The Shakespearean Moment and Its Place in the Poetry of the 17th Century

The Shakespearean Moment and Its Place in the Poetry of the 17th Century

The Shakespearean Moment and Its Place in the Poetry of the 17th Century

The Shakespearean Moment and Its Place in the Poetry of the 17th Century

Excerpt

The 1590's are the crucial years. In the Elizabethan fin‐ de-siècle there occurred a change, a shift of thought and feeling, which led directly to the greatest moment in English poetry: the "Shakespearean moment", the opening years of the seventeenth century, in which were written all the supreme Shakespearean dramas. The 1590's brought about that deep change of sensibility which marks off the later from the earlier Elizabethans, which alters the climate from that of Arcadia and The Faerie Queene to that which welcomed Hamlet , which probably demanded the Shakespearean rewriting of that drama from its crude original blood-and-thunder Kyd, and which found its other great poet in the person of Donne. To think of the Elizabethan age as a solid, unchanging unity is utterly misleading. Within it there were two generations and (roughly corresponding to those generations) two mentalities. In the 1590's the one "handed over" to the other. Such a statement is, of course, the grossest simplification; in the realms of the mind and the imagination things do not happen as neatly as that. And in fact, the 1590's are intensely confused, precisely because the "handing over" was then taking place; new and old were deeply entangled, and all generalizations must be loaded with exceptions. But there was an old, and there was a new, and the task of criticism is to analyse and distinguish.

Of all the poetry then written, none shows better what was really happening than the Sonnets of Shakespeare. They deal with far more than the personal events which make up their outward material; they show an intensely sensitive awareness of the currents and cross-currents of the age. They have hardly received the properly critical attention that they deserve; real criticism, it may be, has fought shy of them because of the fatal and futile attraction they have exercised on the noble army of cranks, who are far too busy identifying the young man, the dark lady, the rival poet, and William Shakespeare, to bother about the quality of the poetry. But the Sonnets are, in their . . .

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