Commissioned as a volume in "The Oxford History of English Literature", "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama", as it was originally titled, proved such tedium to write that Lewis took to referring to it by the acronym "OHEL". The sixteenth century ends as one of the great ages - arguably the greatest - of English literary genius, but it began dismally. Except in Scotland, where a vigorous Medieval tradition lived on, "authors seem to have forgotten the lessons which had been mastered in the Middle Ages and learned little in their stead. Their prose is clumsy, monotonous, garrulous; their verse either astonishingly tame and cold or, if it attempts to rise, the coarsest fustian. . . . Nothing is light, or tender, or fresh. All the authors write like elderly men."
This period of "bludgeon-work" gave way to something almost worse, "the Drab Age" - "earnest, heavy-handed, commonplace", a time when England did not shine and the peripheral light of Scotland guttered out.
The story would scarcely be worth telling, save for the happy ending, a true eucatastrophe: "Then, in the last quarter of the century, the unpredictable happens. With startling suddenness, we ascend. Fantasy, conceit, paradox, color, incantation return. Youth returns. The fine frenzies of ideal love and ideal war are readmitted. Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Hooker . . . display what is almost a new culture: that culture which was to last through most of the seventeenth century and enrich the very meanings of the words England and Aristocracy. Nothing in the earlier history of our period would have enabled the sharpest observer to foresee this transformation."
Had the scope of his labors not been set by his commission, Lewis would doubtless have preferred to skip the clumsy and drab, to delve into the riches of the Age of Gold. Still, despite his preferences, he was an apt choice to mine the less precious veins. Unlike many of his academic colleagues, who then as now regarded literature as merely a "job", Lewis read avidly in the most obscure corners. Little though he admired the early and drab writers, he was familiar with their work and could tease out virtues as well as point to flaws.
Three points about this history stand out as unexpected or significant. First is the fine opening chapter, "New Learning and New Ignorance", which contests the commonplace view that the medieval period was a vale of ignorance from which mankind was happily rescued by the Renaissance. That opinion is no longer prevalent in scholarly circles (where Lewis is now sometimes derided for expounding the conventional wisdom - much like accusing Shakespeare of writing in cliches!), but most general readers take it for granted. Lewis' presentation is one-sided, but it is a side that needs to be heard.
Second, Lewis devotes considerable space to Scotland, a territory absent from most of our literature classes. Though the Scots dialect is not easy to parse, Douglas and Dunbar and Lyndsay and their ilk are worthy of acquaintance.
Third - a slighter point than the preceding but interesting in its own right - there is Lewis' treatment of John Donne. As a young man, Lewis wrote a notorious essay on Donne, dispraising the quality of his love poetry and hinting that his vogue was due more to fashion than merit. For these heresies he became the stock villain of every introduction to Donne's work.
The "OHEL" volume takes a different tack. Lewis' appreciation of the "Songs and Sonnets" is warm and perceptive, with a useful disquisition on how to catch the rhythm of Donne's eccentric versification. It was not only, apparently, in matters of faith that Lewis was capable of casting off his youthful skepticism.
Within its genre - the comprehensive academic history - Lewis' effort is as good as a single mind and hand can produce. Similar tomes are nowadays parceled out chapter by chapter, gaining no doubt in narrow expertise but losing personality and perspective. Both are present in plenitude here.