Page images


JEFFREY. By far the most considerable change which has taken place in the world of letters, in our days, is that by which the wits of Queen Anne's time have been gradually brought down from the supremacy which they had enjoyed, without competition, for the best part of a century. When we were at our studies, some twenty-five years ago, we can perfectly remember that every young man was set to read Pope, Swift, and Addison, as regularly as Virgil, Cicero, and Horace. All who had any tincture of letters were familiar with their writings and their history; allusions to them abounded in all popular discourses and all'ambitious conversation; and they and their contemporaries were universally acknowledged as our great models of excellence, and placed without challenge at the head of our national literature. New books, even when allowed to have merit, were never thought of as fit to be placed in the same class, but were generally read and forgotten, and passed away like the transitory meteors of a lower sky; while they remained in their brightness, and were supposed to shine with a fixed and unalterable glory.

All this, however, we take it, is now pretty well altered; and in so far as persons of our antiquity can judge of the training and habits of the rising generation, those celebrated writers no longer form the manual of our studious youth, or enter necessarily into the institution of a liberal education. Their names, indeed, are still familiar to our ears; but their writings no longer solicit our habitual notice, and their subjects begin already to fade from our recollection. Their high privileges and proud distinctions, at any rate, have evidently passed into other hands. It is no longer to them that the ambitious look ир

with envy, or the humble with admiration; nor is it in their pages that the pretenders to wit and eloquence now search for allusions that are sure to captivate, and illustrations that cannot be mistaken. In this decay of their reputation they have few advocates and no imitators : and, from a comparison of many observations, it seems to be clearly ascertained, that they are declined considerably from “the high meridian of their glory," and may fairly be apprehended to be “hastening to their setting.” Neither is it time alone that has wrought this obscuration;

[ocr errors]

for the fame of Shakespeare still shines in undecaying brightness: and that of Bacon has been steadily advancing and gathering new honours during the whole period which has witnessed the rise and decline of his less vigorous successors.

There are but two possible solutions for phenomena of this sort. Our taste has either degenerated—or its old models have been fairly surpassed ; and we have ceased to admire the writers of the last century, only because they are too good for us or because they are not good enough. Now, we confess, we are not believers in the absolute and permanent corruption of national taste; on the contrary, we think that it is, of all faculties, that which is most sure to advance and improve with time and experience; and that, with the exception of those great physical or political disasters which have given a check to civilisation itself, there has always been a sensible progress in this particular; and that the general taste of every successive generation is better than that of its predecessors. There are little capricious fluctuations no doubt, and fits of foolish admiration or fastidiousness, which cannot be so easily accounted for: but the great movements are all progressive: and though the progress consists at one time in withholding toleration from gross faults, and at another in giving their high prerogative to great beauties, this alteration has no tendency to obstruct the general advance; but, on the contrary, is the best and the safest course in which it can be conducted.

We are of opinion, then, that the writers who adorned the beginning of the last century have been eclipsed by those of our own time; and that they have no chance of ever regaining the supremacy in which they have thus been supplanted. There is not, however, in our judg. ment, any thing very stupendous in this triumph of our contemporaries; and the greater wonder with us is, that it was so long delayed, and left for them to achieve. For the truth is, that the writers of the former age had not a great deal more than their judgment and industry to stand on; and were always much more remarkable for the fewness of their faults than the greatness of their beauties. Their laurels were won much more by good conduct and discipline, than by enterprising boldness or native force ;-nor can it be regarded as any very great merit in those who had so little of the inspiration of genius, to have steered clear of the dangers to which that inspiration is liable. Speaking generally of that generation of authors, it may be said that, as

poets, they had no force or greatness of fancy-no pathos, and no enthusiasm ;—and, as philosophers, no comprehensiveness, depth, or originality. They are sagacious, no doubt, neat, clear, and reasonable, but for the most part cold, timid, and superficial. They never meddle with the great scenes of nature or the great passions of man; but content themselves with just and sarcastic representations of city life, and of the paltry passions and meaner vices that are bred in that lower element. Their chief care is to avoid being ridiculous in the eyes

of the witty, and, above all, to eschew the ridicule of excessive sensibility or enthusiasm-to be at once witty and rational themselves, with as good a grace as possible; but to give their countenance to no wisdom, no fancy, and no morality, which passes the standards current in good company. Their inspiration, accordingly, is nothing more than a sprightly sort of good sense; and they have scarcely any invention but what is subservient to the purposes of derision and satire. Little gleams of pleasantry and sparkles of wit glitter through their compositions; but no glow of feeling—no blaze of imagination—no flashes of genius ever irradiate their substance. They never pass beyond “the visible diurnal sphere,” or deal in any thing that can either lift us above our vulgar nature, or ennoble its reality. With these accomplishments, they may pass well enough for sensible and polite writers, but scarcely for men of genius ; and it is certainly far more surprising, that persons of this decription should have maintained themselves, for near a century, at the head of the literature of a country that had previously produced a Shakspere, a Spenser, a Bacon, and a Taylor, than that, towards the end of that long period, doubts should have arisen as to the legitimacy of a title by which they laid claim to that high station. Both parts of the phenomenon, however, we dare say, had causes which better expounders might explain to the satisfaction of all the world. We see them but imperfectly, and have room only for an imperfect sketch of what we see.

