« AnteriorContinuar »
7. And it was the expansion of the audience that made the novel the chief imaginative form of our era and gave it an importance and development that quite overshadowed the growth of every other literary form. Narrative is the first literary instinct and desire of men, and through no other portal can the mass of new readers pass into appreciation of literature. The sermon, the speech, the essay soon tire the untrained mind ; and even biography, travel, and history are too systematic and too fond of the bare fact to attract the primitive imagination. It is the story—a section of life told so as to rise to a dénouement—that interests the mind unaccustomed or disinclined to patient or methodical thought; the child will listen by the hour to it. And the novel was, the modern substitute for it, when reading took the place of listening ; or rather, by incorporating the sermon, essay, satire, study of character, philosophical theory, biography, travels, or history in it, it superseded all other literature for the new reading public, in gratifying their primitive passion for narrative. In previous ages of English literature the audience consisted chiefly of a highly educated circle who had had their minds trained in other literatures ; and in the Elizabethan age, the only age when the reading public tended to become the nation, the development of the drama, an art that appealed to the mind rather through spectacle than through literary form, postponed the invention and growth of the novel. It was the new wealth of the eighteenth century that, liberating a considerable section of the English who were able to read from the necessity of continual toil, made fiction a prime essential of English literature. They had from their Puritan traditions an įnvincible objection to the drama and the impurity of the Restoration theatre confirmed it. A new form of literary art was a necessity, a form that would, in using the love of story, allow of infinite variations of the limited material of story. The number of types of striking incident in human history is soon exhausted; they repeat themselves with singular monotony in the collections of various nations and ages. The modern novel, by change of scene and character and spiritual atmosphere, by commixture with different forms of literature, drama, satire, history, biography, philosophy, description of nature, succeeded in concealing the inborn poverty or rather automatism of the story-telling fancy. It is this incorporation of most other literary elements and forms that has made it the dominant form of the nineteenth century. It has fitted itself to almost all classes of readers and threatens to make the primitive instinct for narrative the permanent medium of all literary ideas and imaginings During its earlier stage, from 1750 to 1850, it justified its existence by professing to be the intermediary and teacher for raising the newly enleisured masses into the higher classes of readers. But the gradual recession of the fringe of ignorance has kept adding every decade to the possible audience of literature; and the appeal through fiction to their uneducated minds and inherent preference of story has fixed novel-writing into modern civilisation as a permanent literary habit.
8. During our period it did help to increase the number of readers of other forms of literature. History, biography, travels, the didactic treatise felt the new expansion of sphere and audience too, and flourished as they had not done before. The essay held its own in the latter half of the eighteenth century and was as popular as it had been in the earlier part; whilst in the first half of the nineteenth century it came to be organised into the magazine article.
I. But it was poetry that next to fiction felt the new impetus most, allied, as it was, as closely with imagination. Though there is no poet in this era to rank with Shakespeare or Milton, there are more of those that may be placed next to them than in any other era-Burns, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning ; indeed there are not as many in all the rest of English literature put together; whilst of poets of the third rank the number still more exceeds all other periods, Gray, Collins, Goldsmith, Beattie, Blake, Chatterton, Cowper, Crabbe, Rogers, Campbell, Scott, Moore, Southey, Hood, Bowles, Landor, Kirk White, Hunt, Elliot, Hogg, Clough. The list would be greatly lengthened if minor poets and writers of occasional poetry were added. And the excellence and
variety of the technique and style, as well as of the imagination and thought, amongst them would alone be enough to classify this era of expansion amongst great poetic eras.
2. But poetry is more affected by the expansion of thought and feeling than by the expansion of audience or sphere. It had more readers, of course; for the growth of sentimentalism made it a great favourite with the new audience as well as with the old audience of critics and cultured men and women; religious and free-thinking, philosophical and matter-of-fact, scientific and practical, all had their schools or types of poetry to suit their tastes. For its sphere and variety of topics had also widened. In this respect it is a marked contrast to that of the Queen Anne period. It ranges over the whole orb of human knowledge. It emulates like fiction all other forms of literature; and to take its narrative form alone it searches as widely as the novel for variety of scene; from court to peasant's hut, from "China to Peru,” from the earliest ages down to contemporary life.
