Not as a flood, but as a river flowing through many outlets to the sea, the influence of Italy passed through France and reached England. The scholarship of one generation inspired the literature of the next; the divine revelation of ancient Greece and Rome became the Bible of the Renaissance. In 1486 the plays of Plautus were staged in Italy, and soon thereafter at the rival courts of Francis I and Henry VIII. In 1508 Bibbiena’s Calandra began the vernacular classic comedy in Italy; in 1552 Jodelle’s Cléopatre captivebegan the vernacular classic tragedy in France; in 1553 Nicholas Udall produced the first English comedy in classical form. Ralph Roister Doister, said a critic, “smelt of Plautus”;41 it did; but it smelled of England too, and of that robust humor that Shakespeare would serve to the groundlings at the Elizabethan theaters.
The Italian influence appeared brightest in the poetry of the Tudor reigns. The medieval style survived in such pretty ballads as The Not-browne Mayd (1521); but when the poets who basked in the sun of young Henry VIII took to verse their ideal and model were Petrarch and his Canzoniere. Just a year before Elizabeth’s accession, Richard Tottel, a London printer, published a Miscellany in which the poems of two distinguished courtiers revealed the triumph of Petrarch over Chaucer, of classic form over medieval exuberance. Sir Thomas Wyatt, as a diplomat in the service of the King, made many a trip to France and Italy, and brought back some Italians to help him civilize his friends. Like a good Renaissance cortigiano, he burned his fingers in love’s fire: he was, said tradition, one of Anne Boleyn’s early lovers, and he was briefly imprisoned when she was sent to the Tower.42 Meanwhile he translated Petrarch’s sonnets, and was the first to compress English verse into that compact form.
When Wyatt died of a fever at thirty-nine (1542), another romantic figure at Henry’s court, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, caught the lyre from his hands. Surrey chanted the beauties of spring, reproved reluctant lasses, and vowed eternal fidelity to each in turn. He took to nocturnal excesses in London, served a term in jail for challenging to a duel, was summoned to trial for eating meat in Lent, broke some windows with his playful crossbow, was again arrested, again released, and fought gallantly for England in France. Returning, he toyed too audibly with the idea of becoming king of England. He was condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, but was let off with decapitation (1547).
Poetry was an incidental ornament in this strenuous life. Surrey translated some books of the Aeneid, introduced blank verse into English literature, and gave the sonnet the form that Shakespeare was to use. Perhaps foreseeing that the paths of undue glory might lead to the block, he addressed to a Roman poet a wistful idyl of rustic routine and peace:
Martial, the things that do attain
The happy life be these, I find:
The riches left, not got with pain;
The fruitful ground, the quiet mind;
The equal friend; no grudge, no strife;
No change of rule nor governance;
Without disease the healthful life;
The household of continuance;
The mean diet, no delicate fare;
True wisdom joined with simpleness;
The night dischargèd of all care,
Where wine the wit may not oppress;
The faithful wife, without debate;
Such sleep as may beguile the night;
Contented with thine own estate,
Ne wish for death, ne fear his might.