Page images

be no difficult task to conceive the delight, and the mental profit, which a genius such as Shakspeare's, of which one characteristic is its fertility in aphoristic precept, must have derived from the. study of Lord Bacon's Essay! The apothegmatic treasures of Shakspeare have been lately condensed into a single volume by the judgment and industry of Mr. Loft, and it may be safely affirmed, that no uninspired works, either in our own or any other language, can be produced, however bulky or voluminous, which contain a richer mine of preceptive wisdom than may be found in those two books of the philosopher and the poet, the Essays of Bacon, and the Aphorisms of Shakspeare.


View of Romantic Literature during the Age of Shakspeare-Shakspeare's Attachment to, and Use of, Romances, Tales, and Ballads.

THAT a considerable, and perhaps the greater, portion of Shakspeare's Library consisted of Romances and Tales, we have already mentioned as a conclusion fully warranted, from the extensive use which he has made of them in his dramatic works. What the precious tomes specifically were which covered his shelves, we have now no means of positively ascertaining; but it is evident that we shall make a near approximation to the truth, if we can bring forward the library of a contemporary collector of romantic literature, and at the same time contemporary authority for the romances then most in vogue.

Now it fortunately happens, that we have not only a few curious descriptions, by the most unexceptionable authors of the reigns of Elizabeth and James, of the popular reading of their day, but we possess also a catalogue of the collection of one of the most enthusiastic hoarders of the sixteenth century, in the various branches of romantic lore; a document which may be considered, in fact, as placing within our view a kind of fac-simile of this, the most copious department of Shakspeare's book boudoir.

The interesting detail has been given us by Lancham, in his "Account of the Queen's Entertainment at Killingworth Castle, 1575." The author is describing the Storial Show by a procession of the Coventry men, in celebration of Hock Tuesday, when he suddenly exclaims,-" But aware, keep bak, make room noow, heer they cum.

"And fyrst Captain Cox, an old man I promiz yoo; by profession a Mason, aud that right skilfull; very cunning in fens, and hardy az Gavin; for his ton-sword hangs at hiz tablz eend ; great oversight hath he in matters of storie: For az for King Arthurz book, Huon of Burdeaus, the foour sons of Aymon, Bevys of Hampton, The Squyre of lo degree, The Knight of Courtesy, and the Lady Faguell, Frederick of Gene, Syr Eglamoour, Syr Tryamoour, Syr Lamwell, Syr Isenbras, Syr Gawyn, Olyver of the Castl, Lucres and Curialus, Virgil's Life, the Cast of Ladiez, the Wido Edyth, the King and the Tanner, Frier Rous, Howleglas, Gargantua, Robinhood, Adam Bel, Clim of the Clough and William of Cloudsley, the Churl and the Burd, the Seven Wise Masters, the Wife lapt in a Morels Skin, the Sak full of Nuez, the Seargeaunt that became a Fryar, Skogan, Collyn Clout, the Fryar and the Boy, Elynor Rumming, and the Nutbrooun Maid, with many moe then I rehearz heere; I believe hee have them all at his fingers endz.

[ocr errors]

Then in Philosophy, both morall and naturall, I think hee be az naturally overseen; beside Poetrie and Astronomie, and oother bid Sciencez, az I may gesse by the omberty of his books; whearof part, az I remember, The Shepherdz Kalender, The Ship of Foolz, Daniciz Dreamz, the Booke of Fortune, Stans puer ad Mensam, The by way to the Spill-house, Julian of Brain

ord's Testament, the Castle of Love, the Booget of Demaunds, the Hundred Mery Talez, the Book of Riddels, the Seaven Sororz of Wemen, the prooud Wives Pater Noster, the Chapman of a Peneworth of Wit: Beside his Auncient Playz, Yooth and Charitee, Hikskorner, Nugizee, Impacient Poverty, and herewith Doctor Boords Breviary of Health. What should I rehearz heer, what a bunch of Ballets and Songs, all auncient; as Broom broom on Hill, So Wo iz me begon, troly lo, Over a Whinny Meg, Hey ding a ding, Bony lass upon a green, My hony on gave me a bek, By a bank as I lay and a hundred more he hath fair wrapt up in parchment, and bound with a whip cord. And az for Almanacks of Antiquitee (a point for Ephemeridees), I ween he can sheaw from Jazper Laet of Antwarp unto Nostradam of Frauns, and thens unto oour John Securiz of Salsbury. To stay yee no longer heerein, I dare say hee hath az fair a Library for theez Sciencez, and az many goodly monuments both in prose and poetry, and at after noonz can can talk az much without book, az ony inholder betwixt Brainford and Bagshot, what degree soever he be.":


Of the library of this military bibliomaniac, who is represented as "marching on valiantly before, clean trust and gartered above the knee, all fresh in a velvet cap, flourishing with his ton sword," Mr. Dibdin has appreciated the value when he declares, that he should have preferred it to the extensive collection of the once celebrated magician, Dr. Dee. "How many," he observes, "of Dee's magical books he had exchanged for the pleasanter magic of Old Ballads and Romances, I will not take upon me to say: but that this said bibliomaniacal Captain had a library, which, éven from Mr. Laneham's imperfect description of it, I should have preferred to the four thousand volumes of Dr. John Dee, is most unquestionable."


