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THE contents of the present volume range from the days of Queen Anne to the earlier part the present century. Literary convention connects the eighteenth century with certain distinctive and striking characteristics. But distinctive and striking as these are, who shall presume to gauge them with anything approaching completeness ? To do so, would indeed be to estimate the real forces that are at work in modern society. These forces have, in their later working, developed new exaggerations, new antagonisms, new perplexities and complications ; but in their essential features they are present in the great intellectual movements of the eighteenth century, which may be said to have arranged, summed up, and catalogued, the confused inheritance bequeathed by the struggles of the preceding centuries, and to have prepared the stage for the new movements that were to agitate the nineteenth. The eighteenth century is often said to be the age of aristocracy: and it is so no less in the sphere of intellect than in that of politics and society. Its interests were far too complicated not to present plenty of exceptions to the general rule ; but this aspect of it remains nevertheless, the most essential and the most pervading. The intellectual and literary class drew itself into a camp of its own, bound together by certain passwords, obeying a certain unwritten discipline, and linked by certain sympathies in spite of all divergencies of taste, and style, and habit, and opinion. Each variety and type borrowed more than before from other types, restrained itself less within narrow grooves, and was less absorbed in some special theme, less the slave of some special theory. The age was indeed adverse to specialising of any kind ; the
greater intellects had shaken off the power of enthusiasm and fanaticism, carried themselves with a more tranquil air, had acquired more of scientific precision and lucidity, and attained to a wider outlook, and a greater variety of treatment. The cumbrous and pedantic learning that had lingered down to the opening of the century was laid aside; the sense of proportion became more strong, and the most vigorous trusted more to their own innate powers and less to the painful toil and heavy equipments of the methodical student. The first impulse to this movement was undoubtedly given by the leading spirits of the previous generation—such men as Dryden, Swift, Addison, and Pope. But the note struck thus early in the century continued to be the dominant note down to its close.
The effect of this upon prose style was exactly what might have been predicted. It is quite conceivable that the English language might have been enriched by a prose coinage, struck sharp and clear from the mint of genius, working at white heat. Such a coinage in poetry is our inheritance from the Elizabethans ; but in prose it remains only one of those things that might have been, but which an adverse fate forbade. The early simplicity and directness died away in the heat of religious and political strife. There remained the old force, remnants of the old collo. quial raciness, the fire and vigour of the old intensity. But singleness of aim had gone; each author became a rule to himself, aiming often at gaining attention only by eccentricity, forced into exaggeration by the earnestness of religious and political partisanship. The weight of pedantry depressed our prose, foreign models destroyed much of its native flavour, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the few whose care preserved the tradition of courtly and even florid ornament. Had it not been for those whose over-elaboration is falsely derided by shallow criticism, English prose might have been a dreary tract, overspread by formal tillage, and bereft of all luxuriance of leaf and flower.
What the eighteenth century, at its best, did for English prose was not what might have been done for it by the Elizabethans. The opportunity for that was gone, and could never conceivably return. But it did what was next best. It pruned, arranged, selected. It established a literary style. It laid down fixed laws founded upon the impregnable principles of logical and lucid thought. It waged perpetual war against what was slipshod, inaccurate, and trivial. It sought out the treatment and the style
best suited for each subject, and imposed models and types for every variety of literary theme. It drew upon all the sources of English prose, and never lent itself to an affected archaicism, or prided itself upon a pedantic and silly eclecticism. It gauged with absolute truth the possibilities of the task and its own powers of accomplishment, and performed with consummate success the work it sought to do.
It could not indeed protect English prose against the inroads of tawdriness, bad taste, or modishness; and how dire might be their encroachments we shall be able to see in the fashions that came to prevail before the nineteenth century had grown old. But the code of law which the eighteenth century established, at least limited the freedom which such travesties might have assumed. That century did much, and we cannot fairly blame it because it did not do more.
These then, with no more exceptions than were necessary and natural, were the general features of the eighteenth century. True to its instincts it formed a literary class, fenced off by a certain exclusiveness, compelling a certain measure of conformity to its rules, looking askance upon eccentricity, and linked together in all its varieties by a certain sympathy. It set its face against all fanaticism, against all extremes. It troubled itself little about details, and sought to achieve success rather by intellectual gifts than by laborious effort. It refused to allow itself to be carried away by any impetuous enthusiasm, and maintained an attitude of aloofness and detachment that contributed much to its mood of cynical humour. And moving and quickening as it were behind this curtain of criticism, of cynicism, and of formality, there burned, with exceeding warmth, a fire of popular energy, which occasionally showed glimpses of itself as the century passed, and burst into a full flame before its close.
Following the various lines which the literature of the century presents to us, we find in Middleton a distinct type, which is clearly distinguished from what has gone before, and is carried on consistently in certain features to the end. His learning, within its limits, is clear, practical, and free from pedantry. All his equipment is well assorted and adaptable; there is nothing about it either of cumbrousness or mystery. His style is exact, logical, and full of common sense ; if it is bald it therein reflects the limitations of the man.
Allowing for individual difference there is a small step between him and Warburton. The latter is the typical