English Literature - Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World
by William J. Long
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SELECTIONS FOR READING. Chaucer's Prologue, the Knight's Tale, Nun's Priest's Tale, Prioress' Tale, Clerk's Tale. These are found, more or less complete, in Standard English Classics, King's Classics, Riverside Literature Series, etc. Skeat's school edition of the Prologue, Knight's Tale, etc., is especially good, and includes a study of fourteenth-century English. Miscellaneous poems of Chaucer in Manly's English Poetry or Ward's English Poets. Piers Plowman, in King's Classics. Mandeville's Travels, modernized, in English Classics, and in Cassell's National Library.

For the advanced student, and as a study of language, compare selections from Wyclif, Chaucer's prose work, Mandeville, etc., in Manly's English Prose, or Morris and Skeat's Specimens of Early English, or Craik's English Prose Selections. Selections from Wyclif's Bible in English Classics Series.


HISTORY. Text-book, Montgomery, pp. 115-149, or Cheyney, pp. 186-263. For fuller treatment, Green, ch. 5; Traill; Gardiner.

Special Works. Hutton's King and Baronage (Oxford Manuals); Jusserand's Wayfaring Life in the Fourteenth Century; Coulton's Chaucer and his England; Pauli's Pictures from Old England; Wright's History of Domestic Manners and Sentiments in England during the Middle Ages; Trevelyan's England in the Age of Wyclif; Jenks's In the Days of Chaucer; Froissart's Chronicle, in Everyman's Library; the same, new edition, 1895 (Macmillan); Lanier's Boys' Froissart (i.e. Froissart's Chronicle of Historical Events, 1325-1400); Newbolt's Stories from Froissart; Bulfinch's Age of Chivalry may be read in connection with this and the preceding periods.

LITERATURE. General Works. Jusserand; Ten Brink; Mitchell; Minto's Characteristics of English Poets; Courthope's History of English Poetry.

Chaucer, (1) Life: by Lounsbury, in Studies in Chaucer, vol. I; by Ward, in English Men of Letters Series; Pollard's Chaucer Primer. (2) Aids to study: F.J. Snell's The Age of Chaucer; Lounsbury's Studies in Chaucer (3 vols.); Root's The Poetry of Chaucer; Lowell's Essay, in My Study Windows; Hammond's Chaucer: a Biographical Manual; Hempl's Chaucer's Pronunciation; Introductions to school editions of Chaucer, by Skeat, Liddell, and Mather. (3) Texts and selections: The Oxford Chaucer, 6 vols., edited by Skeat, is the standard; Skeat's Student's Chaucer; The Globe Chaucer (Macmillan); Works of Chaucer, edited by Lounsbury (Crowell); Pollard's The Canterbury Tales, Eversley edition; Skeat's Selections from Chaucer (Clarendon Press); Chaucer's Prologue, and various tales, in Standard English Classics (Ginn and Company), and in other school series.

Minor Writers. Morris and Skeat's Specimens of Early English Prose. Jusserand's Piers Plowman; Skeat's Piers Plowman (text, glossary and notes); Warren's Piers Plowman in Modern Prose. Arnold's Wyclif's Select English Works; Sergeant's Wyclif (Heroes of the Nation Series); Le Bas's Life of John Wyclif. Travels of Sir John Mandeville (modern spelling), in Library of English Classics; Macaulay's Gower's English Works.

SUGGESTIVE QUESTIONS. 1. What are the chief historical events of the fourteenth century? What social movement is noticeable? What writers reflect political and social conditions?

2. Tell briefly the story of Chaucer's life. What foreign influences are noticeable? Name a few poems illustrating his three periods of work. What qualities have you noticed in his poetry? Why is he called our first national poet?

3. Give the plan of the Canterbury Tales. For what is the Prologue remarkable? What light does it throw upon English life of the fourteenth century? Quote or read some passages that have impressed you. Which character do you like best? Are any of the characters like certain men and women whom you know? What classes of society are introduced? Is Chaucer's attitude sympathetic or merely critical?

4. Tell in your own words the tale you like best. Which tale seems truest to life as you know it? Mention any other poets who tell stories in verse.

5. Quote or read passages which show Chaucer's keenness of observation, his humor, his kindness in judgment, his delight in nature. What side of human nature does he emphasize? Make a little comparison between Chaucer and Shakespeare, having in mind (1) the characters described by both poets, (2) their knowledge of human nature, (3) the sources of their plots, (4) the interest of their works.

6. Describe briefly Piers Plowman and its author. Why is the poem called "the gospel of the poor"? What message does it contain for daily labor? Does it apply to any modern conditions? Note any resemblance in ideas between Piers Plowman and such modern works as Carlyle's Past and Present, Kingsley's Alton Locke, Morris's Dream of John Ball, etc.

7. For what is Wyclif remarkable in literature? How did his work affect our language? Note resemblances and differences between Wyclif and the Puritans.

8. What is Mandeville's Travels? What light does it throw on the mental condition of the age? What essential difference do you note between this book and Gulliver's Travels?

CHRONOLOGY, FOURTEENTH CENTURY ======================================================================= HISTORY LITERATURE - 1327. Edward III 1338. Beginning of Hundred Years' War with France 1340(?). Birth of Chaucer 1347. Capture of Calais 1348-1349. Black Death 1356. Mandeville's Travels 1359. Chaucer in French War 1360-1370. Chaucer's early or French period 1373. Winchester College, first great public school 1370-1385. Chaucer's Middle or Italian period 1377. Richard II. Wyclif and the Lollards begin Reformation 1362-1395. Piers Plowman in England 1381. Peasant Rebellion. Wat Tyler 1385-1400. Canterbury Tales 1382. First complete Bible in English 1399. Deposition of Richard II. 1400. Death of Chaucer Henry IV chosen by Parliament (Dante's Divina Commedia, c. 1310; Petrarch's sonnets and poems, 1325-1374; Boccaccio's tales, c. 1350.) ========================================================================

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POLITICAL CHANGES. The century and a half following the death of Chaucer (1400-1550) is the most volcanic period of English history. The land is swept by vast changes, inseparable from the rapid accumulation of national power; but since power is the most dangerous of gifts until men have learned to control it, these changes seem at first to have no specific aim or direction. Henry V—whose erratic yet vigorous life, as depicted by Shakespeare, was typical of the life of his times—first let Europe feel the might of the new national spirit. To divert that growing and unruly spirit from rebellion at home, Henry led his army abroad, in the apparently impossible attempt to gain for himself three things: a French wife, a French revenue, and the French crown itself. The battle of Agincourt was fought in 1415, and five years later, by the Treaty of Troyes, France acknowledged his right to all his outrageous demands.

The uselessness of the terrific struggle on French soil is shown by the rapidity with which all its results were swept away. When Henry died in 1422, leaving his son heir to the crowns of France and England, a magnificent recumbent statue with head of pure silver was placed in Westminster Abbey to commemorate his victories. The silver head was presently stolen, and the loss is typical of all that he had struggled for. His son, Henry VI, was but the shadow of a king, a puppet in the hands of powerful nobles, who seized the power of England and turned it to self- destruction. Meanwhile all his foreign possessions were won back by the French under the magic leadership of Joan of Arc. Cade's Rebellion (1450) and the bloody Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) are names to show how the energy of England was violently destroying itself, like a great engine that has lost its balance wheel. The frightful reign of Richard III followed, which had, however, this redeeming quality, that it marked the end of civil wars and the self-destruction of feudalism, and made possible a new growth of English national sentiment under the popular Tudors.

In the long reign of Henry VIII the changes are less violent, but have more purpose and significance. His age is marked by a steady increase in the national power at home and abroad, by the entrance of the Reformation "by a side door," and by the final separation of England from all ecclesiastical bondage in Parliament's famous Act of Supremacy. In previous reigns chivalry and the old feudal system had practically been banished; now monasticism, the third mediaeval institution with its mixed evil and good, received its death-blow in the wholesale suppression of the monasteries and the removal of abbots from the House of Lords. Notwithstanding the evil character of the king and the hypocrisy of proclaiming such a creature the head of any church or the defender of any faith, we acquiesce silently in Stubb's declaration[105] that "the world owes some of its greatest debts to men from whose memory the world recoils."

While England during this period was in constant political strife, yet rising slowly, like the spiral flight of an eagle, to heights of national greatness, intellectually it moved forward with bewildering rapidity. Printing was brought to England by Caxton (c. 1476), and for the first time in history it was possible for a book or an idea to reach the whole nation. Schools and universities were established in place of the old monasteries; Greek ideas and Greek culture came to England in the Renaissance, and man's spiritual freedom was proclaimed in the Reformation. The great names of the period are numerous and significant, but literature is strangely silent. Probably the very turmoil of the age prevented any literary development, for literature is one of the arts of peace; it requires quiet and meditation rather than activity, and the stirring life of the Renaissance had first to be lived before it could express itself in the new literature of the Elizabethan period.

THE REVIVAL OF LEARNING. The Revival of Learning denotes, in its broadest sense, that gradual enlightenment of the human mind after the darkness of the Middle Ages. The names Renaissance and Humanism, which are often applied to the same movement, have properly a narrower significance. The term Renaissance, though used by many writers "to denote the whole transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world,"[106] is more correctly applied to the revival of art resulting from the discovery and imitation of classic models in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Humanism applies to the revival of classic literature, and was so called by its leaders, following the example of Petrarch, because they held that the study of the classics, literae humaniores,—i.e. the "more human writings," rather than the old theology,—was the best means of promoting the largest human interests. We use the term Revival of Learning to cover the whole movement, whose essence was, according to Lamartine, that "man discovered himself and the universe," and, according to Taine, that man, so long blinded, "had suddenly opened his eyes and seen."

