Progress of the Nation page 6
Literature and Science
The literature of this period is more distinguished for learning and cleverness than for genius. There are a few names that rise above the smartness and mere accomplishment of the time into the regions of pure genius; but, with very few exceptions, even they bear the stamp of the period - a worldly tone, destitute of those diviner qualities, the love of spiritual and intellectual beauty, the comprehension of the higher influences of the universe, the worship of God in His emanations of sublime truth, infinite greatness, and beneficence, and the appreciation of those fairer and more attractive features of human life and character, which render the masterpieces of genius imperishably lovely. We have here no Milton, no Shakespeare, no Herbert, no Herrick, even, to produce; but De Foe, Addison, Steele, Thomson, and Pope, if they do not lift us to the highest creative plane, give us glimpses and traits of what is found there. For the rest, however full of power, there hangs a tone of "town," of a vicious and sordid era, about them, of artificial and by no means refined life, a flavour of the grovelling of the politics which distinguished the period, and of the low views and feelings which occupied and surrounded the throne during the greater portion of this term. The monarchs were engaged in wars, the statesmen in miserable cabals for their own power, and in miserable subservience to the mediocre and selfish monarchs who ruled after the death of William and Mary, and these things gave a tone to society which had a baneful effect on literature. The Georgian era has been praised as the Augustan era of England; we have only to see what went before it and what has come after it, to appreciate it at its true value. There was no lack of learning, much ability, wit, and smartness, but little comparatively of the grandeur and the magnanimous beauty of first-rate minds. There is much that we must admire, more that we must condemn; but, with the exception of "Robinson Crusoe," Thomson's "Seasons," some of the papers of Addison in the "Spectator," and some of the poems of Pope, little that we embrace with that unreserved and cordial love with which we cling to the great works of our noblest writers.
Some of the writers of the last period were still existing in this. Dryden was living, and wrote some of his most perfect works, as his "Fables," and his "Alexander's Feast," as well as translated Virgil, after the Revolution. He was still hampered by his miserable but far more successful dramatic rivals, Shadwell and Elkanah Settle. Nathaniel Lee produced in William's time his tragedies, "The Princess of Cleve," and his "Massacre of Paris." Etherege was yet alive; Wycherley still poured out his licentious poems; and Southerne wrote the greater part of his plays. His "Oronooka" and his "Fatal Marriage" were produced now, and he received such prices as astonished Dryden. Whilst Dryden never obtained more than a hundred pounds for a play, Southerne obtained his six or seven hundred. We may satisfy ourselves as to Dutch William's appreciation of poetry by the fact that Shadwell was his first poet-laureate and Nahum Tate the next. Dr. Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate made the version of the Psalms which still disgraces our church service. Sir William Temple, Baxter, Sir George Mackenzie, Stillingfleet, and Evelyn, as well as some others flourishing at the end of the last period, still remained.
Amongst the earliest of these may be mentioned the theological authors. Cumberland was the author of a Latin treatise, "De Legibus Natura?," in which he successfully combated the infidelity of Hobbes. Bull, who, as well as Cumberland, became a bishop, had distinguished himself before the revolution by his "Harmonia Apostolica," an anti-Calvinistic work, and by his "Defensio Fidei Nicense." In 1694 he published his "Judicium Ecclesite Catholicse." John Norris, of the school of Cud worth and Henry More, and nearly the last of that school called the English Platonists, published, besides many other works, his "Essay on the Ideal World " in 1701 and 1702. He also wrote some religious poetry of no particular mark. Tillotson and South were the great authors of sermons of this period. Tillotson was one of the most popular preachers of the time, but may be said to have done more good by his liberal and amiable influence at the head of the church than by his preaching. There is a solid and genuinely pious character about the sermons of Tillotson which suited the better-trained class of mind of his age, but which would now be deemed rather heavy. South, has more life and a more popular style; he was therefore more attractive to the courtiers of his day than to the sober citizens, and he has larded his text with what were then deemed sprightly sallies and dashing phrases, but which are now felt as vulgarisms. Both the divines, however, have furnished to our succeeding preachers much gleaning. Dr. Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury, who figures so prominently in the reign of William and Mary, and who rendered such essential service to the establishment of religious liberty, is the great historian of his time. Without his narratives of his own period, we should have a very defective idea of it. With all his activity at court and in parliament, he was a most voluminous writer. His publications amount to no less than a hundred and forty-five, though many of these are mere tracts, and some of them even only single sermons. His earliest productions date from 1669, and they continued, with little intermission, to the time of his death in 1715 - a space of forty-six years. His great works are "The Reformation of the Church," in three volumes, folio, 1679, 1681, and 1714; and his "History of Our Own Time," in two volumes, published after his death in 1723 and 1734. Burnet lays no claim to eloquence or to much genius, and he has been accused of a fondness for gossip, and for his self-importance; but the qualities which sink all these things into mere secondary considerations are his honesty and heartiness in the support of sound and liberal principles far beyond the majority of his fellow prelates and churchmen. Whilst many of these were spending their energies in opposing reformation and toleration, and some of them, like Atterbury, were endeavouring to bring back popery and despotism in the person of the pretender, Burnet was incessantly, by word and pen, engaged in assisting to build up and establish those broad and Christian principles under which we now live. Besides the great works named, he wrote also "Memoirs of James and William, Dukes of Hamilton," one volume, folio; "Passages in the Life and Death of Wilmot, Earl of Rochester;" a "Life of Bishop Bedel;" "Travels on the Continent;" and "An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles," &c. &c.
Dr. Thomas Burnet is known for his eloquent and able History of the Earth - "Telluris Sacra Theoria," first published in Latin, and afterwards in English. This work, 011 which his fame rests, was greatly read and admired at the time, but the discoveries of modern science have reduced it to mere ingenious but unfounded theory. He was also author of "Archeeologica Philosophica," and some lesser treatises.
The great philosopher of this period was John Locke. Locke was considerably connected with the governments of his time, and especially with that extraordinary agitator and political speculator, Ashley lord Shaftesbury, whom he attended in his banishment, and did not return till the Revolution. Yet, though so much connected with government, office, and the political schemers, Locke remained wonderfully unworldly in his nature. His philosophical bias, no doubt, preserved him from the corrupt influences around him. He was a stanch advocate of toleration, and wrote three letters on toleration, and left another unfinished at his death. In these he defended both religious and civil liberty against Jonas Proast and Sir Robert Filmer, advocates of despotism and bigotry. His "Thoughts on Education" and his treatises on government served as the foundations of Rousseau's "Emile" and his "Contrat Social." Besides these he wrote numerous works of a theological kind, as "The Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity;" and in his last years, "A Discourse upon Miracles," "Paraphrases of St. Paul," and "An Essay for the Understanding of St. Paul's Epistles;" a work "On the Conduct of the Understanding," and "An Examination of Father Malbranche's Opinion of Seeing all Things in God." But his great work is his "Essay concerning the Human Understanding." This may be considered the first pure and systematic treatise on metaphysics in the English language; and though the pursuit of the science since his time has led to the rejection of many of his opinions, the work will always remain as an able and clearly-reasoned attempt to follow the method of Bacon in tracing the nature and operations of the understanding. The fundamental principle of Locke's theory, in opposition to Descartes and others, that there are no such things as innate ideas and principles of knowledge, has been gladly seized on by materialists to carry the consequences of this position much farther than Locke intended - in fact, to the denial of revelation, and of all intuitive sense of a Deity, and of the divine law of right and wrong in the conscience. Locke's idea of the mind in infancy being a tabula rasa, or mere blank, capable of being written on by outward impressions, is, in fact, at utter variance with the existence of faculties which he admits. Though we have no innate ideas, we have innate faculties of perception, by which we take notice of objects; of consciousness, by which we recognise their reality; and reflection, by which we inquire into their nature and properties. The moral sense, which, though it may be warped by education, can never be utterly extinguished, and which leads mankind in all ages and countries, in the main, to recognise the great principles of right and truth, implies, therefore, innate principle. Locke's Baconian habit of building his metaphysical theory more on the images which come from without than from the images which we may and do receive from the spiritual world by our spiritual faculties, is, in fact, the grand defect of his system; and, if he had adopted instead of rejected Malbranche's principle of "seeing all things in God" instead of all things in himself, he would have established a more comprehensive and true philosophy. But Locke was deficient in "the vision and the faculty divine" by which the higher regions of our nature are discovered, and by which Shakespeare is continually flashing celestial lights down into the very depths of the soul, whilst making no pretence to theorise. In studying Locke, this defect in psychological penetration is to be borne in mind, and then the inquirer will find much to benefit him in the clear description of the operation of the faculties in gathering and connecting ideas, and building up the sum of our knowledge and opinions.
One of the pioneers of the science of political economy at this time was Dr. Davenant, the son of Sir William Davenant, the poet. He had no genius for drawing principles and theories from accumulated facts, but he was a diligent collector of them, and his porings amongst state documents and accounts have served essentially the historians and political economists of our day.
During this period Richard Bentley, master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and archdeacon of Ely, figures prominently as one of the most profound classical scholars which this country has produced, and, at the same time, as one of the most quarrelsome, arrogant, and grasping of men. The circumstance which made the most noise in his career was his controversy with the Hon. Charles Boyle regarding the authenticity of the Epistles of Phalaris and the Fables of AEsop. In this dispute he had to contend with Drs. Atterbury, French, King, and Smallridge, who made the reply to him in their "Examination of Bentley's Dissertation on the Epistles," in the name of Boyle. Swift also attacked him in "The Battle of the Books." The controversy made an immense noise at the time, and Bentley completely proved his assertion, that both the Epistles of Phalaris and the Fables of AEsop, in their present form, are spurious. The services of Bentley in publishing corrected editions of various classical works are of no ordinary kind. Amongst the authors who have received the benefit of his critical touches are Aristophanes, Cicero, in his "Tusculan Questions," Menander, Philemon, Horace, Nicander, Phsedrus, and Homer. In his editions of Horace and Homer, however, he laid himself open to severe criticism by his rash and arbitrary emendations of the text, and still more so by his edition of Milton's "Paradise Lost," from the same cause. In this case he showed that he was as deficient in the Italian and romantic learning, which Milton had made himself master of, as he was great in his own classical field. Bentley showed himself as a theologian to great distinction by his refutation of Collins's "Defence of Freethinking," and his lectures at Oxford in defence of the Christian religion.
With "The Battle of the Books" appeared "The Tale of a Tub;" and though these were anonymous, it was soon well known that they were from the hand of Jonathan Swift, a friend of Harley and Bolingbroke, and who now assumed a position in the public eye destined to be rendered yet more remarkable. Swift was of English parentage, but born in Dublin in 1667. He was educated at Kilkenny and the university of Dublin. In early life he became private secretary to Sir William Temple, and there he wrote his "Tale of a Tub," which cut off all his hopes of a bishopric. He edited a selection from the papers of Temple, and then accompanied lord Berkeley to Ireland as chaplain. Disappointed of the preferment which he had hoped for, he went over from the whigs to the tories in 1710, and thenceforward was the most unscrupulous adherent of Harley and Bolingbroke, defending all their measures in the "Examiner," and pouring out his vengeance on all opponents with the most unflinching truculence. In his political character Swift has been styled the great blackguard of the age, and certainly with too much truth. With extraordinary intellectual power, wit, and sarcasm, no principle or tenderness of feeling restrained him in his attacks on his enemies. If Harley and Bolingbroke are guilty of inflicting the disgraceful peace of Utrecht on the nation, simply to avenge themselves on the whigs, no man so thoroughly abetted them in that business as Swift. His "Conduct of the Allies," his "Public Spirit of the Whigs," and other political tracts and articles, bear testimony to his unscrupulous political rancour. His "Drapier's Letters," and his treatment of Wood in the affair of the Irish halfpence, show that no means, however base and false, came amiss to him in serving the objects of his ambition. The same utter want of feeling is evinced in the strange history of his conduct to Miss Van Homrigh and Miss Johnson. The great work of Swift is his "Gulliver's Travels," a work characterised by a massive intellect and a fertile invention, but defiled by that gross- ness and obscenity which were inseparable from his mind, and which equally pollute his poems, where there is much wit and humour, but not a trace of pathos or tenderness. They are all glittering, cold, and too often smutty. In fact, Swift, as presented to us in his writings, is a combination of Titanic power and Satanic malevolence; a concentration of intense selfishness, spiritual pride, and repulsive iciness. There is none of that divine glow of love and human sympathy, mingled with the worship of beauty and truth, which court our affections in the works of the greatest masters. When we are told that Swift's grossness is merely the grossness of the time, we immediately point to "Robinson Crusoe," to "The Seasons" and "Castle of Indolence" of Thomson, and to the works of Addison, for the most admirable contrast. Swift was undoubtedly one of the most vigorous writers of the age, but he was one of the most unamiable. He was the Mephistopheles of the eighteenth century.
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