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ENGLISH AND CONTINENTAL EXCELLENCE.
tension of being the style of cultivated Europe, and a true copy of the style of polished antiquity. England, on the other hand, had had but little intercourse with the rest of the world for a considerable period of time: Her language was not at all studied on the Continent, and her native authors had not been taken into account in forming those ideal standards of excellence which had been recently constructed in France and Italy upon the authority of the Roman classics, and of their own most celebrated writers. When the comparison came to be made, therefore, it is easy to imagine that it should generally be thought to be very much to our disadvantage, and to understand how the great multitude, even among ourselves, should be dazzled with the pretensions of the fashionable style of writing, and actually feel ashamed of their own richer and more varied productions.
It would greatly exceed our limits to describe accurately the particulars in which this new Continental style differed from our old insular one: But, for our present purpose, it may be enough perhaps to say, that it was more worldly, and more townish,-holding more of reason, and ridicule, and authority — more elaborate and more unassuming--addressed more to the judgment than to the feelings, and somewhat ostentatiously accommodated to the habits, or supposed habits, of persons in fashionable life. Instead of tenderness and fancy, we had satire and sophistry-- artificial declamation, in place of the spontaneous animations of genius— and for the universal language of Shakespeare, the personalities, the party politics, and the brutal obscenities of Dryden. Nothing, indeed, can better characterize the change which had taken place in our national taste, than the alterations and additions which this eminent person presumed -- and thought it necessary to make on the productions of Shakespeare and Milton. The heaviness, the coarseness, and the bombast of that abominable tra. vestie, in which he has exhibited the Paradise Lost in the form of an opera, and the atrocious indelicacy and compassionable stupidity of the new characters with
DRYDEN SIDED WITH THE LATTER
AND ADDISON. 45
which he has polluted the enchanted solitude of Miranda and Prospero in the Tempest, are such instances of degeneracy as we would be apt to impute rather to some transient hallucination in the author himself, than to the general prevalence of any systematic bad taste in the public, did we not know that Wycherly and his coadjutors were in the habit of converting the neglected dramas of Beaumont and Fletcher into popular plays, merely by leaving out all the romantic sweetness of their characters — turning their melodious blank verse into vulgar prose — and aggravating the indelicacy of their lower characters, by lending a more disgusting indecency to the whole dramatis persona.
Dryden was, beyond all comparison, the greatest poet of his own day; and, endued as he was with a vigorous and discursive imagination, and possessing a mastery over his language which no later writer has attained, if he had known nothing of foreign literature, and been left to form himself on the models of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton; or if he had lived in the country, at a distance from the pollutions of courts, factions, and playhouses, there is reason to think that he would have ир the
pure and original school of English poetry so firmly, as to have made it impossible for fashion, or caprice, or prejudice of any sort, ever to have rendered any other popular among our own inhabitants. As it is, he has not written one line that is pathetic, and very few that can be considered as sublime.
Addison, however, was the consummation of this Continental style ; and if it had not been redeemed about the same time by the fine talents of Pope, would probably have so far discredited it, as to have brought us back to our original faith half a century ago. The extreme caution, timidity, and flatness of this author in his poetical compositions — the narrowness of his range in poetical sentiment and diction, and the utter want either of passion or of brilliancy, render it difficult to believe that he was born under the same sun with Shakespeare, and wrote but a century after him. His fame, at this day, stands solely upon the delicacy, the modest
POPE, THE BEST OF THE FRENCH SCHOOL.
gaiety, and ingenious purity of his prose style ; — for the occasional elegance and small ingenuity of his poems can never redeem the poverty of their diction, and the tameness of their conception. Pope has incomparably more spirit and taste and animation: but Pope is a satirist, and a moralist, and a wit, and a critic, and a fine writer, much more than he is a poet. He has all the delicacies and proprieties and felicities of diction but he has not a great deal of fancy, and scarcely ever touches any of the greater passions. He is much the best, we think, of the classical Continental school; but he is not to be compared with the masters — nor with the pupils — of that Old English one from which there had been so lamentable an apostacy. There are no pictures of nature or of simple emotion in all his writings. He is the poet of town life, and of high life, and of literary life; and seems so much afraid of incurring ridicule by the display of natural feeling or unregulated fancy, that it is difficult not to imagine that he would have thought such ridicule very well directed.
