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English Literature Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World online

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righteousness; the second was civil and religious liberty. In other words,
it aimed to make men honest and to make them free.

Such a movement should be cleared of all the misconceptions which have
clung to it since the Restoration, when the very name of Puritan was made
ridiculous by the jeers of the gay courtiers of Charles II. Though the
spirit of the movement was profoundly religious, the Puritans were not a
religious sect; neither was the Puritan a narrow-minded and gloomy
dogmatist, as he is still pictured even in the histories. Pym and Hampden
and Eliot and Milton were Puritans; and in the long struggle for human
liberty there are few names more honored by freemen everywhere. Cromwell
and Thomas Hooker were Puritans; yet Cromwell stood like a rock for
religious tolerance; and Thomas Hooker, in Connecticut, gave to the world
the first written constitution, in which freemen, before electing their
officers, laid down the strict limits of the offices to which they were
elected. That is a Puritan document, and it marks one of the greatest
achievements in the history of government.

From a religious view point Puritanism included all shades of belief. The
name was first given to those who advocated certain changes in the form of
worship of the reformed English Church under Elizabeth; but as the ideal of
liberty rose in men's minds, and opposed to it were the king and his evil
counselors and the band of intolerant churchmen of whom Laud is the great
example, then Puritanism became a great national movement. It included
English churchmen as well as extreme Separatists, Calvinists, Covenanters,
Catholic noblemen, - all bound together in resistance to despotism in Church
and State, and with a passion for liberty and righteousness such as the
world has never since seen. Naturally such a movement had its extremes and
excesses, and it is from a few zealots and fanatics that most of our
misconceptions about the Puritans arise. Life was stern in those days, too
stern perhaps, and the intensity of the struggle against despotism made men
narrow and hard. In the triumph of Puritanism under Cromwell severe laws
were passed, many simple pleasures were forbidden, and an austere standard
of living was forced upon an unwilling people. So the criticism is made
that the wild outbreak of immorality which followed the restoration of
Charles was partly due to the unnatural restrictions of the Puritan era.
The criticism is just; but we must not forget the whole spirit of the
movement. That the Puritan prohibited Maypole dancing and horse racing is
of small consequence beside the fact that he fought for liberty and
justice, that he overthrew despotism and made a man's life and property
safe from the tyranny of rulers. A great river is not judged by the foam on
its surface, and certain austere laws and doctrines which we have ridiculed
are but froth on the surface of the mighty Puritan current that has flowed
steadily, like a river of life, through English and American history since
the Age of Elizabeth.

CHANGING IDEALS. The political upheaval of the period is summed up in the
terrible struggle between the king and Parliament, which resulted in the
death of Charles at the block and the establishment of the Commonwealth
under Cromwell. For centuries the English people had been wonderfully loyal
to their sovereigns; but deeper than their loyalty to kings was the old
Saxon love for personal liberty. At times, as in the days of Alfred and
Elizabeth, the two ideals went hand in hand; but more often they were in
open strife, and a final struggle for supremacy was inevitable. The crisis
came when James I, who had received the right of royalty from an act of
Parliament, began, by the assumption of "divine right," to ignore the
Parliament which had created him. Of the civil war which followed in the
reign of Charles I, and of the triumph of English freedom, it is
unnecessary to write here. The blasphemy of a man's divine right to rule
his fellow-men was ended. Modern England began with the charge of
Cromwell's brigade of Puritans at Naseby.

Religiously the age was one of even greater ferment than that which marked
the beginning of the Reformation. A great ideal, the ideal of a national
church, was pounding to pieces, like a ship in the breakers, and in the
confusion of such an hour the action of the various sects was like that of
frantic passengers, each striving to save his possessions from the wreck.
The Catholic church, as its name implies, has always held true to the ideal
of a united church, a church which, like the great Roman government of the
early centuries, can bring the splendor and authority of Rome to bear upon
the humblest village church to the farthest ends of the earth. For a time
that mighty ideal dazzled the German and English reformers; but the
possibility of a united Protestant church perished with Elizabeth. Then,
instead of the world-wide church which was the ideal of Catholicism, came
the ideal of a purely national Protestantism. This was the ideal of Laud
and the reactionary bishops, no less than of the scholarly Richard Hooker,
of the rugged Scotch Covenanters, and of the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.
It is intensely interesting to note that Charles called Irish rebels and
Scotch Highlanders to his aid by promising to restore their national
religions; and that the English Puritans, turning to Scotland for help,
entered into the solemn Covenant of 1643, establishing a national
Presbyterianism, whose object was:

