English Literature - Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World
by William J. Long
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The fame of Pope's Iliad, which was financially the most successful of his books, was due to the fact that he interpreted Homer in the elegant, artificial language of his own age. Not only do his words follow literary fashions but even the Homeric characters lose their strength and become fashionable men of the court. So the criticism of the scholar Bentley was most appropriate when he said, "It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer." Pope translated the entire Iliad and half of the Odyssey; and the latter work was finished by two Cambridge scholars, Elijah Fenton and William Broome, who imitated the mechanical couplets so perfectly that it is difficult to distinguish their work from that of the greatest poet of the age. A single selection is given to show how, in the nobler passages, even Pope may faintly suggest the elemental grandeur of Homer:

The troops exulting sat in order round, And beaming fires illumined all the ground. As when the moon, refulgent lamp of night, O'er Heaven's clear azure spreads her sacred light, When not a breath disturbs the deep serene, And not a cloud o'ercasts the solemn scene; Around her throne the vivid planets roll, And stars unnumbered gild the glowing pole, O'er the dark trees a yellower verdure shed, And tip with silver every mountain's head.

The "Essay" is the best known and the most quoted of all Pope's works. Except in form it is not poetry, and when one considers it as an essay and reduces it to plain prose, it is found to consist of numerous literary ornaments without any very solid structure of thought to rest upon. The purpose of the essay is, in Pope's words, to "vindicate the ways of God to Man"; and as there are no unanswered problems in Pope's philosophy, the vindication is perfectly accomplished in four poetical epistles, concerning man's relations to the universe, to himself, to society, and to happiness. The final result is summed up in a few well-known lines:

All nature is but art, unknown to thee; All chance, direction which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good: And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite, One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.

Like the "Essay on Criticism," the poem abounds in quotable lines, such as the following, which make the entire work well worth reading:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is, but always to be blest. Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of Mankind is Man. The same ambition can destroy or save, And makes a patriot as it makes a knave. Honor and shame from no condition rise; Act well your part, there all the honor lies. Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, As, to be hated, needs but to be seen; Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face, We first endure, then pity, then embrace. Behold the child, by Nature's kindly law, Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw: Some livelier plaything gives his youth delight, A little louder, but as empty quite: Scarfs, garters, gold, amuse his riper stage, And beads and prayer books are the toys of age: Pleased with this bauble still, as that before; Till tired he sleeps, and Life's poor play is o'er.[189]

The Dunciad (i.e. the "Iliad of the Dunces") began originally as a controversy concerning Shakespeare, but turned out to be a coarse and revengeful satire upon all the literary men of the age who had aroused Pope's anger by their criticism or lack of appreciation of his genius. Though brilliantly written and immensely popular at one time, its present effect on the reader is to arouse a sense of pity that a man of such acknowledged power and position should abuse both by devoting his talents to personal spite and petty quarrels. Among the rest of his numerous works the reader will find Pope's estimate of himself best set forth in his "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," and it will be well to close our study of this strange mixture of vanity and greatness with "The Universal Prayer," which shows at least that Pope had considered, and judged himself, and that all further judgment is consequently superfluous.

JONATHAN SWIFT (1667-1745)

In each of Marlowe's tragedies we have the picture of a man dominated by a single passion, the lust of power for its own sake. In each we see that a powerful man without self-control is like a dangerous instrument in the hands of a child; and the tragedy ends in the destruction of the man by the ungoverned power which he possesses. The life of Swift is just such a living tragedy. He had the power of gaining wealth, like the hero of the Jew of Malta; yet he used it scornfully, and in sad irony left what remained to him of a large property to found a hospital for lunatics. By hard work he won enormous literary power, and used it to satirize our common humanity. He wrested political power from the hands of the Tories, and used it to insult the very men who had helped him, and who held his fate in their hands. By his dominant personality he exercised a curious power over women, and used it brutally to make them feel their inferiority. Being loved supremely by two good women, he brought sorrow and death to both, and endless misery to himself. So his power brought always tragedy in its wake. It is only when we remember his life of struggle and disappointment and bitterness that we can appreciate the personal quality in his satire, and perhaps find some sympathy for this greatest genius of all the Augustan writers.

LIFE. Swift was born in Dublin, of English parents, in 1667. His father died before he was born; his mother was poor, and Swift, though proud as Lucifer, was compelled to accept aid from relatives, who gave it grudgingly. At the Kilkenny school, and especially at Dublin University, he detested the curriculum, reading only what appealed to his own nature; but, since a degree was necessary to his success, he was compelled to accept it as a favor from the examiners, whom he despised in his heart. After graduation the only position open to him was with a distant relative, Sir William Temple, who gave him the position of private secretary largely on account of the unwelcome relationship.

Temple was a statesman and an excellent diplomatist; but he thought himself to be a great writer as well, and he entered into a literary controversy concerning the relative merits of the classics and modern literature. Swift's first notable work, The Battle of the Books, written at this time but not published, is a keen satire upon both parties in the controversy. The first touch of bitterness shows itself here; for Swift was in a galling position for a man of his pride, knowing his intellectual superiority to the man who employed him, and yet being looked upon as a servant and eating at the servants' table. Thus he spent ten of the best years of his life in the pretty Moor Park, Surrey, growing more bitter each year and steadily cursing his fate. Nevertheless he read and studied widely, and, after his position with Temple grew unbearable, quarreled with his patron, took orders, and entered the Church of England. Some years later we find him settled in the little church of Laracor, Ireland,—a country which he disliked intensely, but whither he went because no other "living" was open to him.

In Ireland, faithful to his church duties, Swift labored to better the condition of the unhappy people around him. Never before had the poor of his parishes been so well cared for; but Swift chafed under his yoke, growing more and more irritated as he saw small men advanced to large positions, while he remained unnoticed in a little country church,—largely because he was too proud and too blunt with those who might have advanced him. While at Laracor he finished his Tale of a Tub, a satire on the various churches of the day, which was published in London with the Battle of the Books in 1704. The work brought him into notice as the most powerful satirist of the age, and he soon gave up his church to enter the strife of party politics. The cheap pamphlet was then the most powerful political weapon known; and as Swift had no equal at pamphlet writing, he soon became a veritable dictator. For several years, especially from 1710 to 1713, Swift was one of the most important figures in London. The Whigs feared the lash of his satire; the Tories feared to lose his support. He was courted, flattered, cajoled on every side; but the use he made of his new power is sad to contemplate. An unbearable arrogance took possession of him. Lords, statesmen, even ladies were compelled to sue for his favor and to apologize for every fancied slight to his egoism. It is at this time that he writes in his Journal to Stella:

Mr. Secretary told me the Duke of Buckingham had been talking much about me and desired my acquaintance. I answered it could not be, for he had not yet made sufficient advances; then Shrewsbury said he thought the Duke was not used to make advances. I said I could not help that, for I always expected advances in proportion to men's quality, and more from a Duke than any other man.

Writing to the Duchess of Queensberry he says:

I am glad you know your duty; for it has been a known and established rule above twenty years in England that the first advances have been constantly made me by all ladies who aspire to my acquaintance, and the greater their quality the greater were their advances.

When the Tories went out of power Swift's position became uncertain. He expected and had probably been promised a bishopric in England, with a seat among the peers of the realm; but the Tories offered him instead the place of dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. It was galling to a man of his proud spirit; but after his merciless satire on religion, in The Tale of a Tub, any ecclesiastical position in England was rendered impossible. Dublin was the best he could get, and he accepted it bitterly, once more cursing the fate which he had brought upon himself.

With his return to Ireland begins the last act in the tragedy of his life. His best known literary work, Gulliver's Travels, was done here; but the bitterness of life grew slowly to insanity, and a frightful personal sorrow, of which he never spoke, reached its climax in the death of Esther Johnson, a beautiful young woman, who had loved Swift ever since the two had met in Temple's household, and to whom he had written his Journal to Stella. During the last years of his life a brain disease, of which he had shown frequent symptoms, fastened its terrible hold upon Swift, and he became by turns an idiot and a madman. He died in 1745, and when his will was opened it was found that he had left all his property to found St. Patrick's Asylum for lunatics and incurables. It stands to-day as the most suggestive monument of his peculiar genius.