We shall understand this better if we remember that in the Middle Ages man's whole world consisted of the narrow Mediterranean and the nations that clustered about it; and that this little world seemed bounded by impassable barriers, as if God had said to their sailors, "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no farther." Man's mind also was bounded by the same narrow lines. His culture as measured by the great deductive system of Scholasticism consisted not in discovery, but rather in accepting certain principles and traditions established by divine and ecclesiastical authority as the basis of all truth. These were his Pillars of Hercules, his mental and spiritual bounds that he must not pass, and within these, like a child playing with lettered blocks, he proceeded to build his intellectual system. Only as we remember their limitations can we appreciate the heroism of these toilers of the Middle Ages, giants in intellect, yet playing with children's toys; ignorant of the laws and forces of the universe, while debating the essence and locomotion of angels; eager to learn, yet forbidden to enter fresh fields in the right of free exploration and the joy of individual discovery.

The Revival stirred these men as the voyages of Da Gama and Columbus stirred the mariners of the Mediterranean. First came the sciences and inventions of the Arabs, making their way slowly against the prejudice of the authorities, and opening men's eyes to the unexplored realms of nature. Then came the flood of Greek literature which the new art of printing carried swiftly to every school in Europe, revealing a new world of poetry and philosophy. Scholars flocked to the universities, as adventurers to the new world of America, and there the old authority received a deathblow. Truth only was authority; to search for truth everywhere, as men sought for new lands and gold and the fountain of youth,—that was the new spirit which awoke in Europe with the Revival of Learning.


The hundred and fifty years of the Revival period are singularly destitute of good literature. Men's minds were too much occupied with religious and political changes and with the rapid enlargement of the mental horizon to find time for that peace and leisure which are essential for literary results. Perhaps, also, the floods of newly discovered classics, which occupied scholars and the new printing presses alike, were by their very power and abundance a discouragement of native talent. Roger Ascham (1515-1568), a famous classical scholar, who published a book called Toxophilus (School of Shooting) in 1545, expresses in his preface, or "apology," a very widespread dissatisfaction over the neglect of native literature when he says, "And as for ye Latin or greke tongue, every thing is so excellently done in them, that none can do better: In the Englysh tonge contrary, every thinge in a maner so meanly, both for the matter and handelynge, that no man can do worse."

On the Continent, also, this new interest in the classics served to check the growth of native literatures. In Italy especially, for a full century after the brilliant age of Dante and Petrarch, no great literature was produced, and the Italian language itself seemed to go backward.[107] The truth is that these great writers were, like Chaucer, far in advance of their age, and that the mediaeval mind was too narrow, too scantily furnished with ideas to produce a varied literature. The fifteenth century was an age of preparation, of learning the beginnings of science, and of getting acquainted with the great ideals,—the stern law, the profound philosophy, the suggestive mythology, and the noble poetry of the Greeks and Romans. So the mind was furnished with ideas for a new literature.

With the exception of Malory's Morte d'Arthur (which is still mediaeval in spirit) the student will find little of interest in the literature of this period. We give here a brief summary of the men and the books most "worthy of remembrance"; but for the real literature of the Renaissance one must go forward a century and a half to the age of Elizabeth.

The two greatest books which appeared in England during this period are undoubtedly Erasmus's[108] Praise of Folly (Encomium Moriae) and More's Utopia, the famous "Kingdom of Nowhere." Both were written in Latin, but were speedily translated into all European languages. The Praise of Folly is like a song of victory for the New Learning, which had driven away vice, ignorance, and superstition, the three foes of humanity. It was published in 1511 after the accession of Henry VIII. Folly is represented as donning cap and bells and mounting a pulpit, where the vice and cruelty of kings, the selfishness and ignorance of the clergy, and the foolish standards of education are satirized without mercy.

More's Utopia, published in 1516, is a powerful and original study of social conditions, unlike anything which had ever appeared in any literature.[109] In our own day we have seen its influence in Bellamy's Looking Backward, an enormously successful book, which recently set people to thinking of the unnecessary cruelty of modern social conditions. More learns from a sailor, one of Amerigo Vespucci's companions, of a wonderful Kingdom of Nowhere, in which all questions of labor, government, society, and religion have been easily settled by simple justice and common sense. In this Utopia we find for the first time, as the foundations of civilized society, the three great words, Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, which retained their inspiration through all the violence of the French Revolution and which are still the unrealized ideal of every free government. As he hears of this wonderful country More wonders why, after fifteen centuries of Christianity, his own land is so little civilized; and as we read the book to-day we ask ourselves the same question. The splendid dream is still far from being realized; yet it seems as if any nation could become Utopia in a single generation, so simple and just are the requirements.

Greater than either of these books, in its influence upon the common people, is Tyndale's translation of the New Testament (1525), which fixed a standard of good English, and at the same time brought that standard not only to scholars but to the homes of the common people. Tyndale made his translation from the original Greek, and later translated parts of the Old Testament from the Hebrew. Much of Tyndale's work was included in Cranmer's Bible, known also as the Great Bible, in 1539, and was read in every parish church in England. It was the foundation for the Authorized Version, which appeared nearly a century later and became the standard for the whole English-speaking race.

WYATT AND SURREY. In 1557 appeared probably the first printed collection of miscellaneous English poems, known as Tottel's Miscellany. It contained the work of the so-called courtly makers, or poets, which had hitherto circulated in manuscript form for the benefit of the court. About half of these poems were the work of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503?-1542) and of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517?-1547). Both together wrote amorous sonnets modeled after the Italians, introducing a new verse form which, although very difficult, has been a favorite ever since with our English poets.[110] Surrey is noted, not for any especial worth or originality of his own poems, but rather for his translation of two books of Virgil "in strange meter." The strange meter was the blank verse, which had never before appeared in English. The chief literary work of these two men, therefore, is to introduce the sonnet and the blank verse,—one the most dainty, the other the most flexible and characteristic form of English poetry,—which in the hands of Shakespeare and Milton were used to make the world's masterpieces.

MALORY'S MORTE D'ARTHUR. The greatest English work of this period, measured by its effect on subsequent literature, is undoubtedly the Morte d'Arthur, a collection of the Arthurian romances told in simple and vivid prose. Of Sir Thomas Malory, the author, Caxton[111] in his introduction says that he was a knight, and completed his work in 1470, fifteen years before Caxton printed it. The record adds that "he was the servant of Jesu both by day and night." Beyond that we know little[112] except what may be inferred from the splendid work itself.

Malory groups the legends about the central idea of the search for the Holy Grail. Though many of the stories, like Tristram and Isolde, are purely pagan, Malory treats them all in such a way as to preserve the whole spirit of mediaeval Christianity as it has been preserved in no other work. It was to Malory rather than to Layamon or to the early French writers that Shakespeare and his contemporaries turned for their material; and in our own age he has supplied Tennyson and Matthew Arnold and Swinburne and Morris with the inspiration for the "Idylls of the King" and the "Death of Tristram" and the other exquisite poems which center about Arthur and the knights of his Round Table.

In subject-matter the book belongs to the mediaeval age; but Malory himself, with his desire to preserve the literary monuments of the past, belongs to the Renaissance; and he deserves our lasting gratitude for attempting to preserve the legends and poetry of Britain at a time when scholars were chiefly busy with the classics of Greece and Rome. As the Arthurian legends are one of the great recurring motives of English literature, Malory's work should be better known. His stories may be and should be told to every child as part of his literary inheritance. Then Malory may be read for his style and his English prose and his expression of the mediaeval spirit. And then the stories may be read again, in Tennyson's "Idylls," to show how those exquisite old fancies appeal to the minds of our modern poets.

SUMMARY OF THE REVIVAL OF LEARNING PERIOD. This transition period is at first one of decline from the Age of Chaucer, and then of intellectual preparation for the Age of Elizabeth. For a century and a half after Chaucer not a single great English work appeared, and the general standard of literature was very low. There are three chief causes to account for this: (1) the long war with France and the civil Wars of the Roses distracted attention from books and poetry, and destroyed of ruined many noble English families who had been friends and patrons of literature; (2) the Reformation in the latter part of the period filled men's minds with religious questions; (3) the Revival of Learning set scholars and literary men to an eager study of the classics, rather than to the creation of native literature. Historically the age is noticeable for its intellectual progress, for the introduction of printing, for the discovery of America, for the beginning of the Reformation, and for the growth of political power among the common people.

In our study we have noted: (1) the Revival of Learning, what it was, and the significance of the terms Humanism and Renaissance; (2) three influential literary works,—Erasmus's Praise of Folly, More's Utopia, and Tyndale's translation of the New Testament; (3) Wyatt and Surrey, and the so-called courtly makers or poets; (4) Malory's Morte d'Arthur, a collection of the Arthurian legends in English prose. The Miracle and Mystery Plays were the most popular form of entertainment in this age; but we have reserved them for special study in connection with the Rise of the Drama, in the following chapter.

