(by Émile Legouis, from Legouis and Cazamian, A History of English Literature, Dent, 1937 ed. Notes are renumbered).
Poetry from 1590 to 1625
I. Elizabethan Poetry from 1590 to 1603. (NOTE 1).—Outside the theatre, almost all the literature of the Elizabethan period properly so called, that is down to 1603, derived from Lyly, Sidney, and Spenser. Romances bore the imprint of Euphues and Arcadia in turn or simultaneously. Pastorals imitated from Spenser or Sidney abounded. Astrophel and Stella, from the moment of its publication, provoked a whole flowering season of sonnets. The successive appeareance, about 1590, of Sidney's sonnets and Arcadia, and of the first books of The Faerie Queene, was the signal for an intense literary activity. It was then that a whole generation born some ten years after Spenser entered the arena of letters. The poetry alone shows such a literary ferment as makes very difficult the task of presenting the new works methodically. Doubtless drama attracted the writers who were most vital and energetic, but the majority of them turned from time to time to pure poetry as a relaxation, and wrote verses in the fashionable poetic genres. We are thus led to follow genres rather than individuals. First, however, we must deal with the voluminous works of two poets whose contribution to the drama was slight and unimportant. Their production continued into the next century, but the date of their birth and the atmosphere in which their talent was formed make them true Elizabethans. They are Daniel and Drayton.
Each of them produced one of the longest poems of the period, The Faerie Queene excepted. The American critic Lowell could call Daniel's Civil Wars and Drayton's Poly-olbion the megalosaurus and plesiosaurus of the Renascence. These poets express, more directly than Spenser, their patriotic feeling, which is less troubled than his by the dream of a golden age or by hostility to the present. They survive only ina a few pages of verse and a few short poems, but their figures are distinct and can be traced in every part of the considerable body of their works.
NOTE 1. F. E. Schelling, English Literature during the Lifetime of Shakespeare (1910).
(a) SAMUEL DANIEL.— (1562-1619)
Samuel Daniel (NOTE 2) was born in Somerset, the son of a music master. After having passed through Oxford and visited Italy, he was tutor first to William Herbert, son of the earl of Pembroke and of Sidney's sister, and then to a daughter of the virtuous Countess of Cumberland. After Spenser's death he became a sort of voluntary poet laureate. Under James I he was dramatic censor and groom of the chamber to the queen. His tastes were sober and moderate: he lived quietly in his London house cultivating the Muses; then retired to a Somersetshire farm. By the even march of his existence he contrasted with most of his contemporary poets. His poetry, well behaved as he, is the most tranquil and classical of the period. Nearly everything in the English Renascence which shocked French taste when this had been purified by the seventeenth century is missing from Daniel's work, and so is the 'fine frenzy' beloved of the Elizabethans. He was a moralist and historian first of all; he wrote the poetry of reflection, not of passion. His calm voice could, in that tumultuous time, hardly make itself heard. A correct and pure writer, he brought the qualities of prose into verse. Imagination is rare in his subjects and never disturbs his style.
NOTE 2. Complete poetical works in Chalmers's British Poets, vol. iii; complete works in prose and verse published by Grosart, 5 vols. (1885). His Delia reprinted by Arber in An English Garner, vol. iii.
He made trial of the theatre, but since he lacked the impetuous vigour of his dramatic rivals, since he was in love with nobility and serenity, he turned from the popular stage and wrote tragedies, classical in form, modelled on Seneca and the French poet Garnier—Cleopatra in 1594 and Philotas in 1611. These academic dramas could have no more than a succès d'estime. He succeeded better with his masques, which contain very attractive passages: The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses (1604), The Queen's Arcadia, a Pastoral Tragi-comedy (1606), and Hymen's Triumph.
Round about his chief work, The Civil Wars, are grouped a fair number of miscellaneous poems, sonnets to Delia, epistles, dedications, panegyrics, funeral eulogies, pastoral songs. The even quality of his verses is surprising for his day.
He translates with charm the suave elegy of the golden age in Tasso's Aminta. There is real feeling in his Letter from Octavia to Antony (1599), and even more in his Complaint of Rosamond (1592), in which the unhappy mistress of Henry II mingles her regret for her transgressions and her sighs for her lost beauty. She draws the moral from her story herself, and it is softened as it passes through her lips.
But a mood of serious reflection was more habitual to Daniel than Fancy or tenderness. It is not only by accident that the lines from his work which are most often quoted are the lyrical dialogue between Ulysses and the Siren, standing for honour and pleasure, labour and rest, and the Epistle to the Countess of Cumberland, in which he defines, in fine, strong, and calm stanzas, the sage who inhabits the serene temples of wisdom and is raised above private passion or political agitation.
