CHAPTER VI. EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY LITERATURE
In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold:
Alike fantastic if too new or old.
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
Pope, “An Essay on Criticism”
HISTORY OF THE PERIOD. The most striking political feature of the
times was the rise of constitutional and party government. The
Revolution of 1688, which banished the Stuarts, had settled the
king question by making Parliament supreme in England, but not all
Englishmen were content with the settlement. No sooner were the
people in control of the government than they divided into hostile
parties: the liberal Whigs, who were determined to safeguard
popular liberty, and the conservative Tories, with tender memories
of kingcraft, who would leave as much authority as possible in the
royal hands. On the extreme of Toryism was a third party of
zealots, called the Jacobites, who aimed to bring the Stuarts back
to the throne, and who for fifty years filled Britain with plots
and rebellion. The literature of the age was at times dominated by
the interests of these contending factions.
The two main parties were so well balanced that power shifted
easily from one to the other. To overturn a Tory or a Whig cabinet
only a few votes were necessary, and to influence such votes London
was flooded with pamphlets. Even before the great newspapers
appeared, the press had become a mighty power in England, and any
writer with a talent for argument or satire was almost certain to
be hired by party leaders. Addison, Steele, Defoe, Swift,—most of
the great writers of the age were, on occasion, the willing
servants of the Whigs or Tories. So the new politician replaced the
old nobleman as a patron of letters.
Another feature of the age was the rapid development of social
life. In earlier ages the typical Englishman had lived much by
himself; his home was his castle, and in it he developed his
intense individualism; but in the first half of the eighteenth
century some three thousand public coffeehouses and a large number
of private clubs appeared in London alone; and the sociability of
which these clubs were an expression was typical of all English
cities. Meanwhile country life was in sore need of refinement.
The influence of this social life on literature was inevitable.
Nearly all writers frequented the coffeehouses, and matters
discussed there became subjects of literature; hence the enormous
amount of eighteenth-century writing devoted to transient affairs,
to politics, fashions, gossip. Moreover, as the club leaders set
the fashion in manners or dress, in the correct way of taking snuff
or of wearing wigs and ruffles, so the literary leaders emphasized
formality or correctness of style, and to write prose like Addison,
or verse like Pope, became the ambition of aspiring young authors.
There are certain books of the period (seldom studied amongst its
masterpieces) which are the best possible expression of its thought
and manners. The Letters of Lord Chesterfield, for example,
especially those written to his son, are more significant, and more
readable, than anything produced by Johnson. Even better are the
Memoirs of Horace Walpole, and his gossipy Letters, of which
“Fiddles sing all through them; wax lights, fine dresses,
fine jokes, fine plate, fine equipages glitter and sparkle;
never was such a brilliant, smirking Vanity Fair as that
through which he leads us.”
[SPREAD OF EMPIRE]
Two other significant features of the age were the large part
played by England in Continental wars, and the rapid expansion of
the British empire. These Continental wars, which have ever since
influenced British policy, seem to have originated (aside from the
important matter of self-interest) in a double motive: to prevent
any one nation from gaining overwhelming superiority by force of
arms, and to save the smaller “buffer” states from being absorbed
by their powerful neighbors. Thus the War of the Spanish Succession
(1711) prevented the union of the French and Spanish monarchies,
and preserved the smaller states of Holland and Germany. As Addison
then wrote, at least half truthfully:
'T is Britain's care to watch o'er Europe's fate,
And hold in balance each contending state:
To threaten bold, presumptuous kings with war,
And answer her afflicted neighbors' prayer. 
[Footnote : From Addison's Address to Liberty, in his poetical
“Letter to Lord Halifax.”]
The expansion of the empire, on the whole the most marvelous
feature of English history, received a tremendous impetus in this
age when India, Australia and the greater part of North America
were added to the British dominions, and when Captain Cook opened
the way for a belt of colonies around the whole world.
The influence of the last-named movement hardly appears in the
books which we ordinarily read as typical of the age. There are
other books, however, which one may well read for his own
unhampered enjoyment: such expansive books as Hawkesworth's
Voyages (1773), corresponding to Hakluyt's famous record of
Elizabethan exploration, and especially the Voyages of Captain
Cook, [Footnote: The first of Cook's fateful voyages appears in
Hawkesworth's collection. The second was recorded by Cook himself
(1777), and the third by Cook and Captain King (1784). See Synge,
Captain Cook's Voyages Around the World (London, 1897).]
which take us from the drawing-room chatter of politics or fashion
or criticism into a world of adventure and great achievement. In
such works, which make no profession of literary style, we feel the
lure of the sea and of lands beyond the horizon, which is as the
mighty background of English literature from Anglo-Saxon times to
the present day.
It is difficult to summarize the literature of this age, or to group such antagonistic writers as Swift and Addison, Pope and Burns, Defoe and Johnson, Goldsmith and Fielding, with any fine discrimination. It is simply for convenience, therefore, that we study eighteenth-century writings in three main divisions: the reign of so-called classicism, the revival of romantic poetry, and the beginnings of the modern novel. As a whole, it is an age of prose rather than of poetry, and in this respect it differs from all preceding ages of English literature.
* * * * *
The above title is an unfortunate one, but since it is widely used we must try to understand it as best we can. Yet when one begins to define “classicism” one is reminded of that old bore Polonius, who tells how Hamlet is affected:
Your noble son is mad:
Mad, call I it; for to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?
In our literature the word “classic” was probably first used in connection with the writers of Greece and Rome, and any English work which showed the influence of such writers was said to have a classic style. If we seek to the root of the word, we shall find that it refers to the classici, that is, to the highest of the classes into which the census divided the Roman people; hence the proper use of “classic” to designate the writings that have won first rank in any nation. As Goethe said, “Everything that is good in literature is classical.”
[CLASSIC AND PSEUDO-CLASSIC]
Gradually, however, the word “classic” came to have a different meaning, a meaning now expressed by the word “formal.” In the Elizabethan age, as we have seen, critics insisted that English plays should conform to the rules or “unities” of the Greek drama, and plays written according to such rules were called classic. Again, in the eighteenth century, English poets took to studying ancient authors, especially Horace, to find out how poetry should be written. Having discovered, as they thought, the rules of composition, they insisted on following such rules rather than individual genius or inspiration. It is largely because of this adherence to rules, this slavery to a fashion of the time, that so much of eighteenth-century verse seems cold and artificial, a thing made to order rather than the natural expression of human feeling. The writers themselves were well satisfied with their formality, however, and called their own the Classic or Augustan age of English letters. [Footnote: Though the eighteenth century was dominated by this formal spirit, it had, like every other age, its classic and romantic movements. The work of Gray, Burns and other romantic poets will be considered later.]
* * * * *
ALEXANDER POPE (1688-1744)
It was in 1819 that a controversy arose over the question, Was Pope a poet? To have asked that in 1719 would have indicated that the questioner was ignorant; to have asked it a half century later might have raised a doubt as to his sanity, for by that time Pope was acclaimed as a master by the great majority of poets in England and America. We judge now, looking at him in perspective and comparing him with Chaucer or Burns, that he was not a great poet but simply the kind of poet that the age demanded. He belongs to eighteenth-century London exclusively, and herein he differs from the master poets who are at home in all places and expressive of all time.
LIFE. Pope is an interesting but not a lovable figure. Against the
petty details of his life we should place, as a background, these
amazing achievements: that this poor cripple, weak of body and
spiteful of mind, was the supreme literary figure of his age; that
he demonstrated how an English poet could live by his pen, instead
of depending on patrons; that he won greater fame and fortune than
Shakespeare or Milton received from their contemporaries; that he
dominated the fashion of English poetry during his lifetime, and
for many years after his death.
Such are the important facts of Pope's career. For the rest: he was
born in London, in the year of the Revolution (1688). Soon after
that date his father, having gained a modest fortune in the linen
business, retired to Binfield, on the fringe of Windsor Forest.
There Pope passed his boyhood, studying a little under private
tutors, forming a pleasurable acquaintance with Latin and Greek
poets. From fourteen to twenty, he tells us, he read for amusement;
but from twenty to twenty-seven he read for “improvement and
instruction.” The most significant traits of these early years were
his determination to be a poet and his talent for imitating any
writer who pleased him. Dryden was his first master, from whom he
inherited the couplet, then he imitated the French critic Boileau
and the Roman poet Horace. By the time he was twenty four the
publication of his Essay on Criticism and The Rape of the
Lock had made him the foremost poet of England. By his
translation of Homer he made a fortune, with which he bought a
villa at Twickenham. There he lived in the pale sunshine of
literary success, and there he quarreled with every writer who
failed to appreciate his verses, his jealousy overflowing at last
in The Dunciad (Iliad of Dunces), a witty but venomous
lampoon, in which he took revenge on all who had angered him.
Next to his desire for glory and revenge, Pope loved to be
considered a man of high character, a teacher of moral philosophy.
His ethical teaching appears in his Moral Epistles, his
desire for a good reputation is written large in his Letters, which
he secretly printed, and then alleged that they had been made
public against his wish. These Letters might impress us as the
utterances of a man of noble ideals, magnanimous with his friends,
patient with his enemies, until we reflect that they were published
by the author for the purpose of giving precisely that impression.
Another side of Pope's nature is revealed in this: that to some of
his friends, to Swift and Bolingbroke for example, he showed
gratitude, and that to his parents he was ever a dutiful son. He
came perhaps as near as he could to a real rather than an
artificial sentiment when he wrote of his old mother:
Me let the tender office long engage,
To rock the cradle of reposing age.
WORKS OF POPE. Pope's first important work, An Essay on Criticism (1711), is an echo of the rules which Horace had formulated in his Ars Poetica, more than seventeen centuries before Pope was born. The French critic Boileau made an alleged improvement of Horace in his L'Art Poetique, and Pope imitated both writers with his rimed Essay, in which he attempted to sum up the rules by which poetry should be judged. And he did it, while still under the age of twenty-five, so brilliantly that his characterization of the critic is unmatched in our literature. A few selections will serve to show the character of the work:
First follow nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same:
Unerring nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchanged and universal light,
Life, force and beauty must to all impart,
At once the source and end and test of Art.
