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He really belonged to the school of Akenside, although he adopted the heroic couplet as moulded by Goldsmith, and often echoed Pope. He mingled moralising with description, high-flown rhetoric with metaphysical purpose in the same way as that didactic poet. He belonged to the same current of literary ambition, which, rising just before the middle of the century with the reappearance of the middle class and the growth of the industry that gave
them wealth and comfort, gradually prepared the way for nineteenth century literature. One of the most noteworthy features of English poetry just after the Queen Anne period was the large number of second-rate poets, all of them coming from the new audience of literature; another was its tendency to metaphysics, and a third was its adoption of Miltonic blank verse. They are closely connected. The establishment of the Hanoverian dynasty on the throne had freed the descendants of the Puritans and of the opponents of Stuart absolutism from all fear of persecution, and given them confidence in their own instincts, tastes, and opinions. And the application of water-power and machinery to manufactures and the development of commerce had begun to give them comfort and leisure. They had never abandoned the love of philosophy that their theological tastes had iniplied ; nor had they ceased to read their Paradise Lost. In this atmosphere their youth were brought up and many of them began to aspire to literary fame. They had plenty of poetic sentiment without any real poetic power ; they had the average power of philosophising without any capacity for exact thought. Hence the strange hybrid of philosophy and poetry that was such a favourite last century, the metaphysical essay in verse. And there was evidently a growing audience for it; else the supply would soon have ceased. The yeomen, tradesmen, and merchants of the middle classes had been nurtured on weekly sermons and Milton, and took naturally to the results of cross-fertilisation between them. And from 1740 onwards through the century we have an unfailing stream of didactic blank verse that alternates moralisation or analysis and picture. Addison had shewn that he meant The Spectator for the wider audience, for the descendants of the Puritans, as well as for London society, when he contributed his papers on Milton and on Imagination. But he went no deeper than the surface of either subject with his Queen Anne pseudo-classicism; and the trụe appreciation of Miltonic verse, and the poetical treatment of philosophical subjects, did not appear till the age of Addison and Pope was vanishing, and the middle classes were beginning to mould literature more than London society. It is true that we have blank verse reappearing in poetry as early as Thomson's Seasons (1726-28), and that Pope felt the philosophical tendencies of his new audience so much as to turn to metaphysics and ethics in his Essay on Man (1733-34). But the combination of philosophy and blank verse does not appear till close on the death of Pope (1744).
I. The best representative of it was Mark Akenside, who in January 1744 published his Pleasures of Imagination when twenty-three years of age. Dodsley the publisher gave him, on the advice of Pope, a price that was quite exceptional for a new poet's work-£120. And a second edition was demanded before the year was out. Later in life he set himself to the task of recasting its three books into four. The first, which deals with the beauty and greatness of nature and the connection of beauty with truth and goodness, appeared in 1757 ; the second, which treats of truth, virtue, vice, ridicule, and the passions, appeared in 1765; and a fragment of the third and one of the fourth were published after his death in 1770. But the first form is acknowledged by all to be the best, to be more poetical though less methodic or philosophical. It is more concrete; the second book, for example, is more than half filled with the speech or tale of a sage, whom he calls Harmodius, "wont to teach my early age" "thy lonely-whispering voice, ' O faithful Nature”; the aged teacher and prophet narrates a vision he had had “in the windings of an ancient wood”; “the genius of human kind” appeared to him as he was mourning over the dead Parthenia and brought before his eyes a landscape that is a copy of Milton's Eden, and a
