Page images
PDF
EPUB

"Towards the latter end of this month, September, Charles will begin to recover his perfect health, according to his nativity, which, casting it myself, I am sure is true, and all things hitherto have happened accordingly to the very time that I predicted them.'

His fundamental weakness was ethical. He had no unattainable standard of perfection to uplift him. He lacked the central fire of fixed principles and high resolves. Without the firmness and coherence of the moral nature, intellectual powers are as weathercocks. It should be remembered, however, that no man can wholly escape the current of his time.

Influence.- Whoever imprints, apparently, a new character on an age, is himself a creature of that age. Formed first by circumstances, he reacts upon them, paying with interest what society has given. So was it with Bacon, who, if born earlier, might have been a Dominican quibbler; and with Luther, who, had he anticipated, would have been lost. The first, standing on an eminence, caught and reflected the light before it was visible to the many far beneath. There would have been a Reformation, though probably later, without the assistance of the second. * The sun illuminates the hills while it is still below the horizon; and truth is discovered by the highest minds a little before it becomes manifest to the multitude.'

Under these limitations, Dryden may be set down as the founder of a new school of poetry a school derived chiefly from the ancient Roman, critical rather than creative, classic rather than romantic. The style peculiar to it had already been cultivated. French taste encouraged it. He, as the first autocrat in English letters, improved it, gave it authority. Pope and Johnson, in the direct line of descent, were to carry it to perfection.

He taught us to think naturally and to express forcibly. He refined our metre, and enriched our language. With a true insight into the conditions under which the maker may extend the domain of speech, he says:

I will not excuse, but justify myself for one pretended crime for which I am liable to be charged by false critics, not only in this translation, but in many of my original poems,- that I Latinize too much. It is true that when I find an English word significant and sounding, I neither borrow from the Latin or any other language; but when I want at home I must seek abroad. If sounding words are not of our growth and manu. facture, who shall hinder me to import them from a foreign country? I carry not out the treasure of the nation which is never to return; but what I bring from Italy I spend in England: here it remains, and here it circulates; for if the coin be good, it will pass from one hand to another. I trade both with the living and the dead. . . . We have enough in England to supply our necessity; but if we will have things of magnificence and splendor, we must get them by commerce. ... Therefore, if I find a word in a classic author, I propose it to be naturalized by using it myself, and if the public approve of it the bill passes. But every man cannot distinguish betwixt pedantry and poetry; every man,

therefore is not fit to innovate.' More than any other, he helped to free English prose from the cloister of pedantry, and to give it the conversational suppleness of the modern world.

Finally, he has left no single work which is universally readand approved. That he has not, while he might have done so, points a most instructive lesson to men of intellect. Without devotion to something nobler and more abiding than the present, no great or sound literature is possible. Without an unapproachable mirage of excellence, forever receding and forever pursued, no man reaches his full or conceivable stature. A selfreliant independence is the Adam and Eve in the Paradise of duties.

CRITICAL PERIOD: FIRST PHASE.

CHAPTER II.

FEATURES.

The literary importance of the eighteenth century lies mainly in its having wrought out a revolution begun in the seventeenth.Matthew Arnold.

Politics.-Tory and Whig had laid aside the sword, and though party spirit ran high, were conducting the competition for power by a parley of words and measures; the first the conservative, the second the progressive element; one the steadying, the other the propelling force,— both principles essential to the advance of nations.

France had been humbled, Spain had been all but torn from the house of Bourbon in the War of the Spanish Succession, England and Scotland had been united; and, leaving their country at the height of its material prosperity, the Whigs retired in 1710, to resume their ascendancy in 1715, and to continue it without intermission till the accession of George III.

Society.–Authors basked in the sunshine of royal patronage. Literary merit found easy admittance into the most distinguished society and to the highest honors of the state. Servility, however, was less marked than formerly, and the period may be regarded as a transition from the early system of patronage, when books had but few readers, to the later one of professional independence, when the public became the patron.

