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THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.
SECTION SECOND: THE LITERATURE OF THE FIRST GENERATION.
POETRY. 1. The Drama-Non-Dramatic Poetry—Its Artificial Character-Minor Poets.
-2. Alexander Pope-Characteristics of his Genius and Poetry.-3. Pope's WorksHis Early Poems--Poems of Middle Age-His Later Poems.-PROSE. 4. Theologians-Philosophers--- Clarke's Natural Theology -- Bishop Berkeley's IdealismShaftesbury -- Bolingbroke.--- 5. Miscellaneous Prose--Occasional Writings-Defoe and Robinson Crusoe-Swift's Works and Literary Character--Other Prose Satires6. The Periodical Essayists-Addison and Steele—The Spectator-Its Character-Its Design.
1. In our study of the Poetry of Queen Anne's time, the Drama scarcely deserves more than a parenthesis. The one pleasant point about it is the improvement in morals, which was shown by the Comedies, although accompanied by great want of delicacy both in manners and in language. That the ethical tone was high, however, cannot be asserted of a time, in which the most famous works of the kind were Gay's equivocal “ Beggar's Opera," and the “ Careless Husband” of Cibber. Nor are these, or any other comic dramas of that day, comparable in ability to those of the best writers of the age immediately before them. In Tragedy, the first noticeable fact was the appearance of Rowe's “Fair Penitent,” which has already been noticed as an impudent but clever plagiarism from Massinger. In Addison's celebrated “Cato, the strict rules of the French stage became triumphant, and co-operated with the natural coldness of the author, in producing a series of stately and impressive speeches hardly in any sense deserving to be called dramatic. Young's "Revenge" had much more of tragic passion; though it wanted almost entirely that force of characterization, which seemed to have been buried with the old dramatists, and which had not even in them been the strongest point.
When we turn from the Drama, we find some Minor Poets, who should not be altogether overlooked. Such were Gay, whose
name is preserved by his “Fables,” cheerful pieces of no great moment; and Somerville
, whose blank-verse poem, “ The Chase," is not quite forgotten. Swift's octosyllabic satires and occasional pieces, as excellent as his prose writings for their diction, are quite guiltless of the essence of poetry,
The Heroic Measure of our poetic language, written by Dryden ruggedly and irregularly, but with a noble roundness and variety of modulation, was now treated in another fashion, which continued to prevail throughout the greater part of the century, Two qualities were chiefly aimed at; smoothness of melody, and brief pointedness of expression. The master in this school was Pope, whose versification has been described by a more recent poet, fairly on the whole, though with somewhat of the affection of a disciple. “That his rhythm and manner are the very
best in the whole range of our poetry, need not be asserted. He has a gracefully peculiar manner; though it is not calculated to be an universal one: and where indeed shall we find the style of poetry, that could be pronounced an exclusive model for every composer ? His pauses have little variety; and his phrases are too much weighed in the balance of antithesis. But let us look to the spirit that points his antitheses, and to the rapid precision of his thoughts; and we shall forgive him for being too antithetic and sententious.'
The same turn, with less both of poetry and of terseness, is shown by other poets, some of whom began to write before Pope. Of these, Parnell comes nearest to him in manner; Ambrose Phillips was a particularly pleasing versifier ; and Addison's best poem, the Letter from Italy, catches, from the fascinating theme, more warmth of feeling than its author has elsewhere shown in
Within this period fall the later works of Sir Richard Blackmore; who, although his poetic feebleness, as well as his heaviness of thought and language, made him a tempting butt for the witty men of his time, deserves remembrance on other grounds. Amidst the licence which followed the Restoration, he had vindicated the cause of goodness by the example which all his writings furnished : in a time when poetry was hardly ever narrative, he ventured to compose regular epics: and in his didactic poems
he rose above the trivialities that were universally popular, and, as in his “Creation,” touched the highest religious topics.
2. It has gravely been asked whether Pope was a poet. They b. 1688.? who put the question, expecting to compel an answer in d. 1744.5 the negative, must have fallen into some confusion in
* Campbell: Specimens of the British Poets.
their use of words. But, if they ask, with a similar design, whe ther he was a great poet, or a poet of the first order, we shall tell the truth in answering them as they wish. We might perhaps say, further, that the works which he has given us do not possess nearly all the value, which his fine genius might have imparted to them.
There abound, in his poems, passages beautifully poetical ; passages
convey to us, on the wings of the sweetest verse, exquisite thoughts, or dazzling images, or feelings delicately pleasing. Still more frequent are vigorous portraits of character, and sketches of social oddities, and evidences, widely various, of shrewd observation and reflective good sense. The diction, almost everywhere, is as highly finished as the versification. Further, if we turn from the details of a work to its aspect as a whole, we can hardly ever fail to admire the care and skill with which the parts are disposed and united.
Amidst all these excellences, we want, .or find but seldom, those others, in virtue of which poetry holds her prerogative as the soother and elevator of the human soul. Those few works of his which communicate to us, with unity and sequence, the characteristic pleasure of poetic art, yet, (it cannot but be allowed,) raise that pleasure from excitants of the least dignified kind that can excite it at all. We are wafted into no bright world of imagination, rapt into no dream of strong passion, seldom raised into any high region of moral thought. If emotion is shown by the poet or his personages, it is slight; if fancy is excited, it is avowedly but in sport. Oftenest, however, it is only by fits and starts that we are at all tempted towards a poetical mood. The passages which make the poetry, are but occasional intervals of diversion from strains of observation or strokes of satire. If the words here used resemble those which occurred to us when we glanced at the works of Dryden, it is because a strong likeness prevails between the things described.
