Henry VIII and the English Reformation

By Arthur J. Slavin | Go to book overview

TUDOR HUMANISM AND HENRY VIII

DOUGLAS BUSH

Harvard's Gurney Professor of English Literature Emeritus ranks as one of the foremost scholars of Renaissance English letters and thought. Born and educated in Canada, Douglas Bush came to the United States as a teacher in 1924; from 1936 until his retirement in 1966 he taught at Harvard. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and honorary Litt.D. degrees from nearly a dozen colleges and universities, Professor Bush has distinguished himself as an editor ( Milton, Keats, Tennyson) and as the author of numerous major books of a critical and synthetic nature. His important works include Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry; The Renaissance and English Humanism; John Milton; and English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660.

IN HIS ADMIRABLE Thomas More, Professor R. W. Chambers pillories Henry VIII as the ruthless destroyer of the rich culture which England possessed at the opening of the sixteenth century. He makes his own the argument put forth by J. S. Phillimore in what he calls "a vital essay, to which every student of More is under a heavy debt." Phillimore's thesis was "that the Humanist Movement in England was arrested at the middle of the sixteenth century and did not mature till more than a century later; that the movement was typically personified in More; and that his death was the blow which paralysed it." Mr. Chambers elaborates "the story of arrest and frustration" in this manner:

The poets Rocked to Henry's court; he stopped their music, and for a generation after the execution of Surrey there is nothing worth notice, save the sombre poems in which Sackville, before turning away from poetry, lamented that eminence led only to destruction. In the ordinary course, Surrey might have lived another thirty or forty years, the centre of a circle of court poets. As it is, the history of the sonnet in England is a blank between 1547 and about 1580, and English poetry as a whole is negligible till it begins its magnificent progress again with Spenser and Sidney. Prose had a similar set-back. After the generation of Tyndale and Coverdale, Fisher and More and his school, there is no eminence till we come to Hooker and Bacon -- a gap of more than a generation. Contemporaries noticed the gap, and wondered that More's example had not proved more fruitful. In the field of scholarship Henry's achievement was really remarkable. There were four great international scholars, and, in England, two great patrons of learning. Of the six, Henry cold- shouldered Erasmus out of England, imprisoned Vives, decapitated More and Fisher, and frightened Wolsey to death. "Had Erasmus, instead of being an honoured guest at Rome, at Paris, or in the States of the Empire, been beheaded by Charles V or Francis I, all learning would have felt the blow, and shrunk." In England, all learning felt the blow, and shrank. It was not till the days of Bentley1 that classical scholarship recovered in England the position it held in the days of Erasmus,

____________________
From Douglas Bush, "Tudor Humanism and Henry VIII," University of Toronto Quarterly, VII ( 1938), pp. 162-77. Reprinted by permission of the University of Toronto Press, Douglas Bush, and the University of Toronto Quarterly.
1
The reference is to Richard Bentley ( 1662- 1742), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, 1700-1742, a great classical scholar, editor of Homer, Horace, and Milton.

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