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Title: English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century
Author: Stephen, Leslie, Sir, 1832-1904
Language: English
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ENGLISH LITERATURE AND SOCIETY
IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

FORD LECTURES, 1903

_By_ LESLIE STEPHEN

[Illustration]

LONDON

_DUCKWORTH and CO._

3 HENRIETTA STREET, W.C.

1904



TO HERBERT FISHER

NEW COLLEGE, OXFORD


My Dear Herbert,--I had prepared these Lectures for delivery, when a
serious breakdown of health made it utterly impossible for me to appear
in person. The University was then good enough to allow me to employ a
deputy; and you kindly undertook to read the Lectures for me. I have
every reason to believe that they lost nothing by the change.

I need only explain that, although they had to be read in six sections,
and are here divided into five chapters, no other change worth noticing
has been made. Other changes probably ought to have been made, but my
health has been unequal to the task of serious correction. The
publication has been delayed from the same cause.

Meanwhile, I wish to express my gratitude for your services. I doubt,
too, whether I should have ventured to republish them, had it not been
for your assertion that they have some interest. I would adopt the good
old form of dedicating them to you, were it not that I can find no
precedent for a dedication by an uncle to a nephew--uncles having, I
fancy, certain opinions as to the light in which they are generally
regarded by nephews. I will not say what that is, nor mention another
reason which has its weight. I will only say that, though this is not a
dedication, it is meant to express a very warm sense of gratitude due to
you upon many grounds.
--Your affectionate
                                           LESLIE STEPHEN.

_November 1903_.



PUBLISHERS' NOTE


Owing to the ill-health of Sir Leslie Stephen the proofs have been
passed for press by Mr. H. Fisher, Fellow of New College, who read the
Lectures at Oxford on behalf of the Author.



ENGLISH LITERATURE AND SOCIETY IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY



I


When I was honoured by the invitation to deliver this course of
lectures, I did not accept without some hesitation. I am not qualified
to speak with authority upon such subjects as have been treated by my
predecessors--the course of political events or the growth of legal
institutions. My attention has been chiefly paid to the history of
literature, and it might be doubtful whether that study is properly
included in the phrase 'historical.' Yet literature expresses men's
thoughts and passions, which have, after all, a considerable influence
upon their lives. The writer of a people's songs, as we are told, may
even have a more powerful influence than the maker of their laws. He
certainly reveals more directly the true springs of popular action. The
truth has been admitted by many historians who are too much overwhelmed
by state papers to find space for any extended application of the
method. No one, I think, has shown more clearly how much light could be
derived from this source than your Oxford historian J. R. Green, in some
brilliant passages of his fascinating book. Moreover, if I may venture
to speak of myself, my own interest in literature has always been
closely connected with its philosophical and social significance.
Literature may of course be studied simply for its own intrinsic merits.
But it may also be regarded as one manifestation of what is called 'the
spirit of the age.' I have, too, been much impressed by a further
conclusion. No one doubts that the speculative movement affects the
social and political--I think that less attention has been given to the
reciprocal influence. The philosophy of a period is often treated as
though it were the product of impartial and abstract
investigation--something worked out by the great thinker in his study
and developed by simple logical deductions from the positions
established by his predecessors. To my mind, though I cannot now dwell
upon the point, the philosophy of an age is in itself determined to a
very great extent by the social position. It gives the solutions of the
problems forced upon the reasoner by the practical conditions of his
time. To understand why certain ideas become current, we have to
consider not merely the ostensible logic but all the motives which led
men to investigate the most pressing difficulties suggested by the
social development. Obvious principles are always ready, like germs, to
come to life when the congenial soil is provided. And what is true of
the philosophy is equally, and perhaps more conspicuously, true of the
artistic and literary embodiment of the dominant ideas which are
correlated with the social movement.

A recognition of the general principle is implied in the change which
has come over the methods of criticism. It has more and more adopted the
historical attitude. Critics in an earlier day conceived their function
to be judicial. They were administering a fixed code of laws applicable
in all times and places. The true canons for dramatic or epic poetry,
they held, had been laid down once for all by Aristotle or his
commentators; and the duty of the critic was to consider whether the
author had infringed or conformed to the established rules, and to pass
sentence accordingly. I will not say that the modern critic has
abandoned altogether that conception of his duty. He seems to me not
infrequently to place himself on the judgment-seat with a touch of his
old confidence, and to sentence poor authors with sufficient airs of
infallibility. Sometimes, indeed, the reflection that he is representing
not an invariable tradition but the last new æsthetic doctrine, seems
even to give additional keenness to his opinions and to suggest no
doubts of his infallibility. And yet there is a change in his position.
He admits, or at any rate is logically bound to admit, the code which he
administers requires modification in different times and places. The old
critic spoke like the organ of an infallible Church, regarding all forms
of art except his own as simply heretical. The modern critic speaks like
the liberal theologian, who sees in heretical and heathen creeds an
approximation to the truth, and admits that they may have a relative
value, and even be the best fitted for the existing conditions. There
are, undoubtedly, some principles of universal application; and the old
critics often expounded them with admirable common-sense and force. But
like general tenets of morality, they are apt to be commonplaces, whose
specific application requires knowledge of concrete facts. When the
critics assumed that the forms familiar to themselves were the only
possible embodiments of those principles, and condemned all others as
barbarous, they were led to pass judgments, such, for example, as
Voltaire's view of Dante and Shakespeare, which strike us as strangely
crude and unappreciative. The change in this, as in other departments of
thought, means again that criticism, as Professor Courthope has said,
must become thoroughly inductive. We must start from experience. We must
begin by asking impartially what pleased men, and then inquire why it
pleased them. We must not decide dogmatically that it ought to have
pleased or displeased on the simple ground that it is or is not
congenial to ourselves. As historical methods extend, the same change
takes place in regard to political or economical or religious, as well
as in regard to literary investigations. We can then become catholic
enough to appreciate varying forms; and recognise that each has its own
rules, right under certain conditions and appropriate within the given
sphere. The great empire of literature, we may say, has many provinces.
There is a 'law of nature' deducible from universal principles of reason
which is applicable throughout, and enforces what may be called the
cardinal virtues common to all forms of human expression. But
subordinate to this, there is also a municipal law, varying in every
province and determining the particular systems which are applicable to
the different state of things existing in each region.

This method, again, when carried out, implies the necessary connection
between the social and literary departments of history. The adequate
criticism must be rooted in history. In some sense I am ready to admit
that all criticism is a nuisance and a parasitic growth upon literature.
The most fruitful reading is that in which we are submitting to a
teacher and asking no questions as to the secret of his influence.
Bunyan had no knowledge of the 'higher criticism'; he read into the
Bible a great many dogmas which were not there, and accepted rather
questionable historical data. But perhaps he felt some essential
characteristics of the book more thoroughly than far more cultivated
people. No critic can instil into a reader that spontaneous sympathy
with the thoughts and emotions incarnated in the great masterpieces
without which all reading is cold and valueless. In spite of all
differences of dialect and costume, the great men can place themselves
in spiritual contact with men of most distant races and periods. Art, we
are told, is immortal. In other words, is unprogressive. The great
imaginative creations have not been superseded. We go to the last new
authorities for our science and our history, but the essential thoughts
and emotions of human beings were incarnated long ago with unsurpassable
clearness. When FitzGerald published his _Omar Khayyam_, readers were
surprised to find that an ancient Persian had given utterance to
thoughts which we considered to be characteristic of our own day. They
had no call to be surprised. The writer of the Book of Job had long
before given the most forcible expression to thought which still moves
our deepest feelings; and Greek poets had created unsurpassable
utterance for moods common to all men in all ages.


     'Still green with bays each ancient altar stands
     Above the reach of sacrilegious hands,'


as Pope puts it; and when one remembers how through all the centuries
the masters of thought and expression have appealed to men who knew
nothing of criticism, higher or lower, one is tempted to doubt whether
the critic be not an altogether superfluous phenomenon.

The critic, however, has become a necessity; and has, I fancy, his
justification in his own sphere. Every great writer may be regarded in
various aspects. He is, of course, an individual, and the critic may
endeavour to give a psychological analysis of him; and to describe his
intellectual and moral constitution and detect the secrets of his
permanent influence without reference to the particular time and place
of his appearance. That is an interesting problem when the materials are
accessible. But every man is also an organ of the society in which he
has been brought up. The material upon which he works is the whole
complex of conceptions, religious, imaginative and ethical, which forms
his mental atmosphere. That suggests problems for the historian of
philosophy. He is also dependent upon what in modern phrase we call his
'environment'--the social structure of which he forms a part, and which
gives a special direction to his passions and aspirations. That suggests
problems for the historian of political and social institutions. Fully
to appreciate any great writer, therefore, it is necessary to
distinguish between the characteristics due to the individual with
certain idiosyncrasies and the characteristics due to his special
modification by the existing stage of social and intellectual
development. In the earliest period the discrimination is impossible.
Nobody, I suppose, not even if he be Provost of Oriel, can tell us much
of the personal characteristics of the author--if there was an
author--of the _Iliad_. He must remain for us a typical Greek of the
heroic age; though even so, the attempt to realise the corresponding
state of society may be of high value to an appreciation of the poetry.
In later times we suffer from the opposite difficulty. Our descendants
will be able to see the general characteristics of the Victorian age
better than we, who unconsciously accept our own peculiarities, like the
air we breathe, as mere matters of course. Meanwhile a Tennyson and a
Browning strike us less as the organs of a society than by the
idiosyncrasies which belong to them as individuals. But in the normal
case, the relation of the two studies is obvious. Dante, for example, is
profoundly interesting to the psychologist, considered simply as a human
being. We are then interested by the astonishing imaginative intensity
and intellectual power and the vivid personality of the man who still
lives for us as he lived in the Italy of six centuries ago. But as all
competent critics tell us, the _Divina Commedia_ also reveals in the
completest way the essential spirit of the Middle Ages. The two studies
reciprocally enlighten each other. We know Dante and understand his
position the more thoroughly as we know better the history of the
political and ecclesiastical struggles in which he took part, and the
philosophical doctrines which he accepted and interpreted; and
conversely, we understand the period the better when we see how its
beliefs and passions affected a man of abnormal genius and marked
idiosyncrasy of character. The historical revelation is the more
complete, precisely because Dante was not a commonplace or average
person but a man of unique force, mental and moral. The remark may
suggest what is the special value of the literary criticism or its
bearing upon history. We may learn from many sources what was the
current mythology of the day; and how ordinary people believed in devils
and in a material hell lying just beneath our feet. The vision probably
strikes us as repulsive and simply preposterous. If we proceed to ask
what it meant and why it had so powerful a hold upon the men of the
day, we may perhaps be innocent enough to apply to the accepted
philosophers, especially to Aquinas, whose thoughts had been so
thoroughly assimilated by the poet. No doubt that may suggest very
interesting inquiries for the metaphysician; but we should find not only
that the philosophy is very tough and very obsolete, and therefore very
wearisome for any but the strongest intellectual appetites, but also
that it does not really answer our question. The philosopher does not
give us the reasons which determine men to believe, but the official
justification of their beliefs which has been elaborated by the most
acute and laborious dialecticians. The inquiry shows how a philosophical
system can be hooked on to an imaginative conception of the universe;
but it does not give the cause of the belief, only the way in which it
can be more or less favourably combined with abstract logical
principles. The great poet unconsciously reveals something more than the
metaphysician. His poetry does not decay with the philosophy which it
took for granted. We do not ask whether his reasoning be sound or false,
but whether the vision be sublime or repulsive. It may be a little of
both; but at any rate it is undeniably fascinating. That, I take it, is
because the imagery which he creates may still be a symbol of thoughts
and emotions which are as interesting now as they were six hundred years
ago. This man of first-rate power shows us, therefore, what was the real
charm of the accepted beliefs for him, and less consciously for others.
He had no doubt that their truth could be proved by syllogising: but
they really laid so powerful a grasp upon him because they could be made
to express the hopes and fears, the loves and hatreds, the moral and
political convictions which were dearest to him. When we see how the
system could be turned to account by the most powerful imagination, we
can understand better what it really meant for the commonplace and
ignorant monks who accepted it as a mere matter of course. We begin to
see what were the great forces really at work below the surface; and the
issues which were being blindly worked out by the dumb agents who were
quite unable to recognise their nature. If, in short, we wish to
discover the secret of the great ecclesiastical and political struggles
of the day, we should turn, not to the men in whose minds beliefs lie
inert and instinctive, nor to the ostensible dialectics of the
ostensible apologists and assailants, but to the great poet who shows
how they were associated with the strongest passions and the most
vehement convictions.

We may hold that the historian should confine himself to giving a record
of the objective facts, which can be fully given in dates, statistics,
and phenomena seen from outside. But if we allow ourselves to
contemplate a philosophical history, which shall deal with the causes of
events and aim at exhibiting the evolution of human society--and perhaps
I ought to apologise for even suggesting that such an ideal could ever
be realised--we should also see that the history of literature would be
a subordinate element of the whole structure. The political, social,
ecclesiastical, and economical factors, and their complex actions and
reactions, would all have to be taken into account, the literary
historian would be concerned with the ideas which find utterance through
the poet and philosopher, and with the constitution of the class which
at any time forms the literary organ of the society. The critic who
deals with the individual work would find such knowledge necessary to a
full appreciation of his subject; and, conversely, the appreciation
would in some degree help the labourer in other departments of history
to understand the nature of the forces which are governing the social
development. However far we may be from such a consummation, and
reluctant to indulge in the magniloquent language which it suggests, I
imagine that a literary history is so far satisfactory as it takes the
facts into consideration and regards literature, in the perhaps too
pretentious phrase, as a particular function of the whole social
organism. But I gladly descend from such lofty speculations to come to a
few relevant details; and especially, to notice some of the obvious
limitations which have in any case to be accepted.

And in the first place, when we try to be philosophical, we have a
difficulty which besets us in political history. How much influence is
to be attributed to the individual? Carlyle used to tell us in my youth
that everything was due to the hero; that the whole course of human
history depended upon your Cromwell or Frederick. Our scientific
teachers are inclined to reply that no single person had much
importance, and that an ideal history could omit all names of
individuals. If, for example, Napoleon had been killed at the siege of
Toulon, the only difference would have been that the dictator would have
been called say Moreau. Possibly, but I cannot see that we can argue in
the same way in literature. I see no reason to suppose that if
Shakespeare had died prematurely, anybody else would have written
_Hamlet_. There was, it is true, a butcher's boy at Stratford, who was
thought by his townsmen to have been as clever a fellow as Shakespeare.
We shall never know what we have lost by his premature death, and we
certainly cannot argue that if Shakespeare had died, the butcher would
have lived. It makes one tremble, says an ingenious critic, to reflect
that Shakespeare and Cervantes were both liable to the measles at the
same time. As we know they escaped, we need not make ourselves unhappy
about the might-have-been; but the remark suggests how much the literary
glory of any period depends upon one or two great names. Omit Cervantes
and Shakespeare and Molière from Spanish, English, and French
literature, and what a collapse of glory would follow! Had Shakespeare
died, it is conceivable perhaps that some of the hyperboles which have
been lavished upon him would have been bestowed on Marlowe and Ben
Jonson. But, on the whole, I fancy that the minor lights of the
Elizabethan drama have owed more to their contemporary than he owed to
them; and that, if this central sun had been extinguished, the whole
galaxy would have remained in comparative obscurity. Now, as we are
utterly unable to say what are the conditions which produce a genius, or
to point to any automatic machinery which could replace him in case of
accident, we must agree that this is an element in the problem which is
altogether beyond scientific investigation. The literary historian must
be content with a humble position. Still, the Elizabethan stage would
have existed had Shakespeare never written; and, moreover, its main
outline would have been the same. If any man ever imitated and gave full
utterance to the characteristic ideas of his contemporaries it was
certainly Shakespeare; and nobody ever accepted more thoroughly the form
of art which they worked out. So far, therefore, as the general
conditions of the time led to the elaboration of this particular genus,
we may study them independently and assign certain general causes. What
Shakespeare did was to show more fully the way in which that form could
be turned to account; and, without him, it would have been a far less
interesting phenomenon. Even the greatest man has to live in his own
century. The deepest thinker is not really--though we often use the
phrase--in advance of his day so much as in the line along which advance
takes place. The greatest poet does not write for a future generation in
the sense of not writing for his own; it is only that in giving the
fullest utterance to its thoughts and showing the deepest insight into
their significance, he is therefore the most perfect type of its general
mental attitude, and his work is an embodiment of the thoughts which are
common to men of all generations.

When the critic began to perceive that many forms of art might be
equally legitimate under different conditions, his first proceeding was
to classify them in different schools. English poets, for example, were
arranged by Pope and Gray as followers of Chaucer, Spenser, Donne,
Dryden, and so forth; and, in later days, we have such literary genera
as are indicated by the names classic and romantic or realist and
idealist, covering characteristic tendencies of the various historical
groups. The fact that literary productions fall into schools is of
course obvious, and suggests the problem as to the cause of their rise
and decline. Bagehot treats the question in his _Physics and Politics_.
Why, he asks, did there arise a special literary school in the reign of
Queen Anne--'a marked variety of human expression, producing what was
then written and peculiar to it'? Some eminent writer, he replies, gets
a start by a style congenial to the minds around him. Steele, a rough,
vigorous, forward man, struck out the periodical essay; Addison, a wise,
meditative man, improved and carried it to perfection. An unconscious
mimicry is always producing countless echoes of an original writer.
That, I take it, is undeniably true. Nobody can doubt that all authors
are in some degree echoes, and that a vast majority are never anything
else. But it does not answer why a particular form should be fruitful of
echoes or, in Bagehot's words, be 'more congenial to the minds around.'
Why did the _Spectator_ suit one generation and the _Rambler_ its
successors? Are we incapable of giving any answer? Are changes in
literary fashions enveloped in the same inscrutable mystery as changes
in ladies' dresses? It is, and no doubt always will be, impossible to
say why at one period garments should spread over a hoop and at another
cling to the limbs. Is it equally impossible to say why the fashion of
Pope should have been succeeded by the fashion of Wordsworth and
Coleridge? If we were prepared to admit the doctrine of which I have
spoken--the supreme importance of the individual--that would of course
be all that could be said. Shakespeare's successors are explained as
imitators of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is explained by his 'genius'
or, in other words, is inexplicable. If, on the other hand,
Shakespeare's originality, whatever it may have been, was shown by his
power of interpreting the thoughts of his own age, then we can learn
something from studying the social and intellectual position of his
contemporaries. Though the individual remains inexplicable, the general
characteristics of the school to which he belongs may be tolerably
intelligible; and some explanation is in fact suggested by such
epithets, for example, as romantic and classical. For, whatever
precisely they mean,--and I confess to my mind the question of what they
mean is often a very difficult one,--they imply some general tendency
which cannot be attributed to individual influence. When we endeavour to
approach this problem of the rise and fall of literary schools, we see
that it is a case of a phenomenon which is very often noticed and which
we are more ready to explain in proportion to the share of youthful
audacity which we are fortunate enough to possess.

In every form of artistic production, in painting and architecture, for
example, schools arise; each of which seems to embody some kind of
principle, and develops and afterwards decays, according to some
mysterious law. It may resemble the animal species which is, somehow or
other, developed and then stamped out in the struggle of existence by
the growth of a form more appropriate to the new order. The epic poem,
shall we say? is like the 'monstrous efts,' as Tennyson unkindly calls
them, which were no doubt very estimable creatures in their day, but
have somehow been unable to adapt themselves to recent geological
epochs. Why men could build cathedrals in the Middle Ages, and why their
power was lost instead of steadily developing like the art of
engineering, is a problem which has occupied many writers, and of which
I shall not attempt to offer a solution. That is the difference between
artistic and scientific progress. A truth once discovered remains true
and may form the nucleus of an independently interesting body of truths.
But a special form of art flourishes only during a limited period, and
when it decays and is succeeded by others, we cannot say that there is
necessarily progress, only that for some reason or other the environment
has become uncongenial. It is, of course, tempting to infer from the
decay of an art that there must be a corresponding decay in the vitality
and morality of the race. Ruskin, for example, always assumed in his
most brilliant and incisive, but not very conclusive, arguments that men
ceased to paint good pictures simply because they ceased to be good men.
He did not proceed to prove that the moral decline really took place,
and still less to show why it took place. But, without attacking these
large problems, I shall be content to say that I do not see that any
such sweeping conclusions can be made as to the kind of changes in
literary forms with which we shall be concerned. That there is a close
relation between the literature and the general social condition of a
nation is my own contention. But the relation is hardly of this simple
kind. Nations, it seems to me, have got on remarkably well, and made not
only material but political and moral progress in the periods when they
have written few books, and those bad ones; and, conversely, have
produced some admirable literature while they were developing some very
ugly tendencies. To say the truth, literature seems to me to be a kind
of by-product. It occupies far too small a part in the whole activity of
a nation, even of its intellectual activity, to serve as a complete
indication of the many forces which are at work, or as an adequate moral
barometer of the general moral state. The attempt to establish such a
condition too closely, seems to me to lead to a good many very edifying
but not the less fallacious conclusions.

The succession of literary species implies that some are always passing
into the stage of 'survivals': and the most obvious course is to
endeavour to associate them with the general philosophical movement.
That suggests one obvious explanation of many literary developments. The
great thriving times of literature have occurred when new intellectual
horizons seemed to be suddenly opening upon the human intelligence; as
when Bacon was taking his Pisgah sight of the promised land of science,
and Shakespeare and Spenser were making new conquests in the world of
the poetic imagination. A great intellectual shock was stimulating the
parallel, though independent, outbursts of activity. The remark may
suggest one reason for the decline as well as for the rise of the new
genus. If, on the one hand, the man of genius is especially sensitive to
the new ideas which are stirring the world, it is also necessary that he
should be in sympathy with his hearers--that he should talk the language
which they understand, and adopt the traditions, conventions, and
symbols with which they are already more or less familiar. A generally
accepted tradition is as essential as the impulse which comes from the
influx of new ideas. But the happy balance which enables the new wine to
be put into the old bottles is precarious and transitory. The new ideas
as they develop may become paralysing to the imagery which they began by
utilising. The legends of chivalry which Spenser turned to account
became ridiculous in the next generation, and the mythology of Milton's
great poem was incredible or revolting to his successors. The machinery,
in the old phrase, of a poet becomes obsolete, though when he used it,
it had vitality enough to be a vehicle for his ideas. The imitative
tendency described by Bagehot clearly tends to preserve the old, as much
as to facilitate the adoption of a new form. In fact, to create a really
original and new form seems to exceed the power of any individual, and
the greatest men must desire to speak to their own contemporaries. It is
only by degrees that the inadequacy of the traditional form makes itself
felt, and its successor has to be worked out by a series of tentative
experiments. When a new style has established itself its representatives
hold that the orthodoxy of the previous period was a gross superstition:
and those who were condemned as heretics were really prophets of the
true faith, not yet revealed. However that may be, I am content at
present to say that in fact the development of new literary types is
discontinuous, and implies a compromise between the two conditions which
in literature correspond to conservatism and radicalism. The
conservative work is apt to become a mere survival: while the radical
may include much that has the crudity of an imperfect application of new
principles. Another point may be briefly indicated. The growth of new
forms is obviously connected not only with the intellectual development
but with the social and political state of the nation, and there comes
into close connection with other departments of history. Authors, so far
as I have noticed, generally write with a view to being read. Moreover,
the reading class is at most times a very small part of the population.
A philosopher, I take it, might think himself unusually popular if his
name were known to a hundredth part of the population. But even poets
and novelists might sometimes be surprised if they could realise the
small impression they make upon the mass of the population. There is,
you know, a story of how Thackeray, when at the height of his reputation
he stood for Oxford, found that his name was unknown even to highly
respectable constituents. The author of _Vanity Fair_ they observed, was
named John Bunyan. At the present day the number of readers has, I
presume, enormously increased; but authors who can reach the lower
strata of the great lower pyramid, which widens so rapidly at its base,
are few indeed. The characteristics of a literature correspond to the
national characteristics, as embodied in the characteristics of a very
small minority of the nation. Two centuries ago the reading part of the
nation was mainly confined to London and to certain classes of society.
The most important changes which have taken place have been closely
connected with the social changes which have entirely altered the limits
of the reading class; and with the changes of belief which have been
cause and effect of the most conspicuous political changes. That is too
obvious to require any further exposition. Briefly, in talking of
literary changes, considered as implied in the whole social development,
I shall have, first, to take note of the main intellectual
characteristics of the period; and secondly, what changes took place in
the audience to which men of letters addressed themselves, and how the
gradual extension of the reading class affected the development of the
literature addressed to them.

I hope and believe that I have said nothing original. I have certainly
only been attempting to express the views which are accepted, in their
general outline at least, by historians, whether of the political or
literary kind. They have often been applied very forcibly to the various
literary developments, and, by way of preface to my own special topic, I
will venture to recall one chapter of literary history which may serve
to illustrate what I have already said, and which has a bearing upon
what I shall have to say hereafter.

One of the topics upon which the newer methods of criticism first
displayed their power was the school of the Elizabethan dramatists. Many
of the earlier critics wrote like lovers or enthusiasts who exalted the
merits of some of the old playwrights beyond our sober judgments, and
were inclined to ignore the merits of other forms of the art. But we
have come to recognise that the Elizabethans had their faults, and that
the best apology for their weaknesses as well as the best explanation of
their merits was to be found in a clearer appreciation of the whole
conditions. It is impossible of course to overlook the connection
between that great outburst of literary activity and the general
movement of the time; of the period when many impulses were breaking up
the old intellectual stagnation, and when the national spirit which took
the great Queen for its representative was finding leaders in the
Burleighs and Raleighs and Drakes. The connection is emphasised by the
singular brevity of the literary efflorescence. Marlowe's _Tamburlaine_
heralded its approach on the eve of the Spanish Armada: Shakespeare, to
whom the lead speedily fell, had shown his highest power in _Henry IV._
and _Hamlet_ before the accession of James I.: his great tragedies
_Othello_, _Macbeth_ and _Lear_ were produced in the next two or three
years; and by that time, Ben Jonson had done his best work. When
Shakespeare retired in 1611, Chapman and Webster, two of the most
brilliant of his rivals, had also done their best; and Fletcher
inherited the dramatic throne. On his death in 1625, Massinger and Ford
and other minor luminaries were still at work; but the great period had
passed. It had begun with the repulse of the Armada and culminated some
fifteen years later. If in some minor respects there may afterwards have
been an advance, the spontaneous vigour had declined and deliberate
attempts to be striking had taken the place of the old audacity. There
can be no more remarkable instance of a curious phenomenon, of a
volcanic outburst of literary energy which begins and reaches its
highest intensity while a man is passing from youth to middle age, and
then begins to decay and exhaust itself within a generation.

A popular view used to throw the responsibility upon the wicked Puritans
who used their power to close the theatres. We entered the
'prison-house' of Puritanism says Matthew Arnold, I think, and stayed
there for a couple of centuries. If so, the gaolers must have had some
difficulty, for the Puritan (in the narrower sense, of course) has
always been in a small and unpopular minority. But it is also plain
that the decay had begun when the Puritan was the victim instead of the
inflictor of persecution. When we note the synchronism between the
political and the literary movement our conception of the true nature of
the change has to be modified. The accession of James marks the time at
which the struggle between the court and the popular party was beginning
to develop itself: when the monarchy and its adherents cease to
represent the strongest current of national feeling, and the bulk of the
most vigorous and progressive classes have become alienated and are
developing the conditions and passions which produced the civil war. The
genuine Puritans are still an exception; they only form the left wing,
the most thorough-going opponents of the court-policy; and their triumph
afterwards is only due to the causes which in a revolution give the
advantage to the uncompromising partisans, though their special creed is
always regarded with aversion by a majority. But for the time, they are
the van of the party which, for whatever reason, is gathering strength
and embodying the main political and ecclesiastical impulses of the
time. The stage, again, had been from the first essentially
aristocratic: it depended upon the court and the nobility and their
adherents, and was hostile both to the Puritans and to the whole class
in which the Puritan found a congenial element. So long, as in
Elizabeth's time, as the class which supported the stage also
represented the strongest aspirations of the period, and a marked
national sentiment, the drama could embody a marked national sentiment.
When the unity was broken up and the court is opposed to the strongest
current of political sentiment, the players still adhere to their
patron. The drama comes to represent a tone of thought, a social
stratum, which, instead of leading, is getting more and more opposed to
the great bulk of the most vigorous elements of the society. The stage
is ceasing to be a truly national organ, and begins to suit itself to
the tastes of the unprincipled and servile courtiers, who, if they are
not more immoral than their predecessors, are without the old heroic
touch which ennobled even the audacious and unscrupulous adventurers of
the Armada period. That is to say, the change is beginning which became
palpable in the Restoration time, when the stage became simply the
melancholy dependent upon the court of Charles II., and faithfully
reflected the peculiar morality of the small circle over which it
presided. Without taking into account this process by which the organ of
the nation gradually became transformed into the organ of the class
which was entirely alienated from the general body of the nation, it is,
I think, impossible to understand clearly the transformation of the
drama. It illustrates the necessity of accounting for the literary
movement, not only by intellectual and general causes, but by noting how
special social developments radically alter the relation of any
particular literary genus to the general national movement. I shall soon
have to refer to the case again.

I have now only to say briefly what I propose to attempt in these
lectures. The literary history, as I conceive it, is an account of one
strand, so to speak, in a very complex tissue: it is connected with the
intellectual and social development; it represents movements of thought
which may sometimes check and be sometimes propitious to the existing
forms of art; it is the utterance of a class which may represent, or
fail to represent, the main national movement; it is affected more or
less directly by all manner of religious, political, social, and
economical changes; and it is dependent upon the occurrence of
individual genius for which we cannot even profess to account. I propose
to take the history of English literature in the eighteenth century. I
do not aim at originality: I take for granted the ordinary critical
judgments upon the great writers of whom so much has been said by judges
certainly more competent than myself, and shall recall the same facts
both of ordinary history and of the history of thought. What I hope is,
that by bringing familiar facts together I may be able to bring out the
nature of the connection between them; and, little as I can say that
will be at all new, to illustrate one point of view, which, as I
believe, it is desirable that literary histories should take into
account more distinctly than they have generally done.



II


The first period of which I am to speak represents to the political
historian the Avatar of Whiggism. The glorious revolution has decided
the long struggle of the previous century; the main outlines of the
British Constitution are irrevocably determined; the political system is
in harmony with the great political forces, and the nation has settled,
as Carlyle is fond of saying, with the centre of gravity lowest, and
therefore in a position of stable equilibrium. For another century no
organic change was attempted or desired. Parliament has become
definitely the great driving-wheel of the political machinery; not, as a
century before, an intrusive body acting spasmodically and hampering
instead of regulating the executive power of the Crown. The last Stuart
kings had still fancied that it might be reduced to impotence, and the
illusion had been fostered by the loyalty which meant at least a fair
unequivocal desire to hold to the old monarchical traditions. But, in
fact, parliamentary control had been silently developing; the House of
Commons had been getting the power of the purse more distinctly into its
hands, and had taken very good care not to trust the Crown with the
power of the sword. Charles II. had been forced to depend on the help of
the great French monarchy to maintain his authority at home; and when
his successor turned out to be an anachronism, and found that the
loyalty of the nation would not bear the strain of a policy hostile to
the strongest national impulses, he was thrown off as an intolerable
incubus. The system which had been growing up beneath the surface was
now definitely put into shape and its fundamental principles embodied in
legislation. The one thing still needed was to work out the system of
party government, which meant that parliament should become an organised
body with a corporate body, which the ministers of the Crown had first
to consult and then to obey. The essential parts of the system had, in
fact, been established by the end of Queen Anne's reign; though the
change which had taken place in the system was not fully recognised
because marked by the retention of the old forms. This, broadly
speaking, meant the supremacy of the class which really controlled
Parliament: of the aristocratic class, led by the peers but including
the body of squires and landed gentlemen, and including also a growing
infusion of 'moneyed' men, who represented the rising commercial and
manufacturing interests. The division between Whig and Tory corresponded
mainly to the division between the men who inclined mainly to the Church
and squirearchy and those who inclined towards the mercantile and the
dissenting interests. If the Tory professed zeal for the monarchy, he
did not mean a monarchy as opposed to Parliament and therefore to his
own dearest privileges. Even the Jacobite movement was in great part
personal, or meant dislike to Hanover with no preference for arbitrary
power, while the actual monarchy was so far controlled by Parliament
that the Whig had no desire to limit it further. It was a useful
instrument, not an encumbrance.

We have to ask how these conditions affect the literary position. One
point is clear. The relation between the political and the literary
class was at this time closer than it had ever been. The alliance
between them marks, in fact, a most conspicuous characteristic of the
time. It was the one period, as authors repeat with a fond regret, in
which literary merit was recognised by the distributors of state
patronage. This gratifying phenomenon has, I think, been often a little
misinterpreted, and I must consider briefly what it really meant. And
first let us note how exclusively the literary society of the time was
confined to London. The great town--it would be even now a great
town--had half a million inhabitants. Macaulay, in his admirably graphic
description of the England of the preceding period, points out what a
chasm divided it from country districts; what miserable roads had to be
traversed by the nobleman's chariot and four, or by the ponderous
waggons or strings of pack-horses which supplied the wants of trade and
of the humbler traveller; and how the squire only emerged at intervals
to be jeered and jostled as an uncouth rustic in the streets of London.
He was not a great buyer of books. There were, of course, libraries at
Oxford and Cambridge, and here and there in the house of a rich prelate
or of one of the great noblemen who were beginning to form some of the
famous collections; but the squire was more than usually cultivated if
Baker's _Chronicle_ and Gwillim's _Heraldry_ lay on the window-seat of
his parlour, and one has often to wonder how the learned divines of the
period managed to get the books from which they quote so freely in their
discourses. Anyhow the author of the day must have felt that the
circulation of his books must be mainly confined to London, and
certainly in London alone could he meet with anything that could pass
for literary society or an appreciative audience. We have superabundant
descriptions of the audience and its meeting-places. One of the familiar
features of the day, we know, was the number of coffee-houses. In 1657,
we are told, the first coffee-house had been prosecuted as a nuisance.
In 1708 there were three thousand coffee-houses; and each coffee-house
had its habitual circle. There were coffee-houses frequented by
merchants and stock-jobbers carrying on the game which suggested the new
nickname bulls and bears: and coffee-houses where the talk was Whig and
Tory, of the last election and change of ministry: and literary resorts
such as the Grecian, where, as we are told, a fatal duel was provoked by
a dispute over a Greek accent, in which, let us hope, it was the worst
scholar who was killed; and Wills', where Pope as a boy went to look
reverently at Dryden; and Buttons', where, at a later period, Addison
met his little senate. Addison, according to Pope, spent five or six
hours a day lounging at Buttons'; while Pope found the practice and the
consequent consumption of wine too much for his health. Thackeray
notices how the club and coffee-house 'boozing shortened the lives and
enlarged the waistcoats of the men of those days.' The coffee-house
implied the club, while the club meant simply an association for
periodical gatherings. It was only by degrees that the body made a
permanent lodgment in the house and became first the tenants of the
landlord and then themselves the proprietors. The most famous show the
approximation between the statesmen and the men of letters. There was
the great Kit-cat Club, of which Tonson the bookseller was secretary; to
which belonged noble dukes and all the Whig aristocracy, besides
Congreve, Vanbrugh, Addison, Garth, and Steele. It not only brought
Whigs together but showed its taste by giving a prize for good comedies.
Swift, when he came into favour, helped to form the Brothers' Club,
which was especially intended to direct patronage towards promising
writers of the Tory persuasion. The institution, in modern slang,
differentiated as time went on. The more aristocratic clubs became
exclusive societies, occupying their own houses, more devoted to
gambling than to literature; while the older type, represented by
Jonson's famous club, were composed of literary and professional
classes.

The characteristic fraternisation of the politicians and the authors
facilitated by this system leads to the critical point. When we speak of
the nobility patronising literature, a reserve must be made. A list of
some twenty or thirty names has been made out, including all the chief
authors of the time, who received appointments of various kinds. But I
can only find two, Congreve and Rowe, upon whom offices were bestowed
simply as rewards for literary distinction; and both of them were sound
Whigs, rewarded by their party, though not for party services. The
typical patron of the day was Charles Montagu, Lord Halifax. As member
of a noble family he came into Parliament, where he distinguished
himself by his financial achievements in founding the Bank of England
and reforming the currency, and became a peer and a member of the great
Whig junto. At college he had been a chum of Prior, who joined him in a
literary squib directed against Dryden, and, as he rose, he employed
his friend in diplomacy. But the poetry by which Prior is known to us
was of a later growth, and was clearly not the cause but the consequence
of his preferment. At a later time, Halifax sent Addison abroad with the
intention of employing him in a similar way; and it is plain that
Addison was not--as the familiar but obviously distorted anecdote tells
us--preferred on account of his brilliant Gazette in rhyme, but really
in fulfilment of his patron's virtual pledge. Halifax has also the
credit of bestowing office upon Newton and patronising Congreve. As poet
and patron Halifax was carrying on a tradition. The aristocracy in
Charles's days had been under the impression that poetry, or at least
verse writing, was becoming an accomplishment for a nobleman. Pope's
'mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease,' Rochester and Buckingham, Dorset
and Sedley, and the like, managed some very clever, if not very exalted,
performances and were courted by the men of letters represented by
Butler, Dryden, and Otway. As, indeed, the patrons were themselves
hangers-on of a thoroughly corrupt court, seeking to rise by court
intrigues, their patronage was apt to be degrading and involved the
mean flattery of personal dependence. The change at the Revolution meant
that the court no longer overshadowed society. The court, that is, was
beginning to be superseded by the town. The new race of statesmen were
coming to depend upon parliamentary influence instead of court favour.
They were comparatively, therefore, shining by their own light. They
were able to dispose of public appointments; places on the various
commissions which had been founded as parliament took control of the
financial system--such as commissions for the wine-duties, for licensing
hackney coaches, excise duties, and so forth--besides some of the other
places which had formerly been the perquisites of the courtier. They
could reward personal dependants at the cost of the public; which was
convenient for both parties. Promising university students, like Prior
and Addison, might be brought out under the wing of the statesman, and
no doubt literary merit, especially in conjunction with the right
politics, might recommend them to such men as Halifax or Somers. The
political power of the press was meanwhile rapidly developing. Harley,
Lord Oxford, was one of the first to appreciate its importance. He
employed Defoe and other humble writers who belonged to Grub
Street--that is, to professional journalism in its infancy--as well as
Swift, whose pamphlets struck the heaviest blow at the Whigs in the last
years of that period. Swift's first writings, we may notice, were not a
help but the main hindrance to his preferment. The patronage of
literature was thus in great part political in its character. It
represents the first scheme by which the new class of parliamentary
statesmen recruited their party from the rising talent, or rewarded men
for active or effective service. The speedy decay of the system followed
for obvious reasons. As party government became organised, the patronage
was used in a different spirit. Offices had to be given to gratify
members of parliament and their constituents, not to scholars who could
write odes on victories or epistles to secretaries of state. It was the
machinery for controlling votes. Meanwhile we need only notice that the
patronage of authors did not mean the patronage of learned divines or
historians, but merely the patronage of men who could use their pens in
political warfare, or at most of men who produced the kind of literary
work appreciated in good society.

The 'town' was the environment of the wits who produced the literature
generally called after Queen Anne. We may call it the literary organ of
the society. It was the society of London, or of the region served by
the new penny-post, which included such remote villages as Paddington
and Brompton. The city was large enough, as Addison observes, to include
numerous 'nations,' each of them meeting at the various coffee-houses.
The clubs at which the politicians and authors met each other
represented the critical tribunals, when no such things as literary
journals existed. It was at these that judgment was passed upon the last
new poem or pamphlet, and the writer sought for their good opinion as he
now desires a favourable review. The tribunal included the rewarders as
well as the judges of merit; and there was plenty of temptation to
stimulate their generosity by flattery. Still the relation means a great
improvement on the preceding state of things. The aristocrat was no
doubt conscious of his inherent dignity, but he was ready on occasion to
hail Swift as 'Jonathan' and, in the case of so highly cultivated a
specimen as Addison, to accept an author's marriage to a countess. The
patrons did not exact the personal subservience of the preceding
period; and there was a real recognition by the more powerful class of
literary merit of a certain order. Such a method, however, had obvious
defects. Men of the world have their characteristic weaknesses; and one,
to go no further, is significant. The Club in England corresponded more
or less to the Salon which at different times had had so great an
influence upon French literature. It differed in the marked absence of
feminine elements. The clubs meant essentially a society of bachelors,
and the conversation, one infers, was not especially suited for ladies.
The Englishman, gentle or simple, enjoyed himself over his pipe and his
bottle and dismissed his womenkind to their bed. The one author of the
time who speaks of the influence of women with really chivalrous
appreciation is the generous Steele, with his famous phrase about Lady
Elizabeth Hastings and a liberal education. The Clubs did not foster the
affectation of Molière's _Précieuses_; but the general tone had a
coarseness and occasional brutality which shows too clearly that they
did not enter into the full meaning of Steele's most admirable saying.

To appreciate the spirit of this society we must take into account the
political situation and the intellectual implication. The parliamentary
statesman, no longer dependent upon court favour, had a more independent
spirit and personal self-respect. He was fully aware of the fact that he
represented a distinct step in political progress. His class had won a
great struggle against arbitrary power and bigotry. England had become
the land of free speech, of religious toleration, impartial justice, and
constitutional order. It had shown its power by taking its place among
the leading European states. The great monarchy before which the English
court had trembled, and from which even patriots had taken bribes in the
Restoration period, was met face to face in a long and doubtful struggle
and thoroughly humbled in a war, in which an English General, in command
of an English contingent, had won victories unprecedented in our history
since the Middle Ages. Patriotic pride received a stimulus such as that
which followed the defeat of the Armada and preceded the outburst of the
Elizabethan literature. Those successes, too, had been won in the name
of 'liberty'--a vague if magical word which I shall not seek to define
at present. England, so sound Whigs at least sincerely believed, had
become great because it had adopted and carried out the true Whig
principles. The most intelligent Frenchmen of the coming generation
admitted the claim; they looked upon England as the land both of liberty
and philosophy, and tried to adopt for themselves the creed which had
led to such triumphant results. One great name may tell us sufficiently
what the principles were in the eyes of the cultivated classes, who
regarded themselves and their own opinions with that complacency in
which we are happily never deficient. Locke had laid down the
fundamental outlines of the creed, philosophical, religious, and
political, which was to dominate English thought for the next century.
Locke was one of the most honourable, candid, and amiable of men, if
metaphysicians have sometimes wondered at the success of his teaching.
He had not the logical thoroughness and consistency which marks a
Descartes or Spinoza, nor the singular subtlety which distinguishes
Berkeley and Hume; nor the eloquence and imaginative power which gave to
Bacon an authority greater than was due to his scientific requirements.
He was a thoroughly modest, prosaic, tentative, and sometimes clumsy
writer, who raises great questions without solving them or fully seeing
the consequences of his own position. Leaving any explanation of his
power to metaphysicians, I need only note the most conspicuous
condition. Locke ruled the thought of his own and the coming period
because he interpreted so completely the fundamental beliefs which had
been worked out at his time. He ruled, that is, by obeying. Locke
represents the very essence of the common sense of the intelligent
classes. I do not ask whether his simplicity covered really profound
thought or embodied superficial crudities; but it was most admirably
adapted to the society of which I have been speaking. The excellent
Addison, for example, who was no metaphysician, can adopt Locke when he
wishes to give a philosophical air to his amiable lectures upon arts and
morals. Locke's philosophy, that is, blends spontaneously with the
ordinary language of all educated men. To the historian of philosophy
the period is marked by the final disappearance of scholasticism. The
scholastic philosophy had of course been challenged generations before.
Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes, however, in the preceding century had
still treated it as the great incubus upon intellectual progress, and it
was not yet exorcised from the universities. It had, however, passed
from the sphere of living thought. This implies a series of correlative
changes in the social and intellectual which are equally conspicuous in
the literary order, and which I must note without attempting to inquire
which are the ultimate or most fundamental causes of reciprocally
related developments. The changed position of the Anglican church is
sufficiently significant. In the time of Laud, the bishops in alliance
with the Crown endeavoured to enforce the jurisdiction of the
ecclesiastical courts upon the nation at large, and to suppress all
nonconformity by law. Every subject of the king is also amenable to
church discipline. By the Revolution any attempt to enforce such
discipline had become hopeless. The existence of nonconformist churches
has to be recognised as a fact, though perhaps an unpleasant fact. The
Dissenters can be worried by disqualifications of various kinds; but the
claim to toleration, of Protestant sects at least, is admitted; and the
persecution is political rather than ecclesiastical. They are not
regarded as heretics, but as representing an interest which is opposed
to the dominant class of the landed gentry. The Church as such has lost
the power of discipline and is gradually falling under the power of the
dominant aristocratic class. When Convocation tries to make itself
troublesome, in a few years, it will be silenced and drop into
impotence. Church-feeling indeed, is still strong, but the clergy have
become thoroughly subservient, and during the century will be mere
appendages to the nobility and squirearchy. The intellectual change is
parallel. The great divines of the seventeenth century speak as members
of a learned corporation condescending to instruct the laity. The
hearers are supposed to listen to the voice (as Donne puts it) as from
'angels in the clouds.' They are experts, steeped in a special science,
above the comprehension of the vulgar. They have been trained in the
schools of theology and have been thoroughly drilled in the art of
'syllogising.' They are walking libraries with the ancient fathers at
their finger-ends; they have studied Aquinas and Duns Scotus, and have
shown their technical knowledge in controversies with the great Jesuits,
Suarez and Bellarmine. They speak frankly, if not ostentatiously, as men
of learning, and their sermons are overweighted with quotations, showing
familiarity with the classics, and with the whole range of theological
literature. Obviously the hearers are to be passive recipients not
judges of the doctrine. But by the end of the century Tillotson has
become the typical divine, whose authority was to be as marked in
theology as that of Locke in philosophy. Tillotson has entirely
abandoned any ostentatious show of learning. He addresses his hearers in
language on a level with their capabilities, and assumes that they are
not 'passive buckets to be pumped into' but reasonable men who have a
right to be critics as well as disciples. It is taken for granted that
the appeal must be to reason, and to the reason which has not gone
through any special professional training. The audience, that is, to
which the divine must address himself is one composed of the average
laity who are quite competent to judge for themselves. That is the
change that is meant when we are told that this was the period of the
development of English prose. Dryden, one of its great masters,
professed to have learned his style from Tillotson. The writer, that is,
has to suit himself to the new audience which has grown up. He has to
throw aside all the panoply of scholastic logic, the vast apparatus of
professional learning, and the complex Latinised constructions, which,
however admirable some of the effects produced, shows that the writer is
thinking of well-read scholars, not of the ordinary man of the world.
He has learned from Bacon and Descartes, perhaps, that his supposed
science was useless lumber; and he has to speak to men who not only want
plain language but are quite convinced that the pretensions of the old
authority have been thoroughly exploded.

Politically, the change means toleration, for it is assumed that the
vulgar can judge for themselves; intellectually, it means rationalism,
that is, an appeal to the reason common to all men; and, in literature
it means the hatred of pedantry and the acceptance of such literary
forms as are thoroughly congenial and intelligible to the common sense
of the new audience. The hatred of the pedantic is the characteristic
sentiment of the time. When Berkeley looked forward to a new world in
America, he described it as the Utopia


     'Where men shall not impose for truth and sense
     The pedantry of Courts and Schools.'


When he announced a metaphysical discovery he showed his understanding
of the principle by making his exposition--strange as the proceeding
appears to us--as short and as clear as the most admirable literary
skill could contrive. That eccentric ambition dominates the writings of
the times. In a purely literary direction it is illustrated by the
famous but curiously rambling and equivocal controversy about the
Ancients and Moderns begun in France by Perrault and Boileau. In England
the most familiar outcome was Swift's _Battle of the Books_, in which he
struck out the famous phrase about sweetness and light, 'the two noblest
of things'; which he illustrated by ridiculing Bentley's criticism and
Dryden's poetry. I may take for granted the motives which induced that
generation to accept as their models the great classical masterpieces,
the study of which had played so important a part in the revival of
letters and the new philosophy. I may perhaps note, in passing, that we
do not always remember what classical literature meant to that
generation. In the first place, the education of a gentleman meant
nothing then except a certain drill in Greek and Latin--whereas now it
includes a little dabbling in other branches of knowledge. In the next
place, if a man had an appetite for literature, what else was he to
read? Imagine every novel, poem, and essay written during the last two
centuries to be obliterated and further, the literature of the early
seventeenth century and all that went before to be regarded as pedantic
and obsolete, the field of study would be so limited that a man would be
forced in spite of himself to read his _Homer_ and _Virgil_. The vice of
pedantry was not very accurately defined--sometimes it is the ancient,
sometimes the modern, who appears to be pedantic. Still, as in the
_Battle of the Books_ controversy, the general opinion seems to be that
the critic should have before him the great classical models, and regard
the English literature of the seventeenth century as a collection of all
possible errors of taste. When, at the end of this period, Swift with
Pope formed the project of the Scriblerus Club, its aim was to be a
joint-stock satire against all 'false tastes' in learning, art, and
science. That was the characteristic conception of the most brilliant
men of letters of the time.

Here, then, we have the general indication of the composition of the
literary organ. It is made up of men of the world--'Wits' is their
favourite self-designation, scholars and gentlemen, with rather more of
the gentlemen than the scholars--living in the capital, which forms a
kind of island of illumination amid the surrounding darkness of the
agricultural country--including men of rank and others of sufficient
social standing to receive them on friendly terms--meeting at
coffee-houses and in a kind of tacit confederation of clubs to compare
notes and form the whole public opinion of the day. They are conscious
that in them is concentrated the enlightenment of the period. The class
to which they belong is socially and politically dominant--the advance
guard of national progress. It has finally cast off the incubus of a
retrograde political system; it has placed the nation in a position of
unprecedented importance in Europe; and it is setting an example of
ordered liberty to the whole civilised world. It has forced the Church
and the priesthood to abandon the old claim to spiritual supremacy. It
has, in the intellectual sphere, crushed the old authority which
embodied superstition, antiquated prejudice, and a sham system of
professional knowledge, which was upheld by a close corporation. It
believes in reason--meaning the principles which are evident to the
ordinary common sense of men at its own level. It believes in what it
calls the Religion of Nature--the plain demonstrable truths obvious to
every intelligent person. With Locke for its spokesman, and Newton as a
living proof of its scientific capacity, it holds that England is the
favoured nation marked out as the land of liberty, philosophy, common
sense, toleration, and intellectual excellence. And with certain
reserves, it will be taken at its own valuation by foreigners who are
still in darkness and deplorably given to slavery, to say nothing of
wooden shoes and the consumption of frogs. Let us now consider the
literary result.

I may begin by recalling a famous controversy which seems to illustrate
very significantly some of the characteristic tendencies of the day. The
stage, when really flourishing, might be expected to show most
conspicuously the relations between authors and the society. The
dramatist may be writing for all time; but if he is to fill a theatre,
he must clearly adapt himself to the tastes of the living and the
present. During the first half of the period of which I am now speaking,
Dryden was still the dictator of the literary world; and Dryden had
adopted Congreve as his heir, and abandoned to him the province of the
drama--Congreve, though he ceased to write, was recognised during his
life as the great man of letters to whom Addison, Swift, and Pope agreed
in paying respect, and indisputably the leading writer of English
Comedy. When the comic drama was unsparingly denounced by Collier,
Congreve defended himself and his friends. In the judgment of
contemporaries the pedantic parson won a complete triumph over the most
brilliant of wits. Although Congreve's early abandonment of his career
was not caused by Collier's attack alone, it was probably due in part to
the general sentiment to which Collier gave utterance. I will ask what
is implied as a matter of fact in regard to the social and literary
characteristics of the time. The Shakespearian drama had behind it a
general national impulse. With Fletcher, it began to represent a court
already out of harmony with the strongest currents of national feeling.
Dryden, in a familiar passage, gives the reason of the change from his
own point of view. Two plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, he says in an
often quoted passage, were acted (about 1668) for one of Shakespeare or
Jonson. His explanation is remarkable. It was because the later
dramatists 'understood the conversation of gentlemen much better,' whose
wild 'debaucheries and quickness of wit no poet can ever paint as they
have done.' In a later essay he explains that the greater refinement
was due to the influence of the court. Charles II., familiar with the
most brilliant courts of Europe, had roused us from barbarism and
rebellion, and taught us to 'mix our solidity' with 'the air and gaiety
of our neighbours'! I need not cavil at the phrases 'refinement' and
'gentleman.' If those words can be fairly applied to the courtiers whose
'wild debaucheries' disgusted Evelyn and startled even the respectable
Pepys, they may no doubt be applied to the stage and the dramatic
persons. The rake, or 'wild gallant,' had made his first appearance in
Fletcher, and had shown himself more nakedly after the Restoration. This
is the so-called reaction so often set down to the account of the
unlucky Puritans. The degradation, says Macaulay, was the 'effect of the
prevalence of Puritanism under the Commonwealth.' The attempt to make a
'nation of saints' inevitably produced a nation of scoffers. In what
sense, in the first place, was there a 'reaction' at all? The Puritans
had suppressed the stage when it was already far gone in decay because
it no longer satisfied the great bulk of the nation. The reaction does
not imply that the drama regained its old position. When the rule of the
saints or pharisees was broken down, the stage did not become again a
national organ. A very small minority of the people can ever have seen a
performance. There were, we must remember, only two theatres under
Charles II., and there was a difficulty in supporting even two. Both
depended almost exclusively on the patronage of the court and the
courtiers. From the theatre, therefore, we can only argue directly to
the small circle of the rowdy debauchees who gathered round the new
king. It certainly may be true, but it was not proved from their
behaviour, that the national morality deteriorated, and in fact I think
nothing is more difficult than to form any trustworthy estimate of the
state of morality in a whole nation, confidently as such estimates are
often put forward. What may be fairly inferred, is that a certain class,
who had got from under the rule of the Puritan, was now free from legal
restraint and took advantage of the odium excited by pharisaical
strictness, to indulge in the greater license which suited the taste of
their patrons. The result is sufficiently shown when we see so great a
man as Dryden pander to the lowest tastes, and guilty of obscenities of
which he was himself ashamed, which would be now inexcusable in the
lowest public haunts. The comedy, as it appears to us, must have been
written by blackguards for blackguards. When Congreve became Dryden's
heir he inherited the established tradition. Under the new order the
'town' had become supreme; and Congreve wrote to meet the taste of the
class which was gaining in self-respect and independence. He tells us in
the dedication of his best play, _The Way of the World_, that his taste
had been refined in the company of the Earl of Montagu. The claim is no
doubt justifiable. So Horace Walpole remarks that Vanbrugh wrote so well
because he was familiar with the conversation of the best circles. The
social influences were favourable to the undeniable literary merits, to
the force and point in which Congreve's dialogue is still superior to
that of any English rival, the vigour of Vanbrugh and the vivacity of
their chief ally, Farquhar. Moreover, although their moral code is
anything but strict, these writers did not descend to some of the depths
often sounded by Dryden and Wycherly. The new spirit might seem to be
passing on with more literary vitality into the old forms. And yet the
consequence, or certainly the sequel to Collier's attack, was the decay
of the stage in every sense, from which there was no recovery till the
time of Goldsmith and Sheridan.

This is the phenomenon which we have to consider;--let us listen for a
moment to the 'distinguished critics' who have denounced or defended the
comedy of the time. Macaulay gives as a test of the morality of the
Restoration stage that on it, for the first time, marriage becomes the
topic of ridicule. We are supposed to sympathise with the adulterer, not
with the deceived husband--a fault, he says, which stains no play
written before the Civil War. Addison had already suggested this test in
the _Spectator_, and proceeds to lament that 'the multitudes are shut
out from this noble "diversion" by the immorality of the lessons
inculcated.' Lamb, indulging in ingenious paradox, admires Congreve for
'excluding from his scenes (with one exception) any pretensions to
goodness or good feeling whatever.' Congreve, he says, spreads a
'privation of moral light' over his characters, and therefore we can
admire them without compunction. We are in an artificial world where we
can drop our moral prejudices for the time being. Hazlitt more daringly
takes a different position and asserts that one of Wycherly's coarsest
plays is 'worth ten sermons'--which perhaps does not imply with him any
high estimate of moral efficacy. There is, however, this much of truth,
I take it, in Hazlitt's contention. Lamb's theory of the non-morality of
the dramatic world will not stand examination. The comedy was in one
sense thoroughly 'realistic'; and I am inclined to say, that in that lay
its chief merit. There is some value in any truthful representation,
even of vice and brutality. There would certainly be no difficulty in
finding flesh and blood originals for the rakes and the fine ladies in
the memoirs of Grammont or the diaries of Pepys. The moral atmosphere is
precisely that of the dissolute court of Charles II., and the 'privation
of moral light' required is a delicate way of expressing its
characteristic feeling. In the worst performances we have not got to any
unreal region, but are breathing for the time the atmosphere of the
lowest resorts, where reference to pure or generous sentiment would
undoubtedly have been received with a guffaw, and coarse cynicism be
regarded as the only form of comic insight. At any rate the audiences
for which Congreve wrote had just so much of the old leaven that we can
quite understand why they were regarded as wicked by a majority of the
middle classes. The doctrine that all playgoing was wicked was naturally
confirmed, and the dramatists retorted by ridiculing all that their
enemies thought respectable. Congreve was, I fancy, a man of better
morality than his characters, only forced to pander to the tastes of the
rake who had composed the dominant element of his audience. He writes
not for mere blackguards, but for the fine gentleman, who affects
premature knowledge of the world, professes to be more cynical than he
really is, and shows his acuteness by deriding hypocrisy and pharisaic
humbug in every claim to virtue. He dwells upon the seamy side of life,
and if critics, attracted by his undeniable brilliance, have found his
heroines charming, to me it seems that they are the kind of young women
whom, if I adopted his moral code, I should think most desirable
wives--for my friends.

Though realistic in one sense, we may grant to Lamb that such comedy
becomes 'artificial,' and so far Lamb is right, because it supposes a
state of things such as happily was abnormal except in a small circle.
The plots have to be made up of impossible intrigues, and imply a
distorted theory of life. Marriage after all is not really ridiculous,
and to see it continuously from this point of view is to have a false
picture of realities. Life is not made up of dodges worthy of
cardsharpers--and the whole mechanism becomes silly and disgusting. If
comedy is to represent a full and fair portrait of life, the dramatist
ought surely, in spite of Lamb, to find some space for generous and
refined feeling. There, indeed, is a difficulty. The easiest way to be
witty is to be cynical. It is difficult, though desirable, to combine
good feeling with the comic spirit. The humourist has to expose the
contrasts of life, to unmask hypocrisy, and to show selfishness lurking
under multitudinous disguises. That, on Hazlitt's showing, was the
preaching of Wycherly. I can't think that it was the impression made
upon Wycherly's readers. Such comedy may be taken as satire; which was
the excuse that Fielding afterwards made for his own performances. But I
cannot believe that the actual audiences went to see vice exposed, or
used Lamb's ingenious device of disbelieving in the reality. They simply
liked brutal and immoral sentiment, spiced, if possible, with art. We
may inquire whether there may not be a comedy which is enjoyable by the
refined and virtuous, and in which the intrusion of good feeling does
not jar upon us as a discord. An answer may be suggested by pointing to
Molière, and has been admirably set forth in Mr. George Meredith's essay
on the 'Comic Spirit.' There are, after all, ridiculous things in the
world, even from the refined and virtuous point of view. The saint, it
is true, is apt to lose his temper and become too serious for such a
treatment of life-problems. Still the sane intellect which sees things
as they are can find a sphere within which it is fair and possible to
apply ridicule to affectation and even to vice, and without simply
taking the seat of the scorner or substituting a coarse laugh for a
delicate smile. A hearty laugh, let us hope, is possible even for a
fairly good man. Mr. Meredith's essay indicates the conditions under
which the artist may appeal to such a cultivated and refined humour. The
higher comedy, he says, can only be the fruit of a polished society
which can supply both the model and the audience. Where the art of
social intercourse has been carried to a high pitch, where men have
learned to be at once courteous and incisive, to admire urbanity, and
therefore really good feeling, and to take a true estimate of the real
values of life, a high comedy which can produce irony without
coarseness, expose shams without advocating brutality, becomes for the
first time possible. It must be admitted that the condition is also very
rarely fulfilled.

This, I take it, is the real difficulty. The desirable thing, one may
say, would have been to introduce a more refined and human art and to
get rid of the coarser elements. The excellent Steele tried the
experiment. But he had still to work upon the old lines, which would not
lend themselves to the new purpose. His passages of moral exhortation
would not supply the salt of the old cynical brutalities; they had a
painful tendency to become insipid and sentimental, if not maudlin; and
only illustrated the difficulty of using a literary tradition which
developed spontaneously for one purpose to adapt itself to a wholly
different aim. He produced at best not a new genus but an awkward
hybrid. But behind this was the greater difficulty that a superior
literature would have required a social elaboration, the growth of a
class which could appreciate and present appropriate types. Now even the
good society for which Congreve wrote had its merits, but certainly its
refinement left much to be desired. One condition, as Mr. Meredith again
remarks, of the finer comedy is such an equality of the sexes as may
admit the refining influence of women. The women of the Restoration time
hardly exerted a refining influence. They adopted the ingenious
compromise of going to the play, but going in masks. That is, they
tacitly implied that the brutality was necessary, and they submitted to
what they could not openly approve. Throughout the eighteenth century a
contempt for women was still too characteristic of the aristocratic
character. Nor was there any marked improvement in the tastes of the
playgoing classes. The plays denounced by Collier continued to hold the
stage, though more or less expurgated, throughout the century. Comedy
did not become decent. In 1729 Arthur Bedford carried on Collier's
assault in a 'Remonstrance against the horrid blasphemies and
improprieties which are still used in the English playhouses,' and
collected seven thousand immoral sentiments from the plays (chiefly) of
the last four years. I have not verified his statements. The inference,
however, seems to be clear. Collier's attack could not reform the
stage. The evolution took the form of degeneration. He could, indeed,
give utterance to the disapproval of the stage in general, which we call
Puritanical, though it was by no means confined to Puritans or even to
Protestants. Bossuet could denounce the stage as well as Collier.
Collier was himself a Tory and a High Churchman, as was William Law, of
the _Serious Call_, who also denounced the stage. The sentiment was, in
fact, that of the respectable middle classes in general. The effect was
to strengthen the prejudice which held that playgoing was immoral in
itself, and that an actor deserved to be treated as a 'vagrant'--the
class to which he legally belonged. During the next half-century, at
least, that was the prevailing opinion among the solid middle-class
section of society.

The denunciations of Collier and his allies certainly effected a reform,
but at a heavy price. They did not elevate the stage or create a better
type, but encouraged old prejudices against the theatre generally; the
theatre was left more and more to a section of the 'town,' and to the
section which was not too particular about decency. When Congreve
retired, and Vanbrugh took to architecture, and Farquhar died, no
adequate successors appeared. The production of comedies was left to
inferior writers, to Mrs. Centlivre, and Colley Cibber, and Fielding in
his unripe days, and they were forced by the disfavour into which their
art had fallen to become less forcible rather than to become more
refined. When a preacher denounces the wicked, his sermons seem to be
thrown away because the wicked don't come to church. Collier could not
convert his antagonists; he could only make them more timid and careful
to avoid giving palpable offence. But he could express the growing
sentiment which made the drama an object of general suspicion and
dislike, and induced the ablest writers to turn to other methods for
winning the favour of a larger public.

The natural result, in fact, was the development of a new kind of
literature, which was the most characteristic innovation of the period.
The literary class of which I have hitherto spoken reflected the
opinions of the upper social stratum. Beneath it was the class generally
known as Grub Street. Grub Street had arisen at the time of the great
civil struggle. War naturally generates journalism; it had struggled on
through the Restoration and taken a fresh start at the Revolution and
the final disappearance of the licensing system. The daily
newspaper--meaning a small sheet written by a single author (editors as
yet were not)--appeared at the opening of the eighteenth century. Now
for Grub Street the wit of the higher class had nothing but dislike. The
'hackney author,' as Dunton called him, in his curious _Life and
Errors_, was a mere huckster, who could scarcely be said as yet to
belong to a profession. A Tutchin or Defoe might be pilloried, or
flogged, or lose his ears, without causing a touch of compassion from
men like Swift, who would have disdained to call themselves brother
authors. Yet politicians were finding him useful. He was the victim of
one party, and might be bribed or employed as a spy by the other. The
history of Defoe and his painful struggles between his conscience and
his need of living, sufficiently indicates the result; Charles Leslie,
the gallant nonjuror, for example, or Abel Boyer, the industrious
annalist, or the laborious but cantankerous Oldmixon, were keeping their
heads above water by journalism, almost exclusively, of course,
political. Defoe showed a genius for the art, and his mastery of
vigorous vernacular was hardly rivalled until the time of Paine and
Cobbett. At any rate, it was plain that a market was now arising for
periodical literature which might give a scanty support to a class below
the seat of patrons. It was at this point that the versatile,
speculative, and impecunious Steele hit upon his famous discovery. The
aim of the _Tatler_, started in April 1709, was marked out with great
accuracy from the first. Its purpose is to contain discourses upon all
manner of topics--_quicquid agunt homines_, as his first motto put
it--which had been inadequately treated in the daily papers. It is
supposed to be written in the various coffee-houses, and it is suited to
all classes, even including women, whose taste, he observes, is to be
caught by the title. The _Tatler_, as we know, led to the _Spectator_,
and Addison's co-operation, cordially acknowledged by his friend, was a
main cause of its unprecedented success. The _Spectator_ became the
model for at least three generations of writers. The number of
imitations is countless: Fielding, Johnson, Goldsmith, and many men of
less fame tried to repeat the success; persons of quality, such as
Chesterfield and Horace Walpole, condescended to write papers for the
_World_--the 'Bow of Ulysses,' as it was called, in which they could
test their strength. Even in the nineteenth century Hazlitt and Leigh
Hunt carried on the form; as indeed, in a modified shape, many later
essayists have aimed at a substantially similar achievement. To have
contributed three or four articles was, as in the case of the excellent
Henry Grove (a name, of course, familiar to all of you), to have
graduated with honours in literature. Johnson exhorted the literary
aspirant to give his days and nights to the study of Addison; and the
_Spectator_ was the most indispensable set of volumes upon the shelves
of every library where the young ladies described by Miss Burney and
Miss Austen were permitted to indulge a growing taste for literature. I
fear that young people of the present day discover, if they try the
experiment, that their curiosity is easily satisfied. This singular
success, however, shows that the new form satisfied a real need.
Addison's genius must, of course, count for much in the immediate
result; but it was plainly a case where genius takes up the function for
which it is best suited, and in which it is most fully recognised. When
we read him now we are struck by one fact. He claims in the name of the
_Spectator_ to be a censor of manners and morals; and though he veils
his pretensions under delicate irony, the claim is perfectly serious at
bottom. He is really seeking to improve and educate his readers. He
aims his gentle ridicule at social affectations and frivolities; and
sometimes, though avoiding ponderous satire, at the grosser forms of
vice. He is not afraid of laying down an æsthetic theory. In a once
famous series of papers on the Imagination, he speaks with all the
authority of a recognised critic in discussing the merits of Chevy Chase
or of _Paradise Lost_; and in a series of Saturday papers he preaches
lay-sermons--which were probably preferred by many readers to the
official discourses of the following day. They contain those striking
poems (too few) which led Thackeray to say that he could hardly fancy a
'human intellect thrilling with a purer love and admiration than Joseph
Addison's.' Now, spite of the real charm which every lover of delicate
humour and exquisite urbanity must find in Addison, I fancy that the
_Spectator_ has come to mean for us chiefly Sir Roger de Coverley. It is
curious, and perhaps painful, to note how very small a proportion of the
whole is devoted to that most admirable achievement; and to reflect how
little life there is in much that in kindness of feeling and grace of
style is equally charming. One cause is obvious. When Addison talks of
psychology or æsthetics or ethics (not to speak of his criticism of
epic poetry or the drama), he must of course be obsolete in substance;
but, moreover, he is obviously superficial. A man who would speak upon
such topics now must be a grave philosopher, who has digested libraries
of philosophy. Addison, of course, is the most modest of men; he has not
the slightest suspicion that he is going beyond his tether; and that is
just what makes his unconscious audacity remarkable. He fully shares the
characteristic belief of the day, that the abstract problems are soluble
by common sense, when polished by academic culture and aided by a fine
taste. It is a case of _sancta simplicitas_; of the charming, because
perfectly unconscious, self-sufficiency with which the Wit, rejecting
pedantry as the source of all evil, thinks himself obviously entitled to
lay down the law as theologian, politician, and philosopher. His
audience are evidently ready to accept him as an authority, and are
flattered by being treated as capable of reason, not offended by any
assumption of their intellectual inferiority.

With whatever shortcomings, Addison, and in their degree Steele and his
other followers, represent the stage at which the literary organ begins
to be influenced by the demands of a new class of readers. Addison
feels the dignity of his vocation and has a certain air of gentle
condescension, especially when addressing ladies who cannot even
translate his mottoes. He is a genuine prophet of what we now describe
as Culture, and his exquisite urbanity and delicacy qualify him to be a
worthy expositor of the doctrines, though his outlook is necessarily
limited. He is therefore implicitly trying to solve the problem which
could not be adequately dealt with on the stage; to set forth a view of
the world and human nature which shall be thoroughly refined and noble,
and yet imply a full appreciation of the humorous aspects of life. The
inimitable Sir Roger embodies the true comic spirit; though Addison's
own attempt at comedy was not successful.

One obvious characteristic of this generation is the didacticism which
is apt to worry us. Poets, as well as philosophers and preachers, are
terribly argumentative. Fielding's remark (through Parson Adams), that
some things in Steele's comedies are almost as good as a sermon, applies
to a much wider range of literature. One is tempted by way of
explanation to ascribe this to a primitive and ultimate instinct of the
race. Englishmen--including of course Scotsmen--have a passion for
sermons, even when they are half ashamed of it; and the British Essay,
which flourished so long, was in fact a lay sermon. We must briefly
notice that the particular form of this didactic tendency is a natural
expression of the contemporary rationalism. The metaphysician of the
time identifies emotions and passions with intellectual affirmations,
and all action is a product of logic. In any case we have to do with a
period in which the old concrete imagery has lost its hold upon the more
intelligent classes, and instead of an imaginative symbolism we have a
system of abstract reasoning. Diagrams take the place of concrete
pictures: and instead of a Milton justifying the ways of Providence by
the revealed history, we have a Blackmore arguing with Lucretius, and
are soon to have a Pope expounding a metaphysical system in the _Essay
on Man_. Sir Roger represents a happy exception to this method and
points to the new development. Addison is anticipating the method of
later novelists, who incarnate their ideals in flesh and blood. This,
and the minor character sketches which are introduced incidentally,
imply a feeling after a less didactic method. As yet the sermon is in
the foreground, and the characters are dismissed as soon as they have
illustrated the preacher's doctrine. Such a method was congenial to the
Wit. He was, or aspired to be, a keen man of the world; deeply
interested in the characteristics of the new social order; in the
eccentricities displayed at clubs, or on the Stock Exchange, or in the
political struggles; he is putting in shape the practical philosophy
implied in the conversations at clubs and coffee-houses; he delights in
discussing such psychological problems as were suggested by the worldly
wisdom of Rochefoucauld, and he appreciates clever character sketches
such as those of La Bruyére. Both writers were favourites in England.
But he has become heartily tired of the old romance, and has not yet
discovered how to combine the interest of direct observation of man with
a thoroughly concrete form of presentation.

The periodical essay represents the most successful innovation of the
day; and, as I have suggested, because it represents the mode by which
the most cultivated writer could be brought into effective relation with
the genuine interests of the largest audience. Other writers used it
less skilfully, or had other ways of delivering their message to
mankind. Swift, for example, had already shown his peculiar vein. He
gives a different, though equally characteristic, side of the
intellectual attitude of the Wit. In the _Battle of the Books_ he had
assumed the pedantry of the scholar; in the _Tale of a Tub_ with amazing
audacity he fell foul of the pedantry of divines. His blows, as it
seemed to the Archbishops, struck theology in general; he put that right
by pouring out scorn upon Deists and all who were silly enough to
believe that the vulgar could reason; and then in his first political
writings began to expose the corrupt and selfish nature of
politicians--though at present only of Whig politicians. Swift is one of
the most impressive of all literary figures, and I will not even touch
upon his personal peculiarities. I will only remark that in one respect
he agrees with his friend Addison. He emphasises, of course, the aspect
over which Addison passes lightly; he scorns fools too heartily to treat
them tenderly and do justice to the pathetic side of even human folly.
But he too believes in culture--though he may despair of its
dissemination. He did his best, during his brief period of power, to
direct patronage towards men of letters, even to Whigs; and tried,
happily without success, to found an English Academy. His zeal was
genuine, though it expressed itself by scorn for dunces and hostility to
Grub Street. He illustrates one little peculiarity of the Wit. In the
society of the clubs there was a natural tendency to form minor cliques
of the truly initiated, who looked with sovereign contempt upon the
hackney author. One little indication is the love of mystifications, or
what were entitled 'bites.' All the Wits, as we know, combined to tease
the unlucky fortune-teller, Partridge, and to maintain that their
prediction of his death had been verified, though he absurdly pretended
to be still alive. So Swift tells us in the journal to Stella how he had
circulated a lie about a man who had been hanged coming to life again,
and how footmen are sent out to inquire into its success. He made a hit
by writing a sham account of Prior's mission to Paris supposed to come
from a French valet. The inner circle chuckled over such performances,
which would be impossible when their monopoly of information had been
broken up. A similar satisfaction was given by the various burlesques
and more or less ingenious fables which were to be fully appreciated by
the inner circle; such as the tasteless narrative of Dennis's frenzy by
which Pope professed to be punishing his victim for an attack upon
Addison: or to such squibs as Arbuthnot's _John Bull_--a parable which
gives the Tory view in a form fitted for the intelligent. The Wits, that
is, form an inner circle, who like to speak with an affectation of
obscurity even if the meaning be tolerably transparent, and show that
they are behind the scenes by occasionally circulating bits of sham
news. They like to form a kind of select upper stratum, which most fully
believes in its own intellectual eminence, and shows a contempt for its
inferiors by burlesque and rough sarcasm.

It is not difficult (especially when we know the result) to guess at the
canons of taste which will pass muster in such regions. Enthusiastical
politicians of recent days have been much given to denouncing modern
clubs, where everybody is a cynic and unable to appreciate the great
ideas which stir the masses. It may be so; my own acquaintance with club
life, though not very extensive, does not convince me that every member
of a London club is a Mephistopheles; but I will admit that a certain
excess of hard worldly wisdom may be generated in such resorts; and we
find many conspicuous traces of that tendency in the clubs of Queen
Anne's reign. Few of them have Addison's gentleness or his perception of
the finer side of human nature. It was by a rare combination of
qualities that he was enabled to write like an accomplished man of the
world, and yet to introduce the emotional element without any jarring
discord. The literary reformers of a later day denounce the men of this
period as 'artificial'! a phrase the antithesis of which is 'natural.'
Without asking at present what is meant by the implied distinction--an
inquiry which is beset by whole systems of equivocations--I may just
observe that in this generation the appeal to Nature was as common and
emphatic as in any later time. The leaders of thought believe in reason,
and reason sets forth the Religion of Nature and assumes that the Law of
Nature is the basis of political theory. The corresponding literary
theory is that Art must be subordinate to Nature. The critics' rules, as
Pope says in the poem which most fully expresses the general doctrine,


     'Are Nature still, but Nature methodised;
     Nature, like Liberty, is but restrained
     By the same laws which first herself ordained.'


The Nature thus 'methodised' was the nature of the Wit himself; the set
of instincts and prejudices which to him seemed to be so normal that
they must be natural. Their standards of taste, if artificial to us,
were spontaneous, not fictitious; the Wits were not wearing a mask, but
were exhibiting their genuine selves with perfect simplicity. Now one
characteristic of the Wit is always a fear of ridicule. Above all things
he dreads making a fool of himself. The old lyric, for example, which
came so spontaneously to the Elizabethan poet or dramatist, and of which
echoes are still to be found in the Restoration, has decayed, or rather,
has been transformed. When you have written a genuine bit of
love-poetry, the last place, I take it, in which you think of seeking
the applause of a congenial audience, would be the smoking-room of your
club: but that is the nearest approach to the critical tribunal of Queen
Anne's day. It is necessary to smuggle in poetry and passion in
disguise, and conciliate possible laughter by stating plainly that you
anticipate the ridicule yourself. In other words you write society
verses like Prior, temper sentiment by wit, and if you do not express
vehement passion, turn out elegant verses, salted by an irony which is
a tacit apology perhaps for some genuine feeling. The old pastoral had
become hopelessly absurd because Thyrsis and Lycidas have become
extravagant and 'unnatural.' The form might be adopted for practice in
versification; but when Ambrose Phillips took it a little too seriously,
Pope, whose own performances were not much better, came down on him for
his want of sincerity, and Gay showed what could be still made of the
form by introducing real rustics and turning it into a burlesque. Then,
as Johnson puts it, the 'effect of reality and truth became conspicuous,
even when the intention was to show them grovelling and degraded.' _The
Rape of the Lock_ is the masterpiece, as often noticed, of an
unconscious allegory. The sylph, who was introduced with such curious
felicity, is to be punished if he fails to do his duty, by imprisonment
in a lady's toilet apparatus.


     'Gums and pomatums shall his flight restrain,
     While clogged he beats his silver wings in vain.'


Delicate fancy and real poetical fancy may be turned to account; but
under the mask of the mock-heroic. We can be poetical still, it seems to
say, only we must never forget that to be poetical in deadly earnest is
to run the risk of being absurd. Even a Wit is pacified when he is thus
dexterously coaxed into poetry disguised as mere playful exaggeration,
and feels quite safe in following the fortune of a game of cards in
place of a sanguinary Homeric battle. Ariel is still alive, but he
adopts the costume of the period to apologise for his eccentricities.
Poetry thus understood may either give a charm to the trivial or fall
into mere burlesque; and though Pope's achievement is an undeniable
triumph, there are blots in an otherwise wonderful performance which
show an uncomfortable concession to the coarser tastes of his audience.

I will not dwell further upon a tolerably obvious theme. I must pass to
the more serious literature. The Wit had not the smallest notion that
his attitude disqualified him for succession in the loftiest poetical
endeavour. He thinks that his critical keenness will enable him to
surpass the old models. He wishes, in the familiar phrase, to be
'correct'; to avoid the gross faults of taste which disfigured the old
Gothic barbarism of his forefathers. That for him is the very meaning of
reason and nature. He will write tragedies which must get rid of the
brutalities, the extravagance, the audacious mixture of farce and
tragedy which was still attractive to the vulgar. He has, indeed, a kind
of lurking regard for the rough vigour of the Shakespearian epoch; his
patriotic prejudices pluck at him at intervals, and suggest that
Marlborough's countrymen ought not quite to accept the yoke of the
French Academy. When Ambrose Phillips produced the _Distrest
Mother_--adapted from Racine--all Addison's little society was
enthusiastic. Steele stated in the Prologue that the play was meant to
combine French correctness with British force, and praised it in the
_Spectator_ because it was 'everywhere Nature.' The town, he pointed
out, would be able to admire the passions 'within the rules of decency,
honour, and good breeding.' The performance was soon followed by _Cato_,
unquestionably, as Johnson still declares, 'the noblest production of
Addison's genius.' It presents at any rate the closest conformity to the
French model; and falls into comic results, as old Dennis pointed out,
from the so-called Unity of Place, and consequent necessity of
transacting all manner of affairs, love-making to Cato's daughter, and
conspiring against Cato himself, in Cato's own hall. Such tragedy,
however, refused to take root. Cato, as I think no one can deny, is a
good specimen of Addison's style, but, except a few proverbial phrases,
it is dead. The obvious cause, no doubt, is that the British public
liked to see battle, murder, and sudden death, and, in spite of
Addison's arguments, enjoyed a mixture of tragic and comic. Shakespeare,
though not yet an idol, had still a hold upon the stage, and was
beginning to be imitated by Rowe and to attract the attention of
commentators. The sturdy Briton would not be seduced to the foreign
model. The attempt to refine tragedy was as hopeless as the attempt to
moralise comedy. This points to the process by which the Wit becomes
'artificial.' He has a profound conviction, surely not altogether wrong,
that a tragedy ought to be a work of art. The artist must observe
certain rules; though I need not ask whether he was right in thinking
that these rules were represented by the accepted interpreters of the
teaching of Nature. What he did not perceive was that another essential
condition was absent; namely, that the tragic mood should correspond to
his own 'nature.' The tragic art can, like other arts, only flourish
when it embodies spontaneously the emotions and convictions of the
spectators; when the dramatist is satisfying a genuine demand, and is
himself ready to see in human life the conflict of great passions and
the scene of impressive catastrophes. Then the theatre becomes naturally
the mirror upon which the imagery can be projected. But the society to
which Addison and his fellows belonged was a society of good,
commonplace, sensible people, who were fighting each other by pamphlets
instead of by swords; who played a game in which they staked not life
and death but a comfortable competency; who did not even cut off the
head of a fallen minister, who no longer believed in great statesmen of
heroic proportions rising above the vulgar herd; and who had a very
hearty contempt for romantic extravagance. A society in which common
sense is regarded as the cardinal intellectual virtue does not naturally
suggest the great tragic themes. Cato is obviously contrived, not
inspired; and the dramatist is thinking of obeying the rules of good
taste, instead of having them already incorporated in his thought. This
comes out in one chief monument in the literary movement, I mean Pope's
_Homer_. Pope, as we know, made himself independent by that performance.
The method of publication is significant. He had no interest in the
general sale, which was large enough to make his publisher's fortune.
The publisher meanwhile supplied him gratuitously with the copies for
which the subscribers paid him six guineas apiece. That means that he
received a kind of commission from the upper class to execute the
translation. The list of his subscribers seems to be almost a directory
to the upper circle of the day; every person of quality has felt himself
bound to promote so laudable an undertaking; the patron had been
superseded by a kind of joint-stock body of collective patronage. The
Duke of Buckingham, one of its accepted mouthpieces, had said in verse
in his _Essay on Poetry_ that if you once read Homer, everything else
will be 'mean and poor.'


     Verse will seem prose; yet often in him look
     And you will hardly need another book.'


That was the correct profession of faith. Yet as a good many Wits found
Greek an obstacle, a translation was needed. Chapman had become
barbarous; Hobbes and Ogilvie were hopelessly flat; and Pope was
therefore handsomely paid to produce a book which was to be the standard
of the poetical taste. Pope was thus the chosen representative of the
literary spirit. It is needless to point out that Pope's _Iliad_ is not
Homer's. That was admitted from the first. When we read in a speech of
Agamemnon exhorting the Greeks to abandon the siege,


     'Love, duty, safety summon us away;
     'Tis Nature's voice, and Nature we obey,'


we hardly require to be told that we are not listening to Homer's
Agamemnon but to an Agamemnon in a full-bottomed wig. Yet Pope's Homer
had a success unparalleled by any other translation of profane poetry;
for the rest of the century it was taken to be a masterpiece; it has
been the book from which Byron and many clever lads first learned to
enjoy what they at least took for Homer; and, as Mrs. Gallup has
discovered, it was used by Bacon at the beginning of the seventeenth
century, and by somebody at the beginning of the twentieth. That it has
very high literary merits can, I think, be denied by no unprejudiced
reader, but I have only to do with one point. Pope had the advantage--I
take it to be an advantage--of having a certain style prescribed for him
by the literary tradition inherited from Dryden. A certain diction and
measure had to be adopted, and the language to be run into an accepted
mould. The mould was no doubt conventional, and corresponded to a
temporary phase of sentiment. Like the costume of the period, it strikes
us now as 'artificial' because it was at the time so natural. It was
worked out by the courtly and aristocratic class, and was fitted to give
a certain dignity and lucidity, and to guard against mere greatness and
triviality of utterance. At any rate it saved Pope from one enormous
difficulty. The modern translator is aware that Homer lived a long time
ago in a very different state of intellectual and social development,
and yet feels bound to reproduce the impressions made upon the ancient
Greek. The translator has to be an accurate scholar and to give the
right shade of meaning for every phrase, while he has also to
approximate to the metrical effect. The conclusion seems to be that the
only language into which Homer could be adequately translated would be
Greek, and that you must then use the words of the original. The actual
result is that the translator is cramped by his fetters; that his use of
archaic words savours of affectation, and that, at best, he has to
emphasise the fact that his sentiments are fictitious. Pope had no
trouble of that kind. He aims at giving something equivalent to Homer,
not Homer himself, and therefore at something really practical. He has
the same advantage as a man who accepts a living style of architecture
or painting; he can exert all his powers of forcible expression in a
form which will be thoroughly understood by his audience, and which
saves him, though at a certain cost, from the difficulties of trying to
reproduce the characteristics which are really incongruous.

There are disadvantages. In his time the learned M. Bossu was the
accepted authority upon the canons of criticism. Buckingham says he had
explained the 'mighty magic' of Homer. One doctrine of his was that an
epic poet first thinks of a moral and then invents a fable to illustrate
it. The theory struck Addison as a little overstated, but it is an
exaggeration of the prevalent view. According to Pope Homer's great
merit was his 'invention'--and by this he sometimes appears to imply
that Homer had even invented the epic poem. Poetry was, it seems, at a
'low pitch' in Greece in Homer's time, as indeed were other arts and
sciences. Homer, wishing to instruct his countrymen in all kinds of
topics, devised the epic poem: made use of the popular mythology to
supply what in the technical language was called his 'machinery';
converted the legends into philosophical allegory, and introduced
'strokes of knowledge from his whole circle of arts and sciences.' This
'circle' includes for example geography, rhetoric, and history; and the
whole poem is intended to inculcate the political moral that many evils
sprang from the want of union among the Greeks. Not a doubt of it! Homer
was in the sphere of poetry what Lycurgus was supposed to be in the
field of legislation. He had at a single bound created poetry and made
it a vehicle of philosophy, politics, and ethics. Upon this showing the
epic poem is a form of art which does not grow out of the historical
conditions of the period; but it is a permanent form of art, as good for
the eighteenth century as for the heroic age of Greece; it may be
adopted as a model, only requiring certain additional ornaments and
refinements to adapt it to the taste of a more enlightened period. Yet,
at the same time, Pope could clearly perceive some of the absurd
consequences of M. Bossu's view. He ridiculed that authority very keenly
in the 'Recipe to make an Epic Poem' which first appeared in the
_Guardian_, while he was at work upon his own translation. Bossu's
rules, he says, will enable us to make epic poems without genius or
reading; and he proceeds to show how you are to work your 'machines,'
and introduce your allegories and descriptions, and extract your moral
out of the fable at leisure, 'only making it sure that you strain it
sufficiently.'

That was the point. The enlightened critic sees that the work of art
embodies certain abstract rules; which may, and probably will--if he be
a man of powerful intellectual power, be rational, and suggest
instructive canons. But, as Pope sees, it does not follow that the
inverse process is feasible; that is, that you construct your poem
simply by applying the rules. To be a good cricketer you must apply
certain rules of dynamics; but it does not follow that a sound knowledge
of dynamics will enable you to play good cricket. Pope sees that
something more than an acceptance of M. Bossu's or Aristotle's canons is
requisite for the writer of a good epic poem. The something more,
according to him, appears to be learning and genius. It is certainly
true that at least genius must be one requisite. But then, there is the
further point. Will the epic poem, which was the product of certain
remote social and intellectual conditions, serve to express the thoughts
and emotions of a totally different age? Considering the difference
between Achilles and Marlborough, or the bards of the heroic age and the
wits who frequented clubs and coffee-houses under Queen Anne, it was at
least important to ask whether Homer and Pope--taking them to be alike
in genius--would not find it necessary to adopt radically different
forms. That is for us so obvious a suggestion that one wonders at the
tacit assumption of its irrelevance. Pope, indeed, by taking the _Iliad_
for a framework, a ready-made fabric which he could embroider with his
own tastes, managed to construct a singularly spirited work, full of
good rhetoric and not infrequently rising to real poetical excellence.
But it did not follow that an original production on the same lines
would have been possible. Some years later, Young complained of Pope for
being imitative, and said that if he had dared to be original, he might
have produced a modern epic as good as the _Iliad_ instead of a mere
translation. That is not quite credible. Pope himself tried an epic poem
too, which happily came to nothing; but a similar ambition led to such
works as Glover's _Leonidas_ and _The Epigoniad_ of the Scottish Homer
Wilkie. English poets as a rule seem to have suffered at some period of
their lives from this malady and contemplated Arthuriads; but the
constructional epic died, I take it, with Southey's respectable poems.

We may consider, then, that any literary form, the drama, the epic poem,
the essay, and so forth, is comparable to a species in natural history.
It has, one may say, a certain organic principle which determines the
possible modes of development. But the line along which it will actually
develop depends upon the character and constitution of the literary
class which turns it to account, for the utterance of its own ideas; and
depends also upon the correspondence of those ideas with the most vital
and powerful intellectual currents of the time. The literary class of
Queen Anne's day was admirably qualified for certain formations: the
Wits leading the 'town,' and forming a small circle accepting certain
canons of taste, could express with admirable clearness and honesty the
judgment of bright common sense; the ideas which commend themselves to
the man of the world, and to a rationalism which was the embodiment of
common sense. They produced a literature, which in virtue of its
sincerity and harmonious development within certain limits could pass
for some time as a golden age. The aversion to pedantry limited its
capacity for the highest poetical creation, and made the imagination
subservient to the prosaic understanding. The comedy had come to adapt
itself to the tastes of the class which, instead of representing the
national movement, was composed of the more disreputable part of the
town. The society unable to develop it in the direction of refinement
left it to second-rate writers. It became enervated instead of elevated.
The epic and the tragic poetry, ceasing to reflect the really powerful
impulses of the day, were left to the connoisseur and dilettante man of
taste, and though they could write with force and dignity when
renovating or imitating older masterpieces, such literature became
effete and hopelessly artificial. It was at best a display of technical
skill, and could not correspond to the strongest passions and conditions
of the time. The invention of the periodical essay, meanwhile, indicated
what was a condition of permanent vitality. There, at least, the Wit was
appealing to a wide and growing circle of readers, and could utter the
real living thoughts and impulses of the time. The problem for the
coming period was therefore marked out. The man of letters had to
develop a living literature by becoming a representative of the ideas
which really interested the whole cultivated classes, instead of writing
merely for the exquisite critic, or still less for the regenerating and
obnoxious section of society. That indeed, I take it, is the general
problem of literature; but I shall have to trace the way in which its
solution was attempted in the next period.



III

(1714-1739)


The death of Queen Anne opens a new period in the history of literature
and of politics. Under the first Georges we are in the very heart of the
eighteenth century; the century, as its enemies used to say, of coarse
utilitarian aims, of religious indifference and political corruption;
or, as I prefer to say, the century of sound common sense and growing
toleration, and of steady social and industrial development.

To us, to me at least, it presents something pleasant in retrospect.
There were then no troublesome people with philanthropic or political or
religious nostrums, proposing to turn the world upside down and
introduce an impromptu millennium. The history of periods when people
were cutting each other's throats for creeds is no doubt more exciting;
but we, who profess toleration, ought surely to remember that you
cannot have martyrs without bigots and persecutors; and that
fanaticism, though it may have its heroic aspects, has also a very ugly
side to it. At any rate, we who come after a century of revolutionary
changes, and are often told that the whole order of things may be upset
by some social earthquake, look back with regret to the days of quiet
solid progress, when everything seemed to have settled down to a quiet,
stable equilibrium. Wealth and comfort were growing--surely no bad
things; and John Bull--he had just received that name from
Arbuthnot--was waxing fat and complacently contemplating his own
admirable qualities. It is the period of the composition of 'Rule
Britannia' and 'The Roast Beef of Old England,' and of the settled
belief that your lusty, cudgel-playing, beer-drinking Briton was worth
three of the slaves who ate frogs and wore wooden shoes across the
Channel. The British constitution was the embodiment of perfect wisdom,
and, as such, was entitled to be the dread and envy of the world. To the
political historian it is the era of Walpole; the huge mass of solid
common sense, who combined the qualities of the sturdy country squire
and the thorough man of business; whose great aim was to preserve the
peace; to keep the country as much as might be out of the continental
troubles which it did not understand, and in which it had no concern;
and to carry on business upon sound commercial principles. It is of
course undeniable that his rule not only meant regard for the solid
material interests of the country, but too often appealed to the
interests of the ruling class. Philosophical historians who deal with
the might-have-been may argue that a man of higher character might have
worked by better means and have done something to purify the political
atmosphere. Walpole was not in advance of his day; but it is at least
too clear to need any exposition that under the circumstances corruption
was inevitable. When the House of Commons was the centre of political
authority, when so many boroughs were virtually private property, when
men were not stirred to the deeper issues by any great constitutional
struggle--party government had to be carried on by methods which
involved various degrees of jobbery and bribery. The disease was
certainly not peculiar to Walpole's age; though perhaps the symptoms
were more obvious and avowed more bluntly than usual. As Walpole's
masterful ways drove his old allies into opposition, they denounced the
system and himself; but unfortunately although they claimed to be
patriots and patterns of political virtue, they were made pretty much of
the same materials as the arch-corrupter. When the 'moneyed men,' upon
whom he had relied, came to be in favour of a warlike policy and were
roused by the story of Captain Jenkins' ear, Walpole fell, but no reign
of purity followed. The growing dissatisfaction, however, with the
Walpolean system implied some very serious conditions, and the cry
against corruption, in which nearly all the leading writers of the time
joined, had a very serious significance in literature and in the growth
of public opinion.

First, however, let me glance at the change as it immediately affected
the literary organ. The old club and coffee-house society broke up with
remarkable rapidity. While Oxford was sent to the Tower, and Bolingbroke
escaped to France, Swift retired to Dublin, and Prior, after being
imprisoned, passed the remainder of his life in retirement. Pope settled
down to translating Homer, and took up his abode at Twickenham, outside
the exciting and noisy London world in which the poor invalid had been
jostled. Addison soared into the loftier regions of politics and
married his Countess, and ceased to preside at Buttons'. Steele held on
for a time, but in declining prosperity and diminished literary
activity, till his retirement to Wales. No one appeared to fill the gaps
thus made in the ranks either of the Whigs' or the Tories' section of
literature. The change was obviously connected with the systematic
development of the party system. Swift bitterly denounced Walpole for
his indifference to literature! 'Bob the poet's foe' was guided by other
motives in disposing of his patronage. Places in the Customs were no
longer to be given to writers of plays or complimentary epistles in
verse, or even to promising young politicians, but to members of
parliament or the constituents in whom they were interested. The
placemen, who were denounced as one of the great abuses of the time,
were rewarded for voting power not for literary merit. The patron,
therefore, was disappearing; though one or two authors, such as Congreve
and Gay, might be still petted by the nobility; and Young somehow got a
pension out of Walpole, probably through Bubb Dodington, the very
questionable parson who still wished to be a Mæcenas. Meanwhile there
was a compensation. The bookseller was beginning to supersede the
patron. Tonson and Lintot were making fortunes; the first Longman was
founding the famous firm which still flourishes; and the career of the
disreputable and piratical Curll shows that at least the demand for
miscellaneous literature was growing. The anecdotes of the misery of
authors, of the translators who lay three in a bed in Curll's garret, of
Samuel Boyse, who had reduced his clothes to a single blanket, and
Savage sleeping on a bulk, are sometimes adduced to show that literature
was then specially depressed. But there never was a time when authors of
dissolute habits were not on the brink of starvation, and the
authorities of the Literary Fund could give us contemporary
illustrations of the fact. The real inference is, I take it, that the
demand which was springing up attracted a great many impecunious
persons, who became the drudges of the rising class of booksellers. No
doubt the journalist was often in a degrading position. The press was
active in all political struggles. The great men, Walpole, Bolingbroke,
and Pulteney, wrote pamphlets or contributed papers to the _Craftsman_,
while they employed inferior scribes to do the drudgery. Walpole paid
large sums to the 'Gazetters,' whom Pope denounces; and men like
Amherst of the _Craftsman_ or Gordon of the _Independent Whig_, carried
on the ordinary warfare. The author by profession was beginning to be
recognised. Thomson and Mallet came up from Scotland during this period
to throw themselves upon literature; Ralph, friend of Franklin and
collaborator of Fielding, came from New England; and Johnson was
attracted from the country to become a contributor to the _Gentleman's
Magazine_, started by Cave in 1731--an event which marked a new
development of periodical literature. Though no one would then advise a
young man who could do anything else to trust to authorship (it would be
rash to give such advice now) the new career was being opened. There
were hack authors of all varieties. The successful playwright gained a
real prize in the lottery; and translations, satires, and essays on the
_Spectator_ model enabled the poor drudge to make both ends meet, though
too often in bondage to his employer to be, as I take it, better off
than in the previous period, when the choice lay between risking the
pillory and selling yourself as a spy.

Before considering the effect produced under the changed conditions, I
must note briefly the intellectual position. The period was that of the
culmination of the deist controversy. In the previous period the
rationalism of which Locke was the mouthpiece represented the dominant
tendency. It was generally held on all sides that there was a religion
of nature, capable of purely rational demonstration. The problem
remained as to its relation to the revealed religion and the established
creed. Locke himself was a sincere Christian, though he reduced the
dogmatic element to a minimum. Some of his disciples, however, became
freethinkers in the technical sense, and held that revelation was
needless, and that in point of fact no supernatural revelation had been
made. The orthodox, on the other hand, while admitting or declaring that
faith should be founded on reason, and that reason could establish a
'religion of nature,' admitted in various ways that a supernatural
revelation was an essential corollary or a useful addition to the simple
rational doctrine. The controversies which arose upon this issue, after
being carried on very vigorously for a time, caused less interest as
time went on, and were beginning to die out at the end of this period.
It is often said in explanation that deism or the religion of nature, as
then understood, was too vague and colourless a system to have any
strong vitality. It faded into a few abstract logical propositions which
had no relation to fact, and led to the optimistic formula, 'Whatever
is, is right,' which could in the long-run satisfy no one with any
strong perception of the darker elements of the world and human nature.
This view may be emphasised by the most remarkable writings of the
period. Butler's _Analogy_ (1736) has been regarded by many even of his
strongest opponents as triumphant against the deistical optimism, and
certainly emphasises the side of things to which that optimism is blind.
Hume's _Treatise of Human Nature_, at the end of the period (1739),
uttered the sceptical revolution which destroys the base of the
deistical system. Another writer is notable: William Law's _Serious
Call_ is one of the books which has made a turning-point in many men's
lives. It specially affected Samuel Johnson and John Wesley, and many of
those who sympathised more or less with Wesley's movement. Law was
driven by his sense of the aspects of the rationalist theories to adopt
a different position. He became a follower of Behmen, and his mysticism
ended by repelling the thoroughly practical Wesley, as indeed mysticism
in general seems to be uncongenial to the English mind. Law's position
shows a difficulty which was felt by others. It means that while he
holds that religion must be in the highest sense 'reasonable' it cannot
be (as another author put it) 'founded upon argument.' Faith must be
identified with the inner light, the direct voice of God to man, which
appeals to the soul, and is not built upon syllogisms or allowed to
depend upon the result of historical criticism. This view, I need hardly
say, is opposed to the whole rationalist theory, whether of the deist or
the orthodox variety: it was so opposed that it could find scarcely any
sympathy at the time; and for that reason it indicates one
characteristic of the contemporary thought. To omit the mystical element
is to be cold and unsatisfactory in religious philosophy, and to be
radically prosaic and unpoetical in the sphere of literature. Englishmen
could never become mystics in the technical sense, but they were
beginning to be discontented with the bare logical system of the
religion of nature. They were ready for some utterance of the emotional
and imaginative element in religion and philosophy which was left out of
account by the wits and rationalists. I do not myself believe that the
intellectual weakness of abstract deism gives a sufficient explanation
of its decay. In fact, as accepted by Rousseau and by some of his
English followers, it could ally itself with the ardent revolutionary
enthusiasm which was to be the marked peculiarity of the latter part of
the century. We must add another consideration. Locke and his
contemporaries had laid down political and religious principles which,
if logically developed, would lead to the revolutionary doctrines of
1789. They did not develop them, and mainly, I take it, because the
practical application excited no strong feeling. The spark did not find
fuel ready to be lighted. The political and social conditions supply a
sufficient explanation of the indifference. People were practically
content with the existing order in Church and State. The deist
controversies did not reach the enormous majority of the nation, who
went quietly about their business in the old paths. The orthodox
themselves were so rationalistic in principle that the whole discussion
seemed to turn upon non-essential points. But moreover the Church was so
thoroughly subordinated to the laity; it was so much a part of the
regular comfortable system of things; so little able or inclined to set
up as an independent power claiming special authority and enforcing
discipline, that it excited no hostility. Parson and squire were part of
the regular system which could not be attacked without upsetting the
whole system; and there was as yet no general discontent with that
system, or, indeed, any disposition whatever to reconstruct the
machinery which was working so quietly and so thoroughly in accordance
with the dumb instincts of the overwhelming majority.

Now let us pass to the literary manifestation of this order. The
literary society, as it existed under Queen Anne, had been broken up;
two or three of the men who had already made their mark continued their
activity, especially Pope and Swift. Swift, however, was living apart
from the world, though he was still to come to the front on more than
one remarkable occasion. Pope, meanwhile, became the acknowledged
dictator. The literary movement may be called after Pope, as distinctly
as the political after Walpole. He established his dynasty so thoroughly
that in later days the attempt to upset him was regarded as a daring
revolution. What was Pope? Poet or not, for his title to the name has
been disputed, he had one power or weakness in which he has scarcely
been rivalled. No writer, that is, reflects so clearly and completely
the spirit of his own day. His want of originality means the extreme and
even morbid sensibility which enabled him to give the fullest utterance
to the ideas of his class, and of the nation, so far as the nation was
really represented by the class. But the literary class was going
through a process of differentiation, as the alliance of authors and
statesmen broke up. Pope represents mainly the aristocratic movement. He
had become independent--a fact of which he was a little too proud--and
moved on the most familiar terms with the great men of the age. The Tory
leaders were, of course, his special friends; but in later days he
became a friend of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and of the politicians
who broke off from Walpole; while even with Walpole he was on terms of
civility. His poems give a long catalogue of the great men of whose
intimacy he was so proud. Besides Bolingbroke, his 'guide, philosopher,
and friend,' he counts up nearly all the great men of his time. Somers
and Halifax, and Granville and Congreve, Oxford and Atterbury, who had
encouraged his first efforts; Pulteney, Chesterfield, Argyll, Wyndham,
Cobham, Bathurst, Peterborough, Queensberry, who had become friends in
later years, receive the delicate compliments which imply his excusable
pride in their alliance. Pope, therefore, may be considered from one
point of view as the authorised interpreter of the upper circle, which
then took itself to embody the highest cultivation of the nation. We may
appreciate Pope's poetry by comparing it with an independent
manifestation of their morality. The most explicit summary of the
general tone of the class-morality may, I think, be gathered from
Chesterfield's _Letters_. Though written at a later period, they sum up
the lesson he has imbibed from his experience at this time. Chesterfield
was no mere fribble or rake. He was a singularly shrewd, impartial
observer of life, who had studied men at first hand as well as from
books. His letters deal with the problem: What are the conditions of
success in public life? He treats it in the method of Machiavelli; that
is to say, he inquires what actually succeeds, not what ought to
succeed. An answer to that question given by a man of great ability is
always worth studying. Even if it should appear that success in this
world is not always won by virtue, the fact should be recognised,
though we should get rid of the conclusion that virtue, when an
encumbrance to success, should be discarded. Chesterfield's answer,
however, is not simply cynical. His pupil is to study men and politics
thoroughly; to know the constitutions of all European states, to read
the history of modern times so far as it has a bearing upon business; to
be thoroughly well informed as to the aims of kings and courts; to
understand financial and diplomatic movements; briefly, as far as was
then possible, to be an incarnate blue-book. He was to study literature
and appreciate art, though he was carefully to avoid the excess which
makes the pedant or the virtuoso. He was to cultivate a good style in
writing and speaking, and even to learn German. Chesterfield's prophecy
of a revolution in France (though, I fancy, a little overpraised) shows
at least that he was a serious observer of political phenomena. But
besides these solid attainments, the pupil, we know, is to study the
Graces. The excessive insistence upon this is partly due to the
peculiarities of his hearer and his own quaint illusion that the way to
put a man at his ease is to be constantly insisting upon his hopeless
awkwardness. The theory is pushed to excess when he says that
Marlborough and Pitt succeeded by the Graces, not by supreme business
capacity or force of character; and argues from recent examples that a
fool may succeed by dint of good manners, while a man of ability without
them must be a failure. The exaggeration illustrates the position. The
game of politics, that is, has become mainly personal. The diplomatist
must succeed by making himself popular in courts, and the politician by
winning popularity in the House of Commons. Social success--that is, the
power of making oneself agreeable to the ruling class--is the essential
pre-condition to all other success. The statesman does not make himself
known as the advocate of great principles when no great principles are
at stake, and the ablest man of business cannot turn his abilities to
account unless he commends himself to employers who themselves are too
good and great to be bothered with accounts. You must first of all be
acceptable to your environment; and the environment means the upper ten
thousand who virtually govern the world. The social qualities,
therefore, come into the foreground. Undoubtedly this implies a cynical
tone. You can't respect the victims of your cajolery. Chesterfield's
favourite author is Rochefoucauld of whom (not the Bible) his son is to
read a chapter every day. Men, that is, are selfish. Happily also they
are silly, and can be flattered into helping you, little as they may
care for you. 'Wriggle yourself into power' he says more than once. That
is especially true of women, of whom he always speaks with the true
aristocratic contempt. A man of sense will humour them and flatter them;
he will never consult them seriously, nor really trust them, but he will
make them believe that he does both. They are invaluable as tools,
though contemptible in themselves. This, of course, represents the tone
too characteristic of the epicurean British nobleman. Yet with all this
cynicism, Chesterfield's morality is perfectly genuine in its way. He
has the sense of honour and the patriotic feeling of his class. He has
the good nature which is compatible with, and even congenial to, a
certain cynicism. He is said to have achieved the very unusual success
of being an admirable Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. In fact he had the
intellectual vigour which implies a real desire for good administration,
less perhaps from purely philanthropic motives than from respect for
efficiency.


