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GRAY

1886

T

\HE eighteenth century, judged by the literature it produced everywhere in

Europe outside of Germany and France, is generally counted inferior to that which preceded and to that which followed it. A judgment of especial severity has been passed upon its poetry by critics who lost somewhat of their judicial equipoise in that enthusiasm of the romantic reaction which replaced the goddess of good taste by her of liberty, and crowned the judicial wig with the Phrygian cap. The poetry of the period fell under a general condemnation as altogether wanting in the imaginative quality, and as being rather the conclusions of the understanding put into verse than an attempt to express, however inadequately, the eternal longings and intuitions and experiences of human nature. These find their vent, it was thought, in those vivid flashes of phrase, the instantaneous bolts of passionate conception, whose furrow of splendor across the eyeballs of the mind leaves them momentarily dark to the outward universe, only to quicken their vision of inward and incommunicable things. There was some truth in this criticism, as there commonly is in the harsh judgments of imperfect sympathy, but it was far from being the whole truth.

If poesy be, as the highest authority has defined it, a divine madness, no English poet and no French one between 1700 and 1800 need have feared a writ de lunatico inquirendo. They talk, to be sure, of “sacred rages,” but in so decorous a tone that we do not even glance towards the tongs. They invoke fire from heaven in such frozen verse as would have set it at defiance had their prayer been answered. Cowper was really mad at intervals, but his poetry, admirable as it is in its own middle-aged way, is in need of anything rather than of a strait-waistcoat. A certain blight of propriety seems to have fallen on all the verse of that age. The thoughts, wived with words above their own level, are always on their good behavior, and we feel that they would have been happier in the homelier unconstraint of prose. Diction was expected to do for imagination what only imagination could do for it, and the magic which was personal to the magician was supposed to reside in the formula.

Dryden died with his century; and nothing can be more striking than the contrast between him, the last of the ancient line, and the new race which succeeded him. In him, too, there is an

element of prose, an alloy of that good sense so admirable in itself, so incapable of those indiscretions which make the charm of poetry. His power of continuous thinking shows his mind of a different quality from those whose thought comes as lightning, intermittently it may be, but lightning, mysterious, incalculable, the more unexpected that we watch for it, and generated by forces we do not comprehend. Yet Dryden at his best is wonderfully impressive. He reminds one of a boiling spring. There is tumult, concussion, and no little vapor; but there is force, there is abundance, there is reverberation, and we feel that elemental fire is at work, though it be of the earth earthy. But what strikes us most in him, considered intellectually, is his modernness. Only twenty-three years younger than Milton, he belongs to another world. Milton is in many respects an ancient. Wordsworth says of him that

“ His soul was like a star and dwelt apart.'

But I should rather be inclined to say that it was his mind that was alienated from the present. Intensely and even vehemently engaged in the question of the day, his politics were abstract and theoretic, and a quotation from Sophocles has as much weight with him as a constitutional precedent. His intellectual sympathies were Greek. His language even has caught the ac

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