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And not an inch to flinch he deigns save when ye pitch sky high,
Swing in your strokes in order; let foot and hand keep time,
Strike in, strike in—the sparks begin to dull their rustling red;
Our hammers ring with sharper din, our work will soon be sped:
Our Anchor soon must change its bed of fiery rich array,
For a hammock at the roaring bows, or an oozy couch of clay;
Our Anchor soon must change the lay of merry craftsmen here,
For the Yeo-heave-o', and the Heave-away, and the sighing seaman's cheer;
When, weighing slow, at eve they go, far, far from love and home;
And sobbing sweathearts, in a row, wail o'er the ocean foam.
In livid and obdurate gloom he darkens down at last;
A shapely one he is, and strong, as e'er from cat was cast.—
O trusted and trustworthy guard, if thou hadst life like me.
What pleasures would thy toils reward beneath the deep green seal
O deep-sea diver, who might then behold such sights as thou?
The hoary monster's palaces! methinks what joy 'twere now
To go plumb plunging down amid the assembly of the whales.
And foel the churn'd sea round me boil beneath their scourging tailst
Then deep in tangle-woods to fight the fierce sea unicorn,
And send him foiled and bellowing back, for all his ivory horn;
To leave the subtle sworder-fish of bony blade forlorn;
And for the ghastly-grinning shark to laugh his jaws to scorn;
To leap down on the kraken's back, where 'mid Norwegian isles
He lies, a lubber anchorage for sudden shallow'd miles;
Till snorting, like an under-sea volcano, off he rolls;
Meanwhile to swing, a-buffeting the far astonished shoals
Of his back-browsing ocean-calves; or, haply in a cove,
Shell-strown, and consecrate of old to some Undine's love,
To find the long-hair'd mermaidens; or, hard by icy lands,
To wrestle with the sea-serpent, upon cerulean sands.
O broad-armed Fisher of the deep, whose sports can equal thine?
O lodger in the sea-king's halls, couldst thou but understand
Give honour to their memories who left the pleasant strand,
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 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 up 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; for the fame of Shakspeare 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 no 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 civilization 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 donbt, 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 alternation 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 judgment, anything 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 witty and rational themselves with a good grace, and to give thei* countenance to no wisdom and no morality which passes the standards that are current in good company. Their inspiration, accordingly, is little 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 anything 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 description should have maintained themselves for near a century at the head of the literature of a country that had previously produced a Shakspeare, a Bacon, and a Taylor, than that towards the end of that long period doubts should have arisen as to the legitimacy of the 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 romancesof 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 dissensions 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 chronicler 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 Barrow; the 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 a 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 extravagance of the sectaries had made republican professions hateful, and religious ardour ridiculous, in the eyes of the people at large. 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 as 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 shomld 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 Dry den, 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 dear wit and gay rhetoric in which it delighted, to lend his powerful aid to the new corruptions and refinements, and to prostitute his great gifts to the purposes of party rage or licentious ribaldry.
The sobriety of the succeeding reigns allayed this fever of profanity, but no genius arose sufficiently powerful to break the spell that still withheld us from the use of our own peculiar gifts and faculties. On the contrary, it was the unfortunate ambition of the next
generation of authors to improve and perfect the new style rather than to return to the old one; and it cannot be denied that they did improve it. They corrected its gross indecency, increased its precision and correctness, made its pleasantry and sarcasm more polished and elegant, and spread through the whole of its irony, its narration, and its reflection, a ton* of clear and condensed good sense which recommended itself to all who had and all who had not any relish for higher beauties. This is the praise of Queen Anne's wits, and to this praise they are justly entitled. This was left for them to do, and they did it well. They were invited to it by the circumstances of their situation, and do not seem to have been possessed of any such bold or vigorous spirit as either to neglect or to outgo the invitation. Coming into life immediately after the consummation of a bloodless revolution, effected much more by the cool sense than the angry passions of the nation, they seem to have felt that they were born in an age of reason rather than of fancy, and that men's minds, though considerably divided and unsettled upon many points, were in a much better temper to relish judicious argument and cutting satire than the glow of enthusiastic passion or the richness of a luxuriant imagination. To these accordingly they made no pretensions; but, writing with infinite good sense and great grace and vivacity, and above all, writing for the first time in a tone that was peculiar to the upper ranks of society, and upon subjects that were almost exclusively interesting to them, they naturally figured, at least while the manner was new, as the most accomplished, fashionable, and perfect writers which the world had ever seen; and made the wild, luxuriant, and humble sweetness of our earlier authors appear rude and untutored in the comparison. Ken grew ashamed of admiring, and afraid of imitating, writers of so little skill and smartness; and the opinion became general, not only that their faults were intolerable, but that even their beauties were puerile and barbarous, and unworthy the serious regard of a polite and distinguishing age.
