« FöregåendeFortsätt »
Let us now rapidly consider some of the causes, or, at least, accompaniments, of the degeneracy of English literature, and particularly of its poetry, which began in the latter part of the seventeenth century. The civil war was over, and the fierce bloodshedding which marked England's civil wars, and which should be an awful warning to all who are sprung from that stock, the strong usurpation of Cromwell had passed away—each period with its evils.† The Restoration came, and what were the evils that came along with it? In the Middle Ages, the miseries that were the common train of war in Europe were pestilence and famine; but, after the domestic war in England in the seventeenth century—an ecclesiastical civil war--came debauchery, licentiousness, riot, and blasphemy. The rigour of Puritanism once removed, there came quickly in its stead a lawlessness in which the exultation of triumph mingled, and men took a party pride in immorality. All high moods of feeling were ridiculed : honour was a jest, and so were justice and dignity, and piety and domestic virtue; and conjugal faith
* Appendix to Wordsworth's Works. Essay, p. 490.
†“The usurpation of Cromwell” is a phrase about which, in our day, there may be some question, not, however, here to be discussed. There is American authority for it, which I cite, as curiously illustrative of the cavalier tendencies of “the Father of his country.” In 1792, Washington sent to Sir Isaac Heard a memorandum as to his family, which begins thus:
“In the year 1657, or thereabouts, and during the usurpation of Oliver Cromwell, John and Lawrence Washington emigrated from the North of England and settled at Bridge's Creek, on the Potomac River, in the county of Westmoreland. But from whom they descended, the subscriber is possessed of no document to ascertain.”—Sparks' Washington, vol. xii. p. 547. W. B. R.
was the greatest jest of all. The civil war had also demoralized the nation by breaking up the babits of domestic life: households were destroyed, and their proprietors found a shelter in taverns; and when the necessity for such disordered life had passed away, the low habits were left behind.
To a nation, thus diseased, there was perpetually passing the moral poison that issued from the avenues of the palace. From the earliest era of the history of the island, no portion had been so loathsome as the quarter of a century during which Charles Stuart, the younger, was on the throne. When the early life of Queen Elizabeth was visited with afflictions, she came forth from her trials with a spirit chastened and invigorated for a mighty reign. But upon Charles Stuart the lesson of adversity was wasted. The bloody fate of his father might well have thrown a solemn memory of the past over all his after life. When the Restoration brought him once more to the royal home of his childhood, he seems to have mounted the throne with a determination to make
the arrears of interrupted pleasure by a career of unrestrained debauchery, the like of which had not been seen in England before. The ancient palace was reeking with the filthy atmosphere of the tavern or viler haunts of iniquity. Moral opinion was scoffed at, and national honour betrayed. The monarch of that island which had more than once swayed the destinies of Europe, sold himself to a monarch as profligate, but prouder, for Charles became the mean-spirited pensioner of Louis the Fourteenth. Vice was in riotous possession of the high places of the land, and the throne was the seat of the scoffer. Looking from the throne thus occupied, and begirt with profli.
gates and wits, Shaftesbury, and Buckingham, and Rochester, the old age of Milton is seen with heightened sublimity. There was hanging over the palace, the capital, the land, a dark atmosphere of sensuality, lurid, at times, with such cruelties as mingle with heartless frivolity; and Milton had passed into that seclusion of which it has been grandly said :
Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart:
His varied career drew to a solemn ending. He who in youth and early manhood had given the freshness of poetic fervour a homage to the best of England's nobility, the Egertons and Spensers; he who roamed over the Alps and Italy, visiting Galileo, and communing with the friend of Tasso, and Italian scholars; he who had stood by the side of Cromwell and Fairfax and Vane, in their years of power, —was now a lone man in the land, all his strife for the commonwealth wasted, and left to what the world then little heeded, but which has made his name immortal. It is of this period of Milton's life, that Mr. Hallam has eloquently spoken in a passage which I desire to quote, especially for the sake of an educational suggestion which accompanies it:
" Then the remembrance of early reading came over his dark and lonely path, like the moon emerging from the clouds. Then it was that the muse was truly his; not only as she poured her creative inspiration into his mind,
* Wordsworth, p. 213. Am. Ed.
but as the daughter of memory, coming with fragments of ancient melodies, the voice of Euripides, and Homer, and Tasso; sounds that he had loved in youth, and treasured up for the solace of his age. They who, though not enduring the calamity of Milton, have known what it is, when afar from books, in solitude or in travelling, or in the intervals of worldly care, to feed on poetical recollections, to murmur over the beautiful lines whose cadence has long delighted their ear, to recall the sentiments and images which retain by association the charm that early years once gave them—they will feel the inestimable value of committing to the memory, in the prime of its power, what it will easily receive and indelibly retain. I know not, indeed, whether an education that deals much with poetry, such as is still usual in England, has any more solid argument among many in its favour, than that it lays the foundation of intellectual pleasures at the other extreme of life."*
Such is the opinion of one of the most judicious minds of the day—a mind trained in the most exact and laborious historic research; and I quote it because I apprehend that among us the tendency of late years has been to neglect this excellent discipline of the memory,
which enabled our
* Literature of Europe, vol. 3. p. 425. The late Mr. Gallatin (at the time I refer to more than eighty years old) once told me that one of the purest pleasures and consolations of his advanced years was the recollection of his earliest studies, bis Latin and Greek which he had learned at school, and passages of the ancient poets, that, without conscious effort, were constantly presenting themselves to his mind. The memories of intermediate politics, and finance, and business, active and unremitted, were fading away, but what he learned by rote when a boy came back fresh to cheer him. W. B. R.
elders to keep that possession in their minds of long passages of poetry, which astonishes their feebler descendants.
To return to Milton: he whose delight it had once been to roam through woods, and over the green fields, was now chained by blindness to the sunny porch of a suburban dwelling. He whose heart's pulse was a love of independence, was now a helpless dependent for every motion, for all communion with books; every step of him, who had walked through all the ways of life so firmly, was at the mercy of another. His spirit was darkened, too, with disappointment in his countrymen, and with bitter memories of domestic discords. As the Comus was a beautiful reflection of happy youth, the Samson Agonistes shadows forth the gloomy grandeur of the poet's old age. In some passages there is the breaking out of a bitter agony; but a stern magnanimity pervades the poem-a high-souled pathos befitting the sorrows of a vanquished, captive giant. With our thoughts of the hero of the tragedy mingle thoughts of the poet himself, for what was John Milton in the degenerate days of Charles the Second, but a blind Samson in the citadel of the Philistines? In the words the hero speaks, we seem to hear the voice of Milton's own spirit, subdued to a gentle melancholy:
Before passing from this subject, let me briefly notice the service which Milton rendered to English poetry in that short series of short poems—his English Sonnets, which