The first about who we will talk is Edmund Spenser (1522-1599), who was an English poet best known for The Faerie Queene, an epic poem and fantastical allegory celebrating the Tudor Dynasty and Elizabeth I. he is recognized as one of the premier craftsmen of Modern English verse in its infancy, and one of the greatest poets in the English language. The first verses ever published by Spenser were six sonnets translated from Petrarch. Then followed The Shepherds Calendar, whose subject was suggested to him by Sydney. In writing it, Spenser used foreign models derived from Greek poetry, Latin, French, and Italian literature.
The verses are still very conventional and show obvious signs of immaturity, the content is mythological-scholarly, though there are many beautiful descriptions of English rural scenery. The melody is often interrupted; however, it inaugurates a new era in English poetry. This new era is superbly by The Faerie Queene. The models which Spenser used when he embarked upon the difficult task of composing this poem, the most important and popular of all that he ever wrote, were Ariosto’s Orlando furioso and Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberato.
Conceived in the midst of the uncanny beauties of the Irish landscape, The Faerie Queene is far from indifferent to them, finding in them an important source of inspiration for his natural background; as important as medieval English and Celtic poetry were for the narrative. The chief task Spenser set himself was to amalgamate all these poetical elements and, by deepening the moral content of court poetry and by fertilizing it with the new humanistic ideas, to write an impressive national epic. Few poems more clearly illustrate the variety of influences from which most great literary works result.
In many respects the most direct source was the body of Italian romances of chivalry, especially the ‘Orlando Furioso’ of Ariosto, which was written in the early part of the sixteenth century. These romances, in turn, combine the personages of the medieval French epics of Charlemagne with something of the spirit of Arthurian romance and with a Renaissance atmosphere of magic and of rich fantastic beauty. Spenser borrows and absorbs all these things and moreover he imitates Ariosto closely, often merely translating whole passages from his work.
But this use of the Italian romances, further, carries with it a large employment of characters, incidents, and imagery from classical mythology and literature, among other things the elaborated similes of the classical epics. Spenser himself is directly influenced, also, by the medieval romances. Most important of all, all these elements are shaped to the purpose of the poem by Spenser’s high moral aim, which in turn springs largely from his Platonic idealism. To the beauty of Spenser’s imagination, ideal and sensuous, corresponds his magnificent command of rhythm and of sound.
As a verbal melodist, especially a melodist of sweetness and of stately grace, and as a harmonist of prolonged and complex cadences, he is unsurpassable. But he has full command of his rhythm according to the subject, and can range from the most delicate suggestion of airy beauty to the roar of the tempest or the strident energy of battle. In vocabulary and phraseology his fluency appears inexhaustible. Here, as in ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar,’ he deliberately introduces, especially from Chaucer, obsolete words and forms, such as the inflectional ending in -en which distinctly contribute to his romantic effect.
His constant use of alliteration is very skilful; the frequency of the alliteration on w is conspicuous but apparently accidental. For the external medium of all this beauty Spenser, modifying the ottava rima of Ariosto (a stanza which rimes abababcc), invented the stanza which bears his own name and which is the only artificial stanza of English origin that has ever passed into currency. The rime-scheme is ababbcbcc and in the last line the iambic pentameter gives place to an Alexandrine (an iambic hexameter).
Whether or not any stanza form is as well adapted as blank verse or the rimed couplet for prolonged narrative is an interesting question, but there can be no doubt that Spenser’s stanza, firmly unified, in spite of its length, by its central couplet and by the finality of the last line, is a discovery of genius, and that the Alexandrine, ‘forever feeling for the next stanza,’ does much to bind the stanzas together. It has been adopted in no small number of the greatest subsequent English poems, including such various ones as Burns’ ‘Cotter’s Saturday Night,’ Byron’s ‘Childe Harold,’
Keats’ ‘Eve of St. Agnes,’ and Shelley’s ‘Adonais. ‘ In general style and spirit, it should be added, Spenser has been one of the most powerful influences on all succeeding English romantic poetry. Two further sentences of Lowell well summarize his whole general achievement: ‘His great merit is in the ideal treatment with which he glorified common things and gilded them with a ray of enthusiasm. He is a standing protest against the tyranny of the Commonplace, and sows the seeds of a noble discontent with prosaic views of life and the dull uses to which it may be put. The next famous Elizabethan that should be mentioned and about whom we will make a few references concerning his life, his work and his innovations in literature is Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), who was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. As the foremost Elizabethan tragedian, he is known for his blank verse, his overreaching protagonist, and his mysterious death. Marlowe’s reputation as a dramatist rests on five plays – Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, and Dido, Queen of Cartage.
