Page images
PDF
EPUB

mild, melodious, and flowing; and the coloring over the whole, not glaring and showy, but sober, suffused, and rich. Indeed, what Heminge and Condell, the editors of the first edition of Shakspeare, say of this author, applies to the early English writers generally : “ As he was a happy imitator of nature, so he was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together; and what he thought, he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers."

” These characteristics in the mode of thought and expression, arose from the singular sincerity and gravity of the English character and mind, in these earlier stages of its history. By sincerity we mean the pure outgoing or issue of the mind, unmodified by any outward references. As has been already remarked, the Englishman of this period had not the fear of the Critic before his eyes. English literature, therefore, though it suffered undoubtedly for the want of a sound philosophic criticism, and was somewhat lacking in those excellent qualities, conciseness and perspicuity, which the sharp analysis of a later day has superinduced upon it, did, nevertheless, attain to a sweet fluency, and rich copiousness, and sober gravity, and wise thoughtfulness, which have never been surpassed. Again, the author of these periods did not write for all grades and capacities of intellect. He was not a society for the diffusion of useful knowledge among all classes of men, but he was a retiring, studious person, who thought as he listed, and wrote without much regard to an immediate sensation, for a “fit audience though few.Far be it from us to speak disparagingly of the useful knowledge diffused so widely at the present day, or of that body of sound and useful literature which has been called into existence by the wants of the people. In reference to all the solid characteristics and qualities of literature, it is more worthy of the name than much of the so-called polite literature and belles lettres of the times. Like the elder literature of which we have been speaking, it is an honest and sound production. It came into being owing to a felt want, and it meets a felt want of an intelligent, sound-hearted body of men, and therefore it is to be respected by every one who respects the human mind. Still the somewhat insulated position of the earlier English writers, by freeing them from all side influences and by-aims, gave them an opportunity to free their minds as slowly, as lengthily, as copiously, as thoroughly as they pleased. They were at liberty, in the retirement of their closets, and addressing a limited public of similar cultivation with themselves, to pay no attention to time, place, or circumstances, in the development of a subject. That short method, rapid movement, and striking statement in which we of the present excel them, and which is a necessary quality in oratory, is not to be found in them. We must look to modern English literature for the best speci. mens of oratorical composition.

The whole influence of such a thoughtful and sincere literature upon the mind, is educating in the highest degree. The reader is not violently excited by a rapid series of single striking thoughts and images, which, in the phrase of De Quincey, “ can hardly have time to glance, like the lamps of a mail coach, before his hurried and bewildered understanding," but he is gradually penetrated and permeated by warm currents of rich and genial reflection. He acquires, insensibly, the same temperate and composed style of thinking; learns to commune, long and patiently, with the subjects that come before his mind; and, like these his teachers and models, finds all themes wonderfully fertile. For, along with this simplicity, there is a remarkable copiousness in the literature of which we are speaking. Instead of being made poor by this freedom and prodigality, these minds, like a living fountain, only became more ebullient the more they were drawn from. Call to mind, for example, the wonderful fertility of the English mind in the Elizabethan age! What an immense amount of rich and weighty thought, that was rich and weighty enough to come down to our day, and which will have a permanent interest for the human mind in all time, was originated during the fifty years between 1575 and 1625! During this short fifty years, English literature was enriched by the productions of Spenser, Sidney, Raleigh, Bacon, Hooker, Shakspeare, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Chapman, Marlowe, Webster, Middleton, and Ford. The catalogue reminds one of the dazzling treasure vault of Marlowe's rich Jew of Malta:

Infinitc riches in a little room,
Bags of ficry opals, sapphires, amethysts,
Jacinths, hard topaz, grass-green emeralds,
Beauteous rubies, sparkling diamonds
And seld-scen costly stones of so great price,
As one of them, indifferently rated,
And of a caract of this quality,
May serve in peril of calamity
To ransome great kings from captivity.

This fertility of the English mind was, at once, the cause and effect of the prevailing style of thinking at that period. The striking, startling, brilliant mode, which has reached its acme in the modern Novel, not drawing upon the meditativeness and reserve of the intellectual character, is utterly incompatible with such a union of quantity with high quality, as appears in this Elizabethan literature.

