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(AUGUST, 1811.) The Dramatic Works of John FORD; with an Introduction and
Explanatory Notes. By HENRY WEBER, Esq. 2 vols. 8vo. pp. 950. Edinburgh and London : 1811.
All true lovers of English poetry have been long in love with the dramatists of the time of Elizabeth and James ; and must have been sensibly comforted by their late restoration to some degree of favour and notoriety. If there was any good reason, indeed, to believe that the notice which they have recently attracted proceeded from any thing but that indiscriminate rage for editing and annotating by which the present times are so happily distinguished, we should be disposed to hail it as the most unequivocal symptom of improvement in public taste that has yet occurred to reward and animate our labours. At all events, however, it gives us a chance for such an improvement; by placing in the hands of many, who would not otherwise have heard of them, some of those beautiful performances which we have always regarded as among the most pleasing and characteristic productions of our native genius.
Ford certainly is not the best of those neglected writers,- nor Mr. Weber by any means the best of their recent editors: But we cannot resist the opportunity which this publication seems to afford, of saying a word or two of a class of writers, whom we have long worshipped in secret with a sort of idolatrous veneration, and now find once more brought forward as candidates for public applause. The æra to which they belong, indeed, has always appeared to us by far the brightest in the history of English literature,— or indeed of human intellect and capacity. There never was, any where, any thing like the sixty or seventy years that elapsed from the middle of Elizabeth's reign to the
SPLENDID ERA OF ELIZABETH AND JAMES.
period of the Restoration. In point of real force and originality of genius, neither the age of Pericles, nor the age of Augustus, nor the times of Leo X., nor of Louis XIV., can come at all into comparison: For, in that short period, we shall find the names of almost all the very great men that this nation has ever produced, - the names of Shakespeare, and Bacon, and Spenser, and Sydney, — and Hooker, and Taylor, and Barrow, and Raleigh, — and Napier, and Milton, and Cudworth, and Hobbes, and many others; — men, all of them, not merely of great talents, and accomplishments, but of vast compass and reach of understanding, and of minds truly creative and original ; — not perfecting art by the delicacy of their taste, or digesting knowledge by the justness of their reasonings; but making vast and substantial additions to the materials upon which taste and reason must hereafter be employed, — and enlarging, to an incredible and unparalleled extent, both the stores and the resources of the human faculties.
Whether the brisk concussion which was given to men's minds by the force of the Reformation had much effect in producing this sudden development of British genius, we cannot undertake to determine. For our own part, we should be rather inclined to hold, that the Reformation itself was but one symptom or effect of that great spirit of progression and improvement which had been set in operation by deeper and more general causes; and which afterwards blossomed out into this splendid harvest of authorship. But whatever may have been the causes that determined the appearance of those great works, the fact is certain, not only that they appeared together in great numbers, but that they possessed a common character, which, in spite of the great diversity of their subjects and designs, would have made them be classed together as the works of the same order or description of men, even if they had appeared at the most distant intervals of time. They are the works of Giants, in short — and of Giants of one nation and family; -and their characteristics are, great force, boldness, and originality ; together with a certain raciness of English
40 PECULIARLY ENGLISH CHARACTER OF THESE WRITERS,
peculiarity, which distinguishes them from all those performances that have since been produced among ourselves, upon a more vague and general idea of European excellence. Their sudden appearance, indeed, in all this splendour of native luxuriance, can only be compared to what happens on the breaking up of a virgin soil, — where all indigenous plants spring up at once with a rank and irrepressible fertility, and display whatever is peculiar or excellent in their nature, on a scale the most conspicuous and magnificent. The crops are not indeed so clean, as where a more exhausted mould has been stimulated by systematic cultivation ; nor so profitable, as where their quality has been varied by a judicious admixture of exotics, and accommodated to the demands of the universe by the combinations of an unlimited trade. But to those whose chief object of admiration is the living power and energy of vegetation, and who take delight in contemplating the various forms of her unforced and natural perfection, no spectacle can be more rich, splendid, or attractive.
