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

XIV. Elizabethan Criticism

§ 2. Ascham

The strengthening power of the critical sense, however, and, at the same time, its lack of education and direction, are best shown in Ascham. It is something, but not much, that he exhibits to the full that curious confusion of aesthetic and ethic which, essentially Platonic and patristic, cannot be said to have been wholly discouraged by Aristotle, and which the period, uniting, for once, the three tendencies, maintained, almost in the teeth of its own humanism, more strenuously than ever. This confusion, or—to adopt a less question-begging word—this combination, has always had, has and, no doubt, always will have, its defenders: nor is it a bad thing that they should exist, as protesters against the too absolute doctrine of “art for art only.” But Ascham’s inability to apply the strictly critical distinguo extends far beyond the condemnation of romance as suggesting the violation of the sixth and seventh commandments, or the discouragement of the importation of foreign literature as involving that of foreign immorality, or (this is Cheke, not Ascham, but Ascham approves it) the urging of Sallust’s laxity of conduct as an argument against his literary competence. It is not shown in the unceasing opposition of the whole trio to “aureate” and “inkhorn” terms, an opposition which may, indeed, have been excessive, but which cannot be said to have been misplaced, when such a man as Hawes, not so many years earlier, could be guilty of two such consecutive lines as

  • Degouted vapoure most aromatyke,
  • And made conversyon of complacence.
  • It appears mainly, and most dangerously, in Ascham’s doctrine of Imitation. Of this imitation, he distinguishes two kinds (literally, three, but, as he himself says, “the third belongeth to the second”). The first of these is the original mimesis of Aristotle: “a fair lively painted picture of the life of every degree of man.” The second is “to follow, for learning of tongues and sciences, the best authors.” But he expressly limits the first kind to comedy and tragedy, and says that “it doth not much belong at this time to our purpose.” It is the second kind, not so much the representation of nature as the actual copying of the existing art of man, to which he devotes his whole attention, in which he obviously feels his whole interest. If he does not, like Vida, say, in so many words, “steal from” the ancients, he has, practically, nothing more to urge than “follow” them, and “borrow from” them. In some respects, and to some extent, he could, of course, have said nothing better. But, in respect of one point, and that the chief one which gives him a position in English criticism, his following was most corrupt. After the matter had long remained in some obscurity, it has been shown pretty exactly how the idea came about that English verse needed reforming on classical patterns. Chaucerian prosody, to some extent in the hands of Chaucer’s own contemporaries like Lydgate and Occleve, but, still more, in those of his and their successors, had fallen into such utter disarray that, in many cases, little but the rime (“and that ’s not much”) remained to distinguish verse from prose. In Ascham’s own day, the very worst of this tyranny was, indeed, past; and the apparent reorganising of pronunciation on the basis of dropping the value of the final -e, and other changes, had restored a certain order to verse. But the favourite “fourteener” (Ascham expressly smites “the rash ignorant heads that can easily reckon up fourteen syllables”) was still, for the most part, a shambling, slovenly, sing-song, with nothing of the fire which Chapman afterwards infused into its unbroken form, or of the ineffable sweetness which the seventeenth century lyrists extracted from the divided couplet. On the other hand, the euphony of Greek and Latin metres was universally recognised. Why not imitate them also? The possibility and propriety of this imitation (recommended, no doubt, by the fact that, dangerous error though, on the whole, it was, it had more than a grain of truth at the bottom of it, as regards feet, though not as regards metres) seems to have arisen at Cambridge, likewise, and at St. John’s College, but not with one of the three scholars just mentioned. The chief begetter of it appears to have been Thomas Watson, master of the college, afterwards bishop of Lincoln, and a man who did not succeed in playing the difficult game between papist and protestant with such success as Ascham and Wilson. Ascham himself has preserved with approval, the remarkably, but not extraordinarily, bad hexameters in which Watson puts into English the first two lines of the Odyssey,

  • All travellers do gladly report great praise of Ulysses
  • For that he knew many mens manners and saw many cities,
  • and, in more places than one, he denounces “rude beggarly riming” not (as he might have done with some colour) in favour of the new blank verse actually started by Surrey long before he wrote, but in favour of classical “versing.” From his time this became, with another less technical one, the main question of Elizabethan criticism, and we may despatch it before turning to the less technical question, and to others. We do not know exactly at what time Watson began to recommend and attempt English hexameters: but it must have been almost certainly before 1554, when both he and Ascham left Cambridge. And it may have been any time earlier, as far back as 1535, which seems to have been the first year that he, Ascham and Cheke (to whose conversations on this subject, and on others connected with it, Ascham often refers) were at the university together. It is more likely to have been late than early. At any rate, the idea took root in St. John’s and, somewhat later still (probably between 1561 and 1569), produced the celebrated and mysterious rules of Thomas Drant, another fellow of the college.