The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IV. The Literature of the Sea

§ 1. Early Writers

THE GREAT movement which stirred the minds of men in the days of the renascence, born in a love of the intimate life of nature, and in an abundant zeal for the glories of classic art and letters, received a new impulse and was inspired with a fresh tendency by the enlargement of the known world and a widening of the horizon of the nations. There was an eager desire to learn more, both of things at home and of the new lands which were being disclosed by the enterprise of merchants and seamen. Curiosity and patient zeal in search of the unknown began, indeed, at home. We may read in The laboriouse Journey and Serche of Johan Leylande—his new year’s gift to Henry VIII—how he had been possessed with such a desire to see the different parts of the realm that there was

  • almost neyther cape nor baye, haven, creke or pere, ryver or confluence of ryvers, breches, washes, lakes, meres, fenny waters, mountaynes, valleys, mores, hethes, forestes, woodes, cyties, burges, castels, pryncypall manor places, monasteryes, and colleges, but I have seane them, and noted in so doynge a whole worlde of thynges veye memorable.
  • But the change now wrought in the outlook of the nations went far outside the narrow bounds of any one country, and was more vast than any the world had seen since the fall of the Roman empire. If it has been recognised more often in its intellectual character, its practical effects were seen in the discovery of new lands and the planting of new colonies. Copernicus had revealed the mystery of the universe. Portuguese and Spanish navigators had traversed the unknown seas, and John Cabot had touched the shores of cape Breton or Labrador. Nothing now seemed strange to any one, and, in every part of the world, there were new seas and lands to explore, and new approaches to be discovered to the Spice islands and Cathay. More, in his Utopia, opened a fresh view in the realm of speculation beyond the narrow bounds of knowledge. The most romantic poetic imaginings were exceeded in wonder by the things discovered and made known, and no marvel in The Faerie Queene exceeded the strange experiences that storm-tossed mariners told every day on ’change to the merchant adventurers of the Muscovy and Levant trades. “The nakedness of the Spaniards, and their long hidden secrets, whereby they went about to delude the world,” as Hakluyt says, “were espied.” Seamen were to make literature; upon their experience was to be built much of the literature that followed; their expressions and words were to descend into the common speech of the land. But, save, perhaps, in the instances of Gilbert and Ralegh, English seamen, pioneers of our maritime supremacy, were not in their own persons stirred by the intellectual movement. Rather they were its unconscious and often dumb instruments, while taking part in the vast material and political change which resulted from the direction of the capital and enterprise of merchants into fresh channels of intercourse and trade.

    It would be true to say that the foundations of England’s naval greatness were laid almost in silence, and that, though the peculiar genius of the nation for maritime adventure was recognised in the days of the early Henrys, hardy seamen were opening communications with the Baltic, and driving their keels into unknown seas, long before any writer set himself to narrate their experiences or their exploits. Monastic chroniclers had collected the legendary lore of their predecessors, records of kings and annals of their own time, but voyages of exploration and discovery lay, mostly, outside the range of their experience or their opportunities of knowledge. It is mainly from narratives of pilgrimages and crusades that we learn how the known world was being widened in those early times. The brilliant chronicles of Giraldus Cambrensis, the quick-witted historian who records the conquest of Ireland, are not altogether barren of reference to events at sea, and there is some reflection of seafaring life in the pages of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Hakluyt, indeed, has included in the Principall Navigations the legendary conquests of Arthur and of Malgo from the chronicles of Geoffrey, the achievements of Edwin of Northumbria from Bede and the navigations of Edgar from Roger of Hoveden, Florence of Worcester and others. There are in existence various narratives of journeys to Palestine, like that of Saewulf of Malmesbury, who went overland to Italy in 1102, sailed thence to the Ionian islands and took ship along the coast to Joppa, where he re-embarked, but dared not venture into the open sea for fear of the Saracens. The voyages of Saewulf, and of Adelard, a little later, and the exploits of the crusaders in 1147 and 1190 on the coasts of Spain and in the Mediterranean, present a view of English enterprise that cannot be passed by without mention, because in them we trace the beginnings of a permanent marine, and of mercantile enterprise, which constituted the mainspring of the exploration of the world and, therefore, of the literature of discovery. But the seamen of Venice and Genoa, as well as Portuguese and Spanish navigators, were, in the fifteenth century, more enterprising than Englishmen, both in discovery and in the systematic recording of voyages.

    The journeys of Marco Polo had aroused interest in the study of geography in England at the close of the thirteenth century, and the “travels” recorded by the Mandeville translators, considered in a previous chapter, had their well-deserved popularity in the early days of English prose. But the literature of travel by sea was unbegotten, and the achievements of the captains of prince Henry, “the navigator,” and of Columbus and his companions, made far more sound in the world than anything done by British seamen until the time of Drake and Hawkins. A seaman named Thylde, whom William of Worcester mentions, preceded Columbus by some twelve years, as we ought not to forget, sailing from Bristol in 1480, but he battled vainly with the storms of the north Atlantic, and the world knows infinitely more of the great navigations of the “admiral of the ocean” and of the bold seaman Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who first set eyes upon the Pacific, and of Ojeda and Nicuesa, who were his equals in courage and enterprise.