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The Progress of the Nation page 7


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It is extraordinary that learning, under these very accomplished women, should have languished in the schools and amongst the people. Yet such appears to have been the fact, and is accounted for by the violent and continual changes which were taking place in Church and State. A great part of the reign of Henry VIII. was agitated and engrossed by the conflict with the Court of Rome regarding his divorce from Catherine, and then by his stupendous onslaught on the monastic and cathedral property. As no man at the Universities could tell where promotion was to come from in the Church under a man who equally took vengeance on Romanist and Protestant who dared to differ from him, and as it was equally uncertain whether, in some new fit of anger or caprice, he might suppress the colleges as he had suppressed monasteries, ministers, and chantries, it is nothing wonderful to hear Latimer exclaiming, "It would pity a man's heart to hear what I hear of the state of Cambridge. There be few that study divinity, but so many as of necessity must furnish the college."

Under Edward VI. things became far worse. Then it was a scramble amongst his courtiers who should get the most of the property devoted to religion or learning. Bishoprics, good livings, the remainder of the monastic lands which yet remained with the Crown, did not suffice. These cormorants clutched at the University resources. They appropriated exhibitions and pensions, and, says Warton, in his "History of English Poetry," "Ascham, in a letter to the Marquis of Northampton, dated 1550, laments the ruin of grammar-schools throughout England, and predicts the speedy extinction of the universities from this growing calamity. At Oxford the schools were neglected by the professors and pupils, and allotted to the lowest purposes. Academical degrees were abrogated as anti-Christian. Reformation was soon turned into fanaticism. Absurd refinements, concerning the inutility of human learning, were superadded to the just and rational purgation of Christianity from the Papal corruption." He adds that the Government visitors of the university totally stripped the public library, established by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, of all its books and manuscripts; and Latimer, in one of his sermons about that time, declared his belief that there were then 10,000 fewer students than there had been twenty years before.

Classical literature did not fare better during the persecuting reign of Mary, though Cardinal Pole was a warm friend of the introduction of Greek, notwithstanding the use made of it by the Protestants. When he urged Sir Thomas Pope to establish a professorship of that language in his new college of Trinity, Sir Thomas replied, "I fear the times will not bear it now. I remember, when I was a young scholar at Eton, the Greek tongue was growing apace, the study of which is now a-late much decayed." Nor was it likely when Elizabeth discouraged preaching even, saying that "one or two preachers in a county was enough," that classical studies would be much encouraged. In fact, nothing could be lower than the condition into which both learning and preaching had fallen in Elizabeth's church. The Bishop of Bangor stated that he had but two preachers in all his diocese. Numbers of churches stood vacant, according to Neal, where there was no preaching, nor even, reading of the homilies for months together, and in many parishes there could be found no one to baptise the living or bury the dead; in others, unlearned mechanics, and even the gardeners of those who had secured the clerical glebes and income, performed the only service that there was. But no doubt this afforded good scope to the Puritans, who had now the Bible in English, Cranmer's, Coverdale's, and Parker's, or the Bishops' Bible; and these zealous men, spite of the crushing penalties, would find constant opportunities of diffusing their knowledge. In Oxford there were only three divines in 1563 who were considered able to preach a sermon, and these three were Puritans.

The knowledge of the classics was fallen so low, that all that Archbishop Parker required of the holders of his three new scholarships in Cambridge, in 1567, was that they should be well instructed in grammar, and be able to make a verse. The classical qualifications in the two universities were below contempt even. It is a satisfaction to turn from this humiliating state of things to the great lights of genius and learning which were burning brightly amid this thick darkness. Here meet us the illustrious constellation of names of More, Ascham, Puttenham, Sidney, Hooker, Bacon, Barclay, Skelton, Sackville, Hey wood, Surrey, Wyatt, Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe, &c. - names which cast a lustre over this period, in which all its faults and failings become dim.

Of the prose writers Sir Thomas More is one of the earliest and most famous. He was equally remarkable for the suavity of his manners, his wit, his independence of character, and the eloquence and originality of his writings. We have seen how he served and was served by Henry VIII. Erasmus, who stayed some time at his house, says, "With him you might imagine yourself in the academy of Plato. But I should do injustice to his house by comparing it to the academy of Plato, where numbers and geometrical figures, and sometimes moral virtues, were the subjects of discussion. It would be more just to call it a school, and an exercise of Christian religion. All its inhabitants, male and female, applied their leisure to literal studies and profitable reading, although piety was their first care. No wrangling, no angry word was heard in it, no one was idle; every one did his duty with alacrity, and not without a temperate cheerfulness."

