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THE CHANGE IN LYRIC POETRY
THE lyrics of our Elizabethan age are, for the most part, the direct and simple utterance of human passion. Their most frequent theme is the love of woman, their tone is of absolute sincerity, their perfect music is all unconscious of its perfection, and sings as naturally as birds at pairing-time. In the great examples of Peele and Shakespeare and Fletcher there is not an unusual word or a recondite image: there is no artifice, no parade of skill, no elaboration of metrical form: the supreme issues of love and death, of hope and despair, are presented with a truth and an intensity that strike to the heart like the melody of a folk-song.
With the love-lyrics of the next generation there came a noticeable change. The poet began to think less of his mistress and more of his own attitude towards her: the emotions became secondary and deliberate; the want of true feeling was imperfectly concealed by false wit and undue emphasis. Passion degenerated into a game of skilful and courtly compliment: full of ingenuity and dainty phrase, sometimes resonant with an inspired line or a tuneful cadence, but usually at its best when it made no pretence of being serious. A man has no leisure to lament his lady's absence when, to picture it, he is ransacking the universe for improbable similes; and he pays her an ill compliment when he thinks to win favour by telling her that her tears are more beautiful than any other woman's eyes. Courtship itself assumed a tone of banter, forerunner of that scarce
veiled contempt which glitters through the lyrics of Congreve; and whether it be expressed in the delicate ivory work of Herrick or the hard and polished lacquer of Cowley, reminds us equally of those Chinese toys in which we open casket after casket until we come to the innermost and there find nothing.
It is a strange coincidence, if indeed it be a coincidence, that the same wave of affectation was flowing, about the same time, over every literature in Europe. In Spain Luis de Gongora (born 1561) gave his name to a far-fetched and extravagant style which clothed every thought alike with a garb of theatrical cotton-velvet; in Italy Marini (born 1569) poured forth a flood of conceits under which his country lay submerged for more than a century: a little later, at the court of Louis XIV, came that curious outburst of sham madrigals and Scudéry romances, of counsellors of the Graces' and 'commodities of conversation', until, in 1659, Molière shot them all dead with his Précieuses Ridicules. So far, then, as concerns the love poetry of the time, England was but bearing its part in a general movement. Cowley, for good and ill, has many points of resemblance with Chiabrera, and some of our lesser poets are not unlike those who assembled to exchange verses and criticisms at the Hôtel Rambouillet.
There are, however, two points in which the lyrics of our Caroline period struck a higher and more distinctive note. If the love poetry was artificial the religious poetry was pure and genuine : if woman's beauty was a target for the straining arrows of wit, there was a true, though but halfarticulate, feeling for the beauty of nature. Here is the real Herrick-the Herrick of Daffodils and Blossoms and the Thanksgiving to God for his house: as simple and sweet as a Christmas Carol or the prayer of a child. Here is Herbert, touched on the surface