dramatic scene not unlike Milton's description of the fall, but really an allegory of the eternal union of virtue and pleasure. This disappears in the new version. The poem is full of splendidly rhetorical pictures and apostrophes, the product rather of philosophic eloquence than of poetic imagination; it is Milton narrowed down to The Essay On Man; even the verse is a cross between the Miltonic sublimity and the Popian balance and antithesis. The philosophy is puritanism edited by Shaftesbury; it has a back-ground of stoical theology; in its account of creation it is calvinistic and predestinarian; yet it adopts the optimistic dream of "Characteristics”; its ethics are, like Shaftesbury's, a compromise between the utilitarianism natural to the time and the moral sense theory that was about to rule philosophy through Scotland; its aesthetics are Addison's deepened somewhat by Hutcheson; and it
Hutcheson; and it treats the Newtonian physics and astronomy with an approach to sublimity. The
“high-born soul soars
The empyreal waste", ;
older puritanism. The Moderates had not the best of it in the country districts. And there Paradise Lost and the Pilgrim's Progress were as much household books as the Bible, Boston's Fourfold State, and Doddridge's Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. Thus it was that when the literary didacticism of the Queen Anne age was somewhat exhausted, semi-religious, semi-philosophical didacticism chiefly in the guise of Miltonic blank verse, and indulging much in pictures of nature came to reinforce it, and prepare it for the hands of Cowper and Wordsworth. It came largely from Scotland and began to appear about the time of the retirement of Walpole (1742), though Arbuthnot and Thomson are two Scotch writers who appeared in the London world earlier in the century. With the necessity of conciliating Scotland after the rebellion of 1745, and the growing influence of Scotch politicians like Bute, the emigration of Scottish talent to London became one of the favourite themes of witty or satiric jealousy ; the best of it remained at home, and in Hume, Adam Smith, Burns, Dugald Stewart, Scott, deeply influenced European thought and literature.
I. Miltonic didacticism was not confined to Scotland. About the same date (1740) it forced a true representative of the Queen Anne spirit, Edward Young, out of the heroic couplet and satire into blank verse and religious moralisings. He was nearly sixty before he began his most famous poem, Night Thoughts. He had spent youth and manhood partly in dissipation, partly in wooing preferment by fulsome odes to monarchs and statesmen. He followed the drift of his time in writing at first pompously didactic poems (The Last Day 1713, The Force of Religion 1715), pompous tragedies (Busiris 1719, and Revenge 1721) and rhetorical satires in the heroic couplet (The Universal Passion—The Love of Fame, 1725). By his versified flatteries he gained a pension of £200 a year which he enjoyed to his death in 1765. Not long after gaining it he professed to have become tired of the world and courtiership, and entered the church, married a titled widow, and got the living of Welwyn in Hertfordshire, where he remained much against his real desires for the rest of his life. He lost his wife and his two daughters when nearly sixty, and the bereavement gave a brief term of sincerity to his poetic lament over life in the Night Thoughts, which he began to publish the year after (1742), and continued till he had finished nine books or nights in 1745. The first three nights are devoted to Philander, Narcissa, Lucia, absurdly idealised representations of his dead stepson and stepdaughters, keep to the mood of lament, and are most successful. Yet even here his optimistic utilitarianism and religious affectation intrude and spoil genuine eloquence by low ideals. The grief has not changed his nature any more than his retirement from the world did. He has only extended the sphere of his sycophancy; he has been all his life the parasite of men; he is now besides the spaniel of God; he does not resign the hope of worldly favours; he still addresses possible patrons in fulsome terms; but proximity to death makes him think of the supreme and ultimate favour, and he concentrates all his armoury of praise and apostrophe upon its arbiter. The hollowness of the Miltonic sublimities becomes more apparent as the nights proceed, till in the ninth, called “Consolation,” the straining after effect and the pharisaic pietisms grow ridiculous. God descends to the last judgment with groans from hell and “shouts of joy from heaven”; “The charmed spectators thunder their applause"; and the "sever'd throng” pass to “distinct abodes sulphurous or ambrosial.” The “goddess
“ Turns her adamantine key's enormous size
Through Destiny's inextricable wards, and flings it
“from the crystal battlements of heaven”, and hell. Returns in groans the melancholy roar”;
“ Its hideous groans Join Heaven's sweet Hallelujahs in Thy praise". The Newtonian astronomy is a perfect treasure-house of illustration and inflated eloquence; it enables him to sit on Saturns' ring and see “ Perhaps the villas of descending gods”.