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The Progress of the Nation page 8

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The list of the great prose writers of this period presents no more honourable name than that of the great champion of the Church of England, Richard Hooker, whose composition is as remarkable for its cogent reasoning and grave but elevated style, as Sidney's is for fancy and grace of sentiment. Hooker's "Ecclesiastical Polity," in eight books, is justly regarded as the most able defence of church establishments that ever appeared. From the breadth of its principles it drew the applause of Pope Clement VIII. as well as of the royal pedant, James I. To those who study it as an example of the intellect, learning, and language of the time, it presents itself, even to such as dissent from its conclusions, as a labour most honourable to the country and age which produced it.

A still greater man was yet behind. Bacon was figuring as the great lawyer, the eloquent advocate and senator; but under the duties of these arduous offices lay concealed the master who was to revolutionise philosophy and science; the father of the new world of discovery, and the most marvellous career of social and intellectual advance. To this period he is the sun sending its rays above the horizon, but not yet risen. His speeches, his "Essays Civil and Moral," and "Maxims of Law," already predicated the fame which was ere long to dawn.

A very different writer was John Lyly, the Euphuist. Lyly was a poet and dramatist of repute; but in 1579 he published "Euphues; or, Anatomy of Wit;" which was followed, in 1581, by a second part, called "Euphues and his England." In this, like Carlyle in our day, he invented a style and phraseology of his own, which seized the fancy of the public like a mania, and set the court, the ladies, the dandies, and dilettanti of the day speaking and writing in a most affected, piebald, and fantastic style. Sir Philip Sidney, in his "Arcadia," ridiculed it, not without being in a considerable degree affected by it himself. Shakespeare, in "Love's Labour's Lost," and Sir Walter Scott, in his Sir Piercie Shafton, in "The Monastery," have made the modern public familiar with it. Yet, after all, probably, Lyly was only laughing in his sleeve at the follies of others, and was, as has been asserted, aiming at the purification of the language; for in his dramas, to which we shall call attention, his diction is simple enough, considering the taste of the age.

Amongst the rising writers was also Sir Walter Raleigh; but his literary reputation belongs rather to the age that was coming. On the whole, the period from the reign of Henry VII. to the end of that of Elizabeth was a period more kindred to our own than any which had gone before it. It produced prose writers whose minds still hold communion with and influence those of to-day. Its philosophy had assumed a more practical stamp, and was become pregnant with the elements of change and progress. Its poetry, which we have now to consider, reached the very highest pitch of human genius. The earliest poet who has left any name of note is Stephen Hawes, whose principal work was "The Pastimes of Pleasure," which was printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1517. It is an allegorical poem formed on the model of Lydgate, in which Grand Amour goes through the town of Doctrine, where he meets the Sciences, and falls in love with La Bell Purcel, whom he marries, and with whom he spends his life. It is said by the author "to contain the knowledge of the seven sciences, and the cause of man's life in this world." It would be in gain to look for poetry in such a subject according to our notions; yet, from Chaucer and Lydgate to this time, Hawes was about the only man who had done anything to arouse the imagination of a combative people and to improve their language. Hawes was a native of Suffolk, had travelled much, and by his proficiency in French and French literature acquired the favour of Henry VII., who had spent so many years of his life in France. Another poem, "The Temple of Glass," has been ascribed to Hawes, but is most probably Lydgate's, who, Hawes tells us, composed such a poem.

Next to Hawes comes Alexander Barclay, the author of numerous works in prose and poetry, as "The Castell of Labour," wherein is "Rychesse, Vertue, and Honour," an allegorical poem, translated from the French: "The Shyp of Foles of the Worlde," translated from Sebastian Brandt's German poem, "Das Narren Schiff;" "Egloges; or, the Miseries of Courts and Courtiers;" a treatise against Skelton the poet; a translation of Livy's "Wars of Jugurtha;" "Life of St. George," &c. &c. The work, however, which has handed down his name to posterity is the "Ship of Fools," which, by interspersing with original touches on the follies of his countrymen, he made in some degree his own. But the chief merit of the poem in our time is the evidence of the polish which the English language had acquired, and to which Barclay probably contributed, for he had travelled through Germany, Holland, France, and Italy, studying diligently the best authors of those countries. His birth-place is unknown; his name would point towards Scotland; but Warton, the historian of our poetry, says he was of Gloucestershire - in which county there is a place of his name - or of Devonshire. He was successively a prebendary of the college of St. Mary Ottery, a Benedictine monk, Vicar of Great Barlow, in Essex, of Wokey, in; Somersetshire, and Rector of All Hallows, London, terminating his life at Croydon. A stanza or two will suffice to show the state of the language at the close of the reign of Henry VII. A man in orders is speaking: -

"Eche is not lettred that nowe is made a lorde,
Nor eche a clerke that hath a benefice:
They are not all lawyers that plees do recorde,
All that are promoted are not fully wise.
On such chaunce nowe fortune throwes her dice
That, though one knowe but the Yrishe game,
Yet would he have a gentleman's name.
* * * * * * * * * *
I am like other clerkes which so frowardly them gyde,
That after they are once come unto promotion,
They give them to pleasure, their study set aside,
Their avarice covering with, fained devotion.
Yet daily they preache, and have great derision
Against the rude lay men, and all for covetise,
Though their own conscience he blinded with that vice."

The reign of Henry VIII. was distinguished chiefly by satirists: and it says much for the courage of poets that they were almost the only men in that terrible period who dared open their mouths on the crying sins of Government. Skelton, Heywood, and Roy were men who amused themselves with the follies and vices of their contemporaries. When the sun of poetry rose in a more glowing form in Surrey, the ferocious king, so ready with the headsman's axe, quenched it in blood. Skelton was a clergyman, educated at Oxford, and that with high distinction. Erasmus declared him to be "Britannicarum. Literarurn Lumen et Decus" - the light and ornament of Britain. He became Rector of Diss, in Norfolk; but, like Sterne at a later day, Skelton was overflowing with humour and satire rather than sermons, and so fell under the resentment of Nykke, Bishop of Norwich. He lashed with all the wonderful power of his merry muse the licentious ignorance of the monks and friars; and, soaring at higher game, attacked the swollen greatness of Cardinal Wolsey in a strain of the most daring invective. The incensed cardinal endeavoured to lay hold on him, and assuredly he would not have escaped scathless out of his hands, but the venerable John Islep, Abbot of Westminster, opened the sanctuary to him; and there Skelton lived secure for the remainder of his days, neither stinting his stinging lashes at the cardinal, nor suppressing his overflowing humour, which welled forth in a torrent of the most wild, sparkling, random, and rhodomontading character. His amazing command of language, his never-failing and extraordinary rhymes, remind us of one man only, and that of our own day - Hood. The airiness and irregularity of his lyrical measures equally suggest a comparison with that most untranslatable Swedish poet, Bellman.

His friend Thomas Churchyard, in a eulogium on him, enumerates a number of poets of that and preceding times, some of them now little known: -

"Peirs Plowman was full plaine,
And Chaucer's spreet was great;
Earl Surrey had a goodly veine,
Lord Vaux the marke did beat,
And Phaer did hit the pricke
In things he did translate,
And Edwards had a special gift;
And divers men of late
Have helped our English tongao,
That first was base and brute.
Oh! shall I leave out Skelton's name? -
The blossom of my fruit!"

The " Pithy, Pleasant, and Profitable Works of Maister Skelton, Poet Laureate to Henry VIII.," contain "The Crowne of Laurell," by way of introduction; "The Bouge of the Courte," in which this unique poet laureate attacks the vices of the Court without mercy; "The Duke of Albany," a poem equally severe on the Scots; "Ware the Hawk," a castigation of the clergy; "The Tunning of Eleanor Humming," a wild rattling string of rhymes on an old ale-wife and her costume; and "Why come ye not to Court?" an unsparing satire on Wolsey. There is no part of the cardinal's history or character that he lets escape. His mean origin, his puffed-up pride, his sensuality, his lordly insolence, his covetous-ness and cruelties, run on in a strain of loose yet vivid jingle that was calculated to catch the ear of the people. His gentlest word of him is that -

"He regardeth lords
no more than potsherds;
He is in such elation
Of his exaltation
Of our sovereign lord
That God to record,
He ruleth all at will,
Without reason or skill.
Howbeit they be primordial
Of his wretched original
And his base progeny,
And his greasy genealogy.
He came of the sink royal
That was cast out of a butcher's stall.
But however he was born,
Men would have the less scorn
If he could consider
His birth and room together."
He tells us that the king,
"Of his royal mind,
Thought to do a thing
That pertaineth to a king -
To make up one of nought,
And made to him be brought
A wretched poor man,
With; his living wan,
With planting leeks,
By the days and by the weeks;
And of this poor vassal
He made a king royal! "

We cannot afford space for the wild riot of Skelton's description of old Eleanor Rumming -

Droupy and drowsy,
Scurvy and lousy,
Her face all bowsy;
Comely crinkled,
Wonderfully wrinkled,
Like roast pig's ear,
Bristled with hair.

