CHAPTER I. THE RENAISSANCE
There are times in every man's experience when some sudden widening of the boundaries of his knowledge, some vision of hitherto untried and unrealized possibilities, has come and seemed to bring with it new life and the inspiration of fresh and splendid endeavour. It may be some great book read for the first time not as a book, but as a revelation; it may be the first realization of the extent and moment of what physical science has to teach us; it may be, like Carlyle's “Everlasting Yea,” an ethical illumination, or spiritual like Augustine's or John Wesley's. But whatever it is, it brings with it new eyes, new powers of comprehension, and seems to reveal a treasury of latent and unsuspected talents in the mind and heart. The history of mankind has its parallels to these moments of illumination in the life of the individual. There are times when the boundaries of human experience, always narrow, and fluctuating but little between age and age, suddenly widen themselves, and the spirit of man leaps forward to possess and explore its new domain. These are the great ages of the world. They could be counted, perhaps, on one hand. The age of Pericles in Athens; the less defined age, when Europe passed, spiritually and artistically, from what we call the Dark, to what we call the Middle Ages; the Renaissance; the period of the French Revolution. Two of them, so far as English literature is concerned, fall within the compass of this book, and it is with one of them—the Renaissance—that it begins.
It is as difficult to find a comprehensive formula for what the Renaissance meant as to tie it down to a date. The year 1453 A.D., when the Eastern Empire—the last relic of the continuous spirit of Rome—fell before the Turks, used to be given as the date, and perhaps the word “Renaissance” itself—“a new birth”—is as much as can be accomplished shortly by way of definition. Michelet's resonant “discovery by mankind of himself and of the world” rather expresses what a man of the Renaissance himself must have thought it, than what we in this age can declare it to be. But both endeavours to date and to define are alike impossible. One cannot fix a term to day or night, and the theory of the Renaissance as a kind of tropical dawn—a sudden passage to light from darkness—is not to be considered. The Renaissance was, and was the result of, a numerous and various series of events which followed and accompanied one another from the fourteenth to the beginning of the sixteenth centuries. First and most immediate in its influence on art and literature and thought, was the rediscovery of the ancient literatures. In the Middle Ages knowledge of Greek and Latin literatures had withdrawn itself into monasteries, and there narrowed till of secular Latin writing scarcely any knowledge remained save of Vergil (because of his supposed Messianic prophecy) and Statius, and of Greek, except Aristotle, none at all. What had been lost in the Western Empire, however, subsisted in the East, and the continual advance of the Turk on the territories of the Emperors of Constantinople drove westward to the shelter of Italy and the Church, and to the patronage of the Medicis, a crowd of scholars who brought with them their manuscripts of Homer and the dramatists, of Thucydides and Herodotus, and most momentous perhaps for the age to come, of Plato and Demosthenes and of the New Testament in its original Greek. The quick and vivid intellect of Italy, which had been torpid in the decadence of mediaevalism and its mysticism and piety, seized with avidity the revelation of the classical world which the scholars and their manuscripts brought. Human life, which the mediaeval Church had taught them to regard but as a threshold and stepping-stone to eternity, acquired suddenly a new momentousness and value; the promises of the Church paled like its lamps at sunrise; and a new paganism, which had Plato for its high priest, and Demosthenes and Pericles for its archetypes and examples, ran like wild-fire through Italy. The Greek spirit seized on art, and produced Raphael, Leonardo, and Michel Angelo; on literature and philosophy and gave us Pico della Mirandula, on life and gave us the Medicis and Castiglione and Machiavelli. Then—the invention not of Italy but of Germany—came the art of printing, and made this revival of Greek literature quickly portable into other lands.
