A History of English Literature
by Robert Huntington Fletcher
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Chapter VIII. Period VI. The Restoration, 1660-1700
GENERAL CONDITIONS AND CHARACTERISTICS. The repudiation of the Puritan rule by the English people and the Restoration of the Stuart kings in the person of Charles II, in 1660, mark one of the most decisive changes in English life and literature. The preceding half century had really been transitional, and during its course, as we have seen, the Elizabethan adventurous energy and half-naif greatness of spirit had more and more disappeared. With the coming of Charles II the various tendencies which had been replacing these forces seemed to crystallize into their almost complete opposites. This was true to a large extent throughout the country; but it was especially true of London and the Court party, to which literature of most sorts was now to be perhaps more nearly limited than ever before.
The revolt of the nation was directed partly against the irresponsible injustice of the Puritan military government but largely also against the excessive moral severity of the whole Puritan regime. Accordingly a large part of the nation, but particularly the Court, now plunged into an orgy of self-indulgence in which moral restraints almost ceased to be regarded. The new king and his nobles had not only been led by years of proscription and exile to hate on principle everything that bore the name of Puritan, but had spent their exile at the French Court, where utterly cynical and selfish pursuit of pleasure and licentiousness of conduct were merely masked by conventionally polished manners. The upshot was that the quarter century of the renewed Stuart rule was in almost all respects the most disgraceful period of English history and life. In everything, so far as possible, the restored Cavaliers turned their backs on their immediate predecessors. The Puritans, in particular, had inherited the enthusiasm which had largely made the greatness of the Elizabethan period but had in great measure shifted it into the channel of their religion. Hence to the Restoration courtiers enthusiasm and outspoken emotion seemed marks of hypocrisy and barbarism. In opposition to such tendencies they aimed to realize the ideal of the man of the world, sophisticated, skeptical, subjecting everything to the scrutiny of the reason, and above all, well-bred. Well-bred, that is, according to the artificial social standards of a selfish aristocratic class; for the actual manners of the courtiers, as of such persons at all times, were in many respects disgustingly crude. In religion most of them professed adherence to the English Church (some to the Catholic), but it was a conventional adherence to an institution of the State and a badge of party allegiance, not a matter of spiritual conviction or of any really deep feeling. The Puritans, since they refused to return to the English (Established) Church, now became known as Dissenters.
The men of the Restoration, then, deliberately repudiated some of the chief forces which seem to a romantic age to make life significant. As a natural corollary they concentrated their interest on the sphere of the practical and the actual. In science, particularly, they continued with marked success the work of Bacon and his followers. Very shortly after the Restoration the Royal Society was founded for the promotion of research and scientific knowledge, and it was during this period that Sir Isaac Newton (a man in every respect admirable) made his vastly important discoveries in physics, mathematics, and astronomy.
In literature, both prose and verse, the rationalistic and practical spirit showed itself in the enthroning above everything else of the principles of utility and common sense in substance and straightforward directness in style. The imaginative treatment of the spiritual life, as in 'Paradise Lost' or 'The Faerie Queene,' or the impassioned exaltation of imaginative beauty, as in much Elizabethan poetry, seemed to the typical men of the Restoration unsubstantial and meaningless, and they had no ambition to attempt flights in those realms. In anything beyond the tangible affairs of visible life, indeed, they had little real belief, and they preferred that literature should restrain itself within the safe limits of the known and the demonstrable. Hence the characteristic Restoration verse is satire of a prosaic sort which scarcely belongs to poetry at all. More fortunate results of the prevailing spirit were the gradual abandonment of the conceits and irregularities of the 'metaphysical' poets, and, most important, the perfecting of the highly regular rimed pentameter couplet, the one great formal achievement of the time in verse. In prose style the same tendencies resulted in a distinct advance. Thitherto English prose had seldom attained to thorough conciseness and order; it had generally been more or less formless or involved in sentence structure or pretentious in general manner; but the Restoration writers substantially formed the more logical and clear-cut manner which, generally speaking, has prevailed ever since.
Quite consistent with this commonsense spirit, as the facts were then interpreted, was the allegiance which Restoration writers rendered to the literature of classical antiquity, an allegiance which has gained for this period and the following half-century, where the same attitude was still more strongly emphasized, the name 'pseudo-classical.' We have before noted that the enthusiasm for Greek and Latin literature which so largely underlay the Renaissance took in Ben Jonson and his followers, in part, the form of a careful imitation of the external technique of the classical writers. In France and Italy at the same time this tendency was still stronger and much more general. The seventeenth century was the great period of French tragedy (Corneille and Racine), which attempted to base itself altogether on classical tragedy. Still more representative, however, were the numerous Italian and French critics, who elaborated a complex system of rules, among them, for tragedy, those of the 'three unities,' which they believed to dominate classic literature. Many of these rules were trivial and absurd, and the insistence of the critics upon them showed an unfortunate inability to grasp the real spirit of the classic, especially of Greek, literature. In all this, English writers and critics of the Restoration period and the next half-century very commonly followed the French and Italians deferentially. Hence it is that the literature of the time is pseudo-classical (false classical) rather than true classical. But this reduction of art to strict order and decorum, it should be clear, was quite in accord with the whole spirit of the time.
One particular social institution of the period should be mentioned for its connection with literature, namely the coffee houses, which, introduced about the middle of the century, soon became very popular and influential. They were, in our own idiom, cafes, where men met to sip coffee or chocolate and discuss current topics. Later, in the next century, they often developed into clubs.
MINOR WRITERS. The contempt which fell upon the Puritans as a deposed and unpopular party found stinging literary expression in one of the most famous of English satires, Samuel Butler's 'Hudibras.' Butler, a reserved and saturnine man, spent much of his uneventful life in the employ (sometimes as steward) of gentlemen and nobles, one of whom, a Puritan officer, Sir Samuel Luke, was to serve as the central lay-figure for his lampoon. 'Hudibras,' which appeared in three parts during a period of fifteen years, is written, like previous English satires, in rough-and-ready doggerel verse, in this case verse of octosyllabic couplets and in the form of a mock-epic. It ridicules the intolerance and sanctimonious hypocrisy of the Puritans as the Cavaliers insisted on seeing them in the person of the absurd Sir Hudibras and his squire Ralph (partly suggested by Cervantes' Don Quixote and Sancho). These sorry figures are made to pass very unheroically through a series of burlesque adventures. The chief power of the production lies in its fire of witty epigrams, many of which have become familiar quotations, for example:
He could distinguish, and divide,
A hair 'twixt south and south-west side.
Compound for sins they are inclined to
By damning those they have no mind to.
Though the king and Court took unlimited delight in 'Hudibras' they displayed toward Butler their usual ingratitude and allowed him to pass his latter years in obscure poverty.
Some of the other central characteristics of the age appear in a unique book, the voluminous 'Diary' which Samuel Pepys (pronounced Peps), a typical representative of the thrifty and unimaginative citizen class, kept in shorthand for ten years beginning in 1660. Pepys, who ultimately became Secretary to the Admiralty, and was a hard-working and very able naval official, was also astonishingly naif and vain. In his 'Diary' he records in the greatest detail, without the least reserve (and with no idea of publication) all his daily doings, public and private, and a large part of his thoughts. The absurdities and weaknesses, together with the better traits, of a man spiritually shallow and yet very human are here revealed with a frankness unparalleled and almost incredible. Fascinating as a psychological study, the book also affords the fullest possible information about all the life of the period, especially the familiar life, not on dress-parade. In rather sharp contrast stands the 'Diary' of John Evelyn, which in much shorter space and virtually only in a series of glimpses covers seventy years of time. Evelyn was a real gentleman and scholar who occupied an honorable position in national life; his 'Diary,' also, furnishes a record, but a dignified record, of his public and private experience.
THE RESTORATION DRAMA. The moral anarchy of the period is most strikingly exhibited in its drama, particularly in its comedy and 'comedy of manners.' These plays, dealing mostly with love-actions in the setting of the Court or of fashionable London life, and carrying still further the general spirit of those of Fletcher and Shirley a generation or two earlier, deliberately ridicule moral principles and institutions, especially marriage, and are always in one degree or another grossly indecent. Technically they are often clever; according to that definition of literature which includes a moral standard, they are not literature at all. To them, however, we shall briefly return at the end of the chapter.
JOHN DRYDEN, 1631-1700. No other English literary period is so thoroughly represented and summed up in the works of a single man as is the Restoration period in John Dryden, a writer in some respects akin to Ben Jonson, of prolific and vigorous talent without the crowning quality of genius.
Dryden, the son of a family of Northamptonshire country gentry, was born in 1631. From Westminster School and Cambridge he went, at about the age of twenty-six and possessed by inheritance of a minimum living income, to London, where he perhaps hoped to get political preferment through his relatives in the Puritan party. His serious entrance into literature was made comparatively late, in 1659, with a eulogizing poem on Cromwell on the occasion of the latter's death. When, the next year, Charles II was restored, Dryden shifted to the Royalist side and wrote some poems in honor of the king. Dryden's character should not be judged from this incident and similar ones in his later life too hastily nor without regard to the spirit of the times. Aside from the fact that Dryden had never professed, probably, to be a radical Puritan, he certainly was not, like Milton and Bunyan, a heroic person, nor endowed with deep and dynamic convictions; on the other hand, he was very far from being base or dishonorable--no one can read his works attentively without being impressed by their spirit of straightforward manliness. Controlled, like his age, by cool common sense and practical judgment, he kept his mind constantly open to new impressions, and was more concerned to avoid the appearance of bigotry and unreason than to maintain that of consistency. In regard to politics and even religion he evidently shared the opinion, bred in many of his contemporaries by the wasteful strife of the previous generations, that beyond a few fundamental matters the good citizen should make no close scrutiny of details but rather render loyal support to the established institutions of the State, by which peace is preserved and anarchy restrained. Since the nation had recalled Charles II, overthrown Puritanism, and reestablished the Anglican Church, it probably appeared to Dryden an act of patriotism as well as of expediency to accept its decision.
Dryden's marriage with the daughter of an earl, two or three years after the Restoration, secured his social position, and for more than fifteen years thereafter his life was outwardly successful. He first turned to the drama. In spite of the prohibitory Puritan law, a facile writer, Sir William Davenant, had begun, cautiously, a few years before the Restoration, to produce operas and other works of dramatic nature; and the returning Court had brought from Paris a passion for the stage, which therefore offered the best and indeed the only field for remunerative literary effort. Accordingly, although Dryden himself frankly admitted that his talents were not especially adapted to writing plays, he proceeded to do so energetically, and continued at it, with diminishing productivity, nearly down to the end of his life, thirty-five years later. But his activity always found varied outlets. He secured a lucrative share in the profits of the King's Playhouse, one of the two theaters of the time which alone were allowed to present regular plays, and he held the mainly honorary positions of poet laureate and historiographer-royal. Later, like Chaucer, he was for a time collector of the customs of the port of London. He was not much disturbed by 'The Rehearsal,' a burlesque play brought out by the Duke of Buckingham and other wits to ridicule current dramas and dramatists, in which he figured as chief butt under the name 'Bayes' (poet laureate); and he took more than full revenge ten years later when in 'Absalom and Achitophel' he drew the portrait of Buckingham as Zimri. But in 1680 an outrage of which he was the victim, a brutal and unprovoked beating inflicted by ruffians in the employ of the Earl of Rochester, seems to mark a permanent change for the worse in his fortunes, a change not indeed to disaster but to a permanent condition of doubtful prosperity.
