Wednesday, November 10, 2010

John Buxton, Elizabethan Taste

John Buxton, Elizabethan Taste, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1966.

His manner must suggest an elegant disdain, sprezzatura, and therewith imply that he will neither overestimate his present performance nor allow it to appear his principal concern. So Philip Sidney, who is the epitome of grace, begins his Apology for Poetry with a disarming request that the reader will not think him as absurdly devoted to poetry as his riding-master at Vienna had been to equitation. Queen Elizabeth would admire the dancing of a courtier, but not of a professional dancing-master: ‘I will not see your man,’ she once told Leicester, ‘it is his trade.’ (7)

Specialization was banausic, out of date, mediaeval, a subject for mockery. Castiglione tells of someone—he will not name him—who refused the various entertainments offered him by a worthy gentlewoman in a noble assembly, on the grounds that music and dancing and so forth were not his profession. (7-8)

To this theme must be related the Tudor interest in King Arthur; for who better than princes of Welsh origin could hope to revive the glories of a legendary Britain? So Henry VII called his eldest son Arthur, and though the young prince died, the selection of this name for the heir to the throne was significant. (11)

Inigo Jones, who so sumptuously staged the masques of the neo-classic Jonson, could never have cooperated successfully with Shakespeare; and his buildings owe everything to the inspiration of Palladio, nothing to English Perpendicular from whose lofty windows the glittering fronts of many an Elizabethan mansion take their origin. Most of all we observe this contrast in the literature: between Spenser, who discovered in Chaucer a well from which to draw huge, spilling draughts of the dazzling language which Mulcaster taught him to love, and Milton, who, ambitious to leave to after times work so written that they should not willingly let it die, based his style more securely (he supposed) in Virgil. (14)

I cannot here discuss the reasons for this sudden lack of confidence in the native tradition which afflicted the seventeenth century, for I am concerned with the time of confidence. (15)

No one has ever called Lau or King Charles judicious; and though Milton the poet makes his appeal always to reason, Milton the apologist for the Commonwealth does not, for he will not concede the reasonableness of his opponents. There is the difference between the generation of Spenser and of Milton, of Hooker and of Laud: between the courteous reasonableness of the man who sincerely believes that his opponents are open to rational argument, and the scurrilous rant of the man who swears that they are not; between the moderate man and the fanatic; between the man who, confident in the rationality of his opinions, can state them quietly, and the man who, lacking that confidence, must shout. These differences pervade the whole life of English society in these two generations, (17)

In defending religious ceremonies against the attacks of the Puritans Hooker argues that they reinforce and make more memorable the effect of words; also, that it is presumptuous to object to ceremonies simply because they are traditional. ‘The things which so long experience of all ages hath confirmed and made profitable, let not us presume to condemn as follies and toys, because we sometimes know not the cause and reason of them.’ We must assume that those who establish these ancient ceremonies were themselves reasonable men, (19)

And death was not a tiresome and sordid irrelevance, to be evaded at the last under an anaesthetic, but a challenge to be accepted in the high heroic manner, on the scaffold, on the battlefield, or at home, with family and friends at hand to record those carefully rehearsed last words:
For ‘tis the evening crowns the day.
This action of our death especially
Shows all a man. (21)

So Mary, dressed in black, walked firmly down the great hall at Fotheringay, holding the crucifix high before her, towards the place where she could see the block already prepared. She read her Latin prayers, her voice rising above the voice of the English she prayer for the soul of her cousin Elizabeth. She stood alone now on the black-draped scaffold, and the two executioners approached to help her disrobe. ‘I was not wont to have my clothes plucked off by such grooms,’ she said, and smiled; and suddenly her black gown was off, to disclose the Queen, clad from head to foot in crimson silk, the colour of her Church martyrs. (22)

Jonson accused Sidney of failing to keep decorum in the Arcadia by making everyone speak as well as himself—an absurd charge, but one which shows how much importance they attached to the principle. (23)

Sir Thomas North’s version of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, a book which more influenced men’s conduct in sixteenth-century Europe than any other except, perhaps, Castiglione’s Courtier. (32)

