Here it is necessary to deviate from the path of literature proper to recall certain landmarks of this revolutionary epoch.
In England the feudal barons were engaged in the internecine squabbles called Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), which represent the death agony of the feudal aristocracy and ended by exterminating or impoverishing all the leading barons and establishing, with the Tudor Henry VII, a dynasty embodying the alliance between the central monarchy and the burgher guilds.
Gutenberg in 1445 had perfected his printing press, a copy of which was introduced into England by Caxton in 1477. This invention was of inestimable value to literature; it meant that books became comparatively cheap and ceased to be an aristocratic or priestly monopoly; the spread of knowledge to all classes was now possible.
Following a period of keen competition among the various Mediterranean traders came the siege and capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. This finally blocked the most important route to India and the Far East, whence came not merely luxury silks and ornaments, but the gold and silver required by commercial society and the condiments and spices vitally necessary at a time when there was no efficient means of preserving meat. Supreme incentive was thus given to the attempts at finding a new route to the East; Prince Henry in 1460, Diaz in 1486 and Da Gama in 1498 coasted round Africa until the way to India lay open; Columbus in 1492 and the Cabots in 1497 attempted a westward passage and came across America; Amerigo Vespucci crossed the South Atlantic in 1500 and in 1520 Magellan followed him, rounded Cape Horn and ended by circumnavigating the globe. Gold and silver were at first obtained by robbing or taxing the natives; later rich deposits were discovered in Bolivia and Mexico in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. The increase in navigation led to far-reaching astronomical investigation, and soon all ideas of the nature of the universe had been entirely revolutionised.
This vigorous stir and bustle of adventuring after new worlds immeasurably extended the bounds of literature, enriching its vocabulary and multiplying its subjects. Moreover, Constantinople had for centuries been the cultural descendant of classical antiquity, the centre of European learning. The invasion of their city by the “infidel” Turks sent hundreds of scholars with their scientific instruments’ and ancient manuscripts into Western Europe, particularly Italy and France, where their command of philosophy, literature, art and science received unstinted appreciation from an expanding society athirst for every aspect of knowledge.
In England the Renaissance was assisted by the closing of the monasteries, which left numbers of men with no ideas of living but the sale of their ability to read and write.
By the opening of the sixteenth century merchant capitalism had taken root all over Western Europe ; it brought a period of strong monarchies, increased leisure, comparative peace, and enormous intellectual activity of every kind, and notably a rapid growth of diverse and elaborate forms of art: painting, engraving, sculpture, gold and silver work, wood-carving, architecture, poetry, philosophical works, satire, essays, “Utopias,” stories of adventure real and imagined. This time of prolific expression is called the Re-Birth or Renaissance. In it we see the enterprise, vitality and optimism of the new and lively ruling class finding an immediate and abundant echo in every art form as yet known to man.
The Renaissance in literature is represented in England by poets like Thomas Wyatt and, later, Spenser and Philip Sidney, essayists or philosophers like Thomas More, Bacon and Thomas Browne, and playwrights like Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare. In France it early found complete and peerless expression in Francois Rabelais, who more than any other one man is the prototype of the fresh order of society. His first work, Gargantua, appeared in 1532, twelve years after the first journey round the world; he produced three others before his death in 1552. The key-note of them all is an ardent devotion to “universal science” and a boundless love of life. Life is good; the world is good; mankind must have every freedom to develop fully in all directions; original sin is absurd, metaphysical speculation of any kind is absurd; let us collect concrete facts about this amazing universe and approach its most diverse aspects with unquenchable curiosity. The bourgeois class, as it gathered its strength to throw off the shackles of feudalism, was grasping at the whole world, not at mere abstractions and forms, but at life itself; and that is what Rabelais offers. He cares nothing for beauty or morality, and hardship and suffering are but further manifestations of the abundant variety of life. This was, of course, a highly convenient philosophy for a society engaged in establishing a new form of the slave trade. His terrific command of words reflects the fertility of his brain, his gigantic optimism the vision of a new world both physical and intellectual.
He was followed in France by the sceptical individualist Montaigne, whose use of the essay-form was coincident with the growth of the physical sciences, especially astronomy, mechanics and hydrostatics, whose insistence on personal liberty was typical of a society desirous of unlimited free competition, but whose pessimism showed that the high hopes of limitless expansion for mankind held at the time of Rabelais were not being fulfilled. This streak of pessimism is to run through all French literature so long as the anachronisms of feudal organisation remain to dam the tide of social change.
Some seventy years after Rabelais comes Shakespeare (1564-1616). The bourgeois class in England had been able to develop fairly freely, and English buccaneers were supreme on the high seas; the landowners and merchants had achieved a temporary compromise, and society as a whole presented a stable aspect. Individualism by now was taken for granted, and literature was becoming more and more subjective. Moreover, the anti-Catholic feeling had its effect on literature; men studied languages in order to criticise Church texts, and history in order to score off Church legends. Shakespeare is always subjective, even in natural description; his vocabulary is much influenced by foreign words and his histories formed part of a complete cycle of English and ancient history; Marlowe’s Edward II belonged to the same cycle. Shakespeare’s subject matter is generally trivial or melodramatic; he is invariably concerned with emotion rather than thought; such moralising as he offers is complacent, never stimulating. But he is the most brilliant master of language yet seen: and there lies his chief importance. His fluent, supple, incisive metaphors and startlingly virile similes rendered an incalculable service to English speech.
Contemporary with Shakespeare were a number of lyric poets such as Fletcher, Drummond, Campion and Drayton, most of whose verse celebrates the ups and downs of romantic love. This form of literature is frequent in leisured society. But the Elizabethan lyrics are distinguished by their diversity of form and metaphor, their elegant language. At this time also began the steady intrusion of introspective religion into poetry. The merchant capitalists were not altogether satisfied with the Elizabethan compromise, and their dissatisfaction found some outlet, prior to open revolt under Cromwell, in an ever sterner and more uncompromising Protestantism. The current interest in the problem of religion and the State was bound to influence poetry as well as philosophy; some of John Donne’s and all George Herbert’s work exemplified the tendency, but its political aspect is most greatly voiced by Milton. His deep impatience of authority and vast self- confidence (“to justify the ways of God to man”), together with his bold experiments in metre and rhythm (Lycidas is written in free-verse) are all clearly symptomatic of a rebellious and arrogant movement in society. It is impossible to read Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes without envisaging the old rebel, undaunted in spite of defeat and difficulty.