CHAPTER II. ELIZABETHAN POETRY AND PROSE
To understand Elizabethan literature it is necessary to remember that the social status it enjoyed was far different from that of literature in our own day. The splendours of the Medicis in Italy had set up an ideal of courtliness, in which letters formed an integral and indispensable part. For the Renaissance, the man of letters was only one aspect of the gentleman, and the true gentleman, as books so early and late respectively as Castiglione's Courtier and Peacham's Complete Gentleman show, numbered poetry as a necessary part of his accomplishments. In England special circumstances intensified this tendency of the time. The queen was unmarried: she was the first single woman to wear the English crown, and her vanity made her value the devotion of the men about her as something more intimate than mere loyalty or patriotism. She loved personal homage, particularly the homage of half-amatory eulogy in prose and verse. It followed that the ambition of every courtier was to be an author, and of every author to be a courtier; in fact, outside the drama, which was almost the only popular writing at the time, every author was in a greater or less degree attached to the court. If they were not enjoying its favours they were pleading for them, mingling high and fantastic compliment with bitter reproaches and a tale of misery. And consequently both the poetry and the prose of the time are restricted in their scope and temper to the artificial and romantic, to high-flown eloquence, to the celebration of love and devotion, or to the inculcation of those courtly virtues and accomplishments which composed the perfect pattern of a gentleman. Not that there was not both poetry and prose written outside this charmed circle. The pamphleteers and chroniclers, Dekker and Nash, Holinshed and Harrison and Stow, were setting down their histories and descriptions, and penning those detailed and realistic indictments of the follies and extravagances of fashion, which together with the comedies have enabled us to picture accurately the England and especially the London of Elizabeth's reign. There was fine poetry written by Marlowe and Chapman as well as by Sidney and Spenser, but the court was still the main centre of literary endeavour, and the main incitement to literary fame and success.
But whether an author was a courtier or a Londoner living by his wits, writing was never the main business of his life: all the writers of the time were in one way or another men of action and affairs. As late as Milton it is probably true to say that writing was in the case even of the greatest an avocation, something indulged in at leisure outside a man's main business. All the Elizabethan authors had crowded and various careers. Of Sir Philip Sidney his earliest biographer says, “The truth is his end was not writing, even while he wrote, but both his wit and understanding bent upon his heart to make himself and others not in words or opinion but in life and action good and great.” Ben Jonson was in turn a soldier, a poet, a bricklayer, an actor, and ultimately the first poet laureate. Lodge, after leaving Oxford, passed through the various professions of soldiering, medicine, playwriting, and fiction, and he wrote his novel Rosalind, on which Shakespeare based As You Like It while he was sailing on a piratical venture on the Spanish Main. This connection between life and action affected as we have seen the tone and quality of Elizabethan writing. “All the distinguished writers of the period,” says Thoreau, “possess a greater vigour and naturalness than the more modern ... you have constantly the warrant of life and experience in what you read. The little that is said is eked out by implication of the much that was done.” In another passage the same writer explains the strength and fineness of the writings of Sir Walter Raleigh by this very test of action, “The word which is best said came nearest to not being spoken at all, for it is cousin to a deed which the speaker could have better done. Nay almost it must have taken the place of a deed by some urgent necessity, even by some misfortune, so that the truest writer will be some captive knight after all.” This bond between literature and action explains more than the writings of the voyagers or the pamphlets of men who lived in London by what they could make of their fellows. Literature has always a two-fold relation to life as it is lived. It is both a mirror and an escape: in our own day the stirring romances of Stevenson, the full-blooded and vigorous life which beats through the pages of Mr. Kipling, the conscious brutalism of such writers as Mr. Conrad and Mr. Hewlett, the plays of J.M. Synge, occupied with the vigorous and coarse-grained life of tinkers and peasants, are all in their separate ways a reaction against an age in which the overwhelming majority of men and women have sedentary pursuits. Just in the same way the Elizabethan who passed his commonly short and crowded life in an atmosphere of throat-cutting and powder and shot, and in a time when affairs of state were more momentous for the future of the nation than they have ever been since, needed his escape from the things which pressed in upon him every day. So grew the vogue and popularity of pastoral poetry and of pastoral romance.
It is with two courtiers that modern English poetry begins. The lives of Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey both ended early and unhappily, and it was not until ten years after the death of the second of them that their poems appeared in print. The book that contained them, Tottel's Miscellany of Songs and Sonnets, is one of the landmarks of English literature. It begins lyrical love poetry in our language. It begins, too, the imitation and adaptation of foreign and chiefly Italian metrical forms, many of which have since become characteristic forms of English verse: so characteristic, that we scarcely think of them as other than native in origin. To Wyatt belongs the honour of introducing the sonnet, and to Surrey the more momentous credit of writing, for the first time in English, blank verse. Wyatt fills the most important place in the Miscellany, and his work, experimental in tone and quality, formed the example which Surrey and minor writers in the same volume and all the later poets of the age copied. He tries his hand at everything—songs, madrigals, elegies, complaints, and sonnets—and he takes his models from both ancient Rome and modern Italy. Indeed there is scarcely anything in the volume for which with some trouble and research one might not find an original in Petrarch, or in the poets of Italy who followed him. But imitation, universal though it is in his work, does not altogether crowd out originality of feeling and poetic temper. At times, he sounds a personal note, his joy on leaving Spain for England, his feelings in the Tower, his life at the Court amongst his books, and as a country gentleman enjoying hunting and other outdoor sports.
“This maketh me at home to hunt and hawk,
And in foul weather at my book to sit,
In frost and snow, then with my bow to stalk,
No man does mark whereas I ride or go:
In lusty leas at liberty I walk.”
It is easy to see that poetry as a melodious and enriched expression of a man's own feelings is in its infancy here. The new poets had to find their own language, to enrich with borrowings from other tongues the stock of words suitable for poetry which the dropping of inflection had left to English. Wyatt was at the beginning of the process, and apart from a gracious and courtly temper, his work has, it must be confessed, hardly more than an antiquarian interest. Surrey, it is possible to say on reading his work, went one step further. He allows himself oftener the luxury of a reference to personal feelings, and his poetry contains from place to place a fairly full record of the vicissitudes of his life. A prisoner at Windsor, he recalls his childhood there
“The large green courts where we were wont to hove,
The palme-play, where, despoiled for the game.
With dazzled eyes oft we by gleams of love
Have missed the ball, and got sight of our dame.”
Like Wyatt's, his verses are poor stuff, but a sympathetic ear can catch in them something of the accent that distinguishes the verse of Sidney and Spenser. He is greater than Wyatt, not so much for greater skill as for more boldness in experiment. Wyatt in his sonnets had used the Petrarchan or Italian form, the form used later in England by Milton and in the nineteenth century by Rossetti. He built up each poem, that is, in two parts, the octave, a two-rhymed section of eight lines at the beginning, followed by the sestet, a six line close with three rhymes. The form fits itself very well to the double mood which commonly inspires a poet using the sonnet form; the second section as it were both echoing and answering the first, following doubt with hope, or sadness with resignation, or resolving a problem set itself by the heart. Surrey tried another manner, the manner which by its use in Shakespeare's sonnets has come to be regarded as the English form of this kind of lyric. His sonnets are virtually three-stanza poems with a couplet for close, and he allows himself as many rhymes as he chooses. The structure is obviously easier, and it gives a better chance to an inferior workman, but in the hands of a master its harmonies are no less delicate, and its capacity to represent changing modes of thought no less complete than those of the true form of Petrarch. Blank verse, which was Surrey's other gift to English poetry, was in a way a compromise between the two sources from which the English Renaissance drew its inspiration. Latin and Greek verse is quantitative and rhymeless; Italian verse, built up on the metres of the troubadours and the degeneration of Latin which gave the world the Romance languages, used many elaborate forms of rhyme. Blank verse took from Latin its rhymelessness, but it retained accent instead of quantity as the basis of its line. The line Surrey used is the five-foot or ten-syllable line of what is called “heroic verse”—the line used by Chaucer in his Prologue and most of his tales. Like Milton he deplored rhyme as the invention of a barbarous age, and no doubt he would have rejoiced to go further and banish accent as well as rhymed endings. That, however, was not to be, though in the best blank verse of later time accent and quantity both have their share in the effect. The instrument he forged passed into the hands of the dramatists: Marlowe perfected its rhythm, Shakespeare broke its monotony and varied its cadences by altering the spacing of the accents, and occasionally by adding an extra unaccented syllable. It came back from the drama to poetry with Milton. His blindness and the necessity under which it laid him of keeping in his head long stretches of verse at one time, because he could not look back to see what he had written, probably helped his naturally quick and delicate sense of cadence to vary the pauses, so that a variety of accent and interval might replace the valuable aid to memory which he put aside in putting aside rhyme. Perhaps it is to two accidents, the accident by which blank verse as the medium of the actor had to be retained easily in the memory, and the accident of Milton's blindness, that must be laid the credit of more than a little of the richness of rhythm of this, the chief and greatest instrument of English verse.
The imitation of Italian and French forms which Wyatt and Surrey began, was continued by a host of younger amateurs of poetry. Laborious research has indeed found a Continental original for almost every great poem of the time, and for very many forgotten ones as well. It is easy for the student engaged in this kind of literary exploration to exaggerate the importance of what he finds, and of late years criticism, written mainly by these explorers, has tended to assume that since it can be found that Sidney, and Daniel, and Watson, and all the other writers of mythological poetry and sonnet sequences took their ideas and their phrases from foreign poetry, their work is therefore to be classed merely as imitative literary exercise, that it is frigid, that it contains or conveys no real feeling, and that except in the secondary and derived sense, it is not really lyrical at all. Petrarch, they will tell you, may have felt deeply and sincerely about Laura, but when Sidney uses Petrarch's imagery and even translates his words in order to express his feelings for Stella, he is only a plagiarist and not a lover, and the passion for Lady Rich which is supposed to have inspired his sonnets, nothing more than a not too seriously intended trick to add the excitement of a transcript of real emotion to what was really an academic exercise. If that were indeed so, then Elizabethan poetry is a very much lesser and meaner thing than later ages have thought it. But is it so? Let us look into the matter a little more closely. The unit of all ordinary kinds of writing is the word, and one is not commonly quarrelled with for using words that have belonged to other people. But the unit of the lyric, like the unit of spoken conversation, is not the word but the phrase. Now in daily human intercourse the use, which is universal and habitual, of set forms and phrases of talk is not commonly supposed to detract from, or destroy sincerity. In the crises indeed of emotion it must be most people's experience that the natural speech that rises unbidden and easiest to the lips is something quite familiar and commonplace, some form which the accumulated experience of many generations of separate people has found best for such circumstances or such an occasion. The lyric is just in the position of conversation, at such a heightened and emotional moment. It is the speech of deep feeling, that must be articulate or choke, and it falls naturally and inevitably into some form which accumulated passionate moments have created and fixed. The course of emotional experiences differs very little from age to age, and from individual to individual, and so the same phrases may be used quite sincerely and naturally as the direct expression of feeling at its highest point by men apart in country, circumstances, or time. This is not to say that there is no such thing as originality; a poet is a poet first and most of all because he discovers truths that have been known for ages, as things that are fresh and new and vital for himself. He must speak of them in language that has been used by other men just because they are known truths, but he will use that language in a new way, and with a new significance, and it is just in proportion to the freshness, and the air of personal conviction and sincerity which he imparts to it, that he is great.
