Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/619

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.


English readers to appreciate the influence of the Renaissance on Italian poetry. Hoby's version of Castiglione's Cortegia.no brought before them the new Italian ideal of intellectual and social accomplishment. Milton, the greatest humanist among poets of the first rank, best illustrates the various sources of culture, ancient and modern, but more especially Greek and Italian, which had become available for Englishmen not long before his own time. The modern sources had been opened to almost all who cared for literature; the ancient, as yet, less widely. It is the prerogative of Milton to fuse in a splendid unity both the ancient and the modern elements that have contributed to enrich his genius; he can be genuinely classical without loss of spontaneity or freshness. His poetry is not, however, the most characteristic expression of the English Renaissance in its larger aspects. That is to be found rather in the Elizabethan drama; and its supreme exponent is Shakespeare.

While the Revival of Learning thus presents varying aspects in the several countries to which it passed from Italy, the essential gift which it brought was the same for all. That gift was the recovery of an inheritance which men had temporarily lost; one so valuable in itself that human life would be definitely poorer without it, and also fraught with such power to educate and to stimulate, that the permanent loss of it would have been the annulment of an inestimable agency in the development of human faculty. The creative mind of ancient Greece was the greatest originating force which the world has seen. It left typical standards of form in poetry and prose, as of plastic beauty in art. Ideas which sprang from it have been fruitful in every province of knowledge. The ancient Latin mind also, which received the lessons of Greece without losing its own individuality, was the parent of master-works which bear its character, and of thoughts which are altogether its own; while both the classical literatures contain a varied wealth of observation and experience. There was a time when men had allowed the best part of these treasures to be buried out of sight, and had almost forgotten their existence. The Italians found them again, and gave them back to those races of Europe on which the future of civilisation chiefly depended.

It may be questioned whether any other people than the Italian would have been equal to achieving this great task. When Greek and Latin studies had once been resuscitated into a vigorous life, it was easy for nations outside of Italy to carry the work further. But wonderful qualities were demanded in the men who initiated and accomplished the revival in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There are cases in which it is easier to apprehend the temper and tone of a past age than to picture the chief actors. Thucydides conveys a more vivid idea of Periclean Athens than of the statesman by whose genius it had been moulded. It is not so with the Italian Renaissance. From letters and other sources, one can form tolerably clear images of many