1902 Encyclopedia > English Literature > Reaction and Counter-Action (1660-1770): Bunyan, Dryden, Congreve, Milton

English Literature
(Part 7)


Bunyan, Dryden, Congreve, Milton...

At the Restoration, the king and his personal friends, who had lived abroad during the Commonwealth and proteetorate, brought to England a sense of fitness in things literary, and an aversion to what was grotesque and exaggerated in style, which they had picked up in the polished society of the French salons. In poetry, perhaps, no reform was needed. The prevalence of good taste and good sense, assisted by the example of Milton, who in his juvenile poems scorned to use the "new-fangled toys" of the fantastic poets, had already condemned the school which delighted in "conceits". There is a purity of form in the odes of waller, in the works of Denham, and even in much that in his later years came from the pen od Cowley, which prevented exception being taken to them on the score of refinement. With regard to prose style and the drama the case was different. When men looked back for twenty years and more to the theatre as it was before the troubles, and remembered the plays of Johnson and Shirley, they felt that there was much need of a change. The gay young roue of Johnson’s plays is a coarse, brutal, and insupportable personage; his "clenches" and sallies are not wit, but the noisy outcome of a superficial cleverness, aided by a flow of animal spirits. The easy badinage and well-managed double entendre of the French comic stage were new phenomena, of which that of England had never had the least conception. Nor, in tragedy, was there any inclination to return to the piled up agony- " horror on horror’s head" - of the plots of Ford and Fletcher. Corneille had shown that the sentiments of honour and love in their chivalrous intensity, when exhibited as in conflict with the harsh demands of circumstance and the world, are capable of producing the finest tragic situations, Dryden’s heroic plays (The Indian Emperor, The Conquest of Granada, &c.) were up to a certain point imitations of Corneille; the extent to which they are sensational and crowded with incident was a feature taken from the theatre of Spain. The verse is rhymed in imitation of his French models; and in more than one of his prefaces os essays Dryden ably urged the claims of "his long mistress, Rhyme," as an indispensable decoration without which the requisite weight and dignity of the tragic style could not be attained. In the article on the Drama (vol. vii. P. 434), notice has been taken of the chief works, both in tragedy and comedy, produced by our dramatists between the Restoration and the end of the century. Dryden, whose power and insight grew with advancing age, recognized, after devoting himself to the heroic style for years, the superiority of Shakespeare, abandoned rhyme, and produced in 1690 his finest play Don Sebastian. But it was then too late to arrest the decay of the drama. The Dutch king who then sat on the Stuart throne, the Dutch army which had placed him there,the exultation of the Whigs and the dissenters, were all so many indications that the Teutonic element in the English mind was again in the ascendant. And the ascendancy of the Teutonic element, then still more than in previous ages, on account of the gulf which had been established between theTeutonic and Latin races by the Reformation, implied the predominance of an energy which preferred strength to grace, the useful to the beautiful, industry to art. All this impulses were of course only confirmed by the religious and moral views which are grouped under the general name od Puritanism. The drama, therefore, being in opposition to the prevailing spirit, fell ever lower and lower; and though momentarily uplifted, inlater times, by the genius of a Goldsmith or a Sheridan, it has never regained its hold upon the nation. A modern critic has compared our drama, commencing with the Elizabethan age and ending with the present day, to a huge pyramid which stands on a broad and magnificent base, dwindles continually, and ends in nothing. Even at this day, there is still too much of the Puritan temper in general society to admit of the success of any proposal in parliament tending to the encouragement and support of the drama by the state, as a department of national culture.

The prose style of the French writers, was at the time of the Restoration, much superior to ours. We had no one to oppose to Segrais, Fontenelle, Balzac, Voiture, Menage, and Bouhours, to select only the principal names among the French critics and beaux esprits. Nor was this superiority of our neighbours sensibly diminished till the next century, when Addison, Steele, and swift redressed the balance. Yet it must be concede to Dryden that the prose of his numerous essays, prefaces, and dedications, prefixed or subjoined to his published plays (especially the Essay on Dramatic Poesy), is incomparably more polished and more effective than any of the rude attempts at criticism which our writers had hitherto attempted. There is, however, a certain wildness clinging to Dryden’s style, in spite of his efforts to improve it, and in spite of his wit and the promptitude of his vivacious intellect: one never feels quite secure against the occurrence of a solecism. Hobbes’s style is more unexceptionable; he had resided much in, France, and conserted with French literati, and thus learned the charm of a perfectly clear and simple way of writing. Among the divines of this age there was much eloquence, much richness and force, but little good style. Nothing can be more copious than Taylor, but it isa cloying manner; his facility of speech and coining imagination are masters of him, not he of them. Isaac Barrow, who died in his forty-seventh year in 1677, seems to be the best of them; he has more self-command than Taylor, more earnestness than south, and more dignity than Baxter. Against Tillotson’s style no particular objection can be urged, except that it does not prevent his Sermons from being dull and dry.

In the Pilgrims Progress of John Bunyan (1684) the ,style, without being elevated or di8tinguished, is plain and manly. It is of course free from pedantry, which cannot be where there is no learning; but it is also free from affectations, and-almost always-from vulgarity. It is interesting to observe in this,-the most popular English work of the century,-the revival of the old allegorical way of writing which was so much relished in the age of Chaucer. Mr Hallam remarks that there is some inconsistency or defectiveness of plan; the persecution of the pilgrims in the city of Vanity, and the adventure of the cave and the two giants, might with equal propriety, so far as the allegorical meaning is concerned, have been placed at any other stage of the pilgrimage. This is true; but it is only saying that in these passages the tale overpowers the allegory; considered as incidents in the tale, they could not have been better placed than where they are.

In the heyday of reaction against the hypocrisy and violence of the Puritans, it may be imagined that neither they nor their principles found any quarter. . A long satire in doggerel verse, the Hlldibras of Samuel Butler, one of the best second-rate poets of the day, was especially devoted to their discomfiture. The general texture of this poem is loose and careless; ..he versification, as a rule, too unpolished to invite to a second reading; still there are epigrammatic couplets and sarcastic descriptions in it which will be remembered while English literature endures.

Denham, best known as the author of the pretty descriptive poem of Cooper's Hill, wrote many pieces in the spirit of the reaction, which in him, as in Davenant and others, went to the length of identifying Puritanism with Christianity, and rejecting both together. Such at least seems the natural conclusion to be drawn from a perusal of Denham's strange poem entitled The Progress of Learning. In Dryden's poetry the temper and policy of reaction are exhibited with great distinctness. At first, and for many years after the Restoration, his attacks are chiefly upon the political side of Puritanism; be rings the changes on "rebellion," "faction," "disobedience," and "anarchy." In Absalom and Achitoyhel (1681) he argues, with that skill of ratiocination in meter which never forsakes him, against the tenets of democracy and the absolute right of a majority:

" Nor is the people's judgment always true;
The most may err as grossly as the few."

In Thelwadia Allgustalis he talks of "senates insolently loud;" and in the Hind and Panther (1687) cleverly presses home against the clergy, who were grumbling at the arbitrary acts of James II., their own declared principles of "passive obedience" and "submission for conscience' sake." In middle life Dryden began to take a lively interest in the controversy on the grounds of religious belief; we see him in the Religio Laici (1681) perplexing himself with tbe endeavour to ascertain the limits of the province of authority and that of private judgment. Waiving the question as to the entire sincerity, or rather disinterestedness, of his conversion, we find him, after that event, exemplifying the reaction against Puritanism in an extreme degree; as he had magnified the authority of the prince in the political sphere, so now he magnifies the authority of the church in the religious sphere. The Hind and Panther]', as all the world knows, is a theological-political dialogue, disguised under’ a thin, a very thin veil of allegory, on some of the questions debated between the churches of Rome and England, and also on some of the political theories then in vogue.

As for the drama, the mere fact of its revival was a part of the reaction against Puritanism. In the coarse play of The Ronndlwads, or the Good Old Cattle, by Mrs Aphra Bebn, which came out shortly after the Restoration, some of the great commonwealths men are exhibited on the stage, of course in an odious light. Dryden kept clear, in his dramas, of scurrilities of this kind, probably because he himself had been brought up among Puritans. In the famous play of Sir Courtly Nice (1685) by Crowne, the character of the 'Whig-Puritan, Testimony, is a compound of hypocrisy, knavery, and cowardice. Yet at the time when this play was represented, the party of the counter-action, represented now by the names of Irving and dissenter, was already so strong that Crowne could say of them in his dedication to the duke of Ormond,-" There were no living, if some great men, elevated not only in quality but understanding above the rest of the world, did not protect us [the dramatists] from those barbarians, because they know us," After the Revolution there was a truce; the comedies of Congreve and Wycherley have C no political bearing. The comic stage was hardly, if at g all, employed for party purposes till the reign of Queen Anne, when the strong high-church temper which prevailed in the country caused the revival of Sir Cou1"ity Nice (1711). A few years late1' Oibber, in his play of the Nonjuror, imitated from Moliere's Tartufe, attacked the nonjurors and the Catholics in the interest of the Hanoverian succession. As altered by Bickersteth, the same play appeared soon afterwards with the title of 'rhe Hypocrite,- here dissent is attacked in the persons of Dr Cantwell and Mawworm.

In political philosophy the reactionary spirit was represented by Sir Robert Filmer, who, in his Patriarcha (1680), argued that legitimate kings inherited the absolute power over their subjects, which he assumed Adam and the patriarchs to have possessed and exercised over their families.

