« PreviousContinue »
upon the model of the Italian no less than of the French poets; but the masculine beauties of Boca cace in the Theseide and Filostrato, had excited his admiration, much more than the gentler graces of Petrarch, who now became the universal favourite. It may, perhaps, be matter of surprise, that the style of this poet was not sooner adopted as a model, by our writers of love the manners of chivalry had, in the very infancy of our literature, blended the tender passion with a very competent share of ceremonious enthusiasm. It is probable, however, that the Italian language alone possessed, at that time, sufficient pliability to form a compound of metaphor and metaphysics in the contracted shape of a sonnet.
This difficult novelty seems to have been first attempted by the court poets of the reign of Henry VIII. It must be confesssed, that a string of forced conceits, in which the imagination of the reader is quite bewildered; of harsh and discordant rhymes; and of phrases tortured into the most unnatural inversions, is, not unfrequently, the only result of their perverse ingenuity: but even these abortive struggles were not quite useless. In their repeated endeavours to exhibit, with distinctness, the most minute and fanciful shades of sentiment, they were sometimes led to those new and happy combinations of words,
to those picturesque compound epithets, and glowing metaphors, of which succeeding writers, particularly Shakspeare and Spenser, so ably availed themselves. The necessity of comprising their subject, within definite and very contracted limits, taught them conciseness and accuracy: and the difficult construction of their stanza, forced them to atone for the frequent imperfection of their rhymes, by strict attention to the general harmony of their metre. Although, from their contempt of what they thought the rustic and sordid poverty of our early language, they often adopted a cumbrous and gaudy magnificence of diction; they accumulated the ore, which has been refined by their successors, and provided the materials of future selection.
It must also be admitted, that Surrey, Wyatt, and some of their contemporaries, have, in a few happy instances, anticipated the taste of posterity, and attained that polished elegance of expression which results from general simplicity, and occasional splendour.
Here, therefore, will commence our regular series of “ SPECIMENS;" and as they will explain, much more clearly than mere description could do, the progressive gradations of our language and poetical taste, this series will only be interrupted,
in the remainder of the work, by a few observations on the literary character of each reign, and by some very short notices respecting the several authors. But before we close this slight Sketch, it is necessary to say a few words concerning those poets, in the reign of Henry VIII. whose compositions will not afford us any examples of that kind, which it is the particular object of this compilation, to collect and preserve.
The first of these is John Skelton. He was probably born about A. D. 1470, and in 1489 was laureated at Oxford ; a circumstance to which he seldom fails to allude, as to an honourable evidence of his proficiency in classical learning. This indeed is still farther proved by the eulogy of Erasmus, who has pronounced him to be “ the light “ and ornament of English scholars;" and there can be no doubt of his having been perfectly well qualified for the employment, to which he was appointed, of superintending the studies of Henry VIII. at whose accession he was created orator royal. His ecclesiastical preferments seem to have been limited to the rectory of Diss, in Norfolk; and indeed he was apparently very ill suited to the clerical, or to any other serious profession, from the strange turbulence and irregularity of his character, as well as irresistible propensity to satire;
which, though sometimes enlivened by wit, was principally composed of vulgar and scurrilous invective. For his buffooneries in the pulpit, and his satirical ballads against the mendicants, he is said to have been severely censured, and perhaps suspended, by the bishop of Norwich: but Skelton was incorrigible. Whether he trusted to an imaginary ascendency over the mind of his royal pupil, or that his haughty spirit was incapable of submitting to control, he continued, by repeated scurrilities, to provoke the most powerful enemies, and particularly cardinal Wolsey, who was not to be attacked with impunity. Being closely pursued by the officers of that formidable prelate, he was forced to solicit protection in the sanctuary of Westminster, where he was received by abbot Islip, and protected till his death, in 1529.
Mr. Warton seems to think that Skelton's style was not original, but imitated from the Macaronic poetry of Theophilo Folengio, a Benedictine monk of Casino, who, under the feigned name of Martinus Coccaius, introduced the fashion of intermixing the most familiar Italian words, adapted to Latin terminations, and regular prosody, in Latin hexameters and pentameters. His Phantasic Macaronicæ were written about the year 1512; and the same strange mode of composition was, soon after, imitated by a civilian of Avignon; who, under the name of Antonius de Arena, published, in 1519, a mock elegiac poem in Latin, ridiculously interlarded with French. The drollery of these works is wretchedly vulgar; and indeed (according to the original author) vulgarity is essential to the macaronic art of poetry, the word being derived from macaroni, the food of the lowest and poorest classes of the people. Skelton's verse, however, is not Latin blended with English words, but the reverse ; and the two styles seem to have little resemblance, except in their tendency to introduce a bad taste among readers, who ought to be preserved from it by a liberal and learned education.
Some of Skelton's poems are said to have been printed in 1512, in octavo; and a more complete edition was published in duodecimo, by Thomas Marshe, 1568, and reprinted in 1736. His verses on the death of the earl of Northumberland, inserted in the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, are, as the editor of that work has justly observed, the most tolerable of his compositions ; because they are not at all tinctured with the faults of his usual and favourite style. Of this style the reader will be better able to judge, by the following extract from “ the Image of Hypocrisy,” never printed, of