ENGLISH LITERATURE AND SOCIETY IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
FORD LECTURES, 1903
By LESLIE STEPHEN
DUCKWORTH and CO.
3 HENRIETTA STREET, W.C.
TO HERBERT FISHER
NEW COLLEGE, OXFORD
My Dear Herbert,—I had prepared these Lectures for delivery, when a serious breakdown of health made it utterly impossible for me to appear in person. The University was then good enough to allow me to employ a deputy; and you kindly undertook to read the Lectures for me. I have every reason to believe that they lost nothing by the change.
I need only explain that, although they had to be read in six sections, and are here divided into five chapters, no other change worth noticing has been made. Other changes probably ought to have been made, but my health has been unequal to the task of serious correction. The publication has been delayed from the same cause.
Meanwhile, I wish to express my gratitude for your services. I doubt, too, whether I should have ventured to republish them, had it not been for your assertion that they have some interest. I would adopt the good old form of dedicating them to you, were it not that I can find no precedent for a dedication by an uncle to a nephew—uncles having, I fancy, certain opinions as to the light in which they are generally regarded by nephews. I will not say what that is, nor mention another reason which has its weight. I will only say that, though this is not a dedication, it is meant to express a very warm sense of gratitude due to you upon many grounds. —Your affectionate LESLIE STEPHEN.
Owing to the ill-health of Sir Leslie Stephen the proofs have been passed for press by Mr. H. Fisher, Fellow of New College, who read the Lectures at Oxford on behalf of the Author.
ENGLISH LITERATURE AND SOCIETY IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
When I was honoured by the invitation to deliver this course of lectures, I did not accept without some hesitation. I am not qualified to speak with authority upon such subjects as have been treated by my predecessors—the course of political events or the growth of legal institutions. My attention has been chiefly paid to the history of literature, and it might be doubtful whether that study is properly included in the phrase 'historical.' Yet literature expresses men's thoughts and passions, which have, after all, a considerable influence upon their lives. The writer of a people's songs, as we are told, may even have a more powerful influence than the maker of their laws. He certainly reveals more directly the true springs of popular action. The truth has been admitted by many historians who are too much overwhelmed by state papers to find space for any extended application of the method. No one, I think, has shown more clearly how much light could be derived from this source than your Oxford historian J. R. Green, in some brilliant passages of his fascinating book. Moreover, if I may venture to speak of myself, my own interest in literature has always been closely connected with its philosophical and social significance. Literature may of course be studied simply for its own intrinsic merits. But it may also be regarded as one manifestation of what is called 'the spirit of the age.' I have, too, been much impressed by a further conclusion. No one doubts that the speculative movement affects the social and political—I think that less attention has been given to the reciprocal influence. The philosophy of a period is often treated as though it were the product of impartial and abstract investigation—something worked out by the great thinker in his study and developed by simple logical deductions from the positions established by his predecessors. To my mind, though I cannot now dwell upon the point, the philosophy of an age is in itself determined to a very great extent by the social position. It gives the solutions of the problems forced upon the reasoner by the practical conditions of his time. To understand why certain ideas become current, we have to consider not merely the ostensible logic but all the motives which led men to investigate the most pressing difficulties suggested by the social development. Obvious principles are always ready, like germs, to come to life when the congenial soil is provided. And what is true of the philosophy is equally, and perhaps more conspicuously, true of the artistic and literary embodiment of the dominant ideas which are correlated with the social movement.
A recognition of the general principle is implied in the change which has come over the methods of criticism. It has more and more adopted the historical attitude. Critics in an earlier day conceived their function to be judicial. They were administering a fixed code of laws applicable in all times and places. The true canons for dramatic or epic poetry, they held, had been laid down once for all by Aristotle or his commentators; and the duty of the critic was to consider whether the author had infringed or conformed to the established rules, and to pass sentence accordingly. I will not say that the modern critic has abandoned altogether that conception of his duty. He seems to me not infrequently to place himself on the judgment-seat with a touch of his old confidence, and to sentence poor authors with sufficient airs of infallibility. Sometimes, indeed, the reflection that he is representing not an invariable tradition but the last new aesthetic doctrine, seems even to give additional keenness to his opinions and to suggest no doubts of his infallibility. And yet there is a change in his position. He admits, or at any rate is logically bound to admit, the code which he administers requires modification in different times and places. The old critic spoke like the organ of an infallible Church, regarding all forms of art except his own as simply heretical. The modern critic speaks like the liberal theologian, who sees in heretical and heathen creeds an approximation to the truth, and admits that they may have a relative value, and even be the best fitted for the existing conditions. There are, undoubtedly, some principles of universal application; and the old critics often expounded them with admirable common-sense and force. But like general tenets of morality, they are apt to be commonplaces, whose specific application requires knowledge of concrete facts. When the critics assumed that the forms familiar to themselves were the only possible embodiments of those principles, and condemned all others as barbarous, they were led to pass judgments, such, for example, as Voltaire's view of Dante and Shakespeare, which strike us as strangely crude and unappreciative. The change in this, as in other departments of thought, means again that criticism, as Professor Courthope has said, must become thoroughly inductive. We must start from experience. We must begin by asking impartially what pleased men, and then inquire why it pleased them. We must not decide dogmatically that it ought to have pleased or displeased on the simple ground that it is or is not congenial to ourselves. As historical methods extend, the same change takes place in regard to political or economical or religious, as well as in regard to literary investigations. We can then become catholic enough to appreciate varying forms; and recognise that each has its own rules, right under certain conditions and appropriate within the given sphere. The great empire of literature, we may say, has many provinces. There is a 'law of nature' deducible from universal principles of reason which is applicable throughout, and enforces what may be called the cardinal virtues common to all forms of human expression. But subordinate to this, there is also a municipal law, varying in every province and determining the particular systems which are applicable to the different state of things existing in each region.
This method, again, when carried out, implies the necessary connection between the social and literary departments of history. The adequate criticism must be rooted in history. In some sense I am ready to admit that all criticism is a nuisance and a parasitic growth upon literature. The most fruitful reading is that in which we are submitting to a teacher and asking no questions as to the secret of his influence. Bunyan had no knowledge of the 'higher criticism'; he read into the Bible a great many dogmas which were not there, and accepted rather questionable historical data. But perhaps he felt some essential characteristics of the book more thoroughly than far more cultivated people. No critic can instil into a reader that spontaneous sympathy with the thoughts and emotions incarnated in the great masterpieces without which all reading is cold and valueless. In spite of all differences of dialect and costume, the great men can place themselves in spiritual contact with men of most distant races and periods. Art, we are told, is immortal. In other words, is unprogressive. The great imaginative creations have not been superseded. We go to the last new authorities for our science and our history, but the essential thoughts and emotions of human beings were incarnated long ago with unsurpassable clearness. When FitzGerald published his Omar Khayyam, readers were surprised to find that an ancient Persian had given utterance to thoughts which we considered to be characteristic of our own day. They had no call to be surprised. The writer of the Book of Job had long before given the most forcible expression to thought which still moves our deepest feelings; and Greek poets had created unsurpassable utterance for moods common to all men in all ages.
'Still green with bays each ancient altar stands Above the reach of sacrilegious hands,'
as Pope puts it; and when one remembers how through all the centuries the masters of thought and expression have appealed to men who knew nothing of criticism, higher or lower, one is tempted to doubt whether the critic be not an altogether superfluous phenomenon.
