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BRIEF SURVEY OF THE HISTORY
English POETRY occupies a proud station in the literature of Modern Europe: yielding to none in sublimity, extent, and variety, it surpasses all in the highest species of poetry, that which is ennobled by the spirit of piety, and derives its inspiration, not from fabled fountains, but from the “ wells of water springing up to everlasting life.” Truly ungrateful are the British bards that forget their obligation to the Bible: from its sacred pages were derived the first impulses of English genius: our literature has grown with pure religion, shared in its temporary obscurations, and participated in all its triumphs. From the days of the Saxon Alfred to the present hour, there has not been a period remarkable for the brilliancy of its literary triumphs, that was not also distinguished by zeal in the diffusion of religious truth; and the epochs marked by tameness and dulness in the annals of our literature, were also those when the religious historian could complain, that “the love of many had waxed cold.”
Of the literature of our Saxon ancestors too little is generally known. Being hopelessly ignorant of their metrical laws, and the quantity of their syllables, we cannot derive from the songs of the ancient bards all the pleasure that they afforded their contemporaries; but we can trace in them that stubborn strength of character and manly independence, which soon roused the jealous vengeance of the Roman pontiff, and induced him not merely to sanction, but direct, the invasion of the Norman William. The Norman Conquest established the papal power in England, on a basis apparently permanent. The same policy that had induced the popes to aid the Franks in their exterminating war against the Gauls and the Goths, and the Saxons themselves against the Britons, led the reigning pontiff to become the chief ally of the Normans: ignorance was a better support for superstition than intelligence; and, with prescience derived from experience, it was reasonably hoped that the gratitude of an unprincipled conqueror would yield more profit than the concession of just protection to an innocent people. Under the iron rule of the papacy, English religion became a mere repetition of idle forms, and English literature a tame rehearsal of monkish legends. But “the bread which was cast upon the waters was found again after many days;" the Saxon Gospels of Alfred were not forgotten, and a new benefactor again enabled the people to read, “in their own tongue, the wonderful works of God.” Wickliffe, the great precursor of the Reformation, published his translation of the New Testament, and a dawn appeared, contending with the dark clouds that overspread the land.
While Wickliffe was denouncing the corruptions of the papacy with unusual boldness, and contrasting its tyranny with the mild dominion of Him, “whose yoke is easy and burden light,” Chaucer was raising the dignity of his native language, by practically showing its poetic capabilities. A convert to the faith of Wickliffe, le studied the Bible carefully, and learned from it the sublime moral principles which his verses so studivusly inculcate. Notwithstanding all the difficulties of obsolete language, “the father of English poetry” is still read with pleasure. His works, though sullied by the coarseness of his age, show that to the genius of the poet, the learning of the scholar, and the wisdom of the philosopher, he had also added the piety of the Christian.
Chaucer, however, was not the first of the English poets that exposed the usurpations of the papal see, the superstitions of the Romish church, and the profligacy of the monastic orders. The base bargain, by which England had been sacrificed to the Norman William and his ruthless followers, sank deep into the memory of the Saxon population: and the conduct of the clergy was far from being such as tended to efface these unfavourable impressions. The author of Piers Plowman's Vision vigorously exposes the follies and crimes of the monks and friars, and prophesies that their conduct would inevitably produce the abolition of all monastic institutions. This remarkable prediction was uttered nearly two centuries before its fulfilment in the reign of Henry the Eighth. The popular ballads of the age preceding Chaucer, contain also strong evidence of the reluctance with which the English people bore the intolerant yoke of the papacy; and there is every reason to believe that the English Reformation would have dated from the age of Wickliffe and Chaucer, had not the inscrutable dispensations of Providence ordained that the Romish see should supply additional and irresistible evidence of its deadly enmity to civil liberty and religious toleration.
Evil days followed: in the civil wars between the houses of York and Lancaster, the good seed which Wickliffe liad sown was trodden down; religion and literature were equally unheard amid the din of arms and the fierce contest of rival factions: it was not until after the accession of the house of Tudor, that a new attack was made upon the strongholds of ignorance and superstition. During the reign of Henry the Eighth, the public mind was in a state of transition: the signs of approaching improvement were manifest, but the strength of its adversaries was also fully developed, and there were moments when the events of the contest seemed doubtful. But the literary history of that reign proves that the awakening of the public mind to the important questions at issue between the reformers and the defenders of the papacy had not been without its effect on English poetry; the names of Wyatt Surrey, and Sir Thomas More, will ever be remembered among those who laboured for the refinement and improvement of our language.
