English Literature: Modern
G. H. Mair

Part 2 out of 4

have seen not favourable to literature. Puritanism drove itself like a
wedge into the art of the time, broadening as it went. Had there been no
more in it than the moral earnestness and religiousness of Sidney and
Spenser, Cavalier would not have differed from Roundhead, and there
might have been no civil war; each party was endowed deeply with the
religious sense and Charles I. was a sincerely pious man. But while
Spenser and Sidney held that life as a preparation for eternity must be
ordered and strenuous and devout but that care for the hereafter was not
incompatible with a frank and full enjoyment of life as it is lived,
Puritanism as it developed in the middle classes became a sterner and
darker creed. The doctrine of original sin, face to face with the fact
that art, like other pleasures, was naturally and readily entered into
and enjoyed, forced them to the plain conclusion that art was an evil
thing. As early as Shakespeare's youth they had been strong enough to
keep the theatres outside London walls; at the time of the Civil War
they closed them altogether, and the feud which had lasted for over a
generation between them and the dramatists ended in the destruction of
the literary drama. In the brief years of their ascendancy they produced
no literature, for Milton is much too large to be tied down to their
negative creed, and, indeed, in many of his qualities, his love of music
and his sensuousness for instance, he is antagonistic to the temper of
his day. With the Restoration their earnest and strenuous spirit fled to
America. It is noteworthy that it had no literary manifestation there
till two centuries after the time of its passage. Hawthorne's novels are
the fruit--the one ripe fruit in art--of the Puritan imagination.


If the reader adopts the seventeenth century habit himself and takes
stock of what the Elizabethans accomplished in poetry, he will recognize
speedily that their work reached various stages of completeness. They
perfected the poetic drama and its instrument, blank verse; they
perfected, though not in the severer Italian form, the sonnet; they
wrote with extraordinary delicacy and finish short lyrics in which a
simple and freer manner drawn from the classics took the place of the
mediaeval intricacies of the ballad and the rondeau. And in the forms
which they failed to bring to perfection they did beautiful and noble
work. The splendour of _The Fairy Queen_ is in separate passages; as a
whole it is over tortuous and slow; its affectations, its sensuousness,
the mere difficulty of reading it, makes us feel it a collection of
great passages, strung it is true on a large conception, rather than a
great work. The Elizabethans, that is, had not discovered the secret of
the long poem; the abstract idea of the "heroic" epic which was in all
their minds had to wait for embodiment till _Paradise Lost_. In a way
their treatment of the pastoral or eclogue form was imperfect too. They
used it well but not so well as their models, Vergil and Theocritus;
they had not quite mastered the convention on which it is built.

The seventeenth century, taking stock in some such fashion of its
artistic possessions, found some things it were vain to try to do. It
could add nothing to the accomplishment of the English sonnet, so it
hardly tried; with the exception of a few sonnets in the Italian form of
Milton, the century can show us nothing in this mode of verse. The
literary drama was brought to perfection in the early years of it by the
surviving Elizabethans; later decades could add nothing to it but
licence, and as we saw, the licences they added hastened its
destruction. But in other forms the poets of the new time experimented
eagerly, and in the stress of experiment, poetry which under Elizabeth
had been integral and coherent split into different schools. As the
period of the Renaissance was also that of the Reformation it was only
natural a determined effort should sooner or later be made to use poetry
for religious purposes. The earliest English hymn writing, our first
devotional verse in the vernacular, belongs to this time, and a Catholic
and religious school of lyricism grew and flourished beside the pagan
neo-classical writers. From the tumult of experiment three schools
disengage themselves, the school of Spenser, the school of Jonson, and
the school of Donne.

At the outset of the century Spenser's influence was triumphant and
predominant; his was the main stream with which the other poetic
influences of the time merely mingled. His popularity is referable to
qualities other than those which belonged peculiarly to his talent as a
poet. Puritans loved his religious ardour, and in those Puritan
households where the stricter conception of the diabolical nature of all
poetry had not penetrated, his works were read--standing on a shelf, may
be, between the new translation of the Bible and Sylvester's translation
of the French poet Du Bartas' work on the creation, that had a large
popularity at that time as family reading. Probably the Puritans were as
blind to the sensuousness of Spenser's language and imagery as they were
(and are) to the same qualities in the Bible itself. _The Fairy Queen_
would easily achieve innocuousness amongst those who can find nothing
but an allegory of the Church in the "Song of Songs." His followers made
their allegory a great deal plainer than he had done his. In his poem
called _The Purple Island_, Phineas Fletcher, a Puritan imitator of
Spenser in Cambridge, essayed to set forth the struggle of the soul at
grip with evil, a battle in which the body--the "Purple Island"--is the
field. To a modern reader it is a desolating and at times a mildly
amusing book, in which everything from the liver to the seven deadly
sins is personified; in which after four books of allegorized
contemporary anatomy and physiology, the will (Voletta) engages in a
struggle with Satan and conquers by the help of Christ and King James!
The allegory is clever--too clever--and the author can paint a pleasant
picture, but on the whole he was happier in his pastoral work. His
brother Giles made a better attempt at the Spenserian manner. His long
poem, _Christ's Victory and Death_, shows for all its carefully
Protestant tone high qualities of mysticism; across it Spenser and
Milton join hands.

It was, however, in pastoral poetry that Spenser's influence found its
pleasantest outlet. One might hesitate to advise a reader to embark on
either of the Fletchers. There is no reason why any modern should not
read and enjoy Browne or Wither, in whose softly flowing verse the
sweetness and contentment of the countryside, that "merry England" which
was the background of all sectarian and intellectual strife and labour,
finds as in a placid stream a calm reflection and picture of itself. The
seventeenth century gave birth to many things that only came to maturity
in the nineteenth; if you care for that kind of literary study which
searches out origins and digs for hints and models of accented styles,
you will find in Browne that which influenced more than any other single
thing the early work of Keats. Browne has another claim to immortality;
if it be true as is now thought that he was the author of the epitaph on
the Countess of Pembroke:

"Underneath this sable hearse
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother.
Death, ere thou hast slain another
Fair and learned and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee."

then he achieved the miracle of a quintessential statement of the spirit
of the English Renaissance. For the breath of it stirs in these slow
quiet moving lines, and its few and simple words implicate the soul of a

By the end of the first quarter of the century the influence of Spenser
and the school which worked under it had died out. Its place was taken
by the twin schools of Jonson and Donne. Jonson's poetic method is
something like his dramatic; he formed himself as exactly as possible on
classical models. Horace had written satires and elegies, and epistles
and complimentary verses, and Jonson quite consciously and deliberately
followed where Horace led. He wrote elegies on the great, letters and
courtly compliments and love-lyrics to his friends, satires with an air
of general censure. But though he was classical, his style was never
latinized. In all of them he strove to pour into an ancient form
language that was as intense and vigorous and as purely English as the
earliest trumpeters of the Renaissance in England could have wished. The
result is not entirely successful. He seldom fails to reproduce classic
dignity and good sense; on the other hand he seldom succeeds in
achieving classic grace and ease. Occasionally, as in his best known
lyric, he is perfect and achieves an air of spontaneity little short of
marvellous, when we know that his images and even his words in the song
are all plagiarized from other men. His expression is always clear and
vigorous and his sense good and noble. The native earnestness and
sincerity of the man shines through as it does in his dramas and his
prose. In an age of fantastic and meaningless eulogy--eulogy so amazing
in its unexpectedness and abstruseness that the wonder is not so much
that it should have been written as that it could have been thought
of--Jonson maintains his personal dignity and his good sense. You feel
his compliments are such as the best should be, not necessarily
understood and properly valued by the public, but of a discriminating
sort that by their very comprehending sincerity would be most warmly
appreciated by the people to whom they were addressed. His verses to
Shakespeare and his prose commentaries on him too, are models of what
self-respecting admiration should be, generous in its praise of
excellence, candid in its statement of defects. They are the kind of
compliments that Shakespeare himself, if he had grace enough, must have
loved to receive.

Very different from his direct and dignified manner is the closely
packed style of Donne, who, Milton apart, is the greatest English writer
of the century, though his obscurity has kept him out of general
reading. No poetry in English, not even Browning, is more difficult to
understand. The obscurity of Donne and Browning proceed from such
similar causes that they are worth examining together. In both, as in
the obscure passages in Shakespeare's later plays, obscurity arises not
because the poet says too little but because he attempts to say too
much. He huddles a new thought on the one before it, before the first
has had time to express itself; he sees things or analyses emotions so
swiftly and subtly himself that he forgets the slower comprehensions of
his readers; he is for analysing things far deeper than the ordinary
mind commonly can. His wide and curious knowledge finds terms and
likenesses to express his meaning unknown to us; he sees things from a
dozen points of view at once and tumbles a hint of each separate vision
in a heap out on to the page; his restless intellect finds new and
subtler shades of emotion and thought invisible to other pairs of eyes,
and cannot, because speech is modelled on the average of our
intelligences, find words to express them; he is always trembling on the
brink of the inarticulate. All this applies to both Donne and Browning,
and the comparison could be pushed further still. Both draw the
knowledge which is the main cause of their obscurity from the same
source, the bypaths of mediaevalism. Browning's _Sordello_ is obscure
because he knows too much about mediaeval Italian history; Donne's
_Anniversary_ because he is too deeply read in mediaeval scholasticism
and speculation. Both make themselves more difficult to the reader who
is familiar with the poetry of their contemporaries by the disconcerting
freshness of their point of view. Seventeenth century love poetry was
idyllic and idealist; Donne's is passionate and realistic to the point
of cynicism. To read him after reading Browne or Jonson is to have the
same shock as reading Browning after Tennyson. Both poets are salutary
in the strong and biting antidote they bring to sentimentalism in
thought and melodious facility in writing. They are the corrective of
lazy thinking and lazy composition.

Elizabethan love poetry was written on a convention which though it was
used with manliness and entire sincerity by Sidney did not escape the
fate of its kind. Dante's love for Beatrice, Petrarch's for Laura, the
gallant and passionate adoration of Sidney for his Stella became the
models for a dismal succession of imaginary woes. They were all figments
of the mind, perhaps hardly that; they all use the same terms and write
in fixed strains, epicurean and sensuous like Ronsard, ideal and
intellectualized like Dante, sentimental and adoring like Petrarch. Into
this enclosed garden of sentiment and illusion Donne burst passionately
and rudely, pulling up the gay-coloured tangled weeds that choked
thoughts, planting, as one of his followers said, the seeds of fresh
invention. Where his forerunners had been idealist, epicurean, or
adoring, he was brutal, cynical and immitigably realist. He could begin
a poem, "For God's sake hold your tongue and let me live"; he could be
as resolutely free from illusion as Shakespeare when he addressed his
Dark Lady--

"Hope not for mind in women; at their best,
Sweetness and wit they're but mummy possest."

And where the sonneteers pretended to a sincerity which was none of
theirs, he was, like Browning, unaffectedly a dramatic lyrist. "I did
best," he said, "when I had least truth for my subject."

His love poetry was written in his turbulent and brilliant youth, and
the poetic talent which made it turned in his later years to express
itself in hymns and religious poetry. But there is no essential
distinction between the two halves of his work. It is all of a piece.
The same swift and subtle spirit which analyses experiences of passion,
analyses, in his later poetry, those of religion. His devotional poems,
though they probe and question, are none the less never sermons, but
rather confessions or prayers. His intense individuality, eager always,
as his best critic has said, "to find a North-West passage of his
own,"[2] pressed its curious and sceptical questioning into every corner
of love and life and religion, explored unsuspected depths, exploited
new discovered paradoxes, and turned its discoveries always into poetry
of the closely-packed artificial style which was all its own. Simplicity
indeed would have been for him an affectation; his elaborateness is not
like that of his followers, constructed painfully in a vicious desire to
compass the unexpected, but the natural overflow of an amazingly fertile
and ingenious mind. The curiosity, the desire for truth, the search
after minute and detailed knowledge of his age is all in his verse. He
bears the spirit of his time not less markedly than Bacon does, or
Newton, or Descartes.

