« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
in their pages that the pretenders to wit and eloquence now search for allu
sions that are sure to captivate, and illustrations that cannot be mistaken. * In this decay of their reputation they have few advocates, and no imitators: Le and from a comparison of many observations, it seems to be clearly ascer
tained, that they are declined considerably from “the high meridian of their
glory," and may fairly be apprehended to be “ hastening to their setting.” . Neither is it time alone that has wrought this obscuration : for the fame of
Shakspeare still shines in undecaying brightness; and that of Bacon has been steadily advancing, and gathering new honours, during the whole period which has witnessed the rise and decline of his less vigorous successors.
There are but two possible solutions for phenomena of this sort. laste has either degenerated—or its old models have been fairly surpassed ; and we have ceased to admire the writers of the last century, only because they are too good for us—or because they are not good enough. Now, We confess we are no believers in the absolute and permanent corruption of national taste ; on the contrary, we think that it is, of all faculties, that which is most sure to advance and improve with time and experience; and that
, with the exception of those great physical or political disasters which have given a check to civilisation itself, there has always been a sensible progress in this particular; and that the general taste of every successive generation is better than that of its predecessors. There are little capricious luctuations, no doubt, and fits of foolish admiration or fastidiousness which cannot be so easily accounted for; but the great movements are all progressive and though the progress consists at one time in withholding toleration from gross faults, and at another in giving their high prerogative to great beauties, this alternation has no tendency to obstruct the general advance; but, on the contrary, is the best and the safest course in which it can be conducted.
We are of opinion, then, that the writers who adorned the beginning of the last century have been eclipsed by those of our own time; and that they have no chance of ever regaining the supremacy in which they have thus been supplanted. There is not, however, in our judgment, anything very stupendous in this triumph of our contemporaries; and the greater wonder with us is, that it was so long delayed, and left for them to achieve. For the truth is, that the writers of the former age had not a great deal more than their judgment and industry to depend on, and were always much more remarkable for the fewness of their faults than the greatness of their beauties. Their laurels were won much more by good conduct and discipline, than by enterprising boldness or native force ;—nor can it be regarded as any very great merit in those who had so little of the inspiration of genius, to have steered clear of the dangers to which that inspiration is liable. Speaking generally of that generation of authors, it may be said, that, as poets, they had no force or greatness of fancy-no pathos, and no enthusiasm ;and, as philosophers, no comprehensiveness, depth, or originality. They are sagacious, no doubt, neat, clear, and reasonable; but for the most part cold, timid, and superficial. They never meddle with the great scenes of nature, or the great passions of man; but content themselves with just and sarcastic representations of city life, and of the paltry passions and meaner vices that are bred in that lower element. Their chief care is to avoid being ridiculous in the eyes of the witty, and above all to eschew the ridicule of excessive sensibility or enthusiasm to be witty
and rational themselves with a good grace, and to give their countenance to no wisdom, and no morality, which passes the standards that are current in good company.--Their in
spiralion,'accordingly, is little more than a sprightly sort of good sense; and they have scarcely any invention but what is subservient to the purposes of derision and satire. Little gleams of pleasantry, and sparkles of wit, glitter through their compositions; but no glow of feeling—no blaze of imagination
-no flashes of genius, ever irradiate their substance. They never pass beyond " the visible diurnal sphere,” or deal in anything that can either lift us above our vulgar nature, or ennoble ils reality. With these accomplishments, they may pass well enough for sensible and polite writers, -but scarcely for men of genius; and it is certainly far more surprising, that persons of this description should have maintained themselves, for near a century, at the head of the literature of a country that had previously produced a Shakspeare, a Bacon, and a Taylor, than that, towards the end of that long period, doubts should have arisen as to the legitimacy of the title by which they laid claim to that high station. Both parts of the phenomenon, however, we dare say, had causes which better expounders might explain to the satisfaction of all the world. We see them but imperfectly, and have room only for an imperfect sketch of what we see.
Our first literature consisted of saintly legends, and romances of chivalry, - though Chaucer gave it a more national and popular character by his original descriptions of external nature, and the familiarity and gaiety of his social humour. In the time of Elizabeth, it received a copious infusion of classical images and ideas; but it was still intrinsically romantic-serious -and even somewhal lofty and enthusiastic. Authors were then so few in number, that they were looked upon with a sort of veneration, and considered as a kind of inspired persons;-at least they were not yet so numerous, as to be obliged to abuse each other, in order to obtain a share of distinction for themselves ;—and they neither affected a tone of derision in their writings, nor wrote in fear of derision from others. They were filled with their subjects, and dealt with them fearlessly in their own way; and the stamp of originality, force, and freedom, is consequently upon almost all their productions. In the reign of James I., our literature, with some few exceptions, touching rather the form than the substance of its merils, appears to us to have reached the greatest perfection to which it has yet attained; though it would probably have advanced still farther in the succeeding reign, had not the great national dissensions which then arose, turned the talent and energy of the peopíe into other channels—first to the assertion of their civil rights, and afterwards to the discussion of their religious interests. The graces of literature suffered, of course, in those fierce contentions; and a deeper shade of austerity was thrown upon the intellectual chronicler of the nation. Her genius, however, though less captivating and adorned than in the happier days which preceded, was still active, fruitful, and commanding; and the period of the civil wars, besides the mighty minds that guided the public councils, and were absorbed in public cares, produced the giant powers of Taylor, and Hobbes, and Barrow-the muse of Milton-the learning of Coke--and the ingenuity of Cowley.
