G. H. (George Herbert) Mair.

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G. H. MAIR, M.A.







THE intention of this book is to lay stress on
ideas and tendencies that have to be under-
stood and appreciated, rather than on facts
that have to be learned by heart. Many
authors are not mentioned and others receive
scanty treatment, because of the necessities
of this method of approach. The book aims
at dealing with the matter of authors more
than with their lives ; consequently it con-
tains few dates. All that the reader need
require to help him have been included in
a short chronological table at the end.

To have attempted a severely ordered
and analytic treatment of the subject would
have been, for the author at least, im-
possible within the limits imposed, and, in
any case, would have been foreign to the
purpose indicated by the editors of the Home
University Library. The book pretends no
more than to be a general introduction to a
very great subject, and it will have fulfilled
all that is intended for it if it stimulates those
who read it to set about reading for themselves
the books of which it treats.


Its debts are many, its chief creditors two
teachers, Professor Grierson at Aberdeen
University and Sir Walter Raleigh at Oxford,
to the stimulation of whose books and teaching
my pleasure in English literature and any
understanding I have of it are due. To them
and to the other writers (chief of them Pro-
fessor Herford) whose ideas I have wittingly
or unwittingly incorporated in it, as well as
to the kindness and patience of Professor
Gilbert Murray, I wish here to express my

G. H. M.

August, 1911














INDEX | ,255




THERE are times in every man's experience
when some sudden widening of the boundaries
of his knowledge, some vision of hitherto
untried and unrealized possibilities, has come
and seemed to bring with it new life and the
inspiration of fresh and splendid endeavour.
It may be some great book read for the first
time not as a book, but as a revelation ; it
may be the first realization of the extent and
moment of what physical science has to teach
us ; it may be, like Carlyle's " Everlasting
Yea," an ethical illumination, or spiritual like
Augustine's or John Wesley's. But whatever
it is, it brings w r ith it new eyes, new powers
of comprehension, and seems to reveal a
treasury of latent and unsuspected talents
in the mind and heart. The history of
mankind has its parallels to these moments
of illumination in the life of the individual.
There are times when the boundaries of human
experience, always narrow, and fluctuating
but little between age and age, suddenly


widen themselves, and the spirit of man
leaps forward to possess and explore its new
domain. These are the great ages of the world.
They could be counted, perhaps, on one hand.
The age of Pericles in Athens ; the less
defined age, when Europe passed, spiritually
and artistically, from what we call the Dark,
to what we call the Middle Ages ; the Renais-
sance ; the period of the French Revolution.
Two of them, so far as English literature is
concerned, fall within the compass of this
book, and it is with one of them the Renais-
sance that it begins.

It is as difficult to find a comprehensive
formula for what the Renaissance meant as
to tie it down to a date. The year 1453 A.D.,
when the Eastern Empire the last relic of
the continuous spirit of Rome fell before
the Turks, used to be given as the date, and
perhaps the word " Renaissance " itself
" a new birth " is as much as can be accom-
plished shortly by way of definition. Michelet's
resonant " discovery by mankind of himself
and of the world " rather expresses what a
man of the Renaissance himself must have
thought it, than what we in this age can
declare it to be. But both endeavours to
date and to define are alike impossible. One
cannot fix a term to day or night, and the
theory of the Renaissance as a kind of tropical
dawn a sudden passage to light from dark-
ness is not to be considered. The Renais-
sance was, and was the result of, a numer-
ous and various series of events which fol-
lowed and accompanied one another from the
fourteenth to the beginning of the sixteenth


