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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

With the single exception of drama


a scattered and tentative way

for thousands of years, was up to this time the most inorganic of literary kinds. Poets, when they chose to give themselves up to poetry and to turn their backs on convention, were almost as well off then as now. They had but to open the great Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ, the Latins such as Lucretius and Catullus, the great mediaeval, the great Renaissance examples of their own art, to see, as soon as they chose to see, where and how to go right. The adventurer in fiction was destitute of any such assistance. Only a few examples of much real excellence in his art were before him; many of those existing (including most of the mediaeval instances) were hardly before him at all; and none of these, with the exception of the eighteenth century novel of manners and character (which, in the nature of the case, was at that special time the last thing he wanted to imitate), and the short tale of France and Italy, could be said to have been brought to anything like perfection. Hence the wanderings and the stumblings here were far greater, the touch of the groping hands far feebler and less sure than even in poetry; but the crying for the light was there too, and it was to be heard in time. Even as it was, before the century closed, Miss Edgeworth had given important new lines to fiction, and was on the eve of opening the most fertile of all its seams or veins, that of national or provincial character; the purpose-novel just referred to was full of future, though
it might be a future of a perilous and disputable kind; the terror-romance, subdued to saner limits and informed with greater knowledge and greater genius, was not soon to cease out of the land; and, a detail not to be neglected, the ever increasing popularity of the novel was making it more and more certain that it would number good intellects sooner or later.

In all other directions, with the single exception of drama, in which there was neither performance nor promise, so far as literature was concerned, to any great extent, the same restlessness of effort, and not always the same incompetence of result was seen. The fact of the revolutionary war abroad and the coercive policy thereby necessitated at home may have somewhat postponed the appearance of the new kind of periodical, in all shapes from quarterly to daily, which was to be so great a feature of the next age; but the same causes increased the desire for it and prepared not a few of its constituents. It is impossible for any tolerably careful reader not to notice how much more "modern," to use an unphilosophical but indispensable term, is the political satire both in verse and prose, which has been noticed in the first chapter of this book, than the things of more or less the same kind that immediately preceded it. It was an accident, no doubt, that made the _Anti-Jacobin_ ridicule Darwin's caricature of eighteenth century style in poetry; yet that ridicule did far more to put this particular convention out of fashion than all the attacks of the same paper on innovators like Coleridge (who at that time had hardly attempted their literary innovations) could do harm. The very interest in foreign affairs, brought about by the most universal war that had ever been known, helped to introduce the foreign element which was to play so large a part in literature; and little affection as the critic may have for the principles of Godwin or of Paine, he cannot deny that the spirit of inquiry, the rally and shock of attack and defence, are things a great deal better for literature than a placid contentment with accepted conventions.

Theology indeed may share with drama the reproach of having very little that is good to show from this time, or indeed for a long time to come. For the non-conformist sects and the Low Church party, which had resulted from the Evangelical movement in the earlier eighteenth century, were, the Unitarians excepted, for the most part illiterate. The Deist controversy had ceased, or, as conducted against Paine, required no literary skill; and the High Church movement had not begun. Philosophy, not productive of very much, was more active; and the intensely alien and novel styles of German thought were certain in time to produce their effect, while their working was in exact line with all the other tendencies we have been surveying.


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