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English Literature from the Restoration to the reign
of George the Third.
· From the Restoration in 1660 to the time when Cowper had risen into full fame in 1790, may be dated the second grand era of Modern English Literature, reckoning from Elizabeth to the close of Cromwell's protectorate, already mentioned as the first. The early part of this period (the reigns of Charles II. and James II.) was distinguished for works of wit and profligacy; the drama in particular was pre-eminent for the genius that adorned, and the abominations that disgraced its scenes. The middle portions of the same period, from the Revolution of 1688 to the close of the reign of George II., was rather the age of reason than of passion, of fine fancy than adventurous imagination in the belles lettres generally. Pope, as the follower of Dryden in verse, excelled him as much in grace and harmony of numbers, as he might be deemed to fall below him in raciness and pithy originality,
In like manner he imitated Horace in Latin, and Boileau in French, rivalling, perhaps equalling either in his peculiar line, and excelling both, by combining the excellencies of each in his own unique, compact, consummate style. It is to be remarked, however, that though Pope gave the tone, character, and fashion to the verse of his day, as decidedly as Addison had given to the prose, yet of all his imitators not one has maintained the rank of even a second-rate author; the greatest names among his contemporaries, Thom
son and Young, being those who differed most from him in manner, subject, and taste, - especially in those of their works which promise to last as long as his own.
Between Pope and Cowper we have the names of Collins, Gray, Goldsmith, and Churchill. Of these, the two former have nothing in common with Pope, but they produced too little, and were too great mannerists themselves to be the fathers, in either line, of a school of mannerists: it is only when mannerism is connected with genius of the proudest order or the most prolific species, that it becomes extensively infectious among minor minds. As for Goldsmith and Churchill, whatever they appear to have owed to Pope, they are remembered and admired for what they possessed independent of him, each having wealth enough of his own to be a freeholder of Parnassus, after paying off any mortgage on his little estate due to that enormous capitalist.
The greater stress has been laid upon the utter mortality among all the numberless imitators of Pope, because it exemplifies the impossibility of any imitator ever being a great poet, however great his model, and however exquisite his copying may be. Nothing in the English language can be more perfect than the terseness, elegance, and condensation of Pope's sentiments, diction, and rhyme. Of course the successful imitation of these might be expected to prove an infallible passport to renown, because such a style involves the happiest union of diverse requisites, and its charm consists far less in any one peculiarity (as is the case of other eminent bards), than in the perfection of those principles which are common to all poetic composition; yet in our own day, there has been an example of this successful imitation, which in every other respect has been a total failure. The Paradise of Coquettes, published a few years ago, was a work of much taste and genuine talent in its mechanical construction, as well as in the playful, delicate, pungent satire with which it abounded; yet this piece, worthy of the highest admiration in its way, though elaborately criticised and profusely commended in the reviews, never shone beyond their precincts, and was scarcely read except in quotations, or in their pages. This miscarriage afforded also an encouraging proof to ill-treated authors, or authors who imagine themselves ill-treated, - that permanent fame depends not upon contemporary criticism; for whatever reviews may effect in advancing or retarding the hopes of a candidate under their examination, final success depends upon a tribunal, whose decision they cannot always, with their keenest sagacity, anticipate.
English Literature of the present age. With the exceptions already named, there was not a poet between Pope and Cowper, who had power to command in any enviable degree, or even for a little while, that popular breath of applause, which the aspirant after immortality inhales as the prelude of it. Verse, indeed, was so low in public estimation, and so little read, that few of the fugitive pieces of the hour, on their passage to oblivion, attracted sufficient notice to
defray the expenses of their journey thither. Cowper's first volume, partly from the grave character of the longer pieces, and the purposely rugged, rambling, slipshod versification, was long neglected, till The Task, the noblest effort of his muse, composed under the inspiration of cheerfulness, hope, and love, unbosoming the whole soul of his affections, intelligence, and piety, — at once made our countrymen feel, that neither the genius of poesy had fled from our isle, nor had the heart for it died in the breasts of its inhabitants. The Task was the first long poem from the close of Churchill's brilliant but evanescent career, that awoke wonder, sympathy, and delight, by its own ineffable excellence, among the reading people of England.
“ The happy miracle of that rare birth,”
could not fail to quicken many a drooping mind, which, without such a present evidence both of genuine song and the genuine effects of song, amidst the previous apathy to this species of literature, would hardly have ventured to brood over its own conceptions, in solitude and obscurity, till they too were warmed into life, uttered voices, put forth wings, and took their flight up to the “highest heaven of invention.”
From Cowper may be deduced the commencement of the third great era of modern English Literature, since it was in no small measure to the inspiration of his Task, that our countrymen are indebted, if not
for the existence, yet certainly for the character of the new school of poetry, established first at Bristol, and afterwards transferred to the Lakes, as scenery more congenial and undisturbed for the exercise of contemplative genius. Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth started almost contemporaneously in the same path to fame, - a new one, indeed, untrodden and entangled with thorns, or obstructed with stones, yet in many parts fertile and wildly diversified ; blooming with all the beauty, and breathing with all the fragrance of the richest and most cultivated enclosures of the Muses. The minds and the feelings, the passions and prejudices of men of all ranks and attainments, from the highest to the lowest, were at that time roused and interested by the fair and promising, the terrific and stupendous events of the French Revolution; and the excitement of this portentous phenomenon in the state of Europe prepared this nation especially (from the freedom with which all questions might be discussed) for that peculiar cast of subjects and of style, both in verse and prose, for which the present period is distinguished from every former one.
The first era of our modern literature, already defined as extending from Elizabeth to the close of the Protectorate, was that of nature and romance combined : it might be compared to an illimitable region of mountains, rocks, forests, and rivers, the fairy land of heroic adventure, in which giants, enchanters, and genii, as well as knights-errant, and wandering damsels guarded by lions, or assailed by fiery flying dragons, were the native and hetero