« AnteriorContinua »
country measures. He is thus described in the year 1564, in a tract by William Bulleyn: “Sir, there is one lately come into this hall, in a green Kendal coat, with yellow hose, a beard of the same colour, only upon the upper lip; a russet hat, with a great plume of strange feathers, and a brave scarf about his neck, in cut buskins. He is playing at the trey-trip with our host's son : he playeth trick upon the gittern, and dances Trenchmore and · Heie de Gie,' and telleth news from Terra Florida." Upon this strange sort of indigenous troubadour did the schoolboy gaze, for he would seem to belong to a more knowing race than dwelt on Avon's side. His “ news from Terra Florida” tells us of an age of newstongues, before newspapers were. Doubtless such as he had many a story of home wonders; he had seen London perhaps ; he could tell of Queens and Parliaments; might have beheld a noble beheaded, or a heretic burnt; he could speak, we may fancy, of the wonders of the sea; of ships laden with rich merchandize, unloading in havens far from this inland region; of other ships wrecked on inhospitable coasts, and poor men made rich by the ocean's spoils. Food for thought was there in all these things, seeds of poetry scattered carelessly, but not wastefully, in the rich imaginative soil.
The Fair is over; the booths are taken down; the woollen statute-caps, which the commonest people refuse to wear because there is a penalty for not wearing them, are packed up again ; the prohibited felt hats are all sold; the millinery has found a ready market amongst the sturdy yeomen, who are careful to propitiate their home-staying wives. after the fashion of the Wife of Bath’s husbands :
“ I governed hem so well after my lawe,
That eche of hem full blissful was, and fawe
They were full glade," &c. The juggler has packed up his cup and balls; the last cudgel-play has been fought out:
“ Near the dying of the day
There will be a cudgel-play,
Morning comes, and Stratford hears only the quiet steps of its native population. But upon the bench, under the walnut-tree that spreads its broad arms to shadow a little inn, sits an old man, pensive, solitary; he was not noted in the crowd of yesterday,—louder voices and bolder faces carried the rewards which he had once earned. The old man is poor; yet is his gown of Kendal green not tattered though somewhat tarnished. The harp laid by his side upon the bench tells his profession. There was a time when he was welcomed at every hall, and he might fitly wear starched ruffs, and a chain of pewter as bright as silver, and have the wrest of his harp jauntily suspended by a green lace.t Those times are past. He scarcely now dares to enter worshipful men's houses; and at the Fairs a short song of love or good fellowship, or a dance to the gittern, are preferred to his tedious legends. He may now say with that luckless minstrel Richard Sheale (who, if his own chants are deplorable enough, has the merit of having assisted in the preservation of · Chevy Chase”),
My audacity is gone, and all my merry talk;
That I cannot play the merry knave according to my kind." There are two or three boys with satchel in hand gazing on that old minstrel; one of them bestows on him a penny, and goes his way. School-time is over, and as the boy returns the old man is still sunning himself on the ale-bench. He speaks cheerfully to the boy, and asks him his name. William Shakspere.” The old man's eye brightens. “ A right good name,” he exclaims; " a name for a soldier:" and then, with a clear but somewhat tremulous voice, he sings
“ Off all that se a Skottishe knight,
Was callyd Sir Hewe the Mongon-byrry,
He spendyd a spear a trusti tre :
** See Laneham's description of the Minstrel at Kenilworth.
He rod uppon a corsiare
Throughe a hondrith archery;
Till he came to the good lord Persè.
A dynte, that was full soare;
Clean thorow the body he the Persè bore.". The boy's heart is moved “more than with a trumpet,” and he is not content till he has heard the whole of that “old song of Percy and Douglas.” It is easy to imagine, further, that the poor minstrel lingered about Stratford ; that he had welcome at least in one house; and that from time to time the memory of the grammar-school boy was not unprofitably employed in treasuring up snatches of old romances side by side with his syntax. Could not that old man tell all the veritable legend of Sir Guy, how he wed the fair Phillis, and, “all clad in grey in pilgrim-sort,” voyaged to the Holy Land, and there slew the giant Amarant and the treacherous Knight of Pavye, and how he utterly did redeem England from Danish tribute, by slaying the giant Colbrand, and moreover destroyed the dragon of Northumberland, and the cow of Dunsmore Heath, whose bones even then might be seen at Warwick? And had he not viewed the cave at Guy's Cliff made by the champion's own hands out of a craggy rock of stone, where he long dwelt in poverty, begging his daily bread at his own castle-gate? This legend, indeed, would tell of wondrous deeds done close at hand; and the boy-poet would ardently desire to see the famous castle of Warwick, and the hermit's cave, where the lady of Sir Guy, having received their wedding-ring by a trusty servant, came in haste, and, finding her sick lord, “ herself closed up his dying eyes.” The minstrel would affirm the truth of this legend; and his young listener would believe it all. There was not only boy-faith in those days, but there was faith in tradition even amongst worldly
The imagination could rest confidingly upon the distant and the past. Even in the middle of the next century an antiquary, unequalled for industrious and minute inquiry, could surrender his belief to the general truth of the history of Sir Guy: “Of his particular adventures, lest what I say should be suspected for fabulous, I will only instance that combat betwixt him and the Danish champion, Colebrand, whom some (to magnify our noble Guy the more) report to have been a giant. The story whereof, however it may be thought fictitious by some, forasmuch as there be those that make a question whether there was ever really such a man; or, if so, whether all be not a dream which is reported of him, in regard that the monks have sounded out his praises so hyperbolically: yet those that are more considerate will neither doubt the one nor the other, inasmuch as it hath been so usual with our ancient historians, for the encouragement of after-ages unto bold attempts, to set forth the exploits of worthy men with the highest encomiums imaginable: and therefore, should we for that cause be so conceited as to explode it, all history
“ evil appareled in the
* Ancient ballad of Chevy Chase'—the one which Sidney describes as dust and cobweb of that uncivil age.”
of those times might as well be vilified."* We are changed. Is the change for the better?
But the old minstrel has heroic songs that are not altogether of the marvellous. There was a story of Richard Caur-de-Lion
“ Against whose fury and unmatched force
The awless lion could not wage the fight;" + which told in homely verse how
“ The lyon was hongry and megre,
And bette his tayle to be egre." There was the simple burst of patriotic exultation for the victory at Agincourt, beginning—
“ Owre kynge went forth to Normandy,
With grace and myght of chivalry;
Deo gratias : Deo gratias Anglia redde pro victoria.” Many a long “fitte” had he, which told of doughty deeds of Arthur and his chivalry, Sir Bevis, Sir Gawain, Sir Launfal, and Sir Isenbras; and, after he had preluded with his harp, the minstrel would begin each in stately wise with
Listen, lordings, and hold you still,” or “ Listen to me a little stond.” Pass we over all the merry tales of Robin Hood which fell trippingly from his tongue for many of these were fresh in the memory of the people, and were sung in the greenwood or by the Christmas fire. But he had songs which he could scarcely sing without a tear in his eye, for they were remembrances of days when the minstrel was welcomed by the porter at the abbey-gate, and the buttery-hatch was unclosed to give him a generous meal. They were songs of pilgrimages made by true lovers to shrines of Our Lady,—songs that two centuries after were to be adopted in a more correct school of poetry, but one scarcely more spirited and natural :-.
« Gentle heardsman, tell to me,
Of curtesy I thee pray,
Which is the right and ready way," has a fine racy melody about it, pleasanter, we think, than the somewhat cloying
“ Turn, gentle hermit of the dale." The minstrel has departed; but he has left behind him such lore as will be long cherished by that wondrous boy of the Free Grammar-School. There are many traces in the works of Shakspere of his familiarity with old romances and old ballads; but, like all his other acquirements, there is no reproduction of the same thing under a new form. Rowe fancied that Shakspere's knowledge of the learned languages was but small, because “it is without controversy that in
• Dugdale's • Warwickshire,' page 299.
† King John, Act
his works we scarce find any traces of anything that looks like an imitation of the ancients.” It is for inferior men to imitate. It was for Shakspere to subject his knowledge to his original power of thought, so that his knowledge and his invention should become one perfect and entire substance; and thus the minute critic, who desires to find the classical jewels set in the English gold, proclaims that they are not there, because they were unknown and unappreciated by the uneducated poet. So of the traditionary lore with which Shakspere must have been familiar from his very boyhood. That lore is not in his writings in any very palpable shape, but its spirit is there. The simplicity, the vigour, the pathos, the essential dramatic power of the ballad poetry stood out in Shakspere's boyhood in remarkable contrast to the drawling pedantry of the moral plays of the early stage. The ballads kept the love and the knowledge of real poetry in the hearts of the people. There was something high, and generous, and tolerant in those which were most popular; something which demonstratively told they belonged to a nation which admired courage, which loved truth, which respected misfortune. Percy, speaking of the more ancient ballad of. Chevy Chase,' says—“One may also observe a generous impartiality in the old original bard, when in the conclusion of his tale he represents both nations as quitting the field without any reproachful reflection on either; though he gives to his own countrymen the credit of being the smaller number.” The author of that ballad was an Englishman ; and we may believe this “impartiality" to have been an ingredient of the old English patriotism. At any rate it entered into the patriotism of Shakspere.