The Revolution of 1688 had indeed secured to the nation liberty of conscience and the right of property, but public interests were endangered by the low standard of political honor. In politics, weapons were freely employed which we should now regard as in the highest degree dishonorable. The secrecy of the mails was habitually violated. Walpole, writing in 1725, confesses, without scruple, to opening the letters of a political rival.

70

The rich purchased their seats in Parliament, and Parliament sold its votes to the ministry.

General intelligence was scarcely more than a prophecy. The first daily paper appeared in the reign of Anne. In 1710, the papers, instead of merely communicating news as heretofore, began cautiously to take part in the discussion of political topics.

In the Restoration, the more excellent parts of human nature had disappeared, leaving but the animal; and there still existed a wretched state of public tastes and morals. Steele, who aimed at reform, said that his play of The Lying Lover was damned for its piety.' The style of speaking and writing on common topics was vitiated by slang and profanity. Literary and scientific attainments were despised as pedantic and vulgar by the fashionable of both sexes. Scandal was almost the sole topic of conversation

among the ladies. Three learned words would drive them out of doors for a mouthful of fresh air. Judge of their occupations : ‘Young man,' said the wife of Marlborough to Lord Melcombe, 'you come from Italy. They tell me of a new invention there called caricature drawing. Can you find me somebody that will make me a caricature of Lady Masham, describing her covered with running sores and ulcers, that I may send it to the Queen to give her a right idea of her new favorite ?

Bull-baiting was a popular amusement. In Queen Anne's time, it was performed in London regularly twice a week. Cockfighting was the favorite game of the schoolboys, the teachers taking the runaway cocks as their perquisites. Gambling was the bane of the nobility, and among the ladies the passion was quite as strong as among men.

Fashionable hours were becoming steadily later. “The landmarks of our fathers,' wrote Steele in 1710, “are removed, and planted farther up in the day. . . . In my own memory, the dinner hour has crept by degrees from twelve o'clock to three. Where it will fix nobody knows.' Coffee-houses were conspicuous centres of news, politics, and fashion. Their number in 1708, fifty years after the first had been established in the metropolis, was estimated at three thousand. Drunkenness and extravagance went hand in hand among the gentry. Officers of state sat up whole nights drinking, then hastened in the morning, without sleep, to their official business. Addison, the foremost

[ocr errors]

moralist of his day, was not entirely free from this vice. 'Come, Robert,' said Walpole, the minister, to his son, 'you shall drink twice while I drink once; for I will not permit the son in his sober senses to be witness of the intoxication of his father.' In 1724, the passion had spread among all classes with the violence of an epidemic. Retailers of gin hung out painted boards, announcing that their customers could be made drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence, and that cellars strewn with straw would be furnished, without cost, into which they might be dragged when they had become insensible.

Punishments were brutal. In 1726, a murderess was burned alive. Prisoners were still slowly pressed to death by weights of stone or iron, or cut down, when half hung, and disembowelled.

Riots were frequent, and robberies were numerous and bold. Addison's ‘Sir Roger,' when he goes to the theatre, arms his servants with cudgels. In 1712, a club of young men of the higher classes were accustomed nightly to sally out drunk into the streets, to hunt the passers-by. One of their favorite amusements, called “tipping the lion,' was to squeeze the nose of their victim flat upon his face, and to bore out his eyes with their fingers. Among them were “the sweaters,' who encircled their prisoner, and pricked him with swords till he sank exhausted; and dancing masters,' who made men caper by thrusting swords into their legs.

Religion.—The belief in witchcraft was still smouldering, but no longer received the sanction of the law. In 1712, the death of a suspected witch, who had been thrown into the water to see whether she would sink or swim, and who perished during the trial, was pronounced murder.

While the town rectors and the great church dignitaries were second to none in Europe in genius and learning, and occupied conspicuous social positions, the rural clergy were cringing, obsequious, and impoverished. While a high conception of duty was not unknown among them, as a whole they were unlettered and coarse, languid in zeal, but using their limited influence chiefly for good.

It was a season of conflict between the High Church party and the Dissenters, who sought to reconstruct and rationalize the theology of the Church. There was also a large amount of formal

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »