G.H. Mair.

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theological positions of the Church of England and the Church of Rome,
changed his religion and became Poet Laureate to James II., and
acquiesced with perfect equanimity in the Revolution which brought in
his successor. This instability of conviction, though it gave a handle
to his opponents in controversy, does not appear to have caused any
serious scandal or disgust among his contemporaries, and it has
certainly had little effect on the judgment of later times. It has
raised none of the reproaches which have been cast at the suspected
apostasy of Wordsworth. Dryden had little interest in political or
religious questions; his instinct, one must conceive, was to conform to
the prevailing mode and to trouble himself no further about the matter.
Defoe told the truth about him when he wrote that "Dryden might have
been told his fate that, having his extraordinary genius slung and
pitched upon a swivel, it would certainly turn round as fast as the
times, and instruct him how to write elegies to Oliver Cromwell and King
Charles the Second with all the coherence imaginable; how to write
_Religio Laici_ and the _Hind and the Panther_ and yet be the same man,
every day to change his principle, change his religion, change his coat,
change his master, and yet never change his nature." He never changed
his nature, he was as free from cynicism as a barrister who represents
successively opposing parties in suits or politics; and when he wrote
polemics in prose or verse he lent his talents as a barrister lends his
for a fee. His one intellectual interest was in his art, and it is in
his comments on his art - the essays and prefaces in the composition of
which he amused the leisure left in the busy life of a dramatist and a
poet of officialdom - that his most charming and delicate work is to be
found. In a way they begin modern English prose; earlier writing
furnishes no equal to their colloquial ease and the grace of their
expression. And they contain some of the most acute criticism in our
language - "classical" in its tone (_i.e._, with a preference for
conformity) but with its respect for order and tradition always tempered
by good sense and wit, and informed and guided throughout by a taste
whose catholicity and sureness was unmatched in the England of his time.
The preface to his _Fables_ contains some excellent notes on Chaucer.
They may be read as a sample of the breadth and perspicuity of his
critical perceptions.

His chief poetical works were most of them occasional - designed either
to celebrate some remarkable event or to take a side and interpret a
policy in the conflict, political or religious, of the time.
_Absalom and Achitophel_ and _The Medal_ were levelled at the
Shaftesbury-Monmouth intrigues in the closing years of Charles II.
_Religio Laici_ celebrated the excellence of the Church of England in
its character of _via media_ between the opposite extravagances of
Papacy and Presbyterianism. _The Hind and the Panther_ found this
perfection spotted. The Church of England has become the Panther, whose
coat is a varied pattern of heresy and truth beside the spotless purity
of the Hind, the Church of Rome. _Astrea Reddux_ welcomed the returning
Charles; _Annus Mirabilis_ commemorated a year of fire and victories,
Besides these he wrote many dramas in verse, a number of translations,
and some shorter poems, of which the odes are the most remarkable.

His qualities as a poet fitted very exactly the work he set himself to
do. His work is always plain and easily understood; he had a fine
faculty for narration, and the vigorous rapidity and point of his style
enabled him to sketch a character or sum up a dialectical position very
surely and effectively. His writing has a kind of spare and masculine
force about it. It is this vigour and the impression which he gives of
intellectual strength and of a logical grasp of his subject, that beyond
question has kept alive work which, if ever poetry was, was ephemeral in
its origin. The careers of the unscrupulous Caroline peers would have
been closed for us were they not visible in the reflected light of his
denunciation of them. Though Buckingham is forgotten and Shaftesbury's
name swallowed up in that of his more philanthropic descendant, we can
read of Achitophel and Zimri still, and feel something of the strength
and heat which he caught from a fiercely fought conflict and transmitted
with his own gravity and purposefulness into verse. The Thirty-nine
Articles are not a proper subject for poetry, but the sustained and
serious allegory which Dryden weaves round theological discussion
preserves his treatment of them from the fate of the controversialists
who opposed him. His work has wit and vitality enough to keep it sweet.

