Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

business and published a number of books on the natural history of various districts. By the last quarter of the century the interest in the results of the natural sciences was so widely diffused that it affected the imagination of the poets. Blake in poems like that on the tiger, and Burns in those like his Address to the Mouse and Address to the Daisy, have not reached the Wordsworthian insight that almost combines the philosophy and worship of nature; but they are stirred to the depths of their hearts by beauty of form and pathos of life in the common things around them an absolutely new phenomenon in literature. Even Sterne had to start his factory of public tears and weep for his readers over a dead donkey. The deeper and more philosophical study of plant and animal life that has resulted in biology and embryology was too young by the close of the century to influence poetry; yet the speculations that connect themselves with the name of Lamarck had stirred thinkers like Monboddo to discuss the origin of man in prose, and imaginative men like Erasmus Darwin to attempt theories of nature in the form of didactic poems.

3. The sciences that were thought of as more practical by the average reader impressed him most during this period, and gave imagery, suggestion, and inspiration to the literature. The discoveries of geology and medicine, of physics and chemistry seemed to open up new worlds for the energy of man. New coal-fields and new mines and beds of valuable metals or stones or clay were more impressive for the common reader than Hutton's or Playfair's or Werner's or Laplace's speculations on the genesis and history of rocks and worlds, though these latter came also to affect the poetic imagination of the close of the century. The utility of Jenner's vaccination (1796) made itself immediately apparent to the average reader; but it was long before the work of Gregory or the Hunters or Bichat could fine its way into the literature that appealed to him. He could appreciate with the imagination the revolution that the steam engine of Watt, the spinning-jenny of Arkwright, the balloon of Montgolfier might work in his Occupancy of the earth, and these supplied almost immediate literary illustration and figure; but the investigations of

Coulomb or Boscovich or the Bernouillis or Leslie took a generation before they could be made literary medium. Chemistry and engineering impressed him most immediately; for the new colours and the new canals and bridges appealed to his most practised sense, sight; but the more speculative labours of Black and Smeaton, Carnot and Lavoisier were "caviare to the general" till they were put into popular or practical shape. The first type of new knowledge to become literary material is the pseudo-scientific; the would-be sciences of Lavater and Mesmer, phrenology and animal magnetism touched the imagination of the reading public and crept into literature atmost at once.

4. The latter half of the period had indeed all the characteristics of a great scientific time; long-stretching vistas were opened up into the future of man by the new discoveries and triumphs of scientific thought, and a strongly optimistic tone appeared in literature again; Blake and Burns, Priestley and Godwin were but the salient instances of a wide-spread movement in England towards idealising the possibilities of human nature; whilst in France revolution, as generally, based itself upon an exaggerated optimism as to what could be done if only men threw off the burdens of the present. And it is what science is doing that stirs the imagination to such idealising flights. And at the same time it gives a materialistic tinge to more advancing thought; scientific thinkers dealing as they do with matter and its properties and seeing how much these explain in the constitution and history of man and in existence generally, come to have fixed in their minds the feeling that they can explain all and that all attempts at knowledge outside of the methods of science are futile.

5. The philosophy of the period, therefore, settles itself into the acceptance of this as the fundamental attitude of all speculation and research or into the struggle against it;. Hume at the very beginning of the movement struck on its final issue and showed that it must land in universal scepticism; yet it continued to stir writers like Hartley and Priestley and Erasmus Darwin to find new materialistic theories of man and the universe. On its practical side

philosophy felt the advance of science in a growing utilitarianism; so full of utilities had scientific thought shown itself, that the general principle of utility was applied to explain the various ethical and social phenomena of human existence; and before the close of the century Bentham had taken up Hutcheson's phrase "The greatest happiness of the greatest number" and illuminated the spheres of government, legislation, and the ethics of criminality by the application of it. Paley had to introduce the new principle supplied by science even into theology; we can see how deeply practical and especially mechanical science had impressed the age when we reflect that his famous simile by which he explained the relation of God to the universe was taken from it. On the other side we have the Scotch school-Reid and Dugald Stewart-leading the struggle in philosophy against the principle that scientific advance had applied; though even in the Scotch chairs of philosophy we find men like Adam Smith moulding their speculations. under the influence of the new utilitarian movement; his Moral Sentiments shows tendencies to analyse morality back into utilities; whilst his Wealth of Nations was a direct outcome of the practical applications of science; it is an attempt to discover laws in the material progress of nations.

