Page images
PDF
EPUB

of sneering at hypocritical pretensions, an increase of zeal in the profession of religious indifference, and a waxing boldness in proclaiming the comfortable creed which declared profligacy to be the necessary qualification of a gentleman. The good men of the party (and there were many such) resisted and grieved in vain. If it was a bitter thing for the patriotic Falkland to die for a king against whose acts he had indignantly protested, it must have been bitter, doubly bitter, for truly pious men, like Hall, and Taylor, and Usher, to find themselves preaching truth and goodness to hearers, by whom truth and goodness were equally set at nought.

THE REIGN OF CHARLES THE FIRST.

9. It remains, still, that we learn a few of the principal literary names, and one or two of the most prominent literary characteristics, that may be referred to the two eras which, in their social aspects, have now been considered together. The changes may be indicated most clearly if they are arranged in two successive stages; and these are naturally marked off from each other by the successive changes of government. Yet neither the men nor the facts can be kept entirely separate.

The time of Charles's rule was, naturally, more variously prolific than that which followed.

In Poetry it was especially so. The quantity of beautiful verse which it has bequeathed to us is wonderful; the forms in which fancy disported itself embrace almost all that are possible, except some of the most arduous; the tone of sentiment shifted from the gravest to the gayest, from rapturous devotion to playful levity, from tragic tearfulness to fantastic wit, from moral solemnity to indecent licence; the themes ranged from historical fact to invented fable, from the romantic story to the scene of domestic life, from momentous truths to puerile trifles. No great poet, however, appears in the crowd ; and it is enough to say, that among them were most of those whose sonnets, and odes, and other lyrics, will call for some notice hereafter. The Drama, though now no longer the chief walk of poetic art, was still rich in genius; its most distinguished names being those of Massinger, Ford, and Shirley. But here the aristocratic depravity had taken deeper root than anywhere else: it was a blessing to the public that, soon after the breaking out of the war, the theatres were shut, and their poets left to idleness or repentance.

The Prose writers of the reign are worthily represented by two of the clergy. Hall was in the full maturity of his fame and usefulness: and it is touching to see him, who had urgently

remonstrated against the innovations of Laud, now combating generously for the church, and punished because he refused to separate himself from her communion. Jeremy Taylor, also, now begins his career of eloquence and vicissitude; as yet suffering little in the growing tumult, but destined to pass through a course of troubles hardly less severe than those of his elder contemporary. That the age was not without much erudition, is proved by his name, as well as by several others. But the greatest among all these is that of the universally learned Selden: and his position is in several respects illustrative of the character of his time, more than one of these indeed being common to him with Camden. Both were laymen, as were one or two others of the most eminent scholars of this half century; a point deserving to be remembered, as denoting the commencement of a social state widely different from the mediæval. Both, again, not only were variously learned, but busied themselves, besides the ancient studies in which they were so eminent, with the antiquities of their native country ; while Selden's most successful literary labours were of a peculiarly practical cast. He, too, by far the most deeply read scholar of his age, found time and will to be a statesman and a lawyer. He sat in parliament; and it was his own fault that he was not raised to the woolsack. In quitting this eventful reign, we may note, as its chief fact in philosophy, that Hobbes was then preparing for his ambitious and diversified tasks, and publishing some of his earliest writings.

THE COMMONWEALTH AND PROTECTORATE. 10. The Commonwealth and Protectorate, extending over no more than eleven years, made, for literature not less than for church and state, an epoch which would be very wrongly judged of, if its importance were to be reckoned as proportional to its duration. The political republic worked strongly on the republic of letters; but the impulse expended itself within a narrow circle, and produced total inaction in several quarters by coming into collision with the older tendencies.

The Old English Drama was extinct. Poetry of other kinds had fewer votaries: most of the poets who had appeared in the courtly times were already dead; and the room they left vacant was filled up very thinly. The younger men were affected, powerfully and in most instances permanently, by the stern seriousness of the time: when the overstretched cord suddenly snapped at the Restoration, the moral looseness which infected poetical sentiment showed itself chiefly in writers who, by one cause or another, had been placed beyond the puritanical influence

The literary aspect of poetry exhibited several very interesting symptoms, marking the time emphatically as one of transition from the old to the new. Cowley now closed, perhaps with greater brilliancy than it had ever possessed, the eccentric and artificial school of which Donne has been recorded as the founder: and Milton, though labouring vehemently, in the meanwhile, amongst those who strove to guide the social tempest, was thus really undergoing the last steps of that mental discipline which was soon to qualify him for standing forth, in dignified solitude, as the last and all but the greatest of our poetical ancients. At the very same time, the approach of a modern era was indicated, both by the frivolity of sentiment, and by the ease of versification and style, which prevailed in the poems of. Waller. The works of Butler and Dryden belong, it is true, to the age that followed. But these were the days when the former was marking the victims who were afterwards to writhe under his satiric lash : and the latter was already beginning his devious and doubtful course, by offering his homage at the feet of the Protector.