Apt as he is to discourse and discuss in verse, his talent is happily displayed in a didactic poem in the form of a dialogue, Musophilus (1599), which contains a general defence of letters. Musophilus constitutes himself champion of letters against Philocosmus, who recommends an active life and rules out all poetry which does not impel to heroic action. Like Spenser in The Teares of the Muses, but with less vehement rhetoric, Musophilus deplores that so little patronage should be given to literature. He sees poetry and eloquence as the guardians of lofty morals and the forces which cleanse a nation. He has a deep faith in the strength and destiny of his mother tongue. What a great thing it would be if England, first of the nations in worth, became first in poetry also! Daniel has a vision of an English literature which should be read over the whole world. It should supplant Italian literature, now decadent:
Patriotism was Daniel's dominant feeling and it led him to devote his capital effort to the history of his country. He recounts no such dream of the past as Spenser, nor such a long, mainly legendary chronicle as William Warner, in rude and awkward fourteen-syllabled lines, told in Albion's England (1586), a miscellany of ill-arranged stories which was so successful that it was republished in successive and enlarged editions until the author's death in 1609. Daniel did not share Warner's desire to begin his book at the Flood and bring it down to the execution of Mary Stuart. He was impressed by the effects of civil war and uneasy lest, since the succession to Elizabeth was entirely uncertain, it should be renewed.When all that ever hotter spir'ts express'd,
Comes better'd by the patience of the north.
He therefore chose no period of glory for his theme, but told in narrative the story which was at this moment being dramatized, which Shakespeare was taking for the subject of plays, the story of the bloodthirsty struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York. The eight cantos of Daniel's Civil Wars, published from 1595 to 1609, treat of the misfortunes of England from the reing of Richard II until the break between Warwick and Edward IV, and, in spite of their seven to eight thousand lines, they leave the tale unfinished. It corresponds exactly to the Shakespearian 'histories,' Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and the two first parts of Henry VI, sometimes following them and sometimes going ahead of them. Daniel's exposition is more accurate, cool, and dignified than the plays, which bring on to the stage a succession of animated pictures by turns chivalrous and comic, arbitrary alike in their omissions and additions. It is strange to read Daniel's calm stanzas, and to remember the tumultuous dramas in which the same stories are told, or Spenser's romantic transfiguration of the national annals. Daniel's clear and expressed intention is to transfigure nothing:
Unfortunately he poetizes all too little. Conscientiously he keeps pace with facts, adding fictions only very rarely. It is remarkable that his fictions have the same turn as in the pseudo-classical epics. They are inserted deliberately as ornaments, intellectual relaxations, for instance the mythological origin he fabricates for printing and artillery, two ill-omened inventions which Nemesis orders Pandora to supply.I versify the truth, not poetize.
This element of the marvellous is exceptional in Daniel's work. If his facts are dull, so much the worse; if dramatic, so much the better. Nor does he seek to interest by penetrating or lively portrayal of character. His calm narrative does scant justice to such outstanding personalities as the wild Margaret of Anjou, or to scenes of violence like Jack Cade's rebellion. If there is fairly lifelike psychology in his story of the first interviews between Edward IV and Lady Elizabeth Grey, it probably is that the author is inpired by the staging of this incident in Henry VI. The best part of his poem, apart from a few vigorous stories, consists of the moral reflections arising out of his patriotism as it is wounded by his own story of atrocious intestine conflict.
On the whole this long poem is a mistake. The careful and correct Daniel, treating the most tragic of subjects, is tedious. It is his misfortune to have misused his gifts. It would have taken a d'Aubigné to do justice to material as sombre and as bloodstained.
Whith his qualities and defects, Daniel was the writer of that day whose work was most justly estimated when it appeared. Spenser, who knew him at the outset of his career, praised his harmony and the pathos of his Complaint of Rosamond, but blamed him for flying too timidly and near the ground, exhorting him:
Ben Jonson more bluntly says that he was 'a good honest man, but no poet.' Drayton considered that he was 'too much historian in verse' and that 'his manner better fitteth prose.' He was indeed, as will be seen, one of the best prose-writers of his time. William Browne, on the other hand, admired the purity of this poetic style and called him 'well-languaged.'Then rouse thy feathers quickly, Daniell.
This purity, then so rare, won him a recrudescence of favour in the nineteenth century. Wirters like Wordsworth and Coleridge who were working for the simplification of the language praise Daniel for having banished eccentricities and arbitrary inventions from his style. Southey is struck by his discreet use of the pathetic and says that he writers 'always in a strain of tender feeling, and in language as easy and natural as it is pure.'
