Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Jacobean and Caroline Criticism > The Elizabethan “roll-call”
  The growth of literary characterisation and “appreciation” Jonson’s literary “portraits”  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XI. Jacobean and Caroline Criticism.

§ 10. The Elizabethan “roll-call”.

It will be noticed that most of these critics concern themselves with literary principles, and only on occasion (and with doubtful success) enter the field of critical judgment. But, even here, some progress may be observed. In the “censure” of authors, the Elizabethans had seldom gone beyond the repetition of a few traditional phrases. Impassioned on the subject of poetry in general, its antiquity, its dignity, its beauty, they became timid and reserved so soon as they faced the concrete problem which every critic must face in the individual poet or the individual poem. Their method, for the most part, was the method of the “roll-call,” a catalogue of poets, in which one name follows another, each with its tag of critical comment. These comments are limited by a narrow range of critical terminology, a few words of praise or blame, some commonplace, some more highly coloured, and the judgments that they express are those of a well established literary tradition or of the common opinion of their time. The first extended critique in English seems to be that which Sidney, in his Defence of Poesie, devotes to the tragedy of Gorboduc; here, for the first time, critical principles are applied systematically to a work of English literature. Yet, Sidney has little to say of Gorboduc except that it has ignored the dramatic unities; he has few terms with which to express its positive qualities, its special beauties or defects, and no method of summing up the general effect in the form of literary portraiture or appreciation. In the case of other works, he adheres to the method of the roll-call. “I account the Mirrour of Magistrates meetely furnished of beautiful parts; and in the Earle of Surries Liricks many things tasting of a noble birth, and worthy of a noble minde.”   20
  This is the staple of his judgment of authors. Nor do his contemporaries and his successors stray beyond the range of the roll-call. Of the seventy-four chapters of Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie, which attempts to cover the whole field of poetical criticism, a single chapter is devoted to a “censure” of the English poets; and here we are told that “for dittie and amourous ode I finde Sir Walter Rawleyghs vayne most loftie, insolent, and passionate; Maister Edward Dyar, for elegy most sweet, solempne, and of high conceit; Gascon, for a good meeter and for a plentifull vayne,” etc. This is a typical example of roll-call criticism, the most primitive form of literary characterisation; literary history, unguided by any organic principle, is as yet unable to express itself save by adding name to name and epithet to epithet. Harington, it is true, argues against the charge that “Ariosto wanteth art,” and repeats some of the commonplaces of Italian criticism; but, for the rest, he is limited to disjointed and intemperate eulogy the same incense that Sidney burnt at the altar of Vergil. It is tradition and not criticism which speaks in both. As they approach the poets of their own tongue, even more as they approach their own time, they lose their certainty of utterance; they have no terminology to give precision to their vague impressions; they have no form or method which gives unity or logic to their disjointed thoughts.   21

  The growth of literary characterisation and “appreciation” Jonson’s literary “portraits”  

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