6. Science had other influences on the literature of thought; it made thinkers eager to discover and face the facts of existence; and the result is a greater tendency in philosophy and other spheres to classify and analyse; the writers on metaphysics, ethics, and rhetoric attempt to get at law or rule from the side of reality, by observing and investigating instances minutely. And the same habit appears in the imaginative work. Poetry now prefers description of the world without to abstract treatment of its theme; Falconer and Crabbe, Rogers and Campbell reveal the matter-of-fact vein in some of the poets of the time. Better still, it learns to abandon the metaphysical though personified entities of the earlier half of the century and to approach nature face to face; there is almost scientific accuracy in the observation of natural phenomena shown in many of the poetic descriptions of them in the poems of Blake, Cowper, and Burns. Man himself is more accurately

observed and described by the new poets, in spite of their great superiority to the Queen Anne poets in enthusiasm and the expression of feeling. Even the diction gained from the progress of science; the need of careful definition of terms, in order to make sure any advance in scientific thought, influenced the popular critics towards the more exact use of words; there was even a movement in prose towards an almost monotonous periodic style; in Johnson and many of the writers that followed him, the phrases and sentences fall into serried ranks; we have only to compare the Letters of Junius, the product of anonymous journalism, with the papers of the Spectator, or the chapters of Gibbon's Decline with the pages of Clarendon's History of the Rebellion to see the enormous advance made in the regularity of prose style and correctness of prose diction. And this is partly due to the defining and classifying method introduced by science.

7. But the full effect of the advance in scientific thought and discovery and invention is not to be found in the latter half of last century; it rather belongs to the literature of our

own.

art.

I.

Section 5.

It is the same with the influence of the progress in Evidences of it are to be found in the prose and poetry of the earlier period; but they are scattered and unconnected; it came in like a flood during the later. In previous ages the only arts that had become English and given any impulse or mould to English literature were music and acting. Without them the Elizabethan poetry could never have taken the forms that distinguish it.

2. Without the development and love of the stage during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries we should never have had so great a dramatic age. It had become the national art spread by the church and the guilds widely throughout the provincial districts. The people had taken it up as the occupation of their leisure and all the popular talent entered into its cultivation with almost religious enthusiasm. For generations the writing and acting of

plays had stirred the best ambition of the artisans and rustics, and as soon as the art became secularised in the reign of Elizabeth, it monopolised the literary power that the new birth of learning and the new age of adventure had generated. Such a dramatic outburst could never occur again. For puritanism and the sectarian virulence of the civil war detached the tastes of the people from the art; it became a court parasite and ultimately a parasite of fashionable London society; and a dozen other literary forms developed rapidly and absorbed the imagination. The eighteenth century with its spread of fashionable circles to the baths and spas in the provinces began to give promise of the revival of the drama as more than a mere London amusement. And the latter half of the century again saw genius devote itself to the histrionic art. Garrick and Kemble and Mrs. Siddons would by their tragic power upon the stage have drawn the national imagination to the theatre again if any actors could have done so. But poetry and the novel, with their audiences that made those of the drama seem insignificant, were now absorbing most of it as far as it was concerned with the nobler passions; the serious section of the cultivated public, which would have appreciated and stimulated great thought and tragic power in the drama, avoided the theatre as immoral or at least frivolous; tragedy was, therefore, dead in England as a national art; these great actors had to be content with reviving Shakespeare's plays. It was comedy alone that could affect literature now. For it had had an unbroken, though somewhat fitful, life since the days of Elizabeth, and in our period it was rising again out of the impurity into which the Restoration had plunged it. Actors like Foote arose who devoted their whole talents to it. And literary men like Sheridan attached themselves to the stage and learned the subsidiary arts that could make the literary element of a comedy successful. Hence the permanent attraction of The School for Scandal and The Critic. And even talent, like Goldsmith's, that had no special training in the histrionic art, turned to comedy and made it a permanency in literature, as in his She Stoops to Conquer. But by far the most important influence of the drama on the literature of the period was the new mould it gave to the

« AnteriorContinuar »