Nonfiction > G. Gregory Smith, ed. > Elizabethan Critical Essays
G. Gregory Smith, ed.  Elizabethan Critical Essays.  1904.
IV. The Classical Purpose
The apologetic character of the essays is, however, of less importance to the present purpose. It is at most only of historical interest, as a clue to the cause of the remarkable attention to a great literary problem. Their true value lies in the evidence which they give of an incipient, and to some extent unconscious, effort towards an appreciation of the principles of literature, and towards a systematic investigation of the capabilities of the craft of English.  1
  Proof of the conviction of the critics that their house must be put in order need not be sought in their classification of literary types and forms. The favourite groupings by style, as in Ascham, 1 Sidney, 2 Webbe, 3 or Puttenham, 4 by subject, most elaborately in Meres’s Comparative Discourse, or by prosodic forms, are little else than the accentuation of a mediaeval fashion which is observed in the earlier Renaissance stages of all European literatures. We find the first positive evidence of the awakening criticism in the dissatisfaction with certain existing conditions and in the acknowledgement that English is in transition.  2
  The persistency of contemporary reference to this chaos and to the necessity of some immediate interference is perhaps the most striking feature of these early efforts. They are the topic of every writer, and they supply the motif for reform, however much the ultimate purpose of each critic may differ. The vocabulary of denunciation has the Elizabethan fullness. Ascham laments the ‘fond books,’ the ‘lewd and rude rhymes,’ sold in every shop. 5 ‘Good God,’ says Stanyhurst, ‘what a fry of wooden rythmours doth swarm in stationers’ shops’: 6 and Webbe thinks sadly of the ‘infinite fardels of printed pamphlets wherewith this country is pestered.’ 7 ‘E. K.’ anathematizes ‘the rakehelly rout of ragged rhymers,’ 8 and Sidney, who mourns that ‘an over-faint quietness should seem to strew the house for poets,’ 9 candidly admits, ‘I that, before ever I durst aspire unto the dignity, am admitted into the company of the paper-blurrers, do find the very true cause of our wanting estimation in wanting desert; taking upon us to be poets in despite of Pallas.’ 10 It is a world of ‘rude smatterers,’ 11 ‘brainless bussards,’ 12 ‘pottical, poetical heads,’ who rhyme ‘in commendation of Copper noses or Bottle Ale’; 13 and full enough of fooleries, without these ‘new-new writers, the loadstones of the press, wonderfully beholden to the Ass.’ 14 ‘Such is this golden age wherein we live,’ quoth Nash, who elsewhere bids the poets put out their rush-candles, 15 ‘and so replenished with golden asses of all sorts, that, if learning had lost itself in a grove of genealogies, we need do no more but set an old goose over half a dozen pottle pots (which are as it were the eggs of invention) and we shall have such a breed of books within a little while after, as will fill all the world with the wild fowl of good wits.’ 16 Nor does the verse lag behind the prose in hunting down the abuse: witness Jonson in his Every Man in his Humour, 17 as in his Discoveries; or Daniel in his Musophilus, 18 and in his dedication to the Countess of Pembroke, who is to preserve the Muses from ‘these hideous beasts Oblivion and Barbarism.’ 19 So fly the words: yet the censors claim that they are not severe. When Webbe has recorded the ‘pottical, poetical’ gibe, he amiably quotes ‘E.K.’s censure, because he would not be ‘too broad’ with them in his own speech. 20 Though it may be suspected that this long-drawn denunciation is directed chiefly against the vulgar crowd of Martinist and Eldertonian pamphlets, it will be found, on closer examination, that such an assumption is too narrow.  3
  Their explanation of this barbarism and their suggestion for its cure are not less clearly stated. ‘Marry,’ says Sidney, ‘they that delight in Poesy itself should seek to know what they do, and how they do…. A Poet no industry can make, if his own genius be not carried unto it…. Yet confess I always that as the fertilest ground must be manured, so must the highest flying wit have a Daedalus to guide him. That Daedalus, they say, both in this and in other, hath three wings to bear itself up into the air of due commendation: that is, Art, Imitation, and Exercise. But these, neither artificial rules nor imitative patterns, we much cumber ourselves withal.’ 21 Classicists like Harvey plead for the bringing of our language ‘into Art,’ 22 and protest that ‘right artificiality is not mad-brained, or ridiculous, or absurd, or blasphemous, or monstrous.’ 23 Webbe is convinced that cure is possible, and that reformation can come only when English literature is freed from the ‘cankered enmity of curious custom.’ 24 With Puttenham Poetry must be ‘corrected and reformed by discreet judgments,’ and with no less cunning and curiosity than Greek and Latin. To disallow this improvement in the most ancient of arts is but to admit that Adam and Eve’s aprons were the gayest garments, and the shepherd’s tent the best housing. 