More's chief work is his "Utopia," and it may be pronounced the first enunciation of a system of socialism since the apostolic age. It may surprise many, but More, in fact, was the forerunner of Proudhon and Fourrier. His "Utopia" describes an island in which a commonwealth is established completely on socialistic principles. No one is allowed to possess separate property; because such possession produces an unequal division of the necessaries of life, demoralising those who become inordinately rich, and, in a different direction, depraving and degrading those who are obliged to labour incessantly. What is remarkable, More in his imaginary commonwealth admits the fullest toleration of religious belief, though he fell so far in practice as to join in the persecutions of his time. His principles were too noble for his practice; yet with this one flaw he was one of the most admirable men who ever lived. His " Utopia" was written by him in Latin, but was translated into English in 1551, afterwards by Bishop Burnet, and in 1808 by Arthur Cayley. Besides this, he wrote a life of Richard III., and various other compositions in Latin and English, besides a number of letters which have been published in his collected works. As a specimen of the prose style and state of the language in the early part of the reign of Henry VIII., we may quote a short passage from a letter to his second wife, Alice Middleton, in 1528, on hearing that his house at Chelsea was burnt down: -

"Maistress Alyce, in my most harty wise I recommend me to you; and whereas I am enfourmed by my son Heron of the losse of our barnes and of our neighbours also, with all the corne that was therein, albeit (saving God's pleasure) it is grit pitie of so much good come loste; yet sith it hath liked hym to sende us such a chaunce, we must and are bounden, not only to be content, but also to be glad of his visitacion. He sente us all that we have loste: and sith he hath by such a chaunce taken it away againe, his pleasure be fulfilled. Let us never grudge thereat, but take in good worth, and hartily thank him, as well for adversitie as for prosperite; and peradventure we have more cause to thank him for our losse than for our winning; for his wisdome better seeth what is good for us than we do our selves. Therefore I pray you be of good chere, and take all the howshold with you to church, and there thanke God, both for what he hath given us, and for that he hath taken from us, and for that he hath left us, which if it please hym he can encrease when he will. And if it please hym to leave us yet lesse at his pleasure be it. I pray you to make some good insearche what my poore neighbours have loste, and bid them take no thought therefore; for and I shold not leave myself a spone, there shal no poore neighboure of mine bere no losse by any chaunce happened in my house. I pray you be with my chiMren and your howshold mery in God."

Latimer was the son of a Leicestershire farmer, and rose to be Bishop of Worcester, and to the far higher rank of a martyr for his faith. He has been pronounced by writers of this age as a good but not a great man. To our mind he was a very great man. Not in worldly wisdom, for he was simple and unambitious as a child; but he was a genius, true, racy, original, and inspired. He was made, as his sermons show, for a preacher to the people rather than to princes, though to them he bore a bold and unblenching testimony. But to the people he was a prophet and an awakener. He had been amongst them; he knew their deepest feelings, their most secret thoughts, their language and their desires; and he addressed them from the pulpit with the loving and picturesque familiarity which he used at their firesides. There is occasionally much rudeness in his discourses, his images are often bizarre, his allusions grotesque; but there is a life that kindles, there is a poetry that warms, a spirit that arouses, a bold aggressive truth which must have made his hearers look into their souls and think. "We take a short passage from a sermon preached before Edward VI. in 1549 - twenty-one years after the composition of More just given, and yet how much more old-fashioned is the language. After telling the king that so plain was his preaching that it had been called seditious, and that his friends, with tears in their eyes, assured him he would get into the Tower, he says: - "There be more of myne opinion than I. I thought I was not alone. I have now gotten one felowe more, a companyon of sedytyon, and wot ye who is my felowe? Esaye the prophete. I spake but of a lytle preaty shyllynge; but he speaketh to Hierusalem after another sorte, and was so bold to meddle with theyr coine. Thou proude, thou covetous, thou hautye cytye of Hierusalem, argentum tuum versum est in scoriam; thy sylver is turned into what? into testyers. Scoriam - into drosse. Ah, sediciouse wretch, what had he to do wyth the mynte? Why should not he have lefte that matter to some master of policy to reprove? Thy sylver is drosse, it is not fine, it is counterfeit, thy sylver is turned, thou haddest good sylver. What pertayned that to Esaye? Mary, he espyeth a piece of divinity in that policie; he threatened them God's vengeance for it. He went to the rote of the matter, which was covetous-ness. He espyed two poyntes in it: that eythere it came of covetousnesse, whych became hym to reprove; er els that it tended to the hurte of the pore people, for the naughtyness of the sylver was the occasion of dearth to all thynges in the realme. He imputeth it to them as a great cryme. He may be called a mayster of sedicion in dede. Was this not a sidicyouse varlet to tell them thys to theyr beardes, to theyr face? "

