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François Villon: 1455-1463

With the poems of Villon literature seems to spring, at one bound, from the mentality of the Middle Ages to a completely modern poetic sensibility. In the 14th century Chaucer describes the Canterbury pilgrims with well observed realism, but he does so in a mood of wry amusement. He keeps his distance, as a poet who moves in rather more elevated court circles.

Villon, just half a century later, spends his life among people lower in society than Chaucer's humblest pilgrims. He observes their condition, together with his own, in short, vivid, unblinking verses of an extraordinary immediacy - often deriving directly from the circumstances in which he finds himself.
 









He graduates from the Sorbonne in Paris as a master of arts in 1452, but in a quarrel three years later runs his sword through a priest. This murder (for which he is at first sentenced to banishment, then pardoned by royal reprieve) begins a spell of eight years during which Villon is constantly at odds with the law, until he vanishes from sight in 1463.

In 1456 he is apprehended with some friends robbing a college of 500 gold coins. He makes his escape, leaving a poem called Lais ('Legacy', also known as the 'Little Testament') in which bequeaths all sorts of useless objects to friends and enemies alike.
 







The records reveal that Villon is in prison in Meung-sur-Loire for much of 1461. After his release he writes his major poem, the Grand Testament, surveying the sorrows and horrors of his life. He interrupts the text from time to time with self-contained ballads.

One of these is the famous Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis (Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past), in which he compares the passing of beautiful women to the vanishing of the snows of yesteryear. His subjects range from Thaïs, a famous courtesan loved by Alexander the Great, to a romantic heroine of his parents' generation - 'Joan, the beautiful girl from Lorraine, whom the English burnt at Rouen'.
 







In 1462, and again in the following year, Villon is in gaol in Paris. On the second occcasion he is condemned to be hanged. This predicament prompts his extraordinary Epitaph, in the form of a ballad which Villon writes for himself and his companions waiting together to be hanged. He imagines in vivid detail their dead bodies drenched in the rain, bleached in the sun, picked at by crows and magpies, and he asks the living to pray that all men be spared the further torment of Hell.

Villon's sentence is commuted to banishment. No more is heard of him. But an extraordinarily personal voice has made a brief and unforgettable appearance in literature, during eight years of the troubled 15th century.
 






Meistersinger: 14th - 16th century

From the 14th century there develop, in German towns, guilds devoted to the writing and singing of songs. Their members, mainly consisting of craftsmen and tradesmen, believe themselves to be the heirs of the courtly Minnesinger. It is more probable that their origin lies in groups of lay singers trained to take part in medieval church services.

Certainly the musical tradition of the guilds (who call themselves Meistersinger, or master singers) derives ultimately from Gregorian chant. And the main events of the Meistersinger calendar, their singing competitions, are held in church.
 









By the late 15th century a stultifying conservatism characterizes the guilds, with every aspect of composition and performance stipulated in very precise rules. But a new lease of life is provided by some degree of relaxation, in a reform which begins in Nuremberg.

This change makes possible the climate in which Hans Sachs, a shoemaker of Nuremberg, becomes both the most successful Meistersinger (author and composer of more than 4000 mastersongs) and a leading popular poet. Hans Sachs first becomes famous with a verse allegory of 1523 praising Luther as Die Wittembergisch Nachtigall (the Wittenberg nightingale).
 






The Italian epic romance: 1487-1581

For a century, from the 1480s, the Italians take over the romantic tradition pioneered in France. Most of the French authors have used Arthurian legends for their tales of epic chivalry. The Italians now go back to Charlemagne's paladins for their subject matter, following the earliest French example (the Chanson de Roland). But they place these semi-historical characters in settings of magic and of amorous encounter more characteristic of the Arthurian stories.

The result is two epics of complex and fantastic adventure which again take for their hero Roland, now transformed into the Italian Orlando.
 









The first of the two is Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato (Roland in Love), published in two parts in 1487. It tells of the havoc caused by a beautiful pagan princess, Angelica, who suddenly appears among thousands of Charlemagne's knights gathered for a tournament in Paris. Many of them fall in love with her, but none more fully than Orlando. They begin fighting among themselves, thus fulfilling Angelica's ulterior motive - which is to render the knights helpless against the besieging Saracens.

Boiardo dies before finishing the third part of his poem. Lodovico Ariosto takes up the challenge of continuing the epic story.
 







Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (Roland Mad) is even more fantastical than Boiardo's tale, but it treats the material with greater detachment and irony. Among other complex events, Roland goes mad when Angelica abandons him. His wits are eventually found on the moon - where a friend recovers them after flying there in Elijah's chariot with St John as his guide.

