« ÎnapoiContinuați »
began with Dryden and ended with Pope. The “Religio Laici” of Dryden is partly a reproduction of the scholastic theology, partly an attack on the Deists, and it does not contain one single touch of personal feeling towards God. The “Essay on Man” is the preservation in exquisite steel-work of the speculations of Leibnitz and Bolingbroke. It is true the devoutness which belonged to Pope's nature modified the coldness of his philosophy, and there are lines in the Essay on Man which in their temperate but lofty speech concerning charity, are healthier than the whole of Cowper's Hymns, while the “Universal Prayer" is of that noble tolerance and personal humility which, whether it be called deistical or not, belongs to the best religion all over the world.
It has not been sufficiently said that Pope was sincerely devout in heart, just as it has been ignorantly assumed by many that the century in which he lived was irreligious. His age may seem so in contrast with the two centuries that preceded it, in which religious subjects took so overdue a part, and theological feeling ran into bitter uncharitableness. But it was most useful for the whole future of English religion and theology, that with the newly-awakened interest in science, philosophic inquiry and commerce, religion also should learn to extend its influence over other realms; and, in the re-action from intolerance which a wider intellectual life taught it, learn to do more justice to all opinions, and to teach and practise 'a wider charity. We have not so learned Christ as to call that irreligious. The work of the Latitudinarian School was distinctly a work of charity, and they and the scholars of the age of evidences are not
to be accused of want of religious feeling, because it seemed to them that to submit their faith to the challenge of free inquiry, and to establish a kindly tolerance for the sake of more united work for God, was better and more needful for the time than the zeal for doctrine which condemns one's neighbour, or the passionate expression of devotional feeling which tends to isolate oneself from one's neighbour. It is still more absurd to call the century irreligious, when we remember that in its very midstnot so much in opposition to this sober religion as in reaction from its lower tone in the less educated clergymen, and in the indignant desire to make a religion for the common people who were certainly neglected—the revived religious life of the personal soul took its rise with the preaching of Wesley.
With this movement, however, the critical school of Poets had nothing to do. They had written much before it arose; they belonged not to the country and the people, but to the city and the cultivated classes, nor did they, any more than the theologians, speak much of their religious feeling, or indeed possess much. But it is a very different thing to
say that they had no devotion, and the change, of which I shall speak, does not assume that there was no personal religion, but that there was no predominance of it, and that therefore it was not expressed. Now and then, to our surprise it breaks out, and it does so in the Universal Prayer.”
Beginning with the ordinary and systematic view of God as universal Ruler, but graced with the wider charity of a Poet, it passes in the end into personal devotion. No one can read the following lines without hearing in them something of the same melody
which afterwards was varied through every key by Cowper.
If I am right, Thy grace impart
Still in the right to stay ;
To find that better way.
Or impious discontent
Or aught Thy goodness lent.
To hide the fault I see ;
That mercy show to me.
Since quickened by Thy Breath;
Through this day's life and death.
Nevertheless, this devoutness is of a wholly different quality from that which we find in Cowper. It is man bending before an infinite God whom he cannot understand;
it is not man rejoicing in being redeemed and living with God as a child with its father. It is without deep emotion, without that sense of personal union or personal absence from God which comes of a vivid realization of Christ as the master and redeemer of the soul. It is a religion which the absence of Christ made cold, and it so little tinges the poetry that one can scarcely say that the poetry was religious at all.
At the same time we must not imagine with those who lay down the rule that the Poets always represent their age, that there was little or no personal feeling of devotion at this time in England, because its poetry was not in that way devout. That poetry was of the city, representing the disputes of the sharp wits who argued on theology as they argued on Whig or Tory politics : but outside the city, where intellectual life was not vivid and discussion scarcely known, there was a world of quaint and homely piety of which we get no inkling in the Poets. Many a grave Puritan household, hidden in its orchards, handed down the tradition of the deep devotion of their forefathers; many a quiet parsonage held in it men who had succeeded to the spirit of Herbert, who ministered to English homes where dwelt, behind the village green and among their clipt yews and grassy plots women who devoted their lives to God, and men who prayed with all the spirit of Wilson.
It was this religious life in the country which in the growth of the religious element in our poetry first took form in verse. But how did it happen that English poetry got face to face with this devouter tone, with this simpler religion? One reason may be that the deistical struggle, having reached its height for a time, began to need some repose before its new outbreak. Both sides had in fact exhausted all they had then to say on the subject, and men, wearied with looking after God through the labyrinth of the intellect, now turned to see if they had any chance of finding Him in their hearts, and in that region naturally passed from an intellectual to an emotional religion which at once sought relief in poetry. Another reason was that a slow change had begun to work in our poetry even before the death of Pope and the change may be described as a migration from the town to the country. Poets began to look at Nature, not as it was around the villa at Twickenham, but as it was in its own solitudes. Thomson took men to the moors and placed them in the woods ; Gray went to the country churchyard, Collins to the hilltop in the evening, Goldsmith to the village and its rustic life. At last we reach Cowper in whose verse the town is as wholly disliked as the country was by Pope, and Crabbe in whom the whole interest centres round the morals and manners and annals of the agricultural poor.
In this wonderful passage of change, poetry found religion in the country and took it up into itself. That devotional element entered our poetry which in one form rose to its height in Cowper; but which, in different forms, each created by the individuality of the Poets, has continued with a few exceptions to influence it to the present day.
Green, in his Spleen, 1737, a gay little poem too much neglected, marks a transitional period in this change. He retires to the country to seek contentment and quietude, but the influence of the city lingers round him, and he takes his trip to town to amuse his life, to purchase books, and hear the news,
To see old friends, brush off the clown,
He is tired of the theological contests between Nonconformists and the Church, between the opinions of the enthusiast and those of the cooler inquirer; and he resolves, in the peace of his retirement, to win his own way to a religion of his own. It is almost the first touch we get at this time of that individual work on theological subjects which we find so strongly developed in the Poets