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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

Much that Mathias reprehends in Godwin and Priestley


James Mathias, the author of _The Pursuits of Literature_, was a much nearer approach to the pedant pure and simple. For he did not, like Gifford, redeem his rather indiscriminate attacks on contemporaries by a sincere and intelligent devotion to older work; and he was, much more than Gifford, ostentatious of such learning as he possessed. Accordingly the immense popularity of his only book of moment is a most remarkable sign of the times. De Quincey, who had seen its rise and its fall, declares that for a certain time, and not a very short one, at the end of the last century and the beginning of this, _The Pursuits of Literature_ was the most popular book of its own day, and as popular as any which had appeared since; and that there is not very much hyperbole in this is proved by its numerous editions, and by the constant references to it in the books of the time. Colman, who was one of Mathias' victims, declared that the verse was a "peg to hang the notes on"; and the habit above referred to certainly justified the gibe to no small extent. If the book is rather hard reading nowadays (and it is certainly rather difficult to recognise in it even the "demon of originality" which De Quincey himself grants rather grudgingly as an offset to its defects of taste and scholarship), it is perhaps chiefly obscured by the extreme desultoriness of the author's attacks and the absence of any consistent and persistent target. Much that Mathias reprehends in Godwin and Priestley, in Colman
and Wolcot, and a whole crowd of lesser men, is justifiably censured; much that he lays down is sound and good enough. But the whole--which, after the wont of the time, consists of several pieces jointed on to each other and all flooded with notes--suffers from the twin vices of negation and divagation. Indeed, its chief value is that, both by its composition and its reception, it shows the general sense that literature was not in a healthy state, and that some renaissance, some reaction, was necessary.

The prominence of the French Revolution, which has already appeared more than once in the above account of late eighteenth century poetry, is still more strongly reflected in the prose writing of the period. Indeed, many of its principal writers devoted their chief attention either to describing, to attacking, or to defending the events and principles of this portentous phenomenon. The chief of them were John Moore, Arthur Young, Helen Maria Williams, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Richard Price, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Holcroft. Of these Price, a veteran who had nearly reached his sixtieth year when our period commences, chiefly belongs to literature as an antagonist of Burke, as does Priestley, whose writing was very extensive, but who was as much more a "natural philosopher" than a man of letters as Price was much less a man of letters than a moralist and a statistician. Both, moreover, have been mentioned in the preceding volume, and it is not necessary to say much about them, or about John Horne Tooke (1736-1812), philologist and firebrand.

Of the others something may, and in some cases not a little must, appear. Dr. John Moore, sometimes

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