"And one of them, named Sheffield, a mercer, came into a house and asked for meat. And especially he asked for eggs. And the good wife answered that she could speak no French. And the merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but would have had eggs, and she understood him not.
"And then at last another said that he would have eyren. Then the good wife said that she understood him well. So what should a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man by cause of diversity and change of language. . . .
"And some honest and great clerks have been with me, and desired me to write the most curious terms that I could find. And thus between plain, rude, and curious I stand abashed. But in my judgement the common terms that be daily used, be lighter to be understood than the old and ancient English."
In another book Caxton tells us that he knows his own "simpleness and unperfectness" in both French and English. "For in France was I never, and was born and learned my English in Kent, in the Weald, where I doubt not is spoken as broad and rude English as in any place in England."
So you see our English was by no means yet settled. But printing, perhaps, did more than anything else to settle it.
We know that Caxton printed at least one hundred and two editions of books. And you will be surprised to hear that of all these only two or three were books of poetry. Here we have a sure sign that the singing time was nearly over. I do not mean that we are to have no more singers, for most of our greatest are still to come. But from this time prose had shaken off its fetters. It was no longer to be used only for sermons, for prayers, for teaching. It was to take its place beside poetry as a means of enjoyment - as literature. Literature, then, was no longer the affair of the market-place and the banqueting-hall, but of a man's own fireside and quiet study. It was no longer the affair of the crowd, but of each man to himself alone.
The chief poems which Caxton printed were Chaucer's. In one place he calls Chaucer "The worshipful father and first founder and embellisher of ornate eloquence in our English." Here, I think, he shows that he was trying to follow the advice of "those honest and great clerks" who told him he should write "the most curious terms" that he could find. But certainly he admired Chaucer very greatly. In the preface to his second edition of the Canterbury Tales he says, "Great thank, laud and honour ought to be given unto the clerks, poets" and others who have written "noble books." "Among whom especially before all others, we ought to give a singular laud unto that noble and great philosopher, Geoffrey Chaucer." Then Caxton goes on to tell us how hard he had found it to get a correct copy of Chaucer's poems, "For I find many of the said books which writers have abridged it, and many things left out: and in some places have set verses that he never made nor set in his book."
This shows us how quickly stories became changed in the days when everything was copied by hand. When Caxton wrote these words Chaucer had not been dead more than about eighty years, yet already it was not easy to find a good copy of his works.
And if stories changed, the language changed just as quickly. Caxton tells us that the language was changing so fast that he found it hard to read books written at the time he was born. His own language is very Frenchy, perhaps because he translated so many of his books from French. He not only uses words which are almost French, but arranges his sentences in a French manner. He often, too drops the e in the, just as in French the e or a in le and la is dropped before a vowel. This you will often find in old English books. "The abbey" becomes thabbay, "The English" thenglish. Caxton writes, too, thensygnementys for "the teaching." Here we have the dropped e and also the French word enseignement used instead of "teaching." But these were only last struggles of a foreign tongue. The triumphant English we now possess was already taking form.
But it was not by printing alone that in the fifteenth century men's eyes were opened to new wonder. They were also opened to the wonder of a new world far over the sea. For the fifteenth century was the age of discovery, and of all the world's first great sailors. It was the time when America and the western isles were discovered, when the Cape of Good Hope was first rounded, and the new way to India found. So with the whole world urged to action by the knowledge of these new lands, with imagination wakened by the tales of marvels to be seen there, with a new desire to see and do stirring in men's minds, it was not wonderful that there should be little new writing. The fifteenth century was the age of new action and new worlds. The new thought was to follow.
Chapter XXXII ABOUT THE BEGINNING OF THE THEATER
MANY of you have, no doubt, been to the theater. You have seen pantomimes and Peter Pan, perhaps; perhaps, too, a play of Shakespeare, - a comedy, it may be, which made you laugh, or even a tragedy which made you want to cry, or at least left you sad. Some of you, too, have been to "Pageants," and some may even have been to an oratorio, which last may have been sung in a church.
But did you ever wonder how plays and theaters came to be? Did you ever think that there was a time when in all the length and breadth of the land there was no theater, when there were no plays either merry or sad? Yet it was so. But at a very early time the people of England began to act. And, strange as it may seem to us now, the earliest plays were acted by monks and took place in church. And it is from these very early monkish plays that the theater with its different kinds of plays, that pageants and even oratorios have sprung.
In this chapter I am going to talk about these beginnings of the English theater and of its literature. All plays taken together are called the drama, and the writers of them are called dramatists, from a Greek word dran, to act or do. For dramas are written not to be read merely, but also to be acted.
To trace the English drama from its beginnings we must go a long way back from the reigns of Henry VII and of Henry VIII, down to which the life of Dunbar has brought us. We must go back to the days when the priests were the only learned people in the land, when the monasteries were the only schools.
If we would picture to ourselves what these first English plays were like, we must not think of a brilliantly lighted theater pranked out and fine with red and gold and white such as we know. We must think rather of some dim old church. Stately pillars rise around us, and the outline of the arches is lost in the high twilight of the roof. Behind the quaintly dressed players gleams the great crucifix with its strange, sad figure and outstretched arms which, under the flickering light of the high altar candles, seems to stir to life. And beyond the circle of light, in the soft darkness of the nave, the silent people kneel or stand to watch.
It was in such solemn surroundings that our first plays were played. And the stories that were acted were Bible stories. There was no thought of irreverence in such acting. On the contrary, these plays were performed "to exort the mindes of common people to good devotion and holesome doctrine."
You remember when Caedmon sang, he made his songs of the stories of Genesis and Exodus. And in this way, in those bookless days, the people were taught the Bible stories. But you know that what we learn by our ears is much harder to remember than what we learn by our eyes. If we are only told a thing we may easily forget it. But if we have seen it, or seen a picture of it, we remember it much more easily. In those far-off days, however, there were as few pictures as there were books in England. And so the priests and monks fell upon the plan of acting the Bible stories and the stories of the saints, so that the people might see and better understand.
These plays which the monks made were called Mystery or Miracle plays. I cannot tell you the exact date of our first Miracle plays, but the earliest that we know of certainly was acted at the end of the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century. It is not unreasonable to suppose, however, that there had been still earlier plays of which we know nothing. For the Miracle plays did not spring all at once to life, they began gradually, and the beginnings can be traced as far back as the ninth century. In an old book of rules for Winchester Cathedral, written about 959, there are directions given for showing the death and resurrection of Christ in dumb show chiefly, with just a few Latin sentences to explain it. By degrees these plays grew longer and fuller, until in them the whole story of man from the Creation to the Day of Judgment was acted in what was called a cycle or circle of short acts or plays.
But although these plays were looked upon as an act of religion, they were not all solemn. At times, above the grave tones of the monks or the solemn chanting of the choir, laughter rang out. For some of the characters were meant to be funny, and the watching crowd knew and greeted them as such even before they spoke, just as we know and greet the jester or the clown.
The demons were generally funny, and Noah's wife, who argued about going into the ark. The shepherds, also, watching their flocks by night, were almost sure to make the people laugh.
But there were solemn moments, too, when the people reverently listened to the grave words of God the Father, or to those, tender and loving, of Mary, the Virgin Mother. And when the shepherds neared the manger where lay the wondrous Babe, all jesting ceased. Here there was nothing but tender, if simple and unlearned, adoration.
In those early days Latin was the tongue of the Church, and the Miracle plays were at first said in Latin. But as the common folk could not understand what was said, the plays were chiefly shown in dumb show. Soon, however, Latin was given up, and the plays were acted in English. Then by degrees the churches grew too small to hold the great crowds of people who wished to see the plays, and so they were acted outside the church door in the churchyard, on a stage built level with the steps. The church, then, could be made to represent heaven, where God and the angels dwelt. The stage itself was the world, and below it was hell, from out of which came smoke and sometimes flames, and whence might be heard groans and cries and the clanking of chains.
But the playing of Mysteries and Miracles at the church doors had soon to be given up. For the people, in their excitement, forgot the respect due to the dead. They trampled upon the graves and destroyed the tombs in their eagerness to see. And when the play was over the graveyard was a sorry sight with trodden grass and broken headstones. So by degrees it came about that these plays lost their connection with the churches, and were no more played in or near them. They were, instead, played in some open space about the town, such as the market-place. Then, too, the players ceased to be monks and priests, and the acting was taken up by the people themselves. It was then that the playing came into the hands of the trade guilds.
Nowadays we hear a great deal about "trades unions." But in those far-off days such things were unknown. Each trade, however, had its own guild by which the members of it were bound together. Each guild had its patron saint, and after a time the members of a guild began to act a play on their saint's day in his honor. Later still the guilds all worked together, and all acted their plays on one day. This was Corpus Christi Day, a feast founded by Pope Urban IV in 1264. As this feast was in summer, it was a very good time to act the plays, for the weather was warm and the days were long. The plays often began very early in the morning as soon as it was light, and lasted all day.