Even more momentous was the new knowledge the age brought of the physical world. The brilliant conjectures of Copernicus paved the way for Galileo, and the warped and narrow cosmology which conceived the earth as the centre of the universe, suffered a blow that in shaking it shook also religion. And while the conjectures of the men of science were adding regions undreamt of to the physical universe, the discoverers were enlarging the territories of the earth itself. The Portuguese, with the aid of sailors trained in the great Mediterranean ports of Genoa and Venice, pushed the track of exploration down the western coast of Africa; the Cape was circumnavigated by Vasco da Gama, and India reached for the first time by Western men by way of the sea. Columbus reached Trinidad and discovered the “New” World; his successors pushed past him and touched the Continent. Spanish colonies grew up along the coasts of North and Central America and in Peru, and the Portuguese reached Brazil. Cabot and the English voyagers reached Newfoundland and Labrador; the French made their way up the St. Lawrence. The discovery of the gold mines brought new and unimagined possibilities of wealth to the Old World, while the imagination of Europe, bounded since the beginning of recorded time by the Western ocean, and with the Mediterranean as its centre, shot out to the romance and mystery of untried seas.
It is difficult for us in these later days to conceive the profound and stirring influence of such an alteration on thought and literature. To the men at the end of the fifteenth century scarcely a year but brought another bit of received and recognized thinking to the scrap-heap; scarcely a year but some new discovery found itself surpassed and in its turn discarded, or lessened in significance by something still more new. Columbus sailed westward to find a new sea route, and as he imagined, a more expeditious one to “the Indies”; the name West Indies still survives to show the theory on which the early discoverers worked. The rapidity with which knowledge widened can be gathered by a comparison of the maps of the day. In the earlier of them the mythical Brazil, a relic perhaps of the lost Atlantis, lay a regularly and mystically blue island off the west coast of Ireland; then the Azores were discovered and the name fastened on to one of the islands of that archipelago. Then Amerigo reached South America and the name became finally fixed to the country that we know. There is nothing nowadays that can give us a parallel to the stirring and exaltation of the imagination which intoxicated the men of the Renaissance, and gave a new birth to thought and art. The great scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century came to men more prepared for the shock of new surprises, and they carried evidence less tangible and indisputable to the senses. Perhaps if the strivings of science should succeed in proving as evident and comprehensible the existences which spiritualist and psychical research is striving to establish, we should know the thrill that the great twin discoverers, Copernicus and Columbus, brought to Europe.
This rough sketch of the Renaissance has been set down because it is only by realizing the period in its largest and broadest sense that we can understand the beginnings of our own modern literature. The Renaissance reached England late. By the time that the impulse was at its height with Spenser and Shakespeare, it had died out in Italy, and in France to which in its turn Italy had passed the torch, it was already a waning fire. When it came to England it came in a special form shaped by political and social conditions, and by the accidents of temperament and inclination in the men who began the movement. But the essence of the inspiration remained the same as it had been on the Continent, and the twin threads of its two main impulses, the impulse from the study of the classics, and the impulse given to men's minds by the voyages of discovery, runs through all the texture of our Renaissance literature.
Literature as it developed in the reign of Elizabeth ran counter to the hopes and desires of the men who began the movement; the common usage which extends the term Elizabethan backwards outside the limits of the reign itself, has nothing but its carelessness to recommend it. The men of the early renaissance in the reigns of Edward VI. and Mary, belonged to a graver school than their successors. They were no splendid courtiers, nor daring and hardy adventurers, still less swashbucklers, exquisites, or literary dandies. Their names—Sir John Cheke, Roger Ascham, Nicholas Udall, Thomas Wilson, Walter Haddon, belong rather to the universities and to the coteries of learning, than to the court. To the nobility, from whose essays and belles lettres Elizabethan poetry was to develop, they stood in the relation of tutors rather than of companions, suspecting the extravagances of their pupils rather than sympathising with their ideals. They were a band of serious and dignified scholars, men preoccupied with morality and good-citizenship, and holding those as worth more than the lighter interests of learning and style. It is perhaps characteristic of the English temper that the revival of the classical tongues, which in Italy made for paganism, and the pursuit of pleasure in life and art, in England brought with it in the first place a new seriousness and gravity of life, and in religion the Reformation. But in a way the scholars fought against tendencies in their age, which were both too fast and too strong for them. At a time when young men were writing poetry modelled on the delicate and extravagant verse of Italy, were reading Italian novels, and affecting Italian fashions in speech and dress, they were fighting for sound education, for good classical scholarship, for the purity of native English, and behind all these for the native strength and worth of the English character, which they felt to be endangered by orgies of reckless assimilation from abroad. The revival of the classics at Oxford and Cambridge could not produce an Erasmus or a Scaliger; we have no fine critical scholarship of this age to put beside that of Holland or France. Sir John Cheke and his followers felt they had a public and national duty to perform, and their knowledge of the classics only served them for examples of high living and morality, on which education, in its sense of the formation of character, could be based.
The literary influence of the revival of letters in England, apart from its moral influence, took two contradictory and opposing forms. In the curricula of schools, logic, which in the Middle Ages had been the groundwork of thought and letters, gave place to rhetoric. The reading of the ancients awakened new delight in the melody and beauty of language: men became intoxicated with words. The practice of rhetoric was universal and it quickly coloured all literature. It was the habit of the rhetoricians to choose some subject for declamation and round it to encourage their pupils to set embellishments and decorations, which commonly proceeded rather from a delight in language for language's sake, than from any effect in enforcing an argument. Their models for these exercises can be traced in their influence on later writers. One of the most popular of them, Erasmus's “Discourse Persuading a Young Man to Marriage,” which was translated in an English text-book of rhetoric, reminds one of the first part of Shakespeare's sonnets. The literary affectation called euphuism was directly based on the precepts of the handbooks on rhetoric; its author, John Lyly, only elaborated and made more precise tricks of phrase and writing, which had been used as exercises in the schools of his youth. The prose of his school, with its fantastic delight in exuberance of figure and sound, owed its inspiration, in its form ultimately to Cicero, and in the decorations with which it was embellished, to the elder Pliny and later writers of his kind. The long declamatory speeches and the sententiousness of the early drama were directly modelled on Seneca, through whom was faintly reflected the tragedy of Greece, unknown directly or almost unknown to English readers. Latinism, like every new craze, became a passion, and ran through the less intelligent kinds of writing in a wild excess. Not much of the literature of this time remains in common knowledge, and for examples of these affectations one must turn over the black letter pages of forgotten books. There high-sounding and familiar words are handled and bandied about with delight, and you can see in volume after volume these minor and forgotten authors gloating over the new found treasure which placed them in their time in the van of literary success. That they are obsolete now, and indeed were obsolete before they were dead, is a warning to authors who intend similar extravagances. Strangeness and exoticism are not lasting wares. By the time of “Love's Labour Lost” they had become nothing more than matter for laughter, and it is only through their reflection and distortion in Shakespeare's pages that we know them now.
Had not a restraining influence, anxiously and even acrimoniously urged, broken in on their endeavours the English language to-day might have been almost as completely latinized as Spanish or Italian. That the essential Saxon purity of our tongue has been preserved is to the credit not of sensible unlettered people eschewing new fashions they could not comprehend, but to the scholars themselves. The chief service that Cheke and Ascham and their fellows rendered to English literature was their crusade against the exaggerated latinity that they had themselves helped to make possible, the crusade against what they called “inkhorn terms.” “I am of this opinion,” said Cheke in a prefatory letter to a book translated by a friend of his, “that our own tongue should be written clean and pure, unmixed and unmangled with the borrowing of other tongues, wherein if we take not heed by time, ever borrowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt.” Writings in the Saxon vernacular like the sermons of Latimer, who was careful to use nothing not familiar to the common people, did much to help the scholars to save our prose from the extravagances which they dreaded. Their attack was directed no less against the revival of really obsolete words. It is a paradox worth noting for its strangeness that the first revival of mediaevalism in modern English literature was in the Renaissance itself. Talking in studious archaism seems to have been a fashionable practice in society and court circles. “The fine courtier,” says Thomas Wilson in his Art of Rhetoric, “will talk nothing but Chaucer.” The scholars of the English Renaissance fought not only against the ignorant adoption of their importations, but against the renewal of forgotten habits of speech.
