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

VI. The Song-Books and Miscellanies

§ 8. Pastoral Poems

It is clear, then, that the compiler of the book looked far and wide through the literature of the day for the pastorals to form his collection. Plays, romances, sonnet-sequences, songbooks (for many of the poems in England’s Helicon are taken from Byrd’s or Morley’s books), all were laid under contribution and he must be allowed to have been a man of fine taste. It is difficult to refer to these poems without using expressions of admiration that must seem excessive; but to open any page (unless, indeed, one hits on the laborious Bartholomew Yong) is to meet with something of great beauty. The book contains the best of the lyrics with which Lodge, that various master of light music, dotted his romances. Peele wrote but few lyrics, but the best of them are here; and Greene seems to give voice not only to the spirit of the renascence with its gay appetites, its rich fancies and its humanism, but to the graver spirit which is held to be characteristically English, and is frequent in the lyric poetry of his day, rarely as it appears in the book under notice.

Pastoral, as has often been pointed out, is always more or less an affectation. It is “the townsman’s dream of country life.” It has always been written in stages of high civilisation, by Theocritus, Vergil, or Mantuan. It lends itself freely to allegorical use; the comparison of country innocence with the venality and falsehood of city and court life leads, naturally, to moralising, and that strain runs through pastoral in England from Barnabe Googe to Lycidas. In England’s Helicon, and in much of the pastoral poetry of Elizabethan days, it is another aspect that we find. The convention is adopted, but for a different purpose; and, in the end, it amounts to no more than the nomenclature. A man is not less a man for calling himself a shepherd, and, to the Elizabethan courtier, flocks and herds, thrushes and nightingales, brooks and trees, must have been objects at least as familiar as streets and houses. For it is noticeable that, in spite of much classical imagery and talk of Phoebus, Diana and the rest, and many new versions of classical stories, it is English country of which the pastoral poets chiefly sing in this volume. We are to imagine a better climate than we have; but that is usually the greatest demand which the convention makes. It is not the poetry of nature, for nature is not studied as a source of consolation or strength or for any interest in itself: it remains the background of the loves of the shepherd; but, in dramatising himself against a background which he knew (though he chose to call it by strange names), the poet gains a good opportunity of expressing his feelings with more freedom than direct speech would allow. A shepherd is a simple and downright person; to pose as a shepherd is to have the advantages enjoyed by simple and downright persons. And, since the single subject of the poems in England’s Helicon is love, that advantage is valuable.

The result is a strange but delightful mixture of simplicity and affectation. There is all the colour of association with classical poetry, the eager absorption of classical imagery characteristic of the renascence, combined with the naked feelings of the actual man. On the language of the poets, the combination could not fail to have the important effect of lending it richness and colour; but, through the pleasant tinsel, the native quality shows clearly. The affectation only becomes oppressive in the case of writers like Bartholomew Yong, whose feeling was insufficiently ardent to endow the borrowed form with life. His Arsilius, Melisea, Alanius and the rest strike the reader as pieces of pedantry, while Lodge’s Montanus (we are speaking only of the lyrics), or some unknown poet’s Philistus, or Daphne, or Phyllida, are men and women.

The contrast between the technical accomplishment of these poets and of those of the earlier school is very great. In place of the few, repeated measures, the often cramped movement and the halting progress of the early poetry, we find ease, grace, swiftness and freedom in metres of all kinds. The long fourteener and “poulter’s measure” have been divided, and flow like rippling streams; the decasyllable has gained strength, dignity and variety, and great dexterity has been attained in the use of short lines. There is no end to the ingenuity of these poets in the arrangement of long, trilling stanzas, in which closely wrought rime-construction keeps the melody from feebleness. The way in which subtlety and ingenuity are combined with simplicity is one of the most remarkable qualities of the Elizabethan lyric. That the poem is a work of delicate and conscious art is plain; the devices of echo, refrain and repetition are freely used, and long and difficult schemes of rime and metre are sustained throughout. It was this age, moreover, that saw the introduction into English poetry of the “shaped verses” already common in Italy and France. The writer’s object was to make his verse, when printed, take the shape of an egg, a pillar, a triangle, or one of many other shapes mentioned by Puttenham in his Arte of English Poesie. It seems probable that the learned Thomas Watson, author of The EKATOMIIAOθIA, was the first to introduce the practice into England; his example takes the form of “a Pasquin Pillar.” A classical origin was claimed for the idea of the shaped verse, the names of Anacreon and Simmias of Rhodes being cited; and the fashion, which did little more than take root in Elizabethan days, grew under the reigns of her successors into great popularity, issuing not only in the pleasing and appropriate shaped verses of Herbert, but into most fantastic absurdities in less poetical hands. In spite, however, of occasional instances of such misdirected ingenuity, the Elizabethan lyric remains a bird-song in sweetness and spontaneity, and the result is one which can only be attained in the rare moments when accomplishment and inspiration are on a level.