By William Minto


The following text is Chapter V of Characteristics of English Poets (2nd Ed.), published by William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London.

The chapter consists of the following.

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THE last ten or fifteen years of the sixteenth century was a period of amazing poetic activity: there is nothing like it in the history of our literature. Never in any equal period of our history did so much intellect go to the making of verses. They had not then the same number of distracting claims: literary ambition had fewer outlets. Carlyle, Grote, Mill, Gladstone, Disraeli, had they lived in the age of Elizabeth, would all have had to make their literary reputation in verse, and all might have earned a respectable place among our poets--might, at least, like Francis Bacon, have composed some single piece of sufficient excellence to be thought worthy of the "Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics." Amidst a general excitement and ambition of fame the gift of song may be brought to light where in less favourable circumstances it might have been extinguished by other interests And the rivalry of men endowed with eager and powerful intellects must always act as a stimulus to the genuine poet, although all their efforts come short of the creations of genius.

Three fashions of love-poetry may be particularised as flourishing with especial vigour during those ten or fifteen years--pastoral songs and lyrics, sonnets, and tales of the same type as Venus and Adonis. Spenser did much to confirm if not to set the pastoral fashion; but perhaps still more was done by Sir Philip Sidney with his "Arcadia" and his sonnets of Astrophel to Stella. These two poets leading the way to the sweet pastoral country of craggy mountain, hill and valley, dale and field, the greater portion of the tuneful host crowded after them, transforming themselves into Damons, Dorons, and Coridons, and piping to cruel Phillises, Phillidas, and Carmelas.[1] Out of this masquerading grew many beautiful lyrics. "England's Helicon," which was published in 1600, and which gathered the harvest of this pastoral poetry, is by many degrees the finest of the numerous miscellanies of the Elizabethan age. It contained selections from Spenser, Sidney, Greene, Lodge, J. Wootton, Bolton, Barnefield, "Shepherd Tonie," Drayton, Shakespeare, and others of less note.

Many of these pastorals took the form of sonnets, but I single out sonnet-writing as a fashion by itself, in order to draw attention to the numerous bodies of sonnets published in the last decade of the century as lasting monuments of sustained passion, real or ideal. The list is very remarkable. It opens with the publication of Sidney's sonnets to Stella in 1591, and includes--Daniel's sonnets to Delia, published in 1592; Constable's sonnets to Diana, 1592; Lodge's sonnets to Phillis, 1593; Watson's Tears of Fancy, or Love Disdained, 1593; Drayton's Idea's Mirror, "amours in quatorzains," in 1594; and Spenser's Amoretti or Sonnets in 1596.[2]

Hardly less notable is the fancy for short mythological or historical love-tales. The way in this form of composition was led by Thomas Lodge, who published in 1589 the poem of "Glaucus and Scylla," narrating with many pretty circumstances the cruelty of Scylla to Glaucus, in punishment whereof she was transformed into a dangerous rock on the coasts of Sicily. Marlowe began and Chapman finished the tale of Hero and Leander; Shakespeare sang the love of Venus and Adonis; Drayton the love of Endymion and Phoebe; Chapman (in "Ovid's Banquet of Sense") the love of Ovid and Julia. The voluptuous descriptions of these tales could not have been expected to go on without sooner or later exciting the spirit of derisive parody: and accordingly, in 1598, Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis" was rudely burlesqued by the satirical Marston in a comical version of the tale of "Pygmalion and Galatea." To prevent any undue indignation at the liberty thus taken with our great dramatist, I may here intimate a suspicion, for which I shall afterwards produce some grounds, that certain of Shakespeare's sonnets--those, namely, from the 127th to the 152d inclusive--were designed to ridicule the effusions of some of his seriously or feignedly love-sick predecessors. Marston's profane parody may thus assume the aspect of a Nemesis.

The enthusiasm of beauty was strong in the Elizabethan poets. With many of them it was a fierce and earnest thirst. Their lives were hot, turbulent, precarious: they turned often to the bloom of fair cheeks and the lustre of bright hair as a passionate relief from desperate fortunes. Beauty was pursued by Greene and Marlowe not as a luxury but as a fierce necessity--as the only thing that could make life tolerable. Such visions as Hero and fair Samela filled them with mad ecstasy in the height of their intemperate orgies, and were called back for soothing worship in their after-fits of exhaustion and savage despondency. In many others of calmer and more temperate lives, beauty excited less ardent transports, and yet was a powerful influence. Beauty was a very prevailing religion; the perfections of woman, excellence of eye, of lip, of brow, were meditated on and adored with devout rapture; and though the votary's enthusiasm in some cases travelled into licentious delirium, in gentler natures it bred soft and delicate fancies, of the most exquisite tenderness. Beauty was part of all their lives, and shaped itself in each mind according to the soil. A very surprising number of different soils it found to grow in, and very remarkable were the products. One meets the same flowers again and again, but always with some individual grace. Even third-rate and fourth-rate poets do not seem to be weaving garlands of flowers plucked from the verses of the masters: they develop the common seeds in their own way. Consider, for example, the following madrigal by John Wootton, a name now utterly forgotten by the generality, and a poet of whose personality nothing survives but his name and his contributions to "England's Helicon":--

Her eyes like shining lamps in midst of night,
Night dark and dead:
Or as the stars that give the seamen light,
Light for to lead
Their wandering ships.

Amidst her cheeks the rose and lily strive,
Lily snow-white:
When their contend doth make their colour thrive,
Colour too bright
For shepherd's eyes.

Her lips like scarlet of the finest dye,
Scarlet blood-red:
Teeth white as snow, which on the hills doth lie,
Hills overspread
By Winter's force.

Her skin as soft as is the finest silk,
Silk soft and fine:
Of colour like unto the whitest milk,
Milk of the kine
Of Daphnis' herd.

As swift of foot as is the pretty roe,
Roe swift of pace:
When yelping hounds pursue her to and fro,
Hounds fierce in chase
To reave her life.

Footnotes (Click on footnote number to return to text)

[1] The land of ideal shepherds was only one of the ideal countries frequented by the artistic courtiers of Elizabeth. They were as eager to descry new worlds of imagination as her navigators were to discover new regions in the terraqueous globe. In the masques presented at Court we find inhabitants of four great worlds or continents--the country of Shepherds, the country of Faeries, the Mythological world, and the world of Personified Abstractions.

[2]In this chapter I have used the order of the publication of these sonnets as a basis of arrangement for the predecessors of Shakespeare in that form of composition.

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