Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Introduction by Henry Craik
THE CONTENTS of the present volume range from the days of Queen Anne to the earlier part of the present century. Literary convention connects the eighteenth century with certain distinctive and striking characteristics. But distinctive and striking as these are, who shall presume to gauge them with anything approaching completeness? To do so, would indeed be to estimate the real forces that are at work in modern society. These forces have, in their later working, developed new exaggerations, new antagonisms, new perplexities and complications; but in their essential features they are present in the great intellectual movements of the eighteenth century, which may be said to have arranged, summed up, and catalogued, the confused inheritance bequeathed by the struggles of the preceding centuries, and to have prepared the stage for the new movements that were to agitate the nineteenth. The eighteenth century is often said to be the age of aristocracy: and it is so no less in the sphere of intellect than in that of politics and society. Its interests were far too complicated not to present plenty of exceptions to the general rule; but this aspect of it remains nevertheless, the most essential and the most pervading. The intellectual and literary class drew itself into a camp of its own, bound together by certain passwords, obeying a certain unwritten discipline, and linked by certain sympathies in spite of all divergencies of taste, and style, and habit, and opinion. Each variety and type borrowed more than before from other types, restrained itself less within narrow grooves, and was less absorbed in some special theme, less the slave of some special theory. The age was indeed adverse to specialising of any kind; the greater intellects had shaken off the power of enthusiasm and fanaticism, carried themselves with a more tranquil air, had acquired more of scientific precision and lucidity, and attained to a wider outlook, and a greater variety of treatment. The cumbrous and pedantic learning that had lingered down to the opening of the century was laid aside; the sense of proportion became more strong, and the most vigorous trusted more to their own innate powers and less to the painful toil and heavy equipments of the methodical student. The first impulse to this movement was undoubtedly given by the leading spirits of the previous generation—such men as Dryden, Swift, Addison, and Pope. But the note struck thus early in the century continued to be the dominant note down to its close.  1
  The effect of this upon prose style was exactly what might have been predicted. It is quite conceivable that the English language might have been enriched by a prose coinage, struck sharp and clear from the mint of genius, working at white heat. Such a coinage in poetry is our inheritance from the Elizabethans; but in prose it remains only one of those things that might have been, but which an adverse fate forbade. The early simplicity and directness died away in the heat of religious and political strife. There remained the old force, remnants of the old colloquial raciness, the fire and vigour of the old intensity. But singleness of aim had gone; each author became a rule to himself, aiming often at gaining attention only by eccentricity, forced into exaggeration by the earnestness of religious and political partisanship. The weight of pedantry depressed our prose, foreign models destroyed much of its native flavour, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the few whose care preserved the tradition of courtly and even florid ornament. Had it not been for those whose over-elaboration is falsely derided by shallow criticism, English prose might have been a dreary tract, overspread by formal tillage, and bereft of all luxuriance of leaf and flower.  2
  What the eighteenth century, at its best, did for English prose was not what might have been done for it by the Elizabethans. The opportunity for that was gone, and could never conceivably return. But it did what was next best. It pruned, arranged, selected. It established a literary style. It laid down fixed laws founded upon the impregnable principles of logical and lucid thought. It waged perpetual war against what was slipshod, inaccurate, and trivial. It sought out the treatment and the style best suited for each subject, and imposed models and types for every variety of literary theme. It drew upon all the sources of English prose, and never lent itself to an affected archaicism, or prided itself upon a pedantic and silly eclecticism. It gauged with absolute truth the possibilities of the task and its own powers of accomplishment, and performed with consummate success the work it sought to do.  3
  It could not indeed protect English prose against the inroads of tawdriness, bad taste, or modishness; and how dire might be their encroachments we shall be able to see in the fashions that came to prevail before the nineteenth century had grown old. But the code of law which the eighteenth century established, at least limited the freedom which such travesties might have assumed. That century did much, and we cannot fairly blame it because it did not do more.  4
