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THE GOLDEN AGE OF ELIZABETH.
The age of Elizabeth was distinguished beyond, perhaps, any other in our history, by a number of great men, famous in different ways, and whose names have come down to us with unblemished honours,--statesmen, warriors, divines, scholars, poets, and philosophers : Raleigh, Drake, Coke, Hooker, and higher, and more sounding still, and still more frequent in our mouths, Shakspeare, Spencer, Sydney, Bacon,-men whom fame has eternised in her long and lasting scroll, and who, by their words and acts, were benefactors of their country, and ornaments of human nature. Their attainments of different kinds bore the same general stamp, and it was sterling : what they did had the mark of their age and country upon it. Perhaps the genius of Great Britain (if I may so speak without offence or flattery) never shone out fuller or brighter, or looked more like itself, than at this period.
The great cause I shall mention, as contributing to this general effect, was the Reformation, which had just then taken place. This event gave a mighty impulse and increased activity to thought and inquiry, and agitated the inert mass of accumulated prejudices throughout Europe. The effect of the concussion was general ; but the shock was greatest in this country. It toppled down the full-grown, intolerable abuses of centuries at a blow; heaved the ground from under the feet of bigoted faith and slavish obedience ; and the roar and dashing of opinions, loosened from their accustomed hold, might be heard like the noise of an angry sea, and has never yet subsided. Germany first broke the spell of misbegotten fear, and gave the watchword ; but England joined the shout, and echoed it back, with her island voice, from her thousand cliffs and craggy shores, in a longer and a louder strain. With that cry the genius of Great Britain rose, and threw down the gauntlet to the nations. There was a mighty fermentation : the waters were out ; public opinion was in a state of projection. Liberty was held out to all to think and speak the truth. Men's brains were busy ; their spirits stirring ; their hearts full ; and their hands not idle. Their eyes were opened to expect the greatest things, and their ears burned with curiosity and zeal to know the truth, that the truth might make them free.
The death-blow which had been struck at scarlet vice and bloated hypocrisy, loosened their tongues, and made the talismans and love-tokens of Popish superstition with which she had beguiled her followers, and committed abominations with the people, fall harmless from their necks.
The translation of the Bible was the chief engine in the great work. It threw open, by a secret spring, the rich treasures of religion and morality, which had been there locked up as in a shrine. It revealed the visions of the prophets, and conveyed the lessons of inspired teachers to the meanest of the people. It gave them a common interest in a common cause. Their hearts burned within them as they read. It gave a mind to the people by giving them common subjects of thought and feeling. It cemented their union of character and sentiment; it created endless diversity and collision of opinion. They found objects to employ their faculties, and a motive in the magnitude of the consequences attached to them, to exert the utmost eagerness in the pursuit of truth, and the most daring intrepidity in maintaining it. Religious controversy sharpens the understanding by the subtlety and remoteness of the topics it discusses, and embraces the will by their infinite importance. We perceive in the history of this. period a nervous masculine intellect. No levity, no feebleness, no indifference; or if there were, it is a relaxation from the intense activity which gives a tone to its general character. But there is a gravity approaching to piety; a seriousness of impression, a conscientious severity of argument, an habitual fervour and enthusiasm in their method of handling almost every subject. The debates of the schoolmen were sharp and subtle enough; but they wanted interest and grandeur, and were besides confined to a few: they did not affect the general mass of the community. But the Bible was thrown open to all ranks and conditions “ to run and read,” with its wonderful table of contents from Genesis to the Revelations. Every village in England would present the scene so well described in Burns's “ Cottar's Saturday Night.” I cannot think that all this variety and weight of knowledge could be thrown in all at once upon the minds of the people, and not make some impression upon it, the traces of which might be discerned in the manners and literature of the age. For to leave more disputable points, and take only the historical parts of the Old Testament, or the moral sentiments of the New, there is nothing
like them in the power of exciting awe and admiration, or of riveting sympathy. We see what Milton has made of the account of the Creation, from the manner in which he has treated it, imbued and impregnated with the spirit of the time of which we speak. Or what is there (in that romantic interest and patriarchal simplicity which goes to the heart of a country, and rouses it, as it were, from its lair in wastes and wildernesses) equal to the story of Joseph and his brethren, of Rachael and Laban, of Jacob's dream, of Ruth and Boaz, the descriptions in the book of Job, the deliverance of the Jews out of Egypt, or the account of their captivity and return from Babylon ? There is, in all these parts of the Scripture, and numberless more of the same kind—to pass over the Orphic hymns of David, the prophetic denunciations of Isaiah, or the gorgeous visions of Ezekiel—an originality, a vastness of conception, a depth and tenderness of feeling, and a touching simplicity in the mode of narration, which he who does not feel, need be made of no “penetrable stuff." There is something in the character of Christ too (leaving religious faith quite out of the question), of more sweetness and majesty, and more likely to work a change in the mind of man, by the contemplation of its idea alone, than any to be found in history, whether actual or feigned. This character is that of a sublime humanity, such as was never seen on earth before, nor since.
