H. D. (Henry Duff) Traill.

Social England; a record of the progress of the people in religion, laws, learning, arts, industry, commerce, science, literature and manners, from the earliest times to the present day (Volume 3) online

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must have been somebody else. As a matter of fact, our
general knowledge of the man of letters of the Elizabethan
time is of the scantiest. Of Spenser, a man always in contact
with distinguished persons, we know little; of Ben Jonson, a
literary patriarch, and frequenter of younger men of letters at,
a time when the man of letters was both a more established
and a more respectable character than in Shakespeare's time,
we do not know very much. Of Chapman, Dray ton, Daniel,
and others, who were all gentlemen by birth, and of some
standing in the world, our knowledge is shadowy to the last

~ o */

thinness of shadows. Of most of the other Elizabethan
dramatists and poets, the dates of their matriculation and
degree, when they happened to be university men, of their
appointment to offices, when they chanced to be office-holders,
and (by no means invariably) of their birth, marriage, and
death sum up the most of our knowledge. Of even such a
man as Donne, who lived to till a post more important than
many English bishoprics, and whose life was written not long
after his death by a personal friend, the record is about as
definite and substantial as the Bickerings of firelight on the Avail.
How should we expect, save by the merest accident, to know
much of Shakespeare, who was born in a very small town of
an undistinguished family, went to no university, belonged to
no recognised profession, tilled no office, was only conjectur-
ally connected with any man of importance, published nothing
during his lifetime except a tiny handful of juvenile poems,
and passed nearly the last two decades of a by no means long
lite in the town or rather the village of his nativity ?
His work. His work, on the other hand, we have and know: and
very foolish persons must they be who would exchange the
worst and most dubious part of it for a Life as copious as those
we possess of Byron or of Macaulay. The exact part of the
work which belongs to the present chapter, and the exact




part of that part which belongs in pure inception and entire
execution to Shakespeare himself, may be matters of doubt-
to the present writer they are matters of doubt which he

Phntn: Walker & Cocfarett. Clifford'.'! Inn. E.C
(National Portrait Gallery.)

neither can nor would greatly care to solve. But there is no
doubt that in these years the commonly accepted twelve
from 1585 or 1580 to 1597 will do very well he Avas, as the
phrase was used of the next greatest man of letters in English,






" nuiking himself," and making the English drama at the
same time. Of the characteristics which under his hands
and those of others it put on, something may be said later ;
we must, for the moment, turn to the companions whom, in
this last ten or fifteen years of the sixteenth century, he had
in the business.

The eldest of them, and in not a few ways the chief, was
George Chapman, Shakespeare's elder of some half-dozen years,
though he outlived him nearly twenty a remarkable dramatist,
a poet of merit, and an altogether admirable translator. It
was practically impossible for anyone who had anything to do
with the stage to keep out of "Bohemian" ways and ''Bohe-
mian" troubles; nor did Chapman: but he seems to have had
comparatively little to do with them, and to have on the whole
lived aloof. But the stage evidently had a strong attraction for
him ; and it would seem that he contributed to it from well
within the reign of Elizabeth to well within that of Charles 1.
He was an Oxford man, and, as his Homer and other things
show, no mean scholar ; but he could never put off the some-
what unscholarly grandiosity, the towering aims not wholly
proportioned to means, the tendency to rant in dialogue and
to melodrama in incident and action, which Shakespeare, after
experiencing the attractions of these " Delilahs of the theatre,"
pretty rapidly vanquished and outgrew.

A sort of minor Chapman, like him a gentleman and an
Oxford man, like him a member of the extreme blood-and-
thunder tragic school, a lesser poet, but a satirist of great
virulence and some vigour, was John Marston, whose birth-date
is quite unknown, but who would seem to have been a young
man in the closing years of the sixteenth century, when his
satires and poems appeared, and had difficulties with the
authorities. He wrote drama copiously in the early years of
the next century, and seems to have taken orders, abjured
the stage, and died about the same time as Chapman, circa
Ki.'U. In no English dramatist not in Marlowe and his group,
named and anonymous ; not in that nominis umbra Cyril
Tourneur, the very titles of whose plays (the Revengers Tragedy
and the Atheist's Tragedy) speak for themselves; not in Chettlc
and others, such as those contributors to the Shakespearian
apocrypha, who wrote Arden of Fc>-ci-l><nn and the Yorkshire



Tragedy ; not in the great examples of the time, who are to
be named hereafter Webster and Ford is the tendency to
rely on mere horror, on murders, treasons, and detested sins,
more distinct than in Marston.

It is far less obvious in the personally almost unknown Dekker.
Thomas Dekker, whose abundant work begins in Elizabeth's
reign, and is always characterised by a sweet and gracious
kindliness. And it is not eminently present in that of
Benjamin Jonson, who, as the ruling figure of the next literary
period, must be chiefly dealt with then, but whose rather stormy
youth was beginning to subside into quieter ways before King
James came to the throne, and whose admirable comedy, Every
Man in His Humour, at any rate in its earliest form, was
produced some five years before the Queen's death. But when
it is said that these four were only the most prominent of a
great company, some idea of the extraordinary fecundity of
the time in drama and dramatists may, perhaps, be better given
than by jejune lists or unintelligible allusions.

In the minor and general departments of poetry proper,
somewhat less was done in this period than in that which
succeeded it. Yet it is significant that not merely Spenser,
but both the chiefs of the dramatic school Marlowe, and
Shakespeare himself distinguished themselves at this time.
Shakespeare and Spenser, indeed, though not Marlowe, are
the chiefs of a very curious outburst of sonnet writing, which, The
with a somewhat dissimilar (or, perhaps we may say, comple- Sonnet
mentary) development in the writing of historical poems, is
the chief feature in poetry proper of the last days of Elizabeth.
The two great " historians," Drayton and Daniel, were sonneteers
also ; the third, as usually ranked, Warner, does not seem to
have indulged in this diversion. But the " sugared sonnet " was,
on the whole, the chief delight and exercise of the really
Elizabethan poet. We have seen (pp. 138 seq., 478) how
Wyatt and Surrey introduced this alluring form ; how, many
years later, Sidney and Watson, soon to be followed by Spenser,
poured out in it the sprightliest and choicest runnings of the
new poetic spirit. But it was not till the last decade of the
century, and more particularly till the four years, 1593-96,
that the influence of the sonnet showed itself in its fullest
force. The date of Shakespeare's sonnets is as unknown with



any certainty as most other things in reference to that mar-
vellous collection : but there can be no moral doubt that they
date in composition from this very time. About the sonnet pro-
duction of others there is no doubt of any kind. The majority
of the collections published during this period bear each the
name of some real or fancied mistress; as had been the case with
the earlier garlands of the French Pleiade, to the list of imitations
whereof formerly given may here be added Lodge's paraphrases
of Desportes, and the curious adespoton called Zeplceria.

In 1593 Barnabe Barnes appeared with Pa.rtkenopkil, Giles
Fletcher the elder with Licia, and Thomas Lodge with Ph-illi*.
1594 gave Willoughby's Aviso,, Percy's Caelia, the just named
ZepJtcri</ of an unknown writer, Constable's l>m,ni, Daniel's
Delia, and Drayton's Idea; 1595 saw the appearance of Alcil!<t,
by a certain "J. C " ; 1590 supplied Spenser's Amoretti, Lynrh's
Diella, Griffin's Fidessa, and Smith's Gldoris.

It must be understood that by no means all the poems in
these collections are direct sonnets, even in that modified sense
of directness which identities the sonnet with any quatorzain.
Watson himself had extended the sonnet in length to eighteen
lines ; and his successors very often gave the name (it may
almost be said) to any love poem. But the majority of them
are sonnets; there is strong likeness between them, and they
constitute one of the most remarkable divisions of English
poetry, scale and substance being allowed for. Occasionally,
as in the best of Shakespeare and Spenser, or in that simply
magnificent thing beginning

" Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part "

which appears in some editions of Drayton's Idea, but which
is entirely unlike his general style, they may also challenge
quite the top place in the achievements of that poetry ; while
the rest, in very different and various gradations of merit at
least, betray the presence of a quite extraordinary poetical tone
and temper in the mind of the time. Of the other chief forms
in which this tone and temper displayed itself, one was very
closely akin to the sonnets, one pretty far apart from them.
These were the purely " song-literature " of the time, the
poems which were actually meant to be sung to the lute or
other instrument ; and the Satires, which were, for a time at



any rate, very much affected, and which, as written b/ Hall, Sa tire.
Marston, Donne, Lodge, and others, supply a picture of manners
to be used with a little caution, and an instance of imitation of
the ancients (for Horace, Juvenal, and perhaps Persius most
of all, are always before the writer's mind) which is not equally
dangerous ground to tread on. To Persius, in all probability,
the singularly harsh and crabbed style which these Satires affect
is mostly due ; to Juvenal, the somewhat strained air of moral
indignation which they affect also.

It is somewhat curious that the companion song-literature, The
whioh is larger in bulk and of infinitely greater charm, should
have failed to keep the literary vogue which these Satires never
wholly lost. Perhaps it may be due to the gradual disuse of
the lute and its congeners as ordinary implements for the
amusement and accomplishment of every gentleman and lady,
which came about after the Restoration (though we find the
old system maintained by Pepys and others). For the songs
were commonly printed with the airs ; and when the latter were
not in request the former naturally dropped out of sight. But,
as a matter of fact, this delightful division of Elizabethan litera-
ture was one of the latest to be discovered ; and it is only
within the last few years that it has become known to any but
pretty careful students in the mass, or has overflowed in sample
and by the channel of anthologies and " poetry-books " to the
cognisance of the general reader. Yet its poetical merits are
quite astonishing; and there is to this day something a little
unintelligible and not quite " canny " in the attribution to men,
sometimes quite unknown themselves, and if known, of no other
known accomplishment in letters, of such ineffably beautiful
things as those which are scattered about these books. It is
not merely that the very soul of music seems to have passed
into them ; that they sing of themselves like the magic lutes
of the legends, fashioned of dead men's bones, and strung with
dead girls' hair. For mere poetry, without thought of accom-
paniment, they are not seldom equally wondrous.

The prose of the period is, perhaps, to the reader less Prose,
interesting than the poetry ; though we have, in the early
work of Bacon, of Raleigh, and of others, anticipations of the
gorgeous music which in the next age was to carry English
prose to the very highest pitch, in some respects, that it has



ever attained. The truth seems to be that though there were
great individual exponents of it, prose, as a whole, was in a
state of half disorganisation and half reorganisation, just as
poetry had been between Wyatt and Spenser. Something has
been said in earlier sections of the prose of the early Renais-
sance writers, of whom Ascham is the chief in England, of its
decent, sensible, but not very inspiriting, combination of Latin
order and vernacular strength. This was, during our present
period, to reach the highest point it ever attained in the
Hooker < Ecclesiastical Polity," which, as far as- it appeared during the
lifetime of its author, belongs to the last decade of the sixteenth
century, the first instalment having appeared in 1594, and the
second in 1597. From some points of view, no doubt, it may
seem as if prose lost as much as it gained by deserting the
norm of Hooker, who writes wonderfully at his best, and
combines a very great advance in clearness, correctness, and
elegance, with a total freedom from anything like jejuneness
or aridity. If the diversion of a great part of the educated
intellect of England from theological study and ecclesiastical
feeling should be accompanied by a disuse of the reading of
Hooker and the great divines who follow him, it will, taking
the literary view only, be a most serious loss. There is, indeed,
still about him a perhaps undue reminiscence of the Schools
-not in method, subject, or quotation, but in general stamp
and scheme of sentence and phrase. He still suggests to us
a little the man to whom it would be at least as easy to write in
Latin as in English, who is not quite sure that he ought not
to write in Latin, and who, even when writing in English,
cannot help showing the moulds of the Latin sentence, the
memory of the Latin syntax. Yet it would not be fair to
assert or insinuate that there is any constraint in Hooker ;
and certainly his achievement in English is a noble one. The
more argumentative passages may smack a little of the thesis,
which was still a live thing; the more historical and rhetorical,
of the pulpit which the writer so often occupied, and which
was more and more attracting the talents of Englishmen in
expression and the taste of Englishmen in reception. But
there are not many greater books in English than the " Eccle-
siastical Polity," nor to the reader, who has even a little care
for and expertness in the subject, many more attaching.