THE WORKS OF SWIFT. From Swift's life one can readily foresee the kind of literature he will produce. Taken together his works are a monstrous satire on humanity; and the spirit of that satire is shown clearly in a little incident of his first days in London. There was in the city at that time a certain astrologer named Partridge, who duped the public by calculating nativities from the stars, and by selling a yearly almanac predicting future events. Swift, who hated all shams, wrote, with a great show of learning, his famous Bickerstaff Almanac, containing "Predictions for the Year 1708, as Determined by the Unerring Stars." As Swift rarely signed his name to any literary work, letting it stand or fall on its own merits, his burlesque appeared over the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff, a name afterwards made famous by Steele in The Tatler. Among the predictions was the following:

My first prediction is but a trifle; yet I will mention it to show how ignorant those sottish pretenders to astrology are in their own concerns: it relates to Partridge the almanack maker; I have consulted the star of his nativity by my own rules, and find he will infallibly die upon the 29th of March next, about eleven at night, of a raging fever; therefore I advise him to consider of it, and settle his affairs in time.

On March 30, the day after the prediction was to be fulfilled, there appeared in the newspapers a letter from a revenue officer giving the details of Partridge's death, with the doings of the bailiff and the coffin maker; and on the following morning appeared an elaborate "Elegy of Mr. Partridge." When poor Partridge, who suddenly found himself without customers, published a denial of the burial, Swift answered with an elaborate "Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff," in which he proved by astrological rules that Partridge was dead, and that the man now in his place was an impostor trying to cheat the heirs out of their inheritance.

This ferocious joke is suggestive of all Swift's satires. Against any case of hypocrisy or injustice he sets up a remedy of precisely the same kind, only more atrocious, and defends his plan with such seriousness that the satire overwhelms the reader with a sense of monstrous falsity. Thus his solemn "Argument to prove that the Abolishing of Christianity may be attended with Some Inconveniences" is such a frightful satire upon the abuses of Christianity by its professed followers that it is impossible for us to say whether Swift intended to point out needed reforms, or to satisfy his conscience,[190] or to perpetrate a joke on the Church, as he had done on poor Partridge. So also with his "Modest Proposal," concerning the children of Ireland, which sets up the proposition that poor Irish farmers ought to raise children as dainties, to be eaten, like roast pigs, on the tables of prosperous Englishmen. In this most characteristic work it is impossible to find Swift or his motive. The injustice under which Ireland suffered, her perversity in raising large families to certain poverty, and the indifference of English politicians to her suffering and protests are all mercilessly portrayed; but why? That is still the unanswered problem of Swift's life and writings.

Swift's two greatest satires are his Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels. The Tale began as a grim exposure of the alleged weaknesses of three principal forms of religious belief, Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist, as opposed to the Anglican; but it ended in a satire upon all science and philosophy.

Swift explains his whimsical title by the custom of mariners in throwing out a tub to a whale, in order to occupy the monster's attention and divert it from an attack upon the ship,—which only proves how little Swift knew of whales or sailors. But let that pass. His book is a tub thrown out to the enemies of Church and State to keep them occupied from further attacks or criticism; and the substance of the argument is that all churches, and indeed all religion and science and statesmanship, are arrant hypocrisy. The best known part of the book is the allegory of the old man who died and left a coat (which is Christian Truth) to each of his three sons, Peter, Martin, and Jack, with minute directions for its care and use. These three names stand for Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists; and the way in which the sons evade their father's will and change the fashion of their garment is part of the bitter satire upon all religious sects. Though it professes to defend the Anglican Church, that institution fares perhaps worse than the others; for nothing is left to her but a thin cloak of custom under which to hide her alleged hypocrisy.

In Gulliver's Travels the satire grows more unbearable. Strangely enough, this book, upon which Swift's literary fame generally rests, was not written from any literary motive, but rather as an outlet for the author's own bitterness against fate and human society. It is still read with pleasure, as Robinson Crusoe is read, for the interesting adventures of the hero; and fortunately those who read it generally overlook its degrading influence and motive.

Gulliver's Travels records the pretended four voyages of one Lemuel Gulliver, and his adventures in four astounding countries. The first book tells of his voyage and shipwreck in Lilliput, where the inhabitants are about as tall as one's thumb, and all their acts and motives are on the same dwarfish scale. In the petty quarrels of these dwarfs we are supposed to see the littleness of humanity. The statesmen who obtain place and favor by cutting monkey capers on the tight rope before their sovereign, and the two great parties, the Littleendians and Bigendians, who plunge the country into civil war over the momentous question of whether an egg should be broken on its big or on its little end, are satires on the politics of Swift's own day and generation. The style is simple and convincing; the surprising situations and adventures are as absorbing as those of Defoe's masterpiece; and altogether it is the most interesting of Swift's satires.

On the second voyage Gulliver is abandoned in Brobdingnag, where the inhabitants are giants, and everything is done upon an enormous scale. The meanness of humanity seems all the more detestable in view of the greatness of these superior beings. When Gulliver tells about his own people, their ambitions and wars and conquests, the giants can only wonder that such great venom could exist in such little insects.

In the third voyage Gulliver continues his adventures in Laputa, and this is a satire upon all the scientists and philosophers. Laputa is a flying island, held up in the air by a loadstone; and all the professors of the famous academy at Lagado are of the same airy constitution. The philosopher who worked eight years to extract sunshine from cucumbers is typical of Swift's satiric treatment of all scientific problems. It is in this voyage that we hear of the Struldbrugs, a ghastly race of men who are doomed to live upon earth after losing hope and the desire for life. The picture is all the more terrible in view of the last years of Swift's own life, in which he was compelled to live on, a burden to himself and his friends.

In these three voyages the evident purpose is to strip off the veil of habit and custom, with which men deceive themselves, and show the crude vices of humanity as Swift fancies he sees them. In the fourth voyage the merciless satire is carried out to its logical conclusion. This brings us to the land of the Houyhnhnms, in which horses, superior and intelligent creatures, are the ruling animals. All our interest, however, is centered on the Yahoos, a frightful race, having the form and appearance of men, but living in unspeakable degradation.

The Journal to Stella, written chiefly in the years 1710-1713 for the benefit of Esther Johnson, is interesting to us for two reasons. It is, first, an excellent commentary on contemporary characters and political events, by one of the most powerful and original minds of the age; and second, in its love passages and purely personal descriptions it gives us the best picture we possess of Swift himself at the summit of his power and influence. As we read now its words of tenderness for the woman who loved him, and who brought almost the only ray of sunlight into his life, we can only wonder and be silent. Entirely different are his Drapier's Letters, a model of political harangue and of popular argument, which roused an unthinking English public and did much benefit to Ireland by preventing the politicians' plan of debasing the Irish coinage. Swift's poems, though vigorous and original (like Defoe's, of the same period), are generally satirical, often coarse, and seldom rise above doggerel. Unlike his friend Addison, Swift saw, in the growing polish and decency of society, only a mask for hypocrisy; and he often used his verse to shock the new-born modesty by pointing out some native ugliness which his diseased mind discovered under every beautiful exterior.

That Swift is the most original writer of his time, and one of the greatest masters of English prose, is undeniable. Directness, vigor, simplicity, mark every page. Among writers of that age he stands almost alone in his disdain of literary effects. Keeping his object steadily before him, he drives straight on to the end, with a convincing power that has never been surpassed in our language. Even in his most grotesque creations, the reader never loses the sense of reality, of being present as an eyewitness of the most impossible events, so powerful and convincing is Swift's prose. Defoe had the same power; but in writing Robinson Crusoe, for instance, his task was comparatively easy, since his hero and his adventures were both natural; while Swift gives reality to pygmies, giants, and the most impossible situations, as easily as if he were writing of facts. Notwithstanding these excellent qualities, the ordinary reader will do well to confine himself to Gulliver's Travels and a book of well-chosen selections. For, it must be confessed, the bulk of Swift's work is not wholesome reading. It is too terribly satiric and destructive; it emphasizes the faults and failings of humanity; and so runs counter to the general course of our literature, which from Cynewulf to Tennyson follows the Ideal, as Merlin followed the Gleam,[191] and is not satisfied till the hidden beauty of man's soul and the divine purpose of his struggle are manifest.

JOSEPH ADDISON (1672-1719)

In the pleasant art of living with one's fellows, Addison is easily a master. It is due to his perfect expression of that art, of that new social life which, as we have noted, was characteristic of the Age of Anne, that Addison occupies such a large place in the history of literature. Of less power and originality than Swift, he nevertheless wields, and deserves to wield, a more lasting influence. Swift is the storm, roaring against the ice and frost of the late spring of English life. Addison is the sunshine, which melts the ice and dries the mud and makes the earth thrill with light and hope. Like Swift, he despised shams, but unlike him, he never lost faith in humanity; and in all his satires there is a gentle kindliness which makes one think better of his fellow-men, even while he laughs at their little vanities.

