« 前へ次へ »
is the most glorious of the English reigns, whether the sources of that glory are to be traced to the sovereign herself, or to the wisdom of the counsellors or the courage of the soldiers by whom her throne was encircled:
In speaking of the literary interreign between Chaucer and Spenser for the purpose of a general impression, I should give a very erroneous view were I to leave you to suppose that during that period of more than a century and a half the voice of the English Muse was hushed. It did not, indeed, produce works belonging, like the Canterbury Tales and the Fairy Queen, to the highest order of poems; but there flourished those who well deserve notice before entering on the more glorious Elizabethan era.
It is usual to mark the early part of the sixteenth century as an epoch in the history of English poetry, and justly so when we consider the improvement it received from two poets who lived during the reign of Henry VIII., and whose names are scarce separable, from early and long association. They were men of aristocratic rank -Sir Thomas Wyatt, the lover of Anne Boleyn, and Henry Howard, the ill-fated Earl of Surrey, the latter especially being esteemed one of the chief reformers of English verse. Acquaintance with the more refined poetry of Italy, acquired either by direct personal intercourse or by study, introduced important changes into that of England. Harsh, pedantic, and unpoetical fashions of speech, an ambitious style which betrayed itself as early as the time of Chaucer, and became more prevalent afterwards, were thrown aside. The language was made at once more graceful and more simple, and Italian forms of verse introduced. The sonnet was for the first time naturalized into English poetry, to prove, as I shall show hereafter, congenial with its spirit and fitted to be the vehicle of a vast variety of thoughts and emotions. The metres of English verse were more strictly disciplined; so that the merit has been claimed for Surrey of having been the first to lay aside the early rhythmical form for the more regular metrical construction. There is, moreover, due to him, beyond all question, the fame of having given the first example of blank verse,—that form which has proved so eminently and peculiarly adapted to the language that it has been well said to deserve the name of the English metre,—a construction, as we shall familiarly see in the series of these lectures, so rich and varied in its music: for it will sound to us in the mighty drama of Shakspeare, in the epic language of the Paradise Lost, in the more humble strains of The Task, and the utterance of the high philosophy of The Excursion.
It is worthy of notice that Surrey brought to the cause of letters an
STERNHOLD AND HOPKINS.
influence important in that period,--the influence arising from dignity of rank and honourable public services. He was noble by birth and by character, a courtier and a soldier; but his bright career had a destiny of blood. There is nothing in the annals of English history of which we acquire an earlier and more vivid impression than the domestic tyranny of the Eighth Henry,—to a child's fancy the British BlueBeard of its story-book,—driving from him his wives, the mothers of his children, and devoting more than one fair neck, once lovingly embraced, to the bloody handling of the executioner. What reign in the range of history so execrable ? And let me help your hearts to a still more fervid hatred by reminding you what was almost the last act of it. Henry Howard had been in childhood an inmate of the palace,—the playmate of the monarch's child; and when he grew into manhood, he was a loyal and honoured courtier and a gallant and trusted soldier. But it was Surrey's fate, and his only crime, to bear the name of Howard,-a name which had newly become odious to the despot's ear. He was committed as a traitor to the Tower; and in the very same week in which death was slowly travelling through the unwieldy bulk of the bloated tyrant, the young poet, the gallant Surrey, at the age
of twenty-seven, laid down his head to meet a traitor's death upon the scaffold.
Another copartnership in poetry, closer than that of Surrey and Wyatt, and suggesting very different associations, is to be briefly noticed in the succeeding reign of Edward VI., when was produced the first metrical version in English of the Psalms of David, by two writers whose names have become the symbols of dulness and wretched versification,—Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins. It would assuredly be a bold attempt to vindicate from its long-continued reproach the poetical character of these two good men. They were indeed for the most part but sorry versifiers, in whose hands the sublimity—or, to use a more adequate term, the omnipotence—of the original Hebrew psalmody was often lost in their flat and prosaic phraseology and clumsy metres. But it should be remembered that the translation of the Psalms into English metre is an enterprise that has never yet been successfully achieved, though even the name of Milton stands among those by whom it has been adventured. It is also to be remembered that honourable testimony has been borne by high authority to the exactness of the old version in its correspondence to the Hebrew text, and that its faults are redeemed by some passages of true poetic spirit, a vigour, a simplicity, and a dignity, befitting the lofty theme. The load of obloquy which rests on the memory of Sternhold and Hopkins should be lightened a little when we meet with a stanza such as this :
“ The Lord descended from above, and bow'd 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 on the wings of mighty winds came flying all abroad.” My design, however, in adverting to this metrical version is not to discuss its merits, but to remark that it served to incorporate, in how rude soever a form, into English poetry that wonderful series of songs which “ Heaven's high muse whispered to David,”—wonderful in its adaptation to the church in all ages and in all nations, to the church in victory or in woe, and to each Christian for all moods of devotion,-his season of thanksgiving and joy, his hours of peril and affliction and of contrite agony. It was this version that fitted to English lips the music of the royal inspired singer; and, as the homely verses were year after year familiarized in the people's devotions, the matchless imagery of the Hebrew poetry was sinking into the hearts of the men of England, and inspiring that sacred character which is the glory of all the highest inspiration of English poetry.
