Page images

The last half of the century is an era of the revival of English poetry—a revival which began indeed somewhat earlier with Thomson, but which was carried on by Gray, and by Collins, and Goldsmith, and Cowper, and another whose peasant hand was a fit one to bring poetry back to nature again-Robert Burns, who led the muse into the open fields once more, to look on the flowers, and most of all, that one which "glinted forth” to delight his age, as it used to do Chaucer's, four hundred years before. We feel that we are getting out of a close atmosphere and an artificial light into the open air and sunshine again, when, passing from the previous versifier, we come to Burns and see that it was

“ Mid ‘lonely heights and hows'
He paid to Nature, tuneful vows;
Or wiped his honourable brows

Bedewed with toil,
While reapers strove, or busy ploughs

Upturned the soil.”

Connected with one of the names I have mentioned as of the revivers of a truer spirit of English poetry, there is an incident of much interest, the memory of which was recovered a few years ago, and which serves to mark the period of a favourite poem. The incident has been introduced by Lord Mahon, in his admirable History of England, and I cannot do better than use his words. On the night of the 13th of September, 1759, the night before the battle on the Plains of Abraham was to give to Wolfe the fame of the Conqueror of Canada, the English general passed along the St. Lawrence, with a portion of his army in boats; the historian proceeds: “Swiftly, but silently, did the boats fall down with the tide, unobserved by the enemy's sentinels at their posts along the shore. Of the soldiers on board, how eagerly must every heart have throbbed at the coming conflict! how intently must every eye have contemplated the dark outline, as it lay pencilled upon the midnight sky, and as every moment it grew closer and clearer, of the hostile heights! Not a word was spoken—not a sound heard beyond the rippling of the stream. Wolfe alone-thus tradition has told us-repeated in a low voice to the other officers in his boat those beautiful stanzas with which a country churchyard inspired the muse of Gray. One noble line,

“The paths of glory lead but to the grave'must have seemed at such a moment fraught with mournful meaning. At the close of the recitation, Wolfe added, “Now, gentlemen, I would rather be the author of that poem than take Quebec !

Of Gray, and Goldsmith, and Cowper, this is also to be remembered—that they have enriched the literature with prose as attractive as their poetry. It would be hard to say in which respect Goldsmith is most agreeably and affectionately remembered as the author of The Deserted Village," or of " The Vicar of Wakefield.Besides, the letters of Gray, our epistolary literature received its largest contributions in these two collections, equally characteristic of the writers, and very different in their tone—the letters of Horace Walpole, covering more than half a century, filled with political and private gossip, and sparkling with the wit of an acute man of the world, in the midst of the world's busiest society—and the letters of Cowper, partly by virtue of his exquisite English, and partly by the purity and earnestness of his character, and his gentle humour, giving a charm that is indescribable to the simple incidents and occupations of his secluded life, and that places his letters with the most agreeable reading in English literature. The historical literature of the century I reserve for a connection in which I propose to speak of it hereafter.

In the revival of English poetry which I have been speaking of, an auxiliary influence was exerted by the restoration of the early minstrelsy in Percy's Reliques. That popular poetry was made familiar to reading men, and its simple power helped English poetry to recover not only its natural graces, but the best freedom and variety of its music. Cowper caught the free movement of verse in his well-known comic ballad of John Gilpin, and not less in the tragic one that simple and noble Dirge, on the remarkable casualty of the sinking of the Royal George at her moorings.

No poet of the last century did as much as Cowper for the restoration of the admirable music of the then neglected blank verse. When Cowper died, in the year 1800, exactly one hundred years after the death of Dryden, English poetry was again in possession of all its varied endowment of verse. In a course of lectures which I delivered here some ten years ago, I concluded a lecture on Cowper by quoting a poem then new and little known—the stanzas entitled “Cowper's Grave,"* by Elizabeth Browning, then known by her maiden name of Barrett. While I have avoided, as far as possible, repetitions from my former courses, I am tempted to repeat the stanzas now, because on the former occasion they made, as I have been informed, an impression that was not lost. The merit of the poem is not only in the happy allusions to Cowper's character and career of checkered cheerfulness and gloom, but also in its depth of passion and imagination.

* See Mrs. Browning's Poems:


Literature of the Nineteenth Century.



In my last lecture, I noticed the date of the death of Cowper, in the year 1800, as conveniently marking the close of the literature of the eighteenth century. The excellence of his prose, as well as of his poetry, and his share in that literary revival which began during the latter part of that century, make such a use of his name subservient, in a reasonable rather than an arbitrary manner, to the purposes of literary chronology. We pass thence into what may be entitled “The Literature of our own

Times," or, having nearly completed its era of fifty years, “ The Literature of the first half of the Nineteenth Century." It has its characteristics—distinctive qualities, with their origin from within, in the minds of those whose writings make the literature, and from without, in the influence exerted on those minds by the world's doings and the world's condition. In the study of literature, it is needful, for our knowledge of it, to look at it in its relation to civil and political history, in order to understand how, in a greater or less degree, it takes a colour from the times. The mind of no author can dwell so aloof from his generation that his thoughts and feelings shall be above or beyond outward influences. He is more or less what he is, because he is where he is. These outward influences affect genius of the highest order, with this difference, indeed, that they do not limit or control it, but, by its own inborn power, it carries them up, idealized, into the highest truth for the perpetual good of all after-time. • Looking back to the early and distant eras of English literature, it is not difficult to trace the relations between the literature and the national history—the record of words and the record of actions and events. The full and varied outburst of poetry, grave and gay, in Chaucer, becomes a more intelligible phenomenon when we think of it

in association with the chivalry, the enterprise, and the cultivation of Edward the Third's long and glorious reign. The genius of Spenser and the genius of Shakspeare shine with a clearer light when our eyes look at it as issuing from the Elizabethan age that age strenuous with thoughts and acts, chivalrous, philosophical, adventurous, of whose great men it inight be said, as it was said of one of them, that they were so contemplative you could not believe them active, and so active you could not believe them contemplative, Milton's great epic seems, at first thought, strangely uncongenial to the immediate period of its appearance; but ceases to be so when it is thought of as.engendered in those years of ordeal through which Milton's mind had passed in the times of the Civil War, the Commonwealth, and the Protectorate. The age that Dryden lived in left a more unresisted impress on his genius the stamp of a degenerate and dissolute generation; and the pages of Pope have their commentary in the reflection they give of an artificial and sophisticated state of society-an age of wits and freethinkers ; so that when his genius rose to its most imaginative strain, it could not content itself with a theme less stimulant than the revolting story of Abelard and Eloisai.

When we coine to the study of the literature of our own times, it is, of course, more difficult to trace the historic relation of literature, because it is the literature of our own times times which have not yet become a part of history. We stand too near thein--are, indeed, too much in them to see them clearly, dispassionately, to measure the prevailing influences, and understand them justly. We cannot yet adventure to speak of the literature of this century, as hereafter they may do, who shall look back to it from a distance, when time, and the calm judgments time brings along with it, shall group the authors of these times in their true places; and when the narrowness, of contemporary partiality, or, what is worse, contemporary prejudice, shall be expanded to a larger wisdom.

We cannot err in this, that the half century, now nearly completed, has been distinguished by great intellectual and imaginative activity. The revival, which began in the latter part of the last century, was, in a great measure, the reaction from the overwrought artifice and formality of thought, and feeling, and expression of the times that had gone before. The hearts of men began to assert once more their claims to what Nature could give them, and the poets, who are Nature's interpreters. Other agencies, besides the simple power of reaction, were at work on the European mind, giving it an inpulse to break through old and contracted conventional restraints, calling forth freer

movements of thought and feeling. I refer especially to the general agitation throughout Europe consequent on the French Revolution. Change was the condition of the closing years of the last century. Things which had endured for ages were perishing, not by slow gradations of decay, but by quick and unlooked-for violence. Time-honoured institutions were not suffered to attain the limit of their natural existence, and then to sink under the gradual accumulation of years, but were swiftly swept away by a new compulsion. The clenched hand of prescriptive tyranny was forced to loose its grasp; and if simpler generations of men, in the olden time, had held to the fond belief that

“Not all the water in the rough, rude sea

Can wash the balm from an anointed king,"

men of the new times were ready to shed the blood of king and queen with pitiless contempt. The people in one of the central monarchies of Europe had suddenly started up, and, casting away respect for prerogative, boldly questioned the authority of a power which so long had trampled on them. Men began to ask why the bounties of heaven should be garnered up for the bloated luxury of the few, while the many were pining, hungry and heart-stricken. The sympathies of Christendom were, for a season, enlisted ; and the pulse of other nations began to beat quicker. The French Revolution began to assume the aspect of a general European revolution. Ancient opinions and rules of life were abandoned, and new modes of thought and feeling took their place. The political revolution became an intellectual and moral one; for, so entire was the subversion of old institutions, that in reconstructing society, men were led to speculate on its very elements, and on the principles and destiny of human nature-speculations which, from a revolutionary forsaking of the old paths, too often fostered a self-sufficient and faithless philosophy. It was not as in the American Revolution, in which our fathers, not clamorous for new privileges, were the defenders of old rights-rights as ancient as the Great Charter, advocates of the Constitution and the freedom it gave, the “ good old cause.” But in the revolutionary agitation that attended the French Revolution, new creeds of liberty were taught, new doctrines of the rights of man. Christianity, with its day of sanctity and repose, sacred from the Creation, was banished to make way for a sensual, brutalizing atheism, with its tenth-day holidays (I cannot call them Sabbaths) and with its idolatry of human reason. Theories of ecclesiastical, political, and social regeneration were propagated with apostolic zeal into all lands doctrines which cast a shadow on the

« PreviousContinue »