  These then, with no more exceptions than were necessary and natural, were the general features of the eighteenth century. True to its instincts it formed a literary class, fenced off by a certain exclusiveness, compelling a certain measure of conformity to its rules, looking askance upon eccentricity, and linked together in all its varieties by a certain sympathy. It set its face against all fanaticism, against all extremes. It troubled itself little about details, and sought to achieve success rather by intellectual gifts than by laborious effort. It refused to allow itself to be carried away by any impetuous enthusiasm, and maintained an attitude of aloofness and detachment that contributed much to its mood of cynical humour. And moving and quickening as it were behind this curtain of criticism, of cynicism, and of formality, there burned, with exceeding warmth, a fire of popular energy, which occasionally showed glimpses of itself as the century passed, and burst into a full flame before its close.  5
  Following the various lines which the literature of the century presents to us, we find in Middleton a distinct type, which is clearly distinguished from what has gone before, and is carried on consistently in certain features to the end. His learning, within its limits, is clear, practical, and free from pedantry. All his equipment is well assorted and adaptable; there is nothing about it either of cumbrousness or mystery. His style is exact, logical, and full of common sense; if it is bald it therein reflects the limitations of the man. Allowing for individual difference there is a small step between him and Warburton. The latter is the typical controversialist of his age; strong, uncompromising, vigorous with something of the sinewy force of the athlete, direct and even brutal in manner, swollen with the self-satisfied pride of the combatant, and without anything of sentiment or feeling. In Butler there is a strain of something infinitely higher; a powerful individuality that cannot be stifled, a lucidity that gives to his writings the permanence of classics, and a sincerity and earnestness that illumine his logical acumen with the warm light of genius. The characteristics of the same school, more or less modified, and moving in a far lower scale, are seen in Price and Priestly; commonplace in manner, fitly reflecting the mediocre whiggism of the day, with an echo from the earlier latitudinarians, but eschewing their whimsical vanities and puerilities, restrained within a certain moderation, defended against ridicule by a certain armour of common sense. Paley repeats the same characteristics of plain and vigorous reasoning, more powerful in logic, more practised in argument, with larger intellectual grasp, but equally unambitious of ornament, equally uninformed by deep feeling or by any imagination or enthusiasm. In Dugald Stewart we have more of the philosophical bias, but it is still the philosophy of common sense with no metaphysical flights. He has risen beyond the plainness, amounting almost to monotony, that had marked the previous writings of his school; and it was owing perhaps in great measure to his consummate gifts as an academic teacher that his written work was enriched by a vein of ornament and eloquence. With something of the same training, and strongly affected by the same influence of ex cathedrâ teaching, Adam Smith added to a philosophy, vigorous and lucid rather than profound, the clear insight and energetic common sense of the man of the world, giving force and vividness to theoretic treatment by a certain raciness and homeliness of style that told the more effectively because his theories dealt with the laws that regulate practical life. In Mackintosh the same ideal of clear and common-sense exposition is present. But there is a weakening of fibre already beginning. The strength of sinew is degenerating. The style is infected by something of stilted pomposity, the exposition often slides from lucidity into commonplace, and barrenness of thought is often imperfectly concealed behind the scaffolding of formality and conventional dignity of style. In Bentham we reach, perhaps, the ideal—not certainly a very inviting one—of prosaic, and even acrid logic. Narrow in his conceptions, but inflexibly bold in their enunciation, with the force and vigour that come from absolute conviction, with the warmth—and that alone—which comes from hostility to what he believes to be erroneous or unsound, softened by no shadow of doubt, and illumined by no ray of imagination, Bentham yet commands respect even from those to whom his writings seem most barren of human interest. To him literary style was, so far as conscious effort went, a meaningless phrase; he is correct and lucid only from the clearness of his own views, and because he found the instrument of expression wrought to perfection by the habit of his age. In Cobbett we have little of refinement, little of resource, little liberal equipment; but the tradition of common sense is still a vigorous force, and in his almost enthusiastic inculcation of lucidity and correctness of style, he keeps alive one of the best inheritances from the eighteenth century.  6
