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our poets, particularly the dramatic, borrowed ideas of a legitimate plot, and the complication of facts necessary to constitute a story either of the comic or tragic species. In proportion as knowledge increased, genius had wanted subjects and materials. These pieces usurped the place of legends and chronicles: and although the old historical songs of the minstrels contained much bold adventure, heroic enterprise, and strong touches of rude delineation, yet they failed in that multiplication and disposition of circumstances, and in that description of characters and events approaching nearer to truth and reality, which were demanded by a more discerning and curious age. Even the rugged features of the original Gothic romance were softened by this sort of reading; and the Italian pastoral, yet with some mixture of the kind of incidents described in Heliodorus's Ethiopic history now newly translated, was engrafted on the feudal manners in Sydney's ARCADIA.
But the reformation had not yet destroyed every delusion, nor disenchanted all the strongholds of superstition. A few dim characters were yet legible in the mouldering creed of tradition. Every goblin of ignorance did not vanish at the first glimmerings of the morning of science. Reason suffered a few demons still to linger, which she chose to retain in her service under the guidance of poetry. Men believed, or were willing to believe, that spirits were yet hovering around, who brought with them airs from heaven, or blasts from hell, that the ghost was duly released from his prison of torment at the sound of the curfue, and that fairies imprinted mysterious circles on the turf by moonlight. Much of this credulity was even consecrated by the name of science and profound speculation. Prospero had not yet broken and buried his staffe, nor drowned his book deeper than did ever plummet sound. It was now that the alchymist, and the judicial astrologer, conducted his occult operations by the potent intercourse of some preternatural being, who came obsequious to his call, and was bound to accomplish his severest services, under certain conditions, and for a limited duration of time. It was actually one of the pretended feats of these fantastic philosophers, to evoke the queen of the Fairies in the solitude of a gloomy grove, who, preceded by a sudden rustling of the leaves, appeared in robes of transcendent lustred. The Shakspeare of a more instructed and polished age, would not have given us a magician darkening the sun at noon, the sabbath of the witches, and the caldron of incantation.
Undoubtedly most of these notions were credited and entertained in a much higher degree, in the preceding periods. But the arts of composition had not then made a sufficient progress, nor would the poets of those periods have managed them with so much address and judgWe were now arrived at that point, when the national credulity, chastened by reason, had produced a sort of civilised superstition,
and left a set of traditions, fanciful enough for poetic decoration, and yet not too violent and chimerical for common sense. Hobbes, although no friend to this doctrine, observes happily, "In a good poem both judgment and fancy are required; but the fancy must be more eminent, because they please for the EXTRAVAGANCY, but ought not to displease by INDISCRETION"."
In the mean time the Gothic romance, although somewhat shook by the classical fictions, and by the tales of Boccace and Bandello, still maintained its ground; and the daring machineries of giants, dragons, and enchanted castles, borrowed from the magic storehouse of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso, began to be employed by the epic muse. These ornaments have been censured by the bigotry of precise and servile critics, as abounding in whimsical absurdities, and as unwarrantable deviations from the practice of Homer and Virgil. The author of AN ENQUIRY INTO the Life and WRITINGS OF HOMER is willing to allow a fertility of genius, and a felicity of expression, to Tasso and Ariosto; but at the same time complains, that, "quitting life, they betook themselves to aerial beings and Utopian characters, and filled their works with Charms and Visions, the modern Supplements of the Marvellous and Sublime. The best poets copy nature, and give it such as they find it. When once they lose sight of this, they write false, be their talents ever so great." But what shall we say of those Utopians, the Cyclopes and the Lestrigons in the Odyssey? The hippogrif of Ariosto may be opposed to the harpies of Virgil. If leaves are turned into ships in the Orlando, nymphs are transformed into ships in the Eneid. Cacus is a more unnatural savage than Caliban. Nor am I convinced, that the imagery of Ismeno's necromantic forest in the Gierusalemme Liberata, guarded by walls and battlements of fire, is less marvellous and sublime, than the leap of Juno's horses in the Iliad, celebrated by Longinus for its singular magnificence and dignity 8. On the principles of this critic, Voltaire's Henriad may be placed at the head of the modern epic*. But I forbear to anticipate my opinion of a system, which will more properly be considered when I come to speak of Spenser. I must, however, observe here, that the Gothic and pagan fictions were now frequently blended and incorporated. The Lady of the Lake floated in the suite of Neptune before queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth; Ariel assumes the semblance of a sea-nymph; and Hecate, by an easy association, conducts the rites of the weird sisters in Macbeth.
