G. H. (George Herbert) Mair.

English literature, modern online

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No. 27

Editort :


LL.D., F.B.A.


A complett classified list of the volumts of THE
will be found at the back of this book.


G. H. MAIR, M.A.










THE intention of this book is to lay stress on ideas
and tendencies that have to be understood and appre-
ciated, 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 contains 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, impossible within the limits imposed,
and, in any case, would have been foreign to the
purpose indicated by the editors of the Home Uni-
versity 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 Professor Herford) whose ideas I have wit-
tingly or unwittingly incorporated in it, as well as
to the kindness and patience of Professor Gilbert
Murray, I wish here to express my indebtedness.

G. H. M.


August, 1911.






















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 "Ever-
lasting Yea," an ethical illumination, or spiritual
like Augustine's or John Wesley's. But whatever
it is, it brings with 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 fluctu-
ating 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 Renaissance; 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 Renaissance that it begins.

It is as difficult to find a comprehensive for-
mula 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 con-
tinuous 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 accomplished shortly by
way of definition. Michelet's resonant "discov-
ery 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 darkness
is not to be considered. The Renaissance was,
and was the result of, a numerous and various
series of events which followed and accompanied
one another from the fourteenth to the begin-
ning 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 territories of the Emperors of Con-
stantinople 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
dramatists, of Thucydides and Herodotus, and
most momentous perhaps for the age to come, of
Plato and Demosthenes and of the New Testa-
ment in its original Greek. The quick and vivid
intellect of Italy, which had been torpid in the
decadence of medisevalism 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 promises 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 Machi-
avelli. Then the invention not of Italy but of
Germany came the art of printing, and made
this revival of Greek literature quickly portable
into other lands.

Even more momentous was the new knowl-
edge the age brought of the physical world. The
brilliant conjectures of Copernicus paved the
way for Galileo, and the warped and narrow
cosmology which conceived the earth as the cen-
tre 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 un-
dreamt of to the physical universe, the discov-
erers were enlarging the territories of the earth
itself. The Portuguese, with the aid of sailors
trained hi the great Mediterranean ports of
Genoa and Venice, pushed the track of explor-
ation 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 New-
foundland and Labrador; the French made
their way up the St. Lawrence. The discovery
of the gold mines brought new and unimagined
possibilities of wealth to the Old W T orld, 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

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 re-
ceived 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 expe-
ditious 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 per-
haps of the lost Atlantis, lay a regularly and
mystically blue island off the west coast of Ire-
land; then the Azores were discovered and the
name fastened on to one of the islands of that
archipelago. Then Amerigo reached South Amer-
ica and the name became finally fixed to the
country that we know. There is nothing now-
adays 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 comprehensible 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. When it came to Eng-
land it came in a special form shaped by polit-
ical and social conditions, and by the accidents
of temperament and inclination 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,
run through all the texture of our Renaissance


Literature as it developed in the reign of
Elizabeth ran counter to the hopes and desires
of the men who began the movement; the com-
mon 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 adven-
turers, still less swashbucklers, exquisites, or
literary dandies. Their names Sir John Cheke,
Roger Ascham, Nicholas Udall, Thomas Wilson,
Walter Haddon, belong rather to the universi-
ties 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-citizenship, 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 pur-
suit 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 tenden-
cies 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 scholarship, for the
purity of native English, and behind all these
for the native strength and worth of the Eng-
lish character, which they felt to be endangered
by orgies of reckless assimilation from abroad.
The revival of the classics at Oxford and Cam-
bridge could not produce an Erasmus or a Scali-
ger; 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 char-
acter, could be based.

The literary influence of the revival of letters
in England, apart from its moral influence,
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 read-
ing of the ancients awakened new delight in
the melody and beauty of language: men be-
came intoxicated with words. The practice
of rhetoric was universal and it quickly coloured
all literature. It was the habit of the rhetori-
cians to choose some subject for declamation
and round it to encourage their pupils to set
embellishments and decorations, which com-
monly proceeded rather from a delight in language
for language's sake, than from any effect in en-


forcing 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 affectation called euphuism was directly
based on the precepts of the handbooks on rhet-
oric; its author, John Lyly, only elaborated and
made more precise tricks of phrase and writing,
which had been used as exercises in the schools
of his youth. The prose of his school, with its
fantastic delight in exuberance of figure and
sound, owed its inspiration, in its form ulti-
mately to Cicero, and in the decorations with
which it was embellished, to the elder Pliny and
later writers of his kind. The long declamatory
speeches and the sententiousness 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. Latinism, 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 gloat-
ing 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 dis-
tortion in Shakespeare's pages that we know
them now.

Had not a restraining influence, anxiously
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 es-
chewing new fashions they could not comprehend,
but to the scholars themselves. The chief ser-
vice 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 "inkhorn terms." "I
am 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 pay-
ing, she shall be fain to keep her house as bank-
rupt." Writings in the Saxon vernacular like the
sermons of Latimer, who was careful to use noth-
ing not familiar to the common people, did much
to help the scholars to save our prose from the


extravagances which they dreaded. Their attack
was directed no less against the revival of really
obsolete words. It is a paradox worth noting
for its strangeness that the first revival of medi-
sevalism in modern English literature was in
the Renaissance itself. Talking in studious
archaism seems to have been a fashionable prac-
tice in society and court circles. "The fine
courtier," says Thomas Wilson in his Art of
Rhetoric, "will talk nothing but Chaucer." The
scholars of the English Renaissance fought not
only against the ignorant adoption of their im-
portations, but against the renewal of forgotten
habits of 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 the 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"

is a line, three of the chief words of which are
Latin importations that come unfamiliarly, bear-
ing 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 revolv-
ing 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 attack-
ing 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 of 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 pos-
sible and adequate for poetry.

There are other directions in which the clas-
sical 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 rediscovery of Plato proved the


most valuable part of the Renaissance's gift
from Greece. The doctrines of the Symposium
coloured in Italy the writings of Castiglione
and Mirandula. In England they gave us Spen-
ser's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," and they
affected, each in his own way, Sir Philip Sidney,
and others of the circle of court writers of his
time. More's book was written in Latin, though
there is an English translation almost contempo-
rary. He combines in himself the two 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 to 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 im-
agination can only build out of the materials
afforded him by his own experience: 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 our own day.

There remains one circumstance in the revival
of the classics which had a marked and con-
tinuous influence on the literary age that fol-
lowed. To get the classics English scholars
had as we 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 over a hundred years after. On
the heels of the men of learning went the men of
fashion, eager to learn and copy the new man-
ners of a society whose moral teacher was Machia-
velli, 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
and his followers had fashioned the sonnet and
other new lyric forms. This could not be with-
out its influence on the manners of 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 Ital-
ianate 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 England 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

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Online LibraryG. H. (George Herbert) MairEnglish literature, modern → online text (page 1 of 16)