So the voyagers to the New World…they find out what trees provide good timber, what rocks are loaded with valuable ore, confident that all has been designed by God for the use of man, if once he can discover what that use may be. Even geography must be rational: hence the indefatigable search for the North-West Passage which, in a world as reasonably ordered as they supposed, would not have been choked with ice. (34)

The walls of the rooms in the country houses were hung with tapestries, which served both to adorn them and to keep them warm. Sometimes, as at Hardwick, a room might be designed for a famous set which the owners already possessed, but more often they were bought to furnish an existing room. In the most luxurious houses they would be changed form time to time, but in few, we may suppose, so often as once a week, as were the hangings in Cardinal Wolsey’s rooms at Hampton Court. Mural paintings were rare, perhaps because of a preference for the warmth of tapestry and the cheaper painted cloths, but also because, as Sir Henry Wotton observes, our climate is too moist for frescoes to last. (93)

…at Leicester House, when the Earl of Leicester died in 1588, twenty-eight pictures were in the great Gallery, and no other room seems to have had more than one or two; at Hardwick Hall in 1601 nearly half the pictures in the house were hanging in the Long Gallery. But Albius, in Jonson’s Poetaster of the following year, seems to have been exaggerating when he advised hi wife, ‘hang no pictures in the hall, nor in the dining-chamber, in any case, but in the gallery only, for ‘tis not courtly else.’ Wotton further suggested that the pictures be hung where there were fewest lights, for ‘no painting can be seen in full perfection, but (as all nature is illuminated) by a single light’. The owner must also study his pictures, to find ‘how the painter did stand in the working, which an intelligent eye will easily discover’, that is to say, how the subject was illuminated while it was being painted. ‘Italian pieces will appear best in a room where windows are high, because they are commonly made to a descending light, which of all other doth set off mens’ faces in their truest spirit.’ (96)

English…scarcely any Italian or Spaniard or Frenchman would have seigned to learn it. Most would have thought, as Guarini told Daniel, that English was a barbarous tongues unsuited to poetry, and it was not until the eighteenth century that English began to be recognized aboard as one of the chief literary languages of the world. (171)

…but while the Italians and the French supposed that English poetry could not exist, they knew that English music might equal or surpass their own. / This was no new discovery. In the first half of the fifteenth century English musicians, of whom the greatest was John Dunstable, had had much influence on the Flemis composers, and the theorist of that school, Joannes de Tinctoris, regarded England as the principal source of the art of music. Martin le Franc, about 1440, also paid tribute to Dunstable and his English contemporaries. The two English universities instituted degrees in music in the fifteenth century, long before any Continental university, which was proof of an early interest in music as a serious branch of learning; and most of the Elizabethan composers were proud to describe themselves on their title-pages as Bachelor or Doctor of Music. (172)

Psalm-singing was very popular, so much so that it became a Homeric epithet of the Puritan, who disapproved of the more elaborate forms of church music; but it was not heard within the walls of the parish church. … There were no hymns, except Te Deum, other than the psalms which, in the angular paraphrase of Sternhold and Hopkins, provided the one crude pleasure of congregational singing throughout this time. The more extreme Puritans expressed their disapproval of Cathedral music with characteristic uncouthness: ‘during the singing service they would stand without, dancing and sporting themselves until the sermons and lectures did begin’. Even to the singing of psalms some objected, ‘displeased they are’, said Hooker, ‘at the artificial music which we add unto psalms of this kind’. And with a patient sigh he proceeds to justify the practice: ‘but our desire is to content them if it may be, and to yield them a just reason even of the least things where undeservedly they have but as much as dreamed or suspected that we do amiss’. (180)

In Queen Elizabeth’s time, in spite of a preference for the ‘Short’ Service, in which the music must subserve the text as the taste of the time required, the ‘Great’ Service, with its contrapuntal elaboration, was also permitted, and Byrd’s Great Service is nowadays considered ‘the finest unaccompanied setting in the repertory of the English Church’. The Elizabethans are likely to have preferred the Short Services, though not necessarily for aesthetic reasons. Hooker sums up the reasonable man’s attitude to sacred music better than any other: ‘the force and equity of the thing itself, when it drowneth not utterly but fitly suiteth with matter altogether sounding to the praise of God, is in trtuh most admirable, and doth much edify if not the understanding because it teacheth not, yet surely the affection, because therein it worketh much’. (181)

