CHAPTER III: FROM CHAUCER'S DEATH, 1400, TO THE ACCESSION OF ELIZABETH, 1558
The Course of English History.—The century and a half that followed the death of Chaucer appealed especially to Shakespeare. He wrote or helped to edit five plays that deal with this period,—Henry IV., Henry V., Henry VI., Richard III., and Henry VIII. While these plays do not give an absolutely accurate presentation of the history of the time, they show rare sympathy in catching the spirit of the age, and they leave many unusually vivid impressions.
Henry IV. (1399-1413), a descendant of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, one of the younger sons of Edward III., and therefore not in the direct line of succession, was the first English king who owed his crown entirely to Parliament. Henry's reign was disturbed by the revolt of nobles and by contests with the Welsh. Shakespeare gives a pathetic picture of the king calling in vain for sleep, “nature's tired nurse,” and exclaiming:—
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
Henry V. (1413-1422) is one of Shakespeare's romantic characters. The young king renewed the French war, which had broken out in 1337 and which later became known as the Hundred Years' War. By his victory over the French at Agincourt (1415), he made himself a national hero. Shakespeare has him say:—
“I thought upon one pair of English legs
Did march three Frenchmen.”
In the reign of Henry VI. (1422-1461), Joan of Arc appeared and saved France.
The setting aside of the direct succession in the case of Henry IV. was a pretext for the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) to settle the royal claims of different descendants of Edward III. While this war did not greatly disturb the common people, it occupied the attention of those who might have been patrons of literature. Nearly all the nobles were killed during this prolonged contest; hence when Henry VII. (1485-1509), the first of the Tudor line of monarchs, came to the throne, there were no powerful nobles with their retainers to hold the king in check. He gave a strong centralized government to England.
The period following Chaucer's death opens with religious persecution. In 1401 the first Englishman was burned at the stake for his religious faith. From this time the expenses of burning heretics are sometimes found in the regular accounts of cities and boroughs. Henry VIII. (1509-1547) broke with the Pope, dissolved the monasteries, proclaimed himself head of the church, and allowed the laity to read the Bible, but insisted on retaining many of the old beliefs. In Germany, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was in the same age issuing his famous protests against religious abuses. Edward VI. (1547-1553) espoused the Protestant cause. An order was given to introduce into all the churches an English prayer book, which was not very different from that in use to-day in the Episcopal churches. Mary (1553-1558) sought the aid of fagots and the stake to bring the nation back to the old beliefs.
While this period did not produce a single great poet or a statesman of the first rank, it witnessed the destruction of the majority of the nobility in the Wars of the Roses, the increase of the king's power, the decline of feudalism, the final overthrow of the knight by the yeoman with his long bow at Agincourt(1415), the freedom of the serf, and the growth of manufactures, especially of wool. English trading vessels began to displace even the ships of Venice.
In spite of the religious persecution with which the period began and ended, there was a remarkable change in religious belief, the dissolution of the monasteries and the subordination of church to state being striking evidences of this change. An event that had far-reaching consequences on literature and life was the act of Henry VIII. in ordering a translation of the Bible to be placed in every parish church in England. The death of Mary may in a measure be said to indicate the beginning of modern times.
Contrast between the Spirit of the Renaissance and of the Middle Ages.—One of the most important intellectual movements of the world is known as the Renaissance or Revival of Learning. This movement began in Italy about the middle of the fourteenth century and spread slowly westward. While Chaucer's travels in Italy; and his early contact with this new influence are reflected in his work, yet the Renaissance did not reach its zenith in England until the time of Shakespeare. This new epoch followed a long period, known as the Middle ages, when learning was mostly confined to the church, when thousands of the best minds retired to the cloisters, when many questions, like those of the revolution of the sun around the earth or the cause of disease, were determined, not by observation and scientific proof, but by the assertion of those in spiritual authority. Then, scientific investigators, like Roger Bacon, were thought to be in league with the devil and were thrown into prison. In 1258 Dante's tutor visited Roger Bacon, and, after seeing his experiments with the mariner's compass, wrote to an Italian friend:—
“This discovery so useful to all who travel by sea, must remain
concealed until other times, because no mariner dare use it, lest he
fall under imputation of being a magician, nor would sailors put to
sea with one who carried an instrument so evidently constructed by
Symonds says: “During the Middle Ages, man had lived enveloped in a cowl. He had not seen the beauty of the world, or had seen it only to cross himself and turn aside, to tell his beads and pray.” Before the Renaissance, the tendency was to regard with contempt mere questions of earthly progress and enjoyment, because they were considered unimportant in comparison with the eternal future of the soul. It was not believed that beauty, art, and literature might play a part in saving souls.