centuries. First and most immediate in its
influence on art and literature and thought,
was the rediscovery of the ancient literatures.^
In the Middle Ages knowledge of Greek and
Latin literatures, had withdrawn itself into
monasteries, and there narrowed till of
secular Latin writing scarcely any knowledge
remained save of Vergil (because of his
supposed Messianic prophecy) and Statius,
and of Greek, except Aristotle, none at all.
What had been lost in the Western Empire,
however, subsisted in the East, and the
continual advance of the Turk on the terri-
tories of the Emperors of Constantinople
drove westward to the shelter of Italy and the
Church, and to the patronage of the Medicis,
a crowd of scholars who brought with them
their manuscripts of Homer and the drama-
tists, of Thucydides and Herodotus, and most
momentous perhaps for the age to come, of
Plato and Demosthenes and of the New
Testament in its origin^JL^Greek. The quick
and vivid intellect of(Ttalyt which had been
torpid in the decadence of medievalism and
its mysticism and piety, seized with avidity
the revelation of the classical world which the
scholars and their manuscripts brought.
Human life, which the mediaeval Church had
taught them to regard but as a threshold and
stepping-stone to eternity, acquired suddenly
a new momentousness and value ; the prom-
ises of the Church paled like its lamps at
sunrise ; and a new paganism, which had
Plato for its high priest, and Demosthenes
and Pericles for its archetypes and examples,
ran like wild-fire through Italy. The Greek


spirit seized on art, and produced Raphael,

Leonardo, and Michel Angelo; on literature

and philosophy and gave us Pico della

Mirandula, on life and gave us the Medicis

and Castiglione and Machiavelli. Then the

invention not of Italy but of Germany

vcame the art of printing, and made this

^revival of Greek literature quickly portable

into other lands

Even more momentous was the new
. knowledge the age brought of the physical
world. The brilliant conjectures of Coper-
nicus paved the way for Galileo, and the
warped and narrow cosmology which con-
ceived the earth as the centre of the universe,
suffered a blow that in shaking it shook
also religion. And while the conjectures of
the men of science were adding regions
undreamt of to the physical universe, the
discoverers were enlarging the territories of
the earth itself. The Portuguese, with the
aid of sailors trained in the great Mediterranean
ports of Genoa and Venice, pushed the track
of exploration down the western coast of
Africa ; the Cape was circumnavigated by
Vasco da Gama, and India reached for the
first time by Western men by way of the sea.
Columbus reached Trinidad and discovered
the " New " World ; his successors pushed
past him and touched the Continent. Spanish
colonies grew up along the coasts of North
and Central America and in Peru, and the
Portuguese reached Brazil. Cabot and the
English voyagers reached Newfoundland and
Labrador; the French made their way up
the St. Lawrence, The discovery of the gold


mines brought new and unimagined possi-
bilities of wealth to the Old World, while the
imagination of Europe, bounded since the
beginning of recorded time by the Western
ocean, and with the Mediterranean as its
centre, shot out to the romance and mystery
of untried seas.

It is difficult for us in these later days to
conceive the profound and stirring influence
of such an alteration on thought and literature.
To the men at the end of the fifteenth century
scarcely a year but brought another bit of
received and recognized thinking to the scrap-
heap ; scarcely a year but some new discovery
found itself surpassed and in its turn discarded,
or lessened in significance by something still
more new. Columbus sailed westward to
find a new sea route, and as he imagined, a
more expeditious one to " the Indies " ; the
name West Indies still survives to show the
theory on which the early discoverers worked.
The rapidity with which knowledge widened
can be gathered by a comparison of the maps
of the day. In the earlier of them the
mythical Brazil, a relic perhaps of the lost
Atlantis, lay a regularly and mystically blue
island off the west coast of Ireland ; then the
Azores were discovered and the name fastened
on to one of the islands of that archipelago.
Then Amerigo reached South America and
the name became finally fixed to the country
that we know. There is nothing nowadays
that can give us a parallel to the stirring and
exaltation of the imagination which intoxi-
cated the men of the Renaissance, and gave
a new birth to thought and art. The great


scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century
came to men more prepared for the shock of
new surprises, and they carried evidence less
tangible and indisputable to the senses.
Perhaps if the strivings of science should
succeed in proving as evident and compre-
hensible the existences which spiritualist and
psychical research is striving to establish, we
should know the thrill that the great twin
discoverers, Copernicus and Columbus, brought
to Europe.


