William Stanley Braithwaite, ed. The Book of Elizabethan Verse. 1907.
By Thomas Wentworth Higginson (18231911)
THIS book furnishes, if I am not mistaken, the largest and therefore most valuable collection yet printed, on either side the Atlantic Ocean, of the poetry of the great Elizabethan period in England. This alone should make it a work of much value for use in all those colleges and high schools where the worth of the best literature is habitually appreciated. Were it only for the service of such institutions the very best poetry of every epoch ought to be collected bodily and not merely selected, as if by samples. Few indeed are there among the teachers of such schools who will not find in this volume, as I have found, many poems of striking value and interest which have escaped all their previous reading.
The sonorous epithet of Elizabethan is commonly applied to the epoch to which this volume is substantially confined. Yet it will always remain doubtful how far the school of poetry here represented ought justly to bear that great queens name. That she had some knowledge of Latin and Greek we know, and that she spoke several modern languages with some degree of fluency. It has however, been justly claimed by one of the most accomplished of Englishwomen, Mrs. Anna Jameson, that her Majesty was much fonder of displaying her own name than of encouraging the learned. Indeed, the same impression of her is rather confirmed than otherwise by the extravagant flattery pronounced on the queen by one who was in some respects the best critic of his day, Puttenham, the author of the Arte of English Poesie. He assures us that the queens learned, delicate, and noble muse easily surmounteth all the rest that have written before her time or since, for sense, sweetness and subtilitie even by as much oddes as her own excellent estate and degree exceedeth all the rest of her most humble vassals. The slightest glance at her Majestys so-called poetry will dispose of all such flattering criticism, while on the other hand the mere names of such writers as Shakespeare, Bacon, Sidney, Raleigh, Hooker, Spenser, Marvell, Herrick, and the rest stand out as memorials of an intellectual group which must have been greatly self-sustaining and by no means the outcome of any mere patronage.
What it is which provides at irregular intervals of human history such rare intellectual groups, we cannot tell; and De Quincey seems hardly extravagant when he likens them to earthquake periods or equinoctial gales, things inscrutable and wondrous. It is hardly necessary to point out that England has had later intellectual periods, equally well defined, if not collectively quite so great; those, for instance, represented by the names of Burns and Byron, of Coleridge and Wordsworth, of Tennyson and Browning. Even America is now old enough to look back on two marked epochs, the one represented by Cooper and Irvingwriters of prose onlythe other by Emerson and Longfellow. The utmost that can be done for these exceptional combinations is to study them while they still flourish, and do justice to them when they have passed by. Yet all other such groups are unquestionably dwarfed by the wealth and variety of the Elizabethan period; and it is to this theme accordingly that the present volume is devoted.