Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

A VIEW

OF

MODERN ENGLISH LITERATURE.

No. I.

English Literature under the Tudors and the first

Stuarts.

The discovery of the mariner's compass, the invention of printing, the revival of classic learning, the Reformation, with all the great moral, commercial, political, and intellectual consequences of these new means, materials, and motives for action and thought, produced corresponding effects upon literature and science. With the progress of the former alone, in our own country, have we to do at present.

From the reign of Elizabeth to the protectorate of Cromwell, inclusively; there rose in phalanx, and continued in succession, minds of all orders, and hands for all work, in poetry, philosophy, history, and theology, which have bequeathed to posterity such treasures of what may be called genuine English literature, that whatever may be the transmigrations of taste, the revolutions of style, and the fashions in popular reading, these will ever be the sterling standards. The translation of the Scriptures, settled by authority, and which, for reasons that need not be discussed here, can never be materially changed, -consequently can never become obsolete,-has secured perpetuity to the youth of the English tongue : and whatever may befall the works of writers in it from other causes, they are not likely to be antiquated in the degree that has been foretold by one whose own imperishable strains would for centuries have delayed the fulfilment of his disheartening prophecy, even if it were to be fulfilled :

Our sons their fathers' failing language see.
And such as Chaucer is shall Dryden be.'

PoPE.

Now it is clear, that unless the language be improved or deteriorated far beyond any thing that can be anticipated from the slight variations which have taken place within the last two hundred years, compared with the two hundred years preceding, Dryden cannot become what Chaucer is; especially since there seems to be a necessity laid upon all generations of Englishmen to understand, as the fathers of their mother-tongue, the great authors of the age of Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I. : from Spenser (though much of his poetry is wilfully obscured by affected phraseology) and Shakspeare (the idolatry to whose name will surely never permit its divinity to die) to Milton, whose style cannot fall into decay while there is talent or sensibility among his countrymen to appreciate his writings. It may be confidently inferred, that the English language will remain subject to as little mutation as the Italian has been since works of enduring excellence were first produced in it; the prose of Boccaccio and the verse of Dante, so far as dialect is concerned, are as well understood by the common people of their country, at this day, as the writings of Chaucer and Gower are by the learned in ours.

Had no works of transcendent originality been produced within the last hundred and fifty years, it may be imagined that such fluctuations might have occurred as would have rendered our language as different from what it was when Milton flourished, as it then was from what it had been in the days of Chaucer; with this reverse, that, during the latter it must have degenerated as much as it had been refined during the earlier interval. But the standard of our tongue having been fixed at an era when it was rich in native idioms, full of pristine vigour, and pliable almost as sound articulate can be to sense,-and that standard having been fixed in poetry, the most permanent and perfect of all forms of literature-as well as in the version of the Scriptures which are necessarily the most popular species of reading, no very considerable changes can be effected, except Britain were again exposed to invasion as it was wont to be of old; and the modern Saxons or Norwegians were thus to subvert both our government and our language, and either utterly extinguish the latter, or assimilate it with their own.

Contemporary with Milton, though his junior, and belonging to a subsequent era of literature, of which he became the great luminary and master-spirit, was Dryden. His prose (not less admirable than his verse) in its structure and cadence, in compass of expression, and general freedom from cumbersome pomp, pedantic restraint, and vicious quaintness, which more or less characterized his predecessors, became the favourite model in that species of composition, which was happily followed and highly improved by Addison, Johnson, and other periodical writers of the last century. These, to whom must be added the triumvirate of British historians, Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon, who exemplified, in their very dissimilar styles, the triple contrast and harmony of simplicity, elegance, and splendour,-these illustrious names in prose are so many pledges, that the language in which they immortalized their thoughts is itself immortalized by being made the

vehicle of these, and can never become barbarian like Chaucer's uncouth, rugged, incongruous medley of sounds, which are as remote from the strength, volubility, and precision of those employed by his polished successors, as the imperfect lispings of infancy before it has learned to pronounce half the alphabet, and imitates the letters which it cannot pronounce with those which it can, are to the clear, and round, and eloquent intonations of youth, when the voice and the ear are perfectly formed and attuned to each other.

English Literature from the Restoration to the Reign

of George the Third. From the Restoration in 1660 to the time when Cowper had risen into full fame in 1790, may be dated the second grand era of modern English literature, reckoning from Elizabeth to the close of Cromwell's protectorate, already mentioned as the first. The early part of this period (the reigns of Charles II. and James II.) was distinguished for works of wit and profligacy; the drama in particular was pre-eminent for the genius that adorned and the abominations that disgraced its scenes. The middle portions of the same period, from the revolution of 1688 to the close of the reign of George II., was rather the age of reason than of passion, of fine fancy than adventurous imagination in the belles lettres generally. Pope, as the follower of Dryden in verse, excelled him as much in grace and harmony of numbers as he might be deemed to fall below him in raciness and pithy originality.

In like manner he imitated Horace in Latin, and Boileau in French, rivalling, perhaps equalling either in his peculiar line, and excelling both, by combining the excellences of each in his own unique, compact, consummate style. It is to be remarked, however,

Сс

that though Pope gave the tone, character, and fashion to the verse of his day, as decidedly as Addison had given to the prose, yet of all his imitators not one has maintained the rank of even a secondrate author; the greatest names among his contemporaries, Thomson and Young, being those who differed most from him in manner, subject, and taste,especially in those of their works which promise to last as long as own.

Between Pope and Cowper we have the names of Collins, Gray, Goldsmith, and Churchill.

Of these, the two former have nothing in common with Pope, but they produced too little, and were too great mannerists themselves to be the fathers, in either line, of a school of mannerists: it is only when mannerism is connected with genius of the proudest order or the most prolific species that it becomes extensively infectious among minor minds. As for Goldsmith and Churchill, whatever they appear to have owed to Pope they are remembered and admired for what they possessed independent of him, each having wealth enough of his own to be a freeholder of Par. nassus, after paying off any mortgage on his little estate due to that enormous capitalist.

The greater stress has been laid upon the utter mortality among

the numberless imitators of Pope, because it exemplifies the impossibility of any imitator ever being a great poet, however great his model, and however exquisite his copying may be. Nothing in the English language can be more perfect than the terseness, elegance, and condensation of Pope's sentiments, diction, and rhyme. Of course the successful imitation of these might be expected to prove an infallible passport to renown, because such a style involves the happiest union of .diverse requisites, and its charm consists far less in any one peculiarity (as is the case of other eminent bards) than in the perfection of those principles

« ForrigeFortsett »