ページの画像
PDF
ePub

venant, and Dryden, gradually returned to better principles, and abandoned the metaphysical style to satire. The chef-d'ouvre of the class was the epic parody of Hudibras, which displays a singular combination of witty sallies, and ironical affectation.

Dryden, almost a universalian as a poet, who, in order to become the rival of Milton, only required, probably, a less dissipated mode of life, or more generous patrons, exercised the influence of his capricious taste over half a century. Bolder and more variable than Pope, profounder and more energetic as a thinker, but unequal, and less delicate, Dryden has left models of odes, epistles, satires, and didactic poetry. The imputation brought against him, that he founded the continental school, ought not to make us forget, that he revived the romantic fictions of Chaucer, without denaturalizing them by his more modern style. The refinement of Prior, and the wit of Swift, assisted Addison and Pope to regulate the progress of English poetry. The supremacy with which Addison and Pope were invested by their contemporaries, is well known. Modern critics have dethroned these two monarchs of English literature in the eighteenth century. Addison is said to be no more than a man of limited talent, an elegant prose writer, but without eloquence; a flat and timid rhymester. Wit is conceded to Pope, but little imagination ; great felicity of diction, but without any other variety than that of antithesis; a satirist, a moralist, a critic, a good writer ; but

the author of the Rape of the Lock and The Epistle of Heloisa is no longer a poet. What, then, is to become of our Boileau ? It is a remarkable circumstance, which I consign to the meditation of the romantiques, that the two legislators of classical literature in England and France, have succeeded best in their parodies on the poetic style and thought of the ancients. Which are the most piquant verses of the Lutrin and the Rape of the Lock? Those which apply to customs entirely modern, an expression appertaining to the epic manners of the heroes of Homer and Virgil.

Pope's imitators have destroyed their master in fatiguing the ear with the monotonous repetition of his rhyme. Thomson and Young were the first to make essay of a new versification. Thomson, more earnest in his enthusiasm, and more natural in the pomp of his style, because it is clear that he passionately admires that which he eulogizes ; Young, hyperbolical and strained, seldom inspiring sympathy, because he is too theatrical in his complaints, as in his declamations : Glover, with the masculine energy of his Greek sentiments; the two Wartons devoted to the ages of chivalry; Gray, by turns melancholy and pathetic in elegy, sublime in his imitations of the Scalds, and truly inspired in his odes; Collins, rich like the climate wherein he introduces the personages of his eclogues; Macpherson, by inventing of a Celtic Homer; Chatterton, by investing with his genius a monk of the thirteenth century; Bishop Percy,

in reviving the ballads of the minstrels, all prepared the great poetical revolution of 1789.

The actual revolution of 1688, had done no more than disenchant the public mind. Representative governments, generally materialize too much in what respects the interests of society, to be in the first instance favourable to poetical abstractions. The useful and the rational are the divinities of the new social condition. The imagination, to use an expression of Mallebranche, is no longer any thing but the fille de logis.The soldier becomes a mercenary for twopence halfpenny per day; the knight-crrant resigns his adventures in foreign countries to the merchant; philosophy analyses even religious opinions ; and from all quarters is to be heard the same admonition—to distrust enthusiasm. On the other hand, the relative importance of the middle classes invites them to figure in literature as well as in the state. Under a government in which the king and the great men alone imparted the ton, the virtues and vices of kings and courtiers extended their usurpation even to the domain of comedy. When the man at length deserves to be studied in the inferior class, but while still unadapted for such poetical phraseology as was hitherto reserved, not for the portraiture of the great, but for the beau ideal of their social superiority; the man, I say, of the middle classes, and the noble considered as a man, are at first only introduced into the prose of a novel. England is indebted, probably, to the

democratic elements of her constitution, for the first chef-d'æuvres of her plebeian literature; I refer to the common life novels of Richardson and Fielding. Nor is it clear to me, whether such publications ought not to console the European nations for the loss of those epopees, which have been rendered almost impossible in modern manners.

Meanwhile, poetry, properly so called, chilled by the progress of a civilization, becoming more and more artificial, polishes its style in the drawing-rooms, but loses in that atmosphere its frank, independent, and haughty demeanour; to its impassioned style succeeds the didactic and sententious style. The charm of its compositions, thenceforward, consists in accurate and delicate remarks, and in a witty dexterity of reasoning, couched in elegant antithesis. The resources of a poetry of this description are soon exhausted. The world, with tolerable facility, becomes tired of its monotonous perfection, although the authority of the critics who have created it, and the college prejudices which have associated it with the chef-d'æuvres of Athens and Rome, will not allow it for a considerable time to admit the fact. At length, when the avowal that the senses are palled can no longer be delayed, a desire of strong excitement declares itself; and if, at this conjuncture, important events, wars or (no matter what) political convulsions vehemently disturb the public mind, poetry becomes more enthusiastic, more energetic, more impassioned; she deserts the boudoir, and shaking

renown.

off the laws of a fastidious delicacy, participates in the disorder of the popular ferment. Literary England was in this situation at the approach of 1789. The poets, like the democrats, dreamed of a new social condition. The activity of politics in France, absorbed the general mind, which the despotism of an individual subsequently succeeded in suppressing, or distracting, by the clamour of his

All the force of a Pitt was necessary, in England, to arrest a similar impulse; the English people confined themselves, as to their interior concerns, to speculative polity ; but the poets and the metaphysicians became more adventurous and fanatical. The first, especially, emancipating themselves from the authority of models, applied the most conflicting theories to practice. Reasoning, and even eloquence, were no longer sufficient qualifications for their verses. Imagination reconquered the licence it enjoyed in the time of Elizabeth ; there was anarchy in all this, beyond a doubt; many attempts have not been justified by their success; but even they not unfrequently attest the erratic flights of genius. I will not extend this sketch of the characteristic features which are common to the new school of poets any farther, since their individual shades of distinction are more numerous than their points of contact. There are none of them who do not repel the idea of classification.

« 前へ次へ »