Francis Jeffrey Jeffrey.

Selections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey online

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All true lovers of English poetry have been long in
love with the dramatists of the time of Elizabeth and
James ; and must have been sensibly comforted by their
late restoration to some degree of favour and notoriety.
If there was any good reason, indeed, to believe that the 5
notice which they have recently attracted proceeded from
any thing but that indiscriminate rage for editing and
annotating by which the present times are so happily
distinguished, we should be disposed to hail it as the
most unequivocal symptom of improvement in public 10
taste that has yet occurred to reward and animate our
labours. At all events, however, it gives us a chance for
such an improvement ; by placing in the hands of many,
who would not otherwise have heard of them, some of
those beautiful performances which we have always 15
regarded as among the most pleasing and characteristic
productions of our native genius.

Ford certainly is not the best of those neglected
writers, — nor Mr. Weber by any means the best of
their recent editors. But we cannot resist the oppor- 20
tunity which this publication seems to afford, of saying
a word or two of a class of writers, whom we have long
worshipped in secret with a sort of idolatrous veneration,
and now find once more brought forward as candidates
for public applause. The aera to which they belong,


indeed, has always appeared to us by far the brightest in
the history of EngUsh Hterature, — or indeed of human
intellect and capacity. There never was, any where,
any thing like the sixty or seventy years that elapsed
5 from the middle of Elizabeth's reign to the period of the
Restoration. In point of real force and originality of
genius, neither the age of Pericles, nor the age of
Augustus, nor the times of Leo X., nor of Louis XIV.,
can come at all into comparison : For, in that short

lo period, we shall find the names of almost all the very
great men that this nation has ever produced, — the
names of Shakespeare, and Bacon, and Spenser, and
Sydney, — and Hooker, and Taylor, and Barrow, and
Raleigh, — and Napier, and Milton, and Cudworth,

15 and Hobbes, and many others ; — men, all of them, not
merely of great talents and accomplishments, but of vast
compass and reach of understanding, and of minds truly
creative and original ; — not perfecting art by the deli-
cacy of their taste, or digesting knowledge by the

20 justness of their reasonings ; but making vast and
substantial additions to the materials upon which taste
and reason must hereafter be employed, — and enlarging
to an incredible and unparalleled extent, both the stores
and the resources of the human faculties.

25 Whether the brisk concussion which was given to
men's minds by the force of the Reformation had much
effect in producing this sudden development of British
genius, we cannot undertake to determine. For our own
part, we should be rather inclined to hold, that the

30 Reformation itself was but one symptom or effect of
that great spirit of progression and improvement which
had been set in operation by deeper and more general
causes ; and which afterwards blossomed out into this
splendid harvest of authorship. But whatever may have


been the causes that determined the appearance of those
great works, the fact is certain, not only that they
appeared together in great numbers, but that they
possessed a common character, which, in spite of the
great diversity of their subjects and designs, would have 5
made them be classed together as the works of the same
order or description of men, even if they had appeared
at the most distant intervals of time. They are the
works of Giants, in short, — and of Giants of one nation
and family ; — and their characteristics are, great force, 10
boldness, and originality ; together with a certain raci-
ness of English peculiarity, which distinguishes them
from all those performances that have since been
produced among ourselves, upon a more vague and
^^general idea of European excellence. Their sudden 15
appearance, indeed, in all this splendour of native
luxuriance, can only be compared to what happens on
the breaking up of a virgin soil, — where all the
indigenous plants spring up at once with a rank and
irrepressible fertility, and display whatever is peculiar or 20
excellent in their nature, on a scale the most conspicuous
and magnificent. The crops are not indeed so clean, as
where a more exhausted mould has been stimulated by
systematic cultivation ; nor so profitable, as where their
quality has been varied by a judicious admixture of 25
exotics, and accommodated to the demands of the
universe by the combinations of an unlimited trade.
But to those whose chief object of admiration is the
living power and energy of vegetation, and who take
delight in contemplating the various forms of her 30
unforced and natural perfection, no spectacle can be
more rich, splendid, or attractive.

