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wonderful is the vitality of names; and there is reason to believe that
books essays to make the period of our literary history coinciding with the literary life of Pope is spoken of as our Augustan age. Were this transfer of title intended to imply the existence during the period in question of any royal patronage of letters such as the first of the legitimate Cæsars was too prudent absolutely to neglect, it would condemn itself at once. The English Augustans were not warmed by the favour of any English Augustus. William the Deliverer, in whose reign they had grown up, had been without stomach for the literature of a nation with whose tastes and habits he had never made it part of his political programme to sympathise. Queen Anne's very feeble light of personal judgment was easily kept under by the resolute will of her favourites, or flickered timidly under cover of the narrowest orthodoxy. Of the first two Georges the former, indifferent to an unpopularity which never seemed to endanger his tenure of the throne, neither possessed an ordinary mastery of the English tongue nor manifested even a transient desire to acquire it. His successor had no objection to be considered, in virtue of his mistress rather than his wife, the patron of the literary adherents of a political party, until, on mounting the throne, he blandly disappointed the hopes of that party itself. The epoch of our Augustans had all but closed, when the death of Frederick, Prince of Wales, put an absolute end to the nominal hopes in the advent of a golden age for the liberal arts, by averting the accession of a Patriot King.
Neither was the defect of royal patronage supplied by any genuine Mæcenas from among the great ones of the realm. The traditions in this respect of the Stuart period—traditions doubtless exaggerated in the age of Pope, yet not wholly baseless—had barely survived the expulsion of the last Stuart King. Of King William's Batavian comrades, none had sought to grace their newly-acquired dignities and incomes by fostering the efforts of genius in the country which they had consented to adopt. Among the chief English-born noblemen and gentlemen
of this reign those of the older generation were too intently engaged in picking their path through events and eventualities to find time for dallying with the delights of literature and art. One only of their number, the sage whom all parties honoured because he so circumspectly abstained from being of vital service to any, Sir William Temple, alone had a thought for literature, and horticulture, and other liberal amusements. With Queen Anne's accession commenced among the leaders of political and social life a period of eager speculation as to the contingencies which might supervene on her decease. Parties within parties, and factions within factions, battled over their living sovereign because it seemed that everything must depend upon the hands into which the power should fall when she should lie dead. In a time of national abasement foreign intellectual fashions and the patronage of such fashions may prevail; and such had been actually the case in the reigns of both the Charles's. In a time of national elevation a national literature will find its patrons; nor had such been wanting to our Elizabethans, nor were they (though in a different fashion) to fail English writers in subsequent times. But amidst the cynically selfish party-warfare which degraded our political life in the reign of Queen Anne, the value of literature was depreciated in accordance with the general decay of national feeling. For it was an age in which all things were viewed in their relation to the main issue upon which men's thoughts were fixed. Church and crown, freedom of action and of speech, the rights of the citizen at home and the glories of the nation abroad, were freely and fiercely tossed about in the caldron where the political future was believed to be brewing. Where the national honour was hardly taken into account as a secondary consideration, and the national wishes so little consulted that in the eyes of history they to this day frequently remain obscure, a national literature could obviously have no intrinsic cause for existence in the eyes of either Tories or of Whigs. It is for the parties that the nation and its feelings have been created; its traditions, its sympathies are so many adventitious aids, its foremost men so many candidates for partisan employment. The Whigs will crown Addison the laureate of their party; but not till he has sung the glories of its acknowledged hero. Bolingbroke, who liked to compare himself to Alcibiades, and Oxford, in whom the oblique vision of some party adulator discerned a Pericles to match, repaid their literary henchmen in the coin dearest to the frugal souls of literary men, and cheapest to the condescending great, a social familiarity at times facilitated by the bottle. Their literary assailants they were eager to imprison and pillory and utterly extinguish. Pegasus was always welcome if he would run in harness; otherwise away with him to the pound. Queen Anne's reign came to an end; and under the administration which supervened, a yet more practical method of reducing literature to her level was consistently adopted. No minister has probably ever expended so large a sum upon the hire of pens as Sir Robert Walpole. The consent of contemporaries and posterity stigmatises him as the poet's foe. The warmth of his patronage elicited the grubs from the soil, and bred dunces faster than Swift and Pope could destroy them.