The critic, however, has become a necessity; and has, I fancy, his justification in his own sphere. Every great writer may be regarded in various aspects. He is, of course, an individual, and the critic may endeavour to give a psychological analysis of him; and to describe his intellectual and moral constitution and detect the secrets of his permanent influence without reference to the particular time and place of his appearance. That is an interesting problem when the materials are accessible. But every man is also an organ of the society in which he has been brought up. The material upon which he works is the whole complex of conceptions, religious, imaginative and ethical, which forms his mental atmosphere. That suggests problems for the historian of philosophy. He is also dependent upon what in modern phrase we call his 'environment'—the social structure of which he forms a part, and which gives a special direction to his passions and aspirations. That suggests problems for the historian of political and social institutions. Fully to appreciate any great writer, therefore, it is necessary to distinguish between the characteristics due to the individual with certain idiosyncrasies and the characteristics due to his special modification by the existing stage of social and intellectual development. In the earliest period the discrimination is impossible. Nobody, I suppose, not even if he be Provost of Oriel, can tell us much of the personal characteristics of the author—if there was an author—of the Iliad. He must remain for us a typical Greek of the heroic age; though even so, the attempt to realise the corresponding state of society may be of high value to an appreciation of the poetry. In later times we suffer from the opposite difficulty. Our descendants will be able to see the general characteristics of the Victorian age better than we, who unconsciously accept our own peculiarities, like the air we breathe, as mere matters of course. Meanwhile a Tennyson and a Browning strike us less as the organs of a society than by the idiosyncrasies which belong to them as individuals. But in the normal case, the relation of the two studies is obvious. Dante, for example, is profoundly interesting to the psychologist, considered simply as a human being. We are then interested by the astonishing imaginative intensity and intellectual power and the vivid personality of the man who still lives for us as he lived in the Italy of six centuries ago. But as all competent critics tell us, the Divina Commedia also reveals in the completest way the essential spirit of the Middle Ages. The two studies reciprocally enlighten each other. We know Dante and understand his position the more thoroughly as we know better the history of the political and ecclesiastical struggles in which he took part, and the philosophical doctrines which he accepted and interpreted; and conversely, we understand the period the better when we see how its beliefs and passions affected a man of abnormal genius and marked idiosyncrasy of character. The historical revelation is the more complete, precisely because Dante was not a commonplace or average person but a man of unique force, mental and moral. The remark may suggest what is the special value of the literary criticism or its bearing upon history. We may learn from many sources what was the current mythology of the day; and how ordinary people believed in devils and in a material hell lying just beneath our feet. The vision probably strikes us as repulsive and simply preposterous. If we proceed to ask what it meant and why it had so powerful a hold upon the men of the day, we may perhaps be innocent enough to apply to the accepted philosophers, especially to Aquinas, whose thoughts had been so thoroughly assimilated by the poet. No doubt that may suggest very interesting inquiries for the metaphysician; but we should find not only that the philosophy is very tough and very obsolete, and therefore very wearisome for any but the strongest intellectual appetites, but also that it does not really answer our question. The philosopher does not give us the reasons which determine men to believe, but the official justification of their beliefs which has been elaborated by the most acute and laborious dialecticians. The inquiry shows how a philosophical system can be hooked on to an imaginative conception of the universe; but it does not give the cause of the belief, only the way in which it can be more or less favourably combined with abstract logical principles. The great poet unconsciously reveals something more than the metaphysician. His poetry does not decay with the philosophy which it took for granted. We do not ask whether his reasoning be sound or false, but whether the vision be sublime or repulsive. It may be a little of both; but at any rate it is undeniably fascinating. That, I take it, is because the imagery which he creates may still be a symbol of thoughts and emotions which are as interesting now as they were six hundred years ago. This man of first-rate power shows us, therefore, what was the real charm of the accepted beliefs for him, and less consciously for others. He had no doubt that their truth could be proved by syllogising: but they really laid so powerful a grasp upon him because they could be made to express the hopes and fears, the loves and hatreds, the moral and political convictions which were dearest to him. When we see how the system could be turned to account by the most powerful imagination, we can understand better what it really meant for the commonplace and ignorant monks who accepted it as a mere matter of course. We begin to see what were the great forces really at work below the surface; and the issues which were being blindly worked out by the dumb agents who were quite unable to recognise their nature. If, in short, we wish to discover the secret of the great ecclesiastical and political struggles of the day, we should turn, not to the men in whose minds beliefs lie inert and instinctive, nor to the ostensible dialectics of the ostensible apologists and assailants, but to the great poet who shows how they were associated with the strongest passions and the most vehement convictions.
We may hold that the historian should confine himself to giving a record of the objective facts, which can be fully given in dates, statistics, and phenomena seen from outside. But if we allow ourselves to contemplate a philosophical history, which shall deal with the causes of events and aim at exhibiting the evolution of human society—and perhaps I ought to apologise for even suggesting that such an ideal could ever be realised—we should also see that the history of literature would be a subordinate element of the whole structure. The political, social, ecclesiastical, and economical factors, and their complex actions and reactions, would all have to be taken into account, the literary historian would be concerned with the ideas which find utterance through the poet and philosopher, and with the constitution of the class which at any time forms the literary organ of the society. The critic who deals with the individual work would find such knowledge necessary to a full appreciation of his subject; and, conversely, the appreciation would in some degree help the labourer in other departments of history to understand the nature of the forces which are governing the social development. However far we may be from such a consummation, and reluctant to indulge in the magniloquent language which it suggests, I imagine that a literary history is so far satisfactory as it takes the facts into consideration and regards literature, in the perhaps too pretentious phrase, as a particular function of the whole social organism. But I gladly descend from such lofty speculations to come to a few relevant details; and especially, to notice some of the obvious limitations which have in any case to be accepted.
And in the first place, when we try to be philosophical, we have a difficulty which besets us in political history. How much influence is to be attributed to the individual? Carlyle used to tell us in my youth that everything was due to the hero; that the whole course of human history depended upon your Cromwell or Frederick. Our scientific teachers are inclined to reply that no single person had much importance, and that an ideal history could omit all names of individuals. If, for example, Napoleon had been killed at the siege of Toulon, the only difference would have been that the dictator would have been called say Moreau. Possibly, but I cannot see that we can argue in the same way in literature. I see no reason to suppose that if Shakespeare had died prematurely, anybody else would have written Hamlet. There was, it is true, a butcher's boy at Stratford, who was thought by his townsmen to have been as clever a fellow as Shakespeare. We shall never know what we have lost by his premature death, and we certainly cannot argue that if Shakespeare had died, the butcher would have lived. It makes one tremble, says an ingenious critic, to reflect that Shakespeare and Cervantes were both liable to the measles at the same time. As we know they escaped, we need not make ourselves unhappy about the might-have-been; but the remark suggests how much the literary glory of any period depends upon one or two great names. Omit Cervantes and Shakespeare and Moliere from Spanish, English, and French literature, and what a collapse of glory would follow! Had Shakespeare died, it is conceivable perhaps that some of the hyperboles which have been lavished upon him would have been bestowed on Marlowe and Ben Jonson. But, on the whole, I fancy that the minor lights of the Elizabethan drama have owed more to their contemporary than he owed to them; and that, if this central sun had been extinguished, the whole galaxy would have remained in comparative obscurity. Now, as we are utterly unable to say what are the conditions which produce a genius, or to point to any automatic machinery which could replace him in case of accident, we must agree that this is an element in the problem which is altogether beyond scientific investigation. The literary historian must be content with a humble position. Still, the Elizabethan stage would have existed had Shakespeare never written; and, moreover, its main outline would have been the same. If any man ever imitated and gave full utterance to the characteristic ideas of his contemporaries it was certainly Shakespeare; and nobody ever accepted more thoroughly the form of art which they worked out. So far, therefore, as the general conditions of the time led to the elaboration of this particular genus, we may study them independently and assign certain general causes. What Shakespeare did was to show more fully the way in which that form could be turned to account; and, without him, it would have been a far less interesting phenomenon. Even the greatest man has to live in his own century. The deepest thinker is not really—though we often use the phrase—in advance of his day so much as in the line along which advance takes place. The greatest poet does not write for a future generation in the sense of not writing for his own; it is only that in giving the fullest utterance to its thoughts and showing the deepest insight into their significance, he is therefore the most perfect type of its general mental attitude, and his work is an embodiment of the thoughts which are common to men of all generations.
When the critic began to perceive that many forms of art might be equally legitimate under different conditions, his first proceeding was to classify them in different schools. English poets, for example, were arranged by Pope and Gray as followers of Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Dryden, and so forth; and, in later days, we have such literary genera as are indicated by the names classic and romantic or realist and idealist, covering characteristic tendencies of the various historical groups. The fact that literary productions fall into schools is of course obvious, and suggests the problem as to the cause of their rise and decline. Bagehot treats the question in his Physics and Politics. Why, he asks, did there arise a special literary school in the reign of Queen Anne—'a marked variety of human expression, producing what was then written and peculiar to it'? Some eminent writer, he replies, gets a start by a style congenial to the minds around him. Steele, a rough, vigorous, forward man, struck out the periodical essay; Addison, a wise, meditative man, improved and carried it to perfection. An unconscious mimicry is always producing countless echoes of an original writer. That, I take it, is undeniably true. Nobody can doubt that all authors are in some degree echoes, and that a vast majority are never anything else. But it does not answer why a particular form should be fruitful of echoes or, in Bagehot's words, be 'more congenial to the minds around.' Why did the Spectator suit one generation and the Rambler its successors? Are we incapable of giving any answer? Are changes in literary fashions enveloped in the same inscrutable mystery as changes in ladies' dresses? It is, and no doubt always will be, impossible to say why at one period garments should spread over a hoop and at another cling to the limbs. Is it equally impossible to say why the fashion of Pope should have been succeeded by the fashion of Wordsworth and Coleridge? If we were prepared to admit the doctrine of which I have spoken—the supreme importance of the individual—that would of course be all that could be said. Shakespeare's successors are explained as imitators of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is explained by his 'genius' or, in other words, is inexplicable. If, on the other hand, Shakespeare's originality, whatever it may have been, was shown by his power of interpreting the thoughts of his own age, then we can learn something from studying the social and intellectual position of his contemporaries. Though the individual remains inexplicable, the general characteristics of the school to which he belongs may be tolerably intelligible; and some explanation is in fact suggested by such epithets, for example, as romantic and classical. For, whatever precisely they mean,—and I confess to my mind the question of what they mean is often a very difficult one,—they imply some general tendency which cannot be attributed to individual influence. When we endeavour to approach this problem of the rise and fall of literary schools, we see that it is a case of a phenomenon which is very often noticed and which we are more ready to explain in proportion to the share of youthful audacity which we are fortunate enough to possess.