Allegory had been derived from the religious dramas into our civil spectacles. The masques and pageantries of the age of Elizabeth were not only furnished by the heathen divinities, but often by the virtues and vices impersonated, significantly decorated, accurately distinguished
Leviath. Part i. ch. viii.
Iliad, lib. v. 768. Longin. §. ix.
*[So thought LordChesterfield, at whom Martin Sherlock laughed, properly enough. -ASHBY.]
by their proper types, and represented by living actors. The ancient symbolical shows of this sort began now to lose their old barbarism and a mixture of religion, and to assume a degree of poetical elegance and precision. Nor was it only in the conformation of particular figures that much fancy was shown, but in the contexture of some of the fables or devices presented by groups of ideal personages. These exhibitions quickened creative invention, and reflected back on poetry what poetry had given. From their familiarity and public nature, they formed a national taste for allegory; and the allegorical poets were now writing to the people. Even romance was turned into this channel. In the Fairy Queen, allegory is wrought upon chivalry, and the feats and figments of Arthur's round table are moralized. The virtues of magnificence and chastity are here personified; but they are imaged with the forms, and under the agency, of romantic knights and damsels. What was an after-thought in Tasso appears to have been Spenser's premeditated and primary design. In the mean time, we must not confound these moral combatants of the Fairy Queen with some of its other embodied abstractions, which are purely and professedly allegorical.
It may here be added, that only a few critical treatises, and but one ART OF POETRY, were now written. Sentiments and images were not absolutely determined by the canons of composition; nor was genius awed by the consciousness of a future and final arraignment at the tribunal of taste. A certain dignity of inattention to niceties is now visible in our writers. Without too closely consulting a criterion of correctness, every man indulged his own capriciousness of invention. The poet's appeal was chiefly to his own voluntary feelings, his own immediate and peculiar mode of conception. And this freedom of thought was often expressed in an undisguised frankness of diction ;-a circumstance, by the way, that greatly contributed to give the flowing modulation* which now marked the measures of our poets, and which soon degenerated into the opposite extreme of dissonance and asperity. Selection and discrimination were often overlooked. Shakspeare wandered in pursuit of universal nature. The glancings of his eye are from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. We behold him breaking the barriers of imaginary method. In the same scene, he descends from his meridian of the noblest tragic sublimity, to puns and quibbles, to
[This modulation, Mr. Ellis thinks, is likely to have resulted from the musical studies which now formed a part of general education. "The lyrical compositions of this time are so far," he adds, "from being marked by a faulty negligence, that excess of ornament and laboured affectation are their characteristic blemishes. Such as are free from conceit and antithesis are in general exquisitely polished, and may safely be compared with the most elegant and finished specimens of modern poetry."
Spec. of Early English Poetry.-Mr.Ashby also thought, that the modulation of the poetry was a good deal owing to a general attention to Church Music, which would form the public ear more universally than all our present spectacles, because all may attend church gratis. And this is really the case in Italy. Daines Barrington remarks that many a girl in the country has a good voice, but all sing false, because they never hear good singing: in London it is just the contrary.--PARK.]
the meanest merriments of a plebeian farce. In the midst of his dignity, he resembles his own Richard the Second, the skipping king, who sometimes discarding the state of a monarch,
Mingled his royalty with carping foolsh.
