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stanzas, though somewhat corrupted either by design or accident, of "A dyttie. or sonet made by the lord Vaus, in the time of the noble quene Marye, representing the image of death." This poem was originally published in Tottel's edition of Surrey and Wyatt, and the Poems of Uncertain Authors; the earliest poetical miscellany in our language, and first printed in 1557 under the title of "" Songes and sonettes by the right honourable Henry Howard, late earl of Surrey, and other." To this very popular collection, which underwent many editions during the sixteenth century, Slender alludes, in the Merry Wives of Windsor, where he exclaims," I had rather than forty shillings, I had my book of Songs and Sonnets here;" from which we may conclude that this was the fashionable manual for lovers in the age of Elizabeth. Lord Vaux's lines have been reprinted by Dr. Percy, who remarks on the apparent corruptions of Shakspeare's transcript, that they were "perhaps so designed by the poet himself, the better to suit the character of an illiterate clown."
No fragment of our minstrel poetry has been introduced by Shakspeare with greater beauty and effect, than the melancholy ditty which he represents Desdemona as singing, under a presentiment of her approaching fate:
Of this song of willow, ushered in with such a powerful appeal to the heart, Dr. Percy has given us a copy in his reliques; it is in two parts, and proves that the poet has not only materially altered the few lines which he quotes, but has changed also the sex of its subject; for in the original in the Pepys collection, it is entitled "A Lover's Complaint, being forsaken of his Love."
From the ample, we may almost say complete, enumeration, which we have now given, of the fragments selected by Shakspeare from the minstrel-poetry of his country, together with the accompanying remarks, may be formed, not only a tolerably accurate estimate of the most popular songs of this period, but a clear idea of the use to which Shakspeare has applied them. They will be found, in fact, with scarcely any exceptions, either elucidatory of the business of the scene, illustrative of the progress of the passions, or powerfully assistant in developing the features and the shades of character.
It will appear also, from the view which has been taken of romantic literature, as comprehending all the branches noticed in this chapter, that its influence, in the age of our poet, was great and universally diffused: that he was himself, perhaps more than any other individual, if we except Spenser, addicted to its study and partial to its fictions; and that, if we take into consideration, what will hereafter be mentioned, the bases of his various plays, he may be affirmed to have availed himself of its stores often with great skill, and with as much frequency as the nature of the province which he cultivated would admit.
Namely in 1565, 1567, 1569, 1574, 1585, 1587, &c.
To form a complete enumeration of the songs of the Elizabethan era, it would be necessary not only to consult all the dramatic writers of this age, but to acquire a perfect series of the very numerous Collections of Madrigals which were published during the same period.
SHAKSPEARE AND HIS TIMES.
Cursory View of Poetry, with the Exception of the Drama, during the Age of Shakspeare.
THE space which elapsed between the birth and the death of Shakspeare, from April 1564 to April 1616, a period of fifty-two years, may be pronounced, perhaps, the most fertile in our annals, with regard to the production of poetical literature. Not only were the great outlines of every branch of poetry chalked out with skill and precision, but many of its highest departments were filled up and finished in a manner so masterly as to have bid defiance to all subsequent competition. Consequently, if we take a survey of the various channels through which the genius of poetry has been accustomed to diffuse itself, it will be found, that, during this half century every province had its cultivators; that poems, epic and dramatic, historic and didactic, lyric and romantic, that satires, pastorals, and sonnets, songs, madrigals, and epigrams, together with a multitude of translations, brightened and embellished its progress.
On a subject, however, so productive, and which would fill volumes, it is necessary that, in consonancy with the limits and due keeping of our plan, the utmost solicitude for condensation be observed. In this chapter, accordingly, which, to a certain extent, is meant to be introductory to a critical consideration of the miscellaneous poems of Shaskpeare, the dramatic writers are omitted; a future section of the work being appropriated to a detail of their more peculiar labours for the stage.
After a few general observations, therefore, on the poetry of this era, it is our intention to give short critical notices of the principal bards who flourished during its transit; and with the view of affording some idea of the extensive culture and diffusion of poetic taste, an alphabetical table of the minor poets, accompanied by slight memoranda, will be added. An account of the numerous Collections of Poetry which reflect so much credit on this age, and a few remarks and inferences, more particularly with respect to Shakspeare's study of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries in miscellaneous poetry, will complete this portion of our subject.
The causes which chiefly contributed to produce this fertility in poetical genius may, in a great measure, be drawn from what has been already remarked under the heads of superstition, literature, and romance.
The sun of philosophy and science, which had just risen with the most captivating beauty, and which promised a meridian of uncommon splendour, had not yet dissipated those mists that for centuries had enveloped and darkened the human mind. What remained, however, of the popular creed, was much less gross and less contradictory to common experience, than what had vanished from the scroll; these reliques were, indeed, such as either appealed powerfully to a warm and creative imagination, or were intimately connected with those apprehensions which agitate the breast of man when speculating on his destiny in another and higher order of existence.
Under the first of these classes may be included all that sportive, wild, and terrific imagery which resulted from a partial belief in the operations of fairies, witches, and magicians, and the reveries of the alchemist, the rosicrusian, and the astrologer; and under the second will be found, what can scarcely be termed superstition in the customary sense, that awful and mysterious conception of the spiritual word, which supposes its frequent intervention, through the agency either of departed spirits, or superhuman beings.
The opinions which prevailed with regard to these topics in the days of Shakspeare, were such as exactly suited the higher regions of poetry, without giving any violent shock to the deductions of advancing philosophy. The national credulity had been, in fact, greatly chastised, through the efforts of enquiry and research, and though it may still appear great to us, was in perfect accordance with the progress of civilisation, and certainly much better calculated for poetic purposes than has been any subsequent though purer creed.
The state of literature, too, was precisely of that kind which favoured, in a very high degree, the nurture of poetical genius. The vocabulary of our language was rich, beyond all example, both in natives and exotics; not only in "new grafts of old withered words,' but in a multitude of expressive terms borrowed from the learned languages; and this wealth was used freely and without restriction, and without the smallest apprehension of censure.
An enthusiastic spirit for literary acquisition had been created and cherished by the revival, the study, and the translation of the ancient classics; and through this medium an exhaustless mine of imagery and illusion was laid open to our vernacular poets.
Nor were these advantages blighted or checked by the fastidious canons of dictatorial criticism. Puttenham's was the only "Art of poetry" which had made its appearance, and, though a taste for discussion of this kind was rapidly advancing, the poet was yet left independent of the critic; at liberty to indulge every flight of imagination, and every sally of feeling; to pursue his first mode of conception, and to adopt the free diction of the moment.
The age of chivalry and romance, also, had not yet passed away; the former, it is true, was verging fast towards dissolution, but its tone was still exalting and heroic, while the latter continued to throw a rich, though occasionally a fantastic light over every species of poetic composition. In short, the unrestricted copiousness of our language, the striking peculiarities of our national superstition, the wild beauties of Gothic invention, and the playful sallies of Italian fiction, combined with a plentiful infusion of classic lore, and operating on native genius, gave origin, not only to an unparalleled number of great bards, but to a cast of poetry unequalled in this country for its powers of description and creation, for its simplicity and energy of diction, and for its wide dominion over the feelings.
If we proceed to consider the versification, economy, and sentiment of the Elizabethan poetry, candour must confess, that considerable defects will be found associated with beauties equally prominent, especially in the first and second of these departments. We must be understood, however, as speaking here only of rhymed poetry, for were the blank verse of our dramatic poets of this epoch included, there can be no doubt but that in versification likewise the palm must be awarded to Shakspeare and his contemporaries. Indeed, even in the construction of rhyme, the inferiority of our ancestors is nearly, if not altogether, confined to their management of the pentameter couplet; and here, it must be granted, that, in their best artificers of this measure, in the pages of Daniel, Drayton, and Browne, great deficiencies are often perceptible both in harmony and cadence, in polish and compactness. It has been said by a very pleasing, and, in general, a very judicious critic, "the older poets disdained stooping to the character of syllable-mongers; as their conceptions were vigorous, they trusted to the simple provision of nature for their equipment; and though often introduced into the world ragged, they are always healthy." Now versification is to poetry what colouring is to painting, and though by no means among the higher provinces of the art, yet he who disdains its cultivation, loses one material hold upon the reader's attention; for, though plainness and simplicity of garb best accord with
⚫ Preface to Gondibert. Vide Chalmers's English Poets, vol. vi. p. 351.
+ Headley's Select Beauties of Ancient English Poetry, vol. i. Introduction, p. 19. edit. 1810.
vigour, sublimity, or pathos of conception, raggedness can never coincide in the production of any grand or pleasing effect.
It is remarkable, however, that, in lyrical composition, the poets of Elizabeth's reign, so far from being defective in harmony of metre, frequently possess the most studied modulation; and numbers of their songs and madrigals, as well as many stanzas of their longer poems constructed on the model of the Italian octava rima, exhibit in their versification so much high-finishing, and such an exquisite polish, as must render doubtful, in this province at least, the assumed superiority of modern art.
A more striking desideratum in the poetry of this era has arisen from a want of economy in the use of imagery and ornament, and in the distribution of parts as relative to a whole. That relief, which is produced by a judicious management of light and shade, appears to have been greatly neglected; the eye, after having been fatigued by an unsubdued splendour and warmth of style, suddenly passes to an extreme poverty of colouring, without any intermediate tint to blend and harmonize the parts; in short, to drop the metaphor, after a prodigal profusion of imagery and description, the exhausted bard sinks for pages together into a strain remarkable only for its flatness and imbecility. To this want of union in style, may be added an equal defalcation in the disposition, connection, and dependency of the various portions of an extended whole. These requisites, which are usually the result of long and elaborate study, have been successfully cultivated by the moderns, who, since the days of Pope, have paid a scrupulous attention to the mechanism of versification, to the consonancy and keeping of style, and to the niceties and economy of arrangement.
We can ascribe, however, to the poets of Elizabeth's reign the greater merit of excelling in energy and truth of sentiment, in simplicity of diction, in that artless language of nature which irresistibly makes its way to the heart. To excite the emotions of sublimity, of pity, an appeal to the artificial graces of modern growth will not be found successful; on the contrary, experience has taught us, that in the higher walks of poetry, where sensations of grandeur and astonishment are to be raised, or where the passions in all their native vigour are to be called forth, we must turn to the earlier stages of the art, when the poet, unshackled by the overwhelming influence of venerated models, unawed by the frowns of criticism, and his flow of thought undiverted by any laborious attention to the minutiae of diction and cadence, looked abroad for himself, and drew fresh from the page of surrounding nature, and from the workings of his own breast, the imagery, and the feelings, which he was solicitous to impress. In consequence of this self-dependence, this appeal to original sources, the poetry of the period under our notice possesses a strength, a raciness, and verisimilitude which have since very rarely been attained, and which more than compensate for any subordinate defects in the ornamental departments of metre, or style.
It is conceivable, indeed, that a poet may arise, who shall happily combine, even in a long poem of the highest class, the utmost refinements of recent art, with the originality, strength, and independency of our elder bards; it is a phenomenon, however, rather to be wished for than expected, as the excellencies peculiar to these widely separated eras appear to be, in their highest degree, nearly incompatible. Yet is the attempt not to be given up in despair; in short poems, especially of the lyric species, we know that this union has been effected among us; for Gray, to very lofty flights of sublimity, has happily united the utmost splendour of diction, and the utmost brilliancy of versification; and even in a later and more extended instance, in "The Pleasures of Hope" by Mr. Campbell, we find some of the noblest conceptions of poetry clothed in metre exquisitely sweet, and possessing at the same time great variety of modulation, and a considerable share of simplicity in its construction.
If, however, upon the large scale, which the highest cast of poetry demands,
the studied harmony of later times be found incapable of coalescing with effect, there can be no doubt what school we should adopt; for who would not prefer the sublime though unadorned conception of Michael Angelo to the glowing colouring even of such an artist as Titian?
Of the larger poems of the age of Shakspeare, the defects may be considered as of two kinds, either apparent only, or real; under the first may be classed that want of high-finishing which is the result, partly of its incompatibility with grsatness of design, and partly as the effect of a just taste; for much of the minor poetry of the reign of Elizabeth, as hath been previously observed, is polished even to excess; while under the second are to be placed the positive defects of want of union in style, and want of connection and arrangement in economy; omissions not resulting from necessity, and which are scarcely to be atoned for by any excellencies, however transcendent.
It is creditable to the present age, that in the higher poetry several of our bards have in a great degree reverted to the ancient school; that, in attempting to emulate the genius of their predecessors, they have judiciously adopted their strength and simplicity of diction, their freedom and variety of metre, preserving at the same time, and especially in the disposition of their materials, and the keeping of their style, whatever of modern refinement can aptly blend with or heighten the effect of the sublime, though often severely chaste outline, of the first masters. of their art.
That meretricious glare of colouring, that uniform though seductive polish, and that monotony of versification, which are but too apparent in the school of Pope, and which have been carried to a disgusting excess by Darwin and his disciples, not only vitiate and dilute all development of intense emotion, but even paralyse that power of picturesque delineation, which can only subsist under an uncontrolled freedom of execution, where, both in language and rhythm, the utmost variety and energy have their full play. He who in sublimity and pathos has made the nearest approach to our three immortal bards, Spenser, Shakspeare and Milton, and who may, therefore, claim the fourth place in our poetical annals, the lamented Chatterton; and he who, in the present day, stands unrivalled for his numerous and masterly sketches of character, and for the truth, locality, and vigour of his descriptions, the poet of Marmion and of Rokeby, are both well known to have built their fame upon what may be emphatically termed the old English school of poesy. The difference between them is, that while both revert to the costume and imagery of the olden time, one adheres, in a great measure, to the language of his day, while the other must be deemed a laborious though not very successful imitator of the phraseology and extrinsic garb of the remote period to which, for no very laudable purpose, he has assigned his productions. These few remarks on the poetry of our ancestors being premised, the critical notices to which we have alluded, may with propriety commence; and in executing this part of the subject, as well as in the tabular form which follows, an alphabetical arrangement will be observed.
1. BEAUMONT, SIR JOHN. Though the poems of this author were not published, yet were they written, during the age of Shakspeare, and consequently demand our notice in this chapter. He was the elder brother of Francis the dramatic poet, and was born at Gracedieu, in Leicestershire, in 1582. He very early attached himself to poetical studies, and all his productions in this way were the amusements of his youthful days. Of these, the most elaborate is entitled "Bosworth Field," a very animated and often a very poetical detail of the circumstances which are supposed immediately to precede and accompany this celebrated struggle. The versification merits peculiar praise; there is an ease, a vigour, and a harmony in it, not equalled, perhaps, by any other poet of his time; many of the couplets, indeed, are such as would be distinguished for the beauty of their construction, even in the writings of Pope. An encomium so strong as this may require some proofs for its support, and among the number which might