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English style has passed; and for that reason they deserve and will reward the careful attention of the student of literature. The power of our language, as an instrument for the expression of profound thought and lofty imagination, cannot be known in all its fulness without an acquaintance with the writers from the time of Elizabeth to the Restoration. We do not mean simply, that in them is to be found by far the best and most truly significant part of our vocabulary ; but that in the combination of words, and in the general structure of style, they exhibit the raciness and vigor of the language in a manner almost unknown during the period, when the French taste in various forms was -infused into English literature, and when the leading tendency was to consider excellence in writing as nearly synonymous with cold correctness and feeble neatness. The authors of an earlier age were not afraid to be energetic, though at the risk of the kindred faults. They took not hold of the language, as they would of an instrument which they were too timid to wield with strength, but as one which they would have perform its office with power
and effect. We are aware of the objection so often made, that their sentences are long, harsh, and obscure; that there is in their compositions a tedious and elaborate amplitude, which makes us glad to lay down their works; and that if we take them up again, it is from a sense of duty, perhaps, or for some special purpose, not from the expectation of pleasure. With respect to some of them there is doubtless no inconsiderable truth in this criticism, though it gives but one side of the case. The reading of not a few of their writings is a task, and a heavy task too. In their time, the faulty taste, which sprung up with the revival of letters, and accompanied its progress, had not ceased to exert a very considerable influence. We mean the taste for pedantic display, for overloading every subject with learned allusions or illustrations, as if it were impossible to crowd into their pages too much of the newly found erudition, of which they were so enamoured. Erasmus only expressed strongly a feeling, which was common among scholars, when he declared in one of his epistles, that as soon as he could get money, he would purchase first Greek authors, and secondly clothes.' This zeal, which now, perhaps, appears simply amusing, was, however, more than pardonable; it was honorable at a time when the beauties of the ancient world were bursting upon the eyes
of men, after the shades of night had rested over them so long, like some fine piece of sculpture, that has for
been buried in the ruins of a convulsion of nature, and is at last restored as it came from the hands of the artist. It was to be expected, however, that such a state of things should lead, as it did, to no little extravagance, and that it would require some time to establish the proper distinction between a blind idolatry and a just admiration of the ancients. The faults, which grew out of this literary revolution, extended their infection among the English authors, at least down to the reign of Anne, and appeared in various shapes, especially in the pedantic and cumbrous manner of writing, which has been made the subject of much censure, and of some ridicule.* But with respect to a large portion of these authors, this censure has been pressed quite too far; and meanwhile, their rich significance and peculiar strength of style have been left out of the account. Notwithstanding the faults, to which we have adverted as having sprung from an ill directed partiality for ancient learning, it is still true that the Saxon part of our language was in great favor with these writers, and that for the most part their diction savours strongly of an attachment to its expressive and beautiful peculiarities. After making all the allowances, which may be claimed, we yet maintain that he, who would obtain full possession of the treasures of the English tongue, and understand all its expressiveness, must form and retain a familiar acquaintance with the authors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In all of them he may find much that is uncouth and overstrained, and in some he may
be offended with those conceits and false ornaments, which Shaftesbury calls the hobby-horse and rattle of the Muses ;' but, if his reading be selected with a tolerably judicious choice, he cannot fail to imbibe a relish for that manly and hearty style, which, with all its faults, is a far bet
* It would seem from the following amusing and caustic remarks in Wilson's · Art of Rhetorick, published in 1553, that pedantry in the use of language was considered then, as now, rather the fault of smattering pretenders than of true scholars ;- • The unlearned or foolish fantastical, that smells but of learning (such fellows as have seen learned men in their day) will so Latin their tongues, that the simple cannot but wonder at their talk, and think surely they speak by some revelation. I know them that think rhetorick to stand wholly on dark words; and he that can catch an inkhorn term by the tail, him they count to be a fine Englishman, and a good rhetorician.' N. S. VOL. VI. NO. I.
ter model than the insipid and well-trimmed accuracy of refinement, falsely so called.
