. Sidney expected his correspondents to inform him as to the latest Italian books and theories, and in his own treatise he drew considerably upon the theories of Minturno, Trissino, and Castelvetro, and also from Scaliger's poetics. By these writers he controlled his views on such knotty questions as the dramatic unities, and the various canons of Aristotle, the different classes of prose and verse and most of the technical points.
But the most interesting portion of his defence by far is the more original section in which he discusses the contemporary state of poetry in England. Why, he inquires, is England, the mother of excellent minds, such a hard stepmother to poets? He admits greatness to Chaucer, and poetical beauties to The Mirrour for Magistrates, to Surrey, and to The Shepheards Calender, but he deplores the defects of the English drama, its fondness for farce and neglect of the unities; while he strongly deprecates the tendency to affectations, euphuistic and other. This state of things, he concludes, should not be; England ought to be the reverse of sterile in regard to poetry, for the English language is specially favourable to poets. Our language is equal to all demands upon it, its composite nature, its facile grammar, its richness in compound words, are so many advantages, contributing to various and melodious expression. Finally, for the purposes
of modern versifications, the English language is especially adapted. "Fie, then, on the Englishman who scorns the sacred mysteries of poetry! On all such earth-creeping minds," says Sidney, in his humorous peroration, "I ought to invoke some terrible curse such as that you be rhymed to death; I will not do that, but thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets-that while you live, you live in love and never get favour for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph."
Ben Jonson's notebook with its pedantic title of Timber (1641) is a somewhat promiscuous thicket of artistic and moral epigrams, raw material of thought for his Works, showing what a marvellous sponge he was of ideas and notions from ancient and modern literature. He invades other authors like a monarch and holds most of the writers of antiquity in solution in his spacious memory. The craze for Latinising English poetry was fairly laid to rest by this time; in other respects Jonson was usually a strong classicist, but there is a substratum of sanity, moderation, and native good sense about his opinions which separates him by a wide gulf from pedants such as Drant, Harvey, and Webbe. He respects the Italian authorities as Dryden revered Boileau, but he loves good English. "Pure and neat language I love, yet plain and customary." "Custom is the mistress of language." "The chief virtue of style is perspicuity." "Writings need sunshine." Elsewhere, as champion of the poetic office, Jonson left a noble expression of an exalted ideal, when he wrote. of Poesie:
Attired in the majesty of art,
Set high in spirit with the precious taste
Of sweet philosophy. . .
O then, how proud a presence does she bear!
Then is she like herself; fit to be seen
By the time he wrote Timber critics had begun to feel it superfluous to argue about the general tendencies of poetry. Taking all that for granted they began to study no longer the allegory but the art which underlies all creative work in literature. Jonson thus represents the maturity and the sophistication of a period now drawing to its close.1
1 Of Raleigh there are Lives by Oldys (1736), Cayley, Tytler, Kingsley, Edwards (1868), Stebbing, Martin Hume, Taylor, and Rennell Rodd (1904). See also Dict. Nat. Biog. and Gardiner's History; the complete Works at Oxford, 1829; A Bibliography of Raleigh, by W. Eames, 1886. For much fuller detail as to biographers, travellers, and critics, see Seccombe and Allen's Age of Shakespeare, ed. 1904, Book II. For the critical writers, Haslewood's Ancient Critical Essays (1811-15) and G. Gregory Smith's Elizabethan Critical Essays (1904) should be consulted. There are good editions of Sidney's Apologie and Johnson's Timber by Cook and Schelling. On Coryat, Peacham, Overbury and some minor prose writers of the period A. W. Fox's Book of Bachelors may be perused with profit.
The period closed light-heartedly enough with the licentious comedy of Fletcher and with copious imitation of Melic and Anacreontic strains-the last imitation of antiquity until antique form again crops up in the Pindarics of Cowley and the Heroic Drama of Dryden. The Italian and Renaissance temper of the statesmen who had safeguarded England through the Reformation movement was none the less surely working itself out. England was now, by a strange admixture of introspection and scripture, to seek to justify the religion which its rulers had provided for it. Radical politics and biblical religion submerged the pagan and foreign, yet at the same time nationalist literary impulse, which had set in with Sidney, culminated in Shakespeare, and was disguised almost out of recognition in Milton. The serious development of our Letters had undoubtedly been deflected from its natural course by the brilliant success of the composite drama, by the undue amount of subserviency to foreign models, and by the surfeit of words for music. Narrative prose and verse, upon which it would have been natural for a later generation to build, was comparatively
undeveloped. Dazzling as Elizabethan literature is, it was in some respects strangely defective. It resembles a faerie structure built upon a narrow rock. Of foundations in the ordinary sense it possessed none. And yet, if its sphere was to be enlarged, these foundations would have, sooner or later, to be constructed. This eventually proved the task of the period from 1660 to 1780. The postponement was due to no literary dearth in the period upon which we are now entering. It was, indeed, prolific in great writers, and promised to be germinal in the highest degree. But forces more urgent than Literature were driving men to introspection and religion. A complicated and rather rapid social change, which set in about 1603, began to divert them from the drama, the very success of which had exhausted its native vitality. Literature had, in brief, to go through the straits of Puritanism. The cross con. flict between Renaissance and Reformation entered upon an entirely new phase. Stress was thrown upon actual rather than upon reflected life. Bunyan, Baxter, and Clarendon became typical figures. The more intense and individualistic note which had begun to sound so interestingly in Donne and Crashaw, and Browne and Herbert, was dammed up and flowed undeground for upwards of a century. But the literary study of this transition period is still in its infancy, and all such generalisations must be suspect on the score of unripeness.
FOUR GREAT PROSE WRITERS
"Fuller's language! Grant me patience, Heavens! A tithe of his beauties would be sold cheap for a whole library of our classical writers . . . and antiquarians. . . . The venerable rust and dust of the whole concern are not worth an ounce of Fuller's earth! . . . God bless thee, dear old man! may I meet with thee! which is tantamount to-may I go to Heaven!" -COLERIDGE, Notes on English Divines, etc.
"To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every inch of space is a miracle,
Every spear of grass-the frames, limbs, organs of men and women and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles."
-Motto for Browne from WHITMAN.
Robert Burton-Thomas Fuller-Sir Thomas Browne-Jeremy Taylor
ROBERT BURTON, the son of Ralph Burton, born at Lindley, in Leicestershire, on February 8th, 1577, passed from Nuneaton School to Oxford, becoming in 1599 a student at Christ Church, where for form's sake, "though he wanted not a tutor," he was placed under the tuition of Dr. John Bancroft, afterwards Bishop of Oxford. Residing at Christ Church, he drew the revenues of two livings (one in Oxford, to the parishioners of which, Wood tells us, he always gave the Sacrament in wafers), and in his famous "studie" at the "House" he died on January