1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/English Literature
ENGLISH LITERATURE. The following discussion of the evolution of English literature, i.e. of the contribution to literature made in the course of ages by the writers of England, is planned so as to give a comprehensive view, the details as to particular authors and their work, and special consideration of the greater writers, being given in the separate articles devoted to them. It is divided into the following sections: (1) Earliest times to Chaucer; (2) Chaucer to the end of the middle ages; (3) Elizabethan times; (4) the Restoration period; (5) the Eighteenth century; (6) the Nineteenth century. The object of these sections is to form connecting links among the successive literary ages, leaving the separate articles on individual great writers to deal with their special interest; attention being paid in the main to the gradually developing characteristics of the product, quâ literary. The precise delimitation of what may narrowly be called “English” literature, i.e. in the English language, is perhaps impossible, and separate articles are devoted to American literature (q.v.), and to the vernacular literatures of Scotland (see Scotland; and Celt: Literature), Ireland (see Celt: Literature), and Wales (see Celt: Literature); see also Canada: Literature. Reference may also be made to such general articles on particular forms as Novel; Romance; Verse, &c.
I. Earliest Times to Chaucer
English literature, in the etymological sense of the word, had, so far as we know, no existence until Christian times. There is no evidence either that the heathen English had adopted the Roman alphabet, or that they had learned to employ their native monumental script (the runes) on materials suitable for the writing of continuous compositions of considerable length.
It is, however, certain that in the pre-literary period at least one species of poetic art had attained a high degree of development, and that an extensive body of poetry was handed down—not, indeed, with absolute fixity of form or substance—from generation to generation. This unwritten poetry was the work of minstrels who found their audiences in the halls of kings and nobles. Its themes were the exploits of heroes belonging to the royal houses of Germanic Europe, with which its listeners claimed kinship. Its metre was the alliterative long line, the lax rhythm of which shows that it was intended, not to be sung to regular melodies, but to be recited—probably with some kind of instrumental accompaniment. Of its beauty and power we may judge from the best passages in Beowulf (q.v.); for there can be little doubt that this poem gained nothing and lost much in the process of literary redaction.
The conversion of the people to Christianity necessarily involved the decline of the minstrelsy that celebrated the glories of heathen times. Yet the descendants of Woden, even when they were devout Christians, would not easily lose all interest in the achievements of their kindred of former days. Chaucer’s knowledge of “the song of Wade” is one proof among others that even so late as the 14th century the deeds of Germanic heroes had not ceased to be recited in minstrel verse. The paucity of the extant remains of Old English heroic poetry is no argument to the contrary. The wonder is that any of it has survived at all. We may well believe that the professional reciter would, as a rule, be jealous of any attempt to commit to writing the poems which he had received by tradition or had himself composed. The clergy, to whom we owe the writing and the preservation of the Old English MSS., would only in rare instances be keenly interested in secular poetry. We possess, in fact, portions of four narrative poems, treating of heroic legend—Beowulf, Widsith, Finnesburh and Waldere. The second of these has no poetical merit, but great archaeological interest. It is an enumeration of the famous kings known to German tradition, put into the mouth of a minstrel (named Widsith, “far-travelled”), who claims to have been at many of their courts and to have been rewarded by them for his song. The list includes historical persons such as Ermanaric and Alboin, who really lived centuries apart, but (with the usual chronological vagueness of tradition) are treated as contemporaries. The extant fragment of Finnesburh (50 lines) is a brilliant battle piece, belonging to a story of which another part is introduced episodically in Beowulf. Waldere, of which we have two fragments (together 68 lines) is concerned with Frankish and Burgundian traditions based on events of the 5th century; the hero is the “Waltharius” of Ekkehart’s famous Latin epic. The English poem may possibly be rather a literary composition than a genuine example of minstrel poetry, but the portions that have survived are hardly inferior to the best passages of Beowulf.
It may reasonably be assumed that the same minstrels who entertained the English kings and nobles with the recital of ancient heroic traditions would also celebrate in verse the martial deeds of their own patrons and their immediate ancestors. Probably there may have existed an abundance of poetry commemorative of events in the conquest of Britain and the struggle with the Danes. Two examples only have survived, both belonging to the 10th century: The Battle of Brunanburh, which has been greatly over-praised by critics who were unaware that its striking phrases and compounds are mere traditional echoes; and the Battle of Maldon, the work of a truly great poet, of which unhappily only a fragment has been preserved.
One of the marvels of history is the rapidity and thoroughness with which Christian civilization was adopted by the English. Augustine landed in 597; forty years later was born an Englishman, Aldhelm, who in the judgment of his contemporaries throughout the Christian world was the most accomplished scholar and the finest Latin writer of his time. In the next generation England produced in Bede (Bæda) a man who in solidity and variety of knowledge, and in literary power, had for centuries no rival in Europe. Aldhelm and Bede are known to us only from their Latin writings, though the former is recorded to have written vernacular poetry of great merit. The extant Old English literature is almost entirely Christian, for the poems that belong to an earlier period have been expurgated and interpolated in a Christian sense. From the writings that have survived, it would seem as if men strove to forget that England had ever been heathen. The four deities whose names are attached to the days of the week are hardly mentioned at all. The names Thunor and Tiw are sometimes used to translate the Latin Jupiter and Mars; Woden has his place (but not as a god) in the genealogies of the kings, and his name occurs once in a magical poem, but that is all. Bede, as a historian, is obliged to tell the story of the conversion; but the only native divinities he mentions are the goddesses Hrēth and Eostre, and all we learn about them is that they gave their names to Hrēthemōnath (March) and Easter. That superstitious practices of heathen origin long survived among the people is shown by the acts of church councils and by a few poems of a magical nature that have been preserved; but, so far as can be discovered, the definite worship of the ancient gods quickly died out. English heathenism perished without leaving a record.
The Old English religious poetry was written, probably without exception, in the cloister, and by men who were familiar with the Bible and with Latin devotional literature. Setting aside the wonderful Dream of the Rood, it gives little evidence of high poetic genius, though much of it is marked by a degree of culture and refinement that we should hardly have expected. Its material and thought are mainly derived from Latin sources; its expression is imitated from the native heroic poetry. Considering that a great deal of Latin verse was written by Englishmen in the 7th and succeeding centuries, and that in one or two poems the line is actually composed of an English and a Latin hemistich rhyming together, it seems strange that the Latin influence on Old English versification should have been so small. The alliterative long line is throughout the only metre employed, and although the laws of alliteration and rhythm were less rigorously obeyed in the later than in the earlier poetry, there is no trace of approximation to the structure of Latin verse. It is true that, owing to imitation of the Latin hymns of the church, rhyme came gradually to be more and more frequently used as an ornament of Old English verse; but it remained an ornament only, and never became an essential feature. The only poem in which rhyme is employed throughout is one in which sense is so completely sacrificed to sound that a translation would hardly be possible. It was not only in metrical respects that the Old English religious poetry remained faithful to its native models. The imagery and the diction are mainly those of the old heroic poetry, and in some of the poems Christ and the saints are presented, often very incongruously, under the aspect of Germanic warriors. Nearly all the religious poetry that has any considerable religious value seems to have been written in Northumbria during the 8th century. The remarkably vigorous poem of Judith, however, is certainly much later; and the Exodus, though early, seems to be of southern origin. For a detailed account of the Old English sacred poetry, the reader is referred to the articles on Cædmon and Cynewulf, to one or other of whom nearly every one of the poems, except those of obviously late date, has at some time been attributed.
The Riddles (q.v.) of the Exeter Book resemble the religious poetry in being the work of scholars, but they bear much more decidedly the impress of the native English character. Some of them rank among the most artistic and pleasing productions of Old English poetry. The Exeter Book contains also several pieces of a gnomic character, conveying proverbial instruction in morality and worldly wisdom. Their morality is Christian, but it is not unlikely that some of the wise sayings they contain may have come down by tradition from heathen times. The very curious Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn may be regarded as belonging to the same class.
The most original and interesting portion of the Old English literary poetry is the group of dramatic monologues—The Banished Wife’s Complaint, The Husband’s Message, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Deor and Wulf and Eadwacer. The date of these compositions is uncertain, though their occurrence in the Exeter Book shows that they cannot be later than the 10th century. That they are all of one period is at least unlikely, but they are all marked by the same peculiar tone of pathos. The monodramatic form renders it difficult to obtain a clear idea of the situation of the supposed speakers. It is not improbable that most of these poems may relate to incidents of heroic legend, with which the original readers were presumed to be acquainted. This, however, can be definitely affirmed only in the case of the two short pieces—Deor and Wulf and Eadwacer—which have something of a lyric character, being the only examples in Old English of strophic structure and the use of the refrain. Wulf and Eadwacer, indeed, exhibits a still further development in the same direction, the monotony of the long line metre being varied by the admission of short lines formed by the suppression of the second hemistich. The highly developed art displayed in this remarkable poem gives reason for believing that the existing remains of Old English poetry very inadequately represent its extent and variety.
While the origins of English poetry go back to heathen times, English prose may be said to have had its effective beginning in the reign of Alfred. It is of course true that vernacular prose of some kind was written much earlier. The English laws of Æthelberht of Kent, though it is perhaps unlikely that they were written down, as is commonly supposed, in the lifetime of Augustine (died A.D. 604), or even in that of the king (d. 616), were well known to Bede; and even in the 12th-century transcript that has come down to us, their crude and elliptical style gives evidence of their high antiquity. Later kings of Kent and of Wessex followed the example of publishing their laws in the native tongue. Bede is known to have translated the beginning of the gospel of John (down to vi. 9). The early part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (q.v.) is probably founded partly on prose annals of pre-Alfredian date. But although the amount of English prose written between the beginning of the 7th and the middle of the 9th century may have been considerable, Latin continued to be regarded as the appropriate vehicle for works of any literary pretension. If the English clergy had retained the scholarship which they possessed in the days of Aldhelm and Bede, the creation of a vernacular prose literature would probably have been longer delayed; for while Alfred certainly was not indifferent to the need of the laity for instruction, the evil that he was chiefly concerned to combat was the ignorance of their spiritual guides.
Of the works translated by him and the scholars whom he employed, St Gregory’s Pastoral Care and his Dialogues (the latter rendered by Bishop Werferth) are expressly addressed to the priesthood; if the other translations were intended for a wider circle of readers, they are all (not excepting the secular History of Orosius) essentially religious in purpose and spirit. In the interesting preface to the Pastoral Care, in the important accounts of Northern lands and peoples inserted in the Orosius, and in the free rendering and amplification of the Consolation of Boethius and of the Soliloquies of Augustine, Alfred appears as an original writer. Other fruits of his activity are his Laws (preceded by a collection of those of his 7th-century predecessor, Ine of Wessex), and the beginnings of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Old English prose after Alfred is entirely of clerical authorship; even the Laws, so far as their literary form is concerned, are hardly to be regarded as an exception. Apart from the Chronicle (see Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), the bulk of this literature consists of translations from Latin and of homilies and saints’ lives, the substance of which is derived from sources mostly accessible to us in their original form; it has therefore for us little importance except from the philological point of view. This remark may be applied, in the main, even to the writings of Ælfric, notwithstanding the great interest which attaches to his brilliant achievement in the development of the capacities of the native language for literary expression. The translation of the gospels, though executed in Ælfric’s time (about 1000), is by other hands. The sermons of his younger contemporary, Archbishop Wulfstan, are marked by earnestness and eloquence, and contain some passages of historical value.
From the early years of the 11th century we possess an encyclopaedic manual of the science of the time—chronology, astronomy, arithmetic, metre, rhetoric and ethics—by the monk Byrhtferth, a pupil of Abbo of Fleury. It is a compilation, but executed with intelligence. The numerous works on medicine, the properties of herbs, and the like, are in the main composed of selections from Latin treatises; so far as they are original, they illustrate the history of superstition rather than that of science. It is interesting to observe that they contain one or two formulas of incantations in Irish.
Two famous works of fiction, the romance of Apollonius of Tyre and the Letter of Alexander, which in their Latin form had much influence on the later literature of Europe, were Englished in the 11th century with considerable skill. To the same period belongs the curious tract on The Wonders of the East. In these works, and some minor productions of the time, we see that the minds of Englishmen were beginning to find interest in other than religious subjects.
The crowding of the English monasteries by foreigners, which was one of the results of the Norman Conquest, brought about a rapid arrest of the development of the vernacular literature. It was not long before the boys trained in the monastic schools ceased to learn to read and write their native tongue, and learned instead to read and write French. The effects of this change are visible in the rapid alteration of the literary language. The artificial tradition of grammatical correctness lost its hold; the archaic literary vocabulary fell into disuse; and those who wrote English at all wrote as they spoke, using more and more an extemporized phonetic spelling based largely on French analogies. The 12th century is a brilliant period in the history of Anglo-Latin literature, and many works of merit were written in French (see Anglo-Norman). But vernacular literature is scanty and of little originality. The Peterborough Chronicle, it is true, was continued till 1154, and its later portions, while markedly exemplifying the changes in the language, contain some really admirable writing. But it is substantially correct to say that from this point until the age of Chaucer vernacular prose served no other purpose than that of popular religious edification. For light on the intellectual life of the nation during this period we must look mainly to the works written in Latin. The homilies of the 12th century are partly modernized transcripts from Ælfric and other older writers, partly translations from French and Latin; the remainder is mostly commonplace in substance and clumsy in expression. At the beginning of the 13th century the Ancren Riwle (q.v.), a book of counsel for nuns, shows true literary genius, and is singularly interesting in its substance and spirit; but notwithstanding the author’s remarkable mastery of English expression, his culture was evidently French rather than English. Some minor religious prose works of the same period are not without merit. But these examples had no literary following. In the early 14th century the writings of Richard Rolle and his school attained great popularity. The profound influence which they exercised on later religious thought, and on the development of prose style, has seldom been adequately recognized. The Ayenbite of Inwyt (see Michel, Dan), a wretchedly unintelligent translation (finished in 1340) from Frère Lorens’s Somme des vices et des vertus, is valuable to the student of language, but otherwise worthless.
The break in the continuity of literary tradition, induced by the Conquest, was no less complete with regard to poetry than with regard to prose. The poetry of the 13th and the latter part of the 12th century was uninfluenced by the written works of Old English poets, whose archaic diction had to a great extent become unintelligible. But there is no ground to suppose that the succession of popular singers and reciters was ever interrupted. In the north-west, indeed, the old recitative metre seems to have survived in oral tradition, with little more alteration than was rendered necessary by the changes in the language, until the middle of the 14th century, when it was again adopted by literary versifiers. In the south this metre had greatly degenerated in strictness before the Conquest, but, with gradually increasing laxity in the laws of alliteration and rhythm, it continued long in use. It is commonly believed, with great intrinsic probability but with scanty actual evidence, that in the Old English period there existed, beside the alliterative long line, other forms of verse adapted not for recitation but for singing, used in popular lyrics and ballads that were deemed too trivial for written record. The influence of native popular poetic tradition, whether in the form of recited or of sung verse, is clearly discernible in the earliest Middle English poems that have been preserved. But the authors of these poems were familiar with Latin, and probably spoke French as easily as their mother tongue; and there was no longer any literary convention to restrain them from adopting foreign metrical forms. The artless verses of the hermit Godric, who died in 1170, exhibit in their metre the combined influence of native rhythm and of that of Latin hymnology. The Proverbs of Alfred, written about 1200, is (like the later Proverbs of Hendyng) in style and substance a gnomic poem of the ancient Germanic type, containing maxims some of which may be of immemorial antiquity; and its rhythm is mainly of native origin. On the other hand, the solemn and touching meditation known as the Moral Ode, which is somewhat earlier in date, is in a metre derived from contemporary Latin verse—a line of seven accents, broken by a caesura, and with feminine end-rhymes. In the Ormulum (see Orm) this metre (known as the septenarius) appears without rhyme, and with a syllabic regularity previously without example in English verse, the line (or distich, as it may be called with almost equal propriety) having invariably fifteen syllables. In various modified forms, the septenarius was a favourite measure throughout the Middle English period. In the poetry of the 13th century the influence of French models is conspicuous. The many devotional lyrics, some of which, as the Luve Ron of Thomas of Hales, have great beauty, show this influence not only in their varied metrical form, but also in their peculiar mystical tenderness and fervour. The Story of Genesis and Exodus, the substance of which is taken from the Bible and Latin commentators, derives its metre chiefly from French. Its poetical merit is very small. The secular poetry also received a new impulse from France. The brilliant and sprightly dialogue of the Owl and Nightingale, which can hardly be dated later than about 1230, is a “contention” of the type familiar in French and Provençal literature. The “Gallic” type of humour may be seen in various other writings of this period, notably in the Land of Cockaigne, a vivacious satire on monastic self-indulgence, and in the fabliau of Dame Siviz, a story of Eastern origin, told with almost Chaucerian skill. Predominantly, though not exclusively French in metrical structure, are the charming love poems collected in a MS. (Harl. 2253) written about 1320 in Herefordshire, some of which (edited in T. Wright’s Specimens of Lyric Poetry) find a place in modern popular anthologies. It is noteworthy that they are accompanied by some French lyrics very similar in style. The same MS. contains, besides some religious poetry, a number of political songs of the time of Edward II. They are not quite the earliest examples of their kind; in the time of the Barons’ War the popular cause had had its singers in English as well as in French. Later, the victories of Edward III. down to the taking of Guisnes in 1352, were celebrated by the Yorkshireman Laurence Minot in alliterative verse with strophic arrangement and rhyme.
At the very beginning of the 13th century a new species of composition, the metrical chronicle, was introduced into English literature. The huge work of Layamon, a history (mainly legendary) of Britain from the time of the mythical Brutus till after the mission of Augustine, is a free rendering of the Norman-French Brut of Wace, with extensive additions from traditional sources. Its metre seems to be a degenerate survival of the Old English alliterative line, gradually modified in the course of the work by assimilation to the regular syllabic measure of the French original. Unquestionable evidence of the knowledge of the poem on the part of later writers is scarce, but distinct echoes of its diction appear in the chronicle ascribed to Robert of Gloucester, written in rhymed septenary measures about 1300. This work, founded in its earlier part on the Latin historians of the 12th century, is an independent historical source of some value for the events of the writer’s own times. The succession of versified histories of England was continued by Thomas Bek of Castleford in Yorkshire (whose work still awaits an editor), and by Robert Mannyng of Brunne (Bourne, Lincolnshire). Mannyng’s chronicle, finished in 1338, is a translation, in its earlier part from Wace’s Brut, and in its later part from an Anglo-French chronicle (still extant) written by Peter Langtoft, canon of Bridlington.
Not far from the year 1300 (for the most part probably earlier rather than later) a vast mass of hagiological and homiletic verse was produced in divers parts of England. To Gloucester belongs an extensive series of Lives of Saints, metrically and linguistically closely resembling Robert of Gloucester’s Chronicle, and perhaps wholly or in part of the same authorship. A similar collection was written in the north of England, as well as a large body of homilies showing considerable poetic skill, and abounding in exempla or illustrative stories. Of exempla several prose collections had already been made in Anglo-French, and William of Wadington’s poem Manuel des péchés, which contains a great number of them, was translated in 1303 by Robert Mannyng already mentioned, with some enlargement of the anecdotic element, and frequent omissions of didactic passages. The great rhyming chronicle of Scripture history entitled Cursor Mundi (q.v.) was written in the north about this time. It was extensively read and transcribed, and exercised a powerful influence on later writers down to the end of the 14th century. The remaining homiletic verse of this period is too abundant to be referred to in detail; it will be enough to mention the sermons of William of Shoreham, written in strophic form, but showing little either of metrical skill or poetic feeling. To the next generation belongs the Pricke of Conscience by Richard Rolle, the influence of which was not less powerful than that of the author’s prose writings.
Romantic poetry, which in French had been extensively cultivated, both on the continent and in England from the early years of the 12th century, did not assume a vernacular form till about 1250. In the next hundred years its development was marvellously rapid. Of the vast mass of metrical romances produced during this period no detailed account need here be attempted (see Romance, and articles, &c. referred to; Arthurian Romance). Native English traditions form the basis of King Horn, Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Hamtoun and Havelok, though the stories were first put into literary form by Anglo-Norman poets. The popularity of these home-grown tales (with which may be classed the wildly fictitious Coer de Lion) was soon rivalled by that of importations from France. The English rendering of Floris and Blancheflur (a love-romance of Greek origin) is found in the same MS. that contains the earliest copy of King Horn. Before the end of the century, the French “matter of Britain” was represented in English by the Southern Arthur and Merlin and the Northern Tristram and Yvaine and Gawin, the “matter of France” by Roland and Vernagu and Otuel; the Alexander was also translated, but in this instance the immediate original was an Anglo-French and not a continental poem. The tale of Troy did not come into English till long afterwards. The Auchinleck MS., written about 1330, contains no fewer than 14 poetical romances; there were many others in circulation, and the number continued to grow. About the middle of the 14th century, the Old English alliterative long line, which for centuries had been used only in unwritten minstrel poetry, emerges again in literature. One of the earliest poems in this revived measure, Wynnere and Wastour, written in 1352, is by a professional reciter-poet, who complains bitterly that original minstrel poetry no longer finds a welcome in the halls of great nobles, who prefer to listen to those who recite verses not of their own making. About the same date the metre began to be employed by men of letters for the translation of romance—William of Palerne and Joseph of Arimathea from the French, Alexander from Latin prose. The later development of alliterative poetry belongs mainly to the age of Chaucer.
The extent and character of the literature produced during the first half of the 14th century indicate that the literary use of the native tongue was no longer, as in the preceding age, a mere condescension to the needs of the common people. The rapid disuse of French as the ordinary medium of intercourse among the middle and higher ranks of society, and the consequent substitution of English for French as the vehicle of school instruction, created a widespread demand for vernacular reading. The literature which arose in answer to this demand, though it consisted mainly of translations or adaptations of foreign works, yet served to develop the appreciation of poetic beauty, and to prepare an audience in the near future for a poetry in which the genuine thought and feeling of the nation were to find expression.
Bibliography.—Only general works need be mentioned here. Those cited contain lists of books for more detailed information. (1) For the literature from the beginnings to Chaucer:—B. ten Brink, Geschichte der englischen Litteratur, vol. i. 2nd ed., by A. Brandl (Strassburg, 1899) (English translation from the 1st ed. of 1877, by H. M. Kennedy, London, 1883); The Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. i. (1907). (2) For the Old English period:—R. Wülker, Grundriss zur Geschichte der angelsachsischen Litteratur (Leipzig, 1885); Stopford A. Brooke, English Literature from the Beginning to the Norman Conquest (London, 1898); A. Brandl, “Altenglische Litteratur,” in H. Paul’s Grundriss der germanischen Philologie, vol. ii. (2nd ed., Strassburg, 1908). (3) For the early Middle English Period:—H. Morley, English Writers, vol. iii. (London, 1888; vols. i. and ii., dealing with the Old English period, cannot be recommended); A. Brandl, “Mittelenglische Litteratur,” in H. Paul’s Grundriss der germanischen Philologie, vol. ii. (1st ed., Strassburg, 1893); W. H. Schofield, English Literature from the Norman Conquest to Chaucer (London, 1906). (H. Br.)
II. Chaucer to the Renaissance
The age of Chaucer is of peculiar interest to the student of literature, not only because of its brilliance and productiveness but also because of its apparent promise for the future. In this, as in other aspects, Chaucer (c. 1340–1400) is its most notable literary figure. Beginning as a student and imitator of the best French poetry of his day, he was for a time, like most of his French contemporaries, little more than a skilful maker of elegant verses, dealing with conventional material in a conventional way, arranging in new figures the same flowers and bowers, sunsets and song-birds, and companies of fair women and their lovers, that had been arranged and rearranged by every poet of the court circle for a hundred years, and celebrated in sweet phrases of almost unvarying sameness. Even at this time, to be sure, he was not without close and loving observation of the living creatures of the real world, and his verses often bring us flowers dewy and fragrant and fresh of colour as they grew in the fields and gardens about London, and birds that had learned their music in the woods; but his poetry was still not easily distinguishable from that of Machault, Froissart, Deschamps, Transoun and the other “courtly makers” of France. But while he was still striving to master perfectly the technique of this pretty art of trifling, he became acquainted with the new literature of Italy, both poetry and prose. Much of the new poetry moved, like that of France, among the conventionalities and artificialities of an unreal world of romance, but it was of wider range, of fuller tone, of far greater emotional intensity, and, at its best, was the fabric, not of elegant ingenuity, but of creative human passion,—in Dante, indeed, a wonderful visionary structure in which love and hate, and pity and terror, and the forms and countenances of men were more vivid and real than in the world of real men and real passions. The new prose—which Chaucer knew in several of the writings of Boccaccio—was vastly different from any that he had ever read in a modern tongue. Here were no mere brief anecdotes like those exempla which in the middle ages illustrated vernacular as well as Latin sermons, no cumbrous, slow-moving treatises on the Seven Deadly Sins, no half-articulate, pious meditations, but rapid, vivid, well-constructed narratives ranging from the sentimental beauty of stories like Griselda and the Franklin’s Tale to coarse mirth and malodorous vulgarity equal to those of the tales told later by Chaucer’s Miller and Reeve and Summoner. All these things he studied and some he imitated. There is scarcely a feature of the verse that has not left some trace in his own; the prose he did not imitate as prose, but there can be little doubt that the subject matter of Boccaccio’s tales and novels, as well as his poems, affected the direction of Chaucer’s literary development, and quickened his habit of observing and utilizing human life, and that the narrative art of the prose was influential in the transformation of his methods of narration.
This transformation was effected not so much through the mere superiority of the Italian models to the French as through the stimulus which the differences between the two gave to his reflections upon the processes and technique of composition, for Chaucer was not a careless, happy-go-lucky poet of divine endowment, but a conscious, reflective artist, seeking not merely for fine words and fine sentiments, but for the proper arrangement of events, the significant exponent of character, the right tone, and even the appropriate background and atmosphere,—as may be seen, for example, in the transformations he wrought in the Pardoner’s Tale. It is therefore in the latest and most original of the Canterbury Tales that his art is most admirable, most distinguished by technical excellences. In these we find so many admirable qualities that we almost forget that he had any defects. His diction is a model of picturesqueness, of simplicity, of dignity, and of perfect adaptation to his theme; his versification is not only correct but musical and varied, and shows a progressive tendency towards freer and more complex melodies; his best tales are not mere repetitions of the ancient stories they retell, but new creations, transformed by his own imaginative realization of them, full of figures having the dimensions and the vivacity of real life, acting on adequate motives, and moving in an atmosphere and against a background appropriate to their characters and their actions. In the tales of the Pardoner, the Franklin, the Summoner, the Squire, he is no less notable as a consummate artist than as a poet.
Chaucer, however, was not the only writer of his day remarkable for mastery of technique. Gower, indeed, though a man of much learning and intelligence, was neither a poet of the first rank nor an artist. Despite the admirable qualities of clearness, order and occasional picturesqueness which distinguish his work, he lacked the ability which great poets have of making their words mean more than they say, and of stirring the emotions even beyond the bounds of this enhanced meaning; and there is not, perhaps, in all his voluminous work in English, French and Latin, any indication that he regarded composition as an art requiring consideration or any care beyond that of conforming to the chosen rhythm and finding suitable rhymes.
There were others more richly endowed as poets and more finely developed as artists. There was the beginner of the Piers Plowman cycle, the author of the Prologue and first eight passus of the A-text, a man of clear and profound observation, a poet whose imagination brought before him with distinctness and reality visual images of the motley individuals and masses of men of whom he wrote, an artist who knew how to organize and direct the figures of his dream-world, the movement of his ever-unfolding vision. There was the remarkable successor of this man, the author of the B-text, an almost prophetic figure, a great poetic idealist, and, helpless though he often was in the direction of his thought, an absolute master of images and words that seize upon the heart and haunt the memory. Besides these, an unknown writer far in the north-west had, in Gawayne and the Grene Knight, transformed the medieval romance into a thing of speed and colour, of vitality and mystery, no less remarkable for its fluent definiteness of form than for the delights of hall-feast and hunt, the graceful comedy of temptation, and the lonely ride of the doomed Gawayne through the silence of the forest and the deep snow. In the same region, by its author’s power of visual imagination, the Biblical paraphrase, so often a mere humdrum narrative, had been transformed, in Patience, into a narrative so detailed and vivid that the reader is almost ready to believe that the author himself, rather than Jonah, went down into the sea in the belly of the great fish, and sat humbled and rebuked beside the withered gourd-vine. And there also, by some strange chance, blossomed, with perhaps only a local and temporary fragrance until its rediscovery in the 19th century, that delicate flower of loneliness and aspiration, Pearl, a wonder of elaborate art as well as of touching sentiment.
All these writings are great, not only relatively, but absolutely. There is not one of them which would not, if written in our own time, immediately mark its author as a man of very unusual ability. But the point of special concern to us at the present moment is not so much that they show remarkable poetic power, as that they possess technical merits of a very high order. And we are accustomed to believe that, although genius is a purely personal and incommunicable element, technical gains are a common possession; that after Marlowe had developed the technique of blank verse, this technique was available for all; that after Pope had mastered the heroic couplet and Gray the ode, and Poe the short story, all men could write couplets and odes and short stories of technical correctness; that, as Tennyson puts it,
|“All can grow the flower now,|
For all have got the seed.”
But this was singularly untrue of the technical gains made by Chaucer and his great contemporaries. Pearl and Patience were apparently unknown to the 15th century, but Gawayne and Piers Plowman and Chaucer’s works were known and were influential in one way or another throughout the century. Gawayne called into existence a large number of romances dealing with the same hero or with somewhat similar situations, some of them written in verse suggested by the remarkable verse of their model, but the resemblance, even in versification, is only superficial. Piers Plowman gave rise to satirical allegories written in the alliterative long line and furnished the figures and the machinery for many satires in other metres, but the technical excellence of the first Piers Plowman poem was soon buried for centuries under the tremendous social significance of itself and its successors. And Chaucer, in spite of the fact that he was praised and imitated by many writers and definitely claimed as master by more than one, not only transmitted to them scarcely any of the technical conquests he had made, but seems also to have been almost without success in creating any change in the taste of the public that read his poems so eagerly, any demand for better literature than had been written by his predecessors.
Wide and lasting Chaucer’s influence undoubtedly was. Not only was all the court-poetry, all the poetry of writers who pretended to cultivation and refinement, throughout the century, in England and Scotland, either directly or indirectly imitative of his work, but even the humblest productions of unpretentious writers show at times traces of his influence. Scotland was fortunate in having writers of greater ability than England had (see Scotland: Literature). In England the three chief followers of Chaucer known to us by name are Lydgate, Hoccleve (see Occleve) and Hawes. Because of their praise of Chaucer and their supposed personal relations to him, Lydgate and Hoccleve are almost inseparable in modern discussions, but 15th century readers and writers appear not to have associated them very closely. Indeed, Hoccleve is rarely mentioned, while Lydgate is not only mentioned continually, but continually praised as Chaucer’s equal or even superior. Hoccleve was not, to be sure, as prolific as Lydgate, but it is difficult to understand why his work, which compares favourably in quality with Lydgate’s, attracted so much less attention. The title of his greatest poem, De regimine principum, may have repelled readers who were not princely born, though they would have found the work full of the moral and prudential maxims and illustrative anecdotes so dear to them; but his attack upon Sir John Oldcastle as a heretic ought to have been decidedly to the taste of the orthodox upper classes, while his lamentations over his misspent youth, his tales and some of his minor poems might have interested any one. Of a less vigorous spirit than Lydgate, he was, in his mild way, more humorous and more original. Also despite his sense of personal loss in Chaucer’s death and his care to transmit to posterity the likeness of his beloved master, he seems to have been less slavish than Lydgate in imitating him. His memory is full of Chaucer’s phrases, he writes in verse-forms hallowed by the master’s use, and he tries to give to his lines the movement of Chaucer’s decasyllables, but he is comparatively free from the influence of those early allegorical works of the Master which produced in the 15th century so dreary a flock of imitations.
Lydgate’s productivity was enormous,—how great no man can say, for, as was the case with Chaucer also, his fame caused many masterless poems to be ascribed to him, but, after making all necessary deductions, the amount of verse that has come down to us from him is astonishing. Here it may suffice to say that his translations are predominantly epic (140,000 lines), and his original compositions predominantly allegorical love poems or didactic poems. If there is anything duller than a dull epic it is a dull allegory, and Lydgate has achieved both. This is not to deny the existence of good passages in his epics and ingenuity in his allegories, but there is no pervading, persistent life in either. His epics, like almost all the narrative verse of the time, whether epic, legend, versified chronicle or metrical romance, seem designed merely to satisfy the desire of 15th century readers for information, the craving for facts—true or fictitious—the same craving that made possible the poems on alchemy, on hunting, on manners and morals, on the duties of parish priests, on the seven liberal arts. His allegories, like most allegories of the age, are ingenious rearrangements of old figures and old machinery, they are full of what had once been imagination but had become merely memory assisted by cleverness. The great fault of all his work, as of nearly all the literature of the age, is that it is merely a more or less skilful manipulation of what the author had somewhere read or heard, and not a faithful transcript of the author’s own peculiar sense or conception of what he had seen or heard or read. The fault is not that the old is repeated, that a twice-told tale is retold, but that it is retold without being re-imagined by the teller of the tale, without taking on from his personality something that was not in it before. Style, to be sure, was a thing that Lydgate and his fellows tried to supply, and some of them supplied it abundantly according to their lights. But style meant to them external decoration, classical allusions, personifications, an inverted or even dislocated order of words, and that famous “ornate diction,” those “aureate terms,” with which they strove to surpass the melody, picturesqueness and dignity which, for all its simplicity, they somehow dimly discerned in the diction of Chaucer.
