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

XIV. Elizabethan Criticism

§ 13. Summary

Until the provision of increased facilities for study which have been given during the last thirty years or so by the labours of many scholars, there was some excuse for want of clear comprehension of the importance of Elizabethan criticism. But there is no such excuse now; though it is doubtful whether, even yet, the subject has generally received from students the attention that it deserves. The episode—if the term may be applied to a passage at the beginning of an action—is an interesting, and almost entirely normal, example of the peculiar English way of proceeding in such matters, the way which is euphemistically described as that of tentative experiment, but which has received from political plain speaking the description of “muddling through.” After such purely preliminary attitudes to criticism as those of Chaucer and Caxton, men, about the second quarter of the sixteenth century, perceive that some theory of English writing, and some regular adjustment of practice to that theory, is advisable, if not positively necessary; and that the advisability, if not even the necessity, is more especially applicable to verse-writing. But, so far as regards English itself, they have absolutely no precedent; they have a century of very dubious practice immediately behind them, and hardly any knowledge of what is beyond that century, except in regard to one very great writer, and one or two smaller ones, who are separated from them by a great gulf in pronunciation, vocabulary and thought. On the other hand, in the ancient languages and literatures they have not merely models of practice universally accepted as peerless, but theoretical treatises, numerous and elaborate; while the more accomplished modern languages, also, offer something in precept and more in practice. It is almost inevitable that they should do what they do do—should apply ancient and foreign-modern principles to English without sufficient consideration whether application is possible and desirable. Hence, the too famous English “heroic”; hence, the cumbering and lumbering of the new English rhetoric with matter which may have been not at all cumbrous or lumbering in its original place. Hence, the ready adoption of the interesting, but, to a great extent, irrelevant and otiose, discussions about the abstract virtue of poetry. Hence, the undue haste to teach the infant, or hardly adolescent, drama the way it should go, without waiting to see what would come of the way in which it was going.

It was a partial misfortune—but partial only because the efforts made were far better than none at all—that the chief and most abundant modern critical treatises available were either mere echoes of the classics or devoted to a modern language—Italian—which has but small affinities with English. The Spanish critics began just too late to give much assistance, even had English writers been disposed to take lessons from Spain; and, in their own country, their voices were soon whelmed. The French required very careful reading not to do more harm than good. And, above all, behind the whole of at least poetical, and especially prosodic, criticism, there was easily perceivable, though, perhaps, not consciously perceived, the dread of relapse into doggerel—the aspiration after order, civility, accomplishment, as contrasted with “barbarous and balductoom” vernacularity. And, outside the strictly literary sphere, numerous influences determined or affected some, at least, of the issues of criticism: the puritan distrust of poetry and, specially, of the stage; the Anglican dislike of possible Roman influences in foreign literature, the contempt of the whole period for medieval things.

Yet it is remarkable how, from the very first and throughout, there is a glimmering sense that, after all, English must “do for itself”—that “the kingdom is within,” here as elsewhere. In the act of abusing rime and recommending “verse,” Ascham admits more than a misgiving as to whether the English hexameter is possible. In the act of limiting English poetry as a matter of actual observation to dissyllabic feet, Gascoigne is careful to remark that “we have had” others, and, apparently rather wishes that we may have them again; while it is remarkable how directly he goes to the positive material of actual poetry for the source of his rules. Sidney, classiciser as he is, practically assures us, by that famous confession as to Chevy Chace, that we need be under no apprehension but that English verse will always appeal to the Englishman as no other can. A rather sapless formalist like Puttenham does adopt, and with not so very scanty knowledge, that historical method in which all salvation lies; and so, in his more blundering way, does even an enthusiast for innovation like Webbe. Finally, we find Daniel striking into and striking out in the full stream of truth. “We shall best tend to perfection by going on in the course we are in.” Tu contra audentior ito!

