CHAPTER XVI. THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: ENGLAND
Poets of the Eighteenth Century: Pope, Young, MacPherson, etc.: Prose Writers of the Eighteenth Century: Daniel Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Swift, Sterne, David Hume. Poets of the Nineteenth Century: Byron, Shelley, the Lake Poets: Prose Writers of the Nineteenth Century: Walter Scott, Macaulay, Dickens, Carlyle.
THE REIGN OF QUEEN ANNE: POETS.—As in France, the eighteenth century (the age of Queen Anne) was in England richer in prose than in poetry. As poets, however, must be indicated Thomson, descriptive and dramatic, whose profound feeling for nature was not without influence over French writers of the same century; Pope, descriptive writer, translator, moralist, elegiast, very intelligent and highly polished, whose Essay on Criticism and Essay on Man were remarkably utilised by Voltaire; Edward Young, whose Night Thoughts enjoyed the same prodigious success in France as in England, and who contributed in no small measure to darken and render gloomy both literatures; MacPherson, who invented Ossian, that is, pretended poems of the Middle Ages, a magnificent genius, be it said, who exercised considerable influence over the romanticism of both lands; Chatterton, who trod the same road, but with less success, yet was valued almost equally by the French romantic poets, and to them he has owed at least the consolidation of his immortality; Cowper, elegiac and fantastic, with a highly humorous vein; Crabbe, a very close observer of popular customs and an ingenious novelist in verse, quite analogous to the Dutch painters; Burns, a peasant-poet, sensitive and impassioned, yet at the same time a careful artist moved by local customs, the manifestations of which he saw displayed before his eyes.
PROSE WRITERS.—The masters of prose (some being also true poets) were innumerable. Daniel Defoe, journalist, satirist, pamphleteer, was the author of the immortal Robinson Crusoe; Addison, justly adored by Voltaire, author of a sound tragedy, Cato, is supremely a scholar, the acute, sensible, and extremely thoughtful editor of The Spectator; Richardson, the idol of Diderot and of Jean Jacques Rousseau, enjoyed a European success with his sentimental and virtuous novels, Pamela, Clarissa Harlowe, and Sir Charles Grandison. As a critic and as a personality, Dr. Johnson has no parallel in any age or land. His Dictionary is famous despite its faults, and Rasselas, which he wrote to pay for his mother's funeral, can still be read.
Fielding, who began by being only the parodist of Richardson, in Joseph Andrews, ended by becoming an astounding realistic novelist, the worthy predecessor of Thackeray and Dickens in his extraordinaryTom Jones. The amiable Goldsmith, more akin to Richardson, wrote that idyllic novel The Vicar of Wakefield, the charm of which was still felt throughout Europe only fifty years ago. Laurence Sterne, the most accurate representative of English humour, capable of emotion more especially ironical, jester, mystificator, has both amused and disquieted several generations with his Sentimental Journey and his fantastical, disconcerting and enchanting Tristram Shandy. Swift, horribly bitter, a corrosive and cruel satirist, sadly scoffed at all the society of his time in Gulliver's Travels, in Drapier's Letters, in hisProposal to Prevent the Children of the Poor Being a Burden, in a mass of other small works wherein the most infuriated wrath is sustained under the form of calm and glacial irony.
HISTORY.—History was expressed in England in the eighteenth century by David Hume, who chronicled the progress of the English race from the Middle Ages until the eighteenth century; by Robertson, who similarly handled the Scotch and who narrated the reign of Charles V; and by Gibbon, so habitually familiar with the French society of his time, who followed the Romans from the first Caesars to Marcus Aurelius, then more closely from Marcus Aurelius to the epoch of Constantine, and finally the Byzantine Empire up to the period of the Renaissance. The imposing erudition, the rather pompous but highly distinguished style of the author, without counting his animosity to Christianity, caused him to enjoy a great success, especially in France. The work of Gibbon is regarded as the finest example of history written by an Englishman.
THE STAGE.—The stage in England in the eighteenth century sank far below its importance in the seventeenth century; yet who does not know She Stoops to Conquer of Goldsmith, and that sparkling and lively comedy, The School for Scandal, by Sheridan? Note, as an incomparable journalist, the famous and mysterious Junius, who, from 1769 to 1772, waged such terrible war on the minister Grafton.
THE LAKE POETS.—In the nineteenth century appeared those poets so familiar to the French romanticists, or else the latter pretended they were, who were termed the lake poets, because they were lovers of the countryside; these were Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Southey was an epic and elegiac poet, whilst he was also descriptive; Coleridge, philosopher, metaphysician, a little nebulous and disordered, had very fine outbursts and some lamentable falls. Wordsworth was a most distinguished lyricist. Lord Byron did not acquire honour by so roughly handling Southey and Wordsworth.
THE ROMANTIC EPOCH.—The two greatest English poets of the romantic period were Lord Byron and Shelley; the former the admirable poet of disenchantment and of despair, gifted with a noble epic genius, creating and vitalising characters which, it must be confessed, differed very little from one another, but an exalted figure with a grand manner and, except Shakespeare, the only English poet who exercised genuine influence over French literature; the latter an idealistic poet of the most suave delicacy, aerial and heavenly, despite a private life of the utmost disorder and even guilt, he is one of the most perfect poets that ever lived; a great tragedian, too, in his Cenci, quite unknown in France until the middle of the nineteenth century, but since then the object of a sort of adoration among the larger number of Gallic poets and lovers of poetry.
Keats was as romantic as Shelley and Byron, both in spite of and because of his desperate efforts to assimilate the Grecian spirit. He dreamt of its heroes and its ancient myths, but there is in him little that is Grecian except the choice of subjects, and it is not in his grand poem, Endymion, nor even in that fine fragment, Hyperion, that can be found the real melancholy, sensitive, and modern poet, but in his last short poems, The Skylark, On a Greek Vase, Autumn, which, by the exquisite perfection of their form and the harmonious richness of the style, take rank among the most beautiful songs of English lyrism.
Nearer to us came Tennyson, possessing varied inspiration, epical, lyrical, elegiac poet, always exalted and pure, approaching the classical, and himself already a classic.
Swinburne, almost exclusively lyrical, a dexterous and enchanting versifier, inspired by the ancient Greeks, generally evinced a highly original poetic temperament, and Dante Rossetti, imbued with mediaeval inspiration, possessed a powerful and slightly giddy imagination. Far less known on the Continent, where critics may feel surprise at her necessary inclusion here, is his sister, Christina Rossetti. Her qualities as a poet are a touching and individual grace, much delicate spontaneity, a pure and often profound emotion, and an instinct as a stylist which is almost infallible. The Brownings form a celebrated couple, and about them Carlyle, on hearing of their marriage, observed that he hoped they would understand each other. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, translator of Aeschylus of Theocritus, gave proof in her original poetry of a vigour, of a vividness, and of a vigorous exuberance of similes that often recalled the Elizabethans, but marred her work by declamatory rhetoric and by a tormented and often obscure style. Robert Browning was yet more difficult, owing to his overpowering taste for subtlety and the bizarre—nay, even the grotesque. Almost ignored, or at least unappreciated by his contemporaries, he has since taken an exalted place in English admiration, which he owes to the depth, originality, and extreme richness of his ideas, all the more, perhaps, because they lend themselves to a number of differing interpretations.
THE NOVELISTS.—In prose the century began with the historical novelist, Sir Walter Scott, full of lore and knowledge, reconstructor and astonishing reviver of past times, more especially the Middle Ages, imbuing all his characters with life, and even in some measure vitalising the objects he evoked. None more than he, not even Byron, has enjoyed such continuous appreciation with both French romantic poets and also the French reading public. The English novel, recreated by this great master, was worthily continued by Dickens, both sentimentalist and humourist, a jesting, though genial, delineator of the English middle class, and an accurate and sympathetic portrayer of the poor; by Thackeray, supreme railer and satirist, terrible to egoists, hypocrites, and snobs; by the prolific and entertaining Bulwer-Lytton, by the grave, philosophical, and sensible George Eliot, by Charlotte Bronte, author of the affecting Jane Eyre, etc., and her sister Emily, whose Wuthering Heights has been almost extravagantly admired.
Four other great prose writers presenting startling divergences from one another cannot be omitted. Belonging to the first half of the nineteenth century, Charles Lamb earned wide popularity by his Tales from Shakespeare and Poetry for Children, written in collaboration with his sister Mary; but he was specially remarkable for his famed Essays of Elia, wherein he affords evidence of possessing an almost paradoxical mixture of delicate sensibility and humour, as well as of accurate and also fantastic observation. Newman, at first an English clergyman but subsequently a cardinal, after conversion to the Catholic Church, appears to me hardly eligible in a history of literature in which Lamennais has no place. As a literary man, his famous sermons at Oxford and the Tracts exercised much influence, and provoked such impassioned and prodigious revival of old doctrines and of an antiquated spirit in religion; then the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Callista, and the History of Arianism, revealed him as a master of eloquence.
Ruskin, as art critic, in his bold volumes illumined with remarkable beauty of styles, Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and The Stones of Venice, formulated the creed and the school of pre-Raphaelitism. At the time of the religious revival at Oxford, he preached a servile imitation of antiquity by the path of the Renaissance, appealing to national and mediaeval inspiration, not without naiveteand archaism, none the less evident because he was sincere and mordant. George Meredith, who died only in 1910, was a prolific and often involved novelist (the Browning of prose), with a passion for metaphors and a too freely expressed eclectic scorn for the multitude. Withal, he had a profound knowledge of life and of the human soul; impregnated with humour, he was creator of unforgettable types of character, and no pre-occupation of his epoch was foreign to his mind, whilst his vigorous realism always obstinately refused to turn from contemporaneous themes, or to gratify the needs and aspirations which it was possible to satisfy. His epitaph might well be that he understood the women of his time, a rare phenomenon.
HISTORY.—History could show two writers of absolute superiority—Macaulay (History of England since James II), an omnivorous reader and very brilliant writer, and Carlyle, the English Michelet, feverish, passionate, incongruous, and disconcerting, who dealt with history as might a very powerful lyrical poet.