[Footnote 2: Prof. Grierson in _Cambridge History of English

The work of the followers of Donne and Jonson leads straight to the new
school, Jonson's by giving that school a model on which to work, Donne's
by producing an era of extravagance and absurdity which made a literary
revolution imperative. The school of Donne--the "fantastics" as they
have been called (Dr. Johnson called them the metaphysical poets),
produced in Herbert and Vaughan, our two noblest writers of religious
verse, the flower of a mode of writing which ended in the somewhat
exotic religiousness of Crashaw. In the hands of Cowley the use of
far-sought and intricate imagery became a trick, and the fantastic
school, the soul of sincerity gone out of it, died when he died. To the
followers of Jonson we owe that delightful and simple lyric poetry which
fills our anthologies, their courtly lyricism receiving a new impulse in
the intenser loyalty of troubled times. The most finished of them is
perhaps Carew; the best, because of the freshness and varity of his
subject-matter and his easy grace, Herrick. At the end of them came
Waller and gave to the five-accented rhymed verse (the heroic couplet)
that trick of regularity and balance which gave us the classical school.


The prose literature of the seventeenth century is extraordinarily rich
and varied, and a study of it would cover a wide field of human
knowledge. The new and unsuspected harmonies discovered by the
Elizabethans were applied indeed to all the tasks of which prose is
capable, from telling stories to setting down the results of speculation
which was revolutionizing science and philosophy. For the first time
the vernacular and not Latin became the language of scientific research,
and though Bacon in his _Novum Organum_ adhered to the older mode its
disappearance was rapid. English was proving itself too flexible an
instrument for conveying ideas to be longer neglected. It was applied
too to preaching of a more formal and grandiose kind than the plain and
homely Latimer ever dreamed of. The preachers, though their
golden-mouthed oratory, which blended in its combination of vigour and
cadence the euphuistic and colloquial styles of the Elizabethans, is in
itself a glory of English literature, belong by their matter too
exclusively to the province of Church history to be dealt with here. The
men of science and philosophy, Newton, Hobbes, and Locke, are in a like
way outside our province. For the purpose of the literary student the
achievement of the seventeenth century can be judged in four separate
men or books--in the Bible, in Francis Bacon, and in Burton and Browne.

In a way the Bible, like the preachers, lies outside the domain of
literary study in the narrow sense; but its sheer literary magnitude,
the abiding significance of it in our subsequent history, social,
political, and artistic as well as religious, compel us to turn aside to
examine the causes that have produced such great results. The Authorized
Version is not, of course, a purely seventeenth century work. Though the
scholars[3] who wrote and compiled it had before them all the previous
vernacular texts and chose the best readings where they found them or
devised new ones in accordance with the original, the basis is
undoubtedly the Tudor version of Tindall. It has, none the less, the
qualities of the time of its publication. It could hardly have been done
earlier; had it been so, it would not have been done half so well. In it
English has lost both its roughness and its affectation and retained its
strength; the Bible is the supreme example of early English prose style.
The reason is not far to seek. Of all recipes for good or noble writing
that which enjoins the writer to be careful about the matter and never
mind the manner, is the most sure. The translators had the handling of
matter of the gravest dignity and momentousness, and their sense of
reverence kept them right in their treatment of it. They cared
passionately for the truth; they were virtually anonymous and not
ambitious of originality or literary fame; they had no desire to stand
between the book and its readers. It followed that they cultivated that
naked plainness and spareness which makes their work supreme. The
Authorized Version is the last and greatest of those English
translations which were the fruit of Renaissance scholarship and
pioneering. It is the first and greatest piece of English prose.

[Footnote 3: There is a graphic little pen-picture of their method in
Selden's "Table Talk."]

Its influence is one of those things on which it is profitless to
comment or enlarge simply because they are an understood part of every
man's experience. In its own time it helped to weld England, for where
before one Bible was read at home and another in churches, all now read
the new version. Its supremacy was instantaneous and unchallenged, and
it quickly coloured speech and literature; it could produce a Bunyan in
the century of its birth. To it belongs the native dignity and eloquence
of peasant speech. It runs like a golden thread through all our writing
subsequent to its coming; men so diverse as Huxley and Carlyle have paid
their tribute to its power; Ruskin counted it the one essential part of
its education. It will be a bad day for the mere quality of our language
when it ceases to be read.

At the time the translators were sitting, Francis Bacon was at the
height of his fame. By profession a lawyer--time-serving and
over-compliant to wealth and influence--he gives singularly little
evidence of it in the style of his books. Lawyers, from the necessity
they are under of exerting persuasion, of planting an unfamiliar
argument in the minds of hearers of whose favour they are doubtful, but
whose sympathy they must gain, are usually of purpose diffuse. They
cultivate the gift, possessed by Edmund Burke above all other English
authors, of putting the same thing freshly and in different forms a
great many times in succession. They value copiousness and fertility of
illustration. Nothing could be more unlike this normal legal manner than
the style of Bacon. "No man," says Ben Jonson, speaking in one of those
vivid little notes of his, of his oratorical method, "no man ever
coughed or turned aside from him without loss." He is a master of the
aphoristic style. He compresses his wisdom into the quintessential form
of an epigram; so complete and concentrated is his form of statement, so
shortly is everything put, that the mere transition from one thought to
another gives his prose a curious air of disjointedness as if he flitted
arbitrarily from one thing to another, and jotted down anything that
came into his head. His writing has clarity and lucidity, it abounds in
terseness of expression and in exact and discriminating phraseology, and
in the minor arts of composition--in the use of quotations for
instance--it can be extraordinarily felicitous. But it lacks
spaciousness and ease and rhythm; it makes too inexorable a demand on
the attention, and the harassed reader soon finds himself longing for
those breathing spaces which consideration or perhaps looseness of
thought has implanted in the prose of other writers.

His _Essays_, the work by which he is best known, were in their origin
merely jottings gradually cohered and enlarged into the series we know.
In them he had the advantage of a subject which he had studied closely
through life. He counted himself a master in the art of managing men,
and "Human Nature and how to manage it" would be a good title for his
book. Men are studied in the spirit of Machiavelli, whose philosophy of
government appealed so powerfully to the Elizabethan mind. Taken
together the essays which deal with public matters are in effect a kind
of manual for statesmen and princes, instructing them how to acquire
power and how to keep it, deliberating how far they may go safely in
the direction of self-interest, and to what degree the principle of
self-interest must be subordinated to the wider interests of the people
who are ruled. Democracy, which in England was to make its splendid
beginnings in the seventeenth century, finds little to foretell it in
the works of Bacon. Though he never advocates cruelty or oppression and
is wise enough to see that no statesman can entirely set aside moral
considerations, his ethical tone is hardly elevating; the moral
obliquity of his public life is to a certain extent explained, in all
but its grosser elements, in his published writings. The essays, of
course, contain much more than this; the spirit of curious and restless
enquiry which animated Bacon finds expression in those on "Health," or
"Gardens" and "Plantations" and others of the kind; and a deeper vein of
earnestness runs through some of them--those for instance on
"Friendship," or "Truth" and on "Death."

The _Essays_ sum up in a condensed form the intellectual interests which
find larger treatment in his other works. His _Henry VII._, the first
piece of scientific history in the English language (indeed in the
modern world) is concerned with a king whose practice was the outcome of
a political theory identical with Bacon's own. The _Advancement of
Learning_ is a brilliant popular exposition of the cause of scientific
enquiry and of the inductive or investigatory method of research. The
_New Atlantis_ is the picture of an ideal community whose common purpose
is scientific investigation. Bacon's name is not upon the roll of those
who have enlarged by brilliant conjectures or discoveries the store of
human knowledge; his own investigations so far as they are recorded are
all of a trivial nature. The truth about him is that he was a
brilliantly clever populariser of the cause of science, a kind of
seventeenth century Huxley, concerned rather to lay down large general
principles for the guidance of the work of others, than to be a serious
worker himself. The superstition of later times, acting on and
refracting his amazing intellectual gifts, has raised him to a godlike
eminence which is by right none of his; it has even credited him with
the authorship of Shakespeare, and in its wilder moments with the
composition of all that is of supreme worth in Elizabethan literature.
It is not necessary to take these delusions seriously. The ignorance of
mediaevalism was in the habit of crediting Vergil with the construction
of the Roman aqueducts and temples whose ruins are scattered over
Europe. The modern Baconians reach much the same intellectual level.

A similar enthusiasm for knowledge and at any rate a pretence to science
belong to the author of the _Anatomy of Melancholy_, Robert Burton. His
one book is surely the most amazing in English prose. Its professed
object was simple and comprehensive; it was to analyze human melancholy,
to describe its effects, and prescribe for its removal. But as his task
grew, melancholy came to mean to Burton all the ills that flesh is heir
to. He tracked it in obscure and unsuspected forms; drew illustrations
from a range of authors so much wider than the compass of the reading
of even the most learned since, that he is generally credited with the
invention of a large part of his quotations. Ancients and moderns, poets
and prose writers, schoolmen and dramatists are all drawn upon for the
copious store of his examples; they are always cited with an air of
quietly humorous shrewdness in the comments and enclosed in a prose that
is straightforward, simple and vigorous, and can on occasion command
both rhythm and beauty of phrase. It is a mistake to regard Burton from
the point of view (due largely to Charles Lamb) of tolerant or loving
delight in quaintness for quaintness' sake. His book is anything but
scientific in form, but it is far from being the work of a recluse or a
fool. Behind his lack of system, he takes a broad and psychologically an
essentially just view of human ills, and modern medicine has gone far in
its admiration of what is at bottom a most comprehensive and subtle
treatise in diagnosis.

A writer of a very different quality is Sir Thomas Browne. Of all the
men of his time, he is the only one of whom one can say for certain that
he held the manner of saying a thing more important than the thing said.
He is our first deliberate and conscious stylist, the forerunner of
Charles Lamb, of Stevenson (whose _Virginibus Puerisque_ is modelled on
his method of treatment) and of the stylistic school of our own day. His
eloquence is too studied to rise to the greatest heights, and his
speculation, though curious and discursive, never really results in deep
thinking. He is content to embroider his pattern out of the stray
fancies of an imaginative nature. His best known work, the _Religio
Medici_, is a random confession of belief and thoughts, full of the
inconsequent speculations of a man with some knowledge of science but
not deeply or earnestly interested about it, content rather to follow
the wayward imaginations of a mind naturally gifted with a certain
poetic quality, than to engage in serious intellectual exercise. Such
work could never maintain its hold on taste if it were not carefully
finished and constructed with elaborate care. Browne, if he was not a
great writer, was a literary artist of a high quality. He exploits a
quaint and lovable egoism with extraordinary skill; and though his
delicately figured and latinized sentences commonly sound platitudinous
and trivial when they are translated into rough Saxon prose, as they
stand they are rich and melodious enough.


In a century of surpassing richness in prose and poetry, one author
stands by himself. John Milton refuses to be classed with any of the
schools. Though Dryden tells us Milton confessed to him that Spenser was
his "original," he has no connection--other than a general similarity of
purpose, moral and religious--with Spenser's followers. To the
fantastics he paid in his youth the doubtful compliment of one or two
half-contemptuous imitations and never touched them again. He had no
turn for the love lyrics or the courtliness of the school of Jonson. In
everything he did he was himself and his own master; he devised his own
subjects and wrote his own style. He stands alone and must be judged

No author, however, can ever escape from the influences of his time,
and, just as much as his lesser contemporaries, Milton has his place in
literary history and derives from the great original impulse which set
in motion all the enterprises of the century. He is the last and
greatest figure in the English Renaissance. The new passion for art and
letters which in its earnest fumbling beginnings gave us the prose of
Cheke and Ascham and the poetry of Surrey and Sackville, comes to a full
and splendid and perfect end in his work. In it the Renaissance and the
Reformation, imperfectly fused by Sidney and Spenser, blend in their
just proportions. The transplantation into English of classical forms
which had been the aim of Sidney and the endeavour of Jonson he finally
accomplished; in his work the dream of all the poets of the
Renaissance--the heroic poem--finds its fulfilment. There was no poet of
the time but wanted to do for his country what Vergil had planned to do
for Rome, to sing its origins, and to celebrate its morality and its
citizenship in the epic form. Spenser had tried it in _The Fairy Queen_
and failed splendidly. Where he failed, Milton succeeded, though his
poem is not on the origins of England but on the ultimate subject of the
origins of mankind. We know from his notebooks that he turned over in
his mind a national subject and that the Arthurian legend for a while
appealed to him. But to Milton's earnest temper nothing that was not
true was a fit subject for poetry. It was inevitable he should lay it
aside. The Arthurian story he knew to be a myth and a myth was a lie;
the story of the Fall, on the other hand, he accepted in common with his
time for literal fact. It is to be noted as characteristic of his
confident and assured egotism that he accepted no less sincerely and
literally the imaginative structure which he himself reared on it.
However that may be, the solid fact about him is that in this
"adventurous song" with its pursuit of

"Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,"

he succeeded in his attempt, that alone among the moderns he contrived
to write an epic which stands on the same eminence as the ancient
writings of the kind, and that he found time in a life, which hardly
extended to old age as we know it, to write, besides noble lyrics and a
series of fiercely argumentative prose treatises, two other masterpieces
in the grand style, a tragedy modelled on the Greeks and a second epic
on the "compact" style of the book of Job. No English poet can compare
with him in majesty or completeness.

