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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 fifteenth 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 Totteľs 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, Greene, Jonson, and the lyric Lodge, all wrote chiefly for the stage. Indeed, so notable is the poetic element in the Elizabethan drama that the plays are with justice ranked in English poetry as well as in the history of English drama.
Among the Elizabethans one name stands out supreme. In form and craftsmanship a product of his age, Shakespeare by his varied talents transcended the work of all his contemporaries. How the Stratford lad who fled penniless to London in 1587 developed into one of the world's great trilogy of poets is a mystery not to be solved until we know the physiological reasons for genius. In his twenty-three years of youth at Stratford he learned to know nature and country life; in the following years in London, he came into contact with all the varied artificial life of the city, from the dregs into which he must have fallen at the beginning to the glitter of the court with which he was familiar before the end. He saw life from many sides and with inspired insight reproduced what he saw. In an attempt to point out the particular excellencies of Shakespeare we must pause. His work reveals such depth of insight, such innate knowledge of the springs and courses of emotion, such mastery of language, such art without artifice that we lack in English the standards of comparison. He was of his age and yet superior to it. His apprenticeship was passed in the London theaters, patching up old plays and adapting old scenes to the rapidly changing demands of the time. He graduated into an original and successful playwright. He became shareholder in a theatrical company, a man of wealth and prominence. In an age when the ponderous Jonson was esteemed as the classical poet and dramatist, and when the non-classical plays were looked upon as inferior art, Sbakespeare must have been unconscious of the enduring literary value of his work. He took no care to publish his work and at the prime of life retired to live in Stratford as a country gentleman. Yet these despised productions have not only been read by students through the intervening centuries, but have actually held the stage. Where his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors have been forgotten, Shakespeare is studied and acted to-day. He has become not alone an English figure, but a world figure. He was a man “who saw life steadily and saw it whole.” He has command of the comic and the tragic, of the humorous and of the sublime. His harp seems to have all the range of man's life and character, from the lowest to the highest. Country squires and their hangerson, rude artisans, thieves, servants, nobles, princes, kings, fairies, witches, magicians, he draws them all in very truth. He sees into the souls of men. He truly is one of those few who
take upon 's the mystery of things,
(a) THE METAPHYSICAL POETS While Shakespeare was writing and the greatest dramatic products of the Elizabethan age were on the boards, John Donne and his followers were expressing the spirit of the Renaissance in their original and peculiar poetry. Dr. Johnson later gave to these men the name of “metaphysical poets,” which has clung to them ever since. They were, indeed, a product of their age, expressing the liberalism which is a most striking characteristic of Elizabeth's reign. Their poetry abounded in quaint conceits, unexpected twists of thought, far-fetched analogies, paradoxes, hyperboles, unique verse forms, and deep reasoning on life, death, God, and the soul. Since English poets had been self-convicted of copying their thought and art from other literatures, English readers hailed with approval the strange novelties of Donne, Southwell, Quarles, and Herbert. In the court of James, himself an acute logician, a great value was set upon subtle metaphysical distinctions, so that Donne and his school were in their prime the chief exponents of poetry in England. To-day those very conceits and subtleties which made them acceptable to their contemporaries have cast them into limbo, whence they are only resurrected to explain influences that affected the work of later and better known poets.
V. THE PURITAN REFORMATION
The conflict between king and Parliament which developed to a crisis in the reign of Charles separated the English into two great parties, often popularly called the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. With the king stood the Cavaliers, the nobles and courtiers, gay, brave, happygo-lucky gentlemen: with the Parliament stood the Puritans and the defenders of civil liberty, an austerely sincere minority too commonly misunderstood because of the excesses of a small party of fanatics.
(a) CAVALIER POETRY The political division of the nation was reflected in the literature. Many of the Cavaliers were poets, not men who adopted literature as a profession, but who looked upon the knack of hitting off verses as the proper acquirement of a gentleman. Many of the verses were coarse and vulgar, many were artificial and worthless, but a few were graceful and sincere. Lovelace, Cleveland, and Sir William Davenant were Cavaliers who actually suffered for their king; Suckling, Carew, Vaughan, and Herrick sympathized with the king, although it did not fall to their lot to bear martyrdom for him.
The greatest of these Cavalier poets is Herrick. A clergyman by profession, he was in spirit a true Cavalier, gay, witty, and worldly. He was, indeed, by nature a pagan, preaching in his poems a pagan creed and loving nature with a pagan love. In his little Devonshire vicarage, far from the political turmoil of London, he wrought his delicate lyrics. He lost his churchly living at the success of the Puritans, of course, but regained it at the Restoration, and on the whole suffered little from his sympathy for the King. He was a poet of exquisite fancy and skilled artistry. As a lyrist, describing the rural scenes and customs in England or addressing a dainty love-poem to an imaginary (or real) Julia, he has few superiors in English. He is always the artist, careful of his craftsmanship, sure of his results. He has left us a larger and better amount of verse than any other of the Cavaliers.
