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Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries.




In proceeding to the literature of the close of the seventeenth century, we approach a period which is marked by great change. Heretofore in the succession of literary eras there had been a continuity of influence, which had not only served to give new strength and develope new resources, but to preserve the power of the antecedent literature unimpared. The present was never unnaturally or disloyally divorced from the past. The author in one generation found discipline for his genius in reverent and affectionate intercourse with great minds of other days. Such was their dutiful spirit of discipline, strengthening but not surrendering their own native power—the discipline so much wiser and so much more richly rewarded in the might it gains, than the self-sufficient discipline, which, trusting to the pride of originality or the influences of the day, disclaims the ministry of time-honoured wisdom. Milton was studious of Spenser, and Spenser was grateful and reverent of Chaucer ; and thus, as age after age gave birth to the great poets, they were bound “each to each in natural piety.” But when we come to those who followed Milton, the golden chain is broken. The next generation of the poets abandoned the hereditary allegiance which had heretofore been cherished so dutifully, transmitted so faithfully.

It was at this time that the earlier literature began to fall into neglect, displaced with all its grandeur and varied power of truth and beauty, displaced for more than a century by an inferior literature, inferior and impurer, so that for more than a hundred years, many of the finest influences on the English mind were almost wholly withdrawn. Indeed, it is only within the present century that the restoration of those influences has been accomplished. Here we see within our own day, the revival of early English literature, bringing from dust and oblivion the old books to light and life again, to do their perpetual work upon the earth—the work that was denied to them by an age that was unworthy of thein. No longer since than ten years or less, there was no good edition of the complete works of Chaucer. Ten years ago, the sermons of the greatest preacher of the times of James the First, Donne, the Dean of St. Paul's, were almost inaccessible, entirely so, I might say, to scholars in this country, in the first and very rare folio edition. Even the writings of Jeremy Taylor were a rare treasure, until about twenty-five years ago. Bishop Heber did the good service of giving ready access to them in a modern edition; and not to speak of the uniscellaneous literature, over which the dust lay so thick, all the early dramatists, save Shakspeare, lay in coniparative neglect till their recent restoration.

I refer to this neglect as both a symptom and a cause of the decline of English literature, which began at the close of the seventeenth century, and lasted for about a century. Genius of a higher order would never have diyorced itself from such an influence. It would have strenthened itself by loyalty to it.

Besides their disloyalty to the great poets who had gone before, the poets of the new generation were guilty of another neglect, equally characteristic, and more fatal perhaps to high poetic aspirations; I refer to the neglect of the poetic vision of nature, external nature, the sights and sounds of this material world, the glory of which, proclaimed in divine inspiration, is ever associated with “ the consecration and the poet's dream.” Who can question, without questioning the Creator's wisdom and goodness, that the things of earth and sky have their ministry on man's spiritual nature? We may not be able to measure or define it, but it is a perpetual and universal influence, and it must be for good. Most of all is it recognized by the poet, prepared as he is

“By his intense conceptions to receive,
Deeply the lesson deep of love which he
Whom naiure, by whatever means, has taught

To feel intensely, cannot but receive."—Wordsworth. No great poet, perhaps I may say no great writer, is without the deep serse of the beauty and glory of the universe, the earth that

is trod on, the heavens that are gazed at. It is an element of the • poetry of the Bible. The classical poetry of antiquity shows it; it

abounds, in vernal exuberance, in Chaucer ; you meet with it perpetually in Spenser, and Shakspeare, and Milton, and in the prose of Bacon and Taylor. But when we come to the next generation, particularly cf poets, the spiritual communion with nature was at an end. They hold not vision of sunlight or starlight, but were busy within doors with things of lamp-light or candle-light. They took not heed of mountain or seaside or the open field, and nature's music there, but city," the town," street and house, were all in all to them :

“The soft blue sky did never inelt

Into their hearts." If it can be shown, as it undoubtedly can, that thoughtful, gerial communion with Nature is an accompaniment of all poetry of the highest order, in all ages, surely we may infer that a literary era which is deficient in this element is the era of a lower literature. Now, it has been ascertained, by careful examination, that, with two or three unimportant exceptions," the poetry of the period intervening between the publication of the Paradise Lost and Thomson's Seasons (a period of about sixty years) does not contain a single new image of external nature; and scarcely presents a familiar one from which it can be inferred that the eye of the poet had been steadily fixed upon his object—much less that his feelings had urged him to work uron it in the spirit of genuine imagination." Let us now rapidly consicier some of the causes, or, at least, accompaniments, of the degeneracy mi English literature, and particularly of its poetry, which began in the latter part of the seventeenth century. The civil war was over, and the fierce bloodshedding which marked England's civil wars, and which should be an awful warning to all who sprung from that stock, the strong usurpation of Cromwell had passed away-each period with its evils. The restoration came, and what were the evils that came along with it? In the middle ages, the miseries that were the common train of war in Europe were pestilence and famine; but, after the domestic war in England in the seventeenth century—an ecclesiastical civil war-came debauchery, licentiousness, riot, and blasphemy. The rigour of Puritanism once removed, there came quickly in its stead a lawlessness in which the exultation of triumph mingled, and men took a party pride in immorality. All high moods of feeling were ridiculed : honour was a jest; and so were justice and dignity, and piety and domestic virtue ; and congugal faith was the greatest jest of all. The civil war had also demoralized the nation by breaking up the habits of domestie life: households were destroyed, and their proprietors found a shelter in taverns; and when the necessity for such disordered life had passed away, the low habits were left behind.

To a nation thus diseased, there was perpetually passing the moral

poison that issued from the avenues of the palace. From the earliest era of the history of the island, no portion had been so loathsome as the quarter of a century during which Charles Stuart, the younger, was on the throne. When the early life of Queen Elizabeth was visited with afflictions, she came forth from her trials with a spirit chastened and invigorated for a mighty reign. But upon Charles Stuart the lesson of adversity was wasted. The bloody fate of his father might well have thrown a solemn memory of the past over all his after life. When the Restoration brought him once more to the royal home of his childhood, he seems to have mounted the throne with a determination to make up the arrears of interrupted pleasure by a career of unrestrained debauchery, the like of which had not been seen in England before. The ancient palace was reeking with the filthy atmosphere of the tavern or viler haunts of iniquity. Moral opinion was scoffed at, and national honour betrayed. The monarch of that island which had more than once swayed the destinies of Europe, sold himself to a monarch as profligate, but prouder, for Charles became the mean-spirited pensioner of Louis the Fourteenth. Vice was in riotous possession of the high places of the land, and the throne was the seat of the scoffer. Looking from the throne thus occupied, and begirt with profligates and wits, Shaftesbury, and Buckingham, and Rochester, the old age of Milton is seen with heightened sublimity. There was hanging over the palace, the capital, the land, a dark atmosphere of sensuality, lurid, at times, with such cruelties as mingle with heartless frivolity; and Milton had passed into that seclusion of which it has been grandly said:

Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea

Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free.”— Wordsworth. His varied career drew to a solemn ending. He who in youth and early manhood had given the freshness of poetic fervour a homage to the best of England's nobility, the Egertons and Spensers; he who roamed on the Alps of Italy, visiting Galileo, and communed with the friend of Tasso, and Italian scholars; had stood by the side of Cromwell and Fairfax and Vane, in their years of power,—was now a lone mak in the land, all his strife for the commonwealth wasted, and left to what the world then little led, but which has made his name immortal. It is of this period of Milton's life, that Mr. Hallam has eloquenth spoken in a passage which I desire to quote, especially for the sale of an educational saggestion which accompanies it :

“Then the remembrance of early reading came over his dark and lonely path, like the moon emerging from the clouds. Then it was that the muse was truly his ; not only as she poured her creative inspiration into his mind, but as the daughter of memory, coming with fragments of ancient melodies, the voice of Euripides, and Homer, and Tasso;

sounds that he had loved in youth, and treasured up for the solace of his age. They who, though not enduring the calamity of Milton, have known what it is, when afar from books, in solitude or in travelling, or in the intervals of wordly care, to feed on poetical recollections, to murmur over the beautiful lines whose cadence has long delighted their ear, to recall the sentiments and images which retain by association the charm that early years once gave them—they will feel the inestimable value of committing to the memory, in the prime of its power, what it will easily receive and indelibly retain. I know not, indeed, whether an education that deals much with poetry, such as is still usual in England, has any more solid argument among many in its favour, than that it lays the foundation of intellectual pleasures at the other extreme of life.”

Such is the opinion of one of the most judicious minds of the day-a mind trained in the most exact and laborious historic research ; and I quote it because I apprehend that among us the tendency of late years has been to neglect this excellent discipline of the memory, which enabled our elders to keep that possession in their minds of long passages of poetry, which astonishes their feebler descendants.

To return to Milton : he whose delight it had once been to roam through woods, and over the green fields, was now chained by blindness to the sunny porch of a suburban dwelling. He whose heart's pulse was a love of independence, was now a helpless dependent for every motion, for all communion with books; every step of him, who had walked through all the ways of life so firmly, was at the mercy of another. His spirit was darkened, too, with disappointment in his countrymen, and with bitter memories of domestic discords. As the Comus was a beautiful reflection of happy youth, the Samson Agonistes shadows forth the gloomy grandeur of the poet's old age. In some passages there is the breaking out of a bitter agony; but a stern magnanimity pervades the poem-a high-souled pathos befitting the sorrows of a vanquished, captive giant. With our thoughts of the hero of the tragedy mingle thoughts of the poet himself, for what was John Milton in the degenerate days of Charles the second, but a blind Samson in the citadel of the Philistines ? In the words the hero

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