Nonfiction > G. Gregory Smith, ed. > Elizabethan Critical Essays
G. Gregory Smith, ed.  Elizabethan Critical Essays.  1904.
VI. The Romantic Qualities
It is not inconsistent with what has been said about the marked classical tendency in Elizabethan criticism to find hints of a contrary movement in the direction of romantic taste. In the first place, it is fair to assume that however much criticism was indifferent to the fervours of the age—by which that age has commended itself to posterity—it could not altogether escape the influence of the popular manner. And, in the second place, we are reminded that the two apparently opposite moods of Classicism and Romanticism are always found co-existing in the greatest periods and greatest writers. Indeed, if we look for a too strong antithesis, and certainly if we expect exclusiveness for the one or the other, the distinction must entirely fail as a critical instrument. It is not necessary to defend the paradox of the classicism of Shakespeare, or of the romanticism of Virgil; or to show in cases of minor importance that the ‘placing’ of an author or of his period may be difficult and inconclusive, and indeed that the choice of the epithet largely depends on the point of view of the critic. We have illustration of this in these essays. The persistent plea of Harvey and others that custom, common usage, or ‘natural instinct’ must rule in the shaping of style, is in one sense the romantic claim for freedom from the tyranny of the canon, in another an admission that the writer, far from enjoying individual liberty, is conditioned by practice, which is not less exacting than classical convention. Daniel’s hearty counsel that the world is to be suffered ‘to enjoy that which it knows and what it likes’ 1 may quite reasonably be accepted by the classicists, or prove irksome to the romanticists. Experience, another of Harvey’s favourites, commends itself to his party, because it hits at tradition and deals with things known to, or felt by, the poet. Experience, say the opponents, especially perfected experience, gives the ‘Ancients’ and the Great Patterns their claim upon the obedience of their successors. To the first, it makes the individual writer and creates the living pages of literature; to the others, it is the sum of the past, discovered of old, and handed on by the ‘classics’ as the unsurpassed, perhaps unsurpassable, expression of the wisdom of life and beauty of art. When Harington, in his critique on Ariosto, answers certain objections with the striking words, ‘Methinks it is a sufficient defence to say Ariosto doth it,’ 2 what appears so modern and aesthetic in its tone is after all but the masked admiration of the classicist for another Homer or Virgil. And so our signposts may be Knights or Saracens, according as we look upon them; for much may be said on both sides.  1
  The unwillingness to have rigid rules, whether in the choice of subject, in language, or in prosody, has been already noted. The caution against interference with existing habit, against drawing Poetry by the ears, 3 is not only Sidney’s and Daniel’s, but the commonplace of this collection of essays. The dictum, too, that Poetry has no limitations, which is urged hardly less frequently, is on the side of eclecticism, though the critics may not have quite realized the fact. So much freedom is allowed to the writer that he is advised not to ‘compose of seen subjects,’ 4 but to rely on his own invention. In a sense, this unwillingness is an effect of the classical restraint and discretion, a transference of method from literary practice to criticism per se, though it is in time lost when critics have made up their minds as to what is orthodoxy, and how it is to be enforced. Or it may be to some extent due to timidity or confusion in interpreting the relationship of the classical canon to English use and wont. But if there be little or no evidence of romantic bias in the call for discretion, it is otherwise when the critics condescend to discuss the reasons. Thus Puttenham says, ‘Since the actions of man with their circumstances be infinite, and the world likewise replenished with many judgements, it may be a question who shall have the determination of such controversy as may arise whether this or that action or speech be decent or indecent.’ 5 And Daniel, who in many places speaks strongly against arrogance in judging the positive though varying virtues of ‘this manifold creature man,’ 6 advances a step further when he admits that he dare not take upon himself to dictate to his fellows, because he holds a fixed view and thinks it right; for ‘indeed there is no right in these things that are continually in a wandering motion, carried with the violence of uncertain likings, being but only the time that gives them their power.’ 7 Here there is no truce with either the stricter discipline, or with the good-mannered discretion of the classicist.  2
  Daniel’s remark foreshadows the modern conception of historical process in literature. There is no hint of it in the generality of Elizabethan writings, which tacitly accept the restricted Mediaeval tradition or substitute for it the not less exclusive views of the Renaissance. There is nothing more remarkable in the Elizabethans than their neglect of the earlier literary conditions in England, as bearing on the problems which interested them so much. It was indeed more than neglect, for the reformers, and those who had hopes of a great English revival, made it a preliminary to their argument to abuse the lack-learning times, and on every occasion to scoff at the Amadises and Arthurs. Sidney, in notable exception to Ascham and his friends, shows a genuine, though reserved, appreciation of Romance, but he does not make any effort to justify his catholicity. And Puttenham, who in one place appears to think kindly of the old stuff, 8 is neither acute nor consistent, and is perhaps thinking most of his own historical ditty. There is a hint of the later attitude in Blenerhasset’s Epistle in the Second Part of the Mirror for Magistrates, where he excuses his style by pointing out that those whose falls he has described lived not ‘of late time,’ and that he had not thought it decent ‘that the men of the old world should speak with so garnished a style, as they of the latter time.’ 9 We have here the superior manner of Renaissance criticism, but there is also the confession that ages differ, and that each has its own mode. And the importance of this allowance is not diminished, although his attitude may be reasonably explained as the application of the classical doctrine of decorum in the representation of different times as in that of different characters. In Daniel, however, the expression of the modern idea is, for the first time in English, unequivocal. His apology for the Middle Ages and his demurrer to the infallibility of Latin are a direct retort to the classicists. As different conceptions of wisdom throughout the world are but one, ‘apparelled according to the fashion of every nation,’ 10 so the tastes of different ages but express ‘that perpetual revolution which we see to be in all things that never remain the same.’ 11 He speaks of this continuity as ‘the law of time,’ 12 and sees in its process the passing of all things—including Campion’s craze against rhyme. What matters it, when this ‘will make all that for which we now contend Nothing’? There is more in this than in Puttenham’s commonplace that all old things soon wax stale; 13 it is, as it were, the exaltation of fate and the refutation of finality in Art. The practical application therefore is, to the artist, that he shall take such opportunity as comes by mood rather than by convention; and to the critic, that he shall not arrogantly find perfection in one phase of artistic experience. Daniel is but further expounding this larger doctrine when he brings home the difficulty of finding the true perspective of an age which shall stand the test when ‘after-times shall make a quest of inquiry.’ 14 If it be claimed for this historical sense, which is the flower of Elizabethan criticism, that it is but the perception of a larger unity, and the extension of the old bounds, and is therefore nothing more nor less than a transcendent classicism, we must bear in mind that it shows the building up of the whole by its parts, not the illustration of that unity by certain forms and works. The Renaissance allowed little to the individual except in his relationship to the general principle which it had accepted; here criticism accepted the individual works on their own merits, and thereafter based its conception of unity and continuity on the evidence of their essential qualities. Daniel’s essay, even considered in the narrowest sense of re-establishing the literary credit of the Middle Ages, was an important document on the side of romanticism.  3
  The Renaissance individualism which stimulated this sense by giving to each age, or literary kind, or writer, the consideration which it accorded to each man, shows other immediate effects in the critical work of the time. And these further illustrate the coincidence of classical and romantic purpose, to which reference has already been made. For the plea, as expressed by Puttenham, that criticism shall give ‘special regard to all circumstances of the person, place, time, cause, and purpose,’ 15 or by Chapman, that ‘the whole drift, weight, and height’ of a poet’s works shall be set before the ‘apprehensive eyes of his judge,’ 16 is a classical conception, at base but the familiar decorum; and it is here applied to criticism per se, as it was later, and with fuller meaning, by Dryden, Pope, and Johnson. But it also meant the recognition of individual workmanship, and the giving of fair treatment even to inferior writers. 17 In other words, it broke with the Renaissance habit of judging works only as part of a system or as examples of a certain kind.  4
  There could be as yet but little aesthetic criticism in the modern acceptation of the term; but there are hints of it in the claim by the critics for a freer expression of their personal liking. Puttenham speaks of his ‘singular opinion,’ 18 and admits that it may be disputed. Chapman says that his chief pleasure of his labours is in his own profit, and that he does not tremble before the feverish censure of a ‘young prejudicate or castigatory brain.’ 19 Daniel’s ‘own ease’ is his guide in certain questions. Yet he and the others admit that though such are their own conclusions, they may not be commendable to others. ‘I must not out of mine own daintiness condemn this kind of writing, which peradventure to another may seem most delightful.’ 20 This then is more than unwillingness to accept the authority of a body of rules: it grants the reasonableness of individual criticism, and by allowing that criticism may be based on impression, whether fixed or tentative, hits at the heart of convention. Jonson, as a classicist, saw the danger of this unloosing in the insidious working of the pathetic fallacy; 21 but the tendency made for critical sympathy, and was not without good influence in the strictest age of classical orthodoxy.  5
Note 1. ii. 363. [back]
Note 2. ii. 217. [back]
Note 3. i. 195. [back]
Note 4. i. 48, 220. [back]
Note 5. ii. 175. [back]
Note 6. ii. 367. [back]
Note 7. ii. 383. [back]
Note 8. ii. 44; contrast ii. 15. 87, 166. [back]
Note 9. Haslewood, i. 349. [back]
Note 10. ii. 372. [back]
Note 11. ii. 384. [back]
Note 12. Ibid. [back]
Note 13. ii. 166. [back]
Note 14. ii. 380. [back]
Note 15. ii. 161. [back]
Note 16. ii. 299. [back]
Note 17. ii. 282. [back]
Note 18. ii. 126. [back]
Note 19. ii. 306. [back]
Note 20. ii. 382. [back]
Note 21. ii. 396. [back]
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