A new sort of dramatic representation had by this time greatly encroached upon the old Miracle Plays. The fresh growth was called Morals or Moral Plays. In them we see the losing victory of invention over the imagination that works with given facts. No doubt in the Moral Plays there is more exercise of intellect as well as of ingenuity; for they consist of metaphysical facts turned into individual existences by personification, and their relations then dramatized by allegory. But their poetry is greatly inferior both in character and execution to that of the Miracles. They have a religious tendency, as everything moral must have, and sometimes they go even farther, as in one, for instance, called The Castle of Perseverance, in which we have all the cardinal virtues and all the cardinal sins contending for the possession of Humanum Genus, the Human Race being presented as a new-born child, who grows old and dies in the course of the play; but it was a great stride in art when human nature and human history began again to be exemplified after a simple human fashion, in the story, that is, of real men and women, instead of by allegorical personifications of the analysed and abstracted constituents of them. Allegory has her place, and a lofty one, in literature; but when her plants cover the garden and run to seed, Allegory herself is ashamed of her children: the loveliest among them are despised for the general obtrusiveness of the family. Imitation not only brings the thing imitated into disrepute, but tends to destroy what original faculty the imitator may have possessed.
Poets now began to write more smoothly—not a great virtue, but indicative of a growing desire for finish, which, in any art, is a great virtue. No doubt smoothness is often confounded with, and mistaken for finish; but you might have a mirror-like polish on the surface of a statue, for instance, and yet the marble be full of inanity, or vagueness, or even vulgarity of result—irrespective altogether of its idea. The influence of Italian poetry reviving once more in the country, roused such men as Wyat and Surrey to polish the sound of their verses; but smoothness, I repeat, is not melody, and where the attention paid to the outside of the form results in flatness, and, still worse, in obscurity, as is the case with both of these poets, little is gained and much is lost.
Each has paraphrased portions of Scripture, but with results of little value; and there is nothing of a religious nature I care to quote from either, except these five lines from an epistle of Sir Thomas Wyat’s:
Thyself content with that is thee assigned,
And use it well that is to thee allotted;
Then seek no more out of thyself to find
The thing that thou hast sought so long before,
For thou shalt feel it sticking in thy mind.