Stephen Hawes, with his allegorical treatise on the seven liberal sciences, came later than these men, only to write worse. He was a disciple of Lydgate rather than of Chaucer, and is not only lacking in the vigour and sensitiveness which Lydgate sometimes displays, but exaggerates the defects of his master. If it be a merit to have conceived the pursuit of knowledge under the form of the efforts of a knight to win the hand of his lady, it is almost the sole merit to which Hawes can lay claim. Two or three good situations, an episode of low comedy, and the epitaph of the Knight with its famous final couplet, exhaust the list of his credits. The efforts that have been made to trace through Hawes the line of Spenser’s spiritual ancestry seem not well advised. The resemblances that have been pointed out are such as arise inevitably from the allegories and from the traditional material with which both worked. There is no reason to believe that Spenser owed his general conception to Hawes, or that the Faëry Queene would have differed in even the slightest detail from its present form if the Pastime of Pleasure had never been written. The machinery of chivalric romance had already been applied to spiritual and moral themes in Spain without the aid of Hawes.
It is obvious that the fundamental lack of all these men was imaginative power, poetic ability. This is a sufficient reason for failure to write good poetry. But why did not men of better ability devote themselves to literature in this age? Was it because of the perturbed conditions arising from the prevalence of foreign and civil wars? Perhaps not, though it is clear that if Sir Thomas Malory had perished in one of the many fights through which he lived, the chivalric and literary impulses which he perhaps received from the “Fadre of Curteisy,” Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, would have gone for nothing and we should lack the Morte Darthur. But it may very well be that the wars and the tremendous industrial growth of England fixed the attention of the strongest and most original spirits among the younger men and so withdrew them from the possible attractions of literature. But, after all, whatever general truth may lie in such speculations, the way of a young man with his own life is as incalculable as any of the four things which Agur son of Jakeh declared to be past finding out; local and special accidents rather than general communal influences are apt to shape the choice of boys of exceptional character, and we have many instances of great talents turning to literature or art when war or commerce or science was the dominant attraction of social life.
But even recognizing that the followers of Chaucer were not men of genius, it seems strange that their imitation of Chaucer was what it was. They not only entirely failed to see what his merits as an artist were and how greatly superior his mature work is to his earlier in point of technique; they even preferred the earlier and imitated it almost exclusively. Furthermore, his mastery of verse seemed to them to consist solely in writing verses of approximately four or five stresses and arranging them in couplets or in stanzas of seven or eight lines. Their preference for the early allegorical work can be explained by their lack of taste and critical discernment and by the great vogue of allegorical writing in England and France. Men who are just beginning to think about the distinction between literature and ordinary writing usually feel that it consists in making literary expression differ as widely as possible from simple direct speech. For this reason some sort of artificial diction is developed and some artificial word order devised. Allegory is used as an elegant method of avoiding unpoetical plainness, and is an easy means of substituting logic for imagination. The failure to reproduce in some degree at least the melody and smoothness of Chaucer’s decasyllabic verse, and the particular form which that failure took in Lydgate, are to be explained by the fact that Lydgate and his fellows never knew how Chaucer’s verse sounded when properly read. It is a mistake to suppose that the disappearance of final unaccented e from many words or its instability in many others made it difficult for Lydgate and his fellows to write melodious verse. Melodious verse has been written since the disappearance of all these sounds, and the possibility of a choice between a form with final e and one without it is not a hindrance but an advantage to a poet, as Goethe, Schiller, Heine and innumerable German poets have shown by their practice. The real difficulty with these men was that they pronounced Chaucer’s verse as if it were written in the English of their own day. As a matter of fact all the types of verse discovered by scholars in Lydgate’s poems can be discovered in Chaucer’s also if they be read with Lydgate’s pronunciation. Chaucer did not write archaic English, as some have supposed,—that is, English of an earlier age than his own,—it would have been impossible for him to do so with the unfailing accuracy he shows; he did, however, write a conservative, perhaps an old-fashioned, English, such as was spoken by the conservative members of the class of society to which he was attached and for which he wrote. An English with fewer final e’s was already in existence among the less conservative classes, and this rapidly became standard English in consequence of the social changes which occurred during his own life. We know that a misunderstanding of Chaucer’s verse existed from the 16th century to the time of Thomas Tyrwhitt; it seems clear that it began even earlier, in Chaucer’s own lifetime.
There are several poems of the 15th century which were long ascribed to Chaucer. Among them are:—the Complaint of the Black Knight, or Complaint of a Lover’s Life, now known to be Lydgate’s; the Mother of God, now ascribed to Hoccleve; the Cuckoo and the Nightingale, by Clanvowe; La Belle Dame sans merci, a translation from the French of Alain Chartier by Richard Ros; Chaucer’s Dream, or the Isle of Ladies; the Assembly of Ladies; the Flower and the Leaf; and the Court of Love. The two poems of Lydgate and Hoccleve are as good as Chaucer’s poorest work. The Assembly of Ladies and the Flower and the Leaf are perhaps better than the Book of the Duchess, but not so good as the Parliament of Fowls. The Flower and the Leaf, it will be remembered, was very dear to John Keats, who, like all his contemporaries, regarded it as Chaucer’s. An additional interest attaches to both it and the Assembly of Ladies, from the fact that the author may have been a woman; Professor Skeat is, indeed, confident that he knows who the woman was and when she wrote. These poems, like the Court of Love, are thoroughly conventional in material, all the figures and poetical machinery may be found in dozens of other poems in England and France, as Professor Neilson has shown for the Court of Love and Mr Marsh for the Flower and the Leaf; but there are a freshness of spirit and a love of beauty in them that are not common; the conventional birds and flowers are there, but they seem, like those of Chaucer’s Legend, to have some touch of life, and the conventional companies of ladies and gentlemen ride and talk and walk with natural grace and ease. The Court of Love is usually ascribed to a very late date, as late even as the middle of the 16th century. If this is correct, it is a notable instance of the persistence of a Chaucerian influence. An effort has been made, to be sure, to show that it was written by Scogan and that the writing of it constituted the offence mentioned by Chaucer in his Envoy to Scogan, but it has been clearly shown that this is impossible, both because the language is later than Scogan’s time and because nothing in the poem resembles the offence clearly described by Chaucer.
Whatever may be true of the authorship of the Assembly of Ladies and the Flower and the Leaf, there were women writers in England in the middle ages. Juliana of Norwich wrote her Revelations of Divine Love before 1400. The much discussed Dame Juliana Berners, the supposed compiler of the treatise on hunting in the Book of St Albans, may be mythical, though there is no reason why a woman should not have written such a book; and a shadowy figure that disappears entirely in the sunlight is the supposed authoress of the Nut Brown Maid, for if language is capable of definite meaning, the last stanza declares unequivocally that the poem is the work of a man. But there is a poem warning young women against entering a nunnery which may be by a woman, and there is an interesting entry among the records of New Romney for 1463–1464, “Paid to Agnes Forde for the play of the Interlude of our Lord’s Passion, 6s. 8d.,” which is apparently the earliest mention of a woman dramatist in England. Finally, Margaret, countess of Richmond, the mother of Henry VII., not only aided scholars and encouraged writers, but herself translated the (spurious) fourth book of St Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi. Another Margaret, the duchess of Burgundy, it will be remembered, encouraged Caxton in his translation and printing. Women seem, indeed, to have been especially lovers of books and patrons of writers, and Skelton, if we may believe his Garland of Laurel, was surrounded by a bevy of ladies comparable to a modern literary club; Erasmus’s Suffragette Convention may correspond to no reality, but the Learned Lady arguing against the Monk for the usefulness and pleasure derived from books was not an unknown type. Women were capable of many things in the middle ages. English records show them to have been physicians, churchwardens, justices of the peace and sheriffs, and, according to a satirist, they were also priests.
The most original and powerful poetry of the 15th century was composed in popular forms for the ear of the common people and was apparently written without conscious artistic purpose. Three classes of productions deserve special attention,—songs and carols, popular ballads and certain dramatic compositions. The songs and carols belong to a species which may have existed in England before the Norman Conquest, but which certainly was greatly modified by the musical and lyric forms of France. The best of them are the direct and simple if not entirely artless expressions of personal emotion, and even when they contain, as they sometimes do, the description of a person, a situation, or an event, they deal with these things so subjectively, confine themselves so closely to the rendering of the emotional effect upon the singer, that they lose none of their directness or simplicity. Some of them deal with secular subjects, some with religious, and some are curious and delightful blendings of religious worship and aspiration with earthly tenderness for the embodiments of helpless infancy and protecting motherhood which gave Christianity so much of its power over the affections and imagination of the middle ages. Even those which begin as mere expressions of joy in the Yule-tide eating and drinking and merriment catch at moments hints of higher joys, of finer emotions, and lift singer and hearer above the noise and stir of earth. Hundreds of songs written and sung in the 15th century must have perished; many, no doubt, lived only a single season and were never even written down; but chance has preserved enough of them to make us wonder at the age which could produce such masterpieces of tantalizing simplicity.
The lyrics which describe a situation form a logical, if not a real transition to those which narrate an episode or an event. The most famous of the latter, the Nut Brown Maid, has often been called a ballad, and “lyrical ballad” it is in the sense established by Coleridge and Wordsworth, but its affinities are rather with the song or carol than with the folk-ballad, and, like Henryson’s charming Robin and Malkin, it is certainly the work of a man of culture and of conscious artistic purpose and methods. Unaccompanied, as it is, by any other work of the same author, this poem, with its remarkable technical merits, is an even more astonishing literary phenomenon than the famous single sonnet of Blanco White. It can hardly be doubted that the author learned his technique from the songs and carols.
The folk-ballad, like the song or carol, belongs in some form to immemorial antiquity. It is doubtless a mistake to suppose that any ballad has been preserved to us that is a purely communal product, a confection of the common knowledge, traditions and emotions of the community wrought by subconscious processes into a song that finds chance but inevitable utterance through one or more individuals as the whole commune moves in its molecular dance. But it is equally a mistake to argue that ballads are essentially metrical romances in a state of decay. Both the matter and the manner of most of the best ballads forbid such a supposition, and it can hardly be doubted that in some of the folk-ballads of the 15th century are preserved not only traditions of dateless antiquity, but formal elements and technical processes that actually are derived from communal song and dance. By the 15th century, however, communal habits and processes of composition had ceased, and the traditional elements, formulae and technique had become merely conventional aids and guides for the individual singer. Ancient as they were, conventional as, in a sense, they also were, they exercised none of the deadening, benumbing influence of ordinary conventions. They furnished, one may say, a vibrant framework of emotional expression, each tone of which moved the hearers all the more powerfully because it had sung to them so many old, unhappy, far-off things, so many battles and treacheries and sudden griefs; a framework which the individual singer needed only to fill out with the simplest statement of the event which had stirred his own imagination and passions to produce, not a work of art, but a song of universal appeal. Not a work of art, because there are scarcely half a dozen ballads that are really works of art, and the greatest ballads are not among these. There is scarcely one that is free from excrescences, from dulness, from trivialities, from additions that would spoil their greatest situations and their greatest lines, were it not that we resolutely shut our ears and our eyes, as we should, to all but their greatest moments. But at their best moments the best ballads have an almost incomparable power, and to a people sick, as we are, of the ordinary, the usual, the very trivialities and impertinences of the ballads only help to define and emphasize these best moments. In histories of English literature the ballads have been so commonly discussed in connexion with their rediscovery in the 18th century, that we are apt to forget that some of the very best were demonstrably composed in the 15th and that many others of uncertain date probably belong to the same time.
Along with the genuine ballads dealing with a recent event or a traditional theme there were ballads in which earlier romances are retold in ballad style. This was doubtless inevitable in view of the increasing epic tendency of the ballad and the interest still felt in metrical romances, but it should not mislead us into regarding the genuine folk-ballad as an out-growth of the metrical romance.
Besides the ordinary epic or narrative ballad, the 15th century produced ballads in dramatic form, or, perhaps it were better to say, dramatized some of its epic ballads. How commonly this was done we do not know, but the scanty records of the period indicate that it was a widespread custom, though only three plays of this character (all concerning Robin Hood) have come down to us. These plays had, however, no further independent development, but merely furnished elements of incident and atmosphere to later plays of a more highly organized type. With these ballad plays may also be mentioned the Christmas plays (usually of St George) and the sword-dance plays, which also flourished in the 15th century, but survive for us only as obscure elements in the masques and plays of Ben Jonson and in such modern rustic performances as Thomas Hardy has so charmingly described in The Return of the Native.
The additions which the 15th century made to the ancient cycles of Scripture plays, the so-called Mysteries, are another instance of a literary effort which spent itself in vain (see Drama). The most notable of these are, of course, the world renowned comic scenes in the Towneley (or Wakefield) Plays, in the pageants of Cain, of Noah and of the Shepherds. In none of these is the 15th century writer responsible for the original comic intention; in the pageants of Cain and of the Shepherds fragments of the work of a 14th century writer still remain to prove the earlier existence of the comic conception, and that it was traditional in the Noah pageant we know from the testimony of Chaucer’s Miller; but none the less the 15th century writer was a comic dramatist of original power and of a skill in the development of both character and situation previously unexampled in England. The inability of Lydgate to develop a comic conception is strikingly displayed if one compares his Pageant for Presentation before the King at Hereford with the work of this unknown artist. But in our admiration for this man and his famous episode of Mak and the fictitious infant, we are apt to forget the equally fine, though very different qualities shown in some of the later pageants of the York Plays. Such, for example, is the final pageant, that of the Last Judgment, a drama of slow and majestic movement, to be sure, but with a large and fine conception of the great situation, and a noble and dignified elocution not inadequate to the theme.
The Abraham and Isaac play of the Brome MS., extant as a separate play and perhaps so performed, which has been so greatly admired for its cumulative pathos, also belongs demonstrably to this century. It is not, as has been supposed, an intermediate stage between French plays and the Chester Abraham and Isaac, but is derived directly from the latter by processes which comparison of the two easily reveals. Scripture plays of a type entirely different from the well-known cyclic mysteries, apparently confined to the Passion and Resurrection and the related events, become known to us for the first time in the records of this century. Such plays seem to have been confined to the towns of the south, and, as both their location and their structure suggest, may have been borrowed from France. In any event, the records show that they flourished greatly and that new versions were made from time to time.
Another form of the medieval drama, the Morality Play, had its origin in the 15th century,—or else very late in the 14th. The earliest known examples of it in England date from about 1420. These are the Castle of Perseverance and the Pride of Life. Others belonging to the century are Mind, Will and Understanding, Mankind and Medwall’s Nature. There are also parts of two pageants in the Ludus Coventriae (c. 1460) that are commonly classed as Moralities, and these, together with the existence of a few personified abstractions in other plays, have led some critics to suppose that the Morality was derived from the Mystery by the gradual introduction of personified abstractions in the place of real persons. But the two kinds of plays are fundamentally different, different in subject and in technique; and no replacement of real persons by personifications can change a Mystery into a Morality. Moreover, the Morality features in Mysteries are later than the origin of the Morality itself and are due to the influence of the latter. The Morality Play is merely a dramatized allegory, and derives its characters and its peculiar technique from the application of the dramatic method to the allegory, the favourite literary form of the middle ages. None of the 15th century Moralities is literature of the first rank, though both the Castle of Perseverance and Pride of Life contain passages ringing with a passionate sincerity that communicates itself to the hearer or reader. But it was not until the beginning of the 16th century that a Morality of permanent human interest appeared in Everyman, which, after all, is a translation from the Dutch, as is clearly proved by the fact that in the two prayers near the end of the play the Dutch has complicated but regular stanzas, whereas the English has only irregularly rhymed passages.
Besides the Mysteries and Moralities, the 15th century had also Miracle Plays, properly so called, dealing with the lives, martyrdoms and miracles of saints. As we know these only from records of their performance or their mere existence—no texts have been preserved to us, except the very curious Play of the Sacrament—it is impossible to speak of their literary or dramatic qualities. The Miracle Play as a form was, of course, not confined to the 15th century. Notwithstanding the assertions of historians of literature that it died out in England soon after its introduction at the beginning of the 12th century, its existence can be demonstrated from c. 1110 to the time of Shakespeare. But records seem to indicate that it flourished especially during this period of supposed barrenness.
What was the nature of the “Komedy of Troylous and Pandor” performed before Henry VIII. on the 6th of January 1516 we have no means of knowing. It is very early indeed to assume the influence of either classical or Italian drama, and although we have no records of similar plays from the 15th century, it must be remembered that our records are scanty, that the middle ages applied the dramatic method to all sorts of material, and that it is therefore not impossible that secular plays like this were performed at court at a much earlier date. The record at any rate does not indicate that it was a new type of play, and the Griselda story had been dramatized in France, Italy and the Netherlands before 1500.
That not much good prose was written in the 15th century is less surprising than that so little good verse was written. The technique of verse composition had been studied and mastered in the preceding age, as we have seen, but the technique of prose had apparently received no serious consideration. Indeed, it is doubtful if any one thought of prose as a possible medium of artistic expression. Chaucer apparently did not, in spite of the comparative excellence of his Preface to the Astrolabe and his occasional noteworthy successes with the difficulties of the philosophy of Boethius; Wycliffe is usually clumsy; and the translators of Mandeville, though they often give us passages of great charm, obviously were plain men who merely translated as best they could. There was, however, a comparatively large amount of prose written in the 15th century, mainly for religious or educational purposes, dealing with the same sorts of subjects that were dealt with in verse, and in some cases not distinguishable from the verse by any feature but the absence of rhyme. The vast body of this we must neglect; only five writers need be named: John Capgrave, Reginald Pecock, Sir John Fortescue, Caxton and Malory. Capgrave, the compiler of the first chronicle in English prose since the Conquest, wrote by preference in Latin; his English is a condescension to those who could not read Latin and has the qualities which belong to the talk of an earnest and sincere man of commonplace ability. Pecock and Fortescue are more important. Pecock (c. 1395–c. 1460) was a man of singularly acute and logical mind. He prided himself upon his dialectic skill and his faculty for discovering arguments that had been overlooked by others. His writings, therefore—or at least the Repressor—are excellent in general structure and arrangement, his ideas are presented clearly and simply, with few digressions or excrescences, and his sentences, though sometimes too long, are more like modern prose than any others before the age of Elizabeth. His style is lightened by frequent figures of speech, mostly illustrative, and really illustrative, of his ideas, while his intellectual ingenuity cannot fail to interest even those whom his prejudices and preconceptions repel. Fortescue, like Capgrave, wrote by preference in Latin, and, like Pecock, was philosophical and controversial. But his principal English work, the Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy, differs from Pecock’s in being rather a pleading than a logical argument, and the geniality and glowing patriotism of its author give it a far greater human interest.
No new era in literary composition was marked by the activity of William Caxton as translator and publisher, though the printing-press has, of course, changed fundamentally the problem of the dissemination and preservation of culture, and thereby ultimately affected literary production profoundly. But neither Caxton nor the writers whose works he printed produced anything new in form or spirit. His publications range over the whole field of 15th century literature, and no doubt he tried, as his quaint prefaces indicate, to direct the public taste to what was best among the works of the past, as when he printed and reprinted the Canterbury Tales, but among all his numerous publications not one is the herald of a new era. The only book of permanent interest as literature which he introduced to the world was the Morte Darthur of Sir Thomas Malory, and this is a compilation from older romances (see Arthurian Legend). It is, to be sure, the one book of permanent literary significance produced in England in the 15th century; it glows with the warmth and beauty of the old knight’s conception of chivalry and his love for the great deeds and great men of the visionary past, and it continually allures the reader by its fresh and vivid diction and by a syntax which, though sometimes faulty, has almost always a certain naïve charm; “thystorye (i.e. the history) of the sayd Arthur,” as Caxton long ago declared, “is so gloryous and shynyng, that he is stalled in the first place of the moost noble, beste and worthyest of the Crysten men”; it is not, however, as the first of a new species, but as the final flower of an old that this glorious and shining book retains its place in English literature.
Whatever may have been the effect of the wars and the growth of industrial life in England in withdrawing men of the best abilities from the pursuit of literature, neither these causes nor any other interfered with the activity of writers of lesser powers. The amount of writing is really astonishing, as is also its range. More than three hundred separate works (exclusive of the large number still ascribed to Lydgate and of the seventy printed by Caxton) have been made accessible by the Early English Text Society and other public or private presses, and it seems probable that an equal number remains as yet unpublished. No list of these writings can be given here, but it may not be unprofitable to indicate the range of interests by noting the classes of writing represented. The classification is necessarily rough, as some writings belong to more than one type. We may note, first, love poems, allegorical and unallegorical, narrative, didactic, lyrical and quasi-lyrical; poems autobiographical and exculpatory; poems of eulogy and appeal for aid; tales of entertainment or instruction, in prose and in verse; histories ancient and modern, and brief accounts of recent historical events, in prose and in verse; prose romances and metrical romances; legends and lives of saints, in prose and in verse; poems and prose works of religious meditation, devotion and controversy; treatises of religious instruction, in prose and in verse; ethical and philosophical treatises, and ethical and prudential treatises; treatises of government, of political economy, of foreign travel, of hygiene, of surgery, of alchemy, of heraldry, of hunting and hawking and fishing, of farming, of good manners, and of cooking and carving. Prosaic and intended merely to serve practical uses as many of these were, verse is the medium of expression as often as prose. Besides this large amount and variety of English compositions, it must be remembered that much was also written in Latin, and that Latin and French works of this and other centuries were read by the educated classes.
Although the intellectual and spiritual movement which we call the Italian Renaissance was not unknown in England in the 14th and 15th centuries, it is not strange that it exercised no perceptible influence upon English literature, except in the case of Chaucer. Chaucer was the only English man of letters before the 16th century who knew Italian literature. The Italians who visited England and the Englishmen who visited Italy were interested, not in literature, but in scholarship. Such studies as were pursued by Free, Grey, Flemming, Tilly, Gunthorpe and others who went to Italy, made them better grammarians and rhetoricians, and no doubt gave them a freer, wider outlook, but upon their return to England they were immediately absorbed in administrative cares, which left them little leisure for literary composition, even if they had had any inclination to write. They prepared the way, however, for the leaders of the great intellectual awakening which began in England with Linacre, Colet, More and their fellows, and which finally culminated in the age of Spenser, Bacon, Shakespeare, Jonson, Gilbert, Harvey and Harriott.
When the middle ages ceased in England it is impossible to say definitely. Long after the new learning and culture of the Renaissance had been introduced there, long after classical and Italian models were eagerly chosen and followed, the epic and lyric models of the middle ages were admired and imitated, and the ancient forms of the drama lived side by side with the new until the time of Shakespeare himself. John Skelton, although according to Erasmus “unum Britannicarum literarum lumen ac decus,” and although possessing great originality and vigour both in diction and in versification when attacking his enemies or indulging in playful rhyming, was not only a great admirer of Lydgate, but equalled even the worst of his predecessors in aureate pedantries of diction, in complicated impossibilities of syntax, and in meaningless inversions of word-order whenever he wished to write elegant and dignified literature. And not a little of the absurd diction of the middle of the 16th century is merely a continuation of the bad ideals and practices of the refined writers of the 15th.
In fine, the 15th century has, aside from its vigorous, though sometimes coarse, popular productions, little that can interest the lover of literature. It offers, however, in richest profusion problems for the literary antiquarian and the student of the relations between social conditions and literary productivity,—problems which have usually been attacked only with the light weapons of irresponsible speculation, but which may perhaps be solved by a careful comparative study of many literatures and many periods. Moreover, although in the quality of its literary output it is decidedly inferior to the 14th century, the amount and the wide range of its productions indicate the gradual extension of the habit of reading to classes of society that were previously unlettered; and this was of great importance for the future of English literature, just as the innumerable dramatic performances throughout England were important in developing audiences for Marlowe and Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher.
For bibliography see vol. ii. of the Cambridge History of Literature (1909); and Brandl’s Geschichte der mittelenglischen Literatur (reprinted from Paul’s Grundriss der germanischen Philologie). Interesting general discussions may be found in the larger histories of English Literature, such as Ten Brink’s, Jusserand’s, and (a little more antiquated) Courthope’s and Morley’s. (J. M. Ma.)
III. Elizabethan Times
General Influences, and Prologue to 1579.—The history of letters in England from More’s Utopia (1516), the first Platonic vision, to Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671), the latest classic tragedy, is one and continuous. That is the period of the English Renaissance, in the wider sense, and it covers all and more of the literature loosely called “Elizabethan.” With all its complexity and subdivisions, it has as real a unity as the age of Pericles, or that of Petrarch and Boccaccio, or the period in Germany that includes both Lessing and Heine. It is peculiar in length of span, in variety of power, and in wealth of production, though its master-works on the greater scale are relatively few. It is distinct, while never quite cut off, from the middle age preceding, and also from the classical or “Augustan” age that followed. The coming of Dryden denoted a new phase; but it was still a phase of the Renaissance; and the break that declared itself about 1660 counts as nothing beside the break with the middle ages; for this implied the whole change in art, thought and temper, which re-created the European mind. It is true that many filaments unite Renaissance and middle ages, not only in the religious and purely intellectual region, but in that of art. The matter of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the tales of Arthur and of Troilus, the old fairy folklore of the South, the topic of the Falls of Princes, lived on; and so did the characteristic medieval form, allegory and many of the old metres of the 14th century. But then these things were transformed, often out of knowledge. Shakespeare’s use of the histories of Macbeth, Lear and Troilus, and Spenser’s of the allegoric romance, are examples. And when the gifts of the middle ages are not transformed, as in the Mirror for Magistrates, they strike us as survivals from a lost world.
So vital a change took long in the working. The English Renaissance of letters only came into full flower during the last twenty years of the 16th century, later than in any Southern land; but it was all the richer for delay, and would have missed many a life-giving element could it have been driven forward sooner. If the actual process of genius is beyond analysis, we can still notice the subjects which genius receives, or chooses, to work upon, and also the vesture which it chooses for them; and we can watch some of the forces that long retard but in the end fertilize these workings of genius.
What, then, in England, were these forces? Two of them lie outside letters, namely, the political settlement, culminating in the later reign of Elizabeth, and the religious settlement, whereby the Anglican Church grew out of the English Reformation. A third force lay within General forces. the sphere of the Renaissance itself, in the narrower meaning of the term. It was culture—the prefatory work of culture and education, which at once prepared and put off the flowering of pure genius. “Elizabethan” literature took its complexion from the circumstance that all these three forces were in operation at once. The Church began to be fully articulate, just when the national feeling was at its highest, and the tides of classical and immigrant culture were strongest. Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity and Shakespeare’s Henry V. came in the same decade (1590–1600). But these three forces, political, religious and educational, were of very different duration and value. The enthusiasm of 1590–1600 was already dying down in the years 1600–1610, when the great tragedies were written; and soon a wholly new set of political forces began to tell on art. The religious inspiration was mainly confined to certain important channels; and literature as a whole, from first to last, was far more secular than religious. But Renaissance culture, in its ramifications and consequences, tells all the time and over the whole field, from 1500 to 1660. It is this culture which really binds together the long and varied chronicle. Before passing to narrative, a short review of each of these elements is required.
Down to 1579 the Tudor rule was hardly a direct inspiration to authors. The reign of Henry VII. was first duly told by Bacon, and that of Henry VIII. staged by Shakespeare and Fletcher, in the time of James I. Sir Thomas More found in Roper, and Wolsey in Cavendish, sound biographers, who Politics. are nearly the earliest in the language. The later years of Henry VIII. were full of episodes too tragically picturesque for safe handling in the lifetime of his children. The next two reigns were engrossed with the religious war; and the first twenty years of Elizabeth, if they laid the bases of an age of peace, well-being, and national self-confidence that was to prove a teeming soil for letters, were themselves poor in themes for patriotic art. The abortive treason of the northern earls was echoed only in a ringing ballad. But the voyagers, freebooters, and explorers reported their experiences, as a duty, not for fame; and these, though not till the golden age, were edited by Hakluyt, and fledged the poetic fancies that took wing from the “Indian Peru” to the “still-vext Bermoothes.” Yet, in default of any true historian, the queen’s wise delays and diplomacies that upheld the English power, and her refusal to launch on a Protestant or a national war until occasion compelled and the country was ready, were subjects as uninspiring to poets as the burning questions of the royal marriage or the royal title. But by 1580 the nation was filled with the sense of Elizabeth’s success and greatness and of its own prosperity. No shorter struggle and no less achievement could have nursed the insolent, jubilant patriotism of the years that followed; a feeling that for good reasons was peculiar to England among the nations, and created the peculiar forms of the chronicle play and poem. These were borrowed neither from antiquity nor from abroad, and were never afterwards revived. The same exultation found its way into the current forms of ode and pastoral, of masque and allegory, and into many a dedication and interlude of prose. It was so strong as to outlive the age that gave it warrant. The passion for England, the passion of England for herself, animates the bulk of Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, which was finished so late as 1622. But the public issues were then changing, the temper was darker; and the civil struggle was to speak less in poetry than in the prose of political theory and ecclesiastical argument, until its after-explosion came in the verse of Milton.
The English Reformation, so long political rather than doctrinal or imaginative, cost much writing on all sides; but no book like Calvin’s Institution is its trophy, at once defining the religious change for millions of later men and marking a term of departure in the national prose. Religious change. Still, the debating weapons, the axes and billhooks, of vernacular English were sharpened—somewhat jaggedly—in the pamphlet battles that dwarfed the original energies of Sir Thomas More and evoked those of Tyndale and his friends. The powers of the same style were proved for descriptive economy by Starkey’s Dialogue between Pole and Lupset, and for religious appeal by the blunt sound rhetoric and forthright jests in the sermons of Latimer (died 1555). Foxe’s reports of the martyrs are the type of early Protestant English (1563); but the reforming divines seldom became real men of letters even when their Puritanism, or discontent with the final Anglican settlement and its temper, began to announce itself. Their spirit, however, comes out in many a corner of poetry, in Gascoigne’s Steel Glass as in Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar; and the English Reformation lived partly on its pre-natal memories of Langland as well as of Wycliffe. The fruit of the struggle, though retarded, was ample. Carrying on the work of Fisher and Cranmer, the new church became the nursing mother of English prose, and trained it more than any single influence,—trained it so well, for the purposes of sacred learning, translation and oratory, and also as a medium of poetic feeling, that in these activities England came to rival France. How late any religious writer of true rank arose may be seen by the lapse of over half a century between Henry VIII.’s Act of Supremacy and Hooker’s treatise. But after Hooker the chain of eloquent divines was unbroken for a hundred years.
Renaissance culture had many stages and was fed from many streams. At the outset of the century, in the wake of Erasmus, under the teaching of Colet and his friends, there spread a sounder knowledge of the Greek and Latin tongues, of the classic texts, and so of the ancient life Classical culture. and mind. This period of humanism in the stricter sense was far less brilliant than in Italy and France. No very great scholar or savant arose in Britain for a long time; but neo-Latin literature, the satellite of scholarship, shone brightly in George Buchanan. But scholarship was created and secured; and in at least one, rather solitary, work of power, the Utopia (which remained in Latin till 1551), the fundamental process was begun which appropriates the Greek mind, not only for purposes of schooling, but as a source of new and independent thinking. In and after the middle of the century the classics were again put forward by Cheke, by Wilson in his Art of Rhetoric (1553), and by Ascham in his letters and in his Schoolmaster (1570), as the true staple of humane education, and the pattern for a simple yet lettered English. The literature of translations from the classics, in prose and verse, increased; and these works, at first plain, business-like, and uninspired, slowly rose in style and power, and at last, like the translations from modern tongues, were written by a series of masters of English, who thus introduced Plutarch and Tacitus to poets and historians. This labour of mediation was encouraged by the rapid expansion and reform of the two universities, of which almost every great master except Shakespeare was a member; and even Shakespeare had ample Latin for his purpose.
