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V. Epigram (A gold watch found, &c.) 498
To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
VERY wonderful is the vitality of names; and there is reason to believe that books and essays continue to this day to make their appearance, in which the period of our literary history coinciding with the literary life of Pope is spoken of as our Augustan age. Were this transfer of title intended to imply the existence during the period in question of any royal patronage of letters such as the first of the legitimate Cæsars was too prudent absolutely to neglect, it would condemn itself at once. The English Augustans were not warmed by the favour of any English Augustus. William the Deliverer, in whose reign they had grown up, had been without stomach for the literature of a nation with whose tastes and habits he had never made it part of his political programme to sympathise. Queen Anne's very feeble light of personal judgment was easily kept under by the resolute will of her favourites, or flickered timidly under cover of the narrowest orthodoxy. Of the first two Georges the former, indifferent to an unpopularity which never seemed to endanger his tenure of the throne, neither possessed an ordinary mastery of the English tongue nor manifested even a transient desire to acquire it. His successor had no objection to be considered, in virtue of his mistress rather than his wife, the patron of the literary adherents of a political party, until, on mounting the throne, he blandly disappointed the hopes of that party itself. The epoch of our Augustans had all but closed, when the death of Frederick, Prince of Wales, put an absolute end to the nominal hopes in the advent of a golden age for the liberal arts, by averting the accession of a Patriot King.
Neither was the defect of royal patronage supplied by any genuine Mæcenas from among the great ones of the realm. The traditions in this respect of the Stuart period-traditions doubtless exaggerated in the age of Pope, yet not wholly baseless-had barely survived the expulsion of the last Stuart King. Of King William's Batavian comrades, none had sought to grace their newly-acquired dignities and incomes by fostering the efforts of genius in the country which they had consented to adopt. Among the chief English-born noblemen and gentlemen
of this reign those of the older generation were too intently engaged in picking their path through events and eventualities to find time for dallying with the delights of literature and art. One only of their number, the sage whom all parties honoured because he so circumspectly abstained from being of vital service to any, Sir William Temple, alone had a thought for literature, and horticulture, and other liberal amusements. With Queen Anne's accession commenced among the leaders of political and social life a period of eager speculation as to the contingencies which might supervene on her decease. Parties within parties, and factions within factions, battled over their living sovereign because it seemed that everything must depend upon the hands into which the power should fall when she should lie dead. In a time of national abasement foreign intellectual fashions and the patronage of such fashions may prevail; and such had been actually the case in the reigns of both the Charles's. In a time of national elevation a national literature will find its patrons; nor had such been wanting to our Elizabethans, nor were they (though in a different fashion) to fail English writers in subsequent times. But amidst the cynically selfish party-warfare which degraded our political life in the reign of Queen Anne, the value of literature was depreciated in accordance with the general decay of national feeling. For it was an age in which all things were viewed in their relation to the main issue upon which men's thoughts were fixed. Church and crown, freedom of action and of speech, the rights of the citizen at home and the glories of the nation abroad, were freely and fiercely tossed about in the caldron where the political future was believed to be brewing. Where the national honour was hardly taken into account as a secondary consideration, and the national wishes so little consulted that in the eyes of history they to this day frequently remain obscure, a national literature could obviously have no intrinsic cause for existence in the eyes of either Tories or of Whigs. It is for the parties that the nation and its feelings have been created; its traditions, its sympathies are so many adventitious aids, its foremost men so many candidates for partisan employment. The Whigs will crown Addison the laureate of their party; but not till he has sung the glories of its acknowledged hero. Bolingbroke, who liked to compare himself to Alcibiades, and Oxford, in whom the oblique vision of some party adulator discerned a Pericles to match, repaid their literary henchmen in the coin dearest to the frugal souls of literary men, and cheapest to the condescending great, a social familiarity at times facilitated by the bottle. Their literary assailants they were eager to imprison and pillory and utterly extinguish. Pegasus was always welcome if he would run in harness; otherwise away with him to the pound. Queen Anne's reign came to an end; and under the administration which supervened, a yet more practical method of reducing literature to her level was consistently adopted. No minister has probably ever expended so large a sum upon the hire of pens as Sir Robert Walpole. The consent of contemporaries and posterity stigmatises him as the poet's foe. The warmth of his patronage elicited the grubs from the soil, and bred dunces faster than Swift and Pope could destroy them.