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teenth : seven reigns of disputed legitimacy, thirty years of civil slaughter, first brutalizing and then crushing the nation's heart, the bloody variance of a feudal nobility, a long series of battles, so fierce in their vengeance that the very flowers, the innocent flowers, were torn from the once peaceful gardens to be made the emblems of unrelenting warfare; and then, when these evils had passed away, there came the darker strife of a nation's distracted church-persecution and the fiery terrors of the stake.
Chaucer had outlived the superb reign of Edward the Third, with its half century of lofty dominion. He had seen the miserable ending of Edward's giddy grandson, the second Richard, thrust from his throne by “mounting Bolingbroke.” The cycle of the fortune of these Lancastrian Plantagenets, reaching its highest splendour in the foreign victories of the fifth Henry, had its sad completion in the disasters of the next reign, and the tragic death of the last of the house of Lancaster. The heart of the nation was suffering the grievous wasting of all that might have been dear to it, by the evil passions engendered in that most deplorable of all political and social conditions, civil warfare; a strife always the fiercest and most unrelenting, for, the ties once broken, which had bound men together by the unconscious bonds of instinctive feelings, bewildered humanity looks on the once dearest friend as the direst foe. “The bells in the church steeples," writes an old church historian, “ were not heard for the sound of drums and trumpets."* The learned were not listened to, or rather were hushed into silence, and the humanizing music of poetry was unknown. How could the intellect
* Fuller, vol. i. p. 54.
adventure any thing when the heart was appalled! How could the imagination aspire when overwhelmed by the dark and fearful pressure of the present !
Thus passed one hundred years of the century and a half which lies between that genial age in which Chaucer flourished, and the other more genial era, that of the Elizabethan literature.
In looking at the early part of the sixteenth century -nearly the first half of it occupied by the reign of Henry VIII.—it is pleasing to find some literary interest in a period which is associated chiefly with ecclesiastical change and the second Tudor's domestic tyranny. An abiding impression on the nation's literature was made at that time by two writers, whose names from early and long association are scarce separable—men of noble birth and character-Sir Thomas Wyatt, the lover of Anne Boleyn, and Henry Howard, the ill-fated Earl of Surrey. Surrey, especially, is esteemed as one of the improvers of English verse.
Acquainted with the refinements of Italian verse, acquired either by personal intercourse or by study, he introduced important changes into that of England. The language was made at once more graceful and simple; and Italian forms of verse introduced. The Sonnet was naturalized into English poetry, to disclose in later times that wondrous variety of power and of beauty which has been proved, within its narrow limits, by Milton and by Wordsworth. The English versification was more exactly disciplined; and to Surrey is due the merit of having given the first example of blank verse; that form which has so eminently adapted itself to the language and to the English poet's desires, that it has been well said to deserve the name of "the English metre;" a construction which from time to time has been revealing the musical resources of its unexhausted variety, in the dramatic language of Shakspeare, the epic of the Paradise Lost, in the homelier strains of the Task, in the heroic romance of Roderic, and in the philosophy of the Excursion. Such is our English blank-verse, alike it may be to the eye, but wonderfully varied to the ear, and to that inner spiritual sense which seems, even more than the organ
of hearing, to take cognizance of the music of poetry; and admitting, too, of some characteristic impress from the genius of every great poet that has used it.
There gathered round this noble poet all that could dignify and endear him to his own times and to after times—a lofty lineage, rank, genius, virtue, loyalty, faithful and honourable services; but for his bright career as scholar, courtier, soldier, there was a dark destiny of blood. In our earliest knowledge of English history, one of the first and most vivid impressions is that which we have of the household atrocities of the eighth Henry—to a child's fancy, the British Bluebeard—driving to divorce or death his wives, the mothers of his children, and devoting more than one fair neck, once fondly embraced, to the bloody handling of the headsman. What reign, in the range of history, more execrable! and the last act of it cast a shadow on the annals of English literature. Henry Howard had been in childhood an inmate of the palace, a playmate of royal children; and when he grew to manhood he was a loyal and honoured courtier, a brave and trusted soldier. But it was Surrey's crime, his only crime, to bear the name of Howard, a name which had newly grown hateful to the despot's ear. He was committed, on a charge of treason, to the Tower; and in the very week in which Henry VIII. died, the gallant Surrey, at the age of twenty-seven, laid down his head upon the scaffold.
Let me add a vivid description of the close of Henry's reign, and its connection with Howard's tragic end, fix the memory of this early author by the help of the dread association.
“It is fearful,” says the author from whom I quote, “but not unsalutary, to cast a parting glance at the vicious body of Henry VIII. after its work upon the earth was done. It lay, immovable and helpless, a mere corrupt and bloated mass of tyranny. No friend was near to comfort it; not even a courtier dared to warn it of its coming hour. The men alone it had gorged with the offal of its plunder, hurry back in affright from its perishing agonies, in disgust from its ulcerous sores. It could not move a limb nor lift a hand. The palace-doors were made wider for its passage through them; and it could only then pass by means of machinery. Yet to the last it kept its ghastly state, descended daily from bed-chamber into room of kingly audience through a hole in the palace ceiling, and was nightly, by the same means, lifted back again to its sleepless bed. And to the last, unhappily for the world, it had its terrible indulgences. Before stretched in that helpless state of horror, its latest victim had been a Plantagenet. Nearest to itself in blood of all its living kindred, the Countess of Salisbury was, in her eightieth year, dragged to the scaffold for no pretended crime, save that of corresponding with her son; and having refused to lay her head upon the block, (it was for traitors to do So,
she said, and she was none,') but moving swiftly round, and tossing it from side to side to avoid the execution, she
was struck down by the weapons of the neighbouring menat-arms, and while her gray hairs streamed with blood, and her neck was forcibly held down, the axe discharged, at length, its dreadful office. The last victim of all followed in the graceful and gallant person of the young Lord Surrey. The dying tyranny, speechless and incapable of motion, had its hand lifted up to affix the formal seal to the death-warrant of the poet, the soldier, the statesman, and scholar, and on the day of the execution,' according to Hollinshed, was itself lying in the agonies of death. Its miserable comfort, then, was the thought that youth was dying too; that the grave which yawned for abused health, indulged lusts, and monstrous crimes had, in the same instant, opened at the feet of manly health, of generous grace, of exquisite genius, and model virtue. And so perished Henry VIII."*
We pass on from the long and odious reign of the sire to the short rule of his innocent and tender-hearted son
“King, child, and seraph, blended in the mien
Of pious Edward.”+ As the mind passes from this detested father to his songentle Jane Seymour's gentle son—one cannot but think how it exemplifies the truth which Landor's lines have told :
“ Children are what their mothers are.
No fondest father's wisest care
* Forster's Treatise on Popular Progress. † Wordsworth's Coll. Ed. p. 301.