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REIGN OF GEORGE II, AND GEORGE III,
FROM 1727 To 1780.
The fifty-three years between 1727 and 1780, comprehending the reign of George II. and a portion of that of George III., produced more men of letters, as well as more men of science, than any epoch of similar extent in the literary history of England. It was also a time during which greater progress was made in diffusing literature among the people at large, than had been made, perhaps, throughout all the ages that went before
Yet while letters, and the cultivators of letters, were thus abundant, it must be allowed that, if we keep out of view the rise of the species of fiction called the novel, the age was not by any means marked by such striking features of originality or vigour as some of the preceding
It was rather remarkable for polishing former styles, and improving the external figure of knowledge, than for creating much that was new.
The above observations apply peculiarly to the poetry of the age, which may be described as in general very correct and very sensible, but tame in manner, and deficient in imagination and feeling. This was probably owing, in a great degree, to the admiration which Pope and his contemporaries continued, throughout the whole of this period, to draw from the people of England. Overawed, as it were, by the great success of those illustrious men, the writers who flourished during the remaining part of the century, dared not trust to their own observations of nature, but wrote in slavish imitation of both the styles of thought and of verse which they found already so highly approved by the public taste. Something was owing to the state of cultivated society, and to the circumstances in which most of the poets were placed. During the era under notice, much of the attention of enlightened persons was devoted to the improvement of manners, to repressing the barbarisms of the ignorant, and extinguishing the vices of word and deed, which had become fashionable in the reign of Charles the Second. Polite society thus necessarily assumed a dainty, formal, and pedantic character; and whatever was hearty or natural, even though it might be quite innocent, was regarded with a kind of suspicion. As almost all the poets of the age were men of fashion, or at least habituated to the usages of good society, and chiefly resident amidst the artificial scenes of the metropolis, they could hardly fail to be affected by this prevailing disposition. To this cause, and to the supposed necessity of writing after models, as if any model were aught else than the accidental form into which a vigorous mind had thrown itself, is to be attributed the want of originality, passion, and imagination, which is so conspicuous in this period.
In the collected editions of the British poets, the works of upwards of seventy persons are classed between the years 1727 and 1780. Of these, however, comparatively few are worthy of particular notice. Young, Thomson, Gray, Collins, Akenside, Goldsmith, and Beattie, form a first rank. A second is composed of Somerville, Blair, Dyer, Green, Glover, Watts, Shenstone, Churchill, Falconer, Smollett, Armstrong, Langhorne, Bruce, Chatterton, Jones, Mickle, Johnson, Smart, Logan, the three Wartons, and Anstey. The remainder have produced several good pieces, but their works, as a whole, are not entitled to be kept prominently before the public eye.
Edward Young, a clergyman of the English Church, (1681-1765), was the author of various pieces published before 1727, none of which, however, except his tragedy of the Revenge, made any considerable impression on the world. Bis best work, and that by which he is now chiefly known, the Night Thoughts, belongs to the period under our notice; it is a serious poem in nine po tions, the first of which was published by itself in 1742. Young was a man of wordly character, and, in his external behaviour, by no means deficient in cheerfulness. His biographers allow, that the gloom of his poem was rather owing to disappointed ambition, than to any superior sentiment. The Night Thoughts are accordingly
found to give, upon the whole, a distempered view of human life, and to contain much bombast and affectation. Yet, while the perusal of the whole is a painful and tedious task, the poem presents many passages of sublime expression, of profound reflection, and of striking imagery: As a characteristic specimen may be given a few lines from the ninth night, which we shall entitle
THE PREVALENCE OF MORTALITY.
What is the world itself ?-a grave.
Perhaps the most popular versifier of the period was JAMES THOMSON (1700-1748). He was the son of a clergyman in Roxburghshire, and educated for the Scottish Church, but at an early period of life he removed to London, where, in 1726, he published his poem of Winter. Three other compositions, respectively denominated Summer, Spring, and Autumn, successively appeared, and formed what now passes by the general title of his Seasons. These poems are in blank verse, and describe the various natural appearances of the year, in a very rich and eloquent, and often sublime style of language. Thomson wrote another large poem entitled Liberty, which, being upon an abstract subject, never became popular, though it contains many fine passages. Besides some tragedies, which met with considerable success upon
he was the author of a poem in the stanza of Spenser, entitled the Castle of Indolence, which was designed as a kind of satire on his own soft and lethargic character, but is nevertheless the most perfect, and perhaps the most poetical, of all his compositions. Thomson, though slothful in the extreme was a very amiable and benevolent man; died of a cold caught while sailing upon the Thames, and was buried at Richmond.
Collins and Gray are distinguished in lyrical poetry, a species of composition, of which the chief peculiarities are, energy of sentiment, fire and vivacity of expression, and a modulated melodiousness of measure, adapting it for music. With the exception of Dryden's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, no lyrical pieces of eminent excellence had hitherto been produced in England; but the art was now brought to a high degree of perfection, if not indeed to the highest which it has ever reached. THOMAS GRAY (1716-1771), the son of a London scrivener, was educated at Cambridge, and originally destined for the profession of the law. He spent the greater part of his life in studious retirement at Cambridge, where he ultimately became professor of modern languages and history. The most popular and admired work of Gray, is his Elegy written in a Country Church yard, which was published in 1750. His other pieces are chiefly lyrical, and their principal charm, according to a distin
143 guished critic, is to be traced to the naturally exquisite ear of the poet, having been trained to consummate skill in harmony, by long familiarity with the finest models in the most poetical of all languages, the Greek and Italian.' In the odes to Adversity, on the Spring, and on Vicissitude, the genius of Gray is exhibited in its softer graces; but in that on the Progress of Poetry, and in the wild descriptive ode entitled the Bard, in which he represents a Welsh harper denouncing Edward I. as the spoiler of his country, the poet rises to a strength and dignity little inferior to Milton. There is not an ode in the English language,' says Mr. Matthias,
which is constructed like these two compositions ; with such power, such majesty, and such sweetness; with such proportioned pauses and just cadences; with such regulated measures of the verse ; with such master principles of lyrical art displayed and exemplified, and at the same time with such concealment of the victory, which is lost in the softness and uninterrupted flowing of the lines in each stanza; with such a magical music, that every verse in it in succession dwells on the ear and harmonizes with that which has gone before. The lyrics of Gray also display the superior qualities of fancy and tenderness, and, perhaps, owe most of their success to the strong sympathy which the poet every where manifests with the joys and sufferings of human nature. These characteristics are very happily displayed in some of the stanzas of his
ODE ON THE DISTANT PROSPECT OF ETON COLLEGE.
Ah happy hills, ah pleasing shade,
Ah fields belov'd in vain,
A stranger yet to pain!
As, waving fresh their gladsome wing, My weary soul they seem to soothe, And,
redolent of joy and youth,
To breathe a second spring.
Full many a sprightly race,
The paths of pleasure trace; Who foremost now delight to cleave