CHAPTER V. THE AGE OF GOOD SENSE
The student of literature, when he passes in his reading from the age of Shakespeare and Milton to that of Dryden and Pope, will be conscious of certain sharply defined differences between the temper and styles of the writers of the two periods. If besides being a student of literature he is also (for this is a different thing) a student of literary criticism he will find that these differences have led to the affixing of certain labels—that the school to which writers of the former period belong is called “Romantic” and that of the latter “Classic,” this “Classic” school being again overthrown towards the end of the eighteenth century by a set of writers who unlike the Elizabethans gave the name “Romantic” to themselves. What is he to understand by these two labels; what are the characteristics of “Classicism” and how far is it opposite to and conflicting with “Romanticism”? The question is difficult because the names are used vaguely and they do not adequately cover everything that is commonly put under them. It would be difficult, for instance, to find anything in Ben Jonson which proclaims him as belonging to a different school from Dryden, and perhaps the same could be said in the second and self-styled period of Romanticism of the work of Crabbe. But in the main the differences are real and easily visible, even though they hardly convince us that the names chosen are the happiest that could be found by way of description.
This period of Dryden and Pope on which we are now entering sometimes styled itself the Augustan Age of English poetry. It grounded its claim to classicism on a fancied resemblance to the Roman poets of the golden age of Latin poetry, the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Its authors saw themselves each as a second Vergil, a second Ovid, most of all a second Horace, and they believed that their relation to the big world, their assured position in society, heightened the resemblances. They endeavoured to form their poetry on the lines laid down in the critical writing of the original Augustan age as elaborated and interpreted in Renaissance criticism. It was tacitly assumed—some of them openly asserted it—that the kinds, modes of treatment and all the minor details of literature, figures of speech, use of epithets and the rest, had been settled by the ancients once and for all. What the Greeks began the critics and authors of the time of Augustus had settled in its completed form, and the scholars of the Renaissance had only interpreted their findings for modern use. There was the tragedy, which had certain proper parts and a certain fixed order of treatment laid down for it; there was the heroic poem, which had a story or “fable,” which must be treated in a certain fixed manner, and so on. The authors of the “Classic” period so christened themselves because they observed these rules. And they fancied that they had the temper of the Augustan time—the temper displayed in the works of Horace more than in those of any one else—its urbanity, its love of good sense and moderation, its instinctive distrust of emotion, and its invincible good breeding. If you had asked them to state as simply and broadly as possible their purpose they would have said it was to follow nature, and if you had enquired what they meant by nature it would turn out that they thought of it mainly as the opposite of art and the negation of what was fantastic, tortured, or far sought in thinking or writing. The later “Romantic” Revival, when it called itself a return to nature, was only claiming the intention which the classical school itself had proclaimed as its main endeavour. The explanation of that paradox we shall see presently; in the meantime it is worth looking at some of the characteristics of classicism as they appear in the work of the “Classic” authors.
In the first place the “Classic” writers aimed at simplicity of style, at a normal standard of writing. They were intolerant of individual eccentricities; they endeavoured, and with success, to infuse into English letters something of the academic spirit that was already controlling their fellow-craftsmen in France. For this end amongst others they and the men of science founded the Royal Society, an academic committee which has been restricted since to the physical and natural sciences and been supplemented by similar bodies representing literature and learning only in our own day. Clearness, plainness, conversational ease and directness were the aims the society set before its members where their writing was concerned. “The Royal Society,” wrote the Bishop of Rochester, its first historian, “have exacted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions, clear sense, a native easiness, bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can; and preferring the language of artisans, countrymen, and merchants before that of wits and scholars.” Artisans, countrymen, and merchants—the ideal had been already accepted in France, Malesherbes striving to use no word that was not in the vocabulary of the day labourers of Paris, Moliere making his washerwoman first critic of his comedies. It meant for England the disuse of the turgidities and involutions which had marked the prose of the preachers and moralists of the times of James and Charles I.; scholars and men of letters were arising who would have taken John Bunyan, the unlettered tinker of Bedford, for their model rather than the learned physician Sir Thomas Browne.
But genius like Bunyan's apart, there is nothing in the world more difficult than to write with the easy and forthright simplicity of talk, as any one may see who tries for himself—or even compares the letter-writing with the conversation of his friends. So that this desire of simplicity, of clarity, of lucidity led at once to a more deliberate art. Dryden and Swift and Addison were assiduous in their labour with the file; they excel all their predecessors in polish as much as the writers of the first Augustan age excelled theirs in the same quality. Not that it was all the result of deliberate art; in a way it was in the air, and quite unlearned people—journalists and pamphleteers and the like who wrote unconsciously and hurriedly to buy their supper—partook of it as well as leisured people and conscious artists. Defoe is as plain and easy and polished as Swift, yet it is certain his amazing activity and productiveness never permitted him to look back over a sentence he had written. Something had happened, that is, to the English language. The assimilation of latinisms and the revival of obsolete terms of speech had ceased; it had become finally a more or less fixed form, shedding so much of its imports as it had failed to make part of itself and acquiring a grammatical and syntactical fixity which it had not possessed in Elizabethan times. When Shakespeare wrote
“What cares these roarers for the name of king,”
he was using, as students of his language never tire of pointing out to us, a perfectly correct local grammatical form. Fifty years after that line was written, at the Restoration, local forms had dropped out of written English. We had acquired a normal standard of language, and either genius or labour was polishing it for literary uses.
What they did for prose these “Classic” writers did even more exactly—and less happily—for verse. Fashions often become exaggerated before their disappearance, and the decadence of Elizabethan romanticism had produced poetry the wildness and extravagance of whose images was well-nigh unbounded. The passion for intricate and far-sought metaphor which had possessed Donne was accompanied in his work and even more in that of his followers with a passion for what was elusive and recondite in thought and emotion and with an increasing habit of rudeness and wilful difficultness in language and versification. Against these ultimate licences of a great artistic period, the classical writers invoked the qualities of smoothness and lucidity, in the same way, so they fancied, as Vergil might have invoked them against Lucretius. In the treatment of thought and feeling they wanted clearness, they wanted ideas which the mass of men would readily apprehend and assent to, and they wanted not hints or half-spoken suggestions but complete statement. In the place of the logical subtleties which Donne and his school had sought in the scholastic writers of the Middle Ages, they brought back the typically Renaissance study of rhetoric; the characteristic of all the poetry of the period is that it has a rhetorical quality. It is never intimate and never profound, but it has point and wit, and it appeals with confidence to the balanced judgment which men who distrust emotion and have no patience with subtleties intellectual, emotional, or merely verbal, have in common. Alongside of this lucidity, this air of complete statement in substance they strove for and achieved smoothness in form. To the poet Waller, the immediate predecessor of Dryden, the classical writers themselves ascribed the honour of the innovation. In fact Waller was only carrying out the ideals counselled and followed by Ben Jonson. It was in the school of Waller and Dryden and not in that of the minor writers who called themselves his followers that he came to his own.
What then are the main differences between classicism of the best period—the classicism whose characteristics we have been describing—and the Romanticism which came before and after? In the first place we must put the quality we have described as that of complete statement. Classical poetry is, so to speak, “all there.” Its meaning is all of it on the surface; it conveys nothing but what it says, and what it says, it says completely. It is always vigorous and direct, often pointed and aphoristic, never merely suggestive, never given to half statement, and never obscure. You feel that as an instrument of expression it is sharp and polished and shining; it is always bright and defined in detail. The Great Romantics go to work in other ways. Their poetry is a thing of half lights and half spoken suggestions, of hints that imagination will piece together, of words that are charged with an added meaning of sound over sense, a thing that stirs the vague and impalpable restlessness of memory or terror or desire that lies down beneath in the minds of men. It rouses what a philosopher has called the “Transcendental feeling,” the solemn sense of the immediate presence of “that which was and is and ever shall be,” to induce which is the property of the highest poetry. You will find nothing in classical poetry so poignant or highly wrought as Webster's
“Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young,”
and the answer,
“I think not so: her infelicity
Seemed to have years too many,”
or so subtle in its suggestion, sense echoing back to primeval terrors and despairs, as this from Macbeth:
“Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augurs and understood relations have
By magot-pies, and choughs, and rooks brought forth
The secret'st man of blood.”
or so intoxicating to the imagination and the senses as an ode of Keats or a sonnet by Rossetti. But you will find eloquent and pointed statements of thoughts and feelings that are common to most of us—the expression of ordinary human nature—
“What oft was thought but ne'er so well exprest,”
“Wit and fine writing” consisting, as Addison put it in a review of Pope's first published poem, not so much “in advancing things that are new, as in giving things that are known an agreeable turn.”
Though in this largest sense the “classic” writers eschewed the vagueness of romanticism, in another and more restricted way they cultivated it. They were not realists as all good romanticists have to be. They had no love for oddities or idiosyncrasies or exceptions. They loved uniformity, they had no use for truth in detail. They liked the broad generalised, descriptive style of Milton, for instance, better than the closely packed style of Shakespeare, which gets its effects from a series of minute observations huddled one after the other and giving the reader, so to speak, the materials for his own impression, rather than rendering, as does Milton, the expression itself.
Every literary discovery hardens ultimately into a convention; it has its day and then its work is done, and it has to be destroyed so that the ascending spirit of humanity can find a better means of self-expression. Out of the writing which aimed at simplicity and truth to nature grew “Poetic Diction,” a special treasury of words and phrases deemed suitable for poetry, providing poets with a common stock of imagery, removing from them the necessity of seeing life and nature each one for himself. The poetry which Dryden and Pope wrought out of their mental vigour, their followers wrote to pattern. Poetry became reduced, as it never was before and has never been since, to a formula. The Elizabethan sonneteers, as we saw, used a vocabulary and phraseology in common with their fellows in Italy and France, and none the less produced fine poetry. But they used it to express things they really felt. The truth is it is not the fact of a poetic diction which matters so much as its quality—whether it squares with sincerity, whether it is capable of expressing powerfully and directly one's deepest feelings. The history of literature can show poetic dictions—special vocabularies and forms for poetry—that have these qualities; the diction, for instance, of the Greek choruses, or of the Scottish poets who followed Chaucer, or of the troubadours. That of the classic writers of an Augustan age was not of such a kind. Words clothe thought; poetic diction had the artifice of the crinoline; it would stand by itself. The Romantics in their return to nature had necessarily to abolish it.
But when all is said in criticism the poetry of the earlier half of the eighteenth century excels all other English poetry in two respects. Two qualities belong to it by virtue of the metre in which it is most of it written—rapidity and antithesis. Its antithesis made it an incomparable vehicle for satire, its rapidity for narrative. Outside its limits we have hardly any even passable satirical verse; within them there are half-a-dozen works of the highest excellence in this kind. And if we except Chaucer, there is no one else in the whole range of English poetry who have the narrative gift so completely as the classic poets. Bentleys will always exist who will assure us with civility that Pope's Homer, though “very pretty,” bears little relation to the Greek, and that Dryden's Vergil, though vigorous and virile, is a poor representation of its original. The truth remains that for a reader who knows no ancient languages either of those translations will probably give a better idea of their originals than any other rendering in English that we possess. The foundation of their method has been vindicated in the best modern translations from the Greek.
