CHAPTER XXVII. ELIZABETH (xii), 1558-1603 - LITERATURE

The Elizabethan Literature demands from the general Historian something more than the incidental references which may suffice in other periods. In earlier days, he may draw upon Piers Plowman or Chaucer for evidence and illustrations of the prevalent social conditions; in the century following he may appeal to Milton and Bunyan to elucidate aspects of Puritanism. But the Elizabethan literature is in a degree quite unique, the expression of the whole spirit of the time, its many-sidedness, its vigour, its creative force; helping us to realise how it was that Elizabeth's Englishmen made Elizabeth's England. And this of course is beside the other fact that for the historian of literature per se there is no period quite so interesting and instructive, none of such vital importance in the evolution of English Letters.

[Birth of a National Literature]

In the five centuries since the Norman Conquest, ending in 1566, England had produced but one single poet of the front rank or anything approaching it, Geoffrey Chaucer. From the time when Edmund Spenser in 1579 delighted his contemporaries by the publication of the Shepherd's Calendar, she has never been without writers whose claim to eminence among poets can be at least plausibly maintained. Before very much the same date, English prose as a consciously artistic medium of utterance had hardly begun to be recognised; even Thomas More wrote his Utopia in Latin, and it was not translated into English till many years after his death. The possibility of an English Prose Style - written prose as distinguished from spoken oratory - had hardly presented itself except to the translators of Scripture and the Liturgy. Before the century closed, the world was enriched by the compact and pregnant sentences of Francis Bacon's Essays and the dignified simplicity of Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity. As with the Poets, so also the chain of masters of English Prose is unbroken from that day forward. But most sudden and startling of all the various developments was that of the Drama. It may be doubted if any critical observer in 1579 would have ventured even to suspect that the crowning glory of Elizabeth's reign was to be the work of playwrights; yet before she died the genius of Marlowe had blazed and been quenched, Hamlethad appeared on the boards, Jonson's "learned sock" had achieved fame; the men whose names we are wont to associate with the "Mermaid" had most of them already begun their career, even if they had not yet passed the stage of merely adapting, doctoring, and "writing up" for managers the stock-plays in their repertory. The Drama, proving itself the form of literary expression most perfectly adapted to the spirit of the age, absorbed the available literary talent as it has never done since.

Sudden as the outburst was however, it had been made possible by many years of wide and miscellaneous experiment, though little of any permanent intrinsic value had been actually achieved.

[Prose: before 1579]

Except for Ascham's Toxophilus, very few passages [Footnote: Such as may be lighted on for instance in "Sir John Mandeville," Mallory, and Hall's Chronicle.] of English prose notable as prose - that is, consciously essaying what is connoted by the term style - had been produced before Elizabeth's accession, apart from the liturgical, rhetorical, or controversial work of the clergy or clerical disputants. TheActs and Monuments of Foxe, popularly known as, the "Book of Martyrs," published in the first decade of the reign, showed the development of a power of vigorously dramatic narrative which should not be overlooked. The enormous popularity however which that work achieved was at least in part the outcome of the general sterility. Men had not yet learned to write, but they were ready to read even voraciously. Culture was in vogue. As things stood culture, in practice, meant and could mean little else than the study of Latin and Italian authors - Greek being still reserved for the learned - of whose works translations, some of notable merit, were very soon beginning to appear on the market. It was inevitably to these two literatures - the Latin and the Italian - that men turned in the first instance to find the models and formulate the canons of literary art; with only occasional divagations in the direction of France or Spain, countries which were scarcely a generation in advance of England. We remark that the old idea that for prose which was intended to live the true medium was still the one international literary language, Latin, died exceedingly hard; Bacon himself, great master though he was of his mother-tongue, maintaining it quite definitely. This pedantic attitude however was not involved in the idea of culture, and men welcomed with avidity an author who made his appeal to the non-academic public in vigorous English. The conversion even of the academic mind was close at hand.

[1579-89]