The Miracles were now acted on a movable stage. This stage was called a pageant, and the play which was acted on it was also in time called a pageant. The stage was made in two stories. The upper part was open all round, and upon this the acting took place. The under part was curtained all round, and here the actors dressed. From here, too, they came out, and when they had finished their parts they went back again within the curtains.
The movable stages were, of course, not very large, so sometimes more than one was needed for a play. At other times the players overflowed, as it were, into the audience. "Here Herod rages on the pageant and in the street also" is one stage direction. The devils, too, often ran among the people, partly to amuse them and partly to frighten and show them what might happen if they remained wicked. At the Creation, animals of all kinds which had been kept chained up were let loose suddenly, and ran among the people, while pigeons set free from cages flew over their heads. Indeed, everything seems to have been done to make the people feel the plays as real as possible.
The pageants were on wheels, and as soon as a play was over at the first appointed place, the stage was dragged by men to the next place and the play again began. In an old MS. we are told, "The places where they played them was in every streete. They begane first at the abay gates, and when the first pagiante was played, it was wheeled to the highe crosse befor the mayor, and soe to every streete. And soe every streete had a pagiant playinge before them at one time, till all the pagiantes for the daye appoynted weare played. And when one pagiante was neare ended worde was broughte from streete to streete, that soe they mighte come in place thereof, exceedinge orderly. And all the streetes have theire pagiantes afore them all at one time playinge togeather."*
*Harleian MS., 1948.
Thus, if a man kept his place all a long summer's day, he might see pass before him pageant after pageant until he had seen the whole story of the world, from the Creation to the Day of Judgment.
In time nearly every town of any size in England had its own cycle of plays, but only four of these have come down to us. These are the York, the Chester, the Wakefield, and the Coventry cycles. Perhaps the most interesting of them all are the Wakefield plays. They are also called the Townley plays, from the name of the family who possessed the manuscript for a long time.
Year after year the same guild acted the same play. And it really seemed as if the pageant was in many cases chosen to suit the trade of the players. The water-drawers of Chester, for instance, acted the Flood. In York the shipwrights acted the building of the ark, the fishmongers the Flood, and the gold- beaters and money-workers the three Kings out of the East.
The members of each guild tried to make their pageant as fine as they could. Indeed, they were expected to do so, for in 1394 we find the Mayor of York ordering the craftsmen "to bring forth their pageants in order and course by good players, well arrayed and openly speaking, upon pain of losing of 100 shillings, to be paid to the chamber without any pardon."*
*Thomas Sharp, Dissertation on the Pageants.
So, in order to supply everything that was needful, each member of a guild paid what was called "pageant silver." Accounts of how this money was spent were carefully kept. A few of these have come down to us, and some of the items and prices paid sound very funny now.
"Paid for setting the world of fire 5d. For making and mending of the black souls hose 6d. For a pair of new hose and mending of the old for the white souls 18d. Paid for mending Pilate's hat 4d."
The actors, too, were paid. Here are some of the prices:—
"To Fawson for hanging Judas 4d. Paid to Fawson for cock crowing 4d.
Some got much more than others. Pilate, for instance, who was an important character, got 4s., while two angels only got 8d. between them. But while the rehearsing and acting were going on the players received their food, and when it was all over they wound up with a great supper.
Chapter XXXIII HOW THE SHEPHERDS WATCHED THEIR FLOCKS
IN this chapter I am going to give you a part of one of the Townley plays to show you what the beginnings of our drama were like,
Although our forefathers tried to make the pageants as real as possible, they had, of course, no scenery, but acted on a little bare platform. They never thought either that the stories they acted had taken place long ago and in lands far away, where dress and manners and even climate were all very different from what they were in England.
For instance, in the Shepherd's play, of which I am going to tell, the first shepherd comes in shivering with cold. For though he is acting in summer he must make believe that it is Christmas-time, for on Christmas Day Christ was born. And Christmas-time in England, he knows, is cold. What it may be in far-off Palestine he neither knows nor cares.
"Lord, what these weathers are cold! and I am ill happed; I am near hand dulled so long have I napped; My legs they fold, my fingers are chapped, It is not as I would, for I am all lapped In sorrow. In storm and tempest, Now in the east, now in the west, Woe is him has never rest Mid-day or morrow."
In this strain the shepherd grumbles until the second comes. He, too, complains of the cold.
"The frost so hideous, they water mine een, No lie! Now is dry, now is wet, Now is snow, now is sleet, When my shoon freeze to my feet, It is not all easy."
So they talk until the third shepherd comes. He, too, grumbles.
"Was never syne Noah's floods such floods seen; Winds and rains so rude, and storms so keen."
The first two ask the third shepherd where the sheep are. "Sir," he replies,
"This same day at morn I left them i the corn When they rang lauds. They had pasture good they cannot go wrong."
That is all right, say the others, and so they settle to sing a song, when a neighbor named Mak comes along. They greet the newcomer with jests. But the second shepherd is suspicious of him.
"Thus late as thou goes, What will men suppose? And thou hast no ill nose For stealing of sheep."
"I am true as steel," says Mak. "All men wot it. But a sickness I feel that holds me full hot," and so, he says, he is obliged to walk about at night for coolness.
The shepherds are all very weary and want to sleep. But just to make things quite safe, they bid Mak lie down between them so that he cannot move without awaking them. Mak lies down as he is bid, but he does not sleep, and as soon as the others are all snoring he softly rises and "borrows" a sheep.
Quickly he goes home with it and knocks at his cottage door. "How, Gill, art thou in? Get us a light."
"Who makes such din this time of night?" answers his wife from within.
When she hears that it is Mak she unbars the door, but when she sees what her husband brings she is afraid.
"By the naked neck thou art like to hang," she says.
"I have often escaped before," replies Mak.
"But so long goes the pot to the water, men say, at last comes it home broken," cries Gill.
But the question is, now that they have the sheep, how is it to be his from the shepherds. For Mak feels sure that they will suspect him when they find out that a sheep is missing.
Gill has a plan. She will swaddle the sheep like a new-born baby and lay it in the cradle. This being done, Mak returns to the shepherds, whom he finds still sleeping, and lies down again beside them. Presently they all awake and rouse Mak, who still pretends to sleep. He, after some talk, goes home, and the shepherds go off to seek and count their sheep, agreeing to meet again at the "crooked thorn."
Soon the shepherds find that one sheep is missing, and suspecting Mak of having stolen it they follow him home. They find him sitting by the cradle singing a lullaby to the new-born baby, while Gill lies in bed groaning and pretending to be very ill. Mak greets the shepherds in a friendly way, but bids them speak softly and not walk about, as his wife is ill and the baby asleep.
But the shepherds will not be put off with words. They search the house, but can find nothing.
"All work we in vain as well may we go. Bother it! I can find no flesh Hard or nesh,* Salt or fresh, But two toom** platters."
Meanwhile, Gill from her bed cries out at them, calling them thieves. "Ye come to rob us. I swear if ever I you beguiled, that I eat this child that lies in this cradle."
The shepherds at length begin to be sorry that they have been so unjust as to suspect Mak. They wish to make friends again. But Mak will not be friends. "Farewell, all three, and glad I am to see you go," he cries.
So the shepherds go a little sadly. "Fair winds may there be, but love there is none this year," says one.
"Gave ye the child anything?" says another.
"I trow not a farthing."
"Then back will I go," says the third shepherd, "abide ye there."
And back he goes full of his kindly thought. "Mak," he says, "with your leave let me give your bairn but sixpence."
But Mak still pretends to be sulky, and will not let him come near the child. By this time all the shepherds have come back. One wants to kiss the baby, and bends over the cradle. Suddenly he starts back. What a nose! The deceit is found out and the shepherds are very angry. Yet even in their anger they can hardly help laughing. Mak and Gill, however, are ready of wit. They will not own to the theft. It is a changeling child, they say.
"He was taken with an elf, I saw it myself, When the clock struck twelve was he foreshapen,"
But the shepherds will not be deceived a second time. They resolve to punish Mak, but let him off after having tossed him in a blanket until they are tired and he is sore and sorry for himself.
This sheepstealing scene shows how those who wrote the play tried to catch the interest of the people. For every one who saw this scene could understand it. Sheepstealing was a very common crime in England in those days, and was often punished by death. Probably every one who saw the play knew of such cases, and the writers used this scene as a link between the everyday life, which was near at hand and easy to understand, and the story of the birth of Christ, which was so far off and hard to understand.
And it is now, when the shepherds are resting from their hard work of beating Mak, that they hear the angels sing "Glory to God in the highest." From this point on all the jesting ceases, and in its rough way the play is reverent and loving.
The angel speaks.
"Rise, herdmen, quickly, for now is he born That shall take from the fiend what Adam was lorn; That demon to spoil this night is he born, God is made your friend now at this morn. He behests At Bethlehem go see, There lies that fre* In a crib full poorly Betwixt two beasties."