SELECTIONS FOR READING. Malory's Morte d'Arthur, selections, in Athenaeum Press Series, etc. (It is interesting to read Tennyson's Passing of Arthur in connection with Malory's account.) Utopia, in Arber's Reprints, Temple Classics, King's Classics, etc. Selections from Wyatt, Surrey, etc., in Manly's English Poetry or Ward's English Poets; Tottel's Miscellany, in Arber's Reprints. Morris and Skeat's Specimens of Early English, vol. 3, has good selections from this period.


HISTORY. Text-book, Montgomery, pp. 150-208, or Cheyney, pp. 264-328. Greene, ch. 6; Traill; Gardiner; Froude; etc.

Special Works. Denton's England in the Fifteenth Century; Flower's The Century of Sir Thomas More; The Household of Sir Thomas More, in King's Classics; Green's Town Life in the Fifteenth Century; Field's Introduction to the Study of the Renaissance; Einstein's The Italian Renaissance in England; Seebohm's The Oxford Reformers (Erasmus, More, etc.).

LITERATURE. General Works. Jusserand; Ten Brink; Minto's Characteristics of English Poets.

Special Works. Saintsbury's Elizabethan Literature; Malory's Morte d'Arthur, edited by Sommer; the same by Gollancz (Temple Classics); Lanier's The Boy's King Arthur; More's Utopia, in Temple Classics, King's Classics, etc.; Roper's Life of Sir Thomas More, in King's Classics, Temple Classics, etc.; Ascham's Schoolmaster, in Arber's English Reprints; Poems of Wyatt and Surrey, in English Reprints and Bell's Aldine Poets; Simonds's Sir Thomas Wyatt and His Poems; Allen's Selections from Erasmus; Jusserand's Romance of a King's Life (James I of Scotland) contains extracts and an admirable criticism of the King's Quair.

SUGGESTIVE QUESTIONS. 1. The fifteenth century in English literature is sometimes called "the age of arrest." Can you explain why? What causes account for the lack of great literature in this period? Why should the ruin of noble families at this time seriously affect our literature? Can you recall anything from the Anglo-Saxon period to justify your opinion?

2. What is meant by Humanism? What was the first effect of the study of Greek and Latin classics upon our literature? What excellent literary purposes did the classics serve in later periods?

3. What are the chief benefits to literature of the discovery of printing? What effect on civilization has the multiplication of books?

4. Describe More's Utopia. Do you know any modern books like it? Why should any impractical scheme of progress be still called Utopian?

5. What work of this period had the greatest effect on the English language? Explain why.

6. What was the chief literary influence exerted by Wyatt and Surrey? Do you know any later poets who made use of the verse forms which they introduced?

7. Which of Malory's stories do you like best? Where did these stories originate? Have they any historical foundation? What two great elements did Malory combine in his work? What is the importance of his book to later English literature? Compare Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" and Malory's stories with regard to material, expression, and interest. Note the marked resemblances and differences between the Morte d'Arthur and the Nibelungen Lied.

CHRONOLOGY =========================================================================== HISTORY LITERATURE - 1413. Henry V 1415. Battle of Agincourt 1422. Henry VI 1470. Malory's Morte d' Arthur 1428. Siege of Orleans. Joan of Arc 1474(c). Caxton, at Bruges, 1453. End of Hundred Year's War prints the first book in 1455-1485. War of Roses English, the Recuyell of the 1461. Edward IV Histories of Troye 1483. Richard III 1477. First book printed in England 1485. Henry VII 1485. Morte d'Arthur printed by Caxton 1492. Columbus discovers America 1499. Colet, Erasmus, and More 1509. Henry VIII bring the New Learning to Oxford 1509. Erasmus's Praise of Folly 1516. More's Utopia 1525. Tydale's New Testament 1534. Act of Supremacy. The 1530(c). Introduction of the Reformation accomplished sonnet and blank verse by Wyatt and Surrey 1539. The Great Bible 1547. Edward VI 1553. Mary 1557. Tottel's Miscellany 1558. Elizabeth ===========================================================================

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POLITICAL SUMMARY. In the Age of Elizabeth all doubt seems to vanish from English history. After the reigns of Edward and Mary, with defeat and humiliation abroad and persecutions and rebellion at home, the accession of a popular sovereign was like the sunrise after a long night, and, in Milton's words, we suddenly see England, "a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself, like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks." With the queen's character, a strange mingling of frivolity and strength which reminds one of that iron image with feet of clay, we have nothing whatever to do. It is the national life that concerns the literary student, since even a beginner must notice that any great development of the national life is invariably associated with a development of the national literature. It is enough for our purpose, therefore, to point out two facts: that Elizabeth, with all her vanity and inconsistency, steadily loved England and England's greatness; and that she inspired all her people with the unbounded patriotism which exults in Shakespeare, and with the personal devotion which finds a voice in the Faery Queen. Under her administration the English national life progressed by gigantic leaps rather than by slow historical process, and English literature reached the very highest point of its development. It is possible to indicate only a few general characteristics of this great age which had a direct bearing upon its literature.

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE ELIZABETHAN AGE. The most characteristic feature of the age was the comparative religious tolerance, which was due largely to the queen's influence. The frightful excesses of the religious war known as the Thirty Years' War on the Continent found no parallel in England. Upon her accession Elizabeth found the whole kingdom divided against itself; the North was largely Catholic, while the southern counties were as strongly Protestant. Scotland had followed the Reformation in its own intense way, while Ireland remained true to its old religious traditions, and both countries were openly rebellious. The court, made up of both parties, witnessed the rival intrigues of those who sought to gain the royal favor. It was due partly to the intense absorption of men's minds in religious questions that the preceding century, though an age of advancing learning, produced scarcely any literature worthy of the name. Elizabeth favored both religious parties, and presently the world saw with amazement Catholics and Protestants acting together as trusted counselors of a great sovereign. The defeat of the Spanish Armada established the Reformation as a fact in England, and at the same time united all Englishmen in a magnificent national enthusiasm. For the first time since the Reformation began, the fundamental question of religious toleration seemed to be settled, and the mind of man, freed from religious fears and persecutions, turned with a great creative impulse to other forms of activity. It is partly from this new freedom of the mind that the Age of Elizabeth received its great literary stimulus.

2. It was an age of comparative social contentment, in strong contrast with the days of Langland. The rapid increase of manufacturing towns gave employment to thousands who had before been idle and discontented. Increasing trade brought enormous wealth to England, and this wealth was shared to this extent, at least, that for the first time some systematic care for the needy was attempted. Parishes were made responsible for their own poor, and the wealthy were taxed to support them or give them employment. The increase of wealth, the improvement in living, the opportunities for labor, the new social content—these also are factors which help to account for the new literary activity.

3. It is an age of dreams, of adventure, of unbounded enthusiasm springing from the new lands of fabulous riches revealed by English explorers. Drake sails around the world, shaping the mighty course which English colonizers shall follow through the centuries; and presently the young philosopher Bacon is saying confidently, "I have taken all knowledge for my province." The mind must search farther than the eye; with new, rich lands opened to the sight, the imagination must create new forms to people the new worlds. Hakluyt's famous Collection of Voyages, and Purchas, His Pilgrimage, were even more stimulating to the English imagination than to the English acquisitiveness. While her explorers search the new world for the Fountain of Youth, her poets are creating literary works that are young forever. Marston writes:[114] "Why, man, all their dripping pans are pure gold. The prisoners they take are fettered in gold; and as for rubies and diamonds, they goe forth on holydayes and gather 'hem by the seashore to hang on their children's coates." This comes nearer to being a description of Shakespeare's poetry than of the Indians in Virginia. Prospero, in The Tempest, with his control over the mighty powers and harmonies of nature, is only the literary dream of that science which had just begun to grapple with the forces of the universe. Cabot, Drake, Frobisher, Gilbert, Raleigh, Willoughby, Hawkins,—a score of explorers reveal a new earth to men's eyes, and instantly literature creates a new heaven to match it. So dreams and deeds increase side by side, and the dream is ever greater than the deed. That is the meaning of literature.

4. To sum up, the Age of Elizabeth was a time of intellectual liberty, of growing intelligence and comfort among all classes, of unbounded patriotism, and of peace at home and abroad. For a parallel we must go back to the Age of Pericles in Athens, or of Augustus in Rome, or go forward a little to the magnificent court of Louis XIV, when Corneille, Racine, and Moliere brought the drama in France to the point where Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson had left it in England half a century earlier. Such an age of great thought and great action, appealing to the eyes as well as to the imagination and intellect, finds but one adequate literary expression; neither poetry nor the story can express the whole man,—his thought, feeling, action, and the resulting character; hence in the Age of Elizabeth literature turned instinctively to the drama and brought it rapidly to the highest stage of its development.


EDMUND SPENSER (1552-1599)

(Cuddie) "Piers, I have piped erst so long with pain That all mine oaten reeds been rent and wore, And my poor Muse hath spent her spared store, Yet little good hath got, and much less gain. Such pleasaunce makes the grasshopper so poor, And ligge so layd[115] when winter doth her strain. The dapper ditties that I wont devise, To feed youth's fancy, and the flocking fry Delghten much—what I the bet forthy? They han the pleasure, I a slender prize: I beat the bush, the birds to them do fly: What good thereof to Cuddie can arise? (Piers) Cuddie, the praise is better than the price, The glory eke much greater than the gain:..." Shepherd's Calendar, October

In these words, with their sorrowful suggestion of Deor, Spenser reveals his own heart, unconsciously perhaps, as no biographer could possibly do. His life and work seem to center about three great influences, summed up in three names: Cambridge, where he grew acquainted with the classics and the Italian poets; London, where he experienced the glamour and the disappointment of court life; and Ireland, which steeped him in the beauty and imagery of old Celtic poetry and first gave him leisure to write his masterpiece.

