« PreviousContinue »
above God Almighty in power and sovereignty. Now the inconveniency of greatness, that I have made choice of to consider in this place, upon some occasion that has lately put it into my head, is this : there is not peradventure anything more pleasant in the commerce of men than the trials that we make against one another, out of emulation of honour and valour, whether in the exercises of the body or in those of the mind; wherein the sovereign greatness can have no true part. And in earnest I have often thought, that out of force of respect men have used princes disdainfully and injuriously in that particular. For the thing I was infinitely offended at in my childhood, that they who exercised with me forbore to do their best because they found me unworthy of their utmost endeavour, is what we see happen to them every day, every one finding himself unworthy to contend with them. If we discover that they have the least passion to have the better, there is no one who will not make it his business to give it them, and who will not rather betray his own glory than offend theirs ; and will therein employ so much force only as is necessary to advance their honour. What share have they then in the engagement wherein every one is on their side ?
Methinks I see those paladins of ancient times presenting themselves to jousts, with enchanted arms and bodies; Brisson, running against Alexander, purposely missed his blow, and made a fault in his career; Alexander chid him for it, but he ought to have had him whipped. Upon this consideration, Carneades said, that the sons of princes learned nothing right, but to ride the great horse; by reason that in all their exercises 'every one bends and yields to them: but a horse, that is neither a flatterer nor a courtier, throws the son of a king with no more remorse than he would do that of a porter. Homer was compelled to consent that Venus, so sweet and delicate as she was, should be wounded at the battle of Troy, thereby to ascribe courage and boldness to her; qualities that cannot possibly be in those who are exempt from danger. The gods are made to be angry, to fear, to run away, to be jealous, to grieve, and to be transported with passions, to honour them with the virtues that amongst us are built upon these imperfections. Who does not participate in the hazard and difficulty, can pretend no interest in the honour and pleasure that are the consequents of hazardous actions. 'Tis pity a man should be so potent that all things must give way to him. Fortune therein sets you too remote from society, and places you in too great a solitude. The easiness and mean facility of making all things bow under you, is an enemy to all sorts of pleasure. This is to slide, not to go; this is to sleep, and not to live. Conceive man accompanied with omnipotency, you throw him into an abyss : he must beg disturbance and opposition as an alms. His being and his good is indigent. Their good qualities are dead and lost; for they are not to be perceived, but by comparison, and we put them out of it: they have little knowledge of the true praise, having their ears deafed with so continual and uniform an approbation. Have they to do with the meanest of all their subjects ? they have no means to take any advantage of him, if he say, 'tis because he is my king, he thinks he has said enough to express that he therefore suffered himself to be over
This quality stifles and consumes the other true and essential. qualities. They are involved in the royalty, and leave them nothing to recommend themselves withal, but actions that directly concern themselves, and that merely respect the function of their place. 'Tis so much to be a king, that he only is so by being so; the strange lustre that environs him conceals and shrouds him from us; our sight is there repelled and dissipated, being stopped and filled by this prevailing light. The senate awarded the prize of eloquence to Tiberius; he refused it, supposing that, though it had been just, he could derive no advantage from a judgment so partial, and that was so little free to judge. As we give them all advantages of honour, so do we soothe and authorize all their vices and defects, not only by approbation, but by imitation also. Every one of Alexander's followers carried their heads on one side, as he did; and the flatterers of Dionysius run against one another in his presence, stumbled at, and overturned whatever was under foot, to shew that they were as purblind as he. Na tural imperfections have sometimes also served to recommend a man to favour. I have seen deafness affected : and, because the master hated his wife, Plutarch has seen his courtiers repudiate theirs, whom they loved: and, which is yet more, uncleanness and all manner of dissolution has been in fashion ; as also disloyalty, blasphemies, cruelty, heresy, superstition, irreligion, effeminacy, and worse if worse there be. And by an example yet more dangerous than that of Mithridates' flatterers, who, by how much their master pretended to the honour of a good physician, came to him to have incision and cauteries made in their limbs; for these others suffered the soul, a more delicate and noble part, to be cauterized. But to end where I begun: the Emperor Adrian, disputing with the Philosopher Favorinnus about the intepretation of some word: Favorinnus soon yielded him the victory; for which his friends rebuking him; “ You talk simply," said he, “would you not have him wiser than I, who commands thirty legions ?” Augustus wrote verses against Asinius Pollio, and I, said Pollio, say nothing, for it is not prudence to write in contest with him who has power to proscribe : and he had reason ; for Dionysius, because he could not equal Philoxenus in poesy, and Plato in discourse, condemned one to the Quarries, and sent the other to be sold for a slave into the island of Ægina.
42.—THE LITERATURE OF THE AGE OF ELIZABETH.
HAZLITT. (William HAZLITT, one of the most voluminous writers of our times, was born in 1778; he died of cholera in 1830. His father was a Unitarian minister, and he was educated for his father's profession. But he had a determined predilection for the fine arts, and devoted himself for several years to the studies of a painter. There is little doubt that he would have attained considerable excellence in this walk, had his fastidiousness allowed him to have been satisfied with his growing mastery over the difficulties of art. He, however, became a writer, and for a quarter of a century he devoted himself to an unremitting course of literary exertion. His political feelings were strong and almost passionate. He became therefore an object of unceasing attack, and no man was pursued with more virulence by the party writers who supported the Government of the day. His reputation is now established as a vigorous thinker, and an eloquent critic, who in an age of imitation dared to be original.]
The age of Elizabeth was distinguished, beyond, perhaps, any other in our history, by a number of great men, famous in different ways, and whose names have come down to us with unblemished honours,statesmen, warriors, divines, scholars, poets, and philosophers : Raleigh, Drake, Coke, Hooker, and higher and more sounding still, and still more frequent in our mouths, Shakespear, Spenser, Sydney, Bacon, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher-men whom fame has eternised in her long and lasting scroll, and who, by their words and acts, were benefactors of their country, and ornaments of human nature. Their attair ments of different kind sbore the same general stamp, and it was sterling: what they did had the mark of their age and country upon it. Perhaps the genius of Great Britain (if I may so speak without offence or flattery) never shone out fuller or brighter, or looked more like itself, than at this period.
For such an extraordinary combination and development of fancy and genius many causes may be assigned; and we may seek for the chief of them in religion, in politics, in the circumstances of the time, the recent diffusion of letters, in local situation, and in the character of the men who adorned that period, and availed themselves so nobly of the advantages placed within their reach.
I shall here attempt to give a general sketch of these causes, and of the manner in which they operated to mould and stamp the poetry of the country at the period of which I have to treat; independently of incidental and fortuitous causes, for which there is no accounting, but which, after all, have often the greatest share in determining the most important results.
The first cause I shall mention, as contributing to this general effect, was the Reformation, which had just then taken place. This event gave a mighty impulse and increased activity to thought and inquiry, and agitated the inert mass of accumulated prejudices throughout Europe. The effect of the concussion was general; but the shock was greatest in this country. It toppled down the fullgrown intolerable abuses of centuries at a blow; heaved the ground from under the feet of bigoted faith and slavish obedience; and the roar and dashing of opinions, loosened from their accustomed hold, might be heard like the noise of an angry sea, and has never yet subsided. Germany first broke the spell of misbegotten fear, and gave the watchword; but England joined the shout, and echoed it back, with her island voice, from her thousand cliffs and craggy shores, in a longer and a louder strain. With that cry, the genius of Great Britain rose, and threw down the gauntlet to the nations. There was a mighty fermentation : the waters were out; public opinion was in a state of projection. Liberty was held out to all to think and speak the truth. Men's brains were busy; their spirits stirring; their hearts full; and their hands not idle. Their eyes were opened to expect the greatest things, and their ears burned with curiosity and zeal to know the truth, that the truth might make them free. The death-blow which had been struck at scarlet vice and bloated hypocrisy, loosened their tongues, and made the talismans and love-tokens of Popish superstition, with which she had beguiled her followers and committed abominations with the people, fall harmless from their necks.
The translation of the Bible was the chief engine in the great work. It threw open, by a secret spring, the rich treasures of religion and morality, which had been there locked up as in a shrine. It revealed the visions of the prophets, and conveyed the lessons of inspired teachers to the meanest of the people. It gave them a common interest in a common cause. Their hearts burnt within them as they read. It gave a mind to the people, by giving them common subjects of thought and feeling. It cemented their union of character and sentiment; it created endless diversity and collision of opinion. They found objects to employ their faculties, and a motive in the magnitude of the consequences attached to them, to exert the utmost eagerness in the pursuit of truth, and the most daring intrepidity in maintaining it. Religious controversy sharpens the understanding by the subtlety and remoteness of the topics it discusses, and embraces the will by their infinite importance. We perceive in the history of this period a nervous masculine intellect. No levity, no feebleness, no indifference; or, if there were, it is a relaxation from the intense activity which gives a tone to its general character. But there is a gravity approaching to piety; a seriousness of impression, a conscientious severity of argument, an habitual fervour and enthusiasm in their method of handling almost every subject. The debates of the school. men were sharp and subtle enough ; but they wanted interest and grandeur, and were besides confined to a few: they did not affect the general mass of the community. But the Bible was thrown open to all ranks and conditions “ to run and read,” with its wonderful table of contents from Genesis to the Revelations. Every village in England would present the scene so well described in Burns's “Cotter's Saturday Night.' I cannot think that all this variety and weight of knowledge could be thrown in all at once upon the minds of the people and not make some impression upon it, the traces of which might be discerned in the manners and literature of the age. For, to leave more disputable points, and take only the historical parts of the Old Testament, or the moral sentiments of the New, there is nothing like them in the power of