The point at issue bears very directly on the work of Sir Philip Sidney. In the course of the history of English letters certain authors disengage themselves who have more than a merely literary position: they are symbolic of the whole age in which they live, its life and action, its thoughts and ideals, as well as its mere modes of writing. There are not many of them and they could be easily numbered; Addison, perhaps, certainly Dr. Johnson, certainly Byron, and in the later age probably Tennyson. But the greatest of them all is Sir Philip Sidney: his symbolical relation to the time in which he lived was realized by his contemporaries, and it has been a commonplace of history and criticism ever since. Elizabeth called him one of the jewels of her crown, and at the age of twenty-three, so fast did genius ripen in that summer time of the Renaissance, William the Silent could speak of him as “one of the ripest statesmen of the age.” He travelled widely in Europe, knew many languages, and dreamed of adventure in America and on the high seas. In a court of brilliant figures, his was the most dazzling, and his death at Zutphen only served to intensify the halo of romance which had gathered round his name. His literary exercises were various: in prose he wrote the Arcadia and the Apology for Poetry, the one the beginning of a new kind of imaginative writing, and the other the first of the series of those rare and precious commentaries on their own art which some of our English poets have left us. To the Arcadia we shall have to return later in this chapter. It is his other great work, the sequence of sonnets entitled Astrophel and Stella, which concerns us here. They celebrate the history of his love for Penelope Devereux, sister of the Earl of Essex, a love brought to disaster by the intervention of Queen Elizabeth with whom he had quarrelled. As poetry they mark an epoch. They are the first direct expression of an intimate and personal experience in English literature, struck off in the white heat of passion, and though they are coloured at times with that over-fantastic imagery which is at once a characteristic fault and excellence of the writing of the time, they never lose the one merit above all others of lyric poetry, the merit of sincerity. The note is struck with certainty and power in the first sonnet of the series:—
“Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,—
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain;
Oft turning others' leaves to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful flower upon my sunburned brain.
But words came halting forth ...
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
'Fool,' said my muse to me, 'look in thy heart and write.'“
And though he turned others' leaves it was quite literally looking in his heart that he wrote. He analyses the sequence of his feelings with a vividness and minuteness which assure us of their truth. All that he tells is the fruit of experience, dearly bought:
“Desire! desire! I have too dearly bought
With price of mangled mind thy worthless ware.
Too long, too long! asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare.”
and earlier in the sequence—
“I now have learned love right and learned even so
As those that being poisoned poison know.”
In the last two sonnets, with crowning truth and pathos he renounces earthly love which reaches but to dust, and which because it fades brings but fading pleasure:
“Then farewell, world! Thy uttermost I see.
Eternal love, maintain thy life in me.”
The sonnets were published after Sidney's death, and it is certain that like Shakespeare's they were never intended for publication at all. The point is important because it helps to vindicate Sidney's sincerity, but were any vindication needed another more certain might be found. The Arcadia is strewn with love songs and sonnets, the exercises solely of the literary imagination. Let any one who wishes to gauge the sincerity of the impulse of the Stella sequence compare any of the poems in it with those in the romance.
With Sir Philip Sidney literature was an avocation, constantly indulged in, but outside the main business of his life; with Edmund Spenser public life and affairs were subservient to an overmastering poetic impulse. He did his best to carve out a career for himself like other young men of his time, followed the fortunes of the Earl of Leicester, sought desperately and unavailingly the favour of the Queen, and ultimately accepted a place in her service in Ireland, which meant banishment as virtually as a place in India would to-day. Henceforward his visits to London and the Court were few; sometimes a lover of travel would visit him in his house in Ireland as Raleigh did, but for the most he was left alone. It was in this atmosphere of loneliness and separation, hostile tribes pinning him in on every side, murder lurking in the woods and marshes round him, that he composed his greatest work. In it at last he died, on the heels of a sudden rising in which his house was burnt and his lands over-run by the wild Irish whom the tyranny of the English planters had driven to vengeance. Spenser was not without interest in his public duties; his View of the State of Ireland shows that. But it shows, too, that he brought to them singularly little sympathy or imagination. Throughout his tone is that of the worst kind of English officialdom; rigid subjection and in the last resort massacre are the remedies he would apply to Irish discontent. He would be a fine text—which might be enforced by modern examples—for a discourse on the evil effects of immersion in the government of a subject race upon men of letters. No man of action can be so consistently and cynically an advocate of brutalism as your man of letters, Spenser, of course, had his excuses; the problem of Ireland was new and it was something remote and difficult; in all but the mere distance for travel, Dublin was as far from London as Bombay is to-day. But to him and his like we must lay down partly the fact that to-day we have still an Irish problem.
