Poems and Prose Remains, Vol. I


on the

Development of English Literature

From Chaucer to Wordsworth.


Arthur Hugh Clough

THE SUBJECT of my lecture is the Development of English Literature. It were idle for me to attempt, and would be foolish in me to desire, to say anything strikingly new upon it. Anything strikingly original could be striking only because incorrect; and would in the end most likely be found not even original.

Some novelty indeed there would be—the novelty of a rarely attained success—could I, while passing in review the literature of our country, treat of every part in proper place and due proportion, without undervaluing, without overcolouring, without either omission or exaggeration.

Something interesting too, if not striking, there might be, could I, in following the development of English literature, indicate to you truly its connection with the development of English character, point out correctly why it was natural at particular epochs that particular things should be said how the times affected the writers, and the writers express the times; and what sequence of changing words and deeds has brought down the England of history to the modem England of our own times in the East and in the West.

In commencing such a conspectus, I can have no hesitation in selecting the first name:   English literature begins with Chaucer. The most substantive and dominant element in our blood and in our language is, it may be perfectly true, the Anglo-Saxon. But it cannot be said that either in our blood or language this element had established its permanent relations to other—to Celtic, Danish, Norman, immigrant, invasive, and rebellious elements—had taken amidst these and communicated to these a distinct direction of its own, before the era of King Edward III. and the close of the fourteenth century. The same (and this is much more important) maybe affirmed of the English national mind. In the age of Chaucer it may be said that the English people, such as ever since then it has been (and such never it had been till then) had, for good or for evil, or more truly for both, entered in various ways—in religion, in morals, in domestic habits, in government, in social relations, in relations to other members of the European body—upon a definite and positive course. The position which we still hold as a northern, part Scandinavian, part German people, ever resisting and yet ever submitting most largely to accept the subtle influences of Southern civilisation and refinement—our position, too, of antagonism, in particular to the other great mixed nation, England’s immediate neighbour, was ours in the era of the first French wars. And the picture of all that pertains to those first exhibitions (for good or for evil, or for both) of our English genius and temper you may see surviving unfaded in the lively colouring of the ‘Canterbury Tales;’ exhibitions, I have said of genius and temper; of dispositions, inclinations, tendencies, it is true, rather than of any formed and rigidly fixed determination. It is our boyhood; but the man in looking back to it is conscious that that boyhood was his:—folded and compressed within the bud we detect the petals of the coming flower, the rudiment of the future fruit. What, for example, can be truer to permanent English likings and dislikings, what more exact to the nation’s habitual views and preferences in life, than these lines in the description of the monk. Let me premise that St. Maure, and St. Benett or Benedict, St. Austin or Augustin, are the great monastic legislators: that wood, as in Scotch, still means crazy, and swink, as in Shakspeare, toil:

The rule of Saint Maure and of Saint Benett
Because that it was old and some deal straight,
This ilkĕ monk let oldĕ thinges pace,
And held after the newe world the trace.
He gave not for that text a pulled hen,
That saith that hunters be not holy men.

And I say his opiniõn was good.
What should he studie and make himselven wood,
Upon a book in cloistre alway to pore,
Or swinken with his handes and laboure,
As Austin bid? How shall the world be served?
Let Austin have his swink to him reserved.

I do not think that our countrymen in this generation have lost their distaste to devout seclusion and associate task-work, or their passion for individual enterprise; the hearty acceptance, so only indeed they do exist, of all existing things, good, bad, and indifferent; the desire to grapple with common facts, and the feeling, that some way or other the question—How shall the world be served? must receive an answer.

Certainly we may still find in Old England ladies—I quote Chaucer—paining themselves to counterfeit cheer of court, and be estately of manere, and to be held worthy of reverence; busy or busy-seeming lawyers:

No where so busy a man as he, as he there n’was,
And yet he seemed busier than he was;

country gentlemen, great at the sessions, and greater at the dinner table; the tried soldier, silent and unpretending; the young soldier, much the reverse; the merchant, so discreet and stedfast,

There wistĕ no man that he was in debt;

religious and laborious parish-clergymen, and church dignitaries, not very religious, and not at all laborious. Such is the picture given by Chaucer of his fellow-travellers on the highway from London to Canterbury in the year 1383, as the old tradition of the Tabard Inn in Southwark records, as it might be any present Englishman’s description of his in the year 1852.

From boyhood we step to early manhood; from Chaucer pass to Shakspeare, and behold now, not temper, and tendency, and disposition, but thought, contemplation, doubt. In language less easy far and natural, but infinitely more pregnant, significant, and profound, in a style abounding in faults as in beauties, we hear, not, as from Chaucer, all that Englishmen in his time were like, but all that man in all times may be. As on the mount of vision, from whose secret summit were seen the kingdoms of the world and the glory thereof, so on the elevation of his own poised intellect stood the spirit of the Elizabethan dramatist, sweeping slowly the horizon of human will and action—all the possible varieties of which were delivered into its power, ‘to be or not to be.’ So shone concentrated in the being of one man, as into the form of some irradiant star, the collective intelligence of centuries gone by,—

                        the prophetic soul
Of the great world dreaming o’er things to come.

Into details of critical remark on Shakspeare I do not now purpose to carry you. Let me but mark one point. It is impossible, I should suppose, for any reader who does not come to the plays of Shakspeare with a judgment overborne by the weight of authority or the force of general sentiment—it is impossible, I should imagine, for any ingenuous, dispassionate reader not to find himself surprised, checked, disappointed, shocked, even revolted, by what in any other author—in an author of modern times—he would call gross defects in point of plot, flagrant inconsistencies of character. In ‘As You Like It,’ for example, who is not astounded to meet in Act V. the unnatural brother of Act I., by the rehabilitation of a most cursory Deus-ex-machinâ sort of penitence, or shall I call it regret, qualified for the love, wedlock and happiness which honest people had been working up to through the whole long drama? Whom does the marriage of Angelo and Mariana leave quite easy in his mind? Whose moral sensibilities are not a little ruffled by a strange phantasmagoria of good people becoming bad of a sudden, and all of a sudden good again; good and happy too, after every sort of misconduct, after the wickedest and foulest actions, with one touch of the wand, all made right; guilt converts to innocence, with not a stain left behind—long-suffering virtue shall wed quick repentant vice—and all, it would seem, simply to bring the play to a happy ending?

For the explanation of these apparent blemishes—these obvious incongruities in the comedies (for that is their region) of our great poet, I might refer you to M. Guizot’s criticism on Shakspeare. One element in it consists in the fact, which we are pretty safe in assuming, that with the story Shakspeare had little or nothing to do; he simply took what was given him, and made of it what he could—what he had occasion or time for. And yet that the taste of the time and that he himself should acquiesce in such a representation, is a matter, I think, in some degree appertaining to that balanced, speculative character which I attempted but now to describe, natural to the age and characteristic of the writer.

Free and serene in youth, newly emancipated from teachers and directors, unfettered any longer by precept or injunction of others, unbound as yet by any self-imposed restriction, or even any formed determination—in the richness of a reflectiveness which even now is all but a malady, in the fulness of an almost premature maturity of thought—in a distant preconception or presentiment wandering undecided in the garden of the infinite choices; free as yet to select, loving much rather as yet to forbear; with a tranquil wistfulness, with a far-sighted consciousness, looking down those unnumbered, diverging, farreaching avenues of future actuality, each one of which, but, if any one, then not any other, he may follow—such I venture to picture to myself the second poet of the English series—the second and the greatest—the creator of Othello and of Falstaff, of Hotspur and of Hamlet.