LIFE. Of Spenser's early life and parentage we know little, except that he was born in East Smithfield, near the Tower of London, and was poor. His education began at the Merchant Tailors' School in London and was continued in Cambridge, where as a poor sizar and fag for wealthy students he earned a scant living. Here in the glorious world that only a poor scholar knows how to create for himself he read the classics, made acquaintance with the great Italian poets, and wrote numberless little poems of his own. Though Chaucer was his beloved master, his ambition was not to rival the Canterbury Tales, but rather to express the dream of English chivalry, much as Ariosto had done for Italy in Orlando Furioso.

After leaving Cambridge (1576) Spenser went to the north of England, on some unknown work or quest. Here his chief occupation was to fall in love and to record his melancholy over the lost Rosalind in the Shepherd's Calendar. Upon his friend Harvey's advice he came to London, bringing his poems; and here he met Leicester, then at the height of royal favor, and the latter took him to live at Leicester House. Here he finished the Shepherd's Calendar, and here he met Sidney and all the queen's favorites. The court was full of intrigues, lying and flattery, and Spenser's opinion of his own uncomfortable position is best expressed in a few lines from "Mother Hubbard's Tale":

Full little knowest thou, that has not tried, What hell it is, in suing long to bide: To lose good days, that might be better spent; To waste long nights in pensive discontent; * * * * * To fret thy soul with crosses and with cares; To eat thy heart through comfortless despairs; To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run, To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.

In 1580, through Leicester's influence, Spenser, who was utterly weary of his dependent position, was made secretary to Lord Grey, the queen's deputy in Ireland, and the third period of his life began. He accompanied his chief through one campaign of savage brutality in putting down an Irish rebellion, and was given an immense estate with the castle of Kilcolman, in Munster, which had been confiscated from Earl Desmond, one of the Irish leaders. His life here, where according to the terms of his grant he must reside as an English settler, he regarded as lonely exile:

My luckless lot, That banished had myself, like wight forlore, Into that waste, where I was quite forgot.

It is interesting to note here a gentle poet's view of the "unhappy island." After nearly sixteen years' residence he wrote his View of the State of Ireland (1596),[116] his only prose work, in which he submits a plan for "pacifying the oppressed and rebellious people." This was to bring a huge force of cavalry and infantry into the country, give the Irish a brief time to submit, and after that to hunt them down like wild beasts. He calculated that cold, famine, and sickness would help the work of the sword, and that after the rebels had been well hounded for two winters the following summer would find the country peaceful. This plan, from the poet of harmony and beauty, was somewhat milder than the usual treatment of a brave people whose offense was that they loved liberty and religion. Strange as it may seem, the View was considered most statesmanlike, and was excellently well received in England.

In Kilcolman, surrounded by great natural beauty, Spenser finished the first three books of the Faery Queen. In 1589 Raleigh visited him, heard the poem with enthusiasm, hurried the poet off to London, and presented him to Elizabeth. The first three books met with instant success when published and were acclaimed as the greatest work in the English language. A yearly pension of fifty pounds was conferred by Elizabeth, but rarely paid, and the poet turned back to exile, that is, to Ireland again.

Soon after his return, Spenser fell in love with his beautiful Elizabeth, an Irish girl; wrote his Amoretti, or sonnets, in her honor; and afterwards represented her, in the Faery Queen, as the beautiful woman dancing among the Graces. In 1594 he married Elizabeth, celebrating his wedding with his "Epithalamion," one of the most beautiful wedding hymns in any language.

Spenser's next visit to London was in 1595, when he published "Astrophel," an elegy on the death of his friend Sidney, and three more books of the Faery Queen. On this visit he lived again at Leicester House, now occupied by the new favorite Essex, where he probably met Shakespeare and the other literary lights of the Elizabethan Age. Soon after his return to Ireland, Spenser was appointed Sheriff of Cork, a queer office for a poet, which probably brought about his undoing. The same year Tyrone's Rebellion broke out in Munster. Kilcolman, the ancient house of Desmond, was one of the first places attacked by the rebels, and Spenser barely escaped with his wife and two children. It is supposed that some unfinished parts of the Faery Queen were burned in the castle.

From the shock of this frightful experience Spenser never recovered. He returned to England heartbroken, and in the following year (1599) he died in an inn at Westminster. According to Ben Jonson he died "for want of bread"; but whether that is a poetic way of saying that he had lost his property or that he actually died of destitution, will probably never be known. He was buried beside his master Chaucer in Westminster Abbey, the poets of that age thronging to his funeral and, according to Camden, "casting their elegies and the pens that had written them into his tomb."

SPENSER'S WORKS. The Faery Queen is the great work upon which the poet's fame chiefly rests. The original plan of the poem included twenty-four books, each of which was to recount the adventure and triumph of a knight who represented a moral virtue. Spenser's purpose, as indicated in a letter to Raleigh which introduces the poem, is as follows:

To pourtraict in Arthure, before he was king, the image of a brave Knight, perfected in the twelve private Morall Vertues, as Aristotle hath devised; which is the purpose of these first twelve bookes: which if I finde to be well accepted, I may be perhaps encoraged to frame the other part of Polliticke Vertues in his person, after that hee came to be king.

Each of the Virtues appears as a knight, fighting his opposing Vice, and the poem tells the story of the conflicts. It is therefore purely allegorical, not only in its personified virtues but also in its representation of life as a struggle between good and evil. In its strong moral element the poem differs radically from Orlando Furioso, upon which it was modeled. Spenser completed only six books, celebrating Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy. We have also a fragment of the seventh, treating of Constancy; but the rest of this book was not written, or else was lost in the fire at Kilcolman. The first three books are by far the best; and judging by the way the interest lags and the allegory grows incomprehensible, it is perhaps as well for Spenser's reputation that the other eighteen books remained a dream.

ARGUMENT OF THE FAERY QUEEN. From the introductory letter we learn that the hero visits the queen's court in Fairy Land, while she is holding a twelve-days festival. On each day some distressed person appears unexpectedly, tells a woful story of dragons, of enchantresses, or of distressed beauty or virtue, and asks for a champion to right the wrong and to let the oppressed go free. Sometimes a knight volunteers or begs for the dangerous mission; again the duty is assigned by the queen; and the journeys and adventures of these knights are the subjects of the several books. The first recounts the adventures of the Redcross Knight, representing Holiness, and the lady Una, representing Religion. Their contests are symbolical of the world-wide struggle between virtue and faith on the one hand, and sin and heresy on the other. The second book tells the story of Sir Guyon, or Temperance; the third, of Britomartis, representing Chastity; the fourth, fifth, and sixth, of Cambel and Triamond (Friendship), Artegall (Justice), and Sir Calidore (Courtesy). Spenser's plan was a very elastic one and he filled up the measure of his narrative with everything that caught his fancy,—historical events and personages under allegorical masks, beautiful ladies, chivalrous knights, giants, monsters, dragons, sirens, enchanters, and adventures enough to stock a library of fiction. If you read Homer or Virgil, you know his subject in the first strong line; if you read Caedmon's Paraphrase or Milton's epic, the introduction gives you the theme; but Spenser's great poem—with the exception of a single line in the prologue, "Fierce warres and faithfull loves shall moralize my song"—gives hardly a hint of what is coming.

As to the meaning of the allegorical figures, one is generally in doubt. In the first three books the shadowy Faery Queen sometimes represents the glory of God and sometimes Elizabeth, who was naturally flattered by the parallel. Britomartis is also Elizabeth. The Redcross Knight is Sidney, the model Englishman. Arthur, who always appears to rescue the oppressed, is Leicester, which is another outrageous flattery. Una is sometimes religion and sometimes the Protestant Church; while Duessa represents Mary Queen of Scots, or general Catholicism. In the last three books Elizabeth appears again as Mercilla; Henry IV of France as Bourbon; the war in the Netherlands as the story of Lady Belge; Raleigh as Timias; the earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland (lovers of Mary or Duessa) as Blandamour and Paridell; and so on through the wide range of contemporary characters and events, till the allegory becomes as difficult to follow as the second part of Goethe's Faust.

POETICAL FORM. For the Faery Queen Spenser invented a new verse form, which has been called since his day the Spenserian stanza. Because of its rare beauty it has been much used by nearly all our poets in their best work. The new stanza was an improved form of Ariosto's ottava rima (i.e. eight-line stanza) and bears a close resemblance to one of Chaucer's most musical verse forms in the "Monk's Tale." Spenser's stanza is in nine lines, eight of five feet each and the last of six feet, riming ababbcbcc. A few selections from the first book, which is best worth reading, are reproduced here to show the style and melody of the verse.