In the times of which we are speaking, classical
learning, though it had made great progress, had by no


means become an exclusive study ; and the ancients had
not yet been permitted to subdue men's minds to a sense
of hopeless inferiority, or to condemn the moderns to the
lot of humble imitators. They were resorted to, rather
5 to furnish materials and occasional ornaments, than as
models for the general style of composition ; and, while
they enriched the imagination, and insensibly improved
the taste of their successors, they did not at all restrain
their freedom, or impair their originality. No common

10 standard had yet been erected, to which all the works of
European genius were required to conform ; and no
general authority was acknowledged, by which all private
or local ideas of excellence must submit to be corrected.
Both readers and authors were comparatively few in

15 number. The former were infinitely less critical and
difficult than they have since become ; and the latter, if
they were not less solicitous about fame, were at least
much less jealous and timid as to the hazards which
attended its pursuit. Men, indeed, seldom took to

20 writing in those days, unless they had a great deal of
matter to communicate ; and neither imagined that they
could make a reputation by delivering commonplaces in
an elegant manner, or that the substantial value of their
sentiments would be disregarded for a little rudeness or

25 negligence in the finishing. They were habituated,
therefore, both to depend upon their own resources, and
to draw upon them without fear or anxiety ; and followed
the dictates of their own taste and judgment, without
standing much in awe of the ancients, of their readers,

30 or of each other.

The achievements of Bacon, and those who set free
our understandings from the shackles of Papal and of
tyrannical imposition, afford sufficient evidence of the
benefit which resulted to the reasoning faculties from


this happy independence of the first great writers of this
nation. But its advantages were, if possible, still more
conspicuous in the mere literary character of their pro-
ductions. The quantity of bright thoughts, of original
images, and splendid expressions, which they poured 5
forth upon every occasion, and by which they illuminated
and adorned the darkest and most rugged topics to
which they had happened to turn themselves, is such as
has never been equalled in any other age or country ;
and places them at least as high, in point of fancy and 10
imagination, as of force of reason, or comprehensiveness
of understanding. In this highest and most comprehen-
sive sense of the word, a great proportion of the writers
we have alluded to were Poets: and, without going to
those who composed in metre, and chiefly for purposes 15
of delight, we will venture to assert, that there is in any
one of the prose folios of Jeremy Taylor more fine
fancy and original imagery — more brilliant conceptions
and glowing expressions — more new figures, and new
applications of old figures — more, in short, of the body 20
and the soul of poetry, than in all the odes and the epics
that have since been produced in Europe. There are
large portions of Barrow, and of Hooker and Bacon, of
which we may say nearly as much : nor can any one
have a tolerably adequate idea of the riches of our 25
language and our native genius, who has not made
himself acquainted with the prose writers, as well as the
poets, of this memorable period.

The civil wars, and the fanaticism by which they were
fostered, checked all this fine bloom of the imagination, 30
and gave a different and less attractive character to the
energies which they could not extinguish. Yet, those
were the times that matured and drew forth the dark, but
powerful genius of such men as Cromwell, and Harrison,


and Fleetwood, &c. — the milder and more generous
enthusiasm of Blake, and Hutchison, and Hampden —
and the stirring and indefatigable spirit of Pym, and
Hollis, and Vane — and the chivalrous and accomplished
5 loyalty of Strafford and Falkland ; at the same time that
they stimulated and repaid the severer studies of Coke,
and Selden, and Milton. The Drama, however, was
entirely destroyed, and has never since regained its
honours ; and Poetry, in general, lost its ease, and its

10 majesty and force, along with its copiousness and

The Restoration made things still worse : for it broke
down the barriers of our literary independence, and
reduced us to a province of the great republic of Europe.

