The First Half of the Seventeenth Century/Chapter 9
forces at work—end of the renaissance—the counter-reformation—rationalism and classicism.
On no period in the history of European literature is it more difficult to generalise with profit than that Introduction. which has been briefly reviewed in the foregoing chapters. Since human thinking began, it has been said, there has been no greater revolution in thought than that which was effected, in men's conception of the world and its laws, in the course of the seventeenth century. To give any complete account of that revolution, and of the eddies which retarded, obscured, or advanced its progress, is beyond the scope of the present work. Indeed, to give a sketch of the intellectual activity, in all its aspects, of even the first sixty years of the century, such as Hallam attempted in his Introduction, would require another volume as large as the present, the subject of which is exclusively literature conceived as an art. Philosophers, theologians, historians, and men of science have been included only in so far as they were also distinctly and admittedly men of letters. It is therefore on one or two of the larger aspects of the literature of the period alone that it is necessary in closing to dwell briefly, mainly with a view to defining as clearly as possible the relation of the period under consideration to those which precede and follow.
In certain aspects the literature of the early seventeenth century is a continuation of the literature of End of the
Renaissance. the Renaissance, the present volume a third chapter in the history whose first and second chapters are contained in Professor Saintsbury's Earlier Renaissance and Mr Hannay's Later Renaissance. This is notably the case as regards Holland and Germany, where the early years of the seventeenth century correspond, in the most important respects, to the last half of the sixteenth in France and England; although, of course, the very fact that the Renaissance movement came late in these countries was not without consequences for the literature which that movement produced. It came from the beginning under the influence of the religious agitations of the century.
It is especially in lyrical and dramatic poetry that the impulse of the Renaissance is still traceable inLyrical Poetry. wellnigh all the literatures touched on here. The lyrical poetry of the Renaissance, that wonderful product, stimulated in its growth from Italy, but in all the countries north of the Alps striking a deeper root into the health-giving soil of popular song, blooms in full splendour and fragrance throughout these years in England and Holland, blossoms even in Germany despite adverse circumstances, and in Italy puts forth late flowers, somewhat waxy and gaudy but not without charm. The songs of Jonson and Carew, of Milton's Comus and Herrick's Hesperides, are not less beautiful than anything of the kind which the sixteenth century produced in France or England, and no whit less redolent of the Renaissance worship of beauty. The poetry of Holland is, as has been seen, above all things a lyrical poetry. In drama and epic, Holland, even in this "Helden-periode," achieved little of enduring value, but the harvest of lyric poetry which she brought forth is rich indeed, and in nothing more surprising than in the range and variety of its metres. It is difficult to do justice to it in this respect without appearing to exaggerate, which, in dealing with Dutch literature, I have been specially anxious to avoid. Some indication of its range has been given in the opening chapters, from the playful
of Huyghens, to the roll of Vondel's
"Wie is het, die zoo hoogh gezeten,
Zoo diep in 't grondelooze licht;"
but it must be remembered, that the long Alexandrine itself is used by Vondel with a wonderful lyrical effect. There are lines in his pæans and tragedies which have the sweep and glitter of waves in mid-ocean:—
"De koesterende zon, tot 's avonts van den morgen,
Voltreckt haer ronde, toont elk een haer aengezicht
En straelen, dagh op dagh, blijft nimmermeer verborgen,
En begenadight elk met warmte, en heilzaem licht.
Zy schijnt rondom den ringk des aerdtrijcks, naar elks wenschen,
Een ieder even na, een ieder even schoon,
Gewelkomt, en onthaelt bij dieren, en bij menschen,
En planten, waerze blinckt uit haeren gouden troon."
That is Vondel at his most flamboyant, a Rubens in lyrical poetry. But he can change his rhythm, when the subject requires, to the quiet flow of a pastoral stream, as in his beautiful rendering of the twenty-third psalm—
"D' Almaghtige is mijn herder, en geleide.
Wat is er datme schort?
Hij weit my, als zijn schaep, in vette weide,
Daer gras noch groen verdort."
Besides this wealth of metrical effect, the Dutch lyrical poetry has most of the beauties and affectations of Renaissance poetry,—the flamboyant mythology, the pastoral and amorous conventions, the conceits, Petrarchian and Marinistic in Hooft, Dubartist in Vondel, and touched in Huyghens with the intellectuality and obscurity of Donne,—
"De Britse Donn'
Die duistre zon,"—
"that obscure sun," as Vondel calls him. But this taste for conceit does not conceal the sincere, personal, natural note which distinguishes Dutch poetry, as it does Dutch art.
Even in Italy, where better than anywhere else one may study the poetry of the Renaissance in decadence,—decadence undisturbed by the emergence of new forces,—lyrical poetry still lingers. All that is best in Marino's sonnets, and madrigals, and the octaves of the Adone, is musical and picturesque lyric. Chiabrera's pompous odes show little genuine inspiration, but Testi's have ardour and flow; and in Chiabrera's canzonette France repaid some of her debt to Italy.
Only in France herself is this lyrical spirit already wellnigh extinct when the century opens. Malherbe, or the spirit of which Malherbe is the first representative, comes, "like an envious sneaping frost," killing the plant which had borne beautiful if delicate blooms in the songs of Ronsard and Du Bellay. The sonorous eloquence of Corneille is a fine thing of its kind, but a lover of pure poetry would give a good deal of it for "Mignonne allons voir si la rose," and "Á vous troupe légère." Théophile is the last of the French poets who preserves some of the lyrical inspiration of an older generation.
The chief symptom of decadence in this final flowering of Renaissance lyric is the phenomenon, which Conceit. has attracted so much attention, of "conceit"—the "accutezze" or Marinism of Italy, Gongorism of Spain, "préciosité" of French and "metaphysical wit" of English poetry. The time is past for speaking of seventeenth-century "wit" or "conceit" as though it were some sudden and inexplicable phenomenon, some startling epidemic in European letters. For it is clear that seventeenth-century "wit" is only an exaggeration of what had been a complaint, and a beauty, of Renaissance poetry throughout. Euphuism is older than Euphues, and Secentismo than the seventeenth century. Their characteristic artifices have been traced through the rhetorical studies of the Middle and Dark Ages back to classical models. And if the Renaissance, in its general heightening and embellishment of style in verse and prose, often accentuated rather than corrected artifice, was it not because the first enthusiasm for the classics flowed quite naturally in the traditional rhetorical channels? It was only gradually that taste discriminated between more florid beauties and those deeper and purer qualities which we associate with the word classical. In the poetry of the first half of the seventeenth century we have the final phase of this phenomenon, but the form which it took in different countries was determined by special circumstances. The extravagant conceits of Marino and his followers in Italy were the result of that exaggeration of a fashion which so frequently precedes its disappearance, the search for novelty, undirected by a new inspiration, and issuing merely in the bizarre and outrageous. In France and Holland, Germany, and even England (as we have seen in cases such as Drummond, Crashaw, and Cowley), the cultivation of conceit was in part an outcome of the admiration of Italian literature. But in France the aberrations of the "précieux" and "précieuses" were part of the movement towards the refinement and dignifying of style which issued in classicism; while in England, the peculiarly intellectual and erudite character of Donne's "metaphysical wit" is a symptom of the theological and scholastic direction given to English thought and learning by the trend of the second great force in the history and literature of the period—namely, religious polemic.
