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er solicit our habitual notice, and their subjects begin already to fade from our recollection. Their high privileges and proud distinctions, at any rate, have evidently passed into other hands. It is no longer to them that the ambitious look up with envy, or the humble with admiration; nor is it in their pages that the pretenders to wit and eloquence now search for allusions that are sure to captivate, and illustrations that cannot be mistaken. In this decay of their reputation they have few advocates, and no imitators: And from a comparison of many observations, it seems to be clearly ascertained, that they are declined considerably from the high meridian of their glory,' and may fairly be apprehended to be hastening to their setting.' Neither is it time alone that has wrought this obscuration; for the fame of Shakespeare still shines in undecaying brightness; and that of Bacon has been steadily advancing and gathering new honours during the whole period which has witnessed the rise and decline of his less vigorous successors.
There are but two possible solutions for phenomena of this
Our taste has either degenerated-or its old models have been fairly surpassed; and we have ceased to admire the writers of the last century, only because they are too good for us-or because they are not good enough. Now, we confess we are no believers in the absolute and permanent corruption of national taste; on the contrary, we think that it is, of all faculties, that which is most sure to advance and improve with time and expe rience; and that, with the exception of those great physical or political disasters which have given a check to civilization itself, there has always been a sensible progress in this particular; and that the general taste of every successive generation is better than that of its predecessors. There are little capricious fluctuations, no doubt, and fits of foolish admiration or fastidiousness which cannot be so easily accounted for: But the greas movements are all progressive: And though the progress consists at one time in withholding toleration from gross faults, and at another in giving their high prerogative to great beauties, this alternation has no tendency to obstruct the general advance; but, on the contrary, is the best and the safest course in which it can be conducted.
We are of opinion, then, that the writers who adorned the beginning of the last century have been eclipsed by those of our own time; and that they have no chance of ever regaining the supremacy in which they have thus been supplanted. There is not, however, in our judgment, any thing very stupendous in this triumph of our contemporaries; and the greater wonder with us, is, that it was so long delayed, and left for them to
achieve. For the truth is, that the writers of the former age had not a great deal more than their judgment and industry to stand on; and were always much more remarkable for the fewness of their faults than the greatness of their beauties. Their laurels were won much more by good conduct and discipline, than by enterprizing boldness or native force;-nor can it be regarded as any very great, merit in those who had so little of the inspiration of genius, to have steered clear of the dangers to which that inspiration is liable. Speaking generally of that ge neration of authors, it may be said that, as poets, they had no force or greatness of fancy-no pathos, and no enthusiasm ;and, as philosophers, no comprehensiveness, depth or originality. They are sagacious, no doubt, neat, clear and reasonable; but for the most part cold, timid, and superficial. They never meddle with the great scenes of nature, or the great passions of man; but content themselves with just and sarcastic representations of city life, and of the paltry passions and meaner vices that are bred in that lower element. Their chief care is to avoid being ridiculous in the eyes of the witty, and above all to eschew the ridicule of excessive sensibility or enthusiasm-to be witty and rational themselves with a good grace, and to give their countenance to no wisdom, and no morality, which passes the standards that are current in good company.-Their inspiration, accordingly, is little more than a sprightly sort of good sense; and they have scarcely any invention but what is subservient to the purposes of derision and satire. Little gleams of pleasantry, and sparkles of wit, glitter through their compositions; but no glow of feeling-no blaze of imagination-no flashes of genius, ever irradiate their substance. They never pass beyond the visible diurnal sphere,' or, deal in any thing that can either lift us above our vulgar nature, or ennoble its reality. With these accomplishments, they may pass well enough for sensible and polite writers,-but scarcely for men of genius; and it is certainly far more surprizing, that persons of this description should have maintained themselves, for near a century, at the head of the literature of a country that had previously produced a Shakespeare, a Bacon, and a Taylor, than that, towards the end of that long period, doubts should have arisen as to the legitimacy of the title by which they laid claim to that high station. Both parts of the phenomenon, however, we dare say, had causes which better expounders might explain to the satisfaction of all the world. We see them but imperfectly, and have room only for an imperfect sketch of what
Our first literature consisted of saintly legends, and romances
of chivalry, though Chaucer gave it a more national and popular character by his original descriptions of external nature, and the familiarity and gayety of his social humour. In the time of Elizabeth, it received a copious infusion of classical images and ideas: But it was still intrinsically romantic-serious-and even somewhat lofty and enthusiastic. Authors were then so few in number, that they were looked upon with a sort of veneration, and considered as a kind of inspired persons ;at least they were not yet so numerous, as to be obliged to abuse each other, in order to obtain a share of distinction for themselves;-and they neither affected a tone of derision in their writings, nor wrote in fear of derision from others. They were filled with their subjects, and dealt with them fearlessly in their own way; and the stamp of originality, force, and freedom, is consequently upon almost all their productions. In the reign of James I., our literature, with some few exceptions, touching rather the form than the substance of its merits, appears to us to have reached the greatest perfection to which it has yet attained; though it would probably have advanced still farther in the succeeding reign, had not the great national dissensions which then arose, turned the talent and energy of the people into other channels-first to the assertion of their civil rights, and afterwards to the discussion of their religious interests. The graces of literature suffered of course in those fierce contentions; and a deeper shade of austerity was thrown upon the intellectual chronicler of the nation. Her genius, however, though less captivating and adorned than in the happier days which preceded, was still active, fruitful and commanding; and the period of the civil wars, besides the mighty minds that guided the public councils, and were absorbed in public cares, produced the giant powers of Taylor, and Hobbes, and Barrow-the muse of Milton-the learning of Coke-and the ingenuity of Cowley.