Ariosto uses the trappings of romance and fantasy as a poetic vehicle for his own comments and speculations (much as Rabelais does, a generation later, in prose). The result is a work of great sophistication which becomes an immediate success throughout Europe. Orlando Furioso appears first in 1516 and then, in a longer version, in 1532.
 








In 1581 there is published in Italy a third epic romance, very different in style from its predecessors. Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Liberated) deals with the capture of Jerusalem by the crusaders in 1099.

The context is therefore more historical than the legends of Charlemagne and his paladins, though much of the plot still involves the amorous intrigues associated with romantic epic. The real difference is that Tasso rejects the sprawling poetic freedom taken for granted by Ariosto, and attempts to give his work some measure of classical restraint.
 








Tasso is keenly interested in literary theory and in the supposed rules for poetry outlined in Aristotle's Poetics. The Unities specified for drama (formulated in an Italian work of 1570) do not apply so strictly in epic, but Gerusalemme Liberata has a central plot which is limited to a few months during 1099.

Italians of the late 16th-century engage in passionate debate on literary principles, with Tasso and Ariosto taken as the champions of those arguing respectively for and against classical unity. Meanwhile the combined example of the two poets inspires others in Europe, such as Edmund Spenser, to persevere with the somewhat archaic form of the romantic epic.
 






Luther: 1522-1534

The Reformation brings an unexpected benefit to the literature of many Protestant countries through the text of the Bible becoming widely familiar in vernacular languages. This is particularly true in Germany, the home of the Reformation, thanks to Luther himself having a direct and forthright style.

This is evident in his letters and conversation as well as in his tracts. Describing the unusual experience for a monk of being married (to Catherine von Bora in 1525), he comments with admirable simplicity: 'There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage. One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before.'
 









The same forthright quality with a dash of humour enlivens a tract called Concerning Married Life. Reason, discussing the matter with Christian Faith, says: 'Why must I rock the baby, wash its nappies, change its bed, smell its odour, heal its rash? It is better to remain single and live a quiet and carefree life. I will become a priest or a nun and tell my children to do the same.'

Christian Faith replies: 'The father opens his eyes, looks at these lowly, distasteful and despised things and knows that they are adorned with divine approval as with the most precious gold and silver. God, with his angels and creatures, will smile - not because nappies are washed, but because it is done in faith.'
 







Luther translates the New Testament in a similarly vivid vein during his period of hiding in the Wartburg. It is published in September 1522 (with woodcuts by Cranach). Luther has completed the Old Testament by 1534. The appetite of the public for the holy text in this accessible form proves impressive. In the next half century one firm in Wittenberg prints 100,000 copies of the Bible.

Through this medium, and through his many hymns (such as Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, 'A stronghold is our God', published in a collection of 1529), Luther's robust way with language becomes part of the German literary tradition.
 






Rabelais: 1532-1552

In 1532 there is published in Lyons the first volume of one of the strangest works in all literature. It has the title Pantagruel and the author is given as Alcofribas Nasier. This awkward name is an anagram of the altogether more believable François Rabelais.

Rabelais' own picaresque life has brought him interests, influences and experiences as varied as those which inform his book. Born in the 1490s as the son of a well-to-do lawyer, he is by 1520 a Franciscan friar. He subsequently travels widely as secretary to a rich abbot, transfers to the Benedictine order so as to study in Paris (a period in which he fathers two children), and finally abandons his monk's habit to become a physician.
 









Rabelais is employed as a doctor in Lyons from the summer of 1532. This is a period when the ferment of the Reformation and the humanist excitement of the northern Renaissance are alike at their peak, and Lyons is an important intellectual centre. The exciting themes of the day blend with Rabelais' own love of word play and fantasy.

In French popular tradition Pantagruel is a devil whose duty is to put salt in the mouths of drunkards. Transformed by Rabelais into a giant, with a prodigious appetitite for food and drink, his exploits prove an ideal vehicle for his author's bubbling imagination. This first volume is sufficiently popular for a sequel, Gargantua (the story of Pantagruel's father), to be published in 1534.
 







There is no equivalent in the literature of Rabelais' time to the anarchic blend of the scholarly, the satirical and the scurrilous which characterizes these books. The nearest parallel is in the visual arts of northern Europe, where two eccentrics stand out in a similar fashion. The lifetime of Rabelais falls neatly between that of Hieronymus Bosch (40 years older) and Pieter Brueghel (25 years younger). He shares the surrealism of Bosch, the earthiness of Brueghel and the fantasy of both.