Not uncompromised, not uncommitted any longer, self-committed, strongly, deliberately, seriously, irreversibly committed; walking as in the sight of God, as in the profound, almost rigid conviction that this one, and no other of all those many paths is, or can be, for the just and upright spirit possible, self-predestined as it were, of his own will and foreknowledge, to a single moral and religious aim—such, I think, are we to imagine the writer of ‘Paradise Lost’ and of ‘Samson Agonistes,’ the third of the English poets. To what purpose these myriad phenomena, entering and traversing the field of that mighty object-glass of the speculative intellect? Is it life to observe? Is it a man’s service to know? As if it was a thing possible for us to forbear to act; as though there were not in God’s world, amidst ten thousand wrongs, one right, amidst the false choices that offend Him, the one that is His will. And yet, though in 1623, when the players put out the first collected edition, the first folio of the tragedies, comedies, and histories of William Shakspeare, Milton, aged sixteen, was translating psalms, to the second of these folios, in 1632, were prefixed the verses by John Milton, ‘What needs my Shakspeare.’ And among the productions of that pure protracted youth, ending, we may say, only in his thirty-third year, and devoted to books and letters,—though ‘Comus,’ it is true, seems prophetic of the stern and religious virtues of the aftermanhood and old age ‘L’Allegro’ meantime, ‘Il Penseroso,’ and parts of ‘Comus’ itself show lineaments of a gentler and less positive, more natural and less merely moral character. Is there not here in these earlier poems, lingering still, and as yet undismissed, a little of that poetic hesitance, that meditative reluctance to take a part which I attributed but now as his characteristic to Shakspeare? Does not the youthful Milton, while in this immature period, pondering, examining, testing, as it were, upon his spiritual palate, the viands of life, approximate, I will not determine how closely, to that personal undramatic Shakspeare, who sadly and almost remorsefully could say of himself,—

Alas! ’tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view.
Gored my own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear?

Or again,—

O! for my sake, do you with fortune chide
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds.

Or in a graver tone still,—

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful Earth,
Fooled by those rebel powers that thee array.

Upon the broad brows and in the deep eyes of Shakspeare I could believe myself to see, during the inditing of records such as this, a mournful expression which might pass with ease into the fixed pure look of Milton, and could identify, under circumstances of no violent transmutation, the lips which uttered, ‘What! because thou art virtuous, shall there be no cakes and ale? aye, and ginger be hot in the mouth?’ with those of him who closed his drama with the sentence that

            If virtue feeble were,
Heaven itself would stoop to her.

But such a fleeting similarity of transition, if there were, in the thoughtful countenance of the youthful Milton, was soon and totally effaced. He is a man of far different genius and character whom we see in the seventeen succeeding years of his prime, from his thirty-third to his fiftieth, teaching scholars, and reforming education; married, and deserted, and propounding a new doctrine of divorce; taking a side in the great Civil War, joining in controversy with bishops and archbishops, acting as secretary to a republican government, and—

In Liberty’s defence, my noble task,
With which all Europe rings from side to side—

justifying the death of kings.

Or he again, who blind and anon impoverished, neglected, imprisoned, persecuted in another and concluding space of seventeen years, bated nevertheless not one jot of heart and hope, and

On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues,
In darkness and with danger compassed round,

found in his lowest estate his highest inspiration, and converted his season of endurance and affliction into his period of most perfect and permanent’ achievement.

The spirit of Milton, no less than the spirit of Shakspeare, still lives and breathes in our native airs; we imbibe it in the earliest and commonest influences that environ us; it has entered, for good, for evil, or for both, into the constituents of our national character.

Nevertheless, the proper manhood of the English nation dates, I believe, from the generation which rejected Milton. The Counter-Revolution of 1660 and the final Revolution of 1688 are the two critical convulsions which restored us to our proper natural course. It is impossible, after all, not to recognise in those seemingly senseless acclamations which welcomed back the exiled Stuart a real and important significance. It is impossible not to sympathise with the joy and exaltation of people at throwing off the yoke of an iron system of morals, proved by experience not co-extensive with facts, not true to the necessary exigencies and experiences of life.