     'For forms of government let fools contest
     Whate'er is best administered, is best,'


says Pope, and that was Chesterfield's view. Like Frederick of Prussia,
whom he admires above all rulers, he might not be over-scrupulous in his
policy, but wishes the machinery for which he is responsible to be in
thoroughly good working order. He most thoroughly sees the folly, if he
does not sufficiently despise the motives, of the lower order of
politicians to whom bribery and corruption represented the only
political forces worth notice. In practice he might be forced to use
such men, but he sees them to be contemptible, and appreciates the
mischiefs resulting from their rule.

The development of this morality in the aristocratic class, which was
still predominant although the growing importance of the House of
Commons was tending to shift the centre of political gravity to a lower
point, is, I think, sufficiently intelligible to be taken for granted.
Pope, I have said, represents the literary version. The problem, then,
is how this view of life is to be embodied in poetry. One answer is the
_Essay on Man_, in which Pope versified the deism which he learned from
Bolingbroke, and which was characteristic of the upper circle
generally. I need not speak of its shortcomings; didactic poetry of that
kind is dreary enough, and the smart couplets often offend one's taste.
I may say that here and there Pope manages to be really impressive, and
to utter sentiments which really ennobled the deist creed; the aversion
to narrow superstition; to the bigotry which 'dealt damnation round the
land'; and the conviction that the true religion must correspond to a
cosmopolitan humanity. I remember hearing Carlyle quote with admiration
the Universal Prayer--


     'Father of all, in every age,
       In every clime adored,
     By Saint, by Savage, and by Sage,
       Jehovah, Jove, or Lord,'


and it is the worthy utterance of one good legacy which the deist
bequeathed to posterity. Pope himself was alarmed when he discovered
that he had slipped unawares into heterodoxy. His creed was not
congenial to the average mind, though it was to that of his immediate
circle. Meanwhile, his most characteristic and successful work was of a
different order. The answer, in fact, to the problem which I have just
stated, is that the only kind of poetry that was congenial to his
environment was satire--if satire can be called poetry. Pope's satires,
the 'Epistle to Arbuthnot,' the 'Epilogue,' and some of the 'Imitations
of Horace,' represent his best and most lasting achievement. There he
gives the fullest expression to the general sentiment in the most
appropriate form. His singular command of language, and, within his own
limits, of versification, was turned to account by conscientious and
unceasing labour in polishing his style. Particular passages, like the
famous satire upon Addison, have been slowly elaborated; he has brooded
over them for years; and, if the result of such methods is sometimes a
mosaic rather than a continuous current of discourse, the extraordinary
brilliance of some passages has made them permanently interesting and
enriched our literature with many proverbial phrases. The art was
naturally cultivated and its results appreciated in the circle formed by
such men as Congreve, Bolingbroke, and Chesterfield and the like, by
whom witty conversation was cultivated as a fine art. Chesterfield tells
us that he never spoke without trying to express himself as well as
possible; and Pope carries out the principle in his poetry. The thorough
polish has preserved the numerous phrases, still familiar, which have
survived the general neglect of his work. Pope indeed manages to
introduce genuine poetry, as in his famous compliments or his passage
about his mother, in which we feel that he is really speaking from his
heart. But no doubt Atterbury gave him judicious (if not very Christian)
advice, when he told him to stick to the vein of the Addison verses. The
main topic of the satires is a denunciation of an age when, as he puts
it,


     'Not to be corrupted is the shame.'


He ascribes his own indignation to the 'strong antipathy of good to
bad,' which is a satisfactory explanation to himself. But he was still
interpreting the general sentiment and expressing the general discontent
caused by the Walpole system. His friends, Bolingbroke and Wyndham, and
the whole opposition, partially recruited from Walpole's supporters,
were insisting upon the same theme. If, as I have said, some of them
were really sincere in recognising the evil, and, like Bolingbroke in
the _Patriot King_, trying to ascertain its source--we are troubled in
this even by the doubt as to whether they objected to corruption or only
to the corrupt influence of their antagonists. But Pope, as a poet,
living outside the political circle, can take the denunciations quite
seriously and be not only pointed but really dignified. He sincerely
believes that vice can be seriously discouraged by lashing at it with
epigrams. So far, he represented a general feeling of the literary
class, explained in various ways by such men as Thomson, Fielding,
Glover, and Johnson, who were, from very different points of view, in
opposition to Walpole. Satire can only flourish under some such
conditions as then existed. It supposes, among other things, the
existence of a small cultivated class, which will fully appreciate the
personalities, the dexterity of insinuation, and the cutting sarcasm
which gives the spice to much of Pope's satire. Young, a singularly
clever writer, was eclipsed by Pope because he kept to denoting general
types and was not intimate with the actors on the social stage. Johnson,
still more of an outsider, wrote a most effective and sonorous poem with
the help of Juvenal; but it becomes a moral disquisition upon human
nature which has not the special sting and sparkle of Pope. No later
satirist has approached Pope, and the art has now become obsolete, or is
adopted merely as a literary amusement. One obvious reason is the
absence of the peculiar social backing which composed Pope's audience
and supplied him with his readers.

The growing sense that there was something wrong about the political
system which Pope turned to account was significant of coming changes.
The impression that the evil was entirely due to Walpole personally was
one of the natural illusions of party warfare, and the disease was not
extirpated when the supposed cause was removed. The most memorable
embodiment of the sentiment was Swift. The concentrated scorn of
corruption in the _Drapier's Letters_ was followed by the intense
misanthropy of _Gulliver's Travels_. The singular way in which Swift
blends personal aversion with political conviction, and the strange
humour which conceals the misanthropist under a superficial playfulness,
veils to some extent his real aim. But Swift showed with unequalled
power and in an exaggerated form the conviction that there was something
wrong in the social order, which was suggested by the conditions of the
time and was to bear fruit in later days. Satire, however, is by its
nature negative; it does not present a positive ideal, and tends to
degenerate into mere hopeless pessimism. Lofty poetry can only spring
from some inner positive enthusiasm.

I turn to another characteristic of the literary movement. I have called
attention to the fact that while the Queen Anne writers were never tired
of appealing to nature, they came to be considered as prematurely
'artificial.' The commonest meaning of 'natural' is that in which it is
identified with 'normal,' We call a thing natural when its existence
appears to us to be a matter of course, which again may simply mean that
we are so accustomed to certain conditions that we do not remember that
they are really exceptional. We take ourselves with all our
peculiarities to be the 'natural' type or standard. An English traveller
in France remarked that it was unnatural for soldiers to be dressed in
blue; and then, remembering certain British cases, added, 'except,
indeed, for the Artillery or the Blue Horse.' The English model, with
all its variations, appeared to him to be ordained by Nature. This
unconscious method of usurping a general name so as to cover a general
meaning produces many fallacies. In any case, however, it was of the
essence of Pope's doctrine that we should, as he puts it, 'Look through
Nature up to Nature's God.' God, that is, is known through Nature, if it
would not be more correct to say that God and Nature are identical. This
Nature often means the world as not modified by human action, and
therefore sharing the divine workmanship unspoilt by man's interference.
Thus in the common phrase, the 'love of Nature' is generally taken to
mean the love of natural scenery, of sea and sky and mountains, which
are not altered or alterable by any human art. Yet it is said the want
of any such love describes one of the most obvious deficiencies in
Pope's poetry, of which Wordsworth so often complained. His famous
preface asserts the complete absence of any imagery from Nature in the
writings of the time. It was, however, at the period of which I am
speaking that a change was taking place which was worth considering.

One cause is obvious. The Wit utters the voice of the town. He agreed
with the gentleman who preferred the smell of a flambeau in St. James
Street to any abundance of violet and sweetbriar. But, as communications
improved between town and country, the separation between the taste of
classes became less marked. The great nobleman had always been in part
an exalted squire, and had a taste for field-sports as well as for the
opera. Bolingbroke and Walpole are both instances in point. Sir Roger de
Coverley came up to town more frequently than his ancestors, but the
_Spectator_ recorded his visits as those of a simple rustic. After the
peace, the country gentleman begins regularly to visit the Continent.
The 'grand tour' mostly common in the preceding century becomes a normal
fact of the education of the upper classes. The foundation of the
Dilettante Club in 1734 marks the change. The qualifications, says
Horace Walpole, were drunkenness and a visit to Italy. The founders of
it seem to have been jovial young men who had met each other abroad,
where, with obsequious tutors and out of sight of domestic authority,
they often learned some very queer lessons. But many of them learned
more, and by degrees the Dilettante Club took not only to encouraging
the opera in England, but to making really valuable archæological
researches in Greece and elsewhere. The intelligent youth had great
opportunities of mixing in the best foreign society, and began to bring
home the pictures which adorn so many English country houses; to talk
about the 'correggiosity of Correggio'; and in due time to patronise
Reynolds and Gainsborough. The traveller began to take some interest
even in the Alps, wrote stanzas to the 'Grande Chartreuse,' admired
Salvator Rosa, and even visited Chamonix. Another characteristic change
is more to the present purpose. A conspicuous mark of the time was a
growing taste for gardening. The taste has, I suppose, existed ever
since our ancestors were turned out of the Garden of Eden. Milton's
description of that place of residence, and Bacon's famous essay, and
Cowley's poems addressed to the great authority Evelyn, and most of all
perhaps Maxwell's inimitable description of the very essence of garden,
may remind us that it flourished in the seventeenth century. It is
needless to say in Oxford how beautiful an old-fashioned garden might
be. But at this time a change was taking place in the canons of taste.
Temple in a well-known essay had praised the old-fashioned garden and
had remarked how the regularity of English plantations seemed ridiculous
to--of all people in the world--the Chinese. By the middle of the
eighteenth century there had been what is called a 'reaction,' and the
English garden, which was called 'natural,' was famous and often
imitated in France. It is curious to remark how closely this taste was
associated with the group of friends whom Pope has celebrated. The
first, for example, of the four 'Moral Epistles,' is addressed to
Cobham, who laid out the famous garden at Stowe, in which 'Capability
Brown,' the most popular landscape gardener of the century, was brought
up; the third is addressed to Bathurst, an enthusiastic gardener, who
had shown his skill at his seat of Richings near Colnbrook; and the
fourth to Burlington, whose house and gardens at Chiswick were laid out
by Kent, the famous landscape gardener and architect--Brown's
predecessor. In the same epistle Pope ridicules the formality of
Chandos' grounds at Canons. A description of his own garden includes the
familiar lines


     'Here St. John mingles with my friendly bowl
     The feast of reason and the flow of soul,
     And he (Peterborough) whose lightning pierced the Iberian lines
     Now forms my quincunx and now ranks my vines,
     Or tames the genius of the stubborn plain
     Almost as quickly as he conquered Spain.'


Pope's own garden was itself a model. 'Pope,' says Horace Walpole, 'had
twisted and twirled and rhymed and harmonised his little five acres
till it appeared two or three sweet little lawns opening and opening
beyond one another, and the whole surrounded with thick impenetrable
woods.' The taste grew as the century advanced. Now one impulse towards
the new style is said to have come from articles in the _Spectator_ by
Addison and in the _Guardian_ by Pope, ridiculing the old-fashioned mode
of clipping trees, and so forth. Nature, say both, is superior to art,
and the man of genius, as Pope puts it, is the first to perceive that
all art consists of 'imitation and study of nature.' Horace Walpole in
his essay upon gardening remarks a point which may symbolise the
principle. The modern style, he says, sprang from the invention of the
ha-ha by Bridgeman, one of the first landscape gardeners. The 'ha-ha'
meant that the garden, instead of being enclosed by a wall, was laid out
so as to harmonise with the surrounding country, from which it was only
separated by an invisible fence. That is the answer to the problem; is
it not a solecism for a lover of gardens to prefer nature to art? A
garden is essentially a product of art? and supplants the moor and
desert made by unassisted nature. The love of Nature as understood in a
later period, by Byron for example, went to this extreme, in words at
least, and becomes misanthropical in admiring the savage for its own
sake. But the landscape gardener only meant that his art must be in some
sense subordinate to nature; that he must not shut out the wider scenery
but include it in his designs. He was apt to look upon mountains as a
background to parks, as Telford thought that rivers were created to
supply canals. The excellent Gilpin, who became an expounder of what he
calls 'the theory of the picturesque,' travelled on the Wye in the same
year as Gray; and amusingly criticises nature from this point of view.
Nature, he says, works in a cold and singular style of composition, but
has the merit of never falling into 'mannerism.' Nature, that is, is a
sublime landscape gardener whose work has to be accepted, and to whom
the gardener must accommodate himself. A quaint instance of this theory
may be found in the lecture which Henry Tilney in _Mansfield Park_
delivers to Catherine Morland. In Horace Walpole's theory, the evolution
of the ha-ha, means that man and nature, the landowner and the country,
are gradually forming an alliance, and it comes to the same thing
whether one or the other assimilates his opposite.

Briefly, this means one process by which the so-called love of nature
was growing; it meant better roads and inns; the gradual reflux of town
into country; and the growing sense already expressed by Cowley and
Marvell, that overcrowded centres of population have their
inconveniences, and that the citizen should have his periods of
communion with unsophisticated nature. Squire and Wit are each learning
to appreciate each other's tastes. The tourist is developed, and begins,
as Gibbon tells us, to 'view the glaciers' now that he can view them
without personal inconvenience. This, again, suggests that there is
nothing radically new in the so-called love of nature. Any number of
poets from Chaucer downwards may be cited to show that men were never
insensible to natural beauty of scenery; to the outburst of spring, or
the bloom of flowers, or the splendours of storms and sunsets. The
indifference to nature of the Pope school was, so far, the temporary
complacency of the new population focused in the metropolitan area in
their own enlightenment and their contempt for the outside rustic. The
love of field-sports was as strong as ever in the squire, and as soon as
he began to receive some of the intellectual irradiation from the town
Wit, he began to express the emotions which never found clearer
utterance than in Walton's _Compleat Angler_. But there is a
characteristic difference. With the old poets nature is in the
background; it supplies the scenery for human action and is not itself
consciously the object; they deal with concrete facts, with the delight
of sport or rustic amusements: and they embody their feelings in the old
conventions; they converse with imaginary shepherds: with Robin Hood or
allegorical knights in romantic forests, who represent a love of nature
but introduce description only as a set-off to the actors in masques or
festivals. In Pope's time we have the abstract or metaphysical deity
Nature, who can be worshipped with a distinct appreciation. The
conventions have become obsolete, and if used at all, the poet himself
is laughing in his sleeve. The serious aim of the poet is to give a
philosophy of human nature; and the mere description of natural objects
strikes him as silly unless tacked to a moral. Who could take offence,
asks Pope, referring to his earlier poems, 'when pure description held
the place of sense'? The poet, that is, who wishes to be 'sensible'
above all, cannot condescend to give mere catalogues of trees and
rivers and mountains. Nature, however, is beginning to put in a claim
for attention, even in the sense in which Nature means the material
world. In one sense this is a natural corollary from the philosophy of
the time and of that religion of nature which it implied. Pope himself
gives one version of it in the _Essay on Man_; and can expatiate
eloquently upon the stars and upon the animal world. But the poem itself
is essentially constructed out of a philosophical theory too purely
argumentative to lend itself easily to poetry. A different, though
allied, way of dealing with the subject appears elsewhere. If Pope
learned mainly from Bolingbroke, he was also influenced by Shaftesbury
of the _Characteristics_. I note, but cannot here insist upon,
Shaftesbury's peculiar philosophical position. He inherited to some
extent the doctrine of the Cambridge Platonists and repudiated the
sensationalist doctrine of Locke and the metaphysical method of Clarke.
He had a marked influence on Hutcheson, Butler, and the common-sense
philosophers of his day. For us, it is enough to say that he worships
Nature but takes rather the æsthetic than the dialectical point of view.
The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are all one, as he constantly
insists, and the universe impresses us not as a set of mechanical
contrivances but as an artistic embodiment of harmony. He therefore
restores the universal element which is apt to pass out of sight in
Pope's rhymed arguments. He indulges his philosophical enthusiasm in
what he calls _The Moralists, a Rhapsody_. It culminates in a prose hymn
to a 'glorious Nature, supremely fair and sovereignly good; all-loving
and all-lovely, all divine,' which ends by a survey of the different
climates, where even in the moonbeams and the shades of the forests we
find intimations of the mysterious being who pervades the universe. A
love of beauty was, in this sense, a thoroughly legitimate development
of the 'Religion of Nature.' Akenside in his philosophical poem _The
Pleasures of Imagination_, written a little later, professed himself to
be a disciple of Shaftesbury, and his version supplied many quotations
for Scottish professors of philosophy. Henry Brooke's _Universal
Beauty_, a kind of appendix to Pope's essay, is upon the same theme,
though he became rather mixed in physiological expositions, which
suggested, it is said, Darwin's _Botanic Garden_. The religious
sentiment embodied in his _Fool of Quality_ charmed Wesley and was
enthusiastically admired by Kingsley. Thomson, however, best illustrates
this current of sentiment. The fine 'Hymn of Nature' appended to the
_Seasons_, is precisely in the same vein as Shaftesbury's rhapsody. The
descriptions of nature are supposed to suggest the commentary embodied
in the hymn. He still describes the sea and sky and mountains with the
more or less intention of preaching a sermon upon them. That is the
justification of the 'pure description' which Pope condemned in
principle, and which occupies the larger part of the poem. Thomson, when
he wrote the sermons, was still fresh from Edinburgh and from
Teviotdale. He had a real eye for scenery, and describes from
observation. The English Wits had not, it seems, annexed Scotland, and
Thomson had studied Milton and Spenser without being forced to look
through Pope's spectacles. Still he cannot quite trust himself. He is
still afraid, and not without reason, that pure description will fall
into flat prose, and tries to 'raise his diction'--in the phrase of the
day--by catching something of the Miltonic harmony and by speaking of
fish as 'finny tribes' and birds as 'the feathered people.' The fact,
however, that he could suspend his moralising to give realistic
descriptions at full length, and that they became the most interesting
parts of the poem, shows a growing interest in country life. The
supremacy of the town Wit is no longer unquestioned; and there is an
audience for the plain direct transcripts of natural objects for which
the Wit had been too dignified and polished. Thomson had thus the merit
of representing a growing sentiment--and yet he has not quite solved the
problem. His philosophy is not quite fused with his observation. To make
'Nature' really interesting you must have a touch of Wordsworthian
pantheism and of Shelley's 'pathetic fallacy.' Thomson's facts and his
commentary lie in separate compartments. To him, apparently, the
philosophy is more important than the simple description. His
masterpiece was to be the didactic and now forgotten poem on _Liberty_.
It gives an interesting application; for there already we have the
sentiment which was to become more marked in later years. 'Liberty'
crosses the Alps and they suggest a fine passage on the beauty of
mountains. Nature has formed them as a rampart for the homely republics
which worship 'plain Liberty'; and are free from the corruption typified
by Walpole. That obviously is the germ of the true Rousseau version of
Nature worship. On the whole, however, Nature, as interpreted by the
author of 'Rule Britannia,' is still very well satisfied with the
British Constitution and looks upon the Revolution of 1688 as the avatar
of the true goddess. 'Nature,' that is, has not yet come to condemn
civilisation in general as artificial and therefore corrupt. As in
practice, a lover of Nature did not profess to prefer the wilderness to
fields, and looked upon mountains rather as a background to the
nobleman's park than as a shelter for republics; so in politics it
reflected no revolutionary tendency but rather included the true British
system which has grown up under its protection. Nature has taken to
lecturing, but she only became frankly revolutionary with Rousseau and
misanthropic with Byron.

I must touch one more characteristic. Pope, I have said, represents the
aristocratic development of literature. Meanwhile the purely plebeian
society was growing, and the toe of the clown beginning to gall the kibe
of the courtier. Pope's 'war with the dunces' was the historical symptom
of this most important social development. The _Dunciad_, which,
whatever its occasional merits, one cannot read without spasms both of
disgust and moral disapproval, is the literary outcome. Pope's morbid
sensibility perverts his morals till he accepts the worst of
aristocratic prejudices and treats poverty as in itself criminal. It led
him, too, to attack some worthy people, and among others the 'earless'
Defoe. Defoe's position is most significant. A journalist of supreme
ability, he had an abnormally keen eye for the interesting. No one could
feel the pulse of his audience with greater quickness. He had already
learned by inference that nothing interests the ordinary reader so much
as a straightforward narrative of contemporary facts. He added the
remark that it did not in the least matter whether the facts had or had
not happened; and secondly, that it saved a great deal of trouble to
make your facts instead of finding them. The result was the inimitable
_Robinson Crusoe_, which was, in that sense, a simple application of
journalistic methods, not a conscious attempt to create a new variety of
novel. Alexander Selkirk had very little to tell about his remarkable
experience; and so Defoe, instead of confining himself like the ordinary
interviewer to facts, proceeded to tell a most circumstantial and
elaborate lie--for which we are all grateful. He was doing far more than
he meant. Defoe, as the most thorough type of the English class to
which he belonged, could not do otherwise than make his creation a
perfect embodiment of his own qualities. _Robinson Crusoe_ became, we
know, a favourite of Rousseau, and has supplied innumerable
illustrations to writers on Political Economy. One reason is that Crusoe
is the very incarnation of individualism: thrown entirely upon his own
resources, he takes the position with indomitable pluck; adapts himself
to the inevitable as quietly and sturdily as may be; makes himself
thoroughly at home in a desert island, and, as soon as he meets a
native, summarily annexes him, and makes him thoroughly useful. He comes
up smiling after many years as if he had been all the time in a shop in
Cheapside without a hair turned. This exemplary person not only embodies
the type of middle class Briton but represents his most romantic
aspirations. In those days the civilised world was still surrounded by
the dim mysterious regions, where geographers placed elephants instead
of towns, but where the adventurous Briton was beginning to push his way
into strange native confines and to oust the wretched foreigner, Dutch,
French, Spanish, and Portuguese, who had dared to anticipate him.
Crusoe is the voice of the race which was to be stirred by the story of
Jenkins' ear and lay the foundation of the Empire. Meanwhile, as a
literary work, it showed most effectually the power of homely realism.
There is no bother about dignity or attempt to reveal the eloquence of
the polished Wit. It is precisely the plain downright English vernacular
which is thoroughly intelligible to everybody who is capable of reading.
The Wit, too, as Swift sufficiently proved, could be a consummate master
of that kind of writing on occasion, and Gulliver probably showed
something to Crusoe. But for us the interest is the development of a new
class of readers, who won't bother about canons of taste or care for
skill in working upon the old conventional methods, but can be
profoundly interested in a straightforward narrative adapted to the
simplest understandings. Pope's contempt for the dunces meant that the
lower classes were the objects of supreme contempt to the aristocratic
circle, whose culture they did not share. But Defoe was showing in a new
sense of the word the advantage of an appeal to Nature; for the true
life and vigour of the nation was coming to be embodied in the class
which was spontaneously developing its own ideals and beginning to
regard the culture of the upper circle as artificial in the
objectionable sense. Outside the polished circle of wits we have the
middle-class which is beginning to read, and will read, what it really
likes without bothering about Aristotle or M. Bossu: as, in the other
direction, the assimilation between town and country is incidentally
suggesting a wider range of topics, and giving a new expression to
conditions which had for some time been without expression.



