Page images
PDF
EPUB

Never could Shakspeare or Scott have wrought the won. ders which they did, except as they sprung from a people, elevated by hearty religious faith, and as they themselves reverenced, most honestly, its work upon the soul of man. Man as known by them was man with a moral nature, godlike in its capacities for good-terrific in its power for evil. In its triuinphs for good are comprehended all holy and blessed affections, all delightful sympathies, all noble and sublime achievements. The world's great dramatist could never have touched the chord of the human heart with such a hand of power, had not he known this master string, to which they all respond with a harmony so divinely sweet, or with which, if out of tune, they jangle with a discord so harsh and horrid.

It is also worthy our notice, that those periods of England's history which have been marked by the prevalence of the intensest religious spirit, are known as the proudest periods for England's literature. Such was the great Eliza's golden time. Then the sacred Scriptures were just unlocked from their dark and dreary prison house, and the common people exulted in the Christian faith, now disencumbered of its monstrous accretions, as it burst upon their sight with the power and freshness of a new revelation. The bright constellation of writers that begirt the splendid throne of Elizabeth, whose names revive to us so much that is honorable in chivalric devotion, and venerable for sageness of wisdom, were inen who deemed themselves most ennobled when their intellects and pens were busy with the divinest themes. Then appeared that splendid circle of poets, divines and philosophers, as the natural offspring of an age so enriched with manly sentiment, so ennobled by public virtue, and animated by life-giving faith. That age continued for nearly a century, an age of ardent religious feeling and of earnest religious discussion, through the reigns of James and Charles, uill it ended in the brief but substantial glories of the commonwealth. It maintained the same essential fea. tures; with the exception that it began with loyalty. predominant even to servile subjection, and it ended with liberty, triumphant even to licentious misrule. From its beginning to its end, it ceased not to produce its wonderful abundance of the most splendid names in literature, always characterized by strength of conception, elevation of feeling and splendor of diction. Had the Latin element less oppressed and encumbered their language, had their sentences been constructed with a more flexible ease, and their thoughts been fitted to each other with a method more natural and more strict, that age would never have been defrauded of its lawful honors.

The century which followed began with the restoration of a licentious monarch and a profligate court. During this period the faith and fervor of the people stood at a lower point, and the tone of morals sadly declined. Infidelity made repeated assaults upon the Christian system in that remarkable succession of writers known by the name of the English Deists, who were repelled rather in the tone of apologetic defenders, ihan with the fervor of apostolic boldness. English literature during all this time experienced a withering of its strength and a decay of its beauty. It is true the age of Queen Anne is sometimes called the Augustan age of English literature, but less frequently now than was for. merly the case. I am not insensible to the real merits of Addison, and Pope, and Swift, but of this I am certain, that if literature is to be tested by its strong and permanent hold upon the heart, by the vigor of its thoughts, the freshness of its images and the force and propriety of its language, then the age of Anne is not by many degrees the noblest age of England's literature. It is true, that at that time the grammar and rhetoric of the language were formally treated of, and applied with more studious nicety. English style was then made pure of certain inconvenient appendages, and moulded into easier and more harmonious periods. But in those features which make a literature worthy of our de. light and admiration, this latter period is not for an instant to be compared with the one which went before it. Look at Shakspeare, Milton, Bacon, Fuller, Hooker, Brown, Taylor, Sydney, Harrington, and place by their side Pope, Addison, and Swift,—their very names decide the question.

Of the history of English literature since the year 1760, with its renewed glories, and their not unobvious causes, I forbear to speak.

I must also name the powerful influence which the Eng. lish Bible, in the wonderful perfection and poetry of its diction, has exerted upon almost every English writer who has been truly great. It has been a perpetual minister of enno

bling thought and a living fountain of the grandest inspiration. To say nothing of the hundreds, of other times, whom I night name, I mention three of recent fame-Burns, Byron and Scott-who confessedly owe not a little of their intellectual power, and their poetic diction, to the constant perusal of the Hebrew poets. .

When it is added that in France, till but recently, a poet of eminence would derive no inspiration from this source, nay, that he would be pardoned if he barely knew that such a book was in being, or even if he sneered at its contents as the collected incoherencies of the barbarous Jews, the reader will not fail to see, that the Protestant faith has exerted no inferior influence, in forming the English character to its peculiar dignity, and the English literature to its pecu. liar excellence.

Such are the characteristics of England's literature, as it is affected by the Principles, the Spirit and the Faith of the English people. Its other features, those which distinguish it, in common with all the literature of modern times, from that of the ancient world, it was not the design of the writer to consider.