The other literary kind in which the free artistic spirit of the Renaissance survives is the drama. The Drama. tale of the modern drama, opened by Professor Saintsbury in the Earlier Renaissance, taken up by Mr Hannay's chapters on Spanish and Elizabethan literature in the Later Renaissance, is continued here by an account of the English drama under James and Charles, and of the dramatic experiment in Holland, and by a chapter on French drama introductory to that which follows in Professor Elton's Augustan Ages. Of the three dramas dealt with here, that which retains most of the free artistic spirit of the Renaissance is the English, and the reason is not difficult to discover. The French drama, though it sprang from the same roots as the English, developed later, and when the rigid influence of classicism was in the ascendant. The serious drama of Holland, on the other hand, never emancipated itself sufficiently from the didactic spirit of the sixteenth century Morality and the Latin school drama. It has been sometimes argued that the decay of the English drama was due to the withdrawal from the theatre of the serious middle classes. The example of the Dutch drama is a useful reminder that a drama which did enjoy the full approval of serious and pedantic persons—the extreme Puritans were opposed to the stage on principle, and may be left out of the question—could never have portrayed life with the fulness and freedom which is the glory of the drama of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. From Marlowe to Shirley, the English dramatists owed this freedom to the protection extended to them against Puritan mayors by the Court, and to the fact that the audience for which they wrote was the Court and the populace, not the serious middle classes. They were thus enabled to portray life without squeamishness, and without the too oppressive intrusion of didactic purpose. What pressure there was in this direction came from pedantry rather than respectability.
This volume has dealt only with the English playwrights of the second class, the first being occupied by Shakespeare alone. But perhaps the freshness and greatness of the lesser Elizabethans, as we may still call them, are more readily acknowledged when that overshadowing figure is temporarily excluded. To do justice to Jonson and Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, not to mention Dekker, Middleton, Massinger, and Ford, let a reader take them up, not immediately after studying Shakespeare, but after a course, say, of the lesser Dutch and French dramatists, their contemporaries. He will find the latter trying to do the same thing, to dramatise the same or similar Italian and Spanish novellas; and he cannot fail to realise the difference in the handling, the difference between the colourless atmosphere, the stock characters, the style banale or precious on the one hand, and the resolute effort made by the Elizabethans to realise their scene, be it London or Italy, and to give life and individuality to the characters; as well as the poetry with which their plays overflow. And even if one passes from the second- to the first-rate dramatists, the Elizabethans maintain their position. Fletcher and Webster are more dramatic, and not less poetic, though in a somewhat different way, than Hooft and Vondel. And even in the work of the great Corneille himself, despite scenes of eloquent argument and declamation, and dramatic touches such as "Moi! et c'est assez" or "Qu'il mourût," where can one find scenes to surpass in subtle and thrilling dramatic power the interview between Beatrice and De Flores in Middleton's The Changeling, or that in The Duchess of Malfi, already referred to, when the brother cries—
"Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle: she died young";
and Bosola replies in even more thrilling words—
"I think not so: her infelicity
Seemed to have years too many"?
There is more in such a scene to evoke the Transcendental Feeling, the solemn sense of the immediate presence of "that which was and is and ever shall be," to induce which is, Professor Stewart tell us, the chief end of poetry, than in a whole tragedy of Corneille.
In sustained and finished workmanship, Corneille's plays are doubtless infinitely superior to the mass of minor Elizabethan work. It is rare, indeed, that an Elizabethan play is wrought out in a completely satisfying manner. The Virgin Martyr is a rude, inchoate piece when set beside the shining workmanship of Polyeucte. But the Elizabethans had moments of dramatic insight that seem to me beyond the range of Corneille; and the wild, natural beauties of their poetry have, at any rate for an English reader, a charm that his great and admirable eloquence lacks.
