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No company of writers has sunk into such general and merited oblivion as the British infidels, who were the precursors of the French skeptics in the last century. We look back with somewhat of wonder and dismay at the extent of the influence they exerted for a considerable time over the minds of their countrymen in an advanced stage of intellectual refinement. It had its sway over the most cultivated classes of society, the court, the men of letters, but happily had less effect on what is less heard of-the simple piety which never died out in the quiet parish churches of the land, and was cherished at many a lowly hearth. In the prouder spheres of society, and in literature, deism and all the motley mockery of unbelief had an almost unresisted power. I know of no sadder sentence in English literature, than that in which Bishop Butler, in the preface to his great defence of revealed religion, remarks, “It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons, that Christianity is
before we adopt any opinion or assertion of Bolingbroke's, is to consider whether in writing it he was treating of Sir Robert Walpole or revealed religion. On other occasions he may be followed with advantage, as he always may be read with pleasure.” Creasy's Battles of the World, vol. ii. p. 158. Surely He must always be regarded reverentially, as a master of English rhetoric, whom Burke studied, whose lost speeches the younger Pitt mourned as the greatest loss to modern letters, and of whom a writer like Chesterfield said, “ Till I read Bolingbroke, I confess I did not know all the extent and power of the English language.” Bad as were his religious opinions, they do not seem to have degenerated to the low atheistic level which come of his contemporaries reached. “When I took my last farewell of him," writes Lord Chesterfield,“ he returned his last farewell with tenderness, and said, 'God, who placed me here, will do what he pleases with me hereafter; and he knows best what to do. May he bless you !'” W. B. R.
not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is now, at length, discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly they treat it as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals, for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world."*
This was said in 1736, and to such a state of things no man contributed more than Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, he whom Pope, in the poem
which professed to be his philosophical poem—"The Essay on Man”—has apostrophized as his "genius,” “ master of the poet and the song,” his "guide, philosopher, and friend."
The middle of the eighteenth century presents English literature, and especially its poetry, reduced to its lowest estate. Those who followed Pope, to imitate him without his powers, rendered the poetry of that period tame, trite, mechanical, and monotonous in versification. What the middle of the last century has to be proud of is, Dr. Johnson's colossal work, the first great Dictionary of our language.
The last half of the century is an era of the revival of English poetry—a revival which began indeed somewhat earlier with Thomson, but which was carried on by Gray, and by Collins, and Goldsmith, and Cowper, and another whose peasant hand was a fit one to bring poetry back to nature again—Robert Burns, who led the muse into the open fields once more, to look on the flowers, and most of all, that one which “glinted forth” to delight his age, as it used to do Chaucer's, four hundred years before. We feel that we are getting out of a close atmosphere and an artificial light into the open air and sunshine again, when, passing from the previous versifiers, we come to Burns, and see that it was
* Advertisement to the first edition to Butler's Analogy, p. 48.
“Mid ‘lonely heights and hows'
Bedewed with toil,
Upturned the soil.” Connected with one of the names I have mentioned as of the revivers of a truer spirit of English poetry, there is an incident of much interest, the memory of which was recovered a few years ago, and which serves to mark the period of a favourite poem. The incident has been introduced by Lord Mahon, in his admirable History of England, and I cannot do better than use his words. On the night of the 13th of September, 1759, the night before the battle on the Plains of Abraham was to give to Wolfe the fame of the Conqueror of Canada, the English general passed along the St. Lawrence, with a portion of his army in boats; the historian proceeds: “Swiftly, but silently, did the boats fall down with the tide, unobserved by the enemy's sentinels at their posts along the shore. Of the soldiers on board, how eagerly must every heart have throbbed at the coming conflict ! how intently must every eye have contemplated the dark outline, as it lay pencilled upon the midnight sky, and as every moment it grew closer and clearer, of the hostile heights ! Not a word was spoken—not a sound heard beyond the rippling of the stream. Wolfe alone-thus tradition has told us-repeated in a low voice to the other officers in his boat those beautiful stanzas with which a country church-yard inspired the muse of Gray. One noble line
“The paths of glory lead but to the grave'must have seemed at such a moment fraught with mournful meaning. At the close of the recitation, Wolfe added, Now, gentlemen, I would rather be the author of that poem than take Quebec !" "*
Of Gray, and Goldsmith, and Cowper this is also to be remembered—that they have enriched the literature with prose as attractive as their poetry. It would be hard to say in which respect Goldsmith is most agreeably and affectionately remembered—as the author of “ The Deserted
Village,” or of “ The Vicar of Wakefield.” Besides, the letters of Gray, our epistolary literature received its largest contributions in these two collections, equally characteristic of the writers, and very different in their tone—the letters of Horace Walpole, covering more than half a century, filled with political and private gossip, and sparkling with the wit of an acute man of the world, in the midst of the world's busiest society--and the letters of Cowper, partly by virtue of his exquisite English, and partly by the purity and earnestness of his character, and his gentle humour, giving a charm that is indescribable to the simple incidents and occupations of his secluded life, and that places his letters with the most agreeable reading in English literature. The historical literature of the century I reserve for a connection in which I propose to speak of it hereafter.
In the revival of English poetry which I have been speaking of, an auxiliary influence was exerted by the restoration of the early minstrelsy in Percy's Reliques. That popular poetry was made familiar to reading men, and its simple power helped English poetry to recover not only its natural graces, but the best freedom and variety of its music. Cowper caught the free movement of verse in his well-known comic ballad of John Gilpin, and not less in the tragic one—that simple and noble Dirge, on the remarkable casualty of the sinking of the Royal George at her moorings :
* History of England, vol. iv. p. 163. One of Mr. Reed's modest literary labours was an American edition, with notes, of Lord Mahon's early volumes. The notes wore illustrative, and very judicious. Had his life been spared, he would probably have completed the edition.
W. B. R.
“Toll for the brave !
The brave that are no more!
Fast by their nativo shore !
Eight hundred of the brave,
Whose courage well was tried,
And laid her on her side.
A land-breeze shook the shrouds,
And she was overset:
With all her crew complete.
Toll for the brave!
Brave Kempenfelt is gone;
His work of glory dono.
It was not in the battle;
No tempest gave the shock;
She ran upon no rock.
His sword was in the sheath;
His fingers held the pen,
With twice four hundred men.