The shepherds hear the words of the angel, and looking upward see the guiding star. Wondering at the music, talking of the prophecies of David and Isaiah, they hasten to Bethlehem and find the lowly stable. Here, with a mixture of awe and tenderness, the shepherds greet the Holy Child. It is half as if they spoke to the God they feared, half as if they played with some little helpless baby who was their very own. They mingle simple things of everyday life with their awe. They give him gifts, but their simple minds can imagine no other than those they might give to their own children.
The first shepherd greets the child with words:—
"Hail, comely and clean! Hail, young child! Hail, maker as methinks of a maiden so mild. Thou hast warred, I ween, the demon so wild."
Then he gives as his gift a bob of cherries.
The second shepherd speaks:—
"Hail! sovereign saviour! for thee have we sought. Hail, noble child and flower that all thing hast wrought. Hail, full of favour, that made all of nought. Hail! I kneel and I cower! A bird have I brought To my bairn. Hail, little tiny mop, Of our creed thou art crop,* I would drink to thy health, Little Day Star!"
*Head. The third shepherd speaks:—
Hail! darling dear full of Godhead! I pray thee be near when that I have need! Hail! sweet is thy cheer! My heart would bleed To see thee sit here in so poor weed With no pennies. Hail! put forth thy dall.* I bring thee but a ball: Have and play thee with all And go to the tennis."
And so the pageant of the shepherds comes to an end, and they return home rejoicing.
This play gives us a good idea of how the Miracles wound themselves about the lives of the people. It gives us a good idea of the rudeness of the times when such jesting with what we hold as sacred seemed not amiss. It gives, too, the first gleam of what we might call true comedy in English.
Chapter XXXIV THE STORY OF EVERYMAN
A LITTLE later than the Miracle and Mystery plays came another sort of play called the Moralities. In these, instead or representing real people, the actors represented thoughts, feelings and deeds, good and bad. Truth, for instance, would be shown as a beautiful lady; Lying as an ugly old man, and so on. These plays were meant to teach just as the Miracles were meant to teach. But instead of teaching the Bible stories, they were made to show men the ugliness of sin and the beauty of goodness. When we go to the theater now we only think of being amused, and it is strange to remember that all acting was at first meant to teach.
The very first of our Moralities seems to have been a play of the Lord's Prayer. It was acted in the reign of Edward III or some time after 1327. But that has long been lost, and we know nothing of it but its name. There are several other Moralities, however, which have come down to us of a later date, the earliest being of the fifteenth century, and of them perhaps the most interesting is Everyman.
But we cannot claim Everyman altogether as English literature, for it is translated from, or at least founded upon, a Dutch play. Yet it is the best of all the Moralities which have come down to us, and may have been translated into English about 1480. In its own time it must have been thought well of, or no one would have troubled to translate it. But, however popular it was long ago, for hundreds of years it had lain almost forgotten, unread except by a very few, and never acted at all, until some one drew it from its dark hiding-place and once more put it upon the stage. Since then, during the last few years, it has been acted often. And as, happily, the actors have tried to perform it in the simple fashion in which it must have been done long ago, we can get from it a very good idea of the plays which pleased our forefathers. On the title-page of Everyman we read: "Here beginneth a treatise how the high Father of heaven sendeth Death to summon every creature to come to give a count of their lives in this world, and is in the manner of a moral play." So in the play we learn how Death comes to Everyman and bids him follow him.
But Everyman is gay and young. He loves life, he has many friends, the world to him is beautiful, he cannot leave it. So he prays Death to let him stay, offers him gold and riches if he will but put off the matter until another day.
But Death is stern. "Thee availeth not to cry, weep and pray," he says, "but haste thee lightly that thou wert gone the journey."
Then seeing that go he must, Everyman thinks that at least he will have company on the journey. So he turns to his friends. But, alas, none will go with him. One by one they leave him. Then Everyman cries in despair:—
"O to whom shall I make my moan For to go with me in that heavy journey? First Fellowship said he would with me gone; His words were very pleasant and gay, But afterward he left me alone. Then spake I to my kinsmen all in despair, And also they gave me words fair; They lacked no fair speaking, But all forsake me in the ending."
So at last Everyman turns him to his Good Deeds—his Good Deeds, whom he had almost forgotten and who lies bound and in prison by reason of his sins. And Good Deeds consents to go with him on the dread journey. With him come others, too, among them Knowledge and Strength. But at the last these, too, turn back. Only Good Deeds is true, only Good Deeds stands by him to the end with comforting words. And so the play ends; the body of Everyman is laid in the grave, but we know that his soul goes home to God.
This play is meant to picture the life of every man or woman, and to show how unhappy we may be in the end if we have not tried to be good in this world.
"This moral men may have in mind, The hearers take it of worth old and young, And forsake Pride, for he deceiveth you in the end, And remember Beauty, Five Wits, Strength, and Discretion, They all at the last do Everyman forsake, Save his Good Deeds; these doth he take. And beware, - an they be small, Before God he hath no help at all. None excuse may be there for Everyman."
BOOKS TO READ
Everyman: A Morality (Everyman's Library).
Chapter XXXV HOW A POET COMFORTED A GIRL
PERHAPS the best Morality of which we know the author's name is Magnificence, by John Skelton. But, especially after Everyman, it is dull reading for little people, and it is not in order to speak of this play that I write about Skelton.
John Skelton lived in the stormy times of Henry VIII, and he is called sometimes our first poet-laureate. But he was not poet- laureate as we now understand it, he was not the King's poet. The title only meant that he had taken a degree in grammar and Latin verse, and had been given a laurel wreath by the university which gave the degree. It was in this way that Skelton was made laureate, first by Oxford, then by Louvain in Belgium, and thirdly by Cambridge, so that in his day he was considered a learned man and a great poet. He was a friend of Caxton and helped him with one of his books. "I pray, maister Skelton, late created poet-laureate in the university of Oxenford," says Caxton, "to oversee and correct this said book."
John Skelton, like so many other literary men of those days, was a priest. He studied, perhaps, both at Oxford and at Cambridge, and became tutor to Prince, afterwards King, Henry VIII. We do not know if he had an easy time with his royal pupil or not, but in one of his poems he tells us that "The honour of England I learned to spell" and "acquainted him with the Muses nine."
The days of Henry VIII were troublous times for thinking people. The King was a tyrant, and the people of England were finding it harder than ever to bow to a tyrant while the world was awakening to new thought, and new desires for freedom, both in religion and in life.
The Reformation had begun. The teaching of Piers Ploughman, the preaching of Wyclif, had long since almost been forgotten, but it had never altogether died out. The evils in the Church and in high places were as bad as ever, and Skelton, himself a priest, preached against them. He attacked other, even though he himself sinned against the laws of priesthood. For he was married, and in those days marriage was forbidden to clergymen, and his life was not so fair as it might have been.
At first Wolsey, the great Cardinal and friend of Henry VIII, was Skelton's friend too. But Skelton's tongue was mocking and bitter. "He was a sharp satirist, but with more railing and scoffery than became a poet-laureate,"* said one. The Cardinal became an enemy, and the railing tongue was turned against him. In a poem called Colin Cloute Skelton pointed out the evils of his day and at the same time pointed the finger of scorn at Wolsey. Colin Cloute, like Piers Ploughman, was meant to mean the simple good Englishman.
"Thus I Colin Cloute, As I go about,
And wandering as I walk, There the people talk. Men say, for silver and gold Mitres are bought and sold."
"Laymen say indeed, How they (the priests) take no heed Their silly sheep to feed, But pluck away and pull The fleeces of their wool."
But he adds:—
"Of no good bishop speak I, Nor good priest I decry, Good friar, nor good chanon,* Good nun, nor good canon, Good monk, nor good clerk, Nor yet no good work: But my recounting is Of them that do amiss."
*Same as canon.
Yet, although Skelton said he would not decry any good man or any good work, his spirit was a mocking one. He was fond of harsh jests and rude laughter, and no person or thing was too high or too holy to escape his sharp wit. "He was doubtless a pleasant conceited fellow, and of a very sharp wit," says a writer about sixty years later, "exceeding bold, and would nip to the very quick when he once set hold."*
And being bold as bitter, and having set hold with hatred upon Wolsey, he in another poem called Why come ye not to Court? and in still another called Speake, Parrot, wrote directly against the Cardinal. Yet although Skelton railed against the Cardinal and against the evils in the Church, he was no Protestant. He believed in the Church of Rome, and would have been sorry to think that he had helped the "heretics."
Wolsey was still powerful, and he made up his mind to silence his enemy, so Skelton found himself more than once in prison, and at last to escape the Cardinal's anger he was forced to take sanctuary in Westminster. There he remained until he died a few months before his great enemy fell from power.
As many of Skelton's poems were thus about quarrels over religion and politics, much of the interest in them has died. Yet, as he himself says,
"For although my rhyme is ragged, Tattered and jagged, Rudely rain-beaten, Rust and moth eaten, If ye take well therewith, It hath in it some pith."
And it is well to remember the name of Colin Cloute at least, because a later and much greater poet borrowed that name for one of his own poems, as you shall hear.