(6) PURITAN POETRY Of the Puritans, Marvell, Wither, and Milton stand out above all others. In a way Milton, greatest of these, has come to express both by his life and work our conception of the Puritan characteristics. His inflexible and lofty purpose, his earnestness, zeal, self-sacrifice, integrity, and rigid morality, combined with a marked austerity of manner and a narrowness of view in certain ways, are what we denote vaguely by the term “puritanical” to-day. In his poetry he is peculiarly the poet of sublimity. His subject bespeaks his nature, “Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart.” The Miltonic line is a peal of deep organ music. In his greatest poem he bears us at once without seeming effort to heights from which we can discern God, Man, and Satan. Our world with its struggling millions fades into its proper perspective, and the great essential, the justification of the ways of God to men, becomes to us, as it was to the poet, foremost. In his lesser poems as in his greatest the same dignity and sustained power carry his theme at once to a height beyond that of the ordinary poet. Even in his early Hymn on The Nativity we find the same intense and concentrated aspiration that carried him later to Paradise Lost. He never wrote an ignoble line.
VI. THE RESTORATION
The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was accompanied by a violent reaction from the austerities of the Puritan rule. The worthless and licentious king infected all the society of his day, and for a time the pursuit of pleasure was the most serious business of the time. Charles modeled his court after the court of France, centering in it the fashionable idleness of the time. He encouraged in literature the tastes which he fostered in his court, so that for the most part the Restoration drama is licentious and the Restoration poetry is trifling. Buckingham, Rochester, Sedley, Buckhurst, Sackville, important court poets in their time, are to-day, so far as literature is concerned, names almost forgotten.
One man of genius emerged from this welter of poetasters — John Dryden. He had written little before the Restoration, but with the immediate outburst of literature at Charles's return he identified himself with the court party and began his career. At first occupied with panegyrics, as the fine Annus Mirabilis, in 1668 he set himself to the more lucrative writing for the stage, and for fifteen years was England's foremost dramatist. In 1680 he turned to satire, and in Absalom and Achitophel pilloried the Whig leaders of the day. Two years later he wrote a remarkable didactic poem, Religio Laici. After the loss of all prospect of royal favor by the Revolution of 1688, he continued bravely at work with his pen, writing Alexander's Feast for the musicians, translating numerous poems from the Latin, and composing his very unusual Fables. Dryden's range and versatility are remarkable. He is never sublime and seldom seems inspired, but he is a careful artist in his verse and has a capacity for sustained narrative and a rare talent for satire. As a poet he established the heroic couplet as the standard medium for satire, didactic, and descriptive poetry, thus ushering in the work of Pope in the next generation.
VII. The PSEUDO-CLASSICAL PERIOD The first half of the eighteenth century, following the death of Dryden in 1700, saw the rapid increase of prose writing and little new development in poetry. The pamphleteer flooded the stalls with political papers; the daily journals and forerunners of the modern magazines interested people by their novelty and their topical hits; Richardson and Fielding with their prose fiction gained a huge audience. Poetry in the meanwhile seemed to the contemporaries to have been established by Dryden in fixed forms and to be incapable of offering new and unexpected sensations. Readers admired art more than force and looked for polish rather than emotion. It was a periwigged era, in art as well as in fashion. Writers themselves called their age the Augustan age, seeing in Pope, Addison, Swift, Johnson, and Burke the likenesses of Horace, Virgil, Cicero, and others who were the glories of Latin letters in the reign of Augustus; but modern critics prefer the term “classic” or “pseudo-classic,” to indicate the artificiality as opposed to art, the social veneer, the formality, the adherence to fixed and accepted rules, in the literature of the period. The world of letters ran in well-worn grooves; there was, to contemporaries, an atmosphere of finality about art: civilization seemed to the conventional man to have struggled to its climax, from which no step in advance was conceivable.
The chief English poet of the time, Alexander Pope, expressed in his life and his work the characteristics we have noted. A vain, irritable, precocious cripple, he was, upon the appearance of his Rape of the Lock in 1712, heralded as the first poet of England. That position he maintained until his death thirty-two years later. During his supremacy, genuine inspiration seemed dead in England. The impassioned lyric passages of the Elizabethan and Cavalier poetry, the moral sublimity of Milto seemed lost. The aim of Pope and his followers was to carry