Their efforts failed, and their ideals had to wait for their acceptance till the age of Dryden, when Shakespeare and Spenser and Milton, all of them authors who consistently violated the standards of Cheke, had done their work. The fine courtier who would talk nothing but Chaucer was in Elizabeth's reign the saving of English verse. The beauty and richness of Spenser is based directly on words he got from Troilus and Cressida and the Canterbury Tales. Some of the most sonorous and beautiful lines in Shakespeare break every canon laid down by the humanists.
“Th' extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine”
is a line, three of the chief words of which are Latin importations that come unfamiliarly, bearing their original interpretation with them. Milton is packed with similar things: he will talk of a crowded meeting as “frequent” and use constructions which are unintelligible to anyone who does not possess a knowledge—and a good knowledge—of Latin syntax. Yet the effect is a good poetic effect. In attacking latinisms in the language borrowed from older poets Cheke and his companions were attacking the two chief sources of Elizabethan poetic vocabulary. All the sonorousness, beauty and dignity of the poetry and the drama which followed them would have been lost had they succeeded in their object, and their verse would have been constrained into the warped and ugly forms of Sternhold and Hopkins, and those with them who composed the first and worst metrical version of the Psalms. When their idea reappeared for its fulfilment phantasy and imagery had temporarily worn themselves out, and the richer language made simplicity possible and adequate for poetry.
There are other directions in which the classical revival influenced writing that need not detain us here. The attempt to transplant classical metres into English verse which was the concern of a little group of authors who called themselves the Areopagus came to no more success than a similar and contemporary attempt did in France. An earlier and more lasting result of the influence of the classics on new ways of thinking is the Utopia of Sir Thomas More, based on Plato's Republic, and followed by similar attempts on the part of other authors, of which the most notable are Harrington's Oceana and Bacon's New Atlantis. In one way or another the rediscovery of Plato proved the most valuable part of the Renaissance's gift from Greece. The doctrines of the Symposium coloured in Italy the writings of Castiglione and Mirandula. In England they gave us Spenser's “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” and they affected, each in his own way, Sir Philip Sidney, and others of the circle of court writers of his time. More's book was written in Latin, though there is an English translation almost contemporary. He combines in himself the two strains that we found working in the Renaissance, for besides its origin in Plato, Utopia owes not a little to the influence of the voyages of discovery. In 1507 there was published a little book called an Introduction to Cosmography, which gave an account of the four voyages of Amerigo. In the story of the fourth voyage it is narrated that twenty-four men were left in a fort near Cape Bahia. More used this detail as a starting-point, and one of the men whom Amerigo left tells the story of this “Nowhere,” a republic partly resembling England but most of all the ideal world of Plato. Partly resembling England, because no man can escape from the influences of his own time, whatever road he takes, whether the road of imagination or any other. His imagination can only build out of the materials afforded him by his own experience: he can alter, he can rearrange, but he cannot in the strictest sense of the word create, and every city of dreams is only the scheme of things as they are remoulded nearer to the desire of a man's heart. In a way More has less invention than some of his subtler followers, but his book is interesting because it is the first example of a kind of writing which has been attractive to many men since his time, and particularly to writers of our own day.