These and similar considerations will go far to account for the celebrity which those authors acquired in their day; but it is not quite so easy to explain how they should have so long retained their ascendant. One cause undoubtedly was the real excellence of their productions in the style which they had adopted. It was hopeless to think of surpassing them in that style; and recommended as it was by the felicity of their execution, it required some courage to depart from it and to recur to another which seemed to have been so lately abandoned for its sake. The age which succeeded, too, was not the age of courage or adventure. There never was, on the whole, a quieter time than the reigns of the two first Georges, and the greater part of that which ensued. There were two little provincial rebellions indeed, and a fair proportion of foreign war, but there was nothing to stir the minds of the people at large—to rouse their passions or excite their imaginations: nothing like the agitations of the Reformation in the 16th century, or of the Civil wars in the 17th. They went on accordingly minding their old business and reading their old books with great patience and stupidity. And certainly there never was so remarkable a dearth of original talent—so long an interruption of native genius—as during about sixty years in the middle of the last century. The dramatic art was dead fifty years before, and poetry seemed verging to a similar extinction. The few sparks that appeared, however, showed that the old fire was burned out, and that the altar must hereafter be heaped with fuel of another quality. Gray, with the talents rather of a critic than a poet —with learning, fastidiousness, and scrupulous delicacy of taste, instead of fire, tenderness, or invention—began and ended a small school which we could scarcely have wished to become permanent, admirable in many respects as some of its productions are,—being far too elaborate and artificial either for grace or for fluency, and fitter to excite the admiration of scholars than the delight of ordinary men. However, they had the merit of not being in any degree French, and of restoring to our poetry the dignity of seriousness and the tone at least of force and energy. The Whartons, both as critics and as poets, were of considerable service in discrediting the high pretensions of the former race, and in bringing back to public notice the great stores and treasures of poetry which lay hid in the records of our ancient literature. Akenside attempted a sort of classical and philosophical rapture which no elegance of language could easily have rendered popular, but which had merits of no vulgar order for those who could study it. Goldsmith wrote with perfect elegance and beauty, in a style of mellow tenderness and elaborate simplicity. He had the harmony of Pope without his quaintness, and his selectness of diction without his coldness and eternal vivacity. And last of all came Cowper, with a style of complete originality, and for the first time made it apparent to readers of all descriptions
that Pope and Addison were no longer to be the models of English poetry.
In philosophy and prose writing in general the case was nearly parallel. The name of Hume is by far the most considerable which occurs in the period to which we have alluded. But though his thinking was English, his style is entirely French; and being naturally of a cold fancy, there is nothing of that eloquence or richness about him which characterizes the writings of Taylor, and Hooker, and Bacon: and continues, with less weight of matter, to please in those of Cowley and Clarendon. Warburton had great powers, and wrote with more force and freedom than the wits to whom he succeeded; but his faculties were perverted by a paltry love of paradox, and rendered useless to mankind by an unlucky choice of subjects, and the arrogance and dogmatism of his temper. Adam Smith was nearly the first who made deeper reasonings and more exact knowledge popular among us; and Junius and Johnson the first who again familiarized us with more glowing and sonorous diction, and made us feel the tameness and poorness of the serious style of Addison and Swift.
This brings us down almost to the present times, in which the revolution in our literature has been accelerated and confirmed by the concurrence of many causes. The agitations of the French revolution, and the discussions as well as the hopes and terrors to which it gave occasion—the genius of Edmund Burke and some others of his country; the impression of the new literature of Germany, evidently the original of our Lake-school of poetry, and of many innovations in our drama; the rise or revival of a general spirit of Methodism in the lower orders; and the vast extent of our political and commercial relations, which have not only familiarized all ranks of people with distant countries and great undertakings, but have brought knowledge and enterprise home, not merely to the imagination, but to the actual experience of almost every individual,—all these, and several other circumstances, have so far improved or excited the character of our nation as to have created an effectual demand for more profound speculation and more serious emotion than was dealt in by the writers of the former century, and which, if it has not yet produced a corresponding supply in all branches, has at least had the effect of decrying the commodities that were previously in vogue as unsuited to the altered condition of the times.