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glory of them all are the turret-chamber and the terracewalk, where, by the munificence of noble patrons, was passed the not slothful leisure, while in the masque and revel triumphed the honoured wit of those illustrious thinkers, who, unassisted, had left England with but half a literature.
Let us remember, therefore, this difference between the social life of the last two centuries and our own, and we shall not then commit to a common contempt the classics of England, and those littérateurs who in a later age, when other classes besides aristocrats are educated and refined, should haunt the portals of the aristocracy, and, like that most despicable of flunkeys, Theodore Hook, take every opportunity of throwing contumely on the middle class, from which they rose.
Though it were somewhat ungracious, still it is but just to consider the figure which a literary man in those ages presented when contemplated through the long vista that separated the aristocracy from the obscure learned. I suspect that he who looked from the noble end-not being impressed with any of the modern ideas about the “ leaders of thought,” and the “
progress of civilisation,” and the perfectability of the species in general, imagined that he saw at the other end a professional performer in a creditable and elegant art; and I call Selden to witness, a man whose position enabled him to sympathise with both patron and author : “ 'Tis ridiculous for a lord to print verses ; 'tis well enough to make them to please himself, but to make them public is foolish. If a man in a private chamber twirls his band-strings or plays with a rush to please himself, ʼtis well enough ; but if he should go into Fleet Street, and sit upon a stall, and twirl a band-string or play with a rush, then all the boys in the street would laugh at him."* And Congreve, who wished to shine at both ends of the vista, to be at
Selden's Table Talk; tit. Poetry.
once a man of fashion and a distinguished author, passed his life in conflict between these two incompatible impulses. When he had written his “ Old Bachelor,” which was acted in 1693, he was “divided between pride and shame--pride at having written a good play, and shame at having done an ungentlemanlike thing; pretended that he had merely scribbled a few scenes for his own amusement, and affected to yield unwillingly to the importunities of those who pressed him to try his fortune on the stage." “I wrote the Old Bachelor,” says Congreve, “to amuse myself in a slow recovery in a fit of sickness.”
As in the progress of society the vista diminished in length, the two characters could better combine; and in the time of Pope, when literature was beginning to emerge from patronage (for he was the first poet who lived by the mere sale of his writings) the nobles had begun to affect talent, and the practice then became common of publishing by subscription ; so that at the same time the aristocrats became themselves authors, and the plebeian authors became independent of any one particular patron, though still for many years they filled their subscription lists with noble names. The transition was gradual to a list full of untitled subscribers, and from that to no list at all, but the chance custom of any one who had money enough to buy the book.
This however makes no difference in the character of literary men so long as social position and the society of the great are their ambition. Swift, who, after the death of Sir W. Temple, was as independent of any patron as an author could well be, frankly states in a letter to Lord Bolingbroke, his inducement to become literary ; “ All my endeavours to distinguish myself were only for want of a great title and fortune, that I might be used like a lord by those who have an opinion of my parts; whether right or wrong, is no great matter. And so the repu
Ed. Rev. vol. lxxii. p. 515.
tation of wit and great learning does the office of a blue riband or a coach and six." In short, Swift's ambition was to make himself an aristocrat by literature. When the aristocracy declines, and some other object, such as mere possession of money, is the inducement of the literary man, then the character of literature, as I have said, alters; but, in fact, by that time the literature of a country, if it is to have one at all, has been created.
THE NATIONAL ACME. --THE HARMONY BETWEEN FORMS OF
LITERATURE AND THE STAGES OF NATIONAL PROGRESS.
BEFORE I part from the subject of the place of literature
Ι in national progress, I am desirous to make some distinctions, which may prevent a misapprehension of the proposition which I sought to establish in the preceding chapter. And therefore I would call attention to the fact, that the national acme is the period when various kinds of literature flourish for more subtle and particular reasons than those which I have hitherto adduced, to account for the general prosperity of literature at that period. To go through these in detail would lead us too far from the grand central track which in this study we have to traverse, but one or two may be here usefully mentioned.
Tragedy flourishes as the acme approaches, because there is then, and then only, sufficient liberty to indulge in representations of the misfortunes of the great, a subject alien to the aristocratic feelings of an earlier age*, but the representation is one not wholly hostile, but rather sympathetic, and thus addresses the very classes whose misfortunes are represented, and who have only at that period become sufficiently refined to enjoy the representation. Tragedy in its origin is the general
* Shaftesbury, Characteristics, i. 218. On tragedy dying out of France in the 18th century, see Villemain, Cours de Lit. Fr., 18me siècle, i. 67.
representation of beings far raised above the spectators, either by their divine nature, or by their belonging to an age invested in our minds with a character of grandeur. Greek tragedy was at first but an interlude in, or rather a form of worship, a mode of presenting vividly to the minds of devotees the great actions of the gods, the epoch-forming scenes of an elder world. Then it came down to heroes, and recalled to the minds of the spectators with grand simplicity some mighty achievements of their heroic ancestors. Lastly, it put upon the stage scenes of great emotion and great passion, such as might be actually happening in real life at the very time they were represented on the stage ; but raised into something of the dignity belonging to the other subjects of tragedy by a certain grandeur of thought, a majestic slowness of action, and a general sculpturesqueness of scene. Horace gave good advice to the tragic poet of his late age, when the equality of the Romans prevented their making good characters for a tragedy, to take his dramatis personæ out of the Iliad. *
Comedy is of later growth, for it requires more liberty and more equality ; liberty, because those who are derided are not exclusively inferior, for aristocrats would think it mean and vulgar to be employed in laughing at their subjects. There must be liberty, therefore, to laugh at equals, and sometimes perhaps at a superior. Comedy may flourish in a highly refined court, where fashion and etiquette have produced a well-observed equality of manners, because eccentricities from this equality, whether they be of fellow-nobles or of roturiers, are the fair subject of amusing comedies. As equality increases, and eccentricity becomes more remarked and envy more common,
power and popularity of comedy increases, and tragedy, which sympathises with unaccustomed situations,
“ Rectius Iliacum carmen diducis in aetus, Quam si,” &c. - Ep. ad Pison.