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THEN a man of high and bright intellect is
viciously witty, as was William Congreve, and finds success an accompaniment of his mischievous talent, he may take to
himself this reflection, that dozens of people will imitate his wickedness, where not one will equal his wit or meet with similar recompence. A crowd of others followed the clever young gentleman who wrote so well, and yet was ashamed of being known as an author. There is an old anecdote of him which is so very characteristic that it will bear repeating. It relates that young M. Voltaire came to England and called on Congreve purposely to see the great author. “I am not an author," said Congreve, “I am a gentleman; I don't wish to be known as an author.”—“ If you were only a gentleman," was the answer, “I should not have come from so great a distance to see you.” It was one of the great faults of Congreve that he never recognized the importance and the true function of authorship, which is, by pleasing and amusing, to elevate, if not to teach, but certainly never to debase. The anecdote is valuable moreover on this account, that it connects us, as it were,
with the age of Congreve and Queen Anne. The effects of the Great French Revolution are still freshly remembered ;
its results are before our eyes; and yet here is Voltaire, the cause of that revolution, so far as one man could be, quietly visiting and talking with one whose works amused Addison and Marlborough, and whose first play John Dryden had praised. Voltaire died in 1778, so that it is almost possible there may be those now alive who lived at the same time, and who perhaps can even remember the vision of the wonderful and clever old man. William Congreve, our greatest master of the artificial drama, died in London in 1729.
The connection between essay writing and play writing is, no doubt, not easy to be seen. It may in fact be considered rather a contrast than a connection; indeed it is in that way that we shall introduce it. The whole of society had become corrupt in the time of the second Charles, though not through the influence of plays, because the theatre is a reflection and a picture of the world even while it teaches the world; but there is very little doubt that the theatre helped to corrupt the manners that it reflected. Political and social economy was unstudied in England; the nobility were decaying, the yeomanry, the squirearchy, and the tradesmen were getting rich, and there seems to have been a general frowardness and roughness of manner, which we have not entirely lost, but which are now wonderfully mitigated, and in fact nearly banished. The country gentleman was a Squire Western, swearing, drinking, riding to hounds,
RISE OF THE ESSAY.
kind of parson.
sporting, cock-fighting, bull-baiting, and betting ; with a chaplain whom he despised, and who came in to say grace, but was not permitted to sit down at table. The clergy were for the most part unlearned, unable to preach, unwilling to instruct their flocks, contented with a small living, and ready to patch their fortunes by marrying the waiting woman of the squire's wife. Of course there were some noble exceptions to this rule; and at a later period Goldsmith, in a picture of his own brother, has drawn a charming portrait of “a parson rich on forty pounds a year,”
Who tried each art, reproved each dull delay,
Allured to brighter worlds, and led the way. But both Fielding, a perfect painter, and Jonathan Swift have clearly shown how degraded was the general
As to the Nonconformists, they were for the most part untaught enthusiasts, sectaries whose hatred of vice was no doubt genuine, but whose peculiarities and eccentric austerities made religion ridiculous and virtue odious. The Army was about equal to the Church; younger sons, and even grooms, dependants, and butlers, officered it; broken tapsters and decayed farming men made its rank and file; and Physic, requiring but a small examination, apothecaries having none to undergo, had its ranks filled by ignorant quacks and pretenders, who, instead of driving a disease from the flesh, riveted it in the bones. Mediocrity flourished : Genius retired, gnashed its teeth and starved. England declined in the scale of nations, and quietly set herself to grow rich and purse-proud. Her citizens were gluttons, rude, boisterous in their jollities and their feasts; their sons for the most part upstart coxcombs, and their daughters
hoydens, fond of fine clothes, of aping the high people, and assuming airs which sat on them about as well as “great Alcides' shoes upon an ass.” Vice was openly taught in the playhouse; the Bench of Bishops held, it is said, more than one infidel, and foolish ranting made the walls of the Conventicle ring again, and sent female devotees to the madhouse.
Under these circumstances arose the moral essayists of Queen Anne's time, of whom the present chapter will presently treat, and whose works many of our selfimproving students must read. I have given what I believe to be the true raison d'être of these gifted and admirable men, whom God had inspired sufficiently to counteract the prevalent vices and follies of the age in which they lived. They were not too wise nor too good for their generation; they were no fanatics, and did not write above the heads of their readers; they were not so virtuous but that they could not laugh at vice; they were true gentlemen and men of the world who did their work humbly and effectually, just because they made no fuss about it. It would be hard to find among God's works any instruments better fitted for an especial purpose than were the moral essayists of Queen Anne's days.
Preceding them, however, by a considerable period, were other essayists, and one of them, the noblest of his class, of whom mention must first be made. Lord Bacon, (1561-1626,)-in another chapter to be noticed as a philosopher-produced in 1597, “Essays," “Religious Meditations," the “Essays " in English and the “Meditationes Sacræ" in Latin. These latter consist of twelve short essays on religious subjects, each being headed with a text from Scripture.
97 Of the “Essays," this first edition contained only ten, but having withdrawn the “Meditations” from circulation, the contents furnished afterwards matter for additional essays.
Year after year, till that of his death, 1626, the “ Essays,” fifty-eight in number, were issued as we now have them; and these “best fruits that by the good increase which God gives to my pen and labours, I could yield,”—his own words in dedicating them to the Duke of Buckingham-he hopes “ may last as long as books last.” This was a little book in 16mo., which was worth not only its weight in gold, but in diamonds. The “ Essays " were written in English, on purpose, as the author said, “to come home to men's business and bosoms," while more learned treatises, and indeed almost every kind of literary work, were composed in Latin, as not being intended for the vulgar -i.e. the people. Bacon's " Essays" are very short, but full of substance, and abounding with deep and acute thought. He follows the track which every true essayist must follow, for his object must always be not to teach "new" truths, as shallow critics often wish him, because truth is eternal and cannot be new, but in a pleasant, familiar, and scholarly way to remind people of old truths, to recall them to their duties, to show them what life is, and to gently instil instruction during the process of amusement. Such subjects as Truth, Death, Revenge, Marriage and Single Life, Superstition, Atheism, Cunning, Delays, Counsel, Friendship, Adversity, Love, and Parents and Children, are common-place subjects now, and were then; and it requires not only great skill, but great wis
; dom to treat them pleasingly, calmly, and yet with such a newness of style that multitudes shall delight to read