Page images


Literature of the Seventeenth Century, with incidental

Suggestions on Sunday Reading.



In following the progress of English literature, the difficulty of considering it according to what may be regarded as the successive eras is greatly increased the farther we advance. The literature becomes more abundant in both departments, prose as well as verse, and the influences that affect it, and are affected by it, are found to be more various and complicated. English prose-writing was hardly entitled to be looked on as literature until nearly two hundred years after Eaglish poetry had disclosed many of its finest resources. It was not till about the year 1600 that Hooker, in the “Ecclesiastical Polity,' accomplished for English prose what Chaucer had done for English poetry before the year 1400. Accustomed, as we now are, to the combination of pruse and poetry as making up of a literature language anmetrical filling too a larger space than the metrical-we are apt to forget how long a period there was during which English literature may truly be said to have been without its prose. In the early literature, therefore, Chaucer may be thought of as the solitary rather than the certral figure; and thus of such a period a general view may be taken, which, at the samc time, may show the individual genius that belonged to it. As we move forward, however, we find a more numerous company of poets, cach having claim to attention, and, along with them, an increasing concourse of the prose-writers. You can readily perceive how it becomes more and more difficult to make any such grouping of the many actors in our literature, at the several periods, as may set them before you a well

arranged company rather than a confused throng ; to discover which was the great mind of the age, and yet not lose sight of others that circled round it. We trace the progress of the nation's literature more laboriously, because more and varied elements entered into it, and because more minds were contributing to it. It becomes more necessary, in a brief and outline course of lectures like this, to allude, in a very cursory manner, to authors and their productions, well deserving extended consideration under more favourable circumstances.

As I have advanced toward that period of our literature in which names illustrious, both in prose and in poetry, come crowding to our thoughts, I feel the necessity of asking you to bear in mind that this course of lectures was designed to be merely of a suggestive character, to present a general view of the progress of English literature, and its condition at successive periods, rather than detailed examination of particular authors or books.

It is possible to arrange in our minds the literature of our language into a series of successive eras, and this may be done with somewhat more precision than would at first be anticipated; for it is not a mere arbitrary, chronological distribution, corresponding with centuries or reigns, but an arrangement according to a certain set of influences affecting the English mind and character, during a given length of time, more or less definite, to be succeeded by a new set of influences producing a new phase of the nation's literature. Such a general view of English literature is important, not only as saving one from a great deal of confusion of thought on the subject, but also as enabling us to see the great authors of different times, each in his appropriate grouping, and to carry out special courses of reading. The succession of our literary eras, with a little reflection and effort of memory, may be so familiarized is not to be forgotten. The earliest era—the age of Chaucer, as it may aptly be styled--the last half of the fourteenth century, was characterized by the various influences which marked the mediæval civilization; the closing century of which civilization, from 1400 to 1500, was, in consequence chiefly of internal commotion in England, a hundred years' sleep of the English mind, so far as literature was concerned. The first half of the sixteenth century has no more than a comparative interest, as a period in which the English mind was making its transition from mediæval to modern modes of thought and feeling, affected, too, in some degree, by the change of the nation's ecclesiastical position. The latter part of the sixteenth century and the first part of the seventeenth century-in other words, the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and of James the First-form properly one era, although

it is usually styled the Elizabethan era, in consequence, perhaps, of the greater glory of that reign in other matters than letters. The latter part of the seventeenth century, after the Restoration, is the beginning of an era extending into the eighteenth century, with which, as a truer connection, I propose to consider it in the next lecture, directing my attention now to the early and middle portion of the seventeenth century.

The prose literature of the early part of the seventeenth century received its most important addition in what may be said to be the second (in time) of the great English prose-works—Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World, the work with which he beguiled the years of his imprisonment; his mind, within the prison-walls, travelling out into the remote regions of the ancient world's story, as actively as his body, in its years of freedom, had mingled with his fellow-men, and roamed over the distant spaces of the sea.

To the same period of our prose literature belong the authorship and the philosophy of another man famous (and I had almost said infamous, too) in public life-Francis Bacon, Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Alban, and (would it had not been so) Lord High Chancellor of England. His philosophical works belong not so much to literature as to that high department of science which is meant to guide human inquiry, and mark out the boundaries of human knowledge. His volume which does belong to literature in the more exact sense of the term, is the small one of “Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral; and it does so, for a reason, which he has himself assigned, in a phrase which has become one of the familiar phrases of the language: when, after the cloud had fallen on his character, he collected these miscellanies he said, “I do now publish my Essays, which of all my other works have been most current; for that, as it seems, they come home to men's business and bosoms." That the Essays do so address themselves thus universally and intimately to mankind, is apparent from a mere glance at the list of titles; and that they contain a perpetual interest, is shown from the manner in which their condensed wisdom may be evolved for new applications à condensation of wisdom which is united with much of the imaginative processes of thought, and is therefore doubly valuable as one of the books of discipline, as well teaching. “Few books," says Mr. Hallam, "are more quoted, and what is not always the case with such books, we may add, that few are more generally read. In this respect they lead the van of our prose literature: for no gentleman is ashamed of owning that he has not read the Elizabethan prose-writers; but it would be somewhat derogatory to a man of the slightest claim to

polite letters were he unacquainted with the Essays of Bacon. It is indeed, little worth while to read this or any other book for reputations sake; but very few in our language so well repay the pains or afford more nourishment to the thoughts. They might be judicious, intraduced, with a small number more, into a sound method of educationone that should make wisdom, rather than mere knowledge its object, and might become a test-book of examination in our schools."

In that which is essentially the literature of the seventeenth century-prose as well as poetry—the name of Milton is prominent, the beginning and the end of his career approaching respectively the opening and the close of the century. I speak of this, not simply as a matter of date, but on account of the relation of that career to the age in which it was cast. The first part of Milton's literary life is full of a beautiful reflection of the age that had gone before; his genius is then glowing with tints of glory cast upon it by the Elizabethan poetry: the meridian of it is in close correspondence with the season of the power of the Parliament and the Protector, when Milton stood side by side with Cromwell; and the latter period of it (which I propose to speak of in the next lecture) was that of sublime and solitary contrast with the times of Charles the second. The first was the genial season of youth, studious, pure, and happy: the second was of mature manhood, strenuous in civil strife, and the dubious dynasty of the Protectorate : the third was old age, darkened, disappointed, but indomitable.

Of Milton's early poems, the most beautiful is the exquisite Masque of Comus, one of the last and loveliest radiations of the dramatie spirit, which seemed almost to love its life out in about half a century of English literature, beginning in the times of Queen Elizabeth, and ending in those of Charles the First. It has been said by more than one judicious critic of another of Milton's early poems, “ Lycidas," that the enjoyment of it is a good test of a real feeling for what is peculiarly called poetry. Of Comus, I think, it might be said, as truly as of any poem in the language, that it is admirably adapted to inspire a real feeling for poetry. It abounds with so much of true imagination, such attractiveness of fancy, such grace of language and of metre, and withal contains so much thought and wisdom wherewith to win a mind unused to the poetic processes, that were I asked what poem might best be chosen to awaken the imagination to a healthful activity, I would point to Milton's Comus, as better fitted than almost any other for the purpose. The poem, both in the conception and the execution, knely illustrates the power of the imagination, its moral alchemy in

“ Turning the cominon dust
Of servile opportunity to gold;
Filling the soul with sentiments august,

The beautiful, the brave, the holy, and the just."— Wordsuorth. For, observe on what homely and familar incident the poet has built up this beautiful superstructure of fancy and philosophy. When he was dwelling at his father's rural home, the Earl of Bridgewater was keeping his court not far off, at Ludlow Castle, and it happened that his two sons, and his daughter, the Lady Alice Egerton, were benighted and bewildered in Haywood Forest; where the brothers, seeking a homeward path, left the sister alone awhile in a tract of country inhabited by a boorish peasantry. Such was all the story, simpler than the ballad of the Children in the. Wood; and yet it is transfigured into a poem of a thousand lines—a moral drama showing the communion of natural and supernatural life, the mysterious society of human beings, and the guardian and tempting spirits hovering round their paths: it teaches, with a poet's teaching, how the spiritual and intellectual nature may be in peril from the charms of worldly pleasures, and how the philosophic faith and the heaven-assisted virtue are seen at last to triumph. The guardianship of ministering angels-their encampment round the dwellings of the just—is finely announced in the opening lines, spoken by the attendant spirit alighting in the wood, where the human footsteps are astray:

" Before the starry threshold of Jove's court
My mansion is, where those immortal shapes
Of bright aerial spirits live insphered,
In regions mild of calm and serene air,
Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot
Which men call Earth, and with low-thoughted care,
Confin'd and pester'd in this pinfold here,
Strive to keep up a frail and feverish being,
Unmindful of the crown that virtue gives
After this mortal change to her true servants,
Among the enthroned gods on sainted seats.
Yet some there be that by due steps aspire
To lay there just hands on that golden key
That opes the palace of eternity;
To such my mind is; and but for such,
I would not soil these pure ambrosial weeds

With the rank vapours of this sin-worn world." The genuine power of invention displayed in Comus is not disparaged; nay, the beauty of it is heightened, by the lights it reflecte from the elder poets, of whom Milton was deeply studious, for he knew

« PreviousContinue »