Roger Ascham in Toxophilus regarded instrumental music as effeminate, but agreed that the young ought to learn to sing (though shooting was better) for practical reasons such as Byrd endorsed. Twenty years later, when he was writing The Schoolmaster, Ascham had become more liberal, and was prepared to admit that ‘to sing, and play of instruments cunningly’ was ‘not only comely and decent, but also very necessary for a country gentleman to use.’ He had been reading Castiglione, whose Count Lewis insisted on the courtier being able to read a part in a song and to play various instruments. Since Ascham wrote times had changed, and by 1586 John Case in The Praise of Music, which is a defence against the Puritan disparagers, could boldly assert, ‘The chief end of music is to delight’. Case refers the reader ‘for the decent use hereof in gentleman’ to the eight book of Aristotle’s Politics , and to the seventh chapter of Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Gevernour. There Elyot had been a little skeptical of the value of music to a gentleman, though he was willing to allow him to play in private for his own recreation, and also to learn enough to be able to judge the quality of music heard; (197)

The seventeenth century did not discover in Chaucer a premature Puritan—that was beyond even their controversial assertiveness; but they ignored him as obsolete and too difficult to read in the original, and found him acceptable only in a Latin translation or in a modernized version. Indeed they regarded the obsolete language of Chaucer as a warning: they must seek a supposed perfection in their own use of English, to prevent a similar obsolescence. The fate of so great a poet who /

his sense can only boast,
The glory of his numbers lost, /

drove Waller to seek in English the envied stability of Latin; and the Augustan movement derived, at least in part, from the cautionary tale of Chaucer’s fall. (224)

With the same humility Chaucer’s Elizabethan editor said that those who could not scan Chaucer failed either because the text was faulty (as it very often was) or because they did not use their intelligence. Spenser himself at first seems not to have understood Chaucer’s metre, and to have copied what he thought were its irregularities, as in The Shepheardes Calender, Mother Hubberds Tale, and elsewhere. But later reminiscences of Chaucer suggest that he had discovered the secret of his scansion, or else had assumed a regularity hidden by the garbled text before him. So, when he writes/
There many Minstrales maken melody, /

he must surely have had in his head not the words alone but also the rhythm of /

And smale fowles maken melodye. /

Spenser could not have read Chaucer’s line with ‘small’ and ‘fowls’ as monosyllables, though whether he understood that the final e’s were to be pronounced I do not know. (225)

But though there is no doubt that the Elizabethans enjoyed this gift of Chaucer, to them his greatest work was always Troilus and Criseyde. There are many reasons for this preference. They relished it, as they relished Hero and Leander or Venus and Adonis or Romeo and Juliet, because it was a love-story, and for its sensuous description. They found the supposedly classical theme very much to their taste: it is a story they never tired of re-telling themselves. They preferred rhyme royal—‘Troilus verse’, as they sometimes called it—to the riding rhyme of the Tales: this stanza was, said Puttenham, ‘very grave and stately’ and in keeping with the greater dignity of the whole poem. Also, Troilus and Criseyde was complete, whereas The Canterbury Tales were a shapeless, untidy fragment. They disliked torsos or fragments… They recognized that Troilus and Criseyde was more derivative, less original than The Canterbury Tales, but were unperturbed by this discovery: indeed they must have though it an advantage, for they knew that Chaucer’s pre-eminence was due to his having learnt so much from the French and Italians. They did not suppose that great poetry could be insular and provincial: it must partake of the traditions of Europe that derived from classical antiquity. (227)

…though Spenser appreciated Chaucer better than anyone else of his time, he appreciated him in the same way, and for the same qualities. He considered him a learned poet—learned, that is, in the craft of poetry—and for that reason the best of English poets, from whom he could learn more than from any other writer of any age or nation. Such understanding was very remarkable when knowledge of Chaucer’s language and pronunciation and metre was so imperfect, …(229)

It is remarkable too in a time when most men were looking for inspiration either to Virgil, Ovid, and Lucan or else to the new Italian and French writers, that the greatest poet of the English renaissance should have included in his studies what was mere English, and should have turned back towards the despised Middle Ages. (229)

