Imágenes de páginas

success at first, the very fact of its publication by a scholar like Percy and the fact that Shenstone meant to share in the work of editing, whilst the poets and scholars of the day gave encouragement to the undertaking, show better than any other literary event the renaissance of the old poetic instincts of the people and the coming passion for romance and sentiment in literature. It is true that the literature of the new religious movements-the sermons and hymns and pietistic books of methodism and evangelicalism-does not for many years reveal any very high standard of style, or any demand for imaginative work. Even literary art was shunned as sinful by the new religious instincts of last century. Not till Cowper was there any sign of the approach of faith and art in writing. But there was a secular side to the new confidence of the people in their own desires and instincts. They were not all or always listening to sermons or singing hymns or reading books of devotion. We know from the story of Burns's life how even in pious households, like that of his father, the old songs were sung over the cradle and by the winter hearth, and the old ballads were treasured in the memories of even religious women like his mother. It was this survival of the old popular poetry, taking strength from the new passion, that accounts to some extent for the appearance of such a poet. And around him we can see from his epistles and addresses, there abounded throughout his native district minor secular poets and strong secular poetic instincts for the appreciation of even his most scathing attacks on religious hypocrisy. And this state of poetic sentiment and power could not have been confined to Ayrshire; the whole of the kingdom must have felt the renaissance of the people, and their more natural tastes in imaginative work.

3. The publication of Ossian and the antique form adopted by Chatterton in his attempts to gain a hearing point in the same direction. There must have been a larger audience than mere antiquarians for the old narrative poetry of the people. Indeed antiquarianism was but another symptom of the revival of the popular past, of the resurgence of the nation in the broader sense of the termWhat had been buried in oblivion by the polished

sectarianism of the seventeenth century with its Stuart jealousy of popular rights and its civil wars, and by the urban narrowness of imagination and literary interests in the Queen Anne period now found resurrection, at first indiscriminately, and afterwards with growing power to distinguish good from bad. The nation was about to take the place of a mere section of it, whether court or aristocracy. And everything that seemed to come from the national past on the other side of the Stuart misdirection of national energy attracted attention. Celtic or Saxon it was all the same; it chimed in with the growing desire and consciousness of a national life. Nay, a fictitious past had to be manufactured to meet the new demand. Historical romance sprang into being, and lived a quick, almost unnaturally exuberant, existence during the greater part of the era. Not satisfied with this the earlier half of it had to read its new sentiments into other ages. It was this that made so popular the strange amalgam of eighteenth century feelings and the fragmentary legends of an almost forgotten Celtic past, worked up by Macpherson into his Fingal, an epic poem published in 1762, and Temora published in 1763. The two, professing to be the production of an ancient Celtic bard Ossian, in spite of the critical controversy that raged over them and tended to prove them forgeries, fascinated the spirit of the time. They gratified the passion for the heroic or national past of great races, perhaps the most striking sign of the new birth of the nation; whilst they fed the love of romance and the sentiment that were to hold sway in imaginative literature for half a century or more. The admiration for this modernised prose epic and its medley of eighteenth century Homerism, rhetoric, and sentiment with the floating imagery and ideals from a great Celtic past spread to the Continent and deeply impressed Goethe and Napoleon, and along with them, German, Russian, and French literature.

4. Throughout the whole era this interest in the past grew rapidly. Individual antiquarians were unable to supply its demands, although more men of ability devoted their time to gratifying it than in all the other eras of English literature put together; men like the Wartons,

