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also is more varied in its position than is now common in the language. Read with these precautions, Chaucer will be found as harmonious as he is tender, magnificent, humorous, or sublime.
Until the reader is able and willing to appreciate the innumerable beauties of the Canterbury Tales, it is not to be expected that he can make acquaintance with the graceful though somewhat pedantic Court of Love,' an allegorical poem, bearing the strongest marks of its Provençal origin; or with the exquisite delicacy and pure chivalry of the Flower and the Leaf;' of which latter poem Campbell speaks as follows, enthusiastically but justly :-“ The Flower and the Leaf is an exquisite piece of fairy fancy. With a moral that is just sufficient to apologize for a dream, and yet which sits so lightly on the story as not to abridge its most visionary parts, there is, in the whole scenery and objects of the poem, an air of wonder and sweetness, an easy and surprising transition, that is truly magical."
We cannot conclude this brief and imperfect notice of this great poet without strongly recomiending all those who desire to know something of the true character of English literature to lose no time in making acquaintance with the admirable productions of “our father Chaucer,” as Gascoigne affectionately calls him: the difficulties of his style have been unreasonably exaggerated, and the labour which surmounts them will be abundantly repaid. “ It will conduct you,” to use the beautiful words of Milton, to a hill-side ; laborious indeed at the first ascent, but else so smooth, so green, so full of goodly prospects and melodious sounds on every side, that the harp of Orpheus was not more charming."
SIDNEY AND SPENSER.
Elizabethan Era-Ages of Pericles, Augustus, the Medici, Louis XIV.-Chivalry
-Sidney-The Arcadia-His Style--Spenser-Shepherd's Calendar-Pastoral-Spenser at Court-Burleigh and Leicester--Settlement in Ireland-The Faery Queen-Spenser's Death--Criticism of the Faery Queen--Style, Language, and Versification.
In the history of most countries the period of the highest literary glory will generally be found to coincide with that of some very marked and permanent achievements in commerce or in war. Nor is this circumstance surprising. Those men who best can
perform great actions are in general best able to think sublime thoughts. It was not a fortuitous assemblage, in the same country and at the same period, of such minds as those of Eschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, that has made us assume the age of Pericles as the culminating point of Athenian literature. No! the defeat of the Persians cannot but be considered as having a great deal to do with the existence of that splendid period.
In the same way, the far-famed age of Louis XIV. was undoubtedly prepared, if not produced, by the long religious wars of the Reformation, the national enthusiasm being also raised by the brilliant exploits of French arms in Germany and Flanders.
That period in the history of English letters which corresponds to the epochs to which we have alluded, is the age of Elizabeth. It is the Elizabethan era which represents, among us, Pericles, that of Augustus, that of the Medici, that of Leo, that of Louis ; nay, it may be asserted, and without any exaggerated national vanity, that the productions of this one era of English literature may boldly be opposed to the intellectual triumphs of all the other epochs mentioned, taken collectively.
In this case, as in the others, a gigantic revolution had taken place, recent indeed, but not so recent as to leave men's minds under the more immediate action of party spirit and political enmity. The intellect of England had lately been engaged in a struggle for its liberty and its religion; it had had time to repose, but not to be enfeebled: it now started on its race of immortality, glowing, indeed, from the arena, but not weakened; its muscles strung with wrestling, but not exhausted. During the actual ardour of any great political struggle, men's minds are naturally too intent upon the more immediate and personal question, and their views too much narrowed and distorted by prejudice and polemics, for any great achievements in general literature to be expected; but it is in the period of tranquillity immediately succeeding such great national revolutions that the human intellect soars aloft with steadiest, broadest, and sublimest wing into the calmer empyrean of poetry or philosophy
“ Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot
Which men call Earth.” The great revolution to which we have been alluding is, we hardly need say, the Reformation; the doctrines of which were first solidly established in England under the sceptre of Elizabeth, and in whose vehement struggles was trained that generation which was to be adorned by Sidney, by Spenser, and by Raleigh.
The other condition, too, which we have specified as necessary to the production of a great and immortal era in literature, viz. a high degree of military glory, was certainly to be found in this reign: we need only mention the annihilation of the Spanish Armada.
In England, at all periods of our history, literature, speaking generally, hias almost always emanated from the people, and consequently has always talked the language of the people, and addressed itself to the people's sympathies; and this is the reason of the greater vital force which it must be allowed to possess. Homer and Shakspeare will ever be read with increasing ardour and veneration, and this because their works reflect, not so much a period or a nation, as the universal heart of man—the same in every climate and in every age.
Besides this fortunate circumstance there were also certain influences at work, peculiar to that brilliant period, and calculated to produce and foster the rapid development which then took place. We have seen the tone of the Italian poetry first infused, so to speak, into English literature by Chaucer and Gower, and the immense influx of classic ideas and classic language which flowed in at that time. At first, however, the crasis (to use a term of the old medicine). between the dissimilar and discordant elements—the ancient Saxonism, the modern classicism, and the romantic spirit of the chivalrous literature-was not, as might have been expected, perfect or complete; and it was not till the time of Elizabeth that the amalgamation of these elements was sufficiently brought about to produce a harmonious and healthy result. The spirit of the Reformation, also-an inquiring, active, practical and fervent spirit—was necessary to complete the union of these discordant ingredients.
Chivalry, indeed, as a political or social system, had ceased 10 exist at the period of Elizabeth: that is to say, chivalry no longer exerted any very perceptible influence on the relations of men with the state or with each other. But though it no longer existed as an active and energetic influence, modifying either social life or political relations; though it no longer gave any tone to the general physiognomy of the times, its moral influence still existed with powerful though diminished force: it still perceptibly modified the manners of the court and of the higher classes: the idol was indeed cast down from the altar, but a solemn and holy atinosphere of sanctity still breathed around the walls of the temple; the pure, the ennobling, the heroic portion of the knightly spirit yet glowed with no decaying servour in the hearts of such men as Essex, Raleigh, Sidney; and found a worthy voice in the
r; sweet dignity of Spenser's song.
Though the joust and tournament had degenerated from their ancient splendour (and this because they were no longer so necessary as of old), and had become the idle pageant of a magnificent court, many of the gallant tilters of Whitehall had not forgotten
the principles of the chivalric character“high thoughts, seated," to use the beautiful language of Sidney, “in a heart of courtesy."
Of this majestic period the brightest figure is that of Sir Philip Sidney, the most complete embodiment of all the graces and virtues which can adorn or ennoble humanity. He was at once the Bayard and the Petrarch of English history, a name to which every Briton looks back with pride, admiration, and regret. Noble of birth, beautiful in person, splendid and generous, of a bravery almost incredible, wise in council, learned himself, and a powerful and generous protector of learning-in him seem to be united all the solidest gifts and the most attractive ornaments of body and of mind. The throne of Poland, to which he was elected, could hardly have conferred additional splendour upon so consummate a character; and we almost approve of the jealous admiration of Elizabeth, who prevented him from mounting that throne, that she might not lose the "jewel of her court.” Very brief, indeed, was the career of this glorious star of the Elizabethan firmament, but the brightness of its setting was well worthy of its rising and meridian ray; and the field of Zutphen was sanctified by those words which can hardly be paralleled in the history of ancient or modern heroism : "this man's necessity is greater than mine.” But the hand which faintly motioned the cup to the lips of the dying soldier was the same which wrote the knightly pages of the 'Arcadia,' and touched the softest note of “that small lute" which “gave ease to Petrarch's pain," and drew from the sonnet a tender melody not unworthy of the poet of Arqua.
There are few productions of similar importance whose character and merits have been so much misrepresented by modern ignorance and superficial criticism as Sidney's great work, the romance of the 'Arcadia.'
Disraeli has collected, in his “Amenities of Literature,' a large number of depreciating criticisms made by various authors on the
Arcadia' of Sidney. Walpole pronounced it "a tedious, lamentable, pedantic, pastoral romance;" Gifford affirms that the plan is poor, the incidents trite, the style pedantic;" Dunlop complains that it is “extremely tiresome;" yet this book was the favourite and model in the age of Shakspeare! Shakspeare has in a thousand exquisite places imitated the scenes, the manners,
and even the diction of the · Arcadia ;'Shirley, Beaumont, and Fletcher turned to it as their text-book; Sidney enchanted two later brothers in Waller and Cowley; and the world of fashion in Sidney's age culled their phrases out of the · Arcadia,' which served them as a complete Academy of Compliments.'
Disraeli then goes on to show that modern critics, misled by the title of this prose romance, which Sidney injudiciously adopted from Sannazzaro, have generally concluded, without taking
the trouble of reading it, to consider it as a pastoral, similar to that multitudinous class of fictions so popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and of which the ‘Galatea' of Cervantes is a well-known specimen. The fact is, however, that the Arcadian or pastoral parts of Sidney's work are merely supplementary, forming "no essential portion of the narrative; being, in short, merely interludes of shepherds introduced dancing and reciting verses at the close of each book. There can be no doubt but that the scenes and sentiments described with such a sweet luxuriance of beautiful language were reflections of true events in Sidney's own chivalrous life, and transcripts from his own gentle and heroic heart. We cannot better conclude our notice on this work than by a selection from the remarks of Disraeli:“He describes objects on which he loves to dwell, with a peculiar richness of fancy: he had shivered his lance in the tilt, and had managed the fiery courser in his career; and in the vivid picture of the shock between two knights we see distinctly every motion of the horse and horseman. But sweet is his loitering hour in the sunshine of luxuriant gardens, or as we lose ourselves in the green solitudes of the forests which most he loves. There is a feminine delicacy in whatever alludes to the female character, not merely courtly, but imbued with that sensibility which St. Palaye has remarkably described as “full of refinement and fanaticism.' And this may suggest an idea, not improbable, that Shakspeare drew his fine conceptions of female character from Sidney. Shakspeare solely, of all our elder dramatists, has given true beauty to woman; and Shakspeare was an attentive reader of the · Arcadia.'”
Besides this romance, which, though in prose, partakes more markedly of the character of poetry, Sidney was the author, as we have hinted above, of a considerable number of Sonnets, some of very singular beauty, and of a short treatise entitled. The Defense of Poesie,' the nature of which is perfectly expressed in the title. The beauty of our author's prose style is no less conspicuous in this work than the deep feeling which he exhibits for the value and the charms of poetry. The language, indeed, is itself poetry of no mean order, and in this work, no less than in the Arcadia,' do we find in every line reason to confirm the judgment of Cowper, who was keenly alive to Sir Philip's merits, and who thus qualifies his style :
“ Sidney, warbler of poetic prose.” He was mortally wounded by a musket-ball in the left thigh at the skirmish at Zutphen, September 22, 1586, and died on the 15th of October following, in his thirty-second year, and was buried in St. Paul's. To do, in so short a life, so much for immortality, is the lot of few; of still fewer to excite, in dying,