December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
America acted deeply on the Elizabethan English imagination, working its magic in the minds of poets and men of science
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.
The theme is extended in the scenes that Chapman, Raleigh’s poet, contributed to Ben Jonson and John Marston’s Eastward Ho! The absurd Sir Petronel Flash’s money is bestowed on a ship bound for Virginia. Security comments: “We have too few such knight adventurers: who would not sell away competent certainties to purchase, with any danger, excellent uncertainties?” This was precisely what many did for Virginia, and New England too. Seagull helps with a lot of mariners’ tales about Virginia to gull the public. “Come, boys,” he says, “Virginia longs till we share the rest of her maidenhead.” That was a regular phrase with the voyagers—Raleigh’s phrase for Guiana.
On this Spendall asks: “Why, is she inhabited already with any English?” Seagull: “A whole country of English is there, man, bred of those that were left there in “79.” (Actually the date was ’87; but we do not go to dramatists for dates any more than to historians for dramatics.) “They have married with the Indians and make ’em bring forth as beautiful faces as any we have in England, and therefore the Indians are so in love with ’em that all the treasure they have they lay at their feet.” Scapethrift: “But is there such treasure there, captain, as I have heard?” Seagull: “I tell thee, gold is more plentiful there than copper is with us; and for as much red copper as I can bring, I’ll have thrice the weight in gold. Why, man, all their dripping pans and their chamber pots are pure gold; and all the chains with which they chain up their streets are massy gold; all the prisoners they take are fettered in gold; and for rubies and diamonds they go forth on holidays and gather ’em by the seashore…” Scapethrift asks, “And is it a pleasant country withal?” Captain Seagull replies: “As ever the sun shined on: temperate and full of all sorts of excellent viands.”
These leads—Spenser, Marlowe, Chapman—all point to Raleigh, as they were all his friends; he stands at the crossroads in literature, as he did in these actions. The captains he sent to reconnoiter Virginia in 1584 reported as follows:
The second of July we found shoal water, where we smelt so sweet and so strong a smell as if we had been in the midst of some delicate garden abounding with all kind of odoriferous flowers, by which we were assured that the land could not be far distant … We viewed the land about us, being, whereas we first landed, very sandy and low towards the water’s side, but so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea overflowed them; of which we found such plenty, as well on every little shrub as also climbing towards the tops of high cedars that I think in all the world the like abundance is not to be found. Under the bank or hill whereon we stood, we beheld the valleys replenished with goodly cedar trees.
In the poem Raleigh was writing some years later to recover the Queen’s favor (but never finished), Cynthia, the Lady of the Sea , we read:
And when we come to Drayton’s ode, “To the Virginian Voyage,” we find:
Of the motives that could lead men to leave home Raleigh speaks, in his own case:
And he sums them all up in one famous line:
There was a whole succession of literary men who went as officials to Virginia: William Strachey, John Pory, Christopher Davison, George Sandys. Donne, who was hard up before he condescended to enter the Church, sought to be made secretary. Strachey, a Cambridge man, moved in a literary and dramatic circle in London. He was a shareholder in the Children of the Queen’s Revels and so came to Blackfriars two or three times a week, where he would meet Shakespeare. In 1609 he went out with Gates and Somers in the Sea Venture , which was famously wrecked on Bermuda, though all were saved and spent an agreeable winter there. The extraordinary happening made a strong impression on people’s minds at home, and several accounts of it appeared, the most detailed being Strachey’s letter to a noble lady, which circulated in manuscript. It is not surprising that the most impressionable mind in that circle was struck by it, for this was the germ of The Tempest .
It is somehow right that, just as Move’s Utopia provides the first expression of genius of the New Wovld in our period, so The Tempest provides the last; that these two transcendent minds should have risen to the full height of the theme. For there is far more of the New World in Shakespeare’s play than the original suggestion from Strachey’s letter: the storm with its veracious details, St. Elmo’s fire (laming amazement along the mainmast; the wveck and not a hair of the people hurt; the enchanted island full of noises, for Bermuda was believed to be haunted by evil spirits. The whole play sings of the sea; the loveliest songs are of the sea:
Not only that, but with the creation of Caliban, the primitive savage, possessor of the island, and his relation to Prospero, the very civili/ed and lordly person who dispossesses him, the whole question of what happens when civilization makes its impact upon primitive society is placed before us in a way we can never forget. Our sympathies arc not with Prospero —and perhaps in the subconscious corridors of the mind we think of what happened to the redskins. There is something deeply affecting about Caliban:
This is what had happened time and again, generation after generation, with tribe after tribe, all along the coasts of America when the Indians came in contact with the white men and their superior knowledge. AVe vead in Hakluyt and Captain Smith with what avidity they learned about the stars and the firmament, watched the white men’s instruments, were impressed by lodestone and magnet, optic glass and clock.
That, too, had often happened—we remember how Squanto showed the Pilgrims where best to take their fish and how to set Indian corn, and enabled them to subsist through the hard first years. In one sense the. Indians were quick to learn; in another, they never learned—the gull’ between their primitive cast of mind and that of the white man was too deep to bridge. And so the red man lost in the struggle for existence. Nor did he profit from his knowledge, in spite of his experiences at the hand of the white man. After Prospero comes the drunken Stephano:
In spite of what he has suffered at the hand of Prospero, Caliban now wants Stephano to be his god:
We are reminded of the native Californians who embarrassed Drake and his men by taking them for gods.
The idea of an original state of nature was to have an important development in political speculation and theorizing about society, and it was given immense impetus what men discovered in the New World. It was brought home vividly to me years ago when I saw John Locke’s library as it had come down in the possession of his representatives: we take it for granted that he was a generalizing and abstract thinker, as he was, but his library was full of the American voyages. There, made visible, was an example of the way early anthropology went into political theory.
Tudor folk were fascinated by the trappings of Indian life and the spectacle of Indians, from the time Cabot brought some back to the streets of Westminster, and a Brazilian chief was presented at the court of Henry VIII. In 1614—when the great Virginian venture was much in mind—two masques were given by the Inns of Court. Bacon’s Masque of Flowers argued the merits and demerits of Virginia’s chief product, tobacco, before the antitobacconist James I. Chapman’s masque, a much grander affair dressed by Inigo Jones, had the masquers attired in Indian costume, “with high sprigged leathers on their heads, hair black and large waving down to their shoulders.” The musicians were attired like Virginian “priests”—no doubt from John White’s drawing. But the serious-minded Chapman addressed himself to a searching theme, the problem posed by the diversity of religion revealed by a new world, of which Holy Scripture, which held the key to all human history, had no knowledge. The orthodox poet spoke through Eunomia, representing civilized order:
There were people, even then, who speculated sensibly whether the American Indians hud not come across the narrow divide ol the Bering Strait from Asia. Some reflection of these speculations may be seen in Bacon’s jeu d’esprit, Tlie New Atlantis . Naturally the influence of the voyages and of reading Hakluyt is apparent, and Bacon had a direct interest in coloni/ation by this time: he was one of the Council for Newfoundland. Bacon’s Utopian island was in the Pacific, which might still have islands and continents not yet come to light—Australia was yet to come out of it. But he refers to the inundation ol an Atlantic continent, and the shrinking Atlantic shelf of America. Hence the American Indians were but remnants ol a people: “Marvel you not at the thin population of America, nor at the rudeness and ignorance of the people; for you must accept your inhabitants of America as a young people: younger a thousand years, at the least, than the rest of the world.”
The mind of the poet Donne was markedly stimulated by the geographical curiosity of the time. This is reflected in the unexpected images he reaches out for on the subject of love:
Or in addressing his mistress, going to bed, in somewhat unusual terms:
Many were the sermons that were preached to speed the Virginia enterprise; but Donne’s sermon is the finest specimen of the class, in which it is elevated to literature. As we should expect, he raised the issues presented by coloni’ation to a higher plane. Hc warned those going against seeking independence or exemption from the laws of England. “If those that govern there would establish such a government as should not depend upon this, or il those that go thither propose to themselves an exemption from laws to live at their liberty, this is to … divest allegiance and be under no man.” And Donne had something to say which is very much to the point in the modern discussion about colonialism. The law of nations ordains “that every man improve that which he hath … the whole world, all mankind must take care that all places be improved as far as may be to the best advantage of mankind in general.”
With a New World being discovered, there was not only an immense extension of geographical knowledge, but a comparable impetus to improve its quality and techniques. England was backward in this art, as in so much else; but now her geographers profited from their contacts with these leaders of thought, while they made use of the information gathered by the English voyagers in constructing their maps—Ortelius, of Anthony Jcnkinson, for Russia and Persia; Mercator, of Drake, for America and the Pacific. Though English map makers in this field were not yet comparable, they were beginning. Frobisher’s and Gilbert’s voyages to North America led to a considerable increase of information about the northern areas, reflected in the maps of Michael Lok and Thomas Best. A number of John Dec’s maps of these regions remain, and illustrate, as everything about him does, his curious mixture of shrewd criticism and cra/y credulity. His map of North America based on Gilbert’s explorations, for example, has a proper realization of the width of the continent across Canada; but theorist that he was, he hail no compunction in tracing a waterway right across, to debouch with the Colorado into Southern California. Iiy the end of the century, much more exact and useful contributions were being made to navigation and cosmography by such men as John Davis and Edward Wright.
Hariot appears as the most complete, all-round scientist of that time, with his interest alike in mathematics and astronomy, anthropology and navigation. He set forth a model of first-class scientific method with his Brief and True Report of the new found land of Virginia . It is the work of a superior mind; no Elizabethan quaintness in this; no fancy, let alone fantasy; all is in due order based on close observation, accurately brought into correlation with existing categories, ft gives an account of the flora and fauna: the commodities of the country with their qualities and uses; methods of agriculture anil properties of the soil, plants arid fruits and roots; the beasts, fowl, and fish; ending with the nature anil manners of the people, for Hariot had learned enough of their language to communicate with them about their notions and heliels.
This concise little work, important as it is, is only a fragment of the materials collected by Hariot and John White at Roanoke. White was similarly engaged in mapping the coasts and sounds and rendering the life of the place in his water colors of the plants and fishes, the characters and ways of the natives. But after the hurricane that decided the colony to leave, many of their maps and papers were lost in the sea in the hurried transfer of their goods to Drake’s ships. Others of White’s papers left on Roanoke were spoiled by the Indians. But what remains is considerable.
The impact of America upon natural history in general, and botany in particular, was no less exciting. A wide range of new plants and animals provided continuing stimulus to the scientific curiosity, as well as the fancy, of naturalists in England as elsewhere. And this is reflected in their books. From the New World came the giant sunflower, nasturtium, Michaelmas daisy, lobelia, evening primrose, and so on. But by far the most important introductions were tobacco and the potato: these affected history.
The medicinal properties of tobacco were considered valuable. Hariot reported that it “purgeth superfluous phlegm and other gross humours, and openeth all the pores and passages of the body: by which means the use thereof not only preserved! the body from obstructions, but also (if any be, so that they have not been of too long continuance) breaketh them.”
The habit of smoking spread rapidly among the courtiers and the upper class, popularized by Raleigh and those in touch with the colonies. It was noted as a piece of arrogance on Raleigh’s part that “he took a pipe of tobacco before he went to the scaffold”; it is more likely to have been to steady his nerves, or as a last pleasure on earth. Even before the end of the Queen’s reign, the habit was spreading to the lower orders. All this was good for Virginia: it put the colony on its feet and enabled it to survive.
The potato has had even more effect in history. In The History and Social Influence of the Potato , Redcliffe N. Salaman writes: “The introduction of the potato has proved to be one of the major events in man’s recent history, but, at the time, it was a matter of relatively little moment and called forth no immediate public comment.” To the Elizabethans the innocuous potato was not only sustaining, but stimulating to lust. Wc remember that when Falstali, with the worst intentions, gets Mistress Ford and Mistress Page to come in to him, he calls on the sky to rain potatoes. Amid so much that is earthy, not to say murky, about this root, Dr. Salaman thinks it quite probable that Raleigh did introduce the growing of potatoes into Ireland—one more of the many tiling’s he has to answer Tor. This certainly had remote and far-reaching consequences, setting in motion the cycle that ultimately led to the mass migration of the Irish, during and alter the Famine, to America.
It was from Ireland, too, that John White’s drawings of American life turned up, having long ago disappeared from view. In the end, it is through such things as these—Powhatan’s mantle, a wampum girdle or a shell necklace, the things the Elizabethans held in their hands and brought home, the llotsam and jetsam of time—that we are most directly in touch with that early American life, as well as through those fragments of memory that have entered into folklore, the uuforgotten impression that Pocahontas made on the English people in her day—still alive in the famous inn sign, “La Helle Sauvage.” 1 write these words not far from a village in Cornwall still called after her, Indian Queen’s. For what enters into the unconscious life of the mind and is carried on in folklore is the best evidence of the strength of common memories, common alfections, and common ancestry.