Age of Queen Anne.

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

WE come now to the age of queen Anne. This is the period of English profe, which has always been attended with the highest and most extensive plaudits. A few scholars indeed have affected to praise the age of queen Elizabeth; but the multitude of readers, for a long time, perhaps to this day, have pitched their tents, and taken up their rest, under the banners of Anne.

Many reasons may be assigned for this. English prose, as I have endeavoured to show, had gone on in a continual course of improvement. The writers of queen Anne's days refined upon the writers of king Charles's, though by no means fo much as these had refined upon their predeceffors. Many circumstances tended to render the short reign of Anne illustrious: the campaigns of Marlborough; the temporary conquest of a kingdom [Spain] which once seemed to threaten Europe with universal monarchy; the new spectacle of England at the head of a successful continental confederaey. Add to this,


[ocr errors]


that the literary characters of that age were called to fill active situations. Not to mention inferior instances, we may recollect the negociations of Prior; the uncommonly important situation Swift held with the Tory administration; and the literary ambition of Bolingbruke, not inferior to the political. The domestic question, which was then secretly at issue, whether the house of Hanover should succeed, or the house of Stuart be restored, animated all hearts, and kept alive all understandings.

To the settlement of the question of the succession, succeeded a national torpor. It is now generally confessed, that the house of Hanover succeeded contrary to the predilection of a majority of the people. Literary men were not then aware of the uselessness, not to say incumbrance, of patronage ; and patronage could not even in appearance be kept up, under a royal family, by whom our language could neither be spoken nor read. Sir Robert Walpole rendered the case still worse, by the fordidness of his maxims, the phlegmatism of his conduct, and the general propensity be inspired to commerce and gain. 'The spirit of the nation was sunk; dulness reigned triumphant; and England bid fair to rival, in all that was base and despicable, the republic of Holland.



During this period, the popularity, which the 'writers under queen Anne had obtained among their contemporaries, had time to sink deep in the hearts of men. Those in whom the love of letters still survived, affirmed, and not without some plausibilities to support them, that the reign of illumination and taste in Great Britain was hastening to a close; and they looked back with affection to Addison, Swift, and their contemporaries, as its last supporters. This appeared to their imagination an Augustan age, about to be succeeded by a long winter of arbitrary sway and intellectual night.

We are able at the present day, when English prose has again appeared with more than its wonted lustre, to estimate the merits of these favoured writers with fairness and impartiality.

Let us begin with the writings of Addison. Nojust observer can recollect the share which bclongs to him in the volumes of the Spectator, without feeling that English prose, and the polite literature of his country, are deeply indebted to him. His papers on Wit, on the Pleasures of the Imagination, on the character of fir Roger de Coverley, and many others, are entitled to no vulgar encomium. Addison was a man of considerable tafte, which he has not only demon




strated by the juftness and delicacy of the ma. jority of his criticisms, but also by the forination of a style, which is for the most part equally diftant from the affectation of a literary fop, and the stiffures of a pedant.

His ftyle is commended by Johnfon in the following terms. “(He) sometimes descends too much to the language of conversation ; yet if his language bad been less idiomatical, it might have lost fomewhat of its genuine Anglicifm. What he attempted, he performed; he is never feeble, and he did not wish to be energetick; he is never rapid, and he never ftagnates. His fentences have neither studied amplitude, nor affected brevity: his periods, though not diligently rounded, are voluble and easy. Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not oftentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addisoni."

In a word, we may conclude that we shalk: find in Addison, according to the opinion of Johnson, another well of English undefiled.

Nothing can be more glaringly exaggerated than this praise. Addison is a writer eminently Chervated; and few authors, distinguished in +Lives of the Poets.


[merged small][ocr errors]

the belles lettres, and of fo recent à date, will be found more strikingly loose and unsystematical in their diction.

Let us examine a few passages from writings, of which we are told, that they are “never feeble,” and “never ftagnate ;” that they are familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not oftentatious."

The following remarks occur in Addison's farfamed and ridiculous commentary upon the ballad of Chevy Chace.

As Greece was a Collection of many Governments, * who suffered very much among themselves, and * gave the Persian Emperor, who was their common Enemy, many Advantages over them by their mutual Jealousies and Aninosities, Homer, in order to establish among them an Union, which was fo necessary for their Safety, * grounds his Poem upon the Discords of the several Grecian Princes who were engaged in a Confederacy against an Afatick Prince, and the several Advantages which the Enemy gained by * such their Discords. At the Time the Poem we are now treating * of was written, the Difsensions of the Barons, who were then so many petty Princes, ran very high, * whether they quarrelled among themselves, or with their Neighbours, * and produced unspeakable Cala


[merged small][merged small][ocr errors]


« VorigeDoorgaan »