Imagini ale paginilor


correct the error which might unawares be connected with it by another metaphor, which the memory can easily keep hold on.

With a beauty of illustration, which does not often adorn the pages of Warton's History of English Poetry, he happily compares the appearance of Chaucer in the language to a premature day in spring, after which the gloom of winter returns, and the buds and blossoms, which have been called forth by a transient sunshine, are nipped by frosts and scattered by storms. Difficult as it


be to discover in the history of the human mind why, at particular periods, it bursts forth with such power, and at other times lies so torpid, we may trace with some confidence causes which at least help to account for this long and dismal blank between the reign of Edward the Third and that of Queen Elizabeth—the whole of the fifteenth century, and a large part of the sixteenth: seven reigns of disputed legitimacy, thirty years of civil slaughter, first brutalizing and then crushing the nation's heart, the bloody variance of a feudal nobility, a long series of battles, so fierce in their vengeance that the very flowers, the innocent flowers, were torn from the once peaceful gardens to be made the emblems of unrelenting warfare; and then, when these evils had passed away, there came the darker strife of a nation's distracted church-persecution and the fiery terrors of the stake.

Chaucer had outlived the superb reign of Edward the Third, with its half-century of lofty dominion. He had seen the miserable ending of Edward's giddy grandson, the second Richard, thrust from his throne by “mounting Bolingbroke.” The cycle of the fortune of these Lancastrian Plantagenets, reaching its highest splendour in the foreign victories of the fifth Henry, had its sad completion in the disasters of the next reign, and the tragic death of the last of the house of Lancaster. The heart of the nation was suffering the grievous wasting of all that might have been dear to it, by the evil passions engendered in that most deplorable of all political and social conditions, civil warfare; a strife always the fiercest and most unrelenting, for the ties once broken, which had bound men together by the unconscious bonds of instinctive feelings, bewildered humanity looks on the once dearest friend as the direst foe. “The bells in the church steeples," writes Fuller, an old church historian, “were not heard for the sound of drums and trumpets.” The learned were not listened to, or rather were hushed into silence, and the humanizing music of poetry was unknown. How could the intellect adventure any thing when the heart was appalled! How could the imagination aspire when overwhelmed by the dark and fearful pressure of the present!

Thus passed one hundred years of the century and a half which lies


between that genial age in which Chaucer flourished, and the other more genial era, that of the Elizabethan literature

In looking at the early part of the sixteenth century-nearly the first half of it occupied by the reign of Henry VIII.-it is pleasing to find some literary interest in a period which is associated chiefly with ecclesiastical change and the second Tudor's domestic tyranny. An abiding impression on the nation's literature was made at that time by two writers, whose names from early and long association are scarce separablemen of noble birth and character-Sir Thomas Wyatt, the lover of Anne Boleyn, and Henry Howard, the ill-fated Earl of Surrey. Surrey, especially, is esteemed as one of the improvers of English versé. Acquainted with the refinements of Italian verse, acquired either by personal intercourse or by study, he introduced important changes into that of England. The language was made at once more graceful and simple; and Italian forms of verse introduced. The Sonnet was naturalized into English poetry, to disclose in later times that wondrous variety of power and of beauty which has been proved, within its narrow limits, by Milton and by Wordsworth. The English versification was more exactly disciplined; and to Surrey is due the merit of having given the first example of blank verse ; that form which has so eminently adapted itself to the language and to the English poet's desires, that it has been well said to deserve the name of the English metre;" a construction which from time to time has been revealing the musical resources of its unexhausted variety, in the dramatic language of Shakspeare, the epic of the Paradise Lost, in the homelier strains of the Task, in the beroic romance of Roderic, and in the philosophy of the Excursion. Such is our English blank-verse, alike it may be to the eye, but wonderfully varied to the ear, and to that inner spiritual sense which seems, Aven more than the organ of hearing, to take cognizance of the music of poetry; and admitting, too, of some characteristic impress from the genius of every great poet that has used it.

There gathered round this noble poet all that could dignify and endear him to his own times and to after times—a lofty lineage, rank, genius, virtue, loyalty, faithful and honourable services; but for his bright career as scholar, courtier, soldier, there was a dark destiny of blood. In our earliest knowledge of English history, one of the first and most vivid impressions is that which we have of the household atrocities of the eighth Henry—to a child's fancy, the British Bluebeard -driving to divorce or death his wives, the mothers of his children, and devoting more than one fair neck, once fondly embraced, to the bloody handling of the headsman. What reign, in the range of history, more


Execrable! and the last act of it cast a shadow on the annals of English iterature. Henry Howard had been in childhood an inmate of the palace, a playmate of royal children; and when he grew to manhood he was a loyal and honoured courtier, a brave and trusted soldier. But it was Surrey's crime, his only crime, to bear the name of Howard, a name which had newly grown hateful to the despot's ear. He was committed, on a charge of treason, to the Tower; and in the very week in which Henry VIII. died, the gallant Surrey, at the age of twenty-seven, laid down his head upon the scaffold.

John Foster, in his treatise on Popular Ignorance, gives a vivid description of the close of Henry's reign, and its connection with Howard's tragic end, to fix the memory of this early author by the help of the dread association.

We pass on from the long and odious reign of the sire to the short rule of his innocent and tender-hearted son.

“ King, child, and seraph, blended in the mien

Of pious Edward."

As the mind passes from this detested father to his son-gentle Jane Seymour's gentle son—one cannot but think how it exemplifies the truth which Landor's lines have told:

“ Children are what their mothers are.

No fondest father's wisest care
Can fashion so the infant heart,
As those creative beams that dart,
With all their hopes and fears, upon
The cradle of a sleeping son.
His startled eyes with wonder see
A father near him on his knee,
Who wishes all the while to trace
The mother in his future face;
But 'tis to her alone uprise
His wakening arms, to her those eyes
Open with joy, and not surprise.”

Another copartnership in letters, closer than that of Surrey and Wyatt, and suggesting another kind of associations, may be noticed in that part of the sixteenth century which belongs to the reign of Edward VI. I refer to the first version of the Psalms of David in English metre, produced by two writers—whose names have become the symbols of dulness and clumsy versification—Thomas Sternhold and

hn Hopkins. Undoubtedly the grandeur of the Hebrew Psalmody is very inadequately represented in the flat and prosaic diction and the awkward metres of these two good men; but it should be remembered that a worthy translation of the Psalms into English metre has never yet been achieved; and, indeed, the best judges make question of the possibility of such version. If this old version, three hundred years ago, is rude and uncouth, honourable testimony has been borne to its fidelity to the Hebrew original. The version of later times, now most in use, is at once tame and tawdry, (worse faults than rudeness,) taking, too, larger license with the original, and “ generally," it is said, “sacrificing altogether the direct, lightning-like force of the inspired

9 sentences.


Much of Sternhold and Hopkins' version would certainly now so affect the dainty modern ear, as to give a sense of ridicule most incongruous to the theme; but the reproach that rests on the old version may be lightened a little, when we meet with a stanza like this:

“ The Lord descended from above, and bowed the heavens most high,

And underneath his feet he cast the darkness of the sky;
On cherub and on cherubim full royally he rode,

And ou the wings of mighty winds came flying all abroad." However rude this version was, it has a claim to respect as the first that fitted to English lips the music of the royal inspired singer; and as the homely verses were, years after, familiarized in the people's devotions, the imagery of the Hebrew poetry was sinking into the hearts of the men of England, and helping to form that sacred character which is the glory of all the highest inspirations of English poetry.

The progress of English prose, as it was slowly advancing to its best estate, appears, at the period I have been speaking of, in the sermons of him whose intrepid spirit and cheerful constancy sustained him in the hour of martyrdom-Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester. It was in a sermon preached before Edward VI. that he introduced, in accordance with the quaint pulpit-oratory of the times, the well-known illustration of the Goodwin Sands and Tenterden Steeple, in reply to a very common fallacy; and the passage may be quoted to show the character of the prose, which was then equal, at least, to simple purposes of natural narrative :

“ Here was preaching,” he says, “ against covetovsness all the last year in Lent, and the next summer followed rebellion; ergo preaching against' covetousness was the cause of rebellion. A goodly argument!

“Here, now, I remember an argument of Master More's, which he bringeth in a book that he made against Bilney; and here, by the way; I will tell you a merry toy. Master More was once sent in commission

[ocr errors]



[ocr errors]

into Kent, to help to try out, if it might be, what was the cause of Goodwin Sands and the shelf that stopped up Sandwich Haven. Thither cometh Master More, and calleth the country afore him-suc! as were thought to be men of experience, and men that could, of likelihood, best certify him of the matter concerning the stopping of Sandwich Haven. Among others, came in before him an old man with a white head, and one that was thought to be little less than a hundred years old. When Master More saw this aged man, he thought it expe dient to hear him say his mind in the matter ; for, being so old a man, it was likely he knew most of any man in that presence and company. So Master More called this old aged man unto him and said, “Father,' said he, tell me, if ye can, what is the cause of this great arising of the sands and shelves here about this haven, the which stop it up that no ships can arrive here? Ye are the eldest man that I can espy in all this company, so that if any man can tell any cause of it, ye, of likelihood, can say most in it, or, at leastwise, more than any other man here assembled.' 'Yea, forsooth, good master,' quoth this old man, 'for I am well-nigh an hundred years old, and no man here in this company anything near unto mine age. Well, then,' quoth Master More, “how say you in this matter? What think ye to be the cause of these shelves and flats that stop up Sandwich Haven?' 'Forsooth,' quoth he, “I am an old man; I think that Tenterden Steeple is the cause of Goodwin Sands. For I am an old man, sir,' quoth he, and I may remember the building of Tenterden Steeple, and I may remember when there was no steeple at all there. And before that Tenterden Steeple was in building, there was no manner of speaking of any flats or sands that stopped the haven; and, therefore, I think that Tenterden Steeple is the cause of the destroying and the decay of Sandwich Haven.' And even so, to my purpose, is preaching of God's word the cause of rebellion, as Tenterden Steeple was cause Sandwich Haven is decayed.”

There is one sentence of English words uttered by this same divine which has a deeper and more enduring interest, and that was when he and Ridley stood in their dread fellowship of martyrdom at the stake; when the fagot, kindled with fire, was brought and laid at Ridley's feet, Latimer, happy, as the martyr's crown was poised above his brow, on which four-score years had placed their crown of glory, spake in this manner: “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as, I trust, shall never be put out.”

The gentle Edward's reign had too quickly given place to his sister's-that hateful reign--when the palace of England's monarchs

« ÎnapoiContinuați »