His contemporaries, who loved ardour, missed in his work the passionate qualities and the movement, brilliancy, and variety which they prized more than aught else. For us, the very absence of the merits which the Elizabethans often carried to excess makes pleasantly restful reading of his verses. It is as though we sailed for a day on smooth waters after passing through a storm. Moreover, if his reflections are not strikingly new, they are, as a rule, full of good sense and reason and are lit by a serene philosophy: he is dignified and proud as well as wise. He is, moreover, never harsh and constantly self-controlled.
from ch. 8, Prose from 1578 to 1625
(...) In addition to their controversy on the morality of poetry and their consideration of dramatic art,the men of the English Renascence gave a fair share of attention to a discussion on the comparative merits of measured, or reformed, and rhymed verse. The dispute arose in Italy and France, but it was the occasion in England of a long series of attacks and counter-attacks which prove it to have been waged in this country with more heat than elsewhere. It is remarkable that the first antagonists of rhyme were so carried away by their cult of antiquity that they disregarded the existence of blank verse, which seemed to them a bastard and inadequate compomise. They wished, at the same time, to abolish rhyme, which they held to be Gothic and barbarous, and they claimed to make English syllables quantitative, long or short as in Latin. Some of them, like Sir John Cheke and Ascham, vaunted the iambic line, and Gabriel Harvey even championed the hexameter. It can serve no purpose to speak of the unreadable poems which Harvey, Stanyhurst, Abraham Fraunce, Campion, and others—even, passingly, Sidney and Spenser—produced in accordance with these rules. The metricians of the day were exercised by the question. William Webbe, in A Discourse of English Poetrie (1586), shows himself the determined partisan of measured verse. George Puttentham, in The Arte of English Poetrie (1586), the most voluminous of the technical treatises of the period, is less willing to commit himself and holds the balance between the contesting parties. The poet Thomas Campion, author of so many charming rhymed songs, was in the enemy camp in 1602. In his Observations on the Art of English Poesie he condemns rhyme as improper to poetry. The only good effect of his attack was that it induced the poet Samuel Daniel to write his Defence of Rhyme (1603), which closed this controversy of more than thirty years' standing and was the first example in England of sane aesthetic criticism applied to a special subject. Hitherto all the blows had been aimed wide. On either side there had been pedantry, abuse of authorities, ignorance of essential facts, disregard of blank verse, even confusion between the meanings of the wods rhythm and rhyme. Daniel evinced a reasonableness, exactness, and perspicacity unknown to the others. Even to-day it is worth while to meditate on his words. He bases himself on uses. While he denies that the admission of rhyme, which exists and please many nations, is a matter for discussion, he does not shirk the task of founding rhyme on reason. He does not bow before the ancients. That rhyme makes rhythm of a kind unknown to them is, he says, their loss, who knew not this 'Echo of a delightful report.' Nor does rhyme exclude measure from English verse, which is based on tonic accent. To complain of the shackles of rhyme is to ignore the nature of the pleasure of poetryand of its creation. The poet finds that 'Rhyme is no impediment to his conceit, but rather gives him wings to mount, and carries him not out of his course, but as it were beyond his power to a far happier flight.' Rhyme is a means of imparting form, outline, and limits to imaginative conceptions. It organizes chaos. Its terminal cadence gives 'a certainty' as well as measure.
Daniel has a secret preference for the stanza over the couplet, and he would reserve feminine rhymes for songs. But these are personal tastes, as he himself knows and says, and modestly refuses to erect them into law. It was doubtlessly his fondness for the stanza rather than the coupulet which prevented the classical school from acknowledging him as one of the best of their forerunners.
His own moderation impels him to condemn the intransigence of those who would, at one stroke, rule out all the past. But in him this moderation is accompanied by frank independence. He throws off the yoke of antiquity:
From end to end of his short treatise Daniel unfolds his argument in the same wise and reasonable spirit. His pleading, often directed against the superstition of the humanists, is finely classical in form. It is oratory, less poetic and nervous than the language of Sidney's Defence, at times a little redundant, but exceptional in this period by its sequence, its logic, and its urbanity. More than any one of his contemporaries, Daniel possessed the qualities of the perfect writer of prose.All our understanding are not to be built by the square of Greece and Italie. We are the children of Nature as well as they, we are not so placed out of the way of judgement, but that the same Sunne of Discretion shineth upon us ... Wee must not looke upon the immense course of times past, as men overlooke spacious and wide countreys, from off high mountaines, and are never the neerer to judge of the true nature of the soile.