Chapter VII. Period V. The Seventeenth Century, 1603-1660. Prose And Poetry
(For political and social facts and conditions, see above, page 141.
[Footnote: One of the best works of fiction dealing with the period is J. H. Shorthouse's 'John Inglesant.'])
The first half of the seventeenth century as a whole, compared with the Elizabethan age, was a period of relaxing vigor. The Renaissance enthusiasm had spent itself, and in place of the danger and glory which had long united the nation there followed increasing dissension in religion and politics and uncertainty as to the future of England and, indeed, as to the whole purpose of life. Through increased experience men were certainly wiser and more sophisticated than before, but they were also more self-conscious and sadder or more pensive. The output of literature did not diminish, but it spread itself over wider fields, in general fields of somewhat recondite scholarship rather than of creation. Nevertheless this period includes in prose one writer greater than any prose writer of the previous century, namely Francis Bacon, and, further, the book which unquestionably occupies the highest place in English literature, that is the King James version of the Bible; and in poetry it includes one of the very greatest figures, John Milton, together with a varied and highly interesting assemblage of lesser lyrists.
FRANCIS BACON, VISCOUNT ST. ALBANS, 1561-1626. [Footnote: Macaulay's well-known essay on Bacon is marred by Macaulay's besetting faults of superficiality and dogmatism and is best left unread.] Francis Bacon, intellectually one of the most eminent Englishmen of all times, and chief formulator of the methods of modern science, was born in 1561 (three years before Shakspere), the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Queen Elizabeth and one of her most trusted earlier advisers. The boy's precocity led the queen to call him her 'little Lord Keeper.' At the age of twelve he, like Wyatt, was sent to Cambridge, where his chief impression was of disgust at the unfruitful scholastic application of Aristotle's ideas, still supreme in spite of a century of Renaissance enlightenment. A very much more satisfactory three years' residence in France in the household of the English ambassador was terminated in 1579
(the year of Spenser's 'Shepherd's Calendar') by the death of Sir Nicholas. Bacon was now ready to enter on the great career for which his talents fitted him, but his uncle by marriage, Lord Burghley, though all-powerful with the queen, systematically thwarted his progress, from jealous consciousness of his superiority to his own son. Bacon therefore studied law, and was soon chosen a member of Parliament, where he quickly became a leader. He continued, however, throughout his life to devote much of his time to study and scholarly scientific writing.
On the interpretation of Bacon's public actions depends the answer to the complex and much-debated question of his character. The most reasonable conclusions seem to be: that Bacon was sincerely devoted to the public good and in his earlier life was sometimes ready to risk his own interests in its behalf; that he had a perfectly clear theoretical insight into the principles of moral conduct; that he lacked the moral force of character to live on the level of his convictions, so that after the first, at least, his personal ambition was often stronger than his conscience; that he believed that public success could be gained only by conformity to the low standards of the age; that he fell into the fatal error of supposing that his own preeminent endowments and the services which they might enable him to render justified him in the use of unworthy means; that his sense of real as distinguished from apparent personal dignity was distressingly inadequate; and that, in general, like many men of great intellect, he was deficient in greatness of character, emotion, fine feeling, sympathy, and even in comprehension of the highest spiritual principles. He certainly shared to the full in the usual courtier's ambition for great place and wealth, and in the worldling's inclination to ostentatious display.