15 The genius and fancy which lingered through the usur-
pation, though soured and blighted by the severities of
that inclement season, were still genuine English genius
and fancy ; and owned no allegiance to any foreign
authorities. But the Restoration brought in a French

20 taste upon us, and what was called a classical and a
polite taste ; and the wings of our English Muses were
clipped and trimmed, and their flights regulated at the
expense of all that was peculiar, and much of what was
brightest in their beauty. The King and his courtiers,

25 during their long exile, had, of course, imbibed the taste
of their protectors ; and, coming from the gay court of
France, with something of that additional profligacy that
belonged to their outcast and adventurer character, were
likely enough to be revolted by the peculiarities, and by

30 the very excellences, of our native literature. The grand
and sublime tone of our greater poets, appeared to them
dull, morose, and gloomy ; and the fine play of their rich
and unrestrained fancy, mere childishness and folly :
while their frequent lapses and perpetual irregularity


were set down as clear indications of barbarity and
ignorance. Such sentiments, too, were natural, we must
admit, for a few dissipated and witty men, accustomed
all their days to the regulated splendour of a court — to
the gay and heartless gallantry of French manners — 5
and to the imposing pomp and brilliant regularity of
French poetry. But, it may appear somewhat more
unaccountable that they should have been able to impose
their sentiments upon the great body of the nation.
A court, indeed, never has so much influence as at the 10
moment of a restoration : but the influence of an English
court has been but rarely discernible in the literature of
the country ; and had it not been for the peculiar
circumstances in which the nation was then placed, we
believe it would have resisted this attempt to naturalise 15
foreign notions, as sturdily as it was done on almost
every other occasion.

At this particular moment, however, the native literature
of the country had been sunk into a very low and feeble
state by the rigours of the usurpation, — the best written 20
recent models laboured under the reproach of republi-
canism, — and the courtiers were not only disposed to
see all its peculiarities with an eye of scorn and aversion,
but had even a good deal to say in favour of that very
opposite style to which they had been habituated. It was 25
a wdtty, and a grand, and a splendid style. It showed
more scholarship and art, than the luxuriant negligence of
the old English school ; and was not only free from many
of its hazards and some of its faults, but possessed
merits of its own, of a character more likely to please 30
those who had then the power of conferring celebrity, or
condemning to derision. Then it was a style which it
was peculiarly easy to justify by argument ; and in
support of which great authorities, as well as imposing


reasons, were always ready to be produced. It came
upon us with the air and the pretension of being the
style of cultivated Europe, and a true copy of the style
of polished antiquity. England, on the other hand, had
5 had but little intercourse with the rest of the world for a
considerable period of time : Her language was not at
all studied on the Continent, and her native authors
had not been taken into account in forming those
ideal standards of excellence which had been recently

lo constructed in France and Italy upon the authority of the
Roman classics, and of their own most celebrated writers.
When the comparison came to be made, therefore, it is
easy to imagine that it should generally be thought to be
very much to our disadvantage, and to understand how

15 the great multitude, even among ourselves, should be
dazzled with the pretensions of the fashionable style of
writing, and actually feel ashamed of their own richer
and more varied productions.

It would greatly exceed our limits to describe accurately

20 the particulars in which this new Continental style differed
from our old insular one : But, for our present purpose,
it may be enough perhaps to say, that it was more
worldly, and more townish, — holding more of reason,
and ridicule, and authority — more elaborate and more

25 assuming • — addressed more to the judgment than to the
feelings, and somewhat ostentatiously accommodated to
the habits, or supposed habits, of persons in fashionable
life. Instead of tenderness and fancy, we had satire
and sophistry — artificial declamation, in place of the