Strength and wit enter in different proportions into the work of his
successor, Alexander Pope - a poet whom admirers in his own age held to
be the greatest in our language. No one would think of making such a
claim now, but the detraction which he suffered at the hands of
Wordsworth and the Romantics, ought not to make us forget that Pope,
though not our greatest, not even perhaps a great, poet is incomparably
our most brilliant versifier. Dryden's strength turns in his work into
something more fragile and delicate, polished with infinite care like
lacquer, and wrought like filigree work to the last point of conscious
and perfected art. He was not a great thinker; the thoughts which he
embodies in his philosophical poems - the _Essay on Man_ and the rest,
are almost ludicrously out of proportion to the solemnity of the titles
which introduce them, nor does he except very rarely get beyond the
conceptions common to the average man when he attempts introspection or
meditates on his own destiny. The reader in search of philosophy will
find little to stimulate him and in the facile Deism of the time
probably something to smile at. Pope has no message to us now. But he
will find views current in his time or borrowed from other authors put
with perfect felicity and wit, and he will recognize the justice of
Addison's comment that Pope's wit and fine writing consist "not so much
in advancing things that are new, as in giving things that are known an
agreeable turn." And he will not fall into the error of dubbing the
author a minor poet because he is neither subtle nor imaginative nor
profound. A great poet would not have written like Pope - one must grant
it; but a minor poet could not.

It is characteristic of Pope's type of mind and kind of art that there
is no development visible in his work. Other poets, Shakespeare, for
instance, and Keats, have written work of the highest quality when they
were young, but they have had crudenesses to shed - things to get rid of
as their strength and perceptions grew. But Pope, like Minerva, was full
grown and full armed from the beginning. If we did not know that his
_Essay on Criticism_ was his first poem it would be impossible to place
it in the canon of his work; it might come in anywhere and so might
everything else that he wrote. From the beginning his craftsmanship was
perfect; from the beginning he took his subject-matter from others as he
found it and worked it up into aphorism and epigram till each line shone
like a cut jewel and the essential commonplaceness and poverty of his
material was obscured by the glitter the craftsmanship lent to it.
Subject apart, however, he was quite sure of his medium from the
beginning; it was not long before he found the way to use it to most
brilliant purpose. _The Rape of the Lock_ and the satirical poems come
later in his career.

As a satirist Pope, though he did not hit so hard as Dryden, struck more
deftly and probed deeper. He wielded a rapier where the other used a
broadsword, and though both used their weapons with the highest skill
and the metaphor must not be imagined to impute clumsiness to Dryden,
the rapier made the cleaner cut. Both employed a method in satire which
their successors (a poor set) in England have not been intelligent
enough to use. They allow every possible good point to the object of
their attack. They appear to deal him an even and regretful justice. His
good points, they put it in effect, being so many, how much blacker and
more deplorable his meannesses and faults! They do not do this out of
charity; there was very little of the milk of human kindness in Pope.
Deformity in his case, as in so many in truth and fiction, seemed to
bring envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness in its train. The
method is employed simply because it gives the maximum satirical effect.
That is why Pope's epistle to Arbuthnot, with its characterisation of
Addison, is the most damning piece of invective in our language.

_The Rape of the Lock_ is an exquisite piece of workmanship, breathing
the very spirit of the time. You can fancy it like some clock made by
one of the Louis XIV. craftsmen, encrusted with a heap of ormulu
mock-heroics and impertinences and set perfectly to the time of day.
From no other poem could you gather so fully and perfectly the temper
of the society in which our "classic" poetry was brought to perfection,
its elegant assiduity in trifles, its brilliant artifice, its paint and
powder and patches and high-heeled shoes, its measured strutting walk in
life as well as in verse. _The Rape of the Lock_ is a mock-heroic poem;
that is to say it applies the form and treatment which the "classic"
critics of the seventeenth century had laid down as belonging to the
"heroic" or "epic" style to a trifling circumstance - the loss by a young
lady of fashion of a lock of hair. And it is the one instance in which
this "recipe" for a heroic poem which the French critics handed on to
Dryden, and Dryden left to his descendants, has been used well-enough to
keep the work done with it in memory. In a way it condemns the poetical
theory of the time; when forms are fixed, new writing is less likely to
be creative and more likely to exhaust itself in the ingenious but
trifling exercises of parody and burlesque. _The Rape of the Lock_ is
brilliant but it is only play.

The accepted theory which assumed that the forms of poetry had been
settled in the past and existed to be applied, though it concerned
itself mainly with the ancient writers, included also two moderns in its
scope. You were orthodox if you wrote tragedy and epic as Horace told
you and satire as he had shown you; you were also orthodox if you wrote
in the styles of Spenser or Milton. Spenser, though his predecessors
were counted barbaric and his followers tortured and obscure, never fell
out of admiration; indeed in every age of English poetry after him the
greatest poet in it is always to be found copying him or expressing
their love for him - Milton declaring to Dryden that Spenser was his
"original," Pope reading and praising him, Keats writing his earliest
work in close imitation. His characteristic style and stanza were
recognised by the classic school as a distinct "kind" of poetry which
might be used where the theme fitted instead of the heroic manner, and
Spenserian imitations abound. Sometimes they are serious; sometimes,
like Shenstone's _Schoolmistress_, they are mocking and another
illustration of the dangerous ease with which a conscious and sustained
effort to write in a fixed and acquired style runs to seed in burlesque.
Milton's fame never passed through the period of obscurity that
sometimes has been imagined for him. He had the discerning admiration of
Dryden and others before his death. But to Addison belongs the credit of
introducing him to the writers of this time; his papers in the
_Spectator_ on _Paradise Lost_, with their eulogy of its author's
sublimity, spurred the interest of the poets among his readers. From
Milton the eighteenth century got the chief and most ponderous part of
its poetic diction, high-sounding periphrases and borrowings from Latin
used without the gravity and sincerity and fullness of thought of the
master who brought them in. When they wrote blank verse, the classic
poets wrote it in the Milton manner.

The use of these two styles may be studied in the writings of one man,
James Thomson. For besides acquiring a kind of anonymous immortality
with patriots as the author of "Rule, Britannia," Thomson wrote two
poems respectively in the Spenserian and the Miltonic manner, the former
_The Castle of Indolence_, the latter _The Seasons_. The Spenserian
manner is caught very effectively, but the adoption of the style of
_Paradise Lost_, with its allusiveness, circumlocution and weight,
removes any freshness the _Seasons_ might have had, had the
circumstances in them been put down as they were observed. As it is,
hardly anything is directly named; birds are always the "feathered
tribe" and everything else has a similar polite generality for its
title. Thomson was a simple-minded man, with a faculty for watching and
enjoying nature which belonged to few in his sophisticated age; it is
unfortunate he should have spent his working hours in rendering the
fruit of country rambles freshly observed into a cold and stilted
diction. It suited the eighteenth century reader well, for not
understanding nature herself he was naturally obliged to read her in
translations.


(3)

The chief merits of "classic" poetry - its clearness, its vigour, its
direct statement - are such as belong theoretically rather to prose than
to poetry. In fact, it was in prose that the most vigorous intellect of
the time found itself. We have seen how Dryden, reversing the habit of
other poets, succeeded in expressing his personality not in poetry which
was his vocation, but in prose which was the amusement of his leisure
hours. Spenser had put his politics into prose and his ideals into
verse; Dryden wrote his politics - to order - in verse, and in prose set
down the thoughts and fancies which were the deepest part of him because
they were about his art. The metaphor of parentage, though honoured by
use, fits badly on to literary history; none the less the tradition
which describes him as the father of modern English prose is very near
the truth. He puts into practice for the first time the ideals,
described in the first chapter of this book, which were set up by the
scholars who let into English the light of the Renaissance. With the
exception of the dialogue on Dramatic Poesy, his work is almost all of
it occasional, the fruit of the mood of a moment, and written rather in
the form of a _causerie_, a kind of informal talk, than of a considered
essay. And it is all couched in clear, flowing, rather loosely jointed
English, carefully avoiding rhetoric and eloquence and striving always
to reproduce the ease and flow of cultured conversation, rather than the
tighter, more closely knit style of consciously "literary" prose. His
methods were the methods of the four great prose-writers who followed
him - Defoe, Addison, Steele, and Swift.