A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine, Ycladd[117] in mightie armes and silver shielde, Wherein old dints of deepe woundes did remaine The cruell markes of many a bloody fielde; Yet armes till that time did he never wield: His angry steede did chide his foming bitt, As much disdayning to the curbe to yield: Full iolly[118] knight he seemd, and faire did sitt, As one for knightly giusts[119] and fierce encounters fitt. And on his brest a bloodie crosse he bore, The deare remembrance of his dying Lord, For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore, And dead, as living ever, him ador'd: Upon his shield the like was also scor'd, For soveraine hope, which in his helpe he had, Right faithfull true he was in deede and word; But of his cheere[120] did seeme too solemne sad; Yet nothing did he dread, but ever was ydrad.[121]

This sleepy bit, from the dwelling of Morpheus, invites us to linger:

And, more to lulle him in his slumber soft, A trickling streame from high rock tumbling downe, And ever-drizling raine upon the loft, Mixt with a murmuring winde, much like the sowne Of swarming bees, did cast him in a swowne. No other noyse, nor peoples troublous cryes, As still are wont t'annoy the walled towne, Might there be heard: but carelesse Quiet lyes, Wrapt in eternal silence farre from enimyes.

The description of Una shows the poet's sense of ideal beauty:

One day, nigh wearie of the yrkesome way, From her unhastie beast she did alight; And on the grasse her dainty limbs did lay In secrete shadow, far from all mens sight; From her fayre head her fillet she undight,[122] And layd her stole aside; Her angels face, As the great eye of heaven, shyned bright, And made a sunshine in the shady place; Did never mortall eye behold such heavenly grace. It fortuned, out of the thickest wood A ramping lyon rushed suddeinly, Hunting full greedy after salvage blood: Soone as the royall Virgin he did spy, With gaping mouth at her ran greedily, To have at once devourd her tender corse: But to the pray whenas he drew more ny, His bloody rage aswaged with remorse,[123] And, with the sight amazd, forgat his furious forse. Instead thereof he kist her wearie feet, And lickt her lilly hands with fawning tong; As he her wronged innocence did weet.[124] O how can beautie maister the most strong, And simple truth subdue avenging wrong!

MINOR POEMS. Next to his masterpiece, the Shepherd's Calendar (1579) is the best known of Spenser's poems; though, as his first work, it is below many others in melody. It consists of twelve pastoral poems, or eclogues, one for each month of the year. The themes are generally rural life, nature, love in the fields; and the speakers are shepherds and shepherdesses. To increase the rustic effect Spenser uses strange forms of speech and obsolete words, to such an extent that Jonson complained his works are not English or any other language. Some are melancholy poems on his lost Rosalind; some are satires on the clergy; one, "The Briar and the Oak," is an allegory; one flatters Elizabeth, and others are pure fables touched with the Puritan spirit. They are written in various styles and meters, and show plainly that Spenser was practicing and preparing himself for greater work.

Other noteworthy poems are "Mother Hubbard's Tale," a satire on society; "Astrophel," an elegy on the death of Sidney; Amoretti, or sonnets, to his Elizabeth; the marriage hymn, "Epithalamion," and four "Hymns," on Love, Beauty, Heavenly Love, and Heavenly Beauty. There are numerous other poems and collections of poems, but these show the scope of his work and are best worth reading.

IMPORTANCE OF THE SHEPHERD'S CALENDAR. The publication of this work, in 1579, by an unknown writer who signed himself modestly "Immerito," marks an important epoch in our literature. We shall appreciate this better if we remember the long years during which England had been without a great poet. Chaucer and Spenser are often studied together as poets of the Renaissance period, and the idea prevails that they were almost contemporary. In fact, nearly two centuries passed after Chaucer's death,—years of enormous political and intellectual development,—and not only did Chaucer have no successor but our language had changed so rapidly that Englishmen had lost the ability to read his lines correctly.[125]

This first published work of Spenser is noteworthy in at least four respects: first, it marks the appearance of the first national poet in two centuries; second, it shows again the variety and melody of English verse, which had been largely a tradition since Chaucer; third, it was our first pastoral, the beginning of a long series of English pastoral compositions modeled on Spenser, and as such exerted a strong influence on subsequent literature; and fourth, it marks the real beginning of the outburst of great Elizabethan poetry.

CHARACTERISTICS OF SPENSER'S POETRY. The five main qualities of Spenser's poetry are (1) a perfect melody; (2) a rare sense of beauty; (3) a splendid imagination, which could gather into one poem heroes, knights, ladies, dwarfs, demons and dragons, classic mythology, stories of chivalry, and the thronging ideals of the Renaissance,—all passing in gorgeous procession across an ever-changing and ever-beautiful landscape; (4) a lofty moral purity and seriousness; (5) a delicate idealism, which could make all nature and every common thing beautiful. In contrast with these excellent qualities the reader will probably note the strange appearance of his lines due to his fondness for obsolete words, like eyne (eyes) and shend (shame), and his tendency to coin others, like mercify, to suit his own purposes.

It is Spenser's idealism, his love of beauty, and his exquisite melody which have caused him to be known as "the poets' poet." Nearly all our subsequent singers acknowledge their delight in him and their indebtedness. Macaulay alone among critics voices a fault which all who are not poets quickly feel, namely that, with all Spenser's excellences, he is difficult to read. The modern man loses himself in the confused allegory of the Faery Queen, skips all but the marked passages, and softly closes the book in gentle weariness. Even the best of his longer poems, while of exquisite workmanship and delightfully melodious, generally fail to hold the reader's attention. The movement is languid; there is little dramatic interest, and only a suggestion of humor. The very melody of his verses sometimes grows monotonous, like a Strauss waltz too long continued. We shall best appreciate Spenser by reading at first only a few well-chosen selections from the Faery Queen and the Shepherd's Calendar, and a few of the minor poems which exemplify his wonderful melody.

COMPARISON BETWEEN CHAUCER AND SPENSER. At the outset it is well to remember that, though Spenser regarded Chaucer as his master, two centuries intervene between them, and that their writings have almost nothing in common. We shall appreciate this better by a brief comparison between our first two modern poets.

Chaucer was a combined poet and man of affairs, with the latter predominating. Though dealing largely with ancient or mediaeval material, he has a curiously modern way of looking at life. Indeed, he is our only author preceding Shakespeare with whom we feel thoroughly at home. He threw aside the outgrown metrical romance, which was practically the only form of narrative in his day, invented the art of story-telling in verse, and brought it to a degree of perfection which has probably never since been equaled. Though a student of the classics, he lived wholly in the present, studied the men and women of his own time, painted them as they were, but added always a touch of kindly humor or romance to make them more interesting. So his mission appears to be simply to amuse himself and his readers. His mastery of various and melodious verse was marvelous and has never been surpassed in our language; but the English of his day was changing rapidly, and in a very few years men were unable to appreciate his art, so that even to Spenser and Dryden, for example, he seemed deficient in metrical skill. On this account his influence on our literature has been much less than we should expect from the quality of his work and from his position as one of the greatest of English poets.

Like Chaucer, Spenser was a busy man of affairs, but in him the poet and the scholar always predominates. He writes as the idealist, describing men not as they are but as he thinks they should be; he has no humor, and his mission is not to amuse but to reform. Like Chaucer he studies the classics and contemporary French and Italian writers; but instead of adapting his material to present-day conditions, he makes poetry, as in his Eclogues for instance, more artificial even than his foreign models. Where Chaucer looks about him and describes life as he sees it, Spenser always looks backward for his inspiration; he lives dreamily in the past, in a realm of purely imaginary emotions and adventures. His first quality is imagination, not observation, and he is the first of our poets to create a world of dreams, fancies, and illusions. His second quality is a wonderful sensitiveness to beauty, which shows itself not only in his subject-matter but also in the manner of his poetry. Like Chaucer, he is an almost perfect workman; but in reading Chaucer we think chiefly of his natural characters or his ideas, while in reading Spenser we think of the beauty of expression. The exquisite Spenserian stanza and the rich melody of Spenser's verse have made him the model of all our modern poets.


Though Spenser is the one great non-dramatic poet of the Elizabethan Age, a multitude of minor poets demand attention of the student who would understand the tremendous literary activity of the period. One needs only to read The Paradyse of Daynty Devises (1576), or A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions (1578), or any other of the miscellaneous collections to find hundreds of songs, many of them of exquisite workmanship, by poets whose names now awaken no response. A glance is enough to assure one that over all England "the sweet spirit of song had arisen, like the first chirping of birds after a storm." Nearly two hundred poets are recorded in the short period from 1558 to 1625, and many of them were prolific writers. In a work like this, we can hardly do more than mention a few of the best known writers, and spend a moment at least with the works that suggest Marlowe's description of "infinite riches in a little room." The reader will note for himself the interesting union of action and thought in these men, so characteristic of the Elizabethan Age; for most of them were engaged chiefly in business or war or politics, and literature was to them a pleasant recreation rather than an absorbing profession.

THOMAS SACKVILLE (1536-1608). Sir Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset and Lord High Treasurer of England, is generally classed with Wyatt and Surrey among the predecessors of the Elizabethan Age. In imitation of Dante's Inferno, Sackville formed the design of a great poem called The Mirror for Magistrates. Under guidance of an allegorical personage called Sorrow, he meets the spirits of all the important actors in English history. The idea was to follow Lydgate's Fall of Princes and let each character tell his own story; so that the poem would be a mirror in which present rulers might see themselves and read this warning: "Who reckless rules right soon may hope to rue." Sackville finished only the "Induction" and the "Complaint of the Duke of Buckingham." These are written in the rime royal, and are marked by strong poetic feeling and expression. Unfortunately Sackville turned from poetry to politics, and the poem was carried on by two inferior poets, William Baldwin and George Ferrers.

