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Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Augustan Age (from The Bee No. 8)

       "The history of the rise of language and learning is calculated to gratify curiosity rather than to satisfy the understanding.  An account of that period only when language and learning arrived at its highest perfection is the most conducive to real improvement, since it at once raises emulation and directs it to the proper objects.  The age of Leo X. in Italy is confessed to be the Augustan age with them:  the French writers seem agreed to give the same appellation to that of Louis XIV.:  but the English are yet undetermined with respect to themselves.
     Some have looked upon the writers in the times of Queen Elizabeth as the true standard for future imitation;  others have descended to the reign of James I.;  and others still lower, to that of Charles II.  Were I to be permitted to offer an opinion upon this subject, I should readily give my vote for the reign of Queen Anne, or some years before that period.  It was then that taste was united to genius;  and as before our writers charmed with their strength of thinking, so then they pleased with strength and grace united.  In that period of British glory, though no writer attracts our attention singly, yet, like stars lost in each other's brightness, they have cast such a lustre upon the age in which they lived that their minutest transactions will be attended to by posterity with a greater eagerness than the most important occurences of even empires which have been transacted in greater obscurity.
       At that period there seemed to be a just balance between patronage and the press.  Before it, men were little esteemed whose only merit was genius;  and since, men who can prudently be content to catch the public, are certain of living without dependence.  But the writers of the period of which I am speaking, were sufficiently esteemed by the great, and not rewarded enough by booksellers to set them above dependence.  Fame, consequently, then was the truest road to happiness;  a sedulous attention to the mechanical business of the day makes the present never-failing resource.
       The age of Charles II., which our countrymen term the age of wit and immorality, produced some writers that at once served to improve our language and corrupt our hearts.  The king himself had a large share of knowledge and some wit;  and his courtiers were generally men who had been brought up in the school of affliction and experience.  For this reason, when the sunshine of their fortune returned, they gave too great a loose to pleasure, and language was by them cultivated only as a mode of elegance.  Hence it became more enervated, and was dashed with quaintness, which gave the public writings of those times a very illiberal air.
       L'Estrange, who was by no means as bad a writer as some have represented him, was sunk in party faction;  and having generally the worst side of the argument, often had recourse to scolding, pertness, and, consequently, a vulgarity that discovers itself even in his more liberal compositions.  He was the first writer who regularly enlisted himself under the banner of a party for pay, and fought for it, through right and wrong, for upwards of forty literary campaigns.  The intrepidity gained him the esteem of Cromwell himself;  and the papers he wrote even just before the Revolution, almost with the rope about his neck, have his usual characters of impudence and perseverence.  That he was a standard writer cannot be disowned, because a great many very eminent authors formed their style by his.  But his standard was far from being a just one;  though, when party considerations are set aside, he certainly was possessed of elegance, ease, and perspicuity.
       Dryden, though a great and undisputed genius, had the same cast as L'Estrange.  Even his plays discover him to be a party man, and the same principle infects his style in subjects of the lightest nature;  but the English tongue, as it stands at present, is greatly his debtor.  He first gave it regular harmony, and discovered its latent powers.  It was his pen that formed the Congreves, the Priors, and the Addisons, who succeeded him;  and had it not been for Dryden, we never should have known a Pope, at least in the meridian lustre he now displays.  But Dryden's excellences as a writer were not confined to poetry alone.  There is in his prose writings an ease and elegance that have never yet been so well united in works of taste or criticism. 
       The English language owes very little to Otway, though, next to Shakespeare, the greatest genius England ever produced in tragedy.  His excellences lay in painting directly from nature, in catching every emotion just as it rises from the soul, and in all the powers of the moving and pathetic.  He appears to have had no learning, no critical knowledge, and to have lived in great distress.  When he died (which he did in an obscure house near the Minories) he had about him the copy of a tragedy, which, it seems, he had sold for a trifle to Bentley the bookseller.  I have seen an advertisement at the end of one of L'Estrange's political papers, offering a reward to any one who should bring it to his shop.  What an invaluable treasure was there irretrievably lost by the ignorance and neglect of the age he lived in. 
       Lee had a great command of language and vast force of expression, both which the best of our succeeding dramatic poets thought proper to take for their models.  Rowe, in particular, seems to have caught that manner, though in all other respects inferior.  The other poets of that reign contributed but little towards improving the English tongue, and it is not certain whether they did not injure rather than improve it.  Immorality has its cant as well as party, and many shocking expressions now crept into the language, and became the transient fashion of the day.  The upper galleries, by the prevalence of party spirit, were courted with great assiduity, and a horse-laugh following ribaldry was the highest instance of applause, the chastity as well as energy of diction being overlooked or neglected.
       Virtuous sentiment was recovered, but energy of style never was.  This, though disregarded in plays and party writings, still prevailed amongst men of character and business.  The despatches of Sir Richard Fanshaw, Sir William Godolphin, Lord Arlington, and many other ministers of state, are all of them, with respect to diction, manly, bold, and nervous.  Sir William Temple, though a man of no learning, had great knowledge and experience.  He wrote always like a man of sense and a gentleman;  and his style is the model by which the best prose writers in the reign of Queen Anne formed theirs.  The beauties of Mr. Locke's style, though not so much celebrated, are as striking as that of his understanding.  He never says more nor less than he ought, and never makes use of a word that he could have changed for a better.  The same observation holds good of Dr. Samuel Clarke. 
       Mr. Locke was a philosopher;  his antagonist, Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worchester, was a man of learning;  and therefore the contest between them was unequal.  The clearness of Mr. Locke's head renders his language perspicuous, the learning of Stillingfleet's clouds his.  This is an instance of the superiority of good sense over learning, towards the improvement of every language.
       There is nothing peculiar to the language of Archbishop Tillotson, but his manner of writing is inimitable;  for one who reads him wonders why he himself did not think and speak it in that very manner.  The turn of his periods is agreeable though artless, and everything he says seems to flow spontaneously from inward conviction.  Barrow, though greatly his superior in learning, falls short of him in other respects.
       The time seems to be at hand when justice will be done to Mr. Cowley's prose as well as poetical writings;  and though his friend Dr. Sprat, Bishop of Rochester, in his diction falls far short of the abilities for which he has been celebrated, yet there is sometimes a happy flow in his periods, something that looks like eloquence.  The style of his successor, Atterbury, has been much commended by his friends, which always happens when a man distinguishes himself in party;  but there is in it nothing extraordinary.  Even the speech which he made for himself at the bar of the House of Lords, before he was sent into exile, is void of eloquence, though it has been cried up by his friends to such a degree that his enemies have suffered it to pass uncensured.
       The philosophic manner of Lord Shaftesbury's writing is nearer to that of Cicero than any English author has yet arrived at;  but perhaps had Cicero written in English, his composition would have greatly exceeded that of our countryman.  The diction of the latter is beautiful, but such beauty as upon nearer inspection carries with it evident symptoms of affectation.  This has been attended with very disagreeable consequences.  Nothing is so easy to copy as affectation,, and his Lordship's rank and fame have procured him more imitators in Britain than any other writer I know;  all faithfully preserving his blemishes, but unhappily not one of his beauties.
       Mr. Trenchard and Dr. Davenant were political writers of great abilities in diction, and their pamphlets are now standards in that way of writing.  They were followed by Dean Swift, who, though in other respects far their superior, never could arise to that manliness and clearness of diction in political writing for which they were so justly famous.
        They were all of them exceeded by the late Lord Bolingbroke {Henry St. John}, whose strength lay in that province;  for as a philosopher and a critic he was ill qualified, being destitute of virtue for the one, and of learning for the other.  His writings against Sir Robert Walpole are incomparably the best part of his works.  The personal and perpetual antipathy he had for that family, to whose places he thought his own abilities had a right, gave a glow to his style, and an edge to his manner, that never yet have been equalled in political writing.  His misfortunes and disappointments gave his mind a turn which his friends mistook for philosophy, and at one time of his life he had the art to impose the same belief upon some of his enemies.  His idea of a patriot king, which I reckon (as indeed it was) amongst his writings against Sir Robert Walpole, is a masterpiece of diction.  Even in his other works his style is excellent;  but where a man either does not or will not understand the subject he writes on, there must always be a deficiency.  In politics, he was generally master of what he undertook;  in morals, never.
       Mr. Addison, for a happy and natural style, will be always an honour to British literature.  His diction, indeed, wants strength;  but it is equal to all the subjects he undertakes to handle, as he never (at least in his finished works) attempts anything either in the argumentative or demonstrative way.
