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ever pleaded better and more irrefragable arguments for the existence of a supreme infinite Being, who made and governs all things by infinite wisdom and Almighty power; none were ever more ready to produce a most clear and candid confession of their faith, as to this grand article of religion than they. “Although we profess ourselves atheists, with respect to those whom you esteem and repute to be gods, (so their apologist tells the senate,) yet not in respect of the true God, the parent and fountain of wisdom and righteousness, and all other excellencies and perfections, who is infinitely free from the least contagion or spot of evil. Him, and his only begotten son, (who instructed us and the whole society of good angels in these divine mysteries,) and the spirit of prophecy, we worship and adore, honouring them in truth, and with the highest reason, and ready to communicate these things to any one that is willing to learn them, as we ourselves have received them. Can we then be atheists, who worship the great Creator of this world, not with blood, incense, and offerings, (which we are sufficiently taught he stands in no need of,) but exalt him according to our power with prayers and praises, in all the addresses we make to him ; believing this to be the only honour that is worthy of him, not to consume the creatures which he has given us for our use, and the comforts of those that want, in the fire by sacrifice; but to approve ourselves thankful to him, and to sing and celebrate rational hymns and sacrifices, pouring out our prayers to him as a grateful return for those many good things which we have received, and do yet expect from him, according to the faith and trust that we have in him.” To the same purpose Athenagoras, in his return to this charge : “Diagorus indeed was guilty of the deepest atheism and impiety; but we who separate God from all material being, and affirm him to be eternal and unbegotten, but all matter to be made and corruptible, how unjustly are we branded with impiety! It is true, did we side with Diagorus in denying a Divinity, when there are so many and such powerful arguments from the creation and goverpment of the world to convince us of the existence of God and religion, then both the guilt and punishment of atheism might deservedly be put upon us. But when our religion acknowledges one God, the maker of the universe, who, being uncreate Himself, created all things by his word, we are manifestly wronged both in word and deed; both in being charged with it, and in being punished for it.” “We are accused (says Arnobius) for introducing profane rites and an impious religion; but tell me, O ye men of reason, how dare ye make so rash a charge? To adore the mighty God, the Sovereign of the whole creation, the Governor of the highest powers, to pray to him with the most obsequious reverence; under an afflicted state to lay hold of him with all our powers, to love him, and look up to him; is this a dismal and detestable religion, a religion full of sacrilege and impiety, destroying and defiling all ancient rites ? Is this that bold and prodigious crime for which your gods are so angry with us, and for which you yourselves do so rage against us, confiscating our estates, banishing our persons, burning, tearing, and racking us to death with such exquisite tortures ? We Christians are nothing else but the worshippers of the supreme King and Governor of the world, according as we are taught by Christ our master. Search, and you will find nothing else in our religion. This is the sum of the whole affair; this is the end and design of our divine offices ; before Him it is that we are wont to prostrate and bow ourselves, Him we worship with common and conjoined devotions, from Him we beg those things which are just and honest, and such as are not unworthy of him to hear and grant.” So little reason had the enemies of Christianity to brand it with the note of atheism and irreligion.
184.-THE LITERATURE OF THE AGE OF ELIZABETH.
HAZI.ITT. [WILLIAM HAZLITT, one of the most voluminous writers of our times, was born in 1778; he died of cholera in 1830. His father was a Unitarian minister, and he was educated for his father's profession. But he had a determined predilection for the fine arts, and devoted himself for several years to the studies of a painter. There is little doubt that he would have attained considerable excellence in this walk, had his fastidiousness allowed him to have been satisfied with his growing mastery over the difficulties of art. He, however, became a writer, and for a quarter of a century he devoted himself to an unremitting course of literary exertion. His political feelings were strong and almost passionate. He became thereforo an object of unceasing attack, and no man was pursued with more virulence by the party writers who supported the Government of the day. His reputation is now established as a vigorous thinker, and an eloquent critic, who in an age of imitation dared to be original.]
The age of Elizabeth was distinguished, beyond, perhaps, any other in our history, by a number of great men, famous in different ways, and whose names have come down to us with upblemished honours,—statesmen, warriors, divines, scholars, poets, and philosophers: Raleigh, Drake, Coke, Hooker, and higher and more sounding still, and still more frequent in our mouths, Shakespear, Spenser, Sydney, Bacon, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher-men whom fame has eternised in her long and lasting scroll, and who, by their words and acts, were benefactors of their country, and ornaments of human nature. Their attainments of different kinds bore the same general stamp, and it was sterling: what they did had the mark of their age and country upon it. Perhaps the genius of Great Britain (if I may so speak without offence or flattery) never shone out fuller or brighter, or looked more like itself, than at this period.
For such an extraordinary combination and development of fancy and genius many causes may be assigned; and we may seek for the chief of them in religion, in politics, in the circumstances of the time, the recent diffusion of letters, in local situation, and in the character of the men who adorned that period, and availed themselves so nobly of the advantages placed within their reach.
I shall here attempt to give a general sketch of these causes, and of the manner in which they operated to mould and stamp the poetry of the country at the period of which I have to treat; independently of incidental and fortuitous causes, for which there is no accounting, but which, after all, have often the greatest share in determining the most important results.
