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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 10. Vigour and activity of the New Generation

Of these men, by far the most conspicuous was Essex, whom his kinsman Leicester, disquieted by the fear of being supplanted by some stranger, had introduced into the royal presence. Although Essex could hardly be said to have been born to greatness, and certainly in no sense achieved it, the peripeteia of his fate was tragic, and was recognised as such by more than one English dramatic poet. Undoubtedly, there was much in the generous character and impetuous conduct of Essex to make him not only a favourite of the populace, but an object of attraction and interest to aspiring minds among his contemporaries, while there were many for whose speculative purposes his rapidity of action seemed to promise a multiplication of opportunities. He was a friend to letters and their votaries, and a hereditary patron of players. As a Maecenas, and, perhaps, in real intellectual ability and insight, Essex was surpassed by his friend and fellow-plotter Southampton, a man, like him, self-willed and impatient of restraint both in his outbursts of high temper and in his serious passions. Southampton was fortunate or, perhaps, astute enough to escape the doom of Essex, and when, with the advent of the new reign, “peace proclaimed olives of endless age,” he passed from prison into new prosperity and influence. His liberal patronage of men of letters, of books and of plays, blossomed out afresh; but he was of the new age, full of eager ambition and intent upon increasing the abundance of his wealth. Thus, he became one of the chief directors—one might almost use the word in its modern technical sense—of early colonial activity; and there can be little doubt that the story of the play with which Shakespeare bade farewell to the stage was suggested by the narrative of an expedition organised by the earls of Southampton and Pembroke. William Herbert earl of Pembroke, and his brother and successor Philip (Montgomery), nephews of Sir Philip Sidney, and “the incomparable pair of brethren” to whom the first folio was dedicated, were alike warmly interested in colonial undertakings; and, in their case also, the love of enterprise and an impatience of restraint which gave rise to many a scandal was united to a generous patronage of scholarship, literature or art, though it is in the elder of the pair only that an actual love of letters seems traceable. Among other young nobles exemplifying the ambitious unrest characteristic of the last period of Elizabeth’s reign and the inrush of the tide of the Elizabethan drama, may be mentioned here Charles Blount lord Mountjoy (earl of Devonshire), rival of Essex in the favours of the aging queen, and, with more signal success, in the subjection of rebellious Ireland. Blount’s life, like the lives of many of these men, had its episode of tempestuous passion. He, too, was in close touch with several men of letters of his day. Finally, there had stood forth among the most typical representatives of the spirit of adventure and ambition which pervaded the last years of the Elizabethan age, a man of action both intense and diverse, who, at the same time, was himself a man of letters and an intimate of the literary leaders of his times. Long, however, before the many variations of Ralegh’s career ended in his being sacrificed to the resentment of Spain, the Jacobean age had set in. The policy of the crown had now become that of a Cabbala, to which the nation and the parliament which sought to represent it were refused a key; and those who were admitted to the intimacy of the sovereign, wrapped up as he was in his shortsighted omniscience, either did not care, or, as in the case of Buckingham, the fruits of whose policy were as dust and ashes in patriotic mouths, did not know how to guide him in the ways in which England still aspired to be led. It would serve no purpose to carry the present line of comment further. Its object has been to indicate how, at the height of the Elizabethan age and that immediately ensuing, the main course of the national history imparted to the national life a new fulness of ideas and purposes certain to find reflection in the English drama, first and foremost among the direct manifestations of the national genius.