fantastic conceit that might decorate a rime. Thus, Suckling habitually made love a joke:
Why so pale and wan, fond lover,
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well wont move her, Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?
Crashaw turned from his religious poems to sing of love in a way to appeal to the Transcendentalists, of a later age:
Whoe’er she be,
That not impossible she
That shall command my heart and me.
And Donne must search out some odd notion from natural (or unnatural) history, making love a spider that turns the wine of life into poison; or from mechanics, comparing lovers to a pair of dividers:
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show To move, but doth if the other do.
[Illustration: GEORGE HERBERT
From a rare print by White, prefixed to his poems]
Several of these poets, commonly grouped in a class which includes Donne, Herbert, Cowley, Crashaw, and others famous in their day, received the name of metaphysical poets, not because of their profound thought, but because of their eccentric style and queer figures of speech. Of all this group George Herbert (1593-1633) is the sanest and the sweetest. His chief work, _The Temple_, is a collection of poems celebrating the beauty of holiness, the sacraments, the Church, the experiences of the Christian life. Some of these poems are ingenious conceits, and deserve the derisive name of “metaphysical” which Dr. Johnson flung at them; but others, such as “Virtue,” “The Pulley,” “Love” and “The Collar,” are the expression of a beautiful and saintly soul, speaking of the deep things of God; and speaking so quietly withal that one is apt to miss the intensity that lurks even in his calmest verses. Note in these opening and closing stanzas of “Virtue” the restraint of the one, the hidden glow of the other:
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright, The bridal of the earth and sky!
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night; For thou must die.
Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives; But, though the whole world turn to coal, Then chiefly lives.
[Sidenote: CAVALIER POETS]
In contrast with the disciplined Puritan spirit of Herbert is the gayety of another group, called the Cavalier poets, among whom are Carew, Suckling and Lovelace. They reflect clearly the spirit of the Royalists who followed King Charles with a devotion worthy of a better master. Robert Herrick (1591-1674) is the best known of this group, and his only book, _Hesperides and Noble Numbers_ (1648), reflects the two elements found in most of the minor poetry of the age; namely, Cavalier gayety and Puritan seriousness. In the first part of the book are some graceful verses celebrating the light loves of the Cavaliers and the fleeting joys of country life:
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers, Of April, May, of June and July flowers; I sing of Maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes, Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal cakes.
In _Noble Numbers_ such poems as “Thanksgiving,” “A True Lent,” “Litany,” and the child’s “Ode on the Birth of Our Saviour” reflect the better side of the Cavalier, who can be serious without pulling a long face, who goes to his devotions cheerfully, and who retains even in his religion what Andrew Lang calls a spirit of unregenerate happiness.
[Sidenote: BUTLER’S HUDIBRAS]
Samuel Butler (1612-1680) may also be classed with the Cavalier poets, though in truth he stands alone in this age, a master of doggerel rime and of ferocious satire. His chief work, _Hudibras_, a grotesque caricature of Puritanism, appeared in 1663, when the restored king and his favorites were shamelessly plundering the government. The poem (probably suggested by _Don Quixote_) relates a rambling story of the adventures of Sir Hudibras, a sniveling Puritan knight, and his squire Ralpho. Its doggerel style may be inferred from the following:
Besides, ’tis known he could speak Greek As naturally as pigs squeak;
That Latin was no more difficle
Than to a blackbird ’tis to whistle: Being rich in both, he never scanted
His bounty unto such as wanted.
Such was the stuff that the Royalists quoted to each other as wit; and the wit was so dear to king and courtiers that they carried copies of _Hudibras_ around in their pockets. The poem was enormously popular in its day, and some of its best lines are still quoted; but the selections we now meet give but a faint idea of the general scurrility of a work which amused England in the days when the Puritan’s fanaticism was keenly remembered, his struggle for liberty quite forgotten.
PROSE WRITERS. Of the hundreds of prose works that appeared in Puritan times very few are now known even by name. Their controversial fires are sunk to ashes; even the causes that produced or fanned them are forgotten. Meanwhile we cherish a few books that speak not of strife but of peace and charity.
[Illustration: SIR THOMAS BROWNE]
Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a physician, vastly learned in a day when he and other doctors gravely prescribed herbs or bloodsuckers for witchcraft; but he was less interested in his profession than in what was then called modern science. His most famous work is _Religio Medici_ (Religion of a Physician, 1642), a beautiful book, cherished by those who know it as one of the greatest prose works in the language. His _Urn Burial_ is even more remarkable for its subtle thought and condensed expression; but its charm, like that of the Silent Places, is for the few who can discover and appreciate it.
[Illustration: ISAAC WALTON]
Isaac Walton (1593-1683), or Isaak, as he always wrote it, was a modest linen merchant who, in the midst of troublous times, kept his serenity of spirit by attending strictly to his own affairs, by reading good books, and by going fishing. His taste for literature is reflected with rare simplicity in his _Lives of Donne, Wotton, Hooker, George Herbert and Bishop Sanderson_, a series of biographies which are among the earliest and sweetest in our language. Their charm lies partly in their refined style, but more largely in their revelation of character; for Walton chose men of gentle spirit for his subjects, men who were like himself in cherishing the still depths of life rather than its noisy shallows, and wrote of them with the understanding of perfect sympathy. Wordsworth expressed his appreciation of the work in a noble sonnet beginning:
There are no colours in the fairest sky So fair as these. The feather whence the pen Was shaped that traced the lives of these good men Dropped from an angel’s wing.
Walton’s love of fishing, and of all the lore of trout brooks and spring meadows that fishing implies, found expression in _The Compleat Angler, or Contemplative Man’s Recreation_ (1653). This is a series of conversations in which an angler convinces his friends that fishing is not merely the sport of catching fish, but an art that men are born to, like the art of poetry. Even such a hard-hearted matter as impaling a minnow for bait becomes poetical, for this is the fashion of it: “Put your hook in at his mouth, and out at his gills, and do it as if you loved him.” It is enough to say of this old work, the classic of its kind, that it deserves all the honor which the tribe of anglers have given it, and that you could hardly find a better book to fall asleep over after a day’s fishing.
[Sidenote: EVELYN AND PEPYS]
No such gentle, human, lovable books were produced in Restoration times. The most famous prose works of the period are the diaries of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. The former was a gentleman, and his _Diary_ is an interesting chronicle of matters large and small from 1641 to 1697. Pepys, though he became Secretary of the Admiralty and President of the Royal Society, was a gossip, a chatterbox, with an eye that loved to peek into closets and a tongue that ran to slander. His _Diary_, covering the period from 1660 to 1669, is a keen but malicious exposition of private and public life during the Restoration.
* * * * *
SUMMARY. The literary period just studied covers the last three quarters of the seventeenth century. Its limits are very indefinite, merging into Elizabethan romance on the one side, and into eighteenth century formalism on the other. Historically, the period was one of bitter conflict between two main political and religious parties, the Royalists, or Cavaliers, and the Puritans. The literature of the age is extremely diverse in character, and is sadly lacking in the unity, the joyousness, the splendid enthusiasm of Elizabethan prose and poetry.
The greatest writer of the period was John Milton. He is famous in literature for his early or Horton poems, which are Elizabethan in spirit; for his controversial prose works, which reflect the strife of the age; for his epic of _Paradise Lost_, and for his tragedy of _Samson_.
Another notable Puritan, or rather Independent, writer was John Bunyan, whose works reflect the religious ferment of the seventeenth century. His chief works are _Grace Abounding_, a kind of spiritual biography, and _The Pilgrim’s Progress_, an allegory of the Christian life which has been more widely read than any other English book.
The chief writer of the Restoration period was John Dryden, a professional author, who often catered to the coarser tastes of the age. There is no single work by which he is gratefully remembered. He is noted for his political satires, for his vigorous use of the heroic couplet, for his modern prose style, and for his literary criticisms.
Among the numerous minor poets of the period, Robert Herrick and George Herbert are especially noteworthy. A few miscellaneous prose works are the _Religio Medici_ of Thomas Browne, _The Compleat Angler_ of Isaac Walton, and the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn.
SELECTIONS FOR READING. Minor poems of Milton, and parts of Paradise Lost, in Standard English Classics, Riverside Literature, and other school series (see Texts, in General Bibliography). Selections from Cavalier and Puritan poets in Maynard’s English Classics, Golden Treasury Series, Manly’s English Poetry, Century Readings, Ward’s English Poets. Prose selections in Manly’s English Prose, Craik’s English Prose Selections, Garnett’s English Prose from Elizabeth to Victoria. Pilgrim’s Progress and Grace Abounding in Standard English Classics, Pocket Classics, Student’s Classics. Religio Medici and Complete Angler in Temple Classics and Everyman’s Library. Selections from Dryden in Manly’s English Prose and Manly’s English Poetry. Dryden’s version of Palamon and Arcite (the Knight’s Tale of Chaucer) in Standard English Classics, Riverside Literature, Lake Classics.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. For texts and manuals dealing with the whole field of English history and literature see the General Bibliography. The following works deal chiefly with the Puritan and Restoration periods.
_HISTORY_. Wakeling, King and Parliament (Oxford Manuals of English History); Gardiner, The First Two Stuarts and the Puritan Revolution (Great Epochs Series); Tulloch, English Puritanism; Harrison, Oliver Cromwell; Hale, The Fall of the Stuarts; Airy, The English Restoration and Louis XIV.
_LITERATURE_. Masterman, The Age of Milton; Dowden, Puritan and Anglican; Wendell, Temper of the Seventeenth Century in Literature; Gosse, Seventeenth-Century Studies; Schilling, Seventeenth-Century Lyrics (Athenaum Press Series); Isaac Walton, Lives of Donne, Wotton, Hooker, Herbert and Sanderson.
_Milton_. Life, by Garnett (Great Writers Series); by Pattison (English Men of Letters). Corson, Introduction to Milton; Raleigh, Milton; Stopford Brooke, Milton. Essays, by Macaulay; by Lowell, in Among My Books; by M. Arnold, in Essays in Criticism.
_Bunyan_. Life, by Venables (Great Writers); by Froude (E. M. of L.). Brown, John Bunyan; Woodberry’s essay, in Makers of Literature.
_Dryden_. Life by Saintsbury (E. M. of L.). Gosse, From Shakespeare to Pope.
_Thomas Browne_. Life, by Gosse (E. M. of L.). Essays, by L. Stephen, in Hours in a Library; by Pater, in Appreciations.
_FICTION AND POETRY_. Shorthouse, John Inglesant; Scott, Old Mortality, Peveril of the Peak, Woodstock; Blackmore, Lorna Doone. Milton, Sonnet on Cromwell; Scott, Rokeby; Bates and Coman, English History Told by English Poets.
In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold: Alike fantastic if too new or old.
Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
Pope, “An Essay on Criticism”
HISTORY OF THE PERIOD. The most striking political feature of the times was the rise of constitutional and party government. The Revolution of 1688, which banished the Stuarts, had settled the king question by making Parliament supreme in England, but not all Englishmen were content with the settlement. No sooner were the people in control of the government than they divided into hostile parties: the liberal Whigs, who were determined to safeguard popular liberty, and the conservative Tories, with tender memories of kingcraft, who would leave as much authority as possible in the royal hands. On the extreme of Toryism was a third party of zealots, called the Jacobites, who aimed to bring the Stuarts back to the throne, and who for fifty years filled Britain with plots and rebellion. The literature of the age was at times dominated by the interests of these contending factions.
The two main parties were so well balanced that power shifted easily from one to the other. To overturn a Tory or a Whig cabinet only a few votes were necessary, and to influence such votes London was flooded with pamphlets. Even before the great newspapers appeared, the press had become a mighty power in England, and any writer with a talent for argument or satire was almost certain to be hired by party leaders. Addison, Steele, Defoe, Swift,–most of the great writers of the age were, on occasion, the willing servants of the Whigs or Tories. So the new politician replaced the old nobleman as a patron of letters.
[Sidenote: SOCIAL LIFE]
Another feature of the age was the rapid development of social life. In earlier ages the typical Englishman had lived much by himself; his home was his castle, and in it he developed his intense individualism; but in the first half of the eighteenth century some three thousand public coffeehouses and a large number of private clubs appeared in London alone; and the sociability of which these clubs were an expression was typical of all English cities. Meanwhile country life was in sore need of refinement.
The influence of this social life on literature was inevitable. Nearly all writers frequented the coffeehouses, and matters discussed there became subjects of literature; hence the enormous amount of eighteenth-century writing devoted to transient affairs, to politics, fashions, gossip. Moreover, as the club leaders set the fashion in manners or dress, in the correct way of taking snuff or of wearing wigs and ruffles, so the literary leaders emphasized formality or correctness of style, and to write prose like Addison, or verse like Pope, became the ambition of aspiring young authors.
There are certain books of the period (seldom studied amongst its masterpieces) which are the best possible expression of its thought and manners. The Letters of Lord Chesterfield, for example, especially those written to his son, are more significant, and more readable, than anything produced by Johnson. Even better are the Memoirs of Horace Walpole, and his gossipy Letters, of which Thackeray wrote:
“Fiddles sing all through them; wax lights, fine dresses, fine jokes, fine plate, fine equipages glitter and sparkle; never was such a brilliant, smirking Vanity Fair as that through which he leads us.”
[Sidenote: SPREAD OF EMPIRE]
Two other significant features of the age were the large part played by England in Continental wars, and the rapid expansion of the British empire. These Continental wars, which have ever since influenced British policy, seem to have originated (aside from the important matter of self-interest) in a double motive: to prevent any one nation from gaining overwhelming superiority by force of arms, and to save the smaller “buffer” states from being absorbed by their powerful neighbors. Thus the War of the Spanish Succession (1711) prevented the union of the French and Spanish monarchies, and preserved the smaller states of Holland and Germany. As Addison then wrote, at least half truthfully:
‘T is Britain’s care to watch o’er Europe’s fate, And hold in balance each contending state: To threaten bold, presumptuous kings with war, And answer her afflicted neighbors’ prayer. 
[Footnote : From Addison’s Address to Liberty, in his poetical “Letter to Lord Halifax.”]
The expansion of the empire, on the whole the most marvelous feature of English history, received a tremendous impetus in this age when India, Australia and the greater part of North America were added to the British dominions, and when Captain Cook opened the way for a belt of colonies around the whole world.
The influence of the last-named movement hardly appears in the books which we ordinarily read as typical of the age. There are other books, however, which one may well read for his own unhampered enjoyment: such expansive books as Hawkesworth’s _Voyages_ (1773), corresponding to Hakluyt’s famous record of Elizabethan exploration, and especially the _Voyages of Captain Cook_, [Footnote: The first of Cook’s fateful voyages appears in Hawkesworth’s collection. The second was recorded by Cook himself (1777), and the third by Cook and Captain King (1784). See Synge, _Captain Cook’s Voyages Around the World_ (London, 1897).] which take us from the drawing-room chatter of politics or fashion or criticism into a world of adventure and great achievement. In such works, which make no profession of literary style, we feel the lure of the sea and of lands beyond the horizon, which is as the mighty background of English literature from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day.
It is difficult to summarize the literature of this age, or to group such antagonistic writers as Swift and Addison, Pope and Burns, Defoe and Johnson, Goldsmith and Fielding, with any fine discrimination. It is simply for convenience, therefore, that we study eighteenth-century writings in three main divisions: the reign of so-called classicism, the revival of romantic poetry, and the beginnings of the modern novel. As a whole, it is an age of prose rather than of poetry, and in this respect it differs from all preceding ages of English literature.
* * * * *
The above title is an unfortunate one, but since it is widely used we must try to understand it as best we can. Yet when one begins to define “classicism” one is reminded of that old bore Polonius, who tells how Hamlet is affected:
Your noble son is mad:
Mad, call I it; for to define true madness, What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?
In our literature the word “classic” was probably first used in connection with the writers of Greece and Rome, and any English work which showed the influence of such writers was said to have a classic style. If we seek to the root of the word, we shall find that it refers to the _classici_, that is, to the highest of the classes into which the census divided the Roman people; hence the proper use of “classic” to designate the writings that have won first rank in any nation. As Goethe said, “Everything that is good in literature is classical.”
[Sidenote: CLASSIC AND PSEUDO-CLASSIC]
Gradually, however, the word “classic” came to have a different meaning, a meaning now expressed by the word “formal.” In the Elizabethan age, as we have seen, critics insisted that English plays should conform to the rules or “unities” of the Greek drama, and plays written according to such rules were called classic. Again, in the eighteenth century, English poets took to studying ancient authors, especially Horace, to find out how poetry should be written. Having discovered, as they thought, the rules of composition, they insisted on following such rules rather than individual genius or inspiration. It is largely because of this adherence to rules, this slavery to a fashion of the time, that so much of eighteenth-century verse seems cold and artificial, a thing made to order rather than the natural expression of human feeling. The writers themselves were well satisfied with their formality, however, and called their own the Classic or Augustan age of English letters. [Footnote: Though the eighteenth century was dominated by this formal spirit, it had, like every other age, its classic and romantic movements. The work of Gray, Burns and other romantic poets will be considered later.]
* * * * *
ALEXANDER POPE (1688-1744)
It was in 1819 that a controversy arose over the question, Was Pope a poet? To have asked that in 1719 would have indicated that the questioner was ignorant; to have asked it a half century later might have raised a doubt as to his sanity, for by that time Pope was acclaimed as a master by the great majority of poets in England and America. We judge now, looking at him in perspective and comparing him with Chaucer or Burns, that he was not a great poet but simply the kind of poet that the age demanded. He belongs to eighteenth-century London exclusively, and herein he differs from the master poets who are at home in all places and expressive of all time.
[Illustration: ALEXANDER POPE]
LIFE. Pope is an interesting but not a lovable figure. Against the petty details of his life we should place, as a background, these amazing achievements: that this poor cripple, weak of body and spiteful of mind, was the supreme literary figure of his age; that he demonstrated how an English poet could live by his pen, instead of depending on patrons; that he won greater fame and fortune than Shakespeare or Milton received from their contemporaries; that he dominated the fashion of English poetry during his lifetime, and for many years after his death.
[Sidenote: THE WRITER]
Such are the important facts of Pope’s career. For the rest: he was born in London, in the year of the Revolution (1688). Soon after that date his father, having gained a modest fortune in the linen business, retired to Binfield, on the fringe of Windsor Forest. There Pope passed his boyhood, studying a little under private tutors, forming a pleasurable acquaintance with Latin and Greek poets. From fourteen to twenty, he tells us, he read for amusement; but from twenty to twenty-seven he read for “improvement and instruction.” The most significant traits of these early years were his determination to be a poet and his talent for imitating any writer who pleased him. Dryden was his first master, from whom he inherited the couplet, then he imitated the French critic Boileau and the Roman poet Horace. By the time he was twenty four the publication of his _Essay on Criticism_ and _The Rape of the Lock_ had made him the foremost poet of England. By his translation of Homer he made a fortune, with which he bought a villa at Twickenham. There he lived in the pale sunshine of literary success, and there he quarreled with every writer who failed to appreciate his verses, his jealousy overflowing at last in _The Dunciad_ (Iliad of Dunces), a witty but venomous lampoon, in which he took revenge on all who had angered him.
[Illustration: TWICKENHAM PARISH CHURCH, WHERE POPE WAS BURIED Pope lived at Twickenham for nearly thirty years]
[Sidenote: THE MAN]
Next to his desire for glory and revenge, Pope loved to be considered a man of high character, a teacher of moral philosophy. His ethical teaching appears in his _Moral Epistles_, his desire for a good reputation is written large in his Letters, which he secretly printed, and then alleged that they had been made public against his wish. These Letters might impress us as the utterances of a man of noble ideals, magnanimous with his friends, patient with his enemies, until we reflect that they were published by the author for the purpose of giving precisely that impression.
Another side of Pope’s nature is revealed in this: that to some of his friends, to Swift and Bolingbroke for example, he showed gratitude, and that to his parents he was ever a dutiful son. He came perhaps as near as he could to a real rather than an artificial sentiment when he wrote of his old mother:
Me let the tender office long engage, To rock the cradle of reposing age.
WORKS OF POPE. Pope’s first important work, _An Essay on Criticism_ (1711), is an echo of the rules which Horace had formulated in his _Ars Poetica_, more than seventeen centuries before Pope was born. The French critic Boileau made an alleged improvement of Horace in his _L’Art Poetique_, and Pope imitated both writers with his rimed _Essay_, in which he attempted to sum up the rules by which poetry should be judged. And he did it, while still under the age of twenty-five, so brilliantly that his characterization of the critic is unmatched in our literature. A few selections will serve to show the character of the work:
First follow nature, and your judgment frame By her just standard, which is still the same: Unerring nature, still divinely bright, One clear, unchanged and universal light, Life, force and beauty must to all impart, At once the source and end and test of Art.
Poets, like painters, thus unskilled to trace The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover every part, And hide with ornaments their want of art. True wit is nature to advantage dressed, What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.
Expression is the dress of thought, and still Appears more decent, as more suitable.
[Sidenote: RAPE OF THE LOCK]
Pope’s next important poem, _The Rape of the Lock_ (1712), is his most original and readable work. The occasion of the poem was that a fop stole a lock of hair from a young lady, and the theft plunged two families into a quarrel which was taken up by the fashionable set of London. Pope made a mock-heroic poem on the subject, in which he satirized the fads and fashions of Queen Anne’s age. Ordinarily Pope’s fancy is of small range, and proceeds jerkily, like the flight of a woodpecker, from couplet to couplet; but here he attempts to soar like the eagle. He introduces dainty aerial creatures, gnomes, sprites, sylphs, to combat for the belles and fops in their trivial concerns; and herein we see a clever burlesque of the old epic poems, in which gods or goddesses entered into the serious affairs of mortals. The craftsmanship of the poem is above praise; it is not only a neatly pointed satire on eighteenth-century fashions but is one of the most graceful works in English verse.
[Sidenote: ESSAY OF MAN]
An excellent supplement to _The Rape of the Lock_, which pictures the superficial elegance of the age, is _An Essay on Man_, which reflects its philosophy. That philosophy under the general name of Deism, had fancied to abolish the Church and all revealed religion, and had set up a new-old standard of natural faith and morals. Of this philosophy Pope had small knowledge; but he was well acquainted with the discredited Bolingbroke, his “guide, philosopher and friend,” who was a fluent exponent of the new doctrine, and from Bolingbroke came the general scheme of the _Essay on Man_.
The poem appears in the form of four epistles, dealing with man’s place in the universe, with his moral nature, with social and political ethics, and with the problem of happiness. These were discussed from a common-sense viewpoint, and with feet always on solid earth. As Pope declares:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man….
Created half to rise, and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled; The glory, jest and riddle of the world.
Throughout the poem these two doctrines of Deism are kept in sight: that there is a God, a Mystery, who dwells apart from the world; and that man ought to be contented, even happy, in his ignorance of matters beyond his horizon:
All nature is but art, unknown to thee; All chance, direction which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite, One truth is clear: whatever is, is right.
The result is rubbish, so far as philosophy is concerned, but in the heap of incongruous statements which Pope brings together are a large number of quotable lines, such as:
Honor and shame from no condition rise; Act well your part, there all the honor lies.
It is because of such lines, the care with which the whole poem is polished, and the occasional appearance of real beauty (such as the passage beginning, “Lo, the poor Indian”) that the _Essay on Man_ occupies such a high place in eighteenth-century literature.
[Sidenote: THE QUALITY OF POPE]
It is hardly necessary to examine other works of Pope, since the poems already named give us the full measure of his strength and weakness. His talent is to formulate rules of poetry, to satirize fashionable society, to make brilliant epigrams in faultless couplets. His failure to move or even to interest us greatly is due to his second-hand philosophy, his inability to feel or express emotion, his artificial life apart from nature and humanity. When we read Chaucer or Shakespeare, we have the impression that they would have been at home in any age or place, since they deal with human interests that are the same yesterday, to-day and forever; but we can hardly imagine Pope feeling at ease anywhere save in his own set and in his own generation. He is the poet of one period, which set great store by formality, and in that period alone he is supreme.
* * * * *
JONATHAN SWIFT (1667-1745)
In the history of literature Swift occupies a large place as the most powerful of English satirists; that is, writers who search out the faults of society in order to hold them up to ridicule. To most readers, however, he is known as the author of _Gulliver’s Travels_, a book which young people still read with pleasure, as they read _Robinson Crusoe_ or any other story of adventure. In the fate of that book, which was intended to scourge humanity but which has become a source of innocent entertainment, is a commentary on the colossal failure of Swift’s ambition.
[Illustration: JONATHAN SWIFT]
LIFE. Little need be recorded of Swift’s life beyond the few facts which help us to understand his satires. He was born in Dublin, of English parents, and was so “bantered by fortune” that he was compelled to spend the greater part of his life in Ireland, a country which he detested. He was very poor, very proud; and even in youth he railed at a mocking fate which compelled him to accept aid from others. For his education he was dependent on a relative, who helped him grudgingly. After leaving Trinity College, Dublin, the only employment he could find was with another relative, Sir William Temple, a retired statesman, who hired Swift as a secretary and treated him as a servant. Galled by his position and by his feeling of superiority (for he was a man of physical and mental power, who longed to be a master of great affairs) he took orders in the Anglican Church; but the only appointment he could obtain was in a village buried, as he said, in a forsaken district of Ireland. There his bitterness overflowed in _A Tale of a Tub_ and a few pamphlets of such satiric power that certain political leaders recognized Swift’s value and summoned him to their assistance.
[Illustration: TRINITY COLLEGE, DUBLIN]
[Sidenote: SWIFT IN LONDON]
To understand his success in London one must remember the times. Politics were rampant; the city was the battleground of Whigs and Tories, whose best weapon was the printed pamphlet that justified one party by heaping abuse or ridicule on the other. Swift was a master of satire, and he was soon the most feared author in England. He seems to have had no fixed principles, for he was ready to join the Tories when that party came into power and to turn his literary cannon on the Whigs, whom he had recently supported. In truth, he despised both parties; his chief object was to win for himself the masterful position in Church or state for which, he believed, his talents had fitted him.
For several years Swift was the literary champion of the victorious Tories; then, when his keen eye detected signs of tottering in the party, he asked for his reward. He obtained, not the great bishopric which he expected, but an appointment as Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Small and bitter fruit this seemed to Swift, after his years of service, but even so, it was given grudgingly. [Footnote: Swift’s pride and arrogance with his official superiors worked against him. Also he had published _A Tale of a Tub_, a coarse satire against the churches, which scandalized the queen and her ministers, who could have given him preferment. Thackeray says, “I think the Bishops who advised Queen Anne not to appoint the author of the _Tale of a Tub_ to a Bishopric gave perfectly good advice.”]
[Sidenote: LIFE IN IRELAND]
When the Tories went out of power Swift’s political occupation was gone. The last thirty years of his life were spent largely in Dublin. There in a living grave, as he regarded it, the scorn which he had hitherto felt for individuals or institutions widened until it included humanity. Such is the meaning of his _Gulliver’s Travels_. His only pleasure during these years was to expose the gullibility of men, and a hundred good stories are current of his practical jokes,–such as his getting rid of a crowd which had gathered to watch an eclipse by sending a solemn messenger to announce that, by the Dean’s orders, the eclipse was postponed till the next day. A brain disease fastened upon him gradually, and his last years were passed in a state of alternate stupor or madness from which death was a blessed deliverance.
WORKS OF SWIFT. The poems of Swift, though they show undoubted power (every smallest thing he wrote bears that stamp), may be passed over with the comment of his relative Dryden, who wrote: “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.” The criticism was right, but thereafter Swift jeered at Dryden’s poetry. We may pass over also the _Battle of the Books_, the _Drapier’s Letters_ and a score more of satires and lampoons. Of all these minor works the _Bickerstaff Papers_, which record Swift’s practical joke on the astrologers, are most amusing. [Footnote: Almanacs were at that time published by pretender astrologers, who read fortunes or made predictions from the stars. Against the most famous of these quacks, Partridge by name, Swift leveled his “Predictions for the year 1708, by Isaac Bickerstaff.” Among the predictions of coming events was this trifle: that Partridge was doomed to die on March 29 following, about eleven o’clock at night, of a raging fever. On March 30 appeared, in the newspapers, a letter giving the details of Partridge’s death, and then a pamphlet called “An Elegy of Mr. Partridge.” Presently Partridge, who could not see the joke, made London laugh by his frantic attempts to prove that he was alive. Then appeared an elaborate “Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff,” which proved by the infallible stars that Partridge was dead, and that the astrologer now in his place was an impostor. This joke was copied twenty-five years later by Franklin in his _Poor Richard’s Almanac._]
[Sidenote: GULLIVER’S TRAVELS]
Swift’s fame now rests largely upon his _Gulliver’s Travels_, which appeared in 1726 under the title, “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon and then a Captain of Several Ships.” In the first voyage we are taken to Lilliput, a country inhabited by human beings about six inches tall, with minds in proportion. The capers of these midgets are a satire on human society, as seen through Swift’s scornful eyes. In the second voyage we go to Brobdingnag, where the people are of gigantic stature, and by contrast we are reminded of the petty “human insects” whom Gulliver represents. The third voyage, to the Island of Laputa, is a burlesque of the scientists and philosophers of Swift’s day. The fourth leads to the land of the Houyhnhnms, where intelligent horses are the ruling creatures, and humanity is represented by the Yahoos, a horribly degraded race, having the forms of men and the bestial habits of monkeys.
Such is the ferocious satire on the elegant society of Queen Anne’s day. Fortunately for our peace of mind we can read the book for its grim humor and adventurous action, as we read any other good story. Indeed, it surprises most readers of _Gulliver_ to be told that the work was intended to wreck our faith in humanity.
[Sidenote: QUALITY OF SWIFT]
In all his satires Swift’s power lies in his prose style–a convincing style, clear, graphic, straightforward–and in his marvelous ability to make every scene, however distant or grotesque, as natural as life itself. As Emerson said, he describes his characters as if for the police. His weakness is twofold: he has a fondness for coarse or malodorous references, and he is so beclouded in his own soul that he cannot see his fellows in a true light. In one of his early works he announced the purpose of all his writing:
My hate, whose lash just Heaven has long decreed, Shall on a day make Sin and Folly bleed.
That was written at twenty-six, before he took orders in the Church. As a theological student it was certainly impressed upon the young man that Heaven keeps its own prerogatives, and that sin and folly have never been effectually reformed by lashing. But Swift had a scorn of all judgment except his own. As the eyes of fishes are so arranged that they see only their prey and their enemies, so Swift had eyes only for the vices of men and for the lash that scourges them. When he wrote, therefore, he was not an observer, or even a judge; he was a criminal lawyer prosecuting humanity on the charge of being a sham. A tendency to insanity may possibly account both for his spleen against others and for the self-tortures which made him, as Archbishop King said, “the most unhappy man on earth.”
[Sidenote: JOURNAL TO STELLA]
There is one oasis in the bitter desert of Swift’s writings, namely, his _Journal to Stella_. While in the employ of Temple he was the daily companion of a young girl, Esther Johnson, who was an inmate of the same household. Her love for Swift was pure and constant; wherever he went she followed and lived near him, bringing a ray of sunshine into his life, in a spirit which reminds us of the sublime expression of another woman: “For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” She was probably married to Swift, but his pride kept him from openly acknowledging the union. While he was at London he wrote a private journal for Esther (Stella) in which he recorded his impressions of the men and women he met, and of the political battles in which he took part. That journal, filled with strange abbreviations to which only he and Stella had the key, can hardly be called literature, but it is of profound interest. It gives us glimpses of a woman who chose to live in the shadow; it shows the better side of Swift’s nature, in contrast with his arrogance toward men and his brutal treatment of women; and finally, it often takes us behind the scenes of a stage on which was played a mixed comedy of politics and society.
* * * * *
JOSEPH ADDISON (1672-1719)
In Addison we have a pleasant reflection of the new social life of England. Select almost any feature of that life, and you shall find some account of it in the papers of Addison: its party politics in his _Whig Examiner_; its “grand tour,” as part of a gentleman’s education, in his _Remarks on Italy_; its adventure on foreign soil in such poems as “The Campaign”; its new drama of decency in his _Cato_; its classic delusions in his _Account of the Greatest English Poets_; its frills, fashions and similar matters in his _Spectator_ essays. He tried almost every type of literature, from hymns to librettos, and in each he succeeded well enough to be loudly applauded. In his own day he was accounted a master poet, but now he is remembered as a writer of prose essays.
[Illustration: JOSEPH ADDISON]
LIFE. Addison’s career offers an interesting contrast to that of Swift, who lived in the same age. He was the son of an English clergyman, settled in the deanery of Lichfield, and his early training left upon him the stamp of good taste and good breeding. In school he was always the model boy; in Oxford he wrote Latin verses on safe subjects, in the approved fashion; in politics he was content to “oil the machine” as he found it; in society he was shy and silent (though naturally a brilliant talker) because he feared to make some slip which might mar his prospects or the dignity of his position.
A very discreet man was Addison, and the only failure he made of discretion was when he married the Dowager Countess of Warwick, went to live in her elegant Holland House, and lived unhappily ever afterwards. The last is a mere formal expression. Addison had not depth enough to be really unhappy. From the cold comfort of the Dowager’s palace he would slip off to his club or to Will’s Coffee house. There, with a pipe and a bottle, he would loosen his eloquent tongue and proceed to “make discreetly merry with a few old friends.”
[Illustration: MAGDALEN COLLEGE OXFORD]
His characteristic quality appears in the literary work which followed his Latin verses. He began with a flattering “Address to Dryden,” which pleased the old poet and brought Addison to the attention of literary celebrities. His next effort was “The Peace of Ryswick,” which flattered King William’s statesmen and brought the author a chance to serve the Whig party. Also it brought a pension, with a suggestion that Addison should travel abroad and learn French and diplomacy, which he did, to his great content, for the space of three years.
The death of the king brought Addison back to England. His pension stopped, and for a time he lived poorly “in a garret,” as one may read in Thackeray’s _Henry Esmond_. Then came news of an English victory on the Continent (Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim), and the Whigs wanted to make political capital out of the event. Addison was hunted up and engaged to write a poem. He responded with “The Campaign,” which made him famous. Patriots and politicians ascribed to the poem undying glory, and their judgment was accepted by fashionable folk of London. To read it now is to meet a formal, uninspired production, containing a few stock quotations and, incidentally, a sad commentary on the union of Whiggery and poetry.
[Sidenote: HIS PATH OF ROSES]
From that moment Addison’s success was assured. He was given various offices of increasing importance; he entered Parliament; he wrote a classic tragedy, _Cato_, which took London by storm (his friend Steele had carefully “packed the house” for the first performance); his essays in _The Spectator_ were discussed in every fashionable club or drawing-room; he married a rich countess; he was appointed Secretary of State. The path of politics, which others find so narrow and slippery, was for Addison a broad road through pleasant gardens. Meanwhile Swift, who could not follow the Addisonian way of kindness and courtesy, was eating bitter bread and railing at humanity.
After a brief experience as Secretary of State, finding that he could not make the speeches expected of him, Addison retired on a pension. His unwavering allegiance to good form in all matters appears even in his last remark, “See how a Christian can die.” That was in 1719. He had sought the easiest, pleasantest way through life, and had found it. Thackeray, who was in sympathy with such a career, summed it up in a glowing panegyric:
“A life prosperous and beautiful, a calm death; an immense fame and affection afterwards for his happy and spotless name.”
WORKS OF ADDISON. Addison’s great reputation was won chiefly by his poetry; but with the exception of a few hymns, simple and devout, his poetical works no longer appeal to us. He was not a poet but a verse-maker. His classic tragedy _Cato_, for example (which met with such amazing success in London that it was taken over to the Continent, where it was acclaimed “a masterpiece of regularity and elegance”), has some good passages, but one who reads the context is apt to find the elegant lines running together somewhat drowsily. Nor need that reflect on our taste or intelligence. Even the cultured Greeks, as if in anticipation of classic poems, built two adjoining temples, one dedicated to the Muses and the other to Sleep.
[Sidenote: THE ESSAYS]
The _Essays_ of Addison give us the full measure of his literary talent. In his verse, as in his political works, he seems to be speaking to strangers; he is on guard over his dignity as a poet, as Secretary of State, as husband of a countess; but in his _Essays_ we meet the man at his ease, fluent, witty, light-hearted but not frivolous,–just as he talked to his friends in Will’s Coffeehouse. The conversational quality of these _Essays_ has influenced all subsequent works of the same type,–a type hard to define, but which leaves the impression of pleasant talk about a subject, as distinct from any learned discussion.
The _Essays_ cover a wide range: fashions, dress, manners, character sketches, letters of travel, ghost stories, satires on common vices, week-end sermons on moral subjects. They are never profound, but they are always pleasant, and their graceful style made such a lasting impression that, half a century later, Dr. Johnson summed up a general judgment when he said:
“Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”
ADDISON AND STEELE. Of these two associates Richard Steele (1672-1729) had the more original mind, and his writings reveal a warm, human sympathy that is lacking in the work of his more famous contemporary. But while Addison cultivated his one talent of writing, Steele was like Defoe in that he always had some new project in his head, and some old debt urging him to put the project into immediate execution. He was in turn poet, political pamphleteer, soldier, dramatist, member of Parliament, publisher, manager of a theater, following each occupation eagerly for a brief season, then abandoning it cheerfully for another,–much like a boy picking blueberries in a good place, who moves on and on to find a better bush, eats his berries on the way, and comes home at last with an empty pail.
[Illustration: SIR RICHARD STEELE
From the engraving by Freeman after original by J. Richardson]
[Sidenote: THE TATLER AND THE SPECTATOR]
While holding the political office of “gazetteer” (one who had a monopoly of official news) the idea came to Steele of publishing a literary magazine. The inventive Defoe had already issued _The Review_ (1704), but that had a political origin. With the first number of _The Tatler_ (1709) the modern magazine made its bow to the public. This little sheet, published thrice a week and sold at a penny a copy, contained more or less politics, to be sure, but the fact that it reflected the gossip of coffeehouses made it instantly popular. After less than two years of triumph Steele lost his official position, and _The Tatler_ was discontinued. The idea remained, however, and a few months later appeared _The Spectator_ (1711), a daily magazine which eschewed politics and devoted itself to essays, reviews, letters, criticisms,–in short, to “polite” literature. Addison, who had been a contributor to _The Tatler_ entered heartily into the new venture, which had a brief but glorious career. He became known as “Mr. Spectator,” and the famous Spectator Essays are still commonly attributed to him, though in truth Steele furnished a large part of them. [Footnote: Of the _Tatler_ essays Addison contributed 42, Steele about 180, and some 36 were the work of the two authors in collaboration. Of the _Spectator_ essays Addison furnished 274, Steele 236, and about 45 were the work of other writers. In some of the best essays (“Sir Roger de Coverley,” for example) the two men worked together. Steele is supposed to have furnished the original ideas, the humor and overflowing kindness of such essays, while the work of polishing and perfecting the style fell to the more skillful Addison.]
[Sidenote: ADDISONIAN STYLE]
Because of their cultivated prose style, Steele and Addison were long regarded as models, and we are still influenced by them in the direction of clearness and grace of expression. How wide their influence extended may be seen in American literature. Hardly had _The Spectator_ appeared when it crossed the Atlantic and began to dominate our English style on both sides of the ocean. Franklin, in Boston, studied it by night in order to imitate it in the essay which he slipped under the printing-house door next morning; and Boyd, in Virginia, reflects its influence in his charming Journal of exploration. Half a century later, the Hartford Wits were writing clever sketches that seemed like the work of a new “Spectator”; another half century, and Irving, the greatest master of English prose in his day, was still writing in the Addisonian manner, and regretting as he wrote that the leisurely style showed signs, in a bustling age, “of becoming a little old-fashioned.”
* * * * *
DR. JOHNSON AND HIS CIRCLE
Since Caxton established the king’s English as a literary language our prose style has often followed the changing fashion of London. Thus, Lyly made it fantastic, Dryden simplified it, Addison gave it grace; and each leader set a fashion which was followed by a host of young writers. Hardly had the Addisonian style crossed the Atlantic, to be the model for American writers for a century, when London acclaimed a new prose fashion–a ponderous, grandiloquent fashion, characterized by mouth-filling words, antithetical sentences, rounded periods, sonorous commonplaces–which was eagerly adopted by orators and historians especially. The man who did more than any other to set this new oratorical fashion in motion was the same Dr. Samuel Johnson who advised young writers to study Addison as a model. And that was only one of his amusing inconsistencies.
Johnson was a man of power, who won a commanding place in English letters by his hard work and his downright sincerity. He won his name of “the great lexicographer” by his _Dictionary_, which we no longer consult, but which we remember as the first attempt at a complete English lexicon. If one asks what else he wrote, with the idea of going to the library and getting a book for pleasure, the answer must be that Johnson’s voluminous works are now as dead as his dictionary. One student of literature may be interested in such a melancholy poem as “The Vanity of Human Wishes”; another will be entertained by the anecdotes or blunt criticisms of the _Lives of the Poets_; a third may be uplifted by the _Rambler Essays_, which are well called “majestically moral productions”; but we shall content ourselves here by recording Johnson’s own refreshing criticism of certain ancient authors, that “it is idle to criticize what nobody reads.” Perhaps the best thing he wrote was a minor work, which he did not know would ever be published. This was his manly Letter to Lord Chesterfield, a nobleman who had treated Johnson with discourtesy when the poor author was making a heroic struggle, but who offered his patronage when the Dictionary was announced as an epoch-making work. In his noble refusal of all extraneous help Johnson unconsciously voiced Literature’s declaration of independence: that henceforth a book must stand or fall on its own merits, and that the day of the literary patron was gone forever.
[Illustration: DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON
From the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds]
LIFE. The story of Johnson’s life (1709-1784) has been so well told that one is loath to attempt a summary of it. We note, therefore, a few plain facts: that he was the son of a poor bookseller; that despite poverty and disease he obtained his classic education; that at twenty-six he came to London, and, after an experience with patrons, rebelled against them; that he did every kind of hackwork to earn his bread honestly, living in the very cellar of Grub Street, where he was often cold and more often hungry; that after nearly thirty years of labor his services to literature were rewarded by a pension, which he shared with the poor; that he then formed the Literary Club (including Reynolds, Pitt, Gibbon, Goldsmith, Burke, and almost every other prominent man in London) and indulged nightly in his famous “conversations,” which were either monologues or knockdown arguments; and that in his old age he was regarded as the king of letters, the oracle of literary taste in England.