In the disturbed reign of the amiable Edward, little was done for the advancement of literature, though much was planned and designed. His premature death, and the accession of his sanguinary sister, seemed to threaten the return of former darkness, and to menace destruction at once to pure religion and enlightened literature. Fortunately, her reign was brief; and the accession of Elizabeth realized for England the truth of that beautiful Oriental proverb, “ The darkest hour in the twenty-four is the hour before day.”
And never did a brighter day open for any country, than dawned for England, when the virgin-queen ascended its throne. It was the age of Shakspeare and of Spenser, and of countless other poets, who would, at any former period, have shone as lights, but who were now obscured by brighter luminaries. They were all the children of the Reformation; they all breathe the vigour of minds freshly emancipated, anxious to prove, to the utmost extent, their newly acquired freedom; sometimes, perhaps, hurried into extravagance by the stimulating effects of sudden liberty. Of Shakspeare, we will not speak; the plan of this little work excludes the dramatic writers; and, in the brief space of an Introduction, it would be impossible to do justice to one whom Milton has happily termed “Fancy's child."
Spenser, from whose writings our first extracts are taken, was the chief founder of what may be termed “the allegorical school of poetry” in England. Italy was the parent of allegorical poetry : precluded by the tyranny of the Church from exposing abuses that outraged reason and revolted taste, the Italian authors of the middle ages framed a figurative language, in which they could declare to the initiated their hatred of corruption and their hopes of improvement. Dante, more especially, used a thick veil of allegory in announcing to the world its religious defections, and the means by which it might be regenerated. But the style which the Italians assumed from necessity, Spenser adopted from choice; a circumstance deeply to be regretted, as his poem has been thus deprived of all the interest that results from sympathy. But, notwithstanding this great disadvantage, The Faerie Queene must ever be regarded as a poem of which a nation may be justly proud.
The great success of Spenser encouraged a host of imitators; but few of them merited or attained equal eminence. Of these imitations, The Purple Island was decidedly the best ; but some of its allegories are so very extravagant, that the reader is deterred from the perusal of the entire poem.
The reign of James the First was, on the whole, not unfavourable to literature; but, towards the close of it, the clouds were collecting round the political horizon, which burst with such a fearful tempest on the head of his unfortunate successor. The civil dissensions in the reign of Charles the First, directed the attention of the public mind from poetry to politics; and when the Puritans triumphed, they, in the sternness of their fanaticism, proscribed the graces of literature as criminal. Yet, even in this age, did religion again prove the best ally of genius; and the Bible inspire the first of England's, perhaps of the world's, poets.
During the rancorous debates and fierce contests of the Civil War, men were in earnest; no matter to which side we assign the palm of the better cause, to neither can we refuse the praise of sincerity. The zeal of both factions may have been, indeed often was, mistaken; but then it was certainly unfeigned. Milton was the poet of Christianity; but, in a strioter sense, he was the poet of English Christianity; not that system which consists in a dull, tedious round of superstitious observances and idle forms; nor yet that which is composed of metaphysical dreams and scholastic jargon, and mocks reason by assuming its name; nor the modern usage which derives from the Gospels a species of mathematical morality, addressing itself solely to the intellect, and passing over the affections and the passions, as if they formed no element of the human character; but that which, thank God, is still the glory of our land,--that system which presumes not to investigate the divine attributes, but exhibits them in their effects upon the moral government of the universe. It is the true glory of English Christianity, that while it attempts not to penetrate the clouds and thick darkness that curtain the Infinite, it reverences, because it believes upon the righteousness and judgment which are the habitations of the eternal throne. It is consequently, a system which equally addresses the intellect and the feelings, which hurries Reason to a right conclusion, by bringing imagination to accelerate her speed, and which, by addressing all the component parts of the human character, makes all tend to one great point “of wonder, love, and praise.” In no other part of the world, and rarely at any other time, was the influence of Christianity so powerfully felt, as in England during the Civil Wars; and from its humanizing effects, an Englishman may point with something like pride to that portion of his annals, from the parallel of which the natives of less favoured lands must recoil with horror. Compare the history of the English commonwealth with that of the French republic, and doubt, if you can, of the immense benefits that England has derived from the