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HOME-THOUGHTS, FROM THE SEA 766
ANDREA DEL SARTO
AN OUTLINE SKETCH OF ENGLISH POETRY FROM
CHAUCER TO BROWNING
It is a curious fact that in the history of English poetry the even centuries have been the periods of the most noteworthy and original production. The age of Chaucer, the rich and exuberant English renaissance of Elizabeth's time, and the new springtide of the romantic revival came respectively in the fourteenth, sixteenth, and eighteenth centuries. We do not intend to imply that poetry lapsed in the intervals, that the odd centuries were wholly flat, stale, and unprofitable, nor do we imply that all the great poetry of our literature can be grouped around the even century marks. The exquisite lyrics of Lovelace and Suckling and Herrick, the noble verse of Milton, the polished heroic couplets of Dryden and Pope, the smooth melody and careful art of Tennyson, and the force and inspired insight of Browning would at once give us the lie. What we do mean is that the successive tides of original poetic inspiration seem to have flowed with the even and ebbed with the odd centuries. The Cavalier lyrists and even the sublime Milton are a continuation of the Elizabethan renaissance, and no one will deny the debt of Tennyson and Browning to the poetic revival in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Hence for our brief outline of the course of English poetry, we are led to dwell with special emphasis upon the poetry of the age of Chaucer, of the age of Elizabeth, and of the age of Wordsworth.
I. THE CHAUCERIAN PERIOD
1340-1400 Any sketch of English poetry may well begin with Chaucer. Although it is trite now to speak of him as the “Father of English Poetry,” that phrase expresses accurately his position in the history of our poetry. He won his eminence under peculiarly difficult conditions. The Normal Conquest in 1066 had prevented the establishment of a standard English speech and had given free scope to the welter of dialects, the remnants of the Anglo-Saxon contending with the new Anglo-Norman. In the field of literature, the English were in bondage to continental models. Men dreamed, maidens loved, and birds sang in England just as they conventionally did in Normandy and France. Before Chaucer, few English works have the native English flavor.
And what did Chaucer do that has won him his place as the first of our long line of English poets? Where there were no models in English for him to follow, he went in the beginning to the literatures of France and Italy, at first translating, paraphrasing, and adapting their material to his verse; but later, and herein his fame lies, he conceived (and executed in part) a great original English poem. By his association with continental Europe he tended to bring the restricted English world into a closer touch and sympathy with the great forerunners of the Renaissance. Among the chaos of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman speech, he chose with rare natural judgment the elements which combined strength and grace. With a perfect ear he introduced into English versification those meters and verse forms, with the exception of the sonnet and the
blank verse, which have been found by succeeding generations of poets to be best adapted to English.
Entirely apart from these great services to English literature, Chaucer deserves the name of poet by the character of his work. More than five hundred years have passed and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales retain their freshness and interest, — indeed, their readers are increasing in number and in devotion. Surely if permanence be one of the tests of literary worth, Chaucer's poems have met the requirement fully. Although never a poet of deep or sublime vision, Chaucer's wide sympathies, kindly humor, and accurate characterization raise his work to a rank just below that of Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. He was a born story-teller and an artist in words. Other poets of his time, as Langland and Gower, had equal opportunities, but lacked the native genius that has brought Chaucer his enduring fame.
II. THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY
Chaucer's successors in poetry during the fifteenth century paid loyal and sincere tribute to his genius, and tried to imitate his style. “O maister dere and fader reverent,” says Occleve, and Lydgate in the same decade speaks of “My maister Chaucer.” These successors, however, have contributed little poetry of value. They imitated the outward forms, but could not for want of genius infuse these forms with genuine emotion and vitality. We have nothing in their work to compare with the striking group of living people in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, or with the genially garrulous Wife of Bath; instead, we read endless romances and allegories, with the conventional poet's dream of Cupid and Venus, and conventional birds singing in conventional trees in a conventional month of May. We have to pass to the marvelous renaissance of the next century to find Chaucer's true poetic successors.
