Early Tudor Poetry, 1485-1547

By John M. Berdan | Go to book overview

EARLY TUDOR POETRY

CHAPTER I
THE BACKGROUND TO THE LITERATURE

That which separates peoples, far more than geographical boundaries or "the unplumbed, salt, estranging sea," is the basic philosophy that underlies their national life, the unwritten assumptions that, like axioms in geometry, are accepted without the need of proof. The difficulty of the difference in language may be surmounted. The denotation of a word is given in any dictionary; it is the connotation which counts. An American may learn to speak Turkish, but it is impossible for him to think like a Turk because he is an American. If this be true today when personal contact is possible, it is still more true in dealing with the languages of the past. Words at best are tricky instruments, and Marlowe, that great master of self-expression, complains of their inadequacy. Yet to his contemporaries his mighty line must have come charged with a fullness of meaning that we can only guess at, and it is probable that no one would be more surprised at the elucidations of the commentators than Shakespeare himself. To comprehend a poem written three hundred years ago requires creative imagination. The negative part of such creation is not difficult. It is not difficult to strip the world of steam, electricity and gasoline and to picture to ourselves the result. But positively for the modern American to adopt the point of view of the sixteenth century Englishman, to see that life unmodified either by the glamour of romanticism or by the working of his own personal equation, and fully to appreciate the unconscious and unexpressed motives for their actions, is impossible. Nevertheless the degree of our success in achieving this impossibility measures the value of our literary judgments.

An attempt at least to realize this ideal is essential in dealing with works composed during an age of transition. As the term

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