The next year he became engaged in political controversy, which resulted in the production of his most famous work. Charles II was without a legitimate child, and the heir to the throne was his brother, the Duke of York, who a few years later actually became king as James II. But while Charles was outwardly, for political reasons, a member of the Church of England (at heart he was a Catholic), the Duke of York was a professed and devoted Catholic, and the powerful Whig party, strongly Protestant, was violently opposed to him. The monstrous fiction of a 'Popish Plot,' brought forward by Titus Oates, and the murderous frenzy which it produced, were demonstrations of the strength of the Protestant feeling, and the leader of the Whigs, the Earl of Shaftesbury, proposed that the Duke of York should be excluded by law from the succession to the throne in favor of the Duke of Monmouth, one of the king's illegitimate sons. At last, in 1681, the nation became afraid of another civil war, and the king was enabled to have Shaftesbury arrested on the charge of treason. Hereupon Dryden, at the suggestion, it is said, of the king, and with the purpose of securing Shaftesbury's conviction, put forth the First Part of 'Absalom and Achitophel,' a masterly satire of Shaftesbury, Monmouth, and their associates in the allegorical disguise of the (somewhat altered) Biblical story of David and Absalom. [Footnote: The subsequent history of the affair was as follows: Shaftesbury was acquitted by the jury, and his enthusiastic friends struck a medal in his honor, which drew from Dryden a short and less important satire, 'The Medal.' To this in turn a minor poet named Shadwell replied, and Dryden retorted with 'Mac Flecknoe.' The name means 'Son of Flecknoe,' and Dryden represented Shadwell as having inherited the stupidity of an obscure Irish rimester named Flecknoe, recently deceased. The piece is interesting chiefly because it suggested Pope's 'Dunciad.' Now, in 1682, the political tide again turned against Shaftesbury, and he fled from England. His death followed shortly, but meanwhile appeared the Second Part of 'Absalom and Achitophel,' chiefly a commonplace production written by Nahum Tate (joint author of Tate and Brady's paraphrase of the Psalms into English hymn-form), but with some passages by Dryden.]
In 1685 Charles died and James succeeded him. At about the same time Dryden became a Catholic, a change which laid him open to the suspicion of truckling for royal favor, though in fact he had nothing to gain by it and its chief effect was to identify him with a highly unpopular minority. He had already, in 1682, written a didactic poem, 'Religio Laici' (A Layman's Religion), in which he set forth his reasons for adhering to the English Church. Now, in 1687, he published the much longer allegorical 'Hind and the Panther,' a defense of the Catholic Church and an attack on the English Church and the Dissenters. The next year, King James was driven from the throne, his daughter Mary and her husband, William, Prince of Orange, succeeded him, and the supremacy of the Church of England was again assured. Dryden remained constant to Catholicism and his refusal to take the oath of allegiance to the new rulers cost him all his public offices and reduced him for the rest of his life to comparative poverty. He had the further mortification of seeing the very Shadwell whom he had so unsparingly ridiculed replace him as poet laureate. These reverses, however, he met with his characteristic manly fortitude, and of his position as the acknowledged head of English letters he could not be deprived; his chair at 'Will's' coffee-house was the throne of an unquestioned monarch. His industry, also, stimulated by necessity, was unabated to the end. Among other work he continued, in accordance with the taste of the age, to make verse translations from the chief Latin poets, and in 1697 he brought out a version of all the poems of Vergil. He died in 1700, and his death may conveniently be taken, with substantial accuracy, as marking the end of the Restoration period.