He has to regret that the theme is so extensive, as to admit only of remarks the most rapid and general, and to compel him to leave unnoticed the hundreds of illustrations which have crowded upon him at every step. It is a theme for a series of articles,-one for each age that divides its his. tory, and one for each writer who adorns its splendid roll, rather than a topic for one brief essay.

The literature of England is a noble inheritance. The world can show no other like it; and it is our inheritance. It becomes us to honor the memory of the illustrious dead who have left it as their bequest, and not to be ignorant of the value and extent of the treasures which they have laid up for us in our houses. Enshrined as it is in a language fitted to its high and varied offices, which can sparkle in a song of Shakspeare's, and swell the sublime rolling of Mil. ton's verse, it is a noble repository of just principles and of manly and heroic sentiments. The study of it, not the reading merely, is fitted to discipline the intellect to the sturdiest strength, and to inform the soul with principles of pure up. rightness, of self-sacrificing virtue and exalting faith. He who, with an intellect disciplined by the thorough SECOND SERIES, VOL. IV. NO. II.

8

study of the classics, and with a taste formed by their faultless models, gives as thorough and severe an attention to the literature and language of his native tongue, will see the amazing wealth of its stores roll out before him in exhaustless profusion, and new and unlocked coffers ever to present themselves, in this golden treasure-house. He may also know, that the continued converse with these mighty minds, cannot but give to his intellect, as long as he shall live, a constant and generous growth. The scholar who has his Milton and his Burke ever open before him, and the poetry of the one and the rich and numerous prose of the other ever upon his tongue, will find himself quickened and elevated into a better intellectual life. The influence of such a course of study upon success, in professional and public life, will be most apparent. The few, here and there, who are known to be studious of the force and beauty of the language which they employ, and to hold constant intercourse with the great minds of English literature, stand by themselves. They are known to possess some high and marked peculiarity, and are confessedly not only masters of the instrument which they wield, but elevated by the peculiar dignity of their intellectual cultivation,

Such were the studies of the late John Randolph, who is known to have given constant and severe attention to the English language and literature. The influence of these studies we trace in the acute and weighty sense which mark the efforts of his earlier days, and the pure and idiomatic Eng. Jish which places him before almost any other American speaker, as the easy and graceful master of his native tongue. Many others of our statesmen and public men have derived the highest advantage from the same plenteous source. Yet not a few of those, whose gifts in eloquence and thought were far higher than his, are inferior to him in the marked superiority which his truly English education imparted to him. The English tongue, as employed by some of our noblest orators, appears to be a coarse and blunted instrument, rather than the finely polished steel, with which it glistens, when it is wielded by his hands.

The page of English literature is open to others, besides the man who aims to realize the high ideal of an accomplished education. It is easy for any man, whatever his circumstances and lot in life, to reserve the time and bestow the

attention that are necessary to make him the master of our leading authors. To be known, they must be thoroughly studied, and he that would derive the fullest advantage from his reading, must read with the spirit of manly reflection. He who, in the discharge of the ordinary duties of life, cherishes a taste for the early and later English poetry, and not a little of its fiction, and makes their words and images the familiar and well-loved ininates of his daily thoughts, cannot but strengthen a spirit of true manliness and noble elevation, as well as store his mind with treasures on which to work, when the excitement of life begins to subside, and its evening twilight is gathering its shades. No man, however humble his lot or meager his fare, has ever read and loved Milton in his earlier years, who has not received by this means a real education of mind and character, as well as stored most im. portant treasures of elevated enjoyment. Especially does it add a new grace to female loveliness, and a deeper and richer coloring to her native charms, to breathe the pure and ethereal air which may be imbibed from the haunts of English poesy. The old and moss-grown wells are not to be forgotten or passed by with neglect, overlaid though they be with massive stones, carved o'er with quaint devices; for beneath them the purest and sweetest water flows.

Let it not be forgotten, that not all which calls itself verse is genuine poetry,—not every one of those things called novels is genuine fiction ; and certainly not all, that comes to us in the dress of the English language, reflects the spirit of the true English character.

It is well to be zealous in diffusing just notions of this inheritance of noble writers, and a glowing enthusiasm to transmit their strength and spirit, as it is well to desire that the genuine English character may be maintained, in its native and dignified simplicity, in its self-respecting, yet selfforgetting ardor, and its familiar, yet reverent intercourse with the world of faith. Literary tastes and literary associations exert no mean influence, in deciding the principles, and in regulating the springs of action. It is of no slight consequence whether the tastes, the feelings, the manners, the prejudices and principles of our educated and reading men, are to be moulded and formed in the French, the German, or the good old English school. It may be no less a matter than to decide whether Atheism, which worships

« PreviousContinue »