Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 1. Richard Knolles’s Compilations

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

V. Seafaring and Travel

§ 1. Richard Knolles’s Compilations

THE PRECEDING chapter has shown how the great race of the Tudor seamen left their mark on the literature of the country of their birth. In a survey of the written record of the seafaring of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we are necessarily attracted more to its subject than to its manner. We cannot judge it by such standards as are applied to the poetry, the drama, or the historical literature of the time. Ralegh and Lodge, as men of literary study and training, stand almost alone among navigators. Most of their contemporaries and successors were men who fought the tempest and the enemy and knew little of the wielding of the pen. Rarely did they sit down to write anything more ambitious than a letter or a rough journal without making profuse apologies for their lack of literary experience. They were men, nevertheless, who dreamed dreams and saw visions: not always, indeed, dreams like those of Columbus, who thought that to add a realm to Christendom was object and reward enough, but dreams more often like those of the later Spaniards, who laid heavy burdens on the backs of treasure mules and filled caravels with silver. Explorers went in quest of the gold and spicery of the mysterious lands of Zipangu and Cathay, and the “commodities” of the new world fell into their hands in the search.

They were confronted from the beginning with the monopolies of Portugal and Spain. The Spaniards were firmly seated in central America and Peru. Vasco da Gama and his successors had made their own the route by the cape of Bôa Esperança to the treasures beyond. Magellan had gone to the south-west by the strait that bears his name, and Drake had followed him; but the Pacific coast of southern America had become the monopoly of Spain. If Englishmen, also, were to have monopoly and sway, that they might gather unimpeded the treasures of the unknown and half-fabulous lands of the Pacific, they must penetrate by the sea route of the north-west; and Gilbert and a hundred other seamen persuaded themselves and the merchants, by every argument to be found in heaven or earth, that through the icy passages there was an open way to the west. The temper in which navigators wrestled with the elements was exemplified by the remark of Robert Thorne, the Bristol seaman, who said: “There is no land unhabitable, no sea innavigable.” Failure to pierce icy barriers was the root of all the expansion and rivalry that followed, both in the east and in the west. A hundred projects for penetrating the great Pacific were in the air. The Dutch were grasping at the spoil of the Portuguese, and, in England, men of commerce became men of war, merchant and mariner alike being resolute to snatch the sceptre of the sea from the weakening grasp of Spain. Thus, as Drayton says:

  • A thousand kingdoms will we seek from far,
  • As many nations waste in civil war;
  • Where the dishevelled ghastly sea-nymph sings,
  • Our well-rigged ships shall stretch their swelling wings,
  • And drag their anchors through the sandy foam,
  • About the world in every clime to roam;
  • And there unchristened countries call our own
  • Where scarce the name of England hath been known.
  • Hakluyt is the recorder of these deeds in queen Elizabeth’s day—not of quite all of them, indeed, for he pays scanty heed to the earlier exploits of Drake, and, in his preface of 1589, excuses himself “to the favourable reader” for so doing. Perhaps he had in mind the comments which a complete narration might have aroused abroad. Navigators were men of action and not of words. Drake, on the famous occasion when he took upon himself to preach in place of Master Fletcher, the chaplain—“Francis Fletcher, the falsest knave that liveth”—declared that he was a very bad orator, “for my bringing up hath not been in learning.” Bacon, in his Considerations Touching the War with Spain, explains the underlying theory and object of their actions:

  • For money, no doubt it is the principal part of the greatness of Spain; for by that they maintain their veteran army; and Spain is the only state of Europe which is a money grower. But in this part, of all others, is most to be considered the ticklish and brittle state of the greatness of Spain. Their greatness consisteth in their treasure, their treasure in the Indies, and their Indies (if it be well weighed) are indeed but an accession to such as are masters of the sea. So as this axle-tree, whereupon their greatness turneth, is soon cut in two by any that shall be stronger than they by sea.
  • The strategical theories of Bacon, translated into action by navigators and recorded by Hakluyt, filling many adventurers with a new spirit of conquest and achievement in the years that followed, could not fail to move the imagination of poets and dramatists. We have seen how Spenser set forth the argument and inward character of these voyages; how they had their influence upon Shakespeare, and, we might have added, upon Marlowe and other dramatists. William Warner, in Albion’s England (1602), sings of Willoughby, Chancellor, Jenkinson, Jackman and Pet, of Hawkins, Drake, Gilbert, Frobisher and others, advising resort to the recent pages of the Principall Navigations.