The direct impact of the classics on “Elizabethan” literature, whether through such translations or the originals, would take long to describe. But their indirect impact is far stronger, though in result the two are hard to discern. This is another point that distinguishes the English Italy and France. Renaissance from the Italian or the French, and makes it more complex. The knowledge of the thought, art and enthusiasms of Rome and Athens constantly came round through Italy or France, tinted and charged in the passage with something characteristic of those countries. The early playwrights read Seneca in Latin and English, but also the foreign Senecan tragedies. Spenser, when starting on his pastorals, studied the Sicilians, but also Sannazaro and Marot. Shakespeare saw heroic antiquity through Plutarch, but also, surely, through Montaigne’s reading of antiquity. Few of the poets can have distinguished the original fountain of Plato from the canalized supply of the Italian Neoplatonists. The influence, however, of Cicero on the Anglican pulpit was immediate as well as constant; and so was that of the conciser Roman masters, Sallust and Tacitus, on Ben Jonson and on Bacon. Such scattered examples only intimate the existence of two great chapters of English literary history,—the effects of the classics and the effects of Italy. The bibliography of 16th-century translations from the Italian in the fields of political and moral speculation, poetry, fiction and the drama, is so large as itself to tell part of the story. The genius of Italy served the genius of England in three distinctive ways. It inspired the recovery, with new modulations, of a lost music and a lost prosody. It modelled many of the chief poetic forms, which soon were developed out of recognition; such were tragedy, allegory, song, pastoral and sonnet. Thirdly, it disclosed some of the master-thoughts upon government and conduct formed both by the old and the new Mediterranean world. Machiavelli, the student of ancient Rome and modern Italy, riveted the creed of Bacon. It might be said that never has any modern people so influenced another in an equal space of time—and letters, here as ever, are only the voice, the symbol, of a whole life and culture—if we forgot the sway of French in the later 17th and 18th centuries. And the power of French was alive also in the 16th. The track of Marot, of Ronsard and the Pleiad and Desportes, of Rabelais and Calvin and Montaigne, is found in England. Journeymen like Boisteau and Belleforest handed on immortal tales. The influence is noteworthy of Spanish mannerists, above all of Guevara upon sententious prose, and of the novelists and humorists, headed by Cervantes, upon the drama. German legend is found not only in Marlowe’s Faustus, but in the by-ways of play and story. It will be long before the rich and coloured tangle of these threads has been completely unravelled with due tact and science. The presence of one strand may here be mentioned, which appears in unexpected spots.
As in Greece, and as in the day of Coleridge and Shelley, the fabric of poetry and prose is shot through with philosophical ideas; a further distinction from other literatures like the Spanish of the golden age or the French of 1830. But these were not so much the ideas of Philosophy. the new physical science and of Bacon as of the ethical and metaphysical ferment. The wave of free talk in the circles of Marlowe, Greville and Raleigh ripples through their writings. Though the direct influence of Giordano Bruno on English writers is probably limited to a reminiscence in the Faerie Queene (Book vii.), he was well acquainted with Sidney and Greville, argued for the Copernican theory at Greville’s house, lectured on the soul at Oxford, and published his epoch-marking Italian dialogues during his two years’ stay (1583–1585) in London. The debates in the earlier schools of Italy on the nature and tenure of the soul are heard in the Nosce Teipsum (1599) of Sir John Davies; a stoicism, “of the schools” as well as “of the blood,” animates Cassius and also the French heroes of Chapman; and if the earlier drama is sown with Seneca’s old maxims on sin and destiny, the later drama, at least in Shakespeare, is penetrated with the freer reading of life and conduct suggested by Montaigne. Platonism—with its vox angelica sometimes a little hoarse—is present from the youthful Hymns of Spenser to the last followers of Donne; sometimes drawn from Plato, it is oftener the Christianized doctrine codified by Ficino or Pico. It must be noted that this play of philosophic thought only becomes marked after 1580, when the preparatory tunings of English literature are over.
We may now quickly review the period down to 1580, in the departments of prose, verse and drama. It was a time which left few memorials of form.
Early modern English prose, as a medium of art, was of slow growth. For long there was alternate strife and union (ending in marriage) between the Latin, or more rhetorical, and the ancestral elements of the language, and this was true both of diction and of construction. We need Prose to 1580. to begin with the talk of actual life, as we find it in the hands of the more naïf writers, in its idiom and gusto and unshapen power, to see how style gradually declared itself. In state letters and reports, in the recorded words of Elizabeth and Mary of Scotland and public men, in travels and memoirs, in Latimer, in the rude early versions of Cicero and Boëthius, in the more unstudied speech of Ascham or Leland, the material lies. At the other extreme there are the English liturgy (1549, 1552, 1559, with the final fusion of Anglican and Puritan eloquence), and the sermons of Fisher and Cranmer,—nearly the first examples of a sinuous, musical and Ciceronian cadence. A noble pattern for saga-narrative and lyrical prose was achieved in the successive versions (1526–1540–1568) of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, where a native simple diction of short and melodious clauses are prescribed by the matter itself. Prose, in fact, down to Shakespeare’s time, was largely the work of the churchmen and translators, aided by the chroniclers. About the mid-century the stories, as well as the books of conduct and maxim, drawn from Italy and France, begin to thicken. Perverted symmetry of style is found in euphuistic hacks like Pettie. Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566) provided the plots of Bandello and others for the dramatists. Hoby’s version (1561) of Castiglione’s Courtier, with its command of elate and subtle English, is the most notable imported book between Berners’s Froissart (1523–1525) and North’s Plutarch (1579). Ascham’s Schoolmaster is the most typical English book of Renaissance culture, in its narrower sense, since Utopia. Holinshed’s Chronicle (1577–1587) and the work of Halle, if pre-critical, were all the fitter to minister to Shakespeare.
The lyric impulse was fledged anew at the court of Henry VIII. The short lines and harping burdens of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s songs show the revival, not only of a love-poetry more plangent than anything in English since Chaucer, but also of the long-deadened sense of metre. Verse to 1580. In Wyatt’s sonnets, octaves, terzines and other Italian measures, we can watch the painful triumphant struggles of this noble old master out of the slough of formlessness in which verse had been left by Skelton. Wyatt’s primary deed was his gradual rediscovery of the iambic decasyllabic line duly accented—the line that had been first discovered by Chaucer for England; and next came its building into sonnet and stanza. Wyatt (d. 1542) ended with perfect formal accuracy; he has the honours of victory; and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (d. 1547), a younger-hearted and more gracious but a lighter poet, carried on his labour, and caught some of Chaucer’s as well as the Italian tunes. The blank verse of his two translated Aeneids, like all that written previous to Peele, gave little inkling of the latencies of the measure which was to become the cardinal one of English poetry. It was already the vogue in Italy for translations from the classics; and we may think of Surrey importing it like an uncut jewel and barely conscious of its value. His original poems, like those of Wyatt, waited for print till the eve of Elizabeth’s reign, when they appeared, with those of followers like Grimoald, in Tottel’s Miscellany (1557), the first of many such garlands, and the outward proof of the poetical revival dating twenty years earlier. But this was a false dawn. Only one poem of authentic power, Sackville’s Induction (1563) to that dreary patriotic venture, A Mirror for Magistrates, was published for twenty years. In spirit medieval, this picture of the gates of hell and of the kings in bale achieves a new melody and a new intensity, and makes the coming of Spenser far less incredible. But poetry was long starved by the very ideal that nursed it—that of the all-sided, all-accomplished “courtier” or cavalier, to whom verse-making was but one of all the accomplishments that he must perfect, like fencing, or courting, or equestrian skill. Wyatt and Surrey, Sackville and Sidney (and we may add Hamlet, a true Elizabethan) are of this type. One of the first competent professional writers was George Gascoigne, whose remarks on metric, and whose blank verse satire, The Steel Glass (1576), save the years between Sackville and Spenser. Otherwise the gap is filled by painful rhymesters with rare flashes, such as Googe, Churchyard and Turberville.
The English Renaissance drama, both comic and tragic, illustrates on the largest scale the characteristic power of the antique at this period—at first to reproduce itself in imitation, and then to generate something utterly different from itself, something that throws the antique Drama to 1580. to the winds. Out of the Morality, a sermon upon the certainty of death or the temptations of the soul, acted by personified qualities and supernatural creatures, had grown up, in the reign of Henry VII., the Interlude, a dialogue spoken by representative types or trades, who faintly recalled those in Chaucer’s Prologue. These forms, which may be termed medieval, continued long and blended; sometimes heated, as in Respublica, with doctrine, and usually lightened by the comic play of a “Vice” or incarnation of sinister roguery. John Heywood was the chief maker of the pure interludes, and Bishop Bale of the Protestant medleys; his King Johan, a reformer’s partisan tract in verse, contains the germs of the chronicle play. In the drama down to 1580 the native talent is sparse enough, but the historical interest is high. Out of a seeming welter of forms, the structure, the metres and the species that Kyd and Marlowe found slowly emerged. Comedy was first delivered from the interlude, and fashioned in essence as we know it, by the schoolmasters. Drawing on Plautus, they constructed duly-knitted plots, divided into acts and scenes and full of homely native fun, for their pupils to present. In Thersites (written 1537), the oldest of these pieces, and in Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (1552 at latest), the best known of them, the characters are lively, and indeed are almost individuals. In others, like Misogonus (written 1560), the abstract element and improving purpose remain, and the source is partly neo-Latin comedy, native or foreign. Romance crept in: serious comedy, with its brilliant future, the comedy of high sentiment and averted dangers mingled still with farce, was shadowed forth in Damon and Pithias and in the curious play Common Conditions; while the domestic comedy of intrigue dawned in Gascoigne’s Supposes, adapted from Ariosto. Thus were displaced the ranker rustic fun of Gammer Gurton’s Needle (written c. 1559) and other labours of “rhyming mother-wits.” But there was no style, no talk, no satisfactory metre. The verse of comedy waited for Greene, and its prose for Lyly. Structure, without style, was also the main achievement of the early tragedies. The Latin plays of Buchanan, sometimes biblical in topic, rest, as to their form, upon Euripides. But early English tragedy was shapen after the Senecan plays of Italy and after Seneca himself, all of whose dramas were translated by 1581. Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex, acted about 1561, and written by Sackville and Norton, and Hughes’ Misfortunes of Arthur (acted 1588), are not so much plays as wraiths of plays, with their chain of slaughters and revenges, their two-dimensional personages, and their lifeless maxims which fail to sweeten the bloodshot atmosphere. The Senecan form was not barren in itself, as its sequel in France was to show: it was only barren for England. After Marlowe it was driven to the study, and was still written (possibly under the impulse of Mary countess of Pembroke), by Daniel and Greville, with much reminiscence of the French Senecans. But it left its trail on the real drama. It set the pattern of a high tragical action, often motived by revenge, swayed by large ideas of fate and retribution, and told in blank metre; and it bequeathed, besides many moral sentences, such minor points of mechanism as the Ghost, the Chorus and the inserted play. There were many hybrid forms like Gismond of Salern, based on foreign story, alloyed with the mere personifications of the Morality, and yet contriving, as in the case of Promos and Cassandra (the foundation of Measure for Measure), to interest Shakespeare. Thus the drama by 1580 had some of its carpentry, though not yet a true style or versification. These were only to be won by escape from the classic tutelage. The ruder chronicle play also began, and the reigns of John and Henry V. amongst others were put upon the stage.
Verse from Spenser to Donne.—Sir Philip Sidney almost shares with Edmund Spenser the honours of announcing the new verse, for part of his Astrophel and Stella was written, if not known in unpublished form, about 1580–1581, and contains ten times the passion and poetry of Spenser. The Shepherd’s Calendar (1579). This work, of which only a few passages have the seal of Spenser’s coming power, was justly acclaimed for its novelty of experiment in many styles, pastoral, satiric and triumphal, and in many measures: though it was criticized for its “rustic” and archaic diction—a “no language” that was to have more influence upon poetry than any of the real dialects of England. Spenser’s desire to write high tragedy, avowed in his October, was not to be granted; his nine comedies are lost; and he became the chief non-dramatic poet of his time and country. Both the plaintive pessimism of Petrarch and du Bellay, with their favourite method of emblem, and the Platonic theory of the spiritual love and its heavenly begetting sank into him; and the Hymns To Love and To Beauty are possibly his earliest verses of sustained perfection and exaltation. These two strains of feeling Spenser never lost and never harmonized; the first of them recurs in his Complaints of 1591, above all in The Ruins of Time, the second in his Amoretti (1595) and Colin Clout and Epithalamion, which are autobiographical. These and a hundred other threads are woven into The Faerie Queene, an unfinished allegorical epic in honour of moral goodness, of which three books came out in 1590 and three more in 1596, while the fragment Of Constancy (so-called) is first found in the posthumous folio of 1609. This poem is the fullest reflex, outside the drama, of the soul and aspirations of the time. For its scenery and mechanism the Orlando Furioso of Ariosto furnishes the framework. In both poems tales of knightly adventure intertwine unconfused; in both the slaying of monsters, the capture of strong places, and the release of the innocent, hindered by wizard and sorcerer, or aided by magic sword and horn and mirror, constitute the quest; and in both warriors, ladies, dwarfs, dragons and figures from old mythology jostle dreamily together. To all this pomp Spenser strove to give a moral and often also a political meaning. Ariosto was not a vates sacer; and so Spenser took Tasso’s theme of the holy war waged for the Sepulchre, and expanded it into a war between good and evil, as he saw them in the world; between chastity and lust, loyalty and detraction, England and Spain, England and Rome, Elizabeth and usurpers, Irish governor and Irish rebel, right and wrong. The title-virtues of his six extant books he affects to take from Aristotle; but Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Justice, Friendship and Courtesy form a medley of medieval, puritanical and Greek ideals.
Spenser’s moral sentiments, often ethereally noble, might well be contrasted, and that not always to their credit, with those more secular and naturalistic ones that rule in Shakespeare or in Bernardino Telesio and Giordano Bruno. But The Faerie Queene lives by its poetry; and its poetry lives independently of its creed. The idealized figures of Elizabeth, who is the Faerie Queene, and of the “magnificent” Prince Arthur, fail to bind the adventures together, and after two books the poem breaks down in structure. And indeed all through it relies on episode and pageant, on its prevailing and insuppressible loveliness of scene and tint, of phrasing and of melody, beside which the inner meaning is often an interruption. Spenser is not to be tired; in and out of his tapestry, with its “glooming light much like a shade,” pace his figures on horseback, or in durance, with their clear and pictorial allegoric trappings; and they go either singly, or in his favourite masques or pageants, suggested by emblematical painting or civic procession. He is often duly praised for his lingering and liquid melodies and his gracious images, or blamed for their langour; but his ground-tone is a sombre melancholy—unlike that of Jaques—and his deepest quality as a writer is perhaps his angry power. Few of his forty and more thousand lines are unpoetical; in certainty of style amongst English poets who have written profusely, he has no equals but Chaucer, Milton and Shelley. His “artificial” diction, drawn from middle English, from dialect or from false analogy, has always the intention and nearly always the effect of beauty; we soon feel that its absence would be unnatural, and it has taken its rank among the habitual and exquisite implements of English poetry. This equality of noble form is Spenser’s strength, as dilution and diffusion of phrase, and a certain monotonous slowness of tempo, are beyond doubt his weaknesses. His chief technical invention, the nine-line stanza (ababbcbcC) was developed not from the Italian octave (abababcc), but by adding an alexandrine to the eight-line stave (ababbcbc) of Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale. It is naturally articulated twice—at the fifth line, where the turn of repeated rhyme inevitably charms, and at the ninth, which runs now to a crashing climax, now to a pensive and sighing close. In rhyming, Spenser, if not always accurate, is one of the most natural and resourceful of poets. His power over the heroic couplet or quatrain is shown in his fable, Mother Hubbard’s Tale, and in his curious verse memoir, Colin Clout; both of which are medleys of satire and flattery. With formal tasks so various and so hard, it is wonderful how effortless the style of Spenser remains. His Muiopotmos is the lightest-handed of mock-heroics. No writer of his day except Marlowe was so faithful to the law of beauty.
The mantle of Spenser fell, somewhat in shreds, upon poets of many schools until the Restoration. As though in thanks to his master Tasso, he lent to Edward Fairfax, the best translator of the Jerusalem Delivered (Godfrey of Bulloigne, 1600), some of his own ease and intricate Spen-serians. melody. Harington, the witty translator of Ariosto (1591) and spoilt child of the court, owed less to Spenser. The allegorical colouring was nobly caught, if sometimes barbarized, in the Christ’s Victory and Triumph of the younger Giles Fletcher (1610), and Spenser’s emblematic style was strained, even cracked, by Phineas Fletcher in The Purple Island (1633), an aspiring fable, gorgeous in places, of the human body and faculties. Both of these brethren clipped and marred the stanza, but they form a link between Spenser and their student Milton. The allegoric form, long-winded and broken-backed, survived late in Henry More’s and Joseph Beaumont’s verse disquisitions on the soul. Spenser’s pastoral and allusive manner was allowed by Drayton in his Shepherd’s Garland (1593), and differently by William Browne in Britannia’s Pastorals (1613–1616), and by William Basse; while his more honeyed descriptions took on a mawkish taste in the anonymous Britain’s Ida and similar poems. His golden Platonic style was buoyantly echoed in Orchestra (1596), Sir John Davies’ poem on the dancing spheres. He is continually traceable in 17th-century verse, blending with the alien currents of Ben Jonson and of Donne. He was edited and imitated in the age of Thomson, in the age of William Morris, and constantly between.
The typical Elizabethan poet is Michael Drayton; who
followed Spenser in pastoral, Daniel, Sidney, Spenser and
Shakespeare in sonnet, Daniel again in chronicle and
legend, and Marlowe in mythological story, and who
yet remained himself. His Endimion and Phoebe
Daniel. in passages stands near Hero and Leander; his England’s Heroical Epistles (1597) are in ringing rhetorical couplets; his Odes (1606), like the Ballad of Agincourt and the Virginian Voyage, forestall and equal Cowper’s or Campbell’s; his Nymphidia (1627) was the most popular of burlesque fairy poems; and his pastorals are full of graces and felicities. The work of Drayton that is least read and most often mentioned is his Poly-Olbion (1612–1622), a vast and pious effort, now and then nobly repaid, to versify the scenery, legend, customs and particularities of every English county. The more recluse and pensive habit of Samuel Daniel chills his long chronicle poems; but with Chapman he is the clearest voice of Stoicism in Elizabethan letters; and his harmonious nature is perfectly expressed in a style of happy, even excellence, free alike from &ldquldquo;fine madness” and from strain. Sonnet and epistle are his favoured forms, and in his Musophilus (1599) as well as in his admirable prose Defence of Rhyme (1602), he truly prophesies the hopes and glories of that illustre vulgare, the literary speech of England. All this patriotic and historic verse, like the earlier and ruder Albion’s England (1586) of William Warner, or Fitzgeoffrey’s poem upon Drake, or the outbursts of Spenser, was written during or inspired by the last twenty years of the queen’s reign; and the same is true of Shakespeare’s and most of the other history plays, which duly eclipsed the formal, rusty-gray chronicle poem of the type of the Mirror for Magistrates, though editions (1559–1610) of the latter were long repeated. Patriotic verse outside the theatre, however, full of zeal, started at a disadvantage compared with love-sonnet, song, or mythic narrative, because it had no models before it in other lands, and remained therefore the more shapeless.
The English love-sonnet, brought in by Wyatt and rifest between 1590 and 1600, was revived as a purely studious imitation by Watson in his Hekatompathia (1582), a string of translations in one of the exceptional measures that were freely entitled “sonnets.” But from the first, in the hands Sonnets. of Sidney, whose Astrophel and Stella (1591) was written, as remarked above, about 1581, the sonnet was ever ready to pulse into feeling, and to flash into unborrowed beauty, embodying sometimes dramatic fancy and often living experience. These three fibres of imitation, imagination and confession are intertwisted beyond severance in many of the cycles, and now one, now another is uppermost. Incaution might read a personal diary into Thomas Lodge’s Phillis (1593), which is often a translation from Ronsard. Literal judges have announced that Shakespeare’s Sonnets are but his mode of taking exercise. But there is poetry in “God’s plenty” almost everywhere; and few of the series fail of lovely lines or phrasing or even of perfect sonnets. This holds of Henry Constable’s Diana (1592), of the Parthenophil and Parthenophe of Barnabe Barnes (1593), inebriate with poetry, and of the stray minor groups, Alcilia, Licia, Caelia; while the Caelica of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, in irregular form, is full of metaphysical passion struggling to be delivered. Astrophel and Stella, Drayton’s Idea (1594–1619), Spenser’s Amoretti and Shakespeare’s Sonnets (printed 1609) are addressed to definite and probably to known persons, and are charged with true poetic rage, ecstatic or plaintive, desperate or solemn, if they are also intermingled with the mere word-play that mocks or beguiles the ebb of feeling, or with the purely plastic work that is done for solace. In most of these series, as in Daniel’s paler but exquisitely-wrought Delia (1591–1592), the form is that of the three separate quatrains with the closing couplet for emotional and melodic climax; a scheme slowly but defiantly evolved, through traceable gradations, from that stricter one of Italy, which Drummond and Milton revived, and where the crisis properly coincides with the change from octave to sestet.
The amorous mythologic tale in verse derives immediately from contemporary Italy, but in the beginning from Ovid, whose Metamorphoses, familiar in Golding’s old version (1555–1557), furnished descriptions, decorations and many tales, while his Heroides gave Chaucer and Mythic poems. Boccaccio a model for the self-anatomy of tragic or plaintive sentiment. Within ten years, between 1588 and 1598, during the early sonnet-vogue, appeared Lodge’s Scillaes Metamorphosis, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece, Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and Drayton’s Endimion and Phoebe. Shakespeare owed something to Lodge, and Drayton to Marlowe. All these points describe a love-situation at length, and save in one instance they describe it from without. The exception is Marlowe, who achieves a more than Sicilian perfection; he says everything, and is equal to everything that he has to say. In Venus and Adonis the poet is enamoured less of love than of the tones and poses of lovers and of the beauty and gallant motion of animals, while in The Rape of Lucrece he is intent on the gradations of lust, shame and indignation, in which he has a spectator’s interest. Virtuosity, or the delight of the executant in his own brilliant cunning, is the mark of most of these pieces.
If we go to the lyrics, the versified mythic tales and the sonnets of Elizabethan times for the kind of feeling that Molière’s Alceste loved and that Burns and Shelley poured into song, we shall often come away disappointed, and think the old poetry heartless. But it is not heartless, any more Lyric. than it is always impassioned or personal; it is decorative. The feeling is often that of the craftsman; it is not of the singer who spends his vital essence in song and commands an answering thrill so long as his native language is alive or understood. The arts that deal with ivories or enamelling or silver suggest themselves while we watch the delighted tinting and chasing, the sense for gesture and grouping (in Venus and Adonis), or the delicate beating out of rhyme in a madrigal, or the designing of a single motive, or two contrasted motives, within the panel of the sonnet. And soon it is evident how passion and emotion readily become plastic matter too, whether they be drawn from books or observation or self-scrutiny. This is above all the case in the sonnet; but it is found in the lyric as well. The result is a wonderful fertility of lyrical pattern, a wonderfully diffused power of lyrical execution, never to recur at any later time of English literature. Wyatt had to recover the very form of such verse from oblivion, and this he did in the school of translation and adaptation. Not only the decasyllabic, but the lyric, in short lines had almost died out of memory, and Wyatt brought it back. From his day to Spenser’s there is not much lyric that is noteworthy, though in Gascoigne and others the impulse is seen. The introduction of Italian music, with its favourite metrical schemes, such as the madrigal, powerfully schooled and coloured lyric: in especial, the caressing double ending, regular in Italian but heavier in English, became common. The Italian poems were often translated in their own measure, line by line, and the musical setting retained. Their tunes, or other tunes, were then coupled with new and original poems; and both appeared together in the song-books of Dowland the lutanist, of Jones and Byrd (1588), and in chief (1601–1619) of Thomas Campion. The words of Campion’s songs are not only supremely musical in the wider sense, but are chosen for their singing quality. Misled awhile by the heresy that rhyme was wrong, he was yet a master of lovely rhyming, as well as of a lyrical style of great range, gaily or gravely happy. But, as with most of his fellows, singing is rather his calling than his consolation. The lyrics that are sprinkled in plays and romances are the finest of this period, and perhaps, in their kind, of any period. Shakespeare is the greatest in this province also; but the power of infallible and unforgettable song is often granted to slighter, gentler playwrights like Greene and Dekker, while it is denied to men of weightier build and sterner purpose like Chapman and Jonson. The songs of Jonson are indeed at their best of absolute and antique finish; but the irrevocable dew of night or dawn seldom lies upon them as it lies on the songs of Webster or of Fletcher. The best lyrics in the plays are dramatic; they must be read in their own setting. While the action stops, they seize and dally with the dominant emotion of the scene, and yet relieve it. The songs of Lodge and Breton, of Drayton and Daniel, of Oxford and Raleigh, and the fervid brief flights of the Jesuit Southwell, show the omnipresence of the vital gift, whether among professional writers of the journalistic type, or among poets whose gift was not primarily song, or among men of action and quality or men of religion, who only wrote when they were stirred. Lullaby and valentine and compliment, and love-plaint ranging from gallantry to desperation, are all there: and the Fortunate Hour, which visits commonly only a few men in a generation, and those but now and then in their lives, is never far off. But the master of melody, Spenser, left no songs, apart from his two insuperable wedding odes. And religious lyric is rarer before the reign of James. Much of the best lyric is saved for us by the various Miscellanies, A Handful of Pleasant Delights (1584), the Phoenix Nest (1593) and Davison’s Poetical Rhapsody (1602); while other such collections, like England’s Helicon (1600), were chiefly garlands of verse that was already in print.
There is plenty of satiric anger and raillery in the spirit of the time, but the most genuine part of it is drawn off into drama. Except for stray passages in Spenser, Drayton and others, formal satire, though profuse, was a literary unreal thing, a pose in the manner of Persius or Juvenal, and tiresome in expression. In this kind only Donne triumphed. The attempts of Lodge and Hall and Marston and John Davies of Hereford and Guilpin and Wither are for the most part simply weariful in different ways, and satire waited for Dryden and his age. The attempt, however, persisted throughout. Wyatt was the first and last who succeeded in the genial, natural Horatian style.
Verse from Donne to Milton.—As the age of Elizabeth receded, some changes came slowly over non-dramatic verse. In Jonson, as in John Donne (1573–1631), one of the greater poets of the nation, and in many writers after Donne, may be traced a kind of Counter-Renaissance, or revulsion Meta-physical or fantastic schools. against the natural man and his claims to pleasure—a revulsion from which regret for pleasure lost is seldom far. Poetry becomes more ascetic and mystical, and this feeling takes shelter alike in the Anglican and in the Roman faith. George Herbert (The Temple, 1633), the most popular, quaint and pious of the school, but the least poetical; Crashaw, with his one ecstatic vision (The Flaming Heart) and occasional golden stanzas; Henry Vaughan, who wrote from 1646 to 1678, with his mystical landscape and magical cadences; and Thomas Traherne, his fellow-dreamer, are the best known of the religious Fantastics. But, earlier than most of these are Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and Habington with his Castara (1634), who show the same temper, if a fitful power and felicity. Such writers form the devouter section of the famous “metaphysical” or “fantastic” school, which includes, besides Donne its founder, pure amorists like Carew (whose touch on certain rhythms has no fellow), young academic followers like Cartwright and Cleveland (in whom survives the vein of satire that also marks the school), and Abraham Cowley, who wrote from 1633 to 1678, and was perhaps the most acceptable living poet about the middle of the century. In his Life of Cowley Johnson tramples on the “metaphysical” poets and their vices, and he is generally right in detail. The shock of cold quaintness, which every one of them continually administers, is fatal. Johnson only erred in ignoring all their virtues and all their historical importance.
In Donne poetry became deeply intellectualized, and in temper disquisitive and introspective. The poet’s emotion is played with in a cat-and-mouse fashion, and he torments it subtly. Donne’s passion is so real, if so unheard-of, and his brain so finely-dividing, that he can make almost any image, even the remotest, even the commonest, poetical. His satires, his Valentine, his Litany, and his lyric or odic pieces in general, have an insolent and sudden daring which is warranted by deep-seated power and is only equalled by a few of those tragedians who are his nearest of kin. The recurring contrast of “wit” or intelligence, and “will” or desire, their struggle, their mutual illumination, their fusion as into some third and undiscovered element of human nature, are but one idiosyncrasy of Donne’s intricate soul, whose general progress, so far as his dateless poems permit of its discovery, seems to have been from a paganism that is unashamed but crossed with gusts of compunction, to a mystical and otherwordly temper alloyed with covetous regrets. The Anatomy of the World and other ambitious pieces have the same quality amid their outrageous strangeness. In Donne and his successors the merely ingenious and ransacking intellect often came to overbalance truth and passion; and hence arose conceits and abstract verbiage, and the difficulty of finding a perfect poem, however brief, despite the omnipresence of the poetic gift. The “fantastic” school, if it contains some of the rarest sallies and passages in English, is one of the least satisfactory. Its faults only exaggerate those of Sidney, Greville and Shakespeare, who often misuse homely or technical metaphor; and English verse shared, by coincidence not by borrowing, and with variations of its own, in the general strain and torture of style that was besetting so many poets of the Latin countries. Yet these poets well earn the name of metaphysical, not for their philosophic phrasing, but for the shuttle-flight of their fancy to and fro between the things of earth and the realities of spirit that lie beyond the screen of the flesh.
Between Spenser and Milton many measures of lyrical and other poetry were modified. Donne’s frequent use of roughly-accentual, almost tuneless lines is unexplained and was not often followed. Rhythm in general came to be studied more for its own sake, and the study was rewarded. Rhythm. The lovely cordial music of Carew’s amorous iambics, or of Wither’s trochees, or of Crashaw’s odes, or of Marvell’s octo-syllables, has never been regained. The formal ode set in, sometimes regularly “Pindaric” in strophe-grouping, sometimes irregularly “Pindaric” as in Cowley’s experiments. Above all, the heroic couplet, of the isolated, balanced, rhetorical order, such as Spenser, Drayton, Fairfax and Sylvester, the translator (1590–1606) of Du Bartas, had often used, began to be a regular instrument of verse, and that for special purposes which soon became lastingly associated with it. The flatteries of Edmund Waller and the Ovidian translations of Sandys dispute the priority for smoothness and finish, though the fame was Waller’s for two generations; but Denham’s overestimated Cooper’s Hill (1642), Cowley’s Davideis (1656), and even Ogilby’s Aeneid made the path plainer for Dryden, the first sovereign of the rhetorical couplet which throve as blank verse declined. Sonnet and madrigal were the favoured measures of William Drummond of Hawthornden, a real and exquisite poet of the studio, who shows the general drift of verse towards sequestered and religious feeling. Drummond’s Poems of 1616 and Flowers of Zion (1623) are full of Petrarch and Plato as well as of Christian resignation, and he kept alive the artistry of phrasing and versification in a time of indiscipline and conflicting forms. William Browne has been named as a Spenserian, but his Britannia’s Pastorals (1613–1616), with their slowly-rippling and overflowing couplets which influenced Keats, were a medley of a novel kind. George Wither may equally rank among the lighter followers of Spenser, the easy masters of lyrical narrative, and the devotional poets. But his Shepherd’s Hunting and other pieces in his volume of 1622 contain lovely landscapes, partly English and partly artificial, and stand far above his pious works, and still further above the dreary satires which he lived to continue after the Restoration.
Of poets yet unmentioned, Robert Herrick is the chief, with his two thousand lyrics and epigrams, gathered in Hesperides and Noble Numbers (1648). His power of song and sureness of cadence are not excelled within his range of topic, which includes flowers and maidens—whom he treats Herrick. as creatures of the same race—and the swift decay of both their beauties, and secular regret over this decay and his own mortality and the transience of amorous pleasure, and the virtues of his friends, and country sports and lore, and religious compunction for his own paganism. The Hesperides are pure Renaissance work, in natural sympathy with the Roman elegiac writings and with the Pseudo-Anacreon. Cowley is best where he is nearest Herrick, and his posy of short lyrics outlives his “epic and Pindaric art.” There are many writers who last by virtue of one or two poems; Suckling by his adept playfulness, Lovelace and Montrose by a few gallant stanzas, and many a nameless The long poem. poet by many a consummate cadence. It is the age of sudden flights and brief perfections. All the farther out of reach, yet never wholly despaired of or unattempted in England, was the “long poem,” heroical and noble, the “phantom epic,” that shadow of the ancient masterpieces, which had striven to life in Italy and France. Davenant’s Gondibert (1651), Cowley’s Davideis and Chamberlayne’s Pharonnida (1659) attest the effort which Milton in 1658 resumed with triumph. These works have between them all the vices possible to epic verse, dulness and flatness, faintness and quaintness and incoherence. But there is some poetry in each of them, and in Pharonnida there is far more than enough poetry to save it.
