Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

reader must be referred to the separate prefatory notes. All that is attempted here is to illustrate the spirit of the age by those who are most typical of it. But no such sketch would be complete without a reference to one very distinctive development of the time-that of the modern novel, by which a more literary age replaced the drama in its decay. The larger and more interesting questions of the ethical and social work of fiction do not here concern us. But we cannot neglect it as a potent element in the formation of style. Richardson could not aspire to any literary graces ; his resources were too few and his methods too simple for such an ambition. But in his delicate and discriminating character drawing he inevitably developed a new literary appliance. He was bound to eschew theory, to avoid any cataloguing of characteristics, to lay aside the old modes of the seventeenthcentury Theophrastuses, and to subordinate his drawing of character to his story. He must perforce be simple, and proceed step by step, discarding all pedantry, and allowing the character to reveal itself with the inevitableness of reality. If our language was thus enriched by Richardson with some new feints and maneuvres of style, far greater was its debt to Fielding-to whom we shall return presently ; and even Smollet, although his art was limited, if he did nothing else at least established a current diction for comic narrative, vigorous if somewhat barbarous in its vigour. As the century closed, the novel passed into very different hands, in the earliest of our female writers of fiction, Madame d’Arblay and Miss Edgeworth, whose art was to culminate in Jane Austen. Contrasting with their predecessors in every feature of method and treatment, they contrasted with them no less strongly in their style. Obedient to the dictatorship of Johnson, they made their ideal (if we shut out of view the later aberrations of Madame d'Arblay) one of lucid simplicity and studied accuracy, and in this as in all else assisted towards the perfection of that ideal in the consummate art of Jane Austen.

There remain certain names, apart from all classification of subject and of treatment, supreme in their sovereignty, the pillars of the century, summing up in themselves its highest achievement, and secure from all rivalry and competition. These are Johnson, Gibbon, Fielding, Hume, and Burke. The age that comprises them need fear no comparison. We may surely by this time claim that Johnson has shaken off the inept cavillings of petty criticism, and has blunted the shafts of the witlings. Of his dignity of character, of the keenness of his insight, of the boldness and breadth of his criticism, of the range of his sympathy and his humour, this is not the place to speak. But, in style alone, we may justly claim that he is the vertebrate column of our prose. He could not accomplish the impossible. Once more I venture to express the conviction that the highest conceivable perfection of English prose was possible only to the Elizabethans, and that when the task passed unaccomplished from their hands, the hopes of it vanished beyond recall. But what Johnson could do, he did with consummate power. To him it was left to establish a code, to evolve order out of disorderly materials, to found a new ideal of style in absolutely logical precision, adding to that precision dignity and eloquence and force. To ascribe to him a slavish propensity to cumbrous and pedantic sesquipedalianism is to mistake the travesty for the original. His dictatorship in literature, based on native strength, was most unquestioned in the sphere of style; and it is not too much to say that all that is best in English prose since his day is his debtor in respect of not a few of its highest qualities, above all in respect of absolute lucidity, unfailing vigour, and saving common sense.

Just in so far as Gibbon was not so great a man as Johnson, does his style fall below Johnson's level. The strain of affectation, the undue elaboration, the tone of artificial irony are always unduly marked in that style. But the massiveness of Gibbon's intellect, the largeness of his grasp, his unfailing sense of literary proportion, the fearless vigour of his historical conception,_all these are too great to be buried beneath the affectation. He towers above all competitors as a giant amongst the pigmies, the type and model of the historian, whose example remains untouched by time, and remote from rivalry.

