English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama

English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama

English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama

English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama

Excerpt

The rough outline of our literary history in the sixteenth century is not very difficult to grasp. At the beginning we find a literature stiff medieval in form and spirit. In Scotland it shows the highest level of technical brilliance: in England it has for many years been dull, feeble, and incompetent. As the century proceeds, new influences arise: changes in our knowledge of antiquity, new poetry from Italy and France, new theology, new movements in philosophy or science. As these increase, though not necessarily because of them, the Scotch literature is almost completely destroyed. In England the characteristic disease of late medieval poetry, its metrical disorder, is healed: but replaced, for the most part, by a lifeless and laboured regularity to which some ears might prefer the vagaries of Lydgate. There is hardly any sign of a new inspiration. Except for the songs of Wyatt, whose deepest roots are medieval, and the prose of the Prayer Book, which is mostly translation, authors seem to have forgotten the lessons which had been mastered in the Middle Ages and learned little in their stead. Their prose is clumsy, monotonous, garrulous; their verse either astonishingly tame and cold or, if it attempts to rise, the coarsest fustian. In both mediums we come to dread a certain ruthless emphasis; bludgeon-work. Nothing is light, or tender, or fresh. All the authors write like elderly men. The mid-century is an earnest, heavy-handed, commonplace age: a drab age. Then, in the last quarter of the century, the unpredictable happens. With startling suddenness we ascend. Fantasy, conceit, paradox, colour, incantation return. Youth returns. The fine frenzies of ideal love and ideal war are readmitted. Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Hooker--even, in a way, Lyly--display what is almost a new culture: that culture which was to last through most of the seventeenth century and to enrich the very meanings of the words England and Aristocracy. Nothing in the earlier history of our period would have enabled the sharpest observer to foresee this transformation.

Some have believed, or assumed, that it resulted from what . . .

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