Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

did he not remember the characteristics of those times, an age peculiarly of wits and freethinkers ! Poetic inspiration is, indeed, one light, for it is light derived from heaven; but, like the starlight, it has its many magnitudes, its various phases in the cloudless ether or in the haze of the horizon

“The stars pre-eminent in magnitude,
And they that from the zenith dart their beams,
Visible though they be to half the earth,
Though half a sphere be conscious of their brightness,
Are yet of no diviner origin,
No purer essence, than the one that burns
Like an untended watch-fire on the ridge
Of some dark mountain, or than those which seem
Humbly to hang, like twinkling winter lamps, ,
Among the branches of the leafless trees:
All are the undying offspring of one Sire.”

It has been my aim to show the poetry of each age shining in its own region of time and its own atmosphere; but, on bringing the course down to what may be considered contemporary literature, there is less occasion for historical illustration. One influence, however, requires to be noticed. I refer to the general agitation of Europe consequent to the French Revolution. The closing years of the last century were years of change. Things which had endured for ages were perishing, not by slow gradations of decay, but by quick and unlooked-for violence. Time-honoured institutions were not suffered to attain the limit of their natural existence and then to sink under the gradual accumulation of years, but were swiftly swept away by a new force. The clenched hand of prescriptive tyranny was forced to quit its grasp; and,

more than that, if it had been the fond traditional belief of other generations that

“Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king,"

it was found that the outpoured blood from the severed neck of an anointed king could wash the balm from off his brow. The people in one of the central monarchies of Europe had suddenly started up, and, casting away respect to gray-haired prerogative, boldly questioned the authority of the power which so long had trampled on them. Men began to ask why the bounties of heaven should be accumulated, reserved, and wasted for the bloated and ingrate luxury of the few, while the many were pining, hungry and heart-stricken. The sympathies of Christendom were enlisted: the pulse of other nations began to beat quicker. The French Revolution assumed the aspect of a general European revolution. Ancient opinions and rules of life were abandoned, and new modes of thought and feeling began to predominate. The political revolution became an intellectual and moral one; for so entire was the subversion of old institutions, that in reconstructing society men were of necessity led to speculate on its

very

elements and on the principles and destiny of human nature,--speculations which, from a revolutionary forsaking of the old paths, unhappily fostered a selfsufficient and faithless philosophy.

And here let me notice where seems to me to lie the important difference between the French Revolution and the great British and American Revolutions, besides the difference in the genius and temperament of the two nations. In the latter the struggle was to vindicate and secure old principles; to guard the Constitution; not to manufacture new schemes of government; to save the good old cause, as it was styled. In the American Revolution, for instance, the war was in truth a mighty constitutional dispute. It was a question of law; and the claim of our fathers was simply for old British rights,-rights as ancient as the Great Charter; and it was this that made them so strong, so consistent, so indomitable. They were seeking nothing new-at first, not even independence, which was not aspired to till it became an indispensable means for the security of their end,-civic freedom. Indeed, the mother-country had thrust her children away from her, and, ridding herself of a parent's responsibility, had given them many of the privileges of manhood. When afterwards she wished to call them back again to her lap, they were too stout to come there, and they claimed to be British men, entitled to ancient British rights. The Revolution was characterized by the composure of men acting with a consciousness of having the right with them. How free from all excess and licentiousness ! how pure, in the memory of after-times, alike from reproach and regret ! It was a strife actuated and impregnated with a spirit of magnanimity,--a sense of duty and law--of religious responsibility. I speak of the American Revolution only for the sake of the contrast with that of France, which was much more stimulant to the minds of men, and, consequently, to literature. The French Revolution was no contest of the Constitution or of law, for both were swept away, and every thing was to be remodelled in fact, made anew. New creeds of liberty were taught, new doctrines of the rights of man; the human heart was anatomized; Christianity, with its blessed day of sanctity and rest, sacred from the creation, was banished to make way for a sensual, brutalizing philosophy, with its tenthday Sabbaths and its idolatry of human reason. Theories of ecclesiastical, political, and social regeneration were propagated with apostolic zeal to all lands,-doctrines which cast a cloud on the glittering spire of every village church, which made the husbandman tremble in the tenure of his little property of a few acres,-a patrimony, perhaps, and an ancient homestead from one generation after another, —and which struck dismay where the domestic virtues were grouped at the once secure and happy fireside. It was a commotion of the very primal elements of society. The scene was a new one-suddenly a new onein the drama of civilization : the power of strange rights was thrust into the hands of men ; the weight of strange duties was harnessed on their backs. Ancient landmarks covered with the inoss of a long tract of years were torn up; and thus it became necessary alike for those who hailed and those who abhorred the change to acquaint themselves with the power, the will, and the destiny of man. The guidance of principles, drawn not from any custonary or conventional authority of constitution or law, but from the depths of human nature, was needed.' Men, long accustomed to float on the placid waters of a river within sight and reach of safe and smiling shores, found themselves suddenly driven out upon a stormy and shoreless sea; and in their peril some were earnestly gazing for a beacon-light from the lost shore, some were idly gazing at the flashing fires which crest the dark billows of the deep, and a few were looking upward hopefully for a heaven-lit

ray from some star in the clouded sky. To express myself less imaginatively, the agitation of the French Revolution forced men, whether the political and social changes were congenial to them or not, into deeper moods of thought and further-reaching sentiments. Absolute authority had lost its sufficiency. With so widespread a spirit of freedom, too often miserably degenerating into licentiousness, superficial precepts, whether in government, philosophy, or literature, were not enough. The influence, either direct or indirect, of that convul.. sion was far extended over all departments of thought and action. No such agency is to be attributed to the American Revolution, which was achieved so much less tumultously, so much more happily—more lastingly. There was no such turmoil, such heaving of the very earth by the agitation of the deep-seated elements of government and of society. It was comparatively a tranquil process, for it was a revolution that always kept the law on its side. Observe the different effect of the two revolutions upon a mind like Burke's. When the British colonial contest arose, it called from him his statesmanly speeches on taxation and conciliation; but these were only parliamentary arguments upon questions of the Constitution and law and policy. When the French Revolution came on, a discussion more profound was demanded; and Burke, feeling that the crisis called for something more than even a statesman's argument, gave to the world his celebrated “Reflections,” which are the expression of philosophy scanning the fundamental principles of political society, the texture of social life, and the universal elements of human nature.

I have dwelt on this subject much more than I intended, and more perhaps than even the discursive character of lectures will quite justify, because I have been often im

« ZurückWeiter »