This shone manifestly both in his words and actions. We see it in his washing the disciples' feet the night before his death, that unspeakable instance of humility and love, above all art, all meanness, and all pride ; and in the leave He took of them on that occasion, “ My peace I give unto you, that peace which the world cannot give, give I unto you ;” and in his last commandment that " they should love one another.” Who can read the account of his behaviour on the cross, when turning to his mother He said, “ Woman, behold thy son!” and to the disciple John, “ Behold thy mother!” and “from that hour that disciple took her to his own home,” without having his heart smote within him? We see it in his treatment of the woman taken in adultery, and in his excuse for the woman who poured precious ointment on his garment as an offering of devotion and love, which is here all in all. His religion was the religion of the heart. We see it in his discourse with the disciples as they walked together towards Emmaus, when their hearts burned within them ; in his sermon the cross,
from the Mount, in his parable of the good Samaritan, and in that of the Prodigal Son-in every act and word of his life, a grace, a mildness, a dignity and love, a patience and wisdom worthy of the Son of God. His whole life and being were imbued, steeped, in this word, charity : it was the spring, the well-head,
om which every thought and feeling gushed into act; and it was this that breathed a mild glory from his face in that last agony on
66 when the meek Saviour bowed his head and died," praying for his enemies. He was the first true teacher of morality, for He alone conceived the idea of a pure humanity. He called man from the worship of that idol, self, and instructed him by precept and example to love his neighbour as himself, to forgive our enemies, to do good to those that curse us and despitefully use us. He taught the love of good for the sake of good, without regard to personal or sinister views; and He made the affections of the heart the sole seat of morality, instead of the pride of the understanding or the sternness of the will. In answering the question, “who is our neighbour ?” as one who stands in need of our assistance, and whose wounds we can bind up, He has done . more to humanize the thoughts and tame the unruly passions, than all who have tried to reform and benefit mankind. The very idea of abstract benevolence, of the desire to do good because another wants our services, and of regarding the human race as one family, the offspring of one common parent, is hardly to be found in any other code or system. It was “to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness.” The Greeks and Romans never thought of considering others, but as they were Greeks or Romans, as they were bound to them by certain positive ties, or on the other hand, as separated from them by fiercer antipathies. Their virtues were the virtues of political machines ; their vices were the vices of demons, ready to inflict or to endure pain with obdurate and remorseless inflexibility of purpose. But in the Christian religion “we perceive a softness coming over the heart of a nation, and the iron scales that fence and harden it melt and drop off.” It becomes malleable, capable of pity, of forgiveness, of relaxing in its claims, and remitting its power. We strike it and it does not hurt us ; it is not steel or marble, but flesh and blood, clay tempered with tears, and “ soft as sinews of the new-born babe.” The Gospel was first preached to the poor, for it consulted their wants and interests, not its own pride anr
arrogance. It first promulgated the equality of mankind in the community of duties and benefits. It denounced the iniquities of the chief-priests and Pharisees, and declared itself at variance with principalities and powers; for it sympathizes not with the oppressor, but the oppressed. It first abolished slavery, for it did not consider the power of the will to inflict injury, as clothing it with a right to do so. Its law is good, not power. It at the same time tended to wean the mind from the grossness of sense, and a particle of its divine flame was lent to brighten and purify the lamp of love!
There have been persons who, being sceptics as to the divine mission of Christ, have taken an unaccountable prejudice to his doctrines, and have been disposed to deny the merit of his character ; but this was not the feeling of the great men in the age of Elizabeth.
Nor can I help thinking, that we may discern the traces of the influence exerted by religious faith, in the spirit of the poetry of the age of Elizabeth, in the means of exciting terror and pity, in the delineations of the passions of grief, remorse, love, sympathy, the sense of shame, in the fond desires, the longings after immortality, in the heaven of hope, and the abyss of despair it lays open to us.
The effects of the Reformation on politics and philosophy may be seen in the writings and history of the next and of the following ages. They are still at work, and will continue to be so.
The effects on the poetry of the time were chiefly confined to the moulding of the character, and giving a powerful impulse to the intellect of the country.
Much about the same time, the rich and fascinating stores of the Greek and Roman mythology, and those of the romantic poetry of Spain and Italy, were eagerly explored by the curious, and thrown open in translation to the admiring gaze of the multitude. It might be said, without much extravagance,
every breath that blew, that every wave that rolled to our shores, brought with it some accession to our knowledge, which was engrafted on the national genius.