A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Nine
THE JACOBEANS

WHEN James I came to the throne Shakespeare and Jonson were at or near the zenith of their powers. Yet already we are aware of a change of atmosphere as if (despite the sense of relief with which the accession was received) England had passed her first climacteric and left some of the ardours of youth behind. The surprising outburst of satire that we noted in 1597-1599 looked like a premonitory symptom of a change of sentiment. Political and social causes help to account for the change. The glow of the Armada years had waned and with it the Queen's popularity. In her last years, after the death of Essex, she ceased to be the idol of the nation; and Englishmen found little to idolise in the pedantic, ungainly Scot who succeeded her. Nor was his policy of appeasement calculated to stir the blood of men who had crusaded against Spain, nor his anxiety to secure a Spanish wife for his son attractive to Protestant sentiment. Fissures began to show more clearly in the unity of the nation. Puritanism grew daily stronger, and court and City drifted apart.

But the relation between political history and literature is a complex one. Great happenings do not necessarily call forth great poets. That depends on factors over which we have no control. Great poets have made their appearance at times when their country was in a far from happy condition, as the case of Dante shows. Patriotism has its source, or one of its sources, in the desire of every man to have something of which he can feel proud. For most of us personal distinction is hardly attainable, and we seek distinction then, it may be, in our profession, our social status, our Church, and, often, in the country to which we belong, the England of Elizabeth, the France of the roi soleil, the England of Chatham:

Time was when it was praise and boast enough
In every clime, and travel where we might,
That we were born her children. [Cowper.]

-99-

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