CHAPTER X. THE BARREN PERIOD BETWEEN CHAUCER AND SPENSER.
Greek Literature. Invention of Printing. Caxton. Contemporary History.
Skelton. Wyatt. Surrey. Sir Thomas More. Utopia, and other Works. Other
THE STUDY OF GREEK LITERATURE.
Having thus mentioned the writers whom we regard as belonging to the period of Chaucer, although some of them, like Henryson and Dunbar, flourished at the close of the fifteenth century, we reach those of that literary epoch which may be regarded as the transition state between Chaucer and the age of Elizabeth: an epoch which, while it produced no great literary work, and is irradiated by no great name, was, however, a time of preparation for the splendid advent of Spenser and Shakspeare.
Incident to the dangers which had so long beset the Eastern or Byzantine Empire, which culminated in the fall of Constantinople—and to the gradual but steady progress of Western Europe in arts and letters, which made it a welcome refuge for the imperilled learning of the East—Greek letters came like a fertilizing flood across the Continent into England. The philosophy of Plato, the power of the Athenian drama, and the learning of the Stagyrite, were a new impulse to literature. Before the close of the fifteenth century, Greek was taught at Oxford, and men marvelled as they read that “musical and prolific language, that gives a soul to the objects of sense, and a body to the abstractions of philosophy,” a knowledge of which had been before entirely lost in the West. Thus was perfected what is known as the revival of letters, when classical learning came to enrich and modify the national literatures, if it did temporarily retard the vernacular progress. The Humanists carried the day against the Obscurantists; and, as scholarship had before consisted in a thorough knowledge of Latin, it now also included a knowledge of Greek, which presented noble works of poetry, eloquence, and philosophy, and gave us a new idiom for the terminologies of science.
INVENTION OF PRINTING.—Nor was this all. This great wealth of learning would have still remained a dead letter to the multitude, and, in the main, a useless treasure even to scholars, had it not been for a simple yet marvellous invention of the same period. In Germany, some obscure mechanics, at Harlem, at Mayence, and at Strasbourg, were at work upon a machine which, if perfected, should at once extend letters a hundred-fold, and by that process revolutionize literature. The writers before, few as they were, had been almost as numerous as the readers; hereafter the readers were to increase in a geometrical proportion, and each great writer should address millions. Movable types, first of wood and then of metal, were made, the latter as early as 1441. Schoeffer, Guttenberg, and Faust brought them to such perfection that books were soon printed and issued in large numbers. But so slowly did the art travel, partly on account of want of communication, and partly because it was believed to partake of necromancy, and partly, too, from the phlegmatic character of the English people, that thirty years elapsed before it was brought into England. The art of printing came in response to the demand of an age of progress: it was needed before; it was called for by the increasing number of readers, and when it came it multiplied that number largely.
WILLIAM CAXTON.—That it did at last come to England was due to William Caxton, a native of Kent, and by vocation a mercer, who imported costly continental fabrics into England, and with them some of the new books now being printed in Holland. That he was a man of some eminence is shown by his having been engaged by Edward IV. on a mission to the Duke of Burgundy, with power to negotiate a treaty of commerce; that he was a person of skill and courtesy is evinced by his being retained in the service of Margaret, Duchess of York, when she married Charles, Duke of Burgundy. While in her train, he studied printing on the Continent, and is said to have printed some books there. At length, when he was more than sixty years old, he returned to England; and, in 1474, he printed what is supposed to be the first book printed in England, “The Game and Playe of the Chesse.” Thus it was a century after Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales that printing was introduced into England. Caxton died in 1491, but his workmen continued to print, and among them Wynken de Worde stands conspicuous. Among the earlier works printed by Caxton were the Canterbury Tales, the Book of Fame, and the Troilus and Creseide of Chaucer.
CONTEMPORARY HISTORY.—It will be remembered that this was the stormy period of the Wars of the Roses. The long and troubled reign of Henry VI. closed in sorrow in 1471. The titular crown of France had been easily taken from him by Charles VII. and Joan of Arc; and although Richard of York, the great-grandson of Edward III., had failed in his attempts upon the English throne, yet his son Edward, afterward the Fourth, was successful. Then came the patricide of Clarence, the accession and cruelties of Richard III., the battle of Bosworth, and, at length, the union of the two houses in the persons of Henry VII. (Henry Tudor of Lancaster) and Elizabeth of York. Thus the strife of the succession was settled, and the realm had rest to reorganize and start anew in its historic career.
The weakening of the aristocracy by war and by execution gave to the crown a power before unknown, and made it a fearful coigne of vantage for Henry VIII., whose accession was in 1509. People and parliament were alike subservient, and gave their consent to the unjust edicts and arbitrary cruelties of this terrible tyrant.
