The Elizabethan Legacy
Take 0 take those lips away
"For after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a' babbled of green fields:' How now, Sir John? ' quoth I. ' What, man! be o' good cheer I' So a' cried out, ' God, God, God! ' three, or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a' should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet."
ad these are pieces and examples of two great things that we have inherited from the Elizabethans: song and humour. The former was a recovery of an old gift that had been lost for a while, or lay disregarded and little used; the latter, I think, was a discovery, a new thing. Laughter, it is true, was old, as old, perhaps, as poetry; but this Elizabethan humour was a new world, quite unknown to the ancients.
On any rational hypothe sis of the universe and of man it must always seem a very strange thing that literature, the expression of human thoughts, emotions, desires by means of words, always begins with poetry. For if we are to consider man in the beginning as an ape, slowly, painfully, gradually emerging from apedom and the state of the beasts, we should naturally expect that in these first stages humanity would be, on the whole, far more bestial than human. Let it not be thought that by " bestial" I mean evil. I use the word in its literal sense. I mean that early man- we should suppose-would be governed to a very great extent by needs and impulses which he derived from his ancestors the apes: in other words, that he would be above all things a utilitarian being, living, for the most part, in and by and for the life of the senses. It is true that he had, somehow or other, gained powers and faculties that his forefathers did not possess-language amongst them. But, it would naturally be inferred, these faculties, language included, would be put to practical or utilitarian ends; prose, and hard fact prose, too, would be the first speech of the strange new creature, fighting for his life in the swamp and the forest, in the mountains and in the barren wilderness.
Yet, strange though it be, this was not so. All evidence goes to prove that men sang before they spoke; that in two senses our modern, everyday utterance, strictly prosaic, strictly unmusical, is the barbarous descendant of a speech that was both musical and poetic, that was, in fact, a song. And even when the matter was of a strictly practical nature the tone was often musical. Twenty years ago, being at Morpeth in Northumberland, the servant-girl at the dull lodging-house announced that I should have my tea in half an hour, and set this comfortable but uninspired message to a chanted melody-a "singsong" if you like-that ravished the ears. And so, with an odd analogy, Hesiod, wishing to teach his fellow Boeotians a little common-sense about things in general, about the folly of going to law, about the dislike that one craftsman has for another, about the slip that often occurs between the cup and the lip, put all his sound but ordinary precepts into the rolling music of hexameter verse. Music and poetry: that is the natural speech of man; so inherently and obstinately natural that even in this late and artificial age the Northumberland servant-girl chants as she speaks tea and toast in half an hour. And the merits of pills and beef tea are celebrated in rhyme on omnibuses, hoardings, and in the Underground railway:
If you feel ill
So, two hundred years ago, when all the mysteries were scorned and rational common-sense was enthroned, Alexander Pope, wishing to proclaim that he considered Addison to be a shabby fellow and a sneak, expressed his sentiments in rhyme:
If such a man there be,
On the face of it, speaking as rational beings, we should say that if one man wishes to tell another that he is a skunk, prose is his proper medium. But Alexander Pope, though he lived in the most prosaic of ages, knew better; as the proprietor of Mixer's Pill knows better, even though his later message is no more poetical than that of Pope. Mixer and Pope use rhyme because they know it attracts attention and fixes attention? Certainly, and the reason is that rhyme, or something like rhyme, is the natural and native speech of man. So would an Englishman living in the heart of China start to instant attention at the sound of an English sentence. The sentence might well be: "I say, can you tell me where we can get one in this infernal hole? " But our Englishman, telling the story, would say, likely enough, that these words were music in his ears; thereby, and by the way, testifying to the truth that music is the natural accent of human speech.
We have seen that from the dawn of literature poetry was considered as the most proper and natural means of expressing what a man felt and what he wanted to express, even though he felt what was merely dislike of his fellow, and that which he would express was a counsel to beware of litigation. So we had our satirical poets and our moralising poets in medieval England; we had, above all, Chaucer, a true poet, a master of character, a mirror of his time. But it was in the Elizabethan age that the English people first burst into song. There had been sweet pipings before the dawn, but now the sun rose in splendour and the chorus was full; all England resounded with song. It was a song, above all, of good life, of the delight of the seasons, of the procession of the year.
Spring, the sweet Spring, is the year's pleasant king;
You have, as it were, a man waking upon an April morning to bright sunshine and a sweet breath in the air, and a bird singing on every bough; he must express his sheer, sensuous delight with the brightness and melody and odour of the earth:
The fields breathe sweet, the daisies kiss our feet,
And so again:
There will I make thee beds of roses
And therefore take the present time
Dandirly, dandirly, dandirly, dan;
One does not quite know how it all happened. It is impossible to say that after many troubles, strifes, threatenings, peace had at last come to England, and so in that peace men's hearts, freed from care, were ready to rejoice in sweet, natural things. We cannot give such an explanation, for the Elizabethan age was not one of peace and security: there was strife within and there were threats without. Certainly, they no longer burned Protestants, but they hanged, drew and quartered Catholics, and the said Catholics cannot be supposed to have enjoyed themselves very much. The Pope had declared the throne vacant; Philip of Spain prepared his Armada; Mary Queen of Scots was a danger; one cannot call a time such as this an age of peace and security.
But to the poets it was a spring morning: the winter was past, the trees grew green, the birds filled the woods and leas with melody; and the heart of man rejoiced. Even the sacred poetry of the time partakes of the sensuous delight in the beauty of the external world:
Thy vineyards and thy orchards are
England was an old country in the age of Queen Elizabeth. Five hundred years had passed since the Conquest, for the most part years of war, without and within. There had been many woes and troubles; there were sad stories of the deaths of kings, and sad stories of factious nobles tearing at each other's throats all through the Wars of the Roses. Before that the Black Death, and after that the reign of furious and bloody Henry VIII; bitter religious strife; the breaking up of the order of the old world, the sudden and violent ending of things that men thought would endure till Doomsday. And, as I have noted, the Elizabethan age itself was no peaceable time. And yet these Elizabethan poets sing like happy children, happy, one may say, without much depth of thought. Their delight is not reasoned or philosophic or spiritual-they are glad because they are alive and the sun is shining, and the leaves are green, and the birds are singing; they rejoice with the joy of children when the sun grows warm again on the first bright day in spring.
They feel, now and again, that speech is over-articulate, over-reasoned, for the emotion that fills their hearts; and so they will sing like birds rather than men: "Cuckoo, to-witta-woo," or break into joyous gibberish: "With a hey and a ho and a hey-nonino," "Dandirly, dandirly, dan." In a sense, human language is too good for them; it speaks of thoughts and things that are too deep and too spiritual and too intellectual. They would return to pure music, and speak the tongue of birds and leaves and running streams; the tongue that cannot utter arguments or announce conclusions. And all this is a part, and a very precious part, of our glorious Elizabethan inheritance.
Shall we ever sing "hey-nonino " again? It seems doubtful. It is true that nearly forty years ago we were singing "Tarara Boom-de-ay," and later, "Yip-i-addy-i-ay," but the sunshine on the earth has given way to the limelight on the stage, and the melody is scarcely Elizabethan. And yet, perhaps, if we look more deeply into the matter, there is more of the true Elizabethan soul in this high-spirited nonsense of the theatre and the music-hall than in all the blank verse dramas of the last hundred years. Tarara-Boom-de-ay is alive; the imitation Elizabethan drama is a death mask.
We cannot recapture the high spirits of our happy childhood; but it is pleasant to remember them, to think of the days when we were full of joy simply because we were alive and the sun was shining.
So it is pleasant to think of those great days of the inspired childhood of England which transmuted all things into a happy song. For it was not only of happiness and joy and the birds' melody and the rippling streams that the Elizabethans sang happily. Look at the famous lines which I have placed at the head of this essay. Logically, they speak of the lover's grief for his lost mistress; but all anguish has been changed into pure music and loveliness. There is a heritage indeed; there is a secret that is worth recapturing if only we can recapture it. We say we live in troubled days, with a million sorrows upon us, amidst cares and fears and terrors and anxieties that eat all the sweetness out of our hearts and our lives. Well, we have seen that the days of the Elizabethans were by no means free from trouble, yet the legend is that the lines:
Thy gardens and thy gallant walks
were written in a dungeon of the Tower by a captive in peril of his life; and Chidiock Tichborne, awaiting a most horrible death, turned his anguish into melody. It would be a great thing if we could so regain this spirit of the Elizabethan singers that all our sorrows and troubles, fears and cares, should be transmuted in like manner into brave and happy and light-hearted music.
And of that other part of our Elizabethan inheritance, humour. I have said that it was a new discovery, and I believe that it was such, or almost such. The ancients, Greek and Latin, were void of humour. They joked with difficulty; their jests are without flavour and without subtlety. The laughter of the Middle Ages answered well enough to the explanation of Hobbes: It was caused by a sudden "glorying" in finding somebody else in a sorry position and therefore inferior to yourself. You see a fat man thrown into a muddy pond and wallowing his way out, covered with slime. You rejoice and laugh because you are on dry land with no mud besmearing you; you feel yourself superior to your fellow, and laugh very heartily because you are free from his misfortune.
This is the primitive sense of humour which is the ground of many of Chaucer's Tales, which appealed so strongly to Smollett, which made the mirth of Lever's novels, which is manifest in the early Dickens-the "Sketches by Boz" are full of this cruel fun. Indeed, this joke of discomfiture survives to this day in Ireland, and in such fine work as the Somerville-Ross books, where it is to be found side by side with true humour. When Major Yeates, getting into his midnight train, hears the station-master caution the engine driver, -"Mind the Goods, Tim, she may be coming anny minute now," and the response of the driver, "Let her come! She'll meet her match" - here we have humour. But when the major's parcel, supposed to contain a fine Irish salmon, falls to the floor of the English country house, and drops with a crash of broken glass, and fills the hall with the foul reek of Irish whisky-there we have the joke of misadventure and discomfiture, the Hobbesian mirth that glories in another's shame. There is a poor sort of fun in the broken whisky bottle business; but how far below the humour of the driver's conception of his railway system as governed by the laws of the tournament.
And up to the Elizabethan age it was the coarse joke and the cruel joke which held the field, almost, if not quite, to the exclusion of the finer humour. And in the character of Falstaff the new world was discovered-so far as this country is concerned-and at once displayed in all its magnificence. I say so far as this country is concerned, for in Spain, almost simultaneously, Cervantes was dreaming of Don Quixote and Sancha Panza: a higher scheme, as I venture to think, than that of Falstaff, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol. And it is curious to note that in "Don Quixote" you have the old rough joke and the new fine humour side by side. A good deal of Cervantes' masterpiece, especially in the first part, is sheer rough and tumble of the old rude sort. Again and again the Knight is beaten, bruised, rolled in the mud; but beside this, faintly at first, and then swelling into full chorus, is heard the theme of the perpetual opposition between the vision and the fact, the real and the actual.
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