There remains one circumstance in the revival of the classics which had a marked and continuous influence on the literary age that followed. To get the classics English scholars had as we have seen to go to Italy. Cheke went there and so did Wilson, and the path of travel across France and through Lombardy to Florence and Rome was worn hard by the feet of their followers for over a hundred years after. On the heels of the men of learning went the men of fashion, eager to learn and copy the new manners of a society whose moral teacher was Machiavelli, and whose patterns of splendour were the courts of Florence and Ferrara, and to learn the trick of verse that in the hands of Petrarch and his followers had fashioned the sonnet and other new lyric forms. This could not be without its influence on the manners of the nation, and the scholars who had been the first to show the way were the first to deplore the pell-mell assimilation of Italian manners and vices, which was the unintended result of the inroad on insularity which had already begun. They saw the danger ahead, and they laboured to meet it as it came. Ascham in his Schoolmaster railed against the translation of Italian books, and the corrupt manners of living and false ideas which they seemed to him to breed. The Italianate Englishman became the chief part of the stock-in-trade of the satirists and moralists of the day. Stubbs, a Puritan chronicler, whose book The Anatomy of Abuses is a valuable aid to the study of Tudor social history, and Harrison, whose description of England prefaces Holinshed's Chronicles, both deal in detail with the Italian menace, and condemn in good set terms the costliness in dress and the looseness in morals which they laid to its charge. Indeed, the effect on England was profound, and it lasted for more than two generations. The romantic traveller, Coryat, writing well within the seventeenth century in praise of the luxuries of Italy (among which he numbers forks for table use), is as enthusiastic as the authors who began the imitation of Italian metres in Tottel's Miscellany, and Donne and Hall in their satires written under James wield the rod of censure as sternly as had Ascham a good half century before. No doubt there was something in the danger they dreaded, but the evil was not unmixed with good, for insularity will always be an enemy of good literature. The Elizabethans learned much more than their plots from Italian models, and the worst effects dreaded by the patriots never reached our shores. Italian vice stopped short of real life; poisoning and hired ruffianism flourished only on the stage.
The influence of the spirit of discovery and adventure, though it is less quickly marked, more pervasive, and less easy to define, is perhaps more universal than that of the classics or of the Italian fashions which came in their train. It runs right through the literature of Elizabeth's age and after it, affecting, each in their special way, all the dramatists, authors who were also adventurers like Raleigh, scholars like Milton, and philosophers like Hobbes and Locke. It reappears in the Romantic revival with Coleridge, whose “Ancient Mariner” owes much to reminiscences of his favourite reading— Purchas, his Pilgrimes, and other old books of voyages. The matter of this too-little noticed strain in English literature would suffice to fill a whole book; only a few of the main lines of its influence can be noted here.
For the English Renaissance—for Elizabeth's England, action and imagination went hand in hand; the dramatists and poets held up the mirror to the voyagers. In a sense, the cult of the sea is the oldest note in English literature. There is not a poem in Anglo-Saxon but breathes the saltness and the bitterness of the sea-air. To the old English the sea was something inexpressibly melancholy and desolate, mist-shrouded, and lonely, terrible in its grey and shivering spaces; and their tone about it is always elegiac and plaintive, as a place of dreary spiritless wandering and unmarked graves. When the English settled they lost the sense of the sea; they became a little parochial people, tilling fields and tending cattle, wool-gathering and wool-bartering, their shipping confined to cross-Channel merchandise, and coastwise sailing from port to port. Chaucer's shipman, almost the sole representative of the sea in mediaeval English literature, plied a coastwise trade. But with the Cabots and their followers, Frobisher and Gilbert and Drake and Hawkins, all this was changed; once more the ocean became the highway of our national progress and adventure, and by virtue of our shipping we became competitors for the dominion of the earth. The rising tide of national enthusiasm and exaltation that this occasioned flooded popular literature. The voyagers themselves wrote down the stories of their adventures; and collections of these—Hakluyt's and Purchas's—were among the most popular books of the age. To them, indeed, we must look for the first beginnings of our modern English prose, and some of its noblest passages. The writers, as often as not, were otherwise utterly unknown—ship's pursers, super-cargoes, and the like—men without much literary craft or training, whose style is great because of the greatness of their subject, because they had no literary artifices to stand between them and the plain and direct telling of a stirring tale. But the ferment worked outside the actual doings of the voyagers themselves, and it can be traced beyond definite allusions to them. Allusions, indeed, are surprisingly few; Drake is scarcely as much as mentioned among the greater writers of the age. None the less there is not one of them that is not deeply touched by his spirit and that of the movement which he led. New lands had been discovered, new territories opened up, wonders exposed which were perhaps only the first fruits of greater wonders to come. Spenser makes the voyagers his warrant for his excursion into fairyland. Some, he says, have condemned his fairy world as an idle fiction,
“But let that man with better sense advise;
That of the world least part to us is red;
And daily how through hardy enterprise
Many great regions are discovered,
Which to late age were never mentioned.