To these five masterpieces might be added The Massacre of Paris, a bloody-thirsty melodrama now, it seems, little read. In this handful of plays appears the first true voice of the Renaissance, of the period of a new learning, new freedom, new enterprise, of the period of worship of Man rather than God. Marlowe sums up the new age. The old restrictions of the Church and the limitation on knowledge have been destroyed; the world is opening up and the ships are sailing to new lands; wealth is being amassed; the great national aggressors are rising.
But, above all, it is the spirit of human freedom, of limitless human power and enterprise that Marlowe’s plays convey. Tamburlaine is the great conqueror, the embodiment of tyrannical power; Barabas, the Jew of Malta, stands for monetary power; Faustus represents the most deadly hunger of all, for the power which supreme knowledge can give. Each one of Christopher Marlowe’s plays is, in a sense, a tour de force, a special creation. The Jew of Malta, Dido, and The Massacre of Paris, though abounding in passages of strength yet do not fulfill the requirements the author himself had set up.
The Jew, however, was very popular, being performed thirty-six times in four years, which in those days was an unusual record. Marlowe’s first and most important service to drama was the improvement of blank verse. Greene had condemned its use as being unscholarly; Sackville and Norton had used it, but were not able to lift it above commonplace. In their work, it usually consisted of isolated lines, one following another, with no grouping according to thought. All the verses were made after one rhythmical pattern, with the same number of feet and the caesura always in place.
Marlowe invented numberless variations while still keeping the satisfying rhythm within a recurring pattern. Sometimes he left a redundant syllable, or left the line one syllable short, or moved the position of the caesura. He grouped his lines according to the thought and adapted his various rhythms to the ideas. Thus blank verse became a living organism, plastic, brilliant, and finished. Marlowe’s second best gift to drama was his conception of the heroic tragedy built on a grand scale, with the three-fold unity of character, impression, and interest, instead of the artificial unities of time and place.
Before his time tragedies were built either according to the loose style of the chronicle, or within the mechanical framework of the Seneca model; but in either case the dramatic unity attained by the Greeks was lacking. Marlowe and Shakespeare, with their disregard of the so-called classic rules, were in fact much nearer the spirit of Aeschylus and Sophocles than the slavish followers of the pseudo-classic schools. Marlowe painted gigantic ambitions, desires for impossible things, longings for a beauty beyond earthly conception, and sovereigns destroyed by the very powers which had raised them to their thrones.
Tamburlaine, Faust, Barabbas are the personifications of arrogance, ambition and greed. There is sometimes a touch of the extravagant or bombastic, or even of the puerile in his plays, for he had no sense of humor; nor had he the ability to portray a woman. He wrote no drama on the subject of love. Furthermore, his world is not altogether our world, but a remote field of the imagination. It has been remarked that “in Marlowe’s superb verse there is very little to indicate that the writer had ever encountered any human beings. In spite of this, he was great, both as a dramatist and poet. His short life, the haste of his work, the irregularities of his habits, these things combined to keep him from perfecting the creations of his imagination. Taken together, his plays imposed a standard upon all succeeding theatrical compositions. Before him, in England, there was no play of great importance; but after him, and based upon his work as a model, rose the greatest drama of English history.
A friendlier critic, Mr. A. C. Swinburne, observes of this poet that “the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse was therefore also the teacher and the guide of Shakespeare. ” In this sentence there are two misleading assumptions and two misleading conclusions. Kyd has as good a title to the first honour as Marlowe; Surrey has a better title to the second; and Shakespeare was not taught or guided by one of his predecessors or contemporaries alone.
The less questionable judgment is, that Marlowe exercised a strong influence over later drama, though not himself as great a dramatist as Kyd; that he introduced several new tones into blank verse, and commenced the dissociative process which drew it farther and farther away from the rhythms of rhymed verse; and that when Shakespeare borrowed from him, which was pretty often at the beginning, Shakespeare either made something inferior or something different.
