Page images

discover any point at which its activity can be said, with truth, to have either ceased or flagged. Impediments thrown up in one channel of thought, served only to drive the current forward with redoubled impetuosity in another. Some of the highest minds, indeed, lingered on earth till the bounds of their time were past, casting the shadow of their strength on the feebler age that followed. Allied, likewise, so closely, by the originality and vigour which was common to all, the leaders of our golden age of letters were linked together not less firmly by the common spirit and tone of their works. Let us look in what direction we will; to theology or philosophy, to the drama, or the narrative poem, or the ever-shifting shapes of the lyric: everywhere there meets us, in the midst of boundless dissimilitude imprinted by individual genius and temperament, a similarity of general characteristics as striking as if it had been transmitted with the blood. The great men of that great age, separated from their predecessors by a gap in time, and distinguished from them yet more clearly by their intellectual character, stand aloof, quite as decidedly, from those degenerate successors, amidst whom a few of them moved in the latest stages of their course. Taylor, and Hall, and Baxter, are pupils who learned new lessons in the school which had nurtured Hooker; Hobbes might be called, without injustice to either party, the philosophical step-son and heir of Bacon ; and Milton is the last survivor of the princely race, whose intellectual founders were Spenser and Shakspeare.

While the period thus spoken of, reaching from about 1580 to 1660, must be treated as one, it will not be supposed to have been void of changes. Eighty years could not have passed along, in one of the most actively thinking ages of the world, without evolving much that was novel ; still less could this have happened in a time when revolutions, political and religious, were bursting out like volcanoes, and when all the relations of society were, more than once, utterly metamorphosed.

Accordingly, we cannot thoroughly understand the intellectual phenomena that arose, unless we begin our scrutiny by regarding them in their order of succession; and the spirit which prevailed in public affairs communicated itself sufficiently to literature, to make the changes of dynasty represent, in a loose way, the successive changes which took place in the realm of letters. We will hastily examine, one after another, the latter half of Elizabeth's reign, the reign of James, that of Charles, and the few years of the Commonwealth and Protectorate.


3. It is not easy to detect all the impulses, which made the last generation of the sixteenth century so strong in itself, and capable of bequeathing so much strength to those who took up its inheritance.

The chivalrous temper of the middle ages was not yet extinct. But it had begun to seek for more useful fields of exercise when it animated the half-piratical adventurers, who roamed the seas of the west in search of new worlds, and fame, and gold; and it burned with a purer flame in Queen Elizabeth's foreign wars, blazing up with a mingled burst of patriotic and religious zeal when the shores of England were threatened by the terrible fleet of the Spaniards. There was an expanding elasticity, a growing freedom, both of thought and of action ; a freedom which was very imperfect according to modern views, but which still was much wider than any that had yet, unless for short intervals, been enjoyed by the nation. There was an increasing national prosperity, with a corresponding advance of comfort and refinement throughout all ranks of society. Ancient literature became directly familiar to a few, and at second hand to very many; a knowledge of such science as Europe then possessed began to be zealously desired by educated men; and there was diffused, widely, an acquaintance with the history and relations of other countries.

Mightier than all these forces in outward show, and strong in its slow and silent working on the hearts of the nation, was the influence exerted by the Reformation, which, now completed, had moulded the polity of the English Church into the form it was destined to retain. More gentle than the gales that blew from the new-found islands of the ocean, was the spirit which pure religion breathed, or should have breathed, over the face of society; and tenfold more welcome was, or should have been, the voice that announced freedom of spiritual thought, than the loudest blast with which a herald's trumpet ever ushered in a proclamation of civil liberty. It cannot be doubted that the ecclesiastical revolution, which was so peacefully effected by Elizabeth, was felt, by the nation at large, like the removal of an oppressive weight. But we must not allow ourselves to imagine, either that perfect religious freedom was now gained; or that the old faith vanished from the land as a snow-wreath melts before the warmth of spring; or that the purification of doctrine and discipline transformed the hearts and minds of a whole people with the suddenness of a sorcerer's charm.

In the deliverance out of the ancient prison-house, the cap. tives carried with them some of the ancient fetters. This took place partly because the strong-willed sovereign so decreed it, partly because it could not well have been otherwise. If Elizabeth sternly suppressed the dissent of her Catholic subjects, she prevented, with a hand equally heavy, all departure of Protestants from the ecclesiastical polity which she had established; and, in church as in state, her prudent mixture of forbearance with severity checked the growth, as well as curbed the manifestation, of discontents which were to be aggravated into destructive violence by the bigotry and folly of her successors. In regard to the matters in which we are immediately interested, the great queen's policy, and the state of doctrine during the greater part of her time, concurred in having this effect; that puritanism has not in any shape a place in literary history till we reach the reign of James. Literature was affected in a different