To bring the churches of God in the three kingdoms to uniformity in
religion and government, to preserve the rights of Parliament and the
liberties of the Kingdom; ... that we and our posterity may as brethren
live in faith and love, and the Lord may delight to live in the midst of
us.

In this famous Covenant we see the national, the ecclesiastical, and the
personal dream of Puritanism, side by side, in all their grandeur and
simplicity.

Years passed, years of bitter struggle and heartache, before the
impossibility of uniting the various Protestant sects was generally
recognized. The ideal of a national church died hard, and to its death is
due all the religious unrest of the period. Only as we remember the
national ideal, and the struggle which it caused, can we understand the
amazing life and work of Bunyan, or appreciate the heroic spirit of the
American colonists who left home for a wilderness in order to give the new
ideal of a free church in a free state its practical demonstration.

LITERARY CHARACTERISTICS. In literature also the Puritan Age was one of
confusion, due to the breaking up of old ideals. Mediaeval standards of
chivalry, the impossible loves and romances of which Spenser furnished the
types, perished no less surely than the ideal of a national church; and in
the absence of any fixed standard of literary criticism there was nothing
to prevent the exaggeration of the "metaphysical" poets, who are the
literary parallels to religious sects like the Anabaptists. Poetry took new
and startling forms in Donne and Herbert, and prose became as somber as
Burton's _Anatomy of Melancholy_. The spiritual gloom which sooner or later
fastens upon all the writers of this age, and which is unjustly attributed
to Puritan influence, is due to the breaking up of accepted standards in
government and religion. No people, from the Greeks to those of our own
day, have suffered the loss of old ideals without causing its writers to
cry, "Ichabod! the glory has departed." That is the unconscious tendency of
literary men in all times, who look backward for their golden age; and it
need not concern the student of literature, who, even in the break-up of
cherished institutions, looks for some foregleams of a better light which
is to break upon the world. This so-called gloomy age produced some minor
poems of exquisite workmanship, and one great master of verse whose work
would glorify any age or people, - John Milton, in whom the indomitable
Puritan spirit finds its noblest expression.

There are three main characteristics in which Puritan literature differs
from that of the preceding age: (1) Elizabethan literature, with all its
diversity, had a marked unity in spirit, resulting from the patriotism of
all classes and their devotion to a queen who, with all her faults, sought
first the nation's welfare. Under the Stuarts all this was changed. The
kings were the open enemies of the people; the country was divided by the
struggle for political and religious liberty; and the literature was as
divided in spirit as were the struggling parties. (2) Elizabethan
literature is generally inspiring; it throbs with youth and hope and
vitality. That which follows speaks of age and sadness; even its brightest
hours are followed by gloom, and by the pessimism inseparable from the
passing of old standards. (3) Elizabethan literature is intensely romantic;
the romance springs from the heart of youth, and believes all things, even
the impossible. The great schoolman's _credo_, "I believe because it is
impossible," is a better expression of Elizabethan literature than of
mediæval theology. In the literature of the Puritan period one looks in
vain for romantic ardor. Even in the lyrics and love poems a critical,
intellectual spirit takes its place, and whatever romance asserts itself is
in form rather than in feeling, a fantastic and artificial adornment of
speech rather than the natural utterance of a heart in which sentiment is
so strong and true that poetry is its only expression.