Philosophy could command little attention; but philosophers were neither idle nor silent. Hobbes, fortified by exile in his uncompromising championship of royal supremacy, sounded his first blasts of defiance to constitutional freedom and ecclesiastical independence. In the cloisters of Cambridge, on the other hand, two deep though mystical thinkers, undistracted by the din which was heard around, grappled quietly with the most arduous problems of philosophic thought. Henry More expounded those Platonic dreams of his, which were not altogether dreams; while Cudworth began to vindicate belief in the being of the Almighty, and in the essential foundations of moral distinctions.

Theology, the highest of all sciences, and that which then directed both opinion and practice among the leading men of England, was cultivated with general alacrity, in many and diverse departments, and with great variety both of feeling and thought. Among its teachers were several of our great prose writers. The venerable Hall, towards the end of the period, closed his honourable life, persecuted and poor, but cheerful and courageous : Jeremy Taylor, like the non-conformists in his own later days, toiled the more vigorously at his desk when the pulpit was shut against him. The Puritans, who were now the ruling power in the state, became also a power in literature: and their force of reasoning, and their impressiveness of eloquence, are nobly represented by the distinguished name of Richard Baxter.

11. Among the prose works of Milton, some belong to the theological and ecclesiastical controversies of the time; others deal with those social and political questions then discussed in many very able writings, of which his may here suffice as examples. He, like several of his remarkable contemporaries, lived into the succeeding generation : and he may be accepted as the last representative of the eloquence of English Prose, in that brilliant stage of its history, which, when looked at from a general point of view, is found to terminate about the date of the Restoration.

It should be observed, indeed, that, in prose not less than in verse, the earliest aspirants of the new school were producing excellent assay-pieces, while the ancient masters worked with undiminished vigour after their accustomed models. The works of the eccentrically eloquent Sir Thomas Browne, who lived, though without writing, for twenty years in the reign of Charles the Second, are exaggerated specimens, both for good and evil, of all the qualities characterizing the style of his predecessors. Cowley the poet, on the contrary, who hardly survived the Protectorate, has given us a few prose writings which, in point of style, stand alone in their age: they have a modern ease, and simplicity, and regularity, which, if we did not know their date, might induce us to think they must have been composed thirty or forty years later. In a word, the anticipation of the future, with which Hooker's style surprised us at the beginning of our period, is paralleled by that which Cowley's exhibits at its close.

At this point, then, ends the first great section in the History of English Eloquence. Hardly taking more than a beginning in the last generation of Elizabeth's reign, it stretches forward till a little past the middle of the seventeenth century. In regard to the contents of the books in which the most remarkable prose compositions of our language are thus embodied, we shall learn something immediately. In the meantime, we may enable ourselves to understand the Character of the Style which prevails among their writers, by studying an analytic description of it, given by one of our highest critical authorities.

“To this period belong most of those whom we commonly reckon our Old English Writers; men often of such sterling worth for their sense, that we might read them with little regard to their language; yet, in some instances at least, possessing much that demands praise in this respect. They are generally nervous effective, copious to redundancy in their command of words, apt to employ what seemed to them ornament with much imagination rather than judicious taste, yet seldom degenerating into coinmonplace and indefinite phraseology. They have, however

, many defects. Some of them, especially the most learned, are full of pedantry, and deform their pages by an excessive and preposterous mixture of Latinisms unknown before: at other times we are disgusted by colloquial and even vulgar idioms or proverbs: nor is it uncommon to find these opposite blemishes, not only in the same author, but in the same passages. Their periods, except in a very few, are ill constructed and tediously prolonged : their ears, again with some exceptions, seem to have been insensible to the beauty of rhythmical prose : grace is commonly wanting: and their notion of the artifices of style, when they thought at all about them, was not congenial to our language. This may be accepted as a general description of the English writers under James and Charles ; some of the most famous may, in a certain degree, be deemed to modify the censure."

" *

* Hallam: Introduction to the Literature of Europe in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries.

« PreviousContinue »