But the poem which keeps most interest for us is one which perhaps at the time it was written was thought least important. It is called The Book of Philip Sparrow. And this poem shows us that Skelton was not always bitter and biting. For it is neither bitter nor coarse, but is a dainty and tender lament written for a schoolgirl whose sparrow had been killed by a cat. It is written in the same short lines as Colin Cloute and others of Skelton's poems—"Breathless rhymes"* they have been called. These short lines remind us somewhat of the old Anglo-Saxon short half-lines, except that they rime. They are called after their author "Skeltonical."
What chiefly makes The Book of Philip Sparrow interesting is that it is the original of our nursery rime Who Killed Cock Robin? It is written in the form of a dirge, and many people were shocked at that, for they said that it was but another form of mockery that this jesting priest had chosen with which to divert himself. But I think that little Jane Scoupe at school in the nunnery at Carowe would dry her eyes and smile when she read it. She must have been pleased that the famous poet, who had been the King's tutor and friend and who had been both the friend and enemy of the great Cardinal, should trouble to write such a long poem all about her sparrow.
Here are a few quotations from it:—
"Pla ce bo,* Who is there who? Di le sci, Dame Margery; Fa re my my, Wherefore and why why? For the soul of Philip Sparrow That was late slain at Carowe Among the nuns black, For that sweet soul's sake, And for all sparrows' souls, Set in our bead rolls, Pater Noster qui, With an Ave Mari, And with the corner of a creed, The more shall be your need.
*Placebo is the first word of the first chant in the service for the dead. Skelton has here made it into three words. The chant is called the Placebo from the first word. . . . . I wept and I wailed, The tears down hailed, But nothing it availed To call Philip again, That Gib our cat hath slain. Gib, I say, our cat Worried her on that Which I loved best. It cannot be expressed My sorrowful heaviness And all without redress. . . . . It had a velvet cap, And would sit upon my lap, And seek after small worms, And sometimes white bread-crumbs. . . . . Sometimes he would gasp When he saw a wasp, A fly or a gnat He would fly at that; And prettily he would pant When he saw an ant; Lord, how he would fly After the butterfly. And when I said Phip, Phip Then he would leap and skip, And take me by the lip. Alas it will me slo,* That Philip is gone me fro.
*Slay. . . . . For it would come and go, And fly so to and fro; And on me it would leap When I was asleep, And his feathers shake, Wherewith he would make Me often for to wake. . . . . That vengeance I ask and cry, By way of exclamation, On all the whole nation Of cats wild and tame. God send them sorrow and shame! That cat especially That slew so cruelly My little pretty sparrow That I brought up at Carowe. O cat of churlish kind, The fiend was in thy mind, When thou my bird untwined.* I would thou hadst been blind. The leopards savage, The lions in their rage, Might catch thee in their paws And gnaw thee in their jaws.
*Tore to pieces. . . . . These villainous false cats, Were made for mice and rats, And not for birdies small. . . . . Alas, mine heart is slayeth My Philip's doleful death, When I remember it, How prettily it would sit, Many times and oft, Upon my finger aloft. . . . . To weep with me, look that ye come, All manner of birds of your kind; So none be left behind, To mourning look that ye fall With dolorous songs funeral, Some to sing, and some to say, Some to weep, and some to pray, Every bird in his lay. The goldfinch and the wagtail; The gangling jay to rail, The flecked pie to chatter Of the dolorous matter; The robin redbreast, He shall be the priest, The requiem mass to sing, Softly warbling, With help of the red sparrow, And the chattering swallow, This hearse for to hallow; The lark with his lung too, The chaffinch and the martinet also; . . . . The lusty chanting nightingale, The popinjay to tell her tale, That peepeth oft in the glass, Shall read the Gospel at mass; The mavis with her whistle Shall read there the Epistle, But with a large and a long To keep just plain song. . . . . The peacock so proud, Because his voice is loud, And hath a glorious tail He shall sing the grayle;*
The owl that is so foul Must help us to howl.
*Gradual = the part of the mass between Epistle and Gospel. . . . . At the Placebo We may not forgo The chanting of the daw The stork also, That maketh her nest In chimnies to rest. . . . . The ostrich that will eat A horseshoe so great, In the stead of meat, Such fervent heat His stomach doth gnaw. He cannot well fly Nor sing tunably. . . . . The best that we can To make him our bellman, And let him ring the bells, He can do nothing else. Chanticlere our cock Must tell what is of the clock By the astrology That he hath naturally Conceived and caught, And was never taught. . . . . To Jupiter I call Of heaven imperial That Philip may fly Above the starry sky To greet the pretty wren That is our Lady's hen, Amen, amen, amen.
Chapter XXXVI THE RENAISSANCE
RENAISSANCE means rebirth, and to make you understand something of what the word means in our literature I must take you a long way. You have been told that the fifteenth century was a dull time in English literature, but that it was also a time of new action and new life, for the discovery of new worlds and the discovery of printing had opened men's eyes and minds to new wonders. There was a third event which added to this new life by bringing new thought and new learning to England. That was the taking of Constantinople by the Turks.
It seems difficult to understand how the taking of Constantinople could have any effect on our literature. I will try to explain, but in order to do so clearly I must go back to the time of the Romans.
All of you have read English history, and there you read of the Romans. You know what a clever and conquering people they were, and how they subdued all the wild tribes who lived in the countries around them. Besides conquering all the barbarians around them, the Romans conquered another people who were not barbarians, but who were in some ways more civilized than themselves. These were the Greeks. They had a great literature, they were more learned and quite as skilled in the arts of peace as the Romans. Yet in 146 B.C., long before the Romans came to our little island, Greece became a Roman province.
Nearly five hundred years later there sat upon the throne an Emperor named Constantine. And he, although Rome was still pagan, became a Christian. He was, besides, a great and powerful ruler. His court was brilliant, glittering with all the golden splendor of those far-off times. But although Rome was still pagan, Greece, a Roman province, had become Christian. And in this Christian province Constantine made up his mind to build a New Rome.
In those days the boundaries of Greece stretched far further than they do now, and it was upon the shores of the Bosphorus that Constantine built his new capital. There was already an ancient town there named Byzantium, but he transformed it into a new and splendid city. The Emperor willed it to be called New Rome, but instead the people called it the city of Constantine, and we know it now as Constantinople.
When Constantinople was founded it was a Roman city. All the rulers were Roman, all the high posts were filled by Romans, and Latin was the speech of the people. But in Constantinople it happened as it had happened in England after the Conquest. In England, for a time after the Conquest, the rulers were French and the language was French, but gradually all that passed away, and the language and the rulers became English once more. So it was in Constantinople. By degrees it became a Greek city, the rulers became Greek, and Greek was the language spoken.
In building a second capital Constantine had weakened his Empire. Soon it was split in two, and there arose a western and an eastern Empire. As time went on the Western Empire with Rome at its head declined and fell, while the Eastern Empire with Constantinople as its capital grew great. But it grew into a Greek Empire. Even very clever people cannot tell the exact date at which the Roman Empire came to an end and the Greek or Byzantine Empire, as it is called, began. So we need not trouble about that. All that is needful for us to understand now it that Constantinople was a Christian city, a Greek city, and a treasure-house of Greek learning and literature.
Thus Constantinople was the Christian outpost of Europe. For hundred of year the Byzantine Empire stood as a barrier against the Saracen hosts of Asia. It might have stood still longer, but sad to say, this barrier was first broken down by the Christians themselves. For in 1204 the armies of the fourth Crusade, which had gathered to fight the heathen, turned their swords, to their shame be it said, against the Christian people of the Greek Empire. Constantinople was taken, plundered, and destroyed by these "pious brigands,"* and the last of the Byzantine Emperors was first blinded and then flung from a high tower, so that his body fell shattered to pieces on the paving-stones of his own capital.
*George Finlay, History of Greece.
Baldwin, Count of Flanders, one of the great leaders of the Crusade, was then crowned by his followers and acknowledged Emperor of the East. But the once great Empire was now broken up, and out of it three lesser Empires, as well as many smaller states, were formed.
Baldwin did not long rule as Emperor of the East, and the Greeks after a time succeeded in regaining Constantinople from the western Christians. But although for nearly two hundred years longer they kept it, the Empire was dying and lifeless. And by degrees, as the power of Greece grew less, the power of Turkey grew greater. At length in 1453 the Sultan Mohammed II attacked Constantinople. Then the Cross, which for a thousand years and more had stood upon the ramparts of Christendom, went down before the Crescent.
Constantine XI, the last of the Greek Emperors, knelt in the great church of St. Sophia to receive for the last time the Holy Sacrament. Then mounting his horse he rode forth to battle. Fighting for his kingdom and his faith he fell, and over his dead body the young Sultan and his soldiers rode into the ruined city. Then in the church, where but a few hours before the fallen Emperor had knelt and prayed to Christ, the Sultan bowed himself in thanks and praise to Allah and Mohammed.
And now we come to the point where the taking of Constantinople and the fall of the Greek Empire touches our literature.
