G. Gregory Smith, ed. Elizabethan Critical Essays. 1904.
V. The Special Problems
One of the most persistent topics is the adjustment of the classical notion of Decorum to English style. It recurs in the discussion of almost every kind, but chiefly of the dramatic forms. In its most general acceptation it is identical with what has been understood by proportion, decency, the truly euphuistic, or, as Puttenham puts it excellently in his chapter on this subject,1 the good grace of everything in his kind. We in our vulgar, he says, call it by a scholastical term decency; our own Saxon English term is seemliness : we call it also comeliness, for (so runs Puttenhams philology) the delight it bringeth coming towards us, and to that purpose may be called pleasant approach.2 In an earlier chapter he points out the necessity of style being fashioned to the matter, so that decorum and good proportion be kept in every respect.3 This notion appears in nearly all the Essays. Ascham shows its importance in his scheme of perfect imitation of classical authors;4 Gascoigne sees its breach in the mingling of merry jests in serious matter;5 E. K. notes its due observance in the construction and details of the Shepheards Calender,6 as Stanyhurst does in the Aeneid;7 and Puttenham fails to find it in parts of Stanyhursts translation.8 It is intended in King Jamess plea for vocabula artis.9 The term is of course not understood in the modern restricted sense. Harington defends the naughty passages in Ariosto at the expense of Virgil, and shows that there may be decorum in the persons of those that speak lasciviously.10 All are but re-expressing the Horatian maxims, either directly or through media such as Fabriciuss Catholica, which Webbe has translated.11
As a problem of dramatic style it assumes greater importance, and is the common element in the varied discussions on the character and differentia of tragedy and comedy, on the mixed tragi-comedy, on the doctrine of the Unities, on the development of the notion of the Humours. The main charge against contemporary stagecraft, in the few places where the critics refer to the romantic drama, is its lack of decorum in one or more ways; and the attempts at positive criticism of the English examples of the classical type are concerned with the exposition of their observance or neglect of true decency. Robert Wilmot exactly expresses the critical attitude in the Address prefixed to Tancred and Gismund (1591), where he warns his Gismund not to straggle in her plumes abroad, but to contain herself within the walls of your house; so I am sure she shall be safe from the tragedian tyrants of our time. Gascoigne, who for decorums sake divided his Discourse of Promos and Cassandra into two comedies,12 shows how the Englishman in his play-making is out of order; Sidney follows suit;13 and Jonson condemns these ill customs of the age,14 as he does later its scenical strutting and furious vociferation.15
The criticism of the mixed kinds of Drama is the effect of a double set of influencesclassical example, enforced by the definitions of the Renaissance commentators, and distrust of the contemporary Romantic Drama in England. The domination of the former is first indicated by Ascham, who bases his judgement of the excellence of plays on the precepts of Aristotle and Horace and the examples of Euripides, Sophocles, and Seneca;16 but it receives its fuller acknowledgement from Sidney, who may be said to be the first to enuntiate the formulae of Elizabethan dramatic criticism. He and his contemporaries, excepting Ascham, are in their views on tragedy more exclusively Aristotelian and Senecan: for comedy their models are Plautus and Terence or the Terentian Scholia. The hard-and-fast distinction between tragedy and comedy, which is a Renaissance tradition, appears in the definitions given in Webbe and Puttenham, and is suggested in Sidney. It is probably unnecessary here to restate these well-known differences, especially as the texts are quite explicit,17 but it is important to note that the rigidity of these canons, as incorporated in the English ars poetica, was one of the main causes of the not less rigid censure of English dramatic practice. The objections which came most naturally to the classicists were that English was not careful in its differentiation of kinds, that it mixed the tragic and comic purposes, that it neglected the propriety of the characters and the relationship of each with its neighbours, and that it was careless of the so-called Unities in the development of the plot. It is interesting to observe that this criticism is to some extent an academic anticipation of what became later a practical problem to English dramatists in the Comedy of Humours, and in the Rules of the Dramatic Unities. Indeed, all the later classical manner, as all this Elizabethan criticism, was based on a more or less acute appreciation of the virtues of decorum. Sidney is somewhat inconsistent in his argument against mixed kinds, for he says in one passage that if severed they be good, the conjunction cannot be hurtful;18 but it is easy to see from his later utterances, despite a certain romantic predisposition, hinted rather than expressed, that his sense of literary decency is jarred by the matching of hornpipes and funerals, and by the intrusion of the clownish element in the so-called tragi-comedy. There is a suspicion in his case that it is less a reasoned objection against the combination of the different elements than a courtly dislike of the vulgar buffoon per se and of the vulgar associations of the contemporary stage. He more readily disapproves these forms because they do not appear to be countenanced in the statelier drama and more learned criticism to which he is of necessity attracted. In his pronouncement on the Unities, the neglect of which is his chief fault with the well-esteemed Gorboduc, he formulates a doctrine which, though disregarded by the Elizabethan Romantic Drama, passed into English criticism, and is always present, in a more or less definite way, in the later history of that criticism. The fruit of the doctrine which required decorum in character came early in the Humorous Comedy of Ben Jonson, and lingered for a time in the seventeenth century.19 It too, though discredited by later playwrights, has never lost its influence in later criticism, even outside the more strictly classical eighteenth century.
In the other literary forms Elizabethan criticism finds small opportunity: but in so far as it defines or ventures on commentary it is essentially classical. Thus in the references to Heroic Poetry, such as are given by Sidney, Webbe, Puttenham, Harington, and Campion, there is the restatement, at second or third hand, and probably without knowledge of the source, that it is the most accomplished kind of Poetry, i.e. [stasimotaton kai onkodestaton].20 But Harington goes further and makes the first contact between English criticism and Aristotle on this topic. He is not content in his panegyric of Ariosto with the expected comparison with Virgil, in which Ariosto would have had the better of the Roman, but he meets those who reduce all heroical poems unto the method of Homer and certain precepts of Aristotle by showing how Ariosto fulfils every requirement. With regard to the latter he is quite certain. As for Aristotles rules, I take it he hath followed them very strictly:21 and he proceeds to prove this by Ariostos attention to three things, the historical basis, the credibility of the narrative, and the [peripeteia].22 Yet the main interest of Heroic Poetry to these defenders of Poetry is that it offers a standing refutation of the charge of wantonness, for of all kind of poesy the heroical is least infected therewith.23 It at least satisfied the broader claims of decorum. It was left to a later period of English criticism, to Dryden and his age, to feel the professional classical influence of Le Bossu, Rapin, and the French specialists in epical theory. The comments on the Pastoral, Elegy, Lyric, Satire, Epigram, and other kinds are slight, and are, especially in Sidneys Apologie and the more formal artes poeticae of Webbe and Puttenham, a mere echo of Latin and neo-Latin opinion. When Webbe gives his list, he appears to be not less concerned to illustrate his view that Poetry is not debarred from any matter which may be expressed by pen or speech24 than to discuss the differences of the kinds.
It is, however, in the discussions of problems of even more detailed and technical interest that the real force of the classical influence is felt. These arguments are concerned with two main topics, the reconstruction of English Prosodythe reform of English versifying, as the pioneers of the Areopagus called it, and the purification of English from archaism, inkhornism, and over-sea affectation.
No subject obtrudes itself more than Prosody. Even in the Essays which are not intended to be exclusively interested in it, there are continual references and digressions to some part of it, and in especial to the establishment of the so-called Hexameter. This matter is indeed an obsession of the Elizabethan mind; and in it we find the most positive evidence of a classicizing purpose. It is confessed that here, if anywhere, something must be done by way of reform, and it is as readily taken for granted by the greater number of the writers that something can be done. Their grievances were more patent. To them the older verse, Chaucers excepted, was poor enough, and the Eldertonian doggerel plentiful enough: and the revel of even the better poets in Italian stanzas was the despair of the least censorious. The cure was at hand, though the measure of its success on the continent was not considered in the hurry to stay the spasms of ingenuity25 and restore English to prosodic decorum. Not the least remarkable feature of this special controversy, and of the poets experimental interest in it, is its brief life, which begins and ends within the limits of these volumes. When Daniel struck his blow the craze was at the point of death, for Campion, who incited Daniel, was a belated theorist; and the curious preface to the First Booke of the Preservation of King Henry the VII26 is the enthusiasm of a monomaniac out of touch with the times. The effects of the discussion continued to be felt, and may be seen in later experiments in better though not less inappropriate hexameters, down to our own day: but the problem over which the Elizabethans fought so well must be considered, both in its intention and in its specific terms, as a strictly Elizabethan matteran episode in critical development which derives its meaning from Elizabethan conditions.
