« ZurückWeiter »
that we can expect this with much greater confidence of the whole civilized world."*
One of the most remarkable relapses of the kind in intellectual advancement is the long interval between the death of Chaucer, in the year 1400, and the birth of the next of England's great poets, Edmund Spenser, in 1553, and the appearance of the earliest of the great English prose-writers in the latter part of the sixteenth century. This period of more than a century and a half is, comparatively, a desolate tract of time; and, parting with Chaucer in the era of the Middle Ages, we gain companionship with no other master-spirit until, crossing the threshold of modern times, the year 1500, we find ourselves in the domain of the later civilization which succeeds the thousand years that separate the Roman world from modern times. In this transition we pass, let it also be remembered, from the ages in which the thoughts of men and the oracles of God were recorded only by the slow labour of the pen—the stupendous toil which modern art may marvel at rather than despise—into the times which become, in some respects, a new intellectual era by the
agency of printing. It was near a century after the death of Chaucer that the first of English printers died—the honoured William Caxton—whose life is to be thought of, like that of the Venerable Bede, as monitory of “perpetual industry;" for, as the aged Saxon expired dictating the last words of a translation of St. John' Gospel
“In the hour of death,
* Literature of Europe, chap. ii. 49, vol. i. p. 173.
80 did the old printer carry forward his last labour, on a volume of sacred lore, to the last day of a life that bore its burden of four-score years.
Having alluded to the familiar figure which is so often used to typify the position of the earliest of the great English authors, I may correct the error which might unawares be connected with it by another metaphor, which the memory can easily keep hold on. With a beauty of illustration, which does not often adorn the pages of Warton's History of English Poetry, he happily compares the appearance of Chaucer in the language to a premature day in spring, after which the gloom of winter returns, and the buds and blossoms, which have been called forth by a transient sunshine, are nipped by frosts and scattered by storms.*
Difficult as it may be to discover in the history of the human mind why, at particular periods, it bursts forth with such power, and at other times lies so torpid, we may trace with some confidence causes which at least help to account for this long and dismal blank between the reign of Edward the Third and that of Queen Elizabeth-the whole of the fifteenth century, and a large part of the six
* “I consider Chaucer as a genial day in an English spring. A brilliant sun enlivens the face of nature with an unusual lustre; the sudden appearance of cloudless skies, and the unexpected warmth of a tepid atmosphere, after the gloom and inclemencies of a tedious winter, fill
ar hearts with the visionary prospects of a speedy summer; and we fondly anticipate a long continuance of gentle gales and vernal serenity. But winter returns with redoubled horrors; the clouds condense more formidably than before ; and those tender buds, and early blossoms, which were called forth by the transient gleam of a temporary sunshine, are nipped by frost and torn by tempests." Warton, vol. ii. p. 51. W. B. R.
teenth : seven reigns of disputed legitimacy, thirty years of civil slaughter, first brutalizing and then crushing the pation's heart, the bloody variance of a feudal nobility, a long series of battles, so fierce in their vengeance that the very flowers, the innocent flowers, were torn from the once peaceful gardens to be made the emblems of unrelenting Warfare; and then, when these evils had passed away, there came the darker strife of a nation's distracted church-persecution and the fiery terrors of the stake.
Chaucer had outlived the superb reign of Edward the Third, with its half century of lofty dominion. He had seen the miserable ending of Edward's giddy grandson, the second Richard, thrust from his throne by "mounting Bolingbroke.” The cycle of the fortune of these Lancastrian Plantagenets, reaching its highest splendour in the foreign victories of the fifth Henry, had its sad completion in the disasters of the next reign, and the tragic death of the last of the house of Lancaster. The heart of the nation was suffering the grievous wasting of all that might have been dear to it, by the evil passions engendered in that most deplorable of all political and social conditions, civil warfare; a strife always the fiercest and most unrelenting, for, the ties once broken, which had bound men together by the unconscious bonds of instinctive feelings, bewildered humanity looks on the once dearest friend as the direst foe. “The bells in the church steeples," writes an old church historian,“ were not heard for the sound of drums and trumpets.'
."* The learned were not listened to, or rather were hushed into silence, and the humanizing music of poetry was unknown. How could the intellect
* Fuller, vol. i. p. 54.
adventure any thing when the heart was appalled! How could the imagination aspire when overwhelmed by the dark and fearful pressure of the present !
Thus passed one hundred years of the century and a half which lies between that genial age in which Chaucer flourished, and the other more genial era, that of the Elizabethau literature.
In looking at the early part of the sixteenth century -nearly the first half of it occupied by the reign of Henry VIII.—it is pleasing to find some literary interest in a period which is associated chiefly with ecclesiastical change and the second Tudor's domestic tyranny. An abiding impression on the nation's literature was made at that time by two writers, whose names from early and long association are scarce separable-men of noble birth and character-Sir Thomas Wyatt, the lover of Anne Boleyn, and Henry Howard, the ill-fated Earl of Surrey. Surrey, especially, is esteemed as one of the improvers of Eng. lish verse.
Acquainted with the refinements of Italian verse, acquired either by personal intercourse or by study, he introduced important changes into that of England. The language was made at once more graceful and simple; and Italian forms of verse introduced. The Sonnet was naturalized into English poetry, to disclose in later times that wondrous variety of power and of beauty which has been proved, within its narrow limits, by Milton and by Wordsworth. The English versification was more exactly disciplined; and to Surrey is due the merit of having given the first example of blank verse; that form which has so eminently adapted itself to the language and to the English poet's desires, that it has been well said to deserve the name of “ the English metre ;' a construction which from time to time, has been revealing the musical resources of its unexhausted variety, in the dramatic language of Shakspeare, the epic of the Paradise Lost, in the homelier strains of the Task, in the heroic romance of Roderic, and in the philosophy of the Excursion. Such is our English blank-verse, alike it may be to the eye, but wonderfully varied to the ear, and to that inner spiritual sense which seems, even more than the organ
of hearing, to take cognizance of the music of poetry; and admitting, too, of some characteristic impress from the genius of every great poet that has used it.
There gathered round this noble poet all that could dignify and endear him to his own times and to after times—a lofty lineage, rank, genius, virtue, loyalty, faithful and honourable services; but for his bright career as scholar, courtier, soldier, there was a dark destiny of blood. In our earliest knowledge of English history, one of the first and most vivid impressions is that which we have of the household atrocities of the eighth Henry—to a child's fancy, the British Bluebeard—driving to divorce or death his wives, the mothers of his children, and devoting more than one fair neck, once fondly embraced, to the bloody handling of the headsman. What reign, in the range
more execrable! and the last act of it cast a shadow on the annals of English literature. Henry Howard had been in childhood an inmate of the palace, a playmate of royal children; and when he grew to manhood he was a loyal and honoured courtier, a brave and trusted soldier. But it was Surrey's crime, his only crime, to bear the name of Howard, a name which had newly grown hateful to the despot's ear. He was committed, on a charge of treason, to the Tower; and in the very week