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

I. Englishmen and the Classical Renascence

§ 13. Thomas Wilson

Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique is almost exclusively drawn from such old masters as Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. The author discusses various kinds of composition, sets forth the rules which guided authors in the golden age of classical literature and applies them with considerable success to the art of writing in English. There is little or no originality in the volume, save, perhaps, the author’s condemnation of the use of French and Italian phrases and idioms which he complains are “counterfeiting the kinges Englishe.” The warnings of Wilson will not seem untimely if it be remembered that the earlier English poets of the period—Sir Thomas Wyatt the elder, and the earl of Surrey—drew their inspiration from Petrarch and Ariosto, that their earliest attempts at poetry were translations from Italian sonnets and that their maturer efforts were imitations of the sweet and stately measures and style of Italian poesie. The polish which men like Wyatt and Surrey were praised for giving to our “rude and homely manner of vulgar poesie” might have led to some degeneration. Shakespeare himself is said to have studied Wilson and to have profited by his book.

Elyot made translation instruct his countrymen in the ethical and political wisdom of the ancients; Wilson used the same means to fire their patriotism. In a preface he drew a comparison between Athens and England and the danger which threatened the one from Philip of Macedon and the other from Philip II of Spain. Then followed The Three Orations of Demosthenes, chiefe orator among the Grecians, in favour of the Olynthians, with those his four Orations against King Philip of Macedonie; most nedeful to be redde in these daungerous dayes of all them that love their countries libertie and desire to take warning for their better avayle (1570).

It remains to note briefly another proof of the silent spread of the classical renascence. In all medieval universities and high schools, scholars delighted to act plays, especially during carnival time. As the classical renascence made progress, Scriptural subjects gave place to the comedies of Terence and Plautus and to school dramas which, for the most part, were constructed for the purpose of incorporating in the text as many phrases as possible from Terence, Cicero and Vergil. The result of all this was that the great men of antiquity became known to the commonalty. Coriolanus and Julius Caesar were familiar names in England, and a Welsh soldier had at least heard of Alexander and of Macedon.

Thus, classical learning, at first the possession of a favoured few, then, by means of translations, the property of all people fairly educated, gradually permeated England so thoroughly that, though Shakespeare was not far distant from Chaucer by the measurement of time, when we pass from the one to the other it is as if we entered a new and entirely different world.