III. THE RENAISSANCE
There have been periods in history when the civilized world seemed to shake itself free from the trammels of traditional customs and habits of thought and definitely to take a step toward the achievement of a new and higher state of existence. One of these periods, affecting not only literature, but religion, art, politics, social relations, and all the other communal activities of men, was that of the century between 1450 and 1550. Beginning, perhaps, with the diffusion of classical Greek learning that followed the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the new life infused Italy, spread north into France, and affected even far-away England. Once started, it spread with accelerated speed and intensity. The inspiring literature of the ancient high Greek civilization revivified thought and set it moving in strange and unconventional channels; the introduction of printing brought the cost of books within the reach of the ordinary reader, whereas before even a small library had been the rare luxury of the wealthy; the intrepid pushing forward of the boundaries of man's knowledge of his world by the discoveries of unsuspected lands and peoples across the sea caused thinkers to revise their theories and question accepted authorities; the revolt in the north against the authority of the established Roman Catholic Church shook the very foundations of faith. It became an age of inquiry, of search for truth and knowledge. In religion, in science, in literature, great champions arose who thought, acted, and wrote under the inspiration of new ideals.
The new sense of life, the renaissance, did not reach England until about the time of the accession of Elizabeth. Under her wise rule, the English nation seemed to expand with a new sense of importance and power. A political solidarity resulted from Henry VIII's policy toward the
Church of Rome, reaching its height at the crushing of the Armada of the Catholic power Spain. Humanists, like Erasmus and More, uncloaked the follies and vices of the time and by precept and implication pointed out the way to better conditions. Education became fashionable where before it had been the acquisition of clerics. The sons of noblemen and gentlemen were seen in increasing numbers at the universities. The foreign tour became a necessary part of a full academic course, impelling the young men to France and especially to Italy, then the recognized center of art and letters.
In English poetry, the first products of the awakening were disappointing. Englishmen were too absorbed in the political and religious turmoils incident to the revival of learning to engage in literature. It is noteworthy, however, that two young noblemen of the early part of the Sfteenth century, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, circulated their polished verses in manuscript among their courtier friends after the fashion of the Italian litterati. Some years after they were dead, these poems formed a large part of Tottel's Miscellany (1557). The poems themselves are not valuable for their genuine inspiration and feeling, but for two new verse forms which they introduced into English poetry, namely, the sonnet and the blank verse. Within fifty years these two forms, crudely used by their originators, were the media for the greatest of our English poetry.
IV. THE ELIZABETHAN PERIOD
In the 1570's Sir Philip Sidney was still deploring the barrenness of the field of English poetry when with apparent suddenness a figure arose who summed up in himself many of the most striking characteristics of the new epoch. A product of the revival of learning in the university life, steeped in the classics and thoroughly familiar with Italian literature, a gentleman and a courtier, Edmund Spenser, by his first published poem, The Shepheard's Calendar, in 1579 was stamped at once as a great poet. In the same year he was working upon The Faery Queen, three books of which were published in 1590 and were hailed immediately as the greatest work in English. The new stanza form which he used in The Faery Queen was one of rare beauty and flexibility; his richness of imagination was reflected in the romantic and gorgeous pageantry of knights, dwarfs, fair ladies, horrible demons and dragons, all moving in the story of a single poem; his splendid idealism is shown in the spirit of beauty with which all nature and all common things are treated; his metrical skill and melody have never been surpassed in English poetry. Spenser sprang full-grown as the first birth of the renaissance in English poetry. Spenser many times acknowledges Chaucer as his poetical father, but in most ways he is very different. Spenser has little of the humor, the appreciation of the actual characters that lived and moved about him, the wide sympathy with men as men, that has immortalized the Canterbury Tales. Harry Bailly, the Wife of Bath, the Canon's Yeoman, and the rest of the famous company were beyond the power of Spenser to draw. His was a world detached from that of men, a world peopled by incarnated virtues and vices and dotted with conveniently located mountains, lakes, and grottos. Spenser shows no supreme insight into human character and motives, no dramatic genius to urge his plot rapidly to an inevitable conclusion, indeed, no superior sustained narrative power; but in his work we feel the presence of a vivid imagination and we admire the perfection of verse.
While Spenser in remote Ireland was developing the allegory The Faery Queen or writing his Amoretti, the overwhelming popularity of the drama in England was drawing the genius of all the writers of the day. Men whose individual talents might have yielded great epics or supreme lyrics wrote for the playhouses of London. Marlow, the epic master of the mighty line, Lyly,