On the contrary, that calm and composed method which characterized these men, and which is worth toiling after, is most conformed to the nature of the human mind, to that “large discourse of reason which looks before and after," and consequently may be presumed to be, more than any other one, the mode in and

, through which the contents of the mind may be discharged in richest abundance and with least self-exhaustion.

In this connection it is worthy of notice that the principle here advanced holds good in other departments besides that of letters. The highest and most productive genius in Fine Art, is also the calmest and gravest. Raphael died at the early age of thirty-seven, yet he filled all Europe with masterpieces before he died. And into each one of these works, if we are correctly informed, he threw, with all the prodi. gality of nature herself, a world of life, motion, and expression. Many of his pieces are groups, and groups within groups; and yet each individual in them is itself a study. His creative talent finds no parallel but in Shakspeare him. self; and there is certainly no distant similarity between that universality and wealth of artistic power which projected itself in the paintings of Raphael and that which embodied itself in the vastness of the Shakspearian drama. But Raphael's genius was mild and serene. His temperament bordered upon the feminine; and his activity as an artist was deliberate, equable, and sustained. Indeed, the history of literature generally, shows that ages of great productive power have not been marked by violent and spasmodic action. The intellects of that wonderful age, the age of Pericles, were grave and tranquil in their nature and actings. So equable and calm was their intellectual manner, that the Greek Prose of this period, especially that of Plato, is rythmic and sweetly musical, and their thought is so utterly destitute of everything startling or glaring, that the modern student, brought up, as he has been, amid the animation, and brilliancy, and sensation, of the present age, must school himself, and acquire a classic taste, a taste for Platonic beauty, before he can feel its hidden charm.

But while this feature in the elder English mind and literature is brought out, it is necessary to guard against the notion that this calmness was accompanied with dulness, that the body of thought thus originated is destitute of vitality and energy. The life and the power run very deep, and they are felt with tremendous force, by that mind, and only that mind, which by a genial and somewhat reproductive study, has adopted the same style of thinking. For when the student has once sunk down into the element and the depth, where these minds think, and can repeat their processes, he knows of a vitality and an energy not to be found nearer the surface. The literature of which we are speaking, is in no sense languid or lifeless. The minds that produced it were deeply earnest, inspired with a serious purpose, and at no rare intervals glowing with enthusiasm Nay, they seem to have found their most congenial sphere in the drama; the department of all most aloof from cold ness, tameness, and lifelessness. The subject matter in which they seem to have taken the liveliest pleasure, was human passion; and that this most vivid part of human nature found a powerful painter in them, the Elizabethan drama is a proof. For if we look through universal literature, we cannot find anything more passionate than this drama. Saying nothing of its immense range and expanse, , it being nothing less than the whole human consciousness, an infinite canvas which would seem to require an infinite rather than a finite power to fill up; saying nothing of its vast extent, nowhere do we find such an intensity of life, breath, and motion; and this too at every point, and in every part and particle. Take the play of Hamlet, for example. We do not find the violent, volcanic, energy of a modern melo-drama, or of a modern French novel; but he must be stone-dead in the depths of his being, who does not find beating throughout this organism the deep life of nature and reality, and beating with a stronger pulse the more he knows of it. Take again, a play like the “ White Devil,” of Webster, and see with what terrible strength the fundamental passions of human nature are shown working. Notice the rousing effect of the play upon the mind. This production of this same reserved and thoughtful period is intensely passionate. It has a most profound affinity with the human imagination, and raises storms of feeling and passion in the mind of the reader.

The truth is, the literature of this period is alive all through, and hence the depth and calmness of its life. The more that is known of it, the more will it be felt to be a powerfully educating instrument.

No literature imparts a more distinctive and highly determined character to the culture of one who studies it; and this not for one stage of the intellectual life, but for all stages. It is characteristic of a less reserved and more striking mode of thinking, that it seizes with violence upon the mind at a particular period, and takes possession of it altogether during this period. It exerts a greater influence than it has a right to, because no one style is absolute and perfect enough to justify this mo. nopolizing of all the powers and capacities of the human soul, to the exclusion of all other forms of literature, or modes of thought. Even in the case of the higher and more

« PreviousContinue »