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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
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 Norman 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