The Schoolmen of the Middle Ages often discussed such subjects as these: whether the finite can comprehend the infinite at any point, since the infinite can have no finite points; whether God can make a wheel revolve and be stationary at the same time; whether all children in a state of innocence are masculine. Such debates made remarkable theologians and metaphysicians, developed precision in defining terms, accuracy in applying the rules of deductive logic, and fluency in expression. As a result, later scientists were able to reason more accurately and express themselves with greater facility.
The chief fault of the studies of the Middle Ages consisted in neglecting the external world of concrete fact. The discussions of the Schoolmen would never have introduced printing or invented the mariner's compass or developed any of the sciences that have revolutionized life.
The coming of the Renaissance opened avenues of learning outside of the church, interested men in manifold questions relating to this world, caused a demand for scientific investigation and proof, and made increasing numbers seek for joy in this life as well as in that to come.
Causes and Effects of the Renaissance.—Some of the causes of this new movement were the weariness of human beings with their lack of progress, their dissatisfaction with the low estimate of the value of this life, and their yearning for fuller expansion of the soul, for more knowledge and joy on this side of the grave.
Another cause was the influence of Greek literature newly discovered in the fifteenth century by the western world. In 1423 an Italian scholar brought 238 Greek manuscripts to Italy. In 1453 the Turks captured Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the headquarters of Grecian learning. Because of the remoteness of this capital, English literature had not been greatly influenced by Greece. When Constantinople fell, many of her scholars went to Italy, taking with them precious Grecian manuscripts. As Englishmen often visited Italy, they soon began to study Grecian masterpieces, and to fall under the spell of Homer and the Athenian dramatists.
The renewed study of Greek and Latin classics stimulated a longing for the beautiful in art and literature. Fourteenth-century Italian writers, like Petrarch and Boccaccio, found increasing interest in their work. Sixteenth-century artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Angelo, and Raphael show their magnificent response to a world that had already been born again.
Many of the other so-called causes of the Renaissance should strictly be considered its effects. The application of the modern theory of the solar system, the desire for exploration, the use of the mariner's compass, the invention and spread of printing, were more effects of the new movement than its causes.
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), inspired by the spirit of the Renaissance, wrote in Latin a remarkable book called Utopia (1516), which presents many new social ideals. In the land of Utopia, society does not make criminals and then punish them for crime. Every one worships as he pleases. Only a few hours of work a day are necessary, and all find genuine pleasure in that. In Utopia life is given to be a joy. No advantage is taken of the weak or the unfortunate. Twentieth-century dreams of social justice are not more vivid and absorbing than Sir Thomas More's. It is pleasant to think that the Roman Catholic church in 1886 added to her list of saints this lovable man, “martyr to faith and freedom.”
When the full influences of the Renaissance reached England, Shakespeare answered their call, and his own creations surpass the children of Utopia.
The Invention of Printing.—In 1344, about the time of Chaucer's birth, a Bible in manuscript cost as much as three oxen. A century later an amount equal to the wages of a workman for 266 days was paid for a manuscript Bible. At this time a book on astronomy cost as much as 800 pounds of butter. One page of a manuscript book cost the equivalent of from a dollar to a dollar and a half to-day. When a member of the Medici family in Florence desired a library, he sent for a book contractor, who secured forty-five copyists. By rigorous work for nearly two years they produced two hundred volumes.
One of the most powerful agencies of the Renaissance was the invention of printing, which multiplied books indefinitely and made them comparatively cheap. People were alive with newly awakened curiosity, and they read books to learn more of the expanding world.