II. LITERATURE OF THE PURITAN PERIOD

THE TRANSITION POETS. When one attempts to classify the literature of the
first half of the seventeenth century, from the death of Elizabeth (1603)
to the Restoration (1660), he realizes the impossibility of grouping poets
by any accurate standard. The classifications attempted here have small
dependence upon dates or sovereigns, and are suggestive rather than
accurate. Thus Shakespeare and Bacon wrote largely in the reign of James I,
but their work is Elizabethan in spirit; and Bunyan is no less a Puritan
because he happened to write after the Restoration. The name Metaphysical
poets, given by Dr. Johnson, is somewhat suggestive but not descriptive of
the followers of Donne; the name Caroline or Cavalier poets brings to mind
the careless temper of the Royalists who followed King Charles with a
devotion of which he was unworthy; and the name Spenserian poets recalls
the little band of dreamers who clung to Spenser's ideal, even while his
romantic mediæval castle was battered down by Science at the one gate and
Puritanism at the other. At the beginning of this bewildering confusion of
ideals expressed in literature, we note a few writers who are generally
known as Jacobean poets, but whom we have called the Transition poets
because, with the later dramatists, they show clearly the changing
standards of the age.

SAMUEL DANIEL (1562-1619). Daniel, who is often classed with the first
Metaphysical poets, is interesting to us for two reasons, - for his use of
the artificial sonnet, and for his literary desertion of Spenser as a model
for poets. His _Delia_, a cycle of sonnets modeled, perhaps, after Sidney's
_Astrophel and Stella_, helped to fix the custom of celebrating love or
friendship by a series of sonnets, to which some pastoral pseudonym was
affixed. In his sonnets, many of which rank with Shakespeare's, and in his
later poetry, especially the beautiful "Complaint of Rosamond" and his
"Civil Wars," he aimed solely at grace of expression, and became
influential in giving to English poetry a greater individuality and
independence than it had ever known. In matter he set himself squarely
against the mediæval tendency:

Let others sing of kings and paladines
In aged accents and untimely words,
Paint shadows in imaginary lines.

This fling at Spenser and his followers marks the beginning of the modern
and realistic school, which sees in life as it is enough poetic material,
without the invention of allegories and impossible heroines. Daniel's
poetry, which was forgotten soon after his death, has received probably
more homage than it deserves in the praises of Wordsworth, Southey, Lamb,
and Coleridge. The latter says: "Read Daniel, the admirable Daniel. The
style and language are just such as any pure and manly writer of the
present day would use. It seems quite modern in comparison with the style
of Shakespeare."

THE SONG WRITERS. In strong contrast with the above are two distinct
groups, the Song Writers and the Spenserian poets. The close of the reign
of Elizabeth was marked by an outburst of English songs, as remarkable in
its sudden development as the rise of the drama. Two causes contributed to
this result, - the increasing influence of French instead of Italian verse,
and the rapid development of music as an art at the close of the sixteenth
century. The two song writers best worth studying are Thomas Campion
(1567?-1619) and Nicholas Breton (1545?-1626?). Like all the lyric poets of
the age, they are a curious mixture of the Elizabethan and the Puritan
standards. They sing of sacred and profane love with the same zest, and a
careless love song is often found on the same page with a plea for divine
grace.

THE SPENSERIAN POETS. Of the Spenserian poets Giles Fletcher and Wither are
best worth studying. Giles Fletcher (1588?-1623) has at times a strong
suggestion of Milton (who was also a follower of Spenser in his early
years) in the noble simplicity and majesty of his lines. His best known
work, "Christ's Victory and Triumph" (1610), was the greatest religious
poem that had appeared in England since "Piers Plowman," and is not an
unworthy predecessor of _Paradise Lost_.

The life of George Wither (1588-1667) covers the whole period of English
history from Elizabeth to the Restoration, and the enormous volume of his
work covers every phase of the literature of two great ages. His life was a
varied one; now as a Royalist leader against the Covenanters, and again
announcing his Puritan convictions, and suffering in prison for his faith.
At his best Wither is a lyric poet of great originality, rising at times to
positive genius; but the bulk of his poetry is intolerably dull. Students
of this period find him interesting as an epitome of the whole age in which
he lived; but the average reader is more inclined to note with interest
that he published in 1623 _Hymns and Songs of the Church_, the first hymn
book that ever appeared in the English language.