In later literature his ability to make words dance in new patterns and shapes is echoed by James Joyce. His pursuit of ideas in wonderland is similar to that of Lewis Carroll.
 







Within a year of its publication Pantagruel is condemned by the Sorbonne as obscene, but this seems to do Rabelais no harm. When he is in Rome in 1535-6 he is granted a papal bull giving him the freedom to practise medicine and to return to the Benedictine order if he so chooses. In 1540 he presents a petition to the pope for his two children to be legitimized.

A third book in the series of Gargantua and Pantagruel is published in 1546 and a fourth two years later (again condemned by the Sorbonne). The complete work is too complex, too discursive, too uneven to be read easily as a continuous whole. But it is a rich quarry which many have profitably mined.
 






Ronsard and the Pléiade: 1549-1553

Though elements of the Renaissance and of humanism pervade the work of Rabelais, the chaotic anarchy of his tumbling crowded canvas is also very medieval. The intellectual rigour of the Renaissance enters French literature in a more pure and self-conscious form in the work of Pierre de Ronsard and his circle.

In 1549 Ronsard's friend Joachim du Bellay publishes a tract, entitled La Défense et illustration de la langue française, which is a manifesto for a new style of poetry. As at the start of the Renaissance in Italy, the intention here is to return to classical masters as a source of inspiration.
 









A group of seven poets, including du Bellay and Ronsard, become associated with the movement and are known in their own time as La Pléiade, a name given originally to seven distinguished poets in Alexandria (the Pleiades being a constellation of seven stars).

Ronsard, the most talented of the seven, makes his name with short lyrical poems of polished elegance - particularly the Odes and Amours published between 1550 and 1553. The odes are intended to be sung with lute accompaniment as courtly entertainment. Ronsard subsequently occupies the position of court poet to the young French king Charles IX.
 







In the Amours Ronsard has an ideal love, Cassandre, similar to Petrarch's Laura but more certainly a real character. She is Cassandre Salviati, the daughter of a Florentine banker living in France.

Ronsard's relationship with Cassandre remains platonic, though his most famous poem to her (the Ode à Cassandre of 1553) urges her in effect to gather rosebuds while she may. Beginning Mignonne, allons voir si la rose (My love, let us see if the rose), the poet points out that the rose's exquisite petals have lost their sheen by the end of the day - and that her beauty, too, is not for ever.
 






Camoëns and Os Lusíadas: 1572

In the 16th century the European kingdoms of the Atlantic coast are beginning to feel a new sense of nationhood. At the same time the literary world is increasingly interested in epic poetry, as practised in modern Italy by Ariosto but above all as exemplified in the work of Virgil. May it not be possible to sing the achievements of today's nations just as the Aeneid celebrates those of Rome?

Portugal, a small country with a great deal to celebrate in recent decades, is the first to tackle this great task - achieving it some three decades before Spenser's similar effort on behalf of England.
 









Portugal's national poet, Luis de Camoëns, has a career as dangerous and eventful as that of Cervantes, his younger contemporary in Spain. Like Cervantes, he serves as a soldier and is wounded (he loses an eye in north Africa). Like him he suffers alarming adventures, including imprisonment and shipwreck.

But the formative period of Camoën's life is the seventeen years (1553-70) which he spends in India and the East Indies in the service of the Portuguese empire. He is an active participant in the new world so recently opened up by the great voyages of the Portuguese navigators, and in particular Vasco da Gama.
 







When Camoens finally returns to Portugal in 1570, he brings with him the manuscript of the epic poem on which he has been working. It is published in 1572 under the title Os Lusiadas. The name, with its echoes of Iliad and Aeneid, relates to the ancestors of the Portuguese, the Celtic tribes of this region to whom the Romans give the name Lusitani.

Known in English as The Lusiads, the poem takes as its central theme Vasco da Gama's great voyage of 1497 in which he discovers the sea route to India. Camoëns sets this within the broader context of the struggle between Islam and Christianity. And he finds ways of inserting interludes on Portugal's history.
 







The clash between Islam and Christianity is of topical urgency (the battle of Lepanto takes place a year before The Lusiads is published), and in his own journeys round the shores of the Indian ocean Camoëns has seen evidence of the rivalry between the religions.

The poem treats this topical reality within a classical framework. The protector of the Muslims is Bacchus (most inappropriately, in view of Islam's prohibition of alcohol), while Venus intervenes on the Christian side to ensure that da Gama reaches India safely.
 







