Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 12. The Spirit of Travel in English Literature

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

§ 12. The Spirit of Travel in English Literature

In the halls of merchant companies, in the parlours of enterprising traders and in the chambers of students, problems of the new world, and the means of reaching its treasures, were being discussed. The genius of the nation for colonisation was now aroused, and new lands were to be developed by men of English blood. Seamen had begun to speak in literature, and the thoughts and language of the sea, by tongue and writing, were being grafted into the conceptions and the language of men who never knew the salt breath of the ocean. Lyly has a mariner strongly emphasised in his Galathea, 1592; Lodge, himself a sailor, wrote his Rosalynde, 1590, “in the ocean, where every line was wet with a surge, and every human passion counterchecked with a storm”; his Margarite of America, 1596, was begun in the strait of Magellan, on board ship, where “I had rather will to get my dinner than win my fame.” The new spirit in literature is seen in the poems of Spenser and it had a profound influence upon Bacon. Above all, it is reflected in the writings of Shakespeare; the sea sings in his music, and the anger of its storms thunders in the rush of his invective; the magic and romance of discovery and strange tales of the navigators are reflected in the witchery of his language. Ralegh wrote of the “Ewaipanoma race,” who had eyes in their shoulders, and mouths in the middle of their bowels, and it is with such marvels that Othello beguiles the ear of Desdemona, who would “seriously incline” to his moving story of wonders,

  • And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
  • The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
  • Do grow beneath their shoulders.
  • Though he rarely deals with the sea directly, Shakespeare never uses nautical language except correctly and aptly. His seamen speak as with the voice of the sea, his allusions all have the knowledge of the sea. In Twelfth Night (III, 2) Maria says of Malvolio that “he doth smile his face into more lines than are in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies.” This was the map published with Hakluyt’s Voyages, bearing the marks of Davys’s hand, showing the geographical knowledge of the time, his discoveries in the north-west, and those of Magellan, Drake, Sarmiento and Cavendish in the south; the imaginary strait of Anian between Asia and America disappears, and, in its place, is the Pacific, as traversed by the Spanish captain, Francisco de Gali, whose narrative was translated into Dutch by Linschoten, and then into English under the title of Discourse of the East and West Indies, 1598. In The Tempest, Shakespeare speaks of the “still vexed Bermoothes,” doubtless with reference to the sufferings and shipwrecks of explorers, and, perhaps, particularly to the expedition of Sir George Somers, which was driven on the coast of the then unknown Bermudas in 1609. But to Shakespeare, as to his predecessors, the sea still remained rather a barrier than a pathway; it was the “moat defensive to a house,” of which John of Gaunt speaks in Richard II, “against the envy of less happier lands.”

    Many illustrations might be given of Shakespeare’s knowledge of the sea and seafarers. Was it a mere coincidence that Ancient Pistol, hauled off to the Fleet with Falstaff in the last scene of Henry IV, part II, uses a phrase which is employed in The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, referred to above, existing in manuscript, we presume, when Shakespeare wrote the play? Or, rather, were not Shakespeare and Hawkins quoting from a common original in the speech of the people? Si fortuna me tormenta spero me contenta, says the Ancient. When Hawkins loses his pinnace at Plymouth he, also, exclaims, Si fortuna me tormenta, esperança me contenta. In The Comedy of Errors, old Aegeon of Syracuse, recounting his woes in the storm, says,

  • The seas wax’d calm, and we discovered
  • Two ships from far making amain to us.
  • To “make amain” or “wave amain” was the signal of surrender by striking sail or flag (amener le pavillon). Sir Richard Hawkins, off Ushant, sights a great hulk, and his men, eager to make a Spanish prize, “without speaking to her wished that the gunner might shoot at her to cause her to amain”—a bad custom, says Hawkins, “to gun at all whatsoever they discover.” The Tempest has many nautical allusions; in Romeo and Juliet it is “to the high top-gallant of my joy” that Romeo climbs by “a tackled stair”; in As You Like It, we find the figure, “Dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage”; in The Merchant of Venice there is much of the ventures of the traders, and thus says Solanio, if he had such ventures,

  • I should be still
  • Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind;
  • Peering in maps for ports and piers and roads.