The first cause I shall mention, as contributing to this general effect, was the Reformation, which had just then taken place. This event gave a mighty impulse and increased activity to thought and inquiry, and agitated the inert mass of accumulated prejudices throughout Europe. The effect of the concussion was general; but the shock was greatest in this country. It toppled down the full-grown intolerable abuses of centuries at a blow; heaved the ground from under the feet of
bigoted faith and slavish obedience; and the roar and dashing of opinions, loosened from their accustomed hold, might be heard like the noise of an angry sea, and has never yet subsided. Germany first broke the spell of misbegotten fear, and gave the watchword; but England joined the shout, and echoed it back, with her island voice, from her thousand cliffs and craggy shores, in a longer and a louder strain. With that cry, the genius of Great Britain rose, and threw down the gauntlet to the nations. There was a mighty fermentation: the waters were out; public opinion was in a state of projection. Liberty was held out to all to think and speak the truth. Men's brains were busy; their spirits stirring; their hearts full; and their hands not idle. Their eyes were opened to expect the greatest things, and their ears burned with curiosity and zeal to know the truth, that the truth might make them free. The death-blow which had been struck at scarlet vice and bloated hypocrisy, loosened their tongues, and made the talismans and love-tokens of Popish. superstition, with which she had beguiled her followers and committed abominations with the people, fall harmless from their necks.
The translation of the Bible was the chief engine in the great work. It threw open, by a secret spring, the rich treasures of religion and morality, which had been there locked up as in a shrine. It revealed the visions of the prophets, and conveyed the lessons of inspired teachers to the meanest of the people. It gave them a common interest in a common cause. Their hearts burnt within them as they read. It gave a mind to the people, by giving them common subjects of thought and feeling. It cemented their union of character and sentiment; it created endless diversity and collision of opinion. They found objects to employ their faculties, and a motive in the magnitude of the consequences attached to them, to exert the utmost eagerness in the pursuit of truth, and the most daring intrepidity in maintaining it. Religious controversy sharpens the understanding by the subtlety and remoteness of the topics it discusses, and embraces the will by their infinite importance. We perceive in the history of this period a nervous masculine intellect. No levity, no feebleness, no indifference; or, if there were, it is a relaxation from the intense activity which gives a tone to its general character. But there is a gravity approaching to piety; a seriousness of impression, a conscientious" severity of argument, an habitual fervour and enthusiasm in their method of handling almost every subject. The debates of the schoolmen were sharp and subtle enough; but they wanted interest and grandeur, and were besides confined to a few: they did not affect the general mass of the community. But the Bible was thrown open to all ranks and conditions “ to run and read,” with its wonderful table of contents from Genesis to the Revelations. Every village in England would present the scene so well described in Burns's Cotter's Saturday Night.' I cannot think that all this variety and weight of knowledge could be thrown in all at once upon the minds of the people and not make some impression upon it, the traces of which might be discernied in the manners and literature of the age. For, to leave more disputable points, and take only the historical parts of the Old Testament, or the moral sentiments of the New, there is nothing like them in the power of exciting awe and admiration, or of riveting sympathy. We see what Milton has made of the account of the Creation, from the manner in which he has treated it, inibued and impregnated with the spirit of the time of which we speak. Or what is there equal (in that romantic interest and patriarchal simplicity which goes to the heart of a country, and rouses it, as it were, from its lair in wastes and wildnesses) equal to the story of Joseph and his Brethren, of Rachael and Laban, of Jacob's Dream, of Ruth and Boaz, the descriptions in the book of Job, the deliverance of the Jews out of Egypt, or the account of their captivity and return from Babylon? There is, in all these parts of the Scripture, and mumberless more of the same kind--to pass over the Orphic hymns of David, the prophetic denunciations of Isaiah, or the gorgeous visions of Ezekiel an originality, a vastness of conception, a depth and tenderness of feeling, and a touching simplicity in the mode of narration, which he who does not feel need be made of no " penetrable stuff." There is something in the character of Christ too (leaving religious faith quite out of the question) of more sweetness and majesty, and more likely to work a change in the mind of man, by the contemplation of its idea alone, than any to be found in history whether actual or feigned. This character is that of a sublime humanity, such as was never seen on earth before, nor since. This shone manifestly both in his words and actions, We see it in his washing the Disciples' feet the night before his death, that unspeakable instance of humility and love, above all art, all meanness, and all pride ; and in the leave he took of them on that occasion, "My peace I give unto you, that peace which the world cannot give, give I unto you;" and in his last commandment, that “they should love one another.” Who can read the account of his behaviour on the cross, when turning to his mother he said, “Woman, behold thy son,” and to the Disciple John, “ Behold thy mother," and " from that hour that Disciple took her to his own home," without having his heart smote within him! We sce it in his treatment of the woman taken in adultery, and in his excuse for the woman who poured precious ointment on his garment as an offering of devotion and love, which is here all in all. His religion was the religion of the heart. We see it in his discourse with the Disciples as they walked together towards Emmaus, when their hearts burned within them; in