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The "Delicious" Land
America acted deeply on the Elizabethan English imagination, working its magic in the minds of poets and men of science
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
During the reign of Elizabeth I, as the interest in and knowledge of America gathered momentum, so their reverberation in literature and the arts became louder, more frequent, and more varied. During the reign of Elizabeth I, as the interest in and knowledge of America gathered momentum, so their reverberation in literature and the arts became louder, more frequent, and more varied. On the one hand, there were the writings and reports of those who had been there, as collected by Hakluyt and Purchas; the books written by people like Captain Smith and Morton and Strachey; the histories and journals of Bradford and Winthrop; the numerous tracts and sermons devoted to the subject. On the other, there is the reflection of America in the mirror of the imagination, in the poetry and prose of Spenser and Sidney, Raleigh and Chapman, Shakespeare and Drayton, Bacon and Donne. Sometimes these things run into one another: in the case of Raleigh, for example, who always straddles all fences. But it is fascinating to observe how not only the content of the voyagers’ accounts but their very phrases will appear in the lines of the poets; how the words of Raleigh’s sea captain, Barlow, take wing in the verse of his master or reappear in Drayton’s ode “To the Virginian Voyage,” or how Strachey’s account of the hurricane off Bermuda is echoed in The Tempest .
The transition from the factual world of translations and reports to the realm of the imagination may be seen first in the circle of Philip Sidney, to whom Hakluyt dedicated his Divers Voyages . When we read Sidney’s Arcadia , whose author was so much interested in America and several times thought of coming here, we recognize the atmosphere of the voyages. It begins with a shipwreck, with the wrack floating in a sea of very rich things and “many chests which might promise no less.” The capture of prizes dominates the first chapters, with the arrival of Musidorus in a strange country, having lost his friend Pyrocles, who subsequently turns up. It is like the beginning of The Tempest , or episodes of A Winter’s Tale and Pericles . The influence of the voyages speaks in them all, inciting the imagination to strange scenes and countries across the seas.
The atmosphere of Arcadia has something in common with that of The Faërie Queene —the dreamlike timelessness of a fairy world of romance. Spenser was a friend of both Sidney and Raleigh, and the introductory stanzas to Book II acknowledge the impulse of the expansion:
With people in general, America is always regarded as overflowing with gold: this is what it chiefly meant to people in the Old World—as it still does to some. Marlowe has several references to this in Tamburlaine:
The thought is expressed by Greene, Peele, Lyly, Massinger, Chapman. It appears in Shakespeare, where sooner or later everything gets expression. We must remember that America, in this connotation, often appears as India, with or without the adjective “Western.” This is made sufficiently clear by the dominant association with “mines.” “As bountiful as mines of India,” he writes. Henry VIII’s meeting with Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold
In Twelfth Night , when Maria appears to lay down the letter that entraps Malvolio, Sir Toby belches, “How now, my metal of India,” i.e., piece of gold. When Malvolio falls into the trap and is utterly bemused, Maria reports, “He does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies.” That was the map that went with the first volume of the enlarged edition of Hakluyt published in 1598. Shakespeare derived inspiration and profit from reading Hakluyt. The theme of digging for gold is an important element in Timon —at a time, too, when the Jamestown colony was temporarily given over to a frantic search for it. One writer declared in 1608 that there was then “no talk, no hope, no work but to dig gold, wash gold, refine gold, load gold.” And this was about the date when Timon was written. The combination of the gold theme with digging for roots for subsistence comes straight from the voyages.