In every form of artistic production, in painting and architecture, for example, schools arise; each of which seems to embody some kind of principle, and develops and afterwards decays, according to some mysterious law. It may resemble the animal species which is, somehow or other, developed and then stamped out in the struggle of existence by the growth of a form more appropriate to the new order. The epic poem, shall we say? is like the 'monstrous efts,' as Tennyson unkindly calls them, which were no doubt very estimable creatures in their day, but have somehow been unable to adapt themselves to recent geological epochs. Why men could build cathedrals in the Middle Ages, and why their power was lost instead of steadily developing like the art of engineering, is a problem which has occupied many writers, and of which I shall not attempt to offer a solution. That is the difference between artistic and scientific progress. A truth once discovered remains true and may form the nucleus of an independently interesting body of truths. But a special form of art flourishes only during a limited period, and when it decays and is succeeded by others, we cannot say that there is necessarily progress, only that for some reason or other the environment has become uncongenial. It is, of course, tempting to infer from the decay of an art that there must be a corresponding decay in the vitality and morality of the race. Ruskin, for example, always assumed in his most brilliant and incisive, but not very conclusive, arguments that men ceased to paint good pictures simply because they ceased to be good men. He did not proceed to prove that the moral decline really took place, and still less to show why it took place. But, without attacking these large problems, I shall be content to say that I do not see that any such sweeping conclusions can be made as to the kind of changes in literary forms with which we shall be concerned. That there is a close relation between the literature and the general social condition of a nation is my own contention. But the relation is hardly of this simple kind. Nations, it seems to me, have got on remarkably well, and made not only material but political and moral progress in the periods when they have written few books, and those bad ones; and, conversely, have produced some admirable literature while they were developing some very ugly tendencies. To say the truth, literature seems to me to be a kind of by-product. It occupies far too small a part in the whole activity of a nation, even of its intellectual activity, to serve as a complete indication of the many forces which are at work, or as an adequate moral barometer of the general moral state. The attempt to establish such a condition too closely, seems to me to lead to a good many very edifying but not the less fallacious conclusions.
The succession of literary species implies that some are always passing into the stage of 'survivals': and the most obvious course is to endeavour to associate them with the general philosophical movement. That suggests one obvious explanation of many literary developments. The great thriving times of literature have occurred when new intellectual horizons seemed to be suddenly opening upon the human intelligence; as when Bacon was taking his Pisgah sight of the promised land of science, and Shakespeare and Spenser were making new conquests in the world of the poetic imagination. A great intellectual shock was stimulating the parallel, though independent, outbursts of activity. The remark may suggest one reason for the decline as well as for the rise of the new genus. If, on the one hand, the man of genius is especially sensitive to the new ideas which are stirring the world, it is also necessary that he should be in sympathy with his hearers—that he should talk the language which they understand, and adopt the traditions, conventions, and symbols with which they are already more or less familiar. A generally accepted tradition is as essential as the impulse which comes from the influx of new ideas. But the happy balance which enables the new wine to be put into the old bottles is precarious and transitory. The new ideas as they develop may become paralysing to the imagery which they began by utilising. The legends of chivalry which Spenser turned to account became ridiculous in the next generation, and the mythology of Milton's great poem was incredible or revolting to his successors. The machinery, in the old phrase, of a poet becomes obsolete, though when he used it, it had vitality enough to be a vehicle for his ideas. The imitative tendency described by Bagehot clearly tends to preserve the old, as much as to facilitate the adoption of a new form. In fact, to create a really original and new form seems to exceed the power of any individual, and the greatest men must desire to speak to their own contemporaries. It is only by degrees that the inadequacy of the traditional form makes itself felt, and its successor has to be worked out by a series of tentative experiments. When a new style has established itself its representatives hold that the orthodoxy of the previous period was a gross superstition: and those who were condemned as heretics were really prophets of the true faith, not yet revealed. However that may be, I am content at present to say that in fact the development of new literary types is discontinuous, and implies a compromise between the two conditions which in literature correspond to conservatism and radicalism. The conservative work is apt to become a mere survival: while the radical may include much that has the crudity of an imperfect application of new principles. Another point may be briefly indicated. The growth of new forms is obviously connected not only with the intellectual development but with the social and political state of the nation, and there comes into close connection with other departments of history. Authors, so far as I have noticed, generally write with a view to being read. Moreover, the reading class is at most times a very small part of the population. A philosopher, I take it, might think himself unusually popular if his name were known to a hundredth part of the population. But even poets and novelists might sometimes be surprised if they could realise the small impression they make upon the mass of the population. There is, you know, a story of how Thackeray, when at the height of his reputation he stood for Oxford, found that his name was unknown even to highly respectable constituents. The author of Vanity Fair they observed, was named John Bunyan. At the present day the number of readers has, I presume, enormously increased; but authors who can reach the lower strata of the great lower pyramid, which widens so rapidly at its base, are few indeed. The characteristics of a literature correspond to the national characteristics, as embodied in the characteristics of a very small minority of the nation. Two centuries ago the reading part of the nation was mainly confined to London and to certain classes of society. The most important changes which have taken place have been closely connected with the social changes which have entirely altered the limits of the reading class; and with the changes of belief which have been cause and effect of the most conspicuous political changes. That is too obvious to require any further exposition. Briefly, in talking of literary changes, considered as implied in the whole social development, I shall have, first, to take note of the main intellectual characteristics of the period; and secondly, what changes took place in the audience to which men of letters addressed themselves, and how the gradual extension of the reading class affected the development of the literature addressed to them.
I hope and believe that I have said nothing original. I have certainly only been attempting to express the views which are accepted, in their general outline at least, by historians, whether of the political or literary kind. They have often been applied very forcibly to the various literary developments, and, by way of preface to my own special topic, I will venture to recall one chapter of literary history which may serve to illustrate what I have already said, and which has a bearing upon what I shall have to say hereafter.
One of the topics upon which the newer methods of criticism first displayed their power was the school of the Elizabethan dramatists. Many of the earlier critics wrote like lovers or enthusiasts who exalted the merits of some of the old playwrights beyond our sober judgments, and were inclined to ignore the merits of other forms of the art. But we have come to recognise that the Elizabethans had their faults, and that the best apology for their weaknesses as well as the best explanation of their merits was to be found in a clearer appreciation of the whole conditions. It is impossible of course to overlook the connection between that great outburst of literary activity and the general movement of the time; of the period when many impulses were breaking up the old intellectual stagnation, and when the national spirit which took the great Queen for its representative was finding leaders in the Burleighs and Raleighs and Drakes. The connection is emphasised by the singular brevity of the literary efflorescence. Marlowe's Tamburlaine heralded its approach on the eve of the Spanish Armada: Shakespeare, to whom the lead speedily fell, had shown his highest power in Henry IV. and Hamlet before the accession of James I.: his great tragedies Othello, Macbeth and Lear were produced in the next two or three years; and by that time, Ben Jonson had done his best work. When Shakespeare retired in 1611, Chapman and Webster, two of the most brilliant of his rivals, had also done their best; and Fletcher inherited the dramatic throne. On his death in 1625, Massinger and Ford and other minor luminaries were still at work; but the great period had passed. It had begun with the repulse of the Armada and culminated some fifteen years later. If in some minor respects there may afterwards have been an advance, the spontaneous vigour had declined and deliberate attempts to be striking had taken the place of the old audacity. There can be no more remarkable instance of a curious phenomenon, of a volcanic outburst of literary energy which begins and reaches its highest intensity while a man is passing from youth to middle age, and then begins to decay and exhaust itself within a generation.
A popular view used to throw the responsibility upon the wicked Puritans who used their power to close the theatres. We entered the 'prison-house' of Puritanism says Matthew Arnold, I think, and stayed there for a couple of centuries. If so, the gaolers must have had some difficulty, for the Puritan (in the narrower sense, of course) has always been in a small and unpopular minority. But it is also plain that the decay had begun when the Puritan was the victim instead of the inflictor of persecution. When we note the synchronism between the political and the literary movement our conception of the true nature of the change has to be modified. The accession of James marks the time at which the struggle between the court and the popular party was beginning to develop itself: when the monarchy and its adherents cease to represent the strongest current of national feeling, and the bulk of the most vigorous and progressive classes have become alienated and are developing the conditions and passions which produced the civil war. The genuine Puritans are still an exception; they only form the left wing, the most thorough-going opponents of the court-policy; and their triumph afterwards is only due to the causes which in a revolution give the advantage to the uncompromising partisans, though their special creed is always regarded with aversion by a majority. But for the time, they are the van of the party which, for whatever reason, is gathering strength and embodying the main political and ecclesiastical impulses of the time. The stage, again, had been from the first essentially aristocratic: it depended upon the court and the nobility and their adherents, and was hostile both to the Puritans and to the whole class in which the Puritan found a congenial element. So long, as in Elizabeth's time, as the class which supported the stage also represented the strongest aspirations of the period, and a marked national sentiment, the drama could embody a marked national sentiment. When the unity was broken up and the court is opposed to the strongest current of political sentiment, the players still adhere to their patron. The drama comes to represent a tone of thought, a social stratum, which, instead of leading, is getting more and more opposed to the great bulk of the most vigorous elements of the society. The stage is ceasing to be a truly national organ, and begins to suit itself to the tastes of the unprincipled and servile courtiers, who, if they are not more immoral than their predecessors, are without the old heroic touch which ennobled even the audacious and unscrupulous adventurers of the Armada period. That is to say, the change is beginning which became palpable in the Restoration time, when the stage became simply the melancholy dependent upon the court of Charles II., and faithfully reflected the peculiar morality of the small circle over which it presided. Without taking into account this process by which the organ of the nation gradually became transformed into the organ of the class which was entirely alienated from the general body of the nation, it is, I think, impossible to understand clearly the transformation of the drama. It illustrates the necessity of accounting for the literary movement, not only by intellectual and general causes, but by noting how special social developments radically alter the relation of any particular literary genus to the general national movement. I shall soon have to refer to the case again.