Still, if the world of politics pursued its own ends, the world of society, never wholly absorbed in political life, might have essayed to offer its pleasing aid. It is true that in England, happily perhaps for our political development, the social life of the upper classes has generally found its centre in the political life of their times. Even after the Restoration society had only exaggerated, not distorted, the political tendencies of the age. Fashion in England has always driven ideas and notions to extremes; it has rarely or never invented them for itself. Thus, at the close of the Protectorate, society had anticipated the restoration of the Stuarts by taking the drama into favour once more. The stage seemed to feed the imagination by a tragedy chiefly of rant and fustian, national in its grossness if foreign in its form; while for an enforced period of spiritual austerity society found its revenge in a comedy of something more than flesh and blood. But every debauch has its limit; and the generation amidst which Pope grew up was growing weary of the boisterous sensuality as well as of the furious bombast which had intoxicated its predecessors. Dryden had sickened over the abominations to which he had prostituted his Muse; and though Congreve still remained an authority on account of the wit with which he had relieved the sameness of his dramatic fare, the ruder, but equally creative, Wycherley was fain to make a desperate attempt to eke out his withering wreath by a leaf or two of lyric laurels. Society had ceased to care for literature other than dramatic, unless recommended by an authority other than its own; and where was it to seek for such an authority except in the world of politics?
For our so-called Augustan age might indeed in one sense have asserted its claim to the title with which it was credited, had the Varros and Pollios revived a learning whence literature might have drawn the nourishing sap of a new and more luxuriant development. Our ancient seats of learning were identified with the national church; and it was in them that she must count at once her chief ornaments and her surest supports. But they had in truth suffered with her. In religious matters, the great Revolutionary struggle had come to represent itself to the inheritors of its achievements under the aspect of its extremes. Oxford the descend. ant of a Presbyterian, Bolingbroke the scion of a Puritan family, availed themselves of the reaction and cold bloodedly stood forward as the instigators of a High-Church moh. The Church had saved its connexion with the state by what was, unjustly in many cases but not unnaturally upon the whole, regarded as a compromise with opinions formerly elevated to the place of principles. The result was inevitable, that the moral influence of the clergy had fallen from its original height. The Universities throughout the first half of the century swarmed with the worst class of political malcontents; those who acquiesce and remain disloyal; for few priests and no prelates followed Atterbury into exile. Among the educated classes, indifference, veiled under the thin disguise of a philosophy hardly rising above the superficial deductions of common sense, had become the prevailing note in views of religion; and in morality, a code found ready acceptance which accommodated itself without difficulty even to slippery shoulders. This general tone of feeling com
municated itself even to members of a creed protected as it were by the consolidating influences of continued persecution; and a sense of decency sufficed to recommend an outward attitude dependent on no deep-seated convictions of heart and mind. The discipline of the Universities was still struggling among the folds of an apparently immortal scholasticism. The new Oxford scholarship was that of dilettanti; and Cambridge was only gradually reconstructing her system of teaching on the basis of the writings of Locke, and under the surviving influence of the devoted life of her unforgotten Barrow. Yet in those branches of study which most closely connect themselves with the progress of literature, though Bentley had taken the field, his services were hardly appreciated by his own generation. Free translation, the enemy of accurate scholarship, was adapting the classics to modern tastes rather than raising the latter to an earnest contemplation of the ancient models. And a critical knowledge, or even a faithful study of the national literature, had been scarcely begun by one or two enthusiasts; Shakspeare, mutilated on the stage, still awaited his first competent editor. Criticism, insisting upon rules the meaning of which it blindly ignored, lost itself in empty dogmatism, or strayed into the exchange of sheer personalities. The true critic and the true student were rare among the children of our Augustan age.
