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CHARACTERISTICS OF THE ELIZABETHAN
HE phrase " literature of the age of Elizabeth” is
of Elizabeth, but is a general name for an era in literature, commencing about the middle of her reign, in 1580, reaching its maturity in the reign of James I., between 1603 and 1626, and perceptibly declining during the reign of his son. It is called by the name of Elizabeth, because it was produced in connection with influences which originated or culminated in her time, and which did not altogether cease to act after her death ; and these influences give to its great works, whether published in her reign or in the reign of James, certain mental and moral characteristics in common. The most glorious of all the expressions of the English mind, it is, like every other outburst of national genius, essentially inexplicable in itself. It occurred, but why it occurred we can answer but loosely. We can trace some of the influences which operated on Spenser, Shakespeare, Bacon, Hooker, and Raleigh, but the
genesis of their genius is beyond our criticism. There was abundant reason, in the circumstances around them, why they should exercise creative power; but the possession of the power is an ultimate fact, and defies explanation. Still, the appearance of so many eminent minds in one period indicates something in the circumstances of the period which aided and stimulated, if it did not cause, the marvel; and a consideration of these circumstances, though it may not enable us to penetrate the mystery of genius, may still shed some light on its character and direction.
The impulse given to the English mind in the age of Elizabeth was but one effect of that great movement of the European mind whose steps were marked by the revival of letters, the invention of printing, the study of the ancient classics, the rise of the middle class, the discovery of America, the Reformation, the formation of national literatures, and the general clash and conflict of the old with the new, - the old existing in decaying institutions, the new in the ardent hopes and organizing genius by which institutions are created. If the mind was not always emancipated from error during the stir and tumult of this movement, it was still stung into activity, and compelled to think ; for if authority, whether secular or sacerdotal, is questioned, authority no less than innovation instinctively frames reasons for