IV

(1739-1763)


I am now to speak of the quarter of a century which succeeded the fall
of Walpole, and includes two singularly contrasted periods. Walpole's
fall meant the accession to power of the heterogeneous body of statesmen
whose virtuous indignation had been raised by his corrupt practices.
Some of them, as Carteret, Pulteney, Chesterfield, were men of great
ability; but, after a series of shifting combinations and personal
intrigues, the final result was the triumph of the Pelhams--the
grotesque Duke of Newcastle and his brother, who owed their success
mainly to skill in the art of parliamentary management. The opposition
had ousted Walpole by taking advantage of the dumb instinct which
impelled us to go to war with Spain; and distracted by the interests of
Hanover and the balance of power we had plunged into that complicated
series of wars which lasted for some ten years, and passes all powers
of the ordinary human intellect to understand or remember. For what
particular reason Englishmen were fighting at Dettingen or Fontenoy or
Lauffeld is a question which a man can only answer when he has been
specially crammed for examination and his knowledge has not begun to
ooze out; while the abnormal incapacity of our rulers was displayed at
the attack upon Carthagena or during the Pretender's march into England.
The history becomes a shifting chaos marked by no definite policy, and
the ship of State is being steered at random as one or other of the
competitors for rule manages to grasp the helm for a moment. Then after
another period of aimless intrigues the nation seems to rouse itself;
and finding at last a statesman who has a distinct purpose and can
appeal to a great patriotic sentiment, takes the leading part in Europe,
wins a series of victories, and lays the foundation of the British
Empire in America and India. Under Walpole's rule the House of Commons
had become definitely the dominant political body. The minister who
could command it was master of the position. The higher aristocracy are
still in possession of great influence, but they are ceasing to be the
adequate representatives of the great political forces. They are in the
comfortable position of having completely established their own
privileges; and do not see any reason for extending privileges to
others. Success depends upon personal intrigues among themselves and
upon a proper manipulation of the Lower House which, though no overt
constitutional change has taken place, is coming to be more decidedly
influenced by the interests of the moneyed men and the growing middle
classes. Pitt and Newcastle represent the two classes which are coming
into distinct antagonism. Pitt's power rested upon the general national
sentiment. 'You have taught me,' as George II. said to him, 'to look for
the sense of my people in other places than the House of Commons.' The
House of Commons, that is, should not derive its whole authority from
the selfish interest of the borough-mongers but from the great outside
current of patriotic sentiment and aspiration. But public opinion was
not yet powerful enough to support the great minister without an
alliance with the master of the small arts of intrigue. The general
sentiments of discontent which had been raised by Walpole was therefore
beginning to widen and deepen and to take a different form. The root of
the evil, as people began to feel, was not in the individual Walpole but
in the system which he represented. Brown's _Estimate_ is often noticed
in illustration. Brown convinced his readers, as Macaulay puts it, that
they were a race of cowards and scoundrels, who richly deserved the fate
in store for them of being speedily enslaved by their enemies; and the
prophecy was published (1757) on the eve of the most glorious war we had
ever known. It represents also, as Macaulay observes, the indignation
roused by the early failures of the war and the demand that Pitt should
take the helm. Brown was a very clever, though not a very profound,
writer. A similar and more remarkable utterance had been made some years
before (1749) by the remarkable thinker, David Hartley. The world, he
said, was in the most critical state ever known. He attributes the evil
to the growth of infidelity in the upper classes; their general
immorality; their sordid self-interest, which was almost the sole motive
of action of the ministers; the contempt for authority of all their
superiors; the worldly-mindedness of the clergy and the general
carelessness as to education. These sentiments are not the mere
platitudes, common to moralists in all ages. They are pointed and
emphasised by the state of political and social life in the period.
Besides the selfishness and want of principle of the upper classes, one
fact upon which Hartley insists is sufficiently familiar. The Church it
is obvious had been paralysed. It had no corporate activity; it was in
thorough subjection to the aristocracy; the highest preferments were to
be won by courting such men as Newcastle, and not by learning or by
active discharge of duty; and the ordinary parson, though he might be
thoroughly respectable and amiable, was dependant upon the squire as his
superior upon the ministers. He took things easily enough to verify
Hartley's remarks. We must infer from later history that a true
diagnosis would not have been so melancholy as Hartley supposed. The
nation was not corrupt at the core. It was full of energy; and rapidly
developing in many directions. The upper classes, who had gained all
they wanted, were comfortable and irresponsible; not yet seriously
threatened by agitators; able to carry on a traffic in sinecures and
pensions, and demoralised as every corporate body becomes demoralised
which has no functions to discharge in proportion to capacities. The
Church naturally shared the indolence of its rulers and patrons. Hartley
exhorts the clergy to take an example from the energy of the Methodists
instead of abusing them. Wesley had begun his remarkable missionary
career in 1738, and the rapid growth of his following is a familiar
proof on the one side of the indolence of the established authorities,
and on the other of the strength of the demand for reform in classes to
which he appealed. If, that is, the clergy were not up to their duties,
Wesley's success shows that there was a strong sense of existing moral
and social evils which only required an energetic leader to form a
powerful organisation. I need not attempt to inquire into the causes of
the Wesleyan and Evangelical movement, but must note one
characteristic--it had not an intellectual but a sound moral origin.
Wesley takes his creed for granted, and it was the creed, so far as they
had one, of the masses of the nation. He is shocked by perjury,
drunkenness, corruption, and so forth, but has not seriously to meet
scepticism of the speculative variety. If Wesley did not, like the
leader of another Oxford movement, feel bound to clear up the logical
basis of his religious beliefs, he had of course to confront deism, but
could set it down as a mere product of moral indifference. When Hartley,
like Butler, speaks of the general unbelief of the day, he was no doubt
correct within limits. In the upper social sphere the tone was
sceptical. Not only Bolingbroke but such men as Chesterfield and Walpole
were indifferent or contemptuous. They were prepared to go with
Voltaire's development of the English rationalism. But the English
sceptic of the upper classes was generally a Gallio. He had no desire to
propagate his creed, still less to attack the Church, which was a
valuable part of his property; it never occurred to him that scepticism
might lead to a political as well as an ecclesiastical revolution.
Voltaire was not intentionally destructive in politics, whatever the
real effect of his teaching; but he was an avowed and bitter enemy of
the Church and the orthodox creed. Hume, the great English sceptic, was
not only a Tory in politics but had no desire to affect the popular
belief. He could advise a clergyman to preach the ordinary doctrines,
because it was paying far too great a compliment to the vulgar to be
punctilious about speaking the truth to them. A similar indifference is
characteristic of the whole position. The select classes were to be
perfectly convinced that the accepted creed was superstitious; but they
were not for that reason to attack it. To the statesman, as Gibbon was
to point out, a creed is equally useful, true or false; and the English
clergy, though bound to use orthodox language, were far too well in hand
to be regarded as possible persecutors. Even in Scotland they made no
serious attempt to suppress Hume; he had only to cover his opinions by
some decent professions of belief. One symptom of the general state of
mind is the dying out of the deist controversies. The one great divine,
according to Brown's _Estimate_, was Warburton, the colossus, he says,
who bestrides the world: and Warburton, whatever else he may have been,
was certainly of all divines the one whose argument is most palpably
fictitious, if not absolutely insincere. He marks, however, the tendency
of the argument to become historical. Like a much acuter writer, Conyers
Middleton, he is occupied with the curious problem: how do we reconcile
the admission that miracles never happen with the belief that they once
happened?--or are the two beliefs reconcilable? That means, is history
continuous? But it also means that the problems of abstract theology
were passing out of sight, and that speculation was turning to the
historical and scientific problems. Hartley was expounding the
association principle which became the main doctrine of the empirical
school, and Hume was teaching ethics upon the same basis, and turning
from speculation to political history. The main reason of this
intellectual indifference was the social condition under which the
philosophical theory found no strong current of political discontent
with which to form an alliance. The middle classes, which are now
growing in strength and influence, had been indifferent to the
discussions going on above their heads. The more enlightened clergy had,
of course, been engaged in the direct controversy, and had adopted a
kind of mild common-sense rationalism which implied complete
indifference to the dogmatic disputes of the preceding century. The
Methodist movement produced a little revival of the Calvinist and
Arminian controversy. But the beliefs of the great mass of the
population were not materially affected: they held by sheer force of
inertia to the old traditions, and still took themselves to be good
orthodox Protestants, though they had been unconsciously more affected
by the permeation of rationalism than they realised.

So much must be said, because the literary work was being more and more
distinctly addressed to the middle class. The literary profession is now
taking more of the modern form. Grub Street is rapidly becoming
respectable, and its denizens--as Beauclerk said of Johnson when he got
his pension--will be able to 'purge and live cleanly like gentlemen.'
Johnson's incomparable letter (1755) rejecting Chesterfield's attempt to
impose his patronage, is the familiar indication of the change. Johnson
had been labouring in the employment of the booksellers, and always,
unlike some more querulous authors, declares that they were fair and
liberal patrons--though it is true that he had to knock down one of them
with a folio. Other writers of less fame can turn an honest penny by
providing popular literature of the heavier kind. There is a demand for
'useful information.' There was John Campbell, for example, the 'richest
author,' said Johnson, who ever grazed 'the common of literature,' who
contributed to the _Modern Universal History_, the _Biographica
Britannica_, and wrote the _Lives of the Admirals_ and the _Political
Survey of Great Britain_, and innumerable historical and statistical
works; and the queer adventurer Sir John Hill, who turned out book after
book with marvellous rapidity and impudence, and is said to have really
had some knowledge of botany. The industrious drudges and clever
charlatans could make a respectable income. Smollett is a superior
example, whose 'literary factory,' as it has been said, 'was in full
swing' at this period, and who, besides his famous novels, was
journalist, historian, and author of all work, and managed to keep
himself afloat, though he also contrived to exceed his income and was
supported by a number of inferior 'myrmidons' who helped to turn out his
hackwork. He describes the author's position in a famous passage in
_Humphry Clinker_ (1756). Smollett also started the _Critical Review_ in
rivalry to the _Monthly Review_, begun by Griffiths a few years before
(1749), and these two were for a long time the only precursors to the
_Edinburgh Review_, and marked an advance upon the old _Gentleman's
Magazine_. In other words, we have the beginning of a new tribunal or
literary Star Chamber. The author has not to inquire what is said of his
performances in the coffee-houses, where the Wits gathered under the
presidency of Addison or Swift. The professional critic has appeared
who will make it his regular business to give an account of all new
books, and though his reviews are still comparatively meagre and apt to
be mere analyses, it is implied that a kind of public opinion is growing
up which will decide upon his merits, and upon which his success or
failure will depend. That means again that the readers to whom he is to
appeal are mainly the middle class, who are not very highly cultivated,
but who have at any rate reached the point of reading their newspaper
and magazine regularly, and buy books enough to make it worth while to
supply the growing demand. The nobleman has ceased to consider the
patronage of authors as any part of his duty, and the tradition which
made him consider writing poetry as a proper accomplishment is dying
out. Since that time our aristocracy as such has been normally
illiterate. Peers--Byron, for example--have occasionally written books;
and more than one person of quality has, like Fox, kept up the interest
in classical literature which he acquired at a public school, and added
a charm to his parliamentary oratory. The great man, too, as I have
said, could take his chance in political writing, and occasionally
condescend to show his skill at an essay of the _Spectator_ model. But a
certain contempt for the professional writer is becoming characteristic,
even of men like Horace Walpole, who have a real taste for literature.
He is inclined to say, as Chesterfield put it in a famous speech, 'We,
my lords, may thank Heaven that we have something better than our brains
to depend upon.' As literature becomes more of a regular profession,
your noble wishes to show his independence of anything like a commercial
pursuit. Walpole can speak politely to men like Gibbon, and even to
Hume, who have some claim to be gentlemen as well as authors; but he
feels that he is condescending even to them, and has nothing but
contemptuous aversion for a Johnson, whose claim to consideration
certainly did not include any special refinement. Johnson and his circle
had still an odour of Grub street, which is only to be kept at a
distance more carefully because it is in a position of comparative
independence. Meanwhile, the author himself holds by the authority of
Addison and Pope. They, he still admits for the most part, represent the
orthodox church; their work is still taken to be the perfection of art,
and the canons which they have handed down have a prestige which makes
any dissenter an object of suspicion. Yet as the audience has really
changed, a certain change also makes itself felt in the substance and
the form of the corresponding literature.

One remarkable book marks the opening of the period. The first part of
Young's _Night Thoughts_ appeared in 1742, and the poem at once acquired
a popularity which lasted at least through the century. Young had been
more or less associated with the Addison and Pope circles, in the later
part of Queen Anne's reign. He had failed to obtain any satisfactory
share of the patronage which came to some of his fellows. He is still a
Wit till he has to take orders for a college living as the old Wits'
circle is decaying. He tried with little success to get something by
attaching himself to some questionable patrons who were induced to carry
on the practice, and the want of due recognition left him to the end of
his life as a man with a grievance. He had tried poetical epistles, and
satires, and tragedies with undeniable success and had shown undeniable
ability. Yet somehow or other he had not, one may say, emerged from the
second class till in the _Night Thoughts_ he opened a new vein which
exactly met the contemporary taste. The success was no doubt due to some
really brilliant qualities, but I need not here ask in what precise rank
he should be placed, as an author or a moralist. His significance for us
is simple. The _Night Thoughts_, as he tells us, was intended to supply
an omission in Pope's _Essay on Man_. Pope's deistical position excluded
any reference to revealed religion, to posthumous rewards and penalties,
and expressed an optimistic philosophy which ignored the corruption of
human nature. Young represents a partial revolt against the domination
of the Pope circle. He had always been an outsider, and his life at
Oxford had, you may perhaps hope, preserved his orthodoxy. He writes
blank verse, though evidently the blank verse of a man accustomed to the
'heroic couplets'; he uses the conventional 'poetic diction'; he strains
after epigrammatic point in the manner of Pope, and the greater part of
his poem is an elaborate argumentation to prove the immortality of
man--chiefly by the argument from astronomy. But though so far accepting
the old method, his success in introducing a new element marks an
important change. He is elaborately and deliberately pathetic; he is
always thinking of death, and calling upon the readers to sympathise
with his sorrows and accept his consolations. The world taken by itself
is, he maintains, a huge lunatic asylum, and the most hideous of sights
is a naked human heart. We are, indeed, to find sufficient consolation
from the belief in immortality. How far Young was orthodox or logical or
really edifying is a question with which I am not concerned. The
appetite for this strain of melancholy reflection is characteristic.
Blair's _Grave_, representing another version of the sentiment, appeared
simultaneously and independently. Blair, like Thomson, living in
Scotland, was outside the Pope circle of wit, and had studied the old
English authors instead of Pope and Dryden. He negotiated for the
publication of his poem through Watts and Doddridge, each of whom was an
eminent interpreter of the religious sentiment of the middle classes.
Both wrote hymns still popular, and Doddridge's _Rise and Progress of
Religion in the Soul_ has been a permanently valued manual. The Pope
school had omitted religious considerations, and treated religion as a
system of abstract philosophy. The new class of readers wants something
more congenial to the teaching of their favourite ministers and
chapels. Young and Blair thoroughly suited them. Wesley admired Young's
poem, and even proposed to bring out an edition. In his _Further Appeal
to Men of Reason and Religion_, Wesley, like Brown and Hartley, draws up
a striking indictment of the manners of the time. He denounces the
liberty and effeminacy of the nobility; the widespread immorality; the
chicanery of lawyers; the jobbery of charities; the stupid
self-satisfaction of Englishmen; the brutality of the Army; the
indolence and preferment humbug of the Church--the true cause, as he
says, of the 'contempt for the clergy' which had become proverbial. His
remedy of course is to be found in a revival of true religion. He
accepts the general sentiment that the times are out of joint, though he
would seek for a deeper cause than that which was recognised by the
political satirist. While Young was weeping at Welwyn, James Hervey was
meditating among the tombs in Devonshire, and soon afterwards gave
utterance to the result in language inspired by very bad taste, but
showing a love of nature and expressing the 'sentimentalism' which was
then a new discovery. It is said to have eclipsed Law's _Serious Call_,
which I have already mentioned as giving, in admirable literary form,
the view of the contemporary world which naturally found favour with
religious thinkers.

These symptoms indicate the tendencies of the rising class to which the
author has mainly to address himself. It has ceased to be fully
represented by the upper social stratum whose tastes are reflected by
Pope. No distinct democratic sentiment had yet appeared; the
aristocratic order was accepted as inevitable or natural; but there was
a vague though growing sentiment that the rulers are selfish and
corrupt. There is no strong sceptical or anti-religious sentiment; but a
spreading conviction that the official pastors are scandalously careless
in supplying the wants of their flocks. The philosophical and literary
canons of the scholar and gentleman have become unsatisfactory; the
vulgar do not care for the delicate finish appreciated by your
Chesterfield and acquired in the conversations of polite society, and
the indolent scepticism which leads to metaphysical expositions, and is
not allied with any political or social passion, does not appeal to
them. The popular books of the preceding generation had been the
directly religious books: Baxter's _Saint's Rest_, and the _Pilgrim's
Progress_--despised by the polite but beloved by the popular class in
spite of the critics; and among the dissenters such a work as Boston's
_Fourfold State_, or in the Church, Law's _Serious Call_. Your polite
author had ignored the devil, and he plays a part in human affairs
which, as Carlyle pointed out in later days, cannot be permanently
overlooked. The old horned and hoofed devil, indeed, for whom Defoe had
still a weakness, shown in his _History of the Devil_, was becoming a
little incredible; witchcraft was dying out, though Wesley still felt
bound to profess some belief in it; and the old Calvinistic dogmatism,
though it could produce a certain amount of controversy among the
Methodists, had been made obsolete by the growth of rationalism. Still
the new public wanted something more savoury than its elegant teachers
had given; and, if sermons had ceased to be so stimulating as of old, it
could find it in secular moralisers. Defoe, always keenly alive to the
general taste, had tried to supply the demand not only by his queer
_History of the Devil_ but by appending a set of moral reflections to
_Robinson Crusoe_ and other edifying works, which disgusted Charles Lamb
by their petty tradesman morality, and which hardly represent a very
lofty ideal. But the recognised representative of the moralists was the
ponderous Samuel Johnson. It is hard when reading the _Rambler_ to
recognise the massive common sense and deep feeling struggling with the
ponderous verbiage and elephantine facetiousness; yet it was not only a
treasure of wisdom to the learned ladies, Mrs. Chapone, and Mrs.
Elizabeth Carter and the like, who were now beginning to appear, but was
received, without provoking ridicule, by the whole literary class.
_Rasselas_, in spite of its formality, is still a very impressive book.
The literary critic may amuse himself with the question how Johnson came
to acquire the peculiar style which imposed upon contemporaries and
excited the ridicule of the next generation. According to Boswell, it
was due to his reading of Sir Thomas Browne, and a kind of reversion to
the earlier period in which the Latinisms of Browne were still natural,
when the revolt to simple prose had not begun. Addison, at any rate, as
Boswell truly remarks, writes like a 'companion,' and Johnson like a
teacher. He puts on his academical robes to deliver his message to
mankind, and is no longer the Wit, echoing the coffee-house talk, but
the moralist, who looks indeed at actual life, but stands well apart
and knows many hours of melancholy and hypochondria. He preaches the
morality of his time--the morality of Richardson and Young--only
tempered by a hearty contempt for cant, sentimentalism, and all
unreality, and expressing his deeper and stronger nature. The style,
however acquired, has the idiosyncrasy of the man himself; but I shall
have to speak of the Johnsonian view in the next period, when he became
the acknowledged literary dictator and expressed one main tendency of
the period.

Meanwhile Richardson, as Johnson put it, had been teaching the passions
to move at the command of virtue. In other words, Richardson had
discovered an incomparably more effective way of preaching a popular
sermon. He had begun, as we know, by writing a series of edifying
letters to young women; and expounded the same method in _Pamela_, and
afterwards in the famous _Clarissa Harlowe_ and _Sir Charles Grandison_.
All his books are deliberate attempts to embody his ideal in model
representatives of the society of his day. He might have taken a
suggestion from Bunyan; who besides his great religious allegory and the
curious life of _Mr. Badman_, couched a moral lesson in a description
of the actual tradesman of his time. Allegory was now to be supplanted
by fiction. The man was to take the place of the personified virtue and
vice. Defoe had already shown the power of downright realistic
storytelling; and Richardson perhaps learnt something from him when he
was drawing his minute and vivid portraits of the people who might at
any rate pass for being realities. I must take for granted that
Richardson was a man of genius, without adding a word as to its precise
quality. I need only repeat one familiar remark. Richardson was a
typical tradesman of the period; he was the industrious apprentice who
marries his master's daughter; he lived between Hammersmith and
Salisbury Court as a thorough middle-class cockney, and had not an idea
beyond those common to his class; he accepted the ordinary creeds and
conventions; he looked upon freethinkers with such horror that he will
not allow even his worst villains to be religious sceptics; he shares
the profound reverence of the shopkeepers for the upper classes who are
his customers, and he rewards virtue with a coach and six. And yet this
mild little man, with the very narrowest intellectual limitations,
writes a book which makes a mark not only in England but in Europe, and
is imitated by Rousseau in the book which set more than one generation
weeping; _Clarissa Harlowe_, moreover, was accepted as the masterpiece
of its kind, and she moved not only Englishmen but Germans and Frenchmen
to sympathetic tears. One explanation is that Richardson is regarded as
the inventor of 'sentimentalism.' The word, as one of his correspondents
tells him, was a novelty about 1749, and was then supposed to include
anything that was clever and agreeable. I do not myself believe that
anybody invented the mode of feeling; but it is true that Richardson was
the first writer who definitely turned it to account for a new literary
genus. Sentimentalism, I suppose, means, roughly speaking, indulgence in
emotion for its own sake. The sentimentalist does not weep because
painful thoughts are forced upon him but because he finds weeping
pleasant in itself. He appreciates the 'luxury of grief.' (The phrase is
used in Brown's _Barbarossa_; I don't know who invented it.) Certainly
the discovery was not new. The charms of melancholy had been recognised
by Jaques in the forest of Arden and sung by various later poets; but
sentimentalism at the earlier period naturally took the form of
religious meditation upon death and judgment. Young and Hervey are
religious sentimentalists, who have also an eye to literary elegance.
Wesley was far too masculine and sensible to be a sentimentalist; his
emotions impel him to vigorous action; and are much too serious to be
cultivated for their own sakes or to be treated aesthetically. But the
general sense that something is not in order in the general state of
things, without as yet any definite aim for the vague discontent, was
shared by the true sentimentalist. Richardson's sentimentalism is partly
unconscious. He is a moralist very much in earnest, preaching a very
practical and not very exalted morality. It is his moral purpose, his
insistence upon the edifying point of view, his singular fertility in
finding illustrations for his doctrines, which makes him a
sentimentalist. I will confess that the last time I read _Clarissa
Harlowe_ it affected me with a kind of disgust. We wonder sometimes at
the coarse nerves of our ancestors, who could see on the stage any
quantity of murders and ghosts and miscellaneous horrors. Richardson
gave me the same shock from the elaborate detail in which he tells the
story of Clarissa; rubbing our noses, if I may say so, in all her
agony, and squeezing the last drop of bitterness out of every incident.
I should have liked some symptom that he was anxious to turn his eyes
from the tragedy instead of giving it so minutely as to suggest that he
enjoys the spectacle. Books sometimes owe part of their success, as I
fear we must admit, to the very fact that they are in bad taste. They
attract the contemporary audience by exaggerating and over-weighting the
new vein of sentiment which they have discovered. That, in fact, seems
to be the reason why in spite of all authority, modern readers find it
difficult to read Richardson through. We know, at any rate, how it
affected one great contemporary. This incessant strain upon the moral in
question (a very questionable moral it is) struck Fielding as mawkish
and unmanly. Richardson seemed to be a narrow, straitlaced preacher, who
could look at human nature only from the conventional point of view, and
thought that because he was virtuous there should be no more cakes and
ale.

Fielding's revolt produced his great novels, and the definite creation
of an entirely new form of art which was destined to a long and
vigorous life. He claimed to be the founder of a new province in
literature, and saw with perfect clearness what was to be its nature.
The old romances which had charmed the seventeenth century were still
read occasionally: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, for example, and Dr.
Johnson had enjoyed them, and Chesterfield, at a later period, has to
point out to his son that Calprenède's _Cassandra_ has become
ridiculous. The short story, of which Mrs. Behn was the last English
writer, was more or less replaced by the little sketches in the
_Spectator_; and Defoe had shown the attractiveness of a downright
realistic narrative of a series of adventures. But whatever precedents
may be found, our unfortunate ancestors had not yet the true modern
novel. Fielding had, like other hack authors, written for the stage and
tried to carry on the Congreve tradition. But the stage had declined.
The best products, perhaps, were the _Beggar's Opera_ and
_Chrononhotonthologos_ and Fielding's own _Tom Thumb_. When Fielding
tried to make use of the taste for political lampoons, the result was
the Act of Parliament which in 1737 introduced the licensing system. The
Shakespearian drama, it is true, was coming into popularity with the
help of Fielding's great friend, Garrick; but no new Shakespeare
appeared to write modern _Hamlets_ and _Othellos_; Johnson tried to
supply his place with the ponderous _Irene_, and John Home followed with
_Douglas_ of 'My name is Norval' fame. The tragedies were becoming more
dreary. Characteristic of Fielding was his admiration of Lillo, whose
_George Barnwell_ (1730) and _Fatal Curiosity_ (about 1736), the last of
them brought out under Fielding's own management, were remarkable
attempts to revive tragedies by going to real life. It is plain,
however, that the theatre is no longer the appropriate organ of the
reading classes. The licensing act seems to have expressed the general
feeling which, if we call it Puritan, must be Puritan in a sense which
described the general middle-class prejudices. The problem which
Fielding had to solve was to find a literary form which should meet the
tastes of the new public, who could not be drawn to the theatre, and
which yet should have some of the characteristics which had hitherto
been confined to the dramatic form. That was the problem which was
triumphantly solved by _Tom Jones_. The story is no longer a mere series
of adventures, such as that which happened to Crusoe or Gil Blas,
connected by the fact that they happen to the same person; nor a
prolonged religious or moral tract, showing how evil will be punished
and virtue rewarded. It implies a dramatic situation which can be
developed without being hampered by the necessities of
stage-representation; and which can give full scope to a realistic
portrait of nature as it is under all the familiar circumstances of time
and place. This novel, which fulfilled those conditions, has ever since
continued to flourish; although a long time was to elapse before any one
could approach the merits of the first inventor. In all ages, I suppose,
the great artist, whether dramatist or epic poet or novelist, has more
or less consciously had the aim which Fielding implicitly claims for
himself; that is, to portray human nature. Every great artist, again,
must, in one sense, be thoroughly 'realistic.' The word has acquired an
irrelevant connotation: but I mean that his vision of the world must
correspond to the genuine living convictions of his time. He only ceases
to be a realist in that wide sense of the word when he deliberately
affects beliefs which have lost their vitality and uses the old
mythology, for example, as convenient machinery, when it has ceased to
have any real hold upon the minds of their contemporaries. So far Defoe
and Richardson and Fielding were perfectly right and deservedly
successful because they described the actual human beings whom they saw
before them, instead of regarding a setting forth of plain facts as
something below the dignity of the artist. Every new departure in
literature thrives in proportion as it abandons the old conventions
which have become mere survivals. Each of them, in his way, felt the
need of appealing to the new class of readers by direct portraiture of
the readers themselves, Fielding's merit is his thorough appreciation of
this necessity. He will give you men as he sees them, with perfect
impartiality and photographic accuracy. His hearty appreciation of
genuine work is characteristic. He admires Lillo, as I have said, for
giving George Barnwell instead of the conventional stage hero; and his
friend Hogarth, who was in pictorial art what he was in fiction, and
paints the 'Rake's Progress' without bothering about old masters or the
grand style; and he is enthusiastic about Garrick because he makes
Hamlet's fear of the ghost so natural that Partridge takes it for a
mere matter of course. Downright, forcible appeals to fact--contempt for
the artificial and conventional--are his strength, though they also
imply his weakness. Fielding, in fact, is the ideal John Bull; the 'good
buffalo,' as Taine calls him, the big, full-blooded, vigorous mass of
roast-beef who will stand no nonsense, and whose contempt for the
fanciful and arbitrary tends towards the coarse and materialistic. That
corresponds to the contrast between Richardson and Fielding; and may
help to explain why the sentimentalism which Fielding despised yet
corresponded to a vague feeling after a real element of interest. But,
in truth, our criticism, I think, applies as much to Richardson as to
Fielding. Realism, taken in what I should call the right sense, is not
properly opposed to 'idealism'; it points to one of the two poles
towards which all literary art should be directed. The artist is a
realist so far as he deals with the actual life and the genuine beliefs
of his time; but he is an idealist so far as he sees the most essential
facts and utters the deepest and most permanent truths in his own
dialect. His work should be true to life and give the essence of actual
human nature, and also express emotions and thoughts common to the men
of all times. Now that is the weak side of the fiction of this period.
We may read _Clarissa Harlowe_ and _Tom Jones_ with unstinted
admiration; but we feel that we are in a confined atmosphere. There are
regions of thought and feeling which seem to lie altogether beyond their
province. Fielding, in his way, was a bit of a philosopher, though he is
too much convinced that Locke and Hoadley have said the last words in
theology and philosophy. Parson Adams is a most charming person in his
way, but his intellectual outlook is decidedly limited. That may not
trouble us much; but we have also the general feeling that we are living
in a little provincial society which somehow takes its own special
arrangements to be part of the eternal order of nature. The worthy
Richardson is aware that there are a great many rakes and infamous
persons about; but it never occurs to him that there can be any
speculation outside the Thirty-nine Articles; and though Fielding
perceives a great many abuses in the actual administration of the laws
and the political system, he regards the social order, with its squires
and parsons and attorneys as the only conceivable state of things. In
other words they, and I might add their successor Smollett, represent
all the prejudices and narrow assumptions of the quiet, respectable, and
in many ways worthy and domestically excellent, middle-class of the day;
which, on the whole, is determined not to look too deeply into awkward
questions, but to go along sturdily working out its own conceptions and
plodding along on well-established lines.