25 Poetry, he believes, may be an Art in our vulgar, and that very methodical and commendable: indeed, the whole aim of the author of the Arte of English Poesie is to bring order into the literary chaos, and to show, in Nash’s words, ‘what an obloquy these impudent incipients in Arts are unto Art.’ 26 In the ‘rabblement’ of English the critics see a cause why Poetry is in disrepute, and why their general defence, which they feel to be somewhat of a supererogation, is justified. But they do not rest there. Their confidence that all will yet be well with English Poetry, the immediate recognition by all groups of critics of the first signs of revival in contemporary work—a recognition which has proved to be historically just,—their enthusiasm in experiment, and their general good sense in the discussion of its results, show that the Matter of English Literature was now acknowledged to be a subject for profitable reflection. The very seriousness with which they approach the problem, and their own never-ending protests that the Essays are too haphazard and unworthy of the occasion, are symptoms of vital importance.  4
  It is not too much to say that the intention is strongly classical. When ‘E. K.’ in his eulogy of Spenser takes upon himself to tell how the New Poet differs from most English writers, he points out that his work is ‘well grounded, finely framed, and strongly trussed up together.’ 27 This is somewhat inconsistent with the accepted judgement on the author of the Faerie Queene (though it must be remembered that it is with the Shepheards Calender that the critics are chiefly concerned), but the rightness or wrongness of it is of less importance than the fact that they looked for these qualities as an explanation of superiority. In other words, what was disorder in mediaeval and contemporary literature is in Spenser changed to order. Poetry, they believe, cannot be good, unless it show the discipline of Art. This admitted, it was the function of criticism to teach that discipline, to tell lovers of poetry ‘what they do, and how they do.’  5
  Ascham appears to be the first in English to give definite expression to this doctrine in the notable passage on [Euphues], 28 which supplied the motif and title to Lyly’s work, and through that, as well as directly, left its mark on Elizabethan literature. The idea is of course not original, 29 but the credit for its more complete expression and its introduction to English letters is undoubtedly Ascham’s. 30 It must be noted that the proposition is not exclusively literary, or rather that its literary application is but part of a more comprehensive conception. For literature is to be ‘well-grown,’ to show the just proportions of art in subject, technique, and intention, just as the human body and the body politic are to express the ideal harmony of line and plan. The larger notion runs throughout the Essays, from Ascham’s own reflections on the rude writing of men who are themselves rude 31 and his reminiscences of Cheke’s conversations 32 to Puttenham’s defence of his inclusion in his Arte of Poesie 33 of the question of decencies in general conduct.  6
  The acknowledgement of the necessity of discipline, implied in this classical argument, gives a point of contact between the critics and their Puritan adversaries. But they approach from quite opposite directions, and their agreement is, after all, merely accidental. It is more important to note that in the acceptance of this principle we find the explanation of the strong dislike of mediaeval literature and Italian fashions, two of the most remarkable of the idées fixes of the Elizabethans. 34 Other causes, as we have seen, contributed to the unpopularity of the Romances: they were ‘bold bawdry,’ they were the amusement of abbey-lubbers, they were jingles of rhymes; but they were also the disordered product of a disordered literary age. They had no decency in proportions, no coherence of episodes. The Italian, if he could not be charged with barbarousness, was, apart from being a danger to English morals, an extravagant in his literary motives and literary forms, as he was in his dress and social habits. And the Italianate Englishman, whether a mere adventurer or an enthusiast for Italian tales and sonnets, if not always a diavolo incarnato, was at least bad company. It is quite clear that beyond the growing national feeling against foreign affectations in public and private life—which must have had its effect in the determination of literary taste—there was the more purely critical dislike of the licence and curiosity of Italian romanticism. The combination of these impressions, that the Middle Ages were discredited because they were barbarous and Gothic, and that the contemporary inflow of Italianate habits and ideas was no less disorderly and dangerous, supplemented by the full confidence in the sufficiency and possibilities of English, forced the critics to some immediate consideration of the cure, especially as they found ready to hand, in Renaissance literature, an apparently perfect rule of health.  7
