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LECTURE VIII. Sk
oiterature of the timeteenth (scuturg.
Literature of our own times—Influence of political and social relations—The historic relations of literature—The French Revolution, and its effects—Infidelity—Thirty years' Peace—Scientific progress coincident with letters—History—Its altered tone—Arnold—Prescott–Niebuhr—Gibbon—Hume–Robertson—Religious element in historical style—Lord Mahom—Macaulay's History—Historical romance—Waverley Novels—The pulpit—Sydney Smith—Manning— Poetry of the early part of the century—Bowles and Rogers—Campbell—Coleridge's Christabel—Lay of the Last Minstrel—Scott's
IN my last lecture, I noticed the date of the death of Cowper, in the year 1800, as conveniently marking the close of the literature of the eighteenth century. The excellence of his prose, as well as of his poetry, and his share in that literary revival which began during the latter part of that century, make such a use of his name subservient, in a reasonable rather than an arbitrary manner, to the purposes of literary chronology. We pass thence into what may be entitled “The Literature of our own Times,” or, having nearly completed-its-era of fifty years, “The Literature of the first half of the Nineteenth Century.” It has its characteristics—distinctive qualities, with their origin from within, in the minds of those whose writings make the literature, and from without, in the influence exerted on those minds by the world's doings
-- # January 21, 1850.
and the world's condition. In the study of literature, it is needful, for our knowledge of it, to look at it in its relation to civil and political history, in order to understand how, in a greater or less degree, it takes a colour from the times. The mind of no author can dwell So aloof from his generation that his thoughts and feelings shall be above or beyond outward influences. He is more or less what he is, because he is where he is. These outward influences affect genius of the highest order, with this difference, indeed, that they do not limit or control it, but, by its own inborn power, it carries them up, idealized, into the highest truth for the perpetual good of all after time.
Looking back to the early and distant eras of English literature, it is not difficult to trace the relations between the literature and the national history—the record of words and the record of actions and events. The full and varied outburst of poetry, grave and gay, in Chaucer, becomes a more intelligible phenomenon when we think of it in association with the chivalry, the enterprise, and the cultivation of Edward the Third’s long and glorious reign. The genius of Spenser and the genius of Shakspeare shine with a clearer light when our eyes look at it as issuing from the Elizabethan age—that age strenuous with thoughts and acts, chivalrous, philosophical, adventurous, of whose great men it might be said, as it was said of one of them, that they were so contemplative you could not believe them active, and so active you could not believe them contemplative. Milton's great epic seems, at first thought, strangely uncongenial to the immediate period of its appearance ; but ceases to be so when it is thought of as engendered in those years of ordeal through which Milton's mind had passed in the times of the Civil War, the Commonwealth, and the Protectorate. The age that Dryden lived in left a more unresisted impress on his genius—the stamp of a degenerate and dissolute generation; and the pages of Pope have their commentary in the reflection they give of an artificial and sophisticated state of society—an age of wits and freethinkers; so that when his genius rose to its most imaginative strain, it could not content itself with a theme less stimulant than the revolting story of Abelard and Eloisa. When we come to the study of the literature of our own times, it is, of course, more difficult to trace the historic relation of literature, because it is the literature of our own times—times which have not yet become a part of history. We stand too near them—are, indeed, too much in them—to see them clearly, dispassionately, to measure the prevailing influences, and understand them justly. We cannot yet adventure to speak of the literature of this century as hereafter they may do who shall look back to it from a distance, when time, and the calm judgments time brings along with it, shall group the authors of these times in their true places; and when the narrowness of contemporary partiality, or, what is worse, contemporary prejudice, shall be expanded to a larger wisdom. We cannot err in this, that the half century, now nearly completed, has been distinguished by great intellectual and imaginative activity. The revival, which began in the latter part of the last century, was, in a great measure, the reaction from the overwrought artifice and formality of thought, and feeling, and expression of the times that had gone before. The hearts of men began to assert once more their claims to what Nature could give them, and the poets, who are Nature's interpreters. Other agencies, besides the simple power of reaction, were at work on the European mind, giving it an impulse to break through old and contracted conventional restraints, calling forth freer movements of thought and feeling. I refer especially to the general agitation throughout Europe consequent on the French Revolution. Change was the condition of the closing years of the last century. Things which had endured for ages were perishing, not by slow gradations of decay, but by quick and unlooked-for violence. Time-honoured institutions were not suffered to attain the limit of their natural existence, and then to sink under the gradual accumulation of years, but were swiftly swept away by a new compulsion. The clenched hand of prescriptive tyranny was forced to loose its grasp ; and if simpler generations of men, in the olden time, had held to the fond belief that - -
“Not all the water in the rough, rude sea
men of the new times were ready to shed the blood of king and queen with pitiless contempt. The people in one of the central monarchies of Europe had suddenly started up, and, casting away respect for prerogative, boldly questioned the authority of a power which so long had trampled on them. Men began to ask why the bounties of heaven should be garnered up for the bloated luxury of the few, while the many were pining, hungry and heart-stricken. The sympathies of Christendom were, for a season, enlisted; and the pulse of other nations began to beat quicker. The French Revolution began to assume the aspect of a general European revolution. Ancient opinions and rules of life were abandoned, and new modes of thought and feeling took their place. The political revolution became an intellectual and moral one; for, so entire was the subversion of old institutions, that in reconstructing society, men were led to speculate on its very elements, and on the principles and destiny of human nature— speculations which, from a revolutionary forsaking of the old paths, too often fostered a self-sufficient and faithless philosophy. It was not as in the American Revolution, in which our fathers, not clamorous for new privileges, were the defenders of old rights—rights as ancient as the Great Charter, advocates of the Constitution and the freedom it gave, the “good old cause.” But in the revolutionary agitation that attended the French Revolution, new creeds of liberty were taught, new doctrines of the rights of man. Christianity, with its day of Sanctity and repose, sacred from the Creation, was banished to make way for a sensual, brutalizing atheism, with its tenth-day holidays, (I cannot call them Sabbaths,) and with its idolatry of human reason. Theories of ecclesiastical, political, and social regeneration were propagated with apostolic zeal into all lands—doctrines which cast a shadow on the spire of every village-church, and which, while they gave some wild hopes to the down-trodden and the desperate, struck dismay where the domestic virtues were grouped at the once secure and happy fireside. It was a commotion of the very primal elements of Society. The scene was a new one—suddenly a new one—in the drama of civilization: the power of strange rights was thrust into the hands of men ; the burden of strange duties was harnessed on their backs. Ancient landmarks, covered with the moss of many years, were torn up. The guidance of principles,