An adequate study of his achievement is impossible within the limits of
the few pages that are all a book like this can spare to a single
author. Readers who desire it will find it in the work of his two best
critics, Mark Pattison and Sir Walter Raleigh.[4] All that can be done
here is to call attention to some of his most striking qualities.
Foremost, of course, is the temper of the man. From the beginning he
was sure of himself and sure of his mission; he had his purpose plain
and clear. There is no mental development, hardly, visible in his work,
only training, undertaken anxiously and prayerfully and with a clearly
conceived end. He designed to write a masterpiece and he would not start
till he was ready. The first twenty years of his life were spent in
assiduous reading; for twenty more he was immersed in the dust and toil
of political conflict, using his pen and his extraordinary equipment of
learning and eloquence to defend the cause of liberty, civil and
religious, and to attack its enemies; not till he was past middle age
had he reached the leisure and the preparedness necessary to accomplish
his self-imposed work. But all the time, as we know, he had it in his
mind. In _Lycidas_, written in his Cambridge days, he apologizes to his
readers for plucking the fruit of his poetry before it is ripe. In
passage after passage in his prose works he begs for his reader's
patience for a little while longer till his preparation be complete.
When the time came at last for beginning he was in no doubt; in his very
opening lines he intends, he says, to soar no "middle flight." This
self-assured unrelenting certainty of his, carried into his prose essays
in argument, produces sometimes strange results. One is peculiarly
interesting to us now in view of current controversy. He was unhappily
married, and because he was unhappy the law of divorce must be changed.
A modern--George Eliot for instance--would have pleaded the artistic
temperament and been content to remain outside the law. Milton always
argued from himself to mankind at large.

[Footnote 4: "Milton," E.M.L., and "Milton" (Edward Arnold).]

In everything he did, he put forth all his strength. Each of his poems,
long or short, is by itself a perfect whole, wrought complete. The
reader always must feel that the planning of each is the work of
conscious, deliberate, and selecting art. Milton never digresses; he
never violates harmony of sound or sense; his poems have all their
regular movement from quiet beginning through a rising and breaking wave
of passion and splendour to quiet close. His art is nowhere better seen
than in his endings.

Is it _Lycidas_? After the thunder of approaching vengeance on the
hireling shepherds of the Church, comes sunset and quiet:

"And now the sun had stretch'd out all the hills,
And now was dropt into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods and pastures new."

Is it _Paradise Lost_? After the agonies of expulsion and the flaming

"Some natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
The world was all before them where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way."

Is it finally _Samson Agonistes_?

"His servants he with new acquist,
Of true experience from this great event,
With peace and consolation hath dismist,
And calm of mind all passion spent."

"Calm of mind, all passion spent," it is the essence of Milton's art.

He worked in large ideas and painted splendid canvases; it was
necessary for him to invent a style which should be capable of sustained
and lofty dignity, which should be ornate enough to maintain the
interest of the reader and charm him and at the same time not so ornate
as to give an air of meretricious decoration to what was largely and
simply conceived. Particularly it was necessary for him to avoid those
incursions of vulgar associations which words carelessly used will bring
in their train. He succeeded brilliantly in this difficult task. The
unit of the Miltonic style is not the phrase but the word, each word
fastidiously chosen, commonly with some air of an original and lost
meaning about it, and all set in a verse in which he contrived by an
artful variation of pause and stress to give the variety which other
writers had from rhyme. In this as in his structure he accomplished what
the Renaissance had only dreamed. Though he had imitators (the poetic
diction of the age following is modelled on him) he had no followers. No
one has been big enough to find his secret since.



The student of literature, when he passes in his reading from the age of
Shakespeare and Milton to that of Dryden and Pope, will be conscious of
certain sharply defined differences between the temper and styles of
the writers of the two periods. If besides being a student of literature
he is also (for this is a different thing) a student of literary
criticism he will find that these differences have led to the affixing
of certain labels--that the school to which writers of the former period
belong is called "Romantic" and that of the latter "Classic," this
"Classic" school being again overthrown towards the end of the
eighteenth century by a set of writers who unlike the Elizabethans gave
the name "Romantic" to themselves. What is he to understand by these two
labels; what are the characteristics of "Classicism" and how far is it
opposite to and conflicting with "Romanticism"? The question is
difficult because the names are used vaguely and they do not adequately
cover everything that is commonly put under them. It would be difficult,
for instance, to find anything in Ben Jonson which proclaims him as
belonging to a different school from Dryden, and perhaps the same could
be said in the second and self-styled period of Romanticism of the work
of Crabbe. But in the main the differences are real and easily visible,
even though they hardly convince us that the names chosen are the
happiest that could be found by way of description.

This period of Dryden and Pope on which we are now entering sometimes
styled itself the Augustan Age of English poetry. It grounded its claim
to classicism on a fancied resemblance to the Roman poets of the golden
age of Latin poetry, the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Its authors saw
themselves each as a second Vergil, a second Ovid, most of all a second
Horace, and they believed that their relation to the big world, their
assured position in society, heightened the resemblances. They
endeavoured to form their poetry on the lines laid down in the critical
writing of the original Augustan age as elaborated and interpreted in
Renaissance criticism. It was tacitly assumed--some of them openly
asserted it--that the kinds, modes of treatment and all the minor
details of literature, figures of speech, use of epithets and the rest,
had been settled by the ancients once and for all. What the Greeks began
the critics and authors of the time of Augustus had settled in its
completed form, and the scholars of the Renaissance had only interpreted
their findings for modern use. There was the tragedy, which had certain
proper parts and a certain fixed order of treatment laid down for it;
there was the heroic poem, which had a story or "fable," which must be
treated in a certain fixed manner, and so on. The authors of the
"Classic" period so christened themselves because they observed these
rules. And they fancied that they had the temper of the Augustan
time--the temper displayed in the works of Horace more than in those of
any one else--its urbanity, its love of good sense and moderation, its
instinctive distrust of emotion, and its invincible good breeding. If
you had asked them to state as simply and broadly as possible their
purpose they would have said it was to follow nature, and if you had
enquired what they meant by nature it would turn out that they thought
of it mainly as the opposite of art and the negation of what was
fantastic, tortured, or far sought in thinking or writing. The later
"Romantic" Revival, when it called itself a return to nature, was only
claiming the intention which the classical school itself had proclaimed
as its main endeavour. The explanation of that paradox we shall see
presently; in the meantime it is worth looking at some of the
characteristics of classicism as they appear in the work of the
"Classic" authors.

In the first place the "Classic" writers aimed at simplicity of style,
at a normal standard of writing. They were intolerant of individual
eccentricities; they endeavoured, and with success, to infuse into
English letters something of the academic spirit that was already
controlling their fellow-craftsmen in France. For this end amongst
others they and the men of science founded the Royal Society, an
academic committee which has been restricted since to the physical and
natural sciences and been supplemented by similar bodies representing
literature and learning only in our own day. Clearness, plainness,
conversational ease and directness were the aims the society set before
its members where their writing was concerned. "The Royal Society,"
wrote the Bishop of Rochester, its first historian, "have exacted from
all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive
expressions, clear sense, a native easiness, bringing all things as near
the mathematical plainness as they can; and preferring the language of
artisans, countrymen, and merchants before that of wits and scholars."
Artisans, countrymen, and merchants--the ideal had been already accepted
in France, Malesherbes striving to use no word that was not in the
vocabulary of the day labourers of Paris, Moliere making his washerwoman
first critic of his comedies. It meant for England the disuse of the
turgidities and involutions which had marked the prose of the preachers
and moralists of the times of James and Charles I.; scholars and men of
letters were arising who would have taken John Bunyan, the unlettered
tinker of Bedford, for their model rather than the learned physician Sir
Thomas Browne.

But genius like Bunyan's apart, there is nothing in the world more
difficult than to write with the easy and forthright simplicity of talk,
as any one may see who tries for himself--or even compares the
letter-writing with the conversation of his friends. So that this desire
of simplicity, of clarity, of lucidity led at once to a more deliberate
art. Dryden and Swift and Addison were assiduous in their labour with
the file; they excel all their predecessors in polish as much as the
writers of the first Augustan age excelled theirs in the same quality.
Not that it was all the result of deliberate art; in a way it was in the
air, and quite unlearned people--journalists and pamphleteers and the
like who wrote unconsciously and hurriedly to buy their supper--partook
of it as well as leisured people and conscious artists. Defoe is as
plain and easy and polished as Swift, yet it is certain his amazing
activity and productiveness never permitted him to look back over a
sentence he had written. Something had happened, that is, to the English
language. The assimilation of latinisms and the revival of obsolete
terms of speech had ceased; it had become finally a more or less fixed
form, shedding so much of its imports as it had failed to make part of
itself and acquiring a grammatical and syntactical fixity which it had
not possessed in Elizabethan times. When Shakespeare wrote

"What cares these roarers for the name of king,"

he was using, as students of his language never tire of pointing out to
us, a perfectly correct local grammatical form. Fifty years after that
line was written, at the Restoration, local forms had dropped out of
written English. We had acquired a normal standard of language, and
either genius or labour was polishing it for literary uses.

What they did for prose these "Classic" writers did even more
exactly--and less happily--for verse. Fashions often become exaggerated
before their disappearance, and the decadence of Elizabethan romanticism
had produced poetry the wildness and extravagance of whose images was
well-nigh unbounded. The passion for intricate and far-sought metaphor
which had possessed Donne was accompanied in his work and even more in
that of his followers with a passion for what was elusive and recondite
in thought and emotion and with an increasing habit of rudeness and
wilful difficultness in language and versification. Against these
ultimate licences of a great artistic period, the classical writers
invoked the qualities of smoothness and lucidity, in the same way, so
they fancied, as Vergil might have invoked them against Lucretius. In
the treatment of thought and feeling they wanted clearness, they wanted
ideas which the mass of men would readily apprehend and assent to, and
they wanted not hints or half-spoken suggestions but complete statement.
In the place of the logical subtleties which Donne and his school had
sought in the scholastic writers of the Middle Ages, they brought back
the typically Renaissance study of rhetoric; the characteristic of all
the poetry of the period is that it has a rhetorical quality. It is
never intimate and never profound, but it has point and wit, and it
appeals with confidence to the balanced judgment which men who distrust
emotion and have no patience with subtleties intellectual, emotional, or
merely verbal, have in common. Alongside of this lucidity, this air of
complete statement in substance they strove for and achieved smoothness
in form. To the poet Waller, the immediate predecessor of Dryden, the
classical writers themselves ascribed the honour of the innovation. In
fact Waller was only carrying out the ideals counselled and followed by
Ben Jonson. It was in the school of Waller and Dryden and not in that of
the minor writers who called themselves his followers that he came to
his own.

