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

XVI. Elizabethan Prose Fiction

§ 11. Greene’s romances

While Sidney thus dreamed of his golden world, there was one who, under less happy circumstances, was to traverse the same fields. Robert Greene is the second great romancer of the Elizabethan period, in which he appears as a picturesque but pathetic Bohemian, with “wit lent from Heaven but vices sent from Hell.” Before he had finished with Cambridge, his moral nature was tainted, and, after that, his way lay perpetually over stormy seas. A glimpse of happier things seemed promised in 1586, but, once again, his evil genius led him astray, until, finally, he was rescued by a poor shoemaker in 1592, under whose rough shelter he made a pathetic end. His life had been one of struggle and drift, a wayward course of frustrated good intentions; and these things left their impress upon what he wrote, and upon his manner of writing. In the first place, he wrote merely to sell, and, as a consequence, he resembles a sensitive barometer, indicating the literary vogue from day to day. When Lyly was popular, Greene adopted his methods; when romance was called for, he also complied; his attempt at the pastoral followed Sidney’s success; while his realistic pamphlets responded to a yet later demand. Secondly, with numerous creditors ever driving him on, he resorts in his haste to plagiarism and repetition. He repeats himself without a blush: about thirteen pages of his Myrrour of Modestie occur in his Never too late, and parts of Planetomachia reappear in Perimedes the Blacksmith; from Euphues, he abstracts numerous similes, while from T(homas) B(owes’s) translation of Peter de la Primaudaye’s French Academy (1586), he takes entire passages when they please his fancy. And yet, though in life he followed the worse, he approved the better; his work is free from licentiousness, he never “gave the looser cause to laugh.” His better self is revealed when, in his earlier work, he writes as a “Homer of women,” when he sings in Menaphon a tender cradle-song, or when he works into his verse the saddening refrain of his life’s story.

Greene’s chief romances are Pandosto (1588), Perimedes the Blacksmith (1588) and Menaphon (1589). The first deals with the story of Dorastus and Fawnia, which Shakespeare afterwards refined in his Winter’s Tale, adding such characters as Autolycus and Paulina, and removing from those he adopted their puppet-like stiffness. Perimedes embodies an evening tale, told by the fireside of the idyllic blacksmith, the story being based upon one in the Decameron (Giorn. II, Nov. 11); the motive is that of the separation and reunion of kindred, and the chief figure is the noble Mariana. In Menaphon, the scene is laid in the realm of Arcadia, where occur the adventures of the shipwrecked princess Sephestia, who is loved by the shepherd Menaphon, but is duly restored to her husband and son, disguised as shepherds. Sidney’s influence is apparent here, primarily, in the pastoral background; but, when Menaphon promises Sephestia that “the mountaine tops shall be thy mornings walke, and the shadie vallies thy evenings arbour,” it is further evident that Sidney, rather than Lyly, has become the model of style. The plot, apparently, is taken from the narrative of Curan and Argentile in Warner’s Albion’s England; and the Thracian Wonder, by a later pen, is a dramatic adaptation of the pastoral romance.

Other romances of Greene, though of less importance, must also be mentioned. In 1584 appeared his Gwydonius and Arbasto, two romances of an earlier heroic type, which were followed, in 1592, by Philomela, an attractive story, in honour of lady Fitzwater. The central incident of this last romance consists of a wager, made by a jealous husband, concerning his wife’s fidelity—a favourite theme of Boccaccio—and the work is confessedly “penned to approve of women’s chastity.”

From the point of view of art, Greene’s romantic fiction cannot be said to rank very high, though it comprises interesting narratives, of moral and learned tendency, which waft their readers into the pleasant but fanciful realms of Bohemia and Arcadia. There is, however, considerable lack of structural skill, of artistic restraint and verisimilitude, in dealing with the affairs of the heart; as with Sidney, the art of story-telling in prose was yet in its infancy. But one pleasing feature of these works is the skill with which women-portraits are drawn: for the romances embody such creations as Myrania and Fawnia, Mariana and Sephestia, women of the faithful and modest type. It was only after 1588 that the reverence and sympathy which these portraits betray on the part of their author was to change into the “bitterest hate.” In Alcida, a love pamphlet of 1588, he first revealed “woman’s wanton ways”; and, subsequently, he depicted fascinating sirens such as Infida (Never too late) and Lamilia (Groatsworth of Wit), who form a marked contrast with his earlier types. Excellent occasional verse is another outstanding feature of these prose romances; it culminates in Menaphon, as, for instance, in the lines of Melicertus on the description of his mistress, while the cradle song beginning

  • Weepe not my wanton! smile upon my knee!
  • When thou art olde, ther’s grief inough for thee!
  • is notable even among Elizabethan lyrics.