The best of what we copied from the Continental poets, on this desertion of our own great originals, is to be found, perhaps, in the lighter pieces of Prior. That tone of polite raillery that airy, rapid, picturesque narrative, mixed up with wit and naiveté — that style, in short, of good conversation concentrated into flowing and polished verses, was not within the vein of our native poets; and probably never would have been known among us, if we had been left to our own resources. It is lamentable that this, which alone was worth borrowing, is the only thing which has not been retained. The tales and little apologues of Prior are still the only examples of this style in our language.
With the wits of Queen Anne this foreign school attained the summit of its reputation ; and has ever since, we think, been declining, though by slow and almost imperceptible gradations. Thomson was the first writer of any eminence who seceded from it, and made some steps back to the force and animation of our original poetry. Thomson, however, was educated in Scotland, where the
THOMSON - YOUNG.
new style, we believe, had not yet become familiar; and lived, for a long time, a retired and unambitious life, with very little intercourse with those who gave the tone in literature at the period of his first appearance. Thomson, accordingly, has always been popular with a much wider circle of readers, than either Pope or Addison; and, in spite of considerable vulgarity and signal cumbrousness of diction, has drawn, even from the fastidious, a much deeper and more heartfelt admiration.
Young exhibits, we think, a curious combination, or contrast rather, of the two styles of which we have been speaking. Though incapable either of tenderness or passion, he had a richness and activity of fancy that belonged rather to the days of James and Elizabeth, than to those of George and Anne:— But then, instead, of indulging it, as the old writers would have done, in easy and playful inventions, in splendid descriptions, or glowing illustrations, he was led, by the restraints and established taste of his age, to work it up into strained and fantastical epigrams, or into cold and revolting hyperboles. Instead of letting it flow gracefully on, in an easy and sparkling current, he perpetually forces it out in jets, or makes it stagnate in formal canals; — and thinking it necessary to write like Pope, when the bent of his genius led him rather to copy what was best in Cowley and most fantastic in Shakespeare, he has produced something which excites wonder instead of admiration, and is felt by every one to be at once ingenious, incongruous, and unnatural.
After Young, there was a plentiful lack of poetical talent, down to a period comparatively recent. Akenside and Gray, indeed, in the interval discovered a new way of imitating the antients ; -- and Collins and Goldsmith produced some small specimens of exquisite and original poetry. At last, Cowper threw off the whole trammels of French criticism and artificial refinement; and, setting at defiance all the imaginary requisites of poetical diction and classical imagery — dignity of style, and politeness of phraseology — ventured to write again with the force and the freedom which had characterised
48 COWPER -BREAKS UP THE CONTINENTAL SCHOOL.
the old school of English literature, and been so unhappily sacrificed, upwards of a century before. Cowper had many faults, and some radical deficiencies;- but this atoned for all. There was something so delightfully refreshing, in seeing natural phrases and natural images again displaying their unforced graces, and waving their unpruned heads in the enchanted gardens of poetry, that no one complained of the taste displayed in the selection ; — and Cowper is, and is likely to continue, the most popular of all who have written for the present or the last generation.
Of the poets who have come after him, we cannot, in1 deed, say that they have attached themselves to the school of Pope and Addison ; or that they have even failed to show a much stronger predilection for the native beauties of their great predecessors. Southey, and Wordsworth, and Coleridge, and Miss Baillie, have all of them copied the manner of our old poets; and, along with this indication of good taste, have given grea: proofs of original genius. The misfortune is, that their copies of those great originals are liable to the charge of extreme affectation. They do not write as those great poets would have written: they merely mimic their manner, and ape their peculiarities ;-and consequently, though they profess to imitate the freest and most careless of all versifiers, their style is more remarkably and : offensively artificial than that of any other class of writers. They have mixed in, too, so much of the maukish tone of pastoral innocence and babyish simplicity, with a sort of pedantic emphasis and ostentatious glitter, that it is difficult not to be disgusted with their perversity, and with the solemn self-complacency, and keen and vindictive jealousy, with which they have put in their claims on public admiration. But we have said enough elsewhere of the faults of those authors; and shall only add, at present, that, notwithstanding all these faults, there is a fertility and a force, a warmth of feeling and an exaltation of imagination about them, which classes them, in our estimation, with a much higher order of poets than the followers of Dryden and Addi