What then are the main differences between classicism of the best
period--the classicism whose characteristics we have been
describing--and the Romanticism which came before and after? In the
first place we must put the quality we have described as that of
complete statement. Classical poetry is, so to speak, "all there." Its
meaning is all of it on the surface; it conveys nothing but what it
says, and what it says, it says completely. It is always vigorous and
direct, often pointed and aphoristic, never merely suggestive, never
given to half statement, and never obscure. You feel that as an
instrument of expression it is sharp and polished and shining; it is
always bright and defined in detail. The Great Romantics go to work in
other ways. Their poetry is a thing of half lights and half spoken
suggestions, of hints that imagination will piece together, of words
that are charged with an added meaning of sound over sense, a thing that
stirs the vague and impalpable restlessness of memory or terror or
desire that lies down beneath in the minds of men. It rouses what a
philosopher has called the "Transcendental feeling," the solemn sense of
the immediate presence of "that which was and is and ever shall be," to
induce which is the property of the highest poetry. You will find
nothing in classical poetry so poignant or highly wrought as Webster's

"Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young,"

and the answer,

"I think not so: her infelicity
Seemed to have years too many,"

or so subtle in its suggestion, sense echoing back to primeval terrors
and despairs, as this from _Macbeth_:

"Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augurs and understood relations have
By magot-pies, and choughs, and rooks brought forth
The secret'st man of blood."

or so intoxicating to the imagination and the senses as an ode of Keats
or a sonnet by Rossetti. But you will find eloquent and pointed
statements of thoughts and feelings that are common to most of us--the
expression of ordinary human nature--

"What oft was thought but ne'er so well exprest,"

"Wit and fine writing" consisting, as Addison put it in a review of
Pope's first published poem, not so much "in advancing things that are
new, as in giving things that are known an agreeable turn."

Though in this largest sense the "classic" writers eschewed the
vagueness of romanticism, in another and more restricted way they
cultivated it. They were not realists as all good romanticists have to
be. They had no love for oddities or idiosyncrasies or exceptions. They
loved uniformity, they had no use for truth in detail. They liked the
broad generalised, descriptive style of Milton, for instance, better
than the closely packed style of Shakespeare, which gets its effects
from a series of minute observations huddled one after the other and
giving the reader, so to speak, the materials for his own impression,
rather than rendering, as does Milton, the expression itself.

Every literary discovery hardens ultimately into a convention; it has
its day and then its work is done, and it has to be destroyed so that
the ascending spirit of humanity can find a better means of
self-expression. Out of the writing which aimed at simplicity and truth
to nature grew "Poetic Diction," a special treasury of words and phrases
deemed suitable for poetry, providing poets with a common stock of
imagery, removing from them the necessity of seeing life and nature each
one for himself. The poetry which Dryden and Pope wrought out of their
mental vigour, their followers wrote to pattern. Poetry became reduced,
as it never was before and has never been since, to a formula. The
Elizabethan sonneteers, as we saw, used a vocabulary and phraseology in
common with their fellows in Italy and France, and none the less
produced fine poetry. But they used it to express things they really
felt. The truth is it is not the fact of a poetic diction which matters
so much as its quality--whether it squares with sincerity, whether it is
capable of expressing powerfully and directly one's deepest feelings.
The history of literature can show poetic dictions--special vocabularies
and forms for poetry--that have these qualities; the diction, for
instance, of the Greek choruses, or of the Scottish poets who followed
Chaucer, or of the troubadours. That of the classic writers of an
Augustan age was not of such a kind. Words clothe thought; poetic
diction had the artifice of the crinoline; it would stand by itself. The
Romantics in their return to nature had necessarily to abolish it.

But when all is said in criticism the poetry of the earlier half of the
eighteenth century excels all other English poetry in two respects. Two
qualities belong to it by virtue of the metre in which it is most of it
written--rapidity and antithesis. Its antithesis made it an incomparable
vehicle for satire, its rapidity for narrative. Outside its limits we
have hardly any even passable satirical verse; within them there are
half-a-dozen works of the highest excellence in this kind. And if we
except Chaucer, there is no one else in the whole range of English
poetry who have the narrative gift so completely as the classic poets.
Bentleys will always exist who will assure us with civility that Pope's
_Homer_, though "very pretty," bears little relation to the Greek, and
that Dryden's _Vergil_, though vigorous and virile, is a poor
representation of its original. The truth remains that for a reader who
knows no ancient languages either of those translations will probably
give a better idea of their originals than any other rendering in
English that we possess. The foundation of their method has been
vindicated in the best modern translations from the Greek.


The term "eighteenth century" in the vocabulary of the literary
historian is commonly as vaguely used as the term Elizabethan. It
borrows as much as forty years from the seventeenth and gives away ten
to the nineteenth. The whole of the work of Dryden, whom we must count
as the first of the "classic" school, was accomplished before
chronologically it had begun. As a man and as an author he was very
intimately related to his changing times; he adapted himself to them
with a versatility as remarkable as that of the Vicar of Bray, and, it
may be added, as simple-minded. He mourned in verse the death of
Cromwell and the death of his successor, successively defended the
theological positions of the Church of England and the Church of Rome,
changed his religion and became Poet Laureate to James II., and
acquiesced with perfect equanimity in the Revolution which brought in
his successor. This instability of conviction, though it gave a handle
to his opponents in controversy, does not appear to have caused any
serious scandal or disgust among his contemporaries, and it has
certainly had little effect on the judgment of later times. It has
raised none of the reproaches which have been cast at the suspected
apostasy of Wordsworth. Dryden had little interest in political or
religious questions; his instinct, one must conceive, was to conform to
the prevailing mode and to trouble himself no further about the matter.
Defoe told the truth about him when he wrote that "Dryden might have
been told his fate that, having his extraordinary genius slung and
pitched upon a swivel, it would certainly turn round as fast as the
times, and instruct him how to write elegies to Oliver Cromwell and King
Charles the Second with all the coherence imaginable; how to write
_Religio Laici_ and the _Hind and the Panther_ and yet be the same man,
every day to change his principle, change his religion, change his coat,
change his master, and yet never change his nature." He never changed
his nature, he was as free from cynicism as a barrister who represents
successively opposing parties in suits or politics; and when he wrote
polemics in prose or verse he lent his talents as a barrister lends his
for a fee. His one intellectual interest was in his art, and it is in
his comments on his art--the essays and prefaces in the composition of
which he amused the leisure left in the busy life of a dramatist and a
poet of officialdom--that his most charming and delicate work is to be
found. In a way they begin modern English prose; earlier writing
furnishes no equal to their colloquial ease and the grace of their
expression. And they contain some of the most acute criticism in our
language--"classical" in its tone (_i.e._, with a preference for
conformity) but with its respect for order and tradition always tempered
by good sense and wit, and informed and guided throughout by a taste
whose catholicity and sureness was unmatched in the England of his time.
The preface to his _Fables_ contains some excellent notes on Chaucer.
They may be read as a sample of the breadth and perspicuity of his
critical perceptions.

His chief poetical works were most of them occasional--designed either
to celebrate some remarkable event or to take a side and interpret a
policy in the conflict, political or religious, of the time.
_Absalom and Achitophel_ and _The Medal_ were levelled at the
Shaftesbury-Monmouth intrigues in the closing years of Charles II.
_Religio Laici_ celebrated the excellence of the Church of England in
its character of _via media_ between the opposite extravagances of
Papacy and Presbyterianism. _The Hind and the Panther_ found this
perfection spotted. The Church of England has become the Panther, whose
coat is a varied pattern of heresy and truth beside the spotless purity
of the Hind, the Church of Rome. _Astrea Reddux_ welcomed the returning
Charles; _Annus Mirabilis_ commemorated a year of fire and victories,
Besides these he wrote many dramas in verse, a number of translations,
and some shorter poems, of which the odes are the most remarkable.

His qualities as a poet fitted very exactly the work he set himself to
do. His work is always plain and easily understood; he had a fine
faculty for narration, and the vigorous rapidity and point of his style
enabled him to sketch a character or sum up a dialectical position very
surely and effectively. His writing has a kind of spare and masculine
force about it. It is this vigour and the impression which he gives of
intellectual strength and of a logical grasp of his subject, that beyond
question has kept alive work which, if ever poetry was, was ephemeral in
its origin. The careers of the unscrupulous Caroline peers would have
been closed for us were they not visible in the reflected light of his
denunciation of them. Though Buckingham is forgotten and Shaftesbury's
name swallowed up in that of his more philanthropic descendant, we can
read of Achitophel and Zimri still, and feel something of the strength
and heat which he caught from a fiercely fought conflict and transmitted
with his own gravity and purposefulness into verse. The Thirty-nine
Articles are not a proper subject for poetry, but the sustained and
serious allegory which Dryden weaves round theological discussion
preserves his treatment of them from the fate of the controversialists
who opposed him. His work has wit and vitality enough to keep it sweet.

Strength and wit enter in different proportions into the work of his
successor, Alexander Pope--a poet whom admirers in his own age held to
be the greatest in our language. No one would think of making such a
claim now, but the detraction which he suffered at the hands of
Wordsworth and the Romantics, ought not to make us forget that Pope,
though not our greatest, not even perhaps a great, poet is incomparably
our most brilliant versifier. Dryden's strength turns in his work into
something more fragile and delicate, polished with infinite care like
lacquer, and wrought like filigree work to the last point of conscious
and perfected art. He was not a great thinker; the thoughts which he
embodies in his philosophical poems--the _Essay on Man_ and the rest,
are almost ludicrously out of proportion to the solemnity of the titles
which introduce them, nor does he except very rarely get beyond the
conceptions common to the average man when he attempts introspection or
meditates on his own destiny. The reader in search of philosophy will
find little to stimulate him and in the facile Deism of the time
probably something to smile at. Pope has no message to us now. But he
will find views current in his time or borrowed from other authors put
with perfect felicity and wit, and he will recognize the justice of
Addison's comment that Pope's wit and fine writing consist "not so much
in advancing things that are new, as in giving things that are known an
agreeable turn." And he will not fall into the error of dubbing the
author a minor poet because he is neither subtle nor imaginative nor
profound. A great poet would not have written like Pope--one must grant
it; but a minor poet could not.

It is characteristic of Pope's type of mind and kind of art that there
is no development visible in his work. Other poets, Shakespeare, for
instance, and Keats, have written work of the highest quality when they
were young, but they have had crudenesses to shed--things to get rid of
as their strength and perceptions grew. But Pope, like Minerva, was full
grown and full armed from the beginning. If we did not know that his
_Essay on Criticism_ was his first poem it would be impossible to place
it in the canon of his work; it might come in anywhere and so might
everything else that he wrote. From the beginning his craftsmanship was
perfect; from the beginning he took his subject-matter from others as he
found it and worked it up into aphorism and epigram till each line shone
like a cut jewel and the essential commonplaceness and poverty of his
material was obscured by the glitter the craftsmanship lent to it.
Subject apart, however, he was quite sure of his medium from the
beginning; it was not long before he found the way to use it to most
brilliant purpose. _The Rape of the Lock_ and the satirical poems come
later in his career.

As a satirist Pope, though he did not hit so hard as Dryden, struck more
deftly and probed deeper. He wielded a rapier where the other used a
broadsword, and though both used their weapons with the highest skill
and the metaphor must not be imagined to impute clumsiness to Dryden,
the rapier made the cleaner cut. Both employed a method in satire which
their successors (a poor set) in England have not been intelligent
enough to use. They allow every possible good point to the object of
their attack. They appear to deal him an even and regretful justice. His
good points, they put it in effect, being so many, how much blacker and
more deplorable his meannesses and faults! They do not do this out of
charity; there was very little of the milk of human kindness in Pope.
Deformity in his case, as in so many in truth and fiction, seemed to
bring envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness in its train. The
method is employed simply because it gives the maximum satirical effect.
That is why Pope's epistle to Arbuthnot, with its characterisation of
Addison, is the most damning piece of invective in our language.