The artistic freedom and variety of the English dramatists are not more striking on a broad survey than is the fundamental soundness of their morality. They are certainly not squeamish, whether in comedy or tragedy, though there is nothing in English to equal the coarseness of Dutch, the cynicism of French farce. There are doubtless signs of decadence, in Fletcher and some of his followers, which forecast the tone of the Restoration plays. Not all are equally sound. Middleton is somewhat brutal, Fletcher callously indecent, and Ford is attracted by the morbid. But taking a broad view; allowing for the demands of a popular audience in the way of amusement; remembering the general tone of plays like Dekker's The Honest Whore, Webster's Vittoria Corrombona and Duchess of Malfi, even of Tourneur's tragedies, of Massinger's plays despite a needless indecency of language, and of comedies which might easily have been only cynical like Northward Ho and Westward Ho,—it is impossible not to admit that the complete freedom the dramatists enjoyed, limited by the general exclusion of political subjects and occasional edicts against strong language, only illustrates the fundamental soundness of their morality, their reverence for virtue in men and women.
The second great factor in the literature which has been under survey is the religious, the currents and The Counter-
Reformation. counter-currents of religious passion which agitate the century from first to last. The Protestant Reformation had spent its full force before the sixteenth century closed, and was entering on a struggle for existence with the forces of the Catholic reaction, which followed the Council of Trent, the rise of the Jesuits, and the setting in order of the Roman Church. Orthodox Protestantism left no great mark on the pure literature of this time, with the notable exception of the writings of Milton, whose orthodoxy was in a constant process of disintegration, and of Bunyan later. It is otherwise with the so-called Counter-Reformation, and the eddies which it produced in other than Roman Catholic countries and churches. To it is due, in the first place, the definite ending in Italy of the anti-religious and anti-clerical current which had flowed since the Renaissance. In the change of tone which took place there was a good deal of hypocrisy as well as sincerity. Tasso's pure and pious Gerusalemme Liberata having to establish its orthodoxy, while Marino's lascivious Adone poses as a moral allegory, is not an edifying example of clerical influence in literature, and Milton has described, in ever-memorable words, the condition of Italy under the Inquisition. But the more interesting results of the reaction are to be seen in the literature produced north of the Alps. It is where the strongest currents meet that the most complex eddies are produced. To the sincerity and ardour of the Catholic reaction in France, and Holland, and England, we owe some beautiful and interesting literature in prose and verse.
In France, the scepticism and libertinism of the Renaissance pass rapidly away. Catholicism and classicism advance hand in hand. Corneille's Polyeucte, and Racine's later Athalie and Esther, are not less characteristic of the age than Cinna and Britannicus, Arnauld's La Fréquente Communion than the Discours de la Méthode. For the Jansenist movement, which produced the Lettres Provinciales and the Pensées, though it came into conflict with Jesuit influence and ecclesiastical authority, is only an incident in the general spiritual history of the period, and was not without influence even on those who opposed it, and on the great preachers of the period which follows.
In Holland, the result of the dissensions in Protestantism and of the Catholic reaction is seen in the strange phenomenon, that the greatest and not least representative poet of a Protestant country is an ardent Catholic, using the stage to set forth Catholic doctrine, and pouring out his heart in poetic apologetics, and hymns to the Virgin and saintly martyrs. And a deep religious strain runs through all the Dutch poetry of this period. Hooft alone has the blended epicureanism and stoicism which mark the pure child of the Classical Renaissance. Huyghens and Cats, Camphuysen and Van der Wiele, are all in different ways religious poets, bent on edification; even Brederoo wrote pious as well as humorous songs, and Luikeu's secular songs are his earliest.
But it is in England that the effects of the religious currents are most complex and striking, whether in verse or prose, in poets or divines. The reason is to be found in the position of the Anglican Church, the via media which she strove to make her own, between pure Bible Protestantism on the one hand and traditional Roman Catholicism on the other. The consequence of this peculiar position—the value of which was recognised by foreigners like Casaubon and Grotius—was that, when the reaction against Protestantism came, it did not necessarily drive a Crashaw, as it did Vondel, into the arms of Rome at once; nor, on the other hand, was it impossible for a Roman like Donne to justify himself in conforming. Whatever any one may think of the religious value of the Anglo-Catholic movement, there can at any rate be no doubt of the mark which it has left on English literature. The greatest preachers of these years are Andrewes and Donne and Taylor; and Donne and Herbert, Vaughan and Crashaw, Traherne and King, are not the least interesting of the poets.