Having offended Queen Elizabeth by his boldness in successfully opposing an encroachment on the rights of the House of Commons, Bacon connected himself with the Earl of Essex and received from him many favors; but when Essex attempted a treasonable insurrection in 1601, Bacon, as one of the Queen's lawyers, displayed against him a subservient zeal which on theoretical grounds of patriotism might appear praiseworthy, but which in view of his personal obligations was grossly indecent. For the worldly prosperity which he sought, however, Bacon was obliged to wait until the accession of King James, after which his rise was rapid. The King appreciated his ability and often consulted him, and he frequently gave the wisest advice, whose acceptance might perhaps have averted the worst national disasters of the next fifty years. The advice was above the courage of both the King and the age; but Bacon was advanced through various legal offices, until in 1613 he was made Attorney-General and in 1618 (two years after Shakspere's death) Lord High Chancellor of England, at the same time being raised to the peerage as Baron Verulam. During all this period, in spite of his better knowledge, he truckled with sorry servility to the King and his unworthy favorites and lent himself as an agent in their most arbitrary acts. Retribution overtook him in 1621, within a few days after his elevation to the dignity of Viscount St. Albans. The House of Commons, balked in an attack on the King and the Duke of Buckingham, suddenly turned on Bacon and impeached him for having received bribes in connection with his legal decisions as Lord Chancellor. Bacon admitted the taking of presents
(against which in one of his essays he had directly cautioned judges), and threw himself on the mercy of the House of Lords, with whom the sentence lay. He appears to have been sincere in protesting later that the presents had not influenced his decisions and that he was the justest judge whom England had had for fifty years; it seems that the giving of presents by the parties to a suit was a customary abuse. But he had technically laid himself open to the malice of his enemies and was condemned to very heavy penalties, of which two were enforced, namely, perpetual incapacitation from holding public office, and banishment from Court. Even after this he continued, with an astonishing lack of good taste, to live extravagantly and beyond his means (again in disregard of his own precepts), so that Prince Charles observed that he 'scorned to go out in a snuff.' He died in
1626 from a cold caught in the prosecution of his scientific researches, namely in an experiment on the power of snow to preserve meat.
Bacon's splendid mind and unique intellectual vision produced, perhaps inevitably, considering his public activity, only fragmentary concrete achievements. The only one of his books still commonly read is the series of 'Essays,' which consist of brief and comparatively informal jottings on various subjects. In their earliest form, in 1597, the essays were ten in number, but by additions from time to time they had increased at last in
1625 to fifty-eight. They deal with a great variety of topics, whatever Bacon happened to be interested in, from friendship to the arrangement of a house, and in their condensation they are more like bare synopses than complete discussions. But their comprehensiveness of view, sureness of ideas and phrasing, suggestiveness, and apt illustrations reveal the pregnancy and practical force of Bacon's thought (though, on the other hand, he is not altogether free from the superstitions of his time and after the lapse of three hundred years sometimes seems commonplace). The whole general tone of the essays, also, shows the man, keen and worldly, not at all a poet or idealist. How to succeed and make the most of prosperity might be called the pervading theme of the essays, and subjects which in themselves suggest spiritual treatment are actually considered in accordance with a coldly intellectual calculation of worldly advantage.
The essays are scarcely less notable for style than for ideas. With characteristic intellectual independence Bacon strikes out for himself an extremely terse and clear manner of expression, doubtless influenced by such Latin authors as Tacitus, which stands in marked contrast to the formless diffuseness or artificial elaborateness of most Elizabethan and Jacobean prose. His unit of structure is always a short clause. The sentences are sometimes short, sometimes consist of a number of connected clauses; but they are always essentially loose rather than periodic; so that the thought is perfectly simple and its movement clear and systematic. The very numerous allusions to classical history and life are not the result of affectation, but merely indicate the natural furnishing of the mind of the educated Renaissance gentleman. The essays, it should be added, were evidently suggested and more or less influenced by those of the great French thinker, Montaigne, an earlier contemporary of Bacon. The hold of medieval scholarly tradition, it is further interesting to note, was still so strong that in order to insure their permanent preservation Bacon translated them into Latin--he took for granted that the English in which he first composed them and in which they will always be known was only a temporary vulgar tongue.
But Bacon's most important work, as we have already implied, was not in the field of pure literature but in the general advancement of knowledge, particularly knowledge of natural science; and of this great service we must speak briefly. His avowal to Burghley, made as early as 1592, is famous: 'I have taken all knowledge to be my province.' Briefly stated, his purposes, constituting an absorbing and noble ambition, were to survey all the learning of his time, in all lines of thought, natural science, morals, politics, and the rest, to overthrow the current method of a priori deduction, deduction resting, moreover, on very insufficient and long-antiquated bases of observation, and to substitute for it as the method of the future, unlimited fresh observation and experiment and inductive reasoning. This enormous task was to be mapped out and its results summarized in a Latin work called 'Magna Instauratio Scientiarum'
(The Great Renewal of Knowledge); but parts of this survey were necessarily to be left for posterity to formulate, and of the rest Bacon actually composed only a fraction. What may be called the first part appeared originally in English in 1605 and is known by the abbreviated title, 'The Advancement of Learning'; the expanded Latin form has the title, 'De Augmentis Scientiarum.' Its exhaustive enumeration of the branches of thought and knowledge, what has been accomplished in each and what may be hoped for it in the future, is thoroughly fascinating, though even here Bacon was not capable of passionate enthusiasm. However, the second part of the work, 'Novum Organum' (The New Method), written in Latin and published in 1620, is the most important. Most interesting here, perhaps, is the classification (contrasting with Plato's doctrine of divinely perfect controlling ideas) of the 'idols' (phantoms) which mislead the human mind. Of these Bacon finds four sorts: idols of the tribe, which are inherent in human nature; idols of the cave, the errors of the individual; idols of the market-place, due to mistaken reliance on words; and idols of the theater
(that is, of the schools), resulting from false reasoning.