For this continual alloy of Pope's poetry by non-poetical ingredients, several reasons may be assigned, all of them common to him with the other poets of his day. In the first place, they were agreed in setting a higher value on skill of execution, than on originality or vigour of conception. He himself prized his lively fancy and fine susceptibility much less than his delicacy of phrase and his melodious versification. Secondly, those poets abstained systematically from all attempts at exciting strongly either imagination or feeling. No group of writers, calling themselves poets, could have shunned more anxiously the heroic and the tragic. It has been said that Pope never tried to be pathetic except twice; and this is scarcely an unfair description of his tone of sentiment. All the poetry of his school was carefully prepared for a refined and somewhat finical class of readers, who shrank from the idea of being called on to fancy any scenes more stormy than those of their own level and easy life. Thirdly, there was also, arising in part out of this disinclination to passionate excitement, a constant tendency to make poetry lose that representative character in which it appeals directly to the imagination, and to force it on assuming avowedly and principally the function of communicating knowledge. This tendency moulded the whole form of almost every work then written in verse. Satires on men or opinions, ethical treatises, or discussions on questions affecting the theory of literature, were written in good verse, and with much prosaic good sense ; and a few passages of an imaginative or sentimental cast, often truly and intensely poetical, were thrown in here and there, figuring as ornaments, rather than as essential parts of the design.
3. The reflectiveness and polish of Pope's poetry might have led us to suppose, that his genius, like that of Dryden, must have come slowly to maturity. But this was not the case.
His life, indeed, was a short one, and full of bodily suffering : and all his best works were written before he was forty years old. Nor do they give evidence of decided
of the qualifications of the poet, unless those minor ones which cannot but be improved by practice. The “ Pastorals,” the earliest of them, are merely boyish imitations: and in the “Windsor Forest,” likewise in great part an effusion of early youth, he evidently feels but little at home among the landscapes of the fields and woodlands, scarcely becoming poetical till he turns away to contemplate historical events. The taste, both of the poet and of the times, is yet more clearly shown in his “Essay on Criticism," published before he had attained his twenty-first year. It is very instructive to observe, that the topic of this poem was chosen, not by a man of mature years and trained reflection, but by an ambitious boy who had not yet emerged from his teens. Nor is the execution less ripe than the design. None of his works unites, more happily, regularity of plan, shrewdness of thought, and beauty of verse.
To these excellences were added the richest stores of his fancy,
in that which is certainly his most successful effort, “ The Rape of the Lock.” This exquisite work of art assumed its complete shape in the author's twenty-sixth year. It is the best of all mock-heroic poems, and incomparably beyond those of Tassoni and Boileau, its Italian and French models. The sharpest
wit, the keenest dissection of the follies of fashionable life, the finest grace of diction, and the softest flow of melody, come appropriately to adorn a tale in which we learn how a fine gentleman stole a lock of a lady's hair. And the gay mockery of human life and action is interwoven, in the fantastic freaks of the benignant sylphs and malevolent gnomes, with a parody, not less pleasant, of the supernatural inventions by which serious poetry has been wont to attempt the elevating of reality into the sphere of the ideal.
In the “ Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard," and the “ Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady,” Pope attempted the pathetic, not altogether in vain, reaching in some passages a wonderful depth of emotion; and " The Messiah," smooth and highly elaborated, is agreeable as showing that the kindly and generous feeling which his other poems had often betrayed, was not unattended by more sacred thoughts and aspirations.
The last achievement of those, the poet's best years, was his Translation of Homer. The Iliad was entirely his own: of the Odyssey he translated only a half; the remainder being performed by Fenton and Broome, small poets of the day. Elegant, pointed, and musical; unfaithful to many of the most poetical passages of the original; and misrepresenting still more the natural and simple majesty of manner which the ancient poet never lost; the Īliad of Pope assuredly did not merit the extravagant admiration which it generally received in his own day. Yet, if we could forget Homer, we might not unreasonably be proud of it. It is an excellent poem, one of the best in the English language.
Among the poet's later works, were his Satires and Epistles : which are imitations and alterations of Horace, and extremely good in the Horatian fashion. In the “ Dunciad,” he threw away an infinity of invention and wit, and showed a discreditable bitterness of temper, in satirizing obscure writers, who would have been forgotten but for his naming of them, and whose weak points he was too angry to discern clearly. Indeed it is a curious fact in the history of this singular work, that, on being recast, it changed the name of its hero without changing anything material in the description of him. Theobald, a dull man, with a good deal of antiquarian knowledge, who had offended Pope by publishing a better edition of Shakspeare than his own, was displaced to make room for Cibber, the airy fop of coffee-houses and theatrical green-rooms. Yet, if satire were the highest kind of poetry, it is questionable whether the Dunciad, with all its faults, would not entitle Pope to be called the greatest of poets. Amidst all other occupations, however, the most remarkable production of