A direct result of the controversy between Canterbury and Rome, of the revival of theological and ecclesiastical studies, was a recrudescence of scholasticism; and one of the strangest phenomena in literature is the combination in Donne's poetry of the emancipated, moral and artistic, tone of the Renaissance with the erudition and subtlety of a controversialist of the Counter-Reformation. Metaphysics was not something new in love-poetry; but since the time of Dante and some of his imitators, it was little more than a rhetorical dressing. In Donne's love-poetry there is a real metaphysical strain, while the range of erudition from which he draws his imagery was something altogether new. Donne's followers are none of them either so metaphysical or so erudite as himself. The metaphysics in the poetry of most of them is simply an ingenious and often far from beautiful rhetorical device. In the religious poets, however, the erudite imagery ministered to their theological didactic, as well as to that love of symbolism which has always belonged to the catholic religious temper.
The field of religious thought and feeling was not left entirely to Roman Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, and orthodox Protestants—Calvinist and Lutheran. From the internecine conflict of churches and creeds some minds turned towards a more liberal thought, or a more mystical pietism. Hales, Chillingworth, and Jeremy Taylor sought to widen the basis of Anglicanism by reducing the essentials of unity in faith; and a little later, when Presbyterian orthodoxy had taken the place of Anglican, and when, despite Presbyterian effort, sects had begun to abound, a similar movement was initiated in the Puritan shades of Cambridge by the liberal and charitable Benjamin Whichcote (1610-1683), and the more philosophic and Platonic John Smith (1618-1652), whose Select Discourses (1660) contain some of the most interesting religious thought of the century—an attempt to form a deeper conception of reason, and its operations in the spiritual sphere, than was possible either for narrow orthodoxy, or for rationalism in its earliest phases. His followers, the most systematically metaphysical of the Cambridge Platonists, More and Cudworth, belong to the subsequent period. Pure mysticism is represented most strikingly by the German Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), on whose work I have not had courage to venture, but mystical piety found representatives in most Protestant countries.
The consideration of the appearance of a liberal strain in seventeenth-century theology brings us Growth of
Rationalism. naturally to the third great force whose influence is traceable in the literature of the early seventeenth century,—that revolution to which we have referred in the opening chapter, the growth of a new, rationalistic conception of the world. In the years which this volume covers, rationalism is shaping and asserting itself, but is far yet from having become the recognised and omnipresent force it proved in the period which follows. Bacon, at the opening of the century, heralds and proclaims its advent, but he was not able to formulate its principles adequately; and it was not until the end of the Forties that Bacon and Descartes began to be studied at the English universities. English thought is still scholastic; still most active in theological and historical studies; and science is only gradually emancipating itself from mediævalism. Its confused transitional condition is obvious in the work of writers like Burton and Browne, even in the poetry of Donne and Milton. It is with Hobbes that rationalism appears in English thought, as an organised method and an aggressive force.
