Nonfiction > G. Gregory Smith, ed. > Elizabethan Critical Essays
G. Gregory Smith, ed.  Elizabethan Critical Essays.  1904.
II. The Puritan Attack
Elizabethan criticism arose in controversy. The early Essays are ‘Apologies’ for Poets and Poetry against the attacks of a vigorous Puritanism. Some are direct answers to onslaughts on special forms or on individuals; all have the common purpose of upholding the usefulness and pleasure-giving power of Poetry. It is noteworthy that the greater forces which stimulated this literary defence were themselves unliterary. They are not represented in these volumes, except in the answers of their adversaries. 1 They denounce Poetry because it is often lewd, the theatre because it is a school of abuse: their argument is social, political, personal. Their importance—and it should not be underestimated—lies in the fact that they called forth a reasoned defence, and compelled their opponents to examine the principles of Poetry. They thus defined the first problem for English criticism. But they did more, by helping the critics, in their investigation of the bases of Poetry, to see that there was some excuse for the obloquy cast upon what had been written, and that some reform from within was necessary. The problem as it presented itself to Sidney and his friends was in general terms. Poetry is a good thing in itself: ‘it is abused and does not abuse’: if there be vice in it, it is the fault of ‘poet-apes,’ not of poets: let the vice be taken away. Thus, to a degree, the spirit of the extremer sort who would banish poets from the commonwealth passed into their opponents and made them severe judges of the literature which fell short of their ideal. There was not as yet any serious thought of the fixing of a canon, but the scrutiny of English habit which proceeded apace was, in the nature of things, the sure forerunner of a critical system. The achievement of this is, however, the tale of a later period. The Elizabethan mind was not, could not be, resolved on such discipline. Yet its efforts, though tentative, were not chaotic, for it established the preliminary positions that Poetry can justify herself, and that English Poetry must. And if the reader will keep this in view, he may escape some of the confusion which surrounds the double argument of the defenders against the ‘Mysomousoi’ or Poet-haters, and against the ‘rakehelly rout’ of English rhymers.  1
  The Puritan arguments fall into two main groups—the historical and moral. The former was the less urgent, though it may be undervalued because the other was debated with greater noise and persistency. There was, in the first place, the patristic tradition of the iniquity of stage-plays, songs, and merry tales, wrested with more or less exaggeration from Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, and Chrysostom. Passages of this mediaeval protest are quoted and requoted, not because Renaissance or Reformed England was in sympathy with the Fathers, or even knew their work at first hand, but because these satisfied the perennial instinct of that half of the nation which must be ascetic. The marked Puritanism of the Elizabethan age, to be traced alike in the Faerie Queene and in the abhorred plays, was but one phase of a condition which was constitutional rather than the literary infection of earlier theology and philosophy. It found support for its purposes in the alien and misunderstood past, and readily borrowed its phrases to clinch the argument. So, too, it turned to classical literature, and confounded the scholars and lovers of vain things with the dicta of Aristotle, or of Plato, the accredited expeller of poets from the ideal Commonwealth. It was a partisan selection; and opponents of no greater scholarship found it easy to marshal other holy and learned adversaries, or to turn these very mentors to their own account. The Precisians, however, made a stronger point when they appealed to the Protestant antipathy to the so-called Dark Ages. It is clear to us that the blindness to the merits of the mediaeval romances is due less to a crazy dislike of what they chose to call their ‘bold bawdry,’ than to the fact that they were the work of ‘abbey-lubbers’ and ‘wanton canons.’ Even the courtier Puttenham boldly concludes: ‘Thus what in writing of rhymes and registering of lies was the clergy of that fabulous age wholly occupied.’ 2 The Humanists joined with them in condemnation of the ‘standing pool’ of English literature, though their nicer noses smelt ignorance rather than Papistry in its stagnant waters. But the chief support to this hatred of the fooleries and lies of the Muse lay in the record of English poetry. With the exception of Chaucer, and there was no reason why the sterner minds should except even him, there was little or nothing of poetry, as they knew it, to be commended, except by professional friendship, and certainly nothing sufficiently outstanding to win over the more open-minded of that party. The defenders are the first to admit this, but on that admission they founded an argument for the revival, not for the suppression of the Art.  2
  The attack was, however, keener on the side of Morality, and it was led in two directions—against the playhouse and its associations, and against the foreign, especially the Italian, influences in society. The former are the immediate object. The Puritan pamphleteers inveigh rather than argue; they are more concerned with the social bearings of the playhouse than with the intrinsic immorality of the plays. They seldom condescend to the literary question; in their condemnation they are but
                ‘Rude foggie squires
That knowe not to esteeme of witt or arte,’ 3
and they are not too explicit in their production of evidence against the theatre as a social institution. Gosson, who has the exceeding enthusiasm of the pervert, defends his position thus: ‘Now if any man ask me why myself have penned comedies in time past, and inveigh so eagerly against them here, let him know that semel insaniuimus omnes: I have sinned, and am sorry for my fault: he runs far that never turns; better late than never.’ 4 Such a plea, however effective it may have proved by reason of its confidence, and however welcome it must have been to cherished sentiments, was clearly inadequate for the settlement of even the narrowest issues. It was not difficult for the opponents of the Puritans to point out that all the vices of the playhouse, which they themselves were not slow to condemn, were not an argument against its continuation, much less against plays and poetry.