[Illustration: DR. JOHNSON’S HOUSE (BOLT COURT, FLEET ST.) From the print by Charles J. Smith]
Such is the bare outline of Johnson’s career. To his character, his rough exterior and his kind heart, his vast learning and his Tory prejudices, his piety, his melancholy, his virtues, his frailty, his “mass of genuine manhood,” only a volume could do justice. Happily that volume is at hand. It is Boswell’s _Life of Johnson_, a famous book that deserves its fame.
BOSWELL’S JOHNSON. Boswell was an inquisitive barrister who came from Edinburgh to London and thrust himself into the company of great men. To Johnson, then at the summit of his fame, “Bozzy” was devotion itself, following his master about by day or night, refusing to be rebuffed, jotting down notes of what he saw and heard. After Johnson’s death he gathered these notes together and, after seven years of labor, produced his incomparable _Life of Johnson_ (1791).
The greatness of Boswell’s work may be traced to two causes. First, he had a great subject. The story of any human life is interesting, if truthfully told, and Johnson’s heroic life of labor and pain and reward was passed in a capital city, among famous men, at a time which witnessed the rapid expansion of a mighty empire. Second, Boswell was as faithful as a man could be to his subject, for whom he had such admiration that even the dictator’s frailties seemed more impressive than the virtues of ordinary humanity. So Boswell concealed nothing, and felt no necessity to distribute either praise or blame. He portrayed a man just as that man was, recorded the word just as the word was spoken; and facing the man we may see his enraptured audience,–at a distance, indeed, but marvelously clear, as when we look through the larger end of a field glass at a landscape dominated by a mountain. One who reads this matchless biography will know Johnson better than he knows his own neighbor; he will gain, moreover, a better understanding of humanity, to reflect which clearly and truthfully is the prime object of all good literature.
[Illustration: James Boswell]
EDMUND BURKE (1729-1797). This brilliant Irishman came up to London as a young man of twenty-one. Within a few years–such was his character, his education, his genius–he had won a reputation among old statesmen as a political philosopher. Then he entered Parliament, where for twenty years the House listened with growing amazement to his rhythmic periods, and he was acclaimed the most eloquent of orators.
Among Burke’s numerous works those on America, India and France are deservedly the most famous. Of his orations on American subjects a student of literature or history may profitably read “On Taxation” (1774) and “On Conciliation” (1775), in which Burke presents the Whig argument in favor of a liberal colonial policy. The Tory view of the same question was bluntly presented by Johnson in his essay “Taxation No Tyranny”; while like a reverberation from America, powerful enough to carry across the Atlantic, came Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” which was a ringing plea for colonial independence.
[Illustration: EDMUND BURKE
From the print by John Jones, after Romney]
Of Burke’s works pertaining to India “The Nabob of Arcot’s Debts” (1785) and the “Impeachment of Warren Hastings” (1786) are interesting to those who can enjoy a long flight of sustained eloquence. Here again Burke presents the liberal, the humane view of what was then largely a political question; but in his _Reflections on the French Revolution_ (1790) he goes over to the Tories, thunders against the revolutionists or their English sympathizers, and exalts the undying glories of the British constitution. The _Reflections_ is the most brilliant of all Burke’s works, and is admired for its superb rhetorical style.
[Sidenote: BURKE’S METHOD]
To examine any of these works is to discover the author’s characteristic method: first, his framework or argument is carefully constructed so as to appeal to reason; then this framework is buried out of sight and memory by a mass of description, digression, emotional appeal, allusions, illustrative matter from the author’s wide reading or from his prolific imagination. Note this passage from the _French Revolution_:
“It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in, glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh, what a revolution! And what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of distant, enthusiastic, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness.”
That is finely expressed, but it has no bearing on the political matter in question; namely, whether the sympathy of England should be extended to the French revolutionists in their struggle for liberty. This irrelevancy of Burke suggests our first criticism: that he is always eloquent, and usually right; but he is seldom convincing, and his eloquence is a hindrance rather than a help to his main purpose. So we are not surprised to hear that his eloquent speech on Conciliation emptied the benches; or that after his supreme effort in the impeachment of Hastings–an effort so tremendously dramatic that spectators sobbed, screamed, were carried out in fits–the object of all this invective was acquitted by his judges. Reading the works now, they seem to us praiseworthy not for their sustained eloquence, which is wearisome, but for the brilliancy of certain detached passages which catch the eye like sparkling raindrops after a drenching shower. It was the splendor of such passages, their vivid imagery and harmonious rhythm, which led Matthew Arnold to assert that Burke was the greatest master of prose style in our literature. Anybody can make such an assertion; nobody can prove or disprove it.
THE HISTORIANS. Perhaps it was the rapid expansion of the empire in the latter, part of the eighteenth century which aroused such interest in historical subjects that works of history were then more eagerly welcomed than poetry or fiction. Gibbon says in his _Memoirs_ that in his day “history was the most popular species of composition.” It was also the best rewarded; for while Johnson, the most renowned author of his time, wrote a romance (_Rasselas_) hoping to sell it for enough to pay for his mother’s funeral, Robertson easily disposed of his _History of the Emperor Charles V_ for L4500; and there were others who were even better paid for popular histories, the very titles of which are now forgotten.
Of all the historical works of the age, and their name was legion, only one survives with something of its original vitality, standing the double test of time and scholarship. This is _The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire_ (1776), a work which remained famous for a century, and which still has its admiring readers. It was written by Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), who belonged to the Literary Club that gathered about Johnson, and who cultivated his style, he tells us, first by adopting the dictator’s rounded periods, and then practicing them “till they moved to flutes and hautboys.”
The scope of Gibbon’s work is enormous. It begins with the Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98) and carries us through the convulsions of a dying civilization, the descent of the Barbarians on Rome, the spread of Christianity, the Crusades, the rise of Mohammedanism,–through all the confused history of thirteen centuries, ending with the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, in 1453. The mind that could grasp such vast and chaotic materials, arrange them in orderly sequence and resent them as in a gorgeous panorama, moves us to wonder. To be sure, there are many things to criticize in Gibbon’s masterpiece,–the author’s love of mere pageants; his materialism; his inability to understand religious movements, or even religious motives; his lifeless figures, which move as if by mechanical springs,–but one who reads the _Decline and Fall_ may be too much impressed by the evidences of scholarship, of vast labor, of genius even, to linger over faults. It is a “monumental” work, most interesting to those who admire monuments; and its style is the perfection of that oratorical, Johnsonese style which was popular in England in 1776, and which, half a century later, found its best American mouthpiece in Daniel Webster. The influence of Gibbon may still be seen in the orators and historians who, lacking the charm of simplicity, clothe even their platitudes in high-sounding phrases.
[Illustration: EDWARD GIBBON
From an enamel by H Bone, R.A.; after Sir Joshua Reynolds]
* * * * *
THE REVIVAL OF ROMANTIC POETRY
Every age has had its romantic poets–that is, poets who sing the dreams and ideals of life, and whose songs seem to be written naturally, spontaneously, as from a full heart [Footnote: For specific examples of formal and romantic poetry see the comparison between Addison and Wordsworth below, under “Natural vs Formal Poetry”, Chapter VII]–but in the eighteenth century they were completely overshadowed by formal versifiers who made poetry by rule. At that time the imaginative verse which had delighted an earlier age was regarded much as we now regard an old beaver hat; Shakespeare and Milton were neglected, Spenser was but a name, Chaucer was clean forgotten. If a poet aspired to fame, he imitated the couplets of Dryden or Pope, who, as Cowper said,
Made poetry a mere mechanic art,
And every warbler has his tune by heart.
[Illustration: THOMAS GRAY
from a portrait by Benjamin Wilson, in the possession of John Murray]
Among those who made vigorous protest against the precise and dreary formalism of the age were Collins and Gray, whose names are commonly associated in poetry, as are the names of Addison and Steele in prose. They had the same tastes, the same gentle melancholy, the same freedom from the bondage of literary fashion. Of the two, William Collins (1721-1759) was perhaps the more gifted poet. His exquisite “Ode to Evening” is without a rival in its own field, and his brief elegy beginning, “How sleep the brave,” is a worthy commemoration of a soldier’s death and a nation’s gratitude. It has, says Andrew Lang, the magic of an elder day and of all time.
Thomas Gray (1716-1771) is more widely known than his fellow poet, largely because of one fortunate poem which “returned to men’s bosoms” as if sure of its place and welcome. This is the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750), which has been translated into all civilized tongues, and which is known, loved, quoted wherever English is spoken.
[Illustration: STOKE POGES CHURCHYARD, SHOWING PART OF THE CHURCH AND GRAY’S TOMB]
[Sidenote: GRAY’S ELEGY]
To criticize this favorite of a million readers seems almost ruthless, as if one were pulling a flower to pieces for the sake of giving it a botanical name. A pleasanter task is to explain, if one can, the immense popularity of the “Elegy.” The theme is of profound interest to every man who reveres the last resting place of his parents, to the nation which cherishes every monument of its founders, and even to primitive peoples, like the Indians, who refuse to leave the place where their fathers are buried, and who make the grave a symbol of patriotism. With this great theme our poet is in perfect sympathy. His attitude is simple and reverent; he treads softly, as if on holy ground. The natural setting or atmosphere of his poem, the peace of evening falling on the old churchyard at Stoke Poges, the curfew bell, the cessation of daily toil, the hush which falls upon the twilight landscape like a summons to prayer,–all this is exactly as it should be. Finally, Gray’s craftsmanship, his choice of words, his simple figures, his careful fitting of every line to its place and context, is as near perfection as human skill could make it.
Other poems of Gray, which make his little book precious, are the four odes: “To Spring,” “On a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” “The Progress of Poesy” and “The Bard,” the last named being a description of the dramatic end of an old Welsh minstrel, who chants a wild prophecy as he goes to his death. These romantic odes, together with certain translations which Gray made from Norse mythology, mark the end of “classic” domination in English poetry.
* * * * *
OLIVER GOLDSMITH (1728-1774)
Most versatile of eighteenth-century writers was “poor Noll,” a most improvident kind of man in all worldly ways, but so skillful with his pen that Johnson wrote a sincere epitaph to the effect that Goldsmith attempted every form of literature, and adorned everything which he attempted. The form of his verse suggests the formal school, and his polished couplets rival those of Pope; but there the resemblance ceases. In his tenderness and humor, in his homely subjects and the warm human sympathy with which he describes them, Goldsmith belongs to the new romantic school of poetry.
LIFE. The life of Goldsmith has inspired many pens; but the subject, far from being exhausted, is still awaiting the right biographer. The poet’s youthful escapades in the Irish country, his classical education at Trinity College, Dublin, and his vagabond studies among gypsies and peddlers, his childish attempts at various professions, his wanderings over Europe, his shifts and makeshifts to earn a living in London, his tilts with Johnson at the Literary Club, his love of gorgeous raiment, his indiscriminate charity, his poverty, his simplicity, his success in the art of writing and his total failure in the art of living,–such kaleidoscopic elements make a brief biography impossible. The character of the man appears in a single incident.
Landing one day on the Continent with a flute, a spare shirt and a guinea as his sole outward possessions, the guinea went for a feast and a game of cards at the nearest inn, and the shirt to the first beggar that asked for it. There remained only the flute, and with that Goldsmith fared forth confidently, like the gleeman of old with his harp, delighted at seeing the world, utterly forgetful of the fact that he had crossed the Channel in search of a medical education.
That aimless, happy-go-lucky journey was typical of Goldsmith’s whole life of forty-odd years. Those who knew him loved but despaired of him. When he passed away (1774) Johnson summed up the feeling of the English literary world in the sentence, “He was a very great man, let not his frailties be remembered.”
[Illustration: OLIVER GOLDSMITH
After the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds]
GOLDSMITH’S PROSE AND VERSE. Among the forgotten works of Goldsmith we note with interest several that he wrote for children: a fanciful _History of England_, an entertaining but most unreliable _Animated Nature_, and probably also the tale of “Little Goody Twoshoes.” These were written (as were all his other works) to satisfy the demands of his landlady, or to pay an old debt, or to buy a new cloak,–a plum-colored velvet cloak, wherewith to appear at the opera or to dazzle the Literary Club. From among his works we select four, as illustrative of Goldsmith’s versatility.
_The Citizen of the World_, a series of letters from an alleged Chinese visitor, invites comparison with the essays of Addison or Steele. All three writers are satirical, all have a high moral purpose, all are masters of a graceful style, but where the “Spectator” touches the surface of life, Goldsmith often goes deeper and probes the very spirit of the eighteenth century. Here is a paragraph from the first letter, in which the alleged visitor, who has heard much of the wealth and culture of London, sets down his first impressions:
“From these circumstances in their buildings, and from the dismal looks of the inhabitants, I am induced to conclude that the nation is actually poor, and that, like the Persians, they make a splendid figure everywhere but at home. The proverb of Xixofou is, that a man’s riches may be seen in his eyes if we judge of the English by this rule, there is not a poorer nation under the sun.”
[Illustration: THE “CHESHIRE CHEESE,” LONDON, SHOWING DR. JOHNSON’S FAVORITE SEAT The tavern, which still stands, was the favorite haunt of both Johnson and Goldsmith]
[Sidenote: THE DESERTED VILLAGE]
_The Deserted Village_ (1770) is the best remembered of Goldsmith’s poems, or perhaps one should say “verses” in deference to critics like Matthew Arnold who classify the work with Pope’s _Essay on Man_, as a rimed dissertation rather than a true poem.
To compare the two works just mentioned is to discover how far Goldsmith is from his formal model. In Pope’s “Essay” we find common sense, moral maxims and some alleged philosophy, but no emotion, no romance, no men or women. The “Village,” on the other hand, is romantic even in desolation; it awakens our interest, our sympathy; and it gives us two characters, the Parson and the Schoolmaster, who live in our memories with the best of Chaucer’s creations. Moreover, it makes the commonplace life of man ideal and beautiful, and so appeals to readers of widely different tastes or nationalities. Of the many ambitious poems written in the eighteenth century, the two most widely read (aside from the songs of Burns) are Goldsmith’s “Village,” which portrays the life of simple country people, and Gray’s “Elegy,” which laments their death.
[Illustration: CANONBURY TOWER (LONDON) Goldsmith lived here when he wrote the “Vicar of Wakefield”]
[Sidenote: VICAR OF WAKEFIELD]
Goldsmith’s one novel, _The Vicar of Wakefield_ (1766), has been well called “the Prince Charming” of our early works of fiction. This work has a threefold distinction: its style alone is enough to make it pleasant reading; as a story it retains much of its original charm, after a century and a half of proving; by its moral purity it offered the best kind of rebuke to the vulgar tendency of the early English novel, and influenced subsequent fiction in the direction of cleanness and decency.
The story is that of a certain vicar, or clergyman, Dr. Primrose and his family, who pass through heavy trials and misfortunes. These might crush or embitter an ordinary man, but they only serve to make the Vicar’s love for his children, his trust in God, his tenderness for humanity, shine out more clearly, like star’s after a tempest. Mingled with these affecting trials are many droll situations which probably reflect something of the author’s personal escapades; for Goldsmith was the son of a clergyman, and brought himself and his father into his tale. As a novel, that is, a reflection of human life in the form of a story, it contains many weaknesses; but despite its faults of moralizing and sentimentality, the impression which the story leaves is one of “sweetness and light.” Swinburne says that, of all novels he had seen rise and fall in three generations, _The Vicar of Wakefield_ alone had retained the same high level in the opinion of its readers.
[Sidenote: SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER]
Another notable work is Goldsmith’s comedy _She Stoops to Conquer_. The date of that comedy (1773) recalls the fact that, though it has been played for nearly a century and a half, during which a thousand popular plays have been forgotten, it is still a prime favorite on the amateur stage. Perhaps the only other comedies of which the same can be said with approximate truth are _The Rivals_ (1775) and _The School for Scandal_ (1777) of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
The plot of _She Stoops to Conquer_ is said to have been suggested by one of Goldsmith’s queer adventures. He arrived one day at a village, riding a borrowed nag, and with the air of a lordly traveler asked a stranger to direct him “to the best house in the place.” The stranger misunderstood, or else was a rare wag, for he showed the way to the abode of a wealthy gentleman. There Goldsmith made himself at home, ordered the servants about, invited his host to share a bottle of wine,–in short, made a great fool of himself. Evidently the host was also a wag, for he let the joke run on till the victim was ready to ride away. [Footnote: There is some doubt as to the source of Goldsmith’s plot. It may have been suggested by an earlier French comedy by Marivaux.]
From some such crazy escapade Goldsmith made his comedy of manners, a lively, rollicking comedy of topsy-turvy scenes, all hinging upon the incident of mistaking a private house for a public inn. We have called _She Stoops to Conquer_ a comedy of eighteenth-century manners, but our continued interest in its absurdities would seem to indicate that it is a comedy of human nature in all ages.
* * * * *
ROBERT BURNS (1759-1796)
Burns is everywhere acclaimed the poet of Scotland, and for two good reasons: because he reflects better than any other the emotions of the Scottish people, and because his book is a summary of the best verse of his native land. Practically all his songs, such as “Bonnie Boon” and “Auld Lang Syne,” are late echoes of much older verses; his more ambitious poems borrow their ideas, their satire or sentiment, their form even, from Ferguson, Allan Ramsay and other poets, all of whom aimed (as Scott aimed in “Lochinvar”) to preserve the work of unnamed minstrels whose lines had been repeated in Highlands or Lowlands for two centuries. Burns may be regarded, therefore, as a treasury of all that is best in Scottish song. His genius was to take this old material, dear to the heart of the native, and give it final expression.
[Illustration: ROBERT BURNS
After Alexander Nasmyth]
LIFE. The life of Burns is one to discourage a biographer who does not relish the alternative of either concealing the facts or apologizing for his subject. We shall record here only a few personal matters which may help us to understand Burns’s poetry.
Perhaps the most potent influence in his life was that which came from his labor in the field. He was born in a clay biggin, or cottage, in the parish of Alloway, near the little town of Ayr.
Auld Ayr, wham neer a town surpasses For honest men and bonnie lasses.
His father was a poor crofter, a hard working, God fearing man of the Covenanter type, who labored unceasingly to earn a living from the soil of a rented farm. The children went barefoot in all seasons, almost from the time they could walk they were expected to labor and at thirteen Bobbie was doing a man’s work at the plow or the reaping. The toil was severe, the reward, at best, was to escape dire poverty or disgraceful debt, but there was yet a nobility in the life which is finely reflected in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” a poem which ranks with Whittier’s “Snow Bound” among the best that labor has ever inspired.
The hundred acre farm near Dumfries where Burns worked as a farmer. The happiest days of his life were spent here, 1787-1791]
[Sidenote: THE ELEMENT OF NATURE]
As a farmer’s boy Burns worked in the open, in close contact with nature, and the result is evident in all his verse. Sunshine or storm, bird song or winter wind, the flowers, the stars, the dew of the morning,–open Burns where you will, and you are face to face with these elemental realities. Sometimes his reflection of nature is exquisitely tender, as in “To a Mouse” or “To a Mountain Daisy”; but for the most part he regards nature not sentimentally, like Gray, or religiously, like Wordsworth and Bryant, but in a breezy, companionable way which suggests the song of “Under the Greenwood Tree” in _As You Like It_.
[Sidenote: HIS EDUCATION]
Another influence in Burns’s life came from his elementary education. There were no ancient classics studied in the school which he attended,–fortunately, perhaps, for his best work is free from the outworn classical allusions which decorate the bulk of eighteenth-century verse. In the evening he listened to tales from Scottish history, which stirred him deeply and made him live in a present world rather than in the misty region of Greek mythology. One result of this education was the downright honesty of Burns’s poems. Here is no echo from a vanished world of gods and goddesses, but the voice of a man, living, working, feeling joy or sorrow in the presence of everyday nature and humanity.
For another formative influence Burns was indebted to Betty Davidson, a relative and an inmate of the household, who carried such a stock of old wives’ tales as would scare any child into fits on a dark night. Hear Burns speak of her:
“She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantrips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and other trumpery. This cultivated the latent seeds of poetry, but had so strong an effect upon my imagination that to this hour, in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in suspicious places.”
Reflections of these grotesque superstitions appear in such poems as the “Address to the Deil” and “Tam o’ Shanter.” The latter is commonly named as one of the few original works of Burns, but it is probably a retelling of some old witch-tale of Betty Davidson.
[Sidenote: EVIL ELEMENTS]
The evil influence in Burns’s life may be only suggested. It leads first to the tavern, to roistering and dissipation, to entanglements in vulgar love affairs; then swiftly to the loss of a splendid poetic gift, to hopeless debts, to degrading poverty, to an untimely death. Burns had his chance, if ever poet had it, after the publication of his first book (the famous Kilmarnock edition of 1786) when he was called in triumph to Edinburgh. There he sold another edition of his poems for a sum that seemed fabulous to a poor crofter; whereupon he bought a farm and married his Jean Armour. He was acclaimed throughout the length and breadth of his native land, his poems were read by the wise and by the ignorant, he was the poet of Scotland, and the nation, proud of its gifted son, stood ready to honor and follow him. But the old habits were too strong, and Burns took the downhill road. To this element of dissipation we owe his occasional bitterness, railing and coarseness, which make an expurgated edition of his poems essential to one who would enjoy the reading.
[Illustration: THE VILLAGE OF TARBOLTON, NEAR WHICH BURNS LIVED WHEN ABOUT NINETEEN YEARS OLD]
There is another element, often emphasized for its alleged influence on Burns’s poetry. During his lifetime the political world was shaken by the American and French revolutions, democracy was in the air, and the watchwords “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” inspired many a song besides the _Marseillaise_ and many a document besides the Declaration of Independence. That Burns was aware of this political commotion is true, but he was not much influenced by it. He was at home only in his own Scottish field, and even there his interests were limited,–not to be compared with those of Walter Scott, for example. When the Bastille was stormed, and the world stood aghast, Burns was too much engrossed in personal matters to be greatly moved by distant affairs in France. Not to the Revolution, therefore, but to his Scottish blood do we owe the thrilling “Scots Wha Hae,” one of the world’s best battle songs, not to the new spirit of democracy abroad but to the old Covenanter spirit at home do we owe “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” with its assertion of elemental manhood.
THE SONGS OF BURNS. From such an analysis of Burns’s life one may forecast his subject and his method. Living intensely in a small field, he must discover that there are just two poetic subjects of abiding interest. These are Nature and Humanity, and of these Burns must write from first-hand knowledge, simply, straightforwardly, and with sincerity. Moreover, as Burns lives in an intense way, reading himself rather than books, he must discover that the ordinary man is more swayed by strong feeling than by logical reasons. He will write, therefore, of the common emotions that lie between the extremes of laughter and tears, and his appeal will be to the heart rather than to the head of his reader.
[Illustration: AULD ALLOWAY KIRK
Made famous by the poem of “Tam o’Shanter”]
This emotional power of Burns, his masterful touch upon human heartstrings, is the first of his poetic qualities; and he has others which fairly force themselves upon the attention. For example, many of his lyrics (“Auld Lang Syne,” “Banks o’ Doon,” “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” “O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast”) have been repeatedly set to music; and the reason is that they were written to music, that in such poems Burns was refashioning some old material to the tune of a Scottish song. There is a singing quality in his poetry which not only makes it pleasant reading but which is apt to set the words tripping to melody. For a specific example take this stanza from “Of a’ the Airts,” a lyric which one can hardly read without making a tune to match it:
I see her in the dewy flow’rs,
I see her sweet and fair;
I hear her in the tunefu’ birds,
I hear her charm the air:
There’s not a bonie flow’r that springs By fountain, shaw or green,
There’s not a bonie bird that sings, But minds me o’ my Jean.
Sympathy is another marked characteristic of Burns, a wide, all-embracing sympathy that knows no limit save for hypocrites, at whom he pointed his keenest satire. His feeling for nature is reflected in “To a Mouse” and “To a Daisy”; his comradeship with noble men appears in “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” with riotous and bibulous men in “The Jolly Beggars,” with smugglers and their ilk in “The Deil’s Awa’ with the Exciseman,” [Footnote: Burns was himself an exciseman; that is, a collector of taxes on alcoholic liquors. He wrote this song while watching a smuggler’s craft, and waiting in the storm for officers to come and make an arrest.] with patriots in “Bannockburn,” with men who mourn in “To Mary in Heaven,” and with all lovers in a score of famous lyrics. Side by side with Burns’s sympathy (for Smiles live next door to Tears) appears his keen sense of humor, a humor that is sometimes rollicking, as in “Contented wi’ Little,” and again too broad for decency. For the most part, however, Burns contents himself with dry, quiet sarcasm delivered with an air of great seriousness:
Ah, gentle dames, it gars me greet
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthened sage advices
The husband frae the wife despises!
WHY BURNS IS READ. Such qualities, appearing on almost every page of Burns’s little book of poetry, show how widely he differs from the formal school of Pope and Dryden. They labor to compose poetry, while Burns gives the impression of singing, as naturally as a child sings from a full heart. Again, most eighteenth-century poets wrote for the favored few, but Burns wrote for all his neighbors. His first book was bought farmers, plowboys, milkmaids,–by every Lowlander who could scrape together three shillings to buy a treasure. Then scholars got hold of it, taking it from humble hands, and Burns was called to Edinburgh to prepare a larger edition of his songs. For a half century Scotland kept him to herself, [Footnote: Up to 1850 Burns was rarely mentioned in treatises on English literature. One reason for his late recognition was that the Lowland vocabulary employed in most of his poems was only half intelligible to the ordinary English reader] then his work went wide in the world, to be read again by plain men and women, by sailors on the sea, by soldiers round the campfire, by farmers, mechanics, tradesmen, who in their new homes in Australia or America warmed themselves at the divine fire which was kindled, long ago, in the little clay biggin at Alloway.
[Illustration: BURNS’S MAUSOLEUM]
[Sidenote: THE GENIUS OF BURNS]
If one should ask, Why this world wide welcome to Burns, the while Pope remains a mark for literary criticism? the answer is that Burns has a most extraordinary power of touching the hearts of common men. He is one of the most democratic of poets, he takes for his subject a simple experience–a family gathering at eventide, a fair, a merrymaking, a joy, a grief, the finding of a flower, the love of a lad for a lass–and with rare simplicity reflects the emotion that such an experience awakens. Seen through the poet’s eyes, this simple emotion becomes radiant and lovely, a thing not of earth but of heaven. That is the genius of Burns, to ennoble human feeling, to reveal some hidden beauty in a commonplace experience. The luminous world of fine thought and fine emotion which we associate with the name of poetry he opened not to scholars alone but to all humble folk who toil and endure. As a shoemaker critic once said, “Burns confirms my former suspicion that the world was made for me as well as for Casar.”
* * * * *
MINOR POETS OF ROMANTICISM
There were other poets who aided in the romantic revival, and among them William Cowper (1731-1800) is one of the most notable. His most ambitious works, such as _The Task_ and the translation of Homer into blank verse, have fallen into neglect, and he is known to modern readers chiefly by a few familiar hymns and by the ballad of “John Gilpin.”
[Illustration: WILLIAM COWPER
From the rare engraving by W Blake (1802) After the painting by T Lawrence, R A (1793)]
Less gifted but more popular than Cowper was James Macpherson (1736-1796), who made a sensation that spread rapidly over Europe and America with his _Fingal_ (1762) and other works of the same kind,–wildly heroic poems which, he alleged, were translations from Celtic manuscripts written by an ancient bard named Ossian. Another and better literary forgery appeared in a series of ballads called _The Rowley Papers_, dealing with medieval themes. These were written by “the marvelous boy” Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), who professed to have found the poems in a chest of old manuscripts. The success of these forgeries, especially of the “Ossian” poems, is an indication of the awakened interest in medieval poetry and legend which characterized the whole romantic movement.
In this connection, Thomas Percy (1729-1811) did a notable work when he published, after years of research, his _Reliques of Ancient English Poetry_ (1765). This was a collection of old ballads, which profoundly influenced Walter Scott, and which established a foundation for all later works of balladry.
Another interesting figure in the romantic revival is William Blake (1757-1827), a strange, mystic child, a veritable John o’ Dreams, whom some call madman because of his huge, chaotic, unintelligible poems, but whom others regard as the supreme poetical genius of the eighteenth century. His only readable works are the boyish _Poetical Sketches_ (1783) and two later volumes called _Songs of Innocence_ and _Songs of Experience_ (1794). Even these contain much to make us question Blake’s sanity; but they contain also a few lyrics that might have been written by an elf rather than a man,–beautiful, elusive lyrics that haunt us like a strain of gypsy music, a memory of childhood, a bird song in the night:
Can the eagle see what is in the pit, Or wilt thou go ask the mole?
Can wisdom be put in a silver rod, Or love in a golden bowl?
In the witchery of these lyrics eighteenth-century poetry appears commonplace; but they attracted no attention, even “Holy Thursday,” the sweetest song of poor children ever written, passing unnoticed. That did not trouble Blake, however, who cared nothing for rewards. He was a childlike soul, well content
To see the world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.
* * * * *
THE EARLY ENGLISH NOVEL
An important literary event of the eighteenth century was the appearance of the modern novel. This invention, generally credited to the English, differs radically from the old romance, which was known to all civilized peoples. Walter Scott made the following distinction between the two types of fiction: the romance is a story in which our interest centers in marvelous incidents, brought to pass by extraordinary or superhuman characters; the novel is a story which is more natural, more in harmony with our experience of life. Such a definition, though faulty, is valuable in that it points to the element of imagination as the distinguishing mark between the romance and the true novel.
[Sidenote: THE ROMANCE]
Take, for example, the romances of Arthur or Sindbad or the Green Knight. Here are heroes of more than human endurance, ladies of surpassing loveliness, giants, dragons, enchanters, marvelous adventures in the land of imagination. Such fanciful stories, valuable as a reflection of the ideals of different races, reached their highest point in the Middle Ages, when they were used to convey the ideals of chivalry and knightly duty. They grew more fantastic as they ran to seed, till in the Elizabethan age they had degenerated into picaresque stories (from _picaro_, “a rogue”) which recounted the adventures not of a noble knight but of some scoundrel or outcast. They were finally laughed out of literature in numerous burlesques, of which the most famous is _Don Quixote_ (1605). In the humor of this story, in the hero’s fighting windmills and meeting so many adventures that he had no time to breathe, we have an excellent criticism not of chivalry, as is sometimes alleged, but of extravagant popular romances on the subject. [Footnote: _Don Quixote_ is commonly named as a type of extravagant humor, but from another viewpoint it is a sad book, intensely sad. For it recounts the experience of a man who had a knightly heart and who believed the world to be governed by knightly ideals, but who went forth to find a world filled with vulgarity and villainy.]
[Sidenote: THE NOVEL]
Compare now these old romances with _Ivanhoe_ or _Robinson Crusoe_ or _Lorna Doone_ or _A Tale of Two Cities_. In each of the last-named novels one may find three elements: a story, a study, and an exercise of the creative imagination. A modern work of fiction must still have a good story, if anybody is to read it; must contain also a study or observation of humanity, not of superhuman heroes but of men and women who work or play or worship in close relationship to their fellows. Finally, the story and the study must be fused by the imagination, which selects or creates various scenes, characters, incidents, and which orders or arranges its materials so as to make a harmonious work that appeals to our sense of truth and beauty; in other words, a work of art.
Such is the real novel, a well-told story in tune with human experience, holding true to life, exercising fancy but keeping it under control, arousing thought as well as feeling, and appealing to our intellect as well as to our imagination. [Footnote: This convenient division of prose fiction into romances and novels is open to challenge. Some critics use the name “novel” for any work of prose fiction. They divide novels into two classes, stories (or short stories) and romances. The story relates simple or detached incidents; the romance deals with life in complex relations, dominated by strong emotions, especially by the emotion of love.
Other critics arrange prose fiction in the following classes: novels of adventure (Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans), historical novels (Ivanhoe, The Spy), romantic novels (Lorna Doone, The Heart of Midlothian), novels of manners (Cranford, Pride and Prejudice), novels of personality (Silas Marner, The Scarlet Letter), novels of purpose (Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin).