Of these Defoe was the eldest and in some ways the most remarkable. He
has been called the earliest professional author in our language, and if
that is not strictly true, he is at any rate the earliest literary
journalist. His output of work was enormous; he wrote on any and every
subject; there was no event whether in politics or letters or discovery
but he was not ready with something pat on it before the public interest
faded. It followed that at a time when imprisonment, mutilation, and the
pillory took the place of our modern libel actions he had an adventurous
career. In politics he followed the Whig cause and served the Government
with his pen, notably by his writings in support of the union with
Scotland, in which he won over the Scots by his description of the
commercial advantage which would follow the abolition of the border.
This line of argument, taken at a time when the governing of political
tendencies by commercial interests was by no means the accepted
commonplace it is now, proves him a man of an active and original mind.
His originality, indeed, sometimes over-reached the comprehension both
of the public and his superiors; he was imprisoned for an attack on the
Hanoverian succession, which was intended ironically; apparently he was
ignorant of what every journalist ought to know that irony is at once
the most dangerous and the most ineffectual weapon in the whole armoury
of the press. The fertility and ingenuity of his intellect may be best
gauged by the number of modern enterprises and contrivances that are
foreshadowed in his work. Here are a few, all utterly unknown in his own
day, collected by a student of his works; a Board of Trade register for
seamen; factories for goods: agricultural credit banks; a commission of
enquiry into bankruptcy; and a system of national poor relief. They show
him to have been an independent and courageous thinker where social
questions were concerned.

He was nearly sixty before he had published his first novel, _Robinson
Crusoe_, the book by which he is universally known, and on which with
the seven other novels which followed it the foundation of his literary
fame rests. But his earlier works - they are reputed to number over two
hundred - possess no less remarkable literary qualities. It is not too
much to say that all the gifts which are habitually recommended for
cultivation by those who aspire to journalistic success are to be found
in his prose. He has in the first place the gift of perfect lucidity no
matter how complicated the subject he is expounding; such a book as his
_Complete English Tradesman_ is full of passages in which complex and
difficult subject-matter is set forth so plainly and clearly that the
least literate of his readers could have no doubt of his understanding
it. He has also an amazingly exact acquaintance with the technicalities
of all kinds of trades and professions; none of our writers, not even
Shakespeare, shows half such a knowledge of the circumstances of life
among different ranks and conditions of men; none of them has realized
with such fidelity how so many different persons lived and moved. His
gift of narrative and description is masterly, as readers of his novels
know (we shall have to come back to it in discussing the growth of the
English novel); several of his works show him to have been endowed with
a fine faculty of psychological observation. Without the least
consciousness of the value of what he was writing, nor indeed with any
deliberate artistic intention, he made himself one of the masters of
English prose.

Defoe had been the champion of the Whigs; on the Tory side the ablest
pen was that of Jonathan Swift. His works proclaim him to have had an
intellect less wide in its range than that of his antagonist but more
vigorous and powerful. He wrote, too, more carefully. In his youth he
had been private secretary to Sir William Temple, a writer now as good
as forgotten because of the triviality of his matter, but in his day
esteemed because of the easy urbanity and polish of his prose. From him
Swift learned the labour of the file, and he declared in later life that
it was "generally believed that this author has advanced our English
tongue to as great a perfection as it can well bear." In fact he added
to the ease and cadences he had learned from Temple qualities of vigour
and directness of his own which put his work far above his master's. And
he dealt with more important subject-matter than the academic exercises
on which Temple exercised his fastidious and meticulous powers of
revision.

