[PDF Notes] Get complete information on The Prose and Earlier Renaissance

The English Novel. The eager, inquisitive spirit that flamed up at the Renaissance could not exhaust itself entirely in the expansion of English poetry, or even in the creation of the romantic drama; for in achieving this it realized also the compelling interest of everyday actualities.

The favorite story-teller of Chaucer’s time had been the Minstrel. He it was, who first familiarized the common folk with the legends of Arthur and his Knights, of Charlemagne, with such verse tales as Gawain and the Green Knight, and the popular Guy of Warwick. Needless to say, the art of story-telling in the minstrels’ hands was of a rough and crude kind. They broadened and coarsened the Arthurian Romances to suit the taste of their primitive-minded hearers; but in so doing they introduced a contemporary note, interlarding their tales with ridicule of the decadent medieval church, and thus giving that flavor or actuality, which paved the way for the Novel of Elizabeth’s time.

While they were doing this, our first great realistic poet, Chaucer, was helping with finer artistry to create a distaste for the high-faulting medieval romance. He effected this directly in Troilus and Cressida, an ancient romance treated as a genuine character study; indirectly in his epic of contemporary life, The Canterbury Tales.

Here, then, in Chaucer’s time is the first stage in the development of the Novels from the old Romance that had its inspiration in the songs of the minstrel.

William Painter’s Collection. There was no more popular book than William Painter’s collection of Italian Stories. He was the Clerk of the Ordnance in the Tower, and his translation not merely inspired the Romantic drama but interested English reader in Italian fiction specifically, and the art form of the Novel generally. Thus he paved the way, for the English novel as well as providing a background for the English drama.

Painter’s volume had been ransacked to furnish the playhouses of London. Shakespeare borrowed from him generously in Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice; and Beaumont and Fletcher themselves only less liberally of his stories.

The Elizabethan Prose Writers :

The Elizabethan prose writers who distinguished themselves in prose fiction were John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Sir Philip Sidney, and Thomas Nash.

(1) John Lyly:

John Lyly is the pioneer of the English novel, the first stylist in prose, and the most popular writer of his age. A young Kentish man, with slender financial resources and very few friends, he had the good fortune to attract the attention of Lord Burghley, who become his patron.

In 1579 Lyly published the first part of his famous fiction, Euphuism, the Anatomy of Wit, which was received with general delight and approbation.

In the structure of his work, Lyly is Spanish, but there is much more moralizing in Lyly than in Guevara, and more sentiment. That no doubt is another reason for his popularity. From Lyly to the present day; the most popular writers of fiction have always been sentimental and didactic.

There are witty turns of speech in Lyly worth remembering: “It is a blind Goose that cometh to the Fox’s sermon.” “Thou must halt cunningly to beguile a cripple.”

“The best charm for an aching tooth is to pull it out and the best remedy for love is to wear it out”

Sayings like these recall the modern apothems of George Eliot.

The style is marked by the constant use of antithesis and alliteration, which at times becomes mannered to a wearisome extent, but often gives agreeable force and pungency to the matter:

. .. Where salt doth grow nothing else can breed. Where friendship is built no offence can harbor.”

A defect in Lyly’s prose style is his excessive fondness for classical authorities- a fondness that overburdens his prose with a torrent of allusions, comical rather than impressive. Fickleness and constancy, when mentioned, bring with them interminable lists of mythological ladies and gentlemen remarkable for these characteristics. He is not content with an illustration: an allusion with him is synonymous with cataloguing.

(2) Robert Greene:

Robert Greene, who succeeded Lyly, if less brilliant, attains a greater simplicity in his later writings. He was a happy-go-lucky Bohemian, who had no patron, and lived on his wits. His first novel is poor and imitative, but in Pandosto (1580), from which Shakespeare took his Winter’s Tale, he showed real originality. The most considerable factor made by Greene to the development of the novel is found in his pamphlets rather than in his conventional fiction, for here he writes from personal knowledge of the “underworld” of his day. Especially vivid is his Life and Death of Ned Browne, a notorious cut-purse, wherein he anticipates the “low life” scenes of Defoe and Smollett.

