« ElőzőTovább »
controversialist of his age; strong, uncompromising, vigorous with something of the sinewy force of the athlete, direct and even brutal in manner, swollen with the self-satisfied pride of the combatant, and without anything of sentiment or feeling. In Butler there is a strain of something infinitely higher; a powerful individuality that cannot be stifled, a lucidity that gives to his writings the permanence of classics, and a sincerity and earnestness that illumine his logical acumen with the warm light of genius. The characteristics of the same school, more or less modified, and moving in a far lower scale, are seen in Price and Priestly; commonplace in manner, fitly reflecting the mediocre whiggism of the day, with an echo from the earlier latitudinarians, but eschewing their whimsical vanities and puerilities, restrained within a certain moderation, defended against ridicule by a certain armour of common sense. Paley repeats the same characteristics of plain and vigorous reasoning, more powerful in logic, more practised in argument, with larger intellectual grasp, but equally unambitious of ornament, equally uninformed by deep feeling or by any imagination or enthusiasm. In Dugald Stewart we have more of the philosophical bias, but it is still the philosophy of common sense with no metaphysical flights. He has risen beyond the plainness, amounting almost to monotony, that had marked the previous writings of his school ; and it was owing perhaps in great measure to his consummate gifts as an academic teacher that his written work was enriched by a vein of ornament and eloquence. With something of the same training, and strongly affected by the same influence of ex cathedrâ teaching, Adam Smith added to a philosophy, vigorous and lucid rather than profound, the clear insight and energetic common sense of the man of the world, giving force and vividness to theoretic treatment by a certain raciness and homeliness of style that told the more effectively because his theories dealt with the laws that regulate practical life. In Mackintosh the same ideal of clear and common-sense exposition is present. But there is a weakening of fibre already beginning. The strength of sinew is degenerating. The style is infected by something of stilted pomposity, the exposition often slides from lucidity into commonplace, and barrenness of thought is often imperfectly concealed behind the scaffolding of formality and conventional dignity of style. In Bentham we reach, perhaps, the ideal—not certainly a very inviting one-of prosaic, and even acrid logic. Narrow in his conceptions, but inflexibly bold in their enunciation, with the force and vigour that come from absolute conviction, with the warmth and that alone—which comes from hostility to what he believes to be erroneous or unsound, softened by no shadow of doubt, and illumined by no ray of imagination, Bentham yet commands respect even from those to whom his writings seem most barren of human interest. To him literary style was, so far as conscious effort went, a meaningless phrase ; he is correct and lucid only from the clearness of his own views, and because he found the instrument of expression wrought to perfection by the habit of his age. In Cobbett we have little of refinement, little of resource, little liberal equipment; but the tradition of common sense is still a vigorous force, and in his almost enthusiastic inculcation of lucidity and correctness of style, he keeps alive one of the best inheritances from the eighteenth century.
These are all names sufficiently respectable to bring high honour to the literary work of that century. But, typical of its characteristics as they are, they represent but one, and that not its most important phase. Another is to be found in those with whom the religious vein was stronger. In Berkeley we rise to the level of a purer atmosphere, and to a range of far wider compass, than were reached by any of those just named. In his enthusiasm and in his eloquence he kept alive the torch that had been handed on to him from the theologians of another day; in his lucid clearness he added a new element, in which he was akin to the more scientific thought of his own age; and in the richness of his imagination, in the perfection of his philosophic style, he attains to that uniqueness which is the chief attribute of genius. There is something of the same mental quality in the mysticism of Law; sombre and yet eloquent ; instinct with feeling ; at once severe and grim in his earnestness, and copious in the range of his imagination. But the spirit of Berkeley and of Law was not one suited to the century; and they stand almost as solitary monuments of a phase of thought, which passed away in a crowd of opposite ideals. As a literary power Wesley stands far below them. His mind was not without something of the mysticism that dominated Law; it has a strain of melancholy which does not lessen our interest, and he presents the rare spectacle of a scholar who dreaded lest his own scholarship might interfere with the popular work which was the supreme aim of his life. There was a certain Puritanism in the conscious simplicity of his style; but he could not divorce himself altogether from that literary sympathy that linked him to his age, and that made him the friend of one with whom he stands in many respects so much in contrast as Johnson. In Horsley we may find an example of what religious writing became in the latter part of the century, earnest and conscientious, rich in scholarship and robust in thought, but moving rather with judicial formality and dignified reverence than by any instinct of enthusiastic piety.
