History of the English literature
The basic features and characteristic features of the English literature as its chronological development. The best representatives of prose and poetry, dramatic art of different epoch and directions. Subjects of products of modern English authors.
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Lydgate's following at court gave him a central place in 15th-century literary life, but the typical concerns shown by his verse do not distinguish it from a great body of religious, moral, historical, and didactic writing, much of it anonymous. A few identifiable provincial writers turn out to have had their own local patrons, often among the country gentry. East Anglia may be said to have produced a minor school in the works of John Capgrave, Osbern Bokenam, and John Metham, among others also active during the middle of the century. Some of the most moving and accomplished verse of the time is to be found in the anonymous lyrics and carols (songs with a refrain) on conventional subjects such as the transience of life, the coming of death, the sufferings of Christ, and other penitential themes. The author of some distinctive poems in this mode was John Audelay of Shropshire, whose style was heavily influenced by the alliterative movement. Literary devotion to the Virgin Mary was particularly prominent and at its best could produce masterpieces of artful simplicity, such as the poem “I sing of a maiden that is makeless [matchless].”
Popular and secular verse
The art that conceals art was also characteristic of the best popular and secular verse of the period, outside the courtly mode. Some of the shorter verse romances, usually in a form called tail rhyme, were far from negligible: Ywain and Gawain, from the Yvain of Chretien de Troyes; Sir Launfal, after Marie de France's Lanval; and Sir Degrevant. Humorous and lewd songs, versified tales, folk songs, ballads, and others form a lively body of compositions. Oral transmission was probably common, and the survival of much of what is extant is fortuitousIn addition to a number of popular romances of the type satirized long before by Chaucer in “Sir Thopas,” the Percy manuscript also contains a number of impressive ballads very much like those collected from oral sources in the 18th and 19th centuries. The extent of medieval origin of the poems collected in Francis J. Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) is debatable. Several of the Robin Hood ballads undoubtedly were known in the 15th century, and the characteristic laconically repetitious and incremental style of the ballads is also to be seen in the enigmatic Corpus Christi Carol, preserved in an early 16th-century London grocer's commonplace book. In the same manuscript, but in a rather different vein, is The Nut-Brown Maid, an expertly managed dialogue-poem on female constancy.
A genre that does not fit easily into the categories already mentioned is political verse, of which a good deal was written in the 15th century. Much of it was avowedly and often crudely propagandist, especially during the Wars of the Roses, though a piece like the Agincourt Carol shows that it was already possible to strike the characteristically English note of insular patriotism soon after 1415. Of particular interest is the Libel of English Policy (c. 1436) on another typically English theme of a related kind: “Cherish merchandise, keep the admiralty, / That we be masters of the narrow sea.”
Later Middle English prose
The continuity of a tradition in English prose writing, linking the later with the early Middle English period, is somewhat clearer than that detected in verse. The Ancrene Wisse, for example, continued to be copied and adapted to suit changing tastes and circumstances. But sudden and brilliant imaginative phenomena like the writings of Chaucer, Langland, and the author of Sir Gawayne are not to be found in prose. Instead came steady growth in the composition of religious prose of various kinds and the first appearance of secular prose in any quantity.
Of the first importance was the development of a sober, analytical, but nonetheless impressive kind of contemplative or mystical prose, represented by Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection and the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing. The authors of these pieces certainly knew the more rugged and fervent writings of their earlier, 14th-century predecessor Richard Rolle, and to some extent they reacted against what they saw as excesses in the style and content of his work. It is of particular interest to note that the mystical tradition was continued into the 15th century, though in very different ways, by two women writers, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Julian, often regarded as the first English woman of letters, underwent a series of mystical experiences in 1373 about which she wrote in her Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, one of the foremost works of English spirituality by the standards of any age. Rather different religious experiences went into the making of The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1432-36), the extraordinary autobiographical record of a bourgeoise woman, dictated to two clerks. The nature and status of its spiritual content remain controversial, but its often engaging colloquial style and vivid realization of the medieval scene are of abiding interest.
Another important branch of the contemplative movement in prose involved the translation of Continental Latin texts. A major example, and one of the best-loved of all medieval English books in its time, is The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ (c. 1410), Nicholas Love's translation of the Meditationes vitae Christi, attributed to St. Bonaventure. Love's work was particularly valued by the church as an orthodox counterbalance to the heretical tendencies of the Lollards, who espoused the teachings of John Wycliffe and his circle. The Lollard movement generated a good deal of stylistically distinctive prose writing, though as the Lollards soon came under threat of death by burning, nearly all of it remains anonymous. A number of English works have been attributed to Wycliffe himself, and the first English translation of the Bible to Wycliffe's disciple John Purvey, but there are no firm grounds for these attributions. The Lollard Bible, which exists in a crude early form and in a more impressive later version (supposedly Purvey's work), was widely read in spite of being under doctrinal suspicion. It later influenced William Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, completed in 1525, and, through Tyndale, the King James Version (1611).
Secular compositions and translations in prose also came into prominence in the last quarter of the 14th century, though their stylistic accomplishment does not always match that of the religious tradition. Chaucer's “Tale of Melibeus” and his two astronomical translations, the Treatise on the Astrolabe and the Equatorie of the Planets, were relatively modest endeavours beside the massive efforts of John of Trevisa, who translated from Latin both Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon (c. 1385-87), a universal history, and Bartholomaeus Anglicus's De proprietatibus rerum (1398; “On the Properties of Things”), an encyclopaedia. Judging by the number of surviving manuscripts, however, the most widely read secular prose work of the period is likely to have been The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, the supposed adventures of Sir John Mandeville, knight of St. Albans, on his journeys through Asia. Though the work now is believed to be purely fictional, its exotic allure and the occasionally arch style of its author were popular with the English reading public down to the 18th century.
The 15th century saw the consolidation of English prose as a respectable medium for serious writings of various kinds. The anonymous Brut chronicle survives in more manuscripts than any other medieval English work and was instrumental in fostering a new sense of national identity. John Capgrave's Chronicle of England (c. 1462) and Sir John Fortescue's On the Governance of England (c. 1470) were part of the same trend. At its best, the style of such works could be vigorous and straightforward, close to the language of everyday speech, like that found in the chance survivals of private letters of the period. Best known and most numerous among letters are those of the Paston family of Norfolk, but significant collections were also left by the Celys of London and the Stonors of Oxfordshire. More-eccentric prose stylists of the period were the religious controversialist Reginald Pecock and John Skelton, whose aureate translation of the Bibliotheca historica of Diodorus Siculus stands in marked contrast to the demotic exuberance of his verse.
The crowning achievement of later Middle English prose writing was Sir Thomas Malory's cycle of Arthurian legends, which was given the title Le Morte Darthur by William Caxton when he printed his edition in 1485. There is still uncertainty as to the identity of Malory, who described himself as a “knight-prisoner.” The characteristic mixture of chivalric nostalgia and tragic feeling with which he imbued his book gave fresh inspiration to the tradition of writing on Arthurian themes. The nature of Malory's artistry eludes easy definition, and the degree to which the effects he achieved were a matter of conscious contrivance on his part is debatable. Much of
Le Morte Darthur was translated from prolix French prose romances, and Malory evidently selected and condensed his material with instinctive mastery as he went along. At the same time, he cast narrative and dialogue in the cadences of a virile and natural English prose that matched the nobility of both the characters and the theme.
Middle English drama
Because the manuscripts of medieval English plays were usually ephemeral performance scripts rather than reading matter, very few examples have survived from what once must have been a very large dramatic literature. What little survives from before the 15th century includes some bilingual fragments, indicating that the same play might have been given in English or Anglo-Norman, according to the composition of the audience. From the late 14th century onward, two main dramatic genres are discernible, the mystery, or Corpus Christi, cycles and the morality plays. The mystery plays were long cyclic dramas of the Creation, Fall, and Redemption of humankind, based mostly on biblical narratives. They usually included a selection of Old Testament episodes (such as the stories of Cain and Abel and of Abraham and Isaac) but concentrated mainly on the life and Passion of Jesus Christ. They always ended with the Last Judgment. The cycles were generally financed and performed by the craft guilds and staged on wagons in the streets and squares of the towns. Texts of the cycles staged at York, Chester, and Wakefield and at an unstated location in East Anglia (the so-called N-Town plays) have survived, together with fragments from Coventry, Newcastle, and Norwich. Their literary quality is uneven, but the York cycle (probably the oldest) has an impressively realized version of Christ's Passion by a dramatist influenced by the alliterative style in verse. The Wakefield cycle has several particularly brilliant plays, attributed to the anonymous Wakefield Master, and his Second Shepherds' Play is one of the masterpieces of medieval English literature. The morality plays were allegorical dramas depicting the progress of a single character, representing the whole of humankind, from the cradle to the grave and sometimes beyond. The other dramatis personae might include God and the Devil but usually consisted of personified abstractions, such as the Vices and Virtues, Death, Penance, Mercy, and so forth. A varied collection of the moralities is known as the Macro Plays (The Castle of Perseverance, Wisdom, Mankind), but the single most impressive piece is Everyman, an English rendering of a Dutch play on the subject of the coming of death. Both the mystery and morality plays were frequently revived and performed into the 21st century.
The transition from medieval to Renaissance
The 15th century was a major period of growth in lay literacy, a process powerfully expedited by the introduction into England of printing by William Caxton in 1476. Caxton published Malory's Le Morte Darthur in the same year (1485) that Henry Tudor acceded to the throne as Henry VII, and the period from this time to the mid-16th century has been called the transition from medieval to Renaissance in English literature. A typical figure was the translator Alexander Barclay. His Eclogues (c. 1515), drawn from 15th-century Italian humanist sources, was an early essay in the fashionable Renaissance genre of pastoral, while his rendering of Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff as The Ship of Fools (1509) is a thoroughly medieval satire on contemporary folly and corruption. The Pastime of Pleasure (completed in 1506; published 1509) by Stephen Hawes, ostensibly an allegorical romance in Lydgate's manner, unexpectedly adumbrates the great Tudor theme of academic cultivation as a necessary accomplishment of the courtly knight or gentleman.
The themes of education and good government predominate in the new humanist writing of the 16th century, both in discursive prose (such as Sir Thomas Elyot's The Book Named the Governor  and Roger Ascham's Toxophilus [1545; “Lover of the Bow”] and The Schoolmaster ) and in drama (the plays of Henry Medwall and Richard Rastall). The preeminent work of English humanism, Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516), was composed in Latin and appeared in an English translation in 1551.
The most distinctive voice in the poetry of the time was that of John Skelton, tutor to Henry VII's sons and author of an extraordinary range of writing, often in an equally extraordinary style. His works include a long play, Magnificence (1516), like his Bowge of Court (c. 1498) an allegorical satire on court intrigue; intemperate satirical invectives, such as Collyn Clout and Why Come Ye Not to Court? (both 1522); and reflexive essays on the role of the poet and poetry, in Speak, Parrot (written 1521) and The Garland of Laurel (1523). The first half of the 16th century was also a notable period for courtly lyric verse in the stricter sense of poems with musical settings, such as those found in the Devonshire Manuscript. This is very much the literary milieu of the “courtly makers” Sir
Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, but, though the courtly context of much of their writing is of medieval origin, their most distinctive achievements look to the future. Poems such as Wyatt's “They flee from me” and “Whoso list to hunt” vibrate with personal feeling at odds with the medieval convention of anonymity, while Surrey's translations from the Aeneid introduce blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) into English for the first time, providing an essential foundation for the achievements of Shakespeare and John Milton.
The Renaissance period: 1550-1660
Literature and the age
In a tradition of literature remarkable for its exacting and brilliant achievements, the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods have been said to represent the most brilliant century of all. (The reign of Elizabeth I began in 1558 and ended with her death in 1603; she was succeeded by the Stuart king James VI of Scotland, who took the title James I of England as well. English literature of his reign as James I, from 1603 to 1625, is properly called Jacobean.) These years produced a gallery of authors of genius, some of whom have never been surpassed, and conferred on scores of lesser talents the enviable ability to write with fluency, imagination, and verve.
From one point of view, this sudden renaissance looks radiant, confident, heroic--and belated, but all the more dazzling for its belatedness. Yet, from another point of view, this was a time of unusually traumatic strain, in which English society underwent massive disruptions that transformed it on every front and decisively affected the life of every individual. In the brief, intense moment in which England assimilated the European Renaissance, the circumstances that made the assimilation possible were already disintegrating and calling into question the newly won certainties, as well as the older truths that they were dislodging. This doubleness, of new possibilities and new doubts simultaneously apprehended, gives the literature its unrivaled intensity.
In this period England's population doubled; prices rocketed, rents followed, old social loyalties dissolved, and new industrial, agricultural, and commercial veins were first tapped. Real wages hit an all-time low in the 1620s, and social relations were plunged into a state of fluidity from which the merchant and the ambitious lesser gentleman profited at the expense of the aristocrat and the labourer, as satires and comedies current from the 1590s complain. Behind the Elizabethan vogue for pastoral poetry lies the fact of the prosperity of the enclosing sheep farmer, who sought to increase pasture at the expense of the peasantry.
Tudor platitudes about order and degree could neither combat nor survive the challenge posed to rank by these arrivistes. The position of the crown, politically dominant yet financially insecure, had always been potentially unstable, and, when Charles I lost the confidence of his greater subjects in the 1640s, his authority crumbled. Meanwhile, the huge body of poor fell ever further behind the rich; the pamphlets of Thomas Harman (1566) and Robert Greene (1591-92), as well as Shakespeare's King Lear (1605-06), provide glimpses of a horrific world of vagabondage and crime, the Elizabethans' biggest, unsolvable social problem.
Intellectual and religious revolution
The barely disguised social ferment was accompanied by an intellectual revolution, as the medieval synthesis collapsed before the new science, new religion, and new humanism. While modern mechanical technologies were pressed into service by the Stuarts to create the scenic wonders of the court masque, the discoveries of astronomers and explorers were redrawing the cosmos in a way that was profoundly disturbing:
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets, and the firmament
They seek so many new….
--(John Donne, The First Anniversary, 1611)
The majority of people were more immediately affected by the religious revolutions of the 16th century. A person in early adulthood at the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 would, by her death in 1603, have been vouchsafed an unusually disillusioning insight into the duty owed by private conscience to the needs of the state. The Tudor church hierarchy was an instrument of social and political control, yet the mid-century controversies over the faith had already wrecked any easy confidence in the authority of doctrines and forms and had taught people to inquire carefully into the rationale of their own beliefs (as John Donne does in his third satire [c. 1596]). The Elizabethan ecclesiastical compromise was the object of continual criticism, from radicals both within (who desired progressive reforms, such as the abolition of bishops) and without (who desired the return of England to the Roman Catholic fold), but the incipient liberalism of individuals such as John Milton and the scholar and churchman William Chillingworth was held in check by the majority's unwillingness to tolerate a plurality of religions in a supposedly unitary state. Nor was the Calvinist orthodoxy that cradled most English writers comforting, for it told them that they were corrupt, unfree, unable to earn their own salvations, and subject to heavenly judgments that were arbitrary and absolute. Calvinism deeply affects the world of the Jacobean tragedies, whose heroes are not masters of their fates but victims of divine purposes that are terrifying yet inscrutable.
The race for cultural development
The third complicating factor was the race to catch up with Continental developments in arts and philosophy. The Tudors needed to create a class of educated diplomats, statesmen, and officials and to dignify their court by making it a fount of cultural as well as political patronage. The new learning, widely disseminated through the Erasmian (after the humanist Desiderius Erasmus) educational programs of such men as John Colet and Sir Thomas Elyot, proposed to use a systematic schooling in Latin authors and some Greek to encourage in the social elites a flexibility of mind and civilized serviceableness that would allow enlightened princely government to walk hand in hand with responsible scholarship. Humanism fostered an intimate familiarity with the classics that was a powerful incentive for the creation of an English literature of answerable dignity. It fostered as well a practical, secular piety that left its impress everywhere on Elizabethan writing. Humanism's effect, however, was modified by the simultaneous impact of the flourishing Continental cultures, particularly the Italian. Repeatedly, crucial innovations in English letters developed resources originating from Italy--such as the sonnet of Petrarch, the epic of Ludovico Ariosto, the pastoral of Jacopo Sannazzaro, the canzone, and blank verse--and values imported with these forms were in competition with the humanists' ethical preoccupations. Social ideals of wit, many-sidedness, and sprezzatura (accomplishment mixed with unaffectedness) were imbibed from Baldassare Castiglione's Il cortegiano, translated as The Courtyer by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561, and Elizabethan court poetry is steeped in Castiglione's aristocratic Neoplatonism, his notions of universal proportion, and the love of beauty as the path to virtue. Equally significant was the welcome afforded to Niccolo Machiavelli, whose lessons were vilified publicly and absorbed in private. The Prince, written in 1513, was unavailable in English until 1640, but as early as the 1580s Gabriel Harvey, a friend of the poet Edmund Spenser, can be found enthusiastically hailing its author as the apostle of modern pragmatism. “We are much beholden to Machiavel and others,” said Francis Bacon, “that write what men do, and not what they ought to do.”
So the literary revival occurred in a society rife with tensions, uncertainties, and competing versions of order and authority, religion and status, sex and the self. The Elizabethan settlement was a compromise; the Tudor pretense that the people of England were unified in belief disguised the actual fragmentation of the old consensus under the strain of change. The new scientific knowledge proved both man's littleness and his power to command nature; against the Calvinist idea of man's helplessness pulled the humanist faith in his dignity, especially that conviction, derived from the reading of Seneca and so characteristic of the period, of man's constancy and fortitude, his heroic capacity for self-determination. It was still possible for Elizabeth to hold these divergent tendencies together in a single, heterogeneous culture, but under her successors they would eventually fly apart. The philosophers speaking for the new century would be Francis Bacon, who argued for the gradual advancement of science through patient accumulation of experiments, and the skeptic Michel de Montaigne (his Essays translated from the French by John Florio ), who denied that it was possible to formulate any general principles of knowledge.
Cutting across all of these was the persistence of popular habits of thought and expression. Both humanism and Puritanism set themselves against vulgar ignorance and folk tradition, but, fortunately, neither could remain aloof for long from the robustness of popular taste. Sir Philip Sidney, in England's first Neoclassical literary treatise, The Defence of Poesie (written c. 1578-83, published 1595), candidly admitted that “the old song [i.e., ballad] of Percy and Douglas” would move his heart “more than with a trumpet,” and his Arcadia (final version published in 1593) is a representative instance of the fruitful cross-fertilization of genres in this period--the contamination of aristocratic pastoral with popular tale, the lyric with the ballad, comedy with romance, tragedy with satire, and poetry with prose. The language, too, was undergoing a rapid expansion that all classes contributed to and benefited from, sophisticated literature borrowing without shame the idioms of colloquial speech. An allusion in Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606-07) to heaven peeping “through the blanket of the dark” would become a “problem” only later, when, for instance, Samuel Johnson complained in 1751 that such words provoked laughter rather than awe. Johnson's was an age when tragic dignity implied politeness, when it was below the dignity of tragedy to mention so lowly an object as a blanket. But the Elizabethans' ability to address themselves to several audiences simultaneously and to bring into relation opposed experiences, emphases, and worldviews invested their writing with complexity and power.
Elizabethan poetry and prose
English poetry and prose burst into sudden glory in the late 1570s. A decisive shift of taste toward a fluent artistry self-consciously displaying
its own grace and sophistication was announced in the works of Spenser and Sidney. It was accompanied by an upsurge in literary production that came to fruition in the 1590s and 1600s, two decades of astonishing productivity by writers of every persuasion and calibre.
The groundwork was laid in the 30 years from 1550, a period of slowly increasing confidence in the literary competence of the language and tremendous advances in education, which for the first time produced a substantial English readership, keen for literature and possessing cultivated tastes. This development was underpinned by the technological maturity and accelerating output (mainly in pious or technical subjects) of Elizabethan printing. The Stationers' Company, which controlled the publication of books, was incorporated in 1557, and Richard Tottel's Miscellany (1557) revolutionized the relationship of poet and audience by making publicly available lyric poetry, which hitherto had circulated only among a courtly coterie. Spenser was the first significant English poet deliberately to use print to advertise his talents.
