G. Gregory Smith, ed. Elizabethan Critical Essays. 1904.
IT is a commonplace that the age of Elizabeth was too great in creation to be even respectable in criticism. Many who see the bad logic and bad history of this popular formula have concluded not less adversely from a survey of the literary evidence. It is shown that the critical writings are a mere miscellany of stray pamphlets, a gallimaufry of treatises in the old rhetorical vein, tracts on prosody, or prefaces of abuse: and that the writers who disclose something of the critical temper were indifferent to the things which interest modern criticism, or indeed interested their own generation. For is it not remarkable that when Spenser and Sidney, not to speak of the lesser, turn critic, they have no eyes for the pageant of their stage, and but careless ears for the immortal music of contemporary verse; that they find the measure of dramatic excellence in Buchanans Jephthes or Watsons Absolon, or the secret of English poetry in hobbling hexameters? And if Spenser redeemed his honour by giving us the Faerie Queene and Campion his in the Books of Airs, they have proved not so much how great they were as poets as how poor they were as critics. Sidney in his Apologie, to which of all these writings least exception can be taken, commends himself most when he strays from academic argument to raptures on the nobility of the Poets calling.
This is altogether a superficial estimate. It is inadequate as a description of the critical activities which are crowded into the work of a single generation. The mere volume of the texts is evidence against the occasional character of the reflections; and their variety, far from showing the inconsequence of the amateur, proves a vitality of critical purpose. The persistent effort towards the understanding of the principles of Poetry is in itself an important fact which must prompt us, if it do nothing else, to discover its cause. Moreover, the modern dislike of the classical elements in the essays leaves unanswered the very pertinent question why Elizabethan criticism is apparently out of touch with the literature of its age. And it passes by the important consideration of the bearing of this pre-Jonsonian material upon the doctrine of Dryden and his successors, who inherited more of Elizabethan tradition than it has been the custom to allow. Further, the experimental character of the work, taken as a whole, the tentative conclusions, the borrowings and reborrowings, the inconsistencies, are not without their positive value, especially as the age was itself conscious that it was but seeking its way. Nor must it be forgotten that English criticism had no English tradition, and little, if any, English material on which it could found a Poetic; and that it was at this time in England, and hardly earlier in Renaissance Europe, that Criticism per se first laid claim to rank as a literary kind in the vernacular. It appears therefore more reasonable to look upon this extensive and mixed collection of documents as an important body of evidence in the study of literary origins. In the perspective of these essays we may find something of that critical temper which is first made clear in Dryden, so justly named the Father of English Criticism; but we must not measure the quality of these early efforts, and even of Jonsons, by later experience, any more than we may look for a general canon governing the exercise of that temper. All is in the making: these remains are Explorata or DiscoveriesTimber for the building of the later edifice, of which Jonson drew the plans, but which he could not complete.
It may be said that the recognition of this inchoate, and to some extent irregular, character of Elizabethan criticism is a serious objection to the treatment of the essays as a whole, and makes their association in these volumes a mere matter of convenience. What is common, it will be asked, to Ascham on the imitation of classical authors, Gascoigne on the making of verses, Nash on Gabriel Harvey, Sidney in defence of poor Poetry, Puttenham on rhetorical figures, and Meres in his directory of writers? Can we reconcile the purposes of the practical educationist, the Bohemian, the college pedant, the rhapsodist, the courtier who writes for courtiers? And what is the critical utility of making neighbours of Gascoignes random notes and Puttenhams whole receipt of Poetry, or King Jamess juvenilia and Daniels great Defence? The objection is less valid than it would appear to be, though it may be useful as a caution against making a too absolute composite out of the variety. Recent study, especially on the comparative side, has greatly increased our knowledge of the relationship of phases which appear to be individual and incoherent. We have outlived the merely antiquarian taste which happily prompted Haslewood to collect certain of these tracts in his Ancient Critical Essays; though there is in him some hint of their value as a corporate study. Perhaps it may be confidently said, he wrote, that such a body of criticism as these tracts collectively present, although few in number, is not anywhere to be found. Independent of rarity, intrinsic value may justly entitle this volume, although a humble reprint, to range with those of the Elizabethan æra.1 This was written nearly a century ago, and since then the editorial interest has been confined to the publication of some of these tracts either individually or in popular gatherings of kindred prose. The present collection brings these together again, and recovers others of not less importance. What justification there may be for restoring this comradeship, and for reasons other than that the Essays were written about the same time, the following pages will endeavour to show.