do so when it was urged upon them. Cruelties were not only
"These heights could not be maintained. They were followed by a meanness and a descent of the mind into lower levels; the loss of wings; no high speculation. Locke, to whom the meaning of ideas was unknown, became the type of philosophy, and his "understanding" the measure, in all nations, of the English intellect. His countrymen forsook the lofty sides of Parnassus, on which they had once walked with echoing steps, and disused the studies once so beloved; the powers of thought fell into neglect."
The highest powers of thought cannot be realized without the life of the spirit. It is this, as I have already said, which has been the glory of the greatest thinkers since the world began; not their intellects, but the co-operating, unconscious power IMMANENT in their intellects.
During the Restoration period, and later, spiritual life was at its very lowest ebb. I mean, spiritual life as exhibited in the poetic and dramatic literature of the time, whose poisoned fountain-head was the dissolute court of Charles II. All the slops of that court went into the drama, all the `sentina reipublicae', the bilge water of the ship of state. The dramatic writers of the time, to use the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, "walked in the vanity of their mind; having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that was in them because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, gave themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness." The age, as Emerson says, had no live, distinct, actuating convictions. It was in even worse than a negative condition. As represented by its drama and poetry, it may almost be said to have repudiated the moral sentiment. A spiritual disease affected the upper classes, which continued down into the reign of the Georges. There appears to have been but little belief in the impulse which the heart imparts to the intellect, or that the latter draws greatness from the inspiration of the former. There was a time in the history of the Jews in which, it is recorded, "there was no open vision". It can be said, emphatically, that in the time of Charles II. there was no open vision. And yet that besotted, that spiritually dark age, which was afflicted with pneumatophobia, flattered itself that there had never been an age so flooded with light. The great age of Elizabeth (which designation I would apply to the period of fifty years or more, from 1575 to 1625, or somewhat later), in which the human faculties, in their whole range, both intellectual and spiritual, reached such a degree of expansion as they had never before reached in the history of the world, -- that great age, I say, the age of Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Bacon, Raleigh, Hooker, Ben Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Chapman, Dekker, Ford, Herbert, Heywood, Massinger (and this list of great names might be continued), -- that great age, I say, was regarded by the men of the Restoration period as barbarous in comparison with their own. But beneath all, still lay the restorative elements of the English character, which were to reassert themselves and usher in a new era of literary productiveness, the greatest since the Elizabethan age, and embodying the highest ideals of life to which the race has yet attained. We can account, to some extent, for this interregnum or spiritual life, but only to some extent. The brutal heartlessness and licentiousness of the court which the exiled Charles brought back with him, and the release from Puritan restraint, explain partly the state of things, or rather the degree to which the state of things was pushed.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, or somewhat earlier, the rise of the spiritual tide is distinctly observable. We see a reaction setting in against the soulless poetry which culminated in Alexander Pope, whose `Rape of the Lock' is the masterpiece of that poetry. It is, in fact, the most brilliant society-poem in the literature. De Quincey pronounces it to be, though somewhat extravagantly, "the most exquisite monument of playful fancy that universal literature offers." Bishop Warburton, one of the great critical authorities of the age, believed in the infallibility of Pope, if not of THE Pope.
To notice but a few of the influences at work: Thomson sang of the Seasons, and invited attention to the beauties of the natural world, to which the previous generation had been blind and indifferent. Bishop Percy published his `Reliques of Ancient English Poetry', thus awakening a new interest in the old ballads which had sprung from the heart of the people, and contributing much to free poetry from the yoke of the conventional and the artificial, and to work a revival of natural unaffected feeling. Thomas Tyrwhitt edited in a scholarly and appreciative manner, the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. James McPherson published what he claimed to be translations from the poems of Ossian, the son of Fingal. Whether genuine or not, these poems indicated the tendency of the time. In Scotland, the old ballad spirit, which had continued to exist with a vigor but little abated by the influence of the artificial, mechanical school of poetry, was gathered up and intensified in the songs of him "who walked in glory and in joy, following his plow, along the mountain-side", and who is entitled to a high rank among the poetical reformers of the age.
It is not surprising that the great literary dictator in Percy's day, Dr. Samuel Johnson, should treat the old ballads with ridicule. The good man had been trained in a different school of poetry, and could not in his old age yield to the reactionary movement. Bishop Warburton, who ranked next to Johnson in literary authority, had nothing but sneering contempt to bestow upon upon the old ballads, and this feeling was shared by many others in the foremost ranks of literature and criticism. But in the face of all opposition, and aided by the yearning for literary liberty that was abroad, the old ballads grew more and more into favor. The influence of this folklore was not confined to England. It extended across the sea, and swayed the genius of such poets as Buerger and Goethe and Schiller.
Along with the poetical revival in the eighteenth century, came the great religious revival inaugurated by the Wesleys and Whitefield; and of this revival, the poetry of William Cowper was a direct product. But the two revivals were co-radical, -- one was not derived from the other. The long-suppressed spiritual elements of the nation began to reassert themselves in religion and in poetry. The Church had been as sound asleep as the Muses.
Cowper belongs to the Whitefield side of the religious revival, the Evangelicals, as they were called (those that remained within the Establishment). In his poem entitled `Hope', he vindicates the memory of Whitefield under the name Leuconomus, a translation into Greek, of White field. It was his conversion to Evangelicism which gave him his inspiration and his themes. `The Task' has been as justly called the poem of Methodism as the `Paradise Lost' has been called the epic of Puritanism. In it we are presented with a number of pictures of the utterly fossilized condition of the clergy of the day in the Established Church (see especially book II., vv. 326-832, in which he satirizes the clergy and the universities).
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