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It is an easy transition from the historical literature to another department, scarce separable from it, and in which, also, this century, is entitled to a pre-eminence. I refer to the “historic romance,” especially as developed in the Warerley novels. Scott inay be said to have created this new department of English letters. Never has the true idea of historic fiction been more happily seized—the calling up, in a living array, not merely the names, but the character, the manners, the thoughts and passions of past ages. Two of the finest historical minds of our times, Arnold in England and Thierry in France, have expressed their high admiration of Scoit's remarkable historic sagacity. With studious and laborious habits of research, he had large-hearted sympathies, an acute instinct of historic truth, and, above all, the truthful creative power of imagination; which powers combined, enabled him to achieve in prose literature what Shakspeare, with like originality, had accomplished in historical poetry, by his chronicle plays and the tragedies of Greek and Roman story.
Apart from their historical value, the Waverley Series raised a far higher and truer standard of novel writing than had been known before giving, instead of the vapid sentimentalism and the romantic extravagance and folly which had been in fashion, good sense and genuine feeling, humanity's true character, with its passions, its weaknesses, its virtues, and its heroisin, and a company of life-like impersonations of womanly character, from the throne to the cottage. The services Scott did would be better appreciated by comparison with the common run of novels in vogue some forty or fifty years ago, which Charles Lamb has described as “those scanty intellectual viands of the whole female reading public, till a happier genius arose and expelled forever the
nutritious phantoms in which the brain was betossed,' the memory Duzzled, the sense of when and where confounded among the improbable events, the incoherent incidents, the inconsistent characters, or no characters, of some third-rate love intrigue; ... persons neither of this world nor of any other conceivable one; an endless string of activities without purpose, of purposes destitute of motive.”
This description of novels ceased to be tolerable to the improved taste which Scott created, and the effect of which was immediate and inanifest. There is perhaps reason to apprehend that the good influence has begun to wear away, and that another revolution in novel literature is going on an appetite for more stimulant fiction being fostered, partly by corrupt foreign influences, and also by the craving for something more exciting than a just and pure imagination gives.
The literature of our times has been very abundant and often excellent in a variety of miscellaneous prose literature. In pulpit oratory, voices have been heard that bring back the sound of the sacred eloquence of England in the age of her great divines. - Looking to our English prose as an instrument of expression, it may be said to have been brought in our times to a high state of excellence, for in our contemporary literature it is possible to find passages characteristic passages—which bear comparison with the best English prose of any former period, combining indeed with the merits of the earlier prose new powers suited to the new uses that the progress of a people's minds demand. A high order of excellence of English prose, both as to the choice of words, the structure and the rhythm of the sentences, is a much rarer attainment than people are apt to suppose. It is of such high excellence that I speak, when I say that in our contemporary literature it is to be found in the prose of Arnold, of Southey, of Sydney Smith, and of Byron, and Landor, and in the sermons of Manning. A high authority in English philology places the prose of Landor as first among living authors;—the prose in the “Imaginary Conversations,” a work of great but very unequal merit, and also in some smaller productions.
The poetic literature of this half century has displayed an abundance that proves an imaginative activity equal to the intellectual activity of our times. We are apt sometimes to yield to the notion that our modern days are unpoetic, and that the sphere of imagination has been contracted by the influences of later times. But when this half century shall be looked back to from a distance, the judgment of posterity cannot but be that it was distinguished by great poetic fertility and power—a period that has produced many elaborate poems of a high order, and a large amount of such minor poetry, as may be seen, when such poetry is good, shining in modest beauty in the same sky with the larger luminaries. Considering the number of poets who have been successful in their appropriate spheres, the amount, the variety, and the merit of the poetry which the nineteenth century has already given to English literature, it may be more fitly compared with the Elizabethan age, rich as it was in the company of poets, than with any other period of our language. Indeed it may be added, that one cause of literary power in our times is to be discovered in this, that never before has there been such dutiful zeal for the revival and restoration of the elder literature; never before has that literature been so carefully and reverently studied. The best criticisin on Shakspeare, on Spenser, on Milton, is that which this century has produced; and within the same time has there been the niost earnest desire to promote the study of Bacon and the great divines.
In attempting to group, with reference to time, the poets of the present century—the poets of our own times—some curious considerations at once present themselves. It is now more than a quarter of a' century since the death of Byron and of Shelley, both poets of a younger generation than Wordsworth; and we begin to think of them as belonging to past times, while the elder poet survives, now in nis eightieth year. But what is more remarkable, there are living two poets, who were known as poets when Wordsworth was a youthBowles and Rogers, each on the verge of fourscore and ten. It seems scarcely credible that there should be living now a poet (I refer to Mr. Rogers) whose first poem was published sixty-four years ago, in 1786, fourteen years before the death of Cowper (whom he has survived half a century), and within a twelvemonth after the publication of the Task. A subsequent poem of Rogers, " The Pleasures of Memory," a subject of universal interest agreeably presented, established his reputation, and was no doubt the prompting of Campbell's poem on “ Hope.” Rogers' higher poetic power is, however, to be found in a later work, which, appearing at a time when new poets had gained the public ear, never attained the same popularity as his earlier poem, which was inore fortunate in its time. From the poem--I allude to the “ Italy”-I am tempted to cite one passage for the sake of the fine picture it gives of an occurrence of which I made a passing mention in a former lecture the interview of Galileo and Milton:
“Nearer we hail
Did Galileo think, when he bade welcome,
Of the other aged poet, William Lisle Bowles, who has survived so many of his brother bards, I can only remark, in so cursory a survey of the contemporary literature as this must be, that Coleridge acknowledged a deep obligation to his poems-a tribute which in itself is proof of some beauty and power in them.
The most decided and marked influence of a contemporary pro- • duction is that which is known to have been exerted by Coleridge's Christabel-an influence that may be traced on the genius of Scott, Shelley, and Byron. It was an influence that Scott acknowledged with all his characteristic frankness, and Byron too, though with more reserve, for it was not his habit to acknowledge or perhaps to recognise such influences. « Christabel” was circulated in manuscript many years before it was published ; and, recited among the poets, it made, especially on their minds, an impression that proved an agency of poetis inspiration to them. Mr. Lockhart tells us that the casual recitation of “ Christabel” in Scott's presence so “ fixed the music of that noble fragment in his memory," that it prompted the production of the “Lay of the Last Minstrel.” It was a great lesson to the poets, in that it disclosed an unknown, or at least forgotten, freedom and power in English versification—a music the echoes of which are to be heard in the poems both of Scott and Byron. The grandeur of its imagery, too, moved the poets to whom it was made known, as in that sublime and familiar passage on a broken friendship :
“ They stood aloof, the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder ;
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
The marks of that which once hath been." “ Christabel” proved its influence over the poetry that followed, by the power with which both the natural and the supernatural were imaged in it; in the latter respect, particularly, Scott felt the power
of the poem. There is probably nothing finer of its kind in poetry than those passages which tell of the wicked might of witchcraft in the eye of the witch, who has assumed a beautiful human form : it is first felt as Christabel passes with her by the nearly extinct embers on the hallhearth:
“They pass the hall that echoes still,
Pass as lightly as you will !
Which hung in a murky old niche in the wall.” And in that other passage, which shows the magic might of witchcraft stronger in the witch's eye as she fascinates her mute victim with it, the shrinking up of the eye, the sudden dilation again when the look of innocence is counterfeited once more, and Christabel's unconscious imitation of the serpent-look that fascinated and appalled her :
"A snake's small eye blinks dull and shy,
And the lady's eyes they shrunk in her head-
The maid, alas! her thoughts are gone;