Variety, fluency, and not ungraceful strength are perhaps the chief qualities of Dryden's work, displayed alike in his verse and in his prose. Since he was primarily a poet it is natural to speak first of his verse; and we must begin with a glance at the history of the rimed pentameter couplet, which he carried to the highest point of effectiveness thus far attained. This form had been introduced into English, probably from French, by Chaucer, who used it in many thousand lines of the 'Canterbury Tales.' It was employed to some extent by the Elizabethans, especially in scattered passages of their dramas, and in some poems of the early seventeenth century. Up to that time it generally had a free form, with frequent 'running-on' of the sense from one line to the next and marked irregularity of pauses. The process of developing it into the representative pseudo-classical measure of Dryden and Pope consisted in making the lines, or at least the couplets, generally end-stopt, and in securing a general regular movement, mainly by eliminating pronounced pauses within the line, except for the frequent organic cesura in the middle. This process, like other pseudo-classical tendencies, was furthered by Ben Jonson, who used the couplet in more than half of his non-dramatic verse; but it was especially carried on by the wealthy politician and minor poet Edmund Waller, who for sixty years, from 1623 on, wrote most of his verse (no very great quantity) in the couplet. Dryden and all his contemporaries gave to Waller, rather too unreservedly, the credit of having first perfected the form, that is of first making it (to their taste) pleasingly smooth and regular. The great danger of the couplet thus treated is that of over-great conventionality, as was partly illustrated by Dryden's successor, Pope, who carried Waller's method to the farthest possible limit. Dryden's vigorous instincts largely saved him from this fault; by skilful variations in accents and pauses and by terse forcefulness of expression he gave the couplet firmness as well as smoothness. He employed, also, two other more questionable means of variety, namely, the insertion (not original with him) of occasional Alexandrine lines and of frequent triplets, three lines instead of two riming together. A present-day reader may like the pentameter couplet or may find it frigid and tedious; at any rate Dryden employed it in the larger part of his verse and stamped it unmistakably with the strength of his strong personality.
In satiric and didactic verse Dryden is accepted as the chief English master, and here 'Absalom and Achitophel' is his greatest achievement. It is formally a narrative poem, but in fact almost nothing happens in it; it is really expository and descriptive--a very clever partisan analysis of a situation, enlivened by a series of the most skilful character sketches with very decided partisan coloring. The sketches, therefore, offer an interesting contrast with the sympathetic and humorous portraits of Chaucer's 'Prolog.' Among the secrets of Dryden's success in this particular field are his intellectual coolness, his vigorous masculine power of seizing on the salient points of character, and his command of terse, biting phraseology, set off by effective contrast.
Of Dryden's numerous comedies and 'tragi-comedies' (serious plays with a sub-action of comedy) it may be said summarily that some of them were among the best of their time but that they were as licentious as all the others. Dryden was also the chief author of another kind of play, peculiar to this period in England, namely the 'Heroic' (Epic) Play. The material and spirit of these works came largely from the enormously long contemporary French romances, which were widely read in England, and of which a prominent representative was 'The Great Cyrus' of Mlle. de Scudery, in ten volumes of a thousand pages or more apiece. These romances, carrying further the tendency which appears in Sidney's 'Arcadia,' are among the most extravagant of all products of the romantic imagination--strange melanges of ancient history, medieval chivalry, pastoralism, seventeenth century artificial manners, and allegory of current events. The English 'heroic' plays, partly following along these lines, with influence also from Fletcher, lay their scenes in distant countries; their central interest is extravagant romantic love; the action is more that of epic adventure than of tragedy; and incidents, situations, characters, sentiments, and style, though not without power, are exaggerated or overstrained to an absurd degree. Breaking so violently through the commonplaceness and formality of the age, however, they offer eloquent testimony to the irrepressibility of the romantic instinct in human nature. Dryden's most representative play of this class is 'Almanzor and Almahide, or the Conquest of Granada,' in two long five-act parts.
We need do no more than mention two or three very bad adaptations of plays of Shakespeare to the Restoration taste in which Dryden had a hand; but his most enduring dramatic work is his 'All for Love, or the World Well Lost,' where he treats without direct imitation, though in conscious rivalry, the story which Shakespeare used in 'Antony and Cleopatra.' The two plays afford an excellent illustration of the contrast between the spirits of their periods. Dryden's undoubtedly has much force and real feeling; but he follows to a large extent the artificial rules of the pseudo-classical French tragedies and critics. He observes the 'three unities' with considerable closeness, and he complicates the love-action with new elements of Restoration jealousy and questions of formal honor. Altogether, the twentieth century reader finds in 'All for Love' a strong and skilful play, ranking, nevertheless, with its somewhat formal rhetoric and conventional atmosphere, far below Shakespeare's less regular but magnificently emotional and imaginative masterpiece.