In temperament he is opposed to all the writers of his time. There is no
doubt but there was some radical disorder in his system; brain disease
clouded his intellect in his old age, and his last years were death in
life; right through his life he was a savagely irritable, sardonic, dark
and violent man, impatient of the slightest contradiction or thwarting,
and given to explosive and instantaneous rage. He delighted in flouting
convention, gloried in outraging decency. The rage, which, as he said
himself, tore his heart out, carried him to strange excesses. There is
something ironical (he would himself have appreciated it) in the
popularity of _Gulliver's Travels_ as a children's book - that ascending
wave of savagery and satire which overwhelms policy and learning to
break against the ultimate citadel of humanity itself. In none of his
contemporaries (except perhaps in the sentimentalities of Steele) can
one detect the traces of emotion; to read Swift is to be conscious of
intense feeling on almost every page. The surface of his style may be
smooth and equable but the central fires of passion are never far
beneath, and through cracks and fissures come intermittent bursts of
flame. Defoe's irony is so measured and studiously commonplace that
perhaps those who imprisoned him because they believed him to be serious
are hardly to be blamed; Swift's quivers and reddens with anger in every
line.

But his pen seldom slips from the strong grasp of his controlling art.
The extraordinary skill and closeness of his allegorical
writings - unmatched in their kind - is witness to the care and sustained
labour which went to their making. He is content with no general
correspondences; his allegory does not fade away into a story in which
only the main characters have a secondary significance; the minutest
circumstances have a bearing in the satire and the moral. In _The Tale
of a Tub_ and in _Gulliver's Travels_ - particularly in the former - the
multitude as well as the aptness of the parallels between the imaginary
narrative and the facts it is meant to represent is unrivalled in works
of the kind. Only the highest mental powers, working with intense
fervour and concentration, could have achieved the sustained brilliancy
of the result. "What a genius I had when I wrote that book!" Swift is
said to have exclaimed in his old age when he re-read _The Tale of a
Tub_, and certainly the book is a marvel of constructive skill, all the
more striking because it makes allegory out of history and consequently
is denied that freedom of narrative so brilliantly employed in the
_Travels_.

Informing all his writings too, besides intense feeling and an
omnipresent and controlling art, is strong common sense. His aphorisms,
both those collected under the heading of _Thoughts on Various
Subjects_, and countless others scattered up and down his pages, are a
treasury of sound, if a little sardonic, practical wisdom. His most
insistent prejudices foreshadow in their essential sanity and justness
those of that great master of life, Dr. Johnson. He could not endure
over-politeness, a vice which must have been very oppressive in society
of his day. He savagely resented and condemned a display of
affection - particularly marital affection - in public. In an age when it
was the normal social system of settling quarrels, he condemned
duelling; and he said some very wise things - things that might still be
said - on modern education. In economics he was as right-hearted as
Ruskin and as wrong-headed. Carlyle, who was in so many respects an echo
of him, found in a passage in his works a "dim anticipation" of his
philosophy of clothes.

The leading literary invention of the period - after that of the heroic
couplet for verse - was the prose periodical essay. Defoe, it is hardly
necessary to say, began it; it was his nature to be first with any new
thing: but its establishment as a prevailing literary mode is due to two
authors, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Of the two famous
series - the _Tatler_ and the _Spectator_ - for which they were both
responsible, Steele must take the first credit; he began them, and
though Addison came in and by the deftness and lightness of his writing
took the lion's share of their popularity, both the plan and the
characters round whom the bulk of the essays in the _Spectator_ came to
revolve was the creation of his collaborator. Steele we know very
intimately from his own writings and from Thackeray's portrait of him.
He was an emotional, full-blooded kind of man, reckless and dissipated
but fundamentally honest and good-hearted - a type very common in his day
as the novels show, but not otherwise to be found in the ranks of its
writers. What there is of pathos and sentiment, and most of what there
is of humour in the _Tatler_ and the _Spectator_ are his. And he created
the _dramatis personae_ out of whose adventures the slender thread of
continuity which binds the essays together is woven. Addison, though
less open to the onslaughts of the conventional moralist, was a less
lovable personality. Constitutionally endowed with little vitality, he
suffered mentally as well as bodily from languor and lassitude. His


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Online LibraryG.H. MairEnglish Literature: Modern Home University Library of Modern Knowledge → online text (page 8 of 16)