This rough sketch of the Renaissance has
been set down because it is only by realizing
the period in its largest and broadest sense
that we can understand the beginnings of
our own modern literature. The Renaissance
reached England late. By the time that the
impulse was at its height with Spenser and
Shakespeare, it had died out in Italy, and in
France to which in its turn Italy had passed
the torch, it was already a waning fire. Wh^u
it came to England it came in a special form
shaped by political and social conditions, and
by the accidents of temperament and inclina-
tion in the men who began the movement.
But the essence of the inspiration remained
the same as it had been on the Continent, and
the twin threads of its two main impulses, the
impulse from the study of the classics, and
the impulse given to men's minds by the
voyages of discovery, runs through all the
texture of our Renaissance literature.

Literature as it developed in the reign of
Elizabeth ran counter to the hopes and desires


of the men who began the movement; the
common usage which extends the term
Elizabethan backwards outside the limits of
the reign itself, has nothing but its carelessness
to recommend it. The men of the early
renaissance in the reigns of Edward VI. and
Mary, belonged to a graver school than their
successors. They were no splendid courtiers,
nor daring and hardy adventurers, still less
swashbucklers, exquisites, or literary dandies.
Their names Sir John Cheke, Roger Ascham,
Nicholas Udall, Thomas Wilson, Walter
Haddon, belong rather to the universities
and to the coteries of learning, than to the
court. To the nobility, from whose essays
and belles lettres Elizabethan poetry was to
develop, they stood in the relation of tutors
rather than of companions, suspecting the
extravagances of their pupils rather than
sympathising with their ideals. They were
a band of serious and dignified scholars, men
preoccupied with morality and good-citizen-
ship, and holding those as worth more than
the lighter interests of learning and style.
It is perhaps characteristic of the English
temper that the revival of the classical
tongues, which in Italy made for paganism,
and the pursuit of pleasure in life and art, in
England brought with it in the first place a
new seriousness and gravity of life, and in
religion the Reformation. But in a way
the scholars fought against tendencies in their
age, which were both too fast and too strong
for them. At a time when young men were
writing poetry modelled on the delicate and
extravagant verse of Italy, were reading


Italian novels, and affecting Italian fashions
in speech and dress, they were fighting for
sound education, for good classical scholar-
ship, for the purity of native English, and
behind all these for the native strength and
worth of the English character, which they
felt to be endangered by orgies of reckless
assimilation from abroad. The revival of the
classics at Oxford and Cambridge could not
produce an Erasmus or a Scaliger ; we have
no fine critical scholarship of this age to put
beside that of Holland or France. Sir John
Cheke and his followers felt they had a public
and national duty to perform, and their
knowledge of the classics only served them
for examples of high living and morality, on
which education, in its sense of the formation
of character, could be based.

The literary influence of the revival of
letters in England, apart from its moral influ-
ence, took two contradictory and opposing
forms. In the curricula of schools, logic, which
in the Middle Ages had been the groundwork
of thought and letters, gave place to rhetoric.
The reading of the ancients awakened new
^delight in the melody and beauty of language :
'men became intoxicated with words. The
practice of rhetoric was universal and it quickly
coloured all literature. It was the habit of
the rhetoricians to choose some subject for
declamation and round it to encourage their
pupils to set embellishments and decorations,
which commonly proceeded rather from a
delight in language for language's sake, than
from any effect in enforcing an argument.
Their models for these exercises can be traced