Just at the close of the gloomy reign of Queen Mary there appeared one poetical effusion, showing a force of imagination which would have placed its author in the highest rank of our poets, had he not relinquished his inspiration for the exclusive devotion of his genius during a very long life to the political service of his country. * The Mirrour of Magistrates” was the title of a work planned by Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, and intended to comprise a series of narratives of the disasters of men eminent in English history. The first of these, with the poetical preface, or “Induction,” as it is styled, was all that he contributed; but in those few hundred lines there was an inventive energy the like of which the English Muse had not before shown, and a glorious o'ershadowing of the allegorical imagination which soon after rose in the “Fairy Queen.” Sackville's “Induction” stands as the chief—the only great-poem between the times of Chaucer and of Spenser. Allegorical poetry presents no more vivid image than in that single line of his personificaticn of Old Age,
“ His wither'd fist still striking at Death's door,-". or the masterly personification of War :
“ Lastly stoode Warre, in glittering arms yclad,
SACKVILLE'S POETIO GENIUS.
“ Cities he sakt, and realmes that whilom flower'd
In honour, glory, and rule, above the best,
There hung his terge with gashes deepe and wyde.
Deadly Debate, al full of snakey heare,
Outbreathing nought but discord everywhere." What a gloomy conception was the plan of the poem,—the stories of the miseries of the great! It was congenial to the reign in which it was composed, and has been compared to a landscape on which the sun never shines. More than that might be said. There not only hung on Sackville's poetic genius a gloomy shade, but it may be thought to have taken its colour from the lurid light of the flames of religious persecution. We may picture to our fancies this thoughtful poet turning his footsteps beyond the confines of London, on a winter's day,—the dreary season described at the opening of the poem,-wandering till nightfall :
“ The darke had dimm'd the day ere I was ware." And what was the spectacle he might have encountered? The dispersing throng, that had just gathered round the stake where flames had wrapped a martyr's body, the fire not yet extinct in the smouldering
and perhaps the desolated family—the outcast wife and children -lingering on the spot where a spiritual hero had sealed his faith. It was a fit age for poetry's darkest conceptions; and readily might Sackville frame his gloomy personification of sorrow to guide him in fancy into the realms of death, and to hear from the lips of the dead the story of their woes.
Under this dreary guidance, his genius entered for a brief season into the shadowy domain of imagination ; but soon after he turned the powers of his mind into political service, in which he continued during the whole reign of Elizabeth and part of that of her successor, when the hand of death was suddenly laid upon the veteran statesman at the council-board of James I. It is a remarkable fact that in actual life he personally witnessed two instances of political downfal transcending any his tragic muse could have called up in his mournful poem. He was one of that judicial tribunal which pronounced the doom of Mary Stuart: it was from his lips that the unhappy queen received the message of death; and it was part of Buckhurst's stern duty to behold the last look of that royal fair one, and to witness the blow
which severed from her now wasted body the head which had once glittered with the diadems of both France and Scotland. It was also Lord Buckhurst's lot—and these were perhaps the only two calamities of his long and honourable career-to sit in judgment upon the Earl of Essex when that nobleman fell from the pinnacle of queenly favour.
Referring Lord Buckhurst's poem to the time of Queen Mary, I come now to the most illustrious period of English poetry. In using the name of Queen Elizabeth to mark a literary era, there is a propriety beyond mere chronological convenience. In the recorded inspirations of the Muse she fills so large a space, and genius poured forth such abundant streams of high-toned loyalty to her, that the student of literature must contemplate this influence over the minds of her contemporaries. It would be a small purpose for me to inquire how far the literary loyalty of the age transcended its just bounds into the extravagancies of adulation. Sufficient is the fact that such, whether in excess or not, was the predominant feeling, of which, after all her pomp and power were in the grave, there is familiar evidence in our very
for she stands recorded in the preface to our English version in the glowing phrase,—“That bright occidental star, Queen Elizabeth, of most happy memory.” It would carry me beyond my subject to treat of her character; but this I desire to say,—that the school in which this sovereign was trained was the school of adversity. History presents no finer contrasts than between those two days of her life. The first, when, a culprit, on suspicion of treason, she was brought in custody along the Thames to be committed to the Tower, and, perceiving that the barge was steering to the traitors' gate, she refused to enter that guilty portal, and, in the utter destitution of a young and helpless woman, called God to witness she was innocent. The refusal and the asseveration of innocence were unavailing; and the first intelligence that reached the prisoner announced that the scaffold had already drunk the blood of a meeker victim,—the Lady Jane Grey,—and she knew it was thirsting for hers. But the ear which is open when earthly monarchs are deaf heard her cry of innocence, and in the course of a few though weary years she was again the inmate of the ancient fortress of the metropolis. She went forth the queen of a rejoicing nation, surrounded by cohorts of her devoted nobles and multitudes of a happy people; and, before the crown was set upon her brow, lifting her eyes to heaven, she poured forth fervid thankfulness to the Almighty for his wondrous dealings,-for his wondrous mercies. “Wherever she moved,” says the record of this the first of her magnificent progresses, “it was to be greeted by the prayers, the shouts, the tender words and uplifted