Obrázky stránek
PDF
ePub

of the great church architects of the Middle Ages, have perished utterly. They did their appointed work in their day and generation; and again, when in the last century, (as I proprose to show at a later part of the course,) English poetry became artificial, feeble, unreal, and sophisticated, the early song was revived, to breathe into it again health, and strength, and truth.

LECTURE V.

Literature of the Sixteenth Century.*

Dawn of letters a false illustration-Intellectual gloom from Edward

III. to Henry VIII.-Chaucer to Spenser—Caxton and the art of printing—Civil wars- – Wyatt and Surrey-The sonnet naturalized in English poetry-Blank verse-Henry VIII.--Edward VI.Landor's sonnet--Sternhold and Hopkins—Bishop Latimer--Goodwin Sands and Tenterden Steeple—“Bloody Mary”—Sackville« The Mirror of Magistrates”—His career-

--Age of Elizabeth-Contrasts of her life—The Church as an independent English powerShakspeare-His journey to London-Final formation of the English language—“The well of English undefiled”—The Reformation -Sir Philip Sydney—The Bishop's Bible—Richard Hooker-Spenser and Shakspeare-Wilson's Criticism — Sir Walter Raleigh Shakspeare's Prose.

In approaching the early English literature in my last lecture, I stated that, in forming a general notion of the extent of it, we may regard the era of our literature as a period of five centuries, from about 1350 to the present time the middle of the fourteenth century down to the middle of the nineteenth. The student would, however, be misled, were he to believe as he might naturally do, that, during those five centuries, there was a continuous and uninterrupted progress, that the light of literature was faithfully handed from sire to son, and that new fires were kindled, in due succession, to light the new ages as the world moved on. Looking to that little island of our forefathers, we shall see, in its history, how

* January 31, 1850.

it travelled on with other lights flashing over it than the quiet illumination that shines from the studious watchtowers of poets and scholars. Such tranquil beams were, in many a year, dimmed by the fierce and lurid fires which war in its worst form, civil strife, and ecclesiastical persecutions were casting over the land.

The familiar and well-known metaphor which has long designated Chaucer as the “Morning Star” of English poetry, while it is most apt in telling of that primal and fair shining in the eastern sky of our literature, is not so truthful in its relations to the later as to the earlier times. The light of day came on too slowly; and, indeed, a long night followed that early outbreak of the imagination of England's first great poet. Nearly two centuries passed before another arose worthy to take place beside him. Mr. Hallam's historical study of the progress of the European mind during the Middle Ages, has led him to remark, that “The trite metaphors of light and darkness, of dawn and twilight, are used carelessly by those who touch on the literature of the Middle Ages, and suggest, by analogy, an uninterrupted succession, in which learning, like the sun, has dissipated the shadows of barbarism. But, with closer attention, it is easily seen that this is not a correct representation; that taking Europe generally, far from being in a more advanced stage of learning at the beginning of the fifteenth century than two hundred years before, she had, in many respects, gone backward, and gave little sign of any tendency to recover her ground. There is, in fact, no security, as far as the past history of mankind assures us, that any nation will be uniformly progressive in science, arts, and letters ; nor do I perceive, whatever may be the current language,

that we can expect this with much greater confidence of the whole civilized world." *

One of the most remarkable relapses of the kind in intellectual advancement is the long interval between the death of Chaucer, in the year 1400, and the birth of the next of England's great poets, Edmund Spenser, in 1553, and the appearance of the earliest of the great English prose-writers in the latter part of the sixteenth century. This period of more than a century and a half is, comparatively, a desolate tract of time; and, parting with Chaucer in the era of the Middle Ages, we gain companionship with no other master-spirit until, crossing the threshold of modern times, the year 1500, we find ourselves in the domain of the later civilization which succeeds the thousand years that separate the Roman world from modern times. In this transition we pass, let it also be remembered, from the ages in which the thoughts of men and the oracles of God were recorded only by the slow labour of the pen--the stupendous toil which modern art may marvel at rather than despise-into the times which become, in some respects, a new intellectual era by the

agency of printing. It was near a century after the death of Chaucer that the first of English printers died-the honoured William Caxton—whose life is to be thought of, like that of the Venerable Bede, as monitory of “perpetual industry;" for, as the aged Saxon expired dictating the last words of a translation of St. John's Gospel

“In the hour of death,
The last dear service of his parting breath,”

* Literature of Europe, chap. ii. & 49, vol. i. p. 173.

so did the old printer carry forward his last labour, on a volume of sacred lore, to the last day of a life that bore its burden of four-score years.

Having alluded to the familiar figure which is so often used to typify the position of the earliest of the great English authors, I may correct the error which might unawares be connected with it by another metaphor, which the memory can easily keep hold on. With a beauty of illustration, which does not often adorn the pages of Warton's History of English Poetry, he happily compares the appearance

of Chaucer in the language to a premature day in spring, after which the gloom of winter returns, and the buds and blossoms, which have been called forth by a transient sunshine, are nipped by frosts and scattered by storms.*

Difficult as it may be to discover in the history of the human mind why, at particular periods, it bursts forth with such power, and at other times lies so torpid, we may trace with some confidence causes which at least help to account for this long and dismal blank between the reign of Edward the Third and that of Queen Elizabeth—the whole of the fifteenth century, and a large part of the six

* “I consider Chaucer as a genial day in an English spring. A brilliant sun enlivens the face of nature with an unusual lustre; the sudden appearance of cloudless skies, and the unexpected warmth of a tepid atmosphere, after the gloom and inclemencies of a tedious winter, fill our hearts with the visionary prospects of a speedy summer; and we fondly anticipate a long continuance of gentle gales and vernal serenity. But winter returns with redoubled horrors; the clouds condense more formidably than before ; and those tender buds, and early blossoms, which were called forth by the transient gleam of a temporary sunshine, are nipped by frost and torn by tempests." Warton, vol. ii. p. 51. W. B. R.

« PředchozíPokračovat »