In his reign the old English quarrel between Church and State—which during the civil war had lain dormant—again rose, and was brought to a final issue. It is not unusual to hear that the English Reformation grew out of the ambition of a libidinous monarch. This is a coincidence rather than a cause. His lust and his marriages would have occurred had there been no question of Pope or Church; conversely, had there been a continent king upon the throne, the great political and religious events would have happened in almost the same order and manner. That “knock of a king” and “incurable wound” prophesied by Piers Plowman were to come. Henry only seized the opportunity afforded by his ungodly passions as the best pretext, where there were many, for setting the Pope at defiance; and the spirit of reformation so early displayed, and awhile dormant from circumstances, and now strengthened by the voice of Luther, burst forth in England. There was little demur to the suppression of the monasteries; the tomb of St. Thomas a Becket was desecrated amidst the insulting mummeries of the multitude; and if Henry still burned Lutherans—because he could not forget that he had in earlier days denounced Luther—if he still maintained the six bloody articles—his reforming spirit is shown in the execution of Fisher and More, by the anathema which he drew upon himself from the Pope, and by Henry's retaliation upon the friends and kinsmen of Cardinal Pole, the papal legate.
Having thus briefly glanced at the history, we return to the literary products, all of which reflect more or less of the historic age, and by their paucity and poverty indicate the existence of the causes so unfavorable to literary effort. This statement will be partially understood when we mention, as the principal names of this period, Skelton, Wyatt, Surrey, and Sir Thomas More, men whose works are scarcely known to the ordinary reader, and which are yet the best of the time.
SKELTON.—John Skelton, poet, priest, and buffoon, was born about the year 1460, and educated at what he calls “Alma parens, O Cantabrigensis.” Tutor to Prince Henry, afterward Henry VIII., he could boast, “The honour of England I lernyd to spelle.” That he was highly esteemed in his day we gather from the eulogium of Erasmus, then for a short time professor of Greek at Oxford: “Unum Brittanicarum literarum lumen et decus.” By another contemporary he is called the “inventive Skelton.” As a priest he was not very holy; for, in a day when the marriage of the clergy was worse than their incontinence, he contracted a secret marriage. He enjoyed for a time the patronage of Wolsey, but afterward joined his enemies and attacked him violently. He was laureated: this does not mean, as at present, that he was poet laureate of England, but that he received a degree of which that was the title.
His works are direct delineations of the age. Among these are “monodies” upon Kynge Edwarde the forthe, and the Earle of Northumberlande. He corrects for Caxton “The boke of the Eneydos composed by Vyrgyle.” He enters heartily into numerous literary quarrels; is a reformer to the extent of exposing ecclesiastical abuses in his Colin Clout; and scourges the friars and bishops alike; and in this work, and his “Why come ye not to Courte?” he makes a special target of Wolsey, and the pomp and luxury of his household. He calls him “Mad Amelek, like to Mamelek” (Mameluke), and speaks
Of his wretched original
And his greasy genealogy.
He came from the sank (blood) royal
That was cast out of a butcher's stall.
This was the sorest point upon which he could touch the great cardinal and prime minister of Henry VIII.
Historically considered, one work of Skelton is especially valuable, for it places him among the first of English dramatists. The first effort of the modern drama was the miracle play; then came the morality; after that the interlude, which was soon merged into regular tragedy and comedy. Skelton's “Magnyfycence,” which he calls “a goodly interlude and a merie,” is, in reality, a morality play as well as an interlude, and marks the opening of the modern drama in England.
The peculiar verse of Skelton, styled skeltonical, is a sort of English anacreontic. One example has been given; take, as another, the following lampoon of Philip of Spain and the armada:
A skeltonicall salutation
Or condigne gratulation
And just vexation
Of the Spanish nation,
That in bravado
Spent many a crusado
In setting forth an armado
England to invado.
Who but Philippus,
That seeketh to nip us,
To rob us and strip us,
And then for to whip us,
Would ever have meant
Or had intent
Or hither sent
Such strips of charge, etc., etc.
It varies from five to six syllables, with several consecutive rhymes.
His “Merie Tales” are a series of short and generally broad stories, suited to the vulgar taste: no one can read them without being struck with the truly historic character of the subjects and the handling, and without moralizing upon the age which they describe. Skelton, a contemporary of the French Rabelais, seems to us a weak English portrait of that great author; like him a priest, a buffoon, a satirist, and a lampooner, but unlike him in that he has given us no English Gargantua and Pantagruel to illustrate his age.
WYATT.—The next writer who claims our attention is Sir Thomas Wyatt, the son of Sir Henry Wyatt. He was born in 1503, and educated at Cambridge. Early a courtier, he was imperilled by his attachment to Anne Boleyn, conceded, if not quite Platonic, yet to have never led him to criminality. Several of his poems were inspired by her charms. The one best known begins—
What word is that that changeth not,
Though it be turned and made in twain?
