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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

§ 9. Sir John Harington

Sir John Harington, in that preface to his Ariosto which he rightly calls, rather, a brief apology of poetry and of the author and translator, refers directly to Sidney and, indeed, travels over much the same ground in the general part of his paper; but he acquires independent interest when he comes to deal with his special subject. Indeed, one may, perhaps, say that his is the first “critical introduction” in English, if we except “E. K.’s” to the Calender. It is interesting to find him at once striking out for the rope which, down to Addison, if not still later, the critic who felt himself out of his depth in pure appreciation always tried to seize—the tracing of resemblances in his author to the ancients, in this case to Vergil. One might, indeed, be inclined to think that, except in point of adventure, no two poets could possibly be more unlike than the author of the Aeneid and the author of Orlando. But Sir John does not consider so curiously. There is arma in the first line of the one and arme in the first line of the other; one ends with the death of Turnus and the other with that of Rodomont; there is glorification of the Julian house in one and glorification of the house of Este in the other. In fact, “there is nothing of any special observation in Vergil but my author hath with great felicity imitated it.” Now, if you imitate Vergil, you must be right. Did not “that excellent Italian poet, Dant” profess that, when he wandered out of the right way, Vergil reclaimed him? Moreover, Aristo “hath followed Aristotle’s rules very strictly” and, though this assertion may almost take the reader’s breath away, Harington manages to show some case for it in the same Fluellinian fashion of argument which has just been set forth in relation to Vergil. Nor ought we to regard this with any contempt. Defensible, or indefensible, it was the method of criticism which was to be preferred for the greater part of at least two centuries. And Harington has a few remarks of interest in regard to his own metre, rime, and such matters.