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actions of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, were the principal recorded efforts of his genius.*
FROM 1780 TILL THE PRESENT TIME.
In the progress of literature, it would almost seem a fixed law that an age of vigorous original writing, and an age of imitation and repetition, should regularly follow each other. Authors possessed of strong original powers make so great an impression on public tastetheir names, their styles, their leading ideas, become so exclusively objects of admiration and esteem, that for some time there is an intolerance of every thing else ; new writers find it convenient rather to compete with the preceding in their own walks, than to strike out into novel paths; and it is not perhaps, until a considerable change has been wrought upon society, or at least until men begin to tire of a constant reproduction of the same imagery and the same modes of composition, that a fresh class of inventive minds is allowed to come into operation-who, in their turn, exercise the same control over those who are to succeed them. The period between 1727 and 1780, which was the subject of the foregoing section, may be said to have been the age of the followers of Dryden, Pope, Swift, and Addison ; it was an era devoted to a refining upon the styles of those men and their contemporaries, and produced comparatively little that was strikingly new. Towards the close of the century, the vein would appear to have been exhausted; the subject of artificial manners had been fully treated; the sounding and delicately measured composition, which originated in the days of Queen Anne, had been carried to its utmost pitch of perfection; the public began to grow weary of a literature which aimed at nothing which was novel, either in matter or in form; and the time had come for a change. Accordingly, there
* AX. ED.
now arose a series of writers, who, professing to be in a great measure independent of rule in the selection of themes and styles, sought to impress or to please their readers by whatever of new, in thought or sentiment, imagery or narrative, they were able to throw into a literary form. Relieved from the formalities which oppressed both polite life and polite literature during the eighteenth century; encouraged by the free and inquiring spirit which was at the same time animating men in their political and social affairs; the individuals who cultivated letters at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, were characterised by the vigour and novelty of their descriptions and narratives, by a high sense of the beautiful both in nature and in art, by a boldness of imagination unknown since the days of Elizabeth, and a desire rather to expound those feelings and affections which form the groundwork of man's character and moral condition, than to dwell on the trivial and accidental peculiarities which constitute his external manners. Even in the language of these writers, there was an ease and volubility which could not fail to be distinguished by the most careless reader from the stiff and neatly adjusted paragraphs of their predecessors : it almost appeared that formality, precision, and pomp, were dismissed at the time of the French Revolution from the ideas and words, as well as from the dresses of men. It is indeed to be remarked that, in no delineation of any elevated poetical scene, either painted or written, during the eighteenth century, does the artist or writer seem to have been able to shake off the formal costumes which were then prescribed by fashion to all above the meanest rank. The noblest personages of antiquity seem to wear the wigs, brocade, and stately manners of the court of George the Second. The most sublime conceptions of natural and artificial objects, bear marks of the prevailing taste in gardening and architecture. It was not until the epoch at which we have now arrived, that poets, painters, and players, adopted language, dress, and scenery, suitable to the objects and the times which they desired to represent.
The above general remarks on the literature of the age apply with peculiar force to the department of poetry, which is not only a conspicuous branch of the belleslettres, but that which usually gives a character to all the rest. It is generally allowed that a disposition to depart from the polished and formal style of versification which prevailed during the preceding period, owed its rise, in no small measure, to the several collections of traditionary poetry which appeared during the eighteenth century. A panegyrical criticism on the ballad of Chevy Chase, which Addison published in the Spectator, is allowed to have been the first instance of any specimen of that kind of poetry being noticed with commendation by a scholarly writer. In 1755, Dr. THOMAS PERCY (afterwards Bishop of Carlisle) gave to the world the extensive collection entitled Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which may be described as having been the more immediate means of awakening a taste for the unaffected strains of simple narrative and genuine passion. This work contains a great variety of those ballads, which, though perhaps partly originated by the early professional poets called minstrels, have so long existed as a legendary literature among the common people, that they may almost be considered as the composition of that portion of the community, of whose tastes and forms of thought and feeling they are an almost express record. The romantic incidents which they commemorate, the strong natural pathos with which they abound, and the simple forms of the diction and versification, enabled these ballads, when brought before the literary world, to make a powerful impression; but as professional persons are always latest to acknowledge improvements in those matters which respectively concern them, it was not till a decided change had been wrought in the public taste, that modern literature was much affected by them. Another large collection was published in 1777, by a bookseller named Evans; and in 1800, an equally extensive body of Scottish traditionary poetry was published by Mr. Walter Scott, under the title of
197 The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Towards the close of the century, a marked effect was produced by the publications of Percy and Evans upon the forms and styles of poetry, being chiefly observable in the compositions of Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth. But before that time there had appeared several eminent poets, whose compositions betrayed that a breaking up of the old style had already commenced.
The most distinguished of these was WILLIAM Cow. PER (1731–1800), a gentleman originally educated for the law, but who, from some constitutional weaknesses, occasionally affecting his reason, retired in the prime of life to reside with a private family in the country, where, till his fiftieth year, he seems to have been hardly conscious of possessing the gift of poetry. His first volume, containing pieces entitled Table Talk, Hope, The Progress of Error, and others, appeared in 1782 ; two years later he published a long poem, entitled The Task; and he subsequently gave to the world a translation of Homer in blank verse. The whole of his works were written between the years 1780 and 1792, which may be described as only a lucid interval in a life, the greater part of which was the prey of a diseased melancholy. The most conspicuous peculiarity of Cowper's poetry is the unaffected and unrestrained expression of his own feelings, enjoyments, and reflections, all of which, as it happens, are of a kind calculated to engage the attention, and awaken the sympathies of the reader. His language,' says Campbell
, 'has such a masculine idiomatic strength, and his manner, whether he rises into grace, or falls into negligence, has so much plain and familiar freedom, that we read no poetry with a deeper conviction of its sentiments having come from the author's heart; and of the enthusiasm, in whatever he describes, having been unfeigned. He blends the determination of age with an exquisite and ingenuous sensibility; and though he sports very much with his subjects, yet, when he is in earnest, there is a gravity of long-felt conviction in his sentiments, which gives an uncommon ripeness of character to his poetry. Cowper, without condescending to personalities, was a great moral satirist ; and among his other characteristics, was
a rich yet chastened humour, which pervades most of his writings, and constitutes the entire merit of his wellknown tale of John Gilpin. His works are strongly tinged with religious feeling, and also with the melancholy which so greatly embittered his existence. He excels in descriptions of the quiet felicity of domestic life, and this, apparently, because he himself so greatly enjoyed its pleasures. The following extract from the fourth book of The Task, is a specimen of his best
I crown thee king of intimate delights,