He then adds in a note, in reference to the "Bunch of Ballads and Songs, all auncient :-fair wrapt up in parchment, and bound with a whip cord!"" it is no wonder that Ritson, in the historical essay prefixed to his collection of Scottish Songs, should speak of some of these ballads with a zest, as if he would have sacrificed half his library to untie the said whip cord' packet. And equally joyous, I ween, would my friend Mr. R. H. Evans, of Pall-Mall, have been-during his editorial labors in publishing a new edition of his father's collection of Ballads-(an edition, by the by, which gives us more of the genuine spirit of the Coxean Collection than any with which I am acquainted)-equally joyous would Mr. Evans have been, to have had the inspection of some of these bonny' songs. The late Duke of Roxburghe, of never-dying bibliomanical celebrity, would have parted with half the insignia of his order of the Garter, to have obtained clean original copies of these fascinating effusions!" +

Though the Romances and Ballads in Captain Cox's Library are truly termed "ancient," yet it appears, from unquestionable contemporary authority, that these romances, either in their original dress or somewhat modernised, were still sung to the harp, in Shakspeare's days, as well in the halls of the nobility and gentry, as in the streets and ale-houses, for the recreation of the multitude: thus Puttenham, in his "Arte of English Poesie," published in 1589, speaking of historical poetry adapted to the voice, says,

"We our selves who compiled this treatise have written for pleasure a little brief Romance or historicall ditty in the English tong of the Isle of Great Britaine in short and long meetres, and by breaches or divisions to be more commodiously song to the harpe in places of assembly, where the company shal be desirous to heare of old adventures and reliaunces of noble knights in times past, as are those of King Arthur and his knights of the round table, Sir Bevys of Southampton, Guy of Warwicke and others like ;" and he afterwards notices the "blind harpers or such like taverne minstrels that give a fit of mirth for a groat, their matters being for the most part stories of old time, as the tale of Sir Topaz, the reportes of Bevis of Southampton, Guy of Warwicke, Adam Bell, and Clymme of the Clough, and such other old Romances or historicall rimes, made purposely for recreation of the common people at Christmasse diners and bride ales, and in tavernes and ale-houses, and such other places of base resort." ‡

Bishop Hall, likewise, in his Satires printed in 1598, alluding to the tales that lay

"In chimney-corners smok'd with winter fires,
To read and rock asleep our drowsy sires,"

Nichols's Progresses, vol i. Lancham's Letter, p. 34-36.
Dibdin's Bibliographical Romance, p. 349, 350, and note
Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie, reprint of 1811, p. 33, 69.


"No man his threshold better knowes, than I
Brute's first arrival, and first victory;

St. George's sorrel, or his crosse of blood,
Arthur's round board, or Caledonian wood,

Or holy battles of bold Charlemaine,

What were his knights did Salem's siege maintaine:
How the mad rival of faire Angelice

Was physick'd from the new-found paradise!*

and even so late as Burton, who finished his interesting work just previous to our great poet's decease, we have sufficient testimony that the major part of our gentry was employed in the perusal of these seductive narratives: "If they read a book at any time," remarks this eccentric writer, "'tis an English Chronicle, Sr. Huon of Bordeaux, Amadis de Gaul, etc.; and subsequently, in depicting the inamoratoes of the day, he accuses them of "reading nothing but play books, idle poems, jests, Amadis de Gaul, the Knight of the Sun, the Seven Champions, Palmerin de Oliva, Huon of Bordeaux, etc."+

These contemporary authorities prove, to a certain extent, what were considered the most popular romances in the reigns of Elizabeth and James; but it will be satisfactory to enquire a little more minutely into this branch of literature. The origin of the metrical Romance may be traced to the fostering influence of our early Norman monarchs, who cultivated with great ardour the French language; and it was from the courts of these sovereigns that the French themselves derived the first romances in their own tongue. The gratification resulting from the recital or chaunting of these metrical tales was then confined, and continued to be for some centuries, to the mansions of the great, owing to the vast expense of maintaining or rewarding the minstrels with whom, at that time, a knowledge of these splendid fictions exclusively rested. No sooner, however, was the art of printing discovered, than the wonders of romance were thrown open to the eager curiosity of the public, and the presses of Caxton and Winkin de Worde groaned under the production of prose versions from the romantic poesy of the Anglo-Norman bards.

So fascinating were the wild incidents and machinery of these volumes, and so rapid was their consequent circulation, that neither the varied learning nor the theological polemics of the succeeding age, availed to interrupt their progress; and it was not until towards the close of the seventeenth century, that the feats of the knight and the spells of the enchanter ceased to astonish and exhilarate the halls of our fathers.

In the whole course of this extensive career, from the era of the conquest to the age of Milton, a poet whose youth, as he himself tells us, was nourished "among those lofty fables and romances, which recount, in sublime cantos, the deeds of knighthood," perhaps no period can be mentioned in which a greater love of romantic fiction existed, than that which marks the reign of Elizabeth; and this, too, notwithstanding the improvement of taste, and the progress of classical learning; for though the national credulity had been chastened by the gradual efforts of reason and science, yet was the daring imagery of romance still the favourite resource of the bard and the novelist, who, skilfully blending its potent magic with the colder but now fashionable fictions of pagan antiquity, flung increasing splendour over the union, and gave that permanency of attraction which only the peculiar and unfettered genius of the Elizabethan era could bestow.

Confining ourselves at present, however, chiefly to the consideration of the prose romance, we may observe, that five distinct classes of it were prevalent in the age of Shakspeare, which we may designate by the appellations of AngloNorman, Oriental, Italian, Spanish, and Pastoral Romance.

* Chalmer's English Poets, vol. v. p. 283, col. 2.

Anatomy of Melancholy, 8th edit. p. 84, 177. See Ellis's Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances, vol. i. Introduction, p. 38; and the Abb de la Rue's Dissertations on the Anglo-Norman poets, Archæologia, vol. xii. and xiii.

Under the first of these titles, the Anglo-Norman, we include all those productions which have been formed on the metrical romances of the feudal or Anglo-Norman period, and to which the terms Gothic or Chivalric have been commonly, though not exclusively, applied. These are blended not only with much classical fiction, but with a large portion of oriental fable, derived from our commerce with the East during the period of the Crusades, and are principally occupied either in relating the achievements of Arthur, Charlemagne, and the knights engaged in the holy wars, or in chivalarising, if we may use the word, the heroes of antiquity, or in expanding the wonders of oriental machinery.

The most popular prose romance of this class was undoubtedly "La Morte d'Arthur," translated from various French romances by Sir Thomas Malory, and printed by Caxton in 1485, a work which includes in a condensed form the most celebrated achievements of the knights of the Round Table.* This "noble and joyous book," as it is termed by its venerable printer, was the delight of our ancestors until the age of Charles the First; and in no period more decidedly so than in the reign of Elizabeth, when probably there were few lordly mansions without a copy of this seducing tome, either in the great hall or in the ladies bower. Such were its fascinations, indeed, as to excite the apprehensions, and call forth the indignant and somewhat puritanical strictures of Ascham and Meres; the former in his "Schoole Master," 1571, when, reprobating the inordinate attachment to books of chivalry, instancing, as one for example, Morte Arthur, the whole pleasure of which booke," he says, "standeth in two specyall poyntes, in open mans slaghter and bolde bawdrie: in which booke, those be counted the noblest knights that doe kill most men without any quarrell, and commit fowlest adoultries by sutlest shifts; as, Syr Lancelote with the wife of King Arthure, his maister; Syr Tristram with the wife of King Marke, his uncle: Syr Lameroche with the wife of King Lote, that was his own aunte. This is good stuffe for wise men to laughe at, or honest men to take pleasure at. Yet I knowe when God's Bible was banished the court and Morte Arthure receaved into the princes chamber, what toyes the dayly reading of such a booke may worke in the will of a yong gentleman, or a yong maide that liveth welthely and idlely, wise men can judge, and honest men do pittie;" and the latter declaring in his "Wits' Commonwealth," that "as the Lord de la Nonne in the sixe discourse of his politike and military discourses censureth of the bookes of Amadis de Gaule, which he saith are no less hurtfull to youth, than the workes of Machiavell to age; so these bookes are accordingly to be censured of, whose names follow; Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwicke, Arthur of the Round Table, etc."

That these strictures are too severe, and that the consequences apprehended by these ingenious scholars did not necessarily follow, we have the authority of Milton to prove; who, so far from deprecating the study of romances as dangerous to morality, declares "that even those books proved to me so many enticements to the love and stedfast observation of virtue;" a passage which appears to have kindled in the mind of a modern writer, a spirited defence of the utility of these productions, even at the present day.