Development of the English language
The prevailing opinion of the language's inadequacy, its lack of “terms” and innate inferiority to the eloquent Classical tongues, was combated in the work of the humanists Thomas Wilson, Roger Ascham, and Sir John Cheke, whose treatises on rhetoric, education, and even archery argued in favour of an unaffected vernacular prose and a judicious attitude toward linguistic borrowings. Their stylistic ideals are attractively embodied in Ascham's educational tract The Schoolmaster (1570), and their tonic effect on that particularly Elizabethan art, translation, can be felt in the earliest important examples, Sir Thomas Hoby's Castiglione (1561) and Sir Thomas North's Plutarch (1579). A further stimulus was the religious upheaval that took place in the middle of the century. The desire of reformers to address as comprehensive an audience as possible--the bishop and the boy who follows the plough, as William Tyndale put it--produced the first true classics of English prose: the reformed Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552, 1559); John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563), which celebrates the martyrs, great and small, of English Protestantism; and the various English versions of the Bible, from Tyndale's New Testament (1525), Miles Coverdale's Bible (1535), and the Geneva Bible (1560) to the syncretic Authorized Version (or King James's Version, 1611). The latter's combination of grandeur and plainness is justly celebrated, even if it represents an idiom never spoken in heaven or on earth.
Nationalism inspired by the Reformation motivated the historical chronicles of the capable and stylish Edward Hall (1548), who bequeathed to Shakespeare the tendentious Tudor interpretation of the 15th century, and of Raphael Holinshed (1577).
In verse, Tottel's much reprinted Miscellany generated a series of imitations and, by popularizing the lyrics of Sir Thomas Wyatt and the earl of Surrey, carried into the 1570s the tastes of the early Tudor court. The newer poets collected by Tottel and other anthologists include Nicholas Grimald, Richard Edwardes, George Turberville, Barnabe Googe, George Gascoigne, Sir John Harington, and many others, of whom Gascoigne is the most prominent. The modern preference for the ornamental manner of the next generation has eclipsed these poets, who continued the tradition of plain, weighty verse, addressing themselves to ethical and didactic themes and favouring the meditative lyric, satire, and epigram. But their taste for economy, restraint, and aphoristic density was, in the verse of Donne and Ben Jonson, to outlive the cult of elegance. The period's major project was A Mirror for Magistrates (1559; enlarged editions 1563, 1578, 1587), a collection of verse laments, by several hands, purporting to be spoken by participants in the Wars of the Roses and preaching the Tudor doctrine of obedience. The quality is uneven, but Thomas Sackville's Induction and Thomas Churchyard's Legend of Shore's Wife are distinguished, and the intermingling of history, tragedy, and political morality was to be influential on the drama.
Sidney and Spenser
With the work of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, Tottel's contributors suddenly began to look old-fashioned. Sidney epitomized the new Renaissance “universal man”: a courtier, diplomat, soldier, and poet whose Defence of Poesie includes the first considered account of the state of English letters. Sidney's treatise defends literature on the ground of its unique power to teach, but his real emphasis is on its delight, its ability to depict the world not as it is but as it ought to be. This quality of “forcibleness or energia” he himself demonstrated in his sonnet sequence of unrequited desire, Astrophel and Stella (written 1582, published 1591). His Arcadia, in its first version (written c. 1577-80), is a pastoral romance in which courtiers disguised as Amazons and shepherds make love and sing delicate experimental verses. The revised version (written c. 1580-84, published 1590; the last three books of the first version were added in 1593), vastly expanded but abandoned in mid-sentence, added sprawling plots of heroism in love and war, philosophical and political discourses, and set pieces of aristocratic etiquette. Sidney was a dazzling and assured innovator whose pioneering of new forms and stylistic melody was seminal for his generation. His public fame was as an aristocratic champion of an aggressively Protestant foreign policy, but Elizabeth had no time for idealistic warmongering, and the unresolved conflicts in his poetry--desire against restraint, heroism against patience, rebellion against submission--mirror his own discomfort with his situation as an unsuccessful courtier.
Protestantism also loomed large in Spenser's life. He enjoyed the patronage of the earl of Leicester, who sought to advance militant Protestantism at court, and his poetic manifesto, The Shepherds Calendar (1579), covertly praised Archbishop Edmund Grindal, who had been suspended by Elizabeth for his Puritan sympathies. Spenser's masterpiece, The Faerie Queene (1590-96), is an epic of Protestant nationalism in which the villains are infidels or papists, the hero is King Arthur, and the central value is married chastity.
Spenser was one of the humanistically trained breed of public servants, and the Calendar, an expertly crafted collection of pastoral eclogues, both advertised his talents and announced his epic ambitions. The exquisite lyric gift that it reveals was voiced again in the marriage poems Epithalamion (1595) and Prothalamion (1596). With The Faerie Queene he achieved the central poem of the Elizabethan period. Its form fuses the medieval allegory with the Italian romantic epic; its purpose was “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” The plan was for 12 books (6 were completed), focusing on 12 virtues exemplified in the quests of 12 knights from the court of Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, a symbol for Elizabeth herself. Arthur, in quest of Gloriana's love, would appear in each book and come to exemplify Magnificence, the complete man. Spenser took the decorative chivalry of the Elizabethan court festivals and reworked it through a constantly shifting veil of allegory, so that the knights' adventures and loves build into a complex, multileveled portrayal of the moral life. The verse, a spacious and slow-moving nine-lined stanza, and archaic language frequently rise to an unrivaled sensuousness.
