Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
A Flood of Classicism
By Thomas Warton (17281790)
From the History of English Poetry
THE BOOKS of antiquity being thus familiarised to the great, everything was tinctured with ancient history and mythology. The heathen gods, although discountenanced by the Calvinists on a suspicion of their tending to cherish and revive a spirit of idolatry, came into general vogue. When the queen paraded through a country-town, almost every pageant was a pantheon. When she paid a visit at the house of any of her nobility, at entering the hall she was saluted by the Penates, and conducted to her privy-chamber by Mercury. Even the pastry-cooks were expert mythologists. At dinner, select transformations of Ovids Metamorphoses were exhibited in confectionery; and the splendid iceing of an immense historic plum-cake was embossed with a delicious basso-relievo of the destruction of Troy. In the afternoon, when she condescended to walk in the garden, the lake was covered with Tritons and Nereids; the pages of the family were converted into Wood-nymphs who peeped from every bower; and the footmen gambolled over the lawns in the figure of Satyrs. I speak it without designing to insinuate any unfavourable suspicions; but it seems difficult to say, why Elizabeths virginity should have been made the theme of perpetual and excessive panegyric; nor does it immediately appear, that there is less merit or glory in a married than in a maiden queen. Yet, the next morning, after sleeping in a room hung with the tapestry of the voyage of Æneas, when her majesty hunted in the park, she was met by Diana, who pronouncing our royal prude to be the brightest paragon of unspotted chastity, invited her to groves free from the intrusion of Actæon. The truth is, she was so profusely flattered for this virtue, because it was esteemed the characteristical ornament of the heroines, as fantastic humour was the chief pride of the champions, of the old barbarous romance. It was in conformity to the sentiments of chivalry, which still remained in vogue, that she was celebrated for chastity: the compliment, however, was paid in a classical allusion.
Queens must be ridiculous when they would appear as women. The softer attractions of sex vanish on the throne. Elizabeth sought all occasions of being extolled for her beauty, of which indeed in the prime of her youth she possessed but a small share, whatever may have been her pretensions to absolute virginity. Notwithstanding her exaggerated habits of dignity and ceremony, and a certain affectation of imperial severity, she did not perceive this ambition of being complimented for beauty, to be an idle and unpardonable levity, totally inconsistent with her high station and character. As she conquered all nations with her arms, it matters not what were the triumphs of her eyes. Of what consequence was the complexion of the mistress of the world? Not less vain of her person than her politics, the stately coquet, the guardian of the protestant faith, the terror of the sea, the mediatrix of the factions of France, and the scourge of Spain, was infinitely mortified if an ambassador, at the first audience, did not tell her she was the finest woman in Europe. No negociation succeeded unless she was addressed as a goddess. Encomiastic harangues drawn from this topic, even on the supposition of youth and beauty, were surely superfluous, unsuitable, and unworthy; and were offered and received with an equal impropriety. Yet when she rode through the streets of the city of Norwich, Cupid, at the command of the Mayor and aldermen, advancing from a group of gods who had left Olympus to grace the procession, gave her a golden arrow, the most effective weapon of his well-furnished quiver, which under the influence of such irresistible charms was sure to wound the most obdurate heart. A gift, says honest Hollinshed, which her majesty, now verging on her fiftieth year, received very thankfullie. In one of the fulsome interludes at court, where she was present, the singing-boys of her chapel presented the story of the three rival goddesses on Mount Ida, to which her majesty was ingeniously added as a fourth; and Paris was arraigned in form for adjudging the golden apple to Venus, which was due to the queen alone.
This inundation of classical pedantry soon infected our poetry. Our writers, already trained in the school of fancy, were suddenly dazzled with these novel imaginations, and the divinities and heroes of pagan antiquity decorated every composition. The perpetual allusions to ancient fable were often introduced without the least regard to propriety. Shakespeares Mrs. Page, who is not intended in any degree to be a learned or an affected lady, laughing at the cumbersome courtship of her corpulent lover Falstaff, says, I had rather be a giantess and lie under mount Pelion. This familiarity with the pagan story was not, however, so much owing to the prevailing study of the original authors, as to the numerous English versions of them which were consequently made. The translations of the classics, which now employed every pen, gave a currency and a celebrity to these fancies, and had the effect of diffusing them among the people. No sooner were they delivered from the pale of the scholastic languages, than they acquired a general notoriety. Ovids Metamorphoses translated by Golding, to instance no further, disclosed a new world of fiction, even to the illiterate. As we had now all the ancient fables in English, learned allusions, whether in a poem or a pageant, were no longer obscure and unintelligible to common readers and common spectators. And here we are led to observe, that at this restoration of the classics, we were first struck only with their fabulous inventions. We did not attend to their regularity of design and justness of sentiment. A rude age, beginning to read these writers, imitated their extravagances, not their natural beauties. And these, like other novelties, were pursued to a blameable excess.