The term “eighteenth century” in the vocabulary of the literary historian is commonly as vaguely used as the term Elizabethan. It borrows as much as forty years from the seventeenth and gives away ten to the nineteenth. The whole of the work of Dryden, whom we must count as the first of the “classic” school, was accomplished before chronologically it had begun. As a man and as an author he was very intimately related to his changing times; he adapted himself to them with a versatility as remarkable as that of the Vicar of Bray, and, it may be added, as simple-minded. He mourned in verse the death of Cromwell and the death of his successor, successively defended the theological positions of the Church of England and the Church of Rome, changed his religion and became Poet Laureate to James II., and acquiesced with perfect equanimity in the Revolution which brought in his successor. This instability of conviction, though it gave a handle to his opponents in controversy, does not appear to have caused any serious scandal or disgust among his contemporaries, and it has certainly had little effect on the judgment of later times. It has raised none of the reproaches which have been cast at the suspected apostasy of Wordsworth. Dryden had little interest in political or religious questions; his instinct, one must conceive, was to conform to the prevailing mode and to trouble himself no further about the matter. Defoe told the truth about him when he wrote that “Dryden might have been told his fate that, having his extraordinary genius slung and pitched upon a swivel, it would certainly turn round as fast as the times, and instruct him how to write elegies to Oliver Cromwell and King Charles the Second with all the coherence imaginable; how to write Religio Laici and the Hind and the Panther and yet be the same man, every day to change his principle, change his religion, change his coat, change his master, and yet never change his nature.” He never changed his nature, he was as free from cynicism as a barrister who represents successively opposing parties in suits or politics; and when he wrote polemics in prose or verse he lent his talents as a barrister lends his for a fee. His one intellectual interest was in his art, and it is in his comments on his art—the essays and prefaces in the composition of which he amused the leisure left in the busy life of a dramatist and a poet of officialdom—that his most charming and delicate work is to be found. In a way they begin modern English prose; earlier writing furnishes no equal to their colloquial ease and the grace of their expression. And they contain some of the most acute criticism in our language—“classical” in its tone (i.e., with a preference for conformity) but with its respect for order and tradition always tempered by good sense and wit, and informed and guided throughout by a taste whose catholicity and sureness was unmatched in the England of his time. The preface to his Fables contains some excellent notes on Chaucer. They may be read as a sample of the breadth and perspicuity of his critical perceptions.
His chief poetical works were most of them occasional—designed either to celebrate some remarkable event or to take a side and interpret a policy in the conflict, political or religious, of the time. Absalom and Achitophel and The Medal were levelled at the Shaftesbury-Monmouth intrigues in the closing years of Charles II. Religio Laici celebrated the excellence of the Church of England in its character of via media between the opposite extravagances of Papacy and Presbyterianism. The Hind and the Panther found this perfection spotted. The Church of England has become the Panther, whose coat is a varied pattern of heresy and truth beside the spotless purity of the Hind, the Church of Rome. Astrea Reddux welcomed the returning Charles; Annus Mirabilis commemorated a year of fire and victories, Besides these he wrote many dramas in verse, a number of translations, and some shorter poems, of which the odes are the most remarkable.
His qualities as a poet fitted very exactly the work he set himself to do. His work is always plain and easily understood; he had a fine faculty for narration, and the vigorous rapidity and point of his style enabled him to sketch a character or sum up a dialectical position very surely and effectively. His writing has a kind of spare and masculine force about it. It is this vigour and the impression which he gives of intellectual strength and of a logical grasp of his subject, that beyond question has kept alive work which, if ever poetry was, was ephemeral in its origin. The careers of the unscrupulous Caroline peers would have been closed for us were they not visible in the reflected light of his denunciation of them. Though Buckingham is forgotten and Shaftesbury's name swallowed up in that of his more philanthropic descendant, we can read of Achitophel and Zimri still, and feel something of the strength and heat which he caught from a fiercely fought conflict and transmitted with his own gravity and purposefulness into verse. The Thirty-nine Articles are not a proper subject for poetry, but the sustained and serious allegory which Dryden weaves round theological discussion preserves his treatment of them from the fate of the controversialists who opposed him. His work has wit and vitality enough to keep it sweet.