About 1477 William Caxton, who had set up his press at the Almonry, near Westminster Abbey, printed the first book in England, The Dictes and Notable Wish Sayings of the Philosophers. Among fully a hundred different volumes that he printed were Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Malory's Morte d'Arthur, and an English translation of Vergil's AEneid.
Malory's Morte d'Arthur.—The greatest prose work of the fifteenth century was completed in 1470 by a man who styles himself Sir Thomas Malory, Knight. We know nothing of the author's life; but he has left as a monument a great prose epic of the deeds of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. From the various French legends concerning King Arthur, Malory selected his materials and fashioned than into the completest Arthuriad that we possess. While his work cannot be called original, he displayed rare artistic power in arranging, abridging, and selecting the various parts from different French works.
Malory's prose is remarkably simple and direct. Even in the impressive scene where Sir Bedivere throws the dying King Arthur's sword into the sea, the language tells the story simply and shows no straining after effect:—
“And then he threw the sword as far into the water as he might,
and there came an arm and an hand above the water, and met it, and
caught it, and so shook it thrice and brandished, and then vanished
away the hand with the sword in the water... 'Now put me into
the barge,' said the king; and so he did softly. And there received
him three queens with great mourning, and so they set him down, and
in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head, and then that queen
said, 'Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me?'“
After the dusky barge has borne Arthur away from mortal sight, Malory writes: “Here in this world he changed his life.” A century before, Chaucer had with equal simplicity voiced the Saxon faith:—
“His spirit chaunged hous.”
Sometimes this prose narrative, in its condensation and expression of feeling, shows something of the poetic spirit. When the damsel on the white palfrey sees that her knightly lover has been killed, she cries:—
“O Balin! two bodies
hast thou slain and one
heart, and two hearts in
one body, and two souls
thou hast lost.' And
therewith she took the
sword from her love that
lay dead, and as she took
it, she fell to the ground
in a swoon.”
Malory's work, rather than Layamon's Brut, has been the storehouse to which later poets have turned. Many nineteenth-century poets are indebted to Malory. Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Matthew Arnold's Death of Tristram, Swinburne's Tristram of Lyonesse, and William Morris's Defense of Guinevere were inspired by the Morte d'Arthur. Few English prose works have had more influence on the poetry of the Victorian age.
Scottish Poetry.—The best poetry of the fifteenth century was written in the Northern dialect, which was spoken north of the river Humber. This language was just as much English as the Midland tongue in which Chaucer wrote. Not until the sixteenth century was this dialect called Scotch.
James I. of Scotland (1406-1437) spent nineteen years of his youth as a prisoner in England. During his captivity in Windsor Castle, he fell in love with a maiden, seen at her orisons in the garden, and wrote a poem, called the King's Quair, to tell the story of his love. Although the King's Quair is suggestive of The Knightes Tale, and indeed owes much to Chaucer, it is a poetic record of genuine and successful love. These four lines from the spring song show real feeling for nature:—
“Worshippe, ye that lovers be, this May,
For of your bliss the kalends are begun,
And sing with us, 'Away, Winter, away,
Come, Summer, come, the sweet season and sun!'“
Much of this Scotch poetry is remarkable for showing in that early age a genuine love of nature. Changes are not rung on some typical landscape, copied from an Italian versifier. The Northern poet had his eye fixed on the scenery and the sky of Scotland. About the middle of the century, Robert Henryson, a teacher in Dunfermline, wrote.—
“The northin wind had purifyit the air
And sched the misty cloudis fra the sky.”
This may lack the magic of Shelley's rhythm, but the feeling for nature is as genuine as in the later poet's lines:—
“For after the rain when, with never a stain
The pavilion of heaven is bare.”
William Dunbar, the greatest poet of this group, who lived in the last half of the fifteenth century, was a loving student of the nature that greeted him in his northland. No Italian poet, as he wandered beside a brook, would have thought of a simile like this:—
“The stones clear as stars in frosty night.”
Dunbar takes us with him on a fresh spring morning, where—
“Enamelled was the field with all colours,
The pearly droppes shook in silver showers,”
where we can hear the matin song of the birds hopping among the buds, while—
“Up rose the lark, the heaven's minstrel fine.”