It is mine ANNA, God it wot, etc.
That unfortunate queen—to possess whose charms Henry VIII. had repudiated Catherine of Arragon, and who was soon to be brought to the block after trial on the gravest charges—which we do not think substantiated—was, however, frivolous and imprudent, and liked such impassioned attentions—indeed, may be said to have suffered for them.
Wyatt was styled by Camden “splendide doctus,” but his learning, however honorable to him, was not of much benefit to the world; for his works are few, and most of them amatory—“songs and sonnets”—full of love and lovers: as a makeweight, in foro conscientiae, he paraphrased the penitential Psalms. An excellent comment this on the age of Henry VIII., when the monarch possessed with lust attempted the reformation of the Church. That Wyatt looked with favor upon the Reformation is indicated by one of his remarks to the king: “Heavens! that a man cannot repent him of his sins without the Pope's leave!” Imprisoned several times during the reign of Henry, after that monarch's death he favored the accession of Lady Jane Grey, and, with other of her adherents, was executed for high treason on the 11th of April, 1554. We have spoken of the spirit of the age. Its criticism was no better than its literature; for Wyatt, whom few read but the literary historian, was then considered
A hand that taught what might be said in rhyme,
That reft Chaucer the glory of his wit.
The glory of Chaucer's wit remains, while Wyatt is chiefly known because he was executed.
SURREY.—A twin star, but with a brighter lustre, was Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, a writer whose works are remarkable for purity of thought and refinement of language. Surrey was a gay and wild young fellow—distinguished in the tournament which celebrated Henry's marriage with Anne of Cleves; now in prison for eating meat in Lent, and breaking windows at night; again we find him the English marshal when Henry invaded France in 1544. He led a restless life, was imperious and hot-tempered to the king, and at length quartered the king's arms with his own, thus assuming royal rights and imperilling the king's dignity. On this charge, which was, however, only a pretext, he was arrested and executed for high treason in 1547, before he was thirty years old.
Surrey is the greatest poetical name of Henry the Eighth's reign, not so much for the substance of his poems as for their peculiar handling. He is claimed as the introducer of blank verse—the iambic pentameter without rhyme, occasionally broken for musical effect by a change in the place of the caesural pause. His translation of the Fourth Book of the AEneid, imitated perhaps from the Italian version of the Cardinal de Medici, is said to be the first specimen of blank verse in English. How slow its progress was is proved by Johnson's remarks upon the versification of Milton. Thus in his blank verse Surrey was the forerunner of Milton, and in his rhymed pentameter couplet one of the heralds of Dryden and Pope.
SIR THOMAS MORE.—In a bird's-eye view of literature, the division into poetry and prose is really a distinction without a difference. They are the same body in different clothing, at labor and at festivity—in the working suit and in the court costume. With this remark we usher upon the literary scene Thomas More, in many respects one of the most remarkable men of his age—scholar, jurist, statesman, gentleman, and Christian; and, withal, a martyr to his principles of justice and faith. In a better age, he would have retained the highest honors: it is not to his discredit that in that reign he was brought to the block.
He was born in 1480. A very precocious youth, a distinguished career was predicted for him. He was greatly favored by Henry VIII., who constantly visited him at Chelsea, hanging upon his neck, and professing an intensity of friendship which, it is said, More always distrusted. He was the friend and companion of Erasmus during the residence of that distinguished man in England. More was gifted as an orator, and rose to the distinction of speaker of the House of Commons; was presented with the great seal upon the dismissal of Wolsey, and by his learning, his affability, and his kindness, became the most popular, as he seemed to be the most prosperous man in England. But, the test of Henry's friendship and of More's principles came when the king desired his concurrence in the divorce of Catherine of Arragon. He resigned the great seal rather than sign the marriage articles of Anne Boleyn, and would not take the oath as to the lawfulness of that marriage. Henry's kindness turned to fury, and More was a doomed man. A devout Romanist, he would not violate his conscience by submitting to the act of supremacy which made Henry the head of the Church, and so he was tried for high treason, and executed on the 6th of July, 1535. There are few scenes more pathetic than his last interview with his daughter Margaret, in the Tower, and no death more calmly and beautifully grand than his. He kissed the executioner and forgave him. “Thou art,” said he, “to do me the greatest benefit that I can receive: pluck up thy spirit man, and be not afraid to do thine office.”
UTOPIA.—His great work, and that which best illustrates the history of the age, is his Utopia, ([Greek: ou topos], not a place.) Upon an island discovered by a companion of Vespuccius, he established an imaginary commonwealth, in which everybody was good and everybody happy. Purely fanciful as is his Utopia, and impossible of realization as he knew it to be while men are what they are, and not what they ought to be, it is manifestly a satire on that age, for his republic shunned English errors, and practised social virtues which were not the rule in England.