"There is yet a point of view," he remarks," in which Romance may be regarded to advantage, even in the present age. The most interesting qualities in a chivalrous knight, are his hightoned enthusiasm, and disinterested spirit of adventure-qualities to which, when properly modified and directed, society owes its highest improvements. Such are the feelings of benevolent genius yearning to diffuse love and peace and happiness among the human race. The gorgeous visions of imagination, familiar to the enthusiastic soul, purify the heart from selfish pollutions, and animate to great and beneficent actions. Indeed, nothing great or eminently beneficial ever

The title of this first edition, as gathered from the prologue and colophon, has been thus given by Mr. Dibdin :-" A BOOK OF THE NOBLE HYSTORYES OF KYNGE ARTHUR, and of certeyn of his knyghtes. Whiche book was reduced in to englyshe by syr Thomas Malory knyght and by me devyded into xxi bookes chapytred and enprynted, and fynysshed in the abbey Westmestre the last day of July the yere of our lord M.cccc.lxxxv. folio."-Dibdin's Typographical Antiquities, vol. i. թ. 241. Toland's Life of Milton, p. 35.

Ascham's Works, Bennet's edit. p. 254.

has been or can be effected without enthusiasm-without feelings more exalted than the consideration of simple matter of fact can produce. That Romances have a tendency to excite the enthusiastic spirit, we have the evidence of fact in numerous instances. Hereafter, we shall bear the great Milton indirectly bearing his testimony of admiration and gratitude for their inspiring influence. It is of little consequence, comparatively speaking, whether all the impressions made, be founded on strict philosophical truth. If the imagination be awakened and the heart warmed, we need give ourselves little concern about the final result. The first object is to elicit power. Without power nothing can be accomplished. Should the heroic spirit chance to be excited by reading Romances, we have, alas! too much occasion for that spirit even in modern times, to wish to repress its generation. Since the Gallic hero has cast his malign aspect over the nations, it is become almost as necessary to social security, as during the barbarism of the feudal times. There is now little danger of its being directed to an unintelligible purpose.

"Romances, then, not only merit attention, as enabling us to enter into the feelings and sentiments of our ancestors,—a circumstance in itself curious, and even necessary to a complete knowledge of the history of past ages; they may still be successfully employed to awaken the mind -to inspire genius: and when this effect is produced, the power thus created may be easily made to bear on any point desired."*

The demand for Morte Arthur, which continued for nearly two centuries, produced of course several re-impressions: the second issued from the press of Winkin de Worde in 1498, the colophon of which, as specified by Herbert, is singularly curious.

Here is the ende of the hoole boke of kynge Arthur, and of his noble knygtes of the rounde table. That whane they were hoole togyder, there was ever an c. and xt. And here is the ende of the deth of Arthur. I praye you all gentylmen and gentylwymmen that rede thys boke of Arthur and his knyghtes from the beginnynge to the endynge praye for me whyle I am a lyue, that God send me good utterance. And when I am deed, I pray you all pray for my soule: for the translacion of this boke was fynisshed the 1x. yere of the regne of kyng Edwarde the fourth, by syr Thomas Malcore knyght, as Jhesu helpe him for his grete myghte, as he is the servaunt of Jhesu bothe day and nyghte. Emprynted fyrst by William Caxton, on whose soul God have mcrey."+

The re-impression of De Worde was followed by the editions of Copland, East, and William Stansby, this last being dated 1634. Of the elder copies East's was probably the one most generally used in the reign of Elizabeth, and it differs only in a few unessential phrases from the edition of Caxton.

La Morte d'Arthur, which, by its frequent republication, kept alive a taste for romantic fiction, may be considered as giving us, with a few exceptions as to costume, a very pleasing though somewhat polished picture of the chivalric romance of the Anglo-Norman period. It has the merit also of furnishing an excellent specimen of purity and simplicity in style and diction; qualities which have stamped upon many of its otherwise extravagant details the most decided features of sublimity and pathos. A passage in the twenty-second chapter of the second book, for example, furnishes a noble instance of the former, and the speech of Sir Bohort, over the dead body of Sir Launcelot, towards the close of the work, is as admirable a specimen of the latter. These, as short, peculiarly interesting, and characteristic of the work, we shall venture to transcribe.

The description of, and the effect arising from so simple a circumstance as that of blowing a horn, are thus painted :

"So bee rode forth, and within three days hee came by a cross, and thereon was letters of gold written, that said, It is not for a knight alone to ride toward this castle. Then saw hee an old hoar gentleman coming toward him, that said, Balin le Savage, thou passest thy bounds this way, therefore turne againe and it will avail thee. And hee vanished away anon: and so hee heard an horne blow as it had been the death of a beast. That blast, said Balin, is blown for mee; for 1

am the prize, and yet am I not dead."

Sir Ector de Maris, the brother of Sir Launcelot, after having sought him in vain through Britain for seven years, has at length the melancholy satisfaction of recognising the body of the hero, who had just breathed his last.

Burnet's Specimens of English Prose Writers, vol. i. P.
Dibdin's Typographical Antiquities, vol. ii. p. 81, 82.


« PreviousContinue »