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The Progress of the Nation page 10


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To the modern reader, nevertheless, the "Faerie Queen" would prove a tedious task in a continuous persual. It is of a fashion and a taste so entirely belonging to the age in which it was written, that of courtly tourneys, of parade of knighthood, at least in books, and of a fondness of high-flown allegory, that it unavoidably strikes a reader of this more realistic age as visionary, formal in manner, and descriptive not of actual human life, but of an impossible style of existence. It is dedicated to Queen Elizabeth as "The Most High, Mightie, and Magnificent Empresse," and in a letter to Sir Walter Raleigh he explains its plan. Following the example of Ariosto in his "Orlando," he endeavours to exalt worthy knighthood, by portraying Prince Arthur before he was king, under the "image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private moral virtues, as Aristotle hath devised, in which is the purpose of these first twelve books." From the arguments of "Despair" to "The Red-Crosse Knight," we may take our specimen of the "Faerie Queen."

"'Who travailes by the wearie, wandering way,
To come unto his wished home in haste,
And meets a flood that doth his passage stay,
Is not great grace to help him over past,
Or free his feet that in the myre sticke fast?
Most envious man that errieves at neighbour's good,
And fond, that joyest in the woe thou hast,
Why wilt not let him pass, that long hath stood
Upon the bancke, yet wilt thyselfe not pas the flood?
"'He there does now enjoy eternall rest,
And happy ease, which thou dost want and crave,
And further from it daily wanderest:
What if some little payne the passage have,
That makes frayle flesh to feare the bitter wave?
Is that not payne well borne, that bringes long ease,
And lays the soul to sleepe in quiet grave?
Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, deathe after life, does greatly please.'
"The knight much wondered at his suddeine wit,
And sayst,' The terme of life is limited,
Ne may a man prolong, nor shorten it;
The soldier may not move from watchful steed,
Nor leave his stand, untill his captaine bid.'
Who life did limit by Almightie doome,’
Quoth he, 'knows best the terms established;
And be that points the centenel his roome,
Doth license his depart at sound of morning droome.
"'Is not his deed, whatever thing is done,
In heaven and earth? Did he cot all create
To die againe? All ends, that was begoune,
Their times in his eternall booke of fate
Are written sure, and have their certain date.
Who, then, can strive with strong necessitie?
That holds the world in its still changing state,
Or shunne the death ordayned by destinee?
Whenhoure of death is come, let none aske whence nor why.
"'The longer life, I wote, the greater sin;
The greater sin, the greater punishment.
All those great battles which thou boasts to win,
Through strife, and bloodshed, and avengement,
Now praysed, hereafter deare thou shalt repent -
For life must life, and blood must blood repay.
Is not enough thy evill life forespent?
For he that once hath missed the right way,
The further he doth goe, the further he doth stray.'"

The language of Spenser must not be held to be the language of the time; he purposely used an antiquated diction to give a quaint and piquant tone to his romance. A modern critic has denied that the language is thus treated by the poet; but it must be allowed that Sir Philip Sidney, living at the moment, was a competent judge of this fact, and in his "Defence of Poesie" he complains of this very circumstance in the "Faerie Queen."

We arrive now at the last name which we intend to introduce in our review of the literature of England at this period, and it is the greatest; perhaps the greatest which has yet diffused its glory over this or any other country. The genius of Shakespeare appears to penetrate into all departments of human knowledge, and his instincts to possess a universal accuracy. Whether he describes the beauties of Nature at large, or enters the haunts of busy life, high or low, royal, noble, or plebeian, or sends his all-searching glance into the depths of the human mind, or the strange intricacies of human nature, we are equally astonished at the clearness of his perceptive faculties, and the justness of his conclusions. We shall not here discuss the various guesses, for such to a great degree they are, which have been indulged in by his host of critics and biographers, regarding his little known life. It is sufficient that we know that he was born at Stratford-on-Avon in 1564; that his father was in the Town Council, and a man of property; his mother connected by birth with the family of John Hampden, the illustrious patriot; that the Shakespeares, therefore, were of gentle blood, and bore a coat of arms. That William was said to have been apprenticed to a butcher, or that one of his father's trades was that of a butcher. That at the age, it is said, of eighteen, but probably not till later, for some cause he went to London, where he became connected with the theatre, and so early as 1589 we find that he had written "Hamlet," if no other of his dramas, though none of them appear to have been published till 1597, eight years afterwards. The first of his poems, "Venus and Adonis," was printed in 1593, four years earlier, and the "Rape of Lucrece" in the following year. From that time to 1603, the year of the death of Elizabeth, a great number of his dramas were published, but "King Lear," "Macbeth," "Cymbeline," "The Winter's Tale," the "Tempest," "Troilus and Cressida." "Henry VIII.," "Coriolanus," "Julius Caesar," and "Anthony and Cleopatra," would appear to have been the glorious products of his ten or thirteen years of leisure in his native town. One of the first labours of his retirement appears to have been the collection of his sonnets, for they were published in 1609.

