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Minor Poets of the Elizabethan Age

by William J. Long

Though Edmund Spenser is the one great non-dramatic poet of the Elizabethan Age, a multitude of minor poets demand attention of the student who would understand the tremendous literary activity of the period. One needs only to read The Paradyse of Daynty Devises (1576), or A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions(1578), or any other of the miscellaneous collections to find hundreds of songs, many of them of exquisite workmanship, by poets whose names now awaken no response. A glance is enough to assure one that over all England "the sweet spirit of song had arisen, like the first chirping of birds after a storm." Nearly two hundred poets are recorded in the short period from 1558 to 1625, and many of them were prolific writers. In a work like this, we can hardly do more than mention a few of the best known writers, and spend a moment at least with the works that suggest Marlowe's description of "infinite riches in a little room." The reader will note for himself the interesting union of action and thought in these men, so characteristic of the Elizabethan Age; for most of them were engaged chiefly in business or war or politics, and literature was to them a pleasant recreation rather than an absorbing profession.

Thomas Sackville (1536-1608). Sir Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset and Lord High Treasurer of England, is generally classed with Wyatt and Surrey among the predecessors of the Elizabethan Age. In imitation of Dante's Inferno, Sackville formed the design of a great poem called The Mirror for Magistrates. Under guidance of an allegorical personage called Sorrow, he meets the spirits of all the important actors in English history. The idea was to follow Lydgate's Fall of Princes and let each character tell his own story; so that the poem would be a mirror in which present rulers might see themselves and read this warning: "Who reckless rules right soon may hope to rue." Sackville finished only the "Induction" and the "Complaint of the Duke of Buckingham." These are written in the rime royal, and are marked by strong poetic feeling and expression. Unfortunately Sackville turned from poetry to politics, and the poem was carried on by two inferior poets, William Baldwin and George Ferrers.

Sackville wrote also, in connection with Thomas Norton, the first English tragedy, Ferrex and Porrex, called also Gorboduc, which will be considered in the following section on the Rise of the Drama.

Philip Sidney (1554-1586). Sidney, the ideal gentleman, the Sir Calidore of Spenser's "Legend of Courtesy," is vastly more interesting as a man than as a writer, and the student is recommended to read his biography rather than his books. His life expresses, better than any single literary work, the two ideals of the age,--personal honor and national greatness.

As a writer he is known by three principal works, all published after his death, showing how little importance he attached to his own writing, even while he was encouraging Spenser. The Arcadia is a pastoral romance, interspersed with eclogues, in which shepherds and shepherdesses sing of the delights of rural life. Though the work was taken up idly as a summer's pastime, it became immensely popular and was imitated by a hundred poets. The Apologie for Poetrie(1595), generally called the Defense of Poesie, appeared in answer to a pamphlet by Stephen Gosson called The School of Abuse (1579), in which the poetry of the age and its unbridled pleasure were denounced with Puritan thoroughness and conviction. The Apologie is one of the first critical essays in English; and though its style now seems labored and unnatural,--the pernicious result of Euphues and his school,--it is still one of the best expressions of the place and meaning of poetry in any language. Astrophel and Stella is a collection of songs and sonnets addressed to Lady Penelope Devereux, to whom Sidney had once been betrothed. They abound in exquisite lines and passages, containing more poetic feeling and expression than the songs of any other minor writer of the age.

George Chapman (1559?-1634). Chapman spent his long, quiet life among the dramatists, and wrote chiefly for the stage. His plays, which were for the most part merely poems in dialogue, fell far below the high dramatic standard of his time and are now almost unread. His most famous work is the metrical translation of the Iliad (1611) and of the Odyssey (1614). Chapman's Homer, though lacking the simplicity and dignity of the original, has a force and rapidity of movement which makes it superior in many respects to Pope's more familiar translation. Chapman is remembered also as the finisher of Marlowe's Hero and Leander, in which, apart from the drama, the Renaissance movement is seen at perhaps its highest point in English poetry. Out of scores of long poems of the period, Hero and Leander and the Faery Queen are the only two which are even slightly known to modern readers.

Michael Drayton (1563-1631). Drayton is the most voluminous and, to antiquarians at least, the most interesting of the minor poets. He is the Layamon of the Elizabethan Age, and vastly more scholarly than his predecessor. His chief work is Polyolbion, an enormous poem of many thousand couplets, describing the towns, mountains, and rivers of Britain, with the interesting legends connected with each. It is an extremely valuable work and represents a lifetime of study and research. Two other long works are the Barons' Wars and the Heroic Epistle of England; and besides these were many minor poems. One of the best of these is the "Battle of Agincourt," a ballad written in the lively meter which Tennyson used with some variations in the "Charge of the Light Brigade," and which shows the old English love of brave deeds and of the songs that stir a people's heart in memory of noble ancestors.

Book: Shattered Sighs