The Elizabethans, unlike later generations from Dryden to Professor Coghill, never modernized Chaucer. This may seem surprising when we remember their many and noble translations from Greek and Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish. But though they understood Chaucer’s language less well than they understood Latin or Italian they did not admit any need for translation. They admired Chaucer as an English writer, as the greatest we had had before Spenser, and they admired him not principally as a story-teller, not as the sympathetic portrayer of the human comedy, but as the poet who had used this language… (230)

The new poetry of the Elizabethans began with the publication, late in 1579, of The Shepheardes Calender. Anonymous… Spenser never claimed it for his own… The endeavour of Sidney and his friends was to remedy the want of desert which they acknowledged in contemporary English poetry. The Shepheardes Calender was the first bold, public attempt to put their ideas into practice, a manifesto as well as a poem, which announced and illustrated a change of taste as certainly as did the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, a change that was instantly recognized by those who were capable of it. (231)

Not many of us nowadays would read The Shepheardes Calender if it were still anonymous. But Dryden admired it, and thought it not inferior to Theocritus or Virgil, and Spenser’s contemporaries found it full of exciting promise that a great new poet had come to use the English language. (231)

Spenser’s genius was one of the most daring and original that has ever existed. He learnt from everyone, but copied none. Sonnet, canzone, and heroic stanza he adapted with exquisite skill to meet his own needs. In language his experiments were too bold for such purists as Sidney and Daniel and Jonson, but served a mind more subtle and complex than theirs. In his Christian heroic poem he had the unique courage to deride Wrath and assert Love as the dominant theme. (232)

Gabriel Harvey, the Cambridge don who was a friend of Spenser… considered that Gascoigne’s deficiencies were no so much intellectual as moral: ‘Want of resolution and constancy marred his wit and undid himself’. (233)

Sidney recognized the quality of The Shepheardes Calender, yet ‘dared not allow…that same framing of his style to an old rustic language’, because (he supposed) there was no pastoral precedent for it. But, as Dryden pointed out, by this means Spenser had admirably imitated the Doric of Theocritus. (234)

Spenser was quite outspoken enough, as he believed it a poet’s duty to be, and E.K. may have thought it wiser not to call any closer attention to Spenser’s support of the defiantly Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury, who was at the time suspended from his functions. (238)

To the sixteenth-century reader the publication of a volume of pastorals by a young poet inevitably challenged comparison with Virgil. Here, the reader would have thought, is a man who intends to follow the most famous of all poetical careers; who will, in time, go on to write a heroic poem: let us see if these pastorals have in them the promise that he will be able to undertake this supreme task. Spenser’s readers apparently judged that The Shepheardes Calender gave such an assurance: the new poet had poetical sinews in him, said Philip Sidney. (240)

With patient tact Spenser refrained from publishing any more poetry until, eleven years later, he was ready with the first three books of the heroic poem to which he had alluded in October , and which was implicitly promised by his pastorals. (241)

In addition to this constant and expected comparison with Virgil was Spenser’s less obvious and more daring linking of himself with Chaucer as pupil and master. He constantly uses Virgil’s pastoral name for himself, Tityrus, to refer to Chaucer, and E. K. as constantly draws the reader’s attention to this. From him Spenser had learnt to compose his homely poems, but /

Now dead he is, and lyeth wrapt in lead,
(O why should death on hym such outrage showe?)
And all hys passing skil with him is fledde,
The fame whereof doth dayly greater growe.
But if on me some little drops would flowe,
Of that the spring was in his learned hedde,
I soone would learne these woods, to wayle my woe
And teach the trees, their trickling teares to shedde. /

Spenser exaggerated his debt to Chaucer, but of set purpose; he wished to associate his poetry, in his reader’s mind, with the greatest of English poets as well as with the greatest of Latin. The native English strain which he emphasized in the names of his shepherds and in the un-Arcadian descriptions of scenery, as well as in his rustic diction, he ennobled by this deference to Chaucer. (242)

Here he was on the other side from Sidney, who admitted his perplexity before the genius of Chaucer: ‘truly I know not whether to marvel more, either that he in that misty time could see so clearly, or that we in this clear age walk so stumblingly after him’. (242)