The Restoration introduced a French court-under circumstances more favourable for the effectual exercise of court influence than ever before existed in England : but this of itself would not have been sufficient to account for the sudden change in our literature which ensued. It was seconded by causes of a more general operation. The Restoration was undoubtedly a popular act;-and, indefensible as the conduct of the army
and the civil leaders was on that occasion, there can be no question that the severities of Cromwell, and the extravagance of the sectaries, had made republican profession hateful, and religious ardour ridiculous, in the eyes of the people at large. All the eminent writers of the preceding period, however, had inclined to the party that was now overthrown; and their writings had not merely been accommodated to the character of the governDent under which they were produced, but were deeply imbued with its obnoxious principles, as those of their respective authors. When the restraints of authority were taken off, therefore, and it became profitable, as well as popular, to discredit the fallen party, it was natural that the leading authors should affect a style of levity and derision, as most opposite to that of their opponents, and best calculated for the purposes they had in view. The nation, too, was now for the first time essentially divided in point of character and principle, and a much greater proportion were capable both of writing in support of their own notions, and of being influenced by what was written. And to all this, that there were real and serious defects in the style and manner of the former generation; and that the grace, and brevity, and vivacity of that gayer manner which was now introduced from France, were not only good and caplivating in themselves, but had then all the charms of novelty and of contrast; and it will not be difficult to understand how it came to supplant that which had been established of old in the country,—and that so suddenly, that the same generation, among whom Milton had been formed to the severe sanclity of wisdom, and the noble independence of genius, lavished its loudest applauses on the obsenity and servility of such writers as Rochester and Wycherly.
This change, however, like all sudden changes, was too fierce and violent to be long maintained at the same pitch ; and when the wils and profligates of King Charles had sufficiently insulted the seriousness and virtue of their predecessors, there would probably have been a revulsion towards the accuslomed fasle of the nalion, had not the party of the innovators been reinforced by champions of more temperance and judgment. The result seemed at one time suspended on the will of Dryden-in whose individual person the genius of the English and of the French school of literature may be said to have maintained a protracted struggle. But the evil principle prevailed. Carried by the original bent of his genius, and his familiarity with our older models to the cultivation of our native style, to which he might have imparted more steadiness and correctness—for in force and in sweetness it was already matchless-he was unluckily seduced by the altractions of fashion, and the dazzling of the dear wit and gay rhetoric in which it delighted, to lend his powerful aid to the new corruptions and refinements, and to prostitute his great gifts to the purposes of party. rage
The sobriety of the succeeding reigns allayed this fever of profanity; but no genius arose sufficiently powerful to break the spell that still withheld us from the use of our own peculiar gists and faculties. On the contrary, il was the unfortunate ambition of the next generation of authors to improve and perfect the new style, rather than to return to the old one; -and it cannot be denied that they did improve it. They corrected ils gross indecency-increased its precision and correctness-made its pleasantry and sarcasm more polished and elegant—and spread through the whole of its irony, its narration, and its reflection, a tone of clear and condensed good sense, which recommended itself to all who had, and all who
or licentious riba!dry.
had not, any relish for higher beauties. This is the praise of Queen Anne's si wits,--and to this praise they are justly entitled. This was left for them to fra do,-and they did it well. They were invited to it by the circumstances of their situation, and do not seem to have been possessed of any it such bold or vigorous spirit as either to neglect or to outgo the invitation. sit: Coming into life immediately after the consummation of a bloodless revolution, effected much more by the cool sense than the angry passions of 2 de the nation, they seem to have felt that they were born in an age of reason, 73 rather than of fancy; and that men's minds, though considerably divided and unsettled upon many points, were in a much better lemper lo relish 25 judicious argument and cutting satire, than the glow of enthusiastic passion, or the richness of a luxuriant imagination. To these accordingly they made no pretensions; but, writing with infinite good sense, and great grace and vivacity, and, above all, writing for the first time in a tone that was ud, peculiar to the upper ranks of society, and upon subjects that were almost all exclusively interesting to them, they naturally figured, at least while the manner was new, as the most accomplished, fashionable, and perfect writers and go which the world had ever seen; and made the wild, luxuriant, and humble sweetness of our earlier authors appear rude and untutored in the compari- mail son. Men grew ashamed of admiring, and afraid of imitating, writers of Empt so little skill and smartness; and the opinion became general, not only that their faults were intolerable, but that even their beauties were puerile and barbarous, and unworthy the serious regard of a polite and distinguishing age.