(3) Thomas Lodge:

Another writer of fiction to be noted is Thomas Lodge, the studious friends of Greene. He travelled much in the earlier years of his life, and while journeying he wrote several romances; one entitled Rosalinda (1590), which inspired Shakespeare’s As you Like it.

Lodge also derived from Lyly, but not in the same way as did Greene. Lodge had travelled, as did many young men of that time, over distant seas, looking for opportunities abroad rather than at home to advance him. These did not come, but during the long journeys by sea he wrote several romances; one entitled Rosalinda being of special interest to us, for from it Shakespeare, with a quick eye for a good story evolved the plot of As you like it.

Far removed are his prefaces from the simpering, deprecating prefaces of Lyly. He has his own little way with critics. If they do not like his books, let them hold their peace, otherwise he will throw them overboard to feed cods. This is swashbuckling with a vengeance.

(4) Sir Philip Sidney:

Sidney’s contribution to English literature on French influences more considerably affect Sidney than his predecessors. Perhaps he is of all of them the least touched by the magic of Italy, though he was a great admirer of Spanish literature. For example, we are taking here Pamela’s prayer from Sidney’s “Arcadia”.

“Kneeling down, even where she stood, she thus said: O All-seeing Light, and eternal Life of all things, to whom nothing is either so great, that it may resist, or so small that it is contemned; look upon my misery with thane eye of mercy, and let thane infinite power vouchsafe to limit out some proportion of deliverance unto me, as to thee shall seem most convenient.

Let not injuries, O Lord, triumph over me and let my faults by thy hand bee corrected and make not mine unjust enemy the minister of thy Justice. But yet, my God, if, in thy wisdom, this be the attest chastisement for my inexcusable folly; if this low bondage be fittest for my over-high desires; if the pride of my enough humble heart, be thus to be broken, O Lord, I yelled unto thy will, and joyfully embrace what sorrow thou wilt have me suffer. Only thus much let me crave of thee… let calamity be the exercise, but not the overthrow of my virtue; let their power prevail, but not prevailed to destruction: let my greatness be their prey : let my pains be the sweetness of their revenge: let them, if so it seem good

unto thee, vexed me with more and more punishment. But, O Lord, let never their wickedness have such a hand, but that I may carry a pure mined in a pure body. And pausing, a while: And, O most gracious Lord, said she, whatever become of me, preserve the virtuous Musidorus.”

(5) Dekker’s Fiction:

Dekker, whose dramatic work has already been noticed, also essayed fiction. But although he has shown some measure of Nash’s gaiety and shrewdness of observation in the “Picaresque” stories which he essayed, it is as a dramatist and writer of prose, other than fiction, that he is most entitled to remembrance. With the close of the Elizabethan period, the first period of the English novel came to an end. During the next century, French romance, of the extravagant and artificial order, came into fashion for the class who cared about fiction.

Non-factious Prose :

During the fifteenth century, Latin was the vehicle of prose, and works of importance were almost entirely written in that tongue. Their names alone stand out before the time of Caxton, as makers of English -Reginald Peacock, Sir John Fortes cue, and the Piston Family.

Reginald Peacock:

Peacock’s personality was a remarkable one. He was a Welshman by birth, and an Ionian by training. Having taken orders he soon distinguished himself as an opponent of Lolland. His zeal brought, in his wake numerous foes, and as the most effective attack against an enemy was the change of heresy, this heresy hunter was charged himself by his political foes of heretical tendencies. He escaped death by recantation, of errors he had never held, and died finally in imprisonment.

One of his offences was that he wrote in English, another that he urged the use of reason in confuting arguments. This is the line he adopted in the Repressor, but his learning excited both jealousy and suspicion; and the one argument in strong favor was to suppress by merely citing adverse authorities. That Peacock abjured at this time was sufficient to damn him, in an age when the faintest show of tolerance towards a heretic, even if it took the innocent form of quietly pointing out his errors and trying to dissuade him by the method of what Arnold called “sweet reasonableness”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *