Elizabethan Critical Essays

By G. Gregory Smith | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

I.

IT is a commonplace that the age of Elizabeth was too great in creation to be even respectable in criticism. Many who see the bad logic and bad history of this popular formula have concluded not less adversely from a survey of the literary evidence. It is shown that the 'critical' writings are a mere miscellany of stray pamphlets, a 'gallimaufry' of treatises in the old rhetorical vein, tracts on prosody, or prefaces of abuse: and that the writers who disclose something of the critical temper were indifferent to the things which interest modern criticism, or indeed interested their own generation. For is it not remarkable that when Spenser and Sidney, not to speak of the lesser, turn critic, they have no eyes for the pageant of their stage, and but careless ears for the immortal music of contemporary verse; that they find the measure of dramatic excellence in Buchanan Jephthes or Watson Absolon, or the secret of English poetry in hobbling hexameters? And if Spenser redeemed his honour by giving us the Faerie Queene and Campion his in the Books of Airs, they have proved not so much how great they were as poets as how poor they were as critics. Sidney in his Apologie, to which of all these writings least exception can be taken, commends himself most when he strays from academic argument to raptures on the nobility of the Poet's calling.

This is altogether a superficial estimate. It is inadequate as a description of the critical activities which are crowded into the work of a single generation. The mere volume of

-xi-

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