In Constantinople the ancient learning and literature of the Greeks had lived on year after year. The city was full of scholars who knew, and loved, and studied the Greek authors. But now, before the terror of the Turk, driven forth by the fear of slavery and disgrace, these Greek scholars fled. They fled to Italy. And although in their flight they had to leave goods and wealth behind, the came laden with precious manuscripts from the libraries of Constantinople.
These fugitive Greeks brought to the Italians a learning which was to them new and strange. Soon all over Europe the news of the New Learning spread. Then across the Alps scholars thronged from every country in Europe to listen and to learn.
I do not think I can quite make you understand what this New Learning was. It was indeed but the old learning of Greece. Yet there was in it something that can never grow old, for it was human. It made men turn away from idle dreaming and begin to learn that the world we live in is real. They began to realize that there was something more than a past and a future. There was the present. So, instead of giving all their time to vague wonderings of what might be, of what never had been, and what never could be, they began to take an interest in life as it was and in man as he was. They began to see that human life with all its joys and sorrows was, after all, the most interesting thing to man.
It was a New Birth, and men called it so. For that is the meaning of Renaissance. Many things besides the fall of Constantinople helped towards this New Birth. The discovery of new worlds by daring sailors like Columbus and Cabot, and the discovery of printing were among them. But the touchstone of the New Learning was the knowledge of Greek, which had been to the greater part of Europe a lost tongue. On this side of the Alps there was not a school or college in which it could be learned. So to Italy, where the Greek scholars had found a refuge, those who wished to learn flocked.
Among them were some Oxford scholars. Chief of these were three, whose names you will learn to know well when you come to read more about this time. They were William Grocyn, "the most upright and best of all Britons,"* Thomas Linacre, and John Colet. These men, returning from Italy full of the New Learning, began to teach Greek at Oxford. And it is strange now to think that there were many then who were bitterly against such teaching. The students even formed themselves into two parties, for and against. They were called Greeks and Trojans, and between these two parties man a fierce fight took place, for the quarrel did not end in words, but often in blows.
The New Learning, however, conquered. And so keenly did men feel the human interests of such things as were now taught, that we have come to call grammar, rhetoric, poetry, Greek and Latin the Humanities, and the professor who teaches these thing the professor of Humanity.
Chapter XXXVII THE LAND OF NOWHERE
WHILE the New Learning was stirring England, and Greek was being for the first time taught in Oxford, a young student of fourteen came to the University there. This student was named Thomas More. He was the son of a lawyer who became a judge, and as a little boy he had been a page in the household of Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Archbishop was quick to see that the boy was clever. "This child here waiting at the table, whoever will live to see it, will prove a marvellous man,"* he would say. And so he persuaded More's father to send the boy to Oxford to study law.
*William Roper, The Mirrour of Virtue.
Thomas remained only two years at Oxford, for old Sir John, fearing he was learning too much Greek and literature and not enough law, called his son home and sent him to study law in London. It must have been a disappointment to the boy to be taken from the clever friends he had made in Oxford, and from the books and studies that he loved, to be set instead to read dry law-books. But Thomas More was most sunny-tempered. Nothing made him sulky or cross. So now he settled down quietly to his new life, and in a very short time became a famous and learned lawyer.
In was after More left Oxford that he met the man who became his dearest friend. This was Desiderius Erasmus, a learned Dutchman. He was eleven years older than More and he could speak no English, but that did not prevent them becoming friends, as they both could speak Latin easily and well. They had much in common. Erasmus was of the same lively, merry wit as More, they both loved literature and the Greek learning, and so the two became fast friends. And it helps us to understand the power which Latin still held over our literature, and indeed over all the literature of Europe, when we remember that these two friends spoke to each other and wrote and jested in Latin as easily as they might have done in English. Erasmus was one of the most famous men of his time. He was one who did much in his day to free men's minds, one who helped men to think for themselves. So although he had directly perhaps little to do with English literature, it is well to remember him as the friend of More. "My affection for the man is so great," wrote Erasmus once, "that if he bade me dance a hornpipe, I should do at once what he bid me."
Although More was so merry and witty, religion got a strong hold upon him, and at one time he thought of becoming a monk. But his friends persuaded him to give up that idea, and after a time he decided to marry. He chose his wife in a somewhat quaint manner. Among his friends there was a gentleman who had three daughters. More liked the second one best, "for that he thought her the fairest and best favoured."* But he married the eldest because it seemed to him "that it would be both great grief and some shame also to the oldest to see her younger sister preferred before her in marriage. He then, of a certain pity, framed his fancy toward her, and soon after married her."*
Although he chose his wife so quaintly More's home was a very happy one. He loved nothing better than to live a simple family life with his wife and children round him. After six years his wife died, but he quickly married again. And although his second wife was "a simple ignorant woman and somewhat worldly too," with a sharp tongue and short temper, she was kind to her step- children and the home was still a happy one.
More was a great public man, but he was first a father and head of his own house. He says: "While I spend almost all the day abroad amongst others, and the residue at home among mine own, I leave to myself, I mean to my book, no time. For when I come home, I must commen with my wife, chatter with my children, and talk with my servants. All the which things I reckon and account among business, forasmuch as they must of necessity be done, and done must they needs be unless a man will be stranger in his own home. And in any wise a man must so fashion and order his conditions and so appoint and dispose himself, that he be merry, jocund and pleasant among them, whom either Nature hath provided or chance hath made, or he himself hath chosen to be the fellows and companions of his life, so that with too much gentle behaviour and familiarity he do not mar them, and by too much sufferance of his servants make them his masters."
At a time, too, when education was thought little necessary for girls, More taught his daughters as carefully as his sons. His eldest daughter Margaret (Mog, as he loved to call her) was so clever that learned men praised and rewarded her. When his children married they did not leave home, but came with their husbands and wives to live at Chelsea in the beautiful home More had built there. So the family was never divided, and More gathered a "school" of children and grandchildren round him.
More soon became a great man. Henry VII, indeed, did not love him, so More did not rise to power while he lived. But Henry VII died and his son Henry VIII ruled. The great Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, became More's friend, and presently he was sent on business for the King to Bruges.
It was while More was about the King's business in Belgium that he wrote the greater part of the book by which he is best remembered. This book is called Utopia. The name means "nowhere," from two Greek words, "ou," no, and "topos," a place.
The Utopia, like so many other books of which we have read, was the outcome of the times in which the writer lived. When More looked round upon the England that he knew he saw many things that were wrong. He was a man loyal to his King, yet he could not pretend to think that the King ruled only for the good of his people and not for his own pleasure. There was evil, misery, and suffering in all the land. More longed to make people see that things were wrong; he longed to set the wrong right. So to teach men how to do this he invented a land of Nowhere in which there was no evil or injustice, in which every one was happy and good. He wrote so well about that make-believe land that from then till now every one who read Utopia sees the beauty of More's idea. But every one, too, thinks that this land where everything is right is an impossible land. Thus More gave a new word to our language, and when we think some idea beautiful but impossible we call it "Utopian."
As it was the times that made More write his book, so it was the times that gave him the form of it.
In those days, as you know, men's minds were stirred by the discovery of new lands and chiefly by the discovery of America. And although it was Columbus who first discovered America, he did not give his name to the new country. It was, instead, named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo wrote a book about his voyages, and it was from this book that More got some of his ideas for the Utopia.
More makes believe that one day in Antwerp he saw a man "well stricken in age, with a black sun-burned face, a long beard, and a cloak cast homely about his shoulders, whom by his favour and apparel forthwith I judged to be a mariner."
This man was called Raphael Hythlodaye and had been with Amerigo Vespucci in the three last of his voyages, "saving that in the last voyage he came not home again with him." For on that voyage Hythlodaye asked to be left behind. And after Amerigo had gone home he, with five friends, set forth upon a further voyage of discovery. In their travels they saw many marvelous and fearful things, and at length came to the wonderful land of Nowhere. "But what he told us that he saw, in every country where he came, it were very long to declare."
More asked many questions of this great traveler. "But as for monsters, because they be no news, of them we were nothing inquisitive. . . .. But to find citizens ruled by good and wholesome laws, that is an exceeding rare and hard thing!"
The whole story of the Utopia is told in the form of talks between Hythlodaye, More, and his friend Peter Giles. And More mixes what is real and what is imaginary so quaintly that it is not wonderful that many of the people of his own day thought that Utopia was a real place. Peter Giles, for instance, was a real man and a friend of More, while Hythlodaye was imaginary, his name being made of Greek words meaning Cunning Babbler. nearly all the names of the towns, river, and people of whom Hythlodaye tells were also made from Greek words and have some meaning. For instance, Achoriens means people-who-have-no-place-on-earth, Amaurote a-phantom-city, and so on.
More takes a great deal of trouble to keep up the mystery of this strange land. It was not wonderful that he should, for under the pretense of a story he said hard things about the laws and ill- government of England, things which it was treason to whisper. In those days treason was a terrible word covering a great deal, and death and torture were like to be the fate of any one who spoke his mind too freely.