In the details of all his scholarly work Bacon's knowledge and point of view were inevitably imperfect. Even in natural science he was not altogether abreast of his time--he refused to accept Harvey's discovery of the manner of the circulation of the blood and the Copernican system of astronomy. Neither was he, as is sometimes supposed, the inventor of the inductive method of observation and reasoning, which in some degree is fundamental in all study. But he did, much more fully and clearly than any one before him, demonstrate the importance and possibilities of that method; modern experimental science and thought have proceeded directly in the path which he pointed out; and he is fully entitled to the great honor of being called their father, which certainly places him high among the great figures in the history of human thought.
THE KING JAMES BIBLE, 1611. It was during the reign of James I that the long series of sixteenth century translations of the Bible reached its culmination in what we have already called the greatest of all English books (or rather, collections of books), the King James ('Authorized') version. In 1604 an ecclesiastical conference accepted a suggestion, approved by the king, that a new and more accurate rendering of the Bible should be made. The work was entrusted to a body of about fifty scholars, who divided themselves into six groups, among which the various books of the Bible were apportioned. The resulting translation, proceeding with the inevitable slowness, was completed in 1611, and then rather rapidly superseded all other English versions for both public and private use. This King James Bible is universally accepted as the chief masterpiece of English prose style. The translators followed previous versions so far as possible, checking them by comparison with the original Hebrew and Greek, so that while attaining the greater correctness at which they aimed they preserved the accumulated stylistic excellences of three generations of their predecessors; and their language, properly varying according to the nature of the different books, possesses an imaginative grandeur and rhythm not unworthy--and no higher praise could be awarded--of the themes which it expresses. The still more accurate scholarship of a later century demanded the Revised Version of 1881, but the superior literary quality of the King James version remains undisputed. Its style, by the nature of the case, was somewhat archaic from the outset, and of course has become much more so with the passage of time. This entails the practical disadvantage of making the Bible--events, characters, and ideas--seem less real and living; but on the other hand it helps inestimably to create the finer imaginative atmosphere which is so essential for the genuine religious spirit.
MINOR PROSE WRITERS. Among the prose authors of the period who hold an assured secondary position in the history of English literature three or four may be mentioned: Robert Burton, Oxford scholar, minister, and recluse, whose 'Anatomy of Melancholy' (1621), a vast and quaint compendium of information both scientific and literary, has largely influenced numerous later writers; Jeremy Taylor, royalist clergyman and bishop, one of the most eloquent and spiritual of English preachers, author of 'Holy Living' (1650) and 'Holy Dying' (1651); Izaak Walton, London tradesman and student, best known for his 'Compleat Angler' (1653), but author also of charming brief lives of Donne, George Herbert, and others of his contemporaries; and Sir Thomas Browne, a scholarly physician of Norwich, who elaborated a fastidiously poetic Latinized prose style for his pensively delightful 'Religio Medici' (A Physician's Religion--1643) and other works.
LYRIC POETRY. Apart from the drama and the King James Bible, the most enduring literary achievement of the period was in poetry. Milton--distinctly, after Shakspere, the greatest writer of the century--must receive separate consideration; the more purely lyric poets may be grouped together.
The absence of any sharp line of separation between the literature of the reign of Elizabeth and of those of James I and Charles I is no less marked in the case of the lyric poetry than of the drama. Some of the poets whom we have already discussed in Chapter V continued writing until the second decade of the seventeenth century, or later, and some of those whom we shall here name had commenced their career well before 1600. Just as in the drama, therefore, something of the Elizabethan spirit remains in the lyric poetry; yet here also before many years there is a perceptible change; the Elizabethan spontaneous joyousness largely vanishes and is replaced by more self-conscious artistry or thought.