The proposition of the classicists resolved itself into three parts: that the metrical chaos was due largely to the use of rhyme; that the accentual structure of the line was monotonous and should be changed for quantitative variety; and that a uniform orthography and a rule of pronunciation was necessary. They are mixed up in the different arguments of the classicists. Not a few of the writers make the discrediting of rhyme a necessary preliminary to their reform of the measures. Harvey sees the honour of the hexameter in being the high controller of rhymes.27 It is not impossible that the philological confusion of rhyme and rhythm, as shown in Puttenham28 and others, may have put some of those who honoured the hexameter in a false position towards the function of rhyme.
Ascham, in repeating Chekes opinion, set the fashion of abuse, and he also to a great extent prescribed the terms to his successors. To them the rude beggarly rhyming was a foreign thing, and the heritage of the Goths and Huns; and English poets in following it rather than the true versifying of the Greeks had eaten acorns with swine, when they might have freely eaten wheaten bread amongst men.29 There can be no doubt that much of the dislike of rhyme had been nourished by the rhyming Latin verses of the mediaeval church. Webbe30 and Puttenham31 say as much, and the latter, though he is by no means an opponent, recognizes the impropriety of this Gothic intrusion in Latin poetry. Moreover, as such lines were generally the idle invention of monastical men,32 they were less commendable to the Renaissance temper. To a man of Harveys turn of mind there could be no allowance, but he is less severe in his attack on rhyme than on the loose rhythm of the line; and this gives some point to Nashs taunt that he was clapped in the Fleet for a rhymer.33 The details of the arguments for and against rhyme do not concern us in this place: all that can be said against it will be found in Campions Essay, and all for it, and in the best possible manner, in Daniels reply. Not a few cast side glances of reproof at rhyme, as if it were responsible for the mischief in metre; but the historical writers, and especially Puttenham, are inclined in its favour. The most curious fact in the whole controversy is Spensers and Campions rôles as anti-rhymers. Fortunately in both cases theory was divorced from their general practice; and it is possible to make too much of Spensers college gossip with Harvey,34 for he appears to be but half-hearted in his critical interest in their burlesque toys. Campions attitude is, as Daniel himself hints, difficult to understand, though it is the extremeness of his special pleading rather than his demand for prosodic revision that is unintelligible. Later criticism has been seldom more superficial than when it has condemned these critical experiments as foolishness. Their value is not to be measured by the metrical illustrations which accompanied them, perhaps between jest and earnest.35 Daniels judgement set the matter at rest for a while: when rhyme again involves the critics, in the seventeenth century, the problem is restricted to its usefulness in one literary form. To the historical student the controversy has another and all-important interest of which the Elizabethans were quite unconscious. It does not appear to have been suggested to any one of them that in their efforts to be rid of the jingle of English metres they were working for the recognition of blank verse, and were in reality justifying it on the side of theory. They are not at fault because they had not the gift of prophecy, nor because they lacked insight in connecting their plans with the beginnings of that later triumph of English. Yet so far were they out that they did not understand Surreys strange metre. Not only did they fail to perceive how different it was from the metre of such a piece as Gascoignes Steele Glas; but the stumbling Webbe thought it was written in hexametrum epicum.36
The plea for the new versifying shows the classical influence in a more constructive way. It follows naturally on the attack on rhyme, for by the law of compensation it was necessary to find some new rhythm within the line to make good the loss: and the absence of unrhymed verse, or the ignorance of the possibilities of Surreys example, made the transition to out-and-out classicism not only probable but quite reasonable. The first symptoms of the hexameter fury37 appear in Ascham,38 who, while admitting that the dactyl is difficult to manage in English on account of the monosyllabic richness of the language, thinks that the carmen iambicum may be naturalized.39 But the impetus to the movement came from the Areopagus, of which we have a vague account in the Spenser-Harvey correspondence.40 The inspirer of these deliberations, gorbellied Archdeacon Drant, is a mere shadow to us. It is doubtful whether his famous rules were committed to writing, and whether it was not certain of his experiments, like Thomas Watsons, rather than any critical argument, which had fired Harvey to be a reformer and had created an interest in the circle of Spenser, Sidney, and Dyer. The earlier efforts of Ascham, Watson, and Blenerhasset (in his Complaint of Cadwallader41), are accentual hexameters, as