Both Dunbar and Gawain Douglas (1474?-1522), the son of a Scotch nobleman, had keen eyes for all coloring in sky, leaf, and flower. In one line Dunbar calls our attention to these varied patches of color in a Scotch garden: “purple, azure, gold, and gules [red].” In the verses of Douglas we see the purple streaks of the morning, the bluish-gray, blood-red, fawn-yellow, golden, and freckled red and white flowers, and—
“Some watery-hued, as the blue wavy sea.”
Outside the pages of Shakespeare, we shall for the next two hundred years look in vain for so genuine a love of scenery and natural phenomena as we find in fifteenth-century Scottish poetry. These poets obtained many of their images of nature at first hand, an achievement rare in any age.
“Songs for Man or Woman, of All Sizes.”—When Shakespeare shows us Autolycus offering such songs at a rustic festival, the great poet emphasizes the fondness for the ballad which had for a long time been developing a taste for poetry. While it is difficult to assign exact dates to the composition of many ballads, we know that they flourished in the fifteenth century. They were then as much prized as the novel is now, and like it they had a story to tell. The verse was often halting, but it succeeded in conveying to the hearer tales of love, of adventure, and of mystery. These ballads were sometimes tinged with pathos; but there was an energy in the rude lines that made the heart beat faster and often stirred listeners to find in a dance an outlet for their emotions. Even now, with all the poetry of centuries from which to choose, it is refreshing to turn to a Robin Hood ballad and look upon the greensward, hear the rustle of the leaves in Nottingham forest, and follow the adventures of the hero. We read the opening lines:—
“There are twelve months in all the year,
As I hear many say,
But the merriest month in all the year
Is the merry month of May.”
“Now Robin Hood is to Nottingham gone,
With a link a down, and a day,
And there he met a silly old woman
Was weeping on the way.”
Of our own accord we finish the ballad to see whether Robin Hood rescued her sons, who were condemned to death for shooting the fallow deer. The ballad of the Nut-Brown Maid has some touches that are almost Shakespearean.
Some of the carols of the fifteenth century give a foretaste of the Elizabethan song. One carol on the birth of the Christ-child contains stanzas like these, which show artistic workmanship, imaginative power, and, above all, rare lyrical beauty:—
“He cam also stylle
to his moderes bowr,
As dew in Aprille
that Fallyt on the flour.”
“He cam also stylle
ther his moder lay,
As dew in Aprille
that fallyt on the spray"
We saw that the English tongue during its period of exclusion from the Norman court gained strength from coming in such close contact with life. Although the higher types of poetry were for the most part wanting during the fifteenth century, yet the ballads multiplied and sang their songs to the ear of life. Critics may say that the rude stanzas seldom soar far from the ground, but we are again reminded of the invincible strength of Antaeus so long as he kept close to his mother earth. English poetry is so great because it has not withdrawn from life, because it was nurtured in such a cradle. When Shakespeare wrote his plays, he found an audience to understand and to appreciate them. Not only those who occupied the boxes, but also those who stood in the pit, listened intelligently to his dramatic stories. The ballad had played its part in teaching the humblest home to love poetry. These rude fireside songs were no mean factors in preparing the nation to welcome Shakespeare.
William Tyndale, 1490?-1536.—The Reformation was another mighty influence, working side by side with all the other forces to effect a lasting change in English history and literature. In the early part of the sixteenth century, Martin Luther was electrifying Germany with his demands for church reformation. In order to decide which religious party was in the right, there arose a desire for more knowledge of theScriptures. The language had changed much since Wycliffe's translation of the Bible, and, besides, this was accessible only in manuscript. William Tyndale, a clergyman and an excellent linguist, who had been educated at both Oxford and Cambridge, conceived the idea of giving the English people the Bible in their own tongue. As he found that he could not translate and print the Bible with safety in England, he went to the continent, where with the help of friends he made the translation and had it printed. He was forced to move frequently from place to place, and was finally betrayed in his hiding place near Brussels. After eighteen months' imprisonment without pen or books, he was strangled and his body was burned at the stake.
