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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Victor Hugo speaks of cette poesie fardee


The classic, or pseudo-classic, period of English literature lasted from the middle of the seventeenth till the end of the eighteenth century. Inasmuch as the romantic revival was a protest against this reigning mode, it becomes necessary to inquire a little more closely what we mean when we say that the time of Queen Anne and the first two Georges was our Augustan or classical age. In what sense was it classical? And was it any more classical than the time of Milton, for example, or the time of Landor? If the "Dunciad," and the "Essay on Man," are classical, what is Keats' "Hyperion"? And with what propriety can we bring under a common rubric things so far asunder as Prior's "Carmen Seculare" and Tennyson's "Ulysses," or as Gay's "Trivia" and Swinburne's "Atalanta in Calydon"? Evidently the Queen Anne writers took hold of the antique by a different side from our nineteenth-century poets. Their classicism was of a special type. It was, as has been often pointed out, more Latin than Greek, and more French than Latin.[6] It was, as has likewise been said, "a classicism in red heels and a periwig." Victor Hugo speaks of "cette poesie fardee, mouchetee, poudree, du dix-huitieme siecle, cette literature a paniers, a pompons et a falbalas."[7] The costumes of Watteau contrast with the simple folds of Greek drapery very much as the "Rape of the Lock," contrasts with the Iliad, or one of Pope's pastorals with an idyl of Theocritus. The times were artificial in poetry as in dress--

"Tea-cup times of hood and hoop, And when the patch was worn."

Gentlemen wore powdered wigs instead of their own hair, and the power and the wig both got into their writing. _Perruque_ was the nickname applied to the classicists by the French romanticists of Hugo's generation, who wore their hair long and flowing--_cheveaux merovigiennes_--and affected an _outre_ freedom in the cut and color of their clothes. Similarly the Byronic collar became, all over Europe, the symbol of daring independence in matters of taste and opinion. Its careless roll, which left the throat exposed, seemed to assist the liberty of nature against cramping conventions.

The leading Queen Anne writers are so well known that a somewhat general description of the literary situation in England at the time of Pope's death (1744) will serve as an answer to the question, how was the eighteenth century classical. It was remarked by Thomas Warton[8] that, at the first revival of letters in the sixteenth century, our authors were more struck by the marvelous fables and inventions of ancient poets than by the justness of their conceptions and the purity of their style. In other words, the men of the renaissance apprehended the ancient literature as poets: the men of the _Eclaircissement_ apprehended them as critics. In Elizabeth's day the new learning stimulated English genius to creative activity. In royal progresses, court masques, Lord Mayors' shows, and public pageants of all kinds, mythology ran mad. "Every procession was a pantheon." But the poets were not careful to keep the two worlds of pagan antiquity and mediaeval Christianity distinct. The art of the renaissance was the flower of a double root, and the artists used their complex stuff naively. The "Faerie Queene" is the typical work of the English renaissance; there hamadryads, satyrs, and river gods mingle unblushingly with knights, dragons, sorcerers, hermits, and personified vices and virtues. The "machinery" of Homer and Vergil--the "machinery" of the "Seven Champions of Christendom" and the "Roman de la Rose"! This was not shocking to Spenser's contemporaries, but it seemed quite shocking to classical critics a century later. Even Milton, the greatest scholar among English poets, but whose imagination was a strong agent, holding strange elements in solution, incurred their censure for bringing Saint Peter and the sea-nymphs into dangerous juxtaposition in "Lycidas."


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