The Faerie Queene was a public poem, addressed to the queen, and politically it echoed the hopes of the Leicester circle for government motivated by godliness and militancy. Spenser's increasing disillusion with the court and with the active life, a disillusion noticeable in the poem's later books and in his bitter satire Colin Clouts Come Home Again (1591), voiced the fading of these expectations in the last decade of Elizabeth's reign, the beginning of that remarkable failure of political and cultural confidence in the monarchy. In the Mutability Cantos, melancholy fragments of a projected seventh book (published posthumously in 1609), Spenser turned away from the public world altogether, toward the ambiguous consolations of eternity.
The lessons taught by Sidney and Spenser in the cultivation of melodic smoothness and graceful refinement appear to good effect in the subsequent virtuoso outpouring of lyrics and sonnets. These are among the most engaging achievements of the age, though the outpouring was itself partly a product of frustration, as a generation trained to expect office or preferment but faced with courtly parsimony channeled its energies in new directions in search of patronage. For Sidney's fellow courtiers, pastoral and love lyric were also a means of obliquely expressing one's relationship with the queen, of advancing a proposal or an appeal.
Virtually every Elizabethan poet tried his hand at the lyric; few, if any, failed to write one that is not still anthologized today. The fashion for interspersing prose fiction with lyric interludes, begun in the Arcadia, was continued by Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge (notably in the latter's Rosalynde , the source for Shakespeare's As You Like It [c. 1598-1600]), and in the theatres plays of every kind were diversified by songs both popular and courtly. Fine examples are in the plays of Jonson, John Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Nashe, and Thomas Dekker (though all, of course, are outshone by Shakespeare's). The most important influence on lyric poetry, though, was the outstanding richness of late Tudor and Jacobean music, in both the native tradition of expressive lute song, represented by John Dowland and Robert Johnson, and the complex Italianate madrigal newly imported by William Byrd and Thomas Morley. The foremost talent among lyricists, Thomas Campion, was a composer as well as a poet; his songs (four Books of Airs, 1601-17) are unsurpassed for their clarity, harmoniousness, and rhythmic subtlety. Even the work of a lesser talent, however, such as Nicholas Breton, is remarkable for the suggestion of depth and poise in the slightest performances; the smoothness and apparent spontaneity of the Elizabethan lyric conceal a consciously ordered and laboured artifice, attentive to decorum and rhetorical fitness. These are not personal but public pieces, intended for singing and governed bya Neoplatonic aesthetic in which delight is a means of addressing the moral sense, harmonizing and attuning the auditor's mind to the discipline of reason and virtue. This necessitates a deliberate narrowing of scope--to the readily comprehensible situations of pastoral or Petrarchan hope and despair--and makes for a certain uniformity of effect, albeit an agreeable one. The lesser talents are well displayed in the miscellanies The Phoenix Nest (1593), England's Helicon (1600), and A Poetical Rhapsody (1602).
The sonnet sequence
The publication of Sidney's Astrophel and Stella in 1591 generated an equally extraordinary vogue for the sonnet sequence, Sidney's principal imitators being Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Fulke Greville, Spenser, and Shakespeare; his lesser imitators were Henry Constable, Barnabe Barnes, Giles Fletcher the Elder, Lodge, Richard Barnfield, and many more. Astrophel had re-created the Petrarchan world of proud beauty and despairing lover in a single, brilliant stroke, though in English hands the preferred division of the sonnet into three quatrains and a couplet gave Petrarch's contemplative form a more forensic turn, investing it with an argumentative terseness and epigrammatic sting. Within the common ground shared by the sequences, there is much diversity. Only Sidney's sequence endeavours to tell a story, the others being more loosely organized as variations focusing on a central (usually fictional) relationship. Daniel's Delia (1592) is eloquent and elegant, dignified and high-minded; Drayton's Ideas Mirror (1594; much revised by 1619) rises to a strongly imagined, passionate intensity; Spenser's Amoretti (1595) celebrates, unusually, fulfilled sexual love achieved within marriage. Shakespeare's sonnets (published 1609) present a different world altogether, the conventions upside down, the lady no beauty but dark and treacherous, the loved one beyond considerations of sexual possession because he is male. The sonnet tended to gravitate toward correctness or politeness, and for most readers its chief pleasure must have been rhetorical, in its forceful pleading and consciously exhibited artifice, but, under the pressure of Shakespeare's urgent metaphysical concerns, dramatic toughness, and shifting and highly charged ironies, the form's conventional limits were exploded.
Other poetic styles
Sonnet and lyric represent one tradition of verse within the period, that most conventionally delineated as Elizabethan, but the picture is complicated by the coexistence of other poetic styles in which ornament was distrusted or turned to different purposes; the sonnet was even parodied by Sir John Davies in his Gulling Sonnets (c. 1594) and by the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell. A particular stimulus to experiment was the variety of new possibilities made available by verse translation, from Richard
Stanyhurst's extraordinary Aeneid (1582), in quantitative hexameter and littered with obscure or invented diction, and Sir John Harington's version of Ariosto's Orlando furioso (1591), with its Byronic ease and narrative fluency, to Christopher Marlowe's blank verse rendering of Lucan's First Book (published 1600), probably the finest Elizabethan translation.
The genre to benefit most from translation was the epyllion, or little epic. This short narrative in verse was usually on a mythological subject, taking most of its material from Ovid, either his Metamorphoses (English version by Arthur Golding, 1565-67) or his Heroides (English version by Turberville, 1567). This form flourished from Lodge's Scillaes Metamorphosis (1589) to Francis Beaumont's Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1602) and is best represented by Marlowe's Hero and Leander (published 1598) and Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593). Ovid's reputation as an esoteric philosopher left its mark on George Chapman's Ovid's Banquet of Sense (1595) and Drayton's Endimion and Phoebe (1595), in which the love of mortal for goddess becomes a parable of wisdom. But Ovid's real attraction was as an authority on the erotic, and most epyllia treat physical love with sophistication and sympathy, unrelieved by the gloss of allegory--a tendency culminating in John Marston's The Metamorphosis of Pigmalion's Image (1598), a poem that has shocked tender sensibilities. Inevitably, the shift of attitude had an effect on style: for Marlowe the experience of translating (inaccurately) Ovid's Amores meant a gain for Hero and Leander in terms of urbanity and, more important, wit.
With the epyllion comes a hint of the tastes of the following reign, and a similar shift of taste can be felt among those poets of the 1590s who began to modify the ornamental style in the direction of native plainness or Classical restraint. An astute courtier such as Davies might, in his Orchestra (1596) and Hymns of Astraea (1599), write confident panegyrics to the aging Elizabeth, but in Sir Walter Raleigh's Eleventh Book of the Ocean to Cynthia, a kind of broken pastoral eclogue, praise of the queen is undermined by an obscure but eloquent sense of hopelessness and disillusionment. For Raleigh, the complimental manner seems to be disintegrating under the weight of disgrace and isolation at court; his scattered lyrics--notably The Lie, a contemptuous dismissal of the court--often draw their resonance from the resources of the plain style. Another courtier whose writing suggests similar pressures is Greville. His Caelica (published 1633) begins as a conventional sonnet sequence but gradually abandons Neoplatonism for pessimistic reflections on religion and politics. Other works in his sinewy and demanding verse include philosophical treatises and unperformed melodramas (Alaham and Mustapha) that have a sombre Calvinist tone, presenting man as a vulnerable creature inhabiting a world of unresolved contradictions:
Oh wearisome condition of humanity!
Born under one law, to another bound;
Vainly begot, and yet forbidden vanity,
Created sick, commanded to be sound.
Greville was a friend of Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, whose revolt against Elizabeth ended in 1601 on the scaffold, and other poets on the edge of the Essex circle fueled the taste for aristocratic heroism and individualist ethics. Chapman's masterpiece, his translation of Homer (1598), is dedicated to Essex, and his original poems are intellectual and recondite, often deliberately difficult and obscure; his abstruseness is a means of restricting his audience to a worthy, understanding elite. Daniel, in his verse Epistles (1603) written to various noblemen, strikes a mean between plainness and compliment; his Musophilus (1599), dedicated to Greville, defends the worth of poetry but says there are too many frivolous wits writing. The cast of Daniel's mind is stoical, and his language is classically precise. His major project was a verse history of The Civil Wars Between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York (1595-1609), and versified history is also strongly represented in Drayton's Legends (1593-1607), Barons' Wars (1596, 1603), and England's Heroical Epistles (1597).
The form that really set its face against Elizabethan politeness was the satire. Satire was related to the complaint, of which there were notable examples by Daniel (The Complaint of Rosamond, 1592) and Shakespeare (The Rape of Lucrece, 1594) that are dignified and tragic laments in supple verse. But the Elizabethans mistakenly held the term satire to derive from the Greek satyros, a satyr, and so set out to match their manner to their matter and make their verses snarl. In the works of the principal satirists, Donne (five satires, 1593-98), Joseph Hall (Virgidemiarum, 1597-98), and Marston (Certain Satires and The Scourge of Villainy, 1598), the denunciation of vice and folly repeatedly tips into invective, raillery, and sheer abuse. The versification of Donne's satires is frequently so rough as barely to be verse at all; Hall apologized for not being harsh enough, and Marston was himself pilloried in Jonson's play Poetaster (1601) for using ridiculously difficult language. “Vex all the world,” wrote Marston to himself, “so that thyself be pleased.” The satirists popularized a new persona, that of the malcontent who denounces his society not from above but from within. Their continuing attraction resides in their self-contradictory delight in the world they profess to abhor and their evident fascination with the minutiae of life in court and city. They were enthusiastically followed by Everard Guilpin, Samuel Rowlands, Thomas Middleton, and Cyril Tourneur, and so scandalous was the flood of satires that in 1599 their printing was banned. Thereafter the form survived in Jonson's classically balanced epigrams and poems of the good life, but its more immediate impact was on the drama, in helping to create the vigorously skeptical voices that people The Revenger's Tragedy (1607) and Shakespeare's Hamlet (c. 1599-1601).