Another literary movement is beginning which is to lead to the sense of
this deficiency. The nobleman, growing rich and less absorbed in the
political world, has time and leisure to cultivate his tastes, becomes,
as I have said, a dilettante, and sends his son to make the grand tour
as a regular part of his education. Some demon whispers to him, as Pope
puts it, Visto, have a taste! He buys books and pictures, takes to
architecture and landscape-gardening, and becomes a 'collector.' The
instinct of 'collecting' is, I suppose, natural, and its development is
connected with some curious results. One of the favourite objects of
ridicule of the past essayists was the virtuoso. There was something to
them inexpressibly absurd in a passion for buying odds and ends. Pope,
Arbuthnot, and Gay made a special butt of Dr. Woodward, possessor of a
famous ancient shield and other antiquities. Equally absurd, they
thought, was his passion for fossils. He made one of the first
collections of such objects, saw that they really had a scientific
interest, and founded at Cambridge the first professorship of geology.
Another remarkable collector was Sir Hans Sloane, who had brought home a
great number of plants from Jamaica and founded the botanic garden at
Chelsea. His servant, James Salter, set up the famous Don Saltero's
museum in the same place, containing, as Steele tell us, '10,000
gimcracks, including a "petrified crab" from China and Pontius Pilate's
wife's chambermaid's sister's hat.' Don Saltero and his master seemed
equally ridiculous; and Young in his satires calls Sloane 'the foremost
toyman of his time,' and describes him as adoring a pin of Queen
Elizabeth's. Sloane's collections were bought for the nation and became
the foundation of the British Museum; when (1753) Horace Walpole remarks
that they might be worth £80,000 for anybody who loved hippopotamuses,
sharks with one ear, and spiders as big as geese. Scientific research,
that is, revealed itself to contemporaries as a childish and absurd
monomania, unworthy of a man of sense. John Hunter had not yet begun to
form the unequalled museum of physiology, and even the scientific
collectors could have but a dim perception of the importance of a minute
observation of natural phenomena. The contempt for such collections
naturally accompanied a contempt for the antiquary, another variety of
the same species. The study of old documents and ancient buildings
seemed to be a simple eccentricity. Thomas Hearne, the Oxford antiquary,
was a typical case. He devoted himself to the study of old records and
published a series of English Chronicles which were of essential service
to English historians. To his contemporaries this study seemed to be as
worthless as Woodward's study of fossils. Like other monomaniacs he
became crusty and sour for want of sympathy. His like-minded
contemporary, Carte, ruined the prospects of his history by letting out
his belief in the royal power of curing by touch. Antiquarianism, though
providing invaluable material for history, seemed to be a silly
crotchet, and to imply a hatred to sound Whiggism and modern
enlightenment, so long as the Wit and the intelligent person of quality
looked upon the past simply as the period of Gothic barbarism. But an
approximation is beginning to take place. The relation is indicated by
the case of Horace Walpole, a man whose great abilities have been
concealed by his obvious affectations. Two of Walpole's schoolfellows at
Eton were Gray and William Cole. Cole, the Cambridge antiquary, who
tried to do for his own university what Woodward had done for Oxford,
was all but a Catholic, and in political sympathies agreed with Hearne
and Carte. Walpole was a thorough Whig and a freethinker, so long, at
least, as freethinking did not threaten danger to comfortable sinecures
bestowed upon the sons of Whig ministers. But Cole became Walpole's
antiquarian oracle. When Walpole came back from the grand tour, with
nothing particular to do except spend his income, he found one amusement
in dabbling in antiquarian research. He discovered, among other things,
that even a Gothic cathedral could be picturesque, and in 1750 set about
building a 'little Gothic Castle' at Strawberry Hill. The Gothic was of
course the most superficial imitation; but it became the first of a long
line of similar imitations growing gradually more elaborate with results
of which we all have our own opinion. To Walpole himself Strawberry Hill
was a mere plaything, and he would not have wished to be taken too
seriously; as his romance of the _Castle of Otranto_ was a literary
squib at which he laughed himself, though it became the forefather of a
great literary school. The process may be regarded as logical: the
previous generation, rejoicing in its own enlightenment, began to
recognise the difference between present and past more clearly than its
ancestors had done; but generally inferred that the men of old had been
barbarians. The Tory and Jacobite who clings to the past praises its
remains with blind affection, and can see nothing in the present but
corruption and destruction of the foundations of society. The
indifferent dilettante, caring little for any principles and mainly
desirous of amusement, discovers a certain charm in the old institutions
while he professes to despise them in theory. That means one of the
elements of the complex sentiment which we describe as romanticism. The
past is obsolete, but it is pretty enough to be used in making new
playthings. The reconciliation will be reached when the growth of
historical inquiry leads men to feel that past and present are parts of
a continuous series, and to look upon their ancestors neither as simply
ridiculous nor as objects of blind admiration. The historical sense was,
in fact, growing: and Walpole's other friend, Gray, may represent the
literary version. The Queen Anne school, though it despised the older
literature, had still a certain sneaking regard for it. Addison, for
example, pays some grudging compliments to Chaucer and Spenser, though
he is careful to point out the barbarism of their taste. Pope, like all
poets, had loved Spenser in his boyhood and was well read in English
poetry. It was mighty simple of Rowe, he said, to try to write in the
style of Shakespeare, that is, in the style of a bad age. Yet he became
one of the earliest, and far from one of the worst, editors of
Shakespeare; and the growth of literary interest in Shakespeare is one
of the characteristic symptoms of the period. Pope had contemplated a
history of English poetry which was taken up by Gray and finally
executed by Warton. The development of an interest in literary history
naturally led to new departures. The poets of the period, Gray and
Collins and the Wartons, are no longer members of the little circle with
strict codes of taste. They are scholars and students not shut up within
the metropolitan area. There has been a controversy as to whether Gray's
unproductiveness is partly to be ascribed to his confinement to a narrow
and, it seems, to a specially stupid academical circle at Cambridge.
Anyway, living apart from the world of politicians and fine gentlemen,
he had the opportunity to become the most learned of English poets and
to be at home in a wide range of literature representing a great variety
of models. As the antiquary begins to rise to the historian, the
poetical merits recognised in the less regular canons become manifest.
Thomson, trying to write a half-serious imitation of Spenser, made his
greatest success by a kind of accident in the _Castle of Indolence_
(1748); Thomas Warton's Observation on the _Faery Queene_ in 1757 was an
illustration of the influence of historical criticism. I need not say
how Collins was interested by Highland superstition and Gray impressed
by Mallet's _Northern Antiquities_, and how in other directions the
labours of the antiquarian were beginning to provide materials for the
poetical imagination. Gray and Collins still held to the main Pope
principles. They try to be clear and simple and polished, and their
trick of personifying abstract qualities indicates the philosophical
doctrine which was still acceptable. The special principle, however,
which they were beginning to recognise is that indicated by Joseph
Warton's declaration in his _Essay on Pope_ (1757). 'The fashion of
moralising in verse,' he said, had been pushed too far, and he proceeded
to startle the orthodox by placing Spenser above Pope. The heresy gave
so much offence, it is said, that he did not venture to bring out his
second volume for twenty-five years. The point made by Warton marks, in
fact, the critical change. The weak side of the Pope school had been the
subordination of the imagination to the logical theory. Poetry tends to
become rhymed prose because the poet like the preacher has to expound
doctrines and to prove by argument. He despises the old mythology and
the romantic symbolism because the theory was obviously absurd to a man
of the world, and to common sense. He believes that Homer was
deliberately conveying an allegory: and an allegory, whether of Homer or
of Spenser, is a roundabout and foolish way of expressing the truth. A
philosopher--and a poem is versified philosophy--should express himself
as simply and directly as possible. But, as soon as you begin to
appreciate the charm of ancient poetry, to be impressed by Scandinavian
Sagas or Highland superstition or Welsh bards, or allow yourself to
enjoy Spenser's idealised knights and ladies in spite of their total
want of common sense, or to appreciate _Paradise Lost_ although you no
longer accept Milton's scheme of theology, it becomes plain that the
specially poetic charm must consist in something else; that it can
appeal to the emotions and the imagination, though the doctrine which it
embodies is as far as possible from convincing your reason. The
discovery has a bearing upon what is called the love of Nature. Even
Thomson and his followers still take the didactic view of Nature. They
are half ashamed of their interest in mere dead objects, but can treat
skies and mountains as a text for discourses upon Natural Theology. But
Collins and Gray and Warton are beginning to perceive that the pleasure
which we receive from a beautiful prospect, whether of a mountain or of
an old abbey, is something which justifies itself and may be expressed
in poetry without tagging a special moral to its tail. Yet the sturdy
common sense represented by Fielding and Johnson is slow to accept this
view, and the romantic view of things has still for him a touch of
sentimentalism and affectation, and indicates the dilettante rather than
the serious thinker, and Pope still represents the orthodox creed though
symptoms of revolt are slowly showing themselves.



V

(1763-1788)


I now come to the generation which preceded the outbreak of the French
Revolution. Social and political movements are beginning to show
themselves in something of their modern form, and suggest most
interesting problems for the speculative historian. At the same time, if
we confine ourselves to the purely literary region, it is on the whole a
period of stagnation. Johnson is the acknowledged dictator, and Johnson,
the 'last of the Tories,' upholds the artistic canons of Dryden and
Pope, though no successor arises to produce new works at all comparable
with theirs. The school, still ostensibly dominant, has lost its power
of stimulating genius; and as yet no new school has arisen to take its
place. Wordsworth and Coleridge and Scott were still at college, and
Byron in the nursery, at the end of the period. There is a kind of
literary interregnum, though not a corresponding stagnation of
speculative and political energy.

Looking, in the first place, at the active world, the great fact of the
time is the series of changes to which we give the name of the
industrial revolution. The growth of commercial and manufacturing
enterprise which had been going on quietly and continuously had been
suddenly accelerated. Glasgow and Liverpool and Manchester and
Birmingham were becoming great towns, and the factory system was being
developed, profoundly modifying the old relation of the industrial
classes. England was beginning to aim at commercial supremacy, and
politics were to be more than ever dominated by the interests of the
'moneyed man,' or, as we now call them, 'capitalists.' Essentially
connected with these changes is another characteristic development.
Social problems were arising. The growth of the manufactory system and
the accumulation of masses of town population, for example, forced
attention to the problem of pauperism, and many attempts of various
kinds were being made to deal with it. The same circumstances were
beginning to rouse an interest in education; it had suddenly struck
people that on Sundays, at least, children might be taught their
letters so far as to enable them to spell out their Bible. The
inadequacy of the police and prison systems to meet the new requirements
roused the zeal of many, and led to some reforms. As the British Empire
extended we began to become sensible of certain correlative duties; the
impeachment of Warren Hastings showed that we had scruples about
treating India simply as a place where 'nabobs' are to accumulate
fortunes; and the slave-trade suggested questions of conscience which at
the end of the period were to prelude an agitation in some ways
unprecedented.

In the political world again we have the first appearance of a
distinctly democratic movement. The struggle over Wilkes during the
earlier years began a contest which was to last through generations. The
American War of Independence emphasised party issues, and in some sense
heralded the French Revolution. I only note one point. The British
'Whig' of those days represented two impulses which gradually diverged.
There was the home-bred Whiggism of Wilkes and Horne Tooke--the Whiggism
of which the stronghold was in the city of London, with such heroes as
Lord Mayor Beckford, whose statue in the Guildhall displays him hurling
defiance at poor George III. This party embodies the dissatisfaction of
the man of business with the old system which cramped his energies. In
the name of liberty he demands 'self-government'; not greater vigour in
the Executive but less interference and a freer hand for the capitalist.
He believes in individual enterprise. He accepts the good old English
principle that the man who pays taxes should have a voice in spending
them; but he appeals not to an abstract political principle but to
tradition. The reformer, as so often happens, calls himself a restorer;
his political bible begins with the great charter and comes down to the
settlement of 1688. Meanwhile the true revolutionary
movement--represented by Paine and Godwin, appeals to the doctrines of
natural equality and the rights of man. It is unequivocally democratic,
and implies a growing cleavage between the working man and the
capitalists. It repudiates all tradition, and aspires to recast the
whole social order. Instead of proposing simply to diminish the
influence of government, it really tends to centralisation and the
transference of power to the lower classes. This genuine revolutionary
principle did not become conspicuous in England until it was introduced
by the contagion from France, and even then it remained an exotic. For
the present the Whig included all who opposed the Toryism of George III.
The difference between the Whig and the Radical was still latent, though
to be manifested in the near future. When the 'new Whigs,' as Burke
called them, Fox and Sheridan, welcomed the French Revolution in 1789,
they saw in it a constitutional movement of the English type and not a
thorough-going democratic movement which would level all classes, and
transfer the political supremacy to a different social stratum.

This implies a dominant characteristic of the English political
movement. It was led, to use a later phrase, by Whigs not Radicals; by
men who fully accepted the British constitution, and proposed to remove
abuses, not to recast the whole system. The Whig wished to carry out
more thoroughly the platform accepted in 1688, to replace decaying by
sound timbers; but not to reconstruct from the base or to override
tradition by abstract and obsolete theories. His desire for change was
limited by a strong though implicit conservatism. This characteristic
is reflected in the sphere of speculative activity. Philosophy was
represented by the Scottish school whose watchword was common sense.
Reid opposed the scepticism of Hume which would lead, as he held, to
knocking his head against a post--a course clearly condemned by common
sense; but instead of soaring into transcendental and ontological
regions, he stuck to 'Baconian induction' and a psychology founded upon
experience. Hume himself, as I have said, had written for the
speculative few not for the vulgar; and he had now turned from the chase
of metaphysical refinements to historical inquiry. Interest in history
had become characteristic of the time. The growth of a stable, complex,
and continuous social order implies the formation of a corporate memory.
Masses of records had already been accumulated by antiquaries who had
constructed rather annals than history, in which the series of events
was given without much effort to arrange them in literary form or trace
the causal connection. In France, however, Montesquieu had definitely
established the importance of applying the historical method to
political problems; and Voltaire had published some of his brilliant
surveys which attempt to deal with the social characteristics as well
as the mere records of battles and conquests. Hume's _History_,
admirably written, gave Englishmen the first opportunity of enjoying a
lucid survey of the conspicuous facts previously embedded in ponderous
antiquarian phrases. Hume was one of the triumvirate who produced the
recognised masterpieces of contemporary literature. Robertson's theories
are, I take it, superseded: but his books, especially the _Charles V._,
not only gave broad surveys but suggested generalisations as to the
development of institutions, which, like most generalisations, were
mainly wrong, but stimulated further inquiry. Gibbon, the third of the
triumvirate, uniting the power of presenting great panoramas of history
with thorough scholarship and laborious research, produced the great
work which has not been, if it ever can be, superseded. A growing
interest in history thus led to some of the chief writings of the time,
as we can see that it was the natural outgrowth of the intellectual
position. The rapid widening of the historical horizon made even a bare
survey useful, and led to some recognition of the importance of guiding
and correcting political and social theory by careful investigation of
past experience. The historian began to feel an ambition to deal in
philosophical theories. He was, moreover, touched by the great
scientific movement. A complete survey of the intellectual history of
the time would of course have to deal with the great men who were laying
the foundations of the modern physical sciences; such as Black, and
Priestley, and Cavendish, and Hunter. It would indeed, have to point out
how small was the total amount of such knowledge in comparison with the
vast superstructure which has been erected in the last century. The
foundation of the Royal Institution at the end of the eighteenth century
marks, perhaps, the point at which the importance of physical science
began to impress the popular imagination. But great thinkers had long
recognised the necessity of applying scientific method in the sphere of
social and political investigation. Two men especially illustrate the
tendency and the particular turn which it took in England. Adam Smith's
great book in 1776 applied scientific method to political economy. Smith
is distinguished from his French predecessors by the historical element
of his work; by his careful study, that is, of economic history, and his
consequent presentation of his theory not as a body of absolute and
quasi-mathematical truth, but as resting upon the experience and
applicable to the concrete facts of his time. His limitation is equally
characteristic. He investigated the play of the industrial mechanism
with too little reference to the thorough interdependence of economic
and other social conditions. Showing how that mechanism adapts itself to
supply and demand, he comes to hold that the one thing necessary is to
leave free play to competition, and that the one essential force is the
individual's desire for his own material interests. He became,
therefore, the prophet of letting things alone. That doctrine--whatever
its merits or defects--implies acquiescence in the existing order, and
is radically opposed to a demand for a reconstruction of society. This
is most clearly illustrated by the other thinker Jeremy Bentham.
Bentham, unlike Smith, shared the contempt for history of the absolute
theorists, and was laying down a theory conceived in the spirit of
absolutism which became the creed of the uncompromising political
radicals of the next generation. But it is characteristic that Bentham
was not, during the eighteenth century, a Radical at all. He altogether
repudiated and vigorously denounced the 'Rights of Men' doctrines of
Rousseau and his followers, and regarded the Declaration of
Independence in which they were embodied as a mere hotchpotch of
absurdity. He is determined to be thoroughly empirical--to take men as
he found them. But his utilitarianism supposed that men's views of
happiness and utility were uniform and clear, and that all that was
wanted was to show them the means by which their ends could be reached.
Then, he thought, rulers and subjects would be equally ready to apply
his principles. He fully accepted Adam Smith's theory of
non-interference in economical matters; and his view of philosophy in
the lump was that there was no such thing, only a heap of obsolete
fallacies and superstitions which would be easily dispersed by the
application of a little downright common sense. Bentham's
utilitarianism, again, is congenial to the whole intellectual movement.
His ethical theory was substantially identical with that of Paley--the
most conspicuous writer upon theology of the generation,--and Paley is
as thoroughly empirical in his theology as in his ethics, and makes the
truth of religion essentially a question of historical and scientific
evidence.

It follows that neither in practice nor in speculative questions were
the English thinkers of the time prescient of any coming revolution.
They denounced abuses, but they had regarded abuses as removable
excrescences on a satisfactory system. They were content to appeal to
common sense, and to leave philosophers to wrangle over ultimate
results. They might be, and in fact were, stirring questions which would
lead to far more vital disputes; but for the present they were
unconscious of the future, and content to keep the old machinery going
though desiring to improve its efficiency. The characteristic might be
elucidated by comparison with the other great European literatures. In
France, Voltaire had begun about 1762 his crusade against orthodoxy, or,
as he calls it, his attempt to crush the infamous. He was supported by
his allies, the Encyclopædists. While Helvétius and Holbach were
expounding materialism and atheism, Rousseau had enunciated the
political doctrines which were to be applied to the Revolution, and
elsewhere had uttered that sentimental deism which was to be so dear to
many of his readers. Our neighbours, in short, after their
characteristic fashion, were pushing logic to its consequences, and
fully awake to the approach of an impending catastrophe. In Germany the
movement took the philosophical and literary shape. Lessing's critical
writings had heralded the change. Goethe, after giving utterance to
passing phases of thought, was rising to become the embodiment of a new
ideal of intellectual culture. Schiller passed through the storm and
stress period and developed into the greatest national dramatist. Kant
had awakened from his dogmatic theory, and the publication of the
_Critique of Pure Reason_ in 1781 had awakened the philosophical world
of Germany. In both countries the study of earlier English literature,
of the English deists and freethinkers, of Shakespeare and of
Richardson, had had great influence, and had been the occasion of new
developments. But it seemed as though England had ceased to be the
originator of ideas, and was for the immediate future at least to
receive political and philosophical impulses from France and Germany. To
explain the course taken in the different societies, to ask how far it
might be due to difference of characteristics, and of political
constitutions, of social organism and individual genius, would be a very
pretty but rather large problem. I refer to it simply to illustrate the
facts, to emphasise the quiet, orderly, if you will, sleepy movement of
English thought which, though combined with great practical energy and
vigorous investigation of the neighbouring departments of inquiry,
admitted of comparative indifference to the deeper issues involved. It
did not generate that stimulus to literary activity due to the dawning
of new ideas and the opening of wide vistas of speculation. When the
French Revolution broke out, it took Englishmen, one may say, by
surprise, and except by a few keen observers or rare disciples of
Rousseau, was as unexpected as the earthquake of Lisbon.

Let us glance, now, at the class which was to carry on the literary
tradition. It is known to us best through Boswell, and its
characteristics are represented by Johnson's favourite club. In one of
his talks with Boswell the great man amused himself by showing how the
club might form itself into a university. Every branch of knowledge and
thought might, he thought, be represented, though it must be admitted
that some of the professors suggested were scarcely up to the mark. The
social variety is equally remarkable. Among the thirty or forty members
elected before Johnson's death, there were the lights of literature;
Johnson himself and Goldsmith, Adam Smith and Gibbon, and others of
less fame. The aristocratic element was represented by Beauclerk and by
half a dozen peers, such as the amiable Lord Charlemont; Burke, Fox,
Sheridan, and Wyndham represent political as well as literary eminence;
three or four bishops represent Church authority; legal luminaries
included Dunning, William Scott (the famous Lord Stowell), Sir Robert
Chambers, and the amazingly versatile Sir William Jones. Boswell and
Langton are also cultivated country gentlemen; Sir Joseph Banks stood
for science, and three other names show the growing respect for art. The
amiable Dr. Burney was a musician who had raised the standard of his
calling; Garrick had still more conspicuously gained social respect for
the profession of actor; and Sir Joshua Reynolds was the representative
of the English school of painters, whose works still impress upon us the
beauty of our great-grandmothers and the charm of their children, and
suggest the existence of a really dignified and pure domestic life in a
class too often remembered by the reckless gambling and loose morality
of the gilded youth of the day. To complete the picture of the world in
which Johnson was at home we should have to add from the outer sphere
such types as Thrale, the prosperous brewer, and the lively Mrs. Thrale
and Mrs. Montague, who kept a salon and was president of the 'Blues.'
The feminine society which was beginning to write our novels was
represented by Miss Burney and Hannah More; and the thriving booksellers
who were beginning to become publishers, such as Strahan and the Dillys,
at whose house he had the famous meeting with the reprobate Wilkes. To
many of us, I suppose, an intimacy with that Johnsonian group has been a
first introduction to an interest in English literature. Thanks to
Boswell, we can hear its talk more distinctly than that of any later
circle. When we compare it to the society of an earlier time, one or two
points are conspicuous. Johnson's club was to some extent a continuation
of the clubs of Queen Anne's time. But the Wits of the earlier period
who met at taverns to drink with the patrons were a much smaller and
more dependent body. What had since happened had been the growth of a
great comfortable middle-class--meaning by middle-class the upper
stratum, the professional men, the lawyers, clergymen, physicians, the
merchants who had been enriched by the growth of commerce and
manufactures; the country gentlemen whose rents had risen, and who could
come to London and rub off their old rusticity. The aristocracy is still
in possession of great wealth and political power, but beneath it has
grown up an independent society which is already beginning to be the
most important social stratum and the chief factor in political and
social development. It has sufficient literary cultivation to admit the
distinguished authors and artists who are becoming independent enough to
take their place in its ranks and appear at its tables and rule the
conversation. The society is still small enough to have in the club a
single representative body and one man for dictator. Johnson succeeded
in this capacity to Pope, Dryden, and his namesake Ben, but he was the
last of the race. Men like Carlyle and Macaulay, who had a similar
distinction in later days, could only be leaders of a single group or
section in the more complex society of their time, though it was not yet
so multitudinous and chaotic as the literary class has become in our
own. Talk could still be good, because the comparatively small society
was constantly meeting, and each prepared to take his part in the game,
and was not being swept away distractedly into a miscellaneous vortex
of all sorts and conditions of humanity. Another fact is conspicuous.
The environment, we may say, of the man of letters was congenial. He
shared and uttered the opinions of the class to which he belonged.
Buckle gives a striking account of the persecution to which the French
men of letters were exposed at this period; Voltaire, Buffon, and
Rousseau, Diderot, Marmontel, and Morellet, besides a whole series of
inferior authors, had their books suppressed and were themselves either
exiled or imprisoned. There was a state of war in which almost the whole
literary class attacked the established creed while the rulers replied
by force instead of argument. In England men of letters were allowed,
with a few exceptions, to say what they thought, and simply shared the
average beliefs of their class and their rulers. If some leant towards
freethinking, the general tendency of the Johnson circle was harshly
opposed to any revolutionary movement, and authors were satisfied with
the creeds as with the institutions amid which they lived.

The English literary class was thus content to utter the beliefs
prevalent in the social stratum to which the chief writers belonged--a
stratum which had no special grievances and no revolutionary impulses,
and which could make its voice sufficiently heard though by methods
which led to no explicit change in the constitution, and suggests only a
change in the forces which really lay behind them. The chief political
changes mean for the present that 'public opinion' was acquiring more
power; that the newspaper press as its organ was especially growing in
strength; that Parliament was thrown open to the reporter, and speeches
addressed to the constituencies as well as to the Houses of Parliament,
and therefore the authority of the legislation becoming more amenable to
the opinions of the constituency. That is to say, again, that the
journalist and orator were growing in power and a corresponding
direction given to literary talent. The Wilkes agitation led to the
_Letters of Junius_--one of the most conspicuous models of the style of
the period; and some of the newspapers which were to live through the
next century began to appear in the following years. This period again
might almost be called the culminating period of English rhetoric. The
speeches of Pitt and Burke and Fox and Sheridan in the House of Commons
and at the impeachment of Warren Hastings must be regarded from the
literary as well as the political point of view, though in most cases
the decay of the temporary interests involved has been fatal to their
permanence. The speeches are still real speeches, intended to affect the
audience addressed, and yet partly intended also for the reporters. When
the audience becomes merely the pretext, and the real aim is to address
the public, the speech tends to become a pamphlet in disguise and loses
its rhetorical character. I may remark in passing that almost the only
legal speeches which, so far as my knowledge goes, are still readable,
were those of Erskine, who, after trying the careers of a sailor and a
soldier, found the true application for his powers in oratory. Though
his legal knowledge is said to have been slight, the conditions of the
time enabled him in addressing a British jury to put forward a political
manifesto and to display singular literary skill. Burke, however, is the
typical figure. Had he been a German he might have been a Lessing, and
the author of the _Sublime and Beautiful_ might, like the author of
_Laokoon_, have stimulated his countrymen by literary criticism. Or he
might have obtained a professorship or a court preachership and, like
Herder, have elaborated ideas towards the future of a philosophy of
history. In England he was drawn into the political vortex, and in that
capacity delivered speeches which also appeared as pamphlets, and which
must rank among the great masterpieces of English literature. I need not
inquire whether he lost more by giving to party what was meant for
mankind, or whether his philosophy did not gain more by the necessity of
constant application to the actual facts of the time. That necessity no
doubt limited both the amount and the systematic completeness of his
writings, though it also emphasised some of their highest merits. The
English political order tended in any case to divert a great deal of
literary ability into purely political channels--a peculiarity which it
has not yet lost. Burke is the typical instance of this combination, and
illustrates most forcibly the point to which I have already adverted.
Johnson, as we know, was a mass of obstinate Tory prejudice, and held
that the devil was the first Whig. He held at bottom, I think, that
politics touched only the surface of human life; that 'kings or laws,'
as he put it, can cause or cure only a small part of the evils which we
suffer, and that some authority is absolutely necessary, and that it
matters little whether it be the authority of a French monarch or an
English parliament. The Whig he thought objected to authority on
principle, and was therefore simply subversive. Something of the same
opinion was held by Johnson's circle in general. They were conservative
both in politics and theology, and English politics and theological
disputes did not obviously raise the deeper issues. Even the
devil-descended Whig--especially the variety represented by Burke--was
as far as possible from representing what he took for the diabolic
agency. Burke represents above all things the political application of
the historical spirit of the period. His hatred for metaphysics, for
discussions of abstract rights instead of practical expediency; his
exaltation of 'prescription' and 'tradition'; his admiration for
Montesquieu and his abhorrence of Rousseau; his idolatry of the British
constitution, and in short his whole political doctrine from first to
last, implies the profound conviction of the truth of the principles
embodied in a thorough historical method. Nobody, I think, was ever more
consistent in his first principles, though his horror of the Revolution
no doubt led him so to exaggerate one side of his teaching that he was
led to denounce some of the consequences which naturally followed from
other aspects of his doctrine. The schism between the old and the new
Whigs was not to be foreseen during this period, nor the coming into the
foreground of the deeper problems involved.