This doctrine was opposed by the republican Algernon Sidney, and also by Locke, whose admirable Treatises on I Government appeared in 1688, Though not indisposed to dam it that the monarchical constitution of existing kingdoms n was originally imitated from the patriarchal rule, which in the infancy of society is known to have existed, nay, which still exists in families and clans, Locke denied that this imitation implied any devolution of right or power; the origin of civil right he sought, like Hooker, in a contract, expressed or implied, between the governors and the governed, which bound the one to govern on certain prescribed terms, that is, according to law, and the other to obey the lawful commands of the government. It is well known that this doctrine of an original contract found its way into that celebrated state-paper, the Declaration of Rights, in which it is asserted that James II. had " endeavoured to subvert the constitution of this kingdom, by betaking the original contract between Icing and people.

In other departments of literature, as well as political philosophy, the counter-action strongly asserted itself. Melton, "on evil tongues though fal1en, and evil times,"knew that he should" fit audience find, though few," when at the close of life he gave his long-promised service to the epic muse, and sang" an elaborate song to generations."

The Paradise Lost is indisputably the work of a great and lofty mind,-of a mind armed by nature with an astonishing moral energy, and equipped with powers of imagination Lild conception suitable to the charge of a vast enterprise.
his is the more apparent, because the diction of the poem :certainly falls below the standard of purity and evenness Which the best writers of the day had reached, while the Peculiar nature of his subject involved Milton in the 'greatest difficulties. A number of awkward and ill-sounding words, the use of which would tic the note of pedantry than anyone else than Milton, were formed by him from the Latin, and freely employed in the Paradise Lost; how injudiciously, the mere fact that not one of them has held its ground and come into common use is sufficient to prove. The subject,-belonging neither to history nor legend, so that details could not be supplied by tradition, and could only be invented at the imminent risk of profaneness,-was baffling by its very grandeur and simplicity. It did not in itself present a sufficiency of changes and incidents to furnish out the material of a long epic composition; hence Milton was obliged to have recourse to episodes, with which nearly half the poem is taken up. It is noteworthy how weighty and dignified a rhythm blank verse becomes in his hands. N ever, as used by him, does it even tend to be the dull, insignificant, tiresome metre which it was in the hands of later writers, e.g., Thomson, Young, and even Wordsworth, in their negligent hours. Milton, in whose eyes the Cavaliers of the Restoration were" The sons Of Belial, flown with insolence and we," neither wished nor expected to be read at court. Forty years later, when counter-action had accomplished the Revolution, and Whiggism had secured much of the ground from which its parent Puritanism had been contemptuously thrust back, Whig critics like Addison found no difficulty in gaining a hearing, when they pressed upon general society the consideration of the surpassing claims of the Paradise Lost to the admiration of Englishmen. In the department of history, the reaction produced, in Clarendon's History of the Rebellion, a masterly and enduring work. The writers of the counter-action were also busy in this field; and Burnet's History of the Reformation (1679) was thought to lend so much support to Protestant and liberal principles that he received the thanks of the House of Commons for writing it.

The materialistic empiricism of Hobbes gave place in this period to what has been called the sensistic empiricism, or sensationalism, of Locke. Inasmuch as this philosopher struck two important blows at principles which the Whig Puritans detested,-at the principle of authority, by deriving all human knowledge from experience, and at the doctrine which ascribes reality both to the accidents, or sensible qualities, of objects, and to the substances in which they are supposed to inhere, by (with Descartes) awarding mere subjectivity to accidents, and relegating substance to the region of the unknowable,-he may properly be regarded as the philosopher of the counter-action.

The first book of the Essay on the Human Understanding (1689) is devoted to the endeavour to disprove the doctrine of innate ideas. Yet, when we proceed to examine Locke's own view of the origin of our knowledge, it would appear at first sight that he admits one source which is independent of the reports of sense. Our knowledge, he says, is made up partly of ideas of sensation, partly of ideas of reflection.

These last. are supplied to the mind by its own operations; we know that we think, believe, doubt, will, love, &c. Now, if these operations were assumed to have any other basis than sensible experience, ideas of reflection might be a source of knowledge independent of the senses. But as his argument proceeds, it is evident that Locke had no such meaning. All such mental operations, in his view, are dependent on the mind's having previously been supplied with ideas by the senses. "In time the mind comes to reflect on its own operations about the ideas got by sensation, and thereby stores itself with a new set of ideas, which I call ideas of reflection." This and many similar passages are decisive as to Locke's belief, that there is but one original gate of ideas, viz., the senses. The mind at birth is a tabula rasa, or, to use his own illustration, a " sheet of white paper;" whatever knowledge it afterwards acquires is written on it by the finger of experience. This denial of _ a priori knowledge was not effectually confuted till the rise of Kant, near the close of the 18th century. It followed from Locke's principles that belief in revealed religion (which in his case was perfectly sincere) was simply and entirely a question of external evidence. If the evidence for the truth of the alleged fact or doctrine appeared sufficient, the mind would accept it; if not, reject it; but no principle inherent in its own constitution could be appealed to in either case to aid its judgment; for on Locke's system no such principles existed.

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