3. It is however, rather in the growth of its thought and inspiration that the century is to be considered a great poetic era. When Johnson wrote his Lives of the Poets, English poetry seemed almost to have completed its cycle. Dryden and Pope were to him the perfecters of it as an art. And it was just at this point, the beginning of the last quarter of last century, that it was about to be reborn to a greater activity of thought and imagination, a greater variety and beauty of art, than it had ever experienced. Burns, Blake, Cowper, and Crabbe were already composing the poems that, published a few years after, were to show that a new era in poetry had come, an era that would rival in power and surpass in variety and scope the Elizabethan. Already had the way been prepared for it, as Johnson might have seen in the popularity of Ossian, in the collection of folk-ballads and songs by Bishop Percy, and even in the new spirit of sympathy with the lowly expressed in the poetry and prose of his own friend and protégé, Goldsmith. Enthusiasm had been driven out by the Queen Anne period; it was now to come back into English literature and especially poetry like a flood. But it could neither ignore
nor overbear the finish that that age had given to English poetic style. Now the exuberance of the Shakespeare time, its fulness of emotion and inspiration, and its lavishness of thought were to be combined in poetry with the choiceness of diction, the polish of style, and the dominance of art, that Dryden and Pope had taught. The poetry of the era was about to take all nature and human nature for its themes, to seek inspiration and models in every age and literature, to reject all the classical rules that criticism had formulated and made tyrannous. It is an era of poetic discovery and rediscovery, and one, too, of rapidly perfecting poetic art. By the close of it nothing but the loftiest thought and emotion put into the most melodious and fitting words could find a permanent place in the literature. Wordsworth and Byron and Browning have been able, from the penetration of their thought or the strength of their character, to outrage the conventional melody and art of poetry at times; but it was at the risk of losing the name of poet with the mass of readers. Rogers, Moore, Landor, and others reached their place as poets chiefly by the excellence of their technique ; but they had to exhibit more emotion than the Queen Anne poets and it was only an inferior place they reached.
4. The especial mark of the poetry of this era is its intensity of passion or insight expressing itself in finished or melodious form. And what gave it this intensity was not the new and wider audience but the revolutionary character of the era.
Revolution, that never breaks out into civil war, that never involves all the talent of the country in deathgrips, works underground and raises the passion of the thinkers 2-ic speakers and writers to white heat. The fear of some dread issue makes every man feel and think and speak with vehemence, if not extravagance. Through the whole of the era from 1750 to 1850 the sense of possible explosion in the future pervaded the leading minds of England and filled them with passionate hope or reactionary terror. It rekindled the enthusiasm that had been almost dead in English literature for two generations or more. The flood-gates of emotion were opened. New springs of sympathy broke forth and found channels in the evangelical
movement, the new philanthropy, and such crusades as the anti-slavery agitation. But this resurgence of passion affected literature almost as much; for to it was due the new birth of English poetry, with its strength of thought and character, its fervour of temperament, and its freshness of inspiration.
5. It was not the French Revolution alone that stirred such excitement in English feeling, though that gave body and form to the inner fears and hopes that had long haunted the English inind. The American revolution had already shown how real was the possibility of successful revolt against long-established authority and precedent. And though the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic wars made reaction seem patriotic and be strong, no sooner did this foreign fear subside than the suffering masses expressed their passion in riot and revolt. Advancing legislation, however reluctant, assuaged the fear of worse and brought the more confident and prosperous section of the people over to the side of government. The French revolutions of 1830 and 1848 stirred to new life the old hopes and fears, and Chartism gave them semblance of possible realisation. But after 1850 the growth of philanthropy and of sympathy with the people has led the aggrieved to think rather of reform through legislation than of revolution. The century from 1750 to 1850 may well be called the English era of suppressed revolution.
6. And it was this veiled passion that made it so great a poetic era at a stage in the development of English literature when poetry might have been expected to give way to prose. After so many generations of criticism and of conscious effort in literature English genius with surprising recoil sprang back into the rapt attitude that true poetry demands. After Addison and Pope and Johnson it is difficult to realise how there could have come a Blake, a Wordsworth, a Keats, a Shelley. Yet there is nothing wonderful in it, when we understand that all through this great era there was a wild ferment in the English mind and that it never found issue in politics or civil war. There is something of the seer in much of the work of these poets, and this implies at least a partial return of the poetic soul