Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

reserve the Queen Anne writers had shown on the subject of piety. And a large section of imaginative literature devoted itself to the new religious ardour ; writers like Cowper and Kirke White, Bernard Barton and James Montgomery, Heber and Keble, Pollok and Graham abounded. And even those who were accounted worldlings, like Burns and Byron, are seldom unconscious of the new philanthropy, while at times, as the one in his Cottar's Saturday Night, and the other in his Hebrew Melodies, they catch some of the new glow of religion.

7. The era is, in short, the renaissance of feeling in English literature. Its whole thought is transfigured by passion. Philosophy both in poetry and prose deals in a reverent way with the mysteries of existence and man's relations to them. Wordsworth in his Ode on the Intimations of Immortality and Shelley in his Prometheus Unbound, Tennyson in his In Memoriam and Browning in his Paracelsus reveal how nobly secular thought could now deal with the loftiest religious problems; in these there is no

: attempt to conciliate orthodoxy, and yet the most worshipful might draw from them new strength; they amalgamate poetry and philosophy and raise the treatment of the fundamental questions of life to that elevated phase which they reach in the greatest poets, like Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. It is the revolutionary, passion-transfigured age rather than the individual that has accomplished this.

Section 7. I.

1. And in the light of the new enthusiasm all knowledge had to be reorganised. It is, like all great eras, marked by encyclopedism. Stirred to activity by the rapid expansion of the audience and the eagerness of the newly-leisured class for light upon the world around them and within them, scientists and scholars set themselves to focus all that was known. On the Continent, as in England, the passion for universal knowledge had to be satisfied. In France the phenomenon appeared as a phase of revolutionism ; Diderot's Encyclopédie, like Bayle's Dictionary before it, attempted to mould opinion as well as communicate information; and by its sceptical tendencies helped to overturn the old world

LIBRARY

OF THE
UNIVERSITY

OF

[ocr errors]

of thought and social and political custom. In Britain many great cyclopaedias were published during the era ; but none of them attempted to do more than concentrate and systematise all knowledge or some great department of it. They did not speculate but report; they did not preach creeds but only communicated information in a classified form. And yet the phenomenon was closely connected with the revolutionism of the era, as well as with the expansion of the audience. It was felt that all knowledge had to be summed up again in the light of the new enthusiasm ; the whole universe had completely changed, because man's spirit had changed its attitude to it. They were, therefore, unconsciously saturated with the changing thoughts, and the thoughts that were about to introduce still greater change. The inconsistencies of items and departments of knowledge, the clash of what were universally accepted as facts, came into strong light even for the ordinary reader in these summaries of all that was known. They therefore excited thinkers, especially in science, to find conciliating theories or principles; they roused speculation and supplied stimuli and materials for a new type of scepticism. And as the era proceeded their use spread more widely and found its way even among the new industrial classes. The first half of our century saw the beginning of that great movement towards the cheapening of literature and manuals of knowledge which has brought the best books and the newest advances of thought within the reach of the poorest.

2. The development of journalism and magazinism was a part of the same phenomenon. The desire for fuller and more accurate knowledge of events and facts, and interest in the newest speculations and researches spread from the small circle of cultivated men in London to which it had before been confined till they reached all but the uneducated. A method of intimating to the reading public the progress of the world at briefer and more regular intervals than the publication of books became a new necessity. A periodical literature was an essential result of the expansion of the audience, of the rapidly spreading interest in mankind as a whole and in nature, and of the new passion for conquest in the realms of speculation and knowledge. There had

a

been a few straggling attempts at it since the revolution of 1688 and the liberation of the press; but it now began to be one of the important features of civilisation. A few of the greatest daily and weekly journals were started in the last quarter of last century, and the most prominent had been established by the middle of our century. And the essayperiodical of the Queen Anne period, generally the rostrum of some one didactic writer and lasting at most two or three years, now became the organised magazine having an editor and a varying staff of writers and running through long periods. Whilst the rapid increase in the publication of books demanded a new type of periodical, the review. Even the most cultivated and omnivorous of readers had not time to test all the new productions of the press, and some professional and regular guide was needed to give an account and criticism of the ablest and most useful of them. The Edinburgh Review and The Quarterly Review were started early in our century to supply the want. These were published only four times a year; but as the century went on, monthly and even weekly reviews became necessary.

