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A Short Sketch of the Literature of England
under Queen Anne.
as it is, in the centre and very heart of Europe, exposed on all sides to the attack of foreign arms and to the invasion of foreign thought, Germany has become, on the one hand the common fighting ground and the cock pit of Europe, but on the other hand it is for the same reason the connecting link between North and South, East and West, the bridge that joins opposite worlds of thought, the faithful mirror which reflects the forms of all her neighbours. It was dire necessity, at first, that made Germans study foreign languages and ways of thinking, turning now here now there to face the assailant from the East or from the West and to meet him either on the battle field or in the arena of peaceful competition in commerce and trade, art and science. But by degrees the study of the foreigner became with the German a habit and mental bias which fitted him to be the interpreter of European thought. He alone can for a moment forget his own nationality and raise himself to the higher regions of pure humanity where he is able fully to appreciate all that is good and true and beautiful in the character and literature of other nations; he alone, with his wonderful skill in translation and interpretation could venture to realise the idea of a World-Literature.
But, no doubt, there is a difference in the degree of interest with which we study the history and literature of our neighbours in proportion to the influence which these have exercised on our own political and literary development. The Italy of the Renascence, the France of the Grand Siècle have for several centuries held Germany spellbound under their influence and claim our interest and most careful study. But since the middle of last century these loadstars have grown pale and England has taken their place and its poets, philosophers, and politicians are listened to with an ever increasing eagerness and curiosity. It is true also that in former ages there had existed a lively intellectual intercourse and exchange of ideas between England and Germany. From England we received Christianity, from England came the scholars who adorned the court of Charlemagne and founded the first seats of learning in Germany, from England the tenets of Wyclif were carried into Bohemia as the first spark of that great conflagration that was to destroy Roman Catholicism in the North of Europe; to England we gave the PrintingPress as the great vehicle of modern thought, to England we lent the greatest of the humanists, Erasmus, our great painters Holbein and Van d'Eyk, and the composer of the Messiah, to England we gave above all the reformation. But this exchange of ideas increased incomparably in the course of last century; the close alliance and intense sympathy of the two greatest statesmen of the 18 th century, Frederick the Great and Lord Chatham, were the political counterpart of that close union which then began in the literary development of the two nations. Milton was the great and unattainable model of Klopstock, Thomson inspired his German contemporaries with the love of nature and the passion for descriptive poetry, the name of Shakespeare was the warcry with which Lessing overthrew the tyranny of French pseudo classicism; Hume's scepticism opened the eyes of Kant to the worthlessness of philosophical dogmatism. In the present century we have paid back to the English the vast debt which our ancestors have accumulated. The poetry of Goethe, the philosophy of Kant, the discoveries of German comparative philology, the music of Mozart and Beethoven have powerfully contributed to the formation of modern English culture.
The interest which we take in English literature is based on the silent consciousness of common descent and the deep sympathy of close relationship. When we read the earliest account of our ancestors in the Germania of Tacitus we are struck with the likeness which they still bear to the modern English; nay, we cannot help thinking that the original type of the Teutonic character has maintained itself in far greater purity in the Anglo-Saxon island than in Germany itself which, owing to ils geographical position, has been continually exposed to the influx of foreign blood. The love of individual independence, the strong attachment to the domestic hearth, the passionate fondness for field and forest, the haughty reserve and isolation, the disdain for the arts of society, the love of sport and violent exercise, the manliness, truthfulness, and lofty pride, which are the chief ingredients in the character of the modern Englishman all thes traits come out vividly in the picture which Tacitus presents to us of the ancient German and touch sympathetic chords in our own hearts.
Moreover the worldwide destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race renders interesting everything which helps us to understand their marvellous success. England is not only a European power like France or Germany, it is a mother of nations, a world power, compared with which the Roman empire at its height sinks into insignificance. The oldest, the most populous, the richest country in the world, India, owns its sway, in North America, in Australia, in South-Africa, in Polynesia colonies have been founded of resources so vast, so unbounded that, though at present they contain only 65 million human beings, we may safely assert they will a century hence represent one quarter of the inhabitants of the world, – all speaking the language of Shakespeare and Milton, all enjoying that selfgovernment which is the sacred inheritance of Englishmen, all hailing England as the mother of their race. The history, the institutions, the literature of such a country certainly deserve, nay peremptorily claim our most careful study, and especially the literature which presents to us as in a mirror the faithful reflection of the growth and development of the English intellect.