Still another classification arranges fiction under two heads, romance and realism. In the romance, which portrays unusual incidents or characters, we see the ideal, the poetic side of humanity; in the realistic novel, dealing with ordinary men and women, the prosaic element of life is emphasized.]
DEFOE (1661-1731). Among the forerunners of the modern novel is Daniel Foe, author of _Robinson Crusoe_, who began to call himself “Defoe” after he attained fame. He produced an amazing variety of wares: newspapers, magazines, ghost stories, biographies, journals, memoirs, satires, picaresque romances, essays on religion, reform, trade, projects,–in all more than two hundred works. These were written in a picturesque style and with such a wealth of detail that, though barefaced inventions for the most part, they passed for veracious chronicles. One critic, thinking of the vividly realistic _Journal of the Plague Year_ and _Memoirs of a Cavalier_, says that “Defoe wrote history, but invented the facts”; another declares that “the one little art of which Defoe was past master was the art of forging a story and imposing it on the world as truth.” The long list of his works ends with a _History of the Devil_, in 1726.
[Illustration: DANIEL DEFOE]
Foe’s career was an extraordinary one. By nature and training he seems to have preferred devious ways to straight, and to have concealed his chief motive whether he appeared as reformer or politician, tradesman or writer, police-spy or friend of outcasts. His education, which he picked up from men and circumstance, was more varied than any university could have given him. Perhaps the chief factor in this practical education was his ability to turn every experience to profitable account. As a journalist he invented the modern magazine (his _Review_ appeared in 1704, five years before Steele’s _Tatler_); also he projected the interview, the editorial, the “scoop,” and other features which still figure in our newspapers. As a hired pamphleteer, writing satires against Whigs or Tories, he learned so many political secrets that when one party fell he was the best possible man to be employed by the other. While sitting in the stocks (in punishment for writing a satirical pamphlet that set Tories and Churchmen by the ears) he made such a hit with his doggerel verses against the authorities that crowds came to the pillory to cheer him and to buy his poem. While in durance vile, in the old Newgate Prison, he mingled freely with all sorts of criminals (there were no separate cells in those days), won their secrets, and used them to advantage in his picaresque romances. He learned also so much of the shady side of London life that no sooner was he released than he was employed as a secret service agent, or spy, by the government which had jailed him.
[Illustration: CUPOLA HOUSE Defoe’s residence at Bury]
It is as difficult to find the real Foe amidst such devious trails as to determine where a caribou is from the maze of footprints which he leaves behind him. He seems to have been untiring in his effort to secure better treatment of outcast folk, he speaks of himself with apparent sincerity, as having received his message from the Divine Spirit, but the impression which he made upon the upper classes was reflected by Swift, who called him “a grave, dogmatical rogue”. For many years he was a popular hero, trusted not only by the poor but by the criminal classes (ordinarily keen judges of honesty in other men), until his secret connection with the government became known. Then suspicion fell upon him, his popularity was destroyed and he fled from London. The last few years of his life were spent in hiding from real or imaginary enemies.
[Sidenote: ROBINSON CRUSOE]
Defoe was approaching his sixtieth year when he wrote _Robinson Crusoe_ (1719), a story which has been read through out the civilized world, and which, after two centuries of life, is still young and vigorous. The first charm of the book is in its moving adventures, which are surprising enough to carry us through the moralizing passages. These also have their value; for who ever read them without asking, What would I have done or thought or felt under such circumstances? The work of society is now so comfortably divided that one seldom dreams of being his own mechanic, farmer, hunter, herdsman, cook and tailor, as Crusoe was. Thinking of his experience we are brought face to face with our dependence on others, with our debt to the countless, unnamed men whose labor made civilization possible. We understand also the pioneers, who in the far, lonely places of the earth have won a home and country from the wilderness.
When the adventures are duly appreciated we discover another charm of _Robinson Crusoe_, namely, its intense reality. Defoe had that experience of many projects, and that vivid imagination, which enabled him to put himself in the place of his hero, [Footnote: The basis of _Robinson Crusoe_ was the experience of an English sailor, Alexander Selkirk, or Selcraig, who was marooned on the lonely island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile. There he lived in solitude for the space of five years before he was rescued. When Selkirk returned to England (1709) an account of his adventures appeared in the public press.] to anticipate his needs, his feelings, his labors and triumph. That Crusoe was heroic none will deny; yet his heroism was of a different kind from that which we meet in the old romances. Here was no knight “without fear and without reproach,” but a plain man with his strength and weakness. He despaired like other men; but instead of giving way to despair he drew up a list of his blessings and afflictions, “like debtor and creditor,” found a reasonable balance in his favor, and straightway conquered himself,–which is the first task of all real heroes. Again, he had horrible fears; he beat his breast, cried out as one in mortal terror; then “I thought that would do little good, so I began to make a raft.” So he overcame his fears, as he overcame the difficulties of the place, by setting himself to do alone what a whole race of men had done before him. _Robinson Crusoe_ is therefore history as well as fiction; its subject is not Alexander Selkirk but Homo Sapiens; its lesson is the everlasting triumph of will and work.
RICHARDSON. One morning in 1740 the readers of London found a new work for sale in the bookshops. It was made up of alleged letters from a girl to her parents, a sentimental girl who opened her heart freely, explaining its hopes, fears, griefs, temptations, and especially its moral sensibilities. Such a work of fiction was unique at that time. Delighted readers waited for another and yet another volume of the same story, till more than a year had passed and _Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded_ reached its happy ending.
[Sidenote: THE FIRST NOVEL]
The book made a sensation in England; it was speedily translated, and repeated its triumph on the other side of the Channel. Comparatively few people could read it now without being bored, but it is famous in the history of literature as the first English novel; that is, a story of a human life under stress of emotion, told by one who understood the tastes of his own age, and who strove to keep his work true to human nature in all ages.
The author of _Pamela_, Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), was a very proper person, well satisfied with himself, who conducted a modest business as printer and bookseller. For years he had practiced writing, and had often been employed by sentimental young women who came to him for model love letters. Hence the extraordinary knowledge of feminine feelings which Richardson displayed; hence also the epistolary form in which his novels were written. His aim in all his work was to teach morality and correct deportment. His strength was in his power to analyze and portray emotions. His weakness lay in his vanity, which led him to shun masculine society and to foregather at tea tables with women who flattered him.
Led by the success of _Pamela_, which portrayed the feelings of a servant girl, the author began another series of letters which ended in the eight-volume novel _Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady_ (1748). The story appeared in installments, which were awaited with feverish impatience till the agony drew to an end, and the heroine died amid the sobs of ten thousand readers. Yet the story had power, and the central figure of Clarissa was impressive in its pathos and tragedy. The novel would still be readable if it were stripped of the stilted conversations and sentimental gush in which Richardson delighted; but that would leave precious little of the story.
FIELDING. In vigorous contrast with the prim and priggish Richardson is Henry Fielding (1707-1754), a big, jovial, reckless man, full of animal spirits, who was ready to mitigate any man’s troubles or forget his own by means of a punch bowl or a venison potpie. He was noble born, but seems to have been thrown on the world to shift for himself. After an excellent education he studied law, and was for some years a police magistrate, in which position he increased his large knowledge of the seamy side of life. He had a pen for vigorous writing, and after squandering two modest fortunes (his own and his wife’s) he proceeded to earn his living by writing buffooneries for the stage. Then appeared Richardson’s _Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded_, and in ridiculing its sentimental heroine Fielding found his vocation as a novelist.
[Sidenote: BURLESQUE OF RICHARDSON]
He began _Joseph Andrews_ (1742) as a joke, by taking for his hero an alleged brother of Pamela, who was also virtuous but whose reward was to be kicked out of doors. Then the story took to the open road, among the inns and highways of an age when traveling in rural England was almost as adventurous as campaigning in Flanders. In the joy of his story Fielding soon forgot his burlesque of Richardson, and attempted what he called a realistic novel; that is, a story of real life. The morality and decorum which Richardson exalted appeared to Fielding as hypocrisy; so he devoted himself to a portrayal of men and manners as he found them.
Undoubtedly there were plenty of good men and manners at that time, but Fielding had a vagabond taste that delighted in rough scenes, and of these also eighteenth-century England could furnish an abundance. Hence his _Joseph_ Andrews is a picture not of English society, as is often alleged, but only of the least significant part of society. The same is true of _Tom Jones_ (1749), which is the author’s most vigorous work, and of _Amelia_ (1751), in which, though he portrays one good woman, he repeats many of the questionable incidents of his earlier works.
There is power in all these novels, the power of keen observation, of rough humor, of downright sincerity; but unhappily the power often runs to waste in long speeches to the reader, in descriptions of brutal or degrading scenes, and in a wholly unnecessary coarseness of expression.
INFLUENCE OF THE EARLY NOVELS. The idea of the modern novel seems to have been developed by several English authors, each of whom, like pioneers in a new country, left his stamp on subsequent works in the same field. Richardson’s governing motive may be summed up in the word “sensibility,” which means “delicacy of feeling,” and which was a fashion, almost a fetish, in eighteenth-century society. Because it was deemed essential to display proper or decorous feeling on all occasions, Richardson’s heroines were always analyzing their emotions; they talked like a book of etiquette; they indulged in tears, fainting, transports of joy, paroxysms of grief, apparently striving to make themselves as unlike a real woman as possible. It is astonishing how far and wide this fad of sensibility spread through the literary world, and how many gushing heroines of English and American fiction during the next seventy-five years were modeled on Pamela or Clarissa.
In view of this artificial fashion, the influence of Fielding was like the rush of crisp air into a hot house. His aim was realistic, that is, to portray real people in their accustomed ways. Unfortunately his aim was spoiled by the idea that to be realistic one must go to the gutter for material. And then appeared Goldsmith, too much influenced by the fad of sensibility, but aiming to depict human life as governed by high ideals, and helping to cleanse the English novel from brutality and indecency.
[Sidenote: THREEFOLD INFLUENCE]
There were other early novelists, a host of them, but in Richardson, Fielding and Goldsmith we have enough. Richardson emphasized the analysis of human feeling or motive, and that of itself was excellent; but his exaggerated sentimentality set a bad fashion which our novelists were almost a century in overcoming. Fielding laid stress on realism, and that his influence was effective is shown in the work of his disciple Thackeray, who could be realistic without being coarse. And Goldsmith made all subsequent novelists his debtors by exalting that purity of domestic life to which every home worthy of the name forever strives or aspires.
If it be asked, What novels of the early type ought one to read? the answer is simple. Unless you want to curdle your blood by a tale of mystery and horror (in which case Mrs. Radcliffe’s _Mysteries of Udolpho_ will serve the purpose) there are only two that young readers will find satisfactory: the realistic _Robinson Crusoe_ by Defoe, and the romantic _Vicar of Wakefield_ by Goldsmith.
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SUMMARY. What we call eighteenth-century literature appeared