Between the years 1733 and 1740, Pope gave to the world his Epistles, Satires, and Moral Essays, addressed for the most part to his distinguished friends Bolingbroke, Arbuthnot, &c. These admirable compositions, considered separately, are in most cases directed against some prevailing vice or folly, and it is perhaps in them that the poet's genius is seen in its fullest splendor, Glowing with fancy and a rich profuseness of illustration, adorned with every splendor that art or industry could confer, they are noble and imperishable monuments of knowledge, of acuteness, of observation, of finish, and of facility ; for the poet had now attained that mastery in his art when the very elaboration of the workmanship is concealed in the apparent ease of the execution. They abound in happy strokes of description,

. in exquisite appropriateness of phrase, and a thousand passages from these charming compositions have passed into the ordinary conversation of those who speak the poet's language. Pope, with his whole soul, loved what is good and true, and with his whole soul hated what is evil and false. Who has not read and admired the noble and beautiful lines with which the Dunciad concludes ?

“She comes, she comes ! the sable throne behold !

Of night primeval and of Chaos old;
Before her, Fancy's gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying rainbows die away,
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medëa's strain,
The sick’ning stars fade off the ethereal plain ;
As Argus' eye, by Hermes' wand oppress'd,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest ;--
Thus, at her fell approach and secret might,
Art after art goes out, and all is night.
See skulking Faith to her old cavern fled,
Mountains of casuistry heaped o'er her head;
Philosophy, that leaned on heaven before,
Shrinks to her second cause and is no more.
Religion, blushing, veils her sacred fires,
And, unawares, Morality expires.
No public flame, nor private, dares to shine,
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine.
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos, is restored.
Light dies before thy uncreating word ;
Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall,
And universal darkness buries all ! "

In these astonishing lines, Pope reaches to the very greatest height which his sublime art has attained, and shows himself the equal of all poets of all times. It is the

[ocr errors]

brightest ardor, the loftiest assertion of truth, the most generous wisdom, illustrated by the noblest poetic figure, and spoken in words the aptest, grandest, and most harmonious. It is heroic courage speaking: a splendid declaration of righteous wrath and war. It is the gage flung down, and the silver trumpet ringing defiance to falsehood and tyranny, deceit and dulness.*

The most brilliant wit, the most superb dandy, the most gallant and agreeable gentleman, and the greatest literary “swell” of this age of wits, was William Congreve. He first became known as an author by the comedy of the "Old Bachelor,” which was written before he was twenty years old, and which had the good fortune of securing for him the patronage of generous Halifax, who bestowed upon him several lucrative places under the government. Johnson, one of the severest of critics, says of this comedy: “ The dialogue is quick and sparkling, the incidents such as seize the attention, and the wit so exuberant that it o'er-informs its tenement.” The brilliant young wit took the world by storm. Everybody acknowledged the successful chieftain. Dryden, the greatest literary character of his day, and himself the centre of a circle of wits, writes of him: "Mr. Congreve has done me the favor to review the Nereis, and compare my version with the original. I shall never be ashamed to own that this excellent young man has shown me many faults, which I have endeavored to correct.”' Pope dedicated his Illiad to him in an address of great beauty, and higbly complimentary. Addison, Steele, Swift, and all the wits acknowledged his talents, and showered praises upon him. Voltaire, during his visit to England, called upon him, as one of the leaders of literature. Thackeray says: “ The ladies loved him, and he was no doubt a pretty fellow.” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu said she never knew anybody that had so much wit as Congreve. He won his laurels with the easy and elegant grace of a gentleman-soldier of the household troop of Louis XIV.-in velvet slippers, flowing wig, and laced coat. His comedies are bright, witty, and brilliant, but the less they are read the better for the reader. Fortunately the world grows better as it grows older, and the comedies of Congreve, once the delight of the most polished society in England, would not now be tolerated in any society. Some of his verses may give an idea of his

[ocr errors]

• Thackeray's "English Humorists,” Lecture on Pope.

[ocr errors]

grace, his elegance in compliment, his exquisite sarcasms. He writes thus of a young lady at a fashionable wateringplace of that day :

“Cease, cease to ask her name,
The crowned muse's noblest theme,
Whose glory by immortal fame

Shall only sounded be.
But if you long to know,
Then look round yonder dazzling row,
Who most does like an angel show

You may be sure 'tis she."
Here are some rather severe lines upon another beauty :

" When Lesbia first I saw, so heavenly fair,
With eyes so bright and with that awful air,
I thought my heart would durst so high aspire,
As bold as his who snatched celestial fire.
But soon as e'er the beauteous idiot spoke
Forth from her coral lips such folly broke;
Like balm the trickling nonsense heald my wound,