In the times of which we are speaking, classical learning, though it had made great progress, had by no means become an exclusive study; and the ancients had not vet been permitted to subdue men's minds to a sense of hopeless inferiority, or to condemn the moderns to the lot of humble imitators. They were resorted to, rather to furnish materials and occasional ornaments, than as models for the general style of composition; and, while they enriched the imagination, and insensibly improved the taste of their successors, they did not at all restrain their freedom, or impair their originality. No common standard had yet been erected, to which all the works of European genius were required to conform ; and no general authority was acknowledged, by which all private or local ideas of excellence must submit to be corrected. Both readers and authors were comparatively few in number. The former were infinitely less critical and difficult than they have since become ; and the latter, if they were not less solicitous about fame, were at least much less jealous and timid as to the hazards which
AND THEIR INDEPENDENCE OF RULES AND MODELS. 41
attended its pursuit. Men, indeed, seldom took to writing in those days, unless they had a great deal of matter to communicate ; and neither imagined that they could make a reputation by delivering commonplaces in an elegant manner, or that the substantial value of their sentiments would be disregarded for a little rudeness or negligence in the finishing. They were habituated, therefore, both to depend upon their own resources, and to draw upon them without fear or anxiety; and followed the dictates of their own taste and judgment, without standing much in awe of the ancients, of their readers, or of each other.
The achievements of Bacon, and those who set free our understandings from the shackles of Papal and of tyrannical imposition, afford sufficient evidence of the benefit which resulted to the reasoning faculties from this happy independence of the first great writers of this nation. But its advantages were, if possible, still more conspicuous in the mere literary character of their productions. The quantity of bright thoughts, of original images, and splendid expressions, which they poured forth upon every occasion, and by which they illuminated and adorned the darkest and most rugged topics to which they had happened to turn themselves, is such as has never been equalled in any other age or country; and places them at least as high, in point of fancy and imagination, as of force of reason, or comprehensiveness of understanding. In this highest and most comprehensive sense of the word, a great proportion of the writers we have alluded to were Poets : and, without going to those who composed in metre, and chiefly for purposes of delight, we will venture to assert, that there is in any one of the prose folios of Jeremy Taylor more fine fancy and original imagery — more brilliant conceptions and glowing expressions — more new figures, and new application of old figures — more, in short, of the body and the soul of poetry, than in all the odes and the epics that have since been produced in Europe. There are large portions of Barrow, and of Hooker and Bacon, of which we may say nearly as much: nor can 42 EFFECTS OF OUR CIVIL WARS — AND RESTORATION.
any one have a tolerably adequate idea of the riches of our language and our native genius, who has not made himself acquainted with the prose writers, as well as the poets, of this memorable period.
The civil wars and the fanaticism by which they were fostered, checked all this fine bloom of the imagination, and gave a different and less attractive character to the energies which they could not extinguish. Yet, those were the times that matured and drew forth the dark, but powerful genius of such men as Cromwell, and Harrison, and Fleetwood, &c. — the milder and more generous enthusiasm of Blake, and Hutchinson, and Hampden — and the stirring and indefatigable spirit of Pym, and Hollis, and Vane—and the chivalrous and accomplished loyalty of Strafford and Falkland ; at the same time that they stimulated and repaid the severer studies of Coke, and Selden, and Milton. The Drama, however, was entirely destroyed, and has never since regained its honours; and Poetry, in general, lost its ease, and its majesty and force, along with its copiousness and originality.
The Restoration made things still worse: for it broke down the barriers of our literary independence, and reduced us to a province of the great republic of Europe. The genius and fancy which lingered through the usurpation though soured and blighted by the severities of that inclement season, were still genuine English genius and fancy; and owned no allegiance to any foreign authorities. But the Restoration brought in a French taste upon us, and what was called a classical and a polite taste; and the wings of our English Muses were clipped and trimmed, and their flights regulated at the expense of all that was peculiar, and much of what was brightest in their beauty. The King and his courtiers, during their long exile, had of course imbibed the taste of their protectors; and, coming from the gay court of France, with something of that additional profligacy that belonged to their outcast and adventurer character, were likely enough to be revolted by the peculiarities, and by the very excellencies, of our native literature. The grand