We mention these facts here merely as historical data; because it will be necessary to notice the whole of the plays in the next centennial period of our history, in connection with the drama at large; but we shall confine our notice of Shakespeare on this occasion solely to his poetical character.

The poems of Shakespeare are "Venus and Adonis," "The Rape of Lucrece," "Sonnets," "A Lover's Complaint," and "The Passionate Pilgrim." The poems for the most part, if not altogether - "The Passionate Pilgrim" and some of the sonnets excepted - would appear to have been his earliest productions. He dedicates "Venus and Adonis" to Lord Southampton, and styles it "the first heir of my invention." Both it, "The Rape of Lucrece," and the "Lover's Complaint," bear all marks of youthful passion. They burn with a voluptuous fire, and would, had they been printed in this age, have subjected their author to all the censure which "Don Juan" brought down on Lord Byron. Yet they are at the same time equally prodigal of a masterly vigour, imagination, and the faculty of entering into and depicting the souls of others. They as clearly herald the great poet of the age, as a morning sun in July announces what will be its intensity at noon. The language, in its purity and eloquence, is so perfect that it might have been written, not in the days of Elizabeth, but of Victoria, and presents a singular contrast to that of his contemporary, Spenser. "The Passionate Pilgrim" is an extraordinary production; it has no thread, even the slightest, of story or connection, and seems to be merely a stringing together of various passages of poetry, which he had struck off at different moments of inspiration, and intended to use in his dramas. Some of them indeed we find there. It opens with a commencement of the legend of "Venus and Adonis," apparently his first rude sketch of the poem he afterwards wrote more to his mind. It then breaks suddenly off with those well-known lines, beginning -

"Crabbed age and youth
Cannot live together;"
soon after as suddenly changes into -
"It was a lording's daughter, the fairest one of three;"
as abruptly gives us those charming stanzas opening
with -
"Take, oh, take those lips away
That so sweetly were forsworn;"
and presents us with a number of disjointed passages which are found in "Love's Labour's Lost."

But the sonnets are the most interesting, because they give us glimpses into his own life and personal feelings. Many of them are plainly written in the characters of others; some express the sentiments of women towards their lovers, but others are unmistakably the deepest sentiments and feelings of his own life. From these we learn that Shakespeare was not exempt from the dissipations and aberrations incident on a town-life at that time, but his true and noble nature led him to abandon the immoral city as early as possible, and retire to his own domestic roof in his own native place. We may select one specimen of these sonnets, which probably was addressed to his wife, and which at once betrays his dislike of his profession of an actor, and his regret over the influence which it had had on his mind, and the stigma which it had cast on his name; for the profession of a player was then so low as to stamp actors as "vagabonds."

"Oh, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds;
Thence came it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer's hand.
Pity me then, and wish I were renewed;
Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink
Potions of eysell (Vinegar) gainst my strong infection
No bitterness that I will bitter think,
Nor double penance to correct correction.
Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye,
Even that your pity is enough to cure me."

But if the great dramatist and inimitable poet shrunk with disgust from the profession of acting, from the estimation in which the actor then was held, and the pollutions which surrounded the stage, he held a very different opinion of the vocation of a dramatist. In the peaceful and virtuous retirement of his country residence he still occupied himself with the composition of the noblest dramas of all time; and whilst he was so free from the petty egotism of a small mind that he left scarcely any record of himself, he boldly avowed his assurance of the immortality of his fame: -

"Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes;
Since, spite of him, I'll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent."

We shall have occasion to show that Shakespeare had much to do in shaping and raising the drama out of that chaotic state in which he found it, and the wonder has always been, that with his apparently imperfect education he could accomplish so much. But there is no education like self-education; that was William Shakespeare's, and his genius was of that brilliant and healthy kind that gave him all the advantages of such a tuition. In history and in society he found the materials of the drama, but the wealth and power of the poet he found in the great school of nature.

In Scotland the language had remained much more stationary than in England. In this period we find the chief Scottish poets writing in a diction far more unintelligible to the English reader than Chaucer or Gower were in the middle of the fourteenth century. Two of the Scotch poets of that period, Barbour and King James I., wrote in English, and, therefore, in a language far in advance of Gawin Douglas, Dunbar, and Sir David Lyndsay in the sixteenth century. One great reason of this probably was the constant strife and enmity betwixt the nations, which made the Scotch cling in confirmed nationality to their own language and customs, for the works and merits of the English poets were known and acknowledged. James I. called Chaucer and Gower "his maisters dear." Henry son, a succeeding poet, even wrote a continuation of Chaucer's "Troilus and Cresseide," under the names of the "Testament," and the "Complaint of Cresseide;" and Gawin, or Gavin, Douglas, the famous Bishop of Dunkeld, of whom we have to speak, pronouncing his vernacular tongue barbarous, declared that rather than remain silent through the scarcity of Scottish terms, he would use bastard Latin, French, or English. A still greater and later poet, Dunbar, expresses repeatedly his admiration of "Chawcer of Makars flowir," of "the Monck of Berry," "Lydgate," and "Gowyr." Yet if we use the very language which he did to utter his admiration in, we find no advance towards the polish of these poets:

"O reverend Cliawcer, rose of retliouris all,
As in our toung the flowir imperiall,
That ever raise in Brittane, quha reids richt,
Those biers of makars the triumphs ryall,
The fresehe enamallit termes celestiall;
This matter thou couth haif ilumint bricht,
Was thou not of our Inglis all the licht;
Surmounting every toung terrestiall,
As far as May is fair morning1 does midnight.
"O morale Gower and Lidgate laureat,
Zour suggurat toungs and lipps aureate
Bene till our eirs cause of grit delyte."

It is curious that Dunbar calls this English and not Scotch. He also enumerates a long list of Scottish poets who were deceased, as Sir Hew of Eglintoun, Etrick, Heriot, Wintoun, Maister John Clerk, James Afflek, Holland, Barbour, Sir Mungo Dockhart of the Lie, Clerk of Tranent, who wrote the adventures of Sir Gawayn, Sir Gilbert Gray, Blind Harry, and Sandy Traill, Patrick Johnstone, Mersar, Rowll of Aberdeen, and Rowll of Corstophine, Brown of Dunfermline, Robert Henryson, Sir John the Ross, Stobo, Qumten Schaw, and "Walter Kennedy. Of these little is now known, except of Henryson, and that chiefly for his ballad of "Robert and Makyn," given by Bishop Percy in his "Reliques of English Poetry."

Gawin Douglas was the third son of the celebrated fifth Earl of Angus, called Bell-the-Cat; he lived a troubled life in those stormy times, and died a refugee in London, of the plague, in 1522. He was warmly patronised by Queen Margaret, sister of Henry VIII., and richly deserved it, for his learning, his genuine virtues, and his genius. He was most celebrated in his own time for his translation of Virgil's "AEneid," the first metrical version of any ancient classic in either English or Scotch. He also translated Ovid's "De Remedio Amoris." But his original poems, "The Palace of Honour," "King Hart," and his "Comcediae Sacrse," or dramatic poems from the Scriptures, are now justly esteemed the real trophies of his genius. "The Palace of Honour" and "King Hart" are allegoric poems, abounding with beautiful descriptions and noble sentiments.

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Pictures for The Progress of the Nation page 10

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The Star Chamber
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William Tyndale
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