Elizabethan Travellers’ Tales
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[ 675 Elizabethan Travellers’ Tales1 The Listener, 2 (10 July 1929) 59-60 Tonight I wish to turn away for a while from the professional men of letters , to consider another type of prose which is interesting in any period.2† All of the men we have so far dealt with have been professional writers, each in his own line; we shall meet with the amateur writer, the courtier and man of action, in Sir Walter Raleigh and Fulke Greville. But there are also at all times men who, in the exercise of their business, have occasion to set down plain accounts of their affairs. Among such people are travellers and explorers – except, of course, those who merely travel for the sake of writing up their adventures afterwards – and especially sea-captains, who are obliged to keep log-books. Often such writing, when simple and sincere , has a beauty of its own. For a famous modern specimen I will refer you, not to Doughty’s Arabia Deserta, which is the work of a very highly sophisticated professional writer, but to Captain Scott’s account of the death of Oates on the Antarctic Expedition, as moving a story of heroism as any I know, which is quoted in The Oxford Book of English Prose.3 Not only was there a good deal of such writing in Tudor times, but there was a good deal of public interest in it; and I do not think that I should give you a fair view of the types of Tudor prose unless I lingered a little over this one. It was natural that the English reading public, in the later days of Elizabeth, should take a lively interest in accounts of foreign countries. The exploits of their own navigators, before and after the Armada, filled them with exultation and curiosity. So there was a large consumption of books purporting to describe foreign parts and the Antipodes; and any account, from the most fraudulently fabulous to that of the genuine eye-witness, was eagerly received. Most of these books have no literary merit, but to Richard Hakluyt we owe a great debt. I have not recommended you to read Hakluyt yourselves, and you will understand the difficulty when I explain the nature of his book. It is called Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation, and is designed to be nothing less than an encyclopedia of travels, voyages and explorations of Englishmen.4 It is in many volumes. Hakluyt was solely an editor, for the book is a compilation from many sources ancient and contemporary; it is, in fact, a source book. 1929 676 ] Many, perhaps most, of the inclusions are of little interest except to the historian; the literary merit varies indefinitely between one piece and the next.WhatareofinteresttousarethenarrativeswrittenbyElizabethan voyagers, often obscure or anonymous, about what they have themselves witnessed, and without pretence to literary style. If I knew of a good book of selections from Hakluyt, made with a view to illustrating the prose of Tudor navigators, I should recommend it to you; but so far as I know, there is no way with Hakluyt but to plough straight through the many volumes, or to look in each volume for what may be of interest. I will quote a passage which I have chosen because it is nothing out of the ordinary, but typical of the way these men write. It is from an account of the Last Voyage of Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins in the West Indies. The 4th of November we began to unlade the Richard, one of our victuallers , which was by the next day unladen, unrigged and then sunken. Then we stood Northwest and then North; and the next morning saw the Islands of Monserrata, Redonda, Estazia, St. Christopher and Saba. The biggest of these Islands is not past 8 leagues long. There is good anchorage in 8, 7 and 5 fathoms water fair white sand. Then we stood away southwest, and on the 8 in the morning came to an anchor some 7 or 8 leagues off within certain broken islands called Las Virgines, which have been accounted dangerous: but we found there a very good road, had it beenforathousandsailsofshipsin14,12and8fathomsfairsandandgood anchorage, high islands on either side, but no fresh water that we could find: here is much fish to be taken with hooks and nets: also we stayed on shore and fowled. Here sir John Hawkins was extreme sick; which his sickness began...


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