ePub 版

tion against the assaults of untested theory. Without ignoring human rights, it maintains that the most precious human rights are those which have proved humanly feasible; abstract ideals of law and government, however admirable on paper, it regards with such suspicion as in daily life practical men feel concerning the vagaries of plausible thinkers who cannot make both ends meet. The conservatism of eighteenth-century England, in short, defended against untested philosophy the experience embodied in the unwritten Common Law; it defended custom, which at worst had proved tolerable, against theory, which had never been put to proof. So in this closing struggle of the eighteenth century, which continued for half a generation after the century ended, external forces combined with internal ones, — with a full century of domestic peace, and the final settlement of the royal succession, — to develop in England that isolated, deliberate, somewhat slow-witted character which foreigners now suppose permanently English.

The typical Englishman of modern caricature is named John Bull. What he looks like is as familiar to any reader of the comic papers as is the “ austerely sheepish ” countenance of Stuart's Washington. There is a deep significance, then, in the fact that the costume still attributed to John Bull is virtually that of the English middle classes in 1800. No date better marks the moment when external forces and internal had combined to make typical of England the insular, vigorous, intolerant character embodied in that familiar and portly figure. Whatever else John Bull may be, he is not spontaneous in his reactions to fresh impressions; he is not enthusiastic, except in irascibility; and he is about as far from versatile as any human being who ever trod the earth.



The English literature of the eighteenth century is very different from that of the century before. The contrast may conveniently be considered by comparing the two periods as they began, as they proceeded, and as they closed. The three literary periods of the seventeenth century were dominated three great figures, - those of Shakspere, of Milton, and of Dryden. While no such eminence as theirs marks the literary history of the century with which we are now concerned, three typical figures of its different periods may conveniently be called to mind, — Addison, Johnson, and Burke. The very mention of these names must instantly define the contrast now worth our attention. The seventeenth century was one of decided literary development, or at least of change. In comparison the eighteenth century was one of marked monotony.

The literature of its beginning is traditionally associated with the name of Queen Anne almost as closely as that of a hundred years before is with the name of Queen Elizabeth. In 1702, when Anne came to the throne, neither Addison, Steele, Swift, Defoe, nor Pope had attained full reputation; in 1714, when she died, all five had done enough to assure their permanence, and to fix the type of literature for which their names collectively stand. Prose they had brought to that deliberate, balanced, far from passionate form which it was to retain for several generations; poetry they had cooled into that rational heroic couplet which was to survive in America until the last days of Dr. Holmes. They had brought into being meanwhile a new form of publication, –

[ocr errors]

the periodical, — destined to indefinite development. From

, the time when the first “ Tatler” appeared in 1709 to the present day, a considerable part of our lasting literature has been published in periodicals; and periodicals bespeak, before all things else, a permanent and increasing literary public. If any one name can imply all this, it is surely that of the urbane Joseph Addison.

In the middle of the century, when the reign of George II. was two-thirds over, English literature was producing a good many works which have survived. Between 1748 and 1752, for example, there were published, to go no further, Richardson's “Clarissa Harlowe,” Smollett's “ Roderick Random” and “ Peregrine Pickle,” Thomson's “ Castle of Indolence," Fielding's “ Tom Jones” and “ Amelia,” Johnson's “ Vanity of Human Wishes" and a considerable portion of the “ Rambler," Gray's “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” and Goldsmith's « Life of Nash.” Sterne's work and Goldsmith's more famous writing came only a little later; and during these same five years appeared Wesley's “ Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” Hume's “ Inquiry into the Human Understanding,” — and his “ Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals” and “ Political Discourses.” Though the works of Wesley and of Hume are something else than mere literature, they deserve our notice because Wesley's name recalls that strenuous outburst against religious formalism which has bred the most potent body of modern English Dissenters, and Hume's that rational tendency in philosophy which during the eighteenth century was far more characteristic of France than of England. Putting these aside, we may find in the literary

, record of this mid-century a state of things somewhat different from that which prevailed under Queen Anne. Another considerable form of English literature had come into existence, — the prose novel, whose germs were already evident in

, the character sketches of the “Spectator,” and in the characterless but vivacious fictions of Defoe. Poetry, preserving

studied correctness of form, was beginning to tend back toward something more like romantic sentiment; the prose essay had grown heavier and less vital. For the moment the presiding genius of English letters was Dr. Johnson, throughout whose work we can feel that the formalism which under Queen Anne had possessed the grace of freshness was becoming traditional. In conventional good sense his writings, like those which surrounded them, remained vigorous; but their vigour was very unlike the spontaneous, enthusiastic versatility of Elizabethan letters.

About twenty-five years later comes a date so memorable to Americans that a glance at its literary record in England can hardly help being suggestive. The year from which our national independence is officially dated came at the height of Burke's powers, and just between Sheridan's “Rivals,” published the year before, and his “School for Scandal,” of the year after. In the record of English publications, 1776 is marked by no important works of pure literature; but in that year Hume died, Jeremy Bentham published his “ Fragment on Government," Gibbon the first volume of his « Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Adam Smith his “Wealth of Nations,” and Thomas Paine his “ Common Sense;” the second edition of the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” too, appeared in ten volumes. In 1776, it seems, things literary in England, as well as things political in the British Empire, were taking a somewhat serious turn.

In the last ten years of the century, the years when the French Revolution was at its fiercest, there appeared in England works by Burke and by Mrs. Radcliffe, Boswell's “ Johnson,” Cowper's “ Homer," Paine's “Rights of Man,” Rogers's “ Pleasures of Memory,” poems by Burns, two or three books by Hannah More, the first poems of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Scott, and Landor, Godwin's “Caleb Williams, Lewis's “Monk," Miss Burney's “ Camilla,” Roscoe's “ Life of Lorenzo the Magnificent," and Charles Lamb's “ Rosamund Gray.” A curious contrast this shows to the state of things in contemporary France. Though in political matters the French had broken away from every tradition, their literature had to wait thirty years more for enfranchisement from the tyranny of conventional form. England meanwhile, more tenacious of political tradition than ever before, had begun to disregard the rigid literary tradition which had been dominant since the time of Dryden. Burns, to this day the greatest poet of the British people, died in 1797. The “ Lyrical Ballads ” of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which may be regarded in literature as declaring the independence of the individual spirit, appeared in 1798, the year when Nelson fought the battle of the Nile. Fiction at the same time seemed less vital. In the hands of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett it had reached high development. Compared with the masterpieces of forty years before, Mrs. Radcliffe’s “ Mysteries of Udolpho," Lewis's “ Monk,” and in some aspects even Godwin's “ Caleb Williams,” look more like the vagaries of an outworn affectation than like the heralds of what a few years later was to prove a great romantic period. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, though formal tradition was clearly broken, the renewed strength which was to animate English literature for the next thirty years was not yet quite evident. At the moment, too, no figure in English letters had even such predominance as that of Addison in Queen Anne's time, far less such as Johnson's had been in the later years of George II. Of the elder names mentioned in our last hasty list the most memorable seems that of Burke.

These names of Addison, Johnson, and Burke prove quite as significant of English literature in the eighteenth century as those of Shakspere, Milton, and Dryden proved of that literature a century before. Shakspere, Milton, and Dryden seem men of three different epochs; at least comparatively, Addison, Johnson, and Burke seem men of a single type. The trait which most distinguishes them from one another,

« 上一頁繼續 »