  There was more force in the protest against the Italianate Englishman. Yet the Precisians state it in an indifferent or occasional way, and do not see that it was perhaps the best weapon in their armoury. Their more clear-sighted opponents wrested it from their hands and used it for their own purposes. To these, and not to the Puritans, we must go for the best estimate of the risks which came to English life and art from ‘diabolical ruffs and wicked great breeches full of sin.’ The Puritans hate the over-sea affectation because they find in it certain glaring evidences of Renaissance degeneracy, of loose living and filthy reading. They hardly touch the old problem whether Art may not, by its very exercise, tend to destroy itself. Ascham, the least bigoted in his Puritan sympathies, sees in the Italian books the undoing of both true doctrine and honest living, the opening of ‘not fond and common ways to vice, but such subtle, cunning, new, and diverse shifts … as the simple head of an Englishman is not able to invent.’ 5 When he approaches nearest to the literary intention, as in his denunciation of rhyming, he vaguely concludes: ‘And you that be able to understand no more than ye find in the Italian tongue, and never went farther than the school of Petrarch and Ariosto abroad, or else of Chaucer at home, though you have pleasure to wander blindly still in your foul wrong way, envy not others that seek, as wise men have done before them, the fairest and rightest way; or else, beside the just reproach of malice, wise men shall truly judge that you do so, as I have said and say yet again unto you, because either for idleness ye will not, or for ignorance ye cannot, come by no better yourself.’ 6 There is no criticism in these things: merely the old war against the Devil and his works, be he Italian or Englishman, rhymer or not, and the longing of saints and philosophers for the old simplicity. The constant appeal to the days of yore, when men were not yet schooled in abuse—to the England ‘of our forefathers’ time,’ ere monkish tales of Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristram had infected our chivalry—is but the cry of the Gossons of every generation. In their zeal against playhouse ribaldry and Italian luxury some prayed for the Scriptural pastures, some for a new Scythia, where among valorous men even Poetry would be ‘without vice, as the Phoenix in Arabia without a fellow.’ 7  4
  It would, however, be an error to consider the Puritan attack as ineffectual zealotry. Though it was badly managed, though it erred by exaggeration, and was ignorant of the working values of the pleas which it advanced though (in Sidney’s words), it fell out ‘with these Poet-whippers, as with some good women, who often are sick, but in faith they cannot tell where,’ 8 it has more than an accidental bearing upon the development of Elizabethan criticism. That it was taken so seriously by the writers who had the cause of literature at heart gives it the importance of having to some extent determined the lines of their defence. Not merely were the Puritan positions, such as the appeal to history, directly met, but others of more specific character, such as the charges against the theatre and the denunciation of Italian influence, were transformed into essential topics in the ensuing discussion of literary principles. And, further, the Puritans called forth, and perhaps intensified, a latent sympathy with their ideals in some of the best and keenest of their professed opponents, even though their overstrainings prompted not a few hard sayings about the ‘senseless stoical austerity,’ and the inconsistency and confidence of the ‘sour reforming enemies of art.’ 9 Ascham is strongly sympathetic; Sidney, who represents the most complete and positive qualities of Elizabethan criticism, gives a courtly hearing; Harington, who sees but a weak faction in those who from malice love not Poetry or from folly understand it not, 10 must say that ‘to us that are Christians, in respect of the high end of all, which is the health of our souls, not only Poetry but all other studies of Philosophy are in a manner vain and superfluous.’ 11 And William Vaughan, who will not have plays suffered in a Commonwealth, but defends Poetry, must yet have it after the purest pattern. ‘Sundry times,’ he says, ‘have I been conversant with such as blasphemed Poetry, by calling it mincing and lying Poetry. But it is no marvel that they thus deride Poetry, since they stick not in this out-worn age to abuse the ministers of God by terming them bookish fellows and Puritans, they themselves not knowing what they mean.’ 12 There is likely to be some confusion here, in this enthusiasm for Poetry and Puritans.  5
  It must be admitted that the main thesis of the Poet-whippers was not fully met by the Apologists. The controversy was carried on from different standpoints. The Puritans had in view the popular literature of the playhouse and of Paul’s. As men of the people they spoke only of what interested the people. ‘Poetry’ with them meant Elderton and Tarlton, or bawdy sonnets; ‘books’ translations of the naughty tales of Italy; ‘playgoing’ the noisy delights of Shoreditch. The defence of Poetry was in the hands of courtiers and scholars who lived beyond the pale of Bohemia. To Sidney, Puttenham, or Harington those things which they admitted were pleasing neither to gentlemen nor Christians were not the sum of the matter. If Poetry was to be denounced because of this popular travesty, of which they professed to know little and for which perhaps they cared as little, it was necessary to show that she could be defended on broader and better grounds. Hence it is that each party, though in amiable agreement on the viciousness of Vice, argue for and against the claims of Poetry from different premises. And hence, too, our earlier critical literature presents the double paradox—that culture and learning, which were both the most competent force and the real agent in the development of criticism, took no serious heed to the truly national literature with which in the future that criticism must primarily concern itself: and, in the second place, that the defence was based largely on over-sea tradition and Italian practice, which in its more popular application was contemned by both sides. Thus Ascham, who hates things Italianate not less than the monkish Morte Arthur, justifies his literary theory by the canons of Italian Humanism in which he had been schooled. The Puritans in their anxiety to exile the too amorous Tuscan were the means of calling in his more learned, perhaps more respectable, brother to defend him against themselves.  6
Note 1. Occasional passages from Gosson are given in the notes to Lodge’s reply. See the bibliography of the pamphlets, i. 61–3. [back]
Note 2. i. 15. [back]
Note 3. Pilgrimage to Parnassus, v. (536–7). [back]
Note 4. i. 369. [back]
Note 5. i. 4. [back]
Note 6. i. 33. [back]
Note 7. i. 368. [back]
Note 8. i. 180. [back]
Note 9. The hardest hit (of many) at the Puritan is Jonson’s. See Discoveries xii, ‘Hypocrita.’ [back]
Note 10. ii. 195. [back]
Note 11. ii. 197. [back]
Note 12. ii. 326. [back]

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