Saturday, May 01, 2010

E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture

E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, Vintage Books, Published by Arrangement with the Macmillan Company, New York, [no date].

‘What a piece of work is man: how noble in reason; how infinite in faculty; in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how like an angel; in apprehension how like a god; the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.’ / This has been taken as one of the great English versions of Renaissance humanism, an assertion of the dignity of man against the asceticisms of medieval misanthropy. Actually it is in the purest medieval tradition: Shakespeare’s version of the orthodox encomia of what man, created in God’s image, was like in his prelapsarian slate and what ideally he is still capable of being. [3] … It was what the theologians had been saying for centuries. Here is a typical version, by Nemesius, a Syrian bishop of the fourth century, in George Wither’s translation: / ‘No eloquence may worthily publish forth the manifold pre-eminences and advantages which are bestowed on this creature. He passeth over the vast seas; he rangeth about the wide heavens by his contemplation and conceives the motions and magnitudes of the stars… He is learned in every science and skilful in artifical workings… He talketh with angels yea and with God himself. He hath all the creatures within his dominion. (4)

One of the clearest expositions of order (and close to Shakepseare’s though a good deal earlier in date) is Elyot’s in the first chapter of the Governor. [11] … This is all very explicit and prosaic. It is what everyone believed in Elizabeth’s days and it is all there behind such poetic statements of order as the following from Spenser’s Hymn of Love describing creation… The conception of order described above must have been common to all Elizabethans of even modest intelligence [12]. Hooker’s elaborated account must have stated pretty fairly the preponderating conception among the educated. Hooker is not easy reading to a modern but would have been much less difficult to a contemporary used to his kind of prose. He writes not for the technical theologian but mediates theology to the general educated public of his day. He is master of the sort of summary which, though it avoids irksome and controversial detail, presents the general and the simplified with consummate force and freshness. He has the acutest sense of what the ordinary educated man can grasp and having grasped ratify. It is this tact that assures us that he speaks for the educated nucleus that dictated the current beliefs of the Elizabethan Age. He represents far more truly the background of Elizabethan literature than do the coney-catching pamphlets or the novel of low life. (11-13)

But the negative implication was even more frequent and emphatic. If the Elizabethans believed in an ideal order animating earthly order, they were terrified lest it should be upset, and appalled by the visible tokens of disorder that suggested its upsetting. They were obsessed by the fear of chaos and the fact of mutability; and the obsession was powerful in proportion as their faith in the cosmic order was strong. To us chaos means hardly more than confusion on a large scale; to an Elizabethan it meant the cosmic anarchy before creation and the wholesale dissolution that would result if the pressure of Providence relaxed and allowed the law of nature to cease functioning. (16)


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