Sackville wrote also, in connection with Thomas Norton, the first English tragedy, Ferrex and Porrex, called also Gorboduc, which will be considered in the following section on the Rise of the Drama.

PHILIP SIDNEY (1554-1586). Sidney, the ideal gentleman, the Sir Calidore of Spenser's "Legend of Courtesy," is vastly more interesting as a man than as a writer, and the student is recommended to read his biography rather than his books. His life expresses, better than any single literary work, the two ideals of the age,—personal honor and national greatness.

As a writer he is known by three principal works, all published after his death, showing how little importance he attached to his own writing, even while he was encouraging Spenser. The Arcadia is a pastoral romance, interspersed with eclogues, in which shepherds and shepherdesses sing of the delights of rural life. Though the work was taken up idly as a summer's pastime, it became immensely popular and was imitated by a hundred poets. The Apologie for Poetrie (1595), generally called the Defense of Poesie, appeared in answer to a pamphlet by Stephen Gosson called The School of Abuse (1579), in which the poetry of the age and its unbridled pleasure were denounced with Puritan thoroughness and conviction. The Apologie is one of the first critical essays in English; and though its style now seems labored and unnatural,—the pernicious result of Euphues and his school,—it is still one of the best expressions of the place and meaning of poetry in any language. Astrophel and Stella is a collection of songs and sonnets addressed to Lady Penelope Devereux, to whom Sidney had once been betrothed. They abound in exquisite lines and passages, containing more poetic feeling and expression than the songs of any other minor writer of the age.

GEORGE CHAPMAN (1559?-1634). Chapman spent his long, quiet life among the dramatists, and wrote chiefly for the stage. His plays, which were for the most part merely poems in dialogue, fell far below the high dramatic standard of his time and are now almost unread. His most famous work is the metrical translation of the Iliad (1611) and of the Odyssey (1614). Chapman's Homer, though lacking the simplicity and dignity of the original, has a force and rapidity of movement which makes it superior in many respects to Pope's more familiar translation. Chapman is remembered also as the finisher of Marlowe's Hero and Leander, in which, apart from the drama, the Renaissance movement is seen at perhaps its highest point in English poetry. Out of scores of long poems of the period, Hero and Leander and the Faery Queen are the only two which are even slightly known to modern readers.

MICHAEL DRAYTON (1563-1631). Drayton is the most voluminous and, to antiquarians at least, the most interesting of the minor poets. He is the Layamon of the Elizabethan Age, and vastly more scholarly than his predecessor. His chief work is Polyolbion, an enormous poem of many thousand couplets, describing the towns, mountains, and rivers of Britain, with the interesting legends connected with each. It is an extremely valuable work and represents a lifetime of study and research. Two other long works are the Barons' Wars and the Heroic Epistle of England; and besides these were many minor poems. One of the best of these is the "Battle of Agincourt," a ballad written in the lively meter which Tennyson used with some variations in the "Charge of the Light Brigade," and which shows the old English love of brave deeds and of the songs that stir a people's heart in memory of noble ancestors.


THE ORIGIN OF THE DRAMA. First the deed, then the story, then the play; that seems to be the natural development of the drama in its simplest form. The great deeds of a people are treasured in its literature, and later generations represent in play or pantomime certain parts of the story which appeal most powerfully to the imagination. Among primitive races the deeds of their gods and heroes are often represented at the yearly festivals; and among children, whose instincts are not yet blunted by artificial habits, one sees the story that was heard at bedtime repeated next day in vigorous action, when our boys turn scouts and our girls princesses, precisely as our first dramatists turned to the old legends and heroes of Britain for their first stage productions. To act a part seems as natural to humanity as to tell a story; and originally the drama is but an old story retold to the eye, a story put into action by living performers, who for the moment "make believe" or imagine themselves to be the old heroes.

To illustrate the matter simply, there was a great life lived by him who was called the Christ. Inevitably the life found its way into literature, and we have the Gospels. Around the life and literature sprang up a great religion. Its worship was at first simple,—the common prayer, the evening meal together, the remembered words of the Master, and the closing hymn. Gradually a ritual was established, which grew more elaborate and impressive as the centuries went by. Scenes from the Master's life began to be represented in the churches, especially at Christmas time, when the story of Christ's birth was made more effective, to the eyes of a people who could not read, by a babe in a manger surrounded by magi and shepherds, with a choir of angels chanting the Gloria in Excelsis.[126] Other impressive scenes from the Gospel followed; then the Old Testament was called upon, until a complete cycle of plays from the Creation to the Final Judgment was established, and we have the Mysteries and Miracle plays of the Middle Ages. Out of these came directly the drama of the Elizabethan Age.


1. THE RELIGIOUS PERIOD. In Europe, as in Greece, the drama had a distinctly religious origin.[127] The first characters were drawn from the New Testament, and the object of the first plays was to make the church service more impressive, or to emphasize moral lessons by showing the reward of the good and the punishment of the evil doer. In the latter days of the Roman Empire the Church found the stage possessed by frightful plays, which debased the morals of a people already fallen too low. Reform seemed impossible; the corrupt drama was driven from the stage, and plays of every kind were forbidden. But mankind loves a spectacle, and soon the Church itself provided a substitute for the forbidden plays in the famous Mysteries and Miracles.

MIRACLE AND MYSTERY PLAYS. In France the name miracle was given to any play representing the lives of the saints, while the mystere represented scenes from the life of Christ or stories from the Old Testament associated with the coming of Messiah. In England this distinction was almost unknown; the name Miracle was used indiscriminately for all plays having their origin in the Bible or in the lives of the saints; and the name Mystery, to distinguish a certain class of plays, was not used until long after the religious drama had passed away.

The earliest Miracle of which we have any record in England is the Ludus de Sancta Katharina, which was performed in Dunstable about the year 1110.[128] It is not known who wrote the original play of St. Catherine, but our first version was prepared by Geoffrey of St. Albans, a French school-teacher of Dunstable. Whether or not the play was given in English is not known, but it was customary in the earliest plays for the chief actors to speak in Latin or French, to show their importance, while minor and comic parts of the same play were given in English.

For four centuries after this first recorded play the Miracles increased steadily in number and popularity in England. They were given first very simply and impressively in the churches; then, as the actors increased in number and the plays in liveliness, they overflowed to the churchyards; but when fun and hilarity began to predominate even in the most sacred representations, the scandalized priests forbade plays altogether on church grounds. By the year 1300 the Miracles were out of ecclesiastical hands and adopted eagerly by the town guilds; and in the following two centuries we find the Church preaching against the abuse of the religious drama which it had itself introduced, and which at first had served a purely religious purpose.[129] But by this time the Miracles had taken strong hold upon the English people, and they continued to be immensely popular until, in the sixteenth century, they were replaced by the Elizabethan drama.

The early Miracle plays of England were divided into two classes: the first, given at Christmas, included all plays connected with the birth of Christ; the second, at Easter, included the plays relating to his death and triumph. By the beginning of the fourteenth century all these plays were, in various localities, united in single cycles beginning with the Creation and ending with the Final Judgment. The complete cycle was presented every spring, beginning on Corpus Christi day; and as the presentation of so many plays meant a continuous outdoor festival of a week or more, this day was looked forward to as the happiest of the whole year.

Probably every important town in England had its own cycle of plays for its own guilds to perform, but nearly all have been lost. At the present day only four cycles exist (except in the most fragmentary condition), and these, though they furnish an interesting commentary on the times, add very little to our literature. The four cycles are the Chester and York plays, so called from the towns in which they were given; the Towneley or Wakefield plays, named for the Towneley family, which for a long time owned the manuscript; and the Coventry plays, which on doubtful evidence have been associated with the Grey Friars (Franciscans) of Coventry. The Chester cycle has 25 plays, the Wakefield 30, the Coventry 42, and the York 48. It is impossible to fix either the date or the authorship of any of these plays; we only know certainly that they were in great favor from the twelfth to the sixteenth century. The York plays are generally considered to be the best; but those of Wakefield show more humor and variety, and better workmanship. The former cycle especially shows a certain unity resulting from its aim to represent the whole of man's life from birth to death. The same thing is noticeable in Cursor Mundi, which, with the York and Wakefield cycles, belongs to the fourteenth century.

At first the actors as well as the authors of the Miracles were the priests and their chosen assistants. Later, when The town guilds took up the plays and each guild became responsible for one or more of the series, the actors were carefully selected and trained. By four o'clock on the morning of Corpus Christi all the players had to be in their places in the movable theaters, which were scattered throughout the town in the squares and open places. Each of these theaters consisted of a two-story platform, set on wheels. The lower story was a dressing room for the actors; the upper story was the stage proper, and was reached by a trapdoor from below. When the play was over the platform was dragged away, and the next play in the cycle took its place. So in a single square several plays would be presented in rapid sequence to the same audience. Meanwhile the first play moved on to another square, where another audience was waiting to hear it.