Two things Addison did for our literature which are of inestimable value. First, he overcame a certain corrupt tendency bequeathed by Restoration literature. It was the apparent aim of the low drama, and even of much of the poetry of that age, to make virtue ridiculous and vice attractive. Addison set himself squarely against this unworthy tendency. To strip off the mask of vice, to show its ugliness and deformity, but to reveal virtue in its own native loveliness,—that was Addison's purpose; and he succeeded so well that never, since his day, has our English literature seriously followed after false gods. As Macaulay says, "So effectually did he retort on vice the mockery which had recently been directed against virtue, that since his time the open violation of decency has always been considered amongst us a sure mark of a fool." And second, prompted and aided by the more original genius of his friend Steele, Addison seized upon the new social life of the clubs and made it the subject of endless pleasant essays upon types of men and manners. The Tatler and The Spectator are the beginning of the modern essay; and their studies of human character, as exemplified in Sir Roger de Coverley, are a preparation for the modern novel.

LIFE. Addison's life, like his writings, is in marked contrast to that of Swift. He was born in Milston, Wiltshire, in 1672. His father was a scholarly English clergyman, and all his life Addison followed naturally the quiet and cultured ways to which he was early accustomed. At the famous Charterhouse School, in London, and in his university life at Oxford, he excelled in character and scholarship and became known as a writer of graceful verses. He had some intention, at one time, of entering the Church, but was easily persuaded by his friends to take up the government service instead. Unlike Swift, who abused his political superiors, Addison took the more tactful way of winning the friendship of men in large places. His lines to Dryden won that literary leader's instant favor, and one of his Latin poems, "The Peace of Ryswick" (1697), with its kindly appreciation of King William's statesmen, brought him into favorable political notice. It brought him also a pension of three hundred pounds a year, with a suggestion that he travel abroad and cultivate the art of diplomacy; which he promptly did to his own great advantage.

From a literary view point the most interesting work of Addison's early life is his Account of the Greatest English Poets (1693), written while he was a fellow of Oxford University. One rubs his eyes to find Dryden lavishly praised, Spenser excused or patronized, while Shakespeare is not even mentioned. But Addison was writing under Boileau's "classic" rules; and the poet, like the age, was perhaps too artificial to appreciate natural genius.

While he was traveling abroad, the death of William and the loss of power by the Whigs suddenly stopped Addison's pension; necessity brought him home, and for a time he lived in poverty and obscurity. Then occurred the battle of Blenheim, and in the effort to find a poet to celebrate the event, Addison was brought to the Tories' attention. His poem, "The Campaign," celebrating the victory, took the country by storm. Instead of making the hero slay his thousands and ten thousands, like the old epic heroes, Addison had some sense of what is required in a modern general, and so made Marlborough direct the battle from the outside, comparing him to an angel riding on the whirlwind:

'T was then great Marlbro's mighty soul was proved, That, in the shock of charging hosts unmoved, Amidst confusion, horror, and despair, Examined all the dreadful scenes of war; In peaceful thought the field of death surveyed, To fainting squadrons sent the timely aid, Inspired repulsed battalions to engage, And taught the doubtful battle where to rage. So when an angel by divine command With rising tempests shakes a guilty land, (Such as of late o'er pale Britannia past,) Calm and serene he drives the furious blast; And, pleased th' Almighty's orders to perform, Rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm.

That one doubtful simile made Addison's fortune. Never before or since was a poet's mechanical work so well rewarded. It was called the finest thing ever written, and from that day Addison rose steadily in political favor and office. He became in turn Undersecretary, member of Parliament, Secretary for Ireland, and finally Secretary of State. Probably no other literary man, aided by his pen alone, ever rose so rapidly and so high in office.

The rest of Addison's life was divided between political duties and literature. His essays for the Tatler and Spectator, which we still cherish, were written between 1709 and 1714; but he won more literary fame by his classic tragedy Cato, which we have almost forgotten. In 1716 he married a widow, the Countess of Warwick, and went to live at her home, the famous Holland House. His married life lasted only three years, and was probably not a happy one. Certainly he never wrote of women except with gentle satire, and he became more and more a clubman, spending most of his time in the clubs and coffeehouses of London. Up to this time his life had been singularly peaceful; but his last years were shadowed by quarrels, first with Pope, then with Swift, and finally with his lifelong friend Steele. The first quarrel was on literary grounds, and was largely the result of Pope's jealousy. The latter's venomous caricature of Addison as Atticus shows how he took his petty revenge on a great and good man who had been his friend. The other quarrels with Swift, and especially with his old friend Steele, were the unfortunate result of political differences, and show how impossible it is to mingle literary ideals with party politics. He died serenely in 1719. A brief description from Thackeray's English Humorists is his best epitaph:

A life prosperous and beautiful, a calm death; an immense fame and affection afterwards for his happy and spotless name.

WORKS OF ADDISON. The most enduring of Addison's works are his famous Essays, collected from the Tatler and Spectator. We have spoken of him as a master of the art of gentle living, and these essays are a perpetual inducement to others to know and to practice the same fine art. To an age of fundamental coarseness and artificiality he came with a wholesome message of refinement and simplicity, much as Ruskin and Arnold spoke to a later age of materialism; only Addison's success was greater than theirs because of his greater knowledge of life and his greater faith in men. He attacks all the little vanities and all the big vices of his time, not in Swift's terrible way, which makes us feel hopeless of humanity, but with a kindly ridicule and gentle humor which takes speedy improvement for granted. To read Swift's brutal "Letters to a Young Lady," and then to read Addison's "Dissection of a Beau's Head" and his "Dissection of a Coquette's Heart," is to know at once the secret of the latter's more enduring influence.

Three other results of these delightful essays are worthy of attention: first, they are the best picture we possess of the new social life of England, with its many new interests; second, they advanced the art of literary criticism to a much higher stage than it had ever before reached, and however much we differ from their judgment and their interpretation of such a man as Milton, they certainly led Englishmen to a better knowledge and appreciation of their own literature; and finally, in Ned Softly the literary dabbler, Will Wimble the poor relation, Sir Andrew Freeport the merchant, Will Honeycomb the fop, and Sir Roger the country gentleman, they give us characters that live forever as part of that goodly company which extends from Chaucer's country parson to Kipling's Mulvaney. Addison and Steele not only introduced the modern essay, but in such characters as these they herald the dawn of the modern novel. Of all his essays the best known and loved are those which introduce us to Sir Roger de Coverley, the genial dictator of life and manners in the quiet English country.

In style these essays are remarkable as showing the growing perfection of the English language. Johnson says, "Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison." And again he says, "Give nights and days, sir, to the study of Addison if you mean to be a good writer, or, what is more worth, an honest man." That was good criticism for its day, and even at the present time critics are agreed that Addison's Essays are well worth reading once for their own sake, and many times for their influence in shaping a clear and graceful style of writing.

Addison's poems, which were enormously popular in his day, are now seldom read. His Cato, with its classic unities and lack of dramatic power, must be regarded as a failure, if we study it as tragedy; but it offers an excellent example of the rhetoric and fine sentiment which were then considered the essentials of good writing. The best scene from this tragedy is in the fifth act, where Cato soliloquizes, with Plato's Immortality of the Soul open in his hand, and a drawn sword on the table before him:

It must be so—Plato, thou reason'st well!— Else whence this pleasing hope, this fond desire, This longing after immortality? Or whence this secret dread, and inward horror, Of falling into nought? why shrinks the soul Back on herself, and startles at destruction? 'Tis the divinity that stirs within us; 'Tis heaven itself, that points out an hereafter, And intimates eternity to man.

Many readers make frequent use of one portion of Addison's poetry without knowing to whom they are indebted. His devout nature found expression in many hymns, a few of which are still used and loved in our churches. Many a congregation thrills, as Thackeray did, to the splendid sweep of his "God in Nature," beginning, "The spacious firmament on high." Almost as well known and loved are his "Traveler's Hymn," and his "Continued Help," beginning, "When all thy mercies, O my God." The latter hymn—written in a storm at sea off the Italian coast, when the captain and crew were demoralized by terror—shows that poetry, especially a good hymn that one can sing in the same spirit as one would say his prayers, is sometimes the most practical and helpful thing in the world.