I have now only to say briefly what I propose to attempt in these lectures. The literary history, as I conceive it, is an account of one strand, so to speak, in a very complex tissue: it is connected with the intellectual and social development; it represents movements of thought which may sometimes check and be sometimes propitious to the existing forms of art; it is the utterance of a class which may represent, or fail to represent, the main national movement; it is affected more or less directly by all manner of religious, political, social, and economical changes; and it is dependent upon the occurrence of individual genius for which we cannot even profess to account. I propose to take the history of English literature in the eighteenth century. I do not aim at originality: I take for granted the ordinary critical judgments upon the great writers of whom so much has been said by judges certainly more competent than myself, and shall recall the same facts both of ordinary history and of the history of thought. What I hope is, that by bringing familiar facts together I may be able to bring out the nature of the connection between them; and, little as I can say that will be at all new, to illustrate one point of view, which, as I believe, it is desirable that literary histories should take into account more distinctly than they have generally done.
The first period of which I am to speak represents to the political historian the Avatar of Whiggism. The glorious revolution has decided the long struggle of the previous century; the main outlines of the British Constitution are irrevocably determined; the political system is in harmony with the great political forces, and the nation has settled, as Carlyle is fond of saying, with the centre of gravity lowest, and therefore in a position of stable equilibrium. For another century no organic change was attempted or desired. Parliament has become definitely the great driving-wheel of the political machinery; not, as a century before, an intrusive body acting spasmodically and hampering instead of regulating the executive power of the Crown. The last Stuart kings had still fancied that it might be reduced to impotence, and the illusion had been fostered by the loyalty which meant at least a fair unequivocal desire to hold to the old monarchical traditions. But, in fact, parliamentary control had been silently developing; the House of Commons had been getting the power of the purse more distinctly into its hands, and had taken very good care not to trust the Crown with the power of the sword. Charles II. had been forced to depend on the help of the great French monarchy to maintain his authority at home; and when his successor turned out to be an anachronism, and found that the loyalty of the nation would not bear the strain of a policy hostile to the strongest national impulses, he was thrown off as an intolerable incubus. The system which had been growing up beneath the surface was now definitely put into shape and its fundamental principles embodied in legislation. The one thing still needed was to work out the system of party government, which meant that parliament should become an organised body with a corporate body, which the ministers of the Crown had first to consult and then to obey. The essential parts of the system had, in fact, been established by the end of Queen Anne's reign; though the change which had taken place in the system was not fully recognised because marked by the retention of the old forms. This, broadly speaking, meant the supremacy of the class which really controlled Parliament: of the aristocratic class, led by the peers but including the body of squires and landed gentlemen, and including also a growing infusion of 'moneyed' men, who represented the rising commercial and manufacturing interests. The division between Whig and Tory corresponded mainly to the division between the men who inclined mainly to the Church and squirearchy and those who inclined towards the mercantile and the dissenting interests. If the Tory professed zeal for the monarchy, he did not mean a monarchy as opposed to Parliament and therefore to his own dearest privileges. Even the Jacobite movement was in great part personal, or meant dislike to Hanover with no preference for arbitrary power, while the actual monarchy was so far controlled by Parliament that the Whig had no desire to limit it further. It was a useful instrument, not an encumbrance.
We have to ask how these conditions affect the literary position. One point is clear. The relation between the political and the literary class was at this time closer than it had ever been. The alliance between them marks, in fact, a most conspicuous characteristic of the time. It was the one period, as authors repeat with a fond regret, in which literary merit was recognised by the distributors of state patronage. This gratifying phenomenon has, I think, been often a little misinterpreted, and I must consider briefly what it really meant. And first let us note how exclusively the literary society of the time was confined to London. The great town—it would be even now a great town—had half a million inhabitants. Macaulay, in his admirably graphic description of the England of the preceding period, points out what a chasm divided it from country districts; what miserable roads had to be traversed by the nobleman's chariot and four, or by the ponderous waggons or strings of pack-horses which supplied the wants of trade and of the humbler traveller; and how the squire only emerged at intervals to be jeered and jostled as an uncouth rustic in the streets of London. He was not a great buyer of books. There were, of course, libraries at Oxford and Cambridge, and here and there in the house of a rich prelate or of one of the great noblemen who were beginning to form some of the famous collections; but the squire was more than usually cultivated if Baker's Chronicle and Gwillim's Heraldry lay on the window-seat of his parlour, and one has often to wonder how the learned divines of the period managed to get the books from which they quote so freely in their discourses. Anyhow the author of the day must have felt that the circulation of his books must be mainly confined to London, and certainly in London alone could he meet with anything that could pass for literary society or an appreciative audience. We have superabundant descriptions of the audience and its meeting-places. One of the familiar features of the day, we know, was the number of coffee-houses. In 1657, we are told, the first coffee-house had been prosecuted as a nuisance. In 1708 there were three thousand coffee-houses; and each coffee-house had its habitual circle. There were coffee-houses frequented by merchants and stock-jobbers carrying on the game which suggested the new nickname bulls and bears: and coffee-houses where the talk was Whig and Tory, of the last election and change of ministry: and literary resorts such as the Grecian, where, as we are told, a fatal duel was provoked by a dispute over a Greek accent, in which, let us hope, it was the worst scholar who was killed; and Wills', where Pope as a boy went to look reverently at Dryden; and Buttons', where, at a later period, Addison met his little senate. Addison, according to Pope, spent five or six hours a day lounging at Buttons'; while Pope found the practice and the consequent consumption of wine too much for his health. Thackeray notices how the club and coffee-house 'boozing shortened the lives and enlarged the waistcoats of the men of those days.' The coffee-house implied the club, while the club meant simply an association for periodical gatherings. It was only by degrees that the body made a permanent lodgment in the house and became first the tenants of the landlord and then themselves the proprietors. The most famous show the approximation between the statesmen and the men of letters. There was the great Kit-cat Club, of which Tonson the bookseller was secretary; to which belonged noble dukes and all the Whig aristocracy, besides Congreve, Vanbrugh, Addison, Garth, and Steele. It not only brought Whigs together but showed its taste by giving a prize for good comedies. Swift, when he came into favour, helped to form the Brothers' Club, which was especially intended to direct patronage towards promising writers of the Tory persuasion. The institution, in modern slang, differentiated as time went on. The more aristocratic clubs became exclusive societies, occupying their own houses, more devoted to gambling than to literature; while the older type, represented by Jonson's famous club, were composed of literary and professional classes.
The characteristic fraternisation of the politicians and the authors facilitated by this system leads to the critical point. When we speak of the nobility patronising literature, a reserve must be made. A list of some twenty or thirty names has been made out, including all the chief authors of the time, who received appointments of various kinds. But I can only find two, Congreve and Rowe, upon whom offices were bestowed simply as rewards for literary distinction; and both of them were sound Whigs, rewarded by their party, though not for party services. The typical patron of the day was Charles Montagu, Lord Halifax. As member of a noble family he came into Parliament, where he distinguished himself by his financial achievements in founding the Bank of England and reforming the currency, and became a peer and a member of the great Whig junto. At college he had been a chum of Prior, who joined him in a literary squib directed against Dryden, and, as he rose, he employed his friend in diplomacy. But the poetry by which Prior is known to us was of a later growth, and was clearly not the cause but the consequence of his preferment. At a later time, Halifax sent Addison abroad with the intention of employing him in a similar way; and it is plain that Addison was not—as the familiar but obviously distorted anecdote tells us—preferred on account of his brilliant Gazette in rhyme, but really in fulfilment of his patron's virtual pledge. Halifax has also the credit of bestowing office upon Newton and patronising Congreve. As poet and patron Halifax was carrying on a tradition. The aristocracy in Charles's days had been under the impression that poetry, or at least verse writing, was becoming an accomplishment for a nobleman. Pope's 'mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease,' Rochester and Buckingham, Dorset and Sedley, and the like, managed some very clever, if not very exalted, performances and were courted by the men of letters represented by Butler, Dryden, and Otway. As, indeed, the patrons were themselves hangers-on of a thoroughly corrupt court, seeking to rise by court intrigues, their patronage was apt to be degrading and involved the mean flattery of personal dependence. The change at the Revolution meant that the court no longer overshadowed society. The court, that is, was beginning to be superseded by the town. The new race of statesmen were coming to depend upon parliamentary influence instead of court favour. They were comparatively, therefore, shining by their own light. They were able to dispose of public appointments; places on the various commissions which had been founded as parliament took control of the financial system—such as commissions for the wine-duties, for licensing hackney coaches, excise duties, and so forth—besides some of the other places which had formerly been the perquisites of the courtier. They could reward personal dependants at the cost of the public; which was convenient for both parties. Promising university students, like Prior and Addison, might be brought out under the wing of the statesman, and no doubt literary merit, especially in conjunction with the right politics, might recommend them to such men as Halifax or Somers. The political power of the press was meanwhile rapidly developing. Harley, Lord Oxford, was one of the first to appreciate its importance. He employed Defoe and other humble writers who belonged to Grub Street—that is, to professional journalism in its infancy—as well as Swift, whose pamphlets struck the heaviest blow at the Whigs in the last years of that period. Swift's first writings, we may notice, were not a help but the main hindrance to his preferment. The patronage of literature was thus in great part political in its character. It represents the first scheme by which the new class of parliamentary statesmen recruited their party from the rising talent, or rewarded men for active or effective service. The speedy decay of the system followed for obvious reasons. As party government became organised, the patronage was used in a different spirit. Offices had to be given to gratify members of parliament and their constituents, not to scholars who could write odes on victories or epistles to secretaries of state. It was the machinery for controlling votes. Meanwhile we need only notice that the patronage of authors did not mean the patronage of learned divines or historians, but merely the patronage of men who could use their pens in political warfare, or at most of men who produced the kind of literary work appreciated in good society.
The 'town' was the environment of the wits who produced the literature generally called after Queen Anne. We may call it the literary organ of the society. It was the society of London, or of the region served by the new penny-post, which included such remote villages as Paddington and Brompton. The city was large enough, as Addison observes, to include numerous 'nations,' each of them meeting at the various coffee-houses. The clubs at which the politicians and authors met each other represented the critical tribunals, when no such things as literary journals existed. It was at these that judgment was passed upon the last new poem or pamphlet, and the writer sought for their good opinion as he now desires a favourable review. The tribunal included the rewarders as well as the judges of merit; and there was plenty of temptation to stimulate their generosity by flattery. Still the relation means a great improvement on the preceding state of things. The aristocrat was no doubt conscious of his inherent dignity, but he was ready on occasion to hail Swift as 'Jonathan' and, in the case of so highly cultivated a specimen as Addison, to accept an author's marriage to a countess. The patrons did not exact the personal subservience of the preceding period; and there was a real recognition by the more powerful class of literary merit of a certain order. Such a method, however, had obvious defects. Men of the world have their characteristic weaknesses; and one, to go no further, is significant. The Club in England corresponded more or less to the Salon which at different times had had so great an influence upon French literature. It differed in the marked absence of feminine elements. The clubs meant essentially a society of bachelors, and the conversation, one infers, was not especially suited for ladies. The Englishman, gentle or simple, enjoyed himself over his pipe and his bottle and dismissed his womenkind to their bed. The one author of the time who speaks of the influence of women with really chivalrous appreciation is the generous Steele, with his famous phrase about Lady Elizabeth Hastings and a liberal education. The Clubs did not foster the affectation of Moliere's Precieuses; but the general tone had a coarseness and occasional brutality which shows too clearly that they did not enter into the full meaning of Steele's most admirable saying.
To appreciate the spirit of this society we must take into account the political situation and the intellectual implication. The parliamentary statesman, no longer dependent upon court favour, had a more independent spirit and personal self-respect. He was fully aware of the fact that he represented a distinct step in political progress. His class had won a great struggle against arbitrary power and bigotry. England had become the land of free speech, of religious toleration, impartial justice, and constitutional order. It had shown its power by taking its place among the leading European states. The great monarchy before which the English court had trembled, and from which even patriots had taken bribes in the Restoration period, was met face to face in a long and doubtful struggle and thoroughly humbled in a war, in which an English General, in command of an English contingent, had won victories unprecedented in our history since the Middle Ages. Patriotic pride received a stimulus such as that which followed the defeat of the Armada and preceded the outburst of the Elizabethan literature. Those successes, too, had been won in the name of 'liberty'—a vague if magical word which I shall not seek to define at present. England, so sound Whigs at least sincerely believed, had become great because it had adopted and carried out the true Whig principles. The most intelligent Frenchmen of the coming generation admitted the claim; they looked upon England as the land both of liberty and philosophy, and tried to adopt for themselves the creed which had led to such triumphant results. One great name may tell us sufficiently what the principles were in the eyes of the cultivated classes, who regarded themselves and their own opinions with that complacency in which we are happily never deficient. Locke had laid down the fundamental outlines of the creed, philosophical, religious, and political, which was to dominate English thought for the next century. Locke was one of the most honourable, candid, and amiable of men, if metaphysicians have sometimes wondered at the success of his teaching. He had not the logical thoroughness and consistency which marks a Descartes or Spinoza, nor the singular subtlety which distinguishes Berkeley and Hume; nor the eloquence and imaginative power which gave to Bacon an authority greater than was due to his scientific requirements. He was a thoroughly modest, prosaic, tentative, and sometimes clumsy writer, who raises great questions without solving them or fully seeing the consequences of his own position. Leaving any explanation of his power to metaphysicians, I need only note the most conspicuous condition. Locke ruled the thought of his own and the coming period because he interpreted so completely the fundamental beliefs which had been worked out at his time. He ruled, that is, by obeying. Locke represents the very essence of the common sense of the intelligent classes. I do not ask whether his simplicity covered really profound thought or embodied superficial crudities; but it was most admirably adapted to the society of which I have been speaking. The excellent Addison, for example, who was no metaphysician, can adopt Locke when he wishes to give a philosophical air to his amiable lectures upon arts and morals. Locke's philosophy, that is, blends spontaneously with the ordinary language of all educated men. To the historian of philosophy the period is marked by the final disappearance of scholasticism. The scholastic philosophy had of course been challenged generations before. Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes, however, in the preceding century had still treated it as the great incubus upon intellectual progress, and it was not yet exorcised from the universities. It had, however, passed from the sphere of living thought. This implies a series of correlative changes in the social and intellectual which are equally conspicuous in the literary order, and which I must note without attempting to inquire which are the ultimate or most fundamental causes of reciprocally related developments. The changed position of the Anglican church is sufficiently significant. In the time of Laud, the bishops in alliance with the Crown endeavoured to enforce the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts upon the nation at large, and to suppress all nonconformity by law. Every subject of the king is also amenable to church discipline. By the Revolution any attempt to enforce such discipline had become hopeless. The existence of nonconformist churches has to be recognised as a fact, though perhaps an unpleasant fact. The Dissenters can be worried by disqualifications of various kinds; but the claim to toleration, of Protestant sects at least, is admitted; and the persecution is political rather than ecclesiastical. They are not regarded as heretics, but as representing an interest which is opposed to the dominant class of the landed gentry. The Church as such has lost the power of discipline and is gradually falling under the power of the dominant aristocratic class. When Convocation tries to make itself troublesome, in a few years, it will be silenced and drop into impotence. Church-feeling indeed, is still strong, but the clergy have become thoroughly subservient, and during the century will be mere appendages to the nobility and squirearchy. The intellectual change is parallel. The great divines of the seventeenth century speak as members of a learned corporation condescending to instruct the laity. The hearers are supposed to listen to the voice (as Donne puts it) as from 'angels in the clouds.' They are experts, steeped in a special science, above the comprehension of the vulgar. They have been trained in the schools of theology and have been thoroughly drilled in the art of 'syllogising.' They are walking libraries with the ancient fathers at their finger-ends; they have studied Aquinas and Duns Scotus, and have shown their technical knowledge in controversies with the great Jesuits, Suarez and Bellarmine. They speak frankly, if not ostentatiously, as men of learning, and their sermons are overweighted with quotations, showing familiarity with the classics, and with the whole range of theological literature. Obviously the hearers are to be passive recipients not judges of the doctrine. But by the end of the century Tillotson has become the typical divine, whose authority was to be as marked in theology as that of Locke in philosophy. Tillotson has entirely abandoned any ostentatious show of learning. He addresses his hearers in language on a level with their capabilities, and assumes that they are not 'passive buckets to be pumped into' but reasonable men who have a right to be critics as well as disciples. It is taken for granted that the appeal must be to reason, and to the reason which has not gone through any special professional training. The audience, that is, to which the divine must address himself is one composed of the average laity who are quite competent to judge for themselves. That is the change that is meant when we are told that this was the period of the development of English prose. Dryden, one of its great masters, professed to have learned his style from Tillotson. The writer, that is, has to suit himself to the new audience which has grown up. He has to throw aside all the panoply of scholastic logic, the vast apparatus of professional learning, and the complex Latinised constructions, which, however admirable some of the effects produced, shows that the writer is thinking of well-read scholars, not of the ordinary man of the world. He has learned from Bacon and Descartes, perhaps, that his supposed science was useless lumber; and he has to speak to men who not only want plain language but are quite convinced that the pretensions of the old authority have been thoroughly exploded.
Politically, the change means toleration, for it is assumed that the vulgar can judge for themselves; intellectually, it means rationalism, that is, an appeal to the reason common to all men; and, in literature it means the hatred of pedantry and the acceptance of such literary forms as are thoroughly congenial and intelligible to the common sense of the new audience. The hatred of the pedantic is the characteristic sentiment of the time. When Berkeley looked forward to a new world in America, he described it as the Utopia
'Where men shall not impose for truth and sense The pedantry of Courts and Schools.'
When he announced a metaphysical discovery he showed his understanding of the principle by making his exposition—strange as the proceeding appears to us—as short and as clear as the most admirable literary skill could contrive. That eccentric ambition dominates the writings of the times. In a purely literary direction it is illustrated by the famous but curiously rambling and equivocal controversy about the Ancients and Moderns begun in France by Perrault and Boileau. In England the most familiar outcome was Swift's Battle of the Books, in which he struck out the famous phrase about sweetness and light, 'the two noblest of things'; which he illustrated by ridiculing Bentley's criticism and Dryden's poetry. I may take for granted the motives which induced that generation to accept as their models the great classical masterpieces, the study of which had played so important a part in the revival of letters and the new philosophy. I may perhaps note, in passing, that we do not always remember what classical literature meant to that generation. In the first place, the education of a gentleman meant nothing then except a certain drill in Greek and Latin—whereas now it includes a little dabbling in other branches of knowledge. In the next place, if a man had an appetite for literature, what else was he to read? Imagine every novel, poem, and essay written during the last two centuries to be obliterated and further, the literature of the early seventeenth century and all that went before to be regarded as pedantic and obsolete, the field of study would be so limited that a man would be forced in spite of himself to read his Homer and Virgil. The vice of pedantry was not very accurately defined—sometimes it is the ancient, sometimes the modern, who appears to be pedantic. Still, as in the Battle of the Books controversy, the general opinion seems to be that the critic should have before him the great classical models, and regard the English literature of the seventeenth century as a collection of all possible errors of taste. When, at the end of this period, Swift with Pope formed the project of the Scriblerus Club, its aim was to be a joint-stock satire against all 'false tastes' in learning, art, and science. That was the characteristic conception of the most brilliant men of letters of the time.
Here, then, we have the general indication of the composition of the literary organ. It is made up of men of the world—'Wits' is their favourite self-designation, scholars and gentlemen, with rather more of the gentlemen than the scholars—living in the capital, which forms a kind of island of illumination amid the surrounding darkness of the agricultural country—including men of rank and others of sufficient social standing to receive them on friendly terms—meeting at coffee-houses and in a kind of tacit confederation of clubs to compare notes and form the whole public opinion of the day. They are conscious that in them is concentrated the enlightenment of the period. The class to which they belong is socially and politically dominant—the advance guard of national progress. It has finally cast off the incubus of a retrograde political system; it has placed the nation in a position of unprecedented importance in Europe; and it is setting an example of ordered liberty to the whole civilised world. It has forced the Church and the priesthood to abandon the old claim to spiritual supremacy. It has, in the intellectual sphere, crushed the old authority which embodied superstition, antiquated prejudice, and a sham system of professional knowledge, which was upheld by a close corporation. It believes in reason—meaning the principles which are evident to the ordinary common sense of men at its own level. It believes in what it calls the Religion of Nature—the plain demonstrable truths obvious to every intelligent person. With Locke for its spokesman, and Newton as a living proof of its scientific capacity, it holds that England is the favoured nation marked out as the land of liberty, philosophy, common sense, toleration, and intellectual excellence. And with certain reserves, it will be taken at its own valuation by foreigners who are still in darkness and deplorably given to slavery, to say nothing of wooden shoes and the consumption of frogs. Let us now consider the literary result.
I may begin by recalling a famous controversy which seems to illustrate very significantly some of the characteristic tendencies of the day. The stage, when really flourishing, might be expected to show most conspicuously the relations between authors and the society. The dramatist may be writing for all time; but if he is to fill a theatre, he must clearly adapt himself to the tastes of the living and the present. During the first half of the period of which I am now speaking, Dryden was still the dictator of the literary world; and Dryden had adopted Congreve as his heir, and abandoned to him the province of the drama—Congreve, though he ceased to write, was recognised during his life as the great man of letters to whom Addison, Swift, and Pope agreed in paying respect, and indisputably the leading writer of English Comedy. When the comic drama was unsparingly denounced by Collier, Congreve defended himself and his friends. In the judgment of contemporaries the pedantic parson won a complete triumph over the most brilliant of wits. Although Congreve's early abandonment of his career was not caused by Collier's attack alone, it was probably due in part to the general sentiment to which Collier gave utterance. I will ask what is implied as a matter of fact in regard to the social and literary characteristics of the time. The Shakespearian drama had behind it a general national impulse. With Fletcher, it began to represent a court already out of harmony with the strongest currents of national feeling. Dryden, in a familiar passage, gives the reason of the change from his own point of view. Two plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, he says in an often quoted passage, were acted (about 1668) for one of Shakespeare or Jonson. His explanation is remarkable. It was because the later dramatists 'understood the conversation of gentlemen much better,' whose wild 'debaucheries and quickness of wit no poet can ever paint as they have done.' In a later essay he explains that the greater refinement was due to the influence of the court. Charles II., familiar with the most brilliant courts of Europe, had roused us from barbarism and rebellion, and taught us to 'mix our solidity' with 'the air and gaiety of our neighbours'! I need not cavil at the phrases 'refinement' and 'gentleman.' If those words can be fairly applied to the courtiers whose 'wild debaucheries' disgusted Evelyn and startled even the respectable Pepys, they may no doubt be applied to the stage and the dramatic persons. The rake, or 'wild gallant,' had made his first appearance in Fletcher, and had shown himself more nakedly after the Restoration. This is the so-called reaction so often set down to the account of the unlucky Puritans. The degradation, says Macaulay, was the 'effect of the prevalence of Puritanism under the Commonwealth.' The attempt to make a 'nation of saints' inevitably produced a nation of scoffers. In what sense, in the first place, was there a 'reaction' at all? The Puritans had suppressed the stage when it was already far gone in decay because it no longer satisfied the great bulk of the nation. The reaction does not imply that the drama regained its old position. When the rule of the saints or pharisees was broken down, the stage did not become again a national organ. A very small minority of the people can ever have seen a performance. There were, we must remember, only two theatres under Charles II., and there was a difficulty in supporting even two. Both depended almost exclusively on the patronage of the court and the courtiers. From the theatre, therefore, we can only argue directly to the small circle of the rowdy debauchees who gathered round the new king. It certainly may be true, but it was not proved from their behaviour, that the national morality deteriorated, and in fact I think nothing is more difficult than to form any trustworthy estimate of the state of morality in a whole nation, confidently as such estimates are often put forward. What may be fairly inferred, is that a certain class, who had got from under the rule of the Puritan, was now free from legal restraint and took advantage of the odium excited by pharisaical strictness, to indulge in the greater license which suited the taste of their patrons. The result is sufficiently shown when we see so great a man as Dryden pander to the lowest tastes, and guilty of obscenities of which he was himself ashamed, which would be now inexcusable in the lowest public haunts. The comedy, as it appears to us, must have been written by blackguards for blackguards. When Congreve became Dryden's heir he inherited the established tradition. Under the new order the 'town' had become supreme; and Congreve wrote to meet the taste of the class which was gaining in self-respect and independence. He tells us in the dedication of his best play, The Way of the World, that his taste had been refined in the company of the Earl of Montagu. The claim is no doubt justifiable. So Horace Walpole remarks that Vanbrugh wrote so well because he was familiar with the conversation of the best circles. The social influences were favourable to the undeniable literary merits, to the force and point in which Congreve's dialogue is still superior to that of any English rival, the vigour of Vanbrugh and the vivacity of their chief ally, Farquhar. Moreover, although their moral code is anything but strict, these writers did not descend to some of the depths often sounded by Dryden and Wycherly. The new spirit might seem to be passing on with more literary vitality into the old forms. And yet the consequence, or certainly the sequel to Collier's attack, was the decay of the stage in every sense, from which there was no recovery till the time of Goldsmith and Sheridan.
