« PreviousContinue »
involved in the every-day operations of the temporal life, could a science of wealth become possible.
Certain peculiarities about the East Indian trade of the seventeenth century, which consisted chiefly in the exchange of silks and other Indian manufactures for bullion, gave occasion to a number of pamphlets, in which the true principles of commerce were gradually developed. But what was called the "mercantile system" was long the favourite doctrine both with statesmen and economists, and, indeed, is even yet not quite exploded. By this was meant a system of cunning devices, having for their object, by repressing trade in one direction, and encouraging it in another, to leave the community at the end of each year more plentifully supplied with the precious metals (in which alone wealth was then supposed to consist) than at the end of the preceding. The tradition of over-government which had come down from the Roman empire, joined to the narrow corporate spirit which had arisen among the great trading cities of the middle ages, led naturally to such views of national economy. Everyone knows what efforts it has cost in our own days to establish the simple principle of commercial freedom- the right to "buy in the cheapest and sell in the dearest market." That this principle has at last prevailed, and that money, in so far as it is not itself a mere commodity, is now regarded, not as wealth, but as the variable representative of wealth, is mainly due to the great work of Adam Smith.
Burke published in 1756 his celebrated philosophical Essay on the origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Sir Joshua Reynolds' excellent Discourses on Painting, or rather the first part of them, appeared in 1779. Horace Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting, compiled from the unwieldy collections of Virtue on the lives and works of British artists, were published between the years 1761 and 1771.
As no summary which our limits would permit us to give of the political events between 1800 and 1850 could add materially to the student's knowledge respecting a period so recent, we shall omit here the historical sketch which we prefixed to each of the two preceding chapters.
At once, from the opening of the nineteenth century, we meet with originality and with energetic convictions; the deepest problems are sounded with the utmost freedom; decorum gives place to earnestness; and principles are mutually confronted instead of forms. We speak of England only; the change to which we refer set in at an earlier period in France and Germany. In the main, the chief pervading movement of society may be described as one of reaction against the ideas of the eighteenth century. Those ideas were, in brief, Rationalism and Formalism, both in literature and in politics. Pope, for instance, was a rationalist, and also a formalist, in both respects. In his views of society, he took the excellence of no institution for granted he would not admit that antiquity in itself constituted a claim to reverence; on the contrary, his turn of mind disposed him to try all things, old and new, by the test of their rationality, and to ridicule the multiplicity of forms and usages-some marking ideas originally irrational, others whose meaning, once clear and true, had been lost or obscured through the change of circumstances,
which encumbered the public life of his time. Yet he was, at the same time, a political formalist in this sense, that he desired no sweeping changes, and was quite content that the social system should work on as it was. It suited him, and that was enough for his somewhat selfish philosophy. Again, in literature he was a rationalist, and also a formalist; but here in a good sense. For in literary as in all other art, the form is of prime importance; and his destructive logic, while it crushed bad forms, bound him to develop his powers in strict conformity to good Now the reaction against these ideas was two-fold. The conservative reaction, while it pleaded the claims of prescription, denounced the aberrations of reason, and endeavoured to vindicate or resuscitate the ideas lying at the base of existing political society, which the rationalism of the eighteenth century had sapped, rebelled at the same time against the arbitrary rules with which not Pope himself, but his followers - had fettered literature. The liberal, or revolutionary reaction, while, accepting the destructive rationalism of the eighteenth century, it scouted its political formalism as weak and inconsistent, joined the conservative school in rebelling against the reign. of the arbitrary and the formal in literature. This, then, is the point of contact between Scott and the conservative school on the one hand, and Coleridge, Godwin, Byron, Shelley, and the rest of the revolutionary school on the other. They were all agreed that literature, and especially poetry, was become a cold, lifeless affair, conforming to all the rules and proprieties, but divorced from living nature, and the warm spontaneity of the heart. They imagined that the extravagant and exclusive admiration of the classical models had occasioned this mischief; and fixing their eyes on the rude yet grand beginnings of modern society, which the spectacle of the feudal ages presented to them, they thought that by imbuing themselves with the spirit of romance and chivalry
-by coming into moral contact with the robust faith and energetic passions of a race not yet sophisticated by civilization they would wake up within themselves the great original forces of the human spirit-forces which, once set in motion, would develop congenial literary forms, produced, not by the labor lima, but by a true inspiration.
Especially in poetry was this the case. To the artificial, mechanical, didactic school, which Pope's successors had made intolerable, was now opposed a counter theory of the poetic function, which we may call the theory of the Spontaneous. As light flows from the stars, or perfume from flowers as the nightingale cannot help singing, nor the bee refrain from making honey;-so, according to this theory, poetry is the spontaneous emanation of a musical and beautiful soul. "The poet is born, and is not made;" and so is it with his poetry. To pretend to construct a beautiful poem, is as if one were to try to construct a tree. Something dead and wooden will be the result in either case. In a poet, effort is tantamount to condemnation; for it implies the absence of inspiration. For the same reason, to be consciously didactic is incompatible with the true poetic gift. For whatever of great value comes from a poet, is not that which he wills to say, but that which he cannot help saying,- that which some higher power-call it Nature or what you will dictates through his lips, as through an oracle.
This theory, which certainly had many attractions and contained much truth, led to various important results. It drove away from Helicon many versifiers who had no business there, by depriving them of an audience. The Beatties, Akensides, Youngs, and Darwins, who had inflicted their dulness on the last century, under the impression that it was poetry-a delusion shared by their readers, had to "pale their ineffectual fire " and decamp, when their soporific productions were confronted with the
startling and direct utterances of the disciples of the Spontaneous. On the other hand, the theory produced new mischiefs and generated new mistakes. It did not silence inferior poets; but they were of a different class from what they had been before. It was not now the moralist or the dabbler in philosophy, who, imagining himself to have important information to convey to mankind, and aiming at delighting while he instructed, constructed his epic, or ode, or metrical essay, as the medium of communication. It was rather the man gifted with a fatal facility of rhyme - with a mind teeming with trivial thoughts, and corresponding words who was misled by the new theory into confounding the rapidity of his conceptions with the spontaneity of genius, and into thinking revision or curtailment of them a kind of treason to the divine afflatus. Such writers generally produced two or three pretty pieces, written at their brightest moments, amidst a miscellaneous heap of "fugitive poems"— rightly so called —which were good for little or nothing. Upon real genius the theory acted both for good and for evil. Social success, upon which even the best poets of the eighteenth century had set the highest value, was despised by the higher minds of the new school. They loved to commune with nature and their own souls in solitude, believing that here was the source of true poetic inspiration. The resulting forms were, so far as they went, most beautiful and faultless in art; they were worthy of the profound and beautiful thoughts which they embodied. In diction, rhythm, proportion, melody in everything, in short, that constitutes beauty of formno poems ever composed attained to greater perfection than Shelley's Skylark or Keats' Hyperion. Yet these forms, after all, were not of the highest order. The judgement of many generations has assigned the palm of superiority among poetic forms to the Epos and the Drama; yet in neither of these did the school of poets of which we speak achieve any success of moment.