Though the plays were distinctly religious in character, there is hardly one without its humorous element. In the play of Noah, for instance, Noah's shrewish wife makes fun for the audience by wrangling with her husband. In the Crucifixion play Herod is a prankish kind of tyrant who leaves the stage to rant among the audience; so that to "out-herod Herod" became a common proverb. In all the plays the devil is a favorite character and the butt of every joke. He also leaves the stage to play pranks or frighten the wondering children. On the side of the stage was often seen a huge dragon's head with gaping red jaws, belching forth fire and smoke, out of which poured a tumultuous troop of devils with clubs and pitchforks and gridirons to punish the wicked characters and to drag them away at last, howling and shrieking, into hell-mouth, as the dragon's head was called. So the fear of hell was ingrained into an ignorant people for four centuries. Alternating with these horrors were bits of rough horse-play and domestic scenes of peace and kindliness, representing the life of the English fields and homes. With these were songs and carols, like that of the Nativity, for instance:

As I out rode this enderes (last) night, Of three jolly shepherds I saw a sight, And all about their fold a star shone bright; They sang terli terlow, So merryly the shepherds their pipes can blow. Down from heaven, from heaven so high, Of angels there came a great companye With mirth, and joy, and great solemnitye; They sang terli terlow, So merryly the shepherds their pipes can blow.

Such songs were taken home by the audience and sung for a season, as a popular tune is now caught from the stage and sung on the streets; and at times the whole audience would very likely join in the chorus.

After these plays were written according to the general outline of the Bible stories, no change was tolerated, the audience insisting, like children at "Punch and Judy," upon seeing the same things year after year. No originality in plot or treatment was possible, therefore; the only variety was in new songs and jokes, and in the pranks of the devil. Childish as such plays seem to us, they are part of the religious development of all uneducated people. Even now the Persian play of the "Martyrdom of Ali" is celebrated yearly, and the famous "Passion Play," a true Miracle, is given every ten years at Oberammergau.

2. THE MORAL PERIOD OF THE DRAMA.[130] The second or moral period of the drama is shown by the increasing prevalence of the Morality plays. In these the characters were allegorical personages,—Life, Death, Repentance, Goodness, Love, Greed, and other virtues and vices. The Moralities may be regarded, therefore, as the dramatic counterpart of the once popular allegorical poetry exemplified by the Romance of the Rose. It did not occur to our first, unknown dramatists to portray men and women as they are until they had first made characters of abstract human qualities. Nevertheless, the Morality marks a distinct advance over the Miracle in that it gave free scope to the imagination for new plots and incidents. In Spain and Portugal these plays, under the name auto, were wonderfully developed by the genius of Calderon and Gil Vicente; but in England the Morality was a dreary kind of performance, like the allegorical poetry which preceded it.

To enliven the audience the devil of the Miracle plays was introduced; and another lively personage called the Vice was the predecessor of our modern clown and jester. His business was to torment the "virtues" by mischievous pranks, and especially to make the devil's life a burden by beating him with a bladder or a wooden sword at every opportunity. The Morality generally ended in the triumph of virtue, the devil leaping into hell-mouth with Vice on his back.

The best known of the Moralities is "Everyman," which has recently been revived in England and America. The subject of the play is the summoning of every man by Death; and the moral is that nothing can take away the terror of the inevitable summons but an honest life and the comforts of religion. In its dramatic unity it suggests the pure Greek drama; there is no change of time or scene, and the stage is never empty from the beginning to the end of the performance. Other well-known Moralities are the "Pride of Life," "Hyckescorner," and "Castell of Perseverance." In the latter, man is represented as shut up in a castle garrisoned by the virtues and besieged by the vices.

Like the Miracle plays, most of the old Moralities are of unknown date and origin. Of the known authors of Moralities, two of the best are John Skelton, who wrote "Magnificence," and probably also "The Necromancer"; and Sir David Lindsay (1490-1555), "the poet of the Scotch Reformation," whose religious business it was to make rulers uncomfortable by telling them unpleasant truths in the form of poetry. With these men a new element enters into the Moralities. They satirize or denounce abuses of Church and State, and introduce living personages thinly disguised as allegories; so that the stage first becomes a power in shaping events and correcting abuses.

THE INTERLUDES. It is impossible to draw any accurate line of distinction between the Moralities and Interludes. In general we may think of the latter as dramatic scenes, sometimes given by themselves (usually with music and singing) at banquets and entertainments where a little fun was wanted; and again slipped into a Miracle play to enliven the audience after a solemn scene. Thus on the margin of a page of one of the old Chester plays we read, "The boye and pigge when the kinges are gone." Certainly this was no part of the original scene between Herod and the three kings. So also the quarrel between Noah and his wife is probably a late addition to an old play. The Interludes originated, undoubtedly, in a sense of humor; and to John Heywood (1497?-1580?), a favorite retainer and jester at the court of Mary, is due the credit for raising the Interlude to the distinct dramatic form known as comedy.

Heywood's Interludes were written between 1520 and 1540. His most famous is "The Four P's," a contest of wit between a "Pardoner, a Palmer, a Pedlar and a Poticary." The characters here strongly suggest those of Chaucer.[131] Another interesting Interlude is called "The Play of the Weather." In this Jupiter and the gods assemble to listen to complaints about the weather and to reform abuses. Naturally everybody wants his own kind of weather. The climax is reached by a boy who announces that a boy's pleasure consists in two things, catching birds and throwing snowballs, and begs for the weather to be such that he can always do both. Jupiter decides that he will do just as he pleases about the weather, and everybody goes home satisfied.

All these early plays were written, for the most part, in a mingling of prose and wretched doggerel, and add nothing to our literature. Their great work was to train actors, to keep alive the dramatic spirit, and to prepare the way for the true drama.

3. THE ARTISTIC PERIOD OF THE DRAMA. The artistic is the final stage in the development of the English drama. It differs radically from the other two in that its chief purpose is not to point a moral but to represent human life as it is. The artistic drama may have purpose, no less than the Miracle play, but the motive is always subordinate to the chief end of representing life itself.

The first true play in English, with a regular plot, divided into acts and scenes, is probably the comedy, "Ralph Royster Doyster." It was written by Nicholas Udall, master of Eton, and later of Westminster school, and was first acted by his schoolboys some time before 1556. The story is that of a conceited fop in love with a widow, who is already engaged to another man. The play is an adaptation of the Miles Gloriosus, a classic comedy by Plautus, and the English characters are more or less artificial; but as furnishing a model of a clear plot and natural dialogue, the influence of this first comedy, with its mixture of classic and English elements, can hardly be overestimated.

The next play, "Gammer Gurton's Needle" (cir. 1562), is a domestic comedy, a true bit of English realism, representing the life of the peasant class.

Gammer Gurton is patching the leather breeches of her man Hodge, when Gib, the cat, gets into the milk pan. While Gammer chases the cat the family needle is lost, a veritable calamity in those days. The whole household is turned upside down, and the neighbors are dragged into the affair. Various comical situations are brought about by Diccon, a thieving vagabond, who tells Gammer that her neighbor, Dame Chatte, has taken her needle, and who then hurries to tell Dame Chatte that she is accused by Gammer of stealing a favorite rooster. Naturally there is a terrible row when the two irate old women meet and misunderstand each other. Diccon also drags Doctor Rat, the curate, into the quarrel by telling him that, if he will but creep into Dame Chatte's cottage by a hidden way, he will find her using the stolen needle. Then Diccon secretly warns Dame Chatte that Gammer Gurton's man Hodge is coming to steal her chickens; and the old woman hides in the dark passage and cudgels the curate soundly with the door bar. All the parties are finally brought before the justice, when Hodge suddenly and painfully finds the lost needle—which is all the while stuck in his leather breeches—and the scene ends uproariously for both audience and actors.

This first wholly English comedy is full of fun and coarse humor, and is wonderfully true to the life it represents. It was long attributed to John Still, afterwards bishop of Bath; but the authorship is now definitely assigned to William Stevenson.[132] Our earliest edition of the play was printed in 1575; but a similar play called "Dyccon of Bedlam" was licensed in 1552, twelve years before Shakespeare's birth.

To show the spirit and the metrical form of the play we give a fragment of the boy's description of the dullard Hodge trying to light a fire on the hearth from the cat's eyes, and another fragment of the old drinking song at the beginning of the second act.

At last in a dark corner two sparkes he thought he sees Which were, indede, nought els but Gyb our cat's two eyes. "Puffe!" quod Hodge, thinking therby to have fyre without doubt; With that Gyb shut her two eyes, and so the fyre was out. And by-and-by them opened, even as they were before; With that the sparkes appeared, even as they had done of yore. And, even as Hodge blew the fire, as he did thincke, Gyb, as she felt the blast, strayght-way began to wyncke, Tyll Hodge fell of swering, as came best to his turne, The fier was sure bewicht, and therfore wold not burne. At last Gyb up the stayers, among the old postes and pinnes, And Hodge he hied him after till broke were both his shinnes, Cursynge and swering othes, were never of his makyng, That Gyb wold fyre the house if that shee were not taken.

Fyrste a Songe: Backe and syde, go bare, go bare; Booth foote and hande, go colde; But, bellye, God sende thee good ale ynoughe, Whether it be newe or olde! I can not eate but lytle meate, My stomacke is not good; But sure I thinke that I can dryncke With him that weares a hood. Thoughe I go bare, take ye no care, I am nothinge a-colde, I stuffe my skyn so full within Of ioly good ale and olde. Backe and syde, go bare, etc.

Our first tragedy, "Gorboduc," was written by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, and was acted in 1562, only two years before the birth of Shakespeare. It is remarkable not only as our first tragedy, but as the first play to be written in blank verse, the latter being most significant, since it started the drama into the style of verse best suited to the genius of English playwrights.