Few writers have found a flawless style of their own so early in life as John Milton (1608–1674). His youthful pieces show some signs of Spenser and the Caroline fantastics; but soon his vast poetical reading ran clear and lay at the service of his talent. His vision and phrasing of natural Milton. things were already original in the Nativity Ode, written when he was twenty; and, there also, his versification was already that of a master, of a renovator. The pensive and figured beauty of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, two contrasted emblematic panels, the high innocent Platonism and golden blank verse of the Comus (1634); the birth of long-sleeping power in the Lycidas (1637), with its unapproached contrivance both in evolution and detail, where the precious essences of earlier myth and pastoral seem to be distilled for an offering in honour of the tombless friend;—the newness, the promise, the sureness of it all amid the current schools! The historian finds in these poems, with their echoes of Plato and Sannazzaro, of Geoffrey of Monmouth and St John, the richest and most perfect instance of the studious, decorative Renaissance style, and is not surprised to find Milton’s scholars a century later in the age of Gray. The critic, while feeling that the strictly lyrical, spontaneous element is absent, is all the more baffled by the skill and enduring charm. The sonnets were written before or during Milton’s long immersion (1637–1658) in prose and warfare, and show the same gifts. They are not cast in the traditional form of love-cycle, but are occasional poems; in metre they revert, not always strictly but once or twice in full perfection, to the Italian scheme; and they recall not Petrarch but the spiritual elegies or patriot exaltations of Dante or Guidiccioni.
Milton also had a medieval side to his brain, as the History of Britain shows. The heroic theme, which he had resolved from his youth up to celebrate, at last, after many hesitations, proved to be the fall of man. This, for one of his creed and for the audience he desired, was the greatest theme of all. Its scene was the Ptolemaic universe with the Christian heaven and hell inserted. The time, indicated by retrospect and prophecy, was the whole of that portion of eternity, from the creation of Christ to the doomsday, of which the history was sacredly revealed. The subject and the general span of the action went back to the popular mystery play; and Milton at first planned out Paradise Lost as such a play, with certain elements of classic tragedy embodied. But according to the current theory the epic, not the drama, was the noblest form of verse; and, feeling where his power lay, he adopted the epic. The subject, therefore, was partly medieval, partly Protestant,—for Milton was a true Protestant in having a variant of doctrine shared by no other mortal. But the ordering and presentment, with their overture, their interpolated episodes or narratives, their journeys between Olympus, Earth and hell, invocations, set similes, battles and divine thunderbolts, are those of the classical epic. Had Milton shared the free thought as well as the scholarship of the Renaissance, the poem could never have existed. With all his range of soul and skill, he had a narrower speculative brain than any poet of equal gift; and this was well for his great and peculiar task. But whatever Milton may fail to be, his heroic writing is the permanent and absolute expression of something that in the English stock is inveterate—the Promethean self-possession of the mind in defeat, its right to solitude there, its claim to judge and deny the victor. This is the spirit of his devils, beside whom his divinities, his unfallen angels (Abdiel excepted), and even his human couple with their radiance and beauty of line, all seem shadowy. The discord between Milton’s doctrine and his sympathies in Paradise Lost (1667) has never escaped notice. The discord between his doctrine and his culture comes out in Paradise Regained (1671), when he has at once to reprobate and glorify Athens, the “mother of arts.” In this afterthought to the earlier epic the action is slight, the Enemy has lost spirit, and the Christ is something of a pedagogue. But there is a new charm in its even, grey desert tint, sprinkled with illuminations of gold and luxury. In Samson Agonistes (1671) the ethical treatment as well as the machinery is Sophoclean, and the theology not wholly Christian. But the fault of Samson is forgotten in his suffering, which is Milton’s own; and thus a cross-current of sympathy is set up, which may not be much in keeping with the story, but revives the somewhat exhausted interest and heightens a few passages into a bare and inaccessible grandeur.
The essential solitude of Milton’s energies is best seen in his later style and versification. When he resumed poetry about 1658, he had nothing around him to help him as an artist in heroic language. The most recent memories of the drama were also the worst; the forms of Cowley and Davenant, the would-be epic poets, were impossible. Spenser’s manner was too even and fluid as a rule for such a purpose, and his power was of an alien kind. Thus Milton went back, doubtless full of Greek and Latin memories, to Marlowe, Shakespeare and others among the greater dramatists (including John Ford); and their tragic diction and measure are the half-hidden bases of his own. The product, however, is unlike anything except the imitations of itself. The incongruous elements of the Paradise Lost and its divided sympathies are cemented, at least superficially, by its style, perhaps the surest for dignity, character and beauty that any Germanic language has yet developed. If dull and pedantic over certain stretches, it is usually infallible. It is many styles in one, and Time has laid no hand on it. In these three later poems its variety can be seen. It is perfect in personal invocation and appeal; in the complex but unfigured rhetoric of the speeches; in narrative of all kinds; for the inlaying work of simile or scenery or pageant, where the quick, pure impressions of Milton’s youth and prime—possibly kept fresher by his blindness—are felt through the sometimes conventional setting; and for soliloquy and choric speech of a might unapproachable since Dante. To these calls his blank verse responds at every point. It is the seal of Milton’s artistry, as of his self-confidence, for it greatly extends, for the epical purpose, all the known powers and liberties of the metre; and yet, as has often been shown, it does so not spasmodically but within fixed technical laws or rather habits. Latterly, the underlying metrical ictus is at times hard to detect. But Milton remains by far the surest and greatest instrumentalist, outside the drama, on the English unrhymed line. He would, however, have scorned to be judged on his form alone. His soul and temper are not merely unique in force. Their historic and representative character ensure attention, so long as the oppositions of soul and temper in the England of Milton’s time remain, as they still are, the deepest in the national life. He is sometimes said to harmonize the Renaissance and the Puritan spirit; but he does not do this, for nothing can do it. The Puritan spirit is the deep thing in Milton; all his culture only gives immortal form to its expression. The critics have instinctively felt that this is true; and that is why their political and religious prepossessions have nearly always coloured, and perhaps must colour, every judgment passed upon him. Not otherwise can he be taken seriously, until historians are without public passions and convictions, or the strife between the hierarch and the Protestant is quenched in English civilization.
Drama, 1580–1642.—We must now go back to the drama, which lies behind Milton, and is the most individual product of all English Literature. The nascent drama of genius can be found in the “University wits,” who flourished between 1580 and 1595, and the chief of whom are Lyly, Drama. Kyd, Peele, Greene and Marlowe. John Lyly is the first practitioner in prose—of shapely comic plot and pointed talk—the artificial but actual talk of courtly masquers who rally one another with a bright and barren finish that is second nature. Campaspe, Sapho and Phao, Midas, and Lyly’s other comedies, mostly written from 1580 to 1591, are frail vessels, often filled with compliment, mythological allegory, or topical satire, and enamelled with pastoral interlude and flower-like song. The work of Thomas Kyd, especially The Spanish Tragedy (written c. 1585), was the most violent effort to put new wine into the old Senecan bottles, and he probably wrote the lost pre-Shakespearian Hamlet. He transmitted to the later drama that subject of pious but ruinous revenge, which is used by Chapman, Marston, Webster and many others; and his chief play was translated and long acted in Germany. Kyd’s want of modulation is complete, but he commands a substantial skill of dramatic mechanism, and he has more than the feeling for power, just as Peele and Greene have more than the feeling for luxury or grace. To the expression of luxury Peele’s often stately blank verse is well fitted, and it is by far the most correct and musical before Marlowe’s, as his Arraignment of Paris (1584) and his David and Bethsabe attest. Greene did something to create the blank verse of gentle comedy, and to introduce the tone of idyll and chivalry, in his Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1594). Otherwise these writers, with Nashe and Lodge, fall into the wake of Marlowe.
Tamburlaine, in two parts (part i. c. 1587), The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward II. (the first chronicle play of genius), and the incomplete poem Hero and Leander are Christopher Marlowe’s title-deeds (1564–1593). He established tragedy, and inspired its Marlowe. master, and created for it an adequate diction and versification. His command of vibrant and heroic recitative should not obscure his power, in his greater passages, describing the descent of Helen, the passing of Mortimer, and the union of Hero and Leander, to attain a kind of Greek transparency and perfection. The thirst for ideal beauty, for endless empire, and for prohibited knowledge, no poet has better expressed, and in this respect Giordano Bruno is nearest him in his own time. This thirst is his own; his great cartoon-figures, gigantic rather than heroic, proclaim it for him: their type recurs through the drama, from Richard III. to Dryden’s orotund heroes; but in Faustus and in Edward II. they become real, almost human beings. His constructive gift is less developed in proportion, though Goethe praised the planning-out of Faustus. The glory and influence of Marlowe on the side of form rest largely on his meteoric blank lines, which are varied not a little, and nobly harmonized into periods, and resonant with names to the point of splendid extravagance; and their sound is heard in Milton, whom he taught how to express the grief and despair of demons dissatisfied with their kingdom. Shakespeare did not excel Marlowe in Marlowe’s own excellences, though he humanized Marlowe’s Jew, launched his own blank verse on the tide of Marlowe’s oratory, and modulated, in Richard II., his master’s type of chronicle tragedy.
As the middle ages receded, the known life of man upon this earth became of sovereign interest, and of this interest the drama is the freest artistic expression. If Marlowe is the voice of the impulse to explore, the plays of Shakespeare are the amplest freight brought home Shake-speare. by any voyager. Shakespeare is not only the greatest but the earliest English dramatist who took humanity for his province. But this he did not do from the beginning. He was at first subdued to what he worked in; and though the dry pedantic tragedy was shattered and could not touch him, the gore and rant, the impure though genuine force of Kyd do not seem at first to have repelled him; if, as is likely, he had a hand in Titus Andronicus. He probably served with Marlowe and others of the school at various stages in the composition of the three chronicle dramas finally entitled Henry VI. But besides the high-superlative style that is common to them all, there runs through them the rhymed rhetoric with which Shakespeare dallied for some time, as well as the softer flute-notes and deeper undersong that foretell his later blank verse. In Richard III., though it is built on the scheme and charged with the style of Marlowe, Shakespeare first showed the intensity of his original power. But after a few years he swept out of Marlowe’s orbit into his own vaster and unreturning curve. In King John the lyrical, epical, satirical and pathetic chords are all present, if they are scarcely harmonized. Meantime, Lyly and Greene having displaced the uncouther comedy, Shakespeare learned all they had to teach, and shaped the comedy of poetic, chivalrous fancy and good-tempered high spirits, which showed him the way of escape from his own rhetoric, and enabled him to perfect his youthful, noble and gentle blank verse. This attained its utmost fineness in Richard II., and its full cordiality and beauty 1590–1595. in the other plays that consummate this period—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and one romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Behind them lay the earlier and fainter romances, with their chivalry and gaiety, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Throughout these years blank verse contended with rhyme, which Shakespeare after a while abandoned save for special purposes, as though he had exhausted its honey. The Italian Renaissance is felt in the scenery and setting of these plays. The novella furnishes the story, which passes in a city of the Southern type, with its absolute ruler, its fantastic by-laws on which the plot nominally turns, and its mixture of real life and marvel. The personages, at first fainter of feature and symmetrically paired, soon assume sharper outline: Richard II. and Shylock, Portia and Juliet, and Juliet’s Nurse and Bottom are created. The novella has left the earth and taken wings: the spirit is now that of youth and Fancy (or love brooding among the shallows) with interludes of “fierce vexation,” or of tragedy, or of kindly farce. And there is a visionary element, felt in the musings of Theseus upon the nature of poetry of the dream-faculty itself; an element which is new, like the use made of fairy folklore, in the poetry of England.
Tragedy is absent in the succeeding histories (1597–1599), and the comedies of wit and romance (1599–1600), in which Shakespeare perfected his style for stately, pensive or boisterous themes. Falstaff, the most popular as he is the wittiest of all imaginable comic persons, 1596–1600. dominates, as to their prose or lower world, the two parts of Henry IV., and its interlude or offshoot, The Merry Wives of Windsor. The play that celebrates Henry V. is less a drama than a pageant, diversified with mighty orations and cheerful humours, and filled with the love of Shakespeare for England. Here the most indigenous form of art invented by the English Renaissance reaches its climax. The Histories are peopled chiefly by men and warriors, of whom Hotspur, “dying in his excellence and flower,” is perhaps more attractive than Henry of Agincourt. But in the “middle comedies,” As You Like It, Much Ado, and Twelfth Night, the warriors are home at court, where women rule the scene and deserve to rule it; for their wit now gives the note; and Shakespeare’s prose, the medium of their talk, has a finer grace and humour than ever before, euphuism lying well in subjection behind it.
Mankind and this world have never been so sharply sifted or so sternly consoled, since Lucretius, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies. The energy which created them evades, like that of the sun, our estimate. But they were not out of relation to their time, the first few years of the 1601–1608. reign of James, with its conspiracies, its Somerset and Overbury horrors, its enigmatic and sombre figures like Raleigh, and its revulsion from Elizabethan buoyancy. In the same decade were written the chief tragedies of Jonson, Chapman, Dekker, Marston, Tourneur; and The White Devil, and A Yorkshire Tragedy, and The Maid’s Tragedy, and A Woman Killed with Kindness. But, in spite of Shakespeare’s affinities with these authors at many points, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello, with the three Roman plays (written at intervals and not together), and the two quasi-antique plays Troilus and Cressida, and Timon of Athens, form a body of drama apart from anything else in the world. They reveal a new tragic philosophy, a new poetic style, a new dramatic technique and a new world of characters. In one way above all Shakespeare stands apart; he not only appropriates the ancient pattern of heroism, of right living and right dying, revealed by North’s Plutarch; others did this also; but the intellectual movement of the time, though by no means fully reflected, is reflected in his tragedies far more than elsewhere. The new and troublous thoughts on man and conduct that were penetrating the general mind, the freedom and play of vision that Montaigne above all had stimulated, here find their fullest scope; and Florio’s translation (1603) of Montaigne’s Essays, coming out between the first and the second versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, counted probably for more than any other book. The Sonnets (published 1609) are also full of far-wandering thoughts on truth and beauty and on good and evil. The story they reveal may be ranked with the situations of the stranger dramas like Troilus and Measure for Measure. But whether or no it is a true story, and the Sonnets in the main a confession, they would be at the very worst a perfect dramatic record of a great poet’s suffering and friendship.
Shakespeare’s last period, that of his tragi-comedies, begins
about 1608 with his contributions to Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
For unknown reasons he was moved, about the time
of his retirement home, to record, as though in justice
to the world, the happy turns by which tragic disaster
period. is at times averted. Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest all move, after a series of crimes, calumnies, or estrangements, to some final scene of enthralling beauty, where the lost reappear and love is recovered; as though after all the faint and desperate last partings—of Lear and Cordelia, of Hamlet and Horatio—which Shakespeare had imagined, he must make retrieval with the picture of young and happy creatures whose life renews hope even in the experienced. To this end he chose the loose action and free atmosphere of the roman d’aventure, which had already been adapted by Beaumont and Fletcher, who may herein have furnished Shakespeare with novel and successful theatrical effects, and who certainly in turn studied his handiwork. In The Tempest this tragi-comic scheme is fitted to the tales brought by explorers of far isles, wild men, strange gods and airy music. Even if it be true that in Prospero’s words the poet bids farewell to his magic, he took part later nevertheless in the composition of Henry VIII.; and not improbably also in The Two Noble Kinsmen. His share in two early pieces, Arden of Feversham (1592) and Edward III., has been urged, never established, and of many other dramas he was once idly accused.
Shakespeare’s throne rests on the foundation of three equal and master faculties. One is that of expression and versification; the next is the invention and presentation of human character in action; the third is the theatrical faculty. The writing of Dante may seem to us more steadily great and perfect, when we remember Shakespeare’s conceits, his experiments, his haste and impatience in his long wrestle with tragic language, his not infrequent sheer infelicities. But Dante is always himself, he had not to find words for hundreds of imaginary persons. Balzac, again, may have created and exhibited as many types of mankind, but except in soul he is not a poet. Shakespeare is a supreme if not infallible poet; his verse, often of an antique simplicity or of a rich, harmonious, romantic perfection, is at other times strained and shattered with what it tries to express, and attains beauty only through discord. He is also many persons in one; in his Sonnets he is even, it may be thought, himself. But he had furthermore to study a personality not of his own fancying—with something in it of Caliban, of Dogberry and of Cleopatra—that of the audience in a playhouse. He belongs distinctly to the poets like Jonson and Massinger who are true to their art as practical dramatists, not to the poets like Chapman whose works chance to be in the form of plays. Shakespeare’s mastery of this art is approved now by every nation. But apart from the skill that makes him eternally actable—the skill of raising, straining and relieving the suspense, and bringing it to such an ending as the theatre will tolerate—he played upon every chord in his own hearers. He frankly enlisted Jew-hatred, Pope-hatred and France-hatred; he flattered the queen, and celebrated the Union, and stormed the house with his fanfare over the national soldier, Henry of Agincourt, and glorified England, as in Cymbeline, to the last. But in deeper ways he is the chief of playwrights. Unlike another master, Ibsen, he nearly always tells us, without emphasis, by the words and behaviour of his characters, which of them we are to love and hate, and when we are to love and when to hate those whom we can neither love nor hate wholly. Yet he is not to be bribed, and deals to his characters something of the same injustice or rough justice that is found in real life. His loyalty to life, as well as to the stage, puts the crown on his felicity and his fertility, and raises him to his solitude of dramatic greatness.
Shakespeare’s method could not be imparted, and despite reverberations in Beaumont, Fletcher, Webster and others he left no school. But his friend Ben Jonson, his nearest equal in vigour of brain, though not in poetical intuition, was the greatest of dramatic influences down to the Jonson. shutting of the theatres in 1642, and his comedies found fresh disciples even after 1660. He had “the devouring eye and the portraying hand”; he could master and order the contents of a mighty if somewhat burdensome memory into an organic drama, whether the matter lay in Roman historians or before his eyes in the London streets. He had an armoury of doctrine, drawn from the Poetics and Horace, which moulded his creative practice. This was also partly founded on a revulsion against the plays around him, with their loose build and moral improbabilities. But in spite of his photographic and constructive power, his vision is too seldom free and genial; it is that of the satirist who thinks that his office is to improve mankind by derisively representing it. And he does this by beginning with the “humour,” or abstract idiosyncrasy or quality, and clothing it with accurately minute costume and gesture, so that it may pass for a man; and indeed the result is as real as many a man, and in his best-tempered and youthful comedy, Every Man in his Humour (acted 1598), it is very like life. In Jonson’s monumental pieces, Volpone or the Fox (acted 1605) and The Alchemist (acted 1610), our laughter is arrested by the lowering and portentous atmosphere, or is loud and hard, startled by the enormous skill and energy displayed. Nor are the joy and relief of poetical comedy given for an instant by The Silent Woman, Bartholomew Fair (acted 1614), or The Staple of News, still less by topical plays like Cynthia’s Revels, though their unfailing farce and rampant fun are less charged with contempt. The erudite tragedies, Sejanus (acted 1603) and Catiline, chiefly live by passages of high forensic power. Jonson’s finer elegies, eulogies and lyrics, which are many, and his fragmentary Sad Shepherd, show that he also had a free and lovely talent, often smothered by doctrine and temper; and his verse, usually strong but full of knots and snags, becomes flowing and graciously finished. His prose is of the best, especially in his Discoveries, a series of ethical essays and critical maxims; its prevalently brief and emphatic rhythms suggesting those of Hobbes, and even, though less easy and civil and various, those of Dryden. The “sons” of Jonson, Randolph and Browne, Shadwell and Wilson, were heirs rather to his riot of “humours,” his learned method and satiric aim, than to his larger style, his architectural power, or his relieving graces.
As a whole, the romantic drama (so to entitle the remaining bulk of plays down to 1642) is a vast stifled jungle, full of wild life and song, with strange growths and heady perfumes, with glades of sunshine and recesses of poisoned darkness; it is not a cleared forest, where single and Romantic drama. splendid trees grow to shapely perfection. It has “poetry enough for anything”; passionate situations, and their eloquence; and a number, doubtless small considering its mass, of living and memorable personages. Moral keeping and constructive mastery are rarer still; and too seldom through a whole drama do we see human life and hear its voices, arranged and orchestrated by the artist. But it can be truly said in defence that while structure without poetry is void (as it tended at times to be in Ben Jonson), poetry without structure is still poetry, and that the romantic drama is like nothing else in this world for variety of accent and unexpectedness of beauty. We must read it through, as Charles Lamb did, to do it justice. The diffusion of its characteristic excellences is surprising. Of its extant plays it is hardly safe to leave one unopened, if we are searchers for whatsoever is lovely or admirable. The reasons for the lack of steadfast power and artistic conscience lay partly in the conditions of the stage. Playwrights usually wrote rapidly for bread, and sold their rights. The performances of each play were few. There was no authors’ copyright, and dramas were made to be seen and heard, not to be read. There was no articulate dramatic criticism, except such as we find casually in Shakespeare, and in the practice and theory of Jonson, who was deaf or hostile to some of the chief virtues of the romantic playwrights.
The wealth of dramatic production is so great that only a broad classification is here offered. George Chapman stands apart, nearest to the greatest in high austerity of sentiment and in the gracious gravity of his romantic love-comedies. But the crude melodrama of his tragedies is Chapman. void of true theatrical skill. His quasi-historical French tragedies on Bussy d’Ambois and Biron and Chabot best show his gift and also his insufferable interrupting quaintness. His versions of Homer (1598–1624), honoured alike by Jonson and by Keats, are the greatest verse translations of the time, and the real work of Chapman’s life. Their virtues are only partially Homer’s, but the general epic nobility and the majesty of single lines, which in length are the near equivalent of the hexameter, redeem the want of Homer’s limpidity and continuity and the translator’s imperfect knowledge of Greek. A vein of satiric ruggedness unites Jonson and Chapman with Marston and Hall, the professors of an artificial and disgusting invective; and the same strain spoils Marston’s plays, and obscures his genuine command of the language of feverish and bitter sentiment. With these writers satire and contempt of the world lie at the root both of their comedy and tragedy.
It is otherwise with most of the romantic dramatists, who may be provisionally grouped as follows. (a) Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood are writers-of-all-work, the former profuse of tracts and pamphlets, the latter of treatises and compilations. They are both unrhetorical and Dekker and Heywood. void of pose, and divide themselves between the artless comedy of bustling, lively, English humours and pathetic, unheroic tragedy. But Dekker has splendid and poetical dreams, in Old Fortunatus (1600) and The Honest Whore, both of luxury and of tenderness; while Heywood, as in his English Traveller and Woman killed with Kindness (acted 1603), excels in pictures of actual, chivalrous English gentlemen and their generosities. The fertility and volubility of these writers, and their modest carelessness of fame, account for many of their imperfections. With them may be named the large crowd of professional journeymen, who did not want for power, but wrote usually in partnership together, like Munday, Chettle and Drayton, or supplied, like William Rowley, underplots of rough, lively comedy or tragedy. (b) Amongst dramatists of primarily tragic and sombre temper, who in their best scenes recall the creator Middleton and Webster. of Angelo, Iago and Timon, must be named Thomas Middleton (1570?–1627), John Webster, and Cyril Tourneur. Middleton has great but scattered force, and his verse has the grip and ring of the best period without a sign of the decadence. He is strong in high comedy, like The Old Law, that turns on some exquisite point of honour—“the moral sense of our ancestors”; in comedy that is merely graphic and vigorous; and in detached sketches of lowering wickedness and lust, like those in The Changeling and Women beware Women. He and Webster each created one unforgettable desperado, de Flores in The Changeling and Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi (whose “pity,” when it came, was “nothing akin to him”). In Webster’s other principal play, Vittoria Corombona, or the White Devil (produced about 1616), the title-character is not less magnificent in defiant crime than Goneril or Lady Macbeth. The style of Webster, for all his mechanical horrors, distils the essences of pity and terror, of wrath and scorn, and is profoundly poetical; and his point of view seems to be blank fatalism, without Shakespeare’s ever-arching rainbow of moral sympathy. Cyril Tourneur, in The Revenger’s Tragedy, is even more of a poet than Webster; he can find the phrase for half-insane wrath and nightmare brooding, but his chaos of impieties revolts the artistic judgment. These specialists, when all is said, are great men in their dark province, (c) The playwrights who may be broadly called romantic, of whom Beaumont, Fletcher and Massinger are the chief, while they share in the same sombre vein, have a wider range and move more in the daylight. The three just named left a very large body of drama, tragic, comic and tragi-comic, in which their several shares can partly be discerned by metrical or other tests. Beaumont (d. 1616) is nearest the prime, with his vein of Cervantesque Beaumont and Fletcher. mockery and his pure, beautifully-broken and cadenced verse, which is seen in his contributions to Philaster and The Maid’s Tragedy. Fletcher (d. 1625) brings us closest to the actual gaieties and humours of Jacobean life; he has a profuse comic gift and the rare instinct for natural dialogue. His verse, with its flood of vehement and expansive rhetoric, heard at its best in plays like Bonduca, cannot cheat us into the illusion that it is truly dramatic; but it overflows with beauty, like his silvery but monotonous versification with its endecasyllabics arrested at the end. In Fletcher the decadence of form and feeling palpably begins. His personages often face about at critical instants and bely their natures by sudden revulsions. Wanton and cheap characters invite not only dramatic but personal sympathy, as though the author knew no better. There is too much fine writing about a chastity which is complacent rather than instinctive, and satisfied with its formal resistances and technical escapes; so that we are far from Shakespeare’s heroines. These faults are present also in Philip Massinger. Massinger (d. 1640), who offers in substantial recompense, not like Beaumont and Fletcher treasures of incessant vivacious episode and poetry and lyric interlude, but an often splendid and usually solid constructive skill, and a steady eloquence which is like a high table-land without summits. A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1632) is the most enduring popular comedy of the time outside Shakespeare’s, and one of the best. Massinger’s interweaving of impersonal or political conceptions, as in The Bondman and The Roman Actor, is often a triumph of arrangement; and though he wrote in the reign of Charles, he is saved by many noble qualities from being merely an artist of the decline, (d) A mass of plays, of which the authorship is unknown, uncertain or attached to a mere name, The Many. baffle classification. There are domestic tragedies, such as Arden of Feversham; scions of the vindictive drama, like The Second Maiden’s Tragedy; historic or half-historic tragedies like Nero. There are chronicle histories, of which the last and one of the best is Ford’s Perkin Warbeck, and melodramas of adventure such as Thomas Heywood poured forth. There are realistic citizen comedies akin to The Merry Wives, like Porter’s refreshing Two Angry Women of Abingdon; there are Jonsonian comedies, vernacular farces, light intrigue-pieces like Field’s and many more. Few of these, regarded as wholes, come near to perfection; few fail of some sally or scene that proves once more the unmatched diffusion of the dramatic or poetic instinct. (e) Outside the regular drama there are many varieties: academic plays, like The Return from Parnassus and Lingua, which are still mirthful; many pastoral plays or entertainments in the Italian style, like The Faithful Shepherdess; versified character-sketches, of which Day’s Parliament of Bees, with its Theocritean grace and point, is the happiest; many masques and shows, often lyrically and scenically lovely, of which kind Jonson is the master, and Milton, in his Comus, the transfigurer; Senecan dramas made only to be read, like Daniel’s and Fulke Greville’s; and Latin comedies, like Ignoramus. All these species are only now being fully grouped, sifted and edited by scholars, but a number of the six or seven hundred dramas of the time remain unreprinted.
There remain two writers, John Ford and James Shirley, who kept the higher tradition alive till the Puritan ordinance crushed the theatre in 1642. Ford is another specialist, of grave, sinister and concentrated power (reflected in his verse and diction), to whom no topic, the Ford and Shirley. incest of Annabella in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, or the high crazed heroism of Calantha in The Broken Heart, is beyond the pale, if only he can dominate it; as indeed he does, without complicity, standing above his subject. Shirley, a fertile writer, has the general characteristic gifts, in a somewhat dilute but noble form, of the more romantic playwrights, and claims honour as the last of them.
Prose from 1579 to 1660.—With all the unevenness of poetry, the sense of style, of a standard, is everywhere; felicity is never far off. Prose also is full of genius, but it is more disfigured than verse by aberration and wasted power. A central, classic, durable, adaptive prose had been attained by Machiavelli, and by Amyot and Calvin, before 1550. In England it was only to become distinct after 1660. Vocabulary, sentence-structure, paragraph, idiom and rhythm were in a state of unchartered freedom, and the history of their crystallization is not yet written. But in more than compensation there is a company of prose masters, from Florio and Hooker to Milton and Clarendon, not one of whom clearly or fully anticipates the modern style, and who claim all the closer study that their special virtues have been for ever lost. They seem farther away from us than the poets around them. The verse of Shakespeare is near to us, for its tradition has persisted; his prose, the most natural and noble of his age, is far away, for its tradition has not persisted. One reason of this difference is that English prose tried to do more work than that of France and Italy; it tried the work of poetry; and it often did that better than it did the normal work of prose. This overflow of the imaginative spirit gave power and elasticity to prose, but made its task of finding equilibrium the harder. Moreover, prose in England was for long a natural growth, never much affected by critical or academic canons as in France; and when it did submit to canons, the result was often merely manner. The tendons and sinews of the language, still in its adolescent power and bewilderment, were long unset; that is, the parts of speech—noun and verb, epithet and adverb—were in freer interchange than at any period afterwards. The build, length and cadence of a complex sentence were habitually elaborate; and yet they were disorganized, so that only the ear of a master could regulate them. The law of taste and measure, perhaps through some national disability, was long unperceived. Prose, in fact, could never be sure of doing the day’s work in the right fashion. The cross-currents of pedantry in the midst of simplicity, the distrust of clear plain brevity, which was apt to be affected when it came, the mimicries of foreign fashions, and the quaintness and cumbrousness of so much average writing, make it easier to classify Renaissance prose by its interests than by its styles.
The Elizabethan novel was always unhappily mannered, and
is therefore dead. It fed the drama, which devoured it. The
tales of Boccaccio, Bandello, Cinthio, Margaret of
Navarre, and others were purveyed, as remarked
above, in the forgotten treasuries of Painter, Pettie, Fenton
Lyly and euphuism. and Whetstone, and many of these works or their originals filled a shelf in the playwrights’ libraries. The first of famous English novels, Lyly’s Euphues (1578), and its sequel Euphues and his England, are documents of form. They are commended by a certain dapper shrewdness of observation and an almost witty priggery, not by any real beauty or deep feeling. Euphuism, of which Lyly was only the patentee, not the inventor, strikes partly back to the Spaniard Guevara, and was a model for some years to many followers like Lodge and Greene. It did not merely provide Falstaff with a pattern for mock-moral diction and vegetable similes. It genuinely helped to organize the English sentence, complex or co-ordinate, and the talk of Portia and Rosalind shows what could be made of it. By the arch-euphuists, clauses and clusters of clauses were paired for parallel or contrast, with the beat of emphatic alliteration on the corresponding parts of speech in each constituent clause. This was a useful discipline for prose in its period of groping. Sidney’s incomposite and unfinished Arcadia, written 1580–1581, despite its painful forced antitheses, is sprinkled with lovely rhythms, with pleasing formal landscapes, and even with impassioned sentiment and situation, through which the writer’s eager and fretted spirit shines. Both these stories, like those of Greene and Lodge, show by their somewhat affected, edited delineation of life and their courtly tone that they were meant in chief for the eyes of ladies, who were excluded alike from the stage and from its audience. Nashe’s drastic and photographic tale of masculine life, Jack Wilton, or The Unfortunate Traveller, stands almost alone, but some of the gap is filled by the contemporary pamphlets, sometimes vivid, often full of fierce or maudlin declamation, of Nashe himself—by far the most powerful of the group—and of Greene, Dekker and Nicholas Breton. Thus the English novel was a minor passing form; the leisurely and amorous romance went on in the next century, owing largely to French influence and example.
In criticism, England may almost be counted with the minor Latin countries. Sidney, in his Defence of Poesy (1595, written about 1580), and Jonson, in his Discoveries, offer a well-inspired and lofty restatement of the current answers to the current questions, but could give no account Criticism. of the actual creative writing of the time. To defend the “truth” of poetry—which was identified with all inventive writing and not only with verse—poetry was saddled with the work of science and instruction. To defend its character it was treated as a delightful but deliberate bait to good behaviour, a theory at best only true of allegory and didactic verse. The real relation of tragedy to spiritual things, which is admittedly shown, however hard its definition, in Shakespeare’s plays, no critic for centuries tried to fathom. One of the chief quarrels turned on metric. A few lines that Sidney and Campion wrote on what they thought the system of Latin quantity are really musical. This theory, already raised by Ascham, made a stir, at first in the group of Harvey, Sidney, Dyer and Spenser, called the “Areopagus,” an informal attempt to copy the Italian academies; and it was revived on the brink of the reign of James. But Daniel’s firm and eloquent Defence of Rhyming (1602) was not needed to persuade the poets to continue rhyming in syllabic verse. The stricter view of the nature and classification of poetry, and of the dramatic unity of action, is concisely given, partly by Jonson, partly by Bacon in his Advancement of Learning and De Augmentis; and Jonson, besides passing his famed judgments on Shakespeare and Bacon, enriched our critical vocabulary from the Roman rhetoricians. Scholastic and sensible manuals, like Webbe’s Discourse of Poetry and the Art of English Poesy (1589) ascribed to Puttenham, come in the rear.