The Saxon and English tribes land in England as heathen barbarians in the course of the fifth and sixth centuries, but the savage conquerors of the wretched Britons are conquered in turn by Christianity and lay their ferocity aside. But from the wilds of Germany they brought their love of song and that grand poem, the Beowulf, which represents to the whole German race the earliest, the most faithful, the most poetical picture of the condition of our ancestors. Anglo-Saxon England is the first German country that emerges from barbarism; Caedmon and Cynewulf are the earliest German poets of real genius whose names have come down to us, and king Aelfred is the ideal of a highminded and truly humane German king. But the invasion of the fierce Danes covers England with blood and ashes, and centuries of relentless strife plunge the country back into babarism and extinguish the light of literature. At last the two races amalgamate and Christianity begins to subdue the stubborn hearts of these northern barbarians, when the Norman arrives and lays a foreign yoke on Dane and Saxon alike; the literature of those times, of the Norman and Angevin princes, is a glorious page in the history of the literature of France, its brilliancy only serves to set off in a darker gloom the night which covered the England of the English. English literature begins again with the birth of the English language at the time when the English people in the true sense of the word is formed, viz: when the three races are at last blended into one and Norman barons and English and Danish burghers and yeomen unite to break the insolence of their Angevin king at Runnymede wresting from him the Great Charter. The reconciliation thus begun was accomplished when under the first true English king, Edward III, the English yeomen overthrew the French chivalry at Crecy and Poitiers, and the English language took the place of French in the schools and lawcourts. Then came the golden dawn of English poetry with Chaucer, the father of English literature. But the glorious sunlight of poetry was in the 15th century, soon effaced by the clouds which then rapidly covered the horizon. During the disastrous war with France and the suicidal struggle of the Red and the White Rose poetry was dead; the singing birds were hushed, whilst the thunder rolled in the sky. About the end of the 15th century the intellect of Europe awoke. The great discoveries and inventions, the revival of learning and of art, the revolution of human thought, called the reformation, the intimate and rapid exchange of ideas, which began with the new political system of Modern Europe and the struggle for the maintainance of the balance of power, the brilliant and thoroughly national policy of the Tudor dynasty: all these circumstances combined to awake the dormant energies of the English people to an almost unexampled effort of genius. But the immediate cause was the victorious struggle with Spain. After a period of prolonged hesitation and vacillation Elizabeth had at last resolutely embraced the cause of protestantism and had brought Mary Stuart, the hope and support of the Catholics, to the block. Then the storm burst which had been slowly gathering. Philipp, who lent his sword and his fanaticism to that Catholic reaction which in the hands of the Jesuits threatened to undo the work of Luther, collected his whole vast power for the one great attack upon England. The fate of Europe trembled in the balance, no less than at that memorable moment, when Xerxes hurled his hosts against Greece. But Heaven itself interfered and England and liberty were saved. Then followed, – as in Greece when the Persian danger was averted, - an outburst of genius which fills us with astonishment and admiration even now after the lapse of three centuries. The statesmen, the soldiers, the navigators and explorers of Elizabeth made the English name known and respected in every quarter of the globe; but it is in the poets and philosophers that we find the true glory of that wonderful age. The chivalry and romanticism of the time united with the rich and variegated beauty of the renascence in the works of Sidney and Spencer. The stage became the focus of national life. Shakespeare's towering genius bas dwarfed the merits of his contemporaries, but if he had never existed, the English drama under Elizabeth and her two successors would still bear comparison with that of France, Spain, or Germany. Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Fletcher, Webster, and Massinger would be read and admired to the present day, if the transcendent genius of Shakespeare did not engross all our attention.
But soon a shadow passes over the bright scene. The stern spirit of puritanism, wishing to realise the kingdom of god and the rule of the saints already here on earth, clothes life in the melancholy hue of sober black and declares war to all worldly pleasures, to all the delights of sense, to art and poetry with their train of airy, fantastical sprites which endeavour to paint elysium on the prison wall of earthly existence. The sky of Europe is overcast, the great struggle between protestantism and catholicism rages on the continent and the puritans long to throw in their lot with their protestant brethren. The frivolity and cowardice of James, the falsehood of Charles prevent England from playing her part in the great European drama enacted in Germany, whilst the unconstitutional and arbitrary domestic policy and the catholic predilections of their rulers goad the puritans to rebellion. They save the constitutional freedom of England, preserving thereby to Liberty one place of refuge in the midst of a world of slaves, but at the cost of all that was bright and gay and beautiful in Merry Old England. The stern grandeur, the lofty idealism, the narrow intolerance of puritanism live and breathe in Paradise Lost, allied to the richest splendour of the renascence as well as to the divine inspiration of the psalmist.
