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All great poets must be in advance of their own age; but though all must, at some period, influence those who succeed, yet this influence may neither be definite nor immediate. Spenser, however, unites both features in a very marked degree. He was, in point of style and form, singularly new; his influence was instantaneous as well as enduring: In fact, no candid reader of his lesser poems will, I think, be able to deny that whilst much, indeed, is consecrated for all time by exquisiteness and by power, yet much, also, remains of which the value is mainly relative, the interest historical. That we may judge him fairly, we have constantly to bear in mind the very peculiar position in which the development of European culture placed an Englishman during the latter half of the sixteenth century. For the Renaissance movement in literature, which we may trace back to the lyrical impulse of Provence and of Dante's age, if not even earlier, had nearly spent its creative power in its first seats when it reached Spain, Northern France, and England. The last wave of Italian poetry, we might almost say, wafted the Renaissance to our shores. And it was hence here mingled with elements absent from the original outburst in Italy ;—with the genius of Greece and Rome, reawakening after the long sleep which followed the Barbarian conquests,—the spirit of theological reformation, the spirit of physical science. These powers, penetrating our writers in very varying degrees, give a wider scope than was covered by the early poets of Italy and Provence to the Elizabethan lyrists. They had also a richer and longer national history behind them ; they had even, in Chaucer and his followers, a noble literature wherein Mediævalism was already tinged by the early Renaissance, but which, in regard to poetical form and diction, could not be taken as a guide to meet sixteenth-century requirements; whilst, at the same time, the English national temperament, substantially the same, then and now, as it was in Chaucer's day, but radically different from that of the southern races, demanded representation under the new colours of Italianized classicalism. Hence so much had necessarily to be learned and attempted and incorporated, that there is often something artificial--something which threatened to be almost " Alexandrian," (a phase which, perhaps, was more distinctly and injuriously felt in France)--about our first fresh Elizabethan creations. There was more material, above all, than the poets could thoroughly fuse: our great early national outburst of poetry wants the perfect spontaneity by which the parallel lyrical movement in Hellas is distinguished.
To give proper form to this vast movement, to provide a language equal to the occasion, to blend in one English national sentiment, mediæval feeling and tradition, and that Italianized classicalism under which the Renaissance impulse first reached us, was the peculiar task of Spenser. To trace all his proximate antecedents would hence be to write European history for some centuries preceding his youth. Waiving this immense task, let us now turn briefly to the writers whose language was practically identical with his own, and who were the earliest pupils in the "new learning" of Italy.
The names of Surrey and Wyatt, friends and fellow-( workers, like the names of Petrarch and Boccaccio, Beaumont and Fletcher, Goethe and Schiller, are inseparable Dioscuri in the history of our literature. They,
as recorded by the author of the Arte of English Poesie (1589), were the two chieftaines " in that “new company of courtly inakers” who sprang up during the latter years of Henry VIII, and "pollished our rude and homely maner of vulgar Poesie” by aid of the art they had learned in the “schooles of Dante Arioste and Petrarch.” Surrey deserves well the priority assigned to him. Our poetry had fallen away grievously from its high estate under Chaucer when his work began : and the qualities which he and Wyatt show mark the advance made beyond their predecessors.* Murdered when about thirty by the jealous tyrant of the day (1547), and employed for some years of that short life on public service, Surrey's book of song (not published till 1557, but unquestionably known before by manuscript circulation), covers a singularly large range of novel attempt : lyrics telling the tale of his early life and fanciful love ; satire ; paraphrases from Ecclesiastes and the Psalms; a translation of two books of the Æneid. The quality of his work, where so much was tentative in English literature, and the time at his command so brief, of course varies. But the general characteristics throughout are of a high order, and precisely such as, like Spenser's, were most needed to guide our early school. They may be described as elegant simplicity, terseness and selection of phrase, unaffected naturalness, and yet the sense of art and form never absent. There is no aim at picturesqueness or colour; a sober and manly sincerity, often, (as has
“ If we compare the poetry of Wyatt and Surrey with that of Barclay or Skelton, about thirty or forty years before, the difference must appear wonderful.” (Hallam, Literature of Europe.)
been always characteristic of English writers, and never more so than in those troubled days,) expresses itself in serious moralization. In the lighter pieces, Surrey has a naïveté and grace which recall the youthful Dante's tender pictures of his more youthful lady-love in the Vita Nuova. And like Dante's, Surrey's is idealized passion; yet not so wrapt up in itself, (as with Shakespeare in his Sonnets, but that the poet can connect or interweave his love with pictures of daily life. Many lines-most, perhaps-in language and sentiment, are perfectly modern, -rather, are of all time: far less mannered than we often find the poetry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,—not to say our own. A few lines may be quoted from The Faithful Lover, perhaps the most delicate song Surrey has left us of youthful melancholy, of high-bred reverie, almost persuading one that the passion was truly felt as well as truly painted.
If care do cause men cry, why do not I complain ?
* If we may ascribe to Surrey the piece printed by Tottel in 1557 as “uncertain,” entitled The Lover describeth his whole state unto his love, and beginning
The sun when he had spread his rays, I should place this as his finest achievement as an amourist : delicacy, passion, description of nature, are here united in a piece which does not fall far below the Allegro or Penseroso. But the evidence is doubtful: nor does Surrey, in his recognized work, ever quite seem to me to reach the perfection here shown.
Save I, alas! whom care, of force, doth so constrain
And when I hear the sound of song or instrument
Very different, however, is the tone of really wounded affection in the elegiac pieces commemorating Surrey's friend Wyatt; he
That reft Chaucer the glory of his wit. Our literature, in the three centuries and a half since, has little of such condensed praise, at once so manly and so tender. The pure voice of Nature speaks throughout this short poem ; it is hence, also, purely English; hardly a word or a turn of thought obsolete. Its simplicity, and freedom both from exaggeration and mannerism, place it at once above elegies to which art and ornament have given much greater celebrity ; and few at twenty-five have written so well.
Surrey's Vergilian translation, according to Hallam, is the earliest introduction of "blank verse” into our poetry. The narrative is admirably presented, and there is a charm in the simple closeness of the version by virtue of which Surrey is nearer Vergil than most of his later translators. The metre, as must naturally occur in a first experiment, wants modulation. Of attempt