Spenser … does no more than to remind his readers that English had once been capable of the greatest poetry, and might be so again. He uses a Chaucerian word or a Chaucerian cadence here and there, and with the utmost tact, merely to emphasize the English tradition which otherwise be obscured by the Virgilian pastoral. (243)

Spenser’s own Puritanism, even if cloaked in fable and allegory, was uncompromising enough, and not every young poet would have risked so outspoken a defence of the suspended Archbishop of Canterbury as Spenser undertook in May, nor attacked High Church practices as he dose in September. (245)

For us, nearly four centuries of achievements hinder an understanding of The Shepheardes Calender as anything more than an experiment, but to its first readers it came as an exciting revelation of what that achievement might be. (245)

For a century and a half, form the time of the Armada to the time of the ’45, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia remained the best-loved book in the English language. Only then did Samuel Richardson’s Pamela supplant Sir Philip Sidney’s… (246)

It was taken as a model for English prose style even from before publication down to the austere and inelegant days of the Commonwealth. Shakespeare quarried its rich vein of episode. Milton acknowledged it a work of worth and wit. Pope treasured his copy of it. Sir Walter Scott hoarded it in his capacious memory. (246)

Ten copies of this first Arcadia still survive to show us what was the ‘toyful book’ which Sir Philip promised to send his brother Robert, and to which he refers, in that charming dedication of it to his sister, as ‘but a trifle, and that triflingly handled’. That book, he there reminds her, has been ‘done in loose sheets of paper, most of it in her presence, the rest, by sheets, sent unto her, as fast as they were done.’ The revised version, of which Greville believed he had the only copy, was a very much more serious and careful work, and the printing of it, Greville considered, was ‘to be work, and the printing of it, Greville considered, was ‘to be done with more deliberation’. And indeed it did not appear until more than three years… (247)

This idle preoccupation of young ladies with a romance shocked the Puritans, whose feminine ideal was the hausfrau. ‘And instead of reading Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia’, says Thomas Powell with frowning severity, ‘let them read the grounds of good huswifery’. Milton also, though not so consistent as he might have been, was moved by his detestation of King Charles, whose delight in the Arcadia was well known, to refer to it as ‘a vain amatorious poem’. But the ladies were undeterred… (252)

A complex and elaborate design firmly held in the author’s mind and adorned with every contrivance of rhetoric and diction, might seem to Hazlitt ‘one of the greatest monuments of the abuse of intellectual power upon record’, but to contemporary readers was exactly in accord with the highest standards of taste. Added to the technical virtuosity was an imaginative insight into human character and personality comparable to that with which, by the time of its publication though not when it was written, the dramatists were making men familiar, and sententious wisdom which pointed the moral and policy of the story in many a memorable phrase. (262)

Prose… Men contrasted it with the other prose of the time, especially with Lyly’s, whose Euphues had set a fashion soon to be mocked by Shakespeare and others. So Michael Drayton observes that Sidney /

…throughly paced our language as to show
The plenteous English hand in hand might go
With Greek and Latin, and did first reduce
Our tongue from Lyly’s writing then in use. (263)

But the readers who opened the Arcadia in the 1590s, and who then read with a care and attention uncustomary now, were surprised into delighted recognition that here at last was prose neither Ciceronian nor workaday but mere English. (266)

There is no need again to quote the various contemporary allusions which show that Penelope Devereux was the model for Stella. (272)

For what are the facts? In September 1576 Philip Sidney was in Ireland with his father, when he was summoned to the death-bed of Penelope Devereux’s father, the Earl of Essex, in Dublin. Essex died before Sidney could reach him, but he left this message: ‘Tell him I send him nothing, but I wish him well, and so well, that if God do move both their hearts, I wish that he might match with my daughter’. When her father died Penelope, whom Sidney must already have known, was about fourteen—Juliet’s age; Sidney was twenty-one. The sophisticated and elegant youth, whose gifts and charm had already won him a Continental reputation, was unmoved by Penelope’s childish beauty. In a sonnet he later regretted this arrogance, when he /

…could not by rosing Morn forsee
How fair a day was near.