Poets, like painters, thus unskilled to trace
The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover every part,
And hide with ornaments their want of art.
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.
Expression is the dress of thought, and still
Appears more decent, as more suitable.
[RAPE OF THE LOCK]
Pope's next important poem, The Rape of the Lock (1712), is his most original and readable work. The occasion of the poem was that a fop stole a lock of hair from a young lady, and the theft plunged two families into a quarrel which was taken up by the fashionable set of London. Pope made a mock-heroic poem on the subject, in which he satirized the fads and fashions of Queen Anne's age. Ordinarily Pope's fancy is of small range, and proceeds jerkily, like the flight of a woodpecker, from couplet to couplet; but here he attempts to soar like the eagle. He introduces dainty aerial creatures, gnomes, sprites, sylphs, to combat for the belles and fops in their trivial concerns; and herein we see a clever burlesque of the old epic poems, in which gods or goddesses entered into the serious affairs of mortals. The craftsmanship of the poem is above praise; it is not only a neatly pointed satire on eighteenth-century fashions but is one of the most graceful works in English verse.
[ESSAY OF MAN]
An excellent supplement to The Rape of the Lock, which pictures the superficial elegance of the age, is An Essay on Man, which reflects its philosophy. That philosophy under the general name of Deism, had fancied to abolish the Church and all revealed religion, and had set up a new-old standard of natural faith and morals. Of this philosophy Pope had small knowledge; but he was well acquainted with the discredited Bolingbroke, his “guide, philosopher and friend,” who was a fluent exponent of the new doctrine, and from Bolingbroke came the general scheme of the Essay on Man.
The poem appears in the form of four epistles, dealing with man's place in the universe, with his moral nature, with social and political ethics, and with the problem of happiness. These were discussed from a common-sense viewpoint, and with feet always on solid earth. As Pope declares:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man....
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.
Throughout the poem these two doctrines of Deism are kept in sight: that there is a God, a Mystery, who dwells apart from the world; and that man ought to be contented, even happy, in his ignorance of matters beyond his horizon:
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear: whatever is, is right.
The result is rubbish, so far as philosophy is concerned, but in the heap of incongruous statements which Pope brings together are a large number of quotable lines, such as:
Honor and shame from no condition rise;
Act well your part, there all the honor lies.
It is because of such lines, the care with which the whole poem is polished, and the occasional appearance of real beauty (such as the passage beginning, “Lo, the poor Indian") that the Essay on Manoccupies such a high place in eighteenth-century literature.
[THE QUALITY OF POPE]
It is hardly necessary to examine other works of Pope, since the poems already named give us the full measure of his strength and weakness. His talent is to formulate rules of poetry, to satirize fashionable society, to make brilliant epigrams in faultless couplets. His failure to move or even to interest us greatly is due to his second-hand philosophy, his inability to feel or express emotion, his artificial life apart from nature and humanity. When we read Chaucer or Shakespeare, we have the impression that they would have been at home in any age or place, since they deal with human interests that are the same yesterday, to-day and forever; but we can hardly imagine Pope feeling at ease anywhere save in his own set and in his own generation. He is the poet of one period, which set great store by formality, and in that period alone he is supreme.
* * * * *
JONATHAN SWIFT (1667-1745)
In the history of literature Swift occupies a large place as the most powerful of English satirists; that is, writers who search out the faults of society in order to hold them up to ridicule. To most readers, however, he is known as the author of Gulliver's Travels, a book which young people still read with pleasure, as they read Robinson Crusoe or any other story of adventure. In the fate of that book, which was intended to scourge humanity but which has become a source of innocent entertainment, is a commentary on the colossal failure of Swift's ambition.
LIFE. Little need be recorded of Swift's life beyond the few facts
which help us to understand his satires. He was born in Dublin, of
English parents, and was so “bantered by fortune” that he was
compelled to spend the greater part of his life in Ireland, a
country which he detested. He was very poor, very proud; and even
in youth he railed at a mocking fate which compelled him to accept
aid from others. For his education he was dependent on a relative,
who helped him grudgingly. After leaving Trinity College, Dublin,
the only employment he could find was with another relative, Sir
William Temple, a retired statesman, who hired Swift as a secretary
and treated him as a servant. Galled by his position and by his
feeling of superiority (for he was a man of physical and mental
power, who longed to be a master of great affairs) he took orders
in the Anglican Church; but the only appointment he could obtain
was in a village buried, as he said, in a forsaken district of
Ireland. There his bitterness overflowed in A Tale of a Tub
and a few pamphlets of such satiric power that certain political
leaders recognized Swift's value and summoned him to their
[SWIFT IN LONDON]
To understand his success in London one must remember the times.
Politics were rampant; the city was the battleground of Whigs and
Tories, whose best weapon was the printed pamphlet that justified
one party by heaping abuse or ridicule on the other. Swift was a
master of satire, and he was soon the most feared author in
England. He seems to have had no fixed principles, for he was ready
to join the Tories when that party came into power and to turn his
literary cannon on the Whigs, whom he had recently supported. In
truth, he despised both parties; his chief object was to win for
himself the masterful position in Church or state for which, he
believed, his talents had fitted him.
For several years Swift was the literary champion of the victorious
Tories; then, when his keen eye detected signs of tottering in the
party, he asked for his reward. He obtained, not the great
bishopric which he expected, but an appointment as Dean of St.
Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. Small and bitter fruit this seemed
to Swift, after his years of service, but even so, it was given
grudgingly. [Footnote: Swift's pride and arrogance with his
official superiors worked against him. Also he had published A
Tale of a Tub, a coarse satire against the churches, which
scandalized the queen and her ministers, who could have given him
preferment. Thackeray says, “I think the Bishops who advised Queen
Anne not to appoint the author of the Tale of a Tub to a
Bishopric gave perfectly good advice.”]
[LIFE IN IRELAND]
When the Tories went out of power Swift's political occupation was
gone. The last thirty years of his life were spent largely in
Dublin. There in a living grave, as he regarded it, the scorn which
he had hitherto felt for individuals or institutions widened until
it included humanity. Such is the meaning of his Gulliver's
Travels. His only pleasure during these years was to expose the
gullibility of men, and a hundred good stories are current of his
practical jokes,—such as his getting rid of a crowd which had
gathered to watch an eclipse by sending a solemn messenger to
announce that, by the Dean's orders, the eclipse was postponed till
the next day. A brain disease fastened upon him gradually, and his
last years were passed in a state of alternate stupor or madness
from which death was a blessed deliverance.
WORKS OF SWIFT. The poems of Swift, though they show undoubted power (every smallest thing he wrote bears that stamp), may be passed over with the comment of his relative Dryden, who wrote: “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.” The criticism was right, but thereafter Swift jeered at Dryden's poetry. We may pass over also the Battle of the Books, the Drapier's Letters and a score more of satires and lampoons. Of all these minor works the Bickerstaff Papers, which record Swift's practical joke on the astrologers, are most amusing. [Footnote: Almanacs were at that time published by pretender astrologers, who read fortunes or made predictions from the stars. Against the most famous of these quacks, Partridge by name, Swift leveled his “Predictions for the year 1708, by Isaac Bickerstaff.” Among the predictions of coming events was this trifle: that Partridge was doomed to die on March 29 following, about eleven o'clock at night, of a raging fever. On March 30 appeared, in the newspapers, a letter giving the details of Partridge's death, and then a pamphlet called “An Elegy of Mr. Partridge.” Presently Partridge, who could not see the joke, made London laugh by his frantic attempts to prove that he was alive. Then appeared an elaborate “Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff,” which proved by the infallible stars that Partridge was dead, and that the astrologer now in his place was an impostor. This joke was copied twenty-five years later by Franklin in his Poor Richard's Almanac. ]
Swift's fame now rests largely upon his Gulliver's Travels, which appeared in 1726 under the title, “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon and then a Captain of Several Ships.” In the first voyage we are taken to Lilliput, a country inhabited by human beings about six inches tall, with minds in proportion. The capers of these midgets are a satire on human society, as seen through Swift's scornful eyes. In the second voyage we go to Brobdingnag, where the people are of gigantic stature, and by contrast we are reminded of the petty “human insects” whom Gulliver represents. The third voyage, to the Island of Laputa, is a burlesque of the scientists and philosophers of Swift's day. The fourth leads to the land of the Houyhnhnms, where intelligent horses are the ruling creatures, and humanity is represented by the Yahoos, a horribly degraded race, having the forms of men and the bestial habits of monkeys.
Such is the ferocious satire on the elegant society of Queen Anne's day. Fortunately for our peace of mind we can read the book for its grim humor and adventurous action, as we read any other good story. Indeed, it surprises most readers of Gulliver to be told that the work was intended to wreck our faith in humanity.
[QUALITY OF SWIFT]
In all his satires Swift's power lies in his prose style—a convincing style, clear, graphic, straightforward—and in his marvelous ability to make every scene, however distant or grotesque, as natural as life itself. As Emerson said, he describes his characters as if for the police. His weakness is twofold: he has a fondness for coarse or malodorous references, and he is so beclouded in his own soul that he cannot see his fellows in a true light. In one of his early works he announced the purpose of all his writing:
My hate, whose lash just Heaven has long decreed,
Shall on a day make Sin and Folly bleed.
That was written at twenty-six, before he took orders in the Church. As a theological student it was certainly impressed upon the young man that Heaven keeps its own prerogatives, and that sin and folly have never been effectually reformed by lashing. But Swift had a scorn of all judgment except his own. As the eyes of fishes are so arranged that they see only their prey and their enemies, so Swift had eyes only for the vices of men and for the lash that scourges them. When he wrote, therefore, he was not an observer, or even a judge; he was a criminal lawyer prosecuting humanity on the charge of being a sham. A tendency to insanity may possibly account both for his spleen against others and for the self-tortures which made him, as Archbishop King said, “the most unhappy man on earth.”