Yet, at the same time, the critical literature of the period, not less distinctly avoids the mistake, too well known elsewhere, of neglecting the comparative study of other languages and literatures, ancient as well as modern. Indeed, half the mistakes that it does make may be said to come from overdoing this comparison. At the particular stage, however, this mattered very little. It was, undoubtedly, up to this period, a defect of English that, though constantly translating and imitating, it had translated and imitated, if not quite unintelligently, yet with no conscious and critical intelligence—in a blind and instinctive sort of way. This is now altered. Sidney’s not daring to allow Spenser’s “framing of his style to an olde rusticke language … since neither Theocritus … Virgill … nor Sanazara … did affect it,” is, indeed, altogether wrong. It is wrong, as a matter of fact, to some extent, as regards Theocritus; it is inconsistent as ranking a mere modern like Sannazaro, of certainly no more authority than Spenser himself, with Theocritus and Vergil; and it is a petitio principii in its assumption that Greeks, or Latins, or Italians, can serve as prohibitory precedents—as forbidders, merely by the fact of not having done a thing—to Englishmen. But the process is literary and critical, if the procedure and application are erroneous. English, so to speak, is, at least, “entered” in the general academy of literatures; it submits itself to competition and to co-examination; it is no longer content to go on—not, indeed, as Ascham vainly says, “in a foul wrong way” but—in an uncultivated and thoughtless way. It is taking stock and making audit of itself, investigating what has been done and prospecting for what is to be done. Nor should it be forgotten that there is such work as Mulcaster’s, which, though not strictly literary criticism, is linguistic and scholastic criticism of no unliterary kind. Mulcaster, in his Positions and Elementary, following Thynne and others, almost founds the examination of the language itself; as does that part of Ascham’s Scholemaster which has hitherto been passed over and which concerns the teaching of the classical tongue by means of English—a process which, as all sound thinking on education has seen since, involves, and carries with it, the teaching of English by means of the classical tongues. The whole body of effort in this kind is one great overhauling of the literary and linguistic resources of the nation—a thing urgently required, long neglected, yet, perhaps, not possible to have been attempted with any real prospect of benefit until this particular time.

Nor would it be wise to over-estimate the futility of the futilities, the mistake of the mistakes, that were committed. The worst and most prominent of them all—the craze for “versing”—sprang from a just sense of the disorderliness of much recent English poetry, and led almost directly to the introduction of a new and better order. As for what may seem to us the idle expatiations on the virtues of poetry in the abstract, or the superfluous defences of it, these were things which, according to all precedent, had to be gone through, and to be got over. Even on the side where there was still most to seek—the diligent and complete exploring of the actual possessions of English is a really historical spirit—more must have been done than is obvious on the surface, or we should not be able to find, a few years after Elizabeth’s death, a man like William Browne acquainted with the poems of Occleve, who had never been favoured by the early printers, and actually reproducing Occleve’s work among his own. That there was even some study of Old English is well known. On the whole, therefore, though these various efforts were not well co-ordinated, and, in many cases, not even well directed to their immediate objects, it would be the grossest of errors to belittle or misprise them; and it is only a pity that the taste for critical enquiry was not better represented in the first two generations of the seventeenth century itself. For, in that case, Dryden, who actually availed himself of what he could get from Jonson, would have found far more to go upon; and, with his own openness of mind and catholicity of appreciation, would have done even more than he did to keep his successors in turn from falling into that pit of ignorant contempt for older literature which engulfed too many of them. Even as it was, the Elizabethan critics did something to give pause to the hasty generalisation that periods of criticism and periods of creation cannot coincide. If they did not lay much of a foundation, Gascoigne, Sidney and Daniel, in their different ways, did something even in this way; they did a good deal towards clearing the ground and a good deal more towards surveying it. It is unfortunate, and it is a little curious, that they did not devote more attention to prose, especially as their guides, the ancients, had left them considerable assistance; but they were, no doubt, misled (as, for that matter, the ancients themselves were, to a great extent) by the exclusively rhetorical determination of ancient criticism in this respect. For poetry, however, they did not a little; and, after all, there are those who say that by “literature” most people mean poetry.