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(1603 to 1625.)
It has been remarked by Bishop Percy, that almost all the poetry which was composed during the early part of the preceding reign was remarkable for the facility and musical flow of its versification ; whereas the compositions of Donne, Jonson, and many of their contemporaries are, in general, unusually harsh and discordant.
Indeed, our literature could not fail of reflecting, in some degree, the manners of the court. Our maiden queen, unable to submit without some degree of peevishness and regret to the ravages made in her charms by the attacks of age and infirmity, spread uneasiness and constraint all around her; and the playful gallantry inseparable from a female court was gradually succeeded by a more cold and gloomy system of manners. Poetry, which had long been busied with the loves and graces, was now only occupied with the abstruse researches of science; and fancy seemed to be crushed and overlaid by the weight of learning.
The accession of James I., who brought to the throne the accomplishments and dispositions of a pedagogue, contributed to the growth of pedantry and affectation ; and at the same time the sullen spirit of puritanism, which
began to be widely diffused, concurred in vitiating the national taste. The theatres alone seem to have been the refuge of genius, nor has any æra of our history produced so many models of dramatic excellence : but the wretched spirit of criticism which prevailed in the closet is evinced by the multiplied editions of Donne, Herbert, and similar versifiers ; by the general preference of Jonson to Shakspeare ; and by the numberless volumes of patchwork and shreds of quotation which form the prose compositions of this age.
It is remarkable, that the series of Scotish poets terminates abruptly in this reign, and that no name of eminence occurs between those of Drummond and Thomson. Indeed it is not extraordinary that the period which intervened between the union of the two crowns and that of the countries should have proved highly unpropitious to Scotish literature. Scotland, becoming an appendage to the sister kingdom, was subjected, as Ireland has since been, to the worst of all governments, being abandoned to the conflict of rival families, who were alternately supported by the English administration, so that it exhibited a species of anarchy under the auspices of a legitimate sovereign.
James I. was himself a poet, and specimens of his talent, such as it was, are to be found in many of our miscellanies. He also wrote some rules and cautels, for the use of professors of the art, which have been long, and perhaps deservedly, disregarded.
The most favourable sample of his Majesty's poetic skill has been lately obtained from the College library, Edinburgh, and will be found in the following page. It is prefixed to Fowler's translation of the Triumphs of Petrarch, a MS. before described.