THE METAPHYSICAL POETS. This name - which was given by Dr. Johnson in
derision, because of the fantastic form of Donne's poetry - is often applied
to all minor poets of the Puritan Age. We use the term here in a narrower
sense, excluding the followers of Daniel and that later group known as the
Cavalier poets. It includes Donne, Herbert, Waller, Denham, Cowley,
Vaughan, Davenant, Marvell, and Crashaw. The advanced student finds them
all worthy of study, not only for their occasional excellent poetry, but
because of their influence on later literature. Thus Richard Crashaw
(1613?-1649), the Catholic mystic, is interesting because his troubled life
is singularly like Donne's, and his poetry is at times like Herbert's set
on fire.[160] Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), who blossomed young and who, at
twenty-five, was proclaimed the greatest poet in England, is now scarcely
known even by name, but his "Pindaric Odes"[161] set an example which
influenced English poetry throughout the eighteenth century. Henry Vaughan
(1622-1695) is worthy of study because he is in some respects the
forerunner of Wordsworth;[162] and Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), because of
his loyal friendship with Milton, and because his poetry shows the conflict
between the two schools of Spenser and Donne. Edmund Waller (1606-1687)
stands between the Puritan Age and the Restoration. He was the first to use
consistently the "closed" couplet which dominated our poetry for the next
century. By this, and especially by his influence over Dryden, the greatest
figure of the Restoration, he occupies a larger place in our literature
than a reading of his rather tiresome poetry would seem to warrant.

Of all these poets, each of whom has his special claim, we can consider
here only Donne and Herbert, who in different ways are the types of revolt
against earlier forms and standards of poetry. In feeling and imagery both
are poets of a high order, but in style and expression they are the leaders
of the fantastic school whose influence largely dominated poetry during the
half century of the Puritan period.


JOHN DONNE (1573-1631)

LIFE. The briefest outline of Donne's life shows its intense human
interest. He was born in London, the son of a rich iron merchant, at the
time when the merchants of England were creating a new and higher kind of
princes. On his father's side he came from an old Welsh family, and on his
mother's side from the Heywoods and Sir Thomas More's family. Both families
were Catholic, and in his early life persecution was brought near; for his
brother died in prison for harboring a proscribed priest, and his own
education could not be continued in Oxford and Cambridge because of his
religion. Such an experience generally sets a man's religious standards for
life; but presently Donne, as he studied law at Lincoln's Inn, was
investigating the philosophic grounds of all faith. Gradually he left the
church in which he was born, renounced all denominations, and called
himself simply Christian. Meanwhile he wrote poetry and shared his wealth
with needy Catholic relatives. He joined the expedition of Essex for Cadiz
in 1596, and for the Azores in 1597, and on sea and in camp found time to
write poetry. Two of his best poems, "The Storm" and "The Calm," belong to
this period. Next he traveled in Europe for three years, but occupied
himself with study and poetry. Returning home, he became secretary to Lord
Egerton, fell in love with the latter's young niece, Anne More, and married
her; for which cause Donne was cast into prison. Strangely enough his
poetical work at this time is not a song of youthful romance, but "The
Progress of the Soul," a study of transmigration. Years of wandering and
poverty followed, until Sir George More forgave the young lovers and made
an allowance to his daughter. Instead of enjoying his new comforts, Donne
grew more ascetic and intellectual in his tastes. He refused also the
nattering offer of entering the Church of England and of receiving a
comfortable "living." By his "Pseudo Martyr" he attracted the favor of
James I, who persuaded him to be ordained, yet left him without any place
or employment. When his wife died her allowance ceased, and Donne was left
with seven children in extreme poverty. Then he became a preacher, rose
rapidly by sheer intellectual force and genius, and in four years was the
greatest of English preachers and Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
There he "carried some to heaven in holy raptures and led others to amend
their lives," and as he leans over the pulpit with intense earnestness is
likened by Izaak Walton to "an angel leaning from a cloud."

Here is variety enough to epitomize his age, and yet in all his life,
stronger than any impression of outward weal or woe, is the sense of
mystery that surrounds Donne. In all his work one finds a mystery, a hiding
of some deep thing which the world would gladly know and share, and which
is suggested in his haunting little poem, "The Undertaking":

I have done one braver thing
Than all the worthies did;
And yet a braver thence doth spring,
Which is, to keep that hid.

