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HISTORICAL SKETCH, &c.
Reign of Henry VIII.—John Skelton.
William Roy.-John Heywood.-Sir David Lindsay.-- The Mourning Maiden.
The accession of Henry VIII, could not fail to promote the progress of elegant literature in England. His title to the crown was so undoubted that it left him no apprehension of a rival, and fully secured his subjects against the recurrence of those sanguinary civil wars which had so long desolated the country. He was young, handsome, accomplished, wealthy, and prodigal ; and the nobility, effectually humbled by the policy of his father, crowded round his person, with no higher ambition than that of gaining his favour and sharing his profusion, which was exhibited in fre
quent tournaments, in masques, or entertainments consisting of music, dancing, gaming, banquetings, and the display of dresses at once grotesque and magnificent. All the pleasures and all the gallantry of the age were assembled at his court. The press, which had already produced complete and sumptuous editions of our best early poets, furnished an abundant supply of metrical romances, Christmas carols, and other popular compositions. Henry himself is known to have been a proficient in music, and was perhaps an occasional writer of poetry ; * and though his skill in the art be rather problematical, his taste for it is fully evinced by the almost universal practice of his courtiers. Accordingly, this reign forms a marked epocha in our poetical history.
Chaucer, as we have seen, had formed his taste upon the model of the Italian no less than of the
but the masculine beauties of Boccacio, in the Teseide and Filostrato, had excited
French poets ;
* The following lines are, in the Nugæ Antiquæ, ascribed
What metal can resist the flaming fire?
And melt the ice, and make the frost retire ?
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-songs, because 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 confessed, 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