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All the influences by which English Literature was thenceforth to be affected, were of such a nature that their operation could not but be slow; and some of them manifested themselves in a fashion, which caused their immediate effects to be very unlike those that might have been expected to flow from them. Both of these things are true in regard to the Protestant Reformation, the mightiest of the forces which imprinted a new stamp on intellectual activity; and the first of them is true in regard to that new Revival of Classical Learning, which was the second of the predominating literary influences.
The change of faith, a change destined to generate the most beneficial and elevating developments of opinion and sentiment, was yet, through the very earnestness and intensity with which it concentrated the minds of thinking men on theological and ecclesiastical questions, decidedly unfavourable, for a time, to the more imaginative departments of literary exertion. The zeal, again, with which the purest models of Latin literature began anew to be studied, and the enthusiasm, yet keener, which attended the novel studies of our countrymen in the literature of Greece, produced, as it had in Italy not long before, both a dearth of originality and an inattention to the cultivation of the living tongue. Neither Protestant truth and freedom, nor Classical taste and knowledge, could ripen those literary fruits which were their natural offspring, until a process of training had been undergone, for which, in any circumstances, a generation or two would scarcely have been sufficient. But the circumstances which actually occurred, were such as necessarily suspended, for a time yet longer, the salutary operation of the purer and more active of the two influences. The student of history does not require to be reminded, how corruptly prompted, how incomplete and inconsistent in themselves, and how tyrannically and obnoxiously enforced, were the steps by which Henry the Eighth became the instrument of throwing off the yoke of Rome. We all know, likewise, how the short reign of Henry's admirable son was inadequate for enabling him and his advisers to purify thoroughly and found solidly the revolution thus superficial and incomplete; and how it thus became possible for Mary to compel, for a while, formal submission to a church in which few of her subjects now trusted, but whose evil nature still fewer of them knew well enough to be willing to sacrifice life as the penalty of dissent.
2. When, in a word, we reflect on the public events which marked the reigns of those three sovereigns; when we consider, also, that every new kind of knowledge requires to suffer a process of digestion, before it can nourish the mind to healthy strength
and inspire it with original energy; and when we remember how gradually and slowly the art of printing itself
, the great instrument of modern enlightenment, diffused its blessings in the earliest times of its operation; we shall not be surprised to discover that, throughout a great part of the sixteenth century, English literature did not assume a character separating it decisively from that of the ages which had gone before. It did not really take its station as the worthy organ of a new epoch in the history of civilisation, until the reign of Elizabeth was within thirty years of its close.
We see, then, that our Literature, like our Language, has had its era of transition. This character belongs emphatically to the period whose phenomena we are about to study, and whose bounds might not unfitly be extended a little beyond the point at which, for the sake of convenience, it is here marked as ending. The scene is dimly lighted; and the figures that move in it are less august than those that will next appear. But the parts they play are, in a strict and proper sense, introductory to the great drama which is offered to us in the literary history of modern times. Among the brilliant works of the Elizabethan age, there is probably none, of which we may not detect germs in some of the efforts which were made within the half-century that preceded. The great prose writers, the masters of the drama, the students in the Italian school of poetry, all profited by what had then been done. The literary poverty of the Age of the Reformation was the poverty which the settler in an unpeopled country has to endure, while he fells the woods that overshadowed him, and sows his half-tilled fields. It was a poverty in the bosom of which lay rich abundance.
Accordingly this epoch, so unspeakably momentous in the social history of Christendom, requires, even from the student of literature, an amount of attention far beyond that which might seem due to its literary efforts, if these were judged merely as they are in themselves. The relations, likewise, which subsisted between the intellectual and the religious changes, present themselves to us with a frequency which is exceedingly instructive, and through which a light is thrown, by each of the two paths of progress, on the events that were occurring in the other. It is very curious to remark in how many odd ways we see the literature of the day, and the ecclesiastical and theological reforms, mixed up together and exercising a mutual action.
Nor do we linger reluctantly over the history of an era, in which, for the sake of goodness and of truth, so much, so very much, was earnestly thought, and bravely done, and patiently
suffered. Alike in the acts, and in the intellectual efforts, of the men who, in the face of danger and of death, guided the opinions and the deeds of that agitated generation, we acknowledge, amidst all weaknesses and faults and sins, a mighty course of events, governed by the hand of Him who has willed that man should know the truth and through the truth be free. the inheritors of the blessings which our forefathers won, devolves the duty of understanding rightly the lessons which their history teaches, and of applying those lessons to our lives and sentiments, in the spirit of enlightened knowledge and of Christian love.
3. The Classical Learning of the age claims our notice first. Its cultivation stood in a twofold relation to the changes in the church. It was, antecedently, one of the causes of deviation from received opinions; and it became, afterwards, one of the instruments most actively used in ecclesiastical controversy, both for attack and for defence.
This was the department of knowledge, and its students were the class of readers, that profited, in the first instance, more than any others, by the diffusion of the art of printing. The early press was employed in the multiplication of ancient books, much more frequently than in producing works in any of the living tongues. Of the ten thousand editions of books, large and small, which are said to have been printed before the close of the fifteenth century, more than half appeared in Italy; and a very large proportion of these consisted of classical works. Our English press, producing in all, before that date, no more than about a hundred and forty, contributed nothing in this department; but the increased facilities of communication between different countries put quickly at the disposal of our scholars both the knowledge and the publications of the continent. And students were now placed in a position of incalculable advantage, by the reduced price of books. They cost, it is said, one-fifth only of the sums which had been paid for manuscripts.
Foreign men of letters, also, visited England; and a strong impulse was given, especially, by the presence of the accomplished Erasmus. This celebrated scholar, writing about the middle of our period, pronounces England to have then been more exactly learned than any continental nation, excepting Italy alone. Classical studies were prosecuted, with remarkable ardour, in both of the directions in which the improvements of the continent had already begun. Greek was studied accurately for the first time;
Latin was learned with an accuracy and purity never before attained.
The language and literature of Greece had been introduced before the beginning of the century, by William Grocyn, justly called the patriarch of English learning, who had studied in Italy under the fugitive scholars from Constantinople. The appearance of this new branch of erudition excited at first an alarm, which divided Oxford into two factions, the Greeks and the Trojans. But enlightenment speedily forced its way. Thomas Linacre, the first physician of the day, translated Ğalen and other authors into Latin, and wrote original treatises in the same tongue; and William Lilly, the author, in part, of the Old Latin Grammar, which bears his name, learned Greek at Rhodes, and, on the foundation of Saint Paul's school, was the first who publicly taught the language in England. Cambridge next became the focus of Hellenic learning, through the teaching of two very able men, both of whom were soon withdrawn from the academic cloisters to the arena of public business : Sir Thomas Smith, who became one of the most eminent statesmen of his time; and Sir John Cheke, whose name will be remembered by most of us as introduced in a sonnet of Milton.
Latin scholarship flourished not less, in the hands of these and other zealous promoters. Among those who became most distinguished in this department, were several who likewise attained to eminence elsewhere. Such was Cardinal Pole, Cranmer's successor in the see of Canterbury, and one of the most accomplished of those ecclesiastics who adhered to the old faith. Of the Reformers, though several were creditable scholars, none seem to have been very highly celebrated except the martyr Ridley. Of other Latinists it is enough to name Leland, best known in modern times for his researches into English antiquities; Roger Ascham, the tutor of Queen Elizabeth; and the celebrated and unfortunate Sir Thomas More.
The Latin writings of Ascham are miscellaneous, and not very important. The principal work which More composed in that language, was the “ Utopia,” in which he described an imaginary commonwealth, placed on an imaginary island from which the book takes its name, and having a polity whose main feature is a thorough community of property. The epithet “ Utopian” is still familiar to us, as descriptive of chimerical and fantastic schemes; and notwithstanding the good Latinity of More's treatise, and the similarity of its design to that of Plato's Republic, the leading idea really looks so like a grave jest, and such jesting was so much in accordance with the character of the man,
that we are reminded by it of those half-serious apologues which we found to be prevalent in the monasteries of the middle ages. The work, in truth, is a romance, although clothed in a scholastic garb; and it abounds with touches of humour and strokes of homely illustration. Nor is it wanting in those lessons of wisdom, which its strong-minded writer loved so much to inculcate with his quiet smile. It is striking, perhaps humiliating to modern pride of enlightenment, to hear the chancellor of Henry the Eighth urging the education of the people, asserting solemnly that it is better to prevent crime than to punish it, and denouncing the severities of the penal code as discreditable to England.
Among the other scholars of the time, may be named John Bale, who, in the reign of Edward the Sixth, was made bishop of Ossory. Although he was a voluminous writer of English theological tracts, chiefly controversial, his memory is now preserved only by certain lighter effusions, to be named soon, and by bis series of Latin Lives of old British Writers, which is still an authoritative book of reference.
The stock of ancient learning was thus very large. But it was accumulated in the hands of a few capitalists. The communication of it, however, to a wider circle, was anxiously aimed at, by the foundation of schools and colleges, of which a larger number was established in the hundred years which end with the accession of Elizabeth, than in any equal period throughout the course of our history. The most celebrated benefactors were Dean Colet, the founder of Saint Paul's School, and himself one of the most skilful Latinists of his time; and Cardinal Wolsey, who was a man of learning as well as of political ability.
THEOLOGICAL LITERATURE IN ENGLISH.
4. Among the works couched in the living tongue, the most important, by very far, were those which were devoted to Theology. Foremost
such efforts, and claiming from us reverent and thankful attention, were the Translations of the Scriptures into English, none of which had been publicly attempted since that of Wycliffe. The history of these is very interesting; not only for its own sake, but also because, as we shall speedily learn, our received version of the Bible owes largely to them.
William Tyndale, a native of Gloucestershire, a
man of studious and ascetic habits, imbibed, in the early part of Henry's reign, many of the opinions of the continental reformers; and he expressed these so openly, in private intercourse and occasional preaching in the country, that his
. ab. 1485. d. 1536.