I may now come to the purely literary movement. I have tried to show
that neither in philosophy, theology, nor political and social strata,
was there any belief in the necessity of radical changes, or prescience
of a coming alteration of the intellectual atmosphere. Speculation, like
politics, could advance quietly along the old paths without fearing that
they might lead to a precipice; and society, in spite of very vigorous
and active controversy upon the questions which decided it was in the
main self-satisfied, complacent, and comfortable. Adherence to the old
system is after all the general rule, and it is of the change not the
persistence that we require some account. At the beginning of our
period, Pope's authority was still generally admitted, although many
symptoms of discontent had appeared, and Warton was proposing to lower
him from the first to the second rank. The two most brilliant writers
who achieved fame in the early years of George III., Goldsmith and
Sterne, mark a characteristic moment in the literary development.
Goldsmith's poems the _Traveller_ (1765) and the _Deserted Village_
(1770), and the _Vicar of Wakefield_ (1766), are still on the old lines.
The poetry adopts Pope's versification, and implies the same ideal; the
desire for lucidity, sympathy, moderation, and the qualities which would
generally be connoted by classical. The substance, distinguished from
the style, shows the sympathy with sentimentalism of which Rousseau was
to be the great exponent. Goldsmith is beginning to denounce luxury--a
characteristic mark of the sentimentalist--and his regret for the period
when 'every rood of earth maintained its man' is one side of the
aspiration for a return to the state of nature and simplicity of
manners. The inimitable Vicar recalls Sir Roger de Coverley and the
gentle and delicate touch of Addison. But the Vicar is beginning to take
an interest in philanthropy. He is impressed by the evils of the old
prison system which had already roused Oglethorpe (who like
Goldsmith--as I may notice--disputed with Johnson as to the evils of
luxury) and was soon to arouse Howard. The greatest attraction of the
Vicar is due to the personal charm of Goldsmith's character, but his
character makes him sympathise with the wider social movements and the
growth of genuine philanthropic sentiment. Goldsmith, in his remarks
upon the _Present State of Polite Learning_ (1759), explains the decay
of literature (literature is always decaying) by the general enervation
which accompanies learning and the want of originality caused by the
growth of criticism. That was not an unnatural view at a time when the
old forms are beginning to be inadequate for the new thoughts which are
seeking for utterance. As yet, however, Goldsmith's own work proves
sufficiently that the new motive could be so far adapted to the old form
as to produce an artistic masterpiece. Sterne may illustrate a similar
remark. He represents, no doubt, a kind of sham sentimentalism with an
insincerity which has disgusted many able critics. He was resolved to
attract notice at any price--by putting on cap and bells, and by the
pruriency which stains his best work. Like many contemporaries he was
reading old authors and turned them to account in a way which exposed
him to the charge of plagiarism. He valued them for their quaintness.
They enabled him to satisfy his propensity for being deliberately
eccentric which made Horace Walpole call _Tristram Shandy_ the 'dregs of
nonsense,' and the learned Dr. Farmer prophesied that in twenty years it
would be necessary to search antiquarian shops for a copy. Sterne's
great achievement, however, was not in the mere buffoonery but in the
passages where he continued the Addison tradition. Uncle Toby is a
successor of Sir Roger, and the famous death of Lefevre is told with
inimitable simplicity and delicacy of touch. Goldsmith and Sterne work
upon the old lines, but make use of the new motives and materials which
are beginning to interest readers, and which will in time call for
different methods of treatment.

I must briefly indicate one other point. The society of which Garrick
was a member, and which was both reading Shakespeare and seeing his
plays revived, might well seem fitted to maintain a drama. Goldsmith
complains of the decay of the stage, which he attributes partly to the
exclusion of new pieces by the old Shakespearian drama. On that point he
agrees as far as he dares with Voltaire. He ridiculed Home's _Douglas_,
one of the last tragedies which made even a temporary success, and which
certainly showed that the true impulse was extinct. But Goldsmith and
his younger contemporary Sheridan succeeded for a time in restoring
vigour to comedy. Their triumph over the sentimentalists Kelly and
Cumberland showed, as Johnson put it, that they could fill the aim of
the comedian, namely, making an audience merry. _She Stoops to Conquer_
and _The School for Scandal_ remain among genuine literary masterpieces.
They are revivals of the old Congreve method, and imply the growth of a
society more decent and free from the hard cynical brutality which
disgraced the earlier writers. I certainly cannot give a sufficient
reason why the society of Johnson and Reynolds, full of shrewd common
sense, enjoying humour, and with a literary social tradition, should not
have found other writers capable of holding up the comic mirror. I am
upon the verge of a discussion which seems to be endless, the causes of
the decay of the British stage. I must give it a wide berth, and only
note that, as a fact, Sheridan took to politics, and his mantle fell on
no worthy successor. The next craze (for which he was partly
responsible) was the German theatre of Kotzebue, which represented the
intrusion of new influences and the production of a great quantity of
rubbish. After Goldsmith the poetic impulse seems to have decayed
entirely. After the _Deserted Village_ (1770) no striking work appeared
till Crabbe published his first volume (1781), and was followed by his
senior Cowper in 1782. Both of them employed the metre of Pope, though
Cowper took to blank verse; and Crabbe, though he had read and admired
Spenser, was to the end of his career a thorough disciple of Pope.
Johnson read and revised his _Village_, which was thoroughly in harmony
with the old gentleman's poetic creed. Yet both Cowper and Crabbe
stimulate what may be called in some sense 'a return to nature'; though
not in such a way as to announce a literary revolution. Each was
restrained by personal conditions. Cowper's poetical aims were
profoundly affected by his religious views. The movement which we call
Methodist was essentially moral and philanthropic. It agreed so far with
Rousseau's sentimentalism that it denounced the corruptions of the
existing order; but instead of attributing the evils to the departure
from the ideal state of nature, expressed them by the theological
doctrine of the corruption of the human heart. That implied in some
senses a fundamental difference. But there was a close coincidence in
the judgment of actual motives. Cowper fully agreed with Rousseau that
our rulers had become selfish and luxurious; that war was kept up to
satisfy the ambition of kings and courtiers; that vice flourished
because the aims of our rulers and teachers were low and selfish, and
that slavery was a monstrous evil supported by the greed of traders.
Brown's _Estimate_, he said, was thoroughly right as to our degeneracy,
though Brown had not perceived the deepest root of the evil. Cowper's
satire has lost its salt because he had retired too completely from the
world to make a telling portrait. But he succeeds most admirably when he
finds relief from the tortures of insanity by giving play to the
exquisite playfulness and tenderness which was never destroyed by his
melancholy. He delights us by an unconscious illustration of the simple
domestic life in the quiet Olney fields, which we see in another form in
the charming White of Selborne. He escapes from the ghastly images of
religious insanity when he has indulged in the innocent play of tender
and affectionate emotions, which finds itself revealed in tranquillising
scenery. The literary result is a fresh appreciation of 'Nature.' Pope's
Nature has become for him artificial and conventional. From a religious
point of view it represents 'cold morality,' and the substitution of
logical argumentation for the language of the heart. It suggests the
cynicism of the heartless fine gentleman who sneers at Wesley and
Bunyan, and covers his want of feeling by a stilted deism. Cowper tried
unsuccessfully to supersede Pope's _Homer_; in trying to be simple he
became bald; but he also tried most successfully to express with
absolute sincerity the simple and deep emotions of an exquisitely tender
character.

Crabbe meanwhile believed in Pope, and had a sturdy solid contempt for
Methodism. Cowper's guide, Newton, would have passed with him for a
nuisance and a fanatic. Crabbe is a thorough realist. In some ways he
may be compared to his contemporary Malthus. Malthus started, as we
know, by refuting the sentimentalism of Rousseau; Crabbe's _Village_ is
a protest against the embodiment of the same spirit in Goldsmith. He is
determined to see things as they are, with no rose-coloured mist. Crabbe
replies to critics that if his realism was unpoetical, the criterion
suggested would condemn much of Dryden and Pope as equally unpoetical.
He was not renouncing but carrying on the tradition, and was admired by
Byron in his rather wayward mood of Pope-worship as the last
representative of the legitimate school. The position is significant.
Crabbe condemns Goldsmith's 'Nature' because it is 'unnatural.' It means
the Utopian ideal of Rousseau which never did and never can exist. It
belongs to the world of old-fashioned pastoral poetry, in which Corydon
and Thyrsis had their being. He will paint British squires and farmers
and labourers as he has seen them with his own eyes. The wit has become
for him the mere fop, whose poetry is an arbitrary convention, a mere
plaything for the fine ladies and gentlemen detached from the living
interests of mankind. The Pope tradition is still maintained, but is to
be revised by being brought down again to contact with solid earth.
Therefore on the one hand he is thoroughly in harmony with Johnson, the
embodiment of common sense, and on the other, excited the enthusiasm of
Wordsworth and Scott, who, though leaders of a new movement, heartily
sympathised with his realism and rejection of the old conventionalism.
Though Crabbe regards Cowper's religion as fanaticism, they are so far
agreed that both consider that poetry has become divorced from reality
and reflects the ugly side of actual human nature. They do not propose a
revolution in its methods, but to put fresh life into it by seeing
things as they are. And both of them, living in the country, apply the
principle to 'Nature' in the sense of scenery. Cowper gives interest to
the flat meadows of the Ouse; and Crabbe, a botanist and lover of
natural history, paints with unrivalled fidelity and force the flat
shores and tideways of his native East Anglia. They are both therefore
prophets of a love of Nature, in one of the senses of the Protean word.
Cowper, who prophesied the fall of the Bastille and denounced luxury,
was to some extent an unconscious ally of Rousseau, though he regarded
the religious aspects of Rousseau's doctrine as shallow and
unsatisfactory. Crabbe shows the attitude of which Johnson is the most
characteristic example. Johnson was thoroughly content with the old
school in so far as it meant that poetry must be thoroughly rational and
sensible. His hatred of cant and foppery was so far congenial to the
tradition; but it implied a difference. To him Pope's metaphysical
system was mere foppery, and the denunciation of luxury mere cant. He
felt mere contempt for Goldsmith's flirtation with that vein of
sentiment. His dogged conservatism prevented him from recognising the
strength of the philosophical movements which were beginning to clothe
themselves in Rousseauism. Burke, if he condemned the revolutionary
doctrine as wicked, saw distinctly how potent a lesson it was becoming.
Johnson, showing the true British indifference, could treat the movement
with contempt--Hume's scepticism was a mere 'milking the bull'--a love
of paradox for its own sake--and Wilkes and the Whigs, though wicked in
intention, were simple and superficial dealers in big words. In the
literary application the same sturdy common sense was opposed to the
Pope tradition so far as that tradition opposed common sense.
Conventional diction, pastorals, and twaddle about Nature belonged to
the nonsensical side. He entirely sympathised with Crabbe's substitution
of the real living brutish clown for the unreal swain of Arcadia; that
is, for developing poetry by making it thoroughly realistic even at the
cost of being prosaic.

So far the tendency to realism was thoroughly congenial to the
matter-of-fact utilitarian spirit of the time, and was in some sense in
harmony with a 'return to Nature.' But it was unconsciously becoming
divorced from some of the great movements of thought, of which it failed
to perceive the significance. A new inspiration was showing itself, to
which critics have done at least ample justice. The growth of history
had led to renewed interest in much that had been despised as mere
curiosities or ridiculed as implying the barbarism of our ancestors. I
have already noticed the dilettantism of the previous generation, and
the interest of Gray and Collins and Warton and Walpole in antiquarian
researches. Gothic had ceased to be a simple term of reproach. The old
English literature is beginning to be studied seriously. Pope and
Warburton and Johnson had all edited Shakespeare; Garrick had given him
fresh popularity, and the first edition of _Old Plays_ by Dodsley
appeared in 1744. Similar studies were extending in many directions.
Mallet in his work upon Denmark (1755) gave a translation of the _Eddas_
which called attention to Scandinavian mythology. Bodmer soon
afterwards published for the first time the _Nibelungen Lied_.
Macpherson startled the literary world in 1762 by what professed to be
an epic poem from the Gaelic. Chatterton's career (1752-1770) was a
proof not only of unique poetical precocity, but of a singular facility
in divining the tastes of the literary world at the time. Percy's
_Reliques_ appeared in 1765. Percy, I may note, had begun oddly enough
by publishing a Chinese novel (1761), and a translation of Icelandic
poetry (1763). Not long afterwards Sir William Jones published
translations of Oriental poetry. Briefly, as historical, philological,
and antiquarian research extended, the man of letters was also beginning
to seek for new 'motives,' and to discover merits in old forms of
literature. The importance of this new impulse cannot be over-estimated,
but it may be partly misinterpreted. It is generally described as a
foretaste of what is called the Romantic movement. The word is no doubt
very useful--though exceedingly vague. The historian of literature is
sometimes given to speak as though it meant the revelation of a new and
definite creed. He speaks, that is, like the historian of science, who
accepts Darwinism as the revelation of a new principle transfusing the
old conceptions, and traces the various anticipations, the seminal idea;
or like the Protestant theologian who used to regard Luther as having
announced the full truth dimly foreseen by Wicliff or the Albigenses.
Romanticism, that is, is treated as a single movement; while the men who
share traces of the taste are supposed to have not only foreseen the new
doctrine but to have been the actual originators. Yet I think that all
competent writers will also agree that Romanticism is a name which has
been applied to a number of divergent or inconsistent schools. It seems
to mean every impulse which tended to find the old clothing inadequate
for the new thoughts, which caused dissatisfaction with the old
philosophical and religious or political systems and aspirations, and
took a corresponding variety of literary forms. It is far too complex a
phenomenon to be summed up in any particular formula. The mischief is
that to take the literary evolution as an isolated phenomenon is to miss
an essential clue to such continuity and unity as it really possesses.
When we omit the social factor, the solidarity which exists between
contemporaries occupied with the same problem and sharing certain common
beliefs, each school appears as an independent unit, implying a
discontinuity or a simple relation of contrariety, and we explain the
succession by such a verbal phrase as 'reaction.' The real problem is,
what does the reaction mean? and that requires us to take into account
the complex and variously composed currents of thought and reason which
are seeking for literary expression. The popularity of _Ossian_ for
example, is a curious phenomenon. At the first sight we are disposed to
agree with Johnson that any man could write such stuff if he would
abandon his mind to it, and to add that if any one would write it no one
could read it. Yet we know that _Ossian_ appealed to the gigantic
intellects of Goethe and Napoleon. That is a symptom of deep
significance; _Ossian_ suited Goethe in the _Werther_ period and
Napoleon took it with him when he was dreaming of rivalling Alexander's
conquests in the East. We may perhaps understand why the gigantesque
pictures in _Ossian_ of the northern mountains and scenery--with all its
vagueness, incoherence, and bombast, was somehow congenial to minds
dissatisfied, for different reasons, with the old ideals. To explain the
charm more precisely is a very pretty problem for the acute critic.
_Ossian_, it is clear, fell in with the mood characteristic of the
time. But when we ask what effect it produced in English literature, the
answer must surely be, 'next to none.' Gray was enthusiastic and tried
to believe in its authenticity. Scots, like Blair and even the sceptical
Hume--though Hume soon revolted--defended _Ossian_ out of patriotic
prejudice, and Burns professed to admire. But nobody in Great Britain
took to writing Ossianesque. Wordsworth was simply disgusted by the
unreality, and nothing could be less in the _Ossian_ vein than Burns.
The _Ossian_ craze illustrates the extension of historical interest, of
which I have spoken, and the vague discontent of Wertherism. But I do
not see how the publication can be taken as the cause of a new
departure, although it was an indication of the state of mind which led
to a new departure. Percy's _Reliques_, again, is often mentioned as an
'epoch-making' book. Undoubtedly it was a favourite with Scott and many
other readers of his generation. But how far did it create any change of
taste? The old ballad was on one side congenial to the classical school,
as Addison showed by his criticism of _Chevy Chase_ for its simple
version of a heroic theme. Goldsmith tried his hand at a ballad about
the same time with Percy, and both showed that they were a little too
much afraid that simplicity might degenerate into childishness, and gain
Johnson's contempt. But there was nothing in the old school incompatible
with a rather patronising appreciation of the popular poetry. It gained
fresh interest when the historical tendency gave a newer meaning to the
old society in which ballad poetry had flourished.

This suggests the last remark which I have room to make. One
characteristic of the period is a growth of provincial centres of some
intellectual culture. As manufactures extended, and manufacturers began
to read, circles of some literary pretensions sprang up in Norwich,
Birmingham, Bristol, and Manchester; and most conspicuously in
Edinburgh. Though the Scot was coming south in numbers which alarmed
Johnson, there were so many eminent Scots at home during this time that
Edinburgh seems at least to have rivalled London as an intellectual
centre. The list of great men includes Hume and Adam Smith, Robertson
and Hailes and Adam Ferguson, Kames, Monboddo, and Dugald Stewart among
philosophers and historians; John Home, Blair, G. Campbell, Beattie, and
Henry Mackenzie among men of letters; Hutton, Black, Cullen, and
Gregory among scientific leaders. Scottish patriotism then, as at other
periods, was vigorous, and happily ceasing to be antagonistic to
unionist sentiment. The Scot admitted that he was touched by
provincialism; but he retained a national pride, and only made the
modest and most justifiable claim that he was intrinsically superior to
the Southron. He still preserved intellectual and social traditions, and
cherished them the more warmly, which marked him as a distinct member of
the United Kingdom. In Scotland the rapid industrial development had
given fresh life to the whole society without obliterating its
distinctive peculiarities. Song and ballad and local legends were still
alive, and not merely objects of literary curiosity. It was under such
conditions that Burns appeared, the greatest beyond compare of all the
self-taught poets. Now there can be no explanation whatever of the
occurrence of a man of genius at a given time and place. For anything we
can say, Burns was an accident; but given the genius, his relation was
clear, and the genius enabled him to recognise it with unequalled
clearness. Burns became, as he has continued, the embodiment of the
Scottish genius. Scottish patriotic feeling animates some of his
noblest poems, and whether as an original writer--and no one could be
more original--or as adapting and revising the existing poetry, he
represents the essential spirit of the Scottish peasant. I need not
point out that this implies certain limitations, and some failings worse
than limitation. But it implies also the spontaneous and masculine
vigour which we may call poetic inspiration of the highest kind. He had
of course read the English authors such as Addison and Pope. So far as
he tried to imitate the accepted form he was apt to lose his fire. He is
inspired when he has a nation behind him and is the mouthpiece of
sentiments, traditional, but also living and vigorous. He represents,
therefore, a new period. The lyrical poetry seemed to have died out in
England. It suddenly comes to life in Scotland and reaches unsurpassable
excellence within certain limits, because a man of true genius rises to
utter the emotions of a people in their most natural form without
bothering about canons of literary criticism. The society and the
individual are in thorough harmony, and that, I take it, is the
condition of really great literature at all times.

This must suggest my concluding moral. The watchword of every literary
school may be brought under the formula 'Return to Nature': though
'Nature' receives different interpretations. To be natural, on the one
hand, is to be sincere and spontaneous; to utter the emotions natural to
you in the forms which are also natural, so far as the accepted canons
are not rules imposed by authority but have been so thoroughly
assimilated as to express your own instinctive impulses. On the other
side, it means that the literature must be produced by the class which
embodies the really vital and powerful currents of thought which are
moulding society. The great author must have a people behind him; utter
both what he really thinks and feels and what is thought and felt most
profoundly by his contemporaries. As the literature ceases to be truly
representative, and adheres to the conventionalism of the former period,
it becomes 'unnatural' and the literary forms become a survival instead
of a genuine creation. The history of eighteenth century literature
illustrates this by showing how as the social changes give new influence
to the middle classes and then to the democracy, the aristocratic class
which represented the culture of the opening stage is gradually pushed
aside; its methods become antiquated and its conventions cease to
represent the ideals of the most vigorous part of the population. The
return to Nature with Pope and Addison and Swift meant, get rid of
pedantry, be thoroughly rational, and take for your guide the bright
common sense of the Wit and the scholar. During Pope's supremacy the Wit
who represents the aristocracy produces some admirably polished work;
but the development of journalism and Grub Street shows that he is
writing to satisfy the popular interests so keenly watched by Defoe in
Grub Street. In the period of Richardson and Fielding Nature has become
the Nature of the middle-class John Bull. The old romances have become
hopelessly unnatural, and they will give us portraits of living human
beings, whether Clarissa or Tom Jones. The rationalism of the higher
class strikes them as cynical, and the generation which listens to
Wesley must have also a secular literature, which, whether sentimental
as with Richardson or representing common sense with Fielding, must at
any rate correspond to solid substantial matter-of-fact motives,
intelligible to the ordinary Briton of the time. In the last period, the
old literary conventions, though retaining their old literary prestige,
are becoming threadbare while preserving the old forms. Even the
Johnsonian conservatism implies hatred for cant, for mere foppery and
sham sentimentalism; and though it uses them, insists with Crabbe upon
keeping in contact with fact. We must be 'realistic,' though we can
retain the old literary forms. The appeal to Nature, meanwhile, has come
with Rousseau and the revolutionists to mean something different--the
demand, briefly, for a thorough-going reconstruction of the whole
philosophical and social fabric. To the good old Briton, Whig or Tory,
that seemed to be either diabolical or mere Utopian folly. To him the
British constitution is still thoroughly congenial and 'natural.'
Meanwhile intellectual movement has introduced a new element. The
historical sense is being developed, as a settled society with a complex
organisation becomes conscious at once of its continuity and of the slow
processes of growth by which it has been elaborated. The fusion of
English and Scottish nations stimulates the patriotism of the smaller
though better race, and generates a passionate enthusiasm for the old
literature which represents the characteristic genius of the smaller
community. Burns embodies the sentiment, though without any conscious
reference to theories philosophical or historical. The significance was
to be illustrated by Scott--an equally fervid patriot. He tells Crabbe
how oddly a passage in the _Village_ was associated in his memory with
border-riding ballads and scraps of old plays. 'Nature' for Scott meant
'his honest grey hills' speaking in every fold of old traditional lore.
That meant, in one sense, that Scott was not only romantic but
reactionary. That was his weakness. But if he was the first to make the
past alive, he was also the first to make the present historical. His
masterpieces are not his descriptions of mediæval knights so much as the
stories in which he illuminates the present by his vivid presentation of
the present order as the outgrowth from the old, and makes the Scottish
peasant or lawyer or laird interesting as a product and a type of social
conditions. Nature therefore to him includes the natural processes by
which society has been developed under the stress of circumstances.
Nothing could be more unnatural for him than the revolutionary principle
which despises tradition and regards the patriotic sentiment as
superfluous and irrational. Wordsworth represents again another sense of
Nature. He announced as his special principle that poetry should speak
the language of Nature, and therefore, as he inferred, of the ordinary
peasant and uneducated man. The hills did not speak to him of legend or
history but of the sentiment of the unsophisticated yeoman or
'statesman.' He sympathised enthusiastically with the French Revolution
so long as he took it to utter the simple republican sentiment congenial
to a small society of farmers and shepherds. He abandoned it when he
came to think that it really meant the dissolution of the religious and
social sentiments which correspond to the deepest instincts which bound
such men together. Coleridge represents a variation. He was the first
Englishman to be affected by the philosophical movement of Germany. He
had been an ardent revolutionist in the days when he adopted the
metaphysics of Hartley and Priestley, which fell in with the main
eighteenth-century current of scepticism. He came to think that the
movement represented a perversion of the intellect. It meant materialism
and scepticism, or interpreted Nature as a mere dead mechanism. It
omitted, therefore, the essential element which is expressed by what we
may roughly call the mystical tendency in philosophy. Nature must be
taken as the embodiment of a divine idea. Nature, therefore, in his
poetry, is regarded not from Scott's point of view as subordinate to
human history, or from Wordsworth's as teaching the wisdom of
unsophisticated mankind, but rather as a symbolism legible to the higher
imagination. Though his fine critical sense made him keep his philosophy
and his poetry distinct, that is the common tendency which gives unity
to his work and which made his utterances so stimulating to congenial
intellects. His criticism of the 'Nature' of Pope and Bolingbroke would
be substantially, that in their hands the reason which professed to
interpret Nature became cold and materialistic, because its logic left
out of account the mysterious but essential touches revealed only to the
heart, or, in his language, to the reason but not to the understanding.
Meanwhile, though the French revolutionary doctrines were preached in
England, they only attracted the literary leaders for a time, and it was
not till the days of Byron and Shelley that they found thorough-going
representatives in English poetry. On that, however, I must not speak.
I have tried to indicate briefly how Scott and Wordsworth and Coleridge,
the most eminent leaders of the new school, partly represented movements
already obscurely working in England, and how they were affected by the
new ideas which had sprung to life elsewhere. They, like their
predecessors, are essentially trying to cast aside the literary
'survivals' of effete conditions, and succeed so far as they could find
adequate expression for the great ideas of their time.

       *       *       *       *       *

Printed by T. and A. CONSTABLE, Printers to His Majesty at the Edinburgh
University Press





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