his Sermon from the Mount, in his parable of the good Samaritan, and in that of the Prodigal Son-in every act and word of his life, a grace, a mildness, a dignity and love, a patience and wisdom worthy of the Son of God. His whole life and being were imbued, steeped, in this word, charity : it was the spring, the well-head, from which every thought and feeling gushed into act; and it was this that breathed a mild glory from his face in that last agony upon the cross, “when the meek Saviour bowed his head and died,” praying for his eneinies. He was the first true teacher of morality; for he alone conceived the idea of a pure humanity. He redeemed man from the worship of that idol, self, and instructed him by precept and example to love his neighbour as himself, to for.. give our enemies, to do good to those that curse us and despitefully use us. He taught the love of good for the sake of good, without regard to personal or sinister vicws, and made the affections of the heart the sole seat of morality, instead of the pride of the understanding or the sterpness of the will. In answering the question, “who is our neighbour?” as one who stands in need of our assistance, and whose wounds we can bind up, he has done more to humanize the thoughts, and tame the unruly passions, than all who have tried to reform and benefit mankind. The very idea of abstract benevolence, of the desire to do good because another wants our services, and of regarding the human race as one family, the offspring of one common parent, is hardly to be found in any other code or system. It was “ to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness.” The Greeks and Romans never thought of considering others, but as they were Greeks or Romans, as they were bound to them by certain positive ties, or, on the other hand, as separated from them by fiercer antipathies. Their virtues were the virtues of political machines, their vices were the vices of demons, ready to inflict or to endure pain with obdurate and re
morseless inflexibility of purpose. But in the Christian religion “we perceive a • softness coming over the heart of a nation, and the iron scales that fence and harden
it melt and drop off.” It becomes malleable, capable of pity, of forgiveness, of relaxing in its claims, and remitting its power. We strike it and it does not hurt us: it is not steel or marble, but flesh and blood, clay tempered with tears, and “soft as sinews of the new-born babe.” The Gospel was first preached to the poor, for it
consulted their wants and interests, not its own pride and arrogance. It first promulgated the equality of mankind in the community of duties and benefits. It denounced the iniquitics of the chief-priests and Pharisees, and declared itself at variance with principalities and powers, for it sympathizes not with the oppressor, but the oppressed. It first abolished slavery, for it did not consider the power of the will to inflict injury, as clothing it with a right to do so. Its law is good, not power. It at the same time tended to wean the mind from the grossness of sense, and a particle of its divine ilame was lent to brighten and purify the lamp of love!
There have been persons who, being sceptics as to the divine mission of Christ, have taken an unaccountable prejudice to his doctrines, and have been disposed to deny the merit of his character; but this was not the feeling of the great men in the age of Elizabeth (whatever might be their belief) one of whom says of him, with a boldness equal to its piety,
“The best of men.
The first true gentleman that ever breathed.” This was old honest Deckar, and the lines ought to embalm his memory to every one who has a sense either of religion, or philosophy, or humanity, or true genius. Nor can I help thinking, that we may discern the traces of the influence exerted by religious faith in the spirit of the poetry of the age of Elizabeth, in the means of exciting terror and pity, in the delineations of the passions of grief, remorse, love, sympathy, the sense of shame, in the fond desires, the longings after immortality, in the heaven of hope and the abyss of despair it lays open to us.
The literature of this age then, I would say, was strongly influenced (among other causes), first by the spirit of Christianity, and secondly by the spirit of Protestantism.
The effects of the Reformation on politics and philosophy may be seen in the writings and history of the next and of the following ages. They are still at work, and will continue to be so. The effects on the poetry of the time were chiefly confined to the moulding of the character, and giving a powerful impulse to the intellect of the country. The immediate use or application that was made of religion to subjects of imagination and fiction was not (from an obvious ground of separation) so direct or frequent, as that which was made of the classical and romantic literature.
For, much about the same time, the rich and fascinating stores of the Greek and Roman mythology, and those of the romantic poetry of Spain and Italy, were eagerly explored by the curious, and thrown open in translations to the admiring gaze of the vulgar. This last circumstance could hardiy have afforded so much advantage to the poets of that day, who were themselves, in fact, the translators, as it shews the general curiosity and increasing interest in such subjects as a prevailing feature of the times. There were translations of Tasso by Fairfax, and of Ariosto by Harrington, of Homer and Hesiod by Chapman, and of Virgil long before, and Ovid soon after: there was Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch, of which Shakespear has made such admirable use in his Coriolanus and Julius Cæsar; and Ben Jonson's tragedies of Catiline and Sejanus may themselves be considered as almost literal translations into verse of Tacitus, Sallust, and Cicero's Orations in his consulship. Petrarch, Dante, the satirist Aretine, Machiavel, Castiglion, and others, were familiar to our writers, and they make occasional mention of some few French authors, as Ronsard and Du Bartas'; for the French literature had not at this stage arrived at its Augustan period, and it was the imitation of their literature a century afterwards, when it had arrived at its greatest height (itself copied from the Greek and Latin), that enfoebled and iinpoverished our own. But of the time that we are