RICHARD STEELE (1672-1729). Steele was in almost every respect the antithesis of his friend and fellow-worker,—a rollicking, good-hearted, emotional, lovable Irishman. At the Charterhouse School and at Oxford he shared everything with Addison, asking nothing but love in return. Unlike Addison, he studied but little, and left the university to enter the Horse Guards. He was in turn soldier, captain, poet, playwright, essayist, member of Parliament, manager of a theater, publisher of a newspaper, and twenty other things,—all of which he began joyously and then abandoned, sometimes against his will, as when he was expelled from Parliament, and again because some other interest of the moment had more attraction. His poems and plays are now little known; but the reader who searches them out will find one or two suggestive things about Steele himself. For instance, he loves children; and he is one of the few writers of his time who show a sincere and unswerving respect for womanhood. Even more than Addison he ridicules vice and makes virtue lovely. He is the originator of the Tatler, and joins with Addison in creating the Spectator,—the two periodicals which, in the short space of less than four years, did more to influence subsequent literature than all other magazines of the century combined. Moreover, he is the original genius of Sir Roger, and of many other characters and essays for which Addison usually receives the whole credit. It is often impossible in the Tatler essays to separate the work of the two men; but the majority of critics hold that the more original parts, the characters, the thought, the overflowing kindliness, are largely Steele's creation; while to Addison fell the work of polishing and perfecting the essays, and of adding that touch of humor which made them the most welcome literary visitors that England had ever received.

THE TATLER AND THE SPECTATOR. On account of his talent in writing political pamphlets, Steele was awarded the position of official gazetteer. While in this position, and writing for several small newspapers, the idea occurred to Steele to publish a paper which should contain not only the political news, but also the gossip of the clubs and coffeehouses, with some light essays on the life and manners of the age. The immediate result—for Steele never let an idea remain idle—was the famous Tatler, the first number of which appeared April 12, 1709. It was a small folio sheet, appearing on post days, three times a week, and it sold for a penny a copy. That it had a serious purpose is evident from this dedication to the first volume of collected Tatler essays:

The general purpose of this paper is to expose the false arts of life, to pull off the disguises of cunning, vanity, and affectation, and to recommend a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behavior.

The success of this unheard-of combination of news, gossip, and essay was instantaneous. Not a club or a coffeehouse in London could afford to be without it, and over it's pages began the first general interest in contemporary English life as expressed in literature. Steele at first wrote the entire paper and signed his essays with the name of Isaac Bickerstaff, which had been made famous by Swift a few years before. Addison is said to have soon recognized one of his own remarks to Steele, and the secret of the Authorship was out. From that time Addison was a regular contributor, and occasionally other writers added essays on the new social life of England.[192]

Steele lost his position as gazetteer, and the Tatler was discontinued after less than two years' life, but not till it won an astonishing popularity and made ready the way for its successor. Two months later, on March 1, 1711, appeared the first number of the Spectator. In the new magazine politics and news, as such, were ignored; it was a literary magazine, pure and simple, and its entire contents consisted of a single light essay. It was considered a crazy venture at the time, but its instant success proved that men were eager for some literary expression of the new social ideals. The following whimsical letter to the editor may serve to indicate the part played by the Spectator in the daily life of London:

Mr. Spectator,—Your paper is a part of my tea equipage; and my servant knows my humor so well, that in calling for my breakfast this morning (it being past my usual hour) she answered, the Spectator was not yet come in, but the teakettle boiled, and she expected it every moment.

It is in the incomparable Spectator papers that Addison shows himself most "worthy to be remembered." He contributed the majority of its essays, and in its first number appears this description of the Spectator, by which name Addison is now generally known:

There is no place of general resort wherein I do not often make my appearance; sometimes I am seen thrusting my head into a round of politicians at Will's [Coffeehouse] and listening with great attention to the narratives that are made in those little circular audiences. Sometimes I smoke a pipe at Child's, and, whilst I seem attentive to nothing but The Postman, overhear the conversation of every table in the room. I appear on Sunday nights at St. James's, and sometimes join the little committee of politics in the inner room, as one who comes to hear and improve. My face is likewise very well known at the Grecian, the Cocoa Tree, and in the theaters both of Drury Lane and the Haymarket. I have been taken for a merchant upon the Exchange for above these ten years; and sometimes pass for a Jew in the assembly of stock jobbers at Jonathan's.... Thus I live in the world rather as a spectator of mankind than as one of the species,... which is the character I intend to preserve in this paper.

The large place which these two little magazines hold in our literature seems most disproportionate to their short span of days. In the short space of four years in which Addison and Steele worked together the light essay was established as one of the most important forms of modern literature, and the literary magazine won its place as the expression of the social life of a nation.

SAMUEL JOHNSON (1709-1784)

The reader of Boswell's Johnson, after listening to endless grumblings and watching the clumsy actions of the hero, often finds himself wondering why he should end his reading with a profound respect for this "old bear" who is the object of Boswell's groveling attention. Here is a man who was certainly not the greatest writer of his age, perhaps not even a great writer at all, but who was nevertheless the dictator of English letters, and who still looms across the centuries of a magnificent literature as its most striking and original figure. Here, moreover, is a huge, fat, awkward man, of vulgar manners and appearance, who monopolizes conversation, argues violently, abuses everybody, clubs down opposition,—"Madam" (speaking to his cultivated hostess at table), "talk no more nonsense"; "Sir" (turning to a distinguished guest), "I perceive you are a vile Whig." While talking he makes curious animal sounds, "sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes clucking like a hen"; and when he has concluded a violent dispute and laid his opponents low by dogmatism or ridicule, he leans back to "blow out his breath like a whale" and gulp down numberless cups of hot tea. Yet this curious dictator of an elegant age was a veritable lion, much sought after by society; and around him in his own poor house gathered the foremost artists, scholars, actors, and literary men of London,—all honoring the man, loving him, and listening to his dogmatism as the Greeks listened to the voice of their oracle.

What is the secret of this astounding spectacle? If the reader turns naturally to Johnson's works for an explanation, he will be disappointed. Reading his verses, we find nothing to delight or inspire us, but rather gloom and pessimism, with a few moral observations in rimed couplets:

But, scarce observed, the knowing and the bold Fall in the general massacre of gold; Wide-wasting pest! that rages unconfined, And crowds with crimes the records of mankind; For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws, For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws; Wealth heaped on wealth nor truth nor safety buys; The dangers gather as the treasures rise.[193]

That is excellent common sense, but it is not poetry; and it is not necessary to hunt through Johnson's bulky volumes for the information, since any moralist can give us offhand the same doctrine. As for his Rambler essays, once so successful, though we marvel at the big words, the carefully balanced sentences, the classical allusions, one might as well try to get interested in an old-fashioned, three-hour sermon. We read a few pages listlessly, yawn, and go to bed.

Since the man's work fails to account for his leadership and influence, we examine his personality; and here everything is interesting. Because of a few oft-quoted passages from Boswell's biography, Johnson appears to us as an eccentric bear, who amuses us by his growlings and clumsy antics. But there is another Johnson, a brave, patient, kindly, religious soul, who, as Goldsmith said, had "nothing of the bear but his skin"; a man who battled like a hero against poverty and pain and melancholy and the awful fear of death, and who overcame them manfully. "That trouble passed away; so will this," sang the sorrowing Deor in the first old Anglo-Saxon lyric; and that expresses the great and suffering spirit of Johnson, who in the face of enormous obstacles never lost faith in God or in himself. Though he was a reactionary in politics, upholding the arbitrary power of kings and opposing the growing liberty of the people, yet his political theories, like his manners, were no deeper than his skin; for in all London there was none more kind to the wretched, and none more ready to extend an open hand to every struggling man and woman who crossed his path. When he passed poor homeless Arabs sleeping in the streets he would slip a coin into their hands, in order that they might have a happy awakening; for he himself knew well what it meant to be hungry. Such was Johnson,—a "mass of genuine manhood," as Carlyle called him, and as such, men loved and honored him.[194]

Life of Johnson. Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, in 1709. He was the son of a small bookseller, a poor man, but intelligent and fond of literature, as booksellers invariably were in the good days when every town had its bookshop. From his childhood Johnson had to struggle against physical deformity and disease and the consequent disinclination to hard work. He prepared for the university, partly in the schools, but largely by omnivorous reading in his father's shop, and when he entered Oxford he had read more classical authors than had most of the graduates. Before finishing his course he had to leave the university on account of his poverty, and at once he began his long struggle as a hack writer to earn his living.

