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Sketch of the state and progress of Literature and Science in Britain, from the
age of Elizabeth to the commencement of the reign of George III ; and of the changes in the intellectual habits and pursuits of the people during that period.
F we are not much mistaken, a rectness; it never offeads; but it
very striking similitude, by no seldom or never partakes of the means fanciful or unfounded, and real essence of poetry, by making certainly highly instructive and in- the reader forget the realities of life, teresting, may be traced between and hurrying him into the midst of those peculiarities of temper, feel- a world, and human beings, created ings, habits, manners, and modes by the poet. Similar remarks might of thinking and action, which con- be applied to the metaphysies, the stitate the character of a nation, and political writings, and the scientific those peculiarities by which its acquirements of the French. As literature is distinguished. If we the effect produced by the action of pass rapidly in review those nations one body upon another, depends of Europe which are most forcibly partly on the weight, and partly on distinguished by peculiarity of cha- the impetus of the acting body ; so Tacter and of literature, we shall be the effect produced by the mental convinced, that this opinion rests on powers on any department of lithe basis of truth. The French terature or science, depends partly national character is deeply marked; on the solidity of those powers, and and the peculiarities of its literature partly on their quickness and vivaand science are not less striking. city. The French possess powers of Vivacity, and quickness of feeling mind more distinguished for the and penetration, rather than per- latter, than the former qualities; manency and profoundness, are they pierce through a subject by among the most obvious and marked their subtlety, rather than make features of the French national cha- their way slowly and regularly, by tacter : its literature is easy, ele- their weight. gant, and vivacious; all the fine It would lead us too far from the and evanescent feelings of the heart immediate purpose and object of are skilfully pourtrayed, and laid this Chapter, to extend and apply bare, by many of its writers ; but these remarks to the other Eurothey seem neither disposed nor able, pean nations, who may, properly to develope or analyse the more speaking, be said to possess a pemanly, and deep-seated passions culiar national character, and a of the human breast. Its poetry peculiar literary character : but equally resembles many of the whoever will take the trouble of features of the national character; instituting a comparison, similar to it is characterised by taste and cor- that into wbich we have briefly en
concerns of the State ;-in these different from the literary character circumstances we may distinctly of every other nation. Let us trace the formation of some of those briefly consider what are the pecufeatures of mind and character that liar features of the genius of Shakeare now regarded as most charac- speare and Bacon. In one respect teristic of the British nation.. they both agree; and that illustrates
With reference to the more im- and confirms what we laid down mediate object of our present Chap- as the most striking feature in the ter, it may be remarked, that the intellectual character of the British literature of this age is princi- nation. They are both profound; pally distinguished by its advancing and are both conversant, either with far before the age. Of course, the deeper seated feelings and paswe do not mean to apply this sions of the human breast, or the remark to the writers of the age more abstruse faculties and workof Elizabeth, and her immediate ings of the human intellect. successor, generally: indeed, we With respect to Shakespeare, mean to confine it to those writers the stronger marked, and more pewho would immediately be named culiar features of his intellectual by all who were called upon to character, are, in some degree, parpoint out the master intellects of ticipated by dramatic writers, conthis period of our literary history. temporary, or nearly so, with him. Thus confined and qualified, our These writers have only within remark will be admitted to be these few years, had their genius strictly just, when the names of brought into the cognizance of Shakespeare and of Bacon are an- modern times; but now, justice nounced. It may, however, be is done to them. By far the most drawn as an inference from what powerful in the delineation of bold we have just said, that as these and appalling characters,-in the writers advanced so far beyond the painting of the fiercer and more age in which they lived, they can- ungovernable passions,—and in the not be cited as fair specimens of the attainment, and regular sustaining literary state or acquirements of of the moral sublime,—is Marlow. that age ; nor can their genius and Whoever has read his Doctor Faustalents be ascribed to the circum- tus, must, if he had no other evi. stances of the times in which they dence, rise from its perusal under lived. Still we are of opinion, that the firm conviction, that the author both Shakespeare and Bacoo are was a countryman of Shakespeare British intellects : that is, intellects that he was a Briton-and ibat in formed (so far as they were formed, him must have existed all the most and not imunediately framed, by the striking characteristics of British inhand of nature) by the same circum- tellect. stances which produced the national It was otherwise with respect to character; and specimens, in kind, Bacon : he had no equal; there though infinitely far excelling in was none who approached near bim degree, of all those literary men, in his mental career : it is true, inon whom we should fix, if we were deed, that his precept and his excalled upon, to prove by examples, ample were at variance: he chalked that the literary character of our out in a plain and masterly manner country was peculiar, and distinctly the line, by pursuing which, the