The translators count for more than the critics; the line of their great achievements from Berners’ Froissart (1523–1525) to Urquhart’s Rabelais (1653) is never broken long; and though their lives are often obscure, their number witnesses to that far-spread diffusion of the talent Translators. for English prose, which the wealth of English poetry is apt to hide. The typical craftsman in this field, Philemon Holland, translated Livy, Pliny, Suetonius, Plutarch’s Morals and Camden’s Britannia, and his fount of English is of the amplest and purest. North, in his translation, made from Amyot’s classic French, of Plutarch’s Lives (1579), disclosed one of the master-works of old example; Florio, in Montaigne’s Essays (1603), the charter of the new freedom of mental exploration; and Shelton, in Don Quixote (1612), the chief tragi-comic creation of continental prose. These versions, if by no means accurate in the letter, were adequate in point of soul and style to their great originals; and the English dress of Tacitus (1591), Apuleius, Heliodorus, Commines, Celestina and many others, is so good and often so sumptuous a fabric, that no single class of prose authors, from the time of More to that of Dryden, excels the prose translators, unless it be the Anglican preachers. Their matter is given to them, and with it a certain standard of form, so that their natural strength and richness of phrase are controlled without being deadened. But the want of such control is seen in the many pamphleteers, who are the journalists of the time, and are often also playwrights or tale-tellers, divines or politicians. The writings, for instance, of the hectic, satiric and graphic Thomas Nashe, run at one extreme into fiction, and at the other into the virulent rag-sheets of the Marprelate controversy, which is of historical and social but not of artistic note, being only a fragment of that vast mass of disputatious literature, which now seems grotesque, excitable or dull.
Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594–1597), an accepted defence of the Anglican position against Geneva and Rome, is the first theological work of note in the English tongue, and the first of note since Wycliffe written by an Englishman. It is a plea for reason as one of the Hooker. safe and lawful guides to the faith; but it also speaks with admirable temper and large feeling to the ceremonial and aesthetic sense. The First Book, the scaffolding of the treatise, discusses the nature of law at large; but Hooker hardly has pure speculative power, and the language had not yet learnt to move easily in abstract trains of thought. In its elaboration of clause and period, in its delicate resonant eloquence, Hooker’s style is Ciceronian; but his inversions and mazes of subordinate sentence somewhat rack the genius of English. Later divines like Jeremy Taylor had to disintegrate, since they could not wield, this admirable but over-complex eloquence. The sermons (1621–1631) of Donne have the mingled strangeness and intimacy of his verse, and their subtle flame, imaginative tenacity, and hold upon the springs of awe make them unique. Though without artificial symmetry, their sentences are intricately harmonized, in strong contrast to such pellet-like clauses as those of the learned Lancelot Andrewes, who was Donne’s younger contemporary and the subject of Milton’s Latin epitaph.
With Francis Bacon (1561–1626) English philosophy began its unbroken course and took its long-delayed rank in Europe. His prose, of which he is the first high and various master in English, was shaped and coloured by his bent as orator and pleader, by his immixture in affairs, by his Bacon. speculative brain, and by his use and estimate of Latin. In his conscious craftsmanship, his intellectual confidence and curiosity, his divining faith in the future of science, and his resolve to follow the leadings of nature and experience unswervingly; in his habit of storing and using up his experience, and in his wide wordly insight, crystallized in maxim, he suggests a kind of Goethe, without the poetic hand or the capacity for love and lofty suffering. He saw all nature in a map, and wished to understand and control her by outwitting the “idols,” or inherent paralysing frailties of the human judgment. He planned but could not finish a great cycle of books in order to realize this conception. The De Augmentis Scientiarum (1623) expanded from the English Advancement of Knowledge (1605) draws the map; the Novum Organum (1620) sets out the errors of scholasticism and the methods of inductive logic; the New Atlantis sketches an ideally equipped and moralized scientific community. Bacon shared with the great minds of his century the notion that Latin would outlast any vernacular tongue, and committed his chief scientific writings to a Latin which is alive and splendid and his own, and which also disciplined and ennobled his English. The Essays (1597, 1612, 1625) are his lifelong, gradually accumulated diary of his opinions on human life and business. These famous compositions are often sadly mechanical. They are chippings and basketings of maxims and quotations, and of anecdotes, often classical, put together inductively, or rather by “simple enumeration” of the pros and cons. Still they are the honest notes of a practical observer and statesman, disenchanted—why not?—with mankind, concerned with cause and effect rather than with right and wrong, wanting the finer faith and insight into men and women, but full of reality, touched with melancholy, and redeeming some arid, small and pretentious counsels by many that are large and wise. Though sometimes betraying the workshop, Bacon’s style, at its best, is infallibly expressive; like Milton’s angels, it is “dilated or condensed” according to its purposes. In youth and age alike, Bacon commanded the most opposite patterns and extremes of prose—the curt maxim, balanced in antithesis or triplet, or standing solitary; the sumptuous, satisfying and brocaded period; the movements of exposition, oratory, pleading and narrative. The History of Henry VII. (1622), written after his fall from office, is in form as well as insight and mastery of material the one historical classic in English before Clarendon. Bacon’s musical sense for the value and placing of splendid words and proper names resembles Marlowe’s. But the master of mid-Renaissance prose is Shakespeare; with him it becomes the voice of finer and more impassioned spirits than Bacon’s—the voice of Rosalind and Hamlet. And the eulogist of both men, Ben Jonson, must be named in their company for his senatorial weight and dignity of ethical counsel and critical maxim.
As the Stuart rule declined and fell, prose became enriched from five chief sources: from philosophy, whether formal or unmethodical; from theology and preaching and political dispute; from the poetical contemplation of death; from the observation of men and manners; and from antiquarian scholarship and history. As in France, where the first three of these kinds of writings flourished, it was a time rather of individual great writers than of any admitted pattern or common ideal of prose form, although in France this pattern was always clearlier defined. The mental energy, meditative depth, and throbbing brilliant colour of the English drama passed with its decay over into prose. But Latin was still often the supplanter: the treatise of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, De Veritate, of note in the early history of Deism, and much of the writing of the ambidextrous Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes, are in Latin. In this way Latin disciplined English once more, though it often tempted men of genius away from English. The Leviathan (1651) with its companion books on Human Nature and Liberty, and Hobbes’ explosive dialogue on the civil wars, Behemoth (1679), have the bitter concision of Tacitus and the clearness of a half-relief in bronze. Hobbes’ speculations on the human animal, the social contract, the absolute power of the sovereign, and the subservience owed to the sovereign by the Church or “Kingdom of Darkness,” enraged all parties, and left their track on the thought and controversial literature of the century. With Ben Jonson and the jurist Selden (whose English can be judged from his Table Talk), Hobbes anticipates the brief and clear sentence-structure of the next age, though not its social ease and amenity of form. But his grandeur is not that of a poet, and the poetical Funereal prose. prose is the most distinctive kind of this period. It is eloquent above all on death and the vanity of human affairs; its solemn tenor prolongs the reflections of Claudio, of Fletcher’s Philaster, or of Spenser’s Despair. It is exemplified in Bacon’s Essay Of Death, in the anonymous descant on the same subject wrongly once ascribed to him, in Donne’s plea for suicide, in Raleigh’s History of the World, in Drummond’s Cypress Grove (1623), in Jeremy Taylor’s sermons and Holy Dying (1651), and in Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial (1658) and Letter to a Friend. Its usual vesture is a long purple period, freely Latinized, though Browne equally commands the form of solemn and monumental epigram. He is also free from the dejection that wraps round the other writers on the subject, and a holy quaintness and gusto relieve his ruminations. The Religio Medici (1642), quintessentially learned, wise and splendid, is the fullest memorial of his power. Amongst modern prose writers, De Quincey is his only true rival in musical sensibility to words.
Jeremy Taylor, the last great English casuist and schoolman,
and one of the first pleaders for religious tolerance (in his Liberty
of Prophesying, 1647), is above all a preacher; tender,
intricate, copious, inexhaustible in image and
picturesque quotation. From the classics, from the
Burton. East, from the animal world, from the life of men and children, his illustrations flow, without end or measure. He is a master of the lingering cadence, which soars upward and onward on its coupled clauses, as on balanced iridescent wings, and is found long after in his scholar Ruskin. Imaginative force of another kind pervades Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), where the humorous medium refracts and colours every ray of the recluse’s far-travelled spirit. The mass of Latin citation, woven, not quilted, into Burton’s style, is another proof of the vitality of the cosmopolitan language. Burton and Browne owe much to the pre-critical learning of their time, which yields up such precious savours to their fancy, that we may be thankful for the delay of more precise science and scholarship. Fancy, too, of a suddener and wittier sort, preserves some of the ample labours of Thomas Fuller, which are scattered over the years 1631–1662; and the Lives and Compleat Angler (1653) of Izaak Walton are unspoilt, happy or pious pieces of idyllic prose. No adequate note on the secular or sacred learning of the time can here be given; on Camden, with his vast erudition, historical, antiquarian and comparatively critical (Britannia, in Latin, 1586); or on Ussher, with his patristic and chronological learning, one of the many savants of the Anglican church. Other divines of the same camp pleaded, in a plainer style than Taylor, for freedom of personal judgment and against the multiplying of “vitals in religion”; the chief were Chillingworth, one of the closest of English apologists, in his Religion of Protestants (1638), and John Hales of Eton. The Platonists, or rather Plotinists, of Cambridge, who form a curious digression in the history of modern philosophy, produced two writers, John Smith and Henry More, of an exalted and esoteric prose, more directly inspired by Greece than any other of the time; and their champion of erudition, Cudworth, in his True Intellectual System, gave some form to their doctrine.
Above the vast body of pamphlets and disputatious writing that form the historian’s material stands Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion, printed in 1702–1704, thirty years after his death. Historical writing hitherto, but for Bacon’s Henry VII., had been tentative though Clarendon. profuse. Raleigh’s vast disquisition upon all things, The History of the World (1614), survives by passages and poetic splendours; gallantly written second-hand works like Knolles’s History of the Turks, and the rhetorical History of the Long Parliament by May, had failed to give England rank with France and Italy. Clarendon’s book, one of the greatest of memoirs and most vivid of portrait-galleries, spiritually unappreciative of the other side, but full of a subtle discrimination of character and political motive, brings its author into line with Retz and Saint-Simon, the watchers and recorders and sometimes the makers of contemporary history. Clarendon’s Life, above all the picture of Falkland and his friends, is a personal record of the delightful sort in which England was thus far infertile. He is the last old master of prose, using and sustaining the long, sinuous sentence, unworkable in weaker hands. He is the last, for Milton’s Milton’s prose. polemic prose, hurled from the opposite camp, was written between 1643 and 1660. Whether reviling bishops or royal privilege or indissoluble monogamy, or recalling his own youth and aims; or claiming liberty for print in Areopagitica (1644); in his demonic defiances, or angelic calls to arms, or his animal eruptions of spite and hatred, Milton leaves us with a sense of the motive energies that were to be transformed into Paradise Lost and Samson. His sentences are ungainly and often inharmonious, but often irresistible; he rigidly withstood the tendencies of form, in prose as in verse, that Dryden was to represent, and thus was true to his own literary dynasty.
A special outlying position belongs to the Authorized Version (1611) of the Bible, the late fruit of the long toil that had begun with Tyndale’s, and, on the side of style, with the Wycliffite translations. More scholarly than all the preceding versions which it utilized, it won its incomparable The Authorized Version. form, not so much because of the “grand style that was in the air,” which would have been the worst of models, as because the style had been already tested and ennobled by generations of translators. Its effect on poetry and letters was for some time far smaller than its effect on the national life at large, but it was the greatest translation—being of a whole literature, or rather of two literatures—in an age of great translations.
Some other kinds of writing soften the transition to Restoration prose. The vast catalogue of Characters numbers hundreds of titles. Deriving from Theophrastus, who was edited by Casaubon in 1592, they are yet another Renaissance form that England shared with France. But in English hands, failing a La Bruyère—in Hall’s, in Overbury’s, even in those of the gay and skilful Earle (Microcosmographie, 1628)—the Character is a mere list of the attributes and oddities of a type or calling. It is to the Jonsonian drama of humours what the Pensée, or detached remark, practised by Bishop Hall and later by Butler and Halifax, is to the Essay. These works tended long to be commonplace or didactic, as the popular Resolves of Owen Feltham shows. Cowley was the first essayist to come down from the desk and talk as to his equals in easy phrases of middle length. A time of dissension was not the best for this kind of peaceful, detached writing. The letters of James Howell, the autobiography of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and the memoirs of Kenelm Digby belong rather to the older and more mannered than to the more modern form, though Howell’s English is in the plainer and quicker movement.
IV. Restoration Period
Literature from 1660 to 1700.—The Renaissance of letters in England entered on a fresh and peculiar phase in the third quarter of the century. The balance of intellectual and artistic power in Europe had completely shifted since 1580. Inspiration had died down in Italy, and its older classics were no longer a stimulus. The Spanish drama had flourished, but its influence though real was scattered and indirect. The Germanic countries were slowly emerging into literature; England they scarcely touched. But the literary empire of France began to declare itself both in Northern and Southern lands, and within half a century was assured. Under this empire the English genius partly fell, though it soon asserted its own equality, and by 1720 had so reacted upon France as more than to repay the debt. Thus between 1660 and 1700 is prepared a temporary dual control French influence. of European letters. But in the age of Dryden France gave England more than it received; it gave more than it had ever given since the age of Chaucer. During Charles II.’s days Racine, Molière, La Fontaine and Bossuet ran the best of their course. Cavalier exiles like Waller, Cowley and Hobbes had come back from the winter of their discontent in Paris, and Saint-Evremond, the typical bel esprit and critic, settled long in England. A vast body of translations from the French is recounted, including latterly the works of the Protestant refugees printed in the free Low Countries or in England. Naturally this influence told most strongly on the social forms of verse and prose—upon comedy and satire, upon criticism and maxim and epigram, while it also affected theology and thought. And this meant the Renaissance once more, still unexhausted, only working less immediately and in fresh if narrower channels. Greek literature, Plato and Homer and the dramatists, became dimmer; the secondary forms of Latin poetry came to the fore, especially those of Juvenal and the satirists, and the pedestris sermo, epistolary and critical, of Horace. These had some direct influence, as Dryden’s translation of them, accompanying his Virgil and Lucretius, may show. But they came commended by Boileau, their chief modernizer, and in their train was the fashion of gallant, epigrammatic and social verse. The tragedy of Corneille and Racine, developed originally from the Senecan drama, contended with the traditions of Shakespeare and Fletcher, and was reinforced by that of the correcter Jonson, in shaping the new theatre of England. The French codifiers, who were often also the distorters, of Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars poëtica, furnished a canonical body of criticism on the epic and the drama, to which Dryden is half a disciple and half a rebel. All this implied at once a loss of the larger and fuller inspirations of poetry, a decadence in its great and primary forms, epic, lyric and tragic, and a disposition, in default of such creative power, to turn and take stock of past production. In England, therefore, it is the age of secondary verse and of nascent, often searching criticism.
The same critical spirit was also whetted in the fields of science
and speculation, which the war and the Puritan rule had not
encouraged. The activities of the newly-founded
Royal Society told directly upon literature, and
counted powerfully in the organization of a clear,
Letters. uniform prose—the “close, naked, natural way of speaking,” which the historian of the Society, Sprat, cites as part of its programme. And the style of Sprat, as of scientific masters like Newton and Ray the botanist, itself attests the change. A time of profound and peaceful and fruitful scientific labour began; the whole of Newton’s Principia appeared in 1687; the dream of Bacon came nearer, and England was less isolated from the international work of knowledge. The spirit of method and observation and induction spread over the whole field of thought and was typified in John Locke, whose Essay concerning Human Understanding came out in English in 1690, and who applied the same deeply sagacious and cautious calculus to education and religion and the “conduct of the understanding.” But his works, though their often mellow and dignified style has been ignorantly underrated, also show the change in philosophic writing since Hobbes. The old grandeur and pugnacity are gone; the imaginative play of science, or quasi-science, on the literature of reflection is gone; the eccentrics, the fantasts, the dreamers are gone, or only survive in curious transitional writers like Joseph Glanvil (Scepsis scientifica, 1665) or Thomas Burnet (Sacred Theory of the Earth, 1684). This change was in part a conscious and an angry change, as is clear from the attacks made in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (1663–1668) upon scholastic verbiage, astrology, fanatical sects and their disputes, poetic and “heroic” enthusiasm and intellectual whim.
Before the Restoration men of letters, with signal exceptions
like Milton and Marvell, had been Cavalier, courtly and Anglican
in their sympathies. The Civil War had scattered them
away from the capital, which, despite Milton’s dream
in Areopagitica of its humming and surging energies,
had ceased to be, what it now again Courtly
and social influence.became, the natural haunt and Rialto of authors. The taste of the new king and court served to rally them. Charles II. relished Hudibras, used and pensioned Dryden, sat under Barrow and South and heard them with appreciation, countenanced science, visited comedies, and held his own in talk by mother-wit. Letters became the pastime, and therefore one of the more serious pursuits, of men of quality, who soon excelled in song and light scarifying verse and comedy, and took their own tragedies and criticisms gravely. Poetry under such auspices became gallant and social, and also personal and partisan; and satire was soon its most vital form, with the accessories of compliment, rhymed popular argumentation and elegy. The social and conversational instinct was the master-influence in prose. It produced a subtle but fundamental change in the attitude of author to reader. Prose came nearer to living speech, it became more civil and natural and persuasive, and this not least in the pulpit. The sense of ennui, or boredom, which seemed as unknown in the earlier part of the century as it is to the modern German, became strongly developed, and prose was much improved by the fear of provoking it. In all these ways the Restoration accompanied and quickened a speedier and greater change in letters than any political event in English history since the reign of Alfred, when prose itself was created.
The formal change in prose can thus be assigned to no one writer, for the good reason that it presupposes a change of spoken style lying deeper than any personal influence. If we begin with the writing that is nearest living talk—the letters of Otway or Lady Rachel Russell, or the diary of Pepys (1659–1669)—that Prose and criticism.supreme disclosure of our mother-earth—or the evidence in a state trial, or the dialogue in the more natural comedies; if we then work upwards through some of the plainer kinds of authorship, like the less slangy of L’Estrange’s pamphlets, or Burnet’s History of My Own Time, a solid Whig memoir of historical value, until we reach really admirable or lasting prose like Dryden’s Preface to his Fables (1700), or the maxims of Halifax;—if we do this, we are aware, amid all varieties, survivals and reversions, of a strong and rapid drift towards the style that we call modern. And one sign of this movement is the revulsion against any over-saturating of the working, daily language, and even of the language of appeal and eloquence, with the Latin element. In Barrow and Glanvil, descendants of Taylor and Browne, many Latinized words remain, which were soon expelled from style like foreign bodies from an organism. As in the mid-sixteenth and the mid-eighteenth century, the process is visible by which the Latin vocabulary and Latin complication of sentence first gathers strength, and then, though not without leaving its traces, is forced to ebb. The instinct of the best writers secured this result, and secured it for good and all. In Dryden’s diction there is a nearly perfect balance and harmony of learned and native constituents, and a sensitive tact in Gallicizing; in his build of sentence there is the same balance between curtness or bareness and complexity or ungainly lengthiness. For ceremony and compliment he keeps a rolling period, for invective a short sharp stroke without the gloves. And he not only uses in general a sentence of moderate scale, inclining to brevity, but he finds out its harmonies; he is a seeming-careless but an absolute master of rhythm. In delusive ease he is unexcelled; and we only regret that he could not have written prose oftener instead of plays. We should thus, however, have lost their prefaces, in which the bulk and the best of Dryden’s criticisms appear. From the Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668) down to the Preface to Fables (1700) runs a series of essays: On the Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy, On Heroic Plays, On Translated Verse, On Satire and many more; which form the first connected body of criticisms in the language, and are nobly written always. Dryden’s prose is literature as it stands, and yet is talk, and yet again is mysteriously better than talk. The critical writings of John Dennis are but a sincere application of the rules and canons that were now becoming conventional; Rymer, though not so despicable as Macaulay said, is still more depressing than Dennis; and for any critic at once so free, so generous and so sure as Dryden we wait in vain for a century.
Three or four names are usually associated with Dryden’s in the work of reforming or modifying prose: Sprat, Tillotson, Sir William Temple, and George Savile, marquis of Halifax; but the honours rest with Halifax. Sprat, though clear and easy, has little range; Tillotson, though lucid, orderly, and a very popular preacher, has littleContributors to the new prose. distinction; Temple, the elegant essayist, has a kind of barren gloss and fine literary manners, but very little to say. The political tracts, essays and maxims of Halifax (died 1695) are the most typically modern prose between Dryden and Swift, and are nearer than anything else to the best French writing of the same order, in their finality of epigram, their neatness and mannerliness and sharpness. The Character of a Trimmer and Advice to a Daughter are the best examples.
Religious literature, Anglican and Puritan, is the chief remaining department to be named. The strong, eloquent and coloured preaching of Isaac Barrow the mathematician, who died in 1677, is a survival of the larger and older manner of the Church. In its balance of logic, learning and emotion, in its command alike of Latin splendour and native force, it Preachers.deserves a recognition it has lost. Another athlete of the pulpit, Robert South, who is so often praised for his wit that his force is forgotten, continues the lineage, while Tillotson and the elder Sherlock show the tendency to the smoother and more level prose. But the revulsion against strangeness and fancy and magnificence went too far; it made for a temporary bareness and meanness and disharmony, which had to be checked by Addison, Bolingbroke and Berkeley. From what Addison saved our daily written English, may be seen in the vigorous slangy hackwork of Roger L’Estrange, the translator and pamphleteer, in the news-sheets of Dunton, and in the satires of Tom Brown. These writers were debasing the coinage with their street journalism.
Another and far nobler variety of vernacular prose is found in the Puritans. Baxter and Howe, Fox and Bunyan, had the English Bible behind them, which gave them the best of their inspiration, though the first two of them were also erudite men. Richard Baxter, an immensely Puritan prose. fertile writer, is best remembered by those of his own fold for his Saint’s Everlasting Rest (1650) and his autobiography, John Howe for his evangelical apologia The Living Temple of God (1675), Fox for his Journal and its mixture of quaintness and rapturous mysticism. John Bunyan, the least instructed of them all, is their only born artist. His creed and point Bunyan. of view were those of half the nation—the half that was usually inarticulate in literature, or spoke without style or genius. His reading, consisting not only of the Bible, but of the popular allegories of giants, pilgrims and adventure, was also that of his class. The Pilgrim’s Progress, of which the first part appeared in 1678, the second in 1684, is the happy flowering sport amidst a growth of barren plants of the same tribe. The Progress is a dream, more vivid to its author than most men’s waking memories to themselves; the emblem and the thing signified are merged at every point, so that Christian’s journey is not so much an allegory with a key as a spiritual vision of this earth and our neighbours. Grace Abounding, Bunyan’s diary of his own voyage to salvation, The Holy War, an overloaded fable of the fall and recovery of mankind, and The Life and Death of Mr Badman, a novel telling of the triumphal earthly progress of a scoundrelly tradesman, are among Bunyan’s other contributions to literature. His union of spiritual intensity, sharp humorous vision, and power of simple speech consummately chosen, mark his work off alike from his own inarticulate public and from all other literary performance of his time.
The transition from the older to the newer poetry was not abrupt. Old themes and tunes were slowly disused, others previously of lesser mark rose into favour, and a few quite fresh ones were introduced. The poems of John Oldham and Andrew Marvell belong to both periods. Transitional verse. Both of them begin with fantasy and elegy, and end with satires, which indeed are rather documents than works of art. The monody of Oldham on his friend Morwent is poorly exchanged for the Satires on the Jesuits (1681), and the lovely metaphysical verses of Marvell on gardens and orchards and the spiritual love sadly give place to his Last Instructions to a Painter (1669). In his Horatian Ode Marvell had nobly and impartially applied his earlier style to national affairs; but the time proved too strong for this delightful poet. Another and a stranger satire had soon greeted the Restoration, the Hudibras. Hudibras (1663–1678) of Samuel Butler, with its companion pieces. The returned wanderers delighted in this horribly agile, boisterous and fierce attack on the popular party and its religions, and its wrangles and its manners. Profoundly eccentric and tiresomely allusive in his form, and working in the short rhyming couplets thenceforth called “Hudibrastics,” Butler founded a small and peculiar but long-lived school of satire. The other verse of the time is largely satire of a different tone and metre; but the earlier kind of finished and gallant lyric persisted through the reign of Charles II. The songs of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, are usually malicious, sometimes Songsters. passionate; they have a music and a splendid self-abandonment such as we never meet again till Burns. Sedley and Dorset and Aphra Behn and Dryden are the rightful heirs of Carew and Lovelace, those infallible masters of short rhythms; and this secret also was lost for a century afterwards.
In poetry, in prose, and to some extent in drama, John Dryden, the creature of his time, is the master of its expression. He began with panegyric verse, first on Cromwell and then on Charles, which is full of fine things and false writing. The Annus Mirabilis (1667) is the chief example, celebrating Dryden. the Plague, the Fire and the naval victory, in the quatrains for which Davenant’s pompous Gondibert had shown the way. The Essay on Dramatic Poesy (1668), a dialogue on the rivalries of blank verse with rhyme, and of the Elizabethan drama with the French, is perfect modern prose; and to this perfection Dryden attained at a bound, while he attained his poetical style more gradually. He practised his couplet in panegyric, in heroic tragedy, and in dramatic prologue and epilogue for twenty years before it was consummate. Till 1680 he supported himself chiefly by his plays, which have not lived so long as their critical prefaces, already mentioned. His diction and versification came to their full power in his satires, rhymed arguments, dedications and translations. Absalom and Achitophel (part i., 1681; part ii., with Nahum Tate, 1682), as well as The Medal and Mac Flecknoe, marked a new birth of English satire, placing it at once on a level with that of any ancient or modern country. The mixture of deadly good temper, Olympian unfairness, and rhetorical and metrical skill in each of these poems has never been repeated. The presentment of Achitophel, earl of Shaftesbury, in his relations with Absalom Walters and Charles the minstrel-king of Judah, as well as the portraits of Shimei and Barzillai and Jotham, the eminent Whigs and Tories, and of the poets Og and Doeg, are things whose vividness age has never discoloured. Dryden’s Protestant arguings in Religio Laici (1682) and his equally sincere Papistical arguings in The Hind and the Panther (1687) are just as skilful. His translations of Virgil and parts of Lucretius, of Chaucer and Boccaccio (Fables, 1700), set the seal on his command of his favourite couplet for the higher kinds of appeal and oratory. His Ode on Anne Killigrew, and his popular but coarser Alexander’s Feast, have a more lyric harmony; and his songs, inserted in his plays, reflect the change of fashion by their metrical adeptness and often thorough-going wantonness. The epithet of “glorious,” in its older sense of a certain conscious and warranted pride of place, not in that of boastful or pretentious, suits Dryden well. Not only did he leave a model and a point of departure for Pope, but his influence recurs in Churchill, in Gray, in Johnson and in Crabbe, where he is seen counteracting, with his large, wholesome and sincere bluntness, the acidity of Pope. Dryden was counted near Shakespeare and Milton until the romantic revival renewed the sense of proportion; but the same sense now demands his acknowledgment as the English poet who is nearest to their frontiers of all those who are exiled from their kingdom.
Restoration and Revolution tragedy is nearly all abortive; it is now hard to read it for pleasure. But it has noble flights, and its historic interest is high. Two of its species, the rhymed heroic play and the rehandling of Shakespeare in blank verse, were also brought to their utmost by Tragedy. Dryden, though in both he had many companions. The heroic tragedies were a hybrid offspring of the heroic romance and French tragedy; and though The Conquest of Granada (1669–1670) and Tyrannic Love would be very open to satire in Dryden’s own vein, they are at least generously absurd. Their intention is never ignoble, if often impossible. After a time Dryden went back to Shakespeare, after a fashion already set by Sir William Davenant, the connecting link with the older tragedy and the inaugurator of the new. They “revived” Shakespeare; they vamped him in a style that did not wholly perish till after the time of Garrick. The Tempest, Troilus and Cressida, and Antony and Cleopatra were thus handled by Dryden; and the last of these, as converted by him into All for Love (1678), is loftier and stronger than any of his original plays, its blank verse renewing the ties of Restoration poetry with the great age. The heroic plays, written in one or other metre, lived long, and expired in the burlesques of Fielding and Sheridan. The Rehearsal (1671), a gracious piece of fooling partially aimed at Dryden by Buckingham and his friends, did not suffice to kill its victims. Thomas Otway and Nathaniel Lee, both of whom generally used blank verse, are the other tragic writers of note, children indeed of the extreme old age of the drama. Otway’s Otway. long-acted Venice Preserved (1682) has an almost Shakespearian skill in melodrama, a wonderful tide of passionate language, and a blunt and bold delineation of character; but Otway’s inferior style and verse could only be admired in an age like his own. Lee is far more of a poet, though less of a dramatist, and he wasted a certain talent in noise and fury.
Restoration comedy at first followed Jonson, whom it was easy to try and imitate; Shadwell and Wilson, whose works are a museum for the social antiquary, photographed the humours of the town. Dryden’s many comedies often show his more boisterous and blatant, rarely his finer Comedy. qualities. Like all playwrights of the time he pillages from the French, and vulgarizes Molière without stint or shame. A truer light comedy began with Sir George Etherege, who mirrored in his fops the gaiety and insolence of the world he knew. The society depicted by William Wycherley, the one comic dramatist of power between Massinger and Congreve, at first seems hardly human; but his energy is skilful and Wycherley. faithful as well as brutal; he excels in the graphic reckless exhibition of outward humours and bustle; he scavenges in the most callous good spirits and with careful cynicism. The Plain Dealer (1677), a skilful transplantation, as well as a depravation of Molière’s Le Misanthrope, is his best piece: he writes in prose, and his prose is excellent, modern and lifelike.
Bibliography.—General Histories: Hallam, Introduction to the Lit. of Europe (1838–1839); G. Saintsbury, Elizabethan Literature (1890), and History of Literary Criticism, vol. ii. (1902); W. J. Courthorpe, History of English Poetry, vols. i.-v. (1895–1905); J. J. Jusserand, Histoire littéraire du peuple anglais, vol. ii. (1904); T. Seccombe and J. W. Allen, The Age of Shakespeare (2 vols., 1903); D. Hannay, The Later Renaissance (1898); H. J. C. Grierson, First Half of 17th Century; O. Elton, The Augustan Ages (1899); Masson, Life of Milton (6 vols., London, 1881–1894); R. Garnett, The Age of Dryden (1901); W. Raleigh, The English Novel (1894); J. J. Jusserand, Le Roman anglais au temps de Shakespeare (1887, Eng. tr., 1901); G. Gregory Smith, Elizabethan Critical Essays (2 vols., 1904, reprints and introd.). Classical and Foreign Influences.—Mary A. Scott, Elizabethan Translations from the Italian (bibliography), (Baltimore, 1895); E. Koeppel, Studien zur Gesch. der ital. Novelle i. d. eng. Litteratur des 16ten Jahrh. (Strasb., 1892); L. Einstein The Italian Renaissance in England (New York, 1902); J. Erskine, The Elizabethan Lyric (New York, 1903); J. S. Harrison, Platonism in Eliz. Poetry of the 16th and 17th Centuries (New York, 1903); S. Lee, Elizabethan Sonnets (2 vols., 1904); C. H. Herford, Literary Relations of England and Germany in 16th Century; J. G. Underhill, Spanish Lit. in the England of the Tudors (New York, 1899); J. E. Spingarn, Hist. of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance (New York, 1899). Many articles in Englische Studien, Anglia, &c., on influences, texts and sources. See too arts. Drama; Sonnet; Renaissance. (O. E.*)
V. The 18th Century
In the reign of Anne (1702–1714) the social changes which had commenced with the Restoration of 1660 began to make themselves definitely felt. Books began to penetrate among all classes of society. The period is consequently one of differentiation and expansion. As the practice of Social changes. reading becomes more and more universal, English writers lose much of their old idiosyncrasy, intensity and obscurity. As in politics and religion, so in letters, there is a great development of nationality. Commercial considerations too for the first time become important. We hear relatively far less of religious controversy, of the bickering between episcopalians and nonconformists and of university squabbles. Specialization and cumbrous pedantry fall into profound disfavour. Provincial feeling exercises a diminishing sway, and literature becomes increasingly metropolitan or suburban. With the multiplication of moulds, the refinement of prose polish, and the development of breadth, variety and ease, it was natural enough, having regard to the place that the country played in the world’s affairs, that English literature should make its début in western Europe. The strong national savour seemed to stimulate the foreign appetite, and as represented by Swift, Pope, Defoe, Young, Goldsmith, Richardson, Sterne and Ossian, if we exclude Byron and Scott, the 18th century may be deemed the cosmopolitan age, par excellence, of English Letters. The charms of 18th-century English literature, as it happens, are essentially of the rational, social and translatable kind: in intensity, exquisiteness and eccentricity of the choicer kinds it is proportionately deficient. It is pre-eminently an age of prose, and although verbal expression is seldom represented at its highest power, we shall find nearly every variety of English prose brilliantly illustrated during this period: the aristocratic style of Bolingbroke, Addison and Berkeley; the gentlemanly style of Fielding; the keen and logical controversy of Butler, Middleton, Smith and Bentham; the rhythmic and balanced if occasionally involved style of Johnson and his admirers; the limpid and flowing manner of Hume and Mackintosh; the light, easy and witty flow of Walpole; the divine chit-chat of Cowper; the colour of Gray and Berkeley; the organ roll of Burke; the detective journalism of Swift and Defoe; the sly familiarity of Sterne; the dance music and wax candles of Sheridan; the pomposity of Gibbon; the air and ripple of Goldsmith; the peeping preciosity of Boswell,—these and other characteristics can be illustrated in 18th-century prose as probably nowhere else.
But more important to the historian of literature even than the development of qualities is the evolution of types. And in this respect the 18th century is a veritable index-museum of English prose. Essentially, no doubt, it is true that in form the prose and verse of the 18th century is mainly an extension of Dryden, just as in content it is a reflection of the increased variety of the city life which came into existence as English trade rapidly increased in all directions. But the taste of the day was rapidly changing. People began to read in vastly increasing numbers. The folio was making place on the shelves for the octavo. The bookseller began to transcend the mere tradesman. Along with newspapers the advertizing of books came into fashion, and the market was regulated no longer by what learned men wanted to write, but what an increasing multitude wanted to read. The arrival of the octavo is said to have marked the enrolment of man as a reader, that of the novel the attachment of woman. Hence, among other causes, the rapid decay of lyrical verse and printed drama, of theology and epic, in ponderous tomes. The fashionable types of which the new century was to witness the fixation are accordingly the essay and the satire as represented respectively by Addison and Steele, Swift and Goldsmith, and by Pope and Churchill. Pope, soon to be followed by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was the first Englishman who treated letter-writing as an art upon a considerable scale. Personalities and memoirs prepare the way for history, in which as a department of literature English letters hitherto had been almost scandalously deficient. Similarly the new growth of fancy essay (Addison) and plain biography (Defoe) prepared the way for the English novel, the most important by far of all new literary combinations. Finally, without going into unnecessary detail, we have a significant development of topography, journalism and criticism. In the course of time, too, we shall perceive how the pressure of town life and the logic of a capital city engender, first a fondness for landscape gardening and a somewhat artificial Arcadianism, and then, by degrees, an intensifying love of the country, of the open air, and of the rare, exotic and remote in literature.
At the outset of the new century the two chief architects of public opinion were undoubtedly John Locke and Joseph Addison. When he died at High Laver in October 1704 at the mature age of seventy-two, Locke had, perhaps, done more than any man of the previous Locke; Addison. century to prepare the way for the new era. Social duty and social responsibility were his two watchwords. The key to both he discerned in the Human Understanding—“no province of knowledge can be regarded as independent of reason.” But the great modernist of the time was undoubtedly Joseph Addison (1672–1719). He first left the 17th century, with its stiff euphuisms, its formal obsequiousness, its ponderous scholasticism and its metaphorical antitheses, definitely behind. He did for English culture what Rambouillet did for that of France, and it is hardly an exaggeration to call the half-century before the great fame of the English novel, the half century of the Spectator.
Addison’s mind was fertilized by intercourse with the greater and more original genius of Swift and with the more inventive and more genial mind of Steele. It was Richard Steele (1672–1729) in the Tatler of 1709–1710 who first realized that the specific which that urbane age both needed Steele. and desired was no longer copious preaching and rigorous declamation, but homoeopathic doses of good sense, good taste and good-humoured morality, disguised beneath an easy and fashionable style. Nothing could have suited Addison better than the opportunity afforded him of contributing an occasional essay or roundabout paper in praise of virtue or dispraise of stupidity and bad form to his friend’s periodical. When the Spectator succeeded the Tatler in March 1711, Addison took a more active share in shaping the chief characters (with the immortal baronet, Sir Roger, at their head) who were to make up the “Spectator Club”; and, better even than before, he saw his way, perhaps, to reinforcing his copious friend with his own more frugal but more refined endowment. Such a privileged talent came into play at precisely the right moment to circulate through the coffee houses and to convey a large measure of French courtly ease and elegance into the more humdrum texture of English prose. Steele became rather disreputable in his later years, Swift was banished and went mad, but Addison became a personage of the utmost consideration, and the essay as he left it became an almost indispensable accomplishment to the complete gentlemen of that age. As an architect of opinion from 1717 to 1775 Addison may well rank with Locke.
The other side, both in life and politics, was taken by Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), who preferred to represent man on his unsocial side. He sneered at most things, but not at his own order, and he came to defend the church and the country squirearchy against the conventicle and Capel court. To undermine Swift. the complacent entrenchments of the Whig capitalists at war with France no sap proved so effectual as his pen. Literary influence was then exercised in politics mainly by pamphlets, and Swift was the greatest of pamphleteers. In the Journal to Stella he has left us a most wonderful portrait of himself in turn currying favour, spoiled, petted and humiliated by the party leaders of the Tories from 1710–1713. He had always been savage, and when the Hanoverians came in and he was treated as a suspect, his hate widened to embrace all mankind (Gulliver’s Travels, 1726) and he bit like a mad dog. Would that he could have bitten more, for the infection of English stylists! In wit, logic, energy, pith, resourcefulness and Saxon simplicity, his prose has never been equalled. The choicest English then, it is Arbuthnot. the choicest English still. Dr John Arbuthnot (1667–1735) may be described as an understudy of Swift on the whimsical side only, whose malignity, in a nature otherwise most kindly, was circumscribed strictly by the limits of political persiflage. Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733), unorthodox as he was in every respect, discovered a little of Swift’s choice pessimism in his assault (in The Fable of the Bees of 1723) against the genteel optimism of the Characteristics of Lord Shaftesbury. Neither the matter nor the manner of the brilliant Bolingbroke. Tory chieftain Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678–1751), appears to us now as being of the highest significance; but, although Bolingbroke’s ideas were second-hand, his work has an historical importance; his dignified, balanced and decorated style was the cynosure of 18th-century statesmen. His essays on “History” and on “a Patriot King” both disturb a soil well prepared, and set up a reaction against such evil tendencies as a narrowing conception of history and a primarily factious and partisan conception of politics. It may be noted here how the fall of Bolingbroke and the Tories in 1714 precipitated the decay of the Renaissance ideal of literary patronage. The dependence of the press upon the House of Lords was already an anomaly, and the practical toleration achieved in 1695 removed another obstacle from the path of liberation. The government no longer sought to strangle the press. It could generally be tuned satisfactorily and at the worst could always be temporarily muzzled. The pensions hitherto devoted to men of genius were diverted under Walpole to spies and journalists. Yet one of the most unscrupulous of all the fabricators of intelligence, looked down upon as a huckster of the meanest and most inconsiderable literary wares, established his fame by a masterpiece of which literary genius had scarcely even cognizance.
The new trade of writing was represented most perfectly by Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), who represents, too, what few writers possess, a competent knowledge of work and wages, buying and selling, the squalor and roguery of the very hungry and the very mean. From reporting sensations and Defoe. chronicling faits divers, Defoe worked his way almost insensibly to the Spanish tale of the old Mendoza or picaresque pattern. Robinson Crusoe was a true story expanded on these lines, and written down under stress of circumstance when its author was just upon sixty. Resembling that of Bunyan and, later, Smollett in the skilful use made of places, facts and figures, Defoe’s style is the mirror of man in his shirt sleeves. What he excelled in was plain, straightforward story-telling, in understanding and appraising the curiosity of the man in the street, and in possessing just the knowledge and just the patience, and just the literary stroke that would enable him most effectually to satisfy it. He was the first and cleverest of all descriptive reporters, for he knew better than any successor how and where to throw in those irrelevant details, tricks of speech and circumlocution, which tend to give an air of verisimilitude to a bald and unconvincing narrative—the funny little splutterings and naïvetés as of a plain man who is not telling a tale for effect, but striving after his own manner to give the plain unvarnished truth. Defoe contributes story, Addison character, Fielding the life-atmosphere, Richardson and Sterne the sentiment, and we have the 18th-century novel complete—the greatest literary birth of modern time. Addison, Steele, Swift and Defoe, as master-builders of prose fiction, are consequently of more importance than the “Augustan poets,” as Pope and his school are sometimes called, for the most that they can be said to have done is to have perfected a more or less transient mode of poetry.
To the passion, imagination or musical quality essential to the most inspired kinds of poetry Alexander Pope (1688–1744) can lay small claim. His best work is contained in the Satires and Epistles, which are largely of the proverb-in-rhyme order. Yet in lucid, terse and pungent Pope. phrases he has rarely if ever been surpassed. His classical fancy, his elegant turn for periphrasis and his venomous sting alike made him the idol of that urbane age. Voltaire in 1726 had called him the best poet living, and at his death his style was paramount throughout the civilized world. It was the apotheosis of wit, point, lucidity and technical correctness. Pope was the first Englishman to make poetry pay (apart from patronage). He was flattered by imitation to an extent which threatened to throw the school of poetry which he represented into permanent discredit. Prior, Gay, Parnell, Akenside, Pomfret, Garth, Young, Johnson, Goldsmith, Falconer, Glover, Grainger, Darwin, Rogers, Hayley and indeed a host of others—the once famous mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease—worshipped Pope as their poetic founder. The second-rate wore his badge. But although the cult of Pope was the established religion of poetic taste from 1714 to 1798, there were always nonconformists. The poetic revolt, indeed, was far more versatile than the religious revival of the century. The Winter Thomson. (1726) of James Thomson may be regarded as inaugurating a new era in English poetry. Lady Winchilsea, John Philips, author of Cyder, and John Dyer, whose Grongar Hill was published a few months before Winter, had pleaded by their work for a truthful and unaffected, and at the same time a romantic treatment of nature in poetry; but the ideal of artificiality and of a frigid poetic diction by which English poetry was dominated since the days of Waller and Cowley was first effectively challenged by Thomson. At the time when the Popean couplet was at the height of its vogue he deliberately put it aside in favour of the higher poetic power of blank verse. And he it was who transmitted the sentiment of natural beauty not merely to imitators such as Savage, Armstrong, Somerville, Collins. Gray. Langhorne, Mickle and Shenstone, but also to his elegist, William Collins, to Gray and to Cowper, and so indirectly to the lyrical bards of 1798. By the same hands and those of Shenstone experiments were being made in the stanza of The Faerie Queene; a little later, owing to the virtuosity of Bishop Percy, the cultivation of the old English and Scottish ballad literature was beginning to take a serious turn. Dissatisfaction with the limitations of “Augustan” poetry was similarly responsible for the revived interest in Shakespeare and Chaucer. Gray stood not only for a far more intimate worship of wild external nature, but also for an awakened curiosity in Scandinavian, Celtic and Icelandic poetry.
To pretend then that the poetic heart of the 18th century was Popean to the core is nothing short of extravagance. There were a number of true poets in the second and third quarters of the century to whom all credit is due as pioneers and precentors of the romantic movement under the depressing conditions to which innovators in poetry are commonly subject. They may strike us as rather an anaemic band after the great Elizabethan poets. Four of them were mentally deranged (Collins, Smart, Cowper, Blake), while Gray was a hermit, and Shenstone and Thomson the most indolent of recluses. The most adventurous, one might say the most virile of the group, was a boy who died at the age of seventeen. Single men all (save for Blake), a more despondent group of artists as a whole it would not perhaps be easy to discover. Catacombs and cypresses were the forms of imagery that came to them most naturally. Elegies and funeral odes were the types of expression in which they were happiest. Yet they strove in the main to follow the gleam in poetry, to reinstate imagination upon its throne, and to substitute the singing voice for the rhetorical recitative of the heroic couplet. Within two years of the death of Pope, in 1746, William Collins was content to sing (not say) what he had in him without a glimpse of wit or a flash of eloquence—and in him many have discerned the germ of that romantic éclosion which blossomed in Christabel. A more important if less original factor in that movement was Collins’s severe critic Thomas Gray, a man of the widest curiosities of his time, in whom every attribute of the poet to which scholarship, taste and refinement are contributory may be found to the full, but in whom the strong creative energy is fatally lacking—despite the fact that he wrote a string of “divine truisms” in his Elegy, which has given to multitudes more of the exquisite pleasure of poetry than any other single piece in the English language. Shenstone and Percy, Capell, the Wartons and eventually Chatterton, continued to mine in the shafts which Gray had been the first to sink. Their laborious work of discovery resembled that which was commencing in regard to the Gothic architecture which the age of Pope had come to regard as rude and barbaric. The Augustans had come seriously to regard all pre-Drydenic poetry as grossly barbarian. One of the greatest achievements of the mid-eighteenth century was concerned with the disintegration of this obstinate delusion. The process was manifold; and it led, among other things, to a realization of the importance of the study of comparative literature.
The literary grouping of the 18th century is, perhaps, the biggest thing on the whole that English art has to show; but among all its groups the most famous, and probably the most original, is that of its proto-novelists Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne. All nations have The novel. had their novels, which are as old at least as Greek vases. The various types have generally had collective appellations such as Milesian Tales, Alexandrian Romances, Romances of Chivalry, Acta Sanctorum, Gesta Romanorum, Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, Romances of Roguery, Arabian Nights; but owing to the rivalry of other more popular or more respectable or at least more eclectic literary forms, they seldom managed to attain a permanent lodgment in the library. The taste in prose fiction changes, perhaps, more rapidly than that in any other kind of literature. In Britain alone several forms had passed their prime since the days of Caxton and his Arthurian prose romance of Morte d’Arthur. Such were the wearisome Arcadian romance or pastoral heroic; the new centos of tales of chivalry like the Seven Champions of Christendom; the utopian, political and philosophical romances (Oceana, The Man in the Moone); the grotesque and facetious stories of rogues retailed from the Spanish or French in dwarf volumes; the prolix romance of modernized classic heroism (The Grand Cyrus); the religious allegory (Bunyan’s Life and Death of Mr Badman); the novels of outspoken French or Italian gallantry, represented by Aphra Behn; the imaginary voyages so notably adapted to satire by Dr Swift; and last, but not least, the minutely prosaic chronicle-novels of Daniel Defoe. The prospect of the novel was changing rapidly. The development of the individual and of a large well-to-do urban middle class, which was rapidly multiplying its area of leisure, involved a curious and self-conscious society, hungry for pleasure and new sensations, anxious to be told about themselves, willing in some cases even to learn civilization from their betters. The disrepute into which the drama had fallen since Jeremy Collier’s attack on it directed this society by an almost inevitable course into the flowery paths of fiction. The novel, it is true, had a reputation which was for the time being almost as unsavoury as that of the drama, but the novel was not a confirmed ill-doer, and it only needed a touch of genius to create for it a vast congregation of enthusiastic votaries. In the Tatler and Spectator were already found the methods and subjects of the modern novel. The De Coverley papers in the Spectator, in fact, want nothing but a love-thread to convert them into a serial novel of a high order. The supreme importance of the sentimental interest had already been discovered and exemplified to good purpose in France by Madame de la Fayette, the Marquise de Tencin, Marivaux and the Abbé Prevost. Richardson. Samuel Richardson (1689–1762), therefore, when he produced the first two modern novels of European fame in Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), inherited far more than he invented. There had been Richardsonians before Richardson. Clarissa is nevertheless a pioneer work, and we have it on the high authority of M. Jusserand that the English have contributed more than any other people to the formation of the contemporary novel. Of the long-winded, typical and rather chaotic English novel of love analysis and moral sentiment (as opposed to the romance of adventure) Richardson is the first successful charioteer.
The novel in England gained prodigiously by the shock of opposition between the ideals of Richardson and Henry Fielding (1707–1754), his rival and parodist. Fielding’s brutal toleration is a fine corrective to the slightly rancid morality of Richardson, with its frank insistence upon the Fielding. cash-value of chastity and virtue. Fielding is, to be brief, the succinct antithesis of Richardson, and represents the opposite pole of English character. He is the Cavalier, Richardson the Roundhead; he is the gentleman, Richardson the tradesman; he represents church and county, Richardson chapel and borough. Richardson had much of the patient insight and intensity of genius, but he lacked the humour and literary accomplishment which Fielding had in rich abundance. Fielding combined breadth and keenness, classical culture and a delicate Gallic irony to an extent rare among English writers. He lacked the delicate intuition of Richardson in the analysis of women, nor Smollett. could he compass the broad farcical humour of Smollett or the sombre colouring by which Smollett produces at times such poignant effects of contrast. There was no poetry in Fielding; but there was practically every other ingredient of a great prose writer—taste, culture, order, vivacity, humour, penetrating irony and vivid, pervading common sense, and it is Fielding’s chef-d’œuvre Tom Jones (1749) that we must regard if not as the fundament at least as the head of the corner in English prose fiction. Before Tom Jones appeared, the success of the novel had drawn a new competitor into the field in Tobias Smollett, the descendant of a good western lowland family who had knocked about the world and seen more of its hurlyburly than Fielding himself. In Roderick Random (1748) Smollett represents a rougher and more uncivilized world even than that depicted in Joseph Andrews. The savagery and horse-play peculiar to these two novelists derives in part from the rogue romance of Spain (as then recently revived by Lesage), and has a counterpart to some extent in the graphic art of Hogarth and Rowlandson; yet one cannot altogether ignore an element of exaggeration which has greatly injured both these writers in the estimation (and still more in the affection) of posterity. The genius which struggles through novels such as Roderick Random and Ferdinand Count Fathom was nearly submerged under the hard conditions of a general writer during the third quarter of the 18th century, and it speaks volumes for Smollett’s powers of recuperation that he survived to write two such masterpieces of sardonic and humorous observation as his Travels and Humphry Clinker.
The fourth proto-master of the English novel was the antiquarian humorist Lawrence Sterne. Though they owed a good deal to Don Quixote and the French novelists, Fielding and Smollett were essentially observers of life in the quick. Sterne brought a far-fetched style, a bookish apparatus Sterne. and a deliberate eccentricity into fiction. Tristram Shandy, produced successively in nine small volumes between 1760 and 1764, is the pretended history of a personage who is not born (before the fourth volume) and hardly ever appears, carried on in an eccentric rigmarole of old and new, original and borrowed humour, arranged in a style well known to students of the later Valois humorists as fatrasie. Far more than Molière, Sterne took his literary bien wherever he found it. But he invented a kind of tremolo style of his own, with the aid of which, in conjunction with the most unblushingly indecent innuendoes, and with a conspicuous genius for humorous portraiture, trembling upon the verge of the pathetic, he succeeded in winning a new domain for the art of fiction.
These four great writers then, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne—all of them great pessimists in comparison with the benignant philosophers of a later fiction—first thoroughly fertilized this important field. Richardson obtained a European fame during his lifetime. Sterne, as a pioneer impressionist, gave all subsequent stylists a new handle. Fielding and Smollett grasped the new instrument more vigorously, and fashioned with it models which, after serving as patterns to Scott, Marryat, Cooper, Ainsworth, Dickens, Lever, Stevenson, Merriman, Weyman and other romancists of the 19th century, have still retained a fair measure of their original popularity unimpaired.
Apart from the novelists, the middle period of the 18th century is strong in prose writers: these include Dr Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Lord Chesterfield and Horace Walpole. The last three were all influenced by the sovereign lucidity of the best French style of the day. Chesterfield and Johnson. Walpole were both writers of aristocratic experience and of European knowledge and sentiment. Johnson alone was a distinctively English thinker and stylist. His knowledge of the world, outside England, was derived from books, he was a good deal of a scholar, an earnest moralist, and something of a divine; his style, at any rate, reaches back to Taylor, Barrow and South, and has a good deal of the complex structure, the cadence, and the balance of English and Latinistic words proper to the 17th century, though the later influence of Addison and Bolingbroke is also apparent; Johnson himself was fond of the essay, the satire in verse, and the moral tale (Rasselas); but he lacked the creative imagination indispensable for such work and excelled chiefly as biographer and critic. For a critic even, it must be admitted that he was singly deficient in original ideas. He upholds authority. He judges by what he regards as the accepted rules, derived by Dryden, Rapin, Boileau, Le Bossu, Rymer, Dennis, Pope and such “estimable critics” from the ancients, whose decisions on such matters he regards as paramount. He tries to carry out a systematic, motived criticism; but he asserts rather than persuades or convinces. We go to his critical works (Lives of the Poets and Essay on Shakespeare) not for their conclusions, but for their shrewd comments on life, and for an application to literary problems of a caustic common sense. Johnson’s character and conversation, his knowledge and memory were far more remarkable than his ideas or his writings, admirable though the best of these were; the exceptional traits which met in his person and made that age regard him as a nonpareil have found in James Boswell a delineator unrivalled in patience, dexterity and dramatic insight. The result has been a portrait of a man of letters more alive at the present time than that which any other age or nation has bequeathed to us. In most of his ideas Johnson was a generation behind the typical academic critics of his date, Joseph and Thomas Warton, who championed against his authority what the doctor regarded as the finicking notions of Gray. Both of the Wartons were enthusiastic for Spenser and the older poetry; they were saturated with Milton whom they placed far above the correct Mr Pope, they wrote sonnets (thereby provoking Johnson’s ire) and attempted to revive medieval and Celtic lore in every direction. Johnson’s one attempt at a novel or tale was Rasselas, a long “Rambler” essay upon the vanity of human hope and ambition, something after the manner of the Oriental tales of which Voltaire had caught the idea from Swift and Montesquieu; but Rasselas is quite unenlivened by humour, personality or any other charm.
This one quality that Johnson so completely lacked was possessed in its fullest perfection by Oliver Goldsmith, whose style is the supreme expression of 18th-century clearness, simplicity and easy graceful fluency. Much of Goldsmith’s material, whether as playwright, story Goldsmith. writer or essayist, is trite and commonplace—his material worked up by any other hand would be worthless. But, whenever Goldsmith writes about human life, he seems to pay it a compliment, a relief of fun and good fellowship accompanies his slightest description, his playful and delicate touch could transform every thought that he handled into something radiant with sunlight and fragrant with the perfume of youth. Goldsmith’s plots are Irish, his critical theories are French with a light top dressing of Johnson and Reynolds or Burke, while his prose style is an idealization of Addison. His versatility was great, and, in this and in other respects, he and Johnson are constantly reminding us that they were hardened professionals, writing against time for money.
Much of the best prose work of this period, from 1740 to 1780, was done under very different conditions. The increase of travel, of intercourse between the nobility of Europe, and of a sense of solidarity, self-consciousness, leisure and connoisseurship among that section of English society known as the governing class, or, since Disraeli, as “the Venetian oligarchy,” could hardly fail to produce an increasing crop of those elaborate collections of letters and memoirs which had already attained their apogee in France with Mme de Sévigné and the duc de Saint-Simon. England was not to remain far behind, for in 1718 commence the Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu; ten years more saw the commencement of Lord Hervey’s Memoirs of the Reign of George II.; and Lord Chesterfield and Lord Orford Chesterfield and Walpole. (better known as Horace Walpole) both began their inimitable series of Letters about 1740. These writings, none of them written ostensibly for the press, serve to show the enormous strides that English prose was making as a medium of vivacious description. The letters are all the recreation of extensive knowledge and cosmopolitan acquirements; they are not strong on the poetic or imaginative side of things, but they have an intense appreciation of the actual and mundane side of fallible humanity. Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his son and to his godson are far more, for they introduce a Ciceronian polish and a Gallic irony and wit into the hitherto uncultivated garden of the literary graces in English prose. Chesterfield, whose theme is manners and social amenity, deliberately seeks a form of expression appropriate to his text—the perfection of tact, neatness, good order and savoir faire. After his grandfather, the marquess of Halifax, Lord Chesterfield, the synonym in the vulgar world for a heartless exquisite, is in reality the first fine gentleman and epicurean in the best sense in English polite literature. Both Chesterfield and Walpole were conspicuous as raconteurs in an age of witty talkers, of whose talk R. B. Sheridan, in The School for Scandal (1777), served up a suprême. Some of it may be tinsel, but it looks wonderfully well under the lights. The star comedy of the century represents the sparkle of this brilliant crowd: it reveals no hearts, but it shows us every trick of phrase, every eccentricity of manner and every foible of thought. But the most mundane of the letter writers, the most frivolous, and also the most pungent, is Horace Walpole, whose writings are an epitome of the history and biography of the Georgian era. “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.” Yet, in some ways, he was a corrective to the self-complacency of his generation, a vast dilettante, lover of “Gothic,” of curios and antiques, of costly printing, of old illuminations and stained glass. In his short miracle-novel, called The Castle of Otranto, he set a fashion for mystery and terror in fiction, for medieval legend, diablerie, mystery, horror, antique furniture and Gothic jargon, which led directly by the route of Anne Radcliffe, Maturin, Vathek, St Leon and Frankenstein, to Queenhoo Hall, to Waverley and even to Hugo and Poe.
Meanwhile the area of the Memoir was widening rapidly in the hands of Fanny, the sly daughter of the wordly-wise and fashionable musician, Dr Burney, author of a novel (Evelina) most satirical and facete, written ere she was well out of her teens; not too kind a satirist of her Fanny Burney. Boswell. former patroness, Mrs Thrale (afterwards Piozzi), the least tiresome of the new group of scribbling sibyls, blue stockings, lady dilettanti and Della Cruscans. Both, as portraitists and purveyors of Johnsoniana, were surpassed by the inimitable James Boswell, first and most fatuous of all interviewers, in brief a biographical genius, with a new recipe, distinct from Sterne’s, for disclosing personality, and a deliberate, artificial method of revealing himself to us, as it were, unawares.
From all these and many other experiments, a far more flexible prose was developing in England, adapted for those critical reviews, magazines and journals which were multiplying rapidly to exploit the new masculine interest, apart from the schools, in history, topography, natural philosophy and the picturesque, just as circulating libraries were springing up to exploit the new feminine passion for fiction, which together with memoirs and fashionable poetry contributed to give the booksellers bigger and bigger ideas.
It is surprising how many types of literary productions with which we are now familiar were first moulded into definite and classical form during the Johnsonian period. In addition to the novel one need only mention the economic treatise, as exemplified for the first time in The progress of authorship. the admirable symmetry of The Wealth of Nations, the diary of a faithful observer of nature such as Gilbert White, the Fifteen Discourses (1769–1791) in which Sir Joshua Reynolds endeavours for the first time to expound for England a philosophy of Art, the historico-philosophical tableau as exemplified by Robertson and Gibbon, the light political parody of which the poetry of The Rolliad and Anti-Jacobin afford so many excellent models; and, going to the other extreme, the ponderous archaeological or topographical monograph, as exemplified in Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens, in Robert Wood’s colossal Ruins of Palmyra (1753), or the monumental History of Leicestershire by John Nichols. Such works as this last might well seem the outcome of Horace Walpole’s maxim: In this scribbling age “let those who can’t write, glean.” In short, the literary landscape in Johnson’s day was slowly but surely assuming the general outlines to which we are all accustomed. The literary conditions of the period dated from the time of Pope in their main features, and it is quite possible that they were more considerably modified in Johnson’s own lifetime than they have been since. The booksellers, or, as they would now be called, publishers, were steadily superseding the old ties of patronage, and basing their relations with authors upon a commercial footing. A stage in their progress is marked by the success of Johnson’s friend and Hume’s correspondent, William Strahan, who kept a coach, “a credit to literature.” The evolution of a normal status for the author was aided by the definition of copyright and gradual extinction of piracy.
Histories of their own time by Clarendon and Burnet have been in much request from their own day to this, and the first, at least, is a fine monument of English prose; Bolingbroke again, in 1735, dwelt memorably upon the ethical, political and philosophical value of history. But it was not until Historians. the third quarter of the 18th century that English literature freed itself from the imputation of lagging hopelessly behind France, Italy and Germany in the serious work of historical reconstruction. Hume published the first volume of his History of England in 1754. Robertson’s History of Scotland saw the light in 1759 and his Charles V. in 1769; Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire came in 1776. Hume was, perhaps, the first modernist in history; he attempted to give his work a modern interest and, Scot though he was, a modern style—it could not fail, as he knew, to derive piquancy from its derision of the Whiggish assumption which regarded 1688 as a political millennium. Wm. Robertson was, perhaps, the first man to adapt the polished periphrases of the pulpit to historical generalization. The gifts of compromise which he had learned as Moderator of the General Assembly he brought to bear upon his historical studies, and a language so unfamiliar to his lips as academic English he wrote with so much the more care that the greatest connoisseurs of the day were enthusiastic about “Robertson’s wonderful style.” Even more portentous in its superhuman dignity was the style of Edward Gibbon, who combined with the unspiritual optimism of Hume and Robertson a far more concentrated devotion to his subject, an industry more monumental, a greater co-ordinative vigour, and a malice which, even in the 18th century, rendered him the least credulous man of his age. Of all histories, therefore, based upon the transmitted evidence of other ages rather than on the personal observation of the writer’s own, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall has hitherto maintained its reputation best. Hume, even before he was superseded, fell a prey to continuations and abridgements, while Robertson was supplanted systematically by the ornate pages of W. H. Prescott.
The increasing transparency of texture in the working English prose during this period is shown in the writings of theologians such as Butler and Paley, and of thinkers such as Berkeley and Hume, who, by prolonging and extending Berkeley’s contention that matter was an abstraction, had shown that mind would have to be considered an abstraction too, thereby signalling a school of reaction to common sense or “external reality” represented by Thomas Reid, and with modifications by David Hartley, Abraham Tucker and others. Butler and Paley are merely two of the biggest and most characteristic apologists of that day, both great stylists, though it must be allowed that their very lucidity and good sense excites almost more doubt than it stills, and both very successful in repelling the enemy in controversy, though their very success accentuates the faults of that unspiritual age in which churchmen were so far more concerned about the title deeds than about the living portion of the church’s estate. Free thought was already beginning to sap their defences in various directions, and in Tom Paine, Priestley, Price, Godwin and Mackintosh they found more formidable adversaries than in the earlier deists. The greatest champion, however, of continuity and conservation both in church and state, against the new schools of latitudinarians and radicals, the great eulogist of the unwritten constitution, and the most perfect master of emotional prose in this period, prose in which the harmony of sense and sound is attained to an extent hardly ever seen outside supreme poetry, was Edmund Burke, one of the most commanding intellects in the whole range of political letters—a striking contrast in this respect to Junius, whose mechanical and journalistic talent for invective has a quite ephemeral value.
From 1660 to 1760 the English mind was still much occupied in
shaking off the last traces of feudality. The crown, the parliament,
the manor and the old penal code were left,
it is true: but the old tenures and gild-brotherhoods,
the old social habits, miracles, arts, faith, religion and
Return to nature.
letters were irrevocably gone. The attempt of the young
Chevalier in 1745 was a complete anachronism, and no sooner
was this generally felt to be so than men began to regret that it
should so be. Men began to describe as “grand” and “picturesque”
scenery hitherto summarized as “barren mountains
covered in mist”; while Voltaire and Pope were at their height,
the world began to realize that the Augustan age, in its zeal for
rationality, civism and trim parterres, had neglected the wild
freshness of an age when literature was a wild flower that
grew on the common. Rousseau laid the axe to the root of
this over-sophistication of life; Goldsmith, half understanding,
echoed some of his ideas in “The Deserted Village.” Back from
books to men was now the prescription—from the crowded town
to the spacious country. From plains and valleys to peaks and
pinewoods. From cities, where men were rich and corrupt,
to the earlier and more primitive moods of earth. The breath
had scarcely left the body of the Grand Monarque before an
intrigue was set on foot to dispute the provisions of his will.
So with the critical testament of Pope. Within a few years of his
death we find Gray, Warton, Hurd and other disciples of the new
age denying to Pope the highest kind of poetic excellence, and
exalting imagination and fancy into a sphere far above the
Augustan qualities of correct taste and good judgment. Decentralization
and revolt were the new watchwords in literature.