Strength and wit enter in different proportions into the work of his successor, Alexander Pope—a poet whom admirers in his own age held to be the greatest in our language. No one would think of making such a claim now, but the detraction which he suffered at the hands of Wordsworth and the Romantics, ought not to make us forget that Pope, though not our greatest, not even perhaps a great, poet is incomparably our most brilliant versifier. Dryden's strength turns in his work into something more fragile and delicate, polished with infinite care like lacquer, and wrought like filigree work to the last point of conscious and perfected art. He was not a great thinker; the thoughts which he embodies in his philosophical poems—the Essay on Man and the rest, are almost ludicrously out of proportion to the solemnity of the titles which introduce them, nor does he except very rarely get beyond the conceptions common to the average man when he attempts introspection or meditates on his own destiny. The reader in search of philosophy will find little to stimulate him and in the facile Deism of the time probably something to smile at. Pope has no message to us now. But he will find views current in his time or borrowed from other authors put with perfect felicity and wit, and he will recognize the justice of Addison's comment that Pope's wit and fine writing consist “not so much in advancing things that are new, as in giving things that are known an agreeable turn.” And he will not fall into the error of dubbing the author a minor poet because he is neither subtle nor imaginative nor profound. A great poet would not have written like Pope—one must grant it; but a minor poet could not.
It is characteristic of Pope's type of mind and kind of art that there is no development visible in his work. Other poets, Shakespeare, for instance, and Keats, have written work of the highest quality when they were young, but they have had crudenesses to shed—things to get rid of as their strength and perceptions grew. But Pope, like Minerva, was full grown and full armed from the beginning. If we did not know that his Essay on Criticism was his first poem it would be impossible to place it in the canon of his work; it might come in anywhere and so might everything else that he wrote. From the beginning his craftsmanship was perfect; from the beginning he took his subject-matter from others as he found it and worked it up into aphorism and epigram till each line shone like a cut jewel and the essential commonplaceness and poverty of his material was obscured by the glitter the craftsmanship lent to it. Subject apart, however, he was quite sure of his medium from the beginning; it was not long before he found the way to use it to most brilliant purpose. The Rape of the Lock and the satirical poems come later in his career.
As a satirist Pope, though he did not hit so hard as Dryden, struck more deftly and probed deeper. He wielded a rapier where the other used a broadsword, and though both used their weapons with the highest skill and the metaphor must not be imagined to impute clumsiness to Dryden, the rapier made the cleaner cut. Both employed a method in satire which their successors (a poor set) in England have not been intelligent enough to use. They allow every possible good point to the object of their attack. They appear to deal him an even and regretful justice. His good points, they put it in effect, being so many, how much blacker and more deplorable his meannesses and faults! They do not do this out of charity; there was very little of the milk of human kindness in Pope. Deformity in his case, as in so many in truth and fiction, seemed to bring envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness in its train. The method is employed simply because it gives the maximum satirical effect. That is why Pope's epistle to Arbuthnot, with its characterisation of Addison, is the most damning piece of invective in our language.
The Rape of the Lock is an exquisite piece of workmanship, breathing the very spirit of the time. You can fancy it like some clock made by one of the Louis XIV. craftsmen, encrusted with a heap of ormulu mock-heroics and impertinences and set perfectly to the time of day. From no other poem could you gather so fully and perfectly the temper of the society in which our “classic” poetry was brought to perfection, its elegant assiduity in trifles, its brilliant artifice, its paint and powder and patches and high-heeled shoes, its measured strutting walk in life as well as in verse. The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic poem; that is to say it applies the form and treatment which the “classic” critics of the seventeenth century had laid down as belonging to the “heroic” or “epic” style to a trifling circumstance—the loss by a young lady of fashion of a lock of hair. And it is the one instance in which this “recipe” for a heroic poem which the French critics handed on to Dryden, and Dryden left to his descendants, has been used well-enough to keep the work done with it in memory. In a way it condemns the poetical theory of the time; when forms are fixed, new writing is less likely to be creative and more likely to exhaust itself in the ingenious but trifling exercises of parody and burlesque. The Rape of the Lock is brilliant but it is only play.
The accepted theory which assumed that the forms of poetry had been settled in the past and existed to be applied, though it concerned itself mainly with the ancient writers, included also two moderns in its scope. You were orthodox if you wrote tragedy and epic as Horace told you and satire as he had shown you; you were also orthodox if you wrote in the styles of Spenser or Milton. Spenser, though his predecessors were counted barbaric and his followers tortured and obscure, never fell out of admiration; indeed in every age of English poetry after him the greatest poet in it is always to be found copying him or expressing their love for him—Milton declaring to Dryden that Spenser was his “original,” Pope reading and praising him, Keats writing his earliest work in close imitation. His characteristic style and stanza were recognised by the classic school as a distinct “kind" of poetry which might be used where the theme fitted instead of the heroic manner, and Spenserian imitations abound. Sometimes they are serious; sometimes, like Shenstone's Schoolmistress, they are mocking and another illustration of the dangerous ease with which a conscious and sustained effort to write in a fixed and acquired style runs to seed in burlesque. Milton's fame never passed through the period of obscurity that sometimes has been imagined for him. He had the discerning admiration of Dryden and others before his death. But to Addison belongs the credit of introducing him to the writers of this time; his papers in the Spectator on Paradise Lost, with their eulogy of its author's sublimity, spurred the interest of the poets among his readers. From Milton the eighteenth century got the chief and most ponderous part of its poetic diction, high-sounding periphrases and borrowings from Latin used without the gravity and sincerity and fullness of thought of the master who brought them in. When they wrote blank verse, the classic poets wrote it in the Milton manner.
The use of these two styles may be studied in the writings of one man, James Thomson. For besides acquiring a kind of anonymous immortality with patriots as the author of “Rule, Britannia,” Thomson wrote two poems respectively in the Spenserian and the Miltonic manner, the former The Castle of Indolence, the latter The Seasons. The Spenserian manner is caught very effectively, but the adoption of the style of Paradise Lost, with its allusiveness, circumlocution and weight, removes any freshness the Seasons might have had, had the circumstances in them been put down as they were observed. As it is, hardly anything is directly named; birds are always the “feathered tribe” and everything else has a similar polite generality for its title. Thomson was a simple-minded man, with a faculty for watching and enjoying nature which belonged to few in his sophisticated age; it is unfortunate he should have spent his working hours in rendering the fruit of country rambles freshly observed into a cold and stilted diction. It suited the eighteenth century reader well, for not understanding nature herself he was naturally obliged to read her in translations.
The chief merits of “classic” poetry—its clearness, its vigour, its direct statement—are such as belong theoretically rather to prose than to poetry. In fact, it was in prose that the most vigorous intellect of the time found itself. We have seen how Dryden, reversing the habit of other poets, succeeded in expressing his personality not in poetry which was his vocation, but in prose which was the amusement of his leisure hours. Spenser had put his politics into prose and his ideals into verse; Dryden wrote his politics—to order—in verse, and in prose set down the thoughts and fancies which were the deepest part of him because they were about his art. The metaphor of parentage, though honoured by use, fits badly on to literary history; none the less the tradition which describes him as the father of modern English prose is very near the truth. He puts into practice for the first time the ideals, described in the first chapter of this book, which were set up by the scholars who let into English the light of the Renaissance. With the exception of the dialogue on Dramatic Poesy, his work is almost all of it occasional, the fruit of the mood of a moment, and written rather in the form of a causerie, a kind of informal talk, than of a considered essay. And it is all couched in clear, flowing, rather loosely jointed English, carefully avoiding rhetoric and eloquence and striving always to reproduce the ease and flow of cultured conversation, rather than the tighter, more closely knit style of consciously “literary” prose. His methods were the methods of the four great prose-writers who followed him—Defoe, Addison, Steele, and Swift.
Of these Defoe was the eldest and in some ways the most remarkable. He has been called the earliest professional author in our language, and if that is not strictly true, he is at any rate the earliest literary journalist. His output of work was enormous; he wrote on any and every subject; there was no event whether in politics or letters or discovery but he was not ready with something pat on it before the public interest faded. It followed that at a time when imprisonment, mutilation, and the pillory took the place of our modern libel actions he had an adventurous career. In politics he followed the Whig cause and served the Government with his pen, notably by his writings in support of the union with Scotland, in which he won over the Scots by his description of the commercial advantage which would follow the abolition of the border. This line of argument, taken at a time when the governing of political tendencies by commercial interests was by no means the accepted commonplace it is now, proves him a man of an active and original mind. His originality, indeed, sometimes over-reached the comprehension both of the public and his superiors; he was imprisoned for an attack on the Hanoverian succession, which was intended ironically; apparently he was ignorant of what every journalist ought to know that irony is at once the most dangerous and the most ineffectual weapon in the whole armoury of the press. The fertility and ingenuity of his intellect may be best gauged by the number of modern enterprises and contrivances that are foreshadowed in his work. Here are a few, all utterly unknown in his own day, collected by a student of his works; a Board of Trade register for seamen; factories for goods: agricultural credit banks; a commission of enquiry into bankruptcy; and a system of national poor relief. They show him to have been an independent and courageous thinker where social questions were concerned.
He was nearly sixty before he had published his first novel, Robinson Crusoe, the book by which he is universally known, and on which with the seven other novels which followed it the foundation of his literary fame rests. But his earlier works—they are reputed to number over two hundred—possess no less remarkable literary qualities. It is not too much to say that all the gifts which are habitually recommended for cultivation by those who aspire to journalistic success are to be found in his prose. He has in the first place the gift of perfect lucidity no matter how complicated the subject he is expounding; such a book as his Complete English Tradesman is full of passages in which complex and difficult subject-matter is set forth so plainly and clearly that the least literate of his readers could have no doubt of his understanding it. He has also an amazingly exact acquaintance with the technicalities of all kinds of trades and professions; none of our writers, not even Shakespeare, shows half such a knowledge of the circumstances of life among different ranks and conditions of men; none of them has realized with such fidelity how so many different persons lived and moved. His gift of narrative and description is masterly, as readers of his novels know (we shall have to come back to it in discussing the growth of the English novel); several of his works show him to have been endowed with a fine faculty of psychological observation. Without the least consciousness of the value of what he was writing, nor indeed with any deliberate artistic intention, he made himself one of the masters of English prose.
Defoe had been the champion of the Whigs; on the Tory side the ablest pen was that of Jonathan Swift. His works proclaim him to have had an intellect less wide in its range than that of his antagonist but more vigorous and powerful. He wrote, too, more carefully. In his youth he had been private secretary to Sir William Temple, a writer now as good as forgotten because of the triviality of his matter, but in his day esteemed because of the easy urbanity and polish of his prose. From him Swift learned the labour of the file, and he declared in later life that it was “generally believed that this author has advanced our English tongue to as great a perfection as it can well bear.” In fact he added to the ease and cadences he had learned from Temple qualities of vigour and directness of his own which put his work far above his master's. And he dealt with more important subject-matter than the academic exercises on which Temple exercised his fastidious and meticulous powers of revision.
In temperament he is opposed to all the writers of his time. There is no doubt but there was some radical disorder in his system; brain disease clouded his intellect in his old age, and his last years were death in life; right through his life he was a savagely irritable, sardonic, dark and violent man, impatient of the slightest contradiction or thwarting, and given to explosive and instantaneous rage. He delighted in flouting convention, gloried in outraging decency. The rage, which, as he said himself, tore his heart out, carried him to strange excesses. There is something ironical (he would himself have appreciated it) in the popularity of Gulliver's Travels as a children's book—that ascending wave of savagery and satire which overwhelms policy and learning to break against the ultimate citadel of humanity itself. In none of his contemporaries (except perhaps in the sentimentalities of Steele) can one detect the traces of emotion; to read Swift is to be conscious of intense feeling on almost every page. The surface of his style may be smooth and equable but the central fires of passion are never far beneath, and through cracks and fissures come intermittent bursts of flame. Defoe's irony is so measured and studiously commonplace that perhaps those who imprisoned him because they believed him to be serious are hardly to be blamed; Swift's quivers and reddens with anger in every line.
But his pen seldom slips from the strong grasp of his controlling art. The extraordinary skill and closeness of his allegorical writings—unmatched in their kind—is witness to the care and sustained labour which went to their making. He is content with no general correspondences; his allegory does not fade away into a story in which only the main characters have a secondary significance; the minutest circumstances have a bearing in the satire and the moral. In The Tale of a Tub and in Gulliver's Travels—particularly in the former—the multitude as well as the aptness of the parallels between the imaginary narrative and the facts it is meant to represent is unrivalled in works of the kind. Only the highest mental powers, working with intense fervour and concentration, could have achieved the sustained brilliancy of the result. “What a genius I had when I wrote that book!” Swift is said to have exclaimed in his old age when he re-read The Tale of a Tub, and certainly the book is a marvel of constructive skill, all the more striking because it makes allegory out of history and consequently is denied that freedom of narrative so brilliantly employed in the Travels.
Informing all his writings too, besides intense feeling and an omnipresent and controlling art, is strong common sense. His aphorisms, both those collected under the heading of Thoughts on Various Subjects, and countless others scattered up and down his pages, are a treasury of sound, if a little sardonic, practical wisdom. His most insistent prejudices foreshadow in their essential sanity and justness those of that great master of life, Dr. Johnson. He could not endure over-politeness, a vice which must have been very oppressive in society of his day. He savagely resented and condemned a display of affection—particularly marital affection—in public. In an age when it was the normal social system of settling quarrels, he condemned duelling; and he said some very wise things—things that might still be said—on modern education. In economics he was as right-hearted as Ruskin and as wrong-headed. Carlyle, who was in so many respects an echo of him, found in a passage in his works a “dim anticipation” of his philosophy of clothes.
The leading literary invention of the period—after that of the heroic couplet for verse—was the prose periodical essay. Defoe, it is hardly necessary to say, began it; it was his nature to be first with any new thing: but its establishment as a prevailing literary mode is due to two authors, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Of the two famous series—the Tatler and the Spectator—for which they were both responsible, Steele must take the first credit; he began them, and though Addison came in and by the deftness and lightness of his writing took the lion's share of their popularity, both the plan and the characters round whom the bulk of the essays in the Spectator came to revolve was the creation of his collaborator. Steele we know very intimately from his own writings and from Thackeray's portrait of him. He was an emotional, full-blooded kind of man, reckless and dissipated but fundamentally honest and good-hearted—a type very common in his day as the novels show, but not otherwise to be found in the ranks of its writers. What there is of pathos and sentiment, and most of what there is of humour in the Tatler and the Spectator are his. And he created the dramatis personae out of whose adventures the slender thread of continuity which binds the essays together is woven. Addison, though less open to the onslaughts of the conventional moralist, was a less lovable personality. Constitutionally endowed with little vitality, he suffered mentally as well as bodily from languor and lassitude. His lack of enthusiasm, his cold-blooded formalism, caused comment even in an age which prided itself in self-command and decorum.
His very malevolence proceeded from a flaccidity which meanly envied the activities and enthusiasms of other men. As a writer he was superficial; he had not the requisite energy for forming a clear or profound judgment on any question of difficulty; Johnson's comment, “He thinks justly but he thinks faintly” sums up the truth about him. His good qualities were of a slighter kind than Swift's; he was a quiet and accurate observer of manners and fashions in life and conversation, and he had the gift of a style—what Johnson calls “The Middle Style”—very exactly suited to the kind of work on which he was habitually engaged, “always equable, always easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences” but polished, lucid, and urbane.
Steele and Addison were conscious moralists as well as literary men. They desired to purge society from Restoration licences; to their efforts we must credit the alteration in morality which The School for Scandal shows over The Way of the World. Their professed object as they stated themselves was “to banish vice and ignorance out of the territories of Great Britain, (nothing less!) and to bring philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffee-houses.” In fact their satires were politically nearer home, and the chief objects of their aversion were the Tory squires whom it was their business as Whigs to deride. On the Coverley papers in the Spectator rests the chief part of their literary fame; these belong rather to the special history of the novel than to that of the periodical essay.