The Elizabethan note is perhaps most unmodified in certain anonymous songs and other poems of the early years of James I, such as the exquisite 'Weep you no more, sad fountains.' It is clear also in the charming songs of Thomas Campion, a physician who composed both words and music for several song-books, and in Michael Drayton, a voluminous poet and dramatist who is known to most readers only for his finely rugged patriotic ballad on the battle of Agincourt. Sir Henry Wotton, [Footnote: The first o is pronounced as in note.] statesman and Provost (head) of Eton School, displays the Elizabethan idealism in 'The Character of a Happy Life' and in his stanzas in praise of Elizabeth, daughter of King James, wife of the ill-starred Elector-Palatine and King of Bohemia, and ancestress of the present English royal family. The Elizabethan spirit is present but mingled with seventeenth century melancholy in the sonnets and other poems of the Scotch gentleman William Drummond of Hawthornden (the name of his estate near Edinburgh), who in quiet life-long retirement lamented the untimely death of the lady to whom he had been betrothed or meditated on heavenly things.
In Drummond appears the influence of Spenser, which was strong on many poets of the period, especially on some, like William Browne, who continued the pastoral form. Another of the main forces, in lyric poetry as in the drama, was the beginning of the revival of the classical spirit, and in lyric poetry also this was largely due to Ben Jonson. As we have already said, the greater part of Jonson's non-dramatic poetry, like his dramas, expresses chiefly the downright strength of his mind and character. It is terse and unadorned, dealing often with commonplace things in the manner of the Epistles and Satires of Horace, and it generally has more of the quality of intellectual prose than of real emotional poetry. A very favorable representative of it is the admirable, eulogy on Shakspere included in the first folio edition of Shakspere's works. In a few instances, however, Jonson strikes the true lyric note delightfully. Every one knows and sings his two stanzas 'To Celia'--'Drink to me only with thine eyes,' which would still be famous without the exquisitely appropriate music that has come down to us from Jonson's own time, and which are no less beautiful because they consist largely of ideas culled from the Greek philosopher Theophrastus. In all his poems, however, Jonson aims consistently at the classical virtues of clearness, brevity, proportion, finish, and elimination of all excess.
These latter qualities appear also in the lyrics which abound in the plays of John Fletcher, and yet it cannot be said that Fletcher's sweet melody is more classical than Elizabethan. His other distinctive quality is the tone of somewhat artificial courtliness which was soon to mark the lyrics of the other poets of the Cavalier party. An avowed disciple of Jonson and his classicism and a greater poet than Fletcher is Robert Herrick, who, indeed, after Shakspere and Milton, is the finest lyric poet of these two centuries.
Herrick, the nephew of a wealthy goldsmith, seems, after a late graduation from Cambridge, to have spent some years about the Court and in the band of Jonson's 'sons.' Entering the Church when he was nearly forty, he received the small country parish of Dean Prior in the southwest (Devonshire), which he held for nearly twenty years, until 1647, when he was dispossessed by the victorious Puritans. After the Restoration he was reinstated, and he continued to hold the place until his death in old age in 1674. He published his poems (all lyrics) in 1648 in a collection which he called
'Hesperides and Noble Numbers.' The 'Hesperides' (named from the golden apples of the classical Garden of the Daughters of the Sun) are twelve hundred little secular pieces, the 'Noble Numbers' a much less extensive series of religious lyrics. Both sorts are written in a great variety of stanza forms, all equally skilful and musical. Few of the poems extend beyond fifteen or twenty lines in length, and many are mere epigrams of four lines or even two. The chief secular subjects are: Herrick's devotion to various ladies, Julia, Anthea, Perilla, and sundry more, all presumably more or less imaginary; the joy and uncertainty of life; the charming beauty of Nature; country life, folk lore, and festivals; and similar light or familiar themes. Herrick's characteristic quality, so far as it can be described, is a blend of Elizabethan joyousness with classical perfection of finish. The finish, however, really the result of painstaking labor, such as Herrick had observed in his uncle's shop and as Jonson had enjoined, is perfectly unobtrusive; so apparently natural are the poems that they seem the irrepressible unmeditated outpourings of happy and idle moments. In care-free lyric charm Herrick can certainly never be surpassed; he is certainly one of the most captivating of all the