    Samuel Daniel, in his Musophilus, or Defence of all Learning (1603), extols the new spirit in a colloquy with Philocosmus:

  • Whenas our accent, equal to the best
  • Is able greater wonders to bring forth;
  • When all that ever hotter springs expresst,
  • Comes bettered by the patience of the North.
  • And who, in time, knows whither we may vent
  • The treasure of our tongue, to what strange shores
  • This gain of our best glory shall be sent,
  • T’ enrich unknowing nations with our stores?
  • What worlds in th’ yet unformed Occident
  • May come refin’d with th’ accents that are ours?
  • Or, who can tell for what great worke in hand
  • The greatness of our style is now ordain’d?
  • Ralegh’s discovery and proposed colonisation of Guiana was the subject of George Chapman’s De Guiana Carmen (1596).

  • Guiana—whose rich feet are mines of gold,
  • Whose forehead knocks against the roof of stars,
  • Stands on her tip-toes at fair England looking,
  • Kissing her hand, bowing her mighty breasts,
  • And every sign of all submission making
  • To be her sister, and the daughter both
  • Of our most sacred maid.
  • It was an age of universal curiosity, and Englishmen were seeking a wider knowledge of the world. The bibliography will show that a copious volume of literature, descriptive or otherwise, relating to history, discovery and navigation, issued from the press at this time. Among writers who contributed the fruit of much solid research to the knowledge then possessed of foreign countries and their history was Richard Knolles, whose General Historie of the Turkes from the first beginning of that Nation to the rising of the Othoman Familie was published in 1603, and long continued to hold a high repute, by reason of the fact that it was written in excellent prose and opened a new field to the English student. A second edition appeared in 1610, in which year Knolles died; and there were later editions in 1621, 1631 and 1638. Johnson thought highly of Knolles’s style; and, though he found it sometimes vitiated by false wit, considered it “pure, nervous, elevated and clear.” To Horace Walpole, Knolles was tiresome, but Southey admired him, and Byron, writing shortly before his death at Missolonghi, said,

  • Old Knolles was one of the first books that gave me pleasure when I was a child; and I believe it had much influence on my future wishes to visit the Levant, and gave perhaps the Oriental colouring which is observed in my poetry.
  • Some books issued at the time, like Robert Johnson’s translation, The Traveller’s Breviat, or an historicall description of the most famous Kingdomes in the World (1601), were merely accounts from many sources of the character and peoples of various countries. These were volumes intended for the entertainment of such as remained at home, and the instruction of those who desired to widen their experience by travel. Peter Heylyn’s Microcosmus: a little Description of the Great World, which appeared augmented and revised in 1625, was of the same character. After going through several editions, it was published in an enlarged form in 1652 under the title Cosmographie, in Four Bookes; containing the Chronographie and Historie of the whole World, and, in that form, was several times reprinted. It is an illustration of the avidity with which descriptions of foreign countries were welcomed by English people. Heylyn was no more than an industrious compiler, who surveyed the world at large, its diversities, countries, cities, peoples, customs and resources, with encyclopædic interest and general intelligence. A serious volume much worthy of note is George Sandys’s A Relation of a Journey begun An. Dom. 1610, which is descriptive of Turkey, Egypt, the Holy Land, Italy and other places. Narratives of land travel began to increase in number, to satisfy the universal curiosity, which craved a knowledge of the peoples of foreign lands, thereby leading also to the publication, in Italy and elsewhere, of volumes illustrative of the costumes of various countries.