21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 19

Lessons for an idiot people

John Buxton

The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Cultural Achievement A. L. Rowse (Macmillan £3.95)

More than twenty years after he began his history of the Elizabethan Age, Dr Rowse now brings it to a conclusion in a fourth volume, in which he surveys the works of art which they made and the movements of thought in which they considered the world about them and contributed to the scientific knowledge of the time. The Elizabethan Age established England's claim to greatness in the political sphere — a greatness which, after reaching its apogee in Churchill's "finest hour," has now (at least in Dr Rowse's opinion) been finally dispersed; but the literature and the drama, the music and the architecture remain to delight us still, and to remind us of that youthful, extrovert, self-confident society for which they were created. Dr Rowse, whose knowledge of that society is made more intimate and concrete by his understanding of local cariation, here again reveals an encyclopaedic knowledge of England, gained during a lifetime spent in looking at the monuments of the age in cathedrals and country churches, in great houses built to entertain the queen on progress, or in the town houses of merchants and, lawyers. Nothing of the age eludes him, except, perhaps, sympathy with the attitude of mind of those for whom all human problems were ultimately problems not of man's relation to man, but of man's relation to God. Yet even here twenty years have mellowed him: Jonson's tribute to Alfonso Ferrabosco, "Music . . . doth sweeten mirth and heighten piety," is not derided; and Byrd and Tanis are acknowledged to be "deeply religious spirits" without parenthetical contempt. The conclusion that " it is poetry and art, not dogma, that redeem the spirit of man" is acceptably mild.

Dr Rowse quotes with approval Bacon's "History, of all writings . . . holdeth least of the author and most of things themselves"; and though there is here much of many things there is also, certainly, a recognisable modicum of Rowse himself. There is the dislike of Puritans, and the readiness to succumb to temptations of salacity — pour epater les bourgeois, of course — the contempt for intellectuals (especially of the Puritanical, Cantabrigian variety), and for "the idiot people." The last, however, are allowed one moment of lucidity when "the sense of average human beings ended, the rule of the saints." for here is a conflict of distaste: Puritan versus people, and in the Upshot Puritanism is the higher idiocy.

Sir Steven Runciman once observed, "It may seem unwise for one British pen to compete with the massed typewriters of the United States " — Dr Rowse would hardly admit so pusillanimous a thought — but (Sir Steven went on) "a single author may succeed in giving to his work an integrated and even an epical quality that no composite volume can achieve." This has been Dr Rowse's achievement, and if we demur at some of his judgements, as that " Shakespeare is the sexiest writer in the language" — "What about Swift, or Burns?" one can hear the shade of Byron protesting — that is a personal idiosyncrasy in a man who has persuaded or provoked more of his contemporaries than any other writer to try to think what it was like to be an Elizabethan.

That is his purpose in this book also. It is not a collection of critical essays on works of art, but a portrayal of a society as those works reveal it. His first chapter The Drama as Social Expression sets the pattern. As Shelley says, "the connexion of poetry and social good is more observable in the drama than in whatever other form. . . . But in periods of the decay of social life, the drama sympathises with that decay." Dr Rowse's appreciation is historical and social then, rather than aesthetic, though he clearly derives intense pleasure from the music as well as from the literature of the age, and he rightly compares Byrd in his versatility with Shakespeare, the music with the drama. Fortunately Elizabethan music has become better known and, more frequently performed in our day than at any time for three centuries; and more is now known of Elizabethan painting and sculpture than to the previous generation, and authoritative studies of some of the architecture have been made. But Dr Rowse is not one to be content with other men's opinions: he goes to see for himself, to Truro (of course) and Tanfield, to Wing and Bacton and Boughton-under-Blean, to Felbrigg, Rowsley, Standish. . . . There are, inevitably, omissions: the Long Gallery, forced upon us by our climate, and itself affecting the formal, full-length portraits hung there; the hall, demoted from common living room to entrance hall, and the consequent social implications, etc.

But total comprehensiveness does not make a book, and we are compensated by individual insights. Dr Rowse's liking for Tom Nashe was predictable, but his praise of Samuel Daniel, the shy, retiring, sober scholar of Fuller's description, was not. But Daniel is commended for "his historical imagination and judgement in refusing to belittle the achievement of the past in terms of his own age"; and Raleigh as historian is commended for making use (like Churchill) of his own wide experience of men and affairs. Raleigh as historian joins company with his friend Spenser, with Shakespeare and Drayton and Daniel, in finding his inspiration in the past, as the greatest art always must. Dr Rowse has found inspiration for the work of a lifetime in the age which the Elizabethans also considered the Golden Age of England. Here, at last, he has .put aside most of the controversial disparagement of others who have sought to understand, the Elizabethans, and has been intent only to share his enjoyment of what they left us.

John Buxton, the historian, is a Fellow of New College, Oxford.