There are others again whom it is hard to classify, who are yet no less typical of the age. They form a long list, and little as they are akin to one another in style or taste or sentiment, they are yet most distinctly the children of the eighteenth century. Who is more characteristic of its spirit than Chesterfield ? Early as he comes in its course, he seems almost of set purpose to exaggerate all its tendencies, to make himself a bold exponent of its cynicism in its most pronounced, it may perhaps be said in its most superficial, phase. Subject, treatment, tone, and style -all alike are redolent of the century ; passing over enthusiasm with a smile, treating religion and morality with a courtly politeness that savours of ridicule, wrapping itself in a garment of conventionality that it may escape the plebeianism of eccentric individuality. Yet with all this, how much of art there is! How much deliberate and conscious preference of form over matter! How much lightness of touch, and how much dexterous choice of the fitting phrase ! How much of exclusiveness, and how much of the careful art of the actor, avoiding above all things any awkwardness or clumsiness of deportment, and studious to preserve an unruffled composure which no strong feeling, or earnest conviction is allowed to disturb! Chesterfield may be superficial, but he has at least fastidiousness of literary taste. Heartless he may be, but he has the sense of humour. He may be conventional, but he is never vain ; and if his philosophy is barren and circumscribed, he at least knew how to adapt his language with perfection to its needs.
Sterne contrasts with him in countless qualities. He is colloquial and slipshod, a chartered libertine in language ; losing all sense of dignity in his affectation and whimsical conceits ; eccentric not from impulse but from wayward artificiality, ruffled into petty and vanishing emotion by every breath of pathos, however false and tawdry ; noisy in his childish depreciation of conventionality and order ; but yet, withal, imbued with the same cynicism, aiming at the same indifference of demeanour, impressed by the same sense of the “ridiculous tragedy” of human life-above all, with the same vein of humour, but of a richness and fertility which has scarcely ever been approached, and which Chesterfield could never, even remotely, rival. With all his carelessness of diction, with all his affected contempt of form, Sterne wrote for a literary age ; even in his wildest extravagances he knows how to attune his language to the mood of the moment, and to make it a fitting dress for the most wayward, the most fitful, the most perplexing, and yet the most invincible wit which fancy ever contrived.
Take again another pair-in outward guise most unlike these two, and equally in contrast with one another, and yet steeped each of them to the finger tips in the eighteenth-century spiritGray and Horace Walpole. Scarcely could two letter-writers be more unlike. Gray shows himself in every page the scholarly recluse ; finished, elaborate, even artificial in his diction, incapable of writing a sentence which does not bear the impress of care and labour. No feeling is ever assumed or false ; its sincerity seems to be tested and tried by the same rigid criticism which he applies to his style. But it is the sincerity, not of impulse or enthusiasm, but of the student and man of letters. Walpole, on the other hand, is sprightly, lively, intolerant, even to nervousness, of dulness or heaviness, speaking the opinion or impression of the hour, superficial, it is true, but yet sincere in his individuality, and with a certain freshness in his freedom from conventionality.
No age, fortunately, can mould character after one type, or prescribe a code so strong as to stifle individuality. The eighteenth century, like every other, had its types both of artificiality and of homeliness, of cynicism and of enthusiasm, of intellectual force and of whimsical caprice, of logical earnestness and of superficial sentiment. But in this, at least, it was peculiar, that it was endowed with literary tact ; and if it did nothing else, it proved that genius might work in obedience to the unwritten laws which that tact prescribed, and that even although the exuberance of earlier fancy, and the untaught raciness of an older language were gone past recall, it could still leave to posterity a rich and varied literary inheritance. It is this literary tact which links together a whole group and succession of men, differing in every degree of homeliness and elaboration, of simplicity and pompous solemnity, of gracefulness and almost uncouth force. Gilbert White strikes us at first only by his homeliness and simplicity, by his lucid and unpretentious narrative, by the sincerity and piety of his unwearied study of nature. But in truth the scholar never forgets his books. The simplicity is the effect of the highest art; his narrative impresses us because it is arranged with the skill of a trained thinker, who never allows his induction to be slovenly or inexact, who knows exactly how to buttress a theory with an unassuming anecdote, and who can bring a scientific reminiscence, or a recondite classification, into the midst of the homely story of some everyday incident.
This is not the place to discuss the artistic theories of Sir Joshua Reynolds ; but whatever their weight and authority, he elaborated them under the dominant influence of a literary clique, whose canons he adopted, and by that literary influence he founded artistic criticism in England, and clothed it in the urbane and graceful style that was a counterpart of his own personality.
Scarcely any character could have been more strong in its individuality than that of Warton. His cumbrous and amorphous learning, too vast to be exact, and too .tenacious to be discriminating, might seem unlikely to submit its vigorous independence to any environment, however strong. But yet, as a fact, the work that Warton achieved would not have been possible to him had he lived in any previous age. His learning would have run into abstruse divagations, where pedantry and fancy would have overwhelmed all sense of proportion. To such aberrations he was by nature only too prone. But the scientific sense of his age revealed to him just the questions in literary history which called for solution. He saw, by anticipation, some of the fruits which the comparative method might be made to yield; and, as a consequence, although he essayed a task too large for any man, and achieved what is doubtless an ill-arranged and ill-proportioned fragment, yet he left the impress of his independent thought and of his vigorous grasp upon our literature, and traced the lines upon which its history must be written.
Within the compass of an introduction such as this, it is not possible, nor even desirable, to pass in review all the names which are to meet us in this volume. For an appreciation of each the