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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

The fiction of the eighteenth century was


style="text-align: justify;"> CHAPTER XII

CONCLUSION

A conclusion which avows that it might almost as well have presented itself as a preface may seem to be self-condemned; it must be the business of the following pages to justify it. In summing up on such a great matter as this it is desirable--it is indeed necessary--to indicate, in broader lines than at the mere outset would have seemed appropriate or indeed possible, the general course of thought and of speech, of literary matter and literary form, during the century and more which is submitted to the view. We can thus place individuals in their position to each other and to the whole more boldly and with less reserve; we can sketch the general character of existing movements, the movers in which have been exempt from individual consideration by virtue of their life and work being incomplete; we can at once record accomplishment and indicate tendency.

The period dealt with in the first chapter of this book illustrates the differences in appeal of such periods to the merely dilettante and "tasting" critic, and to the student of literature in the historical and comparative fashion. To the former it is one of the most ungrateful of all such sub-periods or sub-divisions in English literature. He finds in it none, or at most Boswell's _Johnson_, Burns, and the _Lyrical Ballads_ (this last at its extreme end), of the chief and

principal things on which alone he delights to fix his attention. Its better poetry, such as that of Cowper and Crabbe, he regards at best with a forced esteem; its worse is almost below his disgust. Its fiction is preposterous and childish; it contributes nothing even to the less "bellettristic" departments of literature that is worth his attention; it is a tedious dead season about which there is nothing tolerable except the prospect of getting rid of it before very long.

To the latter--to the historical and comparative student--on the other hand, it has an interest of an absolutely unique kind. As was observed in a former volume of this history, the other great blossoming time of English literature--that which we call Elizabethan, and by which we mean the last five and twenty years of the Queen's reign and the fifty or sixty after her death--was preceded by no certain signs except those of restless seeking. Here, on the contrary, with no greater advantage of looking back, we can see the old fruit dropping off and the new forming, in a dozen different kinds and a hundred different ways. Extravagance on one side always provokes extravagance on the other; and because the impatient revolt of Coleridge and some others of the actual leaders into the Promised Land chose to present the eighteenth century as a mere wilderness in respect of poetry, enjoyment of nature, and so forth, there have been of late years critics who maintained that the poetical decadence of that century is all a delusion; in other words (it may be supposed) that Akenside and Mason are the poetical equals of Herrick and Donne. The _via media_, as almost always, is here also the _via veritatis_. The poets of the eighteenth century were poets; but the poetical stream did not, as a rule, run very high or strong in their channels, and they were tempted to make up for the sluggishness and shallowness of the water by playing rather artificial and rococo tricks with the banks. The fiction of the eighteenth century was, at its greatest, equal to the greatest ever seen; but it was as yet advancing with uncertain steps, and had not nearly explored its own domain. The history of the eighteenth century had returned to the true sense of history, and was endeavouring to be accurate; but it only once attained--it is true that with Gibbon it probably attained once for all--a perfect combination of diligence and range, of matter and of style.


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