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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XIV. Elizabethan Criticism

§ 1. Caxton’s prefaces

IT is, perhaps, only after long and thorough reading of Middle English literature that the student becomes aware how completely absent from it is the spirit of literary criticism. Not, of course, that, in this respect, it differs very much from its continental contemporaries, but that the absence is, perhaps, more complete—at any rate longer lasting—than with any of them. Almost the first utterance that belongs even to the precincts and outskirts of the critical province is Robert Mannyng’s statement (in the prologue of his Chronicle, c. 1330) of his reason for preferring one metre to another, which is merely that it was more likely to be appreciated. The unknown annotator who observed that Cursor Mundi is “the best book of all” was certainly not thinking of its literary merits. Here, as elsewhere, the first real signs of advance are found in Chaucer; but Chaucer’s criticism, though, probably, no one was ever born with more of the critical spirit, is mainly implicit and undeveloped. Yet the presence of it is unmistakable, not merely in his remarks on his own prosody, not merely in the host’s on Sir Thopas, not merely in Sir Thopas itself and in the way in which the company fall upon the luckless monk, but in many slighter symptoms. Indeed, it may be said that the first definite sign of the awakening of the critical instinct in English writers, other than Chaucer, is in their admiration for Chaucer himself. It is true that this admiration had singular yokefellows; but that is quite natural. Even as you must walk before you run, and totter before you walk, so must criticism itself, at the first, be uncritical.

The first body of critical observations in English is, probably, to be found in the prefaces of Caxton; and a very interesting, though a rather infantine, body it is. His very earliest work, the translation of the Recuyell, is dictated to him by his sense of “the fair language of French, which was in prose so well and compendiously set and written.” He afterwards “remembers himself of his simpleness and unperfectness” in both languages. He perceives, in reference to the Dictes of the Philosophers, that lord Rivers’s translation is “right well and cunningly made.” He sees that, though Boethius was “an excellent author of divers books craftily and curiously made in prose and metre,” yet the style of De Consolatione is “hard and difficult,” so that Chaucer deserved “perpetual laud” for translating it. Benet Burgh has “full craftily made” Cato in “ballad royal.” And the praises of The Canterbury Tales and of the Morte d’Arthur, more elaborate than these, but also much better known, might be called the first real “appreciations” in English.

These elementary and half unconscious critical exercises of Caxton, as a moment’s thought will show, must have had a great influence, exercised, no doubt, as unconsciously as it was generated, on the new readers of these new printed books. Yet it was long before the seed fell into a soil where it could germinate. Even when, at the beginning of the next century, regular Rhetorics began to be written at first hand in imitation of the ancients, or through modern humanists like Melanchthon (the earliest instance, apparently, is that of Leonard Coxe of Reading, in 1524), the temptation to stray from strictly formal rhetoric into criticism was not much felt until there arose at Cambridge, towards the middle of the century, that remarkable school of friends who are represented in the history of English prose by Ascham, Cheke and Wilson, and whose share in the revival of letters is dealt with elsewhere in the present volume. Even then, on the eve of Elizabeth’s reign, and with the new burst of Italian critical writing begun by Trissino, Daniello and Vida, the critical utterances are scanty, quite unsystematic and shot (as one of the three would have said) “at rovers.” The really best work of the trio in this kind is Cheke’s, who, if he was mistaken in his caution to Sir Thomas Hoby against the practice of borrowing from ancient tongues in modern, has left us, in the criticism on Sallust quoted by Ascham, a really solid exercise in the art: not, of course, absolutely right—few things are that in criticism—but putting one side of rightness forcibly and well, in his depreciation (as Quintilian, doubtless his inspirer, has put it) of “wishing to write better than you can.” It may, however, be noted that all the three set themselves against over-elaboration of style in this way or that. It was this which provoked Thomas Wilson (whom we may not now, it seems, call “Sir” Thomas) to diverge from the usual course of rhetorical precept, not merely into some illustrative tales, but into a definite onslaught on “inkhorn” terms—foreign, archaic, technical or what not. It is not known exactly who first hit on this phrase, the metaphor of which is sufficiently obvious; but it is freely used about this time. And we can quite easily see how the “aureate” phraseology of the fifteenth century—the heavy bedizenment of Latinised phrase, which we find not merely in poetry but in such books as the early English version of Thomas à Kempis—must have challenged opposition on the part of those who were anxious, indeed, to follow the classics for good, but desirous, at the same time, that “our English” should be written “pure.” And the contemporary jealousy and contempt of the medieval appears not less clearly in Wilson’s objection to the Chaucerising which Thynne’s edition, evidently, had made fashionable.