The story of "Gorboduc" is taken from the early annals of Britain and recalls the story used by Shakespeare in King Lear. Gorboduc, king of Britain, divides his kingdom between his sons Ferrex and Porrex. The sons quarrel, and Porrex, the younger, slays his brother, who is the queen's favorite. Videna, the queen, slays Porrex in revenge; the people rebel and slay Videna and Gorboduc; then the nobles kill the rebels, and in turn fall to fighting each other. The line of Brutus being extinct with the death of Gorboduc, the country falls into anarchy, with rebels, nobles, and a Scottish invader all fighting for the right of succession. The curtain falls upon a scene of bloodshed and utter confusion.

The artistic finish of this first tragedy is marred by the authors' evident purpose to persuade Elizabeth to marry. It aims to show the danger to which England is exposed by the uncertainty of succession. Otherwise the plan of the play follows the classical rule of Seneca. There is very little action on the stage; bloodshed and battle are announced by a messenger; and the chorus, of four old men of Britain, sums up the situation with a few moral observations at the end of each of the first four acts.

CLASSICAL INFLUENCE UPON THE DRAMA. The revival of Latin literature had a decided influence upon the English drama as it developed from the Miracle plays. In the fifteenth century English teachers, in order to increase the interest in Latin, began to let their boys act the plays which they had read as literature, precisely as our colleges now present Greek or German plays at the yearly festivals. Seneca was the favorite Latin author, and all his tragedies were translated into English between 1559 and 1581. This was the exact period in which the first English playwrights were shaping their own ideas; but the severe simplicity of the classical drama seemed at first only to hamper the exuberant English spirit. To understand this, one has only to compare a tragedy of Seneca or of Euripides with one of Shakespeare, and see how widely the two masters differ in methods.

In the classic play the so-called dramatic unities of time, place, and action were strictly observed. Time and place must remain the same; the play could represent a period of only a few hours, and whatever action was introduced must take place at the spot where the play began. The characters, therefore, must remain unchanged throughout; there was no possibility of the child becoming a man, or of the man's growth with changing circumstances. As the play was within doors, all vigorous action was deemed out of place on the stage, and battles and important events were simply announced by a messenger. The classic drama also drew a sharp line between tragedy and comedy, all fun being rigorously excluded from serious representations.

The English drama, on the other hand, strove to represent the whole sweep of life in a single play. The scene changed rapidly; the same actors appeared now at home, now at court, now on the battlefield; and vigorous action filled the stage before the eyes of the spectators. The child of one act appeared as the man of the next, and the imagination of the spectator was called upon to bridge the gaps from place to place and from year to year. So the dramatist had free scope to present all life in a single place and a single hour. Moreover, since the world is always laughing and always crying at the same moment, tragedy and comedy were presented side by side, as they are in life itself. As Hamlet sings, after the play that amused the court but struck the king with deadly fear:

Why, let the stricken deer go weep, The hart ungalled play; For some must watch, while some must sleep: So runs the world away.

Naturally, with these two ideals struggling to master the English drama, two schools of writers arose. The University Two Schools Wits, as men of learning were called, generally of Drama upheld the classical ideal, and ridiculed the crude-ness of the new English plays. Sackville and Norton were of this class, and "Gorboduc" was classic in its construction. In the "Defense of Poesie" Sidney upholds the classics and ridicules the too ambitious scope of the English drama. Against these were the popular playwrights, Lyly, Peele, Greene, Marlowe, and many others, who recognized the English love of action and disregarded the dramatic unities in their endeavor to present life as it is. In the end the native drama prevailed, aided by the popular taste which had been trained by four centuries of Miracles. Our first plays, especially of the romantic type, were extremely crude and often led to ridiculously extravagant scenes; and here is where the classic drama exercised an immense influence for good, by insisting upon beauty of form and definiteness of structure at a time when the tendency was to satisfy a taste for stage spectacles without regard to either.

In the year 1574 a royal permit to Lord Leicester's actors allowed them "to give plays anywhere throughout our realm of England," and this must be regarded as the beginning of the regular drama. Two years later the first playhouse, known as "The Theater," was built for these actors by James Burbage in Finsbury Fields, just north of London. It was in this theater that Shakespeare probably found employment when he first came to the city. The success of this venture was immediate, and the next thirty years saw a score of theatrical companies, at least seven regular theaters, and a dozen or more inn yards permanently fitted for the giving of plays,—all established in the city and its immediate suburbs. The growth seems all the more remarkable when we remember that the London of those days would now be considered a small city, having (in 1600) only about a hundred thousand inhabitants.

A Dutch traveler, Johannes de Witt, who visited London in 1596, has given us the only contemporary drawing we possess of the interior of one of these theaters. They were built of stone and wood, round or octagonal in shape, and without a roof, being simply an inclosed courtyard. At one side was the stage, and before it on the bare ground, or pit, stood that large part of the audience who could afford to pay only an admission fee. The players and these groundlings were exposed to the weather; those that paid for seats were in galleries sheltered by a narrow porch-roof projecting inwards from the encircling walls; while the young nobles and gallants, who came to be seen and who could afford the extra fee, took seats on the stage itself, and smoked and chaffed the actors and threw nuts at the groundlings.[133] The whole idea of these first theaters, according to De Witt, was like that of the Roman amphitheater; and the resemblance was heightened by the fact that, when no play was on the boards, the stage might be taken away and the pit given over to bull and bear baiting.

In all these theaters, probably, the stage consisted of a bare platform, with a curtain or "traverse" across the middle, separating the front from the rear stage. On the latter unexpected scenes or characters were "discovered" by simply drawing the curtain aside. At first little or no scenery was used, a gilded sign being the only announcement of a change of scene; and this very lack of scenery led to better acting, since the actors must be realistic enough to make the audience forget its shabby surroundings.[134] By Shakespeare's day, however, painted scenery had appeared, first at university plays, and then in the regular theaters.[135] In all our first plays female parts were taken by boy actors, who evidently were more distressing than the crude scenery, for contemporary literature has many satirical references to their acting,[136] and even the tolerant Shakespeare writes:

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness.

However that may be, the stage was deemed unfit for women, and actresses were unknown in England until after the Restoration.

SHAKESPEARE'S PREDECESSORS IN THE DRAMA. The English drama as it developed from the Miracle plays has an interesting history. It began with schoolmasters, like Udall, who translated and adapted Latin plays for their boys to act, and who were naturally governed by classic ideals. It was continued by the choir masters of St. Paul and the Royal and the Queen's Chapel, whose companies of choir-boy actors were famous in London and rivaled the players of the regular theaters.[137] These choir masters were our first stage managers. They began with masques and interludes and the dramatic presentation of classic myths modeled after the Italians; but some of them, like Richard Edwards (choir master of the Queen's Chapel in 1561), soon added farces from English country life and dramatized some of Chaucer's stories. Finally, the regular playwrights, Kyd, Nash, Lyly, Peele, Greene, and Marlowe, brought the English drama to the point where Shakespeare began to experiment upon it.

Each of these playwrights added or emphasized some essential element in the drama, which appeared later in the work of Shakespeare. Thus John Lyly (1554?-1606), who is now known chiefly as having developed the pernicious literary style called euphuism,[138] is one of the most influential of the early dramatists. His court comedies are remarkable for their witty dialogue and for being our first plays to aim definitely at unity and artistic finish. Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy (c. 1585) first gives us the drama, or rather the melodrama, of passion, copied by Marlowe and Shakespeare. This was the most popular of the early Elizabethan plays; it was revised again and again, and Ben Jonson is said to have written one version and to have acted the chief part of Hieronimo.[139] And Robert Greene (1558?-1592) plays the chief part in the early development of romantic comedy, and gives us some excellent scenes of English country life in plays like Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.

Even a brief glance at the life and work of these first playwrights shows three noteworthy things which have a bearing on Shakespeare's career: (1) These men were usually actors as well as dramatists. They knew the stage and the audience, and in writing their plays they remembered not only the actor's part but also the audience's love for stories and brave spectacles. "Will it act well, and will it please our audience," were the questions of chief concern to our early dramatists. (2) Their training began as actors; then they revised old plays, and finally became independent writers. In this their work shows an exact parallel with that of Shakespeare. (3) They often worked together, probably as Shakespeare worked with Marlowe and Fletcher, either in revising old plays or in creating new ones. They had a common store of material from which they derived their stories and characters, hence their frequent repetition of names; and they often produced two or more plays on the same subject. Much of Shakespeare's work depends, as we shall see, on previous plays; and even his Hamlet uses the material of an earlier play of the same name, probably by Kyd, which was well known to the London stage in 1589, some twelve years before Shakespeare's great work was written.

All these things are significant, if we are to understand the Elizabethan drama and the man who brought it to perfection. Shakespeare was not simply a great genius; he was also a great worker, and he developed in exactly the same way as did all his fellow craftsmen. And, contrary to the prevalent opinion, the Elizabethan drama is not a Minerva-like creation, springing full grown from the head of one man; it is rather an orderly though rapid development, in which many men bore a part. All our early dramatists are worthy of study for the part they played in the development of the drama; but we can here consider only one, the most typical of all, whose best work is often ranked with that of Shakespeare.


Marlowe is one of the most suggestive figures of the English Renaissance, and the greatest of Shakespeare's predecessors. The glory of the Elizabethan drama dates from his Tamburlaine (1587), wherein the whole restless temper of the age finds expression:

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