A word must be added about the form of Dryden's plays. In his comedies and in comic portions of the others he, like other English dramatists, uses prose, for its suggestion of every-day reality. In plays of serious tone he often turns to blank verse, and this is the meter of 'All for Love.' But early in his dramatic career he, almost contemporaneously with other dramatists, introduced the rimed couplet, especially in his heroic plays. The innovation was due in part to the influence of contemporary French tragedy, whose riming Alexandrine couplet is very similar in effect to the English couplet. About the suitability of the English couplet to the drama there has always been difference of critical opinion; but most English readers feel that it too greatly interrupts the flow of the speeches and is not capable of the dignity and power of blank verse. Dryden himself, at any rate, finally grew tired of it and returned to blank verse.
Dryden's work in other forms of verse, also, is of high quality. In his dramas he inserted songs whose lyric sweetness is reminiscent of the similar songs of Fletcher. Early in his career he composed (in pentameter quatrains of alternate rime, like Gray's 'Elegy') 'Annus Mirabilis' (The Wonderful Year--namely 1666), a long and vigorous though far from faultless narrative of the war with the Dutch and of the Great Fire of London. More important are the three odes in the 'irregular Pindaric' form introduced by Cowley. The first, that to Mrs. (i. e., Miss) Anne Killigrew, one of the Queen's maids of honor, is full, thanks to Cowley's example, of 'metaphysical' conceits and science. The two later ones, 'Alexander's Feast' and the 'Song for St. Cecilia's Day,' both written for a musical society's annual festival in honor of the patron saint of their art, are finely spirited and among the most striking, though not most delicate, examples of onomatopoeia in all poetry.
Dryden's prose, only less important than his verse, is mostly in the form of long critical essays, virtually the first in English, which are prefixed to many of his plays and poems. In them, following French example, he discusses fundamental questions of poetic art or of general esthetics. His opinions are judicious; independent, so far as the despotic authority of the French critics permitted, at least honest; and interesting. Most important, perhaps, is his attitude toward the French pseudo-classical formulas. He accepted French theory even in details which we now know to be absurd--agreed, for instance, that even Homer wrote to enforce an abstract moral (namely that discord destroys a state). In the field of his main interest, further, his reason was persuaded by the pseudo-classical arguments that English (Elizabethan) tragedy, with its violent contrasts and irregularity, was theoretically wrong. Nevertheless his greatness consists throughout partly in the common sense which he shares with the best English critics and thinkers of all periods; and as regards tragedy he concludes, in spite of rules and theory, that he 'loves Shakespeare.'
In expression, still again, Dryden did perhaps more than any other man to form modern prose style, a style clear, straightforward, terse, forceful, easy and simple and yet dignified, fluent in vocabulary, varied, and of pleasing rhythm.
Dryden's general quality and a large part of his achievement are happily summarized in Lowell's epigram that he 'was the greatest poet who ever was or ever could be made wholly out of prose.' He can never again be a favorite with the general reading-public; but he will always remain one of the conspicuous figures in the history of English literature.
THE OTHER DRAMATISTS. The other dramatists of the Restoration period may be dismissed with a few words. In tragedy the overdrawn but powerful plays of Thomas Otway, a man of short and pathetic life, and of Nathaniel Lee, are alone of any importance. In comedy, during the first part of the period, stand Sir George Etherege and William Wycherley. The latter's 'Country Wife' has been called the most heartless play ever written. To the next generation and the end of the period (or rather of the Restoration literature, which actually lasted somewhat beyond 1700), belong William Congreve, a master of sparkling wit, Sir John Vanbrugh, and George Farquhar. So corrupt a form of writing as the Restoration comedy could not continue to flaunt itself indefinitely. The growing indignation was voiced from time to time in published protests, of which the last, in 1698, was the over-zealous but powerful 'Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage' by Jeremy Collier, which carried the more weight because the author was not a Puritan but a High-Church bishop and partisan of the Stuarts. Partly as a result of such attacks and partly by the natural course of events the pendulum, by the end of the period, was swinging back, and not long thereafter Restoration comedy died and the stage was left free for more decent, though, as it proved, not for greater, productions.
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