As a master of style, Fielding has a claim on our admiration, apart from all the other attributes of his genius. It seems strange in regard to Fielding to set aside all the wealth of human sympathy, all the range of humour, all the vividness of character-drawing, and to restrict ourselves solely to the one aspect that interests us here, his place as a writer of prose. His style reflects much that is distinctive of his genius, its massive carelessness, its strong simplicity, its clearness of outline, and its consummate ease. But above all things he repeats two leading characteristics of his age, its irony and its scholarship. Fielding was from first to last a man of letters, as the character was conceived in his time--without pedantry, without strain, without the constraint of subtlety, but always imbued with the instinct of the scholar, never forgetting that, in the full rush of his exuberant fancy and his audacious humour, he must give to his style that indescribable quality that makes it permanent, that forces us to place it in the first rank of literary effort, that, even when irregular, pleads for no allowance on the score of neglect of art. He challenges comparison on merely literary grounds with the best models of literary art, and he is no loser by the comparison.

So it is with Hume. We do not, for our purpose, seek to gauge his place as a philosopher, nor dwell upon his boldness, his unswerving logic, the keen directness of his insight, the indomitable and uncompromising force that pushed conclusion so far that reaction became inevitable. But what we have to observe is that his style reflected all these qualities. Its limpid flow, its simplicity side by side with its studied art, its undercurrent of sarcasm, its irony and its epigram, all these made it a part of his genius, made its place in our literature secure, and made it one of those forces that compel respect for the century of which he was the characteristic product.

Lastly, in Burke we have to recognise not the politician only, instinct with sincerity, unfettered by convention, illimitable in range, and giving shape and utterance to impulses that were true not for one age only but for all time ; but we have to see in him the writer of a prose illumined as with fire ; enthusiastic and yet supremely logical : fearless and yet absolutely obedient to order and to law: eloquent and yet restrained : stirred by every popular movement, and yet suggestive and philosophical More completely than any man he showed, in style no less perfectly than in spirit and in sympathy, all that was most typical of the best genius of his age — its restraint, its philosophy, its obedience to order and to law, and its gift of literary instinct—removed as far from the exaggeration and pedantry of what had gone before, as from the vulgar platitude and superficial complacency of what was to follow.

H. CRAIK.

CONYERS MIDDLETON

[Conyers Middleton, who belonged to an affluent and well connected Yorkshire family, was born at Richmond on 27th December 1683. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of seventeen, and obtained a Fellowship, which, however, he vacated ten years after his matriculation, on his marriage with a very wealthy widow, a Mrs. Drake. His connection with the College, nevertheless, drew him into the celebrated and desperate quarrel between the Fellows and their Master, Bentley-a quarrel, the vicissitudes of which cannot be told here, though they are reflected in many of Middleton's works. He was made Librarian to the University in 1722, which post he retained to his death, and Woodwardian Professor of Geology in 1731, but he only held that appointment for three years. He travelled in Italy after the death of his first wife, married a second in 1734, and a third in 1745 ; but his headquarters were always at Cambridge, or close by at Hildersham, where he had property. He held more than one living at different times of his life, but in no case for long. He died at Hildersham on 28th July 1750. Besides the frequently reprinted Life of Cicero, which originally appeared in 1741, his works were numerous, and are nearly all collected in five volumes, which reached their second edition five years after his death. Besides polemical pamphlets against Bentley, Waterland, and others, they contain miscellanies on subjects rather unusually wide apart, as well as two larger and more famous productions-A Letter from Rome showing an exact Conformity between Popery and Paganism (1729), and A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers which are supposed to have existed in the Christian Church (1748).]

The name and fame of Conyers Middleton have always lain under a rather curious cloud, which has latterly extended from his personal to his literary reputation. He has been violently attacked, and on the whole very faintly if at all defended, on three different grounds : first as a dishonest man who, while taking the pay of the Church of England and pretending to acquiesce in her doctrines, seized every opportunity of undermining the faith of his co-religionists; secondly as a controversialist, equally virulent and disingenuous, both in religious and non-religious subjects ; thirdly as a wholesale and impudent plagiarist from Bellendenus (William Bellenden, 1555-1633) in his Life of Cicero. During the eighteenth century, as a kind of set-off to these imputations, he

« ElőzőTovább »