[JOURNAL TO STELLA]
There is one oasis in the bitter desert of Swift's writings, namely, his Journal to Stella. While in the employ of Temple he was the daily companion of a young girl, Esther Johnson, who was an inmate of the same household. Her love for Swift was pure and constant; wherever he went she followed and lived near him, bringing a ray of sunshine into his life, in a spirit which reminds us of the sublime expression of another woman: “For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” She was probably married to Swift, but his pride kept him from openly acknowledging the union. While he was at London he wrote a private journal for Esther (Stella) in which he recorded his impressions of the men and women he met, and of the political battles in which he took part. That journal, filled with strange abbreviations to which only he and Stella had the key, can hardly be called literature, but it is of profound interest. It gives us glimpses of a woman who chose to live in the shadow; it shows the better side of Swift's nature, in contrast with his arrogance toward men and his brutal treatment of women; and finally, it often takes us behind the scenes of a stage on which was played a mixed comedy of politics and society.
* * * * *
JOSEPH ADDISON (1672-1719)
In Addison we have a pleasant reflection of the new social life of England. Select almost any feature of that life, and you shall find some account of it in the papers of Addison: its party politics in his Whig Examiner; its “grand tour,” as part of a gentleman's education, in his Remarks on Italy; its adventure on foreign soil in such poems as “The Campaign”; its new drama of decency in his Cato; its classic delusions in his Account of the Greatest English Poets; its frills, fashions and similar matters in his Spectator essays. He tried almost every type of literature, from hymns to librettos, and in each he succeeded well enough to be loudly applauded. In his own day he was accounted a master poet, but now he is remembered as a writer of prose essays.
LIFE. Addison's career offers an interesting contrast to that of
Swift, who lived in the same age. He was the son of an English
clergyman, settled in the deanery of Lichfield, and his early
training left upon him the stamp of good taste and good breeding.
In school he was always the model boy; in Oxford he wrote Latin
verses on safe subjects, in the approved fashion; in politics he
was content to “oil the machine” as he found it; in society he was
shy and silent (though naturally a brilliant talker) because he
feared to make some slip which might mar his prospects or the
dignity of his position.
A very discreet man was Addison, and the only failure he made of
discretion was when he married the Dowager Countess of Warwick,
went to live in her elegant Holland House, and lived unhappily ever
afterwards. The last is a mere formal expression. Addison had not
depth enough to be really unhappy. From the cold comfort of the
Dowager's palace he would slip off to his club or to Will's Coffee
house. There, with a pipe and a bottle, he would loosen his
eloquent tongue and proceed to “make discreetly merry with a few
His characteristic quality appears in the literary work which
followed his Latin verses. He began with a flattering “Address to
Dryden,” which pleased the old poet and brought Addison to the
attention of literary celebrities. His next effort was “The Peace
of Ryswick,” which flattered King William's statesmen and brought
the author a chance to serve the Whig party. Also it brought a
pension, with a suggestion that Addison should travel abroad and
learn French and diplomacy, which he did, to his great content, for
the space of three years.
The death of the king brought Addison back to England. His pension
stopped, and for a time he lived poorly “in a garret,” as one may
read in Thackeray's Henry Esmond. Then came news of an
English victory on the Continent (Marlborough's victory at
Blenheim), and the Whigs wanted to make political capital out of
the event. Addison was hunted up and engaged to write a poem. He
responded with “The Campaign,” which made him famous. Patriots and
politicians ascribed to the poem undying glory, and their judgment
was accepted by fashionable folk of London. To read it now is to
meet a formal, uninspired production, containing a few stock
quotations and, incidentally, a sad commentary on the union of
Whiggery and poetry.
[HIS PATH OF ROSES]
From that moment Addison's success was assured. He was given
various offices of increasing importance; he entered Parliament; he
wrote a classic tragedy, Cato, which took London by storm
(his friend Steele had carefully “packed the house” for the first
performance); his essays in The Spectator were discussed in
every fashionable club or drawing-room; he married a rich countess;
he was appointed Secretary of State. The path of politics, which
others find so narrow and slippery, was for Addison a broad road
through pleasant gardens. Meanwhile Swift, who could not follow the
Addisonian way of kindness and courtesy, was eating bitter bread
and railing at humanity.
After a brief experience as Secretary of State, finding that he
could not make the speeches expected of him, Addison retired on a
pension. His unwavering allegiance to good form in all matters
appears even in his last remark, “See how a Christian can die.”
That was in 1719. He had sought the easiest, pleasantest way
through life, and had found it. Thackeray, who was in sympathy with
such a career, summed it up in a glowing panegyric:
“A life prosperous and beautiful, a calm death; an immense
fame and affection afterwards for his happy and spotless
WORKS OF ADDISON. Addison's great reputation was won chiefly by his poetry; but with the exception of a few hymns, simple and devout, his poetical works no longer appeal to us. He was not a poet but a verse-maker. His classic tragedy Cato, for example (which met with such amazing success in London that it was taken over to the Continent, where it was acclaimed “a masterpiece of regularity and elegance"), has some good passages, but one who reads the context is apt to find the elegant lines running together somewhat drowsily. Nor need that reflect on our taste or intelligence. Even the cultured Greeks, as if in anticipation of classic poems, built two adjoining temples, one dedicated to the Muses and the other to Sleep.
The Essays of Addison give us the full measure of his literary talent. In his verse, as in his political works, he seems to be speaking to strangers; he is on guard over his dignity as a poet, as Secretary of State, as husband of a countess; but in his Essays we meet the man at his ease, fluent, witty, light-hearted but not frivolous,—just as he talked to his friends in Will's Coffeehouse. The conversational quality of theseEssays has influenced all subsequent works of the same type,—a type hard to define, but which leaves the impression of pleasant talk about a subject, as distinct from any learned discussion.
The Essays cover a wide range: fashions, dress, manners, character sketches, letters of travel, ghost stories, satires on common vices, week-end sermons on moral subjects. They are never profound, but they are always pleasant, and their graceful style made such a lasting impression that, half a century later, Dr. Johnson summed up a general judgment when he said:
“Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not
coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and
nights to the volumes of Addison.”
ADDISON AND STEELE. Of these two associates Richard Steele (1672-1729) had the more original mind, and his writings reveal a warm, human sympathy that is lacking in the work of his more famous contemporary. But while Addison cultivated his one talent of writing, Steele was like Defoe in that he always had some new project in his head, and some old debt urging him to put the project into immediate execution. He was in turn poet, political pamphleteer, soldier, dramatist, member of Parliament, publisher, manager of a theater, following each occupation eagerly for a brief season, then abandoning it cheerfully for another,—much like a boy picking blueberries in a good place, who moves on and on to find a better bush, eats his berries on the way, and comes home at last with an empty pail.
[THE TATLER AND THE SPECTATOR]
While holding the political office of “gazetteer” (one who had a monopoly of official news) the idea came to Steele of publishing a literary magazine. The inventive Defoe had already issued The Review (1704), but that had a political origin. With the first number of The Tatler (1709) the modern magazine made its bow to the public. This little sheet, published thrice a week and sold at a penny a copy, contained more or less politics, to be sure, but the fact that it reflected the gossip of coffeehouses made it instantly popular. After less than two years of triumph Steele lost his official position, and The Tatler was discontinued. The idea remained, however, and a few months later appeared The Spectator (1711), a daily magazine which eschewed politics and devoted itself to essays, reviews, letters, criticisms,—in short, to “polite” literature. Addison, who had been a contributor to The Tatler entered heartily into the new venture, which had a brief but glorious career. He became known as “Mr. Spectator,” and the famous Spectator Essays are still commonly attributed to him, though in truth Steele furnished a large part of them. [Footnote: Of the Tatler essays Addison contributed 42, Steele about 180, and some 36 were the work of the two authors in collaboration. Of the Spectator essays Addison furnished 274, Steele 236, and about 45 were the work of other writers. In some of the best essays (“Sir Roger de Coverley,” for example) the two men worked together. Steele is supposed to have furnished the original ideas, the humor and overflowing kindness of such essays, while the work of polishing and perfecting the style fell to the more skillful Addison.]
Because of their cultivated prose style, Steele and Addison were long regarded as models, and we are still influenced by them in the direction of clearness and grace of expression. How wide their influence extended may be seen in American literature. Hardly had The Spectator appeared when it crossed the Atlantic and began to dominate our English style on both sides of the ocean. Franklin, in Boston, studied it by night in order to imitate it in the essay which he slipped under the printing-house door next morning; and Boyd, in Virginia, reflects its influence in his charming Journal of exploration. Half a century later, the Hartford Wits were writing clever sketches that seemed like the work of a new “Spectator”; another half century, and Irving, the greatest master of English prose in his day, was still writing in the Addisonian manner, and regretting as he wrote that the leisurely style showed signs, in a bustling age, “of becoming a little old-fashioned.”
* * * * *
DR. JOHNSON AND HIS CIRCLE
Since Caxton established the king's English as a literary language our prose style has often followed the changing fashion of London. Thus, Lyly made it fantastic, Dryden simplified it, Addison gave it grace; and each leader set a fashion which was followed by a host of young writers. Hardly had the Addisonian style crossed the Atlantic, to be the model for American writers for a century, when London acclaimed a new prose fashion—a ponderous, grandiloquent fashion, characterized by mouth-filling words, antithetical sentences, rounded periods, sonorous commonplaces—which was eagerly adopted by orators and historians especially. The man who did more than any other to set this new oratorical fashion in motion was the same Dr. Samuel Johnson who advised young writers to study Addison as a model. And that was only one of his amusing inconsistencies.