Who ever heard of the 'Indian Peru'?
Or who in venturous vessel measured
The Amazon, huge river, now found true?
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did ever view?
“Yet all these were, when no man did them know,
Yet have from wiser ages hidden been;
And later times things more unknown shall show.”
It is in the drama that this spirit of adventure caught from the voyagers gets its full play. “Without the voyagers,” says Professor Walter Raleigh, “Marlowe is inconceivable.” His imagination in every one of his plays is preoccupied with the lust of adventure, and the wealth and power adventure brings. Tamburlaine, Eastern conqueror though he is, is at heart an Englishman of the school of Hawkins and Drake. Indeed the comparison must have occurred to his own age, for a historian of the day, the antiquary Stow, declares Drake to have been “as famous in Europe and America as Tamburlaine was in Asia and Africa.” The high-sounding names and quests which seem to us to give the play an air of unreality and romance were to the Elizabethans real and actual; things as strange and foreign were to be heard any day amongst the motley crowd in the Bankside outside the theatre door. Tamburlaine's last speech, when he calls for a map and points the way to unrealised conquests, is the very epitome of the age of discovery.
“Lo, here my sons, are all the golden mines,
Inestimable wares and precious stones,
More worth than Asia and all the world beside;
And from the Antarctic Pole eastward behold
As much more land, which never was descried.
Wherein are rocks of pearl that shine as bright
As all the lamps that beautify the sky.”
[Footnote 1: To whose terminal essay in “Hakluyt's Voyages" (Maclehose) I am indebted for much of the matter in this section.]
It is the same in his other plays. Dr. Faustus assigns to his serviceable spirits tasks that might have been studied from the books of Hakluyt
“I'll have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean for orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new round world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates.”
When there is no actual expression of the spirit of adventure, the air of the sea which it carried with it still blows. Shakespeare, save for his scenes in The Tempest and in Pericles, which seize in all its dramatic poignancy the terror of storm and shipwreck, has nothing dealing directly with the sea or with travel; but it comes out, none the less, in figure and metaphor, and plays like the Merchant of Venice and Othellotestify to his accessibility to its spirit. Milton, a scholar whose mind was occupied by other and more ultimate matters, is full of allusions to it. Satan's journey through Chaos in Paradise Lost is the occasion for a whole series of metaphors drawn from seafaring. In Samson Agonistes Dalila comes in,
“Like a stately ship ... With all her bravery on and tackle trim Sails frilled and streamers waving Courted by all the winds that hold them play.”
and Samson speaks of himself as one who,
“Like a foolish pilot have shipwracked My vessel trusted to me from above Gloriously rigged.”
The influence of the voyages of discovery persisted long after the first bloom of the Renaissance had flowered and withered. On the reports brought home by the voyagers were founded in part those conceptions of the condition of the “natural” man which form such a large part of the philosophic discussions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Hobbes's description of the life of nature as “nasty, solitary, brutish, and short,” Locke's theories of civil government, and eighteenth century speculators like Monboddo all took as the basis of their theory the observations of the men of travel. Abroad this connection of travellers and philosophers was no less intimate. Both Montesquieu and Rousseau owed much to the tales of the Iroquois, the North American Indian allies of France. Locke himself is the best example of the closeness of this alliance. He was a diligent student of the texts of the voyagers, and himself edited out of Hakluyt and Purchas the best collection of them current in his day. The purely literary influence of the age of discovery persisted down to Robinson Crusoe; in that book by a refinement of satire a return to travel itself (it must be remembered Defoe posed not as a novelist but as an actual traveller) is used to make play with the deductions founded on it. Crusoe's conversation with the man Friday will be found to be a satire of Locke's famous controversy with the Bishop of Worcester. WithRobinson Crusoe the influence of the age of discovery finally perishes. An inspiration hardens into the mere subject matter of books of adventure. We need not follow it further.