_The Rape of the Lock_ is an exquisite piece of workmanship, breathing
the very spirit of the time. You can fancy it like some clock made by
one of the Louis XIV. craftsmen, encrusted with a heap of ormulu
mock-heroics and impertinences and set perfectly to the time of day.
From no other poem could you gather so fully and perfectly the temper
of the society in which our "classic" poetry was brought to perfection,
its elegant assiduity in trifles, its brilliant artifice, its paint and
powder and patches and high-heeled shoes, its measured strutting walk in
life as well as in verse. _The Rape of the Lock_ is a mock-heroic poem;
that is to say it applies the form and treatment which the "classic"
critics of the seventeenth century had laid down as belonging to the
"heroic" or "epic" style to a trifling circumstance--the loss by a young
lady of fashion of a lock of hair. And it is the one instance in which
this "recipe" for a heroic poem which the French critics handed on to
Dryden, and Dryden left to his descendants, has been used well-enough to
keep the work done with it in memory. In a way it condemns the poetical
theory of the time; when forms are fixed, new writing is less likely to
be creative and more likely to exhaust itself in the ingenious but
trifling exercises of parody and burlesque. _The Rape of the Lock_ is
brilliant but it is only play.

The accepted theory which assumed that the forms of poetry had been
settled in the past and existed to be applied, though it concerned
itself mainly with the ancient writers, included also two moderns in its
scope. You were orthodox if you wrote tragedy and epic as Horace told
you and satire as he had shown you; you were also orthodox if you wrote
in the styles of Spenser or Milton. Spenser, though his predecessors
were counted barbaric and his followers tortured and obscure, never fell
out of admiration; indeed in every age of English poetry after him the
greatest poet in it is always to be found copying him or expressing
their love for him--Milton declaring to Dryden that Spenser was his
"original," Pope reading and praising him, Keats writing his earliest
work in close imitation. His characteristic style and stanza were
recognised by the classic school as a distinct "kind" of poetry which
might be used where the theme fitted instead of the heroic manner, and
Spenserian imitations abound. Sometimes they are serious; sometimes,
like Shenstone's _Schoolmistress_, they are mocking and another
illustration of the dangerous ease with which a conscious and sustained
effort to write in a fixed and acquired style runs to seed in burlesque.
Milton's fame never passed through the period of obscurity that
sometimes has been imagined for him. He had the discerning admiration of
Dryden and others before his death. But to Addison belongs the credit of
introducing him to the writers of this time; his papers in the
_Spectator_ on _Paradise Lost_, with their eulogy of its author's
sublimity, spurred the interest of the poets among his readers. From
Milton the eighteenth century got the chief and most ponderous part of
its poetic diction, high-sounding periphrases and borrowings from Latin
used without the gravity and sincerity and fullness of thought of the
master who brought them in. When they wrote blank verse, the classic
poets wrote it in the Milton manner.

The use of these two styles may be studied in the writings of one man,
James Thomson. For besides acquiring a kind of anonymous immortality
with patriots as the author of "Rule, Britannia," Thomson wrote two
poems respectively in the Spenserian and the Miltonic manner, the former
_The Castle of Indolence_, the latter _The Seasons_. The Spenserian
manner is caught very effectively, but the adoption of the style of
_Paradise Lost_, with its allusiveness, circumlocution and weight,
removes any freshness the _Seasons_ might have had, had the
circumstances in them been put down as they were observed. As it is,
hardly anything is directly named; birds are always the "feathered
tribe" and everything else has a similar polite generality for its
title. Thomson was a simple-minded man, with a faculty for watching and
enjoying nature which belonged to few in his sophisticated age; it is
unfortunate he should have spent his working hours in rendering the
fruit of country rambles freshly observed into a cold and stilted
diction. It suited the eighteenth century reader well, for not
understanding nature herself he was naturally obliged to read her in


The chief merits of "classic" poetry--its clearness, its vigour, its
direct statement--are such as belong theoretically rather to prose than
to poetry. In fact, it was in prose that the most vigorous intellect of
the time found itself. We have seen how Dryden, reversing the habit of
other poets, succeeded in expressing his personality not in poetry which
was his vocation, but in prose which was the amusement of his leisure
hours. Spenser had put his politics into prose and his ideals into
verse; Dryden wrote his politics--to order--in verse, and in prose set
down the thoughts and fancies which were the deepest part of him because
they were about his art. The metaphor of parentage, though honoured by
use, fits badly on to literary history; none the less the tradition
which describes him as the father of modern English prose is very near
the truth. He puts into practice for the first time the ideals,
described in the first chapter of this book, which were set up by the
scholars who let into English the light of the Renaissance. With the
exception of the dialogue on Dramatic Poesy, his work is almost all of
it occasional, the fruit of the mood of a moment, and written rather in
the form of a _causerie_, a kind of informal talk, than of a considered
essay. And it is all couched in clear, flowing, rather loosely jointed
English, carefully avoiding rhetoric and eloquence and striving always
to reproduce the ease and flow of cultured conversation, rather than the
tighter, more closely knit style of consciously "literary" prose. His
methods were the methods of the four great prose-writers who followed
him--Defoe, Addison, Steele, and Swift.

Of these Defoe was the eldest and in some ways the most remarkable. He
has been called the earliest professional author in our language, and if
that is not strictly true, he is at any rate the earliest literary
journalist. His output of work was enormous; he wrote on any and every
subject; there was no event whether in politics or letters or discovery
but he was not ready with something pat on it before the public interest
faded. It followed that at a time when imprisonment, mutilation, and the
pillory took the place of our modern libel actions he had an adventurous
career. In politics he followed the Whig cause and served the Government
with his pen, notably by his writings in support of the union with
Scotland, in which he won over the Scots by his description of the
commercial advantage which would follow the abolition of the border.
This line of argument, taken at a time when the governing of political
tendencies by commercial interests was by no means the accepted
commonplace it is now, proves him a man of an active and original mind.
His originality, indeed, sometimes over-reached the comprehension both
of the public and his superiors; he was imprisoned for an attack on the
Hanoverian succession, which was intended ironically; apparently he was
ignorant of what every journalist ought to know that irony is at once
the most dangerous and the most ineffectual weapon in the whole armoury
of the press. The fertility and ingenuity of his intellect may be best
gauged by the number of modern enterprises and contrivances that are
foreshadowed in his work. Here are a few, all utterly unknown in his own
day, collected by a student of his works; a Board of Trade register for
seamen; factories for goods: agricultural credit banks; a commission of
enquiry into bankruptcy; and a system of national poor relief. They show
him to have been an independent and courageous thinker where social
questions were concerned.

He was nearly sixty before he had published his first novel, _Robinson
Crusoe_, the book by which he is universally known, and on which with
the seven other novels which followed it the foundation of his literary
fame rests. But his earlier works--they are reputed to number over two
hundred--possess no less remarkable literary qualities. It is not too
much to say that all the gifts which are habitually recommended for
cultivation by those who aspire to journalistic success are to be found
in his prose. He has in the first place the gift of perfect lucidity no
matter how complicated the subject he is expounding; such a book as his
_Complete English Tradesman_ is full of passages in which complex and
difficult subject-matter is set forth so plainly and clearly that the
least literate of his readers could have no doubt of his understanding
it. He has also an amazingly exact acquaintance with the technicalities
of all kinds of trades and professions; none of our writers, not even
Shakespeare, shows half such a knowledge of the circumstances of life
among different ranks and conditions of men; none of them has realized
with such fidelity how so many different persons lived and moved. His
gift of narrative and description is masterly, as readers of his novels
know (we shall have to come back to it in discussing the growth of the
English novel); several of his works show him to have been endowed with
a fine faculty of psychological observation. Without the least
consciousness of the value of what he was writing, nor indeed with any
deliberate artistic intention, he made himself one of the masters of
English prose.

Defoe had been the champion of the Whigs; on the Tory side the ablest
pen was that of Jonathan Swift. His works proclaim him to have had an
intellect less wide in its range than that of his antagonist but more
vigorous and powerful. He wrote, too, more carefully. In his youth he
had been private secretary to Sir William Temple, a writer now as good
as forgotten because of the triviality of his matter, but in his day
esteemed because of the easy urbanity and polish of his prose. From him
Swift learned the labour of the file, and he declared in later life that
it was "generally believed that this author has advanced our English
tongue to as great a perfection as it can well bear." In fact he added
to the ease and cadences he had learned from Temple qualities of vigour
and directness of his own which put his work far above his master's. And
he dealt with more important subject-matter than the academic exercises
on which Temple exercised his fastidious and meticulous powers of

In temperament he is opposed to all the writers of his time. There is no
doubt but there was some radical disorder in his system; brain disease
clouded his intellect in his old age, and his last years were death in
life; right through his life he was a savagely irritable, sardonic, dark
and violent man, impatient of the slightest contradiction or thwarting,
and given to explosive and instantaneous rage. He delighted in flouting
convention, gloried in outraging decency. The rage, which, as he said
himself, tore his heart out, carried him to strange excesses. There is
something ironical (he would himself have appreciated it) in the
popularity of _Gulliver's Travels_ as a children's book--that ascending
wave of savagery and satire which overwhelms policy and learning to
break against the ultimate citadel of humanity itself. In none of his
contemporaries (except perhaps in the sentimentalities of Steele) can
one detect the traces of emotion; to read Swift is to be conscious of
intense feeling on almost every page. The surface of his style may be
smooth and equable but the central fires of passion are never far
beneath, and through cracks and fissures come intermittent bursts of
flame. Defoe's irony is so measured and studiously commonplace that
perhaps those who imprisoned him because they believed him to be serious
are hardly to be blamed; Swift's quivers and reddens with anger in every

But his pen seldom slips from the strong grasp of his controlling art.
The extraordinary skill and closeness of his allegorical
writings--unmatched in their kind--is witness to the care and sustained
labour which went to their making. He is content with no general
correspondences; his allegory does not fade away into a story in which
only the main characters have a secondary significance; the minutest
circumstances have a bearing in the satire and the moral. In _The Tale
of a Tub_ and in _Gulliver's Travels_--particularly in the former--the
multitude as well as the aptness of the parallels between the imaginary
narrative and the facts it is meant to represent is unrivalled in works
of the kind. Only the highest mental powers, working with intense
fervour and concentration, could have achieved the sustained brilliancy
of the result. "What a genius I had when I wrote that book!" Swift is
said to have exclaimed in his old age when he re-read _The Tale of a
Tub_, and certainly the book is a marvel of constructive skill, all the
more striking because it makes allegory out of history and consequently
is denied that freedom of narrative so brilliantly employed in the

Informing all his writings too, besides intense feeling and an
omnipresent and controlling art, is strong common sense. His aphorisms,
both those collected under the heading of _Thoughts on Various
Subjects_, and countless others scattered up and down his pages, are a
treasury of sound, if a little sardonic, practical wisdom. His most
insistent prejudices foreshadow in their essential sanity and justness
those of that great master of life, Dr. Johnson. He could not endure
over-politeness, a vice which must have been very oppressive in society
of his day. He savagely resented and condemned a display of
affection--particularly marital affection--in public. In an age when it
was the normal social system of settling quarrels, he condemned
duelling; and he said some very wise things--things that might still be
said--on modern education. In economics he was as right-hearted as
Ruskin and as wrong-headed. Carlyle, who was in so many respects an echo
of him, found in a passage in his works a "dim anticipation" of his
philosophy of clothes.

The leading literary invention of the period--after that of the heroic
couplet for verse--was the prose periodical essay. Defoe, it is hardly
necessary to say, began it; it was his nature to be first with any new
thing: but its establishment as a prevailing literary mode is due to two
authors, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Of the two famous
series--the _Tatler_ and the _Spectator_--for which they were both
responsible, Steele must take the first credit; he began them, and
though Addison came in and by the deftness and lightness of his writing
took the lion's share of their popularity, both the plan and the
characters round whom the bulk of the essays in the _Spectator_ came to
revolve was the creation of his collaborator. Steele we know very
intimately from his own writings and from Thackeray's portrait of him.
He was an emotional, full-blooded kind of man, reckless and dissipated
but fundamentally honest and good-hearted--a type very common in his day
as the novels show, but not otherwise to be found in the ranks of its
writers. What there is of pathos and sentiment, and most of what there
is of humour in the _Tatler_ and the _Spectator_ are his. And he created
the _dramatis personae_ out of whose adventures the slender thread of
continuity which binds the essays together is woven. Addison, though
less open to the onslaughts of the conventional moralist, was a less
lovable personality. Constitutionally endowed with little vitality, he
suffered mentally as well as bodily from languor and lassitude. His
lack of enthusiasm, his cold-blooded formalism, caused comment even in
an age which prided itself in self-command and decorum.

