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English Literature under the Tudors and the first
The discovery of the mariner's compass, the invention of printing, the revival of classic learning, the Reformation, with all the great moral, commercial, political, and intellectual consequences of these new means, materials, and motives for action and thought, produced corresponding effects upon literature and science. With the progress of the former alone, in our own country, have we to do at present.
From the reign of Elizabeth to the protectorate of Cromwell, inclusively, there rose in phalanx, and continued in succession, minds of all orders, and hands for all work, in poetry, philosophy, history, and theology, which have bequeathed to posterity such treasures of what may be called genuine English Literature, that whatever may be the transmigrations of taste, the revolutions of style, and the fashions in popular reading, these will ever be the sterling standards. The translation of the Scriptures, settled by authority, and which, for reasons that need not be discussed here, can never be materially changed, consequently can never become obsolete, has secured perpetuity to the youth of the English tongue ; and whatever may befall the works of writers in it from other causes, they are not likely to be antiquated in the degree that has been foretold by one, whose own imperishable strains would for centuries have delayed the fulfilment of his disheartening prophecy, even if it were to be fulfilled:
“ Our sons their fathers' failing language see,
Now it is clear, that unless the language be improved or deteriorated, far beyond any thing that can be anticipated from the slight variations which have taken place within the last two hundred years, compared with the two hundred years preceding, Dryden cannot become what Chaucer is ; especially since there seems to be a necessity laid upon all generations of Englishmen to understand, as the fathers of their mother-tongue, the great authors of the age
of Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I.; from Spenser (though much of his poetry is wilfully obscured by affected phraseology) and Shakspeare, (the idolatry to whose name will surely never permit its divinity to die) to Milton, whose style cannot fall into decay, while there is talent or sensibility among his
countrymen to appreciate his writings. It may be confidently inferred, that the English language will remain subject to as little mutation as the Italian has been, since works of enduring excellence were first produced in it; — the prose of Boccaccio and the verse of Dante, so far as dialect is concerned, are as well understood by the common people of their country, at this day, as the writings of Chaucer and Gower are by the learned in ours.
Had no works of transcendent originality been produced within the last hundred and fifty years, it may be imagined that such fluctuations might have occurred, as would have rendered our language as different from what it was when Milton flourished, as it then was from what it had been in the days of Chaucer; with this reverse, that, during the latter, it must have degenerated as much as it had been refined during the earlier interval. But the standard of our tongue having been fixed at an era when it was rich in native idioms, full of pristine vigour, and pliable almost as sound articulate can be to sense, and that standard having been fixed in poetry, the most permanent and perfect of all forms of literature, - as well as in the version of the Scriptures, which are necessarily the most popular species of reading, ---no very considerable changes can be effected, except Britain were again exposed to invasion as it was wont to be of old; and the modern Saxons or Norwegians were thus to subvert both our government and our language, and either utterly extinguish the latter, or assimilate it with their own.
Contemporary with Milton, though his junior, and belonging to a subsequent era of literature, of which he became the great luminary and master-spirit, was Dryden. His prose (not less admirable than his verse) in its structure and cadence, in compass of expression, and general freedom from cumbersome pomp, pedantic restraint, and vicious quaintness, which more or less characterised his predecessors, became the favourite model in that species of composition, which was happily followed and highly improved by Addison, Johnson, and other periodical writers of the last century. These, to whom must be added the triumvirate of British historians, Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon, who exemplified, in their very dissimilar styles, the triple contrast and harmony of simplicity, elegance, and splendour, these illustrious names in prose are so many pledges, that the language in which they immortalised their thoughts is itself immortalised by being made the vehicle of these, and can never become barbarian, like Chaucer's uncouth, rugged, incongruous medley of sounds, which are as remote from the strength, volubility, and precision of those employed by his polished successors, as the imperfect lispings of infancy, before it has learned to pronounce half the alphabet, and imitates the letters which it cannot pronounce with those which it can, are to the clear, and round, and eloquent intonations of youth, when the voice and the ear are perfectly formed and attuned to each other.