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AN OUTLINE SKETCH OF
THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH POETRY
IN a brief sketch of the development of English poetry we may neglect entirely the poems written before the Norman conquest of England. These old English poems are written in a form of speech which it is now impossible to read without previous study, as of a foreign language. The history of English poetry begins for us with Geoffrey Chaucer. His work, composed for the most part in the last quarter of the fourteenth century (1375-1400), portrays the life, character, and mode of thought of the Englishman of the Middle Ages at a time when that period was just drawing to its close. Chaucer is at once the last great product of the days of Norman-French chivalry and the forerunner of the long and noble line of truly English poets.
The debt that English literature in general, and English poetry in particular, owes to Chaucer is altogether incalculable. He did much to weld the jarring elements of French and English together into one language, and he was the first to employ this language as a medium for the utterance of wise and noble thoughts in flowing and harmonious verse. He was, moreover, the first true artist in English poetry, shaping the stories that he borrowed from older or from foreign writers to suit his own end, the delighting of his English readers. All English poets from Spenser down to Swinburne have been glad to acknowledge the debt they owed to "Father Chaucer."
Chaucer has been called the day-star of English poetry, but the full day did not dawn for more than a century after his death. During the fifteenth and the first half of the sixteenth centuries England was distracted with wars, foreign and civil, and her intellectual energies were occupied with shaking off the traditions of the Middle Ages and acquiring the new learning of the Renaissance. The great struggle, moreover, through which the nation passed during its conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism diverted its mind from the production of pure literature. It was not indeed until this conversion was accomplished and the great Protestant queen, Elizabeth, firmly seated on her throne that the new poetry broke forth in England.
The leader of the new school was Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). The publication of his Shepheardes Calendar in 1579 may be said to mark the true beginning of modern English poetry. For Spenser belongs to modern times as Chaucer does to the Middle Ages. His great poem, The Faerie Queene, deals, to be sure, with the giants, dragons, and enchanters, the brave knights and fair ladies of mediæval romance, but the ideas that underlie his allegory are those of his own day; and there are countless allusions throughout the poem to the wars and politics of his time. Spenser's one aim was to present the ideal of holiness, temperance, courtesy, and justice toward which a Christian gentleman was bound to strive. There is at times an almost Puritanic severity concealed beneath the gentle beauty of his verse, like the iron hand beneath the velvet glove. Spenser's chief characteristics as a poet are his passionate love of beauty and his fine gift for musical utterance, and it is by these two qualities that he has profoundly influenced all subsequent English poetry.
The great achievement of the Elizabethan age was, of course, the drama. Never before nor since did the theaters
play so important a part in the national life of England. The Elizabethan drama was a true reflection of its age, demonstrative, passionate, changeful, passing rapidly from tears to laughter, and from coarse jests to finespun sentiment. Almost every form of the drama was put upon the boards, from ghastly tragedies of blood to witty comedies of social life, and from stately imitations of the classic drama to the characteristic chronicle-plays which introduced upon the stage the leading figures of English history. There were masques in which the main attractions were the music and dancing and splendid scenery; there were farces in which the broad humor of the clowns carried the pit by storm; but as a rule in the Elizabethan theater the play was the thing, and the play was some action, sad or merry, but always interesting, and almost always told in lovely poetry.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) may be considered as the founder of this poetic and romantic drama. His brilliant genius was essentially tragic; the few humorous passages that occur in his dramas are little better than rough horse play. Shakespeare, on the other hand, who was born in the same year, but all of whose best work was done after Marlowe's early death, was as great a master of comedy as of tragedy, the greatest master indeed of the drama that the world has ever seen. He did not reach this eminence by any sudden effort, but by a long and arduous struggle. He was an actor before he became an author, and his plays show an unequaled knowledge of the necessities and possibilities of the stage. They were written to be acted rather than to be read. Many of them, indeed, remained unprinted till after his death, although there is abundant contemporary evidence as to their popularity on the stage. But Shakespeare was much more than a successful dramatist; he possessed a knowledge of the human heart unequaled
by any author before or since, and it is to this knowledge more perhaps than to any other quality that the apparent immortality of his fame is due. Moreover, Shakespeare is,
in the mere matter of expression, the greatest of English poets. His songs and sonnets alone would entitle him to a high place among lyric poets; but his peculiar glory lies in the wonderful outbursts of poetry with which his dramas are starred. His sensitiveness to all impressions from without, his creative imagination, and his unrivaled power over the richest of modern languages, all combined to make his work different in kind rather than in degree from that of his fellows. And, at the same time, his dramatic instinct enabled him to fit these outbursts to the occasion and to the character, and his wide breadth of human sympathy allowed him to identify himself with personalities so various as Romeo, Shylock, Hamlet, Othello, and Cleopatra. Shakespeare remains, then, the supreme figure in the greatest age of English literature, the master poet as well as the master dramatist of modern times.
Shakespeare's friend, Ben Jonson, who outlived him almost as long as Shakespeare outlived Marlowe, saw the flowering time of the drama rapidly drawing to its close. Jonson himself did not a little to hasten the decline of the drama; for he attempted to confine it within strict laws, preferred to people his plays with extravagant caricatures rather than with the living, breathing people of Shakespeare, and too often relied upon his extensive learning rather than upon his natural genius. For twenty years after the death of Shakespeare, Jonson was the most prominent poet and dramatist in England, and his example was unfortunately only too powerful. Within five years after his death the theaters were closed by the Puritans.
John Milton (1608-1674) connects the age of Elizabeth with that of the triumph of Puritan principles. In early
life he was a devoted student of Shakespeare and of the poet whom he so fitly calls "our sage and serious Spenser." His early poems, though showing plainly the influence of Puritan ideals, are still, so far as form and expression go, true products of the Elizabethan age. His later works, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, all written after the final overthrow of Puritanism as a political force, are poems of the lost cause. Not only in subjectmatter, but also in form and method of treatment, they are immeasurably removed from the romantic allegory of the Faerie Queene and the broadly human dramas of Shakespeare.
But Milton's later works appeared in an age that cared nothing for him and little for his predecessors. With the restoration of the Stuarts in 1660, a new age of English poetry began, an age often improperly dignified with the title of classical. It was an age of revolt, not so much against the passionate poetry of the true Elizabethans as against the fantastic absurdities of their successors, the socalled metaphysical poets. These writers, Donne, Crashaw, Cowley, and others are forgotten to-day by all but professed students of English literature, and it has not seemed worth while to include a single specimen of their work in this collection. But it is difficult, without some knowledge of the excesses which they committed, to understand the causes of the change in the subject-matter and the style of poetry which took place in the latter part of the seventeenth century. The new poetry was the poetry of common sense as opposed to the wildness of an unchecked imagination. It addressed itself to man's intellect rather than to his emotions. In style it insisted upon regularity and correctness, and for the most part expressed itself in the smooth, evenly balanced heroic couplet. It soon abandoned the Elizabethan forms of the drama and the lyric for didactic and satiric poetry. Didacticism and satire, it may be said,