Although More wrote against Luther, and opposed Henry's Church innovations, we are struck with his Utopian claim for great freedom of inquiry on all subjects, even religion; and the bold assertion that no man should be punished for his religion, because “a man cannot make himself believe anything he pleases,” as Henry's six bloody articles so fearfully asserted he must. The Utopia was written in Latin, but soon translated into English. We use the adjective utopian as meaning wildly fanciful and impossible: its true meaning is of high excellence, to be striven for—in a word, human perfection.
OTHER WORKS.—More also wrote, in most excellent English prose, a history of the princes, Edward V. and his brother Richard of York, who were murdered in the Tower; and a history of their murderer and uncle, Richard III. This Richard—and we need not doubt his accuracy of statement, for he was born five years before Richard fell at Bosworth—is the short, deformed youth, with his left shoulder higher than the right; crafty, stony-hearted, and cruel, so strikingly presented by Shakspeare, who takes More as his authority. “Not letting (sparing) to kiss whom he thought to kill ... friend and foe was indifferent where his advantage grew; he spared no man's death whose life withstood his purpose. He slew, with his own hands, King Henry VI., being a prisoner in the Tower.”
With the honorable name of More we leave this unproductive period, in which there was no great growth of any kind, but which was the planting-time, when seeds were sown that were soon to germinate and bloom and astonish the world. The times remind us of the dark saying in the Bible, “Out of the eater came forth meat; out of the strong came sweetness.”
The art of printing had so increased the number of books, that public libraries began to be collected, and, what is better, to be used. The universities enlarged their borders, new colleges were added to Cambridge and Oxford; new foundations laid. The note of preparation betokened a great advent; the scene was fully prepared, and the actors would not be wanting.
Upon the death of Henry VIII., in 1547, Edward VI., his son by Jane Seymour, ascended the throne, and during his minority a protector was appointed in the person of his mother's brother, the Earl of Hertford, afterward Duke of Somerset. Edward was a sickly youth of ten years old, but his reign is noted for the progress of reform in the Church, and especially for the issue of the Book of Common Prayer, which must be considered of literary importance, as, although with decided modifications, and an interruption in its use during the brief reign of Mary, it has been the ritual of worship in the Anglican Church ever since. It superseded the Latin services—of which it was mainly a translation rearranged and modified—finally and completely, and containing, as it does, the whole body of doctrine, it was the first clear manifesto of the creeds and usages of that Church, and a strong bond of union among its members.
OTHER WRITERS OF THE PERIOD.
Thomas Tusser, 1527-1580: published, in 1557, “A Hundreth Good Points of Husbandrie,” afterward enlarged and called, “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie, united to as many of Good Huswiferie;” especially valuable as a picture of rural life and labor in that age.
Alexander Barklay, died 1552: translated into English poetry the Ship of Fools, by Sebastian Brandt, of Basle.
Reginald Pecock, Bishop of St. Asaph and of Chichester: published, in 1449, “The Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of the Clergy.” He attacked the Lollards, but was suspected of heresy himself, and deprived of his bishopric.
John Fisher, 1459-1535: was made Bishop of Rochester in 1504; opposed the Reformation, and refused to approve of Henry's divorce from Catherine of Arragon; was executed by the king. The Pope sent him a cardinal's hat while he was lying under sentence. Henry said he would not leave him a head to put it on. Wrote principally sermons and theological treatises.
Hugh Latimer, 1472-1555: was made Bishop of Worcester in 1535. An ardent supporter of the Reformation, who, by a rude, homely eloquence, influenced many people. He was burned at the stake at the age of eighty-three, in company with Ridley, Bishop of London, by Queen Mary. His memorable words to his fellow-martyr are: “We shall this day light a candle in England which, I trust, shall never be put out.”
John Leland, or Laylonde, died 1552: an eminent antiquary, who, by order of Henry VIII., examined, con amore, the records of libraries, cathedrals, priories, abbeys, colleges, etc., and has left a vast amount of curious antiquarian learning behind him. He became insane by reason of the pressure of his labors.
George Cavendish, died 1557: wrote “The Negotiations of Woolsey, the Great Cardinal of England,” etc., which was republished as the “Life and Death of Thomas Woolsey.” From this, it is said, Shakspeare drew in writing his “Henry VIII.”
Roger Ascham, 1515-1568: specially famous as the successful instructor of Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, whom he was able to imbue with a taste for classical learning. He wrote a treatise on the use of the bow, called Toxophilus, and The Schoolmaster, which contains many excellent and judicious suggestions, worthy to be carried out in modern education. It was highly praised by Dr. Johnson. It was written for the use of the children of Sackville, Lord Buckhurst.