Some of the poem's most famous passages concern incidents in Portugal's history, described by da Gama for the benefit of an African king who politely expresses interest in the topic. One is the great victory of Aljubarrota. Another is the tragic story of Inês de Castro, beloved secret wife of the heir to the throne who is assassinated, in 1355, on the order of the king, Afonso IV. When the voyage towards India is resumed, da Gama uses a moment of leisure to tell his crew of a great tournament between English and Portuguese knights, organized by John of Gaunt.

As a rich blend of adventure, history, allegory and romance, Os Lusiadas provides an early and impressive epic for a modern nation.
 






Edmund Spenser: 1579-1596

Edmund Spenser, who has the greatest lyric gift of any English poet in the two centuries since Chaucer, is a graduate of Cambridge and by inclination a humanist pedant. His inspiration comes largely from a desire to rival his classical and Renaissance predecessors.

His first important work, The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), consists of twelve eclogues - a form deriving from Virgil but imitated by many subsequent writers. With one for each month of the calendar, Spenser's eclogues cover a wide range of subjects in many metres and styles of poetry. But they are skilfully held together to form a convincing single poem within the pastoral framework.
 









Just as Virgil moved on from the pastoral themes of the Eclogues and Georgics to the patriotic epic of the Aeneid, so Spenser progresses to The Faerie Queene. In undertaking this ambitious project (he states in a letter to Walter Raleigh in 1590), his models have been ancient and modern poets alike - Homer and Virgil, Ariosto and Tasso.

The framework of the poem is an allegory in praise of the Faerie Queene or Gloriana (Elizabeth I), in whose interests the Red Cross knight (the Anglican church) fights to protect the virgin Una (the true religion) against the wiles of many hostile characters including the deceitful Duessa (variously the Roman Catholic church or Mary Queen of Scots).
 







It is evident from these details that the poem is deeply rooted in national politics of the late 16th century, and many of its allusions must have been of far greater interest to contemporary readers than to any generation since. Spenser himself is a close witness of the struggles of the time. From 1580 he is employed in the English government of Ireland. In 1588 he becomes an 'undertaker' in the first Elizabethan plantation, receiving the forfeited Irish estate of Kilcolman Castle.

Here he is visited in 1589 by Walter Raleigh, who is so impressed by Spenser's readings from The Faerie Queene that he persuades the poet to accompany him to London in the hope of interesting the real queen in it.
 







Publication of the first three books in 1590 is followed by Elizabeth's awarding the poet, in 1591, a pension of 50 a year. Spenser's original scheme is for twelve books, each consisting of an adventure on behalf of Gloriana by one of her knights. In the event he completes only six, the second group of three being published in 1596.

Spenser, spinning his elaborate allegory in rural Ireland, stands at the end of a long and retrospective poetic tradition - though others will soon develop less archaic versions of the epic (as in Paradise Lost). Meanwhile something much newer and more popular is taking place in London. When Spenser is there in 1590, Christopher Marlowe is the new excitement in the city's theatres.
 






Montaigne and the essay: 1571-1588

In 1580 there is published in Bordeaux a book by Michel de Montaigne with the simple title Essais. It is the first time that the word has been applied to a literary form, and it is used in the sense of 'trial' or 'experiment'. Essai is the standard word in modern French for the testing of a new product. In his essays Montaigne is testing his own opinions.

He does so, famously, In his library in the third storey of a tower which he adds to his ancestral home at Montaigne, near Bordeaux, in 1571. He has trained as a lawyer, but soon after his father's death he retires to Montaigne and begins a life of reading, reflecting and recording the development of his thoughts in the form of essays.
 









In doing so, Montaigne not only invents a new literary form. He becomes the first man in history whose thought processes we can share, as ideas strike him and are then modified - in many cases several times, when he returns to what he has written and adds to it.

This literary venture seems to have started out as a commonplace book, which Montaigne gradually builds up to form the publication of 1580. These first essays are reprinted with additions in 1582. An edition of 1588 expands once again the original essays and adds more. For the rest of his life he continues to add marginal notes to his own copy of the 1588 volume (now in the public library of Bordeaux, where Montaigne serves as mayor from 1581 to 1585).
 







The result of this process is to lay bare to the reader the innermost thoughts of a man who in his honesty, and the acuteness of his perceptions, becomes interesting and sympathetic.

Montaigne's essays are the precise opposite of a great diary, such as that of Samuel Pepys, where honesty is also essential. The diarist has to be honest in the heat of the moment. His words will charm later generations if he is vividly himself, even if on that particular day he is vividly greedy or lustful or vain. The essayist, by contrast, will convince only if his conclusions are convincing. A bigot may write an interesting diary, but not often a good essay.
 







