Progress of the Nation page 7
What a contrast immediately presents itself in the generous nature of Steele, in the genial and pure writings of Addison! Both Addison and Steele were poets, Steele principally a dramatic poet, of considerable success; Addison was the author of "Cato," a tragedy, and the "Campaign,'' celebrating the victory of Blenheim, with other poems, all very popular in their day. But the reputation of both Steele and Addison rests on their prose. They were the introducers of essay and periodical writings, and carried these to a perfection which has never been surpassed. Steele has the honour of originating this new department of literature - a department which has grown into such importance, that the present age would scarcely know how to exist without it. He started the "Tatler" in 1709, issuing it three times a week, and was joined by Addison in about six weeks. The interest with which this new literary paper was expected on the breakfast tables of that day, can only be imagined by that which the morning papers now excite. In 1711, the "Tatler" having ceased, the "Spectator" was started on the same plan, jointly by Steele and Addison, and in 1713, this ceasing, the "Guardian" took its place. Steele was the largest contributor to the "Tatler" and "Guardian," Addison to the "Spectator." Various of their contemporaries furnished papers, Swift amongst the rest, but there are none which can compare with the vigorous, manly writing of Steele, and the elegant, and often noble, compositions of Addison. The mixture of grave and gay was admirable, and certain to insure high popularity. In these papers we find abundant revelations of the spirit and manners of the times. Addison's papers on serious and religious subjects, such as those on the starry heavens, and those which combat scepticism, are unsurpassed. His characters of Sir Roger de Coverley, Will Wimble, &c., have an imperishable English interest. The poetic and generous nature of Addison was demonstrated by the cordial and zealous criticisms on Milton's "Paradise Lost," which he mainly contributed to rescue from that neglect which it still experienced. Addison, after Sir Philip Sidney, was the first to call attention to our old popular ballads, "Chevy Chase" and "The Babes in the Wood," the eulogies on which probably led Bishop Percy to the collection of the precious "Reliques" of the ballad lore of former ages. The "Spectator" and "Guardian" were published daily. Steele afterwards published the "Englishman," with which Addison had no concern, and it only reached to fifty-seven numbers. These two fellow-labourers, both in literature and parliament, after nearly fifty years' friendship, were sundered by a mere political difference - the question of limiting the royal prerogative of creating peers, in 1719, the very last year of Addison's life.
Bolingbroke must be named amongst the prose writers of the age. Amongst the five large quarto volumes of his writings, there is little that will now interest the reader. He wrote in a brilliant and pretentious style, as he acted; and his writings, like his policy, are more showy than sound. As a cold sceptic in religion, and a Jacobite in politics, proud and essentially selfish in his nature, we are not likely to find anything from his pen which can strongly attract us, or is calculated to benefit us. Amongst the tory party, in which, he moved, he was one of those brilliant and self- complacent apparitions, which have all the qualities of the meteor - dazzling, but speedily sinking into darkness.
A very different man was the indefatigable and patriotic Daniel Defoe. Defoe, who was engaged in trade, and was the introducer of pantiles, was a thorough whig, or, as we should now call him, radical in politics. He was one of those rare men who look only at the question before them, as they regard the good of the public, and are, therefore, found almost as often calling to account the party to which they nominally belong, as they are the opposite one. His principle was essentially "measures, not men," and thus he was one of the zealous supporters of Godolphin and his ministry in accomplishing the union with Scotland; and equally so of Harley and Bolingbroke, for establishing a commercial treaty with France. He was much more useful to reform than liked by so-called reformers, and was continually getting into trouble for his honest speaking. From the age of twenty-three to that of fifty-eight, his pen had scarcely a moment's rest, from advocating important political and social subjects, and there was a force of reason, a feeling of reality, a keenness of wit and satire, in his compositions which gave them interest and extensive attention. He passed some extraordinary quizzes on the domineerers in parliament and the persecutors in the church, which were so ill understood by the blockheads of the time, especially his petition of three hundred thousand men to parliament, which created a wonderful alarm, and his "Short Way with the Dissenters," as made him enemies for awhile amongst those he meant to serve.
But whilst his political labours did their work in his lifetime, they are his literary ones which are the basis of his present fame. These were almost all produced after his sixtieth year; "Robinson Crusoe," by far the most popular of all his writings, and one of the most popular in all the world's literature, "The Dumb Philosopher," "Captain Singleton," "Duncan Campbell," "Moll Flanders," "Colonel Jacque," "The Memoirs of the Plague," "The Memoirs of a Cavalier," "The Fortunate Mistress; or, Roxana," "The New Voyage round the World," and "Captain Carleton." The life and fidelity to human nature with which these are written, have continually led readers to believe them altogether real narratives. The "Journal of the Plague " was quoted as a relation of facts by Dr. Mead; Chatham used to recommend "The Memoirs of a Cavalier" as the best account of the Civil War; Dr. Johnson read the life of "Captain Carleton" as genuine, and we continually see the story of "Mrs. Veal's Ghost," written by Defoe to puff Drelincourt's heavy "Essay on Death," included in collections as a matter-of-fact account of an apparition. This quality of verisimilitude is one of the greatest charms of his inimitable "Crusoe," which is the delight of the young from age to age.
Amongst the prose writers of this period a lady stands prominent, lady Mary Wortley Montague, the daughter of the duke of Kingston, and mother of lady Bute, the wife of the earl of Bute, the celebrated minister of George III. Lady Mary derives her chief fame from her Letters, which were not published till after her decease. They are as remarkable for their wit, brilliancy, and clear, thorough sense, as any of the writings of the age. In these we have a most graphic picture of life in the East, having been some years at Constantinople with her husband. She thence conferred one of the greatest boons on her country, by the introduction of inoculation for the small-pox. Lady Mary translated the "Enchiridion of Epictetus," and wrote many verses, including satirical ones, called "Town Eclogues;" but her fame must always rest upon her clear and sparkling letters. During her lifetime, she was as celebrated for her wit and beauty, and was a leading figure In the fashionable as well as the literary world. Pope ant she were long great friends, but quarrelled irreconcilably. A very clear and interesting life of lady Mary has been included in the collected edition of her writings by her descendant, lord Wharncliffe, from the pen of her granddaughter, lady Louisa Stuart.
At the head of these in this period stands Alexander Pope, who became the founder of a school which has had followers down to our time. Pope was the poet of society, of art, and polish. His life was spent in London and in the country, chiefly betwixt Binfield, in Windsor Forest, and Twickenham; and his poetry partakes very much of the qualities of that scenery - rich, cultivated, and beautiful, but having no claims to the wild or the sublime. He is opposed to poets like Milton and Shakespeare as pastures and town gardens are opposed to seas, forests, and mountains. In style he is polished to the highest degree, piquant, and musical; but, instead of being profound and creative, he is sensible, satiric, and didactic. He failed in "the vision and the faculty divine," but he possessed fancy, a moderate amount of passion, and a clear and penetrating intellect. He loved nature, but it was such only as he knew - the home-scenes of Berkshire and the southern counties, and nature trained and polished in his gardens, pleached walks, and grottos at Twickenham. Mountains he had never seen, and there are none in his poetry. He was born in the year of the Revolution, and died in 1744, aged fifty-six; and, considering that he suffered from a feeble constitution and defective health, he was a remarkably industrious man. His pastorals appeared in "Tonson's Miscellany" when he was only twenty-one years old. Before this he had translated the first book of the "Tliebais," and Ovid's "Epistle from Sappho to Phaon;" paraphrased Chaucer's "January and May," and the prologue to "The Wife of Bath's Tale." In two years after his Pastorals (1711) appeared his "Essay on Criticism," "The Messiah " the same year in the "Spectator," and in 1712 "The Rape of the Lock," as well as "The Temple of Fame." "The Rape of the Lock" celebrated the mighty event of the clipping of a lock of hair from the head of Miss Belle Fermor by lord Petre. This act, adorned with a great machinery of sylphs and gnomes, a specimen of elegant trifling, enchanted the age, which would have less appreciated greater things, and placed Pope on the pinnacle of fame. In 1713 he published " Windsor Forest," a subject for a pleasant but not a great poem, yet characteristic of the genius of Pope, which delighted in the level and ornate rather than the great and wild. In 1715 appeared the first four books of his translation of Homer's "Iliad," which was not completed till 1720. This still continues the most popular translation of the great heroic poet of Greece; for although it is rather a paraphrase of this colossal yet simple poem, and therefore not estimated highly by Greek scholars who can go to the original, it has that beauty and harmony of style which render it to the English reader an ever-fascinating work. In 1717 appeared his "Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard," a poem displaying more passion than other of Pope's writings, but too sensuous, and the subject itself far from well chosen. Next succeeded his "Odyssey" of Homer, in conjunction with Fenton and Broome, and in 1725 the first three books of "The Dunciad," in which he took a sweeping vengeance on the critics and poetasters of the time, who had assailed him fiercely on all sides, with John Dennis at their head. The vigour with which Pope wielded the satiric lash excited the wonder of the public, which had seen no such trenchant production hitherto in the language, and filled the whole host of flayed and scalded dunces with howls of wrath and agony. Pope was not sparing of foul language in his branding of others, and they were still more obscene and scurrilous in their retorts. It is questionable whether they or Pope felt the most torture; for, so far from silencing them, they continued to kick, sting, and pelt him with dirt so long as he lived. So late as 1742 he published a fourth book of the satire, to give yet one more murderous blow to the blackguard crew. To some of his cotemporaries Pope, like Byron in our day, did great injustice in this attack, and to Aaron Hill he was obliged to make an apology. Besides this satire, he modernised an edition of Donne's Satires, and produced his "Essay on Man," his "Essay on Taste," his "Moral Epistles," and other poems, down to 1740. His "Essay on Man," "Moral Epistles," &c., display shrewd sense, and a keen perception of the characteristics of human nature and of the world; yet they do not let us into any before unknown depths of life or morals, but, on the contrary, are, in many particulars, unsound. In fact, these productions belong by no means to poetry, of which they exhibit no quality, and might just as well have been given in prose. On the whole, Pope is a poet whose character is that of cleverness, strong intellect, carefully-elaborative art, much malice, and little warmth or breadth of genuine imagination. He reflects the times in which he lived, which were corrupt, critical, but not original, and he had no conception of the heavens of poetry and soul into which Milton and Shakespeare soared before him, and Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth in our time have wandered at large.
The strong sense, lively fancy, and smart style of his satires, distinguished also Pope's prose, as in his "Treatise of the Bathos; or, Art of Sinking in Poetry;" his "Memoirs of P. P., Clerk of this Parish" - in ridicule of Burnet's "Own Times" - his Letters, &c. In some of the latter he describes the country and country seats, and the life there of his friends; which shows that, in an age more percipient of the charm of such things, he would have probably approached nearer to the heart of Nature, and given us something more genial and delightful than anything that he has left us. Dr. Arbuthnot, a great friend of Pope and Swift, was also one of the ablest prose writers, "The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus," published in Pope and Swift's works, and the political satire of "John Bull," a masterly performance, being attributed to him.
John Gay, a contemporary of Pope, Swift, and Arbuthnot, is now best known by his "Fables" and his "Beggars' Opera." His "Fables" have been extremely popular, and still make him a general name; but, in his own time, his "Beggars' Opera" was his great success. Its wit, its charming music, its popular characters, gave it a universal favour; and it is the only English opera that even to this time has become permanent. Gay's "Trivia: or, Art of Walking the Street," is still amusing, and some of his ballads have a lightness and buoyancy about them which justify the esteem in which he was held in his own day.
Matthew Prior had a high reputation in his day as a poet, but his poetry has little to recommend it now. He was the more popular as a poet, no doubt, because he was much employed as a diplomatist in queen Anne's reign by the tory party. His "City and Country Mouse," written in conjunction with lord Halifax, in ridicule of Dryden's "Hind and Panther," may be considered as one of his happiest efforts. Sir Samuel Garth, author of "The Dispensary," a mock heroic poem in six cantos, and Dr. Richard Blackmore, another physician, and author of a whole heap of epics in ten or twelve books each - as "Prince Arthur," "King Alfred," "Eliza," "The Redeemer," &c. - may still be found in our collections of verse, but not to be read. Dr. Young's "Night Thoughts" still maintain their place, and are greatly admired by many, notwithstanding his stilted style and violent antithesis, for amid these there are many fine and striking thoughts.
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