Abbildungen der Seite


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." 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

Who can


“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

* The Excursion, book i. 397.

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 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.

[ocr errors]

imagination." 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.f 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 capi

al, 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 h s been grandly said :

“ Milton,
Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart: X
Thou badst a voice whose sound was like the sea
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free."*

[ocr errors]


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 bis 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.

« ZurückWeiter »