His very malevolence proceeded from a flaccidity which meanly envied the
activities and enthusiasms of other men. As a writer he was superficial;
he had not the requisite energy for forming a clear or profound judgment
on any question of difficulty; Johnson's comment, "He thinks justly but
he thinks faintly" sums up the truth about him. His good qualities were
of a slighter kind than Swift's; he was a quiet and accurate observer of
manners and fashions in life and conversation, and he had the gift of a
style--what Johnson calls "The Middle Style"--very exactly suited to the
kind of work on which he was habitually engaged, "always equable, always
easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences" but polished, lucid,
and urbane.

Steele and Addison were conscious moralists as well as literary men.
They desired to purge society from Restoration licences; to their
efforts we must credit the alteration in morality which _The School for
Scandal_ shows over _The Way of the World_. Their professed object as
they stated themselves was "to banish vice and ignorance out of the
territories of Great Britain, (nothing less!) and to bring philosophy
out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs
and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffee-houses." In fact their satires
were politically nearer home, and the chief objects of their aversion
were the Tory squires whom it was their business as Whigs to deride. On
the Coverley papers in the _Spectator_ rests the chief part of their
literary fame; these belong rather to the special history of the novel
than to that of the periodical essay.



By 1730 the authors whose work made the "classic" school in England were
dead or had ceased writing; by the same date Samuel Johnson had begun
his career as a man of letters. The difference between the period of his
maturity and the period we have been examining is not perhaps easy to
define; but it exists and it can be felt unmistakably in reading. For
one thing "Classicism" had become completely naturalized; it had ceased
to regard the French as arbiters of elegance and literary taste; indeed
Johnson himself never spoke of them without disdain and hated them as
much as he hated Scotsmen. Writing, like dress and the common way of
life, became plainer and graver and thought stronger and deeper. In
manners and speech something of the brutalism which was at the root of
the English character at the time began to colour the refinement of the
preceding age. Dilettantism gave way to learning and speculation; in the
place of Bolingbroke came Adam Smith; in the place of Addison, Johnson.
In a way it is the solidest and sanest time in English letters. Yet in
the midst of its urbanity and order forces were gathering for its
destruction. The ballad-mongers were busy; Blake was drawing and
rhyming; Burns was giving songs and lays to his country-side. In the
distance--Johnson could not hear them--sounded, like the horns of
elf-land faintly blowing, the trumpet calls of romance.

If the whole story of Dr. Johnson's life were the story of his published
books it would be very difficult to understand his pre-eminent and
symbolic position in literary history. His best known work--it still
remains so--was his dictionary, and dictionaries, for all the licence
they give and Johnson took for the expression of a personality, are the
business of purely mechanical talents. A lesser man than he might have
cheated us of such delights as the definitions of "oats," or "net" or
"pension," but his book would certainly have been no worse as a book. In
his early years he wrote two satires in verse in imitation of Juvenal;
they were followed later by two series of periodical essays on the model
of the _Spectator_; neither of them--the _Rambler_ nor the _Idler_--were
at all successful. _Rasselas_, a tale with a purpose, is melancholy
reading; the _Journey to the Western Hebrides_ has been utterly eclipsed
by Boswell's livelier and more human chronicle of the same events. The
_Lives of the Poets_, his greatest work, was composed with pain and
difficulty when he was seventy years old; even it is but a quarry from
which a reader may dig the ore of a sound critical judgment summing up
a life's reflection, out of the grit and dust of perfunctory
biographical compilations. There was hardly one of the literary coterie
over which he presided that was not doing better and more lasting work.
Nothing that Johnson wrote is to be compared, for excellence in its own
manner, with _Tom Jones_ or the _Vicar of Wakefield_ or the _Citizen of
the World_. He produced nothing in writing approaching the magnitude of
Gibbon's _Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire_, or the profundity of
Burke's philosophy of politics. Even Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose main
business was painting and not the pen, was almost as good an author as
he; his _Discourses_ have little to fear when they are set beside
Johnson's essays. Yet all these men recognised him as their guide and
leader; the spontaneous selection of such a democratic assembly as men
of genius in a tavern fixed upon him as chairman, and we in these later
days, who are safe from the overpowering force of personality
and presence--or at least can only know of it reflected in
books--instinctively recognize him as the greatest man of his age. What
is the reason?

Johnson's pre-eminence is the pre-eminence of character. He was a great
moralist; he summed up in himself the tendencies of thought and
literature of his time and excelled all others in his grasp of them; and
he was perhaps more completely than any one else in the whole history of
English literature, the typical Englishman. He was one of those to whom
is applicable the commonplace that he was greater than his books. It is
the fashion nowadays among some critics to speak of his biographer
Boswell as if he were a novelist or a playwright and to classify the
Johnson we know with Hamlet and Don Quixote as the product of creative
or imaginative art, working on a "lost original." No exercise of
critical ingenuity could be more futile or impertinent. The impression
of the solidity and magnitude of Johnson's character which is to be
gathered from Boswell is enforced from other sources; from his essays
and his prayers and meditations, from the half-dozen or so lives and
reminiscences which were published in the years following his death
(their very number establishing the reverence with which he was
regarded), from the homage of other men whose genius their books leave
indisputable. Indeed the Johnson we know from Boswell, though it is the
broadest and most masterly portrait in the whole range of biography,
gives less than the whole magnitude of the man. When Boswell first met
him at the age of twenty-two, Johnson was fifty-four. His long period of
poverty and struggle was past. His _Dictionary_ and all his works except
the _Lives of the Poets_ were behind him; a pension from the Crown had
established him in security for his remaining years; his position was
universally acknowledged. So that though the portrait in the _Life_ is a
full-length study of Johnson the conversationalist and literary
dictator, the proportion it preserves is faulty and its study of the
early years--the years of poverty, of the _Vanity of Human Wishes_ and
_London_, of _Rasselas_, which he wrote to pay the expenses of his
mother's funeral, is slight.

It was, however, out of the bitterness and struggle of these early
years that the strength and sincerity of character which carried Johnson
surely and tranquilly through the time of his triumph were derived. From
the beginning he made no compromise with the world and no concession to
fashion. The world had to take him at his own valuation or not at all.
He never deviated one hair's breadth from the way he had chosen. Judged
by the standards of journalistic success, the _Rambler_ could not well
be worse than he made it. Compared with the lightness and gaiety and the
mere lip-service to morality of Addison its edification is ponderous.
Both authors state the commonplaces of conduct, but Addison achieves
lightness in the doing of it, and his manner by means of which
platitudes are stated lightly and pointedly and with an air of novelty,
is the classic manner of journalism. Johnson goes heavily and directly
to the point, handling well worn moral themes in general and dogmatic
language without any attempt to enliven them with an air of discovery or
surprise. Yet they were, in a sense, discoveries to him; not one of them
but was deeply and sincerely felt; not one but is not a direct and to us
a pathetically dispassionate statement of the reflection of thirty years
of grinding poverty and a soul's anguish. Viewed in the light of his
life, the _Rambler_ is one of the most moving of books. If its literary
value is slight it is a document in character.

So that when he came to his own, when gradually the public whom he
despised and neglected raised him into a pontifical position matched by
none before him in England and none since save Carlyle, he was sure of
himself; success did not spoil him. His judgment was unwarped by
flattery. The almost passionate tenderness and humanity which lay
beneath his gruffness was undimmed. His personality triumphed in all the
fullness and richness which had carried it in integrity through his
years of struggle. For over twenty years from his chair in taverns in
the Strand and Fleet Street he ruled literary London, imposed his
critical principles on the great body of English letters, and by his
talk and his friendships became the embodiment of the literary
temperament of his age.

His talk as it is set down by Boswell is his best monument. It was the
happiest possible fate that threw those two men together, for Boswell
besides being an admirer and reporter sedulously chronicling all his
master said and did, fortunately influenced both the saying and the
doing. Most of us have some one in whose company we best shine, who puts
our wits on their mettle and spurs us to our greatest readiness and
vivacity. There is no doubt that Boswell, for all his assumed humility
and for all Johnson's affected disdain, was just such a companion for
Johnson. Johnson was at his best when Boswell was present, and Boswell
not only drew Johnson out on subjects in which his robust common sense
and readiness of judgment were fitted to shine but actually suggested
and conducted that tour in Scotland which gave Johnson an opportunity
for displaying himself at his best. The recorded talk is
extraordinarily varied and entertaining. It is a mistake to conceive
Johnson as a monster of bear-like rudeness, shouting down opposition,
hectoring his companions, and habitually a blustering verbal bully. We
are too easily hypnotized by Macaulay's flashy caricature. He could be
merciless in argument and often wrongheaded and he was always acute,
uncomfortably acute, in his perception of a fallacy, and a little
disconcerting in his unmasking of pretence. But he could be gay and
tender too and in his heart he was a shrinking and sensitive man.

As a critic (his criticism is the only side of his literary work that
need be considered), Johnson must be allowed a high place. His natural
indolence in production had prevented him from exhausting his faculties
in the more exacting labours of creative work, and it had left him time
for omnivorous if desultory reading, the fruits of which he stored in a
wonderfully retentive memory against an occasion for their use. To a
very fully equipped mind he brought the service of a robust and acute
judgment. Moreover when he applied his mind to a subject he had a
faculty of intense, if fitful concentration; he could seize with great
force on the heart of a matter; he had the power in a wonderfully short
time of extracting the kernel and leaving the husk. His judgments in
writing are like those recorded by Boswell from his conversation; that
is to say he does not, as a critic whose medium was normally the pen
rather than the tongue would tend to do, search for fine shades of
distinction, subdivide subtleties, or be careful to admit _caveats_ or
exceptions; he passes, on the contrary, rapid and forcible verdicts,
not seldom in their assertions untenably sweeping, and always decided
and dogmatic. He never affects diffidence or defers to the judgments of
others. His power of concentration, of seizing on essentials, has given
us his best critical work--nothing could be better, for instance, than
his characterisation of the poets whom he calls the metaphysical school
(Donne, Crashaw, and the rest) which is the most valuable part of his
life of Cowley. Even where he is most prejudiced--for instance in his
attack on Milton's _Lycidas_--there is usually something to be said for
his point of view. And after this concentration, his excellence depends
on his basic common sense. His classicism is always tempered, like
Dryden's, by a humane and sensible dislike of pedantry; he sets no store
by the unities; in his preface to Shakespeare he allows more than a
"classic" could have been expected to admit, writing in it, in truth,
some of the manliest and wisest things in Shakespearean literature. Of
course, he had his failings--the greatest of them what Lamb called
imperfect sympathy. He could see no good in republicans or agnostics,
and none in Scotland or France. Not that the phrase "imperfect
sympathy," which expresses by implication the romantic critic's point of
view, would have appealed to him. When Dr. Johnson did not like people
the fault was in them, not in him; a ruthless objectivity is part of the
classic equipment. He failed, too, because he could neither understand
nor appreciate poetry which concerned itself with the sensations that
come from external nature. Nature was to him a closed book, very likely
for a purely physical reason. He was short-sighted to the point of
myopia, and a landscape meant nothing to him; when he tried to describe
one as he did in the chapter on the "happy valley" in _Rasselas_ he
failed. What he did not see he could not appreciate; perhaps it is too
much to ask of his self-contained and unbending intellect that he should
appreciate the report of it by other men.


As we have seen, Johnson was not only great in himself, he was great in
his friends. Round him, meeting him as an equal, gathered the greatest
and most prolific writers of the time. There is no better way to study
the central and accepted men of letters of the period than to take some
full evening at the club from Boswell, read a page or two, watch what
the talkers said, and then trace each back to his own works for a
complete picture of his personality. The lie of the literary landscape
in this wonderful time will become apparent to you as you read. You will
find Johnson enthroned, Boswell at his ear, round him men like Reynolds
and Burke, Richardson and Fielding and Goldsmith, Robertson and Gibbon,
and occasionally drawn to the circle minnows like Beattie and a genius
like Adam Smith. Gray, studious in his college at Cambridge, is
exercising his fastidious talent; Collins' sequestered, carefully
nurtured muse is silent; a host of minor poets are riding Pope's poetic
diction, and heroic couplet to death. Outside scattered about is the
van of Romance--Percy collecting his ballads; Burns making songs and
verses in Scotland; the "mad" people, Smart and Chatterton, and above
all Blake, obscurely beginning the work that was to finish in Wordsworth
and Coleridge and Keats.

Of Johnson's set the most remarkable figure was Edmund Burke--"the
supreme writer," as De Quincey called him, "of his century." His
writings belong more to the history of politics than to that of
literature, and a close examination of them would be out of place here.
His political theory strikes a middle course which offends--and in his
own day offended--both parties in the common strife of political
thinking. He believed the best government to consist in a patriotic
aristocracy, ruling for the good of the people. By birth an Irishman, he
had the innate practicality which commonly lies beneath the flash and
colour of Irish forcefulness and rhetoric. That, and his historical
training, which influenced him in the direction of conceiving every
institution as the culmination of an evolutionary development, sent him
directly counter to the newest and most enthusiastically urged political
philosophy of his day--the philosophy stated by Rousseau, and put in
action by the French Revolution. He disliked and distrusted
"metaphysical theories," when they left the field of speculation for
that of practice, had no patience with "natural rights" (which as an
Irishman he conceived as the product of sentimentalism) and applied what
would nowadays be called a "pragmatic" test to political affairs.
Practice was the touchstone; a theory was useless unless you could prove
that it had worked. It followed that he was not a democrat, opposed
parliamentary reform, and held that the true remedy for corruption and
venality was not to increase the size of the electorate, but to reduce
it so as to obtain electors of greater weight and independence. For him
a member of Parliament was a representative and not a delegate, and must
act not on his elector's wishes but on his own judgment. These opinions
are little in fashion in our own day, but it is well to remember that in
Burke's case they were the outcome not of prejudice but of thought, and
that even democracy may admit they present a case that must be met and

Burke's reputation as a thinker has suffered somewhat unjustly as a
result of his refusal to square his tenets either with democracy or with
its opposite. It has been said that ideas were only of use to him so far
as they were of polemical service, that the amazing fertility and
acuteness of his mind worked only in a not too scrupulous determination
to overwhelm his antagonists in the several arguments--on India, or
America, on Ireland or on France--which made up his political career. He
was, said Carlyle, "vehement rather than earnest; a resplendent
far-sighted rhetorician, rather than a deep and earnest thinker." The
words as they stand would be a good description of a certain type of
politician; they would fit, for instance, very well on Mr. Gladstone;
but they do Burke less than justice. He was an innovator in modern
political thought, and his application of the historical method to the
study of institutions is in its way a not less epoch-making achievement
than Bacon's application of the inductive method to science. At a time
when current political thought, led by Rousseau, was drawing its
theories from the abstract conception of "natural rights" Burke was
laying down that sounder and deeper notion of politics which has
governed thinking in that department of knowledge since. Besides this,
he had face to face with the affairs of his own day, a far-sightedness
and sagacity which kept him right where other men went wrong. In a
nation of the blind he saw the truth about the American colonies; he
predicted with exactitude the culmination of the revolution in Napoleon.
Mere rhetorical vehemence cannot explain the earnestness with which in a
day of diplomatic cynicism he preached the doctrine of an international
morality as strict and as binding as the morality which exists between
man and man. Surest of all, we have the testimony, uninfluenced by the
magic of language, of the men he met. You could not, said Dr. Johnson,
shelter with him in a shed for a few moments from the rain without
saying, "This is an extraordinary man."

His literary position depends chiefly on his amazing gift of expression,
on a command of language unapproached by any writer of his time. His
eloquence (in writing not in speaking; he is said to have had a
monotonous delivery) was no doubt at bottom a matter of race, but to his
Irish readiness and flash and colour he added the strength of a full
mind, fortified by a wonderful store of reading which a retentive and
exact memory enabled him to bring instantly to bear on the subject in
hand. No writer before him, except Defoe, had such a wide knowledge of
the technicalities of different men's occupations, and of all sorts of
the processes of daily business, nor could enlighten an abstract matter
with such a wealth of luminous analogy. It is this characteristic of his
style which has led to the common comparison of his writing with
Shakespeare's; both seem to be preternaturally endowed with more
information, to have a wider sweep of interest than ordinary men. Both
were not only, as Matthew Arnold said of Burke, "saturated with ideas,"
but saturated too in the details of the business and desire of ordinary
men's lives; nothing human was alien from them. Burke's language is,
therefore, always interesting and always appropriate to his thought; it
is also on occasion very beautiful. He had a wonderful command of clear
and ringing utterance and could appeal when he liked very powerfully to
the sensibilities of his readers. Rhetoricians are seldom free from
occasional extravagance, and Burke fell under the common danger of his
kind. He had his moments of falsity, could heap coarse and outrageous
abuse on Warren Hastings, illustrate the horrors of the Revolution by
casting a dagger on the floor of the House of Commons, and nourish
hatred beyond the bounds of justice or measure. But these things do not
affect his position, nor take from the solid greatness of his work.

Boswell we have seen; after Burke and Boswell, Goldsmith was the most
brilliant member of the Johnson circle. If part of Burke's genius is
referable to his nationality, Goldsmith's is wholly so. The beginning
and the end of him was Irish; every quality he possessed as a man and as
a writer belongs to his race. He had the Irish carelessness, the Irish
generosity, the Irish quick temper, the Irish humour. This latter gift,
displayed constantly in a company which had little knowledge of the
peculiar quality of Irish wit and no faculty of sympathy or imagination,
is at the bottom of the constant depreciation of him on the part of
Boswell and others of his set. His mock self-importance they thought
ill-breeding; his humorous self-depreciation and keen sense of his own
ridiculousness, mere lack of dignity and folly. It is curious to read
Boswell and watch how often Goldsmith, without Boswell's knowing it, got
the best of the joke. In writing he had what we can now recognise as
peculiarly Irish gifts. All our modern writers of light half-farcical
comedy are Irish. Goldsmith's _She Stoops to Conquer_, is only the first
of a series which includes _The School for Scandal, The Importance of
being Earnest_, and _You Never can Tell_. And his essays--particularly
those of the _Citizen of the World_ with its Chinese vision of England
and English life--are the first fruit of that Irish detachment, that
ability to see "normally" English habits and institutions and foibles
which in our own day has given us the prefaces of Mr. Shaw. As a writer
Goldsmith has a lightness and delicate ease which belongs rather to the
school of the earlier eighteenth century than to his own day; the
enthusiasm of Addison for French literature which he retained gave him a
more graceful model than the "Johnsonian" school, to which he professed
himself to belong, could afford.


The eighteenth century novel demands separate treatment, and of the
other prose authors the most eminent, Edward Gibbon, belongs to
historical rather than to literary studies. It is time to turn to

There orthodox classicism still held sway; the manner and metre of Pope
or Thomson ruled the roost of singing fowl. In the main it had done its
work, and the bulk of fresh things conceived in it were dull and
imitative, even though occasionally, as in the poems of Johnson himself
and of Goldsmith, an author arose who was able to infuse sincerity and
emotion into a now moribund convention. The classic manner--now more
that of Thomson than of Pope--persisted till it overlapped romanticism;
Cowper and Crabbe each owe a doubtful allegiance, leaning by their
formal metre and level monotony of thought to the one and by their
realism to the other. In the meantime its popularity and its assured
position were beginning to be assailed in the coteries by the work of
two new poets.

The output of Thomas Gray and William Collins is small; you might almost
read the complete poetical works of either in an evening. But for all
that they mark a period; they are the first definite break with the
classic convention which had been triumphant for upwards of seventy
years when their prime came. It is a break, however, in style rather
than in essentials, and a reader who seeks in them the inspiriting
freshness which came later with Wordsworth and Coleridge will be
disappointed. Their carefully drawn still wine tastes insipidly after
the "beaded bubbles winking at the brim" of romance. They are fastidious
and academic; they lack the authentic fire; their poetry is "made"
poetry like Tennyson's and Matthew Arnold's. On their comparative merits
a deal of critical ink has been spilt, Arnold's characterisation of Gray
is well known--"he never spoke out." Sterility fell upon him because he
lived in an age of prose just as it fell upon Arnold himself because he
lived too much immersed in business and routine. But in what he wrote he
had the genuine poetic gift--the gift of insight and feeling. Against
this, Swinburne with characteristic vehemence raised the standard of
Collins, the latchet of whose shoe Gray, as a lyric poet, was not worthy
to unloose. "The muse gave birth to Collins, she did but give suck to
Gray." It is more to our point to observe that neither, though their
work abounds in felicities and in touches of a genuine poetic sense, was
fitted to raise the standard of revolt. Revolution is for another and
braver kind of genius than theirs. Romanticism had to wait for Burns and

In every country at any one time there are in all probability not one
but several literatures flourishing. The main stream flowing through
the publishers and booksellers, conned by critics and coteries,
recognized as the national literature, is commonly only the largest of
several channels of thought. There are besides the national literature
local literatures--books, that is, are published which enjoy popularity
and critical esteem in their own county or parish and are utterly
unknown outside; there may even be (indeed, there are in several parts
of the country) distinct local schools of writing and dynasties of local
authors. These localized literatures rarely become known to the outside
world; the national literature takes little account of them, though
their existence and probably some special knowledge of one or other of
them is within the experience of most of us. But every now and again
some one of their authors transcends his local importance, gives
evidence of a genius which is not to be denied even by those who
normally have not the knowledge to appreciate the particular flavour of
locality which his writings impart, and becomes a national figure. While
he lives and works the national and his local stream turn and flow

This was the case of Robert Burns. All his life long he was the singer
of a parish--the last of a long line of "forbears" who had used the
Scottish lowland vernacular to rhyme in about their neighbours and their
scandals, their loves and their church. Himself at the confluence of the
two streams, the national and the local, he pays his tribute to two sets
of originals, talks with equal reverence of names known to us like Pope
and Gray and Shenstone and names unknown which belonged to local
"bards," as he would have called them, who wrote their poems for an
Ayrshire public. If he came upon England as an innovator it was simply
because he brought with him the highly individualized style of Scottish
local vernacular verse; to his own people he was no innovator but a
fulfilment; as his best critic[5] says he brought nothing to the
literature he became a part of but himself. His daring and splendid
genius made the local universal, raised out of rough and cynical
satirizing a style as rich and humorous and astringent as that of
Rabelais, lent inevitableness and pathos and romance to lyric and song.
But he was content to better the work of other men. He made hardly
anything new.

[Footnote 5: W.E. Henley, "Essay on Burns." Works, David Nutt.]