The recollection was actual, but the regret, surely, may be imaginary; for the imaginative response of a poet to an incident in his life is not necessarily immediate. The incident may be recollected in tranquility and then invested with an emotional significance that is not autobiographical but dramatic. /

As for Penelope herself, there is nothing to suggest that she was ever much moved towards Philip Sidney. She knew him well and must have delighted in his company and in the poems he wrote for her. She was hardly likely to be so naïve as to take them literally, as a declaration of Sidney’s passion for her. A beautiful woman might pose for an artist who wished to paint a grand decorative design without being his mistress, and without any suggestions that he so desired her. Besides, already in her teens, before Sidney wrote these sonnets, she had pledged herself to the handsome and gallant Charles Blount, and to him, throughout the rest of her life, she remained passionately, defiantly faithful. She was married in 1581 to Lord Rich, but at the instance of her guardians and against her will. She even made her protest at the wedding ceremony itself. Her marriage lasted, nominally, until 1605 when Lord Rich divorced her, but in these years she had borne at least five children to Charles Blount. After her divorce, to the scandal of all who had so long condoned her adultery, she married him, by then created by James I Earl of Devonshire. She was of great and memorable beauty, with her golden hair and black eyes; she was a headstrong, passionate, willful woman, tender, loyal, and indiscreet. (273-4)

Too many readers of Astophel and Stella have ignored the opening lines of the first sonnet in their haste to acclaim the Romantic enthusiasm of its last: ‘Look in thy heart, and write’. Surely, they say, this is all we need to know: Sidney here proclaims that he is turning form literary tradition and precedent to that spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings which Wordsworth assures us is the spring of all poetry. But Sidney would have mocked at so crude a recipe for poetry: is a man then a poet if he knock his foot against a step, and curse? His feelings surely are powerful, and in that cursing and swearing that ensueth he alloweth them freely to overflow. For to Sidney a sonnet, like any other poem, was something constructed with skill and artifice. (274)

[Hamlet] So it was that the wiser sort, seeing the play, would have pondered on Essex’s situation in Ireland where he was sent on a task for which Spenser, the senior civil servant with long experience of the country and some knowledge of the man, had advised his appointment. /
That is not to suggest that when Shakespeare wrote his play he was thinking especially of Essex: he may have been—we shall never know. But he was imagining the sort of man Essex was in a situation of anachronistic ferocity such as Essex encountered and failed to endure. (308)

Hamlet must have been associated in the minds of the better-educated members of the play’s first audience with the well-known ideal courtier of Castiglione’s description, or with Spenser’s Sir Calidore. For the others, the working-class majority, more actual examples of the courtier would come to mind. Polonius’ reference to ‘falling out at tennis’ must have recalled to many the famous quarrel of Sidney and the Earl of Oxford over the right to a game of tennis. Hamlet’s ‘Dost know this water-fly?’ would momentarily bring into ludicrous juxtaposition with the affected Osric Essex’s enemy Sir Walter Ralegh. Hamlet’s disdain of the Italian calligraphy is more likely to have had a particular reference than a general, for Sidney, Southampton, Mountjoy, and many another courtier did not despise it: but the audience would know that some man of fashion wrote a scurvy hand, just as today they would know that a certain field-marshal affected two capbadges. Polonius’ precepts to Laertes parody Lord Burghley’s well-know letter of worldly advice to his son Robert, another, and most successful, enemy of Essex. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern were the names of two Danish courtiers who came to England on a diplomatic mission in 1593: both, like Hamlet, were graduates of Wittenberg. In such ways, as so often, Shakespeare brought the play home to the less sophisticated majority by inviting their recollection of recent history, of things and persons they knew at first hand. (310)

…we, of the audience, are reasonable beings who recognize in Hamlet a man conforming to the courtly ideal of the time of the first Elizabeth who is suddenly confronted with a primitive and loathsome task. /
This could happen. Spenser was present ‘at the execution of a notable traitor at Limerick, called Morrogh O’Brien. ‘I saw an old woman which was his foster-mother take up his head whilst he was quartered, and sucked up all the blood running thereout, saying that the earth was not worthy to drink it; and therewith also steeped her face and breast and torn hair, crying and shrieking out most terribly’. It is difficult to think of Essex watching a scene of such savage horror with the equanimity which Spenser implies in his record of it; and in recommending Essex as a fit person to bring peach to the savage island, Spenser misjudged the man, not the task. But it is surely no less difficult to think of Hamlet contemplating murder on the assurance of a ghost. He has to be quite certain of his duty, to be sure that he is not led to murderous revenge through hallucination or the disgust which he feels at his mother’s hasty and, to him, incestuous remarriage. He has a sane distaste for the task that has been laid upon him… Hemlet was not mad: he was merely too reasonable to accept the word of a ghost, or a principle of honour which could seem an impediment, a tyrant of the mind. (312)

