England's Antiphon

Home - George MacDonald - England's Antiphon

Prev | Next | Contents


Poets now began to write more smoothly--not a great virtue, but indicative of a growing desire for finish, which, in any art, is a great virtue. No doubt smoothness is often confounded with, and mistaken for finish; but you might have a mirror-like polish on the surface of a statue, for instance, and yet the marble be full of inanity, or vagueness, or even vulgarity of result--irrespective altogether of its idea. The influence of Italian poetry reviving once more in the country, roused such men as Wyat and Surrey to polish the sound of their verses; but smoothness, I repeat, is not melody, and where the attention paid to the outside of the form results in flatness, and, still worse, in obscurity, as is the case with both of these poets, little is gained and much is lost.

Each has paraphrased portions of Scripture, but with results of little value; and there is nothing of a religious nature I care to quote from either, except these five lines from an epistle of Sir Thomas Wyat's:

Thyself content with that is thee assigned, And use it well that is to thee allotted;

Then seek no more out of thyself to find The thing that thou hast sought so long before, For thou shalt feel it sticking in thy mind.

Students of versification will allow me to remark that Sir Thomas was the first English poet, so far as I know, who used the terza rima, Dante's chief mode of rhyming: the above is too small a fragment to show that it belongs to a poem in that manner. It has never been popular in England, although to my mind it is the finest form of continuous rhyme in any language. Again, we owe his friend Surrey far more for being the first to write English blank verse, whether invented by himself or not, than for any matter he has left us in poetic shape.

This period is somewhat barren of such poetry as we want. Here is a portion of the Fifty-first Psalm, translated amongst others into English verse by John Croke, Master in Chancery, in the reign of Henry VIII.

Open my lips first to confess

My sin conceived inwardly;

And my mouth after shall express

Thy laud and praises outwardly.

If I should offer for my sin,

Or sacrifice do unto thee

Of beast or fowl, I should begin

To stir thy wrath more towards me.

Offer we must for sacrifice

A troubled mind with sorrow's smart:

Canst thou refuse? Nay, nor despise

The humble and the contrite heart.

To us of Sion that be born,

If thou thy favour wilt renew,
The broken sowle, the temple torn, threshold.
The walls and all shall be made new.

The sacrifice then shall we make

Of justice and of pure intent;

And all things else thou wilt well take

That we shall offer or present.

In the works of George Gascoigne I find one poem fit for quoting here. He is not an interesting writer, and, although his verse is very good, there is little likelihood of its ever being read more than it is now. The date of his birth is unknown, but probably he was in his teens when Surrey was beheaded in the year 1547. He is the only poet whose style reminds me of his, although the wherefore will hardly be evident from my quotation. It is equally flat, but more articulate. I need not detain my reader with remarks upon him. The fact is, I am glad to have something, if not "a cart-load of wholesome instructions," to cast into this Slough of Despond, should it be only to see it vanish. The poem is called

Prev | Next | Contents