But Skelton has shown that he could pen strains worthy of the fairest and noblest, and buoyant with music of their own. Such is his canzonet to

Merry Margaret
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon,
Or hawk of the tower.
With solace and gladness,
Mirth and no madness
All good and no badness
So joyously,
So maidenly,
So womanly,
Her demeanour
In everything
Par, far passing
That I can indite,
Or suffice to write
Of merry Margaret,
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon,
Or hawk of the tower, &c.

A far more grave and not less vengeful satirist of Wolsey and the clergy, was William Roy, the coadjutor of Tyndal in the translation of the Bible. He was originally a friar, but joining the Reformers, he wrote a poem against Wolsey, who had ordered the burning of Tyndal's New Testament; it is called -

"Rede me, and be not wrothe,
For I saye no thynge but trothe."

In this work he placed on the title a coat of arms for Wolsey in black and crimson, with a description in verse at the back of the title, of which the following stanza, alluding to the deaths of the Duke of Buckingham (the swan), and the Duke of Norfolk (the white lion), may serve as a specimen: -

"Of the proude Cardinall this is the shelde,
Borne up betweene two angels of Sathan.
The sixe bloody axes in a bare felde
Sheweth the cruelty of the red man,
Which hath devoured the beautiful swan,
Mortal enemy of the white lion,
Carter of York, the vile butcher's sonne."

The burning of Tyndal's New Testament is denounced by Boy in many verses of the bitterest feeling, every stanza repeating his indignation at the unhallowed fact: -

"O miserable monster, most malicious
Father of perversitie, patron of hell!
O terrible tyrant, to God and man odious,
Advocate of antichrist, to Christ rebell;
To thee I speak, O caytife cardinall so cruell,
Causeles chargynge by thy coursed commandment
To burne Godde's worde, the wholly Testament."

Besides these satirists there was John Heywood, in the time of Henry VIII., Edward, and Mary, who wrote "Six Centuries of Epigrams," of a pious nature, a considerable number of plays, and an allegory called "The Spider and the Ely." Of course, he was a favourite with Henry and Mary, and is said to have been more amusing in his conversation than in his books. Heywood has the honour commonly assigned him of being the first author of interludes; the stepping-stones from the old mysteries and moralities to the regular drama. "With the Church passed away these grotesque performances called religious; and the drama quickly expanded in all its fair proportions before the eyes of the public. Shakespeare arose, and the dates of the appearance of his plays show us that they were many of them produced before 1603, the close of the reign of Elizabeth. In fact, Shakespeare seems to have retired from the stage in the very year of Elizabeth's death. Before him, however, a number of dramatic writers had appeared; but as the greater part of them overlived the termination of Elizabeth's reign, or their works began after that period to take their due rank, we propose to defer the full consideration of the dramatic authors till the next centennial. We may here, however, mention the chief of these dramatic writers. Heywood had been preceded by Skelton in the line of interlude, whose strange "Nigromansia" was printed by Wynkyn de Worde as early as 1505. Heywood wrote various interludes, but his chief one was the "4 P's," namely, a Palmer, a Pardoner, a Poticary, and a Pedlar. On the heels of this appeared the first regular comedy, "Crammer Gurton's Needle," written by John Hill, and printed in 1551. Ten years after appeared the first English tragedy, "Gorboduc," written by Thomas Norton and the celebrated poet Thomas Sackville, afterwards Lord Buckhurst and Earl of Dorset. Passing over the "Damon and Pythias" of Richard Edwards, the "Promos and Cassandra" of George Whetstone, which, borrowed from an Italian novel, contains the rude outline of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," we come to Robert Greene, who with Kyd, Lyly, Peele, Nash, author of "Queen Dido," and Marlowe, constituted a remarkable constellation of genius. Greene's chief plays are "Friar Bacon and the Friar of Bungay," and "A Looking Glasse for London," written in conjunction with his friend Thomas Lodge. He also wrote much poetry. The principal dramas of George Peele are "David and Bethsabe, with the Tragedy of Absolon," written in 1579, which is a real mystery play, and " The Famous Chronicle of Edward I.," "The Old Wives' Tales, a Comedy," &c.

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