Fain to return to that larger range from which for a while we had remained self-excluded, but incapable any longer of sustaining ourselves upon the unsupported elevation of speculative vision; eager again to see what in Shakspeare we had viewed, to feel ourselves again within the circle of those infinitely various relations, but too far engaged in actual things to be competent now of seeing merely, of feeling only; eager, were it possible—which it no longer is—to find satisfaction to adult impulses in the gratification of those old boyish instincts, dispositions, tempers, tendencies, left behind so far away as Chaucer; resolute, however, in any case, come what would or might, to face and confront, to acknowledge and accept the facts of that living palpable world which cannot for any long time be disowned or evaded, with the vision of the universe departed, with innocence and the untroubled conscience forfeited, behold us here at the close of the seventeenth century, embarking, in whose name we know not, and profess to ourselves that we care not, upon the seas of actual and positive existence.

You will observe that in the period commencing with the Restoration and continuing through the eighteenth century, literature, though gaining infinitely in variety, loses in elevation; its predominant and characteristic form is not, as hitherto, the highest, the poetical. What poetry does exist is by no means of the highest order, nor aims at the highest objects; it is rather as a source of elegant amusement, as an efficacious means towards refinement and polish, as an ally and auxiliary of carriage and high breeding, as an emollient of manners and antidote to brutality, that we are taught to regard it. What indeed the really instructive, the serious and significant form of literature is, were hard to say: it seems even doubtful at times whether it possesses at all any form deserving any such high-sounding epithets; at times we cannot refrain from the belief that the whole energy, moral, intellectual, and vital of the nation has passed off into the common business, the ordinary hard work of individual everyday life; that what we see in the name of literature is but a mere dead and mechanical repetition, an aimless and meaningless observance of traditional habits. At times again, on the other hand, the abundance, and the variety, and the broad substantive character of what the Englishmen of this period wrote and have left for us, fills us with admiration while we contrast it with the poverty, narrowness, and uniformity of our preceding literature. The complexity of the picture is enhanced, and the embarrassment and doubt of our judgments and feelings aggravated, while we further observe how our national mind and literature begin to enter more now than ever before into intimate relations with the other great personal, national forces which have in the last hundred years sprung up into life and vigour on the Continent. Chaucer, it is true—and it is his praise—gave the final completion, by copious admissions of Norman-French vocables and phrases, to the transformation, shall I say, or new creation, of our homely, meagre, inarticulate semi-Saxon into a civilised and living speech, fit for the harmonious repetition to English ears of graceful Italian or classic story, and the enduring utterance of native thought and sentiment. By Italian cadence and rhythm Spenser tuned his docile ear, and learnt to remodulate, after an age of disuse, the language in which Shakspeare was to delineate the traditions of Verona and Venice, and give immortality to Florentine romances. The soul of Milton had dieted on ‘immortal notes and Tuscan airs,’ and been imbued with Italian scenes and Italian friendships, and had learnt in that converse to

Feed on thoughts that voluntary move
Harmonious numbers,

ere he thought them worthy to arise ‘to the height of that great argument.’

Nevertheless, this culture in classic grace, and this schooling in the nice accomplishment of verse which the English poets had sought with submission and deference from the descendants of Livy and Virgil, cannot, in any sort, be paralleled with that encounter and fusion which is now to come to pass with a national mind, single and original as our own, proved, chastened, and fortified by a long course of thought, action, and suffering. The French nation, marked from its original development, shall we say, in the era of the first and second Crusades, by a peculiar and distinct character, mingling in a wonderful compound the fervour of the south and the vigour of the north, heirs direct of an older civilisation, scene of the earliest resuscitation of thought, taking, in the later ages of religious contention, a separate and special position between the old, as in Italy and Spain, and the new, as in England and North Germany; with a readier understanding, with a more rapid and more immediate and seizing intellect; working out, by a logic of its own, conclusions, distinct from those of any, yet in relation to those of every European community; free-thinking from the first in Montaigne, sceptically devout in Pascal, embellishing the ancient faith in Bossuet, and scaling the summit of the latest doubt in Descartes, the French nation obviously had much to communicate to its insular neighbours—the Puritan or all-but Puritan English people.

Yet, on the other hand, to pass into the region of mere imitation, to sit at the feet even of writers as great as Racine and Molière, to owe fealty to the dicta of Boileau, to fit on the literary court-costume of Louis XIV., and pick up the fine language of the Regency, would appear to carry somewhat of indignity to men that

                    Speak the tongue
That Shakspeare spoke; the faith and morals hold
That Milton held.

From this dangerous communion it may be said that the English mind returned with little loss of originality, and with a large accession of ideas and perceptions; it had offered as freely, if not as copiously as it had taken; in the mass of imitation the native genius is still to be discerned, surviving and subsisting; in the prostration of ancient tenets and habits the old character remains upright, unoverthrown and unsubdued. One could really believe that we might have consented to learn yet more and got no harm by it. And, reappearing strangely disguised and metamorphosed, we shall still find the spirit of the Elizabethan age and of the Puritan; the high functions which Shakspeare and Milton performed, will be performed in the new era less splendidly but more effectually by smaller men and humbler agencies.

Dryden, born in 1631 and dying in 1700, and Cowper, born and dying in the corresponding years of the following century, we may make the limits of our new period.

After the age of Shakspeare, Milton, and the translation of the Bible, that of Addison, Swift, and the translations of Homer and Virgil may seem degenerate. Dryden, who heads the list, after commencing panegyrist under Oliver Cromwell, and showing his good will in the same capacity under the restored Charles II., presently proceeds as playwright, political satirist, theological controversialist, critical essayist, classical translator. We may take him as an earnest of what is to follow. Playwrights, in Dryden and Otway, Congreve, Vanbrugh, Farquhar, assume first the pre-eminence. Classical translation, and almost at the same time the Essay, aspire next to supremacy, and claim Augustan honours in Pope and Addison. From 1740 to 1770 may be called the culmination of the novelists from 1750 to 1790 is the period of the historians. The last decade of the century finds us restored to other and different poetry in Cowper and in Burns.

The items in the list may appear somewhat trivial. Yet you cannot fail to observe that they consist of names extremely well known; well known not there only or here, but wherever the English language is spoken or studied. It is to these that foreigners desirous of learning our language most naturally recur. They constitute our ordinary standard literature, and for models in English writing the tradition, not yet obsolete, of our fathers refers us imperatively hither. We cannot, with any safety, follow examples anterior to them; nor easily find any amongst their successors. Our own age is notorious for slovenly or misdirected habits of composition, while the seventeenth century wasted itself in the excesses of scholastic effort. English prose, before the age of Dryden, was in the hands, for the most part, of men who read and preached more than they talked, and had learnt to compose Latin before they set themselves to write the vernacular. But Latin is, by the inherent nature of its grammar and construction, a language singularly alien to the genius of a natural English style. French, which was the chief reading of the English writers after the Restoration, both as a living and as a modern language, was a far more useful auxiliary. And at their coffee-houses and clubs, the wits of our Augustan age were, even Addison included, fairly accustomed to lively conversation. And the study of French tended to save from vulgarity and meanness diction which conversational habits made thoroughly idiomatic. For manner, and for the subtle and potent impressions conveyed by manner, you may assuredly consult with great benefit the majority of these unpretending items.

I may further raise your estimate of these names if I remind you of their connection, at least in time, with workings of the human intellect not exactly included in the name of literature. The period of discoveries in Natural Philosophy begins with the reign of that restored Stuart whose picture looks down still, if I mistake not, with the title of founder on the meetings of the Royal Society. Newton’s ‘Principia’ is not, perhaps, a book pertaining to Belles Lettres; yet Newton and his fellow-discoverers have a good deal to do with the character of the age of Dryden. If I introduce, by the side of the translation of Virgil, the name of Locke on the ‘Human Understanding,’ I shall add, I suppose, some specific gravity to the close of the degenerate seventeenth century; and it will not be without some effect that I intercalate between Thomson’s ‘Seasons’ and Richardson’s ‘Pamela,’ at the date 1736, the title of Butler’s ‘Analogy of Religion.’ The advance of the century which presents us with the great histories of Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon, gains additional seriousness also from Hume’s philosophical as from Johnson’s moral writing. And certainly, though the apparent results were less brilliant, our respect and attention are claimed quite as strongly by the mental and moral, as by the natural or physical philosophy of this age.

The subject belongs properly to profounder lecturers; I shall merely touch upon it in connection with that literature which it serves more than could anything else to explain. It was our mental philosophy which, far more than our ordinary Belles Lettres, drew upon us the attention of Europe in general. Voltaire was indeed acquainted with Pope, Dryden, and Swift, but he declared himself openly the student of Newton and the pupil of Locke; and professed the mission of an apostle to his countrymen of the doctrines of the English philosophy; and in that philosophy only we can expect to find the fundamental convictions upon which, when the worst came to the worst, Englishmen of that age conceived they could retreat: it therefore must be considered as the substantial reality upon which the fleeting phenomena of plays, poetry, and novels are sustained. Its temper was, I suppose, narrow and material: bent upon the examination of phenomena, it admitted only such as present themselves to the lower and grosser senses; to the notices of the higher and purer, it peremptorily refused its attention. We cannot live without the impalpable air which we breathe, any more than without the solid earth which we tread upon; the intimations of a spiritual world of which we cannot be rigidly, and, as it were, by all our senses, certified, constitute for our inner life an element as essential as the plain matter of fact without which nothing can be done. But it is certain also that without that matter of fact, nothing can be done, and, moreover very little can be thought: palpable things, by divine right, by inevitable necessity, and intelligent ordinance claim our habitual attention; we are more concerned with our steps upon the ground than our inhalation of the atmosphere; stories of the apparition of ghosts may very likely be true, but even if they are, it matters extremely little.

This austere love of truth; this righteous abhorrence of illusion; this rigorous uncompromising rejection of the vague, the untestified, the merely probable; this stern conscientious. determination without paltering and prevarication to admit, if things are bad, that they are so: this resolute, upright purpose, as of some transcendental man of business, to go thoroughly into the accounts of the world and make out once for all how they stand; such a spirit as this, I may say, I think, claims more than our attention—claims our reverence.

We must not lose it—we must hold fast by it, precious to us as Shakspeare’s intellectual, or Milton’s moral sublimities; while our eyes look up with them, our feet must stay themselves firmly here. Such I believe is the strong feeling of the English nation; the spirit of Newton and of Locke possesses us at least in as full measure as that of any one of their predecessors.

To trace that spirit working in the minds and morals of our fathers of the last century would be curiously instructive. Pure intellectual action is apt, no doubt, to be for the time so absorbing, as to draw to itself all the agencies of our nature, as to suspend the just and fitting exercise of other, and it may be, nobler functions. Philosophers are frequently dim of sight for the phenomena of every-day life, a little hard of hearing for the calls of plain humanity. Let that moral purpose which should first embark, and through the whole voyage should accompany the true philosopher, be his justification. It is a special service that he undertakes, and he may be excused, if, to execute it, he does not act wholly as others do, or as in itself would be best.

Such a pervading moral purpose is in England exhibited by the chief philosophers of the eighteenth century. Such a moral purpose, perhaps, we may claim for the century itself in general admitting, however, at the same time, whether it be the fault of philosophy, or of that particular style of philosophy which then prevailed, that, at any rate amongst the upper and more educated classes, both morality and religion seem to have held disadvantageous and precarious ground, to have maintained or struggled to maintain themselves in a position only just tenable. The maxim of the time appears to be that it is man’s duty to sustain himself upon a minimum of moral assumption; in point of fact, to strive to solve the problem of habituation to living on nothing. Morality survives, we know not well how, in Hume. Religion appears to be driven to its inmost line of defences, to he fighting from its encincture of fortification in Butler’s analogical argument. And Johnson, in the last resort, can but confute Hume, as Berkeley—with a stamp upon the ground.