in their influence on later writers. One of the
most popular of them, Erasmus's " Discourse
Persuading a Young Man to Marriage," which
was translated in an English text-book of
rhetoric, reminds one of the first part of
Shakespeare's sonnets. The literary affecta-
tion called euphuism was directly based on the
precepts of thg_ Jiandbooks on rhetoric ; its
author, John yl$ only elaborated and made
more precise tricks of phrase and writing,
which had been used as exercises in the
schools of his youth. The prosejQLIiis_school,
with its fantastic delight in exuberance of
figure and sound, owed its inspiration, in its
form ultimately to Cicero> and in the decora-
tions with which it was embellished, to the
elder Pliny and later writers of his kind. The
long declamatory speeches and the sententious-
ness of the early drama were directly modelled
on Seneca, through whom was faintly reflected
the tragedy of Greece, unknown directly or
almost unknown to English readers. Latin-
ism, like every new craze, became a
passion, and ran through the less intelligent
kinds of writing in a wild excess. Not much of
the literature of this time remains in common
knowledge, and for examples of these affecta-
tions one must turn over the black letter
pages of forgotten books. There high-
sounding and familiar words are handled and
bandied about with delight, and you can see
in volume after volume these minor and
forgotten authors gloating over the new found
treasure which placed them in their time in
the van of literary success. That they are
obsolete now, and indeed were obsolete before


they were dead, is a warning to authors who
intend similar extravagances. Strangeness
and exoticism are not lasting wares. By the
time of " Love's Labour Lost " they had
become nothing more than matter for laughter,
and it is only through their reflection and
distortion in Shakespeare's pages that we
know them now.

Had not a restraining influence, anxiouslj
and even acrimoniously urged, broken in on
their endeavours the English language to-day
might have been almost as completely
latinized as Spanish or Italian. That the
essential Saxon purity of our tongue has been
preserved is to the credit not of sensible
unlettered people eschewing new fashions thej
could not comprehend, but to the scholars
themselves. The chief service that Cheke and
Ascham and their fellows rendered to English
literature was their crusade against the
exaggerated latinity that they had themselves
helped to make possible, the crusade against
what they called ct inkhorn terms." " I arc
of this opinion," said Cheke in a prefatory
letter to a book translated by a friend of his,
" that our own tongue should be written clean
and pure, unmixed and unmangled with the
borrowing of other tongues, wherein if we take
not heed by time, ever borrowing and never
paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as
bankrupt." Writings in the Saxon vernacular
like the sermons of Latimer, who was carefu
to use nothing not familiar to the commor
people, did much to help the scholars to save
our prose from the extravagances which th
dreaded. Their attack was directed no less


igainst the revival of really obsolete words,
[t is a paradox worth noting for its strangeness
:hat the first revival of medievalism in modern
English literature was in the Renaissance
tself . Talking in studious archaism seems to
lave been a fashionable practice in society and
3ourt circles. " The fine courtier," says
Diomas Wilson in his Art of Rhetoric, " will
:alk nothing but Chaucer." The scholars of the
English Renaissance fought not only against
:he ignorant adoption of their importations,
but against the renewal of forgotten habits
Df speech.

Their efforts failed, and their ideals had to
wait for their acceptance till the age of
Dryden, when Shakespeare and Spenser and
Milton, all of them authors who consistently
violated the standards of Cheke, had done
their work. The fine courtier who would talk
nothing but Chaucer was in Elizabeth's
reign the saving of English verse. The beauty
and richness of Spenser is based directly on
words he got from Troilus and Cressida and
^he Canterbury Tales. Some of the most
sonorous and beautiful lines in Shakespeare
break every canon laid down by the humanists.

" When the extravagant and erring spirit hies to his
confine n

is a line, three of the chief words of which
are Latin importations that come unfami-
liarly, bearing their original interpretation
with them. Milton is packed with similar
things : he will talk of a crowded meeting
as " frequent " and use such a construction
as " this way and that revolving the swift


mind," a form of words which is unin-
telligible except on a knowledge of Latin
syntax. Yet the effect is a good poetic effect.
In attacking latinisms in the language
borrowed from older poets Cheke and his
companions were attacking the two chief
sources of Elizabethan poetic vocabulary.
All the sonorousness, beauty and dignity oi
the poetry and the drama which followed
them would have been lost had they succeeded
in their object, and their verse would have
been constrained into the warped and ugly
forms of Sternhold and Hopkins, and those
with them who composed the first and worst
metrical version of the Psalms. When their
idea reappeared for its fulfilment phantasy and
imagery had temporarily worn themselves
out, and the richer language made simplicity
possible and adequate for poetry.