Tyrwhitt, Pinkerton, Ritson, Ellis, Collier, Halliwell, Maidment, and Walter Scott set themselves to rescuing from oblivion every relic they could find of the national past. Many private gentlemen set up presses that occupied themselves chiefly with reproducing old books and pamphlets and fragments of popular literature; the Strawberry Hill press of Horace Walpole, the Lee Priory press of Sir Egerton Brydges, the Middle Hill press of Sir T. Phillips, the Auchinleck press of Sir J. Boswell, the Darlington press of G. Allan issued between four and five hundred reprints. Yet societies were needed as well to cope with the new demand for the preservation or revival of the past. The Record Commission and the Master of the Rolls began their long task of printing or publishing accounts of important historical documents. And some twenty or thirty literary corporations, like the Maitland Club, the Bannatyne Club, the Surtees Society, the Hakluyt Society, the Aelfric Society, the Caxton Society, the Early English Text Society and the Shakespeare Society were established during the first half of our century and published hundreds of old works and documents from forgotten corners of libraries. Antiquarian and dryasdust though these labours may now seem, they were no merely factitious amusement of learned leisure, but the outcome of the renewed national life and an essential basis of the new literature. Without them the fiction of the era, and especially Sir Walter Scott's use of it, would have been maimed; poetry would have lacked many of its new themes and inspirations; and nineteenth century history, with its fuller and more accurate use of contemporary material from the age it studies, could scarcely have existed.

5. English scholarship on the one hand and the English language and national life on the other had been brought together for the first time. For although the drama had appealed to the whole nation in the reign of Elizabeth, the more cultured sections of literature and the scholarship never appealed to it or worked for it, unless we include sermons and hymns in these. In all previous periods classical studies had absorbed the best energies of English scholars. Now, though these were by no means neglected,

it was the native literature that roused the greatest enthusiasm in scholarly minds; and it was the native literature that supplied the best materials and models and sources of inspiration for imaginative work.

6. For English literature now outgrew the narrowing pales that patronage and courtly circles had set up. It emancipated itself from the yoke of city or court fashion for the first time. There was now such a large reading public that at least the great authors had sufficient emolument from the unassisted sale of their books. An audience personally unknown to them stimulated their imagination without cramping it. Even when criticism came to be organised and professional, and stood at the entrance to the new auditorium of literature, demanding attention to certain conventional rules and forms, new authors of striking originality have been able to overleap the barriers and find a public for themselves. The latter half of the era has especially been productive of new types of poetry and fiction and of new literary channels of ideas. It was not the new elements of the audience that caused the appearance of so much exceptional literary talent; but they permitted it freer scope for originality. Goldsmith, Cowper, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, Browning, Gibbon, Burke, Godwin, Bentham, Scott, De Quincey, Landor, Thackeray, Hallam, Macaulay, without the nation to address, would have been narrowed in their ideals, thought, and form, and many of them would probably have sought other spheres than literature for their activity and character. The new and more national audience first attracted them to writing, then moulded their genius and gave it stimulus and purpose and lastly enabled them to ignore whatever hostile criticisms culture, scholarship, and professional journalism might pass upon their earlier efforts. There is nothing in the whole history of literature to compare to the effect of the expansion of the audience during this era.

7. But there are two distinct divisions of the movement. One, extending from about the middle to near the end of last century, is more preparatory in its characteristics; the other, covering the first half of our century, fulfils it and

completes it. We feel that there is some common quality in the poetry of Wordsworth, Byron, and Tennyson, that is not to be found in Goldsmith and Crabbe, or even Cowper and Burns, a sense of the mystery of life and passion and thought. So the imaginative work of Scott and Lytton and Thackeray has in it a consciousness of the great problems that lie before the human mind, when Richardson and Fielding, Smollet and Horace Walpole lack it completely. It is undoubtedly the French Revolution that parts the era in two. The English mind, though restless with suppressed passion for revolt long before 1792, had not experienced how much revolution might mean till the last years of last century. It had not felt how tragic contemporary history might be. The great French cataclysm revealed the dark depths of the problems of human nature, political and social, and the dread possibilities of national movements. English literature of the era of expansion, therefore, naturally divides into that before the close of last century and that after the tragic revelation of human possibilities given by the reign of Terror and the events that followed.

« AnteriorContinuar »