While this sober, scholarly prose till expressed the chief
accomplishment of English letters in this department on one
side ; and while the strange rococo euphuism of Lyly (p. 458),
of which enough has been said, gave a new expression in
another, prose became more and more the vehicle of those who
wished to communicate with the public. On the. great scale
and on the small it was being practised and put to all manner
of purposes. Knolles, in his country home, was elaborating KnoUes.
that huge " History of the Turks " which, when more than a


(Where Knolles Taught.)

century and a half had passed after his death, seemed to some
judges still the greatest history on a large scale in English,
and which, by all competent censure, is a great book in many
other respects besides bulk. The educational writers, who have
been already mentioned, were building their schemes for the
teaching of youth and for the elaboration of something like
what Dante, centuries before, had endeavoured and to a great
extent succeeded in forging for Italy an " illustrious, cardinal,
curial, and courtly " speech for England. The equally re-
markable though curiously shortlived school of literary critics criticism,
{for till Dryden's day there was little resumption of their
efforts) Webbe, Puttenham, Campion, Harington, and Daniel



were devoting their attention to the same thing 1 with special
reference to the kinds and vehicles of English poetry. The
Travel records of the geographical explorations which employed so
p n ^ c large a part of the enthusiasm of the age were being digested
in all sorts of forms some of them to take sooner or later the
shape of the great collections of Hakluyt (who published in
157!)) and 1'urchas. The huge miscellaneous pamphlet litera-
ture, which had already been of so much service to us, was
being ceaselessly compiled and devoted to almost every kind
of subject. Once, moreover, in the famous instance of that
' Martin Marprelate " controversy, which coincided with the
Armada (p. u'12), this pamphlet production gathered itself up,
and disengaged heat and force in a fashion never quite equalled
since (except at the time of the Popish Plot), and hardly com-
prehensible to a generation the oldest members of which have,
nevertheless, seen the first fights over the Reform Bill, the Anti-
Corn Law agitation, and the " Tracts for the Times " not to
mention later controversies. Starting ostensibly as a sort of
offshoot or incident of the delate between Presbyterianism
and Prelacy, it seems, in some not clearly understood way, to
have attracted the sympathies or antipathies of some of the
chief literary men of the day. It found its way 011 to the
stage (though this was promptly checked, and the results are
not extant), it mixed itself up in the oddest manner with the
jealousies of the Cambridge and London literary cliques. It
was in fact a sort of anticipation (with its course made more
lively by the circumstances of clandestine printing, Govern-
ment interposition, and a few executions as a climax) of the
newspaper controversies of later times. P>ut these latter, it
may be admitted by folk not very enthusiastic about our
" glorious gains," have some advantages in point of comfort
and consequences.

Bacon - It is one of the things which, though they have been

constantly remarked upon, can never be omitted in any treat-
ment of the subject to which they belong that the greatest
man (with Hooker) of this period in prose, Francis Bacon, was
an utter heretic and misbeKever in respect of English prose
itself. Breaking away from the admirable tradition for English,
which no lesser scholars in the Classics than Ascham and Cheke
had started in his own university. Bacon constantly expressed



