« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »
THE AGE OF DRYDEN.
The accessio of Charles II. as king de facto, which in the political history of England marks a Restoration, in her literary history marks a Revolution. Not that the transition from one mode of writing and thinking to another was instantaneous, or enjoined by legislative or academical decree. It had long been slowly progressing, and its unequivocal triumph would probably have come to pass sooner but for the obstruction to the intellectual life of the nation occasioned by twenty years of civil commotion. The magnitude of this impediment appears from the fact that all the writings of even so great a scholar and poet as Milton, produced during this interval, were of a polemical nature. When at last society found sufficient stability to allow its members to write for fame, emolument, or the extension of knowledge, it quickly became manifest how wide a gulf yawned between the men of that day and the men of twenty years ago.
The new influence, indeed, bad long been at work. A comparison, for example of the last of the old dramatists, Massinger anı. Shirley, with their predecessors, evinces how much even in their day the stage was losing in poetry, in imagination, and in the charm of musical metre; how rapidly its personages were degenerating from vital indi.
vidualities into conventional types; how much, on the other hand, always excepting Shakespeare's pieces from the comparison, it was gaining in logic and construction. examination of other forms of literature would reveal a similar clarifying process, a steady discouragement of the quaint affectation which was the bane of Elizabethan literature; combined, unfortunately, with increasing sterility of fancy, and growing insensibility to the noble harmonies of which English prose is capable. An Elizabethan poet, indeed, Samuel Daniel, had in some of his works almost anticipated the style of the eighteenth century; in general, however, writers during the period of the Civil War seem to our apprehension more or less encrusted with the mellow patina of antiquity, conspicuously absent from nearly everyone who wrote under Charles II. Hence the accession of this monarch, in whose person the new taste might be said to be enthroned, is justly regarded as the commencement of the new era. Charles's personal influence on letters was not insignificant. The king,' says a contemporary, Burnet, had little or no literature, but true and good sense, and had got a right notion of style, for he was in France at a time when they were much set on reforming their language. It soon appeared that he had a true taste. So this helped to raise the value of these men [Tillotson and others], when the king approved the style their discourses generally ran in, which was clear, plain, and short.' Burnet, therefore, had no doubt that correct principles of taste had been established in England in Charles II.'s time, and partly by the king's instrumentality-a dictum equivalent to the condemnation of all preceding English literature as barbarous. Such was also the opinion of one of the masters of English style in the succeeding century, David Hume.
Charles II. was not a man who could under any circum
stances have sympathized greatly with the poetry of Spenser, or the prose of Raleigh or Hooker. The native bent of his mind was, moreover, strengthened by contingencies, among which Burnet justly gives a foremost place to his residence in France. It must be added that this influence coincided with a movement which, if for the time disadvantageous to English literature, was, nevertheless, essential if it was to cease to be merely insular. Until the time of Charles I. this literature, in so far as it owed anything to external patterns of modern date, had been chiefly dependent upon Italy. This might have long continued but for the decay of Italian letters consequent upon the triumph of foreign oppression and spiritual despotism throughout the peninsula. France stepped into the vacant place, and developed a literature qualified to impress other nations no less by its defects than by its virtues, by its want of elevation as well as by its sprightliness and lucidity. Ere long French ideas of style had pervaded Europe, and approximation to French modes was the inevitable qualification for the great mission of human enlightenment which was to devolve upon Britain in the succeeding century. Up to this time the literature of England had resembled that of Spain, original and racy of the soil, grander and more noble than the less dignified literature whose statutes it was to keep and whose laws it was to observe for a season, but on this very account comparatively out of touch with the common needs of men. Had British writers continued to indite the prose of Hooker and Milton, their ideas would have found no entrance into the Continent; and grievous as was the declension from the poetry and music of these great writers to the sermo pedestris of their successors, this was more than counterbalanced by the acquisition of lucidity, logic, and cogency. The loss was but temporary, the gain
was everlasting; for the nineteenth century has found it possible to restore much of the solemn pomp and musical and pictorial charm of Elizabethan English, without parting with the clearness and coherence which are indispensable for a literature that would deeply affect the world. In becoming for a moment French, English literature first became European-happy that the new influence did not, as elsewhere, penetrate too far, and that when all of good that the foreigner could proffer had been assimilated, speech and style regained their nationality. They did not, however , thus revert to their old channel
. «The Restoration,' says Matthew Arnold with justice, ‘marks the real moment of birth of our modern English prose.' This prose, indeed, has since been vastly enriched by recurrence to antique models, but gains from this source have always been felt to partake of the nature of importation. The vital point of Restoration practice is accepted by all who do not deliberately aim at the composition of poems in prose. 'It is,' says Arnold, ‘by its organism-an organism opposed to length and involvement, and enabling us to be clear, plain, and short-that English style after the Restoration breaks with the style of the times preceding it, finds the true law of prose, and becomes modern; becomes, in spite of superficial differences, the style of our own day.'
This age of metamorphosis, therefore, is one of the most important in the history of English literature, and if the men of the Restoration could have beheld themselves in their relation, not only to their predecessors, but also to their successors, their complacency would not have been unjustifiable. Their inability to apprehend their true relation to either was a failing by no means peculiar to them, but it has exposed them to a double measure of the ridicule of posterity, who roar with laughter over Pepys's dictum that A Midsummer Night's Dream seems but a mean thing'
after Sir Samuel Tuke's Adventures of Five Hours, and are hardly more merciful to Dryden's conversion of Paradise Lost into an opera. It must be owned that the conception of poetry as something awful, spiritual, and divine, became for a time extinct Shelley's Defence of Poetry, could such a work have existed, would have seemed even more absurd to that age than Mr. Pepys's critical deliverances do to ours. The excuse is that the particular work assigned to the period was incompatible with a very high standard of poetry. This work, as we have seen, was the regeneration of English prose by the elimination of those elements which unfitted it for clear precise reason. ing and practical business, and the making English a tongue in which Bunyan and Cobbett might be classics equally with Bacon and Sir Thomas Browne. Such an achievement implies a prosaic age. If the latter part of the seventeenth century could have produced Miltons, these would have continued to write as Milton did: it was therefore fortunate for the language in the long run that supreme genius should have for the time died out, and have been replaced by a vigorous, terrestrial, unideal genius that, having no oracle. required no tripod... For a time, no doubt, the contrast must have seemed very dismal to any who yet retained a perception of the richness and glory of the Elizabethan epoch. But we, if we compare, not to say the letters of Cromwell, but those of Charles I., with the despatches of Wellington, cannot but be sensible of an enormous advance, not merely in the effectiveness of speech, but in its dignity and simplicity, and of a great enrichment of the language by the newly acquired power to deal with common things, For this the men of the Restoration are to be thanked : and it must be added that their work could not have been done if they had not thoroughly believed in it; and that this belief necessitated, except in such superior