poets of the world. Some of the 'Noble Numbers' are almost as pleasing as the 'Hesperides,' but not because of real religious significance. For of anything that can be called spiritual religion Herrick was absolutely incapable; his nature was far too deficient in depth. He himself and his philosophy of life were purely Epicurean, Hedonistic, or pagan, in the sense in which we use those terms to-day. His forever controlling sentiment is that to which he gives perfect expression in his best-known song, 'Gather ye rosebuds,' namely the Horatian 'Carpe diem'--'Snatch all possible pleasure from the rapidly-fleeting hours and from this gloriously delightful world.' He is said to have performed his religious duties with regularity; though sometimes in an outburst of disgust at the stupidity of his rustic parishioners he would throw his sermon in their faces and rush out of the church. Put his religion is altogether conventional. He thanks God for material blessings, prays for their continuance, and as the conclusion of everything, in compensation for a formally orthodox life, or rather creed, expects when he dies to be admitted to Heaven. The simple naivete with which he expresses this skin-deep and primitive faith is, indeed, one of the chief sources of charm in the 'Noble Numbers.'
Herrick belongs in part to a group of poets who, being attached to the Court, and devoting some, at least, of their verses to conventional love-making, are called the Cavalier Poets. Among the others Thomas Carew follows the classical principles of Jonson in lyrics which are facile, smooth, and sometimes a little frigid. Sir John Suckling, a handsome and capricious representative of all the extravagances of the Court set, with whom he was enormously popular, tossed off with affected carelessness a mass of slovenly lyrics of which a few audaciously impudent ones are worthy to survive. From the equally chaotic product of Colonel Richard Lovelace stand out the two well-known bits of noble idealism, 'To Lucasta, Going to the Wars,' and 'To Althea, from Prison.' George Wither (1588-1667), a much older man than Suckling and Lovelace, may be mentioned with them as the writer in his youth of light-hearted love-poems. But in the Civil War he took the side of Parliament and under Cromwell he rose to the rank of major-general. In his later life he wrote a great quantity of Puritan religious verse, largely prosy in spite of his fluency.
The last important group among these lyrists is that of the more distinctly religious poets. The chief of these, George Herbert (1593-1633), the subject of one of the most delightful of the short biographies of Izaak Walton, belonged to a distinguished family of the Welsh Border, one branch of which held the earldom of Pembroke, so that the poet was related to the young noble who may have been Shakspere's patron. He was also younger brother of Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury, an inveterate duellist and the father of English Deism. [Footnote: See below, p. 212.] Destined by his mother to peaceful pursuits, he wavered from the outset between two forces, religious devotion and a passion for worldly comfort and distinction. For a long period the latter had the upper hand, and his life has been described by his best editor, Professor George Herbert Palmer, as twenty-seven years of vacillation and three of consecrated service. Appointed Public Orator, or showman, of his university, Cambridge, he spent some years in enjoying the somewhat trifling elegancies of life and in truckling to the great. Then, on the death of his patrons, he passed through a period of intense crisis from which he emerged wholly spiritualized. The three remaining years of his life he spent in the little country parish of Bemerton, just outside of Salisbury, as a fervent High Church minister, or as he preferred to name himself, priest, in the strictest devotion to his professional duties and to the practices of an ascetic piety which to the usual American mind must seem about equally admirable and conventional. His religious poems, published after his death in a volume called 'The Temple,' show mainly two things, first his intense and beautiful consecration to his personal God and Saviour, which, in its earnest sincerity, renders him distinctly the most representative poet of the Church of England, and second the influence of Donne, who was a close friend of his mother. The titles of most of the poems, often consisting of a single word, are commonly fantastic and symbolical--for example, 'The Collar,' meaning the yoke of submission to God; and his use of conceits, though not so pervasive as with Donne, is equally contorted. To a present-day reader the apparent affectations may seem at first to throw doubt on Herbert's genuineness; but in reality he was aiming to dedicate to religious purposes what appeared to him the highest style of poetry. Without question he is, in a true if special sense, a really great poet.