30 spontaneous animation of genius — and for the universal
language of Shakespeare, the personalities, the party
politics, and the brutal obscenities of Dryden. Nothing,
indeed, can better characterize the change which had
taken place in our national taste, than the alterations and


additions which this eminent person presumed — and
thought it necessary — to make on the productions of
Shakespeare and Milton. The heaviness, the coarseness,
and the bombast of that abominable travestie, in which
he has exhibited the Paradise Lost in the form of an 5
opera, and the atrocious indelicacy and compassionable
stupidity of the new characters with which he has polluted
the enchanted solitude of Miranda and Prospero in the
Tempest, are such instances of degeneracy as we would
be apt to impute rather to some transient hallucination 10
in the author himself, than to the general prevalence of
any systematic bad taste in the public, did we not know
that Wycherly and his coadjutors were in the habit of
converting the neglected dramas of Beaumont and Fletcher
into popular plays, merely by leaving out all the romantic 15
sweetness of their characters — turning their melodious
blank verse into vulgar prose — and aggravating the
indelicacy of their lower characters, by lending a more
disgusting indecency to the whole dfaviatis persojice.

Dryden was, beyond all comparison, the greatest poet 20
of his own day ; and, endued as he was with a vigorous
and discursive imagination, and possessing a mastery
over his language which no later writer has attained, if
he had known nothing of foreign literature, and been left to
form himself on the models of Shakespeare, Spenser, and 25
Milton ; or if he had lived in the country, at a distance
from the pollutions of courts, factions, and playhouses,
there is reason to think that he would have built up the
pure and original school of English poetry so firmly, as
to have made it impossible for fashion, or caprice, or 30
prejudice of any sort, ever to have rendered any other
popular among our own inhabitants. As it is, he has not
written one line that is pathetic, and very few that can
be considered as sublime.


Addison, however, was the consummation of this
Continental style ; and if it had not been redeemed about
the same time by the fine talents of Pope, would probably
have so far discredited it, as to have brought us back
5 to our original faith half a century ago. The extreme
caution, timidity, and flatness of this author in his poetical
compositions — the narrowness of his range in poetical
sentiment and diction, and the utter wa'nt either of
passion or of brilliancy, render it difficult to believe that

10 he was born under the same sun with Shakespeare, and
wrote but a century after him. His fame, at this day
stands solely upon the delicacy, the modest gaiety, and
ingenious purity of his prose style ; — for the occasional
elegance and small ingenuity of his poems can never

15 redeem the poverty of their diction, and the tameness of
their conception. Pope has incomparably more spirit
and taste and animation : but Pope is a satirist, and a
moralist, and a wit, and a critic, and a fine writer, much
more than he is a poet. He has all the delicacies and

20 proprieties and felicities of diction — but he has not a
great deal of fancy, and scarcely ever touches any of the
greater passions. He is much the best, we think, of the
classical Continental school ; but he is not to be compared
with the masters — nor with the pupils — of that Old

25 English one from which there had been so lamentable an
apostacy. There are no pictures of nature or of simple
emotion in all his writings. He is the poet of town life,
and of high life, and of literary life ; and seems so much
afraid of incurring ridicule by the display of natural

30 feeling or unregulated fancy, that it is difficult not to
imagine that he would have thought such ridicule very
well directed.

The best of what we copied from the Continental poets,
on this desertion of our own great originals, is to be


found, perhaps, in the lighter pieces of Prior. That tone
of polite raillery — that airy, rapid, picturesque narrative,
mixed up with wit and tiaivete — that style, in short, of
good conversation concentrated into flowing and polished
verses, was not within the vein of our native poets ; and 5
probably never would have been known among us, if we
had been left to our own resources. It is lamentable
that this, which alone was worth borrowing, is the only
thins: which has not been retained. The tales and little
apologues of Prior are still the only examples of this 10
style in our language.