  It may be premised that the first endeavours towards reform would be concerned with technical details rather than with general principles. Criticism could not begin otherwise, and a criticism which was to a great extent derived was at first attracted to the nicer points of the canon. Yet despite the attention to the things of vocabulary and prosody, it is possible to unravel the general principles which are threaded through these miscellanies, and thereafter to show how one or other of these minor problems relates itself to a larger critical purpose.  8
  The saving quality of this incipient classicism, for so let us call it, is that it is not extreme. There is much good sense, even in the most partisan discussions on the reformation of English prosody, and in the most ample borrowings from the rules of the Italian critics. Not only is the whole matter tentative, as the historical eye cannot fail to see, but it is acknowledged to be so by the essayists themselves. They have a genuine conviction of their inefficiency, and though they play with dogma, which in the immediate future became the creed of a militant criticism, they seldom forget that they cannot claim to be more than experimenters. ‘God help us,’ says Harvey to Spenser, after recitation of a set of ‘pawlting bungrely’ verses, ‘you and I are wisely employed (are we not?) when our pen and ink, and time and wit, and all runneth away in this goodly yonkerly vein: as if the world had nothing else for us to do, or we were born to be the only Nonproficients and Nihilagents of the world.’ 35 So far as the critics are minded to expound the classical reform of English, they are content to prove its necessity rather than to be dictatorial in defining a new body of laws. ‘And that is enough for me,’ says Puttenham, ‘seeking but to fashion an art, and not to finish it: which time only and custom have authority to do.’ 36 The moderation of the Elizabethan view is the more remarkable, since it was held that the time had come to English when she must prove that she can match the greatness of Greece and Rome, and not less clearly admitted that in these rivals were to be found the alpha and omega of literary perfection.  9
  The classical quality of Elizabethan criticism is disclosed in its main theses that English literature must improve itself by attention to suitable models, and that the most absolute matters for consideration are restraint and symmetry. The necessity of studying and imitating the masterpieces begins with Ascham’s plea in his Scholemaster. His memorable account of a conversation with Cheke 37 defines the character of the new discipline. The ‘ancients’ offer ‘experience,’ which cannot but be useful to a youthful vernacular: but there is to be no blind imitation of them, and certainly no superficial copy of what is after all but mannerism. Writing is not to be ‘more Art than nature and more labour than Art,’ 38 for a writer’s uncontented care to write better than he can is as hateful as disorder. This qualification is but the general expression of that dislike of unnatural effort which they found grown to such enormity in the archaic, inkhorn, and over-sea affectations of the age. 39 Imitation must be reasonable; 40 it is a training of the judgement, for writers must not be common porters and carriers; 41 there is in this doctrine no shackling of the wit, no hindering of the course of a man’s good nature. 42 Rome herself had her ‘unmeasurable confluence of scribblers.’ 43 In all this there is good sense, and it was well for the future that Cheke and Ascham, who gave the password to their contemporaries, had put it so. Harvey, though he knows the value of a ‘good pattern’ to the Poet, 44 shows not less clearly than they do that the adaptation of Method must proceed with a lively knowledge of its propriety to the case in hand, and that the vitality of the model, and not its mere corpus, must be transferred to the canvas. ‘He must not dream of perfection that improveth not the perfectest Art with the most perfect industry.’ 45 ‘Perfect use worketh masteries…: singular practice [is] the only singular and admirable workman of the world.’ 46 There is no mistaking the deep purpose of this classical appeal: it is at bottom that English may draw upon the life and spirit of the great things of antiquity, not that she should become the ape of Greece and Rome, simply because she is heartily sick of her present confusion. When Chapman sees in Homer a means to the absolute redress of all the unmanly degeneracies of his age, he is thinking only of the direct vigour and free soul of the old poet which will cure the fantasies of a transposed and Italianate England. 47 And though Campion rather spoiled by bad logic his excellent aphorism that the world is made by symmetry and proportion, 48 his error was confined to the technical details of prosody. The critics had convinced themselves that symmetry and proportion must be the corner-stones of the new edifice: they saw how Greece and Rome had builded. So far they were wise: but they were wiser in refusing to be mere copyists.  10