  These are all names sufficiently respectable to bring high honour to the literary work of that century. But, typical of its characteristics as they are, they represent but one, and that not its most important phase. Another is to be found in those with whom the religious vein was stronger. In Berkeley we rise to the level of a purer atmosphere, and to a range of far wider compass, than were reached by any of those just named. In his enthusiasm and in his eloquence he kept alive the torch that had been handed on to him from the theologians of another day; in his lucid clearness he added a new element, in which he was akin to the more scientific thought of his own age; and in the richness of his imagination, in the perfection of his philosophic style, he attains to that uniqueness which is the chief attribute of genius. There is something of the same mental quality in the mysticism of Law; sombre and yet eloquent; instinct with feeling; at once severe and grim in his earnestness, and copious in the range of his imagination. But the spirit of Berkeley and of Law was not one suited to the century; and they stand almost as solitary monuments of a phase of thought, which passed away in a crowd of opposite ideals. As a literary power Wesley stands far below them. His mind was not without something of the mysticism that dominated Law; it has a strain of melancholy which does not lessen our interest, and he presents the rare spectacle of a scholar who dreaded lest his own scholarship might interfere with the popular work which was the supreme aim of his life. There was a certain Puritanism in the conscious simplicity of his style; but he could not divorce himself altogether from that literary sympathy that linked him to his age, and that made him the friend of one with whom he stands in many respects so much in contrast as Johnson. In Horsley we may find an example of what religious writing became in the latter part of the century, earnest and conscientious, rich in scholarship and robust in thought, but moving rather with judicial formality and dignified reverence than by any instinct of enthusiastic piety.  7
  There are others again whom it is hard to classify, who are yet no less typical of the age. They form a long list, and little as they are akin to one another in style or taste or sentiment, they are yet most distinctly the children of the eighteenth century. Who is more characteristic of its spirit than Chesterfield? Early as he comes in its course, he seems almost of set purpose to exaggerate all its tendencies, to make himself a bold exponent of its cynicism in its most pronounced, it may perhaps be said in its most superficial, phase. Subject, treatment, tone, and style—all alike are redolent of the century; passing over enthusiasm with a smile, treating religion and morality with a courtly politeness that savours of ridicule, wrapping itself in a garment of conventionality that it may escape the plebeianism of eccentric individuality. Yet with all this, how much of art there is! How much deliberate and conscious preference of form over matter! How much lightness of touch, and how much dexterous choice of the fitting phrase! How much of exclusiveness, and how much of the careful art of the actor, avoiding above all things any awkwardness or clumsiness of deportment, and studious to preserve an unruffled composure which no strong feeling, or earnest conviction is allowed to disturb! Chesterfield may be superficial, but he has at least fastidiousness of literary taste. Heartless he may be, but he has the sense of humour. He may be conventional, but he is never vain; and if his philosophy is barren and circumscribed, he at least knew how to adapt his language with perfection to its needs.  8
  Sterne contrasts with him in countless qualities. He is colloquial and slipshod, a chartered libertine in language; losing all sense of dignity in his affectation and whimsical conceits; eccentric not from impulse but from wayward artificiality, ruffled into petty and vanishing emotion by every breath of pathos, however false and tawdry; noisy in his childish depreciation of conventionality and order; but yet, withal, imbued with the same cynicism, aiming at the same indifference of demeanour, impressed by the same sense of the “ridiculous tragedy” of human life—above all, with the same vein of humour, but of a richness and fertility which has scarcely ever been approached, and which Chesterfield could never, even remotely, rival. With all his carelessness of diction, with all his affected contempt of form, Sterne wrote for a literary age; even in his wildest extravagances he knows how to attune his language to the mood of the moment, and to make it a fitting dress for the most wayward, the most fitful, the most perplexing, and yet the most invincible wit which fancy ever contrived.  9
  Take again another pair—in outward guise most unlike these two, and equally in contrast with one another, and yet steeped each of them to the finger tips in the eighteenth-century spirit—Gray and Horace Walpole. Scarcely could two letter-writers be more unlike. Gray shows himself in every page the scholarly recluse; finished, elaborate, even artificial in his diction, incapable of writing a sentence which does not bear the impress of care and labour. No feeling is ever assumed or false; its sincerity seems to be tested and tried by the same rigid criticism which he applies to his style. But it is the sincerity, not of impulse or enthusiasm, but of the student and man of letters. Walpole, on the other hand, is sprightly, lively, intolerant, even to nervousness, of dulness or heaviness, speaking the opinion or impression of the hour, superficial, it is true, but yet sincere in his individuality, and with a certain freshness in his freedom from conventionality.  10