At twenty-five years he married a woman old enough to be his mother,—a genuine love match, he called it,—and with her dowry of L800 they started a private school together, which was a dismal failure. Then, without money or influential friends, he left his home and wife in Lichfield and tramped to London, accompanied only by David Garrick, afterwards the famous actor, who had been one of his pupils. Here, led by old associations, Johnson made himself known to the booksellers, and now and then earned a penny by writing prefaces, reviews, and translations.

It was a dog's life, indeed, that he led there with his literary brethren. Many of the writers of the day, who are ridiculed in Pope's heartless Dunciad, having no wealthy patrons to support them, lived largely in the streets and taverns, sleeping on an ash heap or under a wharf, like rats; glad of a crust, and happy over a single meal which enabled them to work for a while without the reminder of hunger. A few favored ones lived in wretched lodgings in Grub Street, which has since become a synonym for the fortunes of struggling writers.[195] Often, Johnson tells us, he walked the streets all night long, in dreary weather, when it was too cold to sleep, without food or shelter. But he wrote steadily for the booksellers and for the Gentleman's Magazine, and presently he became known in London and received enough work to earn a bare living.

The works which occasioned this small success were his poem, "London," and his Life of the Poet Savage, a wretched life, at best, which were perhaps better left without a biographer. But his success was genuine, though small, and presently the booksellers of London are coming to him to ask him to write a dictionary of the English language. It was an enormous work, taking nearly eight years of his time, and long before he had finished it he had eaten up the money which he received for his labor. In the leisure intervals of this work he wrote "The Vanity of Human Wishes" and other poems, and finished his classic tragedy of Irene.

Led by the great success of the Spectator, Johnson started two magazines, The Rambler (1750—1752) and The Idler (1758—1760). Later the Rambler essays were published in book form and ran rapidly through ten editions; but the financial returns were small, and Johnson spent a large part of his earnings in charity. When his mother died, in 1759, Johnson, although one of the best known men in London, had no money, and hurriedly finished Rasselas, his only romance, in order, it is said, to pay for his mother's burial.

It was not till 1762, when Johnson was fifty-three years old, that his literary labors were rewarded in the usual way by royalty, and he received from George III a yearly pension of three hundred pounds. Then began a little sunshine in his life. With Joshua Reynolds, the artist, he founded the famous Literary Club, of which Burke, Pitt, Fox, Gibbon, Goldsmith, and indeed all the great literary men and politicians of the time, were members. This is the period of Johnson's famous conversations, which were caught in minutest detail by Boswell and given to the world. His idea of conversation, as shown in a hundred places in Boswell, is to overcome your adversary at any cost; to knock him down by arguments, or, when these fail, by personal ridicule; to dogmatize on every possible question, pronounce a few oracles, and then desist with the air of victory. Concerning the philosopher Hume's view of death he says: "Sir, if he really thinks so, his perceptions are disturbed, he is mad. If he does not think so, he lies." Exit opposition. There is nothing more to be said. Curiously enough, it is often the palpable blunders of these monologues that now attract us, as if we were enjoying a good joke at the dictator's expense. Once a lady asked him, "Dr. Johnson, why did you define pastern as the knee of a horse?" "Ignorance, madame, pure ignorance," thundered the great authority.

When seventy years of age, Johnson was visited by several booksellers of the city, who were about to bring out a new edition of the English poets, and who wanted Johnson, as the leading literary man of London, to write the prefaces to the several volumes. The result was his Lives of the Poets, as it is now known, and this is his last literary work. He died in his poor Fleet Street house, in 1784, and was buried among England's honored poets in Westminster Abbey.

JOHNSON'S WORKS. "A book," says Dr. Johnson, "should help us either to enjoy life or to endure it." Judged by this standard, one is puzzled what to recommend among Johnson's numerous books. The two things which belong among the things "worthy to be remembered" are his Dictionary and his Lives of the Poets, though both these are valuable, not as literature, but rather as a study of literature. The Dictionary, as the first ambitious attempt at an English lexicon, is extremely valuable, notwithstanding the fact that his derivations are often faulty, and that he frequently exercises his humor or prejudice in his curious definitions. In defining "oats," for example, as a grain given in England to horses and in Scotland to the people, he indulges his prejudice against the Scotch, whom he never understood, just as, in his definition of "pension," he takes occasion to rap the writers who had flattered their patrons since the days of Elizabeth; though he afterwards accepted a comfortable pension for himself. With characteristic honesty he refused to alter his definition in subsequent editions of the Dictionary.

The Lives of the Poets are the simplest and most readable of his literary works. For ten years before beginning these biographies he had given himself up to conversation, and the ponderous style of his Rambler essays here gives way to a lighter and more natural expression. As criticisms they are often misleading, giving praise to artificial poets, like Cowley and Pope, and doing scant justice or abundant injustice to nobler poets like Gray and Milton; and they are not to be compared with those found in Thomas Warton's History of English Poetry, which was published in the same generation. As biographies, however, they are excellent reading, and we owe to them some of our best known pictures of the early English poets.

Of Johnson's poems the reader will have enough if he glance over "The Vanity of Human Wishes." His only story, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, is a matter of rhetoric rather than of romance, but is interesting still to the reader who wants to hear Johnson's personal views of society, philosophy, and religion. Any one of his Essays, like that on "Reading," or "The Pernicious Effects of Revery," will be enough to acquaint the reader with the Johnsonese style, which was once much admired and copied by orators, but which happily has been replaced by a more natural way of speaking. Most of his works, it must be confessed, are rather tiresome. It is not to his books, but rather to the picture of the man himself, as given by Boswell, that Johnson owes his great place in our literature.


In James Boswell (1740-1795) we have another extraordinary figure,—a shallow little Scotch barrister, who trots about like a dog at the heels of his big master, frantic at a caress and groveling at a cuff, and abundantly contented if only he can be near him and record his oracles. All his life long Boswell's one ambition seems to have been to shine in the reflected glory of great men, and his chief task to record their sayings and doings. When he came to London, at twenty-two years of age, Johnson, then at the beginning of his great fame, was to this insatiable little glory-seeker like a Silver Doctor to a hungry trout. He sought an introduction as a man seeks gold, haunted every place where Johnson declaimed, until in Davies's bookstore the supreme opportunity came. This is his record of the great event:

I was much agitated [says Boswell] and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, "Don't tell him where I come from." "From Scotland," cried Davies roguishly. "Mr. Johnson," said I, "I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it."... "That, sir" [cried Johnson], "I find is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help." This stroke stunned me a good deal; and when we had sat down I felt myself not a little embarrassed, and apprehensive of what might come next.

Then for several years, with a persistency that no rebuffs could abate, and with a thick skin that no amount of ridicule could render sensitive, he follows Johnson; forces his way into the Literary Club, where he is not welcome, in order to be near his idol; carries him off on a visit to the Hebrides; talks with him on every possible occasion; and, when he is not invited to a feast, waits outside the house or tavern in order to walk home with his master in the thick fog of the early morning. And the moment the oracle is out of sight and in bed, Boswell patters home to record in detail all that he has seen and heard. It is to his minute record that we owe our only perfect picture of a great man; all his vanity as well as his greatness, his prejudices, superstitions, and even the details of his personal appearance:

There is the gigantic body, the huge face seamed with the scars of disease, the brown coat, the black worsted stockings, the gray wig with the scorched foretop, the dirty hands, the nails bitten and pared to the quick. We see the eyes and mouth moving with convulsive twitches; we see the heavy form rolling; we hear it puffing; and then comes the "Why, sir!" and the "What then, sir?" and the "No, sir!" and the "You don't see your way through the question, sir!"[196]

To Boswell's record we are indebted also for our knowledge of those famous conversations, those wordy, knockdown battles, which made Johnson famous in his time and which still move us to wonder. Here is a specimen conversation, taken almost at random from a hundred such in Boswell's incomparable biography. After listening to Johnson's prejudice against Scotland, and his dogmatic utterances on Voltaire, Robertson, and twenty others, an unfortunate theorist brings up a recent essay on the possible future life of brutes, quoting some possible authority from the sacred scriptures:

Johnson, who did not like to hear anything concerning a future state which was not authorized by the regular canons of orthodoxy, discouraged this talk; and being offended at its continuation, he watched an opportunity to give the gentleman a blow of reprehension. So when the poor speculatist, with a serious, metaphysical, pensive face, addressed him, "But really, sir, when we see a very sensible dog, we don't know what to think of him"; Johnson, rolling with joy at the thought which beamed in his eye, turned quickly round and replied, "True, sir; and when we see a very foolish fellow, we don't know what to think of him." He then rose up, strided to the fire, and stood for some time laughing and exulting.

