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The poetical history of this important reign, which occupies near a century in our annals, could not easily be comprised in a moderate volume. Epic and didactic poems, satires, plays, masques, translations from the Greek, Latin, and all the modern languages, historical legends, devotional poems, pastorals, sonnets, madrigals, acrostics, and humorous and romantic ballads were produced, during this period, with a profusion which, perhaps, has never since been equalled. No less than seventyfour poets are assigned to the reign of Elizabeth in the new edition of the “ Theatrum Poetarum,” and the catalogue might certainly be much farther extended.
It is true that, of these claimants to immortality, the far greater number have been very generally consigned to oblivion; a few, such as Drayton, Fairfax,Warner, Sir John Harrington, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, &c. continue to be cited, in deference to their ancient reputation; but Shakspeare, Jonson, Fletcher, Spenser, and Sir John Davis, are still confessed to be unrivalled in their several styles of composition, although near two centuries have
elapsed, during which the progress of literature and the improvement of our language, have been constant and uninterrupted.
The literary splendour of this reign may be justly attributed to the effects of the Reformation.“ When “ the corruptions and impostures of popery were “ abolished (says Mr. Warton) the laity, who had
been taught to assert their natural privileges, “ became impatient of the old monopoly of know“ ledge, and demanded admission to the usurpations " of the clergy. The general curiosity for new dis“ coveries, heightened either by just or imaginary “ ideas of the treasures contained in the Greek and “ Roman writers, excited all persons of leisure and “ fortune to study the classics. The pedantry of “ the present age was the politeness of the last.” Of this pedantry he adduces a curious instance in the occupations of Queen Elizabeth, whose marvellous progress in the Greek nouns, is recorded with rapture by her preceptor Roger Ascham; and he might have found many similar examples in Anne Bullen, and other distinguished characters. But these efforts of patience and industry in the great, were perhaps necessary to encourage and preserve the general emulation of the learned. In a short time, all the treasures of Greek, Latin, and Italian literature were laid open to the public,
through the medium of translation. The former supplied our poetry with an inexhaustible fund of new and beautiful allusions: the latter afforded numberless stories taken from common life, in which variety of incident and ingenuity of contrivance were happily united. The genius which was destined to combine this mass of materials, could not fail to be called forth by the patronage of the court, by the incentive of general applause, and by the hopes of raising the literary glory of our nation to a level with that, which was the result of its political and military triumphs.
It must also be remembered that the English language was, at this time, much more copious, and consequently better adapted to poetry, than at any prior or subsequent period. Our vocabulary was enriched, during the first half of the sixteenth century, by almost daily adoptions from the learned languages; and though they were often admitted without necessity, and only in consequence of a blind veneration for the dignity of polysyllables, they must have added something to the expression, as well as to the harmony and variety of our language. These exotics however did not occasion the expulsion of the natives. Our vulgar tongue having become the vehicle of religion, was regarded, not only with national partiality, but with pious reverence. Chaucer, who was supposed to have greatly assisted the doctrines of his contemporary, Wickliffe, by ridiculing the absurdities, and exposing the impostures, of the monks, was not only respected as the father of English poetry, but revered as a champion of reformation : and a familiar knowledge of his phraseology was considered, at least in the reign of Edward VI, as essential to the polite
ness of a courtier. I know them (says Wilson in “ his “ Rhetorick”) that think rhetorick to stand “ wholly upon dark words : and he that can catch
an ink-horn term by the tail, him they count to “ be a fine Englishman and a good rhetorician.“ He that cometh lately out of France will talk “ French-English, and never blush at the matter. “ Another chops in with English Italianated. The “ fine courtier will talk nothing but Chaucer.” This, by the way, may serve to explain the cause of Spenser's predilection for a phraseology, which, though antiquated, was not either obsolete or unfashionable.
The whole world of words, therefore (to borrow an expression of one of our glossarists), was open to Shakspeare and his contemporaries, and the mode of employing its treasures, was left very much to their discretion. Criticism was in its infancy: this was the age of adventure and experiment,