Johnson was a man of power, who won a commanding place in English letters by his hard work and his downright sincerity. He won his name of “the great lexicographer” by his Dictionary, which we no longer consult, but which we remember as the first attempt at a complete English lexicon. If one asks what else he wrote, with the idea of going to the library and getting a book for pleasure, the answer must be that Johnson's voluminous works are now as dead as his dictionary. One student of literature may be interested in such a melancholy poem as “The Vanity of Human Wishes”; another will be entertained by the anecdotes or blunt criticisms of the Lives of the Poets; a third may be uplifted by the Rambler Essays, which are well called “majestically moral productions”; but we shall content ourselves here by recording Johnson's own refreshing criticism of certain ancient authors, that “it is idle to criticize what nobody reads.” Perhaps the best thing he wrote was a minor work, which he did not know would ever be published. This was his manly Letter to Lord Chesterfield, a nobleman who had treated Johnson with discourtesy when the poor author was making a heroic struggle, but who offered his patronage when the Dictionary was announced as an epoch-making work. In his noble refusal of all extraneous help Johnson unconsciously voiced Literature's declaration of independence: that henceforth a book must stand or fall on its own merits, and that the day of the literary patron was gone forever.
LIFE. The story of Johnson's life (1709-1784) has been so well told
that one is loath to attempt a summary of it. We note, therefore, a
few plain facts: that he was the son of a poor bookseller; that
despite poverty and disease he obtained his classic education; that
at twenty-six he came to London, and, after an experience with
patrons, rebelled against them; that he did every kind of hackwork
to earn his bread honestly, living in the very cellar of Grub
Street, where he was often cold and more often hungry; that after
nearly thirty years of labor his services to literature were
rewarded by a pension, which he shared with the poor; that he then
formed the Literary Club (including Reynolds, Pitt, Gibbon,
Goldsmith, Burke, and almost every other prominent man in London)
and indulged nightly in his famous “conversations,” which were
either monologues or knockdown arguments; and that in his old age
he was regarded as the king of letters, the oracle of literary
taste in England.
Such is the bare outline of Johnson's career. To his character, his
rough exterior and his kind heart, his vast learning and his Tory
prejudices, his piety, his melancholy, his virtues, his frailty,
his “mass of genuine manhood,” only a volume could do justice.
Happily that volume is at hand. It is Boswell's Life of
Johnson, a famous book that deserves its fame.
BOSWELL'S JOHNSON. Boswell was an inquisitive barrister who came from Edinburgh to London and thrust himself into the company of great men. To Johnson, then at the summit of his fame, “Bozzy” was devotion itself, following his master about by day or night, refusing to be rebuffed, jotting down notes of what he saw and heard. After Johnson's death he gathered these notes together and, after seven years of labor, produced his incomparable Life of Johnson (1791).
The greatness of Boswell's work may be traced to two causes. First, he had a great subject. The story of any human life is interesting, if truthfully told, and Johnson's heroic life of labor and pain and reward was passed in a capital city, among famous men, at a time which witnessed the rapid expansion of a mighty empire. Second, Boswell was as faithful as a man could be to his subject, for whom he had such admiration that even the dictator's frailties seemed more impressive than the virtues of ordinary humanity. So Boswell concealed nothing, and felt no necessity to distribute either praise or blame. He portrayed a man just as that man was, recorded the word just as the word was spoken; and facing the man we may see his enraptured audience,—at a distance, indeed, but marvelously clear, as when we look through the larger end of a field glass at a landscape dominated by a mountain. One who reads this matchless biography will know Johnson better than he knows his own neighbor; he will gain, moreover, a better understanding of humanity, to reflect which clearly and truthfully is the prime object of all good literature.
EDMUND BURKE (1729-1797). This brilliant Irishman came up to London as a young man of twenty-one. Within a few years—such was his character, his education, his genius—he had won a reputation among old statesmen as a political philosopher. Then he entered Parliament, where for twenty years the House listened with growing amazement to his rhythmic periods, and he was acclaimed the most eloquent of orators.
Among Burke's numerous works those on America, India and France are deservedly the most famous. Of his orations on American subjects a student of literature or history may profitably read “On Taxation" (1774) and “On Conciliation” (1775), in which Burke presents the Whig argument in favor of a liberal colonial policy. The Tory view of the same question was bluntly presented by Johnson in his essay “Taxation No Tyranny”; while like a reverberation from America, powerful enough to carry across the Atlantic, came Thomas Paine's “Common Sense,” which was a ringing plea for colonial independence.
Of Burke's works pertaining to India “The Nabob of Arcot's Debts" (1785) and the “Impeachment of Warren Hastings” (1786) are interesting to those who can enjoy a long flight of sustained eloquence. Here again Burke presents the liberal, the humane view of what was then largely a political question; but in his Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) he goes over to the Tories, thunders against the revolutionists or their English sympathizers, and exalts the undying glories of the British constitution. The Reflections is the most brilliant of all Burke's works, and is admired for its superb rhetorical style.
To examine any of these works is to discover the author's characteristic method: first, his framework or argument is carefully constructed so as to appeal to reason; then this framework is buried out of sight and memory by a mass of description, digression, emotional appeal, allusions, illustrative matter from the author's wide reading or from his prolific imagination. Note this passage from the French Revolution:
“It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of
France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never
lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more
delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and
cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in,
glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and
joy. Oh, what a revolution! And what a heart must I have to
contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little
did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of
distant, enthusiastic, respectful love, that she should ever be
obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in
that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such
disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation
of men of honour and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords
must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that
threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That
of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the
glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall
we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud
submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the
heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an
exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of
nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is
gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of
honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage
whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched,
and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its
That is finely expressed, but it has no bearing on the political matter in question; namely, whether the sympathy of England should be extended to the French revolutionists in their struggle for liberty. This irrelevancy of Burke suggests our first criticism: that he is always eloquent, and usually right; but he is seldom convincing, and his eloquence is a hindrance rather than a help to his main purpose. So we are not surprised to hear that his eloquent speech on Conciliation emptied the benches; or that after his supreme effort in the impeachment of Hastings—an effort so tremendously dramatic that spectators sobbed, screamed, were carried out in fits—the object of all this invective was acquitted by his judges. Reading the works now, they seem to us praiseworthy not for their sustained eloquence, which is wearisome, but for the brilliancy of certain detached passages which catch the eye like sparkling raindrops after a drenching shower. It was the splendor of such passages, their vivid imagery and harmonious rhythm, which led Matthew Arnold to assert that Burke was the greatest master of prose style in our literature. Anybody can make such an assertion; nobody can prove or disprove it.
THE HISTORIANS. Perhaps it was the rapid expansion of the empire in the latter, part of the eighteenth century which aroused such interest in historical subjects that works of history were then more eagerly welcomed than poetry or fiction. Gibbon says in his Memoirs that in his day “history was the most popular species of composition.” It was also the best rewarded; for while Johnson, the most renowned author of his time, wrote a romance (Rasselas) hoping to sell it for enough to pay for his mother's funeral, Robertson easily disposed of his History of the Emperor Charles V for L4500; and there were others who were even better paid for popular histories, the very titles of which are now forgotten.
Of all the historical works of the age, and their name was legion, only one survives with something of its original vitality, standing the double test of time and scholarship. This is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), a work which remained famous for a century, and which still has its admiring readers. It was written by Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), who belonged to the Literary Club that gathered about Johnson, and who cultivated his style, he tells us, first by adopting the dictator's rounded periods, and then practicing them “till they moved to flutes and hautboys.”
The scope of Gibbon's work is enormous. It begins with the Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98) and carries us through the convulsions of a dying civilization, the descent of the Barbarians on Rome, the spread of Christianity, the Crusades, the rise of Mohammedanism,—through all the confused history of thirteen centuries, ending with the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, in 1453. The mind that could grasp such vast and chaotic materials, arrange them in orderly sequence and resent them as in a gorgeous panorama, moves us to wonder. To be sure, there are many things to criticize in Gibbon's masterpiece,—the author's love of mere pageants; his materialism; his inability to understand religious movements, or even religious motives; his lifeless figures, which move as if by mechanical springs,—but one who reads theDecline and Fall may be too much impressed by the evidences of scholarship, of vast labor, of genius even, to linger over faults. It is a “monumental” work, most interesting to those who admire monuments; and its style is the perfection of that oratorical, Johnsonese style which was popular in England in 1776, and which, half a century later, found its best American mouthpiece in Daniel Webster. The influence of Gibbon may still be seen in the orators and historians who, lacking the charm of simplicity, clothe even their platitudes in high-sounding phrases.
* * * * *
THE REVIVAL OF ROMANTIC POETRY
Every age has had its romantic poets—that is, poets who sing the dreams and ideals of life, and whose songs seem to be written naturally, spontaneously, as from a full heart [Footnote: For specific examples of formal and romantic poetry see the comparison between Addison and Wordsworth below, under “Natural vs Formal Poetry", Chapter VII]—but in the eighteenth century they were completely overshadowed by formal versifiers who made poetry by rule. At that time the imaginative verse which had delighted an earlier age was regarded much as we now regard an old beaver hat; Shakespeare and Milton were neglected, Spenser was but a name, Chaucer was clean forgotten. If a poet aspired to fame, he imitated the couplets of Dryden or Pope, who, as Cowper said,
Made poetry a mere mechanic art,
And every warbler has his tune by heart.
Among those who made vigorous protest against the precise and dreary formalism of the age were Collins and Gray, whose names are commonly associated in poetry, as are the names of Addison and Steele in prose. They had the same tastes, the same gentle melancholy, the same freedom from the bondage of literary fashion. Of the two, William Collins (1721-1759) was perhaps the more gifted poet. His exquisite “Ode to Evening” is without a rival in its own field, and his brief elegy beginning, “How sleep the brave,” is a worthy commemoration of a soldier's death and a nation's gratitude. It has, says Andrew Lang, the magic of an elder day and of all time.
Thomas Gray (1716-1771) is more widely known than his fellow poet, largely because of one fortunate poem which “returned to men's bosoms" as if sure of its place and welcome. This is the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750), which has been translated into all civilized tongues, and which is known, loved, quoted wherever English is spoken.