Of his translation, Brooke says: “It was this Bible which, revised by Coverdale, and edited and reedited as Cromwell's Bible, 1539, and again as Cranmer's Bible, 1540, was set up in every parish church in England. It got north into Scotland and made the Lowland English more like the London English. It passed over into the Protestant settlements in Ireland. After its revival in 1611 it went with the Puritan Fathers to New England and fixed the standard of English in America. Many millions of people now speak the English of Tyndale's Bible, and there is no other book which has had, through the Authorized Version, so great an influence on the style of English literature and on the standard of English prose.”
The following verses from Tyndale's version show its simplicity directness, and similarity to the present version:—
“Jesus sayde unto her, Thy brother shall ryse agayne.
“Martha sayde unto hym, I knowe wele, he shall ryse agayne in the
resurreccion att the last day.
“Jesus sayde unto her, I am the resurreccion and lyfe; whosoever
beleveth on me, ye, though he were deed, yet shall he lyve.”
Italian Influence: Wyatt and Surrey.—During the reign of Henry VIII. (1509-1547), the influence of Italian poetry made itself distinctly felt. The roots of Elizabethan poetry were watered by many fountains, one of the chief of which flowed from Italian soil. To Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and to the Earl of Surrey (1517-1547) belongs the credit of introducing from Italian sources new influences, which helped to remodel English poetry and give it a distinctly modern cast.
These poets were the first to introduce the sonnet, which Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth employed with such power in after times. Blank verse was first used in England by the Earl of Surrey, who translated a portion of Vergil's AEneid into that measure. When Shakespeare took up his pen, he found that vehicle of poetic expression ready for his use.
Wyatt and Surrey adopted Italian subject matter as well as form. They introduced the poetry of the amorists, that is, verse which tells of the woes and joys of a lover. We find Shakespeare in his Sonnetsturning to this subject, which he made as broad and deep as life. In 1557, the year before Elizabeth's accession, the poems of Wyatt and Surrey appeared in Tottel's Miscellany, one of the earliest printed collections of modern English poetry.
The first part of the century and a half following the death of Chaucer saw war with France and the Wars of the Roses, in which most of the nobles were killed. The reign of Henry VII. and his successors in the Tudor line shows the increased influence of the crown, freed from the restraint of the powerful lords. The period witnessed the passing of serfdom and the extension of trade and manufactures.
The changes in religious views were far-reaching. Henry VIII. superseded the Pope as head of the English church, dissolved the monasteries, and placed an English translation of the Bible in the churches. Henry's son and successor Edward VI., established the Protestant form of worship, but his half-sister Mary used persecution in an endeavor to bring back the old faith.
The influences of the Renaissance, moving westward from Italy, were tending toward their culmination in the next period. The study of Greek literature, the discovery of the new world, the decline of feudalism, the overthrow of the armed knight, the extension of the use of gunpowder, the invention of printing, the increased love of learning, the demand for scientific investigation, the decline of monastic influence, shown in the new interest in this finite world and life,—all figured as causes or effects of the new influence.
The most important prose works are Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, a masterly retelling of the Arthurian legends; Sir Thomas More's Utopia, a magnificent Renaissance dream of a new social world; and Tyndale's translation of the Bible. The best poetry was written in Scotland, and this verse anticipates in some measure that love of nature which is a dominant characteristic of the last part of the eighteenth century. The age is noted for its ballads, which aided in developing among high and low a liking for poetry. At the close of the period, we find Italian influences at work, as may be seen in the verse of Wyatt and Surrey.
REFERENCES FOR FURTHER STUDY
An account of the history of this period may be found in either Gardiner, Green, Lingard, Walker, or Cheney. Vols. IV. and V. of The Political History of England, edited by Hunt (Longmans), gives the history in greater detail. For the social side, consult Traill's Social England, Vols. II. and III., also Cheney's Industrial and Social History of England, Field's Introduction to the Study of the Renaissance, Einstein's The Italian Renaissance in England, Symonds's A Short History of the Renaissance.
The Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol. II.