his contempt for modern languages as vehicles of literature, his
belief that things written in them were destined to be lost and
forgotten. He would probably (if he had dared, and if his
ambition had not been of the life of him, so that he could not
neglect the set of popular taste) have written wholly in Latin ;
and as it was, he wrote in Latin when he dared, and when he
. did not dare, generally translated or caused to be translated
his English writings into that tongue, as he thought preserva-
tive. Yet nobody then living, with the doubtful exceptions of
Raleigh and Lord Brooke (the latter, for all his wilful obscurity,
master of a splendid English style, very Baconian in parts),
could have written the " Essays " which Bacon published in
their first and roughest form during our period in 1597.
His most gorgeous work was to come later ; but already in
this he exhibited that faculty of magnitical phrase not cum-
brously embroidered upon meaning, but clothing it like a
natural garment which, in his own later days and the time after
him, was to be cultivated with such wonderful success, and in
the hands of Milton, Taylor, and Browne more particularly,
and of a crowd of writers who were but little their inferiors, to
enrich the language with imperishable treasures. It would not
be just to say that Bacon's classical predilections deserve no
credit for this phrase. His precision owes some royalty to the
Latin Augustans, and his gorgeousness perhaps something to
the Latin decadents. But in the main he is, as usual, debtor
to but two things his own innate genius and acquired or
developed faculty on the one part, and the spirit of the age on
the other.

And so, with a few words on that very spirit of the age
partly of summary, partly of additional definition we may
conclude this survey of a mighty subject.

Some critics, with more or less sustained and deliberate The

- . . , -, -i Stimuli

paradox all, perhaps, who with any competence have tried O f Eliza

"to disengage and co-ordinate literary cause and effect in relation
"to periods have felt disposed to doubt whether anything more
can be said than that, at one time, a very large number of
persons of unusual abilities took to the writing of books and
that at other times they did not. In the present instance,
however, some more definite advance on this negative and
Pyrrhonist attitude may not unreasonably be attempted. All



the exciting causes which were mentioned earlier may fairly
be said to have made for literary production ; while there
must be specially added to them the effects of the now con-
siderably developed and diffused invention of printing. The
changes in the Church (which introduced in every parish a
family of children who were at least likely to be brought up
with some tincture of letters, instead of a celibate clergy) more
than made up for the dispersion of the monastic orders, which
had hardly been, for some time previous to the dissolution,
active fosterers of learning. And though far too small a part
of the secularised ecclesiastical revenues was devoted to educa-
tional purposes, the part which did directly or indirectly find
its way thither (through the fancy for founding colleges and
grammar schools) was not inconsiderable, and must have
exercised no small influence on the popularisation of letters.
These things at once created a smaller class with a tendency
to study and write, and a much larger class with at least no
unwillingness to read if not to stud}'. Add the theatre, add
the burning social and ecclesiastical controversies, add the
fermenting force of the great political changes which were to
take place in the seventeenth century, and it will at least appeal-
that it would have been more odd if Elizabethan literature
had not been great than surprising that it was.

Its . And yet, as always, the unknown, the inexplicable, the

element of chance and idiosyncrasy, still counts for the greater
art of the matter. The campaigns of Alexander might have
been thought likely to stimulate literature as much as the
voyages of Columbus ; yet they hardly influenced it at all : and
the most specious explanations of the Augustan age at Rome
leave a tolerably well-trained sceptic unable to admit any
particular reason why it should not have come a century before
or a century after. So also in the Elizabethan period, while
we can perceive some reasons why it may have been what it
was, we cannot ascribe the whole causation with anything like
accuracv or satisfaction. After all, there were certain men who


could and did write verse and prose, as only a single English-
man had hitherto written verse and as no Englishman had
written prose. They were surrounded by a still larger number
or inferior but not contemptible talents all imitating or in-
novating, experimenting or practising. There was yet a larger




public which was purely receptive ; let it be remembered that
so vast a book as Knolles' " History " went through three
editions in twenty years, and that many other books though,
perhaps, no very large number of copies was reprinted at any
one time were constantly reissued. There must have been
though, except in the case of playwrights, we have very
indefinite information as to what it was some kind of regular


(Knolles, ''History of the Turks," 1603.)

remuneration which made it worth while to write books, and
possible even to make a livelihood as a writer of books only.


But, above all, there was an incalculable, indefinable spirit
abroad which is there or is not, which is traceable often from
the comparative point of view even more in the mediocre or
lower authors of a time than in its chief illustrations, and
makes the time notable or unnotable, according to its presence

Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillSocial England; a record of the progress of the people in religion, laws, learning, arts, industry, commerce, science, literature and manners, from the earliest times to the present day (Volume 3) → online text (page 60 of 68)