Page images
PDF
EPUB

and antitheses (contrasting one thing with another), in the introduction of new measures for poetry, of blank verse, and of new forms of literature—sonnets, pastorals, novels.

One feature of the Elizabethan literature is the great variety of its forms—poetry, stories, romances, plays, travels, histories, and religious works of many different kinds. We shall perhaps best follow the story of our English Literature by giving account of the chief works in each of these forms, remembering at the same time the rich abundance of smaller works, which are passed over for the sake of dwelling on the greater.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth begins like a genial spring-day after a cruel and gloomy winter. “It is the hour of feeling,” and from many a full heart there rise little bursts of song in the form of short poems; at first written and handed about among friends, but which by degrees were collected and put together in volumes. Many such collections of poems appeared during Elizabeth's reign ; among the most popular were “Tottel's Miscellany," “A Paradise of Dainty Devices,” “ A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions.” But about six years before Elizabeth came to the throne, the greatest poet of her reign was born, and in him and in his work we find the most complete representation of the very soul of the Elizabethan literature. This was Edmund Spenser. He was born in London, near the Tower, about the year 1552.

It is probable that his parents held strongly to the new teaching of the Reformers, and may themselves have been in danger during the harsh persecution of Queen Mary's time; at all events they would have been deeply stirred by it, and their teachings, joined to Spenser's own earliest recollections, would help to form that antagonism which he held through life to the Church of Rome. Spenser was about six or seven years old when Queen Elizabeth came to the throne; and it was perhaps about that time that he was sent to the Mer. chant Taylors' School. During the time that Spenser was a boy at Merchant Taylors' School, there was a cruel persecution being carried on of the Protestants in the Netherlands, by Philip II. of Spain ; and many of the Netherlanders left their country and took refuge in England. Amongst these refugees was a man named John van der Noodt, who seems to have been received with welcome and sympathy by the Spensers. The outward life of these Flemish Protestants was indeed "destitute, afflicted, tormented;" but nevertheless we find John van der Noodt writing a book, in which he shows the miseries and calamities that follow on a life spent only for this world, and “the great joys and pleasures which the faithful do enjoy.” Spenser was now a lad of fifteen or sixteen, and he early shows his sympathy with that view of life which was set forth in Van der Noodt's book, by contributing to it translations of the visions of Petrarch and of Bellay, a French poet.

In 1569 Spenser went to Cambridge. He entered the University as a sizar, which means that in return for services done in the college he paid lower fees, and it shows that his parents were not rich. But little is known of his life there, except that in 1573 he took his degree of B.A., and in 1576 that of M.A. So far we see that he was a good student, but most likely his mind was being moulded also by other things than his college studies. Spenser was throughout the poet of his time, he felt most strongly all its dangers, its hopes and aims; and there were events taking place in England during the years from 1569 to 1576 which were likely to make a deep impression upon him, and which we shall see strongly influenced his work.

The year before Spenser went to Cambridge, Mary Queen of Scots, whom we shall hear of in the “Faerie Queene,” came to England as the murderess of her husband, flying from her own subjects. In the same year that he entered the University occurred the rising of the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland in the cause of Mary, and for the restoration of Romanism in England. In the next year, 1571, a bull from the Pope was sent into England, deposing Elizabeth, England's queen, and declaring her subjects free from all allegiance to her. The conspiracy of the Duke of Norfolk to marry Mary, place her on the throne, and re-establish Romanism, took place in 1572. In the same year, news would come to Cambridge of the massacre of the Protestants in Paris on St. Bartholomew's Day; and also of the rising in the Netherlands of the Protestants against the cruelties of the Duke of Alva ; and with this Spenser, from his acquaintance with Van der Noodt, would strongly sympathise. All these things would be talked about eagerly at Cambridge, and would help to deepen in Spenser the strong conviction of his life, that the Romish Church had departed from the teaching of Christ and His Apostles. There were many persons now in England who felt as Spenser did, and who wished to give up in the English Church every part of the older forms of service and Church government, and amongst these was Thomas Cartwright, who at the very time that Spenser was at Cambridge was Professor of Divinity there. He lectured vehemently against the retaining of any relics of the old ritual, and joined with others in attempting to move Parliament to a further reform of the Book of Common Prayer. This drew upon him the displeasure of the more moderate party, and he was deprived in 1572 of his Professorship and Fellowship. Spenser no doubt took a warm interest in all that passed, for his sympathies would be strongly stirred on Cartwright's side. Cartwright objected to the order of bishops in the Church; and in Spenser's first published poems, written after he left Cambridge, he speaks of those pastors who are seated high above their brethren, and claim lordship over them.