These, and similar considerations, will go far to account for the celebrity which those authors acquired in their day; but it is not quile so easy to explain how they should have so long retained their ascendant. One cause undoubtedly was, the real excellence of their productions, in the style which they had adopted. It was hopeless to think of surpassing them in that style; and, recommended as it was, by the felicity of their execution, it required some courage to depart from it and to recur to another, which seemed to have been so lately abandoned for its sake.
which succeeded, too, was not the age of courage or adventure. There never was, on the whole, a quieter time than the reigns of the two first Georges, and the greater part of that which ensued. There were two little provincial rebellions indeed, and a fair proportion of foreign war; but there was nothing to stir the minds of the people at large, lo rouse their passions, or excite their imaginations-nothing like the agitations of the Reformation in the 16th century, or of the civil wars in the 17th.
They went on, accordingly, minding their old business, and reading their old books, with great patience and stupidity: and certainly there never was so remarkable a dearth of original talent--so long an interruption of native geniusas during about sixty years in the middle of the last century. The dramatic art was dead fifty years before, -and poetry seemed verging to a similar extinction. The few sparks that appeared, however, showed that the old fire was burnt out, and that the altar must hereafter be heaped with fuel of another quality. Gray, with the talents, rather of a critic than a poet, with learning, fastidiousness, and scrupulous delicacy of taste, instead of fire, tenderness, or invention-began and ended a small school, which we could scarcely have wished to become permanent-admirable in many respects as some of its productions are-being far too elaborate and artificial, either for grace or for fluency, and fitter to excite the admiration of scholars.
a the bi
than the delight of ordinary men. However, they had the merit of not being in any degree French, and of restoring to our poetry the dignity of seriousness, and the tone at least of force and energy. The Whartons, both as critics and as poets, were of considerable service in discrediting the high pretensions of the former race, and in bringing back to public notice the great stores and treasures of poetry which lay bid in the records of our ancient literature. Akenside attempted a sort of classical and philosopbical rapture, which no elegance of language could easily have rendered popular, but which had merits of no vulgar order for those who could study it. Goldsmith wrote with perfect elegance and beauty, in a style of mellow tenderness and elaborate simplicity. He had the harmony of Pope without his quainlness, and his selectness of diction without his coldness and eternal vivacity. And, last of all, came Cowper, with a style of complete originality, and, for the first time, made it apparent to readers of all descriptions, that Pope and Addison were no longer to be the models of
La philosophy and prose writing in general, the case was nearly parallel. The name of Hume is by far the most considerable which occurs in the period to which we alluded. But though his thinking was English, his style is entirely French ; and being naturally of a cold fancy, there is nothing of that eloquence or richness about him, which characterises the writings of Taylor, and Hooker, and Bacon-and continues, with less weight of matter, to please in those of Cowley and Clarendon. Warburton had great powers, and wrote with more force and freedom than the wits to whom he succeeded; but his faculties were perverted by a paltry love of paradox, and rendered useless to mankind by an unlucky choice of subjecls, and the arrogance and dogmatism of his temper. Adam Smith was nearly the first who made deeper reasonings, and more exact knowledge popular among us; and Junius and Johnson the first who again familiarised us with more glowing and sonorous diction, and made us feel the tameness and poorness of the serious style of Addison and Swift.
This brings us down almost to the present times—in which the revolution in our literature has been accelerated and confirmed by the concurrence of many causes. The agitations of the French revolution, and the discussions as well as the hopes and terrors to which it gave occasion—the genius of Edmund Burke, and some others of his country-lhe impression of the new literature of Germany, evidently the original of our lake-school of poetry, and of many innovations in our drama-lhe rise or revival of a general spirit of methodism in the lower orders_and the vast extent of our political and commercial relations, which have not only familiarised all ranks of people with distant countries and great undertakings, but have brought knowledge and enterprise home, not merely to the imagination, but to the actual experience of almost every individual. All these and several other circumstances have so far improved or excited the character of our nation, as to have created an effectual demand for more profound speculation, and more serious emotion, than was dealt in by the writers of the former century, and which, if it has not yet produced a corresponding
supply in all branches, has at least had the effect of decrying the commohick dities that were previously in vogue, as unsuited to the aliered condition of
Of those ingenious writers, whose characteristic certainly was not vigour, any more than tenderness or fancy, Swift was indisputably the most vigorous