But More knew that it would be a hard matter to make things better in England. As he makes Hythlodaye say, it is no use trying to improve things in a blundering fashion. It is of no use trying by fear to drive into people's heads things they have no mind to learn. Neither must you "forsake the ship in a tempest, because you cannot rule and keep down the winds." But "you must with a crafty wile and subtile train, study and endeavour yourself, as much as in you lieth, to handle the matter wittily and handsomely for the purpose. And that which you cannot turn to good, so to order it that it be not very bad. For it is not possible for all things to be well, unless all men were good: which I think will not be yet in these good many years."
The Utopia is divided into two books. The first and shorter gives us what we might call the machinery of the tale. It tells of the meeting with Hythlodaye and More's first talk with him. It is not until the beginning of the second book that we really hear about Utopia. And I think if you read the book soon, I would advise you to begin with the second part, which More wrote first. In the second book we have most of the story, but the first book helps us to understand More's own times and explains what he was trying to do in writing his tale.
At the beginning of this book I told you that we should have to talk of many books which for the present, at least, you could not hope to like, but which you must be content to be told are good and worth reading. I may be wrong, but I think Utopia is one of these. Yet as Cresacre More, More's great-grandson, speaking of his great-grandfather's writing, says, he "seasoned always the troublesomeness of the matter with some merry jests or pleasant tales, as it were sugar, whereby we drink up the more willingly these wholesome drugs . . . which kind of writing he hath used in all his works, so that none can ever by weary to read them, though they be never so long."
And even if you like the book now, you will both like and understand it much better when you know a little about politics. You will then see, too, how difficult it is to know when More is in earnest and when he is merely poking fun, for More loved to jest. Yet as his grandson, who wrote a life of him, tells us, "Whatsoever jest he brought forth, he never laughed at any himself, but spoke always so sadly, that few could see by his look whether he spoke in earnest or in jest."
It would take too long to tell all about the wonderful island of Utopia and its people, but I must tell you a little of it and how they regarded money. All men in this land were equal. No man was idle, neither was any man over-burdened with labor, for every one had to work six hours a day. No man was rich, no man was poor, for "though no man have anything, yet every man is rich," for the State gave him everything that he needed. So money was hardly of any use, and gold and silver and precious jewels were despised.
"In the meantime gold and silver, whereof money is made, they do so use, as none of them doth more esteem it, than the very nature of the thing deserveth. And then who doth not plainly see how far it is under iron? As without the which men can no better live than without fire and water; whereas to gold and silver nature hath given no use that we may not well lack, if that the folly of men had not set it in higher estimation for the rareness sake. But, of the contrary part, Nature, as a most tender and loving mother, hath placed the best and most necessary things open abroad; as the air, the water, and the earth itself; and hath removed and hid farthest from us vain and unprofitable things."
Yet as other countries still prized money, gold and silver was sometimes needed by the Utopians. But, thought the wise King and his counselors, if we lock it up in towers and take great care of it, the people may begin to think that gold is of value for itself, they will begin to think that we are keeping something precious from them. So to set this right they fell upon a plan. It was this. "For whereas they eat and drink in earthen and glass vessels, which indeed be curiously and properly made, and yet be of very small value; of gold and silver they make other vessels that serve for most vile uses, not only in their common halls, but in every man's private house. Furthermore of the same metals they make great chains and fetters and gyves, wherein they tie their bondmen. Finally, whosoever for any offense be infamed, by their ears hang rings of gold, upon their fingers they wear rings of gold, and about their necks chains of gold; and in conclusion their heads be tied about with gold.
"Thus, by all means that may be, they procure to have gold and silver among them in reproach and infamy. And therefore these metals, which other nations do as grievously and sorrowfully forego, as in a manner from their own lives, if they should altogether at once be taken from the Utopians, no man there would think that he had lost the worth of a farthing.
"They gather also pearls by the seaside, and diamonds and carbuncles upon certain rocks. Yet they seek not for them, but by chance finding them they cut and polish them. And therewith they deck their young infants. Which, like as in the first years of their childhood they make much and be fond and proud of such ornaments, so when they be a little more grown in years and discretion, perceiving that none but children do wear such toys and trifles, they lay them away even of their own shamefastness, without any bidding of their parents, even as our children when they wax big, do caste away nuts, brooches and dolls. Therefore these laws and customs, which be so far different from all other nations, how divers fancies also and minds they do cause, did I never so plainly perceive, as in the Ambassadors of the Anemolians.
"These Ambassadors came to Amaurote whiles I was there. And because they came to entreat of great and weighty matters, three citizens a piece out of every city (of Utopia) were come thither before them. But all the Ambassadors of the next countries, which had been there before, and knew the fashions and manners of the Utopians, among whom they perceived no honour given to sumptuous and costly apparel, silks to be contemned, gold also to be infamed and reproachful, were wont to come thither in very homely and simple apparel. But the Anemolians, because they dwell far thence, and had very little acquaintance with them, hearing that they were all apparelled alike, and that very rudely and homely, thinking them not to have the things which they did not wear, being therefore more proud than wise, determined in the gorgeousness of their apparel to represent very gods, and with the bright shining and glistening of their gay clothing to dazzle the eyes of the silly poor Utopians.
"So there came in three Ambassadors with a hundred servants all apparelled in changeable colours; the most of them in silks; the Ambassadors themselves (for at home in their own country they were noble men) in cloth of gold, with great chains of gold, with gold hanging at their ears, with gold rings upon their fingers, with brooches and aglettes* of gold upon their caps, which glistered full of pearls and precious stones; to be short, trimmed and adorned with all those things, which among the Utopians were either the punishment of bondmen, or the reproach of infamed persons, or else trifles for young children to play withall.
"Therefore it would have done a man good at his heart to have seen how proudly they displayed their peacocks' feathers; how much they made of their painted sheathes; and how loftily they set forth and advanced themselves, when they compared their gallant apparel with the poor raiment of the Utopians. For all the people were swarmed forth into the streets.
"And on the other side it was no less pleasure to consider how much they were deceived, and how far they missed their purpose; being contrary ways taken than they thought they should have been. For to the eyes of all the Utopians, except very few, which had been in other countries for some reasonable cause, all that gorgeousness of apparel seemed shameful and reproachful; in so much that they most reverently saluted the vilest and most abject of them for lords; passing over the Ambassadors themselves without any honour; judging them by their wearing of golden chains to be bondmen.
"Yea, you should have seen children also that had cast away their pearls and precious stones, when they saw the like sticking upon the Ambassadors' caps, dig and push their mothers under the sides, saying thus to them: 'Look, mother, how great a lubber doth yet wear pearls and precious stones, as though he were a little child still.'
"But the mother, yea, and that also in good earnest: 'Peace, son,' saith she, 'I think he be some of the Ambassadors' fools.'
"Some found fault with their golden chains, as to no use nor purpose; being so small and weak, that a bondman might easily break them; and again so wide and large that, when it pleased him, he might cast them off, and run away at liberty whither he would.
"But when the Ambassadors had been there a day or two, and saw so great abundance of gold so lightly esteemed, yea, in no less reproach than it was with them in honour; and, besides that, more gold in the chains and gyves of one fugitive bondman, than all the costly ornaments of their three was worth; then began a-bate their courage, and for very shame laid away all that gorgeous array whereof they were so proud; and especially when they had talked familiarly with the Utopians, and had learned all their fashions and opinions. For they marvel that any man be so foolish as to have delight and pleasure in the glistering of a little trifling stone, which may behold any of the stars, or else the sun itself; or that any man is so mad as to count himself the nobler for the smaller or finer thread of wool, which self-same wool (be it now in never so fine a spun thread) did once a sheep wear, and yet was she all that time no other thing than a sheep."
Chapter XXXVIII THE DEATH OF SIR THOMAS MORE
THERE is much that is quaint, much that is deeply wise, in More's Utopia, still no one is likely to agree with all he says, or to think that we could all be happy in a world such as he describes. For one thing, to those of us who love color it would seem a dull world indeed were we all forced to dress in coarse-spun, undyed sheep's wool, and if jewels and gold with all their lovely lights and gleamings were but the signs of degradation. Each one who reads it may find something in the Utopia that he would rather have otherwise. But each one, too, will find something to make him think.
More was not the first to write about a happy land where every one lived in peace and where only justice reigned. And if he got some of his ideas of the island from the discoveries of the New World, he got many more from the New Learning. For long before, Plato, a Greek writer, had told of a land very like Utopia in his book called the Republic. And the New Learning had made that book known to the people of England.
We think of the Utopia as English Literature, yet we must remember that More wrote it in Latin, and it was not translated into English until several years after his death. The first English translation was made by Ralph Robinson, and although since then there have been other translation which in some ways are more correct, there has never been one with more charm. For Robinson's quaint English keeps for us something of the spirit of More's time and of More's self in a way no modern and more perfect translation can.
The Utopia was not written for one time or for one people. Even before it was translated into English it had been translated into Dutch, Italian, German, and French and was largely read all over the Continent. It is still read to-day by all who are interested in the life of the people, by all who think that in "this best of all possible worlds" things might still be made better.