But though fate and the necessity of a livelihood drove him to Ireland and the life of a colonist, poetry was his main business. He had been the centre of a brilliant set at Cambridge, one of those coteries whose fame, if they are brilliant and vivacious enough and have enough self-confidence, penetrates to the outer world before they leave the University. The thing happens in our own day, as the case of Oscar Wilde is witness; it happened in the case of Spenser; and when he and his friends Gabriel Harvey and Edward Kirke came “down” it was to immediate fame amongst amateurs of the arts. They corresponded with each other about literary matters, and Harvey published his part of the correspondence; they played like Du Bellay in France, with the idea of writing English verse in the quantitative measures of classical poetry; Spenser had a love affair in Yorkshire and wrote poetry about it, letting just enough be known to stimulate the imagination of the public. They tried their hands at everything, imitated everything, and in all were brilliant, sparkling, and decorative; they got a kind of entrance to the circle of the Court. Then Spenser published his Shepherd's Calendar, a series of pastoral eclogues for every month of the year, after a manner taken from French and Italian pastoral writers, but coming ultimately from Vergil, and Edward Kirke furnished it with an elaborate prose commentary. Spenser took the same liberties with the pastoral form as did Vergil himself; that is to say he used it as a vehicle for satire and allegory, made it carry political and social allusions, and planted in it references to his friends. By its publication Spenser became the first poet of the day. It was followed by some of his finest and most beautiful things—by the Platonic hymns, by the Amoretti, a series of sonnets inspired by his love for his wife; by the Epithalamium, on the occasion of his marriage to her; by Mother Hubbard's Tale, a satire written when despair at the coldness of the Queen and the enmity of Burleigh was beginning to take hold on the poet and endowed with a plainness and vigour foreign to most of his other work—and then by The Fairy Queen.
The poets of the Renaissance were not afraid of big things; every one of them had in his mind as the goal of poetic endeavour the idea of the heroic poem, aimed at doing for his own country what Vergil had intended to do for Rome in the Aeneid, to celebrate it—its origin, its prowess, its greatness, and the causes of it, in epic verse. Milton, three-quarters of a century later, turned over in his mind the plan of an English epic on the wars of Arthur, and when he left it was only to forsake the singing of English origins for the more ultimate theme of the origins of mankind. Spenser designed to celebrate the character, the qualities and the training of the English gentleman. And because poetry, unlike philosophy, cannot deal with abstractions but must be vivid and concrete, he was forced to embody his virtues and foes to virtue and to use the way of allegory. His outward plan, with its knights and dragons and desperate adventures, he procured from Ariosto. As for the use of allegory, it was one of the discoveries of the Middle Ages which the Renaissance condescended to retain. Spenser elaborated it beyond the wildest dreams of those students of Holy Writ who had first conceived it. His stories were to be interesting in themselves as tales of adventure, but within them they were to conceal an intricate treatment of the conflict of truth and falsehood in morals and religion. A character might typify at once Protestantism and England and Elizabeth and chastity and half the cardinal virtues, and it would have all the while the objective interest attaching to it as part of a story of adventure. All this must have made the poem difficult enough. Spenser's manner of writing it made it worse still. One is familiar with the type of novel which only explains itself when the last chapter is reached—Stevenson's Wrecker is an example. The Fairy Queen was designed on somewhat the same plan. The last section was to relate and explain the unrelated and unexplained books which made up the poem, and at the court to which the separate knights of the separate books—the Red Cross Knight and the rest—were to bring the fruit of their adventures, everything was to be made clear. Spenser did not live to finish his work; The Fairy Queen, like the Aeneid, is an uncompleted poem, and it is only from a prefatory letter to Sir Walter Raleigh issued with the second published section that we know what the poem was intended to be. Had Spenser not published this explanation, it is impossible that anybody, even the acutest minded German professor, could have guessed.
