On the Slopes of Parnassus



THEY were a swelling legion. “One of the great diseases of this age,” wrote Barnaby Rich in 1600, “is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world.” “Already,” wrote Robert Burton (1628), “we shall have a vast chaos and confusion of books; we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.”1 Both these plaintiffs wrote books.

The aristocracy, having learned to read, rewarded with material patronage authors who had softened them with dedications. Cecil, Leicester, Sidney, Raleigh, Essex, Southampton, the earls and the Countess of Pembroke were good patrons, who established between English nobles and authors a relation that continued even after Johnson lectured Chesterfield. Publishers paid authors some forty shillings for a pamphlet, some five pounds for a book.2 A few authors managed to live by their pens; the desperate profession of “man of letters” now took form in England. Private libraries were numerous among the well-to-do, but public libraries were rare. On the way home from Cádiz in 1596 Essex stopped at Faro, in Portugal, and appropriated the library of Bishop Jerome Osorius; he gave it to Sir Thomas Bodley, who included it in the Bodleian Library that he bequeathed to Oxford (1598).

The publishers themselves led a harried existence, subject to state law and public whim. There were 250 of them in Elizabeth’s England, for publishing and bookselling were still one trade. Most of them did their own printing; the separation of printer and publisher began toward the end of this reign. Publishers, printers, and booksellers united (1557) in a Stationers’ Company; registry of a publication with this guild constituted copyright, which, however, protected not the author but only the publisher. Normally the company would register only such publications as had obtained a legal license to be printed. It was a felony to write, print, sell, or possess any material injurious to the reputation of the Queen or the government, to publish or import heretical books or papal bulls or briefs, or to possess a book that upheld the supremacy of the popes over the English Church.3 There were several executions for violation of these decrees. The Stationers’ Company was empowered to search all printing establishments, to burn all unlicensed publications, and to imprison their publishers.4 Elizabethan censorship was more severe than any before the Reformation, but literature flourished; as in eighteenth-century France, wits were sharpened by the peril of print.

Scholars were few; it was an age of creation rather than criticism, and the humanistic current had run dry in those hot theological years. Most historians were still chroniclers, dividing their narratives by years; Richard Knolles, however, surprised Burghley with the comparative excellence of his General History of the Turks (1603). Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) gave him an unearned increment of fame by supplying Shakespeare with stories of the English kings. John Stow’s Chronicles of England (1580) was dressed up with “some colors of wisdom, invitements to virtue, and loathing of naughty facts,”5 but its scholarship was lamentable, and its prose had a powerful virtus dormitiva. His Survey of London (1598) was more scholarly, but brought him no more bread; in old age he had to be given a license to beg.6 William Camden, in good Latin, recorded the geography, scenery, and antiquities of England in Britannia (1582); and his Rerum Anglicarum et hiber-nicarum annales regnante Elizabetha (1615–27) based its story on conscientious study of original documents. Camden glorified the great Queen indiscriminately, lauded Spenser, ignored Shakespeare, and praised Roger Ascham, but mourned that so fine a scholar had died poor through love of dicing-and cockfighting.7

Ascham, secretary to “Bloody Mary” and tutor to Elizabeth, left at his death (1568) the most famous of English treatises on education, The Scholemaster (1570), primarily on the teaching of Latin, but containing, in strong, simple English, a plea for the replacement of Etonian severity with Christian kindness in education. He told how, at a dinner with men high in Elizabeth’s government, the conversation had turned on education through flogging; how Cecil had favored gentler methods; and how Sir Richard Sackville had privately confessed to Ascham that “a fond [foolish] schoolmaster … drave me, with fear of beating, from all love of learning.”8

The major and most fruitful function of the scholars was to impregnate the English mind with foreign thought. In the second half of the sixteenth century a wave of translations swept over the land from Greece, Rome, Italy, and France. Homer had to wait till 1611 for George Chapman, and the lack of English versions of Greek plays probably shared in giving the Elizabethan drama a “romantic” rather than a “classical” form. But there were translations of Theocritus’ idyls, Musaeus’ Hero and Leander, Epictetus’Enchiridion, Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Oeconomicus, the speeches of Demosthenes and Isocrates, the histories of Herodotus, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Josephus, and Appian, the novels of Heliodorus and Longus, and Sir Thomas North’s racy translation (1579) of Amyot’s French translation of Plutarch’s Lives. From the Latin came Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Martial, Lucan, the plays of Plautus, Terence, and Seneca, the histories of Livy, Sallust, Tacitus, and Suetonius. From Italy came Petrarch’s sonnets, Boccaccio’s Filocopo and Fiammetta (but no Decameron till 1620), the histories of Guicciardini and Machiavelli, the Orlandos of Boiardo and Ariosto, Castiglione’s Libro del cortegiano, the Gerusalemme liberata and Aminta of Tasso, Guarini’s Pastor fido, and many fabulous novelle by Bandello and others, gathered into such collections as William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566). Machiavelli’s Il Principe was not done into English till 1640, but its substance was familiar to the Elizabethans; Gabriel Harvey reported that at Cambridge “Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas, with the whole rabblement of Schoolmen … were expelled the University,” and were replaced with Machiavelli and Jean Bodin.9 From Spain came one of the longest romances, Amadis de Gaula; one of the first picaresque novels, Lazarillo de Tormes; one of the classic pastorals, the Diana of Montemayor. The best spoils from France were the poems of the Pléiade, and the essays of Montaigne, nobly Englished by John Florio (1603).

The influence of these translations upon Elizabethan literature was immense. Classical allusions began—and for two centuries continued—to encumber English poetry and prose. French was known to most memorable Elizabethan authors, so that translations were not indispensable. Italy fascinated England; English pastorals looked back to Sannazaro, Tasso, and Guarini, English sonnets to Petrarch, English fiction to Boccaccio and the novelle-, these last gave plots to Marlowe, Shakespeare, Webster, Massinger, and Ford, and Italian locales to many Elizabethan plays. Italy, which had rejected the Reformation, had gone beyond it to break down the old theology, even the Christian ethic. While Elizabethan religion debated Catholicism and Protestantism, Elizabethan literature, ignoring that conflict, returned to the spirit and verve of the Renaissance. Italy, struck down for a time by a change in trade routes, handed the torch of the Rebirth to Spain, France, and England.

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