As a form, the essay is much taken up by English writers. Francis Bacon, a generation younger than Montaigne, gives it its subsequent identity and length - as a speculation of a few pages on a given topic ('Of Truth', 'Of Death', 'Of Unity in Religion' are the first three in Bacon's collection published in 1597). Addison and Steele, publishing a daily piece in the Spectator from 1711 to 1714, add a new role for the essay as a witty and elegant feature of journalism.

But few essayists in literature invite the reader as intimately as Montaigne to share his thoughts when he retires to his library.
 






London's theatres:1576-1599

The theatres built in London in the quarter century from 1576 are a notable example of a contribution made by architecture to literature. In previous decades there have been performances of primitive and rumbustious English plays in the courtyards of various London inns, with the audience standing in the yard itself or on the open galleries around the yard giving on to the upper rooms. These are ramshackle settings for what are no doubt fairly ramshackle performances.

In 1576 an actor, James Burbage, builds a permanent playhouse in Shoreditch - just outside the city of London to the north, so as not to require the permission of the puritanical city magistrates.
 









Burbage gives his building the obvious name, so long as it is the only one of its kind. He calls it the Theatre. It follows the architectural form of an inn yard, with galleries enclosing a yard open to the sky. At one end a stage projects beneath a pavilion-like roof.

In such a setting, custom-built, writers, actors and audience can begin to concentrate on dramatic pleasures. A second playhouse, the Curtain, rises close to the Theatre in 1577. A third, the Rose, opens in 1587 on the south bank of the Thames in the area known as Bankside. In that year one of these three theatres puts on a play which reveals how far English playwrights have progressed in a very short while - Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe.
 






Marlowe: 1587-1593

The year 1564 sees the birth of two poets, Marlowe and Shakespeare, who between them launch the English theatre into the three decades of its greatest glory. Marlowe makes his mark first, in a meteoric six years (from 1587) in which his life and his writings are equally dramatic.

From his time as a student at Cambridge Marlowe seems to have been involved in the Elizabethan secret service. This dangerous work, combined with a fiery disposition, brings him into frequent clashes with the authorities. He is in prison in 1589 after a street fight. He is deported from the Netherlands in 1592 for the possession of forged gold coins. He is arrested for some unknown reason in London in 1593. And twelve days later he is murdered.
 









Marlowe is killed in a Deptford tavern by one of a group of colleagues with whom he has spent the day. The official explanation is a row over the tavern bill, but it is possible that the event relates to his secret service activities. What is certain is that when he dies, short of his thirtieth birthday, he is already an extremely popular playwright with the London audience.

Marlowe's first play, acted with great success in 1587, is an event of profound significance in the story of English theatre. Tamburlaine the Great introduces the supple and swaggering strain of blank verse which becomes the medium for all the glories of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
 







Marlowe's Tamburlaine is a character who revels in the power which his conquests bring him, and the verse conveys brilliantly his sense of excitement. Rich words trip off his tongue, relished for their own sakes, in a manner which becomes characteristic of much English poetry. When Tamburlaine defeats the emperor of Persia, and imagines his moment of triumph, even the strange names of his three colleagues are pressed into service to add to the rich brew:

  'Is it not passing brave to be a king, Techelles?
  Usumcasane and Theridamas,
  Is it not passing brave to be a king,
  And ride in triumph through Persepolis?'
 







Tamburlaine is so popular that Marlowe adds a second part, staged in 1588. In the remaining five years of his life his plays include The Jew of Malta (a melodrama of revenge, in which the Jew indulges in an orgy of killing after his money has been confiscated), Doctor Faustus (inspired by a recent biography of Faust, and setting the pattern for later treatments of the subject) and Edward II (the first play to dramatise English history as a conflict between real characters, and the predecessor of Shakespeare's great achievements in this genre).

In the first three of these plays the title role is taken by Edward Alleyn, Marlowe's leading actor and the great rival of Shakespeare's Burbage.
 







The dates of the plays after Tamburlaine are uncertain, and the texts of Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta have reached us in very corrupted versions because they are first printed years after Marlowe's death.

What is certain is that when Shakespeare arrives in London, in about 1590, the London stage belongs above all to Marlowe. By the time of Marlowe's death three years later only one of Shakespeare's undeniable masterpieces, Richard III, has been produced (with Burbage as the villainous hero). It would be hard to predict at this stage which of the two talented 29-year-olds is the greater genius.
 






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