Yet we must remember that whatever the proportion of the wiser sort in Hamlet’s first audience, it was very small. … They were not predisposed to admire a man who sought revenge [312] … Even the duel was never legal in England, nor accepted as part of the English code of behavior. It was foreign, Italian, suspect, and Hamlet was no Italianized Englishman. (312-3)

The many habitual theatre-goers in the audience would compare Shakespeare’s play with Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, with his lost Hamlet, perhaps with Marston Antonio’s Revenge. The cruder among them would find excitement in Hamlet’s long-drawn-out agony of indecision, by whose means the act of revenge is always about to happen, and as often postponed. Others, more aware of the subtler characters and finer ideals of their betters, would recognize in Hamlet something more than a means of dramatic tantalization, and would think, very likely, of Essex, their popular hero—the man who, in the absurd rebellion which he was soon to lead, supposed that he could count on the London multitude. (313)

…first audience, for men and women who had followed the inconsistent, irresolute career of the Earl of Essex in these last years. No other courtier of the time lived so much in the eye of the many as Essex; to none since they had followed Sidney to his grave in St Paul’s did they give such affection. In Henry V, written after Essex’s appointment as Lord Deputy, Shakespeare had imagined the citizens of London going out to welcome him home, victorious from Ireland. But Essex failed, and Shakespeare and these Londoners knew the story of his melodramatic return to the Queen at Nonsuch, and of his subsequent disgrace. Their admiration was suspended, and they were puzzled at their hero’s behaviour: they would not now condemn him, nor would they, in a few months’ time, turn their affection into loyalty to him against the Queen. The less intelligent would shrug off his conduct as mad; the more thoughtful, the wiser sort, would ponder upon it and remain perplexed as, ever since, they have been perplexed by the character of Hamlet. (314)

…when Hamlet was first acted Essex was the most vivid personality in the mind of every man in London, and all were as subject to his charm as we are to Hamlet’s. For that is perhaps the most remarkable quality of all in Hamlet, his charm; a quality which Rosalind has, and Viola, and Elizabeth Bennet, and Peer Gynt, and how few others in all literature. We are apt to see only the insufficiency of Essex’s character for the part he was called upon to play, and so to diminish him that we wonder how he could have been so universally admired. (314)

When in 1612 Michael Drayton published the first part of Poly-Olbion, the work which he hoped would assure him a high place among the poet of England, he rather sourly admitted to the general reader, ‘there is this great disadvantage against me; that it cometh out at this time, when verses are wholly deduced to Chambers, and nothing esteemed in this lunatic age but what is kept in cabinets, and must only pass by transcription’. This is the complaint of the professional against the amateur, of the man who has dedicated his whole life to poetry and to the study of poetry against the man for whom poetry and to the study of poetry against the man for whom poetry was merely the means of giving evaporations to his wit. (317)

John Donne was regretting the only publication of his verses which he allowed in his lifetime… ‘Anniversaries,’ [317] … He had been prevailed upon for the first time to print his verses by Sir Robert Drury, father of the girl whom Donne, though he had never seen her, so extravagantly celebrated in these poems. They had been ill received by his friends—Ben Jonson told him, in his brusque way, ‘if it had been written of the Virgin Mary it had been something’—and while he was abroad, traveling on the Continent with Sir Robert and Lady Drury, he heard form England many censures of the book. (318)

Donne’s judgment, that the poems on Elizabeth Drury ought not to have been printed, was certainly right. They were as private as the verse-letters which he now wrote to appease the ladies whom he had offended by these hyperboles, the Countess of Bedford, and two of the daughters of Penelope Rich. They should have remained private, as did his other obsequies, or as his elegies and verse-letters and love-poems. All these were written for the personal pleasure of a sophisticated company of Donne’s friends and of those to whom his wit and learning had gained him introduction. Hitherto he had kept his poems in manuscript, had denied them to the anthologists, and, somehow, had protected them against the piracy of unscrupulous printers. He was persuaded to an error of judgment when he allowed the Anniversaries to be published: he wrote verses not for the general reader but for his friends. (318) [wtf.]