Hobbes, if not a Cartesian, yet follows the deductive, mathematical methods of Descartes rather than the experimental, inductive method adumbrated by Bacon, which was not applied in philosophy till Locke wrote. The first formulator of rationalism was Descartes; and the chief thinkers of the century, as Spinoza and Leibnitz, derive from Descartes. And as it was in France that rationalism was first formulated,—a consequence of the advance of mathematical studies, in which England lagged behind,—it was in France that rationalism first became a force in letters. It is in our period that the classicism of the Augustan ages is taking shape; and the two shaping forces are the organisation of polite society, and the rationalist ideal of precision in the use of words, logical and lucid order. From the opening of the Hôtel de Rambouillet dates the organisation of polite society as a conscious force in life and letters, the beginning of the process which was to make literature, poetry and prose, the finest flower of social intercourse, its greatest beauties that elegance and dignity which are the adornment of aristocratic manners. It is only a beginning that we have in these years. In the literature of the period there is still much of the ruder, freer, larger spirit of the sixteenth century. In the badinage of the Hôtel there is a good deal of coarseness; in the refinements of style which they cultivate, a large admixture of the precious and fantastic. But before the first sixty years of the century are over, modern French prose has taken shape. In moulding it, the two great influences of classicism are at work. Balzac represents the one, the influence of society and its conscious pursuit of dignity and elegance; Descartes stands for the other, the rationalist requirement of precision and order; Pascal combines the two. It may be that the actual influence of Descartes' own style on French prose has been exaggerated. Even so, it would not affect the claim of the new scientific method to have been the principal shaping influence. For Pascal, about whose importance all critics are at one, was educated in that method, and was fully conscious of what right thinking requires of the medium it is to use—precision in the definition of words, and logical order. The method of right thinking is "de n'employer aucun terme dont on n'eût auparavant expliqué nettement le sens: l'autre, de n'avancer jamais aucune proposition qu'on ne démontrât par des vérités déjà connues." When Pascal opened his attack on Arnauld's judges in the Lettres Provinciales, it was by showing the ambiguity of the terms in use, and how, in consequence, the innocence or guiltiness of a doctrine was made to depend not on its meaning but on the person who uttered it. But Pascal was not merely a philosopher. Before he wrote the Provinciales he had been a man of the world; and he knew how little capable the honnête homme is of appreciating logical argument, how much a creature of tastes and prejudices. And the method he adopted in the Provinciales, as he proceeded, was that which he thought most likely to appeal to the average man. To combat prejudice he evoked prejudice. To the help of argument he brought irony and eloquence. Before Addison and Steele, he realised that, even on religious matters, the man of the world must be addressed in a different tone from that which suits the savant. Pascal made French prose a fit instrument, at once for the precise expression of scientific thought and for the more delicate and varied uses of social intercourse and letters.
The history of English prose, and of the less important Dutch prose, of the period, is not quite the same as that of French. It was not till later that rationalism and classicism united in the shaping of modern English prose; and Van Effen's Hollandsche Spectator is generally regarded as the first work in Dutch prose that is distinctly modern. For England on a large, for Holland on a smaller scale, the earlier seventeenth century is a period of enrichment rather than of settling and uniformity; and the chief influence in each is Latin oratorical and historical prose. Hooker and Bacon, Donne and Taylor, Milton and Browne, enriched the resources of English prose in vocabulary, in structure, and in harmony, so much that, despite the work done by Dryden and his followers, the greatest prose writers, from Johnson to Ruskin, have never failed to go back to the study of these great models. On a much smaller scale, something of the same kind was done for Dutch prose by the pedantic, but dignified and harmonious, work of Hooft.
Yet even in this period the simpler, directer prose of Dryden and Swift is heralded; and, as might be expected, it is among those in whom the spirit of reason, of the Aufklärung, is at work. The prose of the moderate divines, Hales and Chillingworth, is comparatively simple and straightforward, though Taylor is still diffuse and ambiguous; and Hobbes's style, in everything but ease and grace, is as modern as Dryden's—precise, orderly, and regular in construction.
These are the chief forces at work in this period, a period to which the title of transitional might be applied quite as fittingly as to the fifteenth century. But the transition is not marked by the slow decay of an old tradition and the gradual birth of a new,—rather by the confused conflict of great and active forces. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, all are potent and shaping influences. Even the prophetic vision of a Bacon could hardly have descried at the opening of the century how completely all these would yield place before it closed to the spirit of rationalist inquiry.
- See Professor Ker, The Dark Ages, pp. 34-36. John Dover Wilson, John Lyly, Camb., 1906.
- For full treatment consult Dejob, De l'Influence du Concile de Trent sur la Littérature et les Beaux-Arts chez les Peuples catholiques. Paris, 1884.