This is the phenomenon which we have to consider;—let us listen for a moment to the 'distinguished critics' who have denounced or defended the comedy of the time. Macaulay gives as a test of the morality of the Restoration stage that on it, for the first time, marriage becomes the topic of ridicule. We are supposed to sympathise with the adulterer, not with the deceived husband—a fault, he says, which stains no play written before the Civil War. Addison had already suggested this test in the Spectator, and proceeds to lament that 'the multitudes are shut out from this noble "diversion" by the immorality of the lessons inculcated.' Lamb, indulging in ingenious paradox, admires Congreve for 'excluding from his scenes (with one exception) any pretensions to goodness or good feeling whatever.' Congreve, he says, spreads a 'privation of moral light' over his characters, and therefore we can admire them without compunction. We are in an artificial world where we can drop our moral prejudices for the time being. Hazlitt more daringly takes a different position and asserts that one of Wycherly's coarsest plays is 'worth ten sermons'—which perhaps does not imply with him any high estimate of moral efficacy. There is, however, this much of truth, I take it, in Hazlitt's contention. Lamb's theory of the non-morality of the dramatic world will not stand examination. The comedy was in one sense thoroughly 'realistic'; and I am inclined to say, that in that lay its chief merit. There is some value in any truthful representation, even of vice and brutality. There would certainly be no difficulty in finding flesh and blood originals for the rakes and the fine ladies in the memoirs of Grammont or the diaries of Pepys. The moral atmosphere is precisely that of the dissolute court of Charles II., and the 'privation of moral light' required is a delicate way of expressing its characteristic feeling. In the worst performances we have not got to any unreal region, but are breathing for the time the atmosphere of the lowest resorts, where reference to pure or generous sentiment would undoubtedly have been received with a guffaw, and coarse cynicism be regarded as the only form of comic insight. At any rate the audiences for which Congreve wrote had just so much of the old leaven that we can quite understand why they were regarded as wicked by a majority of the middle classes. The doctrine that all playgoing was wicked was naturally confirmed, and the dramatists retorted by ridiculing all that their enemies thought respectable. Congreve was, I fancy, a man of better morality than his characters, only forced to pander to the tastes of the rake who had composed the dominant element of his audience. He writes not for mere blackguards, but for the fine gentleman, who affects premature knowledge of the world, professes to be more cynical than he really is, and shows his acuteness by deriding hypocrisy and pharisaic humbug in every claim to virtue. He dwells upon the seamy side of life, and if critics, attracted by his undeniable brilliance, have found his heroines charming, to me it seems that they are the kind of young women whom, if I adopted his moral code, I should think most desirable wives—for my friends.
Though realistic in one sense, we may grant to Lamb that such comedy becomes 'artificial,' and so far Lamb is right, because it supposes a state of things such as happily was abnormal except in a small circle. The plots have to be made up of impossible intrigues, and imply a distorted theory of life. Marriage after all is not really ridiculous, and to see it continuously from this point of view is to have a false picture of realities. Life is not made up of dodges worthy of cardsharpers—and the whole mechanism becomes silly and disgusting. If comedy is to represent a full and fair portrait of life, the dramatist ought surely, in spite of Lamb, to find some space for generous and refined feeling. There, indeed, is a difficulty. The easiest way to be witty is to be cynical. It is difficult, though desirable, to combine good feeling with the comic spirit. The humourist has to expose the contrasts of life, to unmask hypocrisy, and to show selfishness lurking under multitudinous disguises. That, on Hazlitt's showing, was the preaching of Wycherly. I can't think that it was the impression made upon Wycherly's readers. Such comedy may be taken as satire; which was the excuse that Fielding afterwards made for his own performances. But I cannot believe that the actual audiences went to see vice exposed, or used Lamb's ingenious device of disbelieving in the reality. They simply liked brutal and immoral sentiment, spiced, if possible, with art. We may inquire whether there may not be a comedy which is enjoyable by the refined and virtuous, and in which the intrusion of good feeling does not jar upon us as a discord. An answer may be suggested by pointing to Moliere, and has been admirably set forth in Mr. George Meredith's essay on the 'Comic Spirit.' There are, after all, ridiculous things in the world, even from the refined and virtuous point of view. The saint, it is true, is apt to lose his temper and become too serious for such a treatment of life-problems. Still the sane intellect which sees things as they are can find a sphere within which it is fair and possible to apply ridicule to affectation and even to vice, and without simply taking the seat of the scorner or substituting a coarse laugh for a delicate smile. A hearty laugh, let us hope, is possible even for a fairly good man. Mr. Meredith's essay indicates the conditions under which the artist may appeal to such a cultivated and refined humour. The higher comedy, he says, can only be the fruit of a polished society which can supply both the model and the audience. Where the art of social intercourse has been carried to a high pitch, where men have learned to be at once courteous and incisive, to admire urbanity, and therefore really good feeling, and to take a true estimate of the real values of life, a high comedy which can produce irony without coarseness, expose shams without advocating brutality, becomes for the first time possible. It must be admitted that the condition is also very rarely fulfilled.
This, I take it, is the real difficulty. The desirable thing, one may say, would have been to introduce a more refined and human art and to get rid of the coarser elements. The excellent Steele tried the experiment. But he had still to work upon the old lines, which would not lend themselves to the new purpose. His passages of moral exhortation would not supply the salt of the old cynical brutalities; they had a painful tendency to become insipid and sentimental, if not maudlin; and only illustrated the difficulty of using a literary tradition which developed spontaneously for one purpose to adapt itself to a wholly different aim. He produced at best not a new genus but an awkward hybrid. But behind this was the greater difficulty that a superior literature would have required a social elaboration, the growth of a class which could appreciate and present appropriate types. Now even the good society for which Congreve wrote had its merits, but certainly its refinement left much to be desired. One condition, as Mr. Meredith again remarks, of the finer comedy is such an equality of the sexes as may admit the refining influence of women. The women of the Restoration time hardly exerted a refining influence. They adopted the ingenious compromise of going to the play, but going in masks. That is, they tacitly implied that the brutality was necessary, and they submitted to what they could not openly approve. Throughout the eighteenth century a contempt for women was still too characteristic of the aristocratic character. Nor was there any marked improvement in the tastes of the playgoing classes. The plays denounced by Collier continued to hold the stage, though more or less expurgated, throughout the century. Comedy did not become decent. In 1729 Arthur Bedford carried on Collier's assault in a 'Remonstrance against the horrid blasphemies and improprieties which are still used in the English playhouses,' and collected seven thousand immoral sentiments from the plays (chiefly) of the last four years. I have not verified his statements. The inference, however, seems to be clear. Collier's attack could not reform the stage. The evolution took the form of degeneration. He could, indeed, give utterance to the disapproval of the stage in general, which we call Puritanical, though it was by no means confined to Puritans or even to Protestants. Bossuet could denounce the stage as well as Collier. Collier was himself a Tory and a High Churchman, as was William Law, of the Serious Call, who also denounced the stage. The sentiment was, in fact, that of the respectable middle classes in general. The effect was to strengthen the prejudice which held that playgoing was immoral in itself, and that an actor deserved to be treated as a 'vagrant'—the class to which he legally belonged. During the next half-century, at least, that was the prevailing opinion among the solid middle-class section of society.
The denunciations of Collier and his allies certainly effected a reform, but at a heavy price. They did not elevate the stage or create a better type, but encouraged old prejudices against the theatre generally; the theatre was left more and more to a section of the 'town,' and to the section which was not too particular about decency. When Congreve retired, and Vanbrugh took to architecture, and Farquhar died, no adequate successors appeared. The production of comedies was left to inferior writers, to Mrs. Centlivre, and Colley Cibber, and Fielding in his unripe days, and they were forced by the disfavour into which their art had fallen to become less forcible rather than to become more refined. When a preacher denounces the wicked, his sermons seem to be thrown away because the wicked don't come to church. Collier could not convert his antagonists; he could only make them more timid and careful to avoid giving palpable offence. But he could express the growing sentiment which made the drama an object of general suspicion and dislike, and induced the ablest writers to turn to other methods for winning the favour of a larger public.