The Restoration introduced a French court-under circumstances more favourable for the effectual exercise of court influence than ever before existed in England: But this of itself would not have been sufficient to account for the sudden change in our literature which ensued. It was seconded by causes of a more general operation. The Restoration was undoubtedly a popular act; and, indefensible as the conduct of the army and the civil leaders was on that occasion, there can be no question that the severities of Cromwell, and the extravagance of the sectaries, had made republican professions hateful, and religious ardour ridiculous, in the eyes of the people at large. All the eminent writers of the preceding period, however, had inclined to the party that was now overthrown; and their writings had not
merely been accommodated to the character of the government under which they were produced, but were deeply imbued with its obnoxious principles, as those of their respective authors. When the restraints of authority were taken off, therefore, and it became profitable, as well as popular, to discredit the fallen party, it was natural that the leading authors should affect a style of levity and derision, as most opposite to that of their opponents, and best calculated for the purposes they had in view. The nation, too, was now for the first time essentially divided in point of character and principle, and a much greater proportion were capable both of writing in support of their own notions, and of being influenced by what was written. Add to' all this, that there were real and serious defects in the style and manner of the former generation; and that the grace, and brevity, and vivacity of that gayer manner which was now introduced from France, were not only good and captivating in themselves, but had then all the charms of novelty and of contrast; and it will not be difficult to understand how it came to supplant that which had been established of old in the country, -and that so suddenly, that the same generation, among whom Milton had been formed to the severe sanctity of wisdom, and the noble independence of genius, lavished its loudest applauses on the obscenity and servility of such writers as Rochester and Wycherly.
This change, however, like all sudden changes, was too fierce and violent to be long maintained at the same pitch; and when the wits and profligates of King Charles had sufficiently insulted the seriousness and virtue of their predecessors, there would probably have been a revulsion towards the accustomed taste of the nation, had not the party of the innovators been reinforced by champions of more temperance and judgment. The result seemed at one time suspended on the will of Dryden-in whose individual person the genius of the English and of the French school of literature may be said to have maintained a protracted struggle. But the evil principle prevailed. Carried by the original bent of his genius, and his familiarity with our older models to the cultivation of our native style, to which he might have imparted more steadiness and correctness-for in force and in sweetness it was already matchless-he was unluckily seduced by the attractions of fashion, and the dazzling of the dear wit and gay rhetoric in which it delighted, to lend his powerful aid to the new corruptions and refinements; and to prostitute his great gifts to the purposes of party rage or licentious ribaldry.
The sobriety of the succeeding reigns allayed this fever of
profanity; but no genius arose sufficiently powerful to break the spell that still withheld us from the use of our own peculiar gifts and faculties. On the contrary, it was the unfortunate ambition of the next generation of authors, to improve and perfect the new style, rather than to return to the old one;-and it cannot be denied that they did improve it. They corrected its gross indecency-increased its precision and correctness-made its pleasantry and sarcasm more polished and elegant-and spread through the whole of its irony, its narration, and its reflection, a tone of clear and condensed good sense, which recommended itself to all who had, and all who had not any relish for higher beauties. This is the praise of Queen Anne's wits-and to this praise they are justly entitled. This was left for them to do, and they did it well. They were invited to it by the circumstances of their situation, and do not seem to have been possessed of any such bold or vigorous spirit, as either to neglect or to outgo the invitation. Coming into life immediately after the consummation of a bloodless revolution, effected much more by the cool sense, than the angry passions of the nation, they seem to have felt, that they were born in an age of reason, rather than of fancy; and that men's minds, though considerably divided and unsettled upon many points, were in a much better temper to relish judicious argument and cutting satire, than the glow of enthusiastic passion, or the richness of a luxuriant imagination. To these accordingly they made no pretensions; but, writing with infinite good sense, and great grace and vivacity, and, above all, writing for the first time in a tone that was peculiar to the upper ranks of society, and upon subjects that were almost exclusively interesting to them, they naturally figured, at least while the manner was new, as the most accomplished, fashionable, and perfect writers which the world had ever seen; and made the wild, luxuriant, and humble sweetness of our earlier authors appear rude and untutored in the comparison. Men grew ashamed of admiring, and afraid of imitating writers of so little skill and smartness; and the opinion became general, not only that their faults were intolerable, but that even their beauties were puerile and barbarous, and unworthy the serious regard of a polite and distinguishing age.
These, and similar considerations, will go far to account for the celebrity which those authors acquired in their day; but it is not quite so easy to explain how they should have so long retained their ascendant. One cause undoubtedly was, the real excellence of their productions, in the style which they had adopted. It was hopeless to think of surpassing them in that style; and, recommended as it was, by the felicity of their exe