Whilst at college Spenser had a friend who was of some use to him in his after-life. This was Gabriel Harvey.

He was shrewd and clever, ready to do the best for himself, and kindly in helping others to do the same.

In 1576 Spenser left college and went to the north, probably to become tutor in some family or school. Gabriel Harvey remained at Cambridge as lecturer on rhetoric. In 1578 Queen Elizabeth paid a visit to Audley End, a house near Saffron Walden. Gabriel Harvey was a Saffron Walden man, and made himself busy in the preparations for receiving the queen. He wrote a series of Latin poems on the cueen's visit, and this led to his being presented to her. He also formed an acquaintance with Philip Sidney, the nephew of the Earl of Leicester, who, with his uncle, was in attendance on the queen. Shortly after this we find him in London, in the Earl of Leicester's service. One of his first thoughts seems now to have been how he could help his poet friend. He wrote to Spenser, advising him to leave the north and come up to London ; and in 1578 Spenser returned to town, and, probably through the good offices of Harvey, found employment also in Leicester's service.

The Earl of Leicester had a house at this time in the Strand, and among the crowd of persons around the queen's favourite courtier, no one was so much loved and praised as his nephew Philip Sidney. A strong friendship could hardly fail to spring up between Spenser and Sidney, for there was just that unity of nature and feeling between them, in which love takes most deep and steadfast root. Both had that sense of the ideal, or that perception of the perfect goodness and beauty, which made them seek a degree of excellence in things above what many persons might think necessary or possible. This desire after what is best and most beautiful gave them delight in literature, and many happy hours they no doubt spent in talking over what they had read and thought about before they knew one another; and they would also like to tell one another of what they had been doing in the world before they met. We know what Spenser's life had been, so far as it can now be traced, but we must listen to what Sidney would have to tell Spenser.

We may fancy that the two friends are at Sidney's home, Penshurst, in Kent, wandering as they often did in its pleasant grounds, or resting under the shade of its fine old trees. There rises the house, with its grey walls and turrets and high-pointed red roofs, surrounded by gardens full of flowers and fruit, while beyond stretch the long green glades of the park and the shrubby copses, and the meadows sloping to the river. Here, on the 29th of November, 1554, Philip Sidney was born. His father, Sir Henry Sidney, was friend of the young King Edward VI., and his mother was the sister of Guildford Dudley, husband of Lady Jane Grey, and of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester in Queen Elizabeth's reign. The next year, Philip had a little sister, Mary, who was through life his steadfast, loving companion' and confidant, interested in all he did, and sympathising in all his joys and troubles. In 1558 Queen Elizabeth came to the throne; and not long after, Sir Henry Sidney was made Lord President of Wales, so that when Philip was about five years old and Mary about four, they went to live with their parents at Ludlow Castle, in Shropshire. There was at that time in Shrewsbury a celebrated school, one of the largest and best in England, kept by a Mr. Thomas Ashton, who had been at Oxford at the same time as Sir Henry Sidney; here Philip was sent when he was ten years old; and the same day there came also to the Shrewsbury school another little boy named Fulke Greville. Whether the two boys were first drawn together by their both having that desolate feeling which comes over us when we find ourselves among strangers, and away from all those who love us, cannot be said ; but

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »