Elizabethan Era : Main Features in Literature

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      In tracing the course of English literature we now come upon the first glorious period of the literature namely the age of Elizabeth I, to distinguish her from the present reigning queen of England, Elizabeth II. It was the 'golden age of English literature'. And in social life, too, it was a time of intense living, of incomparable zest in life and the world. England was literally, in the words of Milton, "a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks". "The winter was past, the rain was over and gone and the time of the singing of birds had come".

In tracing the course of English literature we now come upon the first glorious period of the literature namely the age of Elizabeth I, to distinguish her from the present reigning queen of England, Elizabeth II. It was the 'golden age of English literature'.
Queen Elizabeth


       The Reformation, first an ally of the Renaissance on literature gave spirit of freedom to the religious conscience of the people. As we have said in the previous chapter England felt the mighty throb of the Renaissance about the middle of the sixteenth century. The Reformation was at first a close ally of the Renaissance in this liberating power, though it parted ways later on. A spirit of nationalism, religious independence and a passion for exploration, to strive, to seek, to tind and not to yield, these are the legacies of the new movements. The religious and political troubles of the reigns of Edward VI and Mary were at an end. Twenty years of sober, stern and wise rule of Queen Elizabeth brought about peace and tranquillity in the island. The power of Spain was given a crushing blow in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

      The Queen herself, though not a zealot in religion, was looked upon as the champion of Protestantism by the whole of western Europe. Her policy which kept England out of war, husbanding its strength for a period of thirty years, bred a sense of nationality and independence. The Queen became the idol of the nation. Confident in their strength and unity at home Englishmen began to cast covetous eyes on the New World, which had been hitherto left to Spain to loot. "The national spirit ran higher and higher: deeds of exploration and adventure bore testimony to the aspiration of the nation." Drake circumnavigated the world in 1578 and 1579; Forbisher made his voyage to the northern seas, Gilbert sailed to the shores of America. Raleigh sent out expedition to colonise Virginia. All England was now aglow with the romantic vision of the world leadership. It was natural that this glowing national spirit give a tresh impetus to the national literature. The Renascence attained its full flowering in those spacious days of the queen.

     The Elizabethan literature, which in its richness and variety remains unsurpassed even till now in the sphere of literature. England had become a veritable nest of singing birds and produced the greatest of its poets (Shakespeare), who steadily conquered the world and remains a permanent possession of the English people, when their empire is in disintegration and almost gone.

      In so far as this second and culminating phase of the Renaissance is concerned it is slightly different from the first phase. There was an "ardent revival of the study of Greek which brought a dazzling light into many dark places of intellect" The earlier humanists, Wyatt and Surrey knew no Greek, but Spenser and Sidney knew a good deal. Again, the Renaissance now spread beyond the Alps and by the middle of the sixteenth century the star of Italy was on the wane and the supremacy in literature passed on to France. Spenser's debt to Italian poetry is great no doubt, but the chief influence, in his earlier poems came from France and not Italy. Again the influence of Petrarch (of Italy) was initially great upon the English poets, but by 1550 England had made the acquaintance of the new romantic epic Orlando Furioso by Ariosto, which influenced Elizabethan poets and dramatists. Spenser in his Faerie Queene was ambitious of 'overgoing Ariosto.

      It is interesting to note that though Elizabethan literature was born under the germinating influence of the Renaissance or humanism, the age of Elizabeth is called by the historians "the first and greatest romantic epoch in English literature". This may seem at first a contradiction in terms. But there is nothing paradoxical in it. The romantic quest is for the remote, the wonderful and the beautiful. It is the addition of strangeness to beauty that constitutes the romantic temper, as Pater has pointed out. The Elizabethan literature is fed upon this quest and breathes this romantic spirit. There was a daring and resolute spirit of adventure in the literary as well as other spheres of activity of the age. There was a revolt against the past and a new spirit of questioning and re-assessing everything old. Above all, there was a freshness of spirit that breathed through the literature. The ardent spirit of adventure blows over it. Hence it is called the first romantic era in English literature. For the first twenty years of Elizabeth's reign English literature was merely groping its way. Except a few translations and imitations of the classical works of antiquity, no real works of merits appeared. But these translations of classical works had the effect of fertilizing the rich soil of literature and in God's good time the harvest came.

      Drake's circumnavigation of the world and the defeat of the Armada gave a quickening impulse to the patriotism of the nation and filled it with a desire of world domination and to outpace the continental rivals, Spain, France, etc. in all respects, particularly in literature and politics. A growing consciousness of strength, pride, of prosperity and spirit of adventure inspired the whole nation and made it aspire to reach the first place among the European nations. The latest arrival in the field of continental literature, she decided somewhat arrogantly to become the first. The time was ripe for that. A new faith in her destiny filled and inspired the whole nation with energy and enthusiasm. With one bound she caught up with her continental rivals, Spain, Portugal and France and dreamt of outdistancing them in all spheres of activity. A spirit ot new conquest, exploration and self-glorification swept the whole nation, while her sailors, Hawkins, Drake, Raleigh sailed round the world and brought power and wealth, her men of letters too were urged onward by a spirit of new conquest. English writers had faith in their genius, in their language and were inspired by a faith to outdistance the contemporary nations of Europe and rival the classical antiquities in the sphere of literature.

      In a word, the whole nation was intoxicated with a passion for conquest and glory. England challenged the modern and ancient writers in the various species of literature-drama, epic, pastoral, lyric, romance, criticism, history and philosophy. The whole nation became thus a nest of singing birds. It became intoxicated with the passion of activity and creativity and thus there burst out the spring-time of English literature. A whole host of writers with Shakespeare at their top came and pushed the old English literature to the first place in European literature.

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