most most himself
most hidden secrets of nature might tellect, as displayed by his conduct become accessible to the intellect of and writings, with that of Shakeman, and even, in some cases, under speare or Bacon, we shall be enbis control, and subservient to his abled to trace the operation of those pleasure or interest ; but be seldom causes which had been in existence followed bimself the line he thus the greater part of the period that chalked out. We are astonished intervened between the eras of these and mortified to perceive the man, great men. If we compare Milton whose intellectual eye had pierced and Shakespeare we perceive in the and laid open the path to almost former a much more pure and corevery species of knowledge, himself rect taste, derived, doubtlessly, in a the slave of creclulity and super- great measure, from the influence stition, and in his own attempts to and inducement of classical learn. discover the secrets of nature, or ing, and a more dignified, sedate, the causes of material or intellectual and correct style. And if we comphenomena, adhering to that more of pare them in the higher excellenphilosopbizing, the futility of which cies of their respective writings - in he had so clearly and ably exposed. their delineation of character-in
The traces of the state and pro- their painting of the workings and gress of British literature and sci. effects of the passions-in their call. ence during the greater part of the ing forth in the minds of their seventeenth century are slight and readers feelings of the moral subunconnected. There can be little lime, and in their descriptions of doubt that the agitation of the civil the beauties or awful wonders of wars formed, or called into action, a nature-we may still trace a differlarge portion of intellect, and that ence, evidently arising, in a great it left an impression on the intellec- measure, froin the different circumtual character and pursuits of the stances in which they were placed, British nation of a deep and dura- though in the essential qualities of ble nature. Indeed the origin and intellect they were not very unlike, object of the long and arduous strug- and both truly British. gle between Charles and his Par- .If we compare Milton and Bacon, liament, were well calculated to the influence of those circumstances strengthen and improve more gene- which took place between their rerally and deeply, not only the pecu- spective eras, and which undoubtliar features of national character, eily gave a higher cast to the British which had begun 10 unfold ibem- national character at ihe era of the selves in the age of Elizabeth, but also former, will be much more conthe corresponding and concomitant spicuous and instructive. Milton is features of the intellectual character pot, perhaps, so profound or comof Britain, which had also first risen preliensire as Bacon, but he is more into view during the same period. bold and daring, and be much more Perhaps it would not be possible to consistently adheres, in his endea. select a more complete and striking vours to atiain truth, to the rules he instance both of the national charac- lays down for that purpose, than ter and national literature of Britain, Bacon dors. There is yet another as moulded by the events of the striking difference between the incivil wars, than Milion exhibits. If tellectual characters of these two we compare the characıer of his in- great men ; the object of Milton in
most of his prose writings, seems to literature of England its effects be to raise the intellectual character were nearly similar. If we attend of his species, not so much that to the characteristics of the writers thus truth may be elicited, as that of the reign of Charles II. we shall thus intellectual liberty might be find them, with a few exceptions, acquired and preserved. Whereas superficial, but concealing their suBacon lays down rules for philoso- perficialness by a polish which phizing, principally with a view to dazzled the mental eye; we shall iheir application to the discovery of find them gay, witty, and elegant; the operations and laws of ioani- no offences against a pure and cormate matter, and even when he ex- rect taste, but seldom any attempts tends their application to the intel. to warm the heart, or deeply inlectual faculties, he does not seem to terest the affections of their readers. have in view the same grand object The prevalent, fashionable, and which Milton proposed to himself. cherished doctrine of the day was, Indeed, if we consider that Bacon that the end and object of life was lived at a time when the doctrine enjoyment; tbat, in comparison with of passive obedience was undisputed, this enjoyment, intellectual dignity and the mass of the people were and freedom, as well as religious scarcely recognized as having a po- and political liberty, were of trivial litical existence, or allowed to exer- importance. This doctrine gave the cise any political rights; and that tone to the literature of the age ; in Milton had not only witnessed an vain in it shall we seek for those arduvus and successful struggle be- traits of British feeling and indetween the sovereign and the people, peodence, for those displays of probut had himself been a sharer in it, found thought, for those pictures of we shall not be surprised that the strong emotion, or for those speciintellectual powers of each, though, mens of impressive and dignified undoubtedly, of the very bigbest style, which are scattered so coclass, being nurtured by very dif- piously in the writings of the period ferent circumstances, assumed a very immediately preceding. We may different character.
find indeed a more lively imagina. 'l he national character of Eng. tion, a more active fancy, a more land, as well as its literary character, elegant and chastened taste, and a was much changed by the Restora- more polished and grammatical style; tion ; before that event took place but in none of these can we perceive nothing foreign had mixed up with what is truly and peculiarly British. either, the national character and Even, however, in the midst of the literature of England possessed the influence of this unnatural spirit, a genuine and most palpable raci- thus acting on the literature of ness; they both smacked of the Britain, there may be found that soil on which they grew. But the vigour, originality, and profoundRestoration most deeply adulterated ness of intellect which our older the national characier and litera- writers display; and it is worthy of ture: it introduced the grace, the remark and reflection, that in many levity, the ease, the polish, and of the writings of Dryden—than with these agreeable qualities, many whom there was scarcely an author of the foibles and vices of the French more disposed, from a concatenation national character; and on the of various circumstances, to yield
himself up without struggle, and works most closely resemble that utterly to the torrent of foreign character. The thoughts of Addiinnovation-even in his writings son on most subjects are obvious, there are mines of genuine British scarcely penetrating the surface of ore-of sterling sense-of acute and things. He possessed a clear incomprehensive observation of cha- sight into the manners and pecuracter-of dignified and nervous liarities of temper of mankind, but eloquence in behalf of the best in- he does not display a knowledge, at terests of man-and, what is still all intimate or profound, of the more extraordinary, of that moral more secret or complicated springs sublime, wbich was most at variance, of action, or of those strong passions not only with Dryden's own cha- which work to great ends on the racter, but also with the fashionable character and fate either of the inand applauded character of the age. dividual in whom they exist, or of
It was long before the erature those who are the objects of ihem. of England completely shook off In short, Addison, and the writers the trammels imposed upon it at of his age, are proofs that English the Restoration ; its grossness and literature bad advanced from the licentiousness, indeed, as well as period of Elizabeth in elegance, a large portion of its frivolity, case, humour, and taste, but by no was soon worked off by the na- means instances that it had made tural soundness of the intellectual any progress in the more rare and constitution of our countrymen: but characteristic qualities of vigour, we are of opinion, that the influence depth, comprehension, and intimate of the example of French literature knowledge of the human heart and may be distinctly traced, even in passions, and boldness and originathe writers of what is called the lity of views. Augristan age of England; we mean From the age of Addison to the the era of Pope, Addison, Swift, and commencement of the age of Arbuthnot. The merits of these George III. (the limit we have aswriters we are by no means dis- signed to this Chapter) the charac. posed to deny or call in question, ter of English literature (with few but the qualities in which we think exceptions) does not vary in any those merits are displayed, are not material degree. In fact, ihe influ- . of genuine British growth and rear- ence of Addison in prose, and of ing. In all of those whom we have Pope in poetry, bad been so great enumerated, and particularly in Ad- and impressive, that imitations of dison and Arbuthnot, there is much them may be traced, more or less, elegance and correctness of taste, in- in nearly all our principal writers comparable humour, a quick insight that intervene between their era and into the peculiarities of the human the age of George III. character, a practical tendency to We have already endeavoured to correct the foibles and purify the prove, that Addison does not display morals of their readers, and an easy any of the grander and more chaand flowing style: but in none of racteristic features of the national these qualities, with the exception literature of this country: and if we of that of humour, do we discover contrast Pope with Shakespeare and any thing resembling our national Milton, we shall be convinced ibat cbaracter, or those writers whose that poet, and the school of poetry