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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 descendant 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 mob. 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-room1. 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 'Brothers' occasionally admitted their 'Sisters') a rivalry in abuse was one of the unwritten laws of the fraternity2. 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 this 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 by Whig Societies who in 1715 and 1716 came to frequent blows with Tory mobs. See Wright's Caric. Hist. of the Georges, chap. 1.]
2 This subject is treated with his usual incisiveness by M. Ch. de Rémusat in his admirable essay on Bolingbroke.
ing to that with which a House of Commons endeavoured to hunt down a pulpit Xanthippe, and a Secretary of State entered upon a crusade against the pygmies of the press. Statesman and man of letters-there was little as to true generosity of spirit to choose between the two1. The comparative smallness of the literary world may help to account for the importance with which its members invested even their most trivial disputes. But few escaped the taint of their age, and nothing in the life of Addison strikes his contemporaries as so remarkable, as the fact that he forgives his enemies before composing himself for an exemplary death. The commonest courtesies of literary life which even Bavius and Mavius would not have permitted themselves to neglect, are defiantly violated by our Augustans. Anonymity, far from serving as a cover against nominal recriminations, is in truth resorted to only as an evasion of an uncertain law; and cowardice too frequently skulks behind a lampoon, as a literary weapon no more fitting than the bludgeons hired by Rochester for his Rose Alley ambuscade. How imperfectly had Dryden's successors learnt to imitate the example of one who truthfully declared that 'he had seldom answered any scurrilous lampoon, and,' though 'naturally vindictive, had suffered in silence, and possessed his soul in quiet.”
That a healthy current of life was still flowing in the nation's veins, in despite of the vices which seemed to pervade society, is of course a fact to which our literature alone bears sufficient testimony. From out of the sphere of the middle classes a reaction had been preparing itself. Its direction was towards that close obedience
to the divine law as a practical, if possible a literal, fingerpost in all relations of life which is in accordance with the Puritan spirit of the nation, and which was in due time to force itself upon the classes long in their own opinion practically emancipated from its control. De Foe and his lineal literary descendants, the essayists and novelists, succeeded in saving its national character to our literature. But an examination of their influence and the gradual progress of its operation would be out of place here. As the age appears to us in the mirror of the literature which professedly and unhesitatingly attached itself to the world of politics, fashion and learning, it is an unnatural age, because licentious in every direction except that of the form which by its own authority it has chosen as the exponent of its very spirit and essence. All the emotions of the Augustans, except their hatreds, seem shallow and transitory, and most of all so in their literary expression. Men who estimate their neighbours according to a selfish standard, necessarily adjust to it their measures of praise as well as of blame. Queen Anne, whose childish dependence upon others was no secret even to herself, is addressed in strains of uncompromising panegyric before which even the tributes of the Cavaliers to the Rose of
1 Bolingbroke, as Secretary of State, writes to the Queen in 1711: 'I have discovered the author of another scandalous libel, who will be in custody this afternoon; he will make the 13th I have seized, and the 15th I have found out.' Swift writes in his Journal to Stella of the same year:
'One Boyer, a French dog, has abused me in a pamphlet, and I have got him up in a messenger's hands; the Secretary promises me to swinge him. I must make that rogue an example for warning to others.' See Macknight's Life of Bolingbroke.
Bohemia grow pale.
Even Prior is recklessly dull when he begins to flatter1 ex officio; even Young's unctuous religiosity adapts itself to the exigencies of a courtly veneration2. Nor was it only loyalty which was thus galvanised into a spasmodic existence. Dryden had scattered panegyrics with the profuse vigour belonging to his genial abandon; his successors swung their censers in honour of their minor divinities with the measured oscillations of drilled acolytes; and even a Wharton had his poet-in-ordinary. The amatory verse of the age is perhaps the most unnatural that has ever been written; instead of exhausting itself on even ruby lips and dainty feet, it hovers with inquisitive placidity round ladies' fans or lapdogs or paper-knives. The ladies themselves could hardly be natural without falling into downright cynicism; and passed an existence as unreal as their outward selves, made up as they were of powders and patches, and fenced in with hurdles of whalebone. The real epos of society under Queen Anne, though designed as a burlesque, is Pope's Rape of the Lock. Under the first two Georges the coating of varnish grew thinner and thinner; but the material remained equally rotten beneath.
Such as these were, if I rightly estimate the characteristics of the age in so far as he was brought into contact with it, the conditions under which Pope entered upon and led his literary life. Its course could not fail to be affected and in some degree determined by them. Yet the chief element in the story of his life, as in the stories of all human lives, remains of course the gradual development of his own individuality, and the unconscious compromise ultimately effected between it and the influences which surrounded him. Of his triumphant struggle against difficulties of no ordinary significance, and of his single-minded devotion to the task which his genius hand marked out for him, his life, however imperfectly told, cannot fail to offer clear and abundant testimony. It intertwines itself almost inseparably with his works; for Pope, as has been well said3, was a literary man, as Garrick was an actor, pure and simple. And life and works viewed together will, I think, irresistibly lead to the conclusion that Pope belonged to that second order of great writers, who return to their age the seeds which it has sown in them, grown and tended into magnificent fruits; not to that other and assuredly higher order, whose genius is not receptive and reproductive only, but creative, and of whom England was barren in its so-called Augustan age.
1 See, besides his well-known Ode to the Queen, the Epistle desiring the Queen's picture, characteristically 'left unfinished, by the sudden news of H. M. death.'
See above all the exordium of his Last Day; besides his poems on the accession of George I.
and II. respectively.
3 By Dibdin, in his History of the Stage. In this sense Warburton might justly write to Garrick: 'Nobody but you and Pope ever knew how to preserve the dignity of your respective employments.' Fitzgerald's Life of Garrick, chap. v.