For in this age literature is in the main regarded under two aspects—as a political instrument and as an intellectual stimulant. The literary hero of these times will therefore not be a mind intent upon pondering and revealing the depths of human nature; nor a poet who from out of the turmoil of political conflicts or social distractions betakes himself into the secrecy of lyrical composition; not even the singer who recounts or inspires to great national actions. He will rather be the writer whose point pierces just as deeply as suffices for the insight which society desires to enjoy into the characters of men and women, and who never forgets the special in the general. He will be, in form, an eclectic of eclectics, sworn to fidelity to no school, and founding none, but like the society with which he accords, correct within the limits of a self-formed taste. From ancients and moderns, from French and Italian and our own interesting literature, he will circumspectly choose the most attractive models to adorn the grotto in which he receives the visits of his Muse. He will write to please, but to please a difficult public. He will therefore be master of that nicely chosen kind of allusions which is transparent to the educated intelligence; avoiding illustrations either commonplace or far-fetched, sparing no pains to sustain the attention which he arouses, and to make sure of the effect which it is his purpose to create. Whether his theme be love or hate, he will not forget the hearers for whose benefit he discourses upon it; and when he is most in earnest, he will be least liable to forget the eyes which are watching his conduct of the enterprise.
Controversy is the very breath in the nostrils of such a writer and such an age. Society must be in a state of suspense, of secret intrigues, of envy and malice beneath and an artificial politeness on the surface, if it is thoroughly to relish a literature combative in its most reflexive moments, and polished in the very crisis of
the combat. The age was a great age of clubs; of associations, large or small, of men bound together by the spirit of common antagonism or hatred towards this or that political or literary counter-coterie. Just as the world of politics in this age was limited to a very small numerical proportion of the nation whose affairs it swayed, so the world of literature, extremely confined in comparison to that of only a generation or two later, was clearly and definitely marked off into the fractions which composed it. Political and literary clubs were alike characterised by a single-mindedness of antipathies which the lower orders were not slow to burlesque in the confraternities of the tap-room? Kit-Cat and Calves-head, Beefsteak and October, may have occasionally drowned even their party-feelings in the oblivion ensured by an unflinching devotion to the club-rules. But the Brothers' Club founded by Bolingbroke in 1711 was a kind of backstairs Cabinet of the Tory party; while the literary champions of the latter (including the professedly neutral Pope) met in the Scribblerus Club to pulverise in a common mortar the small fry of their literary adversaries. At all these clubs (and the ‘Brot ers' occasionally admitted their ‘Sisters') a rivalry in abuse was one of the unwritten laws of the fraternity? Our Augustan age was not the most immoral which court and society in England have known (at least it may be said that the profligacy of the Restoration period, arrested by the reaction under William III., was not to revive in its fulness till after the death of Queen Anne); but it was assuredly the most scandalous. And its peculiarity was this, that while evil speaking, even in the age of the Regency, was as a rule left as an unenvied privilege to the lowest hangers-on of literature, or to those members of society whom age and sex or constitutional vacuity include in a licensed category, the practice was assiduously cultivated by the leaders in society and literature of our Augustan age. Horace Walpole lived almost a generation too late. Far happier in this respect was the lot of one with whom an elective affinity at all events connected him, of Lord Hervey, who found a fellowrailer in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and but too willing an adversary in Pope. It was in literature as in politics. If a man avowed himself, or caused himself to be supposed, the opponent of another, or of his coterie, or the supporter of a coterie opposed to the latter, any means of bringing his face to the grindstone was accounted within the limits of legitimate warfare. To blacken his character, to blast his reputation, to defile his grandfather's grave, all these things followed as a matter of course. An aspersion of venom was held a justifiable addition to the point of the foil; and the slightest sign of hostility, an unfavourable criticism, a line in a farce, was pursued with Corsican persistency of vengeance. How unnatural in the eyes of a more self-possessed posterity seems thiş age: when great poets made war upon women, when no enemy was deemed too weak to be worthy of the most practised steel. What a lack of dignity as well as of good sense, correspond
? [The so-called mug-houses were frequented * This subject is treated with his usual incisiveby Whig Societies who in 1715 and 1716 came to ness by M. Ch. de Rémusat in his admirable frequent blows with Tory mobs. See Wright's essay on Bolingbroke. Caric. Hist. of the Georges, chap. 1.]