DONNE'S POETRY. Donne's poetry is so uneven, at times so startling and
fantastic, that few critics would care to recommend it to others. Only a
few will read his works, and they must be left to their own browsing, to
find what pleases them, like deer which, in the midst of plenty, take a
bite here and there and wander on, tasting twenty varieties of food in an
hour's feeding. One who reads much will probably bewail Donne's lack of any
consistent style or literary standard. For instance, Chaucer and Milton are
as different as two poets could well be; yet the work of each is marked by
a distinct and consistent style, and it is the style as much as the matter
which makes the _Tales_ or the _Paradise Lost_ a work for all time. Donne
threw style and all literary standards to the winds; and precisely for this
reason he is forgotten, though his great intellect and his genius had
marked him as one of those who should do things "worthy to be remembered."
While the tendency of literature is to exalt style at the expense of
thought, the world has many men and women who exalt feeling and thought
above expression; and to these Donne is good reading. Browning is of the
same school, and compels attention. While Donne played havoc with
Elizabethan style, he nevertheless influenced our literature in the way of
boldness and originality; and the present tendency is to give him a larger
place, nearer to the few great poets, than he has occupied since Ben Jonson
declared that he was "the first poet of the world in some things," but
likely to perish "for not being understood." For to much of his poetry we
must apply his own satiric verses on another's crudities:

Infinite work! which doth so far extend
That none can study it to any end.


GEORGE HERBERT (1593-1633)

"O day most calm, most bright," sang George Herbert, and we may safely take
that single line as expressive of the whole spirit of his writings.
Professor Palmer, whose scholarly edition of this poet's works is a model
for critics and editors, calls Herbert the first in English poetry who
spoke face to face with God. That may be true; but it is interesting to
note that not a poet of the first half of the seventeenth century, not even
the gayest of the Cavaliers, but has written some noble verse of prayer or
aspiration, which expresses the underlying Puritan spirit of his age.
Herbert is the greatest, the most consistent of them all. In all the others
the Puritan struggles against the Cavalier, or the Cavalier breaks loose
from the restraining Puritan; but in Herbert the struggle is past and peace
has come. That his life was not all calm, that the Puritan in him had
struggled desperately before it subdued the pride and idleness of the
Cavalier, is evident to one who reads between his lines:

I struck the board and cry'd, No more!
I will abroad.
What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind.

There speaks the Cavalier of the university and the court; and as one reads
to the end of the little poem, which he calls by the suggestive name of
"The Collar," he may know that he is reading condensed biography.

Those who seek for faults, for strained imagery and fantastic verse forms
in Herbert's poetry, will find them in abundance; but it will better repay
the reader to look for the deep thought and fine feeling that are hidden in
these wonderful religious lyrics, even in those that appear most
artificial. The fact that Herbert's reputation was greater, at times, than
Milton's, and that his poems when published after his death had a large
sale and influence, shows certainly that he appealed to the men of his age;
and his poems will probably be read and appreciated, if only by the few,
just so long as men are strong enough to understand the Puritan's spiritual
convictions.

LIFE. Herbert's life is so quiet and uneventful that to relate a few
biographical facts can be of little advantage. Only as one reads the whole
story by Izaak Walton can he share the gentle spirit of Herbert's poetry.
He was born at Montgomery Castle,[163] Wales, 1593, of a noble Welsh
family. His university course was brilliant, and after graduation he waited
long years in the vain hope of preferment at court. All his life he had to
battle against disease, and this is undoubtedly the cause of the long delay
before each new step in his course. Not till he was thirty-seven was he
ordained and placed over the little church of Bemerton. How he lived here
among plain people, in "this happy corner of the Lord's field, hoping all
things and blessing all people, asking his own way to Sion and showing
others the way," should be read in Walton. It is a brief life, less than
three years of work before being cut off by consumption, but remarkable for
the single great purpose and the glorious spiritual strength that shine
through physical weakness. Just before his death he gave some manuscripts



Online LibraryWilliam Joseph LongEnglish Literature Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World → online text (page 17 of 53)