  No age, fortunately, can mould character after one type, or prescribe a code so strong as to stifle individuality. The eighteenth century, like every other, had its types both of artificiality and of homeliness, of cynicism and of enthusiasm, of intellectual force and of whimsical caprice, of logical earnestness and of superficial sentiment. But in this, at least, it was peculiar, that it was endowed with literary tact; and if it did nothing else, it proved that genius might work in obedience to the unwritten laws which that tact prescribed, and that even although the exuberance of earlier fancy, and the untaught raciness of an older language were gone past recall, it could still leave to posterity a rich and varied literary inheritance. It is this literary tact which links together a whole group and succession of men, differing in every degree of homeliness and elaboration, of simplicity and pompous solemnity, of gracefulness and almost uncouth force. Gilbert White strikes us at first only by his homeliness and simplicity, by his lucid and unpretentious narrative, by the sincerity and piety of his unwearied study of nature. But in truth the scholar never forgets his books. The simplicity is the effect of the highest art; his narrative impresses us because it is arranged with the skill of a trained thinker, who never allows his induction to be slovenly or inexact, who knows exactly how to buttress a theory with an unassuming anecdote, and who can bring a scientific reminiscence, or a recondite classification, into the midst of the homely story of some everyday incident.  11
  This is not the place to discuss the artistic theories of Sir Joshua Reynolds; but whatever their weight and authority, he elaborated them under the dominant influence of a literary clique, whose canons he adopted, and by that literary influence he founded artistic criticism in England, and clothed it in the urbane and graceful style that was a counterpart of his own personality.  12
  Scarcely any character could have been more strong in its individuality than that of Warton. His cumbrous and amorphous learning, too vast to be exact, and too tenacious to be discriminating, might seem unlikely to submit its vigorous independence to any environment, however strong. But yet, as a fact, the work that Warton achieved would not have been possible to him had he lived in any previous age. His learning would have run into abstruse divagations, where pedantry and fancy would have overwhelmed all sense of proportion. To such aberrations he was by nature only too prone. But the scientific sense of his age revealed to him just the questions in literary history which called for solution. He saw, by anticipation, some of the fruits which the comparative method might be made to yield; and, as a consequence, although he essayed a task too large for any man, and achieved what is doubtless an ill-arranged and ill-proportioned fragment, yet he left the impress of his independent thought and of his vigorous grasp upon our literature, and traced the lines upon which its history must be written.  13
  Within the compass of an introduction such as this, it is not possible, nor even desirable, to pass in review all the names which are to meet us in this volume. For an appreciation of each the reader must be referred to the separate prefatory notes. All that is attempted here is to illustrate the spirit of the age by those who are most typical of it. But no such sketch would be complete without a reference to one very distinctive development of the time—that of the modern novel, by which a more literary age replaced the drama in its decay. The larger and more interesting questions of the ethical and social work of fiction do not here concern us. But we cannot neglect it as a potent element in the formation of style. Richardson could not aspire to any literary graces; his resources were too few and his methods too simple for such an ambition. But in his delicate and discriminating character drawing he inevitably developed a new literary appliance. He was bound to eschew theory, to avoid any cataloguing of characteristics, to lay aside the old modes of the seventeenth-century Theophrastuses, and to subordinate his drawing of character to his story. He must perforce be simple, and proceed step by step, discarding all pedantry, and allowing the character to reveal itself with the inevitableness of reality. If our language was thus enriched by Richardson with some new feints and manœuvres of style, far greater was its debt to Fielding—to whom we shall return presently; and even Smollet, although his art was limited, if he did nothing else at least established a current diction for comic narrative, vigorous if somewhat barbarous in its vigour. As the century closed, the novel passed into very different hands, in the earliest of our female writers of fiction, Madame d’Arblay and Miss Edgeworth, whose art was to culminate in Jane Austen. Contrasting with their predecessors in every feature of method and treatment, they contrasted with them no less strongly in their style. Obedient to the dictatorship of Johnson, they made their ideal (if we shut out of view the later aberrations of Madame d’Arblay) one of lucid simplicity and studied accuracy, and in this as in all else assisted towards the perfection of that ideal in the consummate art of Jane Austen.  14
