Page images
PDF
EPUB

of this constellation, 'tis no wonder it has so seldom appeared in the world; nor that, when it does, it is received and followed with so much gazing and veneration."

I close the specimens of prose writers of this reign, with two short extracts from “ Dryden's Essay on Dramatic Poetry.” The prose of this celebrated poet is characterized by originality and freshness of thought and language. We per. ceive at once in his style his intellectual superiority. He did much for the improvement of the language, and justly ranks high among the prose writers of English literature.

6 To begin with Shakspeare. He is the man, who of all inodern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily ; when he describes any. thing, you more than see it-you feel it. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater cominendation; he was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards and found her there. I cannot say he is everywhere alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid; his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great, when some great occasion is presented to him; no man can say he ever had a fit subject for wit, and did not raise himself as high above the rest of poets.

Quantum tenta solent inter viburna cupressi. “ The consideration of this made Mr. Hales of Eton say, that there was no subject of which any poet ever writ, but he would produce it much better done in Shakspeare ; and however others are now generally preferred before him, yet the age wherein he lived, which had contemporaries with him, Fletcher and Johnson, never equalled them to him in their esteem.

“Of Chaucer, he says, as he is the father of English poetry, so I hold him in the same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil. He is a perpetual fountain of good sense ; learned in all sciences; and therefore speaks properly on all subjects. As he knew what to say, so he knows also where to leave

off; a continence which is practiced by few writers, and scarcely by any of the ancients, excepting Homer and Virgil.

“ Chaucer followed nature everywhere; but was never so bold to go beyond her; and there is a great difference of being poeta, and nimis poeta, if we may believe Catullus, as much as betwixt a modest behaviour and affectation. The verse of Chaucer, 1 confess, is not harmonious to us; but it is like the eloquence of one whom Tacitus commends -it was auribus istius temporis accommodata. They who lived with him, and sometime after, thought it musical ; and it continues so even in our judgment, if compared with the numbers of Lydgate and Gower, his contemporaries; there is a rude sweetness of the Scotch tune in it, which is natural and pleasing though not perfect. **** We can only say, that he lived in the infancy of our poetry, and that nothing is brought to perfection at the first. We must be children before we can grow men. There was an Ennius, and in process of time a Lucilius and a Lucretius, before Virgil and Horace.”

My limits will not allow of continuing down through later periods, this outline of the history of English style. Neither is it necessary, since the productions of more modern writers of eminence are well known, and the peculiar traits of their styles have often been pointed out. In looking back upon the specimens that have been given, we are able to trace the progress of English style from its early and rude state, towards the refinement and perfection it has since attained. At successive periods, writers have appeared, whose influence has been felt, and who have individually contributed something to the improvement of their native language and style. Perhaps their excellencies have been united with many faults, but while the beneficial tendencies of the former have been felt, and become incorporated with the language and literature of the country, the latter have disappeared before the improvements of succeeding ages. There have also been periods, when from the influence of some unpropitious causes, taste has become corrupt, and the progress of style has been stayed; but even in these periods, individuals have appeared, who have risen above the prevailing faults of their times, and exerted an influence, which, if not felt by their own age, has been powerful on the age which has followed.

To present a more connected and condensed view of the influence of different writers upon the progress of English style, I shall attempt a classification of them founded upon the different qualities, by which they are characterized, and which they may have contributed to impart to the style of

their age.

1. The first class consists of those, to whom English style, is indebted for its copiousness and dignity ; copiousness, as they introduce many new words and forms of expressions ; and dignity, as the words and phrases, thus introduced by them, were more elevated than those in common conversational use.

In this class are to be enumerated those, who flourished about the time of the Revival of Letters. Such are Wilson, Ascham, Cheke, More, and others of this date. In some of the succeeding reigns also, especially in that of James I., there were writers, who were devoted to classical pursuits, and whose influence was of the same nature. In some of these writers, however, are found gross defects of style-harshness, obscurity, and what at the present day would be accounted downright pedantry.

2. 'The next class of writers is composed of those, whose style is in some degree easy and idiomatic. These are either classical scholars of more than usual purity of taste, or uneducated self-made men, of strong common sense and practical views. These are the writers who have given perspicuity, ease and naturalness to English style, and their productions continue to this day to have a charm, both with the learned and with common readers. It is pure English undefiled, flowing in its own native channel, and reflecting home objects and scenes. In this rank may be placed Raleigh, Cowley, and in latter days Swift and Paley, and also

the writers of the Bunyan school, who alike contributed to preserve the vestal flame of piety in the church, and the purity of their native language and style.

3. Nearly allied to this class is a third, consisting of those who have helped to give simplicity and purity to style. Such are the writers of Chronicles and of Essays and Treatises on practical common-place subjects-matter of fact men, who by the simple narrative, or the plain practical exbibition of common truths, have sought to inform and improve those around them. Holinshed, Stow, and Bishop Hall are of this class.

4. I would next refer to those, who have given precision and definiteness to style. They are writers of accurate, discriminating minds—the philosophers of their day-close thinkers and able reasoners—those whose favorite occupation it was, to search after truth, and either to invent or investigate the different theories, from time to time advanced. The direct tendency of this class of writers, to promote the attainment of the valuable traits of style just mentioned, is readily

Such writers are Herbert, Hobbs, Boyle and especially Locke, to whom perhaps more than to any other aus thor, English style is indebted for precision and accuracy.

5. Another class of writers embraces those, who were men of poetical minds—those who possessed an active, play, ful fancy, and who were in no ordinary degree susceptible of emotions of taste. Their writings abounded in rich profusion of illustration and imagery, and their well modulated periods, show that they were not insensible to the harmony of numbers. It is from this source, that style derives its richness, its melody and beauty; and when, as has sometimes been the case, such writers have appeared at periods, in which these traits were peculiarly needed, their influence has been highly advantageous. The writings of Sir Philip Sydney, of Bishop Taylor, of Cowley and of Temple, have thus enriched and adorned English style.

seen.

6. Liveliness of fancy, where it has existed without the guidance of a chaste and correct taste, has sometimes taken a different direction. It has manifested itself in quaintness, in wit and amusing conceits. Writers of this kind, though they abound in faults, have without doubt, contributed some thing to the advancement of style. Their sentences are usually short, and their forms of expression striking and sententious. Thus they helped to break up the long, involved, intricate periods, which formerly prevailed, and to give to style vivacity and sprightliness. Lilly, Bacon in his Essays, Donne, Ben Johnson, Burlon and other writers of the reign of James I., may be ranked in this class.

7. There have appeared at different periods those, whose productions are examples of strength, force and manliness of style. Such are most controversial writings that have been called forth in times of political or religious revolution. And whenever the nature of the subject, or the circumstances of the individual, have been such as deeply to interest the feelings—to stir up the soul, and to put into powerful action the faculties of the mind, we have writings, in which the qualities mentioned above are prominent. The extracts from Milton, Barrow and Sidney, are examples of this manner of writing.

8. The only remaining class of writers, to whom I shall refer, includes those, who have given elevation, richness and every noble quality of style. They are those, who by their contemporaries, and by succeeding ages, have been esteemed intellectually great, and who from their originality, their rich flow of thought and expression, and the strength, comprehensiveness and clearness of their views, were well fitted to instruct and improve their race. A few such names are found in English literature ; and as they have appeared at successive periods, it is easy to discern their powerful influence on the advancement of their native style. Such men were Bacon and Milton and Dryden.

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »