Εικόνες σελίδας
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

age is now acted, and few can be read with either profit or pleasure.

WILLIAM CONGREVE, the earliest of this trio, was also the most distinguished. He was a man of the world,

1670-1729 and thus the better fitted to write comedies which were pictures of the world in which he lived. Nearly all his works were comedies, although his one tragedy, the Mourning Bride, was that of which Dr. Johnson said: “If I were requested to select from the whole mass of English poetry the most poetical paragraph, I know not what I should prefer to an exclamation in the Mourning Bride." Here is the “paragraph” to which Johnson refers, – the description of the cathedral at night :

(Almeria and Leonora in the cathedral.]
Alm. It was a fancied noise, for all is hushed.
Leon. It bore the accent of a human voice.
Alm. It was thy fear, or else some transient wind

Whistling through hollows of this vaulted aisle.

We 'll listen.
Leon. Hark!
Alm. No, all is hushed and still as death. 'Tis dreadful !

How reverend is the face of this tall pile,
Whose ancient pillars rear their marble heads
To bear aloft its arched and ponderous roof,
By its own weight made steadfast and immovable,
Looking tranquillity. It strikes an awe
And terror on my aching sight. The tombs
And monumental caves of death look cold,
And shoot a chillness to my trembling heart.
Give me thy hand, and let me hear thy voice ;
Nay, quickly speak to me, and let me hear

Thy voice; my own affrights me with its echo. Let me say, after reading this, that I know of no subject on which I would not rather take Dr. Johnson's opinion than upon that of poetry.

But Johnson's verdict was that of Congreve's own time. Congreve had places of profit and honor in abundance ; great men were proud to call on him ; Pope dedicated to him his translation of the Iliad; and after his death, a great lady had a wax figure made to resemble him, laid out in state in her drawing-room, that she might lavish on it the affection she had felt for Congreve himself.

His comedies are all that can be desired in sparkle and brilliancy of style. Hazlitt, a very good critic, who wrote in the early part of this century, says that “ They are full of the niceties of English style, and there is even a peculiar flavor in the words not to be found in another writer.” It is their grossness which makes them now so fortunately unknown. Here is a scene from the opening of Love for Love, one of the most famous of the comedies :

(Valentine, who has fallen under his father's displeasure by his extravagant way of living, and is in love with Angelica, who is also displeased with him, has shut himself up in his lodgings and taken to study. He is at his table reading, and Jeremy, his valet, is standing near him.)

Val. Jeremy Jer. Sir ?

Vail. (Throwing the book at him). Here, take away. I'll walk a turn, and digest what I've read.

Jer. [Taking the book, mutters]. You'll grow devilish fat upon this

paper diet.

Val. And d’ye hear, go you to breakfast. There 's a page doubled down in Epictetus that is a feast for an emperor.

Jer. Was Epictetus a real cook, or did he only write receipts ?

Val. Read, read, sirrah! and refine your appetite; learn to live upon instruction ; feast your mind and mortify your flesh; read, and take your nourishment in at your eyes, shut up your mouth and chew the cud of understanding : so Epictetus advises

Jer. Oh, Lord, I have heard much of him when I waited on a gentleman at Cambridge. Pray, what was that Epictetus?

Val. A very rich man, not worth a groat.

Jer. Humph! and so he has made a very fine feast where there is nothing to be eaten?

Val. Yes.

Jer. Sir, you are a gentleman, and probably understand is fine feeding; but, if you please, I'd rather live on board wages. Does your Epictetus, or your. Seneca here, or any of these poor rich rogues teach you how to pay your debts without money? Will they shut up the mouths of your creditors ? Will Plato be bail for you ; or Diogenes, because he understands confinement and lived in a tub, go to prison for you? S’life, sir, what do you mean? to mew yourself up here with three or four' musty books, in commendation of starving and poverty?

Val. Why, sirrah, I have no money, you know it, and therefore resolve to rail at all who have; and in that I but follow the example of the wisest and wittiest men in all ages, those poets and philosophers whom you naturally hate for just such another reason, because they abound in sense, and you are a fool.

Jer. Ay, sir, I am a fool, and I know it; and yet, Heaven help me, I'm poor enough to be a wit. But I was always a fool when I told what your expenses would bring you to, — your coaches and your liveries, your treats and your balls, your being in love with a lady that did not care a farthing for you in your prosperity; and keeping company with wits that cared for nothing but your prosperity; and now, when you are poor, hate you as much as they do one another. Val. For the wits, I am in a condition to be even with them.

I'll take some of their trade out of their hands. Jer. Now, Heaven of mercy, continue the tax on paper. You don't mean to write ?

Val. Yes, I do; I 'll write a play.

Jer. Hem! Sir, if you please to give me a small certificate, of three lines only, to certify those whom it may concern that the bearer hereof, Jeremy Fetch by name, has for the space of seven years truly and faithfully served Valentine Legend, Esq., and that he is not now turned away for any misdemeanor, but does voluntarily dismiss his master from any further authority over him.

Val. No, sirrah, you shall live with me still.

Jer. Sir, it's impossible. I may die with you, starve with you, or be damned with your works; but to live even three days the life of a play, I no more expect it than to be canonized for a muse after my death.

Val. You are witty, you rogue! I shall want your help. I'll have you learn to make couplets to tag the ends of acts.

Jer. You ’re undone, sir, you're ruined : you won't have a friend in the world if you turn poet. Confound that Will's Coffee-house ; it has ruined more young men than the Royal Oak Lottery, — nothing thrives that belongs to it.

[Enter Mr. Scandal.] Scan. What, Jeremy holding forth ?

Val. The rogue has, with all the wit he could muster up, been declaiming against wit.

Scan. Ay? Why, then, I'm afraid Jeremy has wit, for wherever it is, it's always contriving its own ruin.

Jer. Why, so I've been telling my master, sir. Mr. Scandal, for Heaven's sakes, try, if you can, to dissuade him from turning poet.

Scan. Poet! He shall turn soldier first, and rather depend upon the outside of his head than the lining. What! has not your poverty made you enemies enough, but you must needs show your wit to get more?

Val. Therefore I would rail in my writings and be revenged. Scan. Rail at whom? - the whole world ? Impotent and vain ! Who would die a martyr to sense, in a country where the religion is folly? You may stand at bay for a time, but when the full cry is against you, you sha'n't have fair play for your life. No, turn flatterer, quack, lawyer, parson, — anything but poet. SIR JOHN VANBRUGH was an architect as well as a play

writer, and so his reputation was built on two 1666–1726

foundations, for some of his buildings are almost as famous as his plays. His comedies have many of the merits of Congreve's; the situations in the dramas are even more full of fun, although his style is less refined. In this he more resembles Farquhar, who came a little later than either. GEORGE FARQUHAR was an actor, who, like the Elizabethan

dramatists, united play-writing to play-acting. 1678-1707


says of this trio: “We should have courted Congreve's acquaintance most for his wit and the elegance of his manners; Vanbrugh's for his power of farcical description, and telling a story; Farquhar's, for the pleasure of his society and the love of good fellowship.”

These old comedies held up so clear a mirror to the vices of their time that they are now unfit to read. Had the times been more decent and refined, comedy would have reflected this refinement. But as manners improved, wit declined; and we have not since had so witty and brilliant comedies in English literature as those of the time of these three writers.

[ocr errors]






CANNOT promise that you will find the poets who

follow Pope through the eighteenth century very interesting; they continue on in a path of dead-level merit, from which they rarely diverge to produce anything that deeply touches the heart or the imagination. For my own part, I much prefer the untamed originality of the earlier poets. There is a charm in their freedom and naturalness which is never failing. The constant see-saw rhymes, almost always in couplets, which Pope had made the fashion, when used by poets less gifted than Pope become so tiresome that I think if I were obliged to accept them as poetry, I should henceforth read nothing but prose.

I will not dwell long; therefore, on the poetry of this period, but will run over for you the names of the most noted poets and their greatest works, from the time of Pope to the last quarter of the century.

EDWARD YOUNG is best known as the author of Night Thoughts, a serious and sombre poem which was

1684-1765 inuch read by our grandfathers and grandmothers, and is likely to be read very little hereafter. Young seems to have been a worldly man who wrote very unworldly poetry. He was gay and rather dissipated in youth, entered the Church at fifty, was disappointed that he did not attain to a bishopric, and at sixty wrote his Night Thoughts to express his dissatisfaction with life and the way it had used him. His verse sounds more like complaining over disappointments than the lofty musings of a mind enriched by long experience.

Young wrote other poems than this, but they are so far forgotten that he is known only as the author of The Night Thoughts; and although this poem will never again be valued as highly as it once was, there are in it many lines which have been so frequently quoted that they have become a part of the language ; and there are also occasional passages good enough to be remembered as long as literature exists, - I mean such lines as these :

“ Procrastination is the thief of Time."
“ Tired Nature's sweet restorer, — balmy sleep.”
“Death loves a shining mark.”

“How blessings brighten as they take their flight !” These lines I have quoted are like proverbs, and have become crystallized in our daily speech.

Let me give one short passage, to show the style of The Night Thoughts :

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »