Sidor som bilder

half their inspiration, and more than half their popularity, to its influence. For examples we need but recollect the "Orlando Furioso" of Ariosto, the "Gerusalemme Liberata" of Tasso, the "Faerie Queene" of Spenser, and, to crown all, the "Tempest" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" of Shakspeare. But these belong to a later period.

Of the literature of the middle ages it may generally be said that it was "voluminous and vast." Princes, nobles, and even priests then were often ignorant of the alphabet. The number of authors was proportionally small, and the subjects on which they wrote were of the driest nature in polemics-such were the subtleties of the schoolmen; of the most extravagant character in the paths of imagination—such were the romances of chivalry, the legends and songs of troubadours; and of the most preposterous tendency in philosophy, so called, -such were the treatises on magic, alchymy, judicial astrology, and the metaphysics. To say all that could be said on any theme, whether in verse or prose, was the fashion of the times; and, as few read but those who were devoted to reading by an irresistible passion or professional necessity, and few wrote but those who were equally impelled by an inveterate instinct, great books were the natural produce of the latter, who knew not how to make little ones; and great books were requisite to appease the voracity of the former, who, for the most part, were rather gluttons than epicures in their taste for literature. Great books, therefore, were both the fruits and the proofs of the ignorance of the age: they were usually composed in the gloom and torpor of the cloister, and it almost required a human life to read the works of an author of the first magnitude, because it was nearly as easy to compound as to digest such crudities. The common people, under such circumstances, could feel no interest and derive no advantage from the labours of the learned, which

[ocr errors]

were equally beyond their purchase and their comprehension. Those libri elephantini (like the registers of the Roman citizens, when the latter amounted to millions) contained little more than catalogues of things, and thoughts, and names, in words without measure, and often without meaning worth searching out; so that the lucubrations, through a thousand years, of many a noble, many a lovely mind, which only wanted better direction how to unfold its energies, or display its graces, to benefit or delight mankind, were but passing meteors, that made visible the darkness out of which they rose, and into which they sank again, to be hid for ever.

It is remarkable, that while the classic regions of Europe, as well as the northern and western colonies of the dissolved Roman empire, were buried in barbarian ignorance, learning found a temporary refuge in some of the least distinguished parts of the then known world-in Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Scotland, and even in Ireland.

And here these papers must conclude, having brought our cursory retrospect to the thirteenth century, an era at which the minds of the people of Europe were already prepared (though scarcely conscious of the turn in their favour) for those great and glorious discoveries in literature and philosophy, which-since the adoption of the mariner's compass and the invention of printing, introducing liberty of thought and, as a necessary consequence of the latter, freedom of speech have made way for the diffusion of knowledge, revealing new arts and sciences, and calling up old ones from the dead in more perfect forms




No. I.

English Literature under the Tudors and the first Stuarts.

THE discovery of the mariner's compass, the invention of printing, the revival of classic learning, the Reformation, with all the great moral, commercial, political, and intellectual consequences of these new means, materials, and motives for action and thought, produced corresponding effects upon literature and science. With the progress of the former alone, in our own country, have we to do at present.

From the reign of Elizabeth to the protectorate of Cromwell, inclusively, there rose in phalanx, and continued in succession, minds of all orders, and hands for all work, in poetry, philosophy, history, and theology, which have bequeathed to posterity such treasures of what may be called genuine English literature, that whatever may be the transmigrations of taste, the revolutions of style, and the fashions in popular reading, these will ever be the sterling standards. The translation of the Scriptures, settled by authority, and which, for reasons that need not be discussed here, can never be materially changed, -consequently can never become obsolete,—has secured perpetuity to the youth of the English

tongue and whatever may befall the works of writers in it from other causes, they are not likely to be antiquated in the degree that has been foretold by one whose own imperishable strains would for centuries have delayed the fulfilment of his disheartening prophecy, even if it were to be fulfilled :

'Our sons their fathers' failing language see.
And such as Chaucer is shall Dryden be.'


Now it is clear, that unless the language be improved or deteriorated far beyond any thing that can be anticipated from the slight variations which have taken place within the last two hundred years, compared with the two hundred years preceding, Dryden cannot become what Chaucer is; especially since there seems to be a necessity laid upon all generations of Englishmen to understand, as the fathers of their mother-tongue, the great authors of the age of Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I. from Spenser (though much of his poetry is wilfully obscured by affected phraseology) and Shakspeare (the idolatry to whose name will surely never permit its divinity to die) to Milton, whose style cannot fall into decay while there is talent or sensibility among his countrymen to appreciate his writings. It may be confidently inferred, that the English language will remain subject to as little mutation as the Italian has been since works of enduring excellence were first produced in it; the prose of Boccaccio and the verse of Dante, so far as dialect is concerned, are as well understood by the common people of their country, at this day, as the writings of Chaucer and Gower are by the learned in ours.

Had no works of transcendent originality been produced within the last hundred and fifty years, it may be imagined that such fluctuations might have

occurred as would have rendered our language as different from what it was when Milton flourished, as it then was from what it had been in the days of Chaucer; with this reverse, that, during the latter it must have degenerated as much as it had been refined during the earlier interval. But the standard of our tongue having been fixed at an era when it was rich in native idioms, full of pristine vigour, and pliable almost as sound articulate can be to sense,-and that standard having been fixed in poetry, the most permanent and perfect of all forms of literature-as well as in the version of the Scriptures which are necessarily the most popular species of reading,— no very considerable changes can be effected, except Britain were again exposed to invasion as it was wont to be of old; and the modern Saxons or Norwegians were thus to subvert both our government and our language, and either utterly extinguish the latter, or assimilate it with their own.

Contemporary with Milton, though his junior, and belonging to a subsequent era of literature, of which he became the great luminary and master-spirit, was Dryden. His prose (not less admirable than his verse) in its structure and cadence, in compass of expression, and general freedom from cumbersome pomp, pedantic restraint, and vicious quaintness, which more or less characterized his predecessors, became the favourite model in that species of composition, which was happily followed and highly improved by Addison, Johnson, and other periodical writers of the last century. These, to whom must be added the triumvirate of British historians, Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon, who exemplified, in their very dissimilar styles, the triple contrast and harmony of simplicity, elegance, and splendour,-these illustrious names in prose are so many pledges, that the language in which they immortalized their thoughts is itself immortalized by being made the

« FöregåendeFortsätt »