The poem, as we have seen, was composed in Ireland, in the solitude of a colonists' plantation, and the author was shut off from his fellows while he wrote. The influence of his surroundings is visible in the writing. The elaboration of the theme would have been impossible or at least very unlikely if its author had not been thrown in on himself during its composition. Its intricacy and involution is the product of an over-concentration born of empty surroundings. It lacks vigour and rapidity; it winds itself into itself. The influence of Ireland, too, is visible in its landscapes, in its description of bogs and desolation, of dark forests in which lurk savages ready to spring out on those who are rash enough to wander within their confines. All the scenery in it which is not imaginary is Irish and not English scenery.
Its reception in England and at the Court was enthusiastic. Men and women read it eagerly and longed for the next section as our grandfathers longed for the next section of Pickwick. They really liked it, really loved the intricacy and luxuriousness of it, the heavy exotic language, the thickly painted descriptions, the languorous melody of the verse. Mainly, perhaps, that was so because they were all either in wish or in deed poets themselves. Spenser has always been “the poets' poet.” Milton loved him; so did Dryden, who said that Milton confessed to him that Spenser was “his original,” a statement which has been pronounced incredible, but is, in truth, perfectly comprehensible, and most likely true. Pope admired him; Keats learned from him the best part of his music. You can trace echoes of him in Mr. Yeats. What is it that gives him this hold on his peers? Well, in the first place his defects do not detract from his purely poetic qualities. The story is impossibly told, but that will only worry those who are looking for a story. The allegory is hopelessly difficult; but as Hazlitt said “the allegory will not bite you”; you can let it alone. The crudeness and bigotry of Spenser's dealings with Catholicism, which are ridiculous when he pictures the monster Error vomiting books and pamphlets, and disgusting when he draws Mary Queen of Scots, do not hinder the pleasure of those who read him for his language and his art. He is great for other reasons than these. First because of the extraordinary smoothness and melody of his verse and the richness of his language—a golden diction that he drew from every source—new words, old words, obsolete words—such a mixture that the purist Ben Jonson remarked acidly that he wrote no language at all. Secondly because of the profusion of his imagery, and the extraordinarily keen sense for beauty and sweetness that went to its making. In an age of golden language and gallant imagery his was the most golden and the most gallant. And the language of poetry in England is richer and more varied than that in any other country in Europe to-day, because of what he did.
Elizabethan prose brings us face to face with a difficulty which has to be met by every student of literature. Does the word “literature" cover every kind of writing? Ought we to include in it writing that aims merely at instruction or is merely journey-work, as well as writing that has an artistic intention, or writing that, whether its author knew it or no, is artistic in its result? Of course such a question causes us no sort of difficulty when it concerns itself only with what is being published to-day. We know very well that some things are literature and some merely journalism; that of novels, for instance, some deliberately intend to be works of art and others only to meet a passing desire for amusement or mental occupation. We know that most books serve or attempt to serve only a useful and not a literary purpose. But in reading the books of three centuries ago, unconsciously one's point of view shifts. Antiquity gilds journey-work; remoteness and quaintness of phrasing lend a kind of distinction to what are simply pamphlets or text-books that have been preserved by accident from the ephemeralness which was the common lot of hundreds of their fellows. One comes to regard as literature things that had no kind of literary value for their first audiences; to apply the same seriousness of judgment and the same tests to the pamphlets of Nash and Dekker as to the prose of Sidney and Bacon. One loses, in fact, that power to distinguish the important from the trivial which is one of the functions of a sound literary taste. Now, a study of the minor writing of the past is, of course, well worth a reader's pains. Pamphlets, chronicle histories, text-books and the like have an historical importance; they give us glimpses of the manners and habits and modes of thought of the day. They tell us more about the outward show of life than do the greater books. If you are interested in social history, they are the very thing. But the student of literature ought to beware of them, nor ought he to touch them till he is familiar with the big and lasting things. A man does not possess English literature if he knows what Dekker tells of the seven deadly sins of London and does not know the Fairy Queen. Though the wide and curious interest of the Romantic critics of the nineteenth century found and illumined the byways of Elizabethan writing, the safest method of approach is the method of their predecessors—to keep hold on common sense, to look at literature, not historically as through the wrong end of a telescope, but closely and without a sense of intervening time, to know the best—the “classic”—and study it before the minor things.
In Elizabeth's reign, prose became for the first time, with cheapened printing, the common vehicle of amusement and information, and the books that remain to us cover many departments of writing. There are the historians who set down for us for the first time what they knew of the earlier history of England. There are the writers, like Harrison and Stubbs, who described the England of their own day, and there are many authors, mainly anonymous, who wrote down the accounts of the voyages of the discoverers in the Western Seas. There are the novelists who translated stories mainly from Italian sources. But of authors as conscious of a literary intention as the poets were, there are only two, Sidney and Lyly, and of authors who, though their first aim was hardly an artistic one, achieved an artistic result, only Hooker and the translators of the Bible. The Authorized Version of the Bible belongs strictly not to the reign of Elizabeth but to that of James, and we shall have to look at it when we come to discuss the seventeenth century. Hooker, in his book on Ecclesiastical Polity (an endeavour to set forth the grounds of orthodox Anglicanism) employed a generous, flowing, melodious style which has influenced many writers since and is familiar to us to-day in the copy of it used by Ruskin in his earlier works. Lyly and Sidney are worth looking at more closely.
The age was intoxicated with language. It went mad of a mere delight in words. Its writers were using a new tongue, for English was enriched beyond all recognition with borrowings from the ancient authors; and like all artists who become possessed of a new medium, they used it to excess. The early Elizabethans' use of the new prose was very like the use that educated Indians make of English to-day. It is not that these write it incorrectly, but only that they write too richly. And just as fuller use and knowledge teaches them spareness and economy and gives their writing simplicity and vigour, so seventeenth century practice taught Englishmen to write a more direct and undecorated style and gave us the smooth, simple, and vigorous writing of Dryden—the first really modern English prose. But the Elizabethans loved gaudier methods; they liked highly decorative modes of expression, in prose no less than in verse. The first author to give them these things was John Lyly, whose book Euphues was for the five or six years following its publication a fashionable craze that infected all society and gave its name to a peculiar and highly artificial style of writing that coloured the work of hosts of obscure and forgotten followers. Lyly wrote other things; his comedies may have taught Shakespeare the trick of Love's Labour Lost; he attempted a sequel of his most famous work with better success than commonly attends sequels, but for us and for his own generation he is the author of one book. Everybody read it, everybody copied it. The maxims and sentences of advice for gentlemen which it contained were quoted and admired in the Court, where the author, though he never attained the lucrative position he hoped for, did what flattery could do to make a name for himself. The name “Euphuism” became a current description of an artificial way of using words that overflowed out of writing into speech and was in the mouths, while the vogue lasted, of everybody who was anybody in the circle that fluttered round the Queen.
The style of Euphues was parodied by Shakespeare and many attempts have been made to imitate it since. Most of them are inaccurate—Sir Walter Scott's wild attempt the most inaccurate of all. They fail because their authors have imagined that “Euphuism” is simply a highly artificial and “flowery” way of talking. As a matter of fact it is made up of a very exact and very definite series of parts. The writing is done on a plan which has three main characteristics as follows. First, the structure of the sentence is based on antithesis and alliteration; that is to say, it falls into equal parts similar in sound but with a different sense; for example, Euphues is described as a young gallant “of more wit than wealth, yet of more wealth than wisdom.” All the characters in the book, which is roughly in the form of a novel, speak in this way, sometimes in sentences long drawn out which are oppressively monotonous and tedious, and sometimes shortly with a certain approach to epigram. The second characteristic of the style is the reference of every stated fact to some classical authority, that is to say, the author cannot mention friendship without quoting David and Jonathan, nor can lovers in his book accuse each other of faithlessness without quoting the instance of Cressida or Aeneas. This appeal to classical authority and wealth of classical allusion is used to decorate pages which deal with matters of every-day experience. Seneca, for instance, is quoted as reporting “that too much bending breaketh the bow,” a fact which might reasonably have been supposed to be known to the author himself. This particular form of writing perhaps influenced those who copied Lyly more than anything else in his book. It is a fashion of the more artificial kind of Elizabethan writing in all schools to employ a wealth of classical allusion. Even the simple narratives in Hakluyt's Voyages are not free from it, and one may hardly hope to read an account of a voyage to the Indies without stumbling on a preliminary reference to the opinions of Aristotle and Plato. Lastly, Euphues is characterised by an extraordinary wealth of allusion to natural history, mostly of a fabulous kind. “I have read that the bull being tied to the fig tree loseth his tail; that the whole herd of deer stand at gaze if they smell a sweet apple; that the dolphin after the sound of music is brought to the shore,” and so on. His book is full of these things, and the style weakens and loses its force because of them.
Of course there is much more in his book than this outward decoration. He wrote with the avowed purpose of instructing courtiers and gentlemen how to live. Euphues is full of grave reflections and weighty morals, and is indeed a collection of essays on education, on friendship, on religion and philosophy, and on the favourite occupation and curriculum of Elizabethan youth—foreign travel. The fashions and customs of his countrymen which he condemns in the course of his teaching are the same as those inveighed against by Stubbs and other contemporaries. He disliked manners and fashions copied from Italy; particularly he disliked the extravagant fashions of women. One woman only escapes his censure, and she, of course, is the Queen, whom Euphues and his companion in the book come to England to see. In the main the teaching of Euphues inculcates a humane and liberal, if not very profound creed, and the book shares with The Fairy Queen the honour of the earlier Puritanism—the Puritanism that besides the New Testament had the Republic.
But Euphues, though he was in his time the popular idol, was not long in finding a successful rival. Seven years before his death Sir Philip Sidney, in a period of retirement from the Court wrote “The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia”; it was published ten years after it had been composed. The Arcadia is the first English example of the prose pastoral romance, as the Shepherd's Calendar is of our pastoral verse. Imitative essays in its style kept appearing for two hundred years after it, till Wordsworth and other poets who knew the country drove its unrealities out of literature. The aim of it and of the school to which it belonged abroad was to find a setting for a story which should leave the author perfectly free to plant in it any improbability he liked, and to do what he liked with the relations of his characters. In the shade of beech trees, the coils of elaborated and intricate love-making wind and unravel themselves through an endless afternoon. In that art nothing is too far-fetched, nothing too sentimental, no sorrow too unreal. The pastoral romance was used, too, to cover other things besides a sentimental and decorative treatment of love. Authors wrapped up as shepherds their political friends and enemies, and the pastoral eclogues in verse which Spenser and others composed are full of personal and political allusion. Sidney's story carries no politics and he depends for its interest solely on the wealth of differing episodes and the stories and arguments of love which it contains. The story would furnish plot enough for twenty ordinary novels, but probably those who read it when it was published were attracted by other things than the march of its incidents. Certainly no one could read it for the plot now. Its attraction is mainly one of style. It goes, you feel, one degree beyond Euphues in the direction of freedom and poetry. And just because of this greater freedom, its characteristics are much less easy to fix than those of Euphues. Perhaps its chief quality is best described as that of exhaustiveness. Sidney will take a word and toss it to and fro in a page till its meaning is sucked dry and more than sucked dry. On page after page the same trick is employed, often in some new and charming way, but with the inevitable effect of wearying the reader, who tries to do the unwisest of all things with a book of this kind—to read on. This trick of bandying words is, of course, common in Shakespeare. Other marks of Sidney's style belong similarly to poetry rather than to prose. Chief of them is what Ruskin christened the “pathetic fallacy”—the assumption (not common in his day) which connects the appearance of nature with the moods of the artist who looks at it, or demands such a connection. In its day the Arcadia was hailed as a reformation by men nauseated by the rhythmical patterns of Lyly. A modern reader finds himself confronting it in something of the spirit that he would confront the prose romances, say, of William Morris, finding it charming as a poet's essay in prose but no more: not to be ranked with the highest.