To criticize this favorite of a million readers seems almost ruthless, as if one were pulling a flower to pieces for the sake of giving it a botanical name. A pleasanter task is to explain, if one can, the immense popularity of the “Elegy.” The theme is of profound interest to every man who reveres the last resting place of his parents, to the nation which cherishes every monument of its founders, and even to primitive peoples, like the Indians, who refuse to leave the place where their fathers are buried, and who make the grave a symbol of patriotism. With this great theme our poet is in perfect sympathy. His attitude is simple and reverent; he treads softly, as if on holy ground. The natural setting or atmosphere of his poem, the peace of evening falling on the old churchyard at Stoke Poges, the curfew bell, the cessation of daily toil, the hush which falls upon the twilight landscape like a summons to prayer,—all this is exactly as it should be. Finally, Gray's craftsmanship, his choice of words, his simple figures, his careful fitting of every line to its place and context, is as near perfection as human skill could make it.
Other poems of Gray, which make his little book precious, are the four odes: “To Spring,” “On a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” “The Progress of Poesy” and “The Bard,” the last named being a description of the dramatic end of an old Welsh minstrel, who chants a wild prophecy as he goes to his death. These romantic odes, together with certain translations which Gray made from Norse mythology, mark the end of “classic” domination in English poetry.
* * * * *
OLIVER GOLDSMITH (1728-1774)
Most versatile of eighteenth-century writers was “poor Noll,” a most improvident kind of man in all worldly ways, but so skillful with his pen that Johnson wrote a sincere epitaph to the effect that Goldsmith attempted every form of literature, and adorned everything which he attempted. The form of his verse suggests the formal school, and his polished couplets rival those of Pope; but there the resemblance ceases. In his tenderness and humor, in his homely subjects and the warm human sympathy with which he describes them, Goldsmith belongs to the new romantic school of poetry.
LIFE. The life of Goldsmith has inspired many pens; but the
subject, far from being exhausted, is still awaiting the right
biographer. The poet's youthful escapades in the Irish country, his
classical education at Trinity College, Dublin, and his vagabond
studies among gypsies and peddlers, his childish attempts at
various professions, his wanderings over Europe, his shifts and
makeshifts to earn a living in London, his tilts with Johnson at
the Literary Club, his love of gorgeous raiment, his indiscriminate
charity, his poverty, his simplicity, his success in the art of
writing and his total failure in the art of living,—such
kaleidoscopic elements make a brief biography impossible. The
character of the man appears in a single incident.
Landing one day on the Continent with a flute, a spare shirt and a
guinea as his sole outward possessions, the guinea went for a feast
and a game of cards at the nearest inn, and the shirt to the first
beggar that asked for it. There remained only the flute, and with
that Goldsmith fared forth confidently, like the gleeman of old
with his harp, delighted at seeing the world, utterly forgetful of
the fact that he had crossed the Channel in search of a medical
That aimless, happy-go-lucky journey was typical of Goldsmith's
whole life of forty-odd years. Those who knew him loved but
despaired of him. When he passed away (1774) Johnson summed up the
feeling of the English literary world in the sentence, “He was a
very great man, let not his frailties be remembered.”
GOLDSMITH'S PROSE AND VERSE. Among the forgotten works of Goldsmith we note with interest several that he wrote for children: a fanciful History of England, an entertaining but most unreliableAnimated Nature, and probably also the tale of “Little Goody Twoshoes.” These were written (as were all his other works) to satisfy the demands of his landlady, or to pay an old debt, or to buy a new cloak,—a plum-colored velvet cloak, wherewith to appear at the opera or to dazzle the Literary Club. From among his works we select four, as illustrative of Goldsmith's versatility.
The Citizen of the World, a series of letters from an alleged Chinese visitor, invites comparison with the essays of Addison or Steele. All three writers are satirical, all have a high moral purpose, all are masters of a graceful style, but where the “Spectator” touches the surface of life, Goldsmith often goes deeper and probes the very spirit of the eighteenth century. Here is a paragraph from the first letter, in which the alleged visitor, who has heard much of the wealth and culture of London, sets down his first impressions:
“From these circumstances in their buildings, and from the dismal
looks of the inhabitants, I am induced to conclude that the nation
is actually poor, and that, like the Persians, they make a splendid
figure everywhere but at home. The proverb of Xixofou is, that a
man's riches may be seen in his eyes if we judge of the English by
this rule, there is not a poorer nation under the sun.”
[THE DESERTED VILLAGE]
The Deserted Village (1770) is the best remembered of Goldsmith's poems, or perhaps one should say “verses” in deference to critics like Matthew Arnold who classify the work with Pope's Essay on Man, as a rimed dissertation rather than a true poem.
To compare the two works just mentioned is to discover how far Goldsmith is from his formal model. In Pope's “Essay” we find common sense, moral maxims and some alleged philosophy, but no emotion, no romance, no men or women. The “Village,” on the other hand, is romantic even in desolation; it awakens our interest, our sympathy; and it gives us two characters, the Parson and the Schoolmaster, who live in our memories with the best of Chaucer's creations. Moreover, it makes the commonplace life of man ideal and beautiful, and so appeals to readers of widely different tastes or nationalities. Of the many ambitious poems written in the eighteenth century, the two most widely read (aside from the songs of Burns) are Goldsmith's “Village,” which portrays the life of simple country people, and Gray's “Elegy,” which laments their death.
[VICAR OF WAKEFIELD]
Goldsmith's one novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), has been well called “the Prince Charming” of our early works of fiction. This work has a threefold distinction: its style alone is enough to make it pleasant reading; as a story it retains much of its original charm, after a century and a half of proving; by its moral purity it offered the best kind of rebuke to the vulgar tendency of the early English novel, and influenced subsequent fiction in the direction of cleanness and decency.
The story is that of a certain vicar, or clergyman, Dr. Primrose and his family, who pass through heavy trials and misfortunes. These might crush or embitter an ordinary man, but they only serve to make the Vicar's love for his children, his trust in God, his tenderness for humanity, shine out more clearly, like star's after a tempest. Mingled with these affecting trials are many droll situations which probably reflect something of the author's personal escapades; for Goldsmith was the son of a clergyman, and brought himself and his father into his tale. As a novel, that is, a reflection of human life in the form of a story, it contains many weaknesses; but despite its faults of moralizing and sentimentality, the impression which the story leaves is one of “sweetness and light.” Swinburne says that, of all novels he had seen rise and fall in three generations, The Vicar of Wakefield alone had retained the same high level in the opinion of its readers.
[SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER]
Another notable work is Goldsmith's comedy She Stoops to Conquer. The date of that comedy (1773) recalls the fact that, though it has been played for nearly a century and a half, during which a thousand popular plays have been forgotten, it is still a prime favorite on the amateur stage. Perhaps the only other comedies of which the same can be said with approximate truth are The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777) of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
The plot of She Stoops to Conquer is said to have been suggested by one of Goldsmith's queer adventures. He arrived one day at a village, riding a borrowed nag, and with the air of a lordly traveler asked a stranger to direct him “to the best house in the place.” The stranger misunderstood, or else was a rare wag, for he showed the way to the abode of a wealthy gentleman. There Goldsmith made himself at home, ordered the servants about, invited his host to share a bottle of wine,—in short, made a great fool of himself. Evidently the host was also a wag, for he let the joke run on till the victim was ready to ride away. [Footnote: There is some doubt as to the source of Goldsmith's plot. It may have been suggested by an earlier French comedy by Marivaux.]
From some such crazy escapade Goldsmith made his comedy of manners, a lively, rollicking comedy of topsy-turvy scenes, all hinging upon the incident of mistaking a private house for a public inn. We have called She Stoops to Conquer a comedy of eighteenth-century manners, but our continued interest in its absurdities would seem to indicate that it is a comedy of human nature in all ages.
* * * * *
ROBERT BURNS (1759-1796)
Burns is everywhere acclaimed the poet of Scotland, and for two good reasons: because he reflects better than any other the emotions of the Scottish people, and because his book is a summary of the best verse of his native land. Practically all his songs, such as “Bonnie Boon” and “Auld Lang Syne,” are late echoes of much older verses; his more ambitious poems borrow their ideas, their satire or sentiment, their form even, from Ferguson, Allan Ramsay and other poets, all of whom aimed (as Scott aimed in “Lochinvar") to preserve the work of unnamed minstrels whose lines had been repeated in Highlands or Lowlands for two centuries. Burns may be regarded, therefore, as a treasury of all that is best in Scottish song. His genius was to take this old material, dear to the heart of the native, and give it final expression.
LIFE. The life of Burns is one to discourage a biographer who does
not relish the alternative of either concealing the facts or
apologizing for his subject. We shall record here only a few
personal matters which may help us to understand Burns's poetry.
Perhaps the most potent influence in his life was that which came
from his labor in the field. He was born in a clay biggin, or
cottage, in the parish of Alloway, near the little town of Ayr.
Auld Ayr, wham neer a town surpasses
For honest men and bonnie lasses.
His father was a poor crofter, a hard working, God fearing man of
the Covenanter type, who labored unceasingly to earn a living from
the soil of a rented farm. The children went barefoot in all
seasons, almost from the time they could walk they were expected to
labor and at thirteen Bobbie was doing a man's work at the plow or
the reaping. The toil was severe, the reward, at best, was to
escape dire poverty or disgraceful debt, but there was yet a
nobility in the life which is finely reflected in “The Cotter's
Saturday Night,” a poem which ranks with Whittier's “Snow Bound"
among the best that labor has ever inspired.
[THE ELEMENT OF NATURE]
As a farmer's boy Burns worked in the open, in close contact with
nature, and the result is evident in all his verse. Sunshine or
storm, bird song or winter wind, the flowers, the stars, the dew of
the morning,—open Burns where you will, and you are face to face
with these elemental realities. Sometimes his reflection of nature
is exquisitely tender, as in “To a Mouse” or “To a Mountain Daisy”;
but for the most part he regards nature not sentimentally, like
Gray, or religiously, like Wordsworth and Bryant, but in a breezy,
companionable way which suggests the song of “Under the Greenwood
Tree” in As You Like It.
Another influence in Burns's life came from his elementary
education. There were no ancient classics studied in the school
which he attended,—fortunately, perhaps, for his best work is free
from the outworn classical allusions which decorate the bulk of
eighteenth-century verse. In the evening he listened to tales from
Scottish history, which stirred him deeply and made him live in a
present world rather than in the misty region of Greek mythology.
One result of this education was the downright honesty of Burns's
poems. Here is no echo from a vanished world of gods and goddesses,
but the voice of a man, living, working, feeling joy or sorrow in
the presence of everyday nature and humanity.
For another formative influence Burns was indebted to Betty
Davidson, a relative and an inmate of the household, who carried
such a stock of old wives' tales as would scare any child into fits
on a dark night. Hear Burns speak of her:
“She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country
of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies,
brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies,
elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantrips,
giants, enchanted towers, dragons, and other trumpery. This
cultivated the latent seeds of poetry, but had so strong an
effect upon my imagination that to this hour, in my
nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in
Reflections of these grotesque superstitions appear in such poems
as the “Address to the Deil” and “Tam o' Shanter.” The latter is
commonly named as one of the few original works of Burns, but it is
probably a retelling of some old witch-tale of Betty Davidson.
The evil influence in Burns's life may be only suggested. It leads
first to the tavern, to roistering and dissipation, to
entanglements in vulgar love affairs; then swiftly to the loss of a
splendid poetic gift, to hopeless debts, to degrading poverty, to
an untimely death. Burns had his chance, if ever poet had it, after
the publication of his first book (the famous Kilmarnock edition of
1786) when he was called in triumph to Edinburgh. There he sold
another edition of his poems for a sum that seemed fabulous to a
poor crofter; whereupon he bought a farm and married his Jean
Armour. He was acclaimed throughout the length and breadth of his
native land, his poems were read by the wise and by the ignorant,
he was the poet of Scotland, and the nation, proud of its gifted
son, stood ready to honor and follow him. But the old habits were
too strong, and Burns took the downhill road. To this element of
dissipation we owe his occasional bitterness, railing and
coarseness, which make an expurgated edition of his poems essential
to one who would enjoy the reading.
There is another element, often emphasized for its alleged
influence on Burns's poetry. During his lifetime the political
world was shaken by the American and French revolutions, democracy
was in the air, and the watchwords “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"
inspired many a song besides the Marseillaise and many a
document besides the Declaration of Independence. That Burns was
aware of this political commotion is true, but he was not much
influenced by it. He was at home only in his own Scottish field,
and even there his interests were limited,—not to be compared with
those of Walter Scott, for example. When the Bastille was stormed,
and the world stood aghast, Burns was too much engrossed in
personal matters to be greatly moved by distant affairs in France.
Not to the Revolution, therefore, but to his Scottish blood do we
owe the thrilling “Scots Wha Hae,” one of the world's best battle
songs, not to the new spirit of democracy abroad but to the old
Covenanter spirit at home do we owe “A Man's a Man for a' That"
with its assertion of elemental manhood.
THE SONGS OF BURNS. From such an analysis of Burns's life one may forecast his subject and his method. Living intensely in a small field, he must discover that there are just two poetic subjects of abiding interest. These are Nature and Humanity, and of these Burns must write from first-hand knowledge, simply, straightforwardly, and with sincerity. Moreover, as Burns lives in an intense way, reading himself rather than books, he must discover that the ordinary man is more swayed by strong feeling than by logical reasons. He will write, therefore, of the common emotions that lie between the extremes of laughter and tears, and his appeal will be to the heart rather than to the head of his reader.
This emotional power of Burns, his masterful touch upon human heartstrings, is the first of his poetic qualities; and he has others which fairly force themselves upon the attention. For example, many of his lyrics (“Auld Lang Syne,” “Banks o' Doon,” “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” “O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast") have been repeatedly set to music; and the reason is that they were written to music, that in such poems Burns was refashioning some old material to the tune of a Scottish song. There is a singing quality in his poetry which not only makes it pleasant reading but which is apt to set the words tripping to melody. For a specific example take this stanza from “Of a' the Airts,” a lyric which one can hardly read without making a tune to match it:
I see her in the dewy flow'rs,
I see her sweet and fair;
I hear her in the tunefu' birds,
I hear her charm the air:
There's not a bonie flow'r that springs
By fountain, shaw or green,
There's not a bonie bird that sings,
But minds me o' my Jean.
Sympathy is another marked characteristic of Burns, a wide, all-embracing sympathy that knows no limit save for hypocrites, at whom he pointed his keenest satire. His feeling for nature is reflected in “To a Mouse” and “To a Daisy”; his comradeship with noble men appears in “The Cotter's Saturday Night,” with riotous and bibulous men in “The Jolly Beggars,” with smugglers and their ilk in “The Deil's Awa' with the Exciseman,” [Footnote: Burns was himself an exciseman; that is, a collector of taxes on alcoholic liquors. He wrote this song while watching a smuggler's craft, and waiting in the storm for officers to come and make an arrest.] with patriots in “Bannockburn,” with men who mourn in “To Mary in Heaven,” and with all lovers in a score of famous lyrics. Side by side with Burns's sympathy (for Smiles live next door to Tears) appears his keen sense of humor, a humor that is sometimes rollicking, as in “Contented wi' Little,” and again too broad for decency. For the most part, however, Burns contents himself with dry, quiet sarcasm delivered with an air of great seriousness:
Ah, gentle dames, it gars me greet
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthened sage advices
The husband frae the wife despises!
WHY BURNS IS READ. Such qualities, appearing on almost every page of Burns's little book of poetry, show how widely he differs from the formal school of Pope and Dryden. They labor to compose poetry, while Burns gives the impression of singing, as naturally as a child sings from a full heart. Again, most eighteenth-century poets wrote for the favored few, but Burns wrote for all his neighbors. His first book was bought farmers, plowboys, milkmaids,—by every Lowlander who could scrape together three shillings to buy a treasure. Then scholars got hold of it, taking it from humble hands, and Burns was called to Edinburgh to prepare a larger edition of his songs. For a half century Scotland kept him to herself, [Footnote: Up to 1850 Burns was rarely mentioned in treatises on English literature. One reason for his late recognition was that the Lowland vocabulary employed in most of his poems was only half intelligible to the ordinary English reader] then his work went wide in the world, to be read again by plain men and women, by sailors on the sea, by soldiers round the campfire, by farmers, mechanics, tradesmen, who in their new homes in Australia or America warmed themselves at the divine fire which was kindled, long ago, in the little clay biggin at Alloway.
[THE GENIUS OF BURNS]
If one should ask, Why this world wide welcome to Burns, the while Pope remains a mark for literary criticism? the answer is that Burns has a most extraordinary power of touching the hearts of common men. He is one of the most democratic of poets, he takes for his subject a simple experience—a family gathering at eventide, a fair, a merrymaking, a joy, a grief, the finding of a flower, the love of a lad for a lass—and with rare simplicity reflects the emotion that such an experience awakens. Seen through the poet's eyes, this simple emotion becomes radiant and lovely, a thing not of earth but of heaven. That is the genius of Burns, to ennoble human feeling, to reveal some hidden beauty in a commonplace experience. The luminous world of fine thought and fine emotion which we associate with the name of poetry he opened not to scholars alone but to all humble folk who toil and endure. As a shoemaker critic once said, “Burns confirms my former suspicion that the world was made for me as well as for Casar.”
* * * * *
MINOR POETS OF ROMANTICISM
There were other poets who aided in the romantic revival, and among them William Cowper (1731-1800) is one of the most notable. His most ambitious works, such as The Task and the translation of Homer into blank verse, have fallen into neglect, and he is known to modern readers chiefly by a few familiar hymns and by the ballad of “John Gilpin.”
Less gifted but more popular than Cowper was James Macpherson (1736-1796), who made a sensation that spread rapidly over Europe and America with his Fingal (1762) and other works of the same kind,—wildly heroic poems which, he alleged, were translations from Celtic manuscripts written by an ancient bard named Ossian. Another and better literary forgery appeared in a series of ballads called The Rowley Papers, dealing with medieval themes. These were written by “the marvelous boy” Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), who professed to have found the poems in a chest of old manuscripts. The success of these forgeries, especially of the “Ossian” poems, is an indication of the awakened interest in medieval poetry and legend which characterized the whole romantic movement.
In this connection, Thomas Percy (1729-1811) did a notable work when he published, after years of research, his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). This was a collection of old ballads, which profoundly influenced Walter Scott, and which established a foundation for all later works of balladry.
Another interesting figure in the romantic revival is William Blake (1757-1827), a strange, mystic child, a veritable John o' Dreams, whom some call madman because of his huge, chaotic, unintelligible poems, but whom others regard as the supreme poetical genius of the eighteenth century. His only readable works are the boyish Poetical Sketches (1783) and two later volumes called Songs of Innocence andSongs of Experience (1794). Even these contain much to make us question Blake's sanity; but they contain also a few lyrics that might have been written by an elf rather than a man,—beautiful, elusive lyrics that haunt us like a strain of gypsy music, a memory of childhood, a bird song in the night:
Can the eagle see what is in the pit,
Or wilt thou go ask the mole?
Can wisdom be put in a silver rod,
Or love in a golden bowl?
In the witchery of these lyrics eighteenth-century poetry appears commonplace; but they attracted no attention, even “Holy Thursday,” the sweetest song of poor children ever written, passing unnoticed. That did not trouble Blake, however, who cared nothing for rewards. He was a childlike soul, well content
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
* * * * *
THE EARLY ENGLISH NOVEL
An important literary event of the eighteenth century was the appearance of the modern novel. This invention, generally credited to the English, differs radically from the old romance, which was known to all civilized peoples. Walter Scott made the following distinction between the two types of fiction: the romance is a story in which our interest centers in marvelous incidents, brought to pass by extraordinary or superhuman characters; the novel is a story which is more natural, more in harmony with our experience of life. Such a definition, though faulty, is valuable in that it points to the element of imagination as the distinguishing mark between the romance and the true novel.
Take, for example, the romances of Arthur or Sindbad or the Green Knight. Here are heroes of more than human endurance, ladies of surpassing loveliness, giants, dragons, enchanters, marvelous adventures in the land of imagination. Such fanciful stories, valuable as a reflection of the ideals of different races, reached their highest point in the Middle Ages, when they were used to convey the ideals of chivalry and knightly duty. They grew more fantastic as they ran to seed, till in the Elizabethan age they had degenerated into picaresque stories (from picaro, “a rogue") which recounted the adventures not of a noble knight but of some scoundrel or outcast. They were finally laughed out of literature in numerous burlesques, of which the most famous is Don Quixote (1605). In the humor of this story, in the hero's fighting windmills and meeting so many adventures that he had no time to breathe, we have an excellent criticism not of chivalry, as is sometimes alleged, but of extravagant popular romances on the subject. [Footnote:Don Quixote is commonly named as a type of extravagant humor, but from another viewpoint it is a sad book, intensely sad. For it recounts the experience of a man who had a knightly heart and who believed the world to be governed by knightly ideals, but who went forth to find a world filled with vulgarity and villainy.]
Compare now these old romances with Ivanhoe or Robinson Crusoe or Lorna Doone or A Tale of Two Cities. In each of the last-named novels one may find three elements: a story, a study, and an exercise of the creative imagination. A modern work of fiction must still have a good story, if anybody is to read it; must contain also a study or observation of humanity, not of superhuman heroes but of men and women who work or play or worship in close relationship to their fellows. Finally, the story and the study must be fused by the imagination, which selects or creates various scenes, characters, incidents, and which orders or arranges its materials so as to make a harmonious work that appeals to our sense of truth and beauty; in other words, a work of art.
Such is the real novel, a well-told story in tune with human experience, holding true to life, exercising fancy but keeping it under control, arousing thought as well as feeling, and appealing to our intellect as well as to our imagination. [Footnote: This convenient division of prose fiction into romances and novels is open to challenge. Some critics use the name “novel” for any work of prose fiction. They divide novels into two classes, stories (or short stories) and romances. The story relates simple or detached incidents; the romance deals with life in complex relations, dominated by strong emotions, especially by the emotion of love.
Other critics arrange prose fiction in the following classes: novels of adventure (Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans), historical novels (Ivanhoe, The Spy), romantic novels (Lorna Doone, The Heart of Midlothian), novels of manners (Cranford, Pride and Prejudice), novels of personality (Silas Marner, The Scarlet Letter), novels of purpose (Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom's Cabin).
Still another classification arranges fiction under two heads, romance and realism. In the romance, which portrays unusual incidents or characters, we see the ideal, the poetic side of humanity; in the realistic novel, dealing with ordinary men and women, the prosaic element of life is emphasized.]
DEFOE (1661-1731). Among the forerunners of the modern novel is Daniel Foe, author of Robinson Crusoe, who began to call himself “Defoe” after he attained fame. He produced an amazing variety of wares: newspapers, magazines, ghost stories, biographies, journals, memoirs, satires, picaresque romances, essays on religion, reform, trade, projects,—in all more than two hundred works. These were written in a picturesque style and with such a wealth of detail that, though barefaced inventions for the most part, they passed for veracious chronicles. One critic, thinking of the vividly realistic Journal of the Plague Year and Memoirs of a Cavalier, says that “Defoe wrote history, but invented the facts”; another declares that “the one little art of which Defoe was past master was the art of forging a story and imposing it on the world as truth.” The long list of his works ends with a History of the Devil, in 1726.
Foe's career was an extraordinary one. By nature and training he
seems to have preferred devious ways to straight, and to have
concealed his chief motive whether he appeared as reformer or
politician, tradesman or writer, police-spy or friend of outcasts.
His education, which he picked up from men and circumstance, was
more varied than any university could have given him. Perhaps the
chief factor in this practical education was his ability to turn
every experience to profitable account. As a journalist he invented
the modern magazine (his Review appeared in 1704, five years
before Steele's Tatler); also he projected the interview,
the editorial, the “scoop,” and other features which still figure
in our newspapers. As a hired pamphleteer, writing satires against
Whigs or Tories, he learned so many political secrets that when one
party fell he was the best possible man to be employed by the
other. While sitting in the stocks (in punishment for writing a
satirical pamphlet that set Tories and Churchmen by the ears) he
made such a hit with his doggerel verses against the authorities
that crowds came to the pillory to cheer him and to buy his poem.
While in durance vile, in the old Newgate Prison, he mingled freely
with all sorts of criminals (there were no separate cells in those
days), won their secrets, and used them to advantage in his
picaresque romances. He learned also so much of the shady side of
London life that no sooner was he released than he was employed as
a secret service agent, or spy, by the government which had jailed
It is as difficult to find the real Foe amidst such devious trails
as to determine where a caribou is from the maze of footprints
which he leaves behind him. He seems to have been untiring in his
effort to secure better treatment of outcast folk, he speaks of
himself with apparent sincerity, as having received his message
from the Divine Spirit, but the impression which he made upon the
upper classes was reflected by Swift, who called him “a grave,
dogmatical rogue”. For many years he was a popular hero, trusted
not only by the poor but by the criminal classes (ordinarily keen
judges of honesty in other men), until his secret connection with
the government became known. Then suspicion fell upon him, his
popularity was destroyed and he fled from London. The last few
years of his life were spent in hiding from real or imaginary
Defoe was approaching his sixtieth year when he wrote Robinson Crusoe (1719), a story which has been read through out the civilized world, and which, after two centuries of life, is still young and vigorous. The first charm of the book is in its moving adventures, which are surprising enough to carry us through the moralizing passages. These also have their value; for who ever read them without asking, What would I have done or thought or felt under such circumstances? The work of society is now so comfortably divided that one seldom dreams of being his own mechanic, farmer, hunter, herdsman, cook and tailor, as Crusoe was. Thinking of his experience we are brought face to face with our dependence on others, with our debt to the countless, unnamed men whose labor made civilization possible. We understand also the pioneers, who in the far, lonely places of the earth have won a home and country from the wilderness.
When the adventures are duly appreciated we discover another charm of Robinson Crusoe, namely, its intense reality. Defoe had that experience of many projects, and that vivid imagination, which enabled him to put himself in the place of his hero, [Footnote: The basis of Robinson Crusoe was the experience of an English sailor, Alexander Selkirk, or Selcraig, who was marooned on the lonely island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile. There he lived in solitude for the space of five years before he was rescued. When Selkirk returned to England (1709) an account of his adventures appeared in the public press.] to anticipate his needs, his feelings, his labors and triumph. That Crusoe was heroic none will deny; yet his heroism was of a different kind from that which we meet in the old romances. Here was no knight “without fear and without reproach,” but a plain man with his strength and weakness. He despaired like other men; but instead of giving way to despair he drew up a list of his blessings and afflictions, “like debtor and creditor,” found a reasonable balance in his favor, and straightway conquered himself,—which is the first task of all real heroes. Again, he had horrible fears; he beat his breast, cried out as one in mortal terror; then “I thought that would do little good, so I began to make a raft.” So he overcame his fears, as he overcame the difficulties of the place, by setting himself to do alone what a whole race of men had done before him. Robinson Crusoe is therefore history as well as fiction; its subject is not Alexander Selkirk but Homo Sapiens; its lesson is the everlasting triumph of will and work.
RICHARDSON. One morning in 1740 the readers of London found a new work for sale in the bookshops. It was made up of alleged letters from a girl to her parents, a sentimental girl who opened her heart freely, explaining its hopes, fears, griefs, temptations, and especially its moral sensibilities. Such a work of fiction was unique at that time. Delighted readers waited for another and yet another volume of the same story, till more than a year had passed and Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded reached its happy ending.
[THE FIRST NOVEL]
The book made a sensation in England; it was speedily translated, and repeated its triumph on the other side of the Channel. Comparatively few people could read it now without being bored, but it is famous in the history of literature as the first English novel; that is, a story of a human life under stress of emotion, told by one who understood the tastes of his own age, and who strove to keep his work true to human nature in all ages.
The author of Pamela, Samuel Richardson (1689—1761), was a very proper person, well satisfied with himself, who conducted a modest business as printer and bookseller. For years he had practiced writing, and had often been employed by sentimental young women who came to him for model love letters. Hence the extraordinary knowledge of feminine feelings which Richardson displayed; hence also the epistolary form in which his novels were written. His aim in all his work was to teach morality and correct deportment. His strength was in his power to analyze and portray emotions. His weakness lay in his vanity, which led him to shun masculine society and to foregather at tea tables with women who flattered him.
Led by the success of Pamela, which portrayed the feelings of a servant girl, the author began another series of letters which ended in the eight-volume novel Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady(1748). The story appeared in installments, which were awaited with feverish impatience till the agony drew to an end, and the heroine died amid the sobs of ten thousand readers. Yet the story had power, and the central figure of Clarissa was impressive in its pathos and tragedy. The novel would still be readable if it were stripped of the stilted conversations and sentimental gush in which Richardson delighted; but that would leave precious little of the story.
FIELDING. In vigorous contrast with the prim and priggish Richardson is Henry Fielding (1707-1754), a big, jovial, reckless man, full of animal spirits, who was ready to mitigate any man's troubles or forget his own by means of a punch bowl or a venison potpie. He was noble born, but seems to have been thrown on the world to shift for himself. After an excellent education he studied law, and was for some years a police magistrate, in which position he increased his large knowledge of the seamy side of life. He had a pen for vigorous writing, and after squandering two modest fortunes (his own and his wife's) he proceeded to earn his living by writing buffooneries for the stage. Then appeared Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, and in ridiculing its sentimental heroine Fielding found his vocation as a novelist.
[BURLESQUE OF RICHARDSON]
He began Joseph Andrews (1742) as a joke, by taking for his hero an alleged brother of Pamela, who was also virtuous but whose reward was to be kicked out of doors. Then the story took to the open road, among the inns and highways of an age when traveling in rural England was almost as adventurous as campaigning in Flanders. In the joy of his story Fielding soon forgot his burlesque of Richardson, and attempted what he called a realistic novel; that is, a story of real life. The morality and decorum which Richardson exalted appeared to Fielding as hypocrisy; so he devoted himself to a portrayal of men and manners as he found them.
Undoubtedly there were plenty of good men and manners at that time, but Fielding had a vagabond taste that delighted in rough scenes, and of these also eighteenth-century England could furnish an abundance. Hence his Joseph Andrews is a picture not of English society, as is often alleged, but only of the least significant part of society. The same is true of Tom Jones (1749), which is the author's most vigorous work, and of Amelia (1751), in which, though he portrays one good woman, he repeats many of the questionable incidents of his earlier works.
There is power in all these novels, the power of keen observation, of rough humor, of downright sincerity; but unhappily the power often runs to waste in long speeches to the reader, in descriptions of brutal or degrading scenes, and in a wholly unnecessary coarseness of expression.
INFLUENCE OF THE EARLY NOVELS. The idea of the modern novel seems to have been developed by several English authors, each of whom, like pioneers in a new country, left his stamp on subsequent works in the same field. Richardson's governing motive may be summed up in the word “sensibility,” which means “delicacy of feeling,” and which was a fashion, almost a fetish, in eighteenth-century society. Because it was deemed essential to display proper or decorous feeling on all occasions, Richardson's heroines were always analyzing their emotions; they talked like a book of etiquette; they indulged in tears, fainting, transports of joy, paroxysms of grief, apparently striving to make themselves as unlike a real woman as possible. It is astonishing how far and wide this fad of sensibility spread through the literary world, and how many gushing heroines of English and American fiction during the next seventy-five years were modeled on Pamela or Clarissa.
In view of this artificial fashion, the influence of Fielding was like the rush of crisp air into a hot house. His aim was realistic, that is, to portray real people in their accustomed ways. Unfortunately his aim was spoiled by the idea that to be realistic one must go to the gutter for material. And then appeared Goldsmith, too much influenced by the fad of sensibility, but aiming to depict human life as governed by high ideals, and helping to cleanse the English novel from brutality and indecency.
There were other early novelists, a host of them, but in Richardson, Fielding and Goldsmith we have enough. Richardson emphasized the analysis of human feeling or motive, and that of itself was excellent; but his exaggerated sentimentality set a bad fashion which our novelists were almost a century in overcoming. Fielding laid stress on realism, and that his influence was effective is shown in the work of his disciple Thackeray, who could be realistic without being coarse. And Goldsmith made all subsequent novelists his debtors by exalting that purity of domestic life to which every home worthy of the name forever strives or aspires.
If it be asked, What novels of the early type ought one to read? the answer is simple. Unless you want to curdle your blood by a tale of mystery and horror (in which case Mrs. Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho will serve the purpose) there are only two that young readers will find satisfactory: the realistic Robinson Crusoe by Defoe, and the romantic Vicar of Wakefield by Goldsmith.
* * * * *
SUMMARY. What we call eighteenth-century literature appeared
between two great political upheavals, the English Revolution of
1688 and the French Revolution of 1789. Some of the chief
characteristics of that literature—such as the emphasis on form,
the union of poetry with politics, the prevalence of satire, the
interest in historical subjects—have been accounted for, in part
at least, in our summary of the history of the period.
The writings of the century are here arranged in three main
divisions: the reign of formalism (miscalled classicism), the
revival of romantic poetry, and the development of the modern
novel. Our study of the so-called classic period includes: (1) The
meaning of classicism in literature. (2) The life and works of
Pope, the leading poet of the age; of Swift, a master of satire; of
Addison and Steele, the graceful essayists who originated the
modern literary magazine. (3) The work of Dr. Johnson and his
school; in which we have included, for convenience, Edmund Burke,
most eloquent of English orators, and Gibbon the historian, famous
for his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Our review of the romantic writers of the age covers: (1) The work
of Collins and Gray, whose imaginative poems are in refreshing
contrast to the formalism of Pope and his school. (2) The life and
works of Goldsmith, poet, playwright, novelist; and of Burns, the
greatest of Scottish song writers. (3) A glance at other poets,
such as Cowper and Blake, who aided in the romantic revival. (4)
The renewed interest in ballads and legends, which showed itself in
Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, and in two
famous forgeries, the Ossian poems of Macpherson and The
Rowley Papers of the boy Chatterton.
Our study of the novel includes: (1) The meaning of the modern
novel, as distinct from the ancient romance. (2) A study of Defoe,
author of Robinson Crusoe, who was a forerunner of the
modern realistic novelist. (3) The works of Richardson and of
Fielding, contrasting types of eighteenth-century story-tellers.
(4) The influence of Richardson's sentimentality, of Fielding's
realism, and of Goldsmith's moral purity on subsequent English
SELECTIONS FOR READING. Typical selections are given in Manly,
English Poetry and English Prose, Century Readings, and other
miscellaneous collections. Important works of major writers are
published in inexpensive editions for school use, a few of which
are named below.
Pope's poems, selected, in Standard English Classics, Pocket
Classics, Riverside Literature, and other series. (See Texts, in
Selections from Swift's works, in Athenaum Press, Holt's English
Readings, Clarendon Press. Gulliver's Travels, in Standard English
Classics, in Ginn and Company's Classics for Children, in
Carisbrooke Library, in Temple Classics.
Selections from Addison and Steele, in Athenaum Press, Golden
Treasury, Maynard's English Classics. Sir Roger de Coverley Papers,
in Standard English Classics, Riverside Literature, Academy
Chesterfield's Letters to his son, selected, in Ginn and Company's
Classics for Children, and in Maynard's English Classics.
Boswell's Life of Johnson, in Clarendon Press, Temple Classics,
Burke's Speeches, selected, in Standard English Classics, Pocket
Classics, English Readings.
Selections from Gray, in Athenaum Press, Canterbury Poets,
Goldsmith's Deserted Village and Vicar of Wakefield, in Standard
English Classics, King's Classics; She Stoops to Conquer, in Pocket
Classics, Belles Lettres Series, Cassell's National Library.
Sheridan's The Rivals, in Athenaum Press, Camelot Series, Riverside
Literature, Everyman's Library.
Poems of Burns, selected, in Standard English Classics, Riverside
Literature, Silver Classics.
Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, school edition by Ginn and Company; the
same in Everyman's Library, Pocket Classics.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. For extensive manuals and texts see the General
Bibliography. The following works deal chiefly with the eighteenth
HISTORY. Morris, Age of Queen Anne and the Early Hanoverians
(Epochs of Modern History Series); Sydney, England and the English
in the Eighteenth Century; Susan Hale, Men and Manners in the
Eighteenth Century; Ashton, Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne;
Thackeray, The Four Georges.
LITERATURE. L. Stephen, English Literature in the Eighteenth
Century; Perry, English Literature in the Eighteenth Century;
Seccombe, The Age of Johnson; Dennis, The Age of Pope; Gosse,
History of English Literature in the Eighteenth Century; Whitwell,
Some Eighteenth-Century Men of Letters; Phelps, Beginnings of the
English Romantic Movement; Beers, English Romanticism in the
Eighteenth Century; Thackeray, English Humorists.
Pope. Life, by Courthope; by L. Stephen (English Men of
Letters Series). Essays, by Thackeray, in English Humorists; by L.
Stephen, in Hours in a Library; by Lowell, in My Study Windows.
Swift. Life, by Forster; by L. Stephen (E. M. of L.).
Essays, by Thackeray, in English Humorists; by Dobson, in
Eighteenth Century Vignettes.
Addison and Steele. Life of Addison, by Courthope (E. M. of
L.). Life of Steele, by Dobson. Essays by Macaulay, by Thackeray,
Johnson. Life, by Boswell (for personal details); by L.
Stephen (E. M. of L.). Hill, Dr. Johnson: his Friends and his
Critics. Essays by Macaulay, by Thackeray, by L. Stephen.
Burke. Life, by Morley (E. M. of L.), by Prior. Macknight,
Life and Times of Burke.
Gibbon. Life, by Morrison (E. M. of L.). Essays, by Birrell,
in Collected Essays; by L. Stephen, in Studies of a Biographer; by
Harrison, in Ruskin and Other Literary Estimates; by Sainte-Beuve,
in English Portraits.
Gray. Life, by Gosse. Essays by Lowell, M. Arnold, L.
Goldsmith. Life, by Washington Irving, by Dobson (Great
Writers Series), by Black (E. M. of L.), by Forster. Essays, by
Macaulay; by Thackeray, in English Humorists; by Dobson, in
Burns. Life, by Shairp (E. M. of L.), by Blackie (Great
Writers). Carlyle's Essay on Burns, in Standard English Classics
and other school editions. Essays, by Stevenson, in Familiar
Studies of Men and Books; by Hazlitt, in Lectures on the English
Poets; by Henley, in Introduction to the Cambridge Edition of
The Novel. Raleigh, The English Novel; Cross, Development of the
English Novel; Perry, A Study of Prose Fiction; Symonds,
Introduction to the Study of English Fiction; Dawson, Makers of
Defoe. Life, by Minto (E. M. of L.), by William Lee. Essay
by L. Stephen, in Hours in a Library.
Richardson. Life, by Thomson, by Dobson. Essays, by L.
Stephen, in Hours in a Library; by Dobson, in Eighteenth Century
Fielding. Life, by Dobson (E. M. of L.). Lawrence, Life and
Times of Fielding. Essays by Lowell, L. Stephen, Dobson; Thackeray,
in English Humorists; G. B. Smith, in Poets and Novelists.
FICTION. Thackeray, Henry Esmond, and The Virginians; Scott,
Guy Mannering, Rob Roy, Heart of Midlothian, Redgauntlet; Reade,