To sum up we can say that Marlowe’s major contribution to the Elizabethan drama is due to his vigorous and masterly use of blank verse (his ‘’mighty line’’) – a poetic form consisting of unrhymed iambic pentameters which is much nearer to conversational, natural English than any other metrical form. It is vigorous, flexible, and it can suit itself to the necessities of declamation, oratory, exposition, speechmaking, etc. , being used by Shakespeare himself to extraordinary effect. The last but not the least famous Elizabethan we have to speak is Ben Johnson (1572-1637), who was an English renaissance dramatist, poet and actor.
A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays, particularly Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair, which are considered his best and his lyrical poems. A man of vast reading and unparalleled breadth of influence on Jacobean and Caroline playwrights and poets. The second place among the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists is universally assigned, on the whole justly, to Ben Jonson, who both in temperament and in artistic theories and practice presents a complete contrast to Shakespeare.
Most conspicuous in his dramas is his realism, often, as we have said, extremely coarse, and a direct reflection of his intellect, which was as strongly masculine as his body and altogether lacking, where the regular drama was concerned, in fineness of sentiment or poetic feeling. He early assumed an attitude of pronounced opposition to the Elizabethan romantic plays, which seemed to him not only lawless in artistic structure but unreal and trifling in atmosphere and substance. That he was not, however, as has sometimes been said, personally hostile to Shakespeare is clear, among other things, from his poetic tributes in the folio edition of Shakespeare and from his direct statement elsewhere that he loved Shakespeare almost to idolatry. ) Jonson’s purpose was to present life as he believed it to be; he was thoroughly acquainted with its worser side; and he refused to conceal anything that appeared to him significant.
His plays, therefore, have very much that is flatly offensive to the taste which seeks in literature, prevailingly, for idealism and beauty; but they are, nevertheless, generally speaking, powerful portrayals of actual life. Jonson’s purpose, however, was never unworthy; rather, it was distinctly to uphold morality. His frankest plays, as we have indicated, are attacks on vice and folly, and sometimes, it is said, had important reformatory influence on contemporary manners. He held, indeed, that in the drama, even in comedy, the function of teaching was as important as that of giving pleasure.
His attitude toward his audiences was that of a learned schoolmaster, whose ideas they should accept with deferential respect; and when they did not approve his plays he was outspoken in indignant contempt. Jonson’s self-satisfaction and his critical sense of intellectual superiority to the generality of mankind produce also a marked and disagreeable lack of sympathy in his portrayal of both life and character. The world of his dramas is mostly made up of knaves, scoundrels, hypocrites, fools, and dupes; and it includes among its really important characters very few excellent men and not a single really good woman.
Jonson viewed his fellow-men, in the mass, with complete scorn, which it was one of his moral and artistic principles not to disguise. His characteristic comedies all belong, further, to the particular type which he himself originated, namely, the ‘Comedy of Humors. ‘ In opposition to the free Elizabethan romantic structure, Jonson stood for and deliberately intended to revive the classical style; though with characteristic good sense he declared that not all the classical practices were applicable to English plays. He generally bserved unity not only of action but also of time (a single day) and place, sometimes with serious resultant loss of probability. In his tragedies, ‘Sejanus’ and ‘’Catiline,’’ he excluded comic material; for the most part he kept scenes of death and violence off the stage; and he very carefully and slowly constructed plays which have nothing, indeed, of the poetic greatness of Sophocles or Euripides ( rather a Jonson’s broad solidity) but which move steadily to their climaxes and then on to the catastrophes in the compact classical manner.
He carried his scholarship, however, to the point of pedantry, not only in the illustrative extracts from Latin authors with which in the printed edition he filled the lower half of his pages, but in the plays themselves in the scrupulous exactitude of his rendering of the details of Roman life.
The plays reconstruct the ancient world with much more minute accuracy than do Shakespeare’s; the student should consider for himself whether they succeed better in reproducing its human reality, making it a living part of the reader’s mental and spiritual possessions. Jonson’s style in his plays, especially the blank verse of his tragedies, exhibits the same general characteristics. It is strong, compact, and sometimes powerful, but it entirely lacks imaginative poetic beauty, it is really only rhythmical prose, though sometimes suffused with passion.
Last, and not least: Jonson’s revolt from romanticism to classicism initiated, chiefly in non-dramatic verse, the movement for restraint and regularity, which, making slow headway during the next half century, was to issue in the triumphant pseudo-classicism of the generations of Dryden and Pope. Thus, notable in himself, he was significant also as one of the moving forces of a great literary revolution.
Courtney from Study Moose
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