Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

life of the village; his sympathy with the motives and characters, with the joys and griefs of the poor, taught him to find there the elements of tragedy, apart from any pompous accompaniments. His simplicity of style, and his accuracy and minuteness of description, were fatal to anything like artificiality.

X. The Age of Independence.

From 1745 to 1790.

1. It is impossible, when we are describing the changes that came over our literature in these later times, to mark out the periods accurately according to years. The changes, so to say, overlap each other in time: before one influence has passed away, while it is still exercising its power on one part of the nation, another has made its appearance, and is working in the minds of another part. In earlier times such changes are slower and more easily distinguished; but, in more modern times, it is a hard and doubtful matter to discern them, and different people will hold different opinions as to the extent of their influence, and the time when it began and ended. It is enough if we point out the general course of our literature, leaving the details to be filled in by further reading and study. Each author read will throw new light on his time, and all that distinguished it from other ages.

2. Much of this applies to the age which we have now to consider. Many of its writers were born, and were even well known, before those we have mentioned in the previous section had passed away. In some cases, indeed, we have had to name authors out of their order, because they belonged to one of the classes of writers spoken of before, and because we could more easily consider them in connection with those to whom they were like.

3. In the Age of Independence we find men boldly asserting their own liberty of thought: testing what was accepted merely on the authority of others: pushing their way into new speculations and inquiries. Their opinions varied infinitely: often they passed into extravagance : some of them looked back on the past with respect, others treated it with disdain, and looked only to the future: but in this they were all alike, that they trusted only their own judgment, and followed their own course, with an independent spirit. They did not shrink back from seeking truth in fear of its consequences.

4. The first name of this age, is that of Dr. Samuel Johnson. We know him thoroughly, not only by his writings, but by the biography, which was written by his friend Boswell, and which shows him to us in his ordinary every-day life. We see him struggling hard; and, alone and unaided, sustaining most bravely, poverty and hardship; labouring honestly and manfully; never writing one word that was not the result of true work; following the opinions and the lead of no man, but boldly writing as he thought. He won his place in literature without patronage, and to him belongs the honour of having shaken off the patronage of the great or wealthy, which had long degraded our literature,

Samuel Johnson. 1709-1784.

6-17

He is often prejudiced, and, perhaps, when he had gained a high place, he was apt to domineer: but his domineering was only over what was, or what he fancied was, false and pretentious. The more we know of him, the more we shall reverence his character, and the less important will the defects in it appear. His style was very elaborate, and lost something in its want of simplicity; but it is so marked in its character, that it is easy to ridicule it by caricaturing, or imitating and exaggerating its worst points: and it is through these caricatures only that people are often content to know it. In the letter to Lord Chesterfield, given in this book, we may see how telling his language could be, and how little his spirit brooked any attempt at patronage.

5. Another, who also struck out a bold line for himself, was David Hume. In his own day, and long David Ilume. after, he was looked upon only as a very dangerous writer. We cannot enter here upon his works or his opinions : but it is enough to say that he was courageous in holding them; so that, however dangerous his opinions were, they had their value as a contribution to the search after truth. Most of his philosophical opinions have been assailed on many sides, and they do not now command authority; but we must admire his great ability. We are bound to believe that he was honest; and in this and his boldness he represents the spirit of his age.

6. Another, who had a greater effect upon later times, and the result of whose work is felt in the lives

1711-1776.

1723-1790.

Adam Smith. of every one of us, was Adam Smith. By far his most

important book was "The Wealth of Nations.' In this he showed how the whole commercial system had arisen. He proved that production was regulated by certain fixed laws, and that the arbitrary rules which various states, and various classes in these states had set up for their own protection were false and injurious, if they interfered with the operation of these natural laws. He showed how the simple habits of barter amongst primitive races had gradually spread out into the complicated system on which commerce is now based : but that the same simple rules are really at work: and that the neglect of them can only produce an apparent and not a permanent prosperity. The result of these notions was to produce in time great changes in our commercial laws: and these changes are still going on. We see in them the practical effect which our literature has sometimes been able to exercise. They are due, in the first instance, to the boldness and the independence with which Adam Smith had pushed inquiries, which were in his own day looked upon with much disfavour.

These three are only the most prominent in an age which was throughout gaining in independence. But presently a new influence came in.

XI. The Age of French and German Influence.

FROM 1790 TO 1830. 1. France had before this, in what we have called the Classic Age, exercised great influence in England.

1759-1796.

Hume, and Adam Smith, too, had found much in France that agreed with their own writings. But now France came to have an influence of a different kind. In 1789 the great French Revolution began. It had kindled men's hopes to the utmost; it appeared as if a new age was opening to the world; as if arbitrary distinctions, class privileges, and all injustice was to pass away. Men clung to these hopes with all the ardour of a religious belief. All men were to be equal, and to be as brothers; separations of race or nationality were to be cast aside. A morning light seemed to be spreading over the world and chasing away the darkness.

2. These ideas readily spread from France to Eng- Burns. land. Wordsworth and Coleridge, were then young Wordswortha men ; Burns was only thirty; and, as it seemed,

Coleridge. all had life and hope before them. They seized 1772–1834. on these ideas with all the ardour of poets. They sympathised with the cause, and burned with the desire to help it. It brought new impulse to our poetry, and taught it to run in a new channel. But, ere long, the Revolution took a worse aspect: the worst passions of men began to colour it: it became stained with cruelty and bloodshed : the brotherhood of nations was to be a brotherhood of slavery to French ambition. Our poets drew back with a revulsion of feeling. Burns died a few years later, but not before he had written his horror of mob-law. Wordsworth and Coleridge lost all their sympathy with the movement.

1770-1850.

a

« AnteriorContinuar »