The Battaile of Agincourt

Language: English
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All civilized nations possessing a history which they contemplate with pride endeavour to present that history in an epic form. In their initial stages of culture the vehicles of expression are ballads like the constituents of the Spanish Romanceros and chronicles like Joinville’s and Froissart’s. With literary refinement comes the distinct literary purpose, and the poet appears who is also more or less of an artist. The number of Spanish and Portuguese national epics, from the Lusiad downwards, during the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries, is astonishing; and it was impossible that English authorship, rapidly acquiring a perception of literary form under classical and foreign influences, should not be powerfully affected by the example of its neighbours.

A remarkable circumstance, nevertheless, while encouraging this epical impulse, deprived its most important creations of the external epical form. The age of awakened national self-consciousness was also the age of drama. The greatest poetical genius of that or any age, and his associates, were playwrights first and poets afterwards. The torrent of inspiration rushed mainly to the stage. Hence the old experience was reversed, and whereas Æschylus described himself and his fellow-dramatists as subsisting on scraps filched from the great banquet of Homer, our English epic poets could but follow humbly in the wake of the dramatists, the alchemy of whose genius had already turned the dross of ancient chronicles to gold. In the mighty series of Shakespeare’s historical plays, including in the enumeration Marlowe’s “Edward the Second” and the anonymous “Edward the Third,” England possesses a national epic inferior to that of no country in the world, although the form be dramatic. In one respect, indeed, this epic is superior to any but the Homeric poems, standing one remove less apart from the poetry of the people. The impression of primitive force which the Homeric poems convey by their venerable language is equally well imparted by Shakespeare’s spontaneity and his apparent and probably real innocence of all purely literary intention.

Epic poets, however gifted, could be but gleaners after such a harvest. Yet not every excellent poet, even of that dramatic age, was endowed with the dramatic faculty, and two of especial merit, singularly devoid of dramatic gift, but inferior to none in love of their country and self-consecration to its service, turned their attention to the epic. These were Samuel Daniel and Michael Drayton. The latter is our subject, but something should also be said of the former. Drayton not unfairly hit the blot in his successful rival when he said of him:

“His rimes were smooth, his meeters well did close,

But yet his maner better fitted prose.”

This is one way of putting it; from another point of view Daniel may be regarded as almost the most remarkable literary phenomenon of his time; he is so exceedingly modern. He outran the taste of his own period by a hundred years, and without teacher or example displayed the excellences which came to be preferred to all others in the eighteenth century....