  The essayists are explicit on this point. Indeed, there is nothing which is so often and so strenuously urged throughout these pages than their repugnance to a rigid classical canon. They are suspicious of ‘ram’s-horn rules of direction,’ 49 of a ‘rabble of scholastical precepts,’ 50 of ‘strict and regular forms,’ 51 of the cumber of ‘artificial rules and imitative patterns.’ 52 Even in the narrower problem of the reformed versifying we find Harvey disclaiming any intention to lay down a general Art: 53 and Stanyhurst 54 and King James VI 55 are against a final judgement. Daniel, who perhaps reaches deepest to the philosophical bases of criticism, enters a general caveat against arrogance, and draws attention to the ‘unnecessary intrications’ which confound the understanding—‘as if Art were ordained to afflict Nature.’ 56 So open-minded is this defender of rhyme against the attacks by one of its happiest exponents, that he can admit that it should be used with great moderation. He sees that the tyranny of licence may be as great as the tyranny of a code. 57  11
  If the main interest of this criticism is that it is classical, whether as a preliminary symptom of later academic theory or as an instrument for the reform of contemporary literature, we must note that, taken in its most general bearings, this criticism is as yet quite unprejudiced. In other words, we should have had no reason to assume, had we been ignorant of later history, that the forces of classicism were destined to become paramount, On the other hand, our knowledge of later developments makes it clear that we have in these propositions the true awakening of the classical spirit in English literature. And it is only when we have searched these beginnings and the work of the neglected successors of these essayists in the first half of the seventeenth century that we find ourselves in a position to interpret aright Johnson’s dictum that Dryden is the Father of English Criticism. Then, and then only, do we know how much Dryden and his age drew from later continental sources through French channels, and how much from earlier English critical tradition, however or whenever his Elizabethan masters had been themselves inspired. 58  12
  Though the classical quality of these Essays is suggested rather than carefully defined, it is none the less true that, even in their brief compass, some progression in its application may be observed. Jonson’s criticism is not Sidney’s, nor is it Ascham’s: and the difference between these must be expressed in terms of a greater or less classical intention. Jonson marks the close of the first stage; but the full statement of his position is outside the scope of these volumes, and more fitly belongs to Jacobean and Caroline criticism, to which it is the natural introduction.  13
  While therefore the leading propositions of Elizabethan criticism are classical only in a general sense, there are certain special problems in which, through the heat of controversy or the narrow area of argument, the classical character is thrown into stronger relief. These discussions have a value of their own, for though their relation to fundamental principles was not readily, if at all, recognized, and though some, such as the question of the hexameter, could not but be of passing interest, they represent the laboratory experience of independent workers in a young science.  14
Note 1. i. 23–6. [back]
Note 2. i. 175. [back]
Note 3. i. 249. [back]
Note 4. ii. 155. [back]
Note 5. i. 2, 4, 31. [back]
Note 6. i. 141. [back]
Note 7. i. 226. [back]
Note 8. i. 131. [back]
Note 9. i. 194. [back]
Note 10. i. 195. [back]
Note 11. i. 229. [back]
Note 12. i. 322. [back]
Note 13. i. 246. [back]
Note 14. ii. 231, 238. [back]
Note 15. ii. 225. [back]
Note 16. i. 227. [back]
Note 17. ii. 388. [back]
Note 18. Ed. Grosart, i. ll. 227, 239, 446–9. [back]
Note 19. Ibid. i. p. 53. [back]
Note 20. i. 246. [back]
Note 21. i. 195. [back]
Note 22. i. 102. [back]
Note 23. ii. 234. [back]
Note 24. i. 228. [back]
Note 25. ii. 24. [back]
Note 26. i. 334. [back]
Note 27. i. 131. [back]
Note 28. i. 1–2. [back]
Note 29. See infra, lxxii; i. 349. [back]
Note 30. See note to i. 349. [back]
Note 31. i. 6–7. [back]
Note 32. i. 40–1. [back]
Note 33. See the opening sentence of chap. xxiv, ii. 181. [back]
Note 34. See supra, xvi, xvii. [back]
Note 35. i. 116. [back]
Note 36. ii. 130. [back]
Note 37. i. 40, &c. [back]
Note 38. i. 40. [back]
Note 39. See infra, lv et seq. [back]
Note 40. i. 9–10. [back]
Note 41. i. 19. [back]
Note 42. i. 10. [back]
Note 43. ii. 363. [back]
Note 44. i. 109. [back]
Note 45. ii. 237. [back]
Note 46. ii. 236. [back]
Note 47. ii. 302–3. [back]
Note 48. ii. 329. [back]
Note 49. i. 336. [back]
Note 50. ii. 176. [back]
Note 51. ii. 393. [back]
Note 52. i. 195. [back]
Note 53. i. 103, 122. [back]
Note 54. i. 144. [back]
Note 55. i. 210. [back]
Note 56. ii. 365. [back]
Note 57. See infra, ‘Romantic Qualities,’ p. lx et seq. [back]
Note 58. It is probably more than a coincidence that makes the questions of ‘Barbarism,’ ‘Monosyllables,’ and ‘Prosody’ interesting to Dryden in his Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire, his Dedication of the Aeneis, and his Preface to Albion and Albanius; and, later, to Shaftesbury in his Advice to an Author. [back]
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