        Though Sir Richard Steele's reputation as a public writer was owing to his connexions with Mr. Addison, yet after their intimacy was formed, Steele sank in his merit as an author.  This was not owing so much to the evident superiority on the part of Addison, as to the unnatural efforts which Steele made to equal or eclipse him.  This emulation destroyed that genuine flow of diction which is discoverable in all his former compositions. 
       Whilst their writings engaged attention and the favour of the public, reiterated but unsuccessful endeavours were made towards forming a grammar of the English language.  The authors of those efforts went upon wrong principles.  Instead of endeavouring to retrench the absurdities of our language, and bringing it to a certain criterion, their grammars were no other than a collection of rules attempting to naturalize those absurdities, and bring them under a regular system.
        Somewhat effectual, however, might have been done towards fixing the standard of the English language, had it not been for the spirit of party.  For both Whigs and Tories being ambitious to stand at the head of so great a design, the Queen's death happened before any plan of an academy could be resolved on.
        Meanwhile, the necessity of such an institution became every day more apparent.  The periodical and political writers, who then swarmed, adopted the very worst manner of L'Estrange, till not only all decency, but all propriety, of language was lost in the nation.  Leslie, a pert writer, with some wit and learning, insulted the government every week with the grossest abuse.  His style and manner, both of which were illiberal, were imitated by Ridpath, Defoe, Dunton, and others of the opposite party:  and Toland pleaded the cause of atheism and immorality in much the same strain:  his subject seemed to debase his diction, and he ever failed most in one, when he grew most licentious in the other.
       Towards the end of Queen Anne's reign some of the greatest men in England devoted their time to party, and then a much better manner obtained in political writing.  Mr. Walpole, Mr. Addison, Mr. Mainwaring, Mr. Steele, and many members of both houses of Parliament, drew their pens for the Whigs;  but they seem to have been overmatched, though not in argument, yet in writing, by Bolingbroke, Prior, Swift, Arbuthnot, and the other friends of the opposite party.  They who oppose a ministry have always a better field for ridicule and reproof than they who defend it.
       Since that period our writers have either been encouraged above their merits or below them.  Some who were possessed of the meanest abilities acquired the highest preferments, while others who seemed born to reflect a lustre upon their age perished by want or neglect.  More, Savage, and Amherst were possessed of great abilities, yet they were suffered to feel all the miseries that usually attend the ingenious and imprudent--that attend men of strong passions, and no phlegmatic reserve in their command.
       At present, were a man to attempt to improve his fortune or increase his friendship by poetry, he would soon feel the anxiety of disappointment.  The press lies open, and is a benefactor to every sort of literature but that alone.
       I am at a loss whether to ascribe this falling off of the public to a vicious taste in the poet or in them.  Perhaps both are to be reprehended.  The poet, either drily didactive, gives us rules which might appear abstruse even in a system of ethics, or, triflingly volatile, writes upon the most unworthy subjects;  content, if he can give music instead of sense;  content, if he can paint to the imagination without any desires or endeavours to affect:  the public, therefore, with justice, discard such empty sound, which has nothing but a jingle, or, what is worse, the unmusical flow of blank verse, to recommend it.  The late method, also, into which our newspapers have fallen, of giving an epitome of every new publication, must greatly damp the writer's genius.  He finds himself, in this case, at the mercy of men who have neither abilities nor learning to distinguish his merit.  He finds his own composition mixed with the sordid trash of every daily scribbler.  There is a sufficient specimen given of his work to abate curiosity, and yet so mutilated as to render him contemptible.  His first, and perhaps his second, work by these means sink, among the crudities of the age, into oblivion.  Fame, he finds, begins to turn her back:  he therefore flies to profit, which invites him, and he enrols himself in the lists of dulness and of avarice for life. 
       Yet there are still among us men of the greatest abilities, and who, in some parts of learning, have surpassed their predecessors.  Justice and friendship might here impel me to speak of names which will shine out to all posterity, but prudence restrains me from what I should otherwise eagerly embrace.  Envy might rise against every honoured name I should mention, since scarcely one of them has not those who are his ememies, or those who despise him &c."
                                           Oliver Goldsmith

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