He seems not to have seen any impropriety, in the most abrupt transitions, from dukes to buffoons, from senators to sailors, from counsellors to constables, and from kings to clowns. Like Virgil's majestic oak,
Quantum vertice ad auras
No Satires, properly so called, were written till towards the latter end of the queen's reign, and then but a few. Pictures drawn at large of the vices of the times did not suit readers who loved to wander in the regions of artificial manners. The Muse, like the people, was too solemn and reserved, too ceremonious and pedantic, to stoop to common life. Satire is the poetry of a nation highly polished*.
The importance of the female character was not yet acknowledged, nor were women admitted into the general commerce of society +. The effect of that intercourse had not imparted a comic air to poetry, nor softened the severer tone of our versification with the levities of gallantry, and the familiarities of compliment, sometimes perhaps operating on serious subjects, and imperceptibly spreading themselves in the general habits of style and thought. I do not mean to insinuate, that our poetry has suffered from the great change of manners, which this assumption of the gentler sex, or rather the improved state of female education, has produced, by giving elegance and variety to life, by enlarging the sphere of conversation, and by multiplying the topics and enriching the stores of wit and humour. But I am marking the peculiarities of composition: and my meaning was to suggest, that the absence of so important a circumstance from the modes and constitution of ancient life must have influenced the cotemporary poetry. Of the state of manners among our ancestors respecting this point, many traces remain. Their style of courtship may be collected from the love-dialogues of Hamlet, young Percy, Henry the Fifth, and Master Fenton. Their tragic heroines, their Desdemonas and Ophelias, although of so
First Part of Henry IV. act iii. sc. 2.
[Yet the French would think higher
[It is much that women should not prevail so as to give the ton at Queen Elizabeth's court. They did it at King Arthur's, which seems to have been esteemed the standard then. James was a woman-hater. If the prose of Elizabeth's time was poetical, the poetry of his was prosaic. This reverses the position of Mr. Warton on the next page, and appears not to be quite admissible.-ASHBY.]
much consequence in the piece, are degraded to the back-ground. In comedy, their ladies are nothing more than MERRY WIVES, plain and cheerful matrons, who stand upon the chariness of their honesty. In the smaller poems, if a lover praises his mistress, she is complimented in strains neither polite nor pathetic, without elegance and without affection: she is described, not in the address of intelligible yet artful panegyric, not in the real colours, and with the genuine accomplishments, of nature; but as an eccentric ideal being of another system, and as inspiring sentiments equally unmeaning, hyperbolical, and unnatural.
All or most of these circumstances contributed to give a descriptive, a picturesque, and a figurative cast to the poetical language. This effect appears even in the prose compositions of the reign of Elizabeth. In the subsequent age, prose became the language of poetry.
In the mean time, general knowledge was increasing with a wide diffusion and a hasty rapidity. Books began to be multiplied, and a variety of the most useful and rational topics had been discussed in our own language. But science had not made too great advances. On the whole, we were now arrived at that period, propitious to the operations of original and true poetry, when the coyness of fancy was not always proof against the approaches of reason, when genius was rather directed than governed by judgment, and when taste and learning had so far only disciplined imagination, as to suffer its excesses to pass without censure or control, for the sake of the beauties to which they were allied.
Reign of Elizabeth. Satire. Bishop Hall. His Virgidemiarum. MS. poems of a Norfolk gentleman. Examination of Hall's Satires.
MORE poetry was written in the single reign of Elizabeth, than in the two preceding centuries. The same causes, among others already enumerated and explained, which called forth genius and imagination, such as the new sources of fiction opened by a study of the classics, a familiarity with the French, Italian and Spanish writers, the growing elegances of the English language, the diffusion of polished manners, the felicities of long peace and public prosperity, and a certain freedom and activity of mind which immediately followed the national emancipation from superstition, contributed also to produce innumerable compositions in poetry. In prosecuting my further examination of the poetical annals of this reign, it therefore becomes necessary to reduce such a latitude of materials to some sort of methodical arrangement. On which account, I shall class and consider the poets of this reign under the general heads, or divisions, of SATIRE, SONNET, PASTORAL, and