We have already watched the revival of English letters during the earlier half of Elizabeth's reign. The general awakening of national life, the increase of wealth, of refinement and leisure, which marked that period, had been accompanied, as we have seen, by a quickening of English intelligence, which found vent in an upgrowth of grammar schools, in the new impulse given to classical learning at the Universities, in a passion for translations which familiarized all England with the masterpieces of Italy and Greece, and above all in the crude but vigorous efforts of Sackville and Lyly after a nobler poetry and prose. But to the national and local influences which were telling on English literature was added that of the restlessness and curiosity which characterized the age. The sphere of human interest was widened as it has never been widened before or since by the revelation of a new heaven and a new earth. It was only in the later years of the sixteenth century that the discoveries of Copernicus were brought home to the general intelligence of the world by Kepler and Galileo, or that the daring of the Buccaneers broke through the veil which the greed of Spain had drawn across the New World of Columbus. Hardly inferior to these revelations as a source of intellectual impulse was the sudden and picturesque way in which the various races of the world were brought face to face with one another through the universal passion for foreign travel.
While the red tribes of the West were described by Amerigo Vespucci, and the strange civilization of Mexico and Peru disclosed by Cortes and Pizarro, the voyages of the Portuguese threw open the older splendours of the East, and the story of India and China was told for the first time to Christendom by Maffei and Mendoza. England took her full part in this work of discovery. Jenkinson, an English traveller, made his way to Bokhara. Willoughby brought back Muscovy to the knowledge of Western Europe. English mariners penetrated among the Esquimaux, or settled in Virginia. Drake circumnavigated the globe. The "Collection of Voyages," which was published by Hakluyt, not only disclosed the vastness of the world itself, but the infinite number of the races of mankind, the variety of their laws, their customs, their religions, their very instincts. We see the influence of this new and wider knowledge of the world, not only in the life and richness which it gave to the imagination of the time, but in the immense interest which from this moment attached itself to Man. Shakspere's conception of Caliban, like the questionings of Montaigne, marks the beginning of a new and a truer, because a more inductive, philosophy of human nature and human history.
[Authorities. - For a general account of this period, see Mr. Morley's admirable "First Sketch of English Literature," Hallam's "Literary History," M. Taine's "History of English Literature," etc. Mr. Craik has elaborately illustrated the works of Spenser, and full details of the history of our early drama may be found in Mr. Collier's " History of English Dramatic Literature to the time of Shakspere." Malone's enquiry remains the completest investigation into the history of Shakspere's dramas; and the works of Mr. Armytage Brown and Mr. Gerald Massey contain the latest theories as to the Sonnets. For Ben Jonson and his fellows, see their works with the notes of Gifford, etc. The fullest account of Lord Bacon will be found in his "Life and Letters," now published with his " Works," by Mr. Spedding, whose apologetic tones may be contrasted with the verdict of Lord Macaulay ("Essay on Lord Bacon") and with the more judicious judgement of Mr. Gardiner ("History of England "). See also Mr. Lewes's "History of Philosophy."]
The fascination exercised by the study of human character showed itself in the essays of Bacon, and yet more in the wonderful popularity of the drama. And to these larger and worldwide sources of poetic powers was added in England the impulse which sprang from national triumph, from the victory over the Armada, the deliverance from Spain, the rolling away of the Catholic terror which had hung like a cloud over the hopes of the people. With its new sense of security, of national energy and national power, the whole aspect of England suddenly changed. As yet the interest of Elizabeth's reign had been political and material; the stage had been crowded with statesmen and warriors, with Cecils and Walsinghams and Drakes. Literature had hardly found a place in the glories of the time. But from the moment when the Armada drifted back broken to Ferrol, the figures of warriors and statesmen were dwarfed by the grander figures of poets and philosophers. Amidst the throng in Elizabeth's antechamber the noblest form is that of the singer who lays the "Faerie Queen" at her feet, or of the young lawyer who muses amid the splendours of the presence over the problems of the "Novum Organum." The triumph at Cadiz, the conquest of Ireland, pass unheeded as we watch Hooker building up his "Ecclesiastical Polity" among the sheepfolds, or the genius of Shakspere rising year by year into supremer grandeur in a rude theatre beside the Thames.
The full glory of the new literature broke on England with Edmund Spenser. We know little of his life; he was born in East London of poor parents, but connected with the Spencers of Althorpe, even then - as he proudly says - " a house of ancient fame." He studied as a sizar at Cambridge, and quitted the University while still a boy to live as a tutor in the north; but after some years of obscure poverty the scorn of a fair "Rosalind" drove him again southwards. A college friendship with Gabriel Harvey served to introduce him to Lord Leicester, who sent him as his envoy into France, and in whose service he first became acquainted with Leicester's nephew, Sir Philip Sidney. From Sidney's house at Penshurst came his earliest work, the " Shepherd's Calendar;" in form, like Sidney's own "Arcadia," a pastoral, where love and loyalty and Puritanism jostled oddly with the fancied shepherd life. The peculiar melody and profuse imagination which the pastoral disclosed at once placed its author in the forefront of living poets, but a far greater work was already in hand; and from some words of Gabriel Harvey's we see Spenser bent on rivalling Ariosto, and even hoping " to overgo" the "Orlando Furioso," in his " Elvish Queen." The ill-will or indifference of Burleigh, however, blasted the expectations he had drawn from the patronage of Sidney or the Earl of Leicester, and the favour with which he had been welcomed by the Queen. Sidney, himself in disgrace with Elizabeth, withdrew to Wilton to write the "Arcadia," by his sister's side; and " discontent of my long fruitless stay in princes' courts," the poet tells us, " and expectation vain of idle hopes," drove Spenser at last into exile.