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of them were possessed by thoughts, and feelings, and images, which could not have arisen if they had lived either a century later or as much earlier. Yet the attention of the two was chiefly fixed on different objects: and very dissimilar were their views of man and history, of nature and art. Spenser's eye dwelt, with fond and untiring admiration, on the gorgeous scenery which covered the elfin-land of knighthood and romance: present realities passed before him unseen, or were remembered only to be woven insensibly into the gossamer-tissue of fantasy; and, lost in his life-long dream of antique grandeur and ideal loveliness, he was blind to all the pherfomena of that renovated world, which was rising around him out of the ancient chaos. He was the Last Minstrel of Chivalry: he was greater, beyond comparison, than the greatest of his forerunners; but still he was no more than the modern poet of the remote past. Shakspeare was emphatically the poet of the present and the future. He knew antiquity well, and meditated on it deeply, as he did on all things: the historical glories of England received an added majesty from his hands; and the heroes of Greece and Rome rose to imaginative life at his bidding. But to him the middle ages, not less than the classical times, were unveiled in their true light: he saw in them fallen fragments on which men were to build anew, august scenes of desolation whose ruin taught men to work more wisely: he painted them as the accessory features and distant landscape of colossal pictures, in whose foreground stood figures soaring beyond the limits of their place; figures instinct with the spirit of the time in which the poet lived, yet lifted out of and above their time by the impulse of potent genius, prescient of momentous truths that still lay slumbering in the bosom of futurity.
By the side of the Poetry, in which those celebrated men took the lead, the contemporary Prose shows poorly, with the one great exception. For, in respect of style, Hooker really stands almost alone in his own time, and might be said to do so though he were compared with his successors. His majestic sweep of thought has its parallels : his command of illustration was often surpassed : both as a thinker and as an expounder of thought, this distinguished man is but one among several. But he used the words of his native tongue with a skill and judgment, and wove them into sentences with a harmonious fulness and a frequent approach to complete symmetry of structure, which are alike above the character of English style as it was next to be developed, and marvellous when we remember that he may fairly be held to have been the first in our illustrious train of great prose writers.
Hooker's “Ecclesiastical Polity” was printed in the year 1594.
Sir Philip Sidney's “ Arcadia” had been written before 1587; and in 1596 appeared Bacon's “Essays” and the “View of Ireland” by the poet Spenser. But none of these are comparable in style to the roll of Hooker's sentences. Sidney is loose and clumsy in construction; Bacon is stiff in his forms, and somewhat affectedly antique in diction ; and Spenser's prose is in all respects vigorous rather than polished. But, the value of the matter of the books being at present out of question, none of these entitle us to do more than assert, that, before the close of the sixteenth century, there were a few men who wrote English prose very much more regularly and easily than it had been written before, and that their style is less cumbrous and pedantic than that of the most famous writers who followed.
In a word, the application of the English language to Metrical composition may be held to have been perfected by Shakspeare. It would be hard to discover any improvements which, in this use, it has received since his time. The moulding of it into Prose forms had proceeded so far, that, though its development had here stopped, it would have been fully adequate for expressing all varieties of thought with perfect perspicuity and great vigour. But there was still much to be done, before English Prose could satisfy the requirements of an exactly critical taste. We must remember the real imperfections of style, both in our study of these writers, and when we pass to those of the next generation ; because we are in constant danger of being blinded to them by the fascination of the eloquence displayed in the books in which they are contained.
THE REIGN OF JAMES THE FIRST.
6. The reign of Elizabeth, as we have learned, gave the keynote to all the literature of the next sixty years. Yet, amidst the general harmony with which the strains succeed each other, there break in, not infrequently, clanging discords.
The literary works which belong to this succeeding part of the period, not only were much more numerous, but really stand, if they are regarded in the mass, higher than those which closed the sixteenth century. Spenser was unimitated, and Shakspeare inimitable: but the drama itself, which, in this generation as in the last, monopolized nearly all the best endowed minds, received
and interesting developments; and other kinds of poetry were enriched beyond precedent. Prose writing, on the other hand, blossomed into a harvest of eloquence, unexampled alike in its irregular vigour and in its rich amount.
Under the rule of James, learning was exact enough to do
good service both in classics and theology: and it became sc fashionable, as to infect English writing with a prevalent eruption of pedantic affectations. The chivalrous temper was rapidly on the wane: few men were actuated by it; and those who were so, found themselves ou, of place. The last survivor of Elizabeth's devoted knights died on the scaffold : and the chancellor of the kingdom, the greatest thinker of his day, was found guilty of corruption. In the palace and its precincts, the old coarseness had begun to pass into positive licentiousness: and a moral degeneracy, propagated yet more widely, began to shed its poison on the lighter kinds of literature. The church possessed many good and able men; but events of various kinds were bringing dissent to the surface. The civil polity stood apparently firm; but it was really undermined already, and about to totter and fall.
A few names, distinctively belonging to James's reign, may serve to illustrate its intellectual characteristics. Bacon, the great pilot of modern science, then gave to the world the rudiments of his philosophy: the venerable Camden was perhaps too learned to be accepted as a fair representative of the erudition of his day. Bishop Hall, then beginning to be eminent, exemplifies, favourably, not only the eloquence and talent of the clergy, but the beginnings of resistance to the proceedings and tendencies by which the Church was soon to be overthrown. The drama was headed by Ben Jonson, a semi-classic in taste, and honourably severe in morals; and by Beaumont and Fletcher, luxuriating in irregularity of dramatic forms, and heralding the licentiousness which soon corrupted the art generally. From the crowd of poets who filled other fields, we may single out Donne, both as very distinguished for native genius, and as having been the instrument in the introduction of fantastic eccentricities into poetical composition.
THE REIGN OF CHARLES THE FIRST : THE COMMONWEALTH
7. The public events which took place in the last two sections of our period run gradually into each other, so as to make the successive stages not distinctly separable. Charles the First ceased to reign, long before he laid down his head on the block; and, while he still occupied the throne, the measures of his chief advisers, urged with impotent imprudence, and aggravated by royal perfidy, had already separated the nation into two great parties, opposed to each other both politically and ecclesiastically. Strafford alarmed patriotic statesmen into rebellion : Laud goaded conscientious religionists into secession from the Church.
The battle of sects and factions began, at the earliest opportunity, to be fought with the pen as well as the sword : and
many of the ablest men on both sides spent their strength, and forfeited their claim to enduring reputation, in ceaseless and nowforgotten controversies. But the momentous questions which were then openly agitated, for the first time in the modern history of England, produced not a little fruit that was destined to be lasting. Sound constitutional principles, hitherto but insinuated by any who nourished them, were broadly avowed and convincingly taught, not in parliament only and in the war of pamphlets, but in histories and dissertations designed, and some of them not unworthy, to descend to posterity. Dissenters from the church, able at length both to acknowledge their convictions and to defend them, wrote and spoke with a force of reasoning and of eloquence, which speedily converted thé nickname of Puritans into an epithet which, though it might imply dislike, yet no longer justified contempt. Nor, while the struggle lasted, did the hierarchy or the throne want champions brave or pious, learned in books or skilful in argument. On both sides, and in all the chief sections into which the successive changes parted the nation, there emerged an admirable strength of intellect and a wide fertility of resources : the minds of men caught an enthusiastic fervour from the fiery atmosphere in which they breathed : and some of the most eloquent writings in the English language had their birth, or the prompting that first inspired their authors, amidst the convulsions of the Civil War, or in the strangely perplexed era of the Commonwealth and the Protectorate.
What has now been said, however, bears almost wholly on prose literature. Poetry was, and could not but be, differently affected. The storm which desolates a nation divided against itself, furnishes themes which, unfortunately for the credit of human nature, are peculiarly powerful instruments in the hands of poets who look back on the tempest after it has blown over: but its real hatefulness appears sufficiently from this fact alone, that it withers all poetic flowers that attempt to bud while it rages in the air. English poetry drooped, by necessity, ever after the breaking out of the political troubles. Nor was the serious temper which afterwards, for a while, ruled the majority of the nation, calculated to form a good school for the nurture of a new race of poets. It was too keenly exclusive, too fiercely controversial, too gloomily ascetic, to leave free room for the play of ideal fancy and benignant sympathy. That stern era did, no doubt, mould into an awful thoughtfulness, which might not otherwise have dwelt on it, the mind of one man gifted with extraordinary genius. But, although Milton, in all likelihood, would not have conceived the “ Paradise Lost” had he not lived and acted and felt with the Puritans and Vane and Cromwell, we may warrantably believe that he could not have made his poem the consummate work of art which it is, if his youthful fancy had not been fed, and his early studies completed, amidst the imaginative license and the courtly pomp that adorned the last days of the hierarchy and the monarchy.
8. This train of reflection, however, leads us to remember, that the poets of King Charles's time were very far from being so pure or elevated in sentiment, as to make the gradual silencing of them a matter of unmixed regret. The poetry of a generation, regarded in the mass, is, of all its intellectual efforts, by far the quickest, as well as the most correct, in reflecting the aspects of the world without. In the readiness and closeness, indeed, with which it repeats the lights and shades that fall on it from the face of society, it exceeds other kinds of literature quite as far, as the chemically prepared plate of the photograph exceeds a common mirror in its repetition of the forms and hues of the objects that are presented to it. Above all, this is true ; that the Muses have always been dangerously susceptible to impressions from the moral climate of the regions in which they are placed.
Now, it has been hinted already, that the roughness of speech and manners which in Elizabeth's time prevailed to the last, was followed, in the next reign, by a real coarseness and lowness of sentiment and principle.
This grew worse and worse under James's The morality of those classes of society with which most of the poets associated, and in which their audiences were sought, underwent a rapid and lamentable declension from the time when the antagonism between the national parties was fairly established. Another issue might have been hoped for. The refined taste and studious habits of the unfortunate king were not, seemingly, a surer presage of royal countenance to literary genius, than his devout meditativeness, and his severe strictness of private conduct, were of encouragement to literature in teaching purity and goodness. But, most unfortunately for all men, the morality of the cavaliers took, in spite of every obstacle, a course precisely parallel to that of the policy which had been adopted by the statesmen who ruled them. Just as every fresh demand made by the parliament on behalf of the people had brought forth some wider assertion of the prerogative of the crown; not otherwise, throughout the war, with every step which the puritans and parliamenta rians took towards purification of doctrine and amendment of life and manners, there arose, among the royalists, a new. access