Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB
[blocks in formation]

may well be uttered in apology for one, the general tendency of whose poetry is indisputably moral. · The blemishes which disfigure it are of that kind which may disgust, but which can scarcely contaminate. His gentle spirit had its season of contrition for his poems which “sounen unto Sin," and for which he prayed forgiveness. In the hour of death the thought of their popularity was agony to him : he is said to have exclaimed,—“Woe is me that I cannot recall and annul these things! but, alas, they are continued from man to man, and I cannot do what I desire.” The lofty aspiration of the verses considered his last composition—the voice from the anguish of a dying bed-may plead for the oblivion of the imperfection of some of his writings :

• The wrestling of the world asketh a fall:

Here is no home; here is but wildernesse,
Forth, pilgrim ! forth, O beast, out of thy stall !

Look up on high, and thank thy God of all.” Chaucer died in the year 1400, leaving the countless generations who repeat the English tongue a body of poetry which, if destined in the lapse of time to be wrapped in the dust of an antiquated dialect, was destined also to contribute to the development of the genius of some of the mightiest of his successors. His tomb was in the city of his birth, in that consecrated receptacle of the dead where, in honour of him,the father of English poetry,-have since been gathered, in the Poets' Corner of the Abbey, the remains and the monuments of the family of the bards of England. “He lies buried,” says Fuller, “in the south aisle of St. Peter's, Westminster, and since 'hath got the company of Spenser and Drayton,-a pair royal of poets, enough almost to make passengers' feet move metrically who go over the place where so much poetical dust is interred."

[ocr errors]

LECTURE IV.

Spenser and the Minstrelsy.

RELAPSE IN ENGLISH POETRY AFTER CHAUCER FROM 1400 TO 1553-ITS CAUSES—THE

WARS OF THE ROSES-ECCLESIASTICAL DISTURBANCE_THE REFORMATION AND QUEEN ELIZABETH-WYATT AND SURREY-THE SONNET-BLANK VERSE-SACKVILLE-ELIZABETH'S REIGN AND CHARACTER_CLASSICAL LEARNING-THE BRITISH CHURCH-SPENSER'S BIRTH, IN A. D. 1553—THE SHEPHERD'S CALENDAR-ITS ALLEGORY-THE FRIENDSHIP OF SYDNEY-SPENSER'S RESIDENCE IN IRELAND THE FAIRY QUEEN, IN 1590—SIR WALTER RALEIGH-THE GREAT WORK OF SPENSER-MILTON'S PRAISE-SPENSER'S MIGHTY IMAGINATION-APPEAL TO HUMAN SYMPATHIES-CHIVALRIC SPIRIT-RELIGIOUS AIM-MR. HALLAM'S CRITICISMHYMN TO BEAUTY-THE SPENSERIAN STANZA-ALLITERATION--HIS BLEMISHES -THE EPITHALAMIUM-DEATH, A. D. 1598-THE BRITISH MINSTRELSY AND BALLADS–KINMONT WILLIE-SIR PATRICK SPENS-ARMSTRONG'S GOOD-NIGHT.

T FEEL great reluctance to occupy one moment of your time with 1 words of apology; for, while no one can be better aware than I am how often these lectures will stand in need of it, I trust it is the dictate of a truer modesty which prompts me to set them before you simply without pretension and without apology. There is, however, an embarrassment I cannot escape, which I therefore wish to mention in one or two words : I mean the perplexity between a desire to do all the justice I can to each subject as it rises up in its abundance to my mind, and, on the other hand, the anxiety not to trespass too largely on your pati. ence,-a point on which I am the more solicitous because of the very kind attention that thus far has been extended to me. The subject allotted to this evening transcends reasonable bounds, at the risk of impairing unity of impression.

It is somewhat unfortunate for the complete propriety of the metaphor by which Chaucer is so often designated, that the“ morning starof English poetry was not followed by the light of day. The genius of the first of our English poets shone, indeed, like the last of the starry host newly risen above the outline of some dark mountain, but not, like it, to mingle its beams with the light of the coming dawn. That early outbreak of imagination was not followed by the flood of light which flows in with the perfect day, which was still far distant.

One of the most remarkable of these relapses 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

ENGLISH POETRY AFTER CIIAUCER.

67

Spenser, in 1553. This period of more than a century and a half is comparatively a desolate tract; and, parting with Chaucer in the era of the Middle Ages, we gain companionship with no other master-spirit until within the domain of modern times. 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.

For this blank in the annals of the English Muse there must have been causes,—some, it may be, beyond the sight of philosophy; for it seems to me that the vast spiritual ocean of the human mind has its tides, not like the daily currents which are swayed by the near influences of the moon, but with an ebb and flood enduring for some unknown term of ages, and ruled by God's hidden providence over the destinies of mankind. Without, therefore, venturing to penetrate into regions where speculation should humbly veil its eyes, there still are causes which may be assigned for the interruption of English literature during the fifteenth century :-seven reigns of disputed legitimacy, thirty years of civil slaughter, which first brutalized and then crushed the nation's heart, so that to this day the hues which the Creator's hand has given to the rose seem stained with blood. The period succeeding the wars of the Houses of York and Lancaster was not such as to give the needed repose to the nation's spirit, wretchedly wasted by its long agony. The reign of the second of the Tudors

“That majestic lord

Who brake the bonds of Rome,”.was a time of ecclesiastical revolution, calmed, indeed, during the few short years of that saintly youth,

1 King, child, and seraph, blended in the mien

Of pious Edward.” But the nation, crushed by the dominion of one woman, was soon to rise to its highest elevation under the sway of another. It is not my theme to discuss the character of Queen Elizabeth, to weigh her power of sovereignty with her feminine or unfeminine frailties, presenting her in'one light as described by the poet Gray,—with “lion port and awecommanding face," or in another, or, it may be, only a different shade of the same light, the inimitable virago, according to the free and more familiar description of Sir Walter Scott. Enough for the present subject is it that the forty-four years during which she held the sceptre

[ocr errors]

is the most glorious of the English reigns, whether the sources of that glory are to be traced to the sovereign herself, or to the wisdom of the counsellors or the courage of the soldiers by whom her throne was encircled:

In speaking of the literary interreign between Chaucer and Spenser for the purpose of a general impression, I should give a very erroneous view were I to leave you to suppose that during that period of more than a century and a half the voice of the English Muse was hushed. It did not, indeed, produce works belonging, like the Canterbury Tales and the Fairy Queen, to the highest order of poems; but there flourished those who well deserve notice before entering on the more glorious Elizabethan era.

It is usual to mark the early part of the sixteenth century as an epoch in the history of English poetry, and justly so when we consider the improvement it received from two poets who lived during the reign of Henry VIII., and whose names are scarce separable, from early and long association. They were men of aristocratic rank,—Sir Thomas Wyatt, the lover of Anne Boleyn, and Henry Howard, the ill-fated Earl of Surrey, the latter especially being esteemed one of the chief reformers of English verse. Acquaintance with the more refined poetry of Italy, acquired either by direct personal intercourse or by study, introduced important changes into that of England. Harsh, pedantic, and unpoetical fashions of speech, an ambitious style which betrayed itself as early as the time of Chaucer, and became more prevalent afterwards, were thrown aside. The language was made at once more graceful and more simple, and Italian forms of verse introduced. The sonnet was for the first time naturalized into English poetry, to prove, as I shall show hereafter, congenial with its spirit and fitted to be the vehicle of a vast variety of thoughts and emotions. The metres of English verse were more strictly disciplined; so that the merit has been claimed for Surrey of having been the first to lay aside the early rhythmical form for the more regular metrical construction. There is, moreover, due to him, beyond all question, the fame of having given the first example of blank verse,—that form which has proved so eminently and peculiarly adapted to the language that it has been well said to deserve the name of the English metre,-a construction, as we shall familiarly see in the series of these lectures, so rich and varied in its music: for it will sound to us in the mighty drama of Shakspeare, in the epic language of the Paradise Lost, in the more humble strains of The Task, and the utterance of the high philosophy of The Excursion.

It is worthy of notice that Surrey brought to the cause of letters an

STERNHOLD AND HOPKINS.

69

influence important in that period,--the influence arising from dignity of rank and honourable public services. He was noble by birth and by character, a courtier and a soldier; but his bright career had a destiny of blood. There is nothing in the annals of English history of which we acquire an earlier and more vivid impression than the domestic tyranny of the Eighth Henry,—to a child's fancy the British BlueBeard of its story-book,—driving from him his wives, the mothers of his children, and devoting more than one fair neck, once lovingly embraced, to the bloody handling of the executioner. What reign in the range of history so execrable? And let me help your hearts to a still more fervid hatred by reminding you what was almost the last act of it. Henry Howard had been in childhood an inmate of the palace,—the playmate of the monarch's child; and when he grew into manhood, he was a loyal and honoured courtier and a gallant and trusted soldier. But it was Surrey's fate, and his only crime, to bear the name of Howard,-a name which had newly become odious to the despot's ear. He was committed as a traitor to the Tower; and in the very same week in which death was slowly travelling through the unwieldy bulk of the bloated tyrant, the young poet, the gallant Surrey, at the age of twenty-seven, laid down his head to meet a traitor's death upon the scaffold.

Another copartnership in poetry, closer than that of Surrey and Wyatt, and suggesting very different associations, is to be briefly noticed in the succeeding reign of Edward VI., when was produced the first metrical version in English of the Psalms of David, by two writers whose names have become the symbols of dulness and wretched versification, Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins. It would assuredly be a bold attempt to vindicate from its long-continued reproach the poeti. cal character of these two good men. They were indeed for the most part but sorry versifiers, in whose hands the sublimity-or, to use a more adequate term, the omnipotence—of the original Hebrew psalmody was often lost in their flat and prosaic phraseology and clumsy metres. But it should be remembered that the translation of the Psalms into English metre is an enterprise that has never yet been successfully achieved, though even the name of Milton stands among those by whom it has been adventured. It is also to be remembered that honourable testimony has been borne by high authority to the exactness of the old version in its correspondence to the Hebrew text, and that its faults are redeemed by some passages of true poetic spirit, a vigour, a simplicity, and a dignity, befitting the lofty theme. The load of obloquy which rests on the memory of Sternhold and Hopkins should be lightened a little when we meet with a stanza such as this :

« ZurückWeiter »