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FIRST CREATIVE PERIOD.
SPENSER, BACON, SHAKESPEARE.
OTHER PROMINENT WRITERS.
Poets. DANIEL, DRAYTON, DONNE. Prose Writers. AscHAM, LYLY, SIDNEY, HOOKER, RALEIGH. Dramatists. — MARLOWE, GREEN, Jonson, BEAUMONT, FLETCHER.
FIRST CREATIVE PERIOD.
GENERAL Survey. — This period, which includes the
SURVEY reigns of Elizabeth and James I., is one of great interest. In the long course of English literature there is no other period that deserves more careful attention. It was the natural outcome of forces that had been accumulating for a hundred years. It is sometimes called the Elizabethan era, because the successful reign of that queen supplied the opportunity for a splendid manifestation, of literary genius. Peace, prosperity, and general intelligence are the necessary conditions for the creation of a great national literature - a truth that finds abundant exemplification in the age of Pericles in Athens, of Augustus in Rome, and of Louis XIV. in France. While these conditions do not explain genius, which must be referred to the immediate agency of the Creator, they make it possible for genius to realize its best capabilities. The reign of Elizabeth, with its increase of intelligence and national power, furnished the occasion and the stimulus under which Spenser, Shakespeare, and Bacon produced their immortal works. At one great bound English literature reached an excellence that for variety of interest and weight of thought has scarcely been surpassed.
· The century and a half lying between the death of Chaucer and the accession of Elizabeth may be considered as a retrogressive era. The potential forces that called the father of English poetry into being seemed to subside ; and not a single writer in either prose or poetry attained to the first or even the second rank. English lit erature, as a whole, did not reach respectable mediocrity. The only names that need to be mentioned here are Caxton, who introduced printing into England, and Sir Thomas More, a brilliant courtier under Henry VIII., whose “ Utopia” – the land of Nowhere
has the rare distinction of having contributed a new word to our language. The cause of this barrenness is to be found partly in the repression of free inquiry by the church and Parliament, partly in the social disorder connected with the Wars of the Roses, and partly in the varied and important interests that engaged general attention.
The century preceding the accession of Elizabeth was an era of awakened mind and intellectual acquisition. The revival of learning was an event of vast importance, not only in the intellectual life of England, but also of all Europe. It had its central point in the capture of Corstantinople by the Turks in 1453, which caused many Greek scholars to seek refuge in Italy. As ancient learning had already begun to receive attention there, these scholarly fugitives were warmly welcomed. Noble and wealthy patronage was not wanting; and soon the classic literature of Greece and Rome was studied with almost incredible enthusiasm. The Popes received the new learning under their protection ; libraries were founded, manuscripts collected, and academies established.
Eager scholars from England, France, and Germany sat at the feet of Italian masters, in order afterward to bear
beyond the Alps the precious seed of the new culture. Its beneficent effects soon became apparent. Greek was introduced into the great universities of England. Erasmus, the most brilliant scholar of his time, taught at Oxford. It became the fashion to study the ancient classics ; and Elizabeth, Jane Grey, and other noble ladies are said to have been conversant with Plato, Xenophon, and Cicero in the original. The taste, the eloquence, the refined literary culture, of Athens and pagan Rome were restored to the world ; and “gradually, by an insensible change, men were raised to the level of the great and healthy minds which had freely handled ideas of all kinds fifteen centuries before." 1
The remarkable inventions and discoveries of the fifteenth century contributed, in a noteworthy degree, to awaken intellect, and lift men to a higher plane of knowledge. The printing-press was invented about the middle of the century, and in less than a decade it was brought to such perfection that the whole Bible appeared in type in 1456. It became a powerful aid in the revival of learning. It at once supplanted the tedious and costly process of copying books by hand, and brought the repositories of learning within reach of the common people. Gunpowder, which had been invented the previous century, came into common use, and wrought a salutary change in the organization of society. It destroyed the military prestige of the knightly order, brought the lower classes into greater prominence, and contributed to the abolition of serfdom. The mariner's compass greatly furthered navigation. Instead of creeping along the shores of the Mediterranean or the Atlantic, seamen boldly ventured upon
1 Taine, English Literature, Vol. I.