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And so also in the English poem Trajan tells how he was released from hell by grace of God, and as he says
“Withouten any bede-bidding · his boon was received
And I saved, as ye may say, without singing of masses,
Well ought ye lords, that laws keep, this lesson to have in mind
• Vision of Piers,” B text, passus xi. 144.
NOTE II, p. 92.
“This extraordinary manifestation of the religion, of the language, of the social and political notions, of the English character, of the condition, of the passions and feelings of rural and provincial England, commences, and with Chaucer and Wycliffe completes the revelation of this transition period, the reign of Edward III. Throughout its institutions, language, religious sentiment, Teutonism is now holding its first initiatory struggle with Latin Christianity. In Chaucer is heard a voice from the court, from the castle, from the city, from universal England. The orders of society live in his verse, with the truth and individuality of individual being, yet each a type of every rank, class, every religious and social condition and pursuit. And there can be no doubt that his is a voice of freedom, of more or less covert hostility to the hierarchical system, though more playful, and with a poet's genial appreciation of all which was true, healthful, and beautiful in the old faith. In Wycliffe is heard a voice from the university, from the seat of theology and scholastic philosophy, from the centre and stronghold of the hierarchy; a voice of revolt and defiance, taken up and echoed in the pulpits throughout the land, against the sacerdotal domination. In the · Vision of Piers Plowman'is heard a voice from the wild Malvern Hills, the voice it should seem of an humble parson, or secular priest. . . . The poet is no dreamy, speculative theologian ; he
acquiesces seemingly with unquestioning faith in the Creed and the usages of the Church. . . . It is in his intense absorbing moral feeling that he is beyond his age : with him outward observances are but hollow shows, mockeries, hypocrisies, without the inward power of religion. It is not so much in his keen, cutting satire on all matters of the Church as in his solemn installation of Reason and Conscience as the guides of the selfdirected soul, that he is breaking the yoke of sacerdotal domination; in his constant appeal to the plainest, simplest scriptural truths, as in themselves the whole of religion, he is a stern reformer” (Dean Milman, “Latin Christianity,” book xiv. chapter vii.).
“Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask—thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place,
Spares but the cloudy border of his base,
Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure,
My beloved had withdrawn Himself, and was gone.
I sought Him but I could not find Him ; I called Him but He gave me no answer.”
-CANTICLES v. 6. “ It is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is Truth."
-1 JOHN v. 6.
The witness of the poetry of the Renaissance to the spirit of Christianity, if not directly to the personality of Jesus Christ, ought to be found, one would suppose, in the literature of sixteenth-century England. And yet I am sure that in naming Shakespeare as the representative of that witness you will think that my choice of subject to-day needs some justification.
Shakespeare was undeniably the most potent voice, the most expressive voice, of Elizabethan England, the poet most representative of that mental exaltation of the English people, which had been aroused by the great events of those most spacious times. But it would be quite natural to doubt whether Shakespeare was the best representative, among the poets of his time, of the religion of England.
I have said in a former lecture-quoting in effect a well-known passage in Shelley's “Defence of Poetry”