Of what dubious cogency, compared with ancient doctrine, is the morality implied in the summary of character with which Mary Queen of Scots is dismissed from the English History. How different from the idea of a religion meeting all the otherwise disappointed hopes, fulfilling all the profoundest and most secret needs of our spiritual nature, is the great argument of the ‘Analogy,’ which, nakedly stated, would seem to run, that we have no right to claim a religion according to our own fancies, that as the world of ordinary facts is full of difficulties, so also it is to be expected will be religion also. How matter-of-fact, and, as good people now would say, how low is the morality of Johnson; how indiscriminate, moreover, he is obliged, in his extreme need, to be in his religious faith and devotional observances.

Nevertheless, there is a cogency in this resting upon only the lowest grounds; the winter-vitality of the moral convictions of Hume is worth more than any summer exuberance of sentiment. Butler’s argument does hold water: Johnson’s character does prove something.

But by this time we are seeming to hear a sound as of very different voices, and it is well that we should begin to break off. Religious enthusiasm, wholly unconscious that amongst the upper classes it had been proved a chimera, awakening in all the extravagant force of youth at the touch of Wesley and Whitfield, had this, long time, amongst the despised and neglected, been extending its dominions and augmenting its powers. Methodism, long plebeian, is attaining its literary patriciate in Cowper. We must listen, too, while in homely Scots vernacular we are told by an Ayrshire ploughman authentic tidings of living instincts, of spontaneous belief, which not all the philosophy in the brain of the intellectual can banish from the breast of the human being.

In France, also, even Parisian dilettanti are neglecting the persiflage of Voltaire for the sentiment of Rousseau, and the common people are ‘hearing him gladly.’

As men after long abstraction or too careful self introspection need some sudden change to replace them in their ordinary attitude of life and action; or, as in the ancient Roman Empire, when the old civilisation, with its laws, its government, its intellectual superiority, its literary upper classes, was gradually sinking more and more into a sort of paralytic incapacity, the emergence from below of a. plebeian, unintellectual, unrefined religion, and the inroad from without of Northern barbarian races, gave back life to the world—even so in England from the elements representable by Wesley and Burns, in France from what spoke by the mouth of the watchmaker’s son of Geneva, came strange renovation.

You observe, upon referring to a table of chronology, how as the stars, whose courses we have been contemplating, begin to disappear below, so already above the horizon there may be seen showing themselves the lights of a new generation. Before Johnson had left the world you see Coleridge, Wordsworth, Scott, Southey, already entered upon it; entering it much about the time that Hume and Goldsmith quit it. Gibbon sees that last volume, which in his garden at Lausanne he rejoiced to lay down completed, issue from the press; and Byron is already born. The men whom we ourselves have seen, some of whom still survive—the men of whose careers some in this room may have been immediate witnesses, the impress from whose spirit is more immediately set upon us all, are already alive and even at work. Were I to pass over the momentous barrier of the great French Revolution, and look into the last decade of the eighteenth century, we should see there, while the light of Burns suddenly goes out, and the feeble spark which testifies to the existence of Cowper expires sadly with the expiring centenary, we should see there Coleridge and Wordsworth and Southey busy, and before the public, Coleridge and Southey planning as in a dream a Pantisocratic community on the banks of the smooth-sounding Susquehanna, Coleridge and Wordsworth presently writing in country seclusion together poems which the former never, the latter scarcely ever, improved upon.

But I shall be doing wrong, I feel and see, in overstepping this magic limit of the century. I am leading you unawares from a gallery of portraits of the dead through a door that opens upon a meeting of living, moving and acting men. From history I am seducing you to self-observation; from the ripe and gathered sheaves I am diverting you to the field where good and bad, by no rash hand to be sundered, must grow together to an harvest which is not yet. Of the characteristics of this new epoch, of its purport and significance, let us not dream of seeking any analysis or giving any representation.

Twenty years hence, when the hot blood of Byron shall have cooled in the veins of the generation he addressed, and when Scott’s mountain excursions shall seem an exploded amusement, and Wordsworth’s evening walks a faded reverie, twenty years hence it will be time enough to meet together and discuss our past selves and the literature of the commencement of the nineteenth century.

Poems and Prose Remains vol. I - Contents

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