Snell's The Age of Transition, 1400-1580.
Morley's English Literature, Vols. VI. and VII.
Minto's Characteristics of English Poets, pp. 69-130.
Saintsbury's Short History of English Literature, pp. 157-218.
Dictionary of National Biography, articles on Malory, Caxton, Henryson, Gawain Douglas, Dunbar, Tyndale, Wyatt, and Surrey.
Veitch's The Feeling for Nature in Scottish Poetry.
Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.
Gummere's Old English Ballads.
Child's The English and Scotch Popular Ballads.
Collins's Greek Influence on English Poetry.
Tucker's The Foreign Debt of English Literature.
SUGGESTED READINGS WITH QUESTIONS AND SUGGESTIONS
Malory.—Craik, Century, 19-33; Swiggett's Selections from Malory; Wragg's Selections from Malory,—all contain good selections. The Globe Edition is an inexpensive single volume containing the complete text. The best edition is a reproduction of the original in three volumes with introductions by Oscar Sommer and Andrew Lang (London: David Nutt). Howard Pyle has retold Malory's best stories in simple form (Scribner).
Compare the death (or passing) of Arthur in Malory with Tennyson's The Passing of Arthur. What special dualities do you notice in the manner of Malory's telling a story? Is his work original? Why has it remained so popular? What age specially shows its influence?
More.—The English translation of the Utopia may be found entire in Everyman's Library (35c). There are good selections in Craik, I., 162-167.
What is the etymological meaning of Utopia? What is its modern significance? Did More really give a new word to literature and speech? The Utopia should be read for an indication of the influence of the Renaissance and for comparison with twentieth-century ideas of social improvement.
Tyndale.—Bosworth and Waring's Gospels, containing the Anglo-Saxon, Wycliffe, and Tyndale versions. Specimens of Tyndale's prose are given in Chambers, I., 130; Craik, I., 185-187.
Why is Tyndale's translation of the Bible important to the student of literature? What are some special dualities of this translation?
Early Scottish Poetry.—Selections from fifteenth-century Scottish poetry may be found in Bronson, I, 170-197; Ward, I, passim; P. & S., 246-277; Oxford, 16-33.
From the King's Quair and the poems of Henryson, Dunbar, and Gawain Douglas, select passages that show first-hand intimacy with nature. Compare these with lines from any poet whose knowledge of nature seems to you to be acquired from books.
Ballads.—Ward. I., passim, contains among others three excellent ballads,—Sir Patrick Spens, The Twa Corbies, Robin Hood Rescuing the Widow's Three Sons. Bronson, I., 203-254; P. &S., 282-301; Oxford, 33-51; and Maynard's English Classics, No. 96, Early English Ballads also have good selections. The best collection is Child's The English and Scotch Popular Ballads, 5 vols.
What are the chief characteristics of the old ballads? Why do they interest us today? Which of those indicated for reading has proved most interesting? What influence impossible for other forms of literature, was exerted by the ballad? What did Autolycus mean (Winter's Tale, IV., 4) when he offered “songs for man or woman, of all sizes”? Have any ballads been written in recent times?
Wyatt and Surrey.—Read two characteristic love sonnets by Wyatt and Surrey, P. &S., 313-319; Ward, I., 251, 257; Bronson, II., 1-4. A specimen of the first English blank verse employed by Surrey in translating Vergil's, AEneid is given in Bronson, II., 4, 5; in P. & S., 322, 323; and Chambers, I., 162.
Why are Wyatt and Surrey called amourists? What contributions did they make to the form of English verse? What foreign influences did they help to usher in?
FOOTNOTES TO CHAPTER III:
[Footnote 1: Knightes Tale.]
[Footnote 2: Testament of Cresseid.]
[Footnote 3: The Cloud.]
[Footnotes 4-6: The Golden Targe.]
[Footnote 7: Prologue to AEneid, Book XII.]
[Footnote 8: The Winter's Tale, IV., 4.]
[Footnote 9: Wright's Songs and Carols of the Fifteenth Century, p. 30.]
[Footnote 10: For full titles, see p. 50.]
[Footnote 11: For full titles, see p. 6.]