CHAPTER XI. THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES: ENGLAND
Dramatists: Marlowe, Shakespeare. Prose Writers: Sidney, Francis Bacon, etc. Epic Poet: Milton. Comic Poets.
ELIZABETHAN AGE: SPENSER.—In England the Elizabethan Age is the period extending from the commencement of the reign of Elizabeth to the end of her successor, James I; that is, from 1558 to 1625. This was the golden age of English literature: the epoch in which, awakened or excited by the Renaissance, her genius gave forth all its development in fruits that were marvellous.
First, there was Spenser, alike impregnated with the Italian Renaissance and gifted with the slightly fantastic imagination of his own countrymen, who wrote eclogues, in his Shepheard's Calender, in imitation of Theocritus and Virgil as well as of the Italians of the sixteenth century, and who gave charming descriptions in his Faerie Queene.
Next came Sidney, the sonnetist, at once passionate and precious, and then that highest glory of this glorious period, the dramatic poets.
THE STAGE: MARLOWE.—As in France, the English stage in the Middle Ages had been devoted to the performance of mysteries (under the name of miracles), later of moralities. As in France, tragedy, strictly speaking, was constituted in the sixteenth century. Towards its close appeared Marlowe, a very great genius, still rugged but with extraordinary power, more especially lyrical. His great works areDoctor Faustus and Edward II.
SHAKESPEARE.—Then (at the same time as the rest, for they are of about the same age, though Marlowe appeared the earlier) came William Shakespeare, who is perhaps the greatest known dramatic poet. His immense output, which includes plays carelessly put together and, one may venture to say, negligibly, also contains many masterpieces: Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor, As You Like It, and The Tempest. The types and personages of Shakespeare, which have remained celebrated and are still daily cited in human intercourse, include Othello, that tragic figure of jealousy; Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers separated by the feuds of their families but united in death; Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the ambitious criminals; Hamlet, the young man with a great mind and a great heart but with a feeble will which collapses under too heavy a task and comes to the verge of insanity; Cordelia, the English Antigone, the devoted daughter of the proscribed King Lear; Falstaff, glutton, coward, diverting and gay, a kind of Anglo-Saxon Panurge. A whole dramatic literature has come from Shakespeare. To France he was introduced by Voltaire and then scorned by him because he had succeeded only too well in popularising him; subsequently he was exalted, praised to hyperbole, and imitated beyond discretion by the romantics. In addition to his dramatic works, Shakespeare left Sonnets, some of which are obscure, but the majority are perfect.
BEN JONSON.—Ben Jonson, classical, exact, pretty faithful imitator of the writers of antiquity, interested in unusual characters and customs, gifted with a ready and lively imagination in both comedy and tragedy like Shakespeare, succeeded especially in comedy (Every Man in his Humour, The Silent Woman, etc.). Beaumont and Fletcher, who wrote in collaboration, are full of elevation, of delicacy and grace expressed in a style which is regarded by their fellow-countrymen as exceptionally beautiful.
PROSE WRITERS: LYLY; SIDNEY; BACON; BURTON.—In prose this amazing period was equally productive. Lyly, who corresponds approximately to the French Voiture, created euphemism: that is, witty preciosity. Sidney, in his Arcadia furnished a curious example of the chivalric romance. Further in his Defence of Poesie, he founded literary criticism. Francis Bacon, historian, moralist, philosopher, perhaps collaborator with Shakespeare, has a place equally allocated to him in a history of literature as in a history of philosophical ideas. Robert Burton, moralist or rather Meditator, who gave himself the pseudonym of Democritus Junior because he was consumed with sadness, left a great work, but one in which there are many quotations, called The Anatomy of Melancholy. There is much analogy between him and the French Senancour. Sterne, without acknowledgment, profusely pilfered from him. He is thoroughly English. He did not create melancholy but he greatly contributed to it and made a specialty of it. Despite his pranks and whimsicality, he possessed high literary merit.
POETRY: WALLER.—The English seventeenth century, strictly speaking, virtually commencing about 1625, was inferior to the sixteenth, that has just been considered, which is easily explained by the civil wars distracting England at this period. In poetry, on the one hand, may be noticed the softened and pleasing Epicureans, of which the most prominent representative was Waller, a witty man of the world, who dwelt long in France, and was a friend of Saint-Evremond (who himself spent a portion of his life in England). Waller made a very fine eulogy of his cousin Cromwell, later another of Charles II, and was told by the latter, “This is not so good as that on Cromwell,” whereupon he replied, “Sire, you know that poets always succeed better in fiction than in fact.” Here was a man of much wit.
HERBERT; HABINGTON.—Also must be remarked the austere and mystical such as George Herbert, with his Temple, a collection of religious and melancholy poems, and like Habington, sad and gloomy even as far as the thirst for dissolution, analogous to the modern Schopenhauer: “My God, if it be Thy supreme decree, if Thou wilt that this moment be the last wherein I breathe this air, my heart obeys, happy to retire far from the false favours of the great, from betrayals where the just are preyed upon....”
DRAMATIC POETS.—Let the estimable dramatic poets be alluded to. Davenant, perhaps a son of Shakespeare; Otway, the illustrious author of Venice Preserved and of many adaptations from the French ( Titus and Berenice, the Tricks of Scapin, etc.); Dryden, declamatory, emphatic, but admirably gifted with dramatic genius, author of The Virgin Queen, All for Love (Cleopatra), Don Sebastian, was always hesitating between the influence of Shakespeare and that of the French, over-inclined, too, to licentious scenes but pathetic and eloquent.
MILTON.—Quite apart arose Milton, the imperishable author of Paradise Lost, the type and model of the religious epic permeated, in fact, with profound and ardent religious feeling, but also possessing very remarkable grandeur and philosophical breadth. Milton became a second Bible to the people to whom the Bible was the inevitable and essential daily study. To Paradise Lost, Milton added the inferiorParadise Regained and the poem of Samson. Apart from his great religious poems, Milton wrote Latin poems (especially in his youth) which are extremely agreeable, and also works in prose, generally in relation to polemical politics, which came from a vigorous and exalted mind. Milton, from the aspect of his prodigious productiveness and his varied life, divided between literature and the intellectual battles of his times, is comparable to Voltaire, reservation being made for his high moral character, wherein no comparison can be entertained with the French satirist. He did himself full justice. Having become blind, he wrote:
“Cyriack, this three years' day these eyes, though clear,
To outward view, of blemish or of spot,
Bereft of light, their seeing have forgot;
Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appear
Of sun, or moon, or star, throughout the year,
Or man, or woman. Yet I argue not
Against Heaven's hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope, but still bear up and steer
Right onward. What supports me, dost thou ask?
The conscience, friend, to have lost them overplied
In Liberty's defence, my noble task,
Of which all Europe rings from side to side.
This thought might lead me through the world's vain mask
Content, though blind, had I no better guide.”
NOTABLE PROSE WRITERS.—In prose must be noted, on the austere side, George Fox, founder of the sect of Quakers, impassioned and powerful popular orator, author of the Book of Martyrs; John Bunyan, an obstinate ascetic, author of Grace Abounding, a kind of edifying autobiography, and of The Pilgrim's Progress, which became one of the volumes of edification and of spiritual edification to the emigrant founders of the United States of America; on the side of the Libertines, Wycherley, who, thoroughly perceiving the moral lowness, fairly well concealed, which lies at the source of Moliere, carried this Gallic vein to an extreme in shameless imitations of The School for Women and The Misanthrope (The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer); delightful Congreve, a far more amusing companion—witty, spiritual, sardonic, writing excellently, knowing how to create a type and charming his contemporaries whilst not failing to write for posterity in his Old Bachelor, Love for Love, and Way of the World.
NEWTON; LOCKE.—It must not be forgotten that at this epoch Newton and Locke, the one belonging more to the history of science and the other to the history of philosophy, both wrote in a manner entirely commensurate with their genius.