  There remain certain names, apart from all classification of subject and of treatment, supreme in their sovereignty, the pillars of the century, summing up in themselves its highest achievement, and secure from all rivalry and competition. These are Johnson, Gibbon, Fielding, Hume, and Burke. The age that comprises them need fear no comparison. We may surely by this time claim that Johnson has shaken off the inept cavillings of petty criticism, and has blunted the shafts of the witlings. Of his dignity of character, of the keenness of his insight, of the boldness and breadth of his criticism, of the range of his sympathy and his humour, this is not the place to speak. But, in style alone, we may justly claim that he is the vertebrate column of our prose. He could not accomplish the impossible. Once more I venture to express the conviction that the highest conceivable perfection of English prose was possible only to the Elizabethans, and that when the task passed unaccomplished from their hands, the hopes of it vanished beyond recall. But what Johnson could do, he did with consummate power. To him it was left to establish a code, to evolve order out of disorderly materials, to found a new ideal of style in absolutely logical precision, adding to that precision dignity and eloquence and force. To ascribe to him a slavish propensity to cumbrous and pedantic sesquipedalianism is to mistake the travesty for the original. His dictatorship in literature, based on native strength, was most unquestioned in the sphere of style; and it is not too much to say that all that is best in English prose since his day is his debtor in respect of not a few of its highest qualities, above all in respect of absolute lucidity, unfailing vigour, and saving common sense.  15
  Just in so far as Gibbon was not so great a man as Johnson, does his style fall below Johnson’s level. The strain of affectation, the undue elaboration, the tone of artificial irony are always unduly marked in that style. But the massiveness of Gibbon’s intellect, the largeness of his grasp, his unfailing sense of literary proportion, the fearless vigour of his historical conception,—all these are too great to be buried beneath the affectation. He towers above all competitors as a giant amongst the pigmies, the type and model of the historian, whose example remains untouched by time, and remote from rivalry.  16
  As a master of style, Fielding has a claim on our admiration, apart from all the other attributes of his genius. It seems strange in regard to Fielding to set aside all the wealth of human sympathy, all the range of humour, all the vividness of character-drawing, and to restrict ourselves solely to the one aspect that interests us here, his place as a writer of prose. His style reflects much that is distinctive of his genius, its massive carelessness, its strong simplicity, its clearness of outline, and its consummate ease. But above all things he repeats two leading characteristics of his age, its irony and its scholarship. Fielding was from first to last a man of letters, as the character was conceived in his time—without pedantry, without strain, without the constraint of subtlety, but always imbued with the instinct of the scholar, never forgetting that, in the full rush of his exuberant fancy and his audacious humour, he must give to his style that indescribable quality that makes it permanent, that forces us to place it in the first rank of literary effort, that, even when irregular, pleads for no allowance on the score of neglect of art. He challenges comparison on merely literary grounds with the best models of literary art, and he is no loser by the comparison.  17
  So it is with Hume. We do not, for our purpose, seek to gauge his place as a philosopher, nor dwell upon his boldness, his unswerving logic, the keen directness of his insight, the indomitable and uncompromising force that pushed conclusion so far that reaction became inevitable. But what we have to observe is that his style reflected all these qualities. Its limpid flow, its simplicity side by side with its studied art, its undercurrent of sarcasm, its irony and its epigram, all these made it a part of his genius, made its place in our literature secure, and made it one of those forces that compel respect for the century of which he was the characteristic product.  18
  Lastly, in Burke we have to recognise not the politician only, instinct with sincerity, unfettered by convention, illimitable in range, and giving shape and utterance to impulses that were true not for one age only but for all time; but we have to see in him the writer of a prose illumined as with fire; enthusiastic and yet supremely logical: fearless and yet absolutely obedient to order and to law: eloquent and yet restrained: stirred by every popular movement, and yet suggestive and philosophical. More completely than any man he showed, in style no less perfectly than in spirit and in sympathy, all that was most typical of the best genius of his age—its restraint, its philosophy, its obedience to order and to law, and its gift of literary instinct—removed as far from the exaggeration and pedantry of what had gone before, as from the vulgar platitude and superficial complacency of what was to follow.  19
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