Our first literature consisted of saintly legends and romances of chivalry, though Chaucer gave it a more national and popular character, by his original descriptions of external nature, and the familiarity and gaiety of his social humour. In the time of Elizabeth, it received a copious infusion of classical images and ideas; but it was still intrinsically romantic, serious, and even somewhat lofty and enthusiastic. Authors were then so few in number, that they were looked upon with a sort of veneration, and considered as a kind of inspired persons ; at least they were not yet so numerous, as to be obliged to abuse each other, in order to obtain a share of distinction for themselves; and they neither affected a tone of derision in their writings, nor wrote in fear of derision from others. They were filled with their subjects, and dealt with them fearlessly in their own way; and the stamp of originality, force, and freedom, is consequently upon almost all their productions. In the reign of James I. our literature, with some few exceptions, touching rather the form than the substance of its merits, appears to us to have reached the greatest perfection to which it has yet attained; though it would probably have advanced still farther in the succeeding reign, had not the great national dissentions which then arose, turned the talent and energy of the people into other channels—first, to the assertion of their civil rights, and afterwards, to the discussion of their religious interests. The graces of literature suffered of course in those fierce contentions, and a deeper shade of austerity was thrown upon the intellectual character of the nation. Her genius however, though less captivating and adorned than in the happier days which preceded, was still active, fruitful, and commanding; and the period of the civil wars, besides the mighty minds that guided the public councils, and were absorbed in public cares, produced the giant powers of Taylor, and Hobbes, and Barrowthe muse of Milton, the learning of Coke, and the ingenuity of Cowley.

The Restoration introduced a French court, under circumstances more favourable for the effectual exercise of court influence than ever before existed in England; but this of itself would not have been sufficient to account for the sudden change in our literature which ensued. It was seconded by causes of far more general operation. The Restoration was undoubtedly a popular act; and, indefensible as the conduct of the army and the civil leaders was on that occasion, there can be no question that the severities of Cromwell, and the extravagances of the sectaries, had made republican professions hateful, and religious ardour ridiculous, in the eyes of a great proportion of the people. All the eminent writers of the preceding period, however, had inclined to the party that was now overthrown, and their writings had not merely been accommodated to the character of the government under which they were produced, but were deeply imbued with its obnoxious principles, which were those of their respective authors. When the restraints of authority were taken off, therefore, and it became profitable, as well as popular, to discredit the fallen party, it was natural that the leading authors should affect a style of levity and derision, as most opposite to that of their opponents, and best calculated for the purposes they had in view. The nation, too, was now for the first time essentially divided in point of character and principle, and a much greater proportion were capable both of writing in support of their own notions, and of being influenced by what was written. Add to all this, that there were real and serious defects in the style and manner of the former generation; and that the grace, and brevity, and vivacity of that gayer manner which was now introduced from France, were not only good and captivating in themselves, but had then all the charms of novelty and of contrast; and it will not be difficult to understand how it came to supplant that which had been established of old in the country, and that so suddenly, that the same generation, among whom Milton had been formed to the severe sanctity of wisdom, and the noble independence of genius, lavished its loudest applauses on the obscenity and servility of such writers as Rochester and Wycherly.

This change, however, like all sudden changes, was too fierce and violent to be long maintained at the same pitch; and when the wits and profligates of King Charles had sufficiently insulted the seriousness and virtue of their predecessors, there would probably have been a revulsion towards the accustomed taste of the nation, had not the party of the innovators been reinforced by champions of more temperance and judgment. The result seemed at one time suspended on the will of Dryden, in whose individual person the genius of the English and of the French school of literature may be said to have maintained a protracted struggle. But the evil principle prevailed! Carried by the original bent of his genius, and his familiarity with our older models, to the cultivation of our native style, to which he might have imparted more steadiness and correctness--for in force and in sweetness it was already matchless-he was unluckily seduced by the attractions of fashion, and the dazzling of the clear wit and gay rhetoric in which it delighted, to lend his powerful aid to the new corruptions and refinements; and, in fact, to prostitute his great gifts to the purposes of party rage or licentious ribaldry.

« PreviousContinue »