way by the somewhat doubtful state of opinion and feeling which is traceable among the people. The cautious and moderate character of the ecclesiastical changes, while it facilitated the gradual absorption of the whole community into the bosom of the reformed church, saved all men from that abrupt breaking up of settled associations, and that severe antagonism of feeling between the old and the new, which another course of events had caused in Scotland. It is certain that the effects which this state of things produced in literature, and most of all in poetry, were, in the meantime at least, highly beneficial. The puets, speaking to the nation, and themselves inhaling its spirit, had thus at their command a rich fund of ideas and sentiments, passing in an uninterrupted series from the past into the present. The picturesqueness of the middle ages, and their chivalry, and their superstitions, still awakened in every breast an echo more or less loud and clear; and the newly revealed spiritual world, which was gradually diffusing its atmosphere all around, communicated, even to those who were unconscious whence the prompting came, enlarged vigour and independence of thought, and novel and elevating objects of aspiration. Nor was the morality of the time, whatever may be our ethical judgment on it, less favourable to the progress of literary culture. It was neither lofty nor ascetic, but neither was it generally impure; it was, like the manners, seldom refined ; but, like these, it was coarse in tone rather than bad in essence. It was better than that which had prevailed in the early part of the century; and unfortunately, that of the time which succeeded was much


It is a question which tempts to wide conjectures, what the results might have been if the social and ecclesiastical relations of England had been guided into another channel; what might have happened, in the progress of literature or in that of the nation, if, for example, the people had been trained in such a school as that, of which the short reign of Edward the Sixth held out the promise; if they had been taught by a press subjected to no restrictions, and guided by a clergy from whom puritanism inherited its doctrines and its spirit. Probably Charles the First would not have been dethroned ; but probably, likewise, neither Shakspeare nor Spenser would have written.

4. The adventurers who flocked into the tourney-field of letters, during the last half of Elizabeth's reign, are a host whom it would take hours to muster. Their writings range over the whole circle of knowledge and invention, and give anticipations, both in prose and in verse, of almost every variety which literature has since displayed; and, although a few only of the vast number of works have gained wide and enduring celebrity, there are among them a good many, which, if seldom read, are known sufficiently to keep alive the names of the authors.

The minor writers of that age deserve much greater honour than they are wont to receive. The labours of several of them are really not less important than those of their most celebrated contemporaries; as facts in the intellectual history of our nation. In some departments, indeed, the small men worked more signal improvements than the great ones; and, everywhere, the credit which is usually monopolized by the one class, should in justice be shared with the other. Were it not for the drama and the chivalrous epic, it might be said that the less distinguished authors of that generation were the earliest builders of the structure of English literature. Others coming after them reared the edifice higher, and decked it with richer ornament: but the rustic basement is as essential a part of the pile, as are the porticos and columns that support its roof. Had it not been for the experiments which were tried by such men, and the promptings and warnings which their example furnished, their successors could not have effected what they did.

Further, the social and intellectual character of the last generation in the sixteenth century descended, in great part, to the race that followed it. Those to whom the men of letters addressed themselves in the reign of James, could not have been qualified to respond to their appeals, if they had not been the sons of those who had so strongly acted and thought and felt in the time of Elizabeth.

[ocr errors]

Therefore, even although the most distinguished names of that earlier time had been wanting, it would not be either unjust or incorrect to speak, as we often do, of the whole mass of our literature down to the Commonwealth, as belonging to the Elizabethan Age. Yet to her time belong strictly no more than three of the great men of our period. Its intellectual chiefs were Spenser, Shakspeare, and Hooker: and, it must now be said on the other side, if these had stood literally alone, they would suffice to vindicate for the reign of the masculine queen its right to be described as the most illustrious era in our intellectual annals.

When we have read the names of those three celebrated men, and have noted the time in which they lived, we know when it was that English poetry rose to its culminating point, in style as well as in matter; and we know also when it was that English eloquence, though still imperfect in language, spoke, from one mouth at least, with a majesty which it has never since surpassed.

That the poetical art should be developed more quickly than other departments of literature, is a circumstance which, after our study of earlier periods, we should be quite prepared to expect. The nation grows like the man: it nourishes imagination and passion before reflective thought is matured ; and it creates and appreciates poetry, while history seems uninteresting, and philosophy is unknown. All languages, also, are fully competent for expressing the complex manifestations of fancy and emotion, long before they become fit for precisely denoting general truths, or recording correctly the results of analysis; and, yet further, all of them can move freely when supported by the leading-strings of verse, although their gait might still be uncertain and awkward if, prose being adopted, the guiding hand were taken away. Here, indeed, it should be remembered, that, in these, the latest stages in the development of the English tongue, a high degree of excellence in prose style followed, more quickly than is usual, on the perfecting of the language for metrical uses.

5. Our two immortal poets must be studied more closely hereafter: a few points only may here conveniently be premised.

The Faerie Queene of Spenser, and the Dramas of Shakspeare, are possessions for all time: yet they wear, strikingly and characteristically, features imprinted on them by the age in which they were conceived. Their inventors stood on a frontier-ground, which, while it lay within the bounds of the new moral kingdom, and commanded a prospect over its nearest scenes of regular and cultivated beauty, yet also enabled them to look backward on the past, and to catch vivid glimpses of its wild magnificence. Both

« PreviousContinue »