We must eschew France and Italy and go rather to Iceland or the
Hebrides for fresh poetic emotions: we must shun academies
and classic coffee-houses and go into the street-corners or the
hedge-lanes in search of Volkspoesie. An old muniment chest
Change in poetic
spirit. and a roll of yellow parchment were the finest incentives to the new spirit of the picturesque. How else are we to explain the enthusiasm that welcomed the sham Ossianic poems of James Macpherson in 1760; Percy’s patched-up ballads of 1765 (Reliques of Ancient Poetry); the new enthusiasm for Chaucer; the “black letter” school of Ritson, Tyrrwhitt, George Ellis, Steevens, Ireland and Malone; above all, the spurious 15th-century poems poured forth in 1768–1769 with such a wild gusto of archaic imagination by a prodigy not quite seventeen years of age? Chatterton’s precocious fantasy cast a wonderful spell upon the romantic imagination of other times. It does not prepare us for the change that was coming over the poetic spirit of the last two decades of the century, but it does at least help us to explain it. The great masters of verse in Britain during this period were the three very disparate figures of William Cowper, William Blake and Robert Burns. Cowper was not a poet of vivid and rapturous visions. There is always something of the rusticating city-scholar about his humour. The ungovernable impulse and imaginative passion of the great masters of poesy were not his to claim. His motives to express himself in verse came very largely from the outside. The greater part, nearly all his best poetry is of the occasional order. To touch and retouch, he says, in one of his letters—among the most delightful in English—is the secret of almost all good writing, especially verse. Whatever is short should be nervous, masculine and compact. In all Cowper. Blake. Burns. the arts that raise the best occasional poetry to the level of greatness Cowper is supreme. In phrase-moulding, verbal gymnastic and prosodical marquetry he has scarcely a rival, and the fruits of his poetic industry are enshrined in the filigree of a most delicate fancy and a highly cultivated intelligence, purified and thrice refined in the fire of mental affliction. His work expresses the rapid civilization of his time, its humanitarian feeling and growing sensitiveness to natural beauty, home comfort, the claims of animals and the charms of light literature. In many of his short poems, such as “The Royal George,” artistic simplicity is indistinguishable from the stern reticence of genius. William Blake had no immediate literary descendants, for he worked alone, and Lamb was practically alone in recognizing what he wrote as poetry. But he was by far the most original of the reactionaries who preceded the Romantic Revival, and he caught far more of the Elizabethan air in his lyric verse than any one else before Coleridge. The Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, in 1789 and 1794, sing themselves, and have a bird-like spontaneity that has been the despair of all song-writers from that day to this. After 1800 he winged his flight farther and farther into strange and unknown regions. In the finest of these earlier lyrics, which owe so little to his contemporaries, the ripple of the stream of romance that began to gush forth in 1798 is distinctly heard. But the first poetic genius of the century was unmistakably Robert Burns. In song and satire alike Burns is racy, in the highest degree, of the poets of North Britain, who since Robert Sempill, Willy Hamilton of Gilbertfield, douce Allan Ramsay, the Edinburgh periwig-maker and miscellanist, and Robert Fergusson, “the writer-chiel, a deathless name,” had kept alive the old native poetic tradition, had provided the strolling fiddlers with merry and wanton staves, and had perpetuated the daintiest shreds of national music, the broadest colloquialisms, and the warmest hues of patriotic or local sentiment. Burns immortalizes these old staves by means of his keener vision, his more fiery spirit, his stronger passion and his richer volume of sound. Burns’s fate was a pathetic one. Brief, broken glimpses of a genius that could never show itself complete, his poems wanted all things for completeness: culture, leisure, sustained effort, length of life. Yet occasional, fragmentary, extemporary as most of them are, they bear the guinea stamp of true genius. His eye is unerring, his humour of the ripest, his wit both fine and abundant. His ear is less subtle, except when dialect is concerned. There he is infallible. Landscape he understands in subordination to life. For abstract ideas about Liberty and 1789 he cares little. But he is a patriot and an insurgent, a hater of social distinction and of the rich. Of the divine right or eternal merit of the system under which the poor man sweats to put money into the rich man’s pocket and fights to keep it there, and is despised in proportion to the amount of his perspiration, he had a low opinion. His work has inspired the meek, has made the poor feel themselves less of ciphers in the world and given courage to the down-trodden. His love of women has inspired some of the most ardently beautiful lyrics in the world. Among modern folk-poets such as Jókai and Mistral, the position of Burns in the hearts of his own people is the best assured.
Bibliographical Note.—The dearth of literary history in England makes it rather difficult to obtain a good general view of letters in Britain during the 18th century. Much may be gleaned, however, from chapters of Lecky’s History of England during the 18th Century, from Stephen’s Lectures on English Literature and Society in the 18th Century (1904), from Taine’s History of English Literature (van Laun’s translation), from vols. v. and vi. of Prof. Courthope’s History of English Poetry, and from the second volume of Chambers’s Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1902). The two vols. dealing respectively with the Age of Pope and the Age of Johnson in Bell’s Handbooks of English Literature will be found useful, and suggestive chapters will be found in Saintsbury’s Short History and in A. H. Thompson’s Student’s History of English Literature (1901). The same may, perhaps, be said of books v. and vi. in the Bookman Illustrated History of English Literature (1906), by the present writer. Sidelights of value are to be found in Walter Raleigh’s little book on the English Novel, in Beljame’s Le Publique et les hommes de lettres en Angleterre au XVIIIe siècle, in H. A. Beers’ History of English Romanticism in the 18th Century (1899), and above all in Sir Leslie Stephen’s History of English Thought during the 18th Century; Stephen’s Hours in a Library, the monographs dealing with the period in the English Men of Letters series, the Vignettes and Portraits of Austin Dobson and George Paston, Elwin’s Eighteenth Century Men of Letters, and Thomas Wright’s Caricature History of the Georges, must also be kept in mind. (T. Se.)
VI. The 19th Century
We have seen how great was the reverence which the 18th century paid to poetry, and how many different kinds of poetic experiment were going on, mostly by the imitative efforts of revivalists (Spenserians, Miltonians, Shakespeareans, Ballad-mongers, Scandinavian, Celtic, Gothic scholars and the like), but also in the direction of nature study and landscape description, while the more formal type of Augustan poetry, satire and description, in the direct succession of Pope, was by no means neglected.
The most original vein in the 19th century was supplied by the Wordsworth group, the first manifesto of which appeared in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798. William Wordsworth himself represents, in the first place, a revolutionary movement against the poetic diction of study-poets since the first Wordsworth. acceptance of the Miltonic model by Addison. His ideal, imperfectly carried out, was a reversion to popular language of the utmost simplicity and directness. He added to this the idea of the enlargement of man by Nature, after Rousseau, and went further than this in the utterance of an essentially pantheistic desire to become part of its loveliness, to partake in a mystical sense of the loneliness of the mountain, the sound of falling water, the upper horizon of the clouds and the wind. To the growing multitude of educated people who were being pent in huge cities these ideas were far sweeter than the formalities of the old pastoral. Wordsworth’s great discovery, perhaps, was that popular poetry need not be imitative, artificial or condescending, but that a simple story truthfully told of the passion, affliction or devotion of simple folk, and appealing to the primal emotion, is worthy of the highest effort of the poetic artist, and may achieve a poetic value far in advance of conventional descriptions of strikingly grouped incidents picturesquely magnified or rhetorically exaggerated. But Wordsworth’s theories might have ended very much where they began, had it not been for their impregnation by the complementary genius of Coleridge.
Coleridge at his best was inspired by the supreme poetic gifts of passion, imagination, simplicity and mystery, combining form and colour, sound and sense, novelty and antiquity, realism and romanticism, scholarly ode and popular ballad. His three fragmentary poems The Rime of the Ancient Coleridge. Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan are the three spells and touchstones, constituting what is often regarded by the best judges as the high-standard of modern English poetry. Their subtleties and beauties irradiated the homelier artistic conceptions of Wordsworth, and the effect on him was permanent. Coleridge’s inspiration, on the other hand, was irrecoverable; a physical element was due, no doubt, to the first exaltation indirectly due to the opium habit, but the moral influence was contributed by the Wordsworths. The steady will of the Dalesman seems to have constrained Coleridge’s imagination from aimless wandering; his lofty and unwavering self-confidence inspired his friend with a similar energy. Away from Wordsworth after 1798, Coleridge lost himself in visions of work that always remained to be “transcribed,” by one who had every poetic gift—save the rudimentary will for sustained and concentrated effort.
Coleridge’s more delicate sensibility to the older notes of that more musical era in English poetry which preceded the age of Dryden and Pope was due in no small measure to the luminous yet subtle intuitions of his friend Charles Lamb. Lamb’s appreciation of the imaginative beauty inhumed Lamb. in old English literature amounted to positive genius, and the persistence with which he brought his perception of the supreme importance of imagination and music in poetry to bear upon some of the finest creative minds of 1800, in talk, letters, selections and essays, brought about a gradual revolution in the aesthetic morality of the day. He paid little heed to the old rhetoric and the ars poetica of classical comparison. His aim was rather to discover the mystery, the folk-seed and the old-world element, latent in so much of the finer ancient poetry and implicit in so much of the new. The Essays of Elia (1820–1825) are the binnacle of Lamb’s vessel of exploration. Lamb and his great Hazlitt. rival, William Hazlitt, both maintained that criticism was not so much an affair of learning, or an exercise of comparative and expository judgment, as an act of imagination in itself. Hazlitt became one of the master essayists, a fine critical analyst and declaimer, denouncing all insipidity and affectation, stirring the soul with metaphor, soaring easily and acquiring a momentum in his prose which often approximates to the impassioned utterance of Burke. Like Lamb, he wanted to measure his contemporaries by the Elizabethans, or still older masters, and he was deeply impressed by Lyrical Ballads. The new critics gradually found responsible auxiliaries, notably Leigh Hunt. De Quincey. Leigh Hunt, De Quincey and Wilson of Blackwood’s. Leigh Hunt, not very important in himself, was a cause of great authorship in others. He increased both the depth and area of modern literary sensibility. The world of books was to him an enchanted forest, in which every leaf had its own secret. He was the most catholic of critics, but he knew what was poor—at least in other people. As an essayist he is a feminine diminutive of Lamb, excellent in fancy and literary illustration, but far inferior in decisive insight or penetrative masculine wit. The Miltonic quality of impassioned pyramidal prose is best seen in Thomas De Quincey, of all the essayists of this age, or any age, the most diffuse, unequal and irreducible to rule, and which yet at times trembles upon the brink of a rhythmical sonority which seems almost to rival that of the greatest poetry. Leigh Hunt supplies a valuable link between Lamb, the sole external moderator of the Lake school, Byron, Shelley, and the junior branch of imaginative Aesthetic, represented by Keats.
John Keats (1795–1821), three years younger than Shelley, was the greatest poetic artist of his time, and would probably have surpassed all, but for his collapse of health at twenty-five. His vocation was as unmistakable as that of Chatterton, with whose youthful ardour his own had Keats. points of likeness. The two contemporary conceptions of him as a fatuous Cockney Bunthorne or as “a tadpole of the lakes” were equally erroneous. But Keats was in a sense the first of the virtuoso or aesthetic school (caricatured later by the formula of “Art for Art’s sake”); artistic beauty was to him a kind of religion, his expression was more technical, less personal than that of his contemporaries, he was a conscious “romantic,” and he travelled in the realms of gold with less impedimenta than any of his fellows. Byron had always himself to talk about, Wordsworth saw the universe too much through the medium of his own self-importance, Coleridge was a metaphysician, Shelley hymned Intellectual Beauty; Keats treats of his subject, “A Greek Urn,” “A Nightingale,” the season of “Autumn,” in such a way that our thought centres not upon the poet but upon the enchantment of that which he sings. In his three great medievalising poems, “The Pot of Basil,” “The Eve of St Agnes” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” even more than in his Odes, Keats is the forerunner of Tennyson, the greatest of the word-painters. But apart from his perfection of loveliness, he has a natural magic and a glow of humanity surpassing that of any other known poet. His poetry, immature as it was, gave a new beauty to the language. His loss was the greatest English Literature has sustained.
Before Tennyson, Rossetti and Morris, Keats’s best disciples in the aesthetic school were Thomas Lovell Beddoes, George Dailey and Thomas Hood, the failure of whose “Midsummer Fairies” and “Fair Inez” drove him into that almost mortific vein of verbal humour which threw Landor. up here and there a masterpiece such as “The Song of a Shirt.” The master virtuoso of English poetry in another department (the classical) during this and the following age was Walter Savage Landor, who threw off a few fragments of verse worthy of the Greek Anthology, but in his Dialogues or “Imaginary Conversations” evolved a kind of violent monologizing upon the commonplace which descends into the most dismal caverns of egotism. Carlyle furiously questioned his competence. Mr Shaw allows his classical amateurship and respectable strenuosity of character, but denounces his work, with a substratum of truth, as that of a “blathering, unreadable pedant.”
Among those, however, who found early nutriment in Landor’s Miltonic Gebir (1798) must be reckoned the most poetical of our poets. P. B. Shelley was a spirit apart, who fits into no group, the associate of Byron, but spiritually as remote from him as possible, hated by the rationalists of his age, Shelley. and regarded by the poets with more pity than jealousy. He wrote only for poets, and had no public during his lifetime among general readers, by whom, however, he is now regarded as the poet par excellence. In his conduct it must be admitted that he was in a sense, like Coleridge, irresponsible, but on the other hand his poetic energy was irresistible and all his work is technically of the highest order of excellence. In ideal beauties it is supreme; its great lack is its want of humanity; in this he is the opposite of Wordsworth who reads human nature into everything. Shelley, on the other hand, dehumanises things and makes them unearthly. He hangs a poem, like a cobweb or a silver cloud, on a horn of the crescent moon, and leaves it to dangle there in a current of ether. His quest was continuous for figures of beauty, figures, however, more ethereal and less sensuous than those in Keats; having obtained such an idea he passed it again and again through the prism of his mind, in talk, letters, prefaces, poems. The deep sense of the mystery of words and their lightest variations in the skein of poetry, half forgotten since Milton’s time, had been recovered in a great measure by Coleridge and Wordsworth since 1798; Lamb, too, and Hazlitt, and, perhaps, Hogg were in the secret, while Keats had its open sesame on his lips ere he died. The union of poetic emotion with verbal music of the greatest perfection was the aim of all, but none of these masters made words breathe and sing with quite the same spontaneous ease and fervour that Shelley attained in some of the lyrics written between twenty-four and thirty, such as “The Cloud,” “The Skylark,” the “Ode of the West Wind,” “The Sensitive Plant,” the “Indian Serenade.”
The path of the new romantic school had been thoroughly prepared during the age of Gray, Cowper and Burns, and it won its triumphs with little resistance and no serious convulsions. The opposition was noisy, but its representative character has been exaggerated. In the meantime, however, the old-fashioned school and the Popean couplet, the Johnsonian dignity of reflection and the Goldsmithian ideal of generalized description, were well maintained by George Crabbe (1754–1832), “though Nature’s sternest painter yet the best,” a worsted-stockinged Pope and austere delineator of village misdoing and penurious age, and Samuel Rogers (1763–1855), the banker poet, liberal in sentiment, extreme Tory in form, and dilettante delineator of Italy to the music of the heroic couplet. Robert Southey, Thomas Campbell and Thomas Moore were a dozen years younger and divided their allegiance between two schools. In the main, however, they were still poeticisers of the orthodox old pattern, though all wrote a few songs of exceptional merit, and Campbell especially by defying the old anathemas.
The great champion of the Augustan masters was himself the architect of revolution. First the idol and then the outcast of respectable society, Lord Byron sought relief in new cadences and new themes for his poetic talent. He was, however, essentially a history painter or a satirist in Byron. verse. He had none of the sensitive aesthetic taste of a Keats, none of the spiritual ardour of a Shelley, or of the elemental beauty or artistry of Wordsworth or Coleridge. He manages the pen (said Scott) with the careless and negligent ease of a man of quality. The “Lake Poets” sought to create an impression deep, calm and profound, Byron to start a theme which should enable him to pose, travel, astonish, bewilder and confound as lover of daring, freedom, passion and revolt. For the subtler symphonic music—that music of the spheres to which the ears of poets alone are attuned—Byron had an imperfect sympathy. The delicate ear is often revolted in his poetry by the vices of impromptu work. He steadily refused to polish, to file or to furbish—the damning, inevitable sign of a man born to wear a golden tassel. “I am like the tiger. If I miss the first spring I go growling back to the jungle.” Subtlety is sacrificed to freshness and vigour. The exultation, the breadth, the sweeping magnificence of his effects are consequently most appreciated abroad, where the ineradicable flaws of his style have no power to annoy.
The European fame of Byron was from the first something quite unique. At Missolonghi people ran through the streets crying “The great man is dead—he is gone.” His corpse was refused entrance at Westminster; but the poet was taken to the inmost heart of Russia, Poland, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and among the Slavonic nations generally. In Italy his influence is plainly seen in Berchet, Leopardi, Giusti, and even Carducci. In Spain the Myrtle Society was founded in Byron’s honour. Hugo in his Orientales traversed Greece. Chateaubriand joined the Greek Committee. Delavigne dedicated his verse to Byron; Lamartine wrote another canto to Childe Harold; Mérimée is interpenetrated by Byronesque feeling which also animates the best work of Heine, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Mickievicz, and even De Musset.
Like Scott, Byron was a man of two eras, and not too much ahead of his time to hold the Press-Dragon in fee. His supremacy and that of his satellites Moore and Campbell were championed by the old papers and by the two new blatant Quarterlies, whose sails were filled not with the light Criticism. airs of the future but by the Augustan “gales” of the classical past. The distinction of this new phalanx of old-fashioned critics who wanted to confer literature by university degree was that they wrote as gentlemen for gentlemen: they first gave criticism in England a respectable shakedown. Francis Jeffrey, a man of extraordinary ability and editor of The Edinburgh Review from 1803 to 1829 (with the mercurial Sydney Smith, the first of English conversationists, as his aide-de-camp), exercised a powerful influence as a standardizer of the second rate. He was one of the first of the critics to grasp firmly the main idea of literary evolution—the importance of time, environment, race and historical development upon the literary landscape; but he was vigorously aristocratic in his preferences, a hater of mystery, symbolism or allegory, an instinctive individualist of intolerant pattern. His chief weapons against the new ideas were social superiority and omniscience, and he used both unsparingly. The strident political partisanship of the Edinburgh raised up within six years a serious rival in the Quarterly, which was edited in turn by the good-natured pedagogue William Gifford and by Scott’s extremely able son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart, the “scorpion” of the infant Blackwood. With the aid of the remnant of the old anti-Jacobins, Canning, Ellis, Barrow, Southey, Croker, Hayward, Apperley and others, the theory of Quarterly infallibility was carried to its highest point of development about 1845.
The historical and critical work of the Quarterly era, as might be expected, was appropriate to this gentlemanly censorship. The thinkers of the day were economic or juristic—Bentham, the great codifier; Malthus, whose theory of population gave Darwin his main impulse to theorise; and Mackintosh, whose liberal opposition to Burke deserved a better fate than it has ever perhaps received. The historians were mainly of the second class—the judicial Hallam, the ornate Roscoe, the plodding Lingard, the accomplished Milman, the curious Isaac D’Israeli, the academic Bishop Thirlwall. Mitford and Grote may be considered in the light of Tory and Radical historical pamphleteers, but Grote’s work has the much larger measure of permanent value. As the historian of British India, James Mill’s industry led him beyond his thesis of Benthamism in practice. Sir William Napier’s heroic picture of the Peninsular War is strongly tinged by bias against the Tory administration of 1808–1813; but it conserves some imperishable scenes of war. Some of the most magnetic prose of the Regency Period was contained in the copious and insincere but profoundly emotionalising pamphlets of the self-taught Surrey labourer William Cobbett, in whom Diderot’s paradox of a comedian is astonishingly illustrated. Lockhart’s Lives of Burns and of Sir Walter Scott—the last perhaps the most memorable prose monument of its epoch—appeared in 1828 and 1838, and both formed the subjects of Thomas Carlyle in the Edinburgh Review, where, under the unwelcome discipline of Jeffrey, the new prophet worked nobly though in harness.
Great as the triumph of the Romantic masters and the new ideas was, it is in the ranks of the Old School after all that we have to look for the greatest single figure in the literature of this age. Except in the imitative vein of ballad or folk-song, the poetry of Sir Walter Scott is never quite first-rate. Scott. It is poetry for repetition rather than for close meditation or contemplation, and resembles a military band more than a full orchestra. Nor will his prose bear careful analysis. It is a good servant, no more. When we consider, however, not the intensity but the vast extent, range and versatility of Scott’s powers, we are constrained to assign him the first place in his own age, if not that in the next seat to Shakespeare in the whole of the English literary Pantheon. Like Shakespeare, he made humour and a knowledge of human nature his first instruments in depicting the past. Unlike Shakespeare, he was a born antiquary, and he had a great (perhaps excessive) belief in mise en scène, costume, patois and scenic properties generally. His portraiture, however, is Shakespearean in its wisdom and maturity, and, although he wrote very rapidly, it must be remembered that his mind had been prepared by strenuous work for twenty years as a storehouse of material in which nothing was handled until it had been carefully mounted by the imagination, classified in the memory, and tested by experimental use. Once he has got the imagination of the reader well grounded to earth, there is nothing he loves better than telling a good story. Of detail he is often careless. But he trusted to a full wallet, and rightly, for mainly by his abundance he raised the literature of the novel to its highest point of influence, breathing into it a new spirit, giving it a fulness and universality of life, a romantic charm, a dignity and elevation, and thereby a coherence, a power and predominance which it never had before.
In Scott the various lines of 18th-century conservatism and 19th-century romantic revival most wonderfully converge. His intense feeling for Long Ago made him a romantic almost from his cradle. The master faculties of history and humour made a strong conservative of him; but his Toryism was of a very different spring from that of Coleridge or Wordsworth. It was not a reaction from disappointment in the sequel of 1789, nor was it the result of reasoned conviction. It was indwelling, rooted deeply in the fibres of the soil, to which Scott’s attachment was passionate, and nourished as from a source by ancestral sentiment and “heather” tradition. This sentiment made Scott a victorious pioneer of the Romantic movement all over Europe. At the same time we must remember that, with all his fondness for medievalism, he was fundamentally a thorough 18th-century Scotsman and successor of Bailie Nicol Jarvie: a worshipper of good sense, toleration, modern and expert governmental ideas, who valued the past chiefly by way of picturesque relief, and was thoroughly alive to the benefit of peaceful and orderly rule, and deeply convinced that we are much better off as we are than we could have been in the days of King Richard or good Queen Bess. Scott had the mind of an enlightened 18th-century administrator and statesmen who had made a fierce hobby of armour and old ballads. To expect him to treat of intense passion or romantic medievalism as Charlotte Brontë or Dante Gabriel Rossetti would have treated them is as absurd as to expect to find the sentiments of a Mrs Browning blossoming amidst the horse-play of Tom Jones or Harry Lorrequer. Scott has few niceties or secrets: he was never subtle, morbid or fantastic. His handling is ever broad, vigorous, easy, careless, healthy and free. Yet nobly simple and straightforward as man and writer were, there is something very complex about his literary legacy, which has gone into all lands and created bigoted enemies (Carlyle, Borrow) as well as unexpected friends (Hazlitt, Newman, Jowett); and we can seldom be sure whether his influence is reactionary or the reverse. There has always been something semi-feudal about it. The “shirra” has a demesne in letters as broad as a countryside, a band of mesne vassals and a host of Eildon hillsmen, Tweedside cottiers, minor feudatories and forest retainers attached to the “Abbotsford Hunt.” Scott’s humour, humanity and insistence upon the continuity of history transformed English literature profoundly.
Scott set himself to coin a quarter of a million sterling out of the new continent of which he felt himself the Columbus. He failed (quite narrowly), but he made the Novel the paymaster of literature for at least a hundred years. His immediate contemporaries and successors were not Transition fiction. particularly great. John Galt (1779–1839), Susan Ferrier (1782–1854) and D. M. Moir (1798–1851) all attempted the delineation of Scottish scenes with a good deal of shrewdness of insight and humour. The main bridge from Scott to the great novelists of the ’forties and ’fifties was supplied by sporting, military, naval and political novels, represented in turn by Surtees, Smith, Hook, Maxwell, Lever, Marryat, Cooper, Morier, Ainsworth, Bulwer Lytton and Disraeli. Surtees gave all-important hints to Pickwick, Marryat developed grotesque character-drawing, Ainsworth and Bulwer attempted new effects in criminology and contemporary glitter. Disraeli in the ’thirties was one of the foremost romantic wits who had yet attempted the novel. Early in the ’forties he received the laying-on of hands from the Young England party, and attempted to propagandize the good tidings of his mission in Coningsby and Sybil, novels full of entraînement and promise, if not of actual genius. Unhappily the author was enmeshed in the fatal drolleries of the English party system, and Lothair is virtually a confession of abandoned ideals. He completes the forward party in fiction; Jane Austen (1775–1815) stands to this as Crabbe and Rogers to Coleridge and Shelley. She represents the fine flower of the expiring 18th century. Scott could do the trumpet notes on the organ. She fingers the fine ivory flutes. She combines self-knowledge and artistic reticence with a complete tact and an absolute lucidity of vision within the area prescribed. Within the limits of a park wall in a country parish, absolutely oblivious of Europe and the universe, her art is among the finest and most finished that our literature has to offer. In irony she had no rival at that period. But the trimness of her plots and the delicacy of her miniature work have affinities in Maria Edgeworth, Harriet Martineau and Mary Russell Mitford, three excellent writers of pure English prose. There is a finer aroma of style in the contemporary “novels” of Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866). These, however, are rather tournaments of talk than novels proper, releasing a flood of satiric portraiture upon the idealism of the day—difficult to be apprehended in perfection save by professed students. Peacock’s style had an appreciable influence upon his son-in-law George Meredith (1828–1909). His philosophy is for the most part Tory irritability exploding in ridicule; but Peacock was one of the most lettered men of his age, and his flouts and jeers smack of good reading, old wine and respectable prejudices. In these his greatest successor was George Borrow (1803–1881), who used three volumes of half-imaginary autobiography and road-faring in strange lands as a sounding-board for a kind of romantic revolt against the century of comfort, toleration, manufactures, mechanical inventions, cheap travel and commercial expansion, unaccompanied (as he maintains) by any commensurate growth of human wisdom, happiness, security or dignity.
In the year of Queen Victoria’s accession most of the great writers of the early part of the century, whom we may denominate as “late Georgian,” were silent. Scott, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Lamb, Sheridan, Hazlitt, Mackintosh, Crabbe and Cobbett were gone. Wordsworth, Southey, The Victorian era. Campbell, Moore, Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, De Quincey, Miss Edgeworth, Miss Mitford, Leigh Hunt, Brougham, Samuel Rogers were still living, but the vital portion of their work was already done. The principal authors who belong equally to the Georgian and Victorian eras are Landor, Bulwer, Marryat, Hallam, Milman and Disraeli; none of whom, with the exception of the last, approaches the first rank in either. The significant work of Tennyson, the Brownings, Carlyle, Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, Trollope, the Kingsleys, Spencer, Mill, Darwin, Ruskin, Grote, Macaulay, Freeman, Froude, Lecky, Buckle, Green, Maine, Borrow, FitzGerald, Arnold, Rossetti, Swinburne, Meredith, Hardy, Stevenson, Morris, Newman, Pater, Jefferies—the work of these writers may be termed conclusively Victorian; it gives the era a stamp of its own and distinguishes it as the most varied in intellectual riches in the whole course of our literature. Circumstances have seldom in the world been more favourable to a great outburst of literary energy. The nation was secure and prosperous to an unexampled degree, conscious of the will and the power to expand still further. The canons of taste were still aristocratic. Books were made and unmade according to a regular standard. Literature was the one form of art which the English understood, in which they had always excelled since 1579, and in which their originality was supreme. To the native genius for poetry was now added the advantage of materials for a prose which in lucidity and versatility should surpass even that of Goldsmith and Hazlitt. The diversity of form and content of this great literature was commensurate with the development of human knowledge and power which marked its age. In this and some other respects it resembles the extraordinary contemporary development in French literature which began under the reign of Louis Philippe. The one signally disconcerting thing about the great Victorian writers is their amazing prolixity. Not content with two or three long books, they write whole literatures. A score of volumes, each as long as the Bible or Shakespeare, barely represents the output of such authors as Carlyle, Ruskin, Froude, Dickens, Thackeray, Newman, Spencer or Trollope. They obtained vast quantities of new readers, for the middle class was beginning to read with avidity; but the quality of brevity, the knowledge when to stop, and with it the older classic conciseness and the nobler Hellenic idea of a perfect measure—these things were as though they had not been. Meanwhile, the old schools were broken up and the foolscap addressed to the old masters. Singers, entertainers, critics and historians abound. Every man may say what is in him in the phrases that he likes best, and the sole motto that compels is “every style is permissible except the style that is tiresome.” The old models are strangely discredited, and the only conventions which hold are those concerning the subjects which English delicacy held to be tabooed. These conventions were inordinately strict, and were held to include all the unrestrained, illicit impulses of love and all the more violent aberrations from the Christian code of faith and ethics. Infidel speculation and the liaisons of lawless love (which had begun to form the staple of the new French fiction—hence regarded by respectable English critics of the time as profoundly vitiated and scandalous) had no recognized existence and were totally ignored in literature designed for general reading. The second or Goody-two-Shoes convention remained strictly in force until the penultimate decade of the 19th century, and was acquiesced in or at least submitted to by practically all the greatest writers of the Victorian age. The great poets and novelists of that day easily out-topped their fellows. Society had no difficulty in responding to the summons of its literary leaders. Nor was their fame partial, social or sectional. The great novelists of early Victorian days were aristocratic and democratic at once. Their popularity was universal within the limits of the language and beyond it. The greatest of men were men of imagination rather than men of ideas, but such sociological and moral ideas as they derived from their environment were poured helter-skelter into their novels, which took the form of huge pantechnicon magazines. Another distinctive feature of the Victorian novel is the position it enabled women to attain in literature, a position attained by them in creative work neither before nor since.
The novelists to a certain extent created their own method like the great dramatists, but such rigid prejudices or conventions as they found already in possession they respected without demur. Both Dickens and Thackeray write as if they were almost entirely innocent of the existence of sexual vice. As artists and thinkers they Dickens.were both formless. But the enormous self-complacency of the England of their time, assisted alike by the part played by the nation from 1793 to 1815, evangelicalism, free trade (which was originally a system of super-nationalism) and later, evolution, generated in them a great benignity and a strong determination towards a liberal and humanitarian philosophy. Despite, however, the diffuseness of the envelope and the limitations of horizon referred to, the unbookish and almost unlettered genius of Charles Dickens (1812–1870), the son of a poor lower middle-class clerk, almost entirely self-educated, has asserted for itself the foremost place in the literary history of the period. Dickens broke every rule, rioted in absurdity and bathed in extravagance. But everything he wrote was received with an almost frantic joy by those who recognized his creations as deifications of themselves, his scenery as drawn by one of the quickest and intensest observers that ever lived, and his drollery as an accumulated dividend from the treasury of human laughter. Dickens’s mannerisms were severe, but his geniality as a writer broke down every obstruction, reduced Jeffrey to tears and Sydney Smith to helpless laughter.
The novel in France was soon to diverge and adopt the form of an anecdote illustrating the traits of a very small group of persons, but the English novel, owing mainly to the predilection of Dickens for those Gargantuan entertainers of his youth, Fielding and Smollett, was to remain anchored to the history. William Makepeace Thackeray.Thackeray (1811–1863) was even more historical than Dickens, and most of his leading characters are provided with a detailed genealogy. Dickens’s great works, excepting David Copperfield and Great Expectations, had all appeared when Thackeray made his mark in 1848 with Vanity Fair, and Thackeray follows most of his predecessor’s conventions, including his conventional religion, ethics and politics, but he avoids his worse faults of theatricality. He never forces the note or lashes himself into fury or sentimentality; he limits himself in satire to the polite sphere which he understands, he is a great master of style and possesses every one of its fairy gifts except brevity. He creates characters and scenes worthy of Dickens, but within a smaller range and without the same abundance. He is a traveller and a cosmopolitan, while Dickens is irredeemably Cockney. He is often content to criticize or annotate or to preach upon some congenial theme, while Dickens would be in the flush of humorous creation. His range, it must be remembered, is wide, in most respects a good deal wider than his great contemporary’s, for he is at once novelist, pamphleteer, essayist, historian, critic, and the writer of some of the most delicate and sentimental vers d’occasion in the language.
The absorption of England in itself is shown with exceptional
force in the case of Thackeray, who was by nature a
cosmopolitan, yet whose work is so absorbed with the
structure of English society as to be almost unintelligible
to foreigners. The exploration of the human heart
and conscience in relation to the Charlotte Brontë.
George Eliot.new problems of the time had been almost abandoned by the novel since Richardson’s time. It was for woman to attempt to resolve these questions, and with the aid of powerful imagination to propound very different conclusions. The conviction of Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855) was that the mutual passionate love of one man and one woman is sacred and creates a centre of highest life, energy and joy in the world. George Eliot (1819–1880), on the other hand, detected a blind and cruel egoism in all such ecstasy of individual passion. It was in the autumn of 1847 that Jane Eyre shocked the primness of the coteries by the unconcealed ardour of its love passages. Twelve years later Adam Bede astonished the world by the intensity of its ethical light and shade. The introspective novel was now very gradually to establish a supremacy over the historical. The romance of the Brontës’ forlorn life colours Jane Eyre, colours Wuthering Heights and colours Villette; their work is inseparable from their story to an extent that we perhaps hardly realize. George Eliot did not receive this adventitious aid from romance, and her work was, perhaps, unduly burdened by ethical diatribe, scientific disquisition and moral and philosophical asides. It is more than redeemed, however, by her sovereign humour, by the actual truth in the portrayal of that absolutely self-centred Midland society of the ’thirties and ’forties, and by the moral significance which she extracts from the smaller actions and more ordinary characters of life by means of sympathy, imagination and a deep human compassion. Her novels are generally admitted to have obtained twin summits in Adam Bede (1859) and Middlemarch (1872). An even nicer delineator of the most delicate shades of the curiously remote provincial society of that day was Mrs Gaskell (1810–1865), whose Cranford and Wives and Daughters attain to the perfection of easy, natural and unaffected English narrative. Enthusiasm and a picturesque boyish ardour and partisanship are the chief features of Westward Ho! and the other vivid and stirring novels of Charles Kingsley (1819–1875), to which a subtler gift in the discrimination of character must be added in the case of his brother Henry Kingsley Kingsley. Trollope. Reade. Meredith. Hardy. (1830–1876). Charles, however, was probably more accomplished as a poet than in the to him too exciting operation of taking sides in a romance. The novels of Trollope, Reade and Wilkie Collins are, generally speaking, a secondary product of the literary forces which produced the great fiction of the ’fifties. The two last were great at structure and sensation: Trollope dogs the prose of every-day life with a certainty and a clearness that border upon inspiration. The great novels of George Meredith range between 1859 and 1880, stories of characters deeply interesting who reveal themselves to us by flashes and trust to our inspiration to do the rest. The wit, the sparkle, the entrain and the horizon of these books, from Richard Feverel to the master analysis of The Egoist, have converted the study of Meredith into an exact science. Thomas Hardy occupies a place scarcely inferior to Meredith’s as a stylist, a discoverer of new elements of the plaintive and the wistful in the vanishing of past ideals, as a depicter of the old southern rustic life of England and its tragi-comedy, in a series of novels which take rank with the greatest.
