Abbildungen der Seite

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

But mark the dramatic truth, when you see what voice speaks thus; it is the utterance of the agony of a bloodstained conscience, whose guilt has so wasted out all its humanity, that it would fain lose all belief in life's realities.

The sophisticated state of society in which Pope lived, and the morbid excess of his critical powers, show themselves in his treatment of womanly character: it is full of querulousness, and sarcasm, perverse in sentiment and in morals. He exhorts a female friend

"Not to quit the free innocence of life,

For the dull glory of a virtuous wife."

What a line for a poet to utter! and what a contrast to those bright images of womanly heroism and beauty which the older poets delighted to picture in marriage ! When Pope begins a healthier strain in that sweet couplet

"O blest with temper, whose unclouded ray
Can make to-morrow happy as to-day"-

see what straightway it declines to,-such a tribute to womanly character as this, that a sister can be unenvious of a sister's beauty, and that a mother can hear unaggrieved the love that is given to a daughter, and that a wife's merit is to win a way for her own will by a crafty self-control and a refined dissimulation :

"She who can love a sister's charms, or hear
Sighs for a daughter with unwounded ear;
She who ne'er answers till a husband cools,
Or if she rules him, never shows she rules;

Charms by accepting, by submitting sways,
Yet has her humour most when she obeys."

When the household emotion of filial piety got the better of the worldly want of feeling and the artifices of society, Pope's heart spoke in the lines alluding to his mother, beautiful for their truth of feeling:

"Oh, friend, may each domestic bliss be thine!

Be no unpleasing melancholy mine!

Me let the tender office long engage

To rock the cradle of declining age;

With lenient arts extend a mother's breath

Make languor smile, and smooth the bed of death,
Explore the thought, explain the asking eye,
And keep at least one parent from the sky."

There was an influence over the mind of Pope, which must be alluded to as belonging to the literary history of the times I refer to the overshadowing and malignant influence of the friendship of Lord Bolingbroke-a man whose brilliant talents do not redeem his memory from the reproach of corrupt statesmanship, and the more enduring agency of evil which he exercised as one of the leading deistical writers of the eighteenth century. That influence often intercepted the light of revelation. You may see not unfrequently playing on the surface of Pope's fancy the shadows that were cast by the restless leaves of the poison-tree of a godless philosophy.*

*It may be hazardous, even as a matter of criticism, to express an opinion favourable to Bolingbroke, yet no one can read a page of his matchless English-any page taken at random from that greatest of political apologies, the letter to Wyndham-without enthusiastic admiration of his art of style, and without admitting it to be the perfection of written eloquence. Such is the opinion of Lord Mahon in his excellent delineation of his character. (History of England, vol. ii. p. 27.) Another writer of our day says justly: "The best test to use,

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 some 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 w, 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

Advertisement to the first edition to Butler's Analogy, p. 48.

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 "Mid 'lonely heights and hows'

He paid to Nature, tuneful vows;
Or wiped his honourable brows
Bedewed with toil,

While reapers strove, or busy ploughs
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 in spired the muse of Gray. One noble line

« ZurückWeiter »