And what her eyes enthralled her tongue unbound." We now come to the greatest wit of the age of Queen Anne, if not the greatest wit of all times-Dean Swift. This famous writer, like Steele, Sterne, Sheridan, Goldsmith, and Burke, was an Irishman by birth. In his youth he was poor but proud, ambitious but obscure. He was educated by the kindness of an uncle, whom he hated for not doing more for him than he was able. When he was twenty-one years old he entered the service of Sir William Temple as private secretary. He received a salary of £20 a year, and a place at the upper servants' table. With a spirit as proud as Lucifer's, and a genius vast and mighty, Swift was compelled to bow with humble respect before his patron, and listen to his tiresome and oft-repeated stories. But, it was while occupying this dependent position that Swift laid the foundation of his literary fame: he had access to Sir William's valuable library, and availed himself of it to accumulate the vast stores of knowledge which he afterwards used so well in his writings. Swift was one of those flowers that bloom late; he was thirty-four when his first book was published. This may account for the extraordinary vigor and mastery of style which distinguished his writings from the beginning. They display none of the glitter and tinsel of rhetoric; they possess neither the delicate and exquisite humor of Addison, the dazzling brilliancy of Pope, the splendidly harmonious periods of Bolingbroke, nor the dashing gaiety of Steele. His

[ocr errors]

strength was in his keen and crushing wit, his withering and merciless satire. Wit and satire were his weapons—his twoedged sword, with which he destroyed his enemies and defended his friends. These mighty weapons raised him from obscurity and penury to fame and competence, from dependence and servitude to the companionship of the noble and great.

Swift commenced his political career as a whig, but in 1708 became dissatisfied with that party, and joined the tories, and was soon writing as vigorously and as fluently for his new friends as he had done for his former patrons. He was courted and caressed by Oxford and Bolingbroke, for they wanted the aid of his matchless wit. Dr. Johnson says* that Swift for a time dictated the political opinions of the English nation. He was the real ruler of England. He wrote pamphlets, poems, lampoons, and letters against the opposition ; his tremendous wit and dreadful satire was the chief support of the government. They rewarded his important services with approving smiles and flattering familiarity. But when he looked for a bishopric, they had none to give him. The queen and her advisers would not confer the mitre on the author of such a book as ". The Tale of a Tub,” whose boon companions were free-thinkers and infidels, whose books were loaded with a disgusting indecency which would have shamed the dissolute Wharton.

With all his great genius, with all his incomparable wit, with all his extraordinary talents, Swift fails to command our respect. This remorseless satirist, this Lucifer of Literature, was more feared than loved by all his acquaintance, except Pope, Bolingbroke, and one or two more of his particular friends. It seems strange that such a man as Swift, à cold, gloomy, misanthrope, could have won the devoted and enthusiastic love of two such women as Vanessa and Stella, one the most accomplished, the other the most beautiful woman of her age. His cruel selfishness caused one of them to die. of a broken heart, and the other to suffer a long, lingering misery.

The greatest production of the genius of Swift, and one of the most remarkable books ever written, is “Gulliver's Travels."

Being a work of universal satire, it will be read as long as the corruptions of human nature renders its innumerable mimic and sarcastic strokes applica

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

* Life of Swift.

[ocr errors]

ble and intelligible to human beings; and even were the follies and baseness of humanity so far purged away that men should no longer need the sharp and bitter medicine of satire, it would still be read with little less admiration and delight for the wonderful richness of invention it displays, and the exquisite art with which the most impossible and extravagant adventures are related—related so naturally as to cheat us into a momentary belief in their reality. Swift was indeed a rarely gifted, prompt, and vigorous intellect; in his particular line of satire he is unequalled in literature; he did more, and more readily, what few besides him could have attempted; he played during his life a prominent and important part in the political drama of his country; and established himself by his writings among the prose classics of the world ; but he was, as a man, heartless, selfish, unloving, and unsympathizing ; as a writer, he degraded and lowered our reverence for the divinity of our nature; and as a statesman, he appears to have felt no nobler spur to the exertion of his gigantic powers than the sting of personal pique and the pang of disappointed ambition. Throughout the whole of his literary career, Swift never appears to have cared to obtain the reputation of a mere writer. The ruling passion of his mind was an intense and arrogant desire for political power and notoriety; as he himself says, endeavors, from a boy, to distinguish myself, were only for the want of a great title, that I might be used like a lord by those who have an opinion of my parts—whether right or wrong it is no great matter."'*

. His was a great, an immense, but an evil genius:

Less than archangel ruined, and the excess

Of glory obscured.” We are done. Time does not permit us to say anything of Bolingbroke, whose stately and harmonious diction cannot be too highly commended, but whose infidel and atheistical sentiments cannot be too highly condemned ; of Prior, so honored and celebrated in his day ; and of Gay, the favorite of all the wits of the age of Queen Anne.

os All my

[ocr errors]

# English Literature, by Thomas B. Shaw, p. 229.

« VorigeDoorgaan »