The second of these religious poets, Richard Crashaw, [Footnote: The first vowel is pronounced as in the noun crash.] whose life (1612-1649) was not quite so short as Herbert's, combined an ascetic devotion with a glowingly sensuous esthetic nature that seems rather Spanish than English. Born into an extreme Protestant family, but outraged by the wanton iconoclasm of the triumphant Puritans, and deprived by them of his fellowship, at Cambridge, he became a Catholic and died a canon in the church of the miracle-working Lady (Virgin Mary) of Loretto in Italy. His most characteristic poetry is marked by extravagant conceits and by ecstatic outbursts of emotion that have been called more ardent than anything else in English; though he sometimes writes also in a vein of calm and limpid beauty. He was a poetic disciple of Herbert, as he avowed by humbly entitling his volume 'Steps to the Temple.'
The life of Henry Vaughan [Footnote: The second a is not now sounded.] (1621-1695) stands in contrast to those of Herbert and Crashaw both by its length and by its quietness. Vaughan himself emphasized his Welsh race by designating himself 'The Silurist' (native of South Wales). After an incomplete university course at Jesus College (the Welsh college), Oxford, and some apparently idle years in London among Jonson's disciples, perhaps also after serving the king in the war, he settled down in his native mountains to the self-denying life of a country physician. His important poems were mostly published at this time, in 1650 and 1655, in the collection which he named 'Silex Scintillans' (The Flaming Flint), a title explained by the frontispiece, which represents a flinty heart glowing under the lightning stroke of God's call. Vaughan's chief traits are a very fine and calm philosophic-religious spirit and a carefully observant love of external Nature, in which he sees mystic revelations of God. In both respects he is closely akin to the later and greater Wordsworth, and his 'Retreat' has the same theme as Wordsworth's famous
'Ode on Intimations of Immortality,' the idea namely that children have a greater spiritual sensitiveness than older persons, because they have come to earth directly from a former life in Heaven.
The contrast between the chief Anglican and Catholic religious poets of this period has been thus expressed by a discerning critic: 'Herrick's religious emotions are only as ripples on a shallow lake when compared to the crested waves of Crashaw, the storm-tides of Herbert, and the deep-sea stirrings of Vaughan.'
We may give a further word of mention to the voluminous Francis Quarles, who in his own day and long after enjoyed enormous popularity, especially among members of the Church of England and especially for his 'Emblems,' a book of a sort common in Europe for a century before his time, in which fantastic woodcuts, like Vaughan's 'Silex Scintillans,' were illustrated with short poems of religious emotion, chiefly dominated by fear. But Quarles survives only as an interesting curiosity.
Three other poets whose lives belong to the middle of the century may be said to complete this entire lyric group. Andrew Marvell, a very moderate Puritan, joined with Milton in his office of Latin Secretary under Cromwell, wrote much poetry of various sorts, some of it in the Elizabethan octosyllabic couplet. He voices a genuine love of Nature, like Wither often in the pastoral form; but his best-known poem is the 'Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland,' containing the famous eulogy of King Charles' bearing at his execution. Abraham Cowley, a youthful prodigy and always conspicuous for intellectual power, was secretary to Queen Henrietta Maria after her flight to France and later was a royalist spy in England. His most conspicuous poems are his so-called 'Pindaric Odes,' in which he supposed that he was imitating the structure of the Greek Pindar but really originated the pseudo-Pindaric Ode, a poem in irregular, non-correspondent stanzas. He is the last important representative of the 'Metaphysical' style. In his own day he was acclaimed as the greatest poet of all time, but as is usual in such cases his reputation very rapidly waned. Edmund Waller (1606-1687), a very wealthy gentleman in public life who played a flatly discreditable part in the Civil War, is most important for his share in shaping the riming pentameter couplet into the smooth pseudo-classical form rendered famous by Dryden and Pope; but his only notable single poems are two Cavalier love-lyrics in stanzas, 'On a Girdle' and 'Go, Lovely Rose.'
JOHN MILTON, 1608-1674. Conspicuous above all his contemporaries as the representative poet of Puritanism, and, by almost equally general consent, distinctly the greatest of English poets except Shakspere, stands John Milton. His life falls naturally into three periods: 1. Youth and preparation, 1608-1639, when he wrote his shorter poems. 2. Public life,Next