The natural result, in fact, was the development of a new kind of literature, which was the most characteristic innovation of the period. The literary class of which I have hitherto spoken reflected the opinions of the upper social stratum. Beneath it was the class generally known as Grub Street. Grub Street had arisen at the time of the great civil struggle. War naturally generates journalism; it had struggled on through the Restoration and taken a fresh start at the Revolution and the final disappearance of the licensing system. The daily newspaper—meaning a small sheet written by a single author (editors as yet were not)—appeared at the opening of the eighteenth century. Now for Grub Street the wit of the higher class had nothing but dislike. The 'hackney author,' as Dunton called him, in his curious Life and Errors, was a mere huckster, who could scarcely be said as yet to belong to a profession. A Tutchin or Defoe might be pilloried, or flogged, or lose his ears, without causing a touch of compassion from men like Swift, who would have disdained to call themselves brother authors. Yet politicians were finding him useful. He was the victim of one party, and might be bribed or employed as a spy by the other. The history of Defoe and his painful struggles between his conscience and his need of living, sufficiently indicates the result; Charles Leslie, the gallant nonjuror, for example, or Abel Boyer, the industrious annalist, or the laborious but cantankerous Oldmixon, were keeping their heads above water by journalism, almost exclusively, of course, political. Defoe showed a genius for the art, and his mastery of vigorous vernacular was hardly rivalled until the time of Paine and Cobbett. At any rate, it was plain that a market was now arising for periodical literature which might give a scanty support to a class below the seat of patrons. It was at this point that the versatile, speculative, and impecunious Steele hit upon his famous discovery. The aim of the Tatler, started in April 1709, was marked out with great accuracy from the first. Its purpose is to contain discourses upon all manner of topics—quicquid agunt homines, as his first motto put it—which had been inadequately treated in the daily papers. It is supposed to be written in the various coffee-houses, and it is suited to all classes, even including women, whose taste, he observes, is to be caught by the title. The Tatler, as we know, led to the Spectator, and Addison's co-operation, cordially acknowledged by his friend, was a main cause of its unprecedented success. The Spectator became the model for at least three generations of writers. The number of imitations is countless: Fielding, Johnson, Goldsmith, and many men of less fame tried to repeat the success; persons of quality, such as Chesterfield and Horace Walpole, condescended to write papers for the World—the 'Bow of Ulysses,' as it was called, in which they could test their strength. Even in the nineteenth century Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt carried on the form; as indeed, in a modified shape, many later essayists have aimed at a substantially similar achievement. To have contributed three or four articles was, as in the case of the excellent Henry Grove (a name, of course, familiar to all of you), to have graduated with honours in literature. Johnson exhorted the literary aspirant to give his days and nights to the study of Addison; and the Spectator was the most indispensable set of volumes upon the shelves of every library where the young ladies described by Miss Burney and Miss Austen were permitted to indulge a growing taste for literature. I fear that young people of the present day discover, if they try the experiment, that their curiosity is easily satisfied. This singular success, however, shows that the new form satisfied a real need. Addison's genius must, of course, count for much in the immediate result; but it was plainly a case where genius takes up the function for which it is best suited, and in which it is most fully recognised. When we read him now we are struck by one fact. He claims in the name of the Spectator to be a censor of manners and morals; and though he veils his pretensions under delicate irony, the claim is perfectly serious at bottom. He is really seeking to improve and educate his readers. He aims his gentle ridicule at social affectations and frivolities; and sometimes, though avoiding ponderous satire, at the grosser forms of vice. He is not afraid of laying down an aesthetic theory. In a once famous series of papers on the Imagination, he speaks with all the authority of a recognised critic in discussing the merits of Chevy Chase or of Paradise Lost; and in a series of Saturday papers he preaches lay-sermons—which were probably preferred by many readers to the official discourses of the following day. They contain those striking poems (too few) which led Thackeray to say that he could hardly fancy a 'human intellect thrilling with a purer love and admiration than Joseph Addison's.' Now, spite of the real charm which every lover of delicate humour and exquisite urbanity must find in Addison, I fancy that the Spectator has come to mean for us chiefly Sir Roger de Coverley. It is curious, and perhaps painful, to note how very small a proportion of the whole is devoted to that most admirable achievement; and to reflect how little life there is in much that in kindness of feeling and grace of style is equally charming. One cause is obvious. When Addison talks of psychology or aesthetics or ethics (not to speak of his criticism of epic poetry or the drama), he must of course be obsolete in substance; but, moreover, he is obviously superficial. A man who would speak upon such topics now must be a grave philosopher, who has digested libraries of philosophy. Addison, of course, is the most modest of men; he has not the slightest suspicion that he is going beyond his tether; and that is just what makes his unconscious audacity remarkable. He fully shares the characteristic belief of the day, that the abstract problems are soluble by common sense, when polished by academic culture and aided by a fine taste. It is a case of sancta simplicitas; of the charming, because perfectly unconscious, self-sufficiency with which the Wit, rejecting pedantry as the source of all evil, thinks himself obviously entitled to lay down the law as theologian, politician, and philosopher. His audience are evidently ready to accept him as an authority, and are flattered by being treated as capable of reason, not offended by any assumption of their intellectual inferiority.
With whatever shortcomings, Addison, and in their degree Steele and his other followers, represent the stage at which the literary organ begins to be influenced by the demands of a new class of readers. Addison feels the dignity of his vocation and has a certain air of gentle condescension, especially when addressing ladies who cannot even translate his mottoes. He is a genuine prophet of what we now describe as Culture, and his exquisite urbanity and delicacy qualify him to be a worthy expositor of the doctrines, though his outlook is necessarily limited. He is therefore implicitly trying to solve the problem which could not be adequately dealt with on the stage; to set forth a view of the world and human nature which shall be thoroughly refined and noble, and yet imply a full appreciation of the humorous aspects of life. The inimitable Sir Roger embodies the true comic spirit; though Addison's own attempt at comedy was not successful.
One obvious characteristic of this generation is the didacticism which is apt to worry us. Poets, as well as philosophers and preachers, are terribly argumentative. Fielding's remark (through Parson Adams), that some things in Steele's comedies are almost as good as a sermon, applies to a much wider range of literature. One is tempted by way of explanation to ascribe this to a primitive and ultimate instinct of the race. Englishmen—including of course Scotsmen—have a passion for sermons, even when they are half ashamed of it; and the British Essay, which flourished so long, was in fact a lay sermon. We must briefly notice that the particular form of this didactic tendency is a natural expression of the contemporary rationalism. The metaphysician of the time identifies emotions and passions with intellectual affirmations, and all action is a product of logic. In any case we have to do with a period in which the old concrete imagery has lost its hold upon the more intelligent classes, and instead of an imaginative symbolism we have a system of abstract reasoning. Diagrams take the place of concrete pictures: and instead of a Milton justifying the ways of Providence by the revealed history, we have a Blackmore arguing with Lucretius, and are soon to have a Pope expounding a metaphysical system in the Essay on Man. Sir Roger represents a happy exception to this method and points to the new development. Addison is anticipating the method of later novelists, who incarnate their ideals in flesh and blood. This, and the minor character sketches which are introduced incidentally, imply a feeling after a less didactic method. As yet the sermon is in the foreground, and the characters are dismissed as soon as they have illustrated the preacher's doctrine. Such a method was congenial to the Wit. He was, or aspired to be, a keen man of the world; deeply interested in the characteristics of the new social order; in the eccentricities displayed at clubs, or on the Stock Exchange, or in the political struggles; he is putting in shape the practical philosophy implied in the conversations at clubs and coffee-houses; he delights in discussing such psychological problems as were suggested by the worldly wisdom of Rochefoucauld, and he appreciates clever character sketches such as those of La Bruyere. Both writers were favourites in England. But he has become heartily tired of the old romance, and has not yet discovered how to combine the interest of direct observation of man with a thoroughly concrete form of presentation.
The periodical essay represents the most successful innovation of the day; and, as I have suggested, because it represents the mode by which the most cultivated writer could be brought into effective relation with the genuine interests of the largest audience. Other writers used it less skilfully, or had other ways of delivering their message to mankind. Swift, for example, had already shown his peculiar vein. He gives a different, though equally characteristic, side of the intellectual attitude of the Wit. In the Battle of the Books he had assumed the pedantry of the scholar; in the Tale of a Tub with amazing audacity he fell foul of the pedantry of divines. His blows, as it seemed to the Archbishops, struck theology in general; he put that right by pouring out scorn upon Deists and all who were silly enough to believe that the vulgar could reason; and then in his first political writings began to expose the corrupt and selfish nature of politicians—though at present only of Whig politicians. Swift is one of the most impressive of all literary figures, and I will not even touch upon his personal peculiarities. I will only remark that in one respect he agrees with his friend Addison. He emphasises, of course, the aspect over which Addison passes lightly; he scorns fools too heartily to treat them tenderly and do justice to the pathetic side of even human folly. But he too believes in culture—though he may despair of its dissemination. He did his best, during his brief period of power, to direct patronage towards men of letters, even to Whigs; and tried, happily without success, to found an English Academy. His zeal was genuine, though it expressed itself by scorn for dunces and hostility to Grub Street. He illustrates one little peculiarity of the Wit. In the society of the clubs there was a natural tendency to form minor cliques of the truly initiated, who looked with sovereign contempt upon the hackney author. One little indication is the love of mystifications, or what were entitled 'bites.' All the Wits, as we know, combined to tease the unlucky fortune-teller, Partridge, and to maintain that their prediction of his death had been verified, though he absurdly pretended to be still alive. So Swift tells us in the journal to Stella how he had circulated a lie about a man who had been hanged coming to life again, and how footmen are sent out to inquire into its success. He made a hit by writing a sham account of Prior's mission to Paris supposed to come from a French valet. The inner circle chuckled over such performances, which would be impossible when their monopoly of information had been broken up. A similar satisfaction was given by the various burlesques and more or less ingenious fables which were to be fully appreciated by the inner circle; such as the tasteless narrative of Dennis's frenzy by which Pope professed to be punishing his victim for an attack upon Addison: or to such squibs as Arbuthnot's John Bull—a parable which gives the Tory view in a form fitted for the intelligent. The Wits, that is, form an inner circle, who like to speak with an affectation of obscurity even if the meaning be tolerably transparent, and show that they are behind the scenes by occasionally circulating bits of sham news. They like to form a kind of select upper stratum, which most fully believes in its own intellectual eminence, and shows a contempt for its inferiors by burlesque and rough sarcasm.