3. The same activity and expansion showed themselves in the study and criticism of the literature of former ages. A deeper and more intelligent appreciation of Greek and Latin classics came into vogue. The new effort and capacity to enter into the civilisation and spirit of other ages extended to their books. And scholarship ceased to be a thing of “shreds and patches”, a mere revision of the languages according to new standards of criticism. The scholar or translator was now generally a man of imagination and poetical sympathies; he tried to get behind the mere form of the book he manipulated and set himself at the point of view of the author. Translations began to give much of the essence of the original. And hence it was that Keats, without knowing Greek, was able to take the Greek standpoint in his work and produce poems that are acknowledged to be Hellenic in their spirit and beauty, though modern and sensuous in their art.

4. But there was also a vast expansion of scholarship. The literatures of other countries than ancient Greece and Rome were discovered to be worthy of careful study. France had already supplied frequent sources of inspiration in former ages of English literature, and so had Spain and modern Italy. But Germany was a new discovery; and Sweden, Holland, and Russia began to attract translators and students to their contemporary, if not to their folk, literature. The East, too, for the first time came upon the scene; the rapid extension of European and especially English conquests in Asia drew the attention of scholars, like Sir William Jones, to the antiquity of its literatures. Persia and India became new sources of inspiration for the imaginative writer. Moore and Southey are only prominent instances of poets that sought in them themes and material for their poetic work. And Beckford's Vathek was only the beginning of a long series of fiction that laid its scene in the East.

[ocr errors]

Section 8. 1. The greatest discovery of English scholarship was the

I. literary past of its own country. A few spasmodic attempts at Shakespeare criticism and revision heralded an era that might almost be called the Shakespeare era, so dominated was its scholarship by study of the great dramatist.

A new method of looking at him and his contemporaries was established by Lamb and Coleridge, a method based upon imaginative sympathy and poetic insight; they were not thought of now as mere playwrights and dealt with merely by stage managers and adapters; they were looked on as poets whose works could afford new fountains of wisdom and inspiration ; they were sought by thinkers and philosophers and artists who could find in them the most living illustrations of their own department of thought or art. It was really due to the reappearance of the people as the best part of the audience of literature that this revival of Elizabethanism became so influential amongst writers; the popular or rather national instinct had ceased to be a factor in moulding the fashionable and recognised literature of England since the age of Elizabeth ; and its resurgence gradually made the new era one of nationalism and a national literature. The narrow pales that the Queen Anne period had set up were broken down and the old fertility of

[ocr errors]

thought and fancy and exuberance of language and metaphor reappeared ; but the demand for literary finish established by the age of Pope and Addison excluded the Elizabethan eccentricity of style and form. Spenser was, as often before, a source of inspiration for poets ; but none would now imitate him in the elaboration of allegory or the intricacy of rhythms or the artificial use of archaisms. The true influence of his spirit and imagination begins ; Cowley and Dryden and Pope speak of him as their early master in verse ; but their poetry shows scarcely a trace of_him. Keats was the first genuine poet-student of his Faery Queen; Thomson and Shenstone were too near to the Queen Anne period to follow anything but its form in the Castle of Indolence and the Schoolmistress. But it was the drama of the Elizabethan age that chiefly moulded the poetic spirit of the new era ; for the drama was the only section of its poetry that was truly national; the rest of its literature was more dependent on court patronage and the appreciation of cultivated and scholarly circles. The plays, though also addressed to the courtiers, were meant primarily for the people, and it was the popular spirit that moulded their thought and feeling ; it was the nation that gave them its own life. This is the reason that, when the people came again into English literature in our era, writers found most inspiration in the drama of the Elizabethan period.

2. The conclusion is confirmed by other features of the scholarship of the time. One of the most fertile of all the reproductions of the latter half of the eighteenth century was the Reliques of Ancient Poetry published in 1765. This was an attempt to present in popular form the ballads and songs that were the remains of the former unwritten literature of the people. Age after age had added to them, improved them or mutilated them ; and Bishop Percy tried to piece the fragments together. No event is so good a sign of the coming amalgamation of the scholarly audience and the popular as the publication of this book. A people that could make and appreciate such beautiful narrative and lyrical poetry, if it became educated enough to listen to higher and more prolonged strains, was certain to transform English literature. Although the book was not a great

« AnteriorContinuar »