…manuscript… written triplet by triplet, on some private occasion, by Sir Henry Goodere and John Donne. Michael Drayton would not have objected to such frivolity: he did much the same thing on convivial evenings in the Apollo room at the Devil and St Dunstan where Ben Jonson’s club used to meet. What he did resent was that these private poetical entertainments should be more fashionable than the serious patriotic poetry which he was attempting… He published his verse-letters eventually, with collections of his other poems, because he was a craftsman who delighted in the products of his own skill, and because it would have seemed affected to keep them still private. (319)

Not Donne’s poetry but the fashion for it annoyed him; most of all perhaps the silly habit of keeping it in manuscript for thirty years, with all the suggestion of a superior literary clique that this implied. Drayton rightly considered himself one of the chief poets of his time, and he found it tiresome that men like Goodere should pride themselves on the possession of a body of poetry which was not accessible, as was his own and Ben Jonson’s and Samuel Daniel’s and William Browne’s, to the world’s censure or approbation. Jonson, who admired Donne’s poetry for some things, took much the same view of this coterie poetry as Drayton. ‘Poetry in this latter age’, he wrote, ‘hath proved but a mean mistress to such as have wholly addicted themselves to her, or given their names up to her family. They who have but saluted her on the by, and now and then tendered their visits, she hath done much for, and advanced in the way of their own professions.’ (320)

Poetry to Donne was a less serious study than to these others: he had no theories of diction or prosody to expound; he did not write about poetry, as they did; even in his letters he very seldom discusses literary topics, and when he does it is nearly always in a spirit of banter or disparagement. His library contained little poetry, and he confessed that he was ‘no great voyager in other men’s works’. … Donne used verse to compliment, or amuse, or rival his friends, and would not, except on one regretted occasion, publish these poems, as Drayton, Daniel, and Jonson published their epistles. (320-1)

Donne, for his part, deplored the growing custom of publishing such private poetry, and thought it unpardonable in himself to have published the Anniversaries, … Donne’s friends were less strict than he in keeping their poems private, and he was contemptuous of their profligacy. (321)

Essex, the self-appointed but acknowledged successor to Sir Philip Sidney as—among other qualities of the perfect courtier—patron of poets, numbered among his clients Spenser and Daniel, William Warner and Sir John Harington. … In Essex’s circle, as in Sidney’s, the poets devoted to him were of various abilities of diverse tastes: he and his friends admired Spenser as England’s arch-poet, the English Virgil, and when he died Essex arranged that he should be buried near his master Chaucer, in Westminster Abbey; they enjoyed the mellifluous, honey-tongued Shakespeare of the poems and sonnets; but they were not thereby precluded from an enjoyment of the purity of Daniel, of the asperity of Fulke Greville, of the gaiety of Harington, or of the fantastic wit of Donne. (326)

Jonson was notoriously quarrelsome, and though he made friendly references to Daniel in the first edition of Every Man in his Humour, and again in Cynthia’s Revels, both in 1601, by 1616 he had altered the first of these to a cruel parody, and he told William Drummond, when he visited him at Hawthornden, that ‘Daniel was at jealousies with him’. The shy and retiring Daniel can be exonerated from blame, but Jonson, who was neither shy nor retiring, may well have thought that he, not Daniel, should have been invited to write the first masque for Queen Anne, and also the play which was presented for her at Christ Church when she visited Oxford in 1605. [333] … Samuel Daniel… A far less arrogant or vociferous man than Jonson or Donne or Drayton, he preferred to keep his own counsel, and to write, indifferent to fashion or acclamation, to please himself. His best gifts were for reflection and argument, as we see them in the epistles which he addressed to some of his friends among the great, including Lady Bedford. The unemphatic ease of his verse misled many of his contemporaries into thinking (as Arnold thought of Pope) that ‘his manner better fitted prose’. (333-4)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home