Thursday, 16 January 2014

GOSSE'S " EIGHTEENTH CENTURY LITERATURE." *



This is one of the four volumes by well known men of letters of the admirable English Literature series, now in course of publication by Messrs. Macmillan and Co. Early English Literature—Elizabethan Literature— Eighteenth Century Literature — Modern English Literature ; these are the four divisions of a work which claims at least a general totality of arrangement and treatment. Mr. Edmund Gosse has done the quarter share allotted to him with minute, perhaps with over-minute, care. His book is rather a manual than what it sets itself out to be—" a history." To the average intelligent reader it is provocative rather of a blurred sense of crowding names and figures than of any clear notion of the three or four great literary movements which took place in the period in question. This is a pity, because the period has everything to gain in interest and intelligibility by genuinely historical treatment. Mr. Gosse begins by pointing out that, though his title is a misnomer, seeing that he treats of English literature between 1660 and 1780, it is the only approximately satisfactory title that could be found. He is all against calling it the Augustan or the classical period, but it certainly strikes one that, if the preceding book by Mr. Saintsbury had treated of the literature of from, say, 1508 to 1650 under the title of the Romanticists, and Mr. Douden of the subsequent period from 1780 to the present time under the title of the Moderns, the period from 1660 to 1780 might well and appositely have been described as that of the Classicalists. There is indeed in the very warp and woof of the work of men like Shakspeare, Bacon, Hooker, something obviously and essentially different from that of Dryden, Pope, Swift, Gibbon ; and again that of Byron,Wordsworth, Emerson, Carlyle, and our contemporary poets and prosemen is as obviously and essentially different from either of them. Poetry and imagination is the inalienable mark of the romantic work of the first,prose and reason of the classic work of the second, and the combination of the two sets of qualities of the modern work of the third.
The civil war and the great social revolution it wrought in its quarter of a century forms one of the most singularly clear cut divisions in the history of any literature between two periods. The next hundred years or so had the most favourable circumstances for the development of their own peculiar genius. The literary movements which took place in it were these. The age inherited from its predecessor the tradition of the drama. It transformed this tradition and wholly exhausted it. From the ashes of its tragedy sprang PhÅ“nix-like the age's original creation in poetry—the heroic couplet. In other words Dryden is succeeded by Pope ; and what of Dryden still continues to live and have influence is that portion of his work which represents the process of this transformation. His plays are forgotten. Those of them which served as an exercising ground for his mastery of the heroic couplet were thus far fecund to him. His efforts in dramatic blank verse were so much wasted energy. Dryden, as Mr. Gosse well points out, was in no wise an initiator. " He did not take up poetry in earnest till all intelligent Englishmen had decided what kind of poetry it was they wanted. And then Dryden, confident of his audience, made the distich of Waller an instrument on which to play his boldest music." That boldest music was satire. The first part of " Absalom," and " Ahitophel," together with " Macflecknoe," remain the final poetical fruits of the Restoration Parnassus. Pope received this audacious and grandiose lyre from the hands of the man whom he hailed as the "prince of poets," and modulated it to the perfection of a lower and more exquisite key. Serious work like the " Essay on Criticism," or the " Essay on Man," and such satiric work as is to be found in the " Satires and Epistles," are the culmination of the original poetical movement of the age. Gray and Collins, who followed, two Janus faces, looking behind and before, suffered the inevitable limitation, straits, and incompleteness of a period of transition. Gray's meagre harvest-sheaf is rendered thinner still by the subtraction of his jaded eighteenth century pseudo-poetics.
To return to the drama. The Restoration drama was not only in verse, it was also in prose. This prose drama was comedy, and here too there was a trend forward towards transformation and exhaustion. But the ground was richer. It left good fruit. Etherege, deliciously polished, and thin, Wycherly, rank and realistic, were followed by Congreve, who carried the Etheregian verbal wit and elegance to its extreme limit, and by the robuster Wycherlean realism of Vanbrugh and Farquhar. Public taste, as much in literary matter and style as in verbal and moral decency, has caused the neglect of our great comedians of " the town," and we have satisfied ourselves with their milder and more human forms as shown in Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer," and Sheridan's "School for Scandal," but a reaction is already begun which will reinstate the former men in their proper and permanent place in the annals of our own literature.
The exhaustion of the stage and its consequent failure as a national institution is the chief cause of the second great literary creation of the age—the novel. Far and away the most powerful and impressive figure we meet in this history is that of Jonathan Swift. Matthew Arnold has seen fit to ascribe to Dryden and Pope the creation of English prose. The notion will not stand. The creator of English prose is Swift. He gave to satire a world-wide flight. His polemics stand for our higher journalism. And he initiated the novel. He worked out no genre completely. His work is to be taken in its total bulk. It has plenty of limitations, plenty of faults. None the less, taken all round, it is the most impressive work of the age. Addison, Defoe, Berkeley, and Gibbon—the first two of whom stand with him as initiators of the novel—round off and complete that work, which is just this, the creation of our modern prose. "Gulliver's Travels," "Robinson Crusoe," and the character studies of the Spectator lead us to " Clarissa Harlowe," "Tom Jones," "Roderick Random," and the "Sentimental Journey," that is to say, to Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. Once more modern taste has ended with condemning these powerful writers to a somewhat subterranean existence, so to say, but the obscuring figures of Scott, Thackeray, and Dickens must in their turn sink to their real and permanent places beside their predecessors.
  Berkeley and Gibbon have been mentioned in connection with Swift, Addison, and Defoe as creators of our prose. Berkeley and Gibbon hold their place as philosopher and historian in what may be called the rationalistic movement of the age, which is one big branch of its prose, and which culminates in Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith, and which is mingled with the purely scientific effort that Newton passed on to his great successors. Gibbon is the father of modern history. He alone of his time attains to the true historical method, and in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" he has erected one of the permanent monuments of man's mind. Johnson in the branch of pure literary criticism, and Burke in the rich impulse of his gorgeous rhetoric, must find their places also in the same huge stream whose bulk has grown to the vast dimensions of to-day.
Mr. Gosse's book is to be condemned for its want of totality of impression, for its want of lucid arrangement and treatment of its subject. But it has its advantages. An excellent index enables the student to turn up any name or work of any importance, and to find it in its place, deftly catalogued with appropriate criticism. Snatches of this criticism are of the best. Such is the judgment passed on Dryden quoted above, or this on Pope: "The charm of Pope's best passages, when it does not rest upon his Dutch picturesqueness of touch, is due to the intellectual pleasure given by his adroit and stimulating manner of producing his ideas, and by the astonishing exactitude and propriety of his phrase. When it is all summed up, we may not be much the better, but we are sure to be much the brighter and alter." Nothing at once more brilliant and accurate has been said of that singular charm than this. Or take this on Collins : " Collins has the touch of a sculptor ; his verse is clearly cut and direct ; it is marble pure, but also marble cold. Each phrase is a wonder of felicitous workmanship, without emphasis, without sense of strain. His best strophes possess an extraordinary quiet melody, a soft harmonious smoothness as of some divine aerial creature singing in artless, perfect numbers for its own delight." That is admirable. What a " history of eighteenth century literature " Mr. Gosse might have given us if he had rendered his subject with true force and perspective, and worked out all his details with such delightful inner criticism as this !

* "A History of Eighteenth Century Literature(1660 to 1780)" By Edmund Gosse. London": Macmillan and Co. Brisbane: Watson and Ferguson.

 The Brisbane Courier 25 May 1889,

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