Page images
PDF
EPUB

Elisabeth's passion for these acquisitions was then natural, and resulted from the genius and habitudes of her age.

The books of antiquity being thus familiarised to the great, every thing was tinctured with antient history and mythology. The heathen gods, although discountenanced by the Calvinists on a suspicion of their tending to cherish and revive a spirit of. idolatry, came into general vogue. When the queen paraded through a country-town, almost every pageant was a pantheon. When she paid a visit at the house of any of her nobility, at entering the hall she was saluted by the Penates, and conducted to her privy-chamber by Mercury. Even the pastry-cooks were expert mythologists. At dinner, select transformations of Ovid's metamorphoses were exhibited in confectionary: and the splendid iceing of an immense historic plum-cake, was embossed with a delicious basso-relievo of the destruction of Troy. In the afternoon, when she condescended to walk in the garden, the lake was covered with Tritons and Nereids; the pages of the family were converted into Wood-nymphs who peeped from every bower: and the footmen gamboled over the lawns in the figure of Satyrs. I speak it without designing to insinuate any unfavourable suspicions, but it seems difficult to say, why Elisabeth's virginity should have been made the theme of perpetual and excessive panegyric: nor does it immediately appear, that there is less merit or glory in a married than a maiden queen. Yet, the next morning, after sleeping in a room hung with the tapestry of the voyage of Eneas, when her majesty hunted in the Park, she was met by Diana, who pronouncing our royal prude to be the brightest paragon of unspotted chastity, invited her to groves free from the intrusions of Acteon. The truth is, she was so profusely flattered for this virtue, because it was esteemed the characteristical ornament of the heroines, as fantastic honour was the chief pride of the champions, of the old barbarous romance. It was in conformity to the sentiments of chivalry, which still continued in vogue, that she was celebrated

for chastity: the compliment, however, was paid in a classical allusion.

Queens must be ridiculous when they would appear as women. The softer attractions of sex vanish on the throne. Elisabeth sought all occasions of being extolled for her beauty, of which indeed in the prime of her youth she possessed but a small share, whatever might have been her pretensions to absolute virginity. Notwithstanding her exaggerated habits of dignity and ceremony, and a certain affectation of imperial severity, she did not perceive this ambition of being complimented for beauty, to be an idle and unpardonable levity, totally inconsistent with her high station and character. As she conquered all nations with her arms, it matters not what were the triumphs of her eyes. Of what consequence was the complexion of the mistress of the world? Not less vain of her person than her politics, this stately coquet, the guardian of the protestant faith, the terror of the sea, the mediatrix of the factions of France, and the scourge of Spain, was infinitely mortified, if an ambassador, at the first audience, did not tell her she was the finest woman in Europe. No negociation succeeded unless she was addressed as a goddess. Encomiastic harangues drawn from this topic, even on the supposition of youth and beauty, were surely superfluous, unsuitable, and unworthy; and were offered and received with an equal impropriety. Yet when she rode through the streets of the city of Norwich, Cupid, at the command of the mayor and aldermen, advancing from a groupe of gods who had left Olympus to grace the procession, gave her a golden arrow, the most ef fective weapon of his well-furnished quiver, which under the influence of such irresistible charms was sure to wound the most obdurate heart. "A gift," says honest Hollinshed, "which her majesty, now verging to her fiftieth year, received very thankfullie." In one of the fulsome interludes at court, where she was present, the singing-boys of her chapel presented the

CHRON. iii. f. 1297.

story of the three rival goddesses on mount Ida, to which her majesty was ingeniously added as a fourth: and Paris was arraigned in form for adjudging the golden apple to Venus, which was due to the queen alone.

This inundation of classical pedantry soon infected our poetry. Our writers, already trained in the school of fancy, were suddenly dazzled with these novel imaginations, and the divinities and heroes of pagan antiquity decorated every composition. The perpetual allusions to antient fable were often introduced without the least regard to propriety. Shakespeare's Mrs. Page, who is not intended in any degree to be a learned or an affected lady*, laughing at the cumbersome courtship of her corpulent lover Falstaffe, says, "I had rather be a giantess and lie under mount Pelion." This familiarity with the pagan story was not, however, so much owing to the prevailing study of the original authors, as to the numerous English versions of them, which were consequently made. The translations of the classics, which now employed every pen, gave a currency and a celebrity to these fancies, and had the effect of diffusing them among the people. No sooner were they delivered from the pale of the scholastic languages, than they acquired a general notoriety. Ovid's metamorphoses just translated by Golding, to instance no further, disclosed a new world of fiction, even to the illiterate. As we had now all the antient fables in English, learned allusions, whether in a poem or a pageant, were no longer obscure and unintelligible to common readers and common spectators. And here we are led to observe, that at this restoration of the classics, we were

*[This I cannot allow. I rather think that Shakespeare here spouted all his own knowledge, rather than that of an honest dame; because we do not find any more of it in this play, or any other of his. We might therefore as well affirm that all the valets and chambermaids in Queen Anne's time were infinitely witty, because Congreve has made them as much so as their masters and mistresses: that is, the poet bestowed

all the wit he had upon all his characters indiscriminately.-ASHBY. But was it not the peculiar felicity and unrivalled merit of Shakespeare, to make his characters utter no more than nature herself set down for them? Hence Pope's just eulogium on the individuality of excellence in all his dramatis personæ, and hence his own directions to the players in Hamlet.-PARK.]

C MERRY W. Act ii. Sc. i.

first struck only with their fabulous inventions. We did not attend to their regularity of design and justness of sentiment. A rude age, beginning to read these writers, imitated their extravagancies, not their natural beauties. And these, like other novelties, were pursued to a blameable excess.

I have before given a sketch of the introduction of classical stories, in the splendid show exhibited at the coronation of queen Anne Boleyn. But that is a rare and a premature instance: and the pagan fictions are there complicated with the barbarisms of the catholic worship, and the doctrines of scholastic theology. Classical learning was not then so widely spread, either by study or translation, as to bring these learned spectacles into fashion, to frame them with sufficient skill, and to present them with propriety.

Another capital source of the poetry peculiar to this period, consisted in the numerous translations of Italian tales into English. These narratives, not dealing altogether in romantic inventions, but in real life and manners, and in artful arrangements of fictitious yet probable events, afforded a new gratification to a people which yet retained their antient relish for tale-telling, and became the fashionable amusement of all who professed to read for pleasure. They gave rise to innumerable plays and poems, which would not otherwise have existed; and turned the thoughts of our writers to new inventions of the same kind. Before these books became common, affecting situations, the combination of incident, and the pathos of catastrophe, were almost unknown. Distress, especially that arising from the conflicts of the tender passion, had not yet been shewn in its most interesting forms. It was hence 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 disinchanted all the strong holds 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 duely 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 lustre. The Shakespeare of a more instructed and polished age, would not have given us a magician darkening

d Lilly's LIFE, p. 151,

« PreviousContinue »