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Literature of the Seventeenth Century, with incidental
Suggestions on Sunday Reading.*
Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity-Progress of English literature—Sir
Walter Raleigh's History of the World-Bacon's Essays-Milton-Comus-Hymn on the Nativity-Suggestions as to Sunday reading—Sacred books-Forms of Christian faith-Evidences of religion-Butler's Analogy-Charles Lamb's Remarks on Stackhouse-History of the Bible-Jeremy Taylor-Holy Living and Dying-Life of Christ-Pulpit-oratory-Southey's Book of the Church—Thomas Fuller~Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical SonnetsIzaak Walton's Lives—Pilgrim's Progress—The Old Man's HomeGeorge Herbert-Henry Vaughan-Milton resumed-Paradise Lost -Criticism on it as a purely sacred poem-Shakspeare's mode of treating sacred subjects—Spenser—The Faery Queen-John Wesley—Keble's Christian Year-George Wither-Aubrey De VereTrench's sonnet.
In following the progress of English literature, the difficulty of considering it according to what may be regarded as the successive eras is greatly increased the farther we advance. The literature becomes more abundant in both departments, prose as well as verse, and the influences that affect it, and are affected by it, are found to be more various and complicated. English prose-writing was hardly entitled to be looked on as literature until nearly two hundred years after English poetry had disclosed many of its finest resources.
It was not till about the
year 1600 that Hooker, in the “Ecclesiastical Polity,”
* February 7, 1850.
accomplished for English prose what Chaucer had done for English poetry before the year 1400. Accustomed, as we now are, to the combination of prose and poetry as making up a literature-language unmetrical filling, too, a larger space than the metrical—we are apt to forget how long a period there was during which English literature may truly be said to have been without its prose. In the early literature, therefore, Chaucer may be thought of as the solitary rather than the central figure; and thus of such a period a general view may be taken, which, at the same time, may show the individual genius that belonged to it.
As we move foryard, however, we find a more nu
company of poets, each having claim to attention, and, along with them, an increasing concourse of the prose-writers. You can readily perceive how it becomes more and more difficult to make any such grouping of the many actors in our literature, at the several periods, as may set them before you a well-arranged company rather than a confused throng; to discover which was the great mind of the age, and yet not lose sight of others that circled round it. We trace the progress of the nation's literature more laboriously, because more and varied elements entered into it, and because more minds were contributing to it. It becomes more necessary,
in a brief and outline course of lectures like this, to allude, in a very cursory manner, to authors and their productions, well deserving extended consideration under more favourable circumstances.
As I have advanced toward that period of our literature in which names illustrious, both in prose and in poetry, come crowding to our thoughts, I feel the necessity of asking you to bear in mind that this course of lectures was designed to be merely of a suggestive character, to present a general view of the progress of English literature, and its condition at successive periods, rather than a detailed examination of particular authors or books.
It is possible to arrange in our minds the literature of our language into a series of successive eras, and this may be done with somewhat more precision than would at first be anticipated; for it is not a mere arbitrary, chronological distribution, corresponding with centuries or reigns, but an arrangement according to a certain set of influences affecting the English mind and character during a given length of time, more or less definite, to be succeeded by a new set of influences, producing a new phase of the nation's literature. Such a general view of English literature is important, not only as saving one from a great deal of confusion of thought on the subject, but also as enabling us to see the great authors of different times, each in his appropriate grouping, and to carry out special courses of reading. The succession of our literary eras, with a little reflection and effort of memory, may be so familiarized as not to be forgotten. The earliest era—the age of Chaucer, as it may aptly be styled—the last half of the fourteenth century, was characterized by the various influences which marked the mediæval civilization; the closing century of which civilization, from 1400 to 1500, was, in consequence chiefly of internal commotion in England, a hundred years' sleep of the English mind, so far as literature was concerned. The first half of the sixteenth century has no more than a comparative interest, as a period in which the English mind was making its transition from mediæval to modern modes of thought and feeling, affected, too, in some degree, by the change
of the nation's ecclesiastical position. The latter part of the sixteenth century and the first part of the seventeenth century-in other words, the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and of James the First—form properly one era, although it is usually styled the Elizabethan era, in consequence, perhaps, of the greater glory of that reign in other matters than letters. The latter part of the seventeenth century, after the Restoration, is the beginning of an era extending into the eighteenth century, with which, as a truer connection, I propose to consider it in the next lecture, directing my attention now to the early and middle portion of the seventeenth century.
The prose literature of the early part of the seventeenth century received its most important addition in what may be said to be the second (in time) of the great English prose-works—Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World, the work with which he beguiled the years of his imprisonment; his mind, within the prison-walls, travelling out into the remote regions of the ancient world's story, as actively as his body, in its years of freedom, had mingled with his fellow-men, and roamed over the distant spaces of the sea.
To the same period of our prose literature belong the authorship and the philosophy of another man famous (and I had almost said infamous, too) in public lifeFrancis Bacon, Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Alban, and (would it had not been so Lord High Chancellor of England. His philosophical works belong not so much to literature as to that high department of science which is meant to guide human inquiry, and mark out the boundaries of human knowledge. His volume which does belong to literature in the more exact sense of the term, is the small one of “ Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral;” and
it does so, for a reason, which he has himself assigned, in a phrase which has become one of the familiar phrases of the language: when, after the cloud had fallen on his character, he collected these miscellanies—he said, “I do now publish my Essays, which of all my other works have been most current; for that, as it seems, they come home to men's business and bosoms.” That the Essays do so address themselves thus universally and intimately to mankind, is apparent from a mere glance at the list of titles; and that they contain a perpetual interest, is shown from the manner in which their condensed wisdom may be evolved for new applications—a condensation of wisdom which is united with much of the imaginative processes of thought, and is therefore doubly valuable as one of the books of discipline for well teaching. “Few books," says Mr. Hallam,“ are more quoted, and what is not always the case with such books, we may add, that few are more generally read. In this respect they lead the van of our prose literature: for no gentleman is ashamed of owning that he has not read the Elizabethan prose-writers; but it would be somewhat derogatory to a man of the slightest claim to polite letters were he unacquainted with the Essays of Bacon. It is, indeed, little worth while to read this or any other book for reputation's sake; but very few in our language so well repay the pains or afford more nourishment to the thoughts. They might be judiciously introduced, with a small number more, into a sound method of education-one that should make wisdom, rather than mere knowledge its object, and might become a text-book of examination in our schools."*
* Literature of Europe, vol. iii. chap. iv. xxxiv. p. 342.