With the wits of Queen Anne this foreign school
attained the summit of its reputation ; and has ever
since, we think, been declining, though by slow and
almost imperceptible gradations. Thomson was the first 15
writer of any eminence who seceded from it, and made
some steps back to the force and animation of our
original poetry. Thomson, however, was educated in
Scotland, where the new style, we believe, had not yet
become familiar ; and lived, for a long time, a retired and 20
unambitious life, with very little intercourse with those
who gave the tone in literature at the period of his first
appearance. Thomson, accordingly, has always been
popular with a much wider circle of readers, than either
Pope or Addison ; and, in spite of considerable vulgarity 25
and signal cumbrousness of diction, has drawn, even from
the fastidious, a much deeper and more heartfelt

Young exhibits, we think, a curious combination, or
contrast rather, of the two styles of which we have been 30
speaking. Though incapable either of tenderness or
passion, he had a richness and activity of fancy that
belonged rather to the days of James and Elizabeth, than
to those of George and Anne : — But then, instead of


indulging it, as the older writers would have done, in
easy and playful inventions, in splendid descriptions, or
glowing illustrations, he was led, by the restraints and
established taste of his age, to work it up into strange

5 and fantastical epigrams, or into cold and revolting
hyperboles. Instead of letting it flow gracefully on, in
an easy and sparkling current, he perpetually forces it
out in jets, or makes it stagnate in formal canals ; and
thinking it necessary to write like Pope, when the bent of

10 his genius led him rather to copy what was best in
Cowley and most fantastic in Shakespeare, he has
produced something which excites wonder instead of
admiration, and is felt by every one to be at once
ingenious, incongruous, and unnatural.

IS After Young, there was a plentiful lack of poetical
talent, down to a period comparatively recent. Akenside
and Gray, indeed, in the interval, discovered a new way
of imitating the ancients ; — and Collins and Goldsmith
produced some small specimens of exquisite and original

20 poetry. At last, Cowper threw off the whole trammels
of French criticism and artificial refinement ; and, setting
at defiance all the imaginary requisites of poetical diction
and classical imagery — dignity of style, and politeness
of phraseology — ventured to write again with the force

25 and the freedom which had characterised the old school
of English literature, and been so unhappily sacrificed,
upwards of a century before. Cowper had many faults,
and some radical deficiencies ; — but this atoned for all.
There was something so delightfully refreshing, in seeing

30 natural phrases and natural images again displaying
their unforced graces, and waving their unpruned heads
in the enchanted gardens of poetry, that no one com-
plained of the taste displayed in the selection ; — and
Cowper is, and is likely to continue, the most popular


of all who have written for the present or the last gener-

Of the poets who have come after him, we cannot,
indeed, say that they have attached themselves to the
school of Pope and Addison ; or that they have even 5
failed to show a much stronger predilection for the native
beauties of their great predecessors. Southey, and
Wordsworth, and Coleridge, and Miss Baillie, have all of
them copied the manner of our older poets ; and, along
with this indication of good taste, have given great 10
proofs of original genius. The misfortune is, that their
copies of those great originals are liable to the charge of
extreme affectation. They do not write as those great
poets would have written : they merely mimic their
manner, and ape their peculiarities ; — and consequently, 15
though they profess to imitate the freest and most careless
of all versifiers, their style is more remarkably and
offensively artificial than that of any other class of
writers. They have mixed in, too, so much of the
mawkish tone of pastoral innocence and babyish 20
simplicity, with a sort of pedantic emphasis and ostenta-
tious glitter, that it is difficult not to be disgusted with
their perversity, and with the solemn self-complacency,
and keen and vindictive jealousy, with which they have
put in their claims on public admiration. But we have 25
said enough elsewhere of the faults of those authors ;
and shall only add, at present, that, notwithstanding all
these faults, there is a fertility and a force, a warmth of
feeling and an exaltation of imagination about them,
which classes them, in our estimation, with a much higher 30
order of poets than the followers of Dryden and Addison ;
and justifies an anxiety for their fame, in all the admirers
of Milton and Shakespeare.

Of Scott, or of Campbell, we need scarcely say any


thing, with reference to our present object, after the
very copious accounts we have given of them on former
occasions. The former professes to copy something a
good deal older than what we consider as the golden age

5 of English poetry, — and, in reality, has copied every
style, and borrowed from every manner that has prevailed,
from the times of Chaucer to his own ; — illuminating

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Online LibraryFrancis Jeffrey JeffreySelections from the essays of Francis Jeffrey → online text (page 4 of 21)