From Dryden to Swift



WHAT could have led a Frenchman to write that “in 1712 England surpassed France in quantity and quality of literary production,” that “the center of intellectual life . . . unceasingly moved toward the north,” until, about 1700, the English “held the highest creative role”? 1 An Englishman schooled in French graces could return the compliment: part of the stimulus came from French manners imported by Charles II and the returning emigrés; part of it came from Descartes and Pascal, Corneille and Racine, Molière and Boileau, Mlle, de Scudéry and Mme. de La Fayette, and from Frenchmen living in England, like Saint-Évremond and Gramont. We see the French influence in the erotic comedies and heroic tragedies of the Restoration theater, and in the passage from the exuberance of Elizabethan prose, and the convolutions of Milton’s periods, to the refined and reasoned prose of Dryden writing prefaces and Pope writing poetry. For a century now (1670–1770) English literature would be prose, even when it scanned and rhymed; but it would be stately, clear, and classical prose.

The French influence, however, was only a prod; the root of the matter was in England itself, in her joyous and liberating Restoration, her colonial expansion, her commercial enrichment in ideas, her naval victories over the Dutch, her triumph (1713) over the France that had triumphed over Spain. So the course of empire northward made its way. And as Louis XIV gave pensions to authors as douceurs to docility, in a kindred manner the English government rewarded patriotic (or partisan) poets or proseurs—Dryden, Congreve, Gay, Prior, Addison, Swift—with pensions, dinners with the aristocracy, introductions to royalty, sinecures in the administration; one of them became secretary of state; Voltaire noted with envy these political plums. 2 Charles II favored science and beauty rather than letters or art; William III and Anne were indifferent to literature; but their ministers—finding authors useful in an age of newspapers, pamphlets, coffeehouses, and propaganda—subsidized the pens that could serve the Crown, the party, or the sword. Writers became minor politicians; some, like Prior, became diplomats; some, like Swift and Addison, manipulated patronage and power. In grateful appreciation of favors to come, authors dedicated their works to lords and ladies with compliments that made these superior to Apollo or Venus in body, and to Shakespeare or Sappho in mind.

Freedom helped gold to release the inky flood. Milton’s Areopagitica had failed to end the Licensing Act through which censorship had controlled the press under Tudor and Stuart rulers, and that act continued in force under Cromwell precarious and the Stuarts restored. But as the government of James II began to frighten the nation, more and more pamphleteers defied the law and pleased the people. When William III came to the throne he and his Whig supporters owed so much to the press that they opposed the renewal of the Licensing Act; it expired in 1694, and was not renewed; freedom of the press was automatically established. The royal ministers might still arrest for extreme attacks upon the government, and the Blasphemy Act of 1697 still decreed stiff penalties for questioning the fundamentals of the Christian creed; but England henceforth enjoyed a literary liberty which, though often abused, contributed immensely to the growth of the English mind.

Periodicals multiplied. Weekly newspapers had circulated since 1622. Cromwell suppressed all but two of them; Charles II allowed three, under official supervision; one of these, the Oxford (then London) Gazette, became the organ of the government, and has appeared biweekly or semiweekly ever since 1665. Soon after the decease of the Licensing Act several new weeklies ventured forth. In 1695 the Tories established the first English daily, The Post Boy, which lasted only four days; the Whigs at once countered it withThe Flying Post. Finally, in 1702, The English Courant became the first regular daily newspaper in England—a small sheet printed on one side only, and containing news but not views. From these fitful flurries came the advertising mammoths of our day.

Defoe set a new standard with The Review (1704–13), a weekly offering comments as well as news, and originating the serial story. Steele followed with The Tatler (1709–11), and he and Addison brought the development to its historic peak in The Spectator(1711–12). The Tory government, alarmed by the aggregate circulation (44,000) and influence of the dailies, weeklies, and monthlies, laid upon them (1712) a stamp tax ranging from a halfpenny to a penny, which was intended to make life impossible for most of the periodicals. The Spectator was one of those that succumbed. “All Grub Street is ruined,” Swift told his Stella. 3 Bolingbroke started the weekly Examiner in 1710 to defend the policies of the Tory ministry; he found in Jonathan Swift a contributor formidable in knowledge, invective, and wit; money had discovered a new instrument. Gradually the power of the periodical press overtook the influence of the pulpit in forming the public mind to private purposes, and a new secularizing force entered into history.

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