« VorigeDoorgaan »
grave inquiries into the existence of the phoenix, and questions whether swans do actually sing at the hour of their dissolution; when the Protector was dead and the Restoration was at hand, he gave to the world his Urn Burial. If his heavenly horizon was large, his earthly landscape was proportionately narrow; his essays are evidently the work of a gentlemanly dreamer, who was born and lived out his life in an old East Anglian town-one whose eyes attended the Eternal with so fixed a stare that they were allowed no opportunity of gazing on the nearer world. It is astonishing to note that not until a hundred
years after its introduction into the language did the essay become a recognised vehicle for humorous and emotional expression, which was one of the uses to which it was best adapted, as Montaigne demonstrated in his treatment of it. Indeed, much of the history of the evolution of the English essay may be summed up in the phrase "back to Montaigne.” Thomas Fuller was one of the first to realise its humorous possibilities. He, like Sir Thomas Browne, who was three years his senior, was attached to the Royal cause, but, unlike him, was an inquisitive observer of the near-by world. He was an ordained clergyman, and seems to have accompanied the army for some time as chaplain to Lord Hopton. Many of his writings are definitely theological, and all of them bear the impress of the sermonic mind. But he was saved from becoming stilted and sedate by his evident joy of life. We are told that even when engaged in active service he busied himself in gathering materials for many of the books which he subsequently published; that his company was at the same time much courted, on account of the extraordinary intelligence which he had acquired and the strain of lively humour of which he was possessed, which seems to have been quite irrepressible;
and that he would sit patiently for hours listening to the prattle of old wives, in order that he might obtain snatches of local history, traditionary anecdote, and proverbial wisdom. The style of all Fuller's works is quaintly jocular. Bishop Nicholson, in speaking of his Church History, accuses him of being fonder of a good joke than of correctness, and says that he is not over-scrupulous in his inquiry into the foundation of any laughable story which Providence sends his way.
“Even the most serious and authentic parts of it are so interlaced with pun and quibble that it looks as if the man had designed to ridicule the annals of our Church into fable and romance.” Examples of this risible quality, combined with a profound insight, are seen in his characterisation of a negro as "the image of God cut in ebony," and again when he says of the Pyramids that “they themselves, doting with age, have forgotten their founders.” He is a preacher like Bacon, but he carries the development of the essay one step further, inasmuch as he laughs while he preaches.
John Milton adds a new element—the political. Most of his prose writings deal with affairs of State, and in Puritan days affairs of State were largely affairs of religion. The Areopagitica, from which our selection is taken, had for subtitle A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing. Though a written composition, it assumed the literary form of the spoken word. He outsteps the Baconian tradition of instructing in this much, that he accuses and upbraids.
Abraham Cowley, of all the seventeenth-century essayists, comes nearest in spirit to Montaigne. He is not so large a man, nor as recklessly garrulous, but his method is the same. He is either read out of affection for his personality, or is disregarded absolutely; there is no middle way. Lamb, in his essay on Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading, writes, “The sweetest names, and which carry a perfume
to mention, are Kit Marlowe, Drayton, Drummond of Hawthornden, and Cowley.” The note of real affection is there. And again, in a letter to Coleridge, he writes: "In all our comparisons of taste, I do not know whether I have ever heard your opinion of a poet very dear to menow out-of-fashion-Cowley. Favour me with your judgment of him, and tell me if his prose essays, in particular, as well as no inconsiderable part of his verse, be not delicious. I prefer the graceful rambling of his essays even to the courtly elegance and grace of Addison; abstracting from this the latter's exquisite humour." There is something very modern about what is called, "the sweetness and old-world air of Cowley.” In comparison with him, most of the eighteenth-century essayists seem relatively archaic. In his method he is the forerunner of the English familiar essay, though his diction is sedately quaint; he prepared the way for the fuller intimacy of Stevenson.
According to Boswell, Samuel Johnson's purpose in literature was “to come forth in the character for which he was eminently qualified, a majestic teacher of moral and religious wisdom.” Johnson himself acknowledges this when he writes, “As it has been my principal design to inculcate wisdom or piety, I have allotted a few papers to the idle sports of imagination.” For idle sports of the imagination his style was not best fitted; in attempting them, so far as it is possible for Johnson to fail, he fails. As is well known, on several occasions, when his means were straitened, he was driven to write sermons for a livelihood; here he was in his element, for he was a born preacher. His share in the evolution of the classic essay is most important as a contribution to periodic literature. When once this style of writing was called upon to stand the test of immediate popularity it proved its limitations.
William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt are significant as the
last upholders of an old tradition. They were sensitive of the modern movement toward wider boundaries, but they went forward with a backward look and a half-regret for things past. Both did much in helping to establish the critical and biographic essay, Hazlitt in particular, but they returned frequently to the old standards which the world was abandoning. In Hazlitt we meet with none of those emotional qualities which we now expect in the essayist; there is strong egotism, but very little that is personal. He does not reveal his circumstances, and only partially reveals his mind. Where books and his appreciation of them are concerned, he is most communicative. His reputation as a classic essayist must be chiefly based on enthusiasm of thought and lucidity of style-not on any newness of handling. The first essays of Leigh Hunt prove clearly that he worked under the shadow of a past age. Though in later life he came to be an able journalist, he never quite threw off the earlier influence. He attempted many styles of essay-writing, but in none of them did he equal his model. When he preaches, the lesson which he inculcates is not often very profound. His chief quality is a consistent friendliness and pleasure in talking for talking's sake. He is the last of the long line of men who have attempted the classic essay with any measure of
He was also a practitioner of the newer forms of essay which have come to take its place, and in many cases blended successfully the old with the new. In so doing, he was pioneering and not imitating; and it is then that we see him at his best. His essay on Deaths of Little Children, though cast in the classic mould, comes very near to being impassioned prose. He was a timid innovator, whom tradition restrained. Already the essay had branched out into many new lines of development, as will be seen in the succeeding chapters, many of which were
little more than a leading back to Montaigne. The Baconian tradition was stubborn and hard to die. Its death is largely attributable to that demand for livelier or more scientific styles of writing which grew out of the wider diffusion of periodic literature.
The stage is more beholding to love, than the life of man. For as to the stage, love is even matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies; but in life it doth much mischief, sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury. You may observe, that amongst all the great and worthy persons, (whereof the memory remaineth, either ancient or recent,) there is not one that hath been transported to the mad degree of love; which shows, that great spirits and great business do keep out this weak passion. You must except, nevertheless, Marcus Antonius the half partner of the Empire of Rome, and Appius Claudius the Decemvir and lawgiver; whereof the former was indeed a voluptuous man and inordinate; but the latter was an austere and wise man: and therefore it seems, (though rarely,) that love can find entrance, not only into an open heart, but also into a heart well fortified, if watch be not well kept. It is a poor saying of Epicurus: “Satis magnum alter alteri theatrum sumus”; as if man, made for the contemplation of heaven, and all noble objects, should do nothing but kneel before a little idol, and make himself a subject, though not of the mouth, (as beasts are,) yet of the eye, which was given him for higher purposes. It is a strange thing to note the excess of this passion; and how it braves the nature and value of things by this, that the speaking in a perpetual hyperbole is comely in nothing but in love. Neither is it merely in the phrase;