If Victorian literature had something more than a paragon in Dickens, it had its paragon too in the poet Tennyson. The son of a Lincolnshire parson of squirearchal descent, Alfred Tennyson consecrated himself to the vocation of poesy with the same unalterable conviction that had characterized Tennyson. Milton, Pope, Thomson, Wordsworth and Keats, and that was yet to signalize Rossetti and Swinburne, and he became easily the greatest virtuoso of his time in his art. To lyrics and idylls of a luxurious and exotic picturesqueness he gave a perfection of technique which criticism has chastened only to perfect in such miracles of description as “The Lotus Eaters,” “The Dream of Fair Women,” and “Morte d’Arthur.” He received as vapour the sense of uneasiness as to the problems of the future which pervaded his generation, and in the elegies and lyrics of In Memoriam, in The Princess and in Maud he gave them back to his contemporaries in a running stream, which still sparkles and radiates amid the gloom. After the lyrical monodrama of Maud in 1855 he devoted his flawless technique of design, harmony and rhythm to works primarily of decoration and design (The Idylls of the King), and to experiments in metrical drama for which the time was not ripe; but his main occupation was varied almost to the last by lyrical blossoms such as “Frater Ave,” “Roman Virgil,” or “Crossing the Bar,” which, like “Tears, Idle Tears” and “O that ’twere possible,” embody the aspirations of Flaubert towards a perfected art of language shaping as no other verse probably can.
Few, perhaps, would go now to In Memoriam as to an oracle for illumination and guidance as many of Queen Victoria’s contemporaries did, from the Queen herself downwards. And yet it will take very long ere its fascination fades. In language most musical it rearticulates the gospel Browning. of Sorrow and Love, and it remains still a pathetic expression of emotions, sentiments and truths which, as long as human nature remains the same, and as long as calamity, sorrow and death are busy in the world, must be always repeating themselves. Its power, perhaps, we may feel of this poem and indeed of most of Tennyson’s poetry, is not quite equal to its charm. And if we feel this strongly, we shall regard Robert Browning as the typical poet of the Victorian era. His thought has been compared to a galvanic battery for the use of spiritual paralytics. The grave defect of Browning is that his ideas, however excellent, are so seldom completely won; they are left in a twilight, or even a darkness more Cimmerian than that to which the worst of the virtuosi dedicate their ideas. Similarly, even in his “Dramatic Romances and Lyrics” (1845) or his “Men and Women” (1855) he rarely depicts action, seldom goes further than interpreting the mind of man as he approaches action. If Dickens may be described as the eye of Victorian literature, Tennyson the ear attuned to the subtlest melodies, Swinburne the reed to which everything blew to music, Thackeray the velvet pulpit-cushion, Eliot the impending brow, and Meredith the cerebral dome, then Browning might well be described as the active brain itself eternally expounding some point of view remote in time and place from its own. Tennyson was ostensibly and always a poet in his life and his art, in his blue cloak and sombrero, his mind and study alike stored with intaglios of the thought of all ages, always sounding and remodelling his verses so that they shall attain the maximum of sweetness and symmetry. He was a recluse. Browning on the other hand dissembled his poethood, successfully disguised his muse under the semblance of a stock merchant, was civil to his fellowmen, and though nervous with bores, encountered every one he met as if he were going to receive more than he could impart. In Tennyson’s poetry we are always discovering new beauties. In Browning’s we are finding new blemishes. Why he chose rhythm and metre for seven-eighths of his purpose is somewhat of a mystery. His protest against the materialistic view of life is, perhaps, a more valid one than Tennyson’s; he is at pains to show us the noble elements valuable in spite of failure to achieve tangible success. He realizes that the greater the man, the greater is the failure, yet protests unfailingly against the despondent or materialist view of life. His nimble appreciation of character and motive attracts the attentive curiosity of highly intellectual people; but the question recurs with some persistence as to whether poetry, after all, was the right medium for the expression of these views.
Many of Browning’s ideas and fertilizations will, perhaps, owing to the difficulty and uncertainty which attaches to their form, penetrate the future indirectly as the stimulant of other men’s work. This is especially the case with those remarkable writers who have for the first time Ruskin. Morris. Symonds. Pater. given the fine arts a considerable place in English literature, notably John Ruskin (Modern Painters, 1842, Seven Lamps, 1849, Stones of Venice, 1853), William Morris, John Addington Symonds and Walter Pater. Browning, it is true, shared the discipleship of the first two with Kingsley and Carlyle. But Ruskin outlived all discipleships and transcended almost all the prose writers of his period in a style the elements of emotional power in which still preserve their secret.
More a poet of doubt than either Tennyson or the college friend, A. H. Clough, whose loss he lamented in one of the finest pastoral elegies of all ages, Matthew Arnold takes rank with Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne alone among the Dii Majores of Victorian poetry. He is perhaps a Arnold. disciple of Wordsworth even more than of Goethe, and he finds in Nature, described in rarefied though at times intensely beautiful phrase, the balm for the unrest of man’s unsatisfied yearnings, the divorce between soul and intellect, and the sense of contrast between the barren toil of man and the magic operancy of nature. His most delicate and intimate strains are tinged with melancholy. The infinite desire of what might have been, the lacrimae rerum, inspires “Resignation,” one of the finest pieces in his volume of 1849 (The Strayed Reveller). In the deeply-sighed lines of “Dover Beach” in 1867 it is associated with his sense of the decay of faith. The dreaming garden trees, the full moon and the white evening star of the beautiful English-coloured Thyrsis evoke the same mood, and render Arnold one of the supreme among elegiac poets. But his poetry is the most individual in the circle and admits the popular heart never for an instant. As a popularizer of Renan and of the view of the Bible, not as a talisman but as a literature, and, again, as a chastener of his contemporaries by means of the iteration of a few telling phrases about philistines, barbarians, sweetness and light, sweet reasonableness, high seriousness, Hebraism and Hellenism, “young lions of the Daily Telegraph,” and “the note of provinciality,” Arnold far eclipsed his fame as a poet during his lifetime. His crusade of banter against the bad civilization of his own class was one of the most audaciously successful things of the kind ever accomplished. But all his prose theorizing was excessively superficial. In poetry he sounded a note which the prose Arnold seemed hopelessly unable ever to fathom.
It is easier to speak of the virtuoso group who derived their first incitement to poetry from Chatterton, Keats and the early exotic ballads of Tennyson, far though these yet were from attaining the perfection in which they now appear after half a century of assiduous correction. The chief Rossetti. of them were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his sister Christina, William Morris and Algernon Charles Swinburne. The founders of this school, which took and acquired the name Pre-Raphaelite, were profoundly impressed by the Dante revival and by the study of the early Florentine masters. Rossetti himself was an accomplished translator from Dante and from Villon. He preferred Keats to Shelley because (like himself) he had no philosophy. The 18th century was to him as if it had never been, he dislikes Greek lucidity and the open air, and prefers lean medieval saints, spectral images and mystic loves. The passion of these students was retrospective; they wanted to revive the literature of a forgotten past, Italian, Scandinavian, French, above all, medieval. To do this is a question of enthusiastic experiment and adventure. Rossetti leads the way with his sonnets and ballads. Christina follows with Goblin Market, though she subsequently, with a perfected technique, writes poetry more and more confined to the religious emotions. William Morris publishes in 1858 his Defence of Guenevere, followed in ten years by The Earthly Paradise, a collection of metrical tales, which hang in the sunshine like tapestries woven of golden thread, where we should naturally expect the ordinary paperhanging of prose romance.
From the verdurous gloom of the studio with its mysterious and occult properties in which Rossetti compounded his colours, Morris went forth shortly to chant and then to narrate Socialist songs and parables. Algernon Charles Swinburne set forth to scandalize the critics of 1866 Swinburne. with the roses and lilies of vice and white death in Poems and Ballads, which was greeted with howls and hisses, and reproach against a “fleshly school of modern poetry.” Scandalous verses these were, rioting on the crests of some of these billows of song. More discerning persons perceived the harmless impersonal unreality and mischievous youthful extravagance of all these Cyprian outbursts, that the poems were the outpourings of a young singer up to the chin in the Pierian flood, and possessed by a poetic energy so urgent that it could not wait to apply the touchstones of reality or the chastening planes of experience. Swinburne far surpassed the promoters of this exotic school in technical excellence, and in Atalanta in Calydon and its successors may be said to have widened the bounds of English song, to have created a new music and liberated a new harmonic scale in his verse. Of the two elements which, superadded to a consummate technique, compose the great poet, intensity of imagination and intensity of passion, the latter in Swinburne much predominated. The result was a great abundance of heat and glow and not perhaps quite enough defining light. Hence the tendency to be incomprehensible, so fatal in its fascination for the poets of the last century, which would almost justify the title of the triumvirs of twilight to three of the greatest. It is this incomprehensibility which alienates the poet from the popular understanding and confines his audience to poets, students and scholars. Poetry is often comparable to a mountain range with its points and aiguilles, its peaks and crags, its domes and its summits. But Swinburne’s poetry, filled with the sound and movement of great waters, is as incommunicable as the sea. Trackless and almost boundless, it has no points, no definite summits. The poet never seems to know precisely when he is going to stop. His metrical flow is wave-like, beautiful and rather monotonous, inseparable from the general effect. His endings seem due to an exhaustion of rhythm rather than to an exhaustion of sense. A cessation of meaning is less perceptible than a cessation of magnificent sound.
Akin in some sense to the attempt made to get behind the veil and to recapture the old charms and spells of the middle ages, to discover the open sesame of the Morte D’Arthur and the Mabinogion and to reveal the old Celtic and monastic life which once filled and dominated our Newman and the Church. islands, was the attempt to overthrow the twin gods of the ’forties and ’fifties, state-Protestantism and the sanctity of trade. The curiously assorted Saint Georges who fought these monsters were John Henry Newman and Thomas Carlyle. The first cause of the movement was, of course, the anomalous position of the Anglican Church, which had become a province of the oligarchy officered by younger sons. It stood apart from foreign Protestantism; its ignorance of Rome, and consequently of what it protested against, was colossal; it was conscious of itself only as an establishment—it had produced some very great men since the days of the non-jurors, when it had mislaid its historical conscience, but these had either been great scholars in their studies, such as Berkeley, Butler, Warburton, Thomas Scott, or revivalists, evangelicals and missionaries, such as Wilson, Wesley, Newton, Romaine, Cecil, Venn, Martyn, who were essentially Congregationalists rather than historical Churchmen. A new spiritual beacon was to be raised; an attempt was to be made to realize the historical and cosmic aspects of the English Church, to examine its connexions, its descent and its title-deeds. In this attempt Newman was to spend the best years of his life.
The growth of liberal opinions and the denudation of the English Church of spiritual and historical ideas, leaving “only pulpit orators at Clapham and Islington and two-bottle orthodox” to defend it, seemed to involve the continued existence of Anglicanism in any form in considerable doubt. Swift had said at the commencement of the 18th century that if an act was passed for the extirpation of the gospel, bank stock might decline 1%; but a century later it is doubtful whether the passing of such a bill would have left any trace, however evanescent, upon the stability of the money market. The Anglican via media had enemies not only in the philosophical radicals, but also in the new caste of men of science. Perhaps, as J. A. Froude suggests, these combined enemies, The Edinburgh Review, Brougham, Mackintosh, the Reform Ministry, Low Church philosophy and the London University were not so very terrible after all. The Church was a vested interest which had a greater stake in the country and was harder to eradicate than they imagined. But it had nothing to give to the historian and the idealist. They were right to fight for what their souls craved after and found in the Church of Andrewes, Herbert, Ken and Waterland. Belief in the divine mission of the Church lingered on in the minds of such men as Alexander Knox or his disciple Bishop Jebb; but few were prepared to answer the question—“What is the Church as spoken of in England? Is it the Church of Christ?”—and the answers were various. Hooker had said it was “the nation”; and in entirely altered circumstances, with some qualifications, Dr Arnold said the same. It was “the Establishment” according to the lawyers and politicians, both Whig and Tory. It was an invisible and mystical body, said the Evangelicals. It was the aggregate of separate congregations, said the Nonconformists. It was the parliamentary creation of the Reformation, said the Erastians. The true Church was the communion of the Pope; the pretended Church was a legalized schism, said the Roman Catholics. All these ideas were floating about, loose and vague, among people who talked much about the Church.
One thing was persistently obvious, namely, that the nationalist church had become opportunist in every fibre, and that it had thrown off almost every semblance of ecclesiastical discipline. The view was circulated that the Church owed its continued existence to the good sense of the individuals who officered it, and to the esteem which possession and good sense combined invariably engendered in the reigning oligarchy. But since Christianity was true—and Newman was the one man of modern times who seems never to have doubted this, never to have overlooked the unmistakable threat of eternal punishment to the wicked and unbelieving—modern England, with its march of intellect and its chatter about progress, was advancing with a light heart to the verge of a bottomless abyss. By a diametrically opposite chain of reasoning Newman reached much the same conclusion as Carlyle. Newman sought a haven of security in a rapprochement with the Catholic Church. The medieval influences already at work in Oxford began to fan the flame which kindled to a blaze in the ninetieth of the celebrated Tracts for the Times. It proved the turning of the ways leading Keble and Pusey to Anglican ritual and Newman to Rome. This anti-liberal campaign was poison to the state-churchmen and Protestants, and became perhaps the chief intellectual storm centre of the century. Charles Kingsley in 1864 sought to illustrate by recent events that veracity could not be considered a Roman virtue.
After some preliminary ironic sparring Newman was stung into writing what he deliberately called Apologia pro vita sua. In this, apart from the masterly dialectic and exposition in which he had already shown himself an adept, a volume of autobiography is made a chapter of general Scientific cross-currents. history, unsurpassed in its kind since the Confessions of St Augustine, combined with a perfection of form, a precision of phrasing and a charm of style peculiar to the genius of the author, rendering it one of the masterpieces of English prose. But while Newman was thus sounding a retreat, louder and more urgent voices were signalling the advance in a totally opposite direction. The Apologia fell in point of time between The Origin of Species and Descent of Man, in which Charles Darwin was laying the corner stones of the new science of which Thomas Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace were to be among the first apostles, and almost coincided with the First Principles of a synthetic philosophy, in which Herbert Spencer was formulating a set of probabilities wholly destructive to the acceptance of positive truth in any one religion. The typical historian of the Macaulay. ’fifties, Thomas Babington Macaulay, and the seminal thinker of the ’sixties, John Stuart Mill, had as determinedly averted their faces from the old conception of revealed religion. Nourished in the school of the great Whig pamphleteer historians, George Grote and Henry Hallam, Macaulay combined gifts of memory, enthusiastic conviction, portraiture and literary expression, which gave to his historical writing a resonance unequalled (even by Michelet) in modern literature. In spite of faults of taste and fairness, Macaulay’s resplendent gifts enabled him to achieve for the period from Charles II. to the peace of Ryswick what Thucydides had done for the Peloponnesian War. The pictures that he drew with such exultant force are stamped ineffaceably upon the popular mind. His chief faults are not of detail, but rather a lack of subtlety as regards characterization and motive, a disposition to envisage history too exclusively as a politician, and the sequence of historical events as a kind of ordered progress towards the material ideals of universal trade and Whig optimism as revealed in the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Macaulay’s tendency to disparage the past brought his whole vision of the Cosmos into sharp collision with that of his rival appellant to the historical conscience, Thomas Carlyle, a man whose despair of the present easily exceeded Newman’s. But Carlyle’s despondency was totally irrespective Carlyle. of the attitude preserved by England towards the Holy Father, whom he seldom referred to save as “the three-hatted Papa” and “servant of the devil.” It may be in fact almost regarded as the reverse or complement to the excess of self-complacency in Macaulay. We may correct the excess of one by the opposite excess of the other. Macaulay was an optimist in ecstasy with the material advance of his time in knowledge and power; the growth of national wealth, machinery and means of lighting and locomotion caused him to glow with satisfaction. Carlyle, the pessimist, regards all such symptoms of mechanical development as contemptible. Far from panegyrizing his own time, he criticizes it without mercy. Macaulay had great faith in rules and regulations, reform bills and parliamentary machinery. Carlyle regards them as wiles of the devil. Frederick William of Prussia, according to Macaulay, was the most execrable of fiends, a cross between Moloch and Puck, his palace was hell, and Oliver Twist and Smike were petted children compared with his son the crown prince. In the same bluff and honest father Carlyle recognized the realized ideal of his fancy and hugged the just man made perfect to his heart of hearts. Such men as Bentham and Cobden, Mill and Macaulay, had in Carlyle’s opinion spared themselves no mistaken exertion to exalt the prosperity and happiness of their own day. The time had come to react at all hazards against the prevalent surfeit of civilization. Henceforth his literary activity was to take two main directions. First, tracts for the times against modern tendencies, especially against the demoralizing modern talk about progress by means of money and machinery which emanated like a miasma from the writings of such men as Mill, Macaulay, Brougham, Buckle and from the Quarterlies. Secondly, a cyclopean exhibition of Caesarism, discipline, the regimentation of workers, and the convertibility of the Big Stick and the Bible, with a preference to the Big Stick as a panacea. The snowball was to grow rapidly among such writers as Kingsley, Ruskin, George Borrow, unencumbered by reasoning or deductive processes which they despised. Carlyle himself felt that the condition of England was one for anger rather than discussion. He detested the rationalism and symmetry of such methodists of thought as Mill, Buckle, Darwin, Spencer, Lecky, Ricardo and other demonstrations of the dismal science—mere chatter he called it. The palliative philanthropy of the day had become his aversion even more than the inroads of Rome under cover of the Oxford movement which Froude, Borrow and Kingsley set themselves to correct. As an historian of a formal order Carlyle’s historical portraits cannot bear a strict comparison with the published work of Gibbon and Macaulay, or even of Maine and Froude in this period, but as a biographer and autobiographer Carlyle’s caustic insight has enabled him to produce much which is of the very stuff of human nature. Surrounded by philomaths and savants who wrote smoothly about the perfectibility of man and his institutions, Carlyle almost alone refused to distil his angry eloquence and went on railing against the passive growth of civilization at the heart of which he declared that he had discovered a cancer. This uncouth Titan worship and prostration before brute force, this constant ranting about jarls and vikings trembles often on the verge of cant and comedy, and his fiddling on the one string of human pretension and bankruptcy became discordant almost to the point of chaos. Instinctively destructive, he resents the apostleship of teachers like Mill, or the pioneer discoveries of men like Herbert Spencer and Darwin. He remains, nevertheless, a great incalculable figure, the cross grandfather of a school of thought which is largely unconscious of its debt and which so far as it recognizes it takes Carlyle in a manner wholly different from that of his contemporaries.
The deaths of Carlyle and George Eliot (and also of George
Borrow) in 1881 make a starting-point for the new schools of
historians, novelists, critics and biographers, and
those new nature students who claim to cure those
evil effects of civilization which Carlyle and his
History. disciples had discovered. History in the hands of Macaulay, Buckle and Carlyle had been occupied mainly with the bias and tendency of change, the results obtained by those who consulted the oracle being more often than not diametrically opposite. With Froude still on the one hand as the champion of Protestantism, and with E. A. Freeman and J. R. Green on the other as nationalist historians, the school of applied history was fully represented in the next generation, but as the records grew and multiplied in print in accordance with the wise provisions made in 1857 by the commencement of the Rolls Series of medieval historians, and the Calendars of State Papers, to be followed shortly by the rapidly growing volumes of Calendars of Historical Manuscripts, historians began to concentrate their attention more upon the process of change as their right subject matter and to rely more and more upon documents, statistics and other impersonal and disinterested forms of material. Such historical writers as Lecky, Lord Acton, Creighton, Morley and Bryce contributed to the process of transition mainly as essayists, but the new doctrines were tested and to a certain extent put into action by such writers as Thorold Rogers, Stubbs, Gardiner and Maitland. The theory that History is a science, no less and no more, was propounded in so many words by Professor Bury in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge in 1903, and this view and the corresponding divergence of history from the traditional pathway of Belles Lettres has become steadily more dominant in the world of historical research and historical writing since 1881. The bulk of quite modern historical writing can certainly be justified from no other point of view.
The novel since 1881 has pursued a course curiously analogous to that of historical writing. Supported as it was by masters of the old régime such as Meredith and Hardy, and by those who then ranked even higher in popular esteem such as Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, Besant and Rice, The novel. Blackmore, William Black and a monstrous rising regiment of lady novelists—Mrs Lynn Linton, Rhoda Broughton, Mrs Henry Wood, Miss Braddon, Mrs Humphry Ward, the type seemed securely anchored to the old formulas and the old ways. In reality, however, many of these popular workers were already moribund and the novel was being honeycombed by French influence.
This is perceptible in Hardy, but may be traced with greater distinctness in the best work of George Gissing, George Moore, Mark Rutherford, and later on of H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy. The old novelists had left behind them a giant’s robe. Intellectually giants, Dickens and Thackeray were equally gigantic spendthrifts. They worked in a state of fervent heat above a glowing furnace, into which they flung lavish masses of unshaped metal, caring little for immediate effect or minute dexterity of stroke, but knowing full well that the emotional energy of their temperaments was capable of fusing the most intractable material, and that in the end they would produce their great downright effect. Their spirits rose and fell, but the case was desperate; copy had to be despatched at once or the current serial would collapse. Good and bad had to make up the tale against time, and revelling in the very exuberance and excess of their humour, the novelists invariably triumphed. It was incumbent on the new school of novelists to economize their work with more skill, to relieve their composition of irrelevancies, to keep the writing in one key, and to direct it consistently to one end—in brief, to unify the novel as a work of art and to simplify its ordonnance.
The novel, thus lightened and sharpened, was conquering new fields. The novel of the ’sixties remained not, perhaps, to win many new triumphs, but a very popular instrument in the hands of those who performed variations on the old masters, and much later in the hands of Mr William de Morgan, showing a new force and quiet power of its own. The novel, however, was ramifying in other directions in a way full of promise for the future. A young Edinburgh student, Robert Louis Stevenson, had inherited much of the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelitic virtuosos, and combined with their passion for the romance of the historic past a curiosity fully as strong about the secrets of romantic technique. A coterie which he formed with W. E. Henley and his cousin R. A. M. Stevenson studied words as a young art student studies paints, and made studies for portraits of buccaneers with the same minute drudgery that Rossetti had studied a wall or Morris a piece of figured tapestry. While thus forming a new romantic school whose work when wrought by his methods should be fit to be grafted upon the picturesque historic fiction of Scott and Dumas, Stevenson was also naturalizing the short story of the modern French type upon English ground. In this particular field he was eclipsed by Rudyard Kipling, who, though less original as a man of letters, had a technical vocabulary and descriptive power far in advance of Stevenson’s, and was able in addition to give his writing an exotic quality derived from Oriental colouring. This regional type of writing has since been widely imitated, and the novel has simultaneously developed in many other ways, of which perhaps the most significant is the psychological study as manipulated severally by Shorthouse, Mallock and Henry James.
The expansion of criticism in the same thirty years was not a whit less marked than the vast divagation of the novel. In the early ’eighties it was still tongue-bound by the hypnotic influence of one or two copy-book formulae—Arnold’s “criticism of life” as a definition of poetry, and Walter Criticism. Pater’s implied doctrine of art for art’s sake. That two dicta so manifestly absurd should have cast such an augur-like spell upon the free expression of opinion, though it may of course, like all such instances, be easily exaggerated, is nevertheless a curious example of the enslavement of ideas by a confident claptrap. A few representatives of the old schools of motived or scientific criticism, deduced from the literatures of past time, survived the new century in Leslie Stephen, Saintsbury, Stopford Brooke, Austin Dobson, Courthope, Sidney Colvin, Watts-Dunton; but their agreement is certainly not greater than among the large class of emancipated who endeavour to concentrate the attention of others without further ado upon those branches of literature which they find most nutritive. Among the finest appreciators of this period have been Pattison and Jebb, Myers, Hutton, Dowden, A. C. Bradley, William Archer, Richard Garnett, E. Gosse and Andrew Lang. Birrell, Walkley and Max Beerbohm have followed rather in the wake of the Stephens and Bagehot, who have criticized the sufficiency of the titles made out by the more enthusiastic and lyrical eulogists. In Arthur Symons, Walter Raleigh and G. K. Chesterton the new age possessed critics of great originality and power, the work of the last two of whom is concentrated upon the application of ideas about life at large to the conceptions of literature. In exposing palpable nonsense as such, no one perhaps did better service in criticism than the veteran Frederic Harrison.
In the cognate work of memoir and essay, the way for which has been greatly smoothed by co-operative lexicographical efforts such as the Dictionary of National Biography, the New English Dictionary, the Victoria County History and the like, some of the most dexterous and permeating work of the transition from the old century to the new was done by H. D. Traill, Gosse, Lang, Mackail, E. V. Lucas, Lowes Dickinson, Richard le Gallienne, A. C. Benson, Hilaire Belloc, while the open-air relief work for dwellers pent in great cities, pioneered by Gilbert White, has been expanded with all the zest and charm that a novel pursuit can endow by such writers as Richard Jefferies, an open-air and nature mystic of extraordinary power at his best, Selous, Seton Thompson, W. H. Hudson.
The age has not been particularly well attuned to the efforts of the newer poets since Coventry Patmore in the Angel in the House achieved embroidery, often extremely beautiful, upon the Tennysonian pattern, and since Edward FitzGerald, the first of all letter-writing commentators on life Poetry. and letters since Lamb, gave a new cult to the decadent century in his version of the Persian centoist Omar Khayyam. The prizes which in Moore’s day were all for verse have now been transferred to the prose novel and the play, and the poets themselves have played into the hands of the Philistines by disdaining popularity in a fond preference for virtuosity and obscurity. Most kinds of the older verse, however, have been well represented, descriptive and elegiac poetry in particular by Robert Bridges and William Watson; the music of the waters of the western sea and its isles by W. B. Yeats, Synge, Moira O’Neill, “Fiona Macleod” and an increasing group of Celtic bards; the highly wrought verse of the 17th-century lyrists by Francis Thompson, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson; the simplicity of a more popular strain by W. H. Davies, of a brilliant rhetoric by John Davidson, and of a more intimate romance by Sturge Moore and Walter de la Mare. Light verse has never, perhaps, been represented more effectively since Praed and Calverley and Lewis Carroll than by Austin Dobson, Locker Lampson, W. S. Gilbert and Owen Seaman. The names of C. M. Doughty, Alfred Noyes, Herbert Trench and Laurence Binyon were also becoming prominent at the opening of the 20th century. For originality in form and substance the palm rests in all probability with A. E. Housman, whose Shropshire Lad opens new avenues and issues, and with W. E. Henley, whose town and hospital poems had a poignant as well as an ennobling strain. The work of Henry Newbolt, Mrs. Meynell and Stephen Phillips showed a real poetic gift. Above all these, however, in the esteem of many reign the verses of George Meredith and of Thomas Hardy, whose Dynasts was widely regarded by the best judges as the most remarkable literary production of the new century.
The new printed and acted drama dates almost entirely from the late ’eighties. Tom Robertson in the ’seventies printed nothing, and his plays were at most a timid recognition of the claims of the drama to represent reality and truth. The enormous superiority of the French drama as Drama. represented by Augier, Dumas fils and Sardou began to dawn slowly upon the English consciousness. Then in the ’eighties came Ibsen, whose daring in handling actuality was only equalled by his intrepid stage-craft. Oscar Wilde and A. W. Pinero were the first to discover how the spirit of these new discoveries might be adapted to the English stage. Gilbert Murray, with his fascinating and tantalizing versions from Euripides, gave a new flexibility to the expansion that was going on in English dramatic ideas. Bernard Shaw and his disciples, conspicuous among them Granville Barker, gave a new seasoning of wit to the absolute novelties of subject, treatment and application with which they transfixed the public which had so long abandoned thought upon entering the theatre. This new adventure enjoyed a succès de stupeur, the precise range of which can hardly be estimated, and the force of which is clearly by no means spent.
English literature in the 20th century still preserves some of the old arrangements and some of the consecrated phrases of patronage and aristocracy; but the circumstances of its production were profoundly changed during the 19th century. By 1895 English literature had become 20th-century changes. a subject of regular instruction for a special degree at most of the universities, both in England and America. This has begun to lead to research embodied in investigations which show that what were regarded as facts in connexion with the earlier literature can be regarded so no longer. It has also brought comparative and historical treatment of a closer kind and on a larger scale to bear upon the evolution of literary types. On the other hand it has concentrated an excessive attention perhaps upon the grammar and prosody and etymology of literature, it has stereotyped the admiration of lifeless and obsolete forms, and has substituted antiquarian notes and ready-made commentary for that live enjoyment, which is essentially individual and which tends insensibly to evaporate from all literature as soon as the circumstance of it changes. It is prone, moreover, to force upon the immature mind a rapt admiration for the mirror before ever it has scanned the face of the original. A result due rather to the general educational agencies of the time is that, while in the middle of the 19th century one man could be found to write competently on a given subject, in 1910 there were fifty. Books and apparatus for reading have multiplied in proportion. The fact of a book having been done quite well in a certain way is no longer any bar whatever to its being done again without hesitation in the same way. This continual pouring of ink from one bottle into another is calculated gradually to raise the standard of all subaltern writing and compiling, and to leave fewer and fewer books securely rooted in a universal recognition of their intrinsic excellence, power and idiosyncrasy or personal charm. Even then, of what we consider first-rate in the 19th century, for instance, but a very small residuum can possibly survive. The one characteristic that seems likely to cling and to differentiate this voluble century is its curious reticence, of which the 20th century has already made uncommonly short work. The new playwrights have untaught England a shyness which came in about the time of Southey, Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott. That the best literature has survived hitherto is at best a pious opinion. As the area of experience grows it is more and more difficult to circumscribe or even to describe the supreme best, and such attempts have always been responsible for base superstition. It is clear that some limitation of the literary stock-in-trade will become increasingly urgent as time goes on, and the question may well occur as to whether we are insuring the right baggage. The enormous apparatus of literature at the present time is suitable only to a peculiar phasis and manner of existence. Some hold to the innate and essential aristocracy of literature; others that it is bound to develop on the popular and communistic side, for that at present, like machinery and other deceptive benefits, it is a luxury almost exclusively advantageous to the rich. But to predict the direction of change in literature is even more futile than to predict the direction of change in human history, for of all factors of history, literature, if one of the most permanent, is also one of the least calculable.
Bibliographical Note.—The Age of Wordsworth and The Age of Tennyson in Bell’s “Handbooks of English Literature” are of special value for this period. Prof. Dowden’s and Prof. Saintsbury’s 19th-century studies fill in interstices; and of the “Periods of European Literature,” the Romantic Revolt and Romantic Triumph are pertinent, as are the literary chapters in vols. x. and xi. of the Cambridge Modern History. Of more specific books George Brandes’s Literary Currents of the Nineteenth Century, Stedman’s Victorian Poets, Holman Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, R. H. Hutton’s Contemporary Thought (and companion volumes), Sir Leslie Stephen’s The Utilitarians, Buxton Forman’s Our Living Poets, Dawson’s Victorian Novelists, Thureau-Dangin’s Renaissance des idées catholiques en Angleterre, A. Chevrillon’s Sydney Smith et la renaissance des idées libérales en Angleterre, A. W. Benn’s History of English Thought in the Nineteenth Century, the publishing histories of Murray, Blackwood, Macvey Napier, Lockhart, &c., J. M. Robertson’s Modern Humanists, and the critical miscellanies of Lord Morley, Frederic Harrison, W. Bagehot, A. Birrell, Andrew Lang and E. Gosse, will be found, in their several degrees, illuminating. The chief literary lives are those of Scott by Lockhart, Carlyle by Froude, Macaulay by Trevelyan, Dickens by Forster and Charlotte Brontë by Mrs Gaskell. (T. Se.)