Amongst writers of this age who tended to purify and perfect the language were Sir Thomas Wilson, and Puttenham, who wrote the "Art of English Poesy," which was published in 1582. Wilson wrote his "Art of Rhetorique" thirty years before, only four years earlier than the sermon of Latimer's just quoted; yet what a wonderful advance of both style and orthography: - "What maketh the lawyer to have such utterance? Practice. What maketh the preacher to speake so soundly? Practice. Yea, what maketh women go so fast awai with their wordes? Marie, practice, I warrant you. Therefore in all faculties, diligent practice and earnest exercise are the only thynges that make men prove excellent."

Contemporary with Wilson and More, was Sir Thomas Elyot, whose treatise called " The Governor," is a fine example of vigorous English. Cranmer and Ridley were not less distinguished for their fine style than for their liberal principles; and Roger Ascham, the instructor of Lady Jane Grey and Queen Elizabeth, was equally distinguished for his fine calligraphy, his musical talents, his proficiency in the new learning - Greek - for his classical Latin, and his English composition. To relieve the severities of study he practised archery; and wrote his "Toxophilus, the Schole of Shootinge," to recommend that old English art. In it he strongly advocated the old English language, and the abstinence from foreign terms, a recommendation which succeeding generations have wisely declined, to the vast enrichment of the language. But Ascham was a genuine Englishman, and advised his countrymen to follow the counsel of Aristotle, and "speak as the common people do, but think as wise men do." His next principal work was the "Scholemaster: a plaine and perfite way of teaching children to understand, write, and speak the Latin tong" - a work which has become more known than any other of his, because in it he mentions his visit to Lady Jane Grey at Bradgate Park, near Leicester, where he found her deep in Plato's "Phaedon" whilst the rest of the family were hunting. But besides these works he wrote on the affairs of Germany; and Latin poems, Latin letters, and his celebrated Apology for the Lord's Supper, in opposition to the mass.

As a prose writer of this period, too, Edmund Spenser, the author of the "Faerie Quene" must be mentioned for his "Discourse on the State of Ireland," which contained many judicious recommendations for the improvement of that country, and presents in its serious statesman-like views a curious contrast to the allegorical fancy of his great poem. But far greater as prose writers of the latter portion of this period stand forth Sir Philip Sidney and "the judicious Hooker." Sir Philip Sidney, who was celebrated as the most perfect gentleman of his time, or as, in the phrase of the age, "the Mirror of Courtesy," was killed at the age of thirty-three at Zutphen, in the Netherlands. Yet he left behind him the "Arcadia," a romance; the "Defence of Poesie," and various minor poems and prose articles, which were published after his death. The person and writings of Sidney have been equally the theme of unbounded panegyric. A writer in the "Retrospective Review" says: - "He was a gentleman finished and complete, in whom mildness was associated with courage, erudition mollified by refinement, and courtliness dignified by truth. He is a specimen of what the English character was capable of producing when foreign admixtures had not destroyed its simplicity, or politeness debased its honour." In his own day he was the object of the most enthusiastic praises, and has been lauded in the most vivid terms by writers of every period since. Near his own times Nash, Lord Brooke, Camden, Ben Jonson, Naunton, Aubrey, Milton, and Cowley, were his eulogists; Wordsworth and the writers of our own day are equally complimentary. Perhaps, after so continuous and high-toned a hymning, a modern, reader, taking up his "Arcadia" for the first time, would find it stiff, formal, and pedantic. He might miss that fervid spirit which animates the fictions of the great masters of our own age, and wonder at the warmth of so many great authorities upon what failed to warm him. In fact, it must be confessed, that it is a noble specimen of what pleased the taste of the time in which it was written. It displays imagination, though often on stilts instead of on wings, and breathes the spirit which animated its author, of a refined nature, a chivalrous temperament, a generous heart, and the instincts of the perfect scholar. Of that period it is a noble monument; in this it is a unique work of art, which, however, strikes us as fair, mild, and antiquated. "The Defence of Poesie," with much of the same mannerism, is worthy of a poet, and of a man whose life was the finest poem, from its generous patronage of talent, its high literary taste, and the hero's death, in the very agonies of which he gave from his own scorched lips the draught of cold water to the dying soldier at his side.

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Pictures for The Progress of the Nation page 7

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The Star Chamber
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Head-dresses of the sixteenth Century
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