More wrote many other books both in English and in Latin and besides being a busy author he led a busy life. For blustering, burly, selfish King Henry loved the gentle witty lawyer, and again and again made use of his wits. "And so from time to time was he by the King advanced, continuing in his singular favour and trusty service twenty years and above."*
It was not only for his business cleverness that King Henry loved Sir Thomas. It was for his merry, witty talk. When business was done and supper-time came, the King and Queen would call for him "to be merry with them." Thus it came about that Sir Thomas could hardly ever get home to his wife and children, where he most longed to be. Then he began to pretend to be less clever than he was, so that the King might not want so much of his company. But Henry would sometimes follow More to his home at Chelsea, where he had built a beautiful house. Sometimes he came quite unexpectedly to dinner. Once he came, "and after dinner, in a fair garden of his, walked with him by the space of an hour, holding his arm about his neck." As soon as the King was gone, More's son-in-law said to him that he should be happy seeing the King was so friendly with him, for with no other man was he so familiar, not even with Wolsey.
"I thank our Lord," answered More, "I find in his Grace a very good lord indeed, and I believe he doth as singularly favour me as any subject within the realm. Howbeit, son Roper, I may tell thee, I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head would win him a castle in France it should not fail to go."
And Sir Thomas was not wrong. Meanwhile, however, the King heaped favor upon him. He became Treasurer of the Exchequer, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and last of all Lord Chancellor of England. This was a very great honor. And as More was a layman the honor was for him greater than usual. For he was the first layman to be made Chancellor. Until then the Chancellor had always been some powerful Churchman.
More was not eager for these honors. He would much rather have lived a simple family life, but bluff King Hal was no easy master to serve. If he chose to honor a man and set him high, that man could but submit. So, as Erasmus says, More was dragged into public life and honor, and being thus dragged in troubles were not slow to follow.
Henry grew tired of his wife, Queen Catherine, but the Pope would not allow him to divorce her so that he might marry another. Then Henry quarreled with the Pope. The Pope, he said, should no longer have power in England. He should no longer be head of the Church, but the people must henceforth look to the King as such. This More could not do. He tried to keep out of the quarrel. He was true to his King as king, but he felt that he must be true to his religion too. To him the Pope was the representative of Christ on earth, and he could look to no other as head of the Church. When first More had come into the King's service, Henry bade him "first look unto God, and after God unto him." Of this his Chancellor now reminded him, and laying down his seal of office he went home, hoping to live the rest of his days in peace.
But that was not to be. "It is perilous striving with princes," said a friend. " I would wish you somewhat to incline to the King's pleasure. The anger of princes is death."
"Is that all?" replied More calmly; "then in good faith the difference between you and me is but this, that I shall die to- day and you to-morrow."
So it fell out. There came a day when messengers came to More's happy home, and the beloved father was led away to imprisonment and death.
For fifteen months he was kept in the Tower. During all that time his cheerful steadfastness did not waver. He wrote long letters to his children, and chiefly to Meg, his best-loved daughter. When pen and ink were taken away from him, he still wrote with coal. In these months he became an old man, bent and crippled with disease. But though his body was feeble his mind was clear, his spirit bright as ever. No threats or promises could shake his purpose. He could not and would not own Henry as head of the Church.
At last the end came. In Westminster Hall More was tried for treason and found guilty. From Westminster through the thronging streets he was led back again to the Tower. In front of the prisoner an ax was carried, the edge being turned towards him. That was the sign to all who saw that he was to die.
As the sad procession reached the Tower Wharf there was a pause. A young and beautiful woman darted from the crowd, and caring not for the soldiers who surrounded him, unafraid of their swords and halberds, she reached the old man's side, and threw herself sobbing on his breast. In was Margaret, More's beloved daughter, who, fearing that never again she might see her father, thus came in the open street to say farewell. She clung to him and kissed him in sight of all again and again, but no word could she say save, "Oh, my father! oh, my father!"
Then Sir Thomas, holding her tenderly, comforted and blessed her, and at last she took her arms from about his neck and he passed on. But Margaret could not yet leave him. Scarcely had she gone ten steps than suddenly she turned back. Once more breaking through the guard she threw her arms about him. Not a word did Sir Thomas say, but as he held her there the tears fell fast from his eyes, while from the crowd around broke the sound of weeping. Even the guards wept for pity. But at last, with full and heavy hearts, father and daughter parted.
"Dear Meg," Sir Thomas wrote for the last time, "I never liked your manner better towards me than when you kissed me last. For I like when daughterly love and dear charity hath no leisure to look to worldly courtesy."
Next day he died cheerfully as he had lived. To the last he jested in his quaint fashion. The scaffold was so badly built that it was ready to fall, so Sir Thomas, jesting, turned to the lieutenant. "I pray you, Master Lieutenant," he said, "see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself." He desired the people to pray for him, and having kissed the executioner in token of forgiveness, he laid his head upon the block. "So passed Sir Thomas More out of the world to God." His death was mourned by many far and near. "Had we been master of such a servant," said the Emperor Charles when he heard of it, "we would rather have lost the best city of our dominions than have lost such a worthy counselor."
More died for his faith, that of the Catholic Church. He, as others, saw with grief that there was much within the Church that needed to be made better, but he trusted it would be made better. To break away from the Church, to doubt the headship of the Pope, seemed to him such wickedness that he hated the Reformers and wrote against them. And although in Utopia he allowed his happy people to have full freedom in matters of religion, in real life he treated sternly and even cruelly those Protestants with whom he had to deal.
Yet the Reformation was stirring all the world, and while Sir Thomas More cheerfully and steadfastly died for the Catholic faith, there were others in England who as cheerfully lived, worked, and died for the Protestant faith. We have little to do with these Reformers in this book, except in so far as they touch our literature, and it is to them that we owe our present Bible.
First William Tyndale, amid difficulties and trials, translated afresh the New and part of the Old Testament, and died the death of a martyr in 1536.
Miles Coverdale followed him with a complete translation in happier times. For Henry VIII, for his own purposes, wished to spread a knowledge of the Bible, and commanded that a copy of Coverdale's Bible should be placed in every parish church. And although Coverdale was not so great a scholar as Tyndale, his language was fine and stately, with a musical ring about the words, and to this day we still keep his version of the Psalms in the Prayer Book.
Other versions of the Bible followed these, until in 1611, in the reign of James I and VI, the translation which we use to-day was at length published. That has stood and still stands the test of time. And, had we no other reason to treasure it, we would still for its simple musical language look upon it as one of the fine things in our literature.
BOOKS TO READ
Life of Sir Thomas More (King's Classics, modern English), by W. Roper (his son-in-law). Utopia (King's Classics, modern English), translated by R. Robinson. Utopia (old English), edited by Churton Collins.
Chapter XXXIX HOW THE SONNET CAME TO ENGLAND
UPON a January day in 1527 two gaily decked barges met upon the Thames. In the one sat a man of forty. His fair hair and beard were already touched with gray. His face was grave and thoughtful, and his eyes gave to it a curious expression, for the right was dull and sightless, while with the left he looked about him sharply. This was Sir John Russell, gentleman of the Privy Chamber, soldier, ambassador, and favorite of King Henry VIII. Fighting in the King's French wars he had lost the sight of his right eye. Since then he had led a busy life in court and camp, passing through many perilous adventures in the service of his master, and now once again by the King's commands he was about to set forth for Italy.
As the other barge drew near Russell saw that in it there sat Thomas Wyatt, a young poet and courtier of twenty-three. He was tall and handsome, and his thick dark hair framed a pale, clever face which now looked listless. But as his dreamy poet's eyes met those of Sir John they lighted up. The two men greeted each other familiarly. "Whither away," cried Wyatt, for he saw that Russell was prepared for a journey.
"To Italy, sent by the King."
To Italy, the land of Poetry! The idea fired the poet's soul.
"And I," at once he answered, "will, if you please, ask leave, get money, and go with you."
"No man more welcome," answered the ambassador, and so it was settled between them. The money and the leave were both forthcoming, and Thomas Wyatt passed to Italy. This chance meeting and this visit to Italy are of importance to our literature, because they led to a new kind of poem being written in English. This was the Sonnet.
The Sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines, and is perhaps the most difficult kind of poem to write. It is divided into two parts. The first part has eight lines and ought only to have two rimes. That is, supposing we take words riming with love and king for our rimes, four lines must rime with love and four with king. The rimes, too, must come in a certain order. The first, fourth, fifth and eighth lines must rime, and the second, third, sixth, and seventh. This first part is called the octave, from the Latin word octo, eight. The second part contains six lines, and is therefore called the sextet, from the Latin word sex, meaning six. The sextet may have either two or three rimes, and these may be arranged in almost any order. But a correct sonnet ought not to end with a couplet, that is two riming lines. However, very many good writers in English do so end their sonnets.