Stevenson in his essay on Burns remarks his readiness to use up the work
of others or take a large hint from it "as if he had some difficulty in
commencing." He omits to observe that the very same trait applies to
other great artists. There seem to be two orders of creative writers. On
the one hand are the innovators, the new men like Blake, Wordsworth,
Byron and Shelley, and later Browning. These men owe little to their
predecessors; they work on their own devices and construct their medium
afresh for themselves. Commonly their fame and acceptance is slow, for
they speak in an unfamiliar tongue and they have to educate a generation
to understand their work. The other order of artists have to be shown
the way. They have little fertility in construction or invention. You
have to say to them "Here is something that you could do too; go and do
it better," or "Here is a story to work on, or a refrain of a song; take
it and give it your subtlety, your music." The villainy you teach them
they will use and it will go hard with them if they do not better the
invention; but they do not invent for themselves. To this order of
artists Burns like Shakespeare, and among the lesser men Tennyson,
belongs. In all his plays Shakespeare is known to have invented only one
plot; in many he is using not only the structure but in many places the
words devised by an older author; his mode of treatment depends on the
conventions common in his day, on the tragedy of blood, and madness and
revenge, on the comedy of intrigue and disguises, on the romance with
its strange happenings and its reuniting of long parted friends. Burns
goes the same way to work; scarcely a page of his but shows traces of
some original in the Scottish vernacular school. The elegy, the verse
epistle, the satirical form of _Holy Willie's Prayer_, the song and
recitative of _The Jolly Beggars_, are all to be found in his
predecessors, in Fergusson, Ramsay, and the local poets of the
south-west of Scotland. In the songs often whole verses, nearly always
the refrains, are from older folk poetry. What he did was to pour into
these forms the incomparable richness of a personality whose fire and
brilliance and humour transcended all locality and all tradition, a
personality which strode like a colossus over the formalism and
correctness of his time. His use of familiar forms explains, more than
anything else, his immediate fame. His countrymen were ready for him;
they could hail him on the instant (just as an Elizabethan audience
could hail Shakespeare) as something familiar and at the same time more
splendid than anything they knew. He spoke in a tongue they could

It is impossible to judge Burns from his purely English verse; though he
did it as well as any of the minor followers of the school of Pope he
did it no better. Only the weakest side of his character--his
sentimentalism--finds expression in it; he had not the sense of
tradition nor the intimate knowledge necessary to use English to the
highest poetic effect; it was indeed a foreign tongue to him. In the
vernacular he wrote the language he spoke, a language whose natural
force and colour had become enriched by three centuries of literary use,
which was capable, too, of effects of humour and realism impossible in
any tongue spoken out of reach of the soil. It held within it an
unmatched faculty for pathos, a capacity for expressing a lambent and
kindly humour, a power of pungency in satire and a descriptive vividness
that English could not give. How express in the language of Pope or even
of Wordsworth an effect like this:--

"They reeled, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linket at it in her sark."

or this--

"Yestreen when to the trembling string,
The dance gaed thro' the lighted ha'
To thee my fancy took its wing--
I sat but neither heard nor saw:
Tho' this was fair, and that was braw,
And yon the toast of a' the toun,
I sigh'd and said amang them a',
You are na Mary Morison."

It may be objected that in all this there is only one word, and but two
or three forms of words that are not English. But the accent, the
rhythm, the air of it are all Scots, and it was a Burns thinking in his
native tongue who wrote it, not the Burns of

"Anticipation forward points the view ";


"Pleasures are like poppies spread,
You grasp the flower, the bloom is shed."

or any other of the exercises in the school of Thomson and Pope.

It is easy to see that though Burns admired unaffectedly the "classic"
writers, his native realism and his melody made him a potent agent in
the cause of naturalism and romance. In his ideas, even more than in his
style, he belongs to the oncoming school. The French Revolution, which
broke upon Europe when he was at the height of his career, found him
already converted to its principles. As a peasant, particularly a Scotch
peasant, he believed passionately in the native worth of man as man and
gave ringing expression to it in his verse. In his youth his
liberal-mindedness made him a Jacobite out of mere antagonism to the
existing regime; the Revolution only discovered for him the more
logical Republican creed. As the leader of a loose-living, hard drinking
set, such as was to be found in every parish, he was a determined and
free-spoken enemy of the kirk, whose tyranny he several times
encountered. In his writing he is as vehement an anti-clerical as
Shelley and much more practical. The political side of romanticism, in
fact, which in England had to wait for Byron and Shelley, is already
full-grown in his work. He anticipates and gives complete expression to
one half of the Romantic movement.

What Burns did for the idea of liberty, Blake did for that and every
other idea current among Wordsworth and his successors. There is nothing
stranger in the history of English literature than the miracle by which
this poet and artist, working in obscurity, utterly unknown to the
literary world that existed outside him, summed up in himself all the
thoughts and tendencies which were the fruit of anxious discussion and
propaganda on the part of the authors--Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb--who
believed themselves to be the discoverers of fresh truth unknown to
their generation. The contemporary and independent discovery by Wallace
and Darwin of the principle of natural selection furnishes, perhaps, a
rough parallel, but the fact serves to show how impalpable and universal
is the spread of ideas, how impossible it is to settle literary
indebtedness or construct literary genealogy with any hope of accuracy.
Blake, by himself, held and expressed quite calmly that condemnation of
the "classic" school that Wordsworth and Coleridge proclaimed against
the opposition of a deriding world. As was his habit he compressed it
into a rude epigram,

"Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street."

The case for nature against urbanity could not be more tersely nor
better put. The German metaphysical doctrine which was the deepest part
of the teaching of Wordsworth and Coleridge and their main discovery, he
expresses as curtly and off-handedly,

"The sun's light when he unfolds it,
Depends on the organ that beholds it."

In the realm of childhood and innocence, which Wordsworth entered
fearfully and pathetically as an alien traveller, he moves with the
simple and assured ease of one native. He knows the mystical wonder and
horror that Coleridge set forth in _The Ancient Mariner_. As for the
beliefs of Shelley, they are already fully developed in his poems. "The
king and the priest are types of the oppressor; humanity is crippled by
"mind-forg'd manacles"; love is enslaved to the moral law, which is
broken by the Saviour of mankind; and, even more subtly than by Shelley,
life is pictured by Blake as a deceit and a disguise veiling from us the
beams of the Eternal."[6]

[Footnote 6: Prof. Raleigh.]

In truth, Blake, despite the imputation of insanity which was his
contemporaries' and has later been his commentators' refuge from
assenting to his conclusions, is as bold a thinker in his own way as
Neitzsche and as consistent. An absolute unity of belief inspires all
his utterances, cryptic and plain. That he never succeeded in founding a
school nor gathering followers must be put down in the first place to
the form in which his work was issued (it never reached the public of
his own day) and the dark and mysterious mythology in which the
prophetic books which are the full and extended statement of his
philosophy, are couched, and in the second place to the inherent
difficulty of the philosophy itself. As he himself says, where we read
black, he reads white. For the common distinction between good and evil,
Blake substitutes the distinction between imagination and reason; and
reason, the rationalizing, measuring, comparing faculty by which we come
to impute praise or blame is the only evil in his eyes. "There is
nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so;" to rid the world
of thinking, to substitute for reason, imagination, and for thought,
vision, was the object of all that he wrote or drew. The implications of
this philosophy carry far, and Blake was not afraid to follow where they
led him. Fortunately for those who hesitate to embark on that dark and
adventurous journey, his work contains delightful and simpler things. He
wrote lyrics of extraordinary freshness and delicacy and spontaneity; he
could speak in a child's voice of innocent joys and sorrows and the
simple elemental things. His odes to "Spring" and "Autumn" are the
harbingers of Keats. Not since Shakespeare and Campion died could
English show songs like his

"My silks and fine array."

and the others which carry the Elizabethan accent. He could write these
things as well as the Elizabethans. In others he was unique.

"Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry."

In all the English lyric there is no voice so clear, so separate or
distinctive as his.




There are two ways of approaching the periods of change and new birth in
literature. The commonest and, for all the study which it entails, the
easiest, is that summed up in the phrase, literature begets literature.
Following it, you discover and weigh literary influences, the influence
of poet on poet, and book on book. You find one man harking back to
earlier models in his own tongue, which an intervening age misunderstood
or despised; another, turning to the contemporary literatures of
neighbouring countries; another, perhaps, to the splendour and exoticism
of the east. In the matter of form and style, such a study carries you
far. You can trace types of poetry and metres back to curious and
unsuspected originals, find the well-known verse of Burns' epistles
turning up in Provencal; Tennyson's _In Memoriam_ stanza in use by Ben
Jonson; the metre of _Christabel_ in minor Elizabethan poetry; the
peculiar form of Fitzgerald's translation of _Omar Khayyam_ followed by
so many imitators since, itself to be the actual reflection of the rough
metrical scheme of his Persian original. But such a study, though it is
profitable and interesting, can never lead to the whole truth. As we saw
in the beginning of this book, in the matter of the Renaissance, every
age of discovery and re-birth has its double aspect. It is a revolution
in style and language, an age of literary experiment and achievement,
but its experiments are dictated by the excitement of a new
subject-matter, and that subject-matter is so much in the air, so
impalpable and universal that it eludes analysis. Only you can be sure
that it is this weltering contagion of new ideas, and new thought--the
"Zeitgeist," the spirit of the age, or whatever you may call it--that is
the essential and controlling force. Literary loans and imports give the
forms into which it can be moulded, but without them it would still
exist, and they are only the means by which a spirit which is in life
itself, and which expresses itself in action, and in concrete human
achievement, gets itself into the written word. The romantic revival
numbers Napoleon amongst its leaders as well as Byron, Wellington, Pitt
and Wilberforce, as well as Keats and Wordsworth. Only the literary
manifestations of the time concern us here, but it is important to
remember that the passion for simplification and for a return to nature
as a refuge from the artificial complexities of society, which inspired
the _Lyrical Ballads_, inspired no less the course of the Revolution in
France, and later, the destruction by Napoleon of the smaller feudal
states of Germany, which made possible German nationality and a national

In this romantic revival, however, the revolution in form and style
matters more than in most. The classicism of the previous age had been
so fixed and immutable; it had been enthroned in high places, enjoyed
the esteem of society, arrogated to itself the acceptance which good
breeding and good manners demanded. Dryden had been a Court poet,
careful to change his allegiance with the changing monarchy. Pope had
been the equal and intimate of the great people of his day, and his
followers, if they did not enjoy the equality, enjoyed at any rate the
patronage of many noble lords. The effect of this was to give the
prestige of social usage to the verse in which they wrote and the
language they used. "There was," said Dr. Johnson, "before the time of
Dryden no poetical diction, no system of words at once refined from the
grossness of domestic use, and free from the harshness of terms
appropriated to particular arts. Words too familiar or too remote to
defeat the purpose of a poet." This poetic diction, refined from the
grossness of domestic use, was the standard poetic speech of the
eighteenth century. The heroic couplet in which it was cast was the
standard metre. So that the first object of the revolt of the romantics
was the purely literary object of getting rid of the vice of an unreal
and artificial manner of writing. They desired simplicity of style.

When the _Lyrical Ballads_ of Wordsworth and Coleridge were published in
1798, the preface which Wordsworth wrote as their manifesto hardly
touched at all on the poetic imagination or the attitude of the poet to
life and nature. The only question is that of diction. "The majority of
the following poems," he writes, "are to be considered as experiments.
They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language
of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to
the purposes of poetic pleasure." And in the longer preface to the
second edition, in which the theories of the new school on the nature
and methods of the poetic imagination are set forth at length, he
returns to the same point. "The language too, of these men (that is
those in humble and rustic life) has been adopted ... because such men
hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of
language is originally derived, and because from their rank in society,
and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less
under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and
notions in simple unelaborated expressions." Social vanity--the armour
which we wear to conceal our deepest thoughts and feelings--that was
what Wordsworth wished to be rid of, and he chose the language of the
common people, not because it fitted, as an earlier school of poets who
used the common speech had asserted, the utterance of habitual feeling
and common sense, but because it is the most sincere expression of the
deepest and rarest passion. His object was the object attained by
Shakespeare in some of his supremest moments; the bare intolerable force
of the speeches after the murder of Macbeth, or of King Lear's

"Do not laugh at me,
For as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia."

Here, then, was one avenue of revolt from the tyranny of artificiality,
the getting back of common speech into poetry. But there was another,
earlier and more potent in its effect. The eighteenth century, weary of
its own good sense and sanity, turned to the Middle Ages for
picturesqueness and relief. Romance of course, had not been dead in all
these years, when Pope and Addison made wit and good sense the
fashionable temper for writing. There was a strong romantic tradition in
the eighteenth century, though it does not give its character to the
writing of the time. Dr. Johnson was fond of old romances. When he was
in Skye he amused himself by thinking of his Scottish tour as the
journey of a knight-errant. "These fictions of the Gothic romances," he
said, "are not so remote from credibility as is commonly supposed." It
is a mistake to suppose that the passion for mediaevalism began with
either Coleridge or Scott. Horace Walpole was as enthusiastic as either
of them; good eighteenth century prelates like Hurd and Percy, found in
what they called the Gothic an inexhaustible source of delight. As was
natural, what attracted them in the Middle Ages was not their
resemblances to the time they lived in, but the points in which the two
differed. None of them had knowledge enough, or insight enough, to


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