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It is difficult to peruse the annals of this turbulent and calamitous reign, without feeling some astonishment at the contrast which is exhibited between their literary and their political character. It is true that the preceding reign, however inglorious to the monarch, and disgraceful to the military reputation of the country, had been highly favourable to the growth of our national wealth and prosperity, to the increase of comforts, and even of luxury, as well as to the diffusion of knowledge.
The minds of men, continually irritated by the pretensions, and emboldened by the weakness of the Crown, had been habituated to discuss the most important interests of society; and in the progress of the dispute under Charles I. every passion was awakened, and an enthusiastic love of liberty was opposed to a spirit of loyalty almost equally enthusiastic. Such a period, therefore, might reasonably be expected to be propitious to the growth of genius; and we are not surprised that the scholastic pedantry of the former age should have given place to a more rational and manly style, equally adapted to the sublime conceptions of Milton, to the various and sparkling imagination of Cowley, and to the wit and sagacity of Butler.
But it is very remarkable, that the general characteristics of the poetry composed during this period, are such as indicate a very high degree of refinement: a curious and elaborate selection of words and images, a nice arrangement of versification, and a tone of gallantry so easy and playful, that we should suspect the writers of having formed their compositions amidst the peaceful splendour and luxury of Versailles, rather than at the court or in the camp of a prince, who passed from the throne to the scaffold through a continued series of anxiety and struggle.
In fact, Charles I. though generally in embarassed, and often in necessitous, circumstances, was always the active and liberal patron of literature, as well as of the fine arts, all of which he loved, and perfectly understood. “ During the “prosperous state of the king's affairs (says lord “ Orford, Hist. Paint. Vol. II. p. 147.) the plea
sures of the court were carried on with much “ taste and magnificence. Poetry, painting, mu“ sic, and architecture, were all called in to make “ them rational amusements; and I have no doubt 66 but the celebrated festivals of Louis XIV, were
“ copied from the shows exhibited at Whitehall, in « its time THE MOST POLITE COURT IN EUROPE. “ Ben Jonson was the laureat; Inigo Jones, the “ inventor of the decorations; Laniere and Fera“ bosco composed the symphonies; the king, the “queen, and the young nobility, danced in the « interludes.” Taste, and wit, and gaiety, disappeared during the subsequent reign of republicanism; and the general gloom was seldom interrupted, except by the compositions of a few cavaliers, who amused themselves by harassing with ridicule, the dull and insipid manners of their puritanical enemies.
The reader will find in bishop Percy's “ Reliques " of Ancient English Poetry," (Vol. II. p. 338, 4th edit.) some verses by Charles I. which lord Orford has, rather too hastily, condemned as most uncouth and inharmonious, at the same time that he has recognized in them some good sense, and a strain of majestic piety.