As the sonnet is so bound about with rules, it often makes the thought which it expresses sound a little unreal. And for that very reason it suited the times in which Wyatt lived. In those far-off days every knight had a lady whom he vowed to serve and love. He took her side in every quarrel, and if he were a poet, or even if he were not, he wrote verses in her honor, and sighed and died for her. The lady was not supposed to do anything in return; she might at most smile upon her knight or drop her glove, that he might be made happy by picking it up. In fact, the more disdainful the lady might be the better it was, for then the poet could write the more passionate verses. For all this love and service was make-believe. It was merely a fashion and not meant to be taken seriously. A man might have a wife whom he loved dearly, and yet write poems in honor of another lady without thought of wrong. The sonnet, having something very artificial in it, just suited this make-believe love.
Petrarch, the great Italian poet, from whom you remember Chaucer had learned much, and whom perhaps he had once met, made use of this kind of poem. In his sonnets he told his love of a fair lady, Laura, and made her famous for all time.
Of course, when Wyatt came to Italy Petrarch had long been dead. But his poems were as living as in the days of Chaucer, and it was from Petrarch's works that Wyatt learned this new kind of poem, and it was he who first made use of it in English. He, too, like Petrarch, addressed his sonnets to a lady, and the lady he took for his love was Queen Anne Boleyn. As he is the first, he is perhaps one of the roughest of our sonnet writers, but into his sonnets he wrought something of manly strength. He does not sigh so much as other poets of the age. He says, in fact, "If I serve my lady faithfully I deserve reward." Here is one of his sonnets, which he calls "The lover compareth his state to a ship in perilous storm tossed by the sea."
"My galley charged with forgetfulness, Through sharpe seas in winter's night doth pass, 'Tween rock and rock; and eke my foe (alas) That is my lord, steereth with cruelness: And every oar a thought in readiness, As though that death were light in such a case. An endless wind doth tear the sail apace, Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness; A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain, Have done the wearied cords great hinderance: Wreathed with error and with ignorance; The stars be his, that lead me to this pain; Drowned is reason that should me comfort, And I remain, despairing of the port."
It is not perfect, it is not even Wyatt's best sonnet, but it is one of the most simple. To make it run smoothly we must sound the ed in those words ending in ed as a separate syllable, and we must put a final e to sharp in the second line and sound that. Then you see the rimes are not very good. To begin with, the first eight all have sounds of s. Then "alas" and "pass" do not rime with "case" and "apace," nor do "comfort" and "port." I point these things out, so that later on you may see for yourselves how much more polished and elegant a thing the sonnet becomes.
Although Wyatt was our first sonnet writer, some of his poems which are not sonnets are much more musical, especially some he wrote for music. Perhaps best of all you will like his satire Of the mean and sure estate. A satire is a poem which holds up to scorn and ridicule wickedness, folly, or stupidity. It is the sword of literature, and often its edge was keen, its point sharp.
"My mother's maids when they do sew and spin, They sing a song made of the fieldish mouse; That for because her livelod* was but thin Would needs go see her townish sister's house.
*Livelihood. . . . . . . . 'My sister,' quoth she, 'hath a living good, And hence from me she dwelleth not a mile, In cold and storm she lieth warm and dry In bed of down. The dirt doth not defile Her tender foot; she labours not as I. Richly she feeds, and at the rich man's cost; And for her meat she need not crave nor cry. By sea, by land, of delicates* the most, Her caterer seeks, and spareth for no peril. She feeds on boil meat, bake meat and roast, And hath, therefore, no whit of charge or travail.'
*Delicacies. . . . . . . . So forth she goes, trusting of all this wealth With her sister her part so for to shape, That if she might there keep herself in health, To live a Lady, while her life do last. And to the door now is she come by stealth, And with her foot anon she scrapes full fast. Th' other for fear durst not well scarce appear, Of every noise so was the wretch aghast. At last she asked softly who was there; And in her language as well as she could, 'Peep,' quoth the other, 'sister, I am here.' 'Peace,' quoth the town mouse, 'why speaketh thou so loud?' But by the hand she took her fair and well. 'Welcome,' quoth she, 'my sister by the Rood.' She feasted her that joy it was to tell The fare they had, they drank the wine so clear; And as to purpose now and then it fell, So cheered her with, 'How, sister, what cheer.' Amid this joy befell a sorry chance, That welladay, the stranger bought full dear The fare she had. For as she looked ascance, Under a stool she spied two flaming eyes, In a round head, with sharp ears. In France Was never mouse so feared, for the unwise Had not ere seen such beast before. Yet had nature taught her after her guise To know her foe, and dread him evermore. The town mouse fled, she knew whither to go; The other had no shift, but wonders sore, Fear'd of her life! At home she wished her tho'; And to the door, alas! as she did skip (The heaven it would, lo, and eke her chance was so) At the threshold her sill foot did trip; And ere she might recover it again, The traitor Cat had caught her by the hip And made her there against her will remain, That had forgot her poor surety and rest, For seeming wealth, wherein she thought to reign."
That is not the end of the poem. Wyatt points the moral. "Alas," he says, "how men do seek the best and find the worst." "Although thy head were hooped with gold," thou canst not rid thyself of care. Content thyself, then, with what is allotted thee and use it well.
This satire Wyatt wrote while living quietly in the country, having barely escaped with his life from the King's wrath. But although he escaped the scaffold, he died soon after in his King's service. Riding on the King's business in the autumn of 1542 he became overheated, fell into a fever, and died. He was buried at Sherborne. No stone marks his resting-place, but his friend and fellow-poet, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, wrote a noble elegy:—
"A hea, where Wisdom mysteries did frame; Whose hammers beat still, in that lively brain, As on a stithy* where that some work of fame Was daily wrought, to turn to Britain's gain.
*Anvil. . . . . . . . A hand, that taught what might be said in rhyme, That Chaucer reft the glory of his wit. A mark, the which (unperfected for time) Some may approach; but never none shall hit!"
BOOKS TO READ
Early Sixteenth-Century Lyrics (Belle Lettres Series), edited by F. M. Padelford (original spelling).
Chapter XL THE BEGINNING OF BLANK VERSE
THE poet with whose verses the last chapter ended was named Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The son of a noble and ancient house, Surrey lived a gay life in court and camp. Proud, hot-headed, quick-tempered, he was often in trouble, more than once in prison. In youth he was called "the most foolish proud boy in England," and at the age of thirty, still young and gay and full of life, he died upon the scaffold. Accused of treason, yet innocent, he fell a victim to "the wrath of princes," the wrath of that hot-headed King Henry VIII. Surrey lived at the same time as Wyatt and, although he was fourteen years younger, was his friend. Together they are the forerunners of our modern poetry. They are nearly always spoken of together—Wyatt and Surrey—Surrey and Wyatt. Like Wyatt, Surrey followed the Italian poets. Like Wyatt he wrote sonnets; but whereas Wyatt's are rough, Surrey's are smooth and musical, although he does not keep the rules about rime endings. One who wrote not long after the time of Wyatt and Surrey says of them, "Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder, and Henry, Earl of Surrey, were the two chieftains, who, having travelled in Italy, and there tasted the sweet and stately measures and style of the Italian poesie . . . greatly polished our rude and homely manner of vulgar poesie from that it had been before, and for that cause may justly be said the first reformers of our English metre and syle. . . . I repute them for the two chief lanterns of light to all others that have since employed their pens on English poesie."*
*G. Puttenham, Art of English Poesie.
A later writer* has called Surrey the "first refiner" of our language. And just as there comes a time in our own lives when we begin to care not only for the story, but for the words in which a story is told and for the way in which those words are used, so, too, there comes such a time in the life of a nation, and this time for England we may perhaps date from Wyatt and Surrey. Before then there were men who tried to use the best words in the best way, but they did it unknowingly, as birds might sing. The language, too, in which they wrote was still a growing thing. When Surrey wrote it had nearly reached its finished state, and he helped to finish and polish it.
*W. J. Courthope.
As the fashion was, Surrey chose a lady to whom to address his verses. She was the little Lady Elizabeth Fitz-Gerald, whose father had died a broken-hearted prisoner in the Tower. She was only ten when Surrey made her famous in song, under the name of Geraldine. Here is a sonnet in which he, seeing the joy of all nature at the coming of Spring, mourns that his lady is still unkind:
"The sweet season, that bud and bloom forth brings, With green hath clad the hill, and eke the vale, The nightingale with feathers new she sings: The turtle to her mate hath told her tale. Summer is come, for every spray now springs, The hart hath hung his old head on the pale, The buck in haste his winter coat he flings; The fishes float with new repaired scale, The adder all her slough away she lings; The swift swallow pursueth the flies small; The busy-bee her honey now she mings;* Winter is worn that was the flowers' bale. And thus I see among these pleasant things Each care decays, and yet my sorrow springs."
Besides following Wyatt in making the sonnet known to English readers, Surrey was the first to write in blank verse, that is in long ten-syllabled lines which do not rime. This is a kind of poetry in which some of the grandest poems in our language are written, and we should remember Surrey as the first maker of it. For with very little change the rules which Surrey laid down have been followed by our best poets ever since, so from the sixteenth century till now there has been far less change in our poetry than in the five centuries before. You can see this for yourself if you compare Surrey's poetry with Layamon's or Langland's, and then with some of the blank verse near the end of this book.