Prose styles, 1550-1600
Prose was easily the principal medium in the Elizabethan period, and, despite the mid-century uncertainties over the language's weaknesses and strengths--whether coined and imported words should be admitted; whether the structural modeling of English prose on Latin writing was beneficial or, as Bacon would complain, a pursuit of “choiceness of phrase” at the expense of “soundness of argument”--the general attainment of prose writing was uniformly high, as is often manifested in contexts not conventionally imaginative or “literary,” such as tracts, pamphlets, and treatises. The obvious instance of such casual success is Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589; expanded 1598-1600), a massive collection of travelers' tales, of which some are highly accomplished narratives. William Harrison's gossipy, entertaining Description of England (1577), Philip Stubbes's excitable and humane social critique The Anatomy of Abuses (1583), Reginald Scot's anecdotal Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), and John Stow's invaluable Survey of London (1598) also deserve passing mention. William Kempe's account of his morris dance from London to Norwich, Kempe's Nine Days' Wonder (1600), exemplifies a smaller genre, the newsbook (a type of pamphlet).
The writers listed above all use an unpretentious style, enlivened with a vivid vocabulary; the early prose fiction, on the other hand, delights in ingenious formal embellishment at the expense of narrative economy. This runs up against preferences ingrained in the modern reader by the novel, but Elizabethan fiction is not at all novelistic and finds room for debate, song, and the conscious elaboration of style. The unique exception is Gascoigne's Adventures of Master F.J. (1573), a tale of thwarted love set in an English great house, which is the first success in English imaginative prose. Gascoigne's story has a surprising authenticity and almost psychological realism (it may be autobiographical), but even so it is heavily imbued with the influence of Castiglione.
The existence of an audience for polite fiction was signaled in the collections of stories imported from France and Italy by William Painter (1566), Geoffrey Fenton (1577), and George Pettie (1576). Pettie, who claimed not to care “to displease twenty men to please one woman,” believed his readership was substantially female. There were later collections by Barnaby Rich (1581) and George Whetstone (1583); historically, their importance was as sources of plots for many Elizabethan plays. The direction fiction was to take was established by John Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578), which, with its sequel Euphues and His England (1580), set a fashion for an extreme rhetorical mannerism that came to be known as euphuism. The plot of Euphues--a rake's fall from virtue and his recovery--is but an excuse for a series of debates, letters, and speechifyings, thick with assonance, antithesis, parallelism, and balance and displaying a pseudoscientific learning. Lyly's style would be successful on the stage, but in fiction its density and monotony are wearying. The other major prose work of the 1570s, Sidney's Arcadia, is no less rhetorical (Abraham Fraunce illustrated his handbook of style The Arcadian Rhetoric  almost entirely with examples from the Arcadia), but with Sidney rhetoric is in the service of psychological insight and an exciting plot. Dozens of imitations of Arcadia and Euphues followed from the pens of Greene, Lodge, Anthony Munday, Emanuel Forde, and others; none has much distinction.
Prose was to be decisively transformed through its involvement in the bitter and learned controversies of the 1570s and '80s over the reform of the English Church and the problems the controversies raised in matters of authority, obedience, and conscience. The fragile ecclesiastical compromise threatened to collapse under the demands for further reformation made by Elizabeth's more godly subjects, and its defense culminated in Richard Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (eight books, 1593-1662), the first English classic of serious prose. Hooker's is a monumental work, structured in massive and complex paragraphs brilliantly re-creating the orotund style of Cicero. His air of maturity and detachment has recommended him to modern tastes, but no more than his opponents was he above the cut and thrust of controversy. On the contrary, his magisterial rhetoric was designed all the more effectively to fix blame onto his enemies, and even his account (in Books VI-VIII) of the relationship of church and state was deemed too sensitive for publication in the 1590s.
More decisive for English fiction was the appearance of the “Martin Marprelate” tracts of 1588-90. These seven pamphlets argued the Puritan case but with an un-Puritanical scurrility and created great scandal by hurling invective and abuse at Elizabeth's bishops with comical gusto. The bishops employed Lyly and Nashe to reply to the pseudonymous Marprelate, and the consequence may be read in Nashe's prose satires of the following decade, especially Piers Penniless His Supplication to the Devil (1592), The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), and Nashe's Lenten Stuff (1599), the latter a pamphlet in praise of herring. Nashe's “extemporal vein” makes fullest use of the flexibility of colloquial speech and delights in nonsense, redundancy, and disconcerting shifts of tone, which demand an answering agility from the reader. His language is probably the most profusely inventive of all Elizabethan writers', and he makes even Greene's low-life pamphlets (1591-92), with their sensational tales from the underworld, look conventional. His only rival is Thomas Deloney, whose Jack of Newbury (1597), The Gentle Craft (1597-98), and Thomas of Reading (1600) are enduringly attractive for their depiction of the lives of ordinary citizens, interspersed with elements of romance, jest book, and folktale. Deloney's entirely convincing dialogue indicates how important for the development of a flexible prose must have been the example of a flourishing theatre in Elizabethan London. In this respect, as in so many others, the role of the drama was crucial.
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