But England grew weary of her saints and longed to dance again around the golden Calf of Pleasure with the French and other gentiles. The Stuarts returned from the exile which they had so richly deserved and then began that period of national degradation, which now reads like a hideous dream in the history of Britain. Virtue was sneered at as puritanic, it was dangerous; vice was a badge of loyalty and a recommendation to favour at court. To secure a powerful ally against his own people the king, in the treaty of Dover sold his country to Lewis. French manners, French influence were supreme; but without the check of French taste, elegance, and refinement. The coarseness and brutality, which lie hidden under the surface in the English character came out with fearful force now that all moral restraints were removed The theatre closed by the puritans and reopened at the restoration reflects with terrible fidelity the state of society under Charles II and his brother.
The influence of the great dramatists of France is evident everywhere, chiefly in the observation of the unities, in the introduction of the Alexandrine metre, in the artificial tone of the dialogue. The unnatural and stilted heroic drama where only monarchs and great nobles strut the boards is faithfully imitated by Dryden, whilst Wycherley gives us in his inimitably clever and witty and incredibly profligate comedies the full length portraits of the shameless rakes and frail beauties of the time. Poetry, having lost its roots among the people themselves, becomes the fashionable pastime of an artificial society, of a court, of a capital with its clubs and coteries. It represents no longer the spontaneous outburst of deep emotion, of wild and fanciful dreams, of lofty aspirations, of intense longings after the Infinite, it is a brilliant play of wit, sporting about the surface of things, trying to dazzle, not to warm, to please, not to
Having little to say, the whole art is now devoted to how to say that little, and in the absence of truth and depth, elegance of form, correctness of style, the happy turning of the phrase, the pointed allusion, the show of classical learning are eagerly sought after.
In such a time satire flourishes. Dryden is its greatest master.
But underneath the surface, underneath this clever, witty, and wordly society of the Court and of Fashion, the great mass of the people are still sound and in spite of persecution and tribulation faithful to their puritan ideal of life as it is reflected with wonderful truthfulness in the Pilgrim's Progress.
But we should wrong this period of English Literature, if we passed over the one great claim it has to the gratitude of future generations, – it laid the foundation of modern science. The English people had at last tired of religious speculation and of barren discussions - as they had been carried on for more than a century on Church Government, transsubstantiation, free will, predestination etc.
They now turned with eager, insatiable curiosity to the study of nature.
Chemistry became the fashion at court, and in his laboratory Charles threw off the indolence which he showed in the council chamber. Now at last that man began to be appreciated whose name marks the advent of a new time, Bacon, the father of modern thought, who conscious that he had been born too early, bequeathed on his death bed his glory and his work to future generations. He is the first Modern. With a calm disdain for the religious quibbles of Catholics and Protestants, of Anglicans and Puritans, he — living in an age of theological strife - resolutely turned his back on theology. Man does not live on this earth, only to prepare for Heaven, so he argued, to ignore earthly things, as we have been told for ages, he is not here only to speculate on insoluble problems, the immortality of the soul, the divine nature, matter and mind etc. The whole intellect of the Middle Ages has been wasted on these questions, — with what profit? No, let us firmly take our stand on this earth, make it a worthy home of a gifted race; extend the empire of Man over Nature; make its forces subservient to the necessities and comforts of Man; conquer the Earth, as we cannot conquer Heaven. But in order to rule it, you must know it; gather then facts by careful observation, group them together, try to discover the laws which underlie them, which work in them unseen, by imitating the process of nature in Experiment. In short let us learn the secret of Nature, in order to master her.
Medieval Philosophy had been utterly barren of results; it had spent itself on the fruitless task of proving the Christian doctrine with the formulas of Aristotelian logic in hairsplitting subtlety. What a vast harvest do we gather now from the seeds which Bacon sowed! The impulse he gave began to bear fruit after the restoration, when the Royal Society was founded, and when Sir Isaac Newton began that series of discoveries which have made him the founder of modern Science.
The folly of James II which induced him to sap the very props of his power, brought about the Great Revolulion. He estranged the Tories by his open subserviency to France and by favouring the Irish, he drove bis staunchest friends, the clergy of the Established Church, to despair and to open rebellion by introducing the Jesuits into the universities and church livings. For a moment all parties united against the common enemy, and James had time to repent his madness during his exile at St. Germains. The new rulers William and Mary made the court again respectable but the foreign king lacked the art of ingratiating himself with his English subjects, and was therefore unable to exercise any influence on the prevailing tone of society. The undisguised selfishness and worldliness which had characterised the ruling class in