Then the oracle proceeds to talk of scorpions and natural history, denying facts, and demanding proofs which nobody could possibly furnish:

He seemed pleased to talk of natural philosophy. "That woodcocks," said he, "fly over the northern countries is proved, because they have been observed at sea. Swallows certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water and lie in the bed of a river." He told us one of his first essays was a Latin poem upon the glowworm: I am sorry I did not ask where it was to be found.

Then follows an astonishing array of subjects and opinions. He catalogues libraries, settles affairs in China, pronounces judgment on men who marry women superior to themselves, flouts popular liberty, hammers Swift unmercifully, and adds a few miscellaneous oracles, most of which are about as reliable as his knowledge of the hibernation of swallows.

When I called upon Dr. Johnson next morning I found him highly satisfied with his colloquial prowess the preceding evening. "Well," said he, "we had good talk." "Yes, sir" [says I], "you tossed and gored several persons."

Far from resenting this curious mental dictatorship, his auditors never seem to weary. They hang upon his words, praise him, flatter him, repeat his judgments all over London the next day, and return in the evening hungry for more. Whenever the conversation begins to flag, Boswell is like a woman with a parrot, or like a man with a dancing bear. He must excite the creature, make him talk or dance for the edification of the company. He sidles obsequiously towards his hero and, with utter irrelevancy, propounds a question of theology, a social theory, a fashion of dress or marriage, a philosophical conundrum: "Do you think, sir, that natural affections are born with us?" or, "Sir, if you were shut up in a castle and a newborn babe with you, what would you do?" Then follow more Johnsonian laws, judgments, oracles; the insatiable audience clusters around him and applauds; while Boswell listens, with shining face, and presently goes home to write the wonder down. It is an astonishing spectacle; one does not know whether to laugh or grieve over it. But we know the man, and the audience, almost as well as if we had been there; and that, unconsciously, is the superb art of this matchless biographer.

When Johnson died the opportunity came for which Boswell had been watching and waiting some twenty years. He would shine in the world now, not by reflection, but by his own luminosity. He gathered together his endless notes and records, and began to write his biography; but he did not hurry. Several biographies of Johnson appeared, in the four years after his death, without disturbing Boswell's perfect complacency. After seven years' labor he gave the world his Life of Johnson. It is an immortal work; praise is superfluous; it must be read to be appreciated. Like the Greek sculptors, the little slave produced a more enduring work than the great master. The man who reads it will know Johnson as he knows no other man who dwells across the border; and he will lack sensitiveness, indeed, if he lay down the work without a greater love and appreciation of all good literature.

LATER AUGUSTAN WRITERS. With Johnson, who succeeded Dryden and Pope in the chief place of English letters, the classic movement had largely spent its force; and the latter half of the eighteenth century gives us an imposing array of writers who differ so widely that it is almost impossible to classify them. In general, three schools of writers are noticeable: first, the classicists, who, under Johnson's lead, insisted upon elegance and regularity of style; second, the romantic poets, like Collins, Gray, Thomson, and Burns, who revolted from Pope's artificial couplets and wrote of nature and the human heart[197]; third, the early novelists, like Defoe and Fielding, who introduced a new type of literature. The romantic poets and the novelists are reserved for special chapters; and of the other writers—Berkeley and Hume in philosophy; Robertson, Hume, and Gibbon in history; Chesterfield and Lady Montagu in letter writing; Adam Smith in economics; Pitt, Burke, Fox, and a score of lesser writers in politics—we select only two, Burke and Gibbon, whose works are most typical of the Augustan, i.e. the elegant, classic style of prose writing.

EDMUND BURKE (1729—1797)

To read all of Burke's collected works, and so to understand him thoroughly, is something of a task. Few are equal to it. On the other hand, to read selections here and there, as most of us do, is to get a wrong idea of the man and to join either in fulsome praise of his brilliant oratory, or in honest confession that his periods are ponderous and his ideas often buried under Johnsonian verbiage. Such are the contrasts to be found on successive pages of Burke's twelve volumes, which cover the enormous range of the political and economic thought of the age, and which mingle fact and fancy, philosophy, statistics, and brilliant flights of the imagination, to a degree never before seen in English literature. For Burke belongs in spirit to the new romantic school, while in style he is a model for the formal classicists. We can only glance at the life of this marvelous Irishman, and then consider his place in our literature.

LIFE. Burke was born in Dublin, the son of an Irish barrister, in 1729. After his university course in Trinity College he came to London to study law, but soon gave up the idea to follow literature, which in turn led him to politics. He had the soul, the imagination of a poet, and the law was only a clog to his progress. His two first works, A Vindication of Natural Society and The Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, brought him political as well as literary recognition, and several small offices were in turn given to him. When thirty-six years old he was elected to Parliament as member from Wendover; and for the next thirty years he was the foremost figure in the House of Commons and the most eloquent orator which that body has ever known. Pure and incorruptible in his politics as in his personal life, no more learned or devoted servant of the Commonwealth ever pleaded for justice and human liberty. He was at the summit of his influence at the time when the colonies were struggling for independence; and the fact that he championed their cause in one of his greatest speeches, "On Conciliation with America," gives him an added interest in the eyes of American readers. His championship of America is all the more remarkable from the fact that, in other matters, Burke was far from liberal. He set himself squarely against the teachings of the romantic writers, who were enthusiastic over the French Revolution; he denounced the principles of the Revolutionists, broke with the liberal Whig party to join the Tories, and was largely instrumental in bringing on the terrible war with France, which resulted in the downfall of Napoleon.

It is good to remember that, in all the strife and bitterness of party politics, Burke held steadily to the noblest personal ideals of truth and honesty; and that in all his work, whether opposing the slave trade, or pleading for justice for America, or protecting the poor natives of India from the greed of corporations, or setting himself against the popular sympathy for France in her desperate struggle, he aimed solely at the welfare of humanity. When he retired on a pension in 1794, he had won, and he deserved, the gratitude and affection of the whole nation.

WORKS. There are three distinctly marked periods in Burke's career, and these correspond closely to the years in which he was busied with the affairs of America, India, and France successively. The first period was one of prophecy. He had studied the history and temper of the American colonies, and he warned England of the disaster which must follow her persistence in ignoring the American demands, and especially the American spirit. His great speeches, "On American Taxation" and "On Conciliation with America," were delivered in 1774 and 1775, preceding the Declaration of Independence. In this period Burke's labor seemed all in vain; he lost his cause, and England her greatest colony.

The second period is one of denunciation rather than of prophecy. England had won India; but when Burke studied the methods of her victory and understood the soulless way in which millions of poor natives were made to serve the interests of an English monopoly, his soul rose in revolt, and again he was the champion of an oppressed people. His two greatest speeches of this period are "The Nabob of Arcot's Debts" and his tremendous "Impeachment of Warren Hastings." Again he apparently lost his cause, though he was still fighting on the side of right. Hastings was acquitted, and the spoliation of India went on; but the seeds of reform were sown, and grew and bore fruit long after Burke's labors were ended.

The third period is, curiously enough, one of reaction. Whether because the horrors of the French Revolution had frightened him with the danger of popular liberty, or because his own advance in office and power had made him side unconsciously with the upper classes, is unknown. That he was as sincere and noble now as in all his previous life is not questioned. He broke with the liberal Whigs and joined forces with the reactionary Tories. He opposed the romantic writers, who were on fire with enthusiasm over the French Revolution, and thundered against the dangers which the revolutionary spirit must breed, forgetting that it was a revolution which had made modern England possible. Here, where we must judge him to have been mistaken in his cause, he succeeded for the first time. It was due largely to Burke's influence that the growing sympathy for the French people was checked in England, and war was declared, which ended in the frightful victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo.

Burke's best known work of this period is his Reflections on the French Revolution, which he polished and revised again Essay on and again before it was finally printed. This ambitious literary essay, though it met with remarkable success, is a disappointment to the reader. Though of Celtic blood, Burke did not understand the French, or the principles for which the common people were fighting in their own way[198]; and his denunciations and apostrophes to France suggest a preacher without humor, hammering away at sinners who are not present in his congregation. The essay has few illuminating ideas, but a great deal of Johnsonian rhetoric, which make its periods tiresome, notwithstanding our admiration for the brilliancy of its author. More significant is one of Burke's first essays, A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which is sometimes read in order to show the contrast in style with Addison's Spectator essays on the "Pleasures of the Imagination."

Burke's best known speeches, "On Conciliation with America," "American Taxation," and the "Impeachment of Warren Hastings," are still much studied in our schools as models of English prose; and this fact tends to give them an exaggerated literary importance. Viewed purely as literature, they have faults enough; and the first of these, so characteristic of the Classic Age, is that they abound in fine rhetoric but lack simplicity.[199] In a strict sense, these eloquent speeches are not literature, to delight the reader and to suggest ideas, but studies in rhetoric and in mental concentration. All this, however, is on the surface. A careful study of any of these three famous speeches reveals certain admirable qualities which account for the important place they are given in the study of English. First, as showing the stateliness and the rhetorical power of our language, these speeches are almost unrivaled. Second, though Burke speaks in prose, he is essentially a poet, whose imagery, like that of Milton's prose works, is more remarkable than that of many of our writers of verse. He speaks in figures, images, symbols; and the musical cadence of his sentences reflects the influence of his wide reading of poetry. Not only in figurative expression, but much more in spirit, he belongs with the poets of the revival. At times his language is pseudo-classic, reflecting the influence of Johnson and his school; but his thought is always romantic; he is governed by ideal rather than by practical interests, and a profound sympathy for humanity is perhaps his most marked characteristic.

Third, the supreme object of these orations, so different from the majority of political speeches, is not to win approval or to gain votes, but to establish the truth. Like our own Lincoln, Burke had a superb faith in the compelling power of the truth, a faith in men also, who, if the history of our race means anything, will not willingly follow a lie. The methods of these two great leaders are strikingly similar in this respect, that each repeats his idea in many ways, presenting the truth from different view points, so that it will appeal to men of widely different experiences. Otherwise the two men are in marked contrast. The uneducated Lincoln speaks in simple, homely words, draws his illustrations from the farm, and often adds a humorous story, so apt and "telling" that his hearers can never forget the point of his argument. The scholarly Burke speaks in ornate, majestic periods, and searches all history and all literature for his illustrations. His wealth of imagery and allusions, together with his rare combination of poetic and logical reasoning, make these orations remarkable, entirely apart from their subject and purpose.

Fourth (and perhaps most significant of the man and his work), Burke takes his stand squarely upon the principle of justice. He has studied history, and he finds that to establish justice, between man and man and between nation and nation, has been the supreme object of every reformer since the world began. No small or merely temporary success attracts him; only the truth will suffice for an argument; and nothing less than justice will ever settle a question permanently. Such is his platform, simple as the Golden Rule, unshakable as the moral law. Hence, though he apparently fails of his immediate desire in each of these three orations, the principle for which he contends cannot fail. As a modern writer says of Lincoln, "The full, rich flood of his life through the nation's pulse is yet beating"; and his words are still potent in shaping the course of English politics in the way of justice.

EDWARD GIBBON (1737-1794)

To understand Burke or Johnson, one must read a multitude of books and be wary in his judgment; but with Gibbon the task is comparatively easy, for one has only to consider two books, his Memoirs and the first volume of his History, to understand the author. In his Memoirs we have an interesting reflection of Gibbon's own personality,—a man who looks with satisfaction on the material side of things, who seeks always the easiest path for himself, and avoids life's difficulties and responsibilities. "I sighed as a lover; but I obeyed as a son," he says, when, to save his inheritance, he gave up the woman he loved and came home to enjoy the paternal loaves and fishes. That is suggestive of the man's whole life. His History, on the other hand, is a remarkable work. It was the first in our language to be written on scientific principles, and with a solid basis of fact; and the style is the very climax of that classicism which had ruled England for an entire century. Its combination of historical fact and literary style makes The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the one thing of Gibbon's life that is "worthy to be remembered."

GIBBON'S HISTORY. For many years Gibbon had meditated, like Milton, upon an immortal work, and had tried several historical subjects, only to give them up idly. In his Journal he tells us how his vague resolutions were brought to a focus:

It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.

Twelve years later, in 1776, Gibbon published the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and the enormous success of the work encouraged him to go on with the other five volumes, which were published at intervals during the next twelve years. The History begins with the reign of Trajan, in A.D. 98, and "builds a straight Roman road" through the confused histories of thirteen centuries, ending with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. The scope of the History is enormous. It includes not only the decline of the Roman Empire, but such movements as the descent of the northern barbarians, the spread of Christianity, the reorganization of the European nations, the establishment of the great Eastern Empire, the rise of Mohammedanism, and the splendor of the Crusades. On the one hand it lacks philosophical insight, being satisfied with facts without comprehending the causes; and, as Gibbon seems lacking in ability to understand spiritual and religious movements, it is utterly inadequate in its treatment of the tremendous influence of Christianity. On the other hand, Gibbon's scholarship leaves little to criticise; he read enormously, sifted his facts out of multitudes of books and records, and then marshaled them in the imposing array with which we have grown familiar. Moreover, he is singularly just and discriminating in the use of all documents and authorities at his command. Hence he has given us the first history in English that has borne successfully the test of modern research and scholarship.

The style of the work is as imposing as his great subject. Indeed, with almost any other subject the sonorous roll of his majestic sentences would be out of place. While it deserves all the adjectives that have been applied to it by enthusiastic admirers,—finished, elegant, splendid, rounded, massive, sonorous, copious, elaborate, ornate, exhaustive,—it must be confessed, though one whispers the confession, that the style sometimes obscures our interest in the narrative. As he sifted his facts from a multitude of sources, so he often hides them again in endless periods, and one must often sift them out again in order to be quite sure of even the simple facts. Another drawback is that Gibbon is hopelessly worldly in his point of view; he loves pageants and crowds rather than individuals, and he is lacking in enthusiasm and in spiritual insight. The result is so frankly material at times that one wonders if he is not reading of forces or machines, rather than of human beings. A little reading of his History here and there is an excellent thing, leaving one impressed with the elegant classical style and the scholarship; but a continued reading is very apt to leave us longing for simplicity, for naturalness, and, above all, for the glow of enthusiasm which makes the dead heroes live once more in the written pages.

This judgment, however, must not obscure the fact that the book had a remarkably large sale; and that this, of itself, is an evidence that multitudes of readers found it not only erudite, but readable and interesting.


The old order changeth, yielding place to new; And God fulfills Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. Tennyson's "The Passing of Arthur."

THE MEANING OF ROMANTICISM. While Dryden, Pope, and Johnson were successively the dictators of English letters, and while, under their leadership, the heroic couplet became the fashion of poetry, and literature in general became satiric or critical in spirit, and formal in expression, a new romantic movement quietly made its appearance. Thomson's The Seasons (1730) was the first noteworthy poem of the romantic revival; and the poems and the poets increased steadily in number and importance till, in the age of Wordsworth and Scott, the spirit of Romanticism dominated our literature more completely than Classicism had ever done. This romantic movement—which Victor Hugo calls "liberalism in literature"—is simply the expression of life as seen by imagination, rather than by prosaic "common sense," which was the central doctrine of English philosophy in the eighteenth century. It has six prominent characteristics which distinguish it from the so-called classic literature which we have just studied:

1. The romantic movement was marked, and is always marked, by a strong reaction and protest against the bondage of rule and custom, which, in science and theology, as well as in literature, generally tend to fetter the free human spirit.

2. Romanticism returned to nature and to plain humanity for its material, and so is in marked contrast to Classicism, which had confined itself largely to the clubs and drawing-rooms, and to the social and political life of London. Thomson's Seasons, whatever its defects, was a revelation of the natural wealth and beauty which, for nearly a century, had been hardly noticed by the great writers of England.

3. It brought again the dream of a golden age[200] in which the stern realities of life were forgotten and the ideals of youth were established as the only permanent realities. "For the dreamer lives forever, but the toiler dies in a day," expresses, perhaps, only the wild fancy of a modern poet; but, when we think of it seriously, the dreams and ideals of a people are cherished possessions long after their stone monuments have crumbled away and their battles are forgotten. The romantic movement emphasized these eternal ideals of youth, and appealed to the human heart as the classic elegance of Dryden and Pope could never do.

4. Romanticism was marked by intense human sympathy, and by a consequent understanding of the human heart. Not to intellect or to science does the heart unlock its treasures, but rather to the touch of a sympathetic nature; and things that are hidden from the wise and prudent are revealed unto children. Pope had no appreciable humanity; Swift's work is a frightful satire; Addison delighted polite society, but had no message for plain people; while even Johnson, with all his kindness, had no feeling for men in the mass, but supported Sir Robert Walpole in his policy of letting evils alone until forced by a revolution to take notice of humanity's appeal. With the romantic revival all this was changed. While Howard was working heroically for prison reform, and Wilberforce for the liberation of the slaves, Gray wrote his "short and simple annals of the poor," and Goldsmith his Deserted Village, and Cowper sang,

My ear is pained, My soul is sick with every day's report Of wrong and outrage with which earth is filled. There is no flesh in man's obdurate heart, It does not feel for man.[201]

This sympathy for the poor, and this cry against oppression, grew stronger and stronger till it culminated in "Bobby" Burns, who, more than any other writer in any language, is the poet of the unlettered human heart.

5. The romantic movement was the expression of individual genius rather than of established rules. In consequence, the literature of the revival is as varied as the characters and moods of the different writers. When we read Pope, for instance, we have a general impression of sameness, as if all his polished poems were made in the same machine; but in the work of the best romanticists there is endless variety. To read them is like passing through a new village, meeting a score of different human types, and finding in each one something to love or to remember. Nature and the heart of man are as new as if we had never studied them. Hence, in reading the romanticists, who went to these sources for their material, we are seldom wearied but often surprised; and the surprise is like that of the sunrise, or the sea, which always offers some new beauty and stirs us deeply, as if we had never seen it before.

6. The romantic movement, while it followed its own genius, was not altogether unguided. Strictly speaking, there is no new movement either in history or in literature; each grows out of some good thing which has preceded it, and looks back with reverence to past masters. Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton were the inspiration of the romantic revival; and we can hardly read a poem of the early romanticists without finding a suggestion of the influence of one of these great leaders.[202]

There are various other characteristics of Romanticism, but these six—the protest against the bondage of rules, the return to nature and the human heart, the interest in old sagas and mediaeval romances as suggestive of a heroic age, the sympathy for the toilers of the world, the emphasis upon individual genius, and the return to Milton and the Elizabethans, instead of to Pope and Dryden, for literary models—are the most noticeable and the most interesting. Remembering them, we shall better appreciate the work of the following writers who, in varying degree, illustrate the revival of romantic poetry in the eighteenth century.

THOMAS GRAY (1716-1771)

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day; The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea; The plowman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me. Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight, And all the air a solemn stillness holds, Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight, And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds.

So begins "the best known poem in the English language," a poem full of the gentle melancholy which marks all early romantic poetry. It should be read entire, as a perfect model of its kind. Not even Milton's "Il Penseroso," which it strongly suggests, excels it in beauty and suggestiveness.

LIFE OF GRAY. The author of the famous "Elegy" is the most scholarly and well-balanced of all the early romantic poets. In his youth he was a weakling, the only one of twelve children who survived infancy; and his unhappy childhood, the tyranny of his father, and the separation from his loved mother, gave to his whole life the stamp of melancholy which is noticeable in all his poems. At the famous Eton school and again at Cambridge, he seems to have followed his own scholarly tastes rather than the curriculum, and was shocked, like Gibbon, at the general idleness and aimlessness of university life. One happy result of his school life was his friendship for Horace Walpole, who took him abroad for a three years' tour of the Continent.

No better index of the essential difference between the classical and the new romantic school can be imagined than that which is revealed in the letters of Gray and Addison, as they record their impressions of foreign travel. Thus, when Addison crossed the Alps, some twenty-five years before, in good weather, he wrote: "A very troublesome journey.... You cannot imagine how I am pleased with the sight of a plain." Gray crossed the Alps in the beginning of winter, "wrapped in muffs, hoods and masks of beaver, fur boots, and bearskins," but wrote ecstatically, "Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff but is pregnant with religion and poetry."

On his return to England, Gray lived for a short time at Stoke Poges, where he wrote his "Ode on Eton," and probably sketched his "Elegy," which, however, was not finished till 1750, eight years later. During the latter years of his shy and scholarly life he was Professor of Modern History and Languages at Cambridge, without any troublesome work of lecturing to students. Here he gave himself up to study and to poetry, varying his work by "prowlings" among the manuscripts of the new British Museum, and by his "Lilliputian" travels in England and Scotland. He died in his rooms at Pembroke College in 1771, and was buried in the little churchyard of Stoke Poges.

WORKS OF GRAY. Gray's Letters, published in 1775, are excellent reading, and his Journal is still a model of natural description; but it is to a single small volume of poems that he owes his fame and his place in literature. These poems divide themselves naturally into three periods, in which we may trace the progress of Gray's emancipation from the classic rules which had so long governed English literature. In the first period he wrote several minor poems, of which the best are his "Hymn to Adversity" and the odes "To Spring" and "On a Distant Prospect of Eton College." These early poems reveal two suggestive things: first, the appearance of that melancholy which characterizes all the poetry of the period; and second, the study of nature, not for its own beauty or truth, but rather as a suitable background for the play of human emotions.

The second period shows the same tendencies more strongly developed. The "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1750), the most perfect poem of the age, belongs to this period. To read Milton's "Il Penseroso" and Gray's "Elegy" is to see the beginning and the perfection of that "literature of melancholy" which largely occupied English poets for more than a century. Two other well-known poems of this second period are the Pindaric odes, "The Progress of Poesy" and "The Bard." The first is strongly suggestive of Dryden's "Alexander's Feast," but shows Milton's influence in a greater melody and variety of expression. "The Bard" is, in every way, more romantic and original. An old minstrel, the last of the Welsh singers, halts King Edward and his army in a wild mountain pass, and with fine poetic frenzy prophesies the terror and desolation which must ever follow the tyrant. From its first line, "Ruin seize thee, ruthless King!" to the end, when the old bard plunges from his lofty crag and disappears in the river's flood, the poem thrills with the fire of an ancient and noble race of men. It breaks absolutely with the classical school and proclaims a literary declaration of independence.

In the third period Gray turns momentarily from his Welsh material and reveals a new field of romantic interest in two Norse poems, "The Fatal Sisters" and "The Descent of Odin" (1761). Gray translated his material from the Latin, and though these two poems lack much of the elemental strength and grandeur of the Norse sagas, they are remarkable for calling attention to the unused wealth of literary material that was hidden in Northern mythologv. To Gray and to Percy (who published his Northern Antiquities in 1770) is due in large measure the profound interest in the old Norse sagas which has continued to our own day.

Taken together, Gray's works form a most interesting commentary on the varied life of the eighteenth century. He was a scholar, familiar with all the intellectual interests of his age, and his work has much of the precision and polish of the classical school; but he shares also the reawakened interest in nature, in common man, and in mediaeval culture, and his work is generally romantic both in style and in spirit. The same conflict between the classic and romantic schools, and the triumph of Romanticism, is shown clearly in the most versatile of Gray's contemporaries, Oliver Goldsmith.


Because The Deserted Village is one of the most familiar poems in our language, Goldsmith is generally given a high place among the poets of the romantic dawn. But the Village, when we read it carefully, turns out to be a rimed essay in the style of Pope's famous Essay on Man; it owes its popularity to the sympathetic memories which it awakens, rather than to its poetic excellence. It is as a prose writer that Goldsmith excels. He is an essayist, with Addison's fine polish but with more sympathy for human life; he is a dramatist, one of the very few who have ever written a comedy that can keep its popularity unchanged while a century rolls over its head; but greater, perhaps, than the poet and essayist and dramatist is Goldsmith the novelist, who set himself to the important work of purifying the early novel of its brutal and indecent tendencies, and who has given us, in The Vicar of Wakefield, one of the most enduring characters in English fiction. In his manner, especially in his poetry, Goldsmith was too much influenced by his friend Johnson and the classicists; but in his matter, in his sympathy for nature and human life, he belongs unmistakably to the new romantic school. Altogether he is the most versatile, the most charming, the most inconsistent, and the most lovable genius of all the literary men who made famous the age of Johnson.

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