Sidor som bilder
PDF
ePub

and this is but the rebuke of unchristian sullenness, and the praise of Christian thankfulness :

“Some murmur, when their sky is clear

And wholly bright to view,
If one small speck of dark appear

In their great heaven of blue.
And some with thankful love are fill'd

If but one streak of light,
One ray of God's good mercy gild

The darkness of their night.
In palaces are hearts that ask,

In discontent and pride,
Why life is such a dreary task,

And all good things denied ?
And hearts in poorest huts admire,

How love has in their aid
(Love that not ever seems to tire)

Such rich provision made."*
Thus do the Poets minister in the Temple.

[ocr errors]

· LECTURE VII.

Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.*

Milton's old age-Donne's Sermons—No great school of poetry with

out love of nature-Blank in this respect between Paradise Lost and Thomson's Seasons-Court of Charles the Second-Samson Agonistes-Milton's Sonnets—Clarendon's History of the Rebellion--Pilgrim's Progress-Dryden's Odes--Absalom and Achitophel--Rhyming tragedies—Age of Queen Anne-British statesmen-EssayistsTatler-Spectator-Sir Roger De Coverley—Pope-Lord Bolingbroke-English infidels—Johnson's Dictionary-Gray-CollinsCowper-Goldsmith—The Vicar of Wakefield—Cowper-Elizabeth Browning.

· In proceeding to the literature of the close of the seventeenth century, we approach a period which is marked by great change. Heretofore in the succession of literary eras there had been a continuity of influence, which had not only served to give new strength and develope new resources, but to preserve the power of the antecedent literature unimpaired. The present was never unnaturally or disloyally divorced from the past. The author in one generation found discipline for his genius in reverent and affectionate intercourse with great minds of other days. Such was their dutiful spirit of discipline, strengthening but not surrendering their own native power—the discipline so much wiser and so much more richly rewarded in the might it gains, than the self-sufficient discipline, which, trusting to the pride of origi

[ocr errors][merged small]

nality or the influences of the day, disclaims the ministry of time-honoured wisdom. Milton was studious of Spenser, and Spenser was grateful and reverent of Chaucer; and thus, as age after age gave birth to the great poets, they were bound “each to each in natural piety.” But when we come to those who followed Milton, the golden chain is broken. The next generation of the poets abandoned the hereditary allegiance which had heretofore been cherished so dutifully, transmitted so faithfully.

It was at this time that the earlier literature began to fall into neglect, displaced with all its grandeur and varied power of truth and beauty, displaced for more than a century by an inferior literature, inferior and impurer, so that for more than a hundred years, many of the finest influences on the English mind were almost wholly withdrawn. Indeed, it is only within the present century that the restoration of those influences has been accomplished. Here we see within our own day, the revival of early English literature, bringing from dust and oblivion the old books to light and life again, to do their perpetual work upon the earth—the work that was denied to them by an age that was unworthy of them. No longer since than ten years or less, there was no good edition of the complete works of Chaucer. Ten years ago, the sermons of the greatest preacher of the times of James the First, Donne, the Dean of St. Paul's, were almost iņaccessible, entirely so, I might say, to scholars in this country, in the first and very rare folio edition. Even the writings of Jeremy Taylor were a rare treasure, until about twentyfive years ago, Bishop Heber did the good service of giving ready access to them in a modern edition; and not to speak of the miscellaneous literature, over which the dust

lay so thick, all the early dramatists, save Shakspeare, lay in comparative neglect till their recent restoration.

I refer to this neglect as both a symptom and a cause of the decline of English literature, which began at the close of the seventeenth century, and lasted for about a century. Genius of a higher order would never have divorced itself from such an influence. It would have strengthened itself by loyalty to it.

Besides their disloyalty to the great poets who had gone before, the poets of the new generation were guilty of another neglect, equally characteristic, and more fatal perhaps to high poetic aspirations; I refer to the neglect of the poetic vision of nature, external nature, the sights and sounds of this material world, the glory of which, proclaimed in divine inspiration, is ever associated with “the consecration and the poet's dream.” Who can question, without questioning the Creator's wisdom and goodness, that the things of earth and sky have their ministry on man's spiritual nature? We may not be able to measure or define it, but it is a perpetual and universal influence, and it must be for good. Most of all is it recognised by the poet, prepared as he is

“By his intense conceptions to receive,

Deeply the lesson deep of love which he
Whom nature, by whatever means, has taught
To feel intensely, cannot but receive."*

No great poet, perhaps I may say no great writer, is without the deep sense of the beauty and glory of the universe, the earth that is trod on, the heavens that are gazed at. It is an element of the poetry of the Bible. The classical poetry of antiquity shows it; it abounds, in vernal exuberance, in Chaucer; you meet with it perpetually in Spenser, and Shakspeare, and Milton, and in the prose of Bacon and Taylor. But when we come to the next generation, particularly of poets, the spiritual communion with nature was at an end. They had not vision of sunlight or starlight, but were busy within doors with things of lamp-light or candle-light. They took not heed of mountain, or seaside, or the open field, and nature's music there, but city, “the town,” street and house were all in all to them :

* The Excursion, book i. 397.

“The soft blue sky did never melt

Into their hearts."*

If it can be shown, as it undoubtedly can, that thoughtful, genial communion with Nature is an accompaniment of all poetry of the highest order, in all ages, surely we may infer that' a literary era which is deficient in this element is the era of a lower literature. Now, it has been ascertained, by careful examination, that, with two or three unimportant exceptions, “ the poetry of the period intervening between the publication of the Paradise Lost and Thomson's Seasons (a period of about sixty years) does not contain a single new image of external nature; and scarcely presents a familiar one from which it can be inferred that the eye of the poet had been steadily fixed upon his object-much less that his feelings had urged him to work upon it in the spirit of genuine

* Peter Bell, part i. p. 163.

« FöregåendeFortsätt »