There are other directions in which the
classical revival influenced writing that need
not detain us here. The attempt to transplant
classical metres into English verse which was
the concern of a little group of authors who
called themselves the Areopagus came to no
more success than a similar and contemporary
attempt did in France. An earlier and more
lasting result of the influence of the classics
on new ways of thinking is the Utopia of Sir
Thomas More, based on Plato's Republic,
and followed by similar attempts on the part
of other authors, of which the most notable
are Harrington's Oceana and Bacon's New
Atlantis. In one way or another the redis-
covery of Plato proved the most valuable part
of the Renaissance's gift from Greece. The


loctrines of the Symposium coloured in Italy
;he writings of Castiglione and Mirandula.
."n England they gave us Spenser's " Hymn
;o Intellectual Beauty," and they affected,
jach in his own way, Sir Philip Sidney, and
)thers of the circle of court writers of his
:ime. More's book was written in Latin,
;hough there is an English translation almost
iontemporary. He combines in himself the
:wo strains that we found working in the
Renaissance, for besides its origin in Plato,
Utopia owes not a little to the influence of
'the voyages of discovery. In 1507 there was
published a little book called an Introduction
'o Cosmography, which gave an account of the
four voyages of Amerigo. In the story of the
fourth voyage it is narrated that twenty-four
men were left in a fort near Cape Bahia.
More used this detail as a starting-point, and
one of the men whom Amerigo left tells the
story of this " Nowhere," a republic partly
resembling England but most of all the ideal
world of Plato. Partly resembling England,
because no man can escape from the influences
of his own time, whatever road he takes,
whether the road of imagination or any other.
His imagination can only build out of the
materials afforded him by his own experi-
ence : he can alter, he can rearrange, but
he cannot in the strictest sense of the word
create, and every city of dreams is only the
scheme of things as they are remoulded nearer
to the desire of a man's heart. In a way More
has less invention than some of his subtler
followers, but his book is interesting because
it is the first example of a kind of writing


which has been attractive to many men since
his time, and particularly to writers of oui
own day

There remains one circumstance in the
revival of the classics which had a marked
and continuous influence on the literary age
that followed. To get the classics English
scholars had as w r e have seen to go to Italy,
Cheke went there and so did Wilson, and the
path of travel across France and through
Lombardy to Florence and Rome was worn
hard by the feet of their followers for ovei
a hundred years after. On the heels of the
men of learning went the men of fashion,
eager to learn and copy the new manners ol
a society whose moral teacher was Machiavelli,
and whose patterns of splendour were the
courts of Florence and Ferrara, and to learn
the trick of verse that in the hands of Petrarch

I and his followers had fashioned the sonnet
and other new lyric forms. This could not
be without its influence on the manners ol
the nation, and the scholars who had been the
first to show the way were the first to deplore
the pell-mell assimilation of Italian manners
and vices, which was the unintended result
of the inroad on insularity which had already
begun. They saw the danger ahead, and they
laboured to meet it as it came. Ascham in
his Schoolmaster railed against the translation
of Italian books, and the corrupt manners of
living and false ideas which they seemed to
him to breed. The Italianate Englishman
became the chief part of the stock-in-trade
of the satirists and moralists of the day.
Stubbs, a Puritan chronicler, whose book


The Anatomy of Abuses is a valuable aid to
the study of Tudor social history, and Harrison,
whose description of Engand prefaces Holin-
shed's Chronicles, both deal in detail with the
Italian menace, and condemn in good set
terms the costliness in dress and the looseness
in morals which they laid to its charge.
Indeed, the effect on England was profound,
and it lasted for more than two generations.
The romantic traveller, Coryat, writing well
within the seventeenth century in praise of
the luxuries of Italy (among which he numbers
forks for table use), is as enthusiastic as the
authors who began the imitation of Italian
metres in TottePs Miscellany, and Donne and
Hall in their satires written under James

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Online LibraryG. H. (George Herbert) MairEnglish literature : modern → online text (page 1 of 17)