The distinctive merits of the theological writers belonging to the period, of which we speak, have been so often and so well discussed, that they may be considered, we suppose, as pretty fairly understood. The keen and sometimes exasperating excitement in ecclesiastical affairs, which prevailed in England with little intermission during at least three successive reigns, and the times of the Commonwealth, gave a peculiar cast to the character and writings of the clergy. They were distinguished by the restless and earnest spirit, which was the natural result of the conviction, that interests of a most stirring nature were at stake. They were thrown upon a crisis of affairs, when religion and politics pressed upon them many stimulating topics of inquiry and controversy. The elements of revolution, which had been put in motion by the Reformation, were then quick and plentiful in the land, and the results, into which they would finally settle, were not as yet ascertained. It was not simply the striving of sect against sect, but a contest in which the ecclesiastical and civil interests of a kingdom were involved; and the agitation was one which affected not local parties, but a whole community. There was a time when Queen Elizabeth, by a proclamation, prohibited, or attempted to prohibit, preaching, — for the sake, as she said, of promoting peace, godliness, and charity.* At such a period, the clergy would not be likely to fall into the dulness of men well at ease. Even the prelates could not slumber in the sunshine of the church; and as for the Puritans, they counted it their lot and portion to fight what they believed to be the good fight of faith. The natural result of such a state of things may be seen in that spirit of fervor and earnestness, which breathes through the writings of most of the old divines, and extends to other topics besides those which were
more immediately in controversy; for moral warmth is in its nature so expansive, that it spreads its influence in a greater or less degree over all our views and our habits of thought, and he, whose mind has been habitually accustomed to excitement in one direction, will be likely to carry with him a kindred spirit into other subjects. That the leading theologians of those days were men of great erudition,
* Strype's Annals of the Reformation, Vol. 1. Appendix.
will not, probably, be denied. Perhaps they had too much of it; or rather, perhaps they knew not always how to prevent it from becoming oppressive to the intellect. They would, doubtless, have thought it quite beneath the dignity of their large scholarship to be satisfied with the standard, which Bishop Atterbury established for himself, when he said, 'I sometimes know where learning is, and how to make use of it, when I want it;' but this is probably all, that many of the most efficient and successful scholars in the world have known.
There is, moreover, a much greater amount of noble views and of true liberality among the old divines, than is commonly supposed. In the works of John Hales, of Jeremy Taylor (especially · The Liberty of Prophesying '), of Baxter, and others, we are refreshed and delighted with generous and hearty vindications of enlightened piety, religious independence, and Christian charity. No men have seen more clearly, or said more plainly, that there is nothing narrow, dark, or exclusive in the character and requisitions of the Gospel. Most of the fathers of English theology had minds full fraught on the subject of religion; and some of them sounded the depths of the human soul, with reference to this its most sacred interest, in the spirit of the true science of sanctity. They redeemed from captivity great truths, which had been long shut up under the reign of scholastic and monkish power. The philosophy of man's spiritual nature, as affected by religious culture, has seldom been better understood than by these men. They looked into the principles of that higher life in the soul, which sometimes appears only in faint struggles, and sometimes flashes forth in strong motions towards the Great Source whence it came. They knew that there is a wisdom leading to God, better than all the wisdom of the schools, and that it belongs to the life-giving efficacy of divine truth to mature this wisdom, by exalting the soul and representing it as that on which God has written his name and stamped his image. They felt and set forth the great truth, that when we regard our moral nature as we ought, we shall find there, so to speak, a Urim and Thummim, which it wears as a breast-plate, and by which we may ask counsel of God. No man of religious feeling can read some of the writings of Henry More, or the Select Discourses of John Smith, without being impressed with the conviction that he is holding intercourse with minds, that had singularly elevated views of the spiritual relations and the spiritual bearings of man. Their sermons were, according to the fashion of the times, very long, and consequently they may be found to have dilated where compression would have been better; but many of their discourses are storehouses of lofty thoughts and admirable illustrations. It is my full conviction,' says Coleridge, 'that in any half dozen sermons of Dr. Donne, or Jeremy Taylor, there are more thoughts, more facts and images, more excitements to inquiry and intellectual effort, than are presented to the congregations of the present day in as many churches or meetings during twice as many months. Yet both these were the most popular preachers of their times, were heard with enthusiasm by crowded and promiscuous audiences, and the effect produced by their eloquence was held in reverential and affectionate remembrance by many attendants on their ministry, who, like the pious Isaac Walton, were not themselves men of learning or education.'
The most prevalent faults of the old English authors, considered as a class, are the faults of overdoing. The ne quid nimis was a precept, to which they paid but little respect. No fear of making too large demands on the patience of the reader was before their eyes. Their object too often seems to have been to say all that could be said, rather than to select what was best to be said. If a point was to be illustrated from history, or by literary authorities, they were so prodigal in the use of their resources, that the point itself was sometimes lost under the load of quotations heaped upon it. If a subject was to be analyzed, and separated into its parts, their definitions and distinctions were likely to be multiplied and refined, till they became almost evanescent, or till it required a greater effort of attention to follow the process, than to comprehend the subject proposed, or to solve the difficulty started. Argument was frequently expanded, and pushed to the utmost limits of application, till it ceased to produce the conviction, which it would, had it been used with cautious precision, or with more concentrated strength. And wit was pursued with so much perverse ingenuity, and through such artificial connexions of thought, that the flavor of the Attic salt, which might at first have belonged to it, often evaporated during the operation. Some of the prose writers of old must certainly be included in the censure so commonly passed on what