not a few of the later examples are; but the difference which the Areopagites, excepting Harvey, endeavoured to establish was that English verse should be quantitative. Between Drants system (in so far as we know it) and Harveys there is a serious disagreement. The first is an uncompromising imitation of classical usage, which accepts the rule of position and gives absolute values to monosyllables and word-endings. When accentuation and long quantity coincide, as they frequently do, the agreement is treated as an accident. Harvey, on the other hand, sees that what appears to be an accident in the system is really an insidious proof that it cannot reckon without accent. I dare swear, he says to Spenser, that it is not either Position, or Diphthong, or Diastole, or any like grammar-school device that doth or can indeed either make long or short, or increase, or diminish the number of syllables, but only the common allowed and received Prosody, taken up by a universal consent of all, and continued by a general use and custom of all. Wherein nevertheless I grant, after long advice and diligent observation of particulars, a certain uniform analogy and concordance being in process of time espied out, sometime this, sometime that, hath been noted by good wits in their analyses to fall out generally alike, and as a man would say, regularly, in all or most words: as Position, Diphthong, and the like: not as first and essential causes of this or that effect (here lieth the point), but as secondary and accidental signs of this or that quality.42 Harvey, therefore, though an hexametrist,43 and the traditional standard-bearer of the faction, does not hesitate to make certain qualifications. His conception of the importance of accent, which was left to Puttenham and others to develop, shows that he would be no party to the mere dranting of verses. What he appears to have fully recognized, and this is the sum of his reform, is that something should be done to extend the possibilities of English verse, and that the hints towards effecting that lay to hand in classical practice: and, having committed himself to the party which loved not rhyme, he saw the necessity of compensating the loss by a rearrangement and elaboration of the rhythm. It is perhaps not remarkable that he and the extremer critics who were so blind to the meaning of Surreys experiment did not observe that they entirely failed in practice to secure rhythm in their hexameters, except in those places where accent agreed with quantity. Harvey did not see that his acute criticism of Drants verses was perhaps not less valid against his own. Yet, despite this limitation, he was the truer classicist, in that he adapted rather than adopted direct. He shows this in his subsidiary plea for a uniform orthography, by which he hoped to exorcise the spirits of confusion which had undone English Prosody.
Harveys argument proved of greater force. Stanyhurst shows his agreement in the deliberate attempt to define orthography, and in his protest against being too stiffly tied to the ordinances of the Latins,44 though it may be said he went somewhat further than some of the Priscianists in his devotion to quantity.45 Sidney reveals but a courteous interest in the topic, and, notwithstanding the use of quantity in his early verses in the Arcadia, is not partisan in his Apologie. There he holds the balance fairly, speaks kindly of both, and even shows how admirably suited English is for rhyme.46 Of Webbe, who has not even the merit of respectable scholarship, little need be said beyond this, that he is fully and certainly persuaded that had English submitted early to the rigid discipline of classical quantity, it would by his time have enjoyed a reputation with the best.47 So fast does this Procrustes stand for position that he would that words and syllables which do not suit be a little wrested.48 He is sadly out in his interpretation of Surreys strange metre, and his own experiments are not in his favour. We can only guess that Fraunce, perhaps the most active practitioner of the new versification, was on the same side, for he has left no record of critical opinion. Yet the domination of accent, or rather its coincidence, in his so-called hexameters, shows that he was no Dranter: and his heresy of rhythming or rhyming49 hexameters must have disturbed the archdeacon. Harveys triumph came with Puttenham, who, while recognizing the usefulness of Latin models, is all for accent.50 He explains his attitude with a pretty condescension to young poets and others who delight in novelty, and refers to the problem that he may not seem by ignorance or oversight to omit any point of subtlety. He points out the essential antipathies between Classical and English prosody,51 and feels that if anything must be done it must be in the English way of compromise. His general plan amounts to the substitution of accent for quantity. Some minor allowances which he offers as a sacrifice to position are the only blemishes in a thoroughly common-sense judgement. At the close of the discussion he frankly states that he thinks them but vain and superstitious observations, nothing at all furthering the pleasant melody of our English metre, and so will say no more of them, rather wishing the continuance of our old manner of poesy.52 Though the experiments continued, the next critical opinion is Campions on the eve of the dissolution of the whole craze. He is of course chiefly concerned with rhyme; and he holds that the classical rhythms have been attempted with passing pitiful success. He thinks that accent must be diligently observed, for chiefly by the accent in any language the true value of the syllables is to be measured;53 but position must be a rule,54 and we must take our syllables as we speak them, not as we write them, because our English orthography differs from our common pronunciation.55 As far as rhythm is concerned he is hardly at variance with Puttenham; indeed, as Daniel points out, he admits that his feet are but the old English apparelled in foreign titles.56 If he is aiming at anything tangible it is at equality in the reading length of the lines, and his rules to this end assume the propriety of syllabic equivalence.57 As our period closes, the scheme in both its extremer and more elastic forms is already discredited by the critics, as it had been neglected by the great body of poets. The discussion had gradually resolved itself to the conclusion that
And so, too, the philosopher, when the matter was ended: lllud reprehendendum, quod quidam antiquitatis nimium studiosi linguas modernas ad mensuras antiquas (heroïcas, elegiacas, sapphicas, etc.) traducere conati sunt; quas ipsarum linguarum fabrica respuit, nec minus aures exhorrent. In huiusmodi rebus sensus iudicium artis praeceptis praeponendum Neque vero ars est, sed artis abusus, cum illa naturam non perficiat sed pervertat.60
We must not, however, fail to observe that this criticism of rhyme and rhythm is touched by the shyness which characterizes all the critical work of the age. If Drant did seek to establish a tyranny, he has been badly served by history. Harvey, whom posterity would make godfather to every pedantry, and in this matter to the most ridiculous of codes, is careful to disclaim any general certainty.61 Credit me, he says, I dare give no precepts nor set down any certain general art.62 Stanyhurst tells us that his preface was written to explain his own verses, not to publish a directory to the learned.63 Puttenham gently persuades to discipline by showing the discredit of a rhymer that will be tied to no rules at all,64 and, after showing the danger of inventing a new prosody and the folly of thinking that it will please everybody, proceeds to his account, only that the subject may be pleasantly scanned upon.65 If the details of this controversy are less important to us than the general principle for which the writers strove, that general principle is in its turn of subsidiary interest in the history of criticism to the temper in which it was presented and handled. And here as elsewhere the Elizabethan critics showed something of the true classical spirit, not less in the manner of their argument than in their predisposition to certain lines of thought.
The plans for the reform of the vocabulary of English poetry deal with three varieties of excess, archaism, inkhornism, and over-sea language; that is, with the affectation of antique forms, latinized terms of Humanist study, and foreign, especially Italian, words and phrases. They may be conveniently grouped together in this place, as the critical problem involved is, despite obvious differences, fundamentally the same in all. Here, again, the intention is classicala desire to restrain the curiosity and eclecticism which had shown such scant respect to the sufficiency of English. In a sense the disease itself was classical in originan attempt to bring order and to add ornament in the transitional and dialectal confusion of the language by borrowing from more fully developed literatures; to do for English what the Burgundian Rhétoriqueurs had done, with less reason, for French. But excess was inevitable, and the English despumation of the Latial verbocination and the craze for antiquity required correction. So it fell out that while English at one stage sought to imitate the more learned and rhetorical style of Latin and the greater vernaculars, in the next she felt that she had but substituted one disorder for another, and that she must return to simplicity. The first conviction of the English poet was that he must write better than he had done; the later, that he had an uncontented care to write better than he could.66
The discussion of Diction67 was due to several causes, and was not primarily literary. The growing feeling of nationality, which was stimulated by the dislike of Italian influences, had already found voice in literature, and had urged writers like the author of Toxophilus, for purely patriotic reasons, to write English matters in the English tongue for Englishmen.68 On this there naturally followed a defence of the mother-speech, to prove its sufficiency as well as its right to be heard. Some of the more deliberate vindications appear to have been prompted by continental examples, as Carews was by Henri Estiennes;69 or to have been suggested by the argument of continental purists, as Harveys was by Bembos teaching. But the defence was not complete until there had been a critical inquiry into the possible reasons for the delay or undoing of the vernacular triumph. These the critics found in the outworn, outlandish, and pedantic licence of their age. The protest had been made before the appearance of the Scholemaster. Wilson, in the first pages of his Arte of Rhetorique, had reminded his reader how the philosopher Favorinus had served a youth for using words too old and strange. Cheke had told Thomas Hoby that English by ever borrowing would fain keep her house as bankrupt.70 Ascham, despite his enthusiasm for Latin as an instrument of culture, is with them in pointing out that English must not ape foreign fashions, old or new. Mulcaster, too, loves Rome, but London better: I favour Italy, but England more; I honour the Latin, but I worship the English. And he adds: If we must cleave to the eldest and not the best, we should be eating acorns and wearing old Adams pelts. But why not all in English? I do not think that any language, be it whatsoever, is better able to utter all arguments either with more pith or greater plainness than our English tongue is.71 Puttenham in his shrewd chapter on language72 argues that nothing is to be added or changed in a national speech but by extraordinary occasions, by little and little; and he gives warning of the evils which have come from preachers, schoolmasters, secretaries, merchants, and travellers.73 To Daniel these affectations of antiquity and novelty are a deformity next to the folly of the reformed versifying.74 Nash notes the fault of this overracked absonism.75 But no one sees it more clearly than Jonson in his Poetaster.76 His counsel of fair abstinence is the sum of the classicists purpose, fittingly delivered by the greatest of their company.
It would be wrong to interpret this critical propaganda as the mere backwash of Humanism. Far from being a tired reaction after the enthusiasm of the past century, it was the intelligent application of the principles of classicism to the disorders which had come upon English from different quarters. There was, in the first place, the glut of translations which, though they did inestimable good to the literature and language, if only by way of exercise, showed many serious symptoms of excess. The trade of glose or translations77 was so enlarged, that the charge of insular ignorance which Hoby had brought against his countrymen had lost its meaning. Now Nash could wish nothing worse to those who feed on nought but the crumbs that fall from the translators trencher than that they be left to the mercy of their mother-tongue.78 To such a pass had it come that Harington and others thought it necessary to defend the craft of the translator. There was, in the second place, the remarkable interest in Chaucer and in the pseudo-Chaucerian pieces of the fifteenth century, of which the more aureate examples were greedily gorged in the general hunger. They were at least English, and so far would escape the censure directed against foreign influences. Nash saw the danger of this insidious argument, and in brave language maintained that Chaucer, had he lived, would have been scandalized by these balductums; and, further, in a brief historical argument, that there was then no reason that English, when she hath recovered her state, should be compelled to wear the robes of adversity and jet it in her old rags.79 Later, Drayton showed that the enthusiasm must be for Chaucers genius, not for the assumed perfection of his form:
And in the third place, there was the effect, also native in process, of the artificial style of Euphuism. This was as alien in the eyes of the more reasonable purists as the most foreign, inkhornish, or antique affectation. Sidney, taking his metaphor from the Italianate folly, calls it a transformed and awry thing. Lyly, though he deserved, and received, full allowance for his aid in the betterment of English style, must take his share of blame with the imitators of his ridiculous tricks.81 English had outgrown the youthful fervour when Euphues was ipse ille.82
Definite as this criticism is in its exposure of the causes of disorder, and in its conviction of the equipollence and individuality of English,83 it too is tempered by that fine discretion which Horace exhorted the poet to observe.84 The writers who are most sensible of the dangers of eclecticism are just those who admit that English must be a borrower. But the poet must borrow as the translators do, or should do, by making his adornments appear natural and fitting to the tongue which receives them.85 Gascoigne enters a caveat against strange words, but admits, as Ronsard had done, that in some places they may draw attentive reading.86 Spensers panegyrist naturally, and yet with stated reasons, is sure that ancient solemn words are a great ornament.87 Though Sidney disapproves of the dictionary method,88 he understands the proposition that English is a mingled language.89 Chapman in defence of his translation craves Englishmen to accept his variety of new words as a compromise between